TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
DURING the 2011 World Cup a South African in a Mohali cafe paused his feverish beavering at a laptop to order an espresso. The waiter returned a few minutes later and presented – with a flourish peculiar to Indian waiters – a cappuccino.
“Must be some mistake,” thought the Saffer as he pushed the cup back and said, “Could I get an espresso, please?”
The befuddled waiter picked up the offending order as if it had just emerged from the wrong end of a stray dog and retreated. A few more minutes later he was back and beaming – with another cappuccino.
Whereupon the South African had a flash of brilliance: “Sorry for the bother, but could I get a cappuccino instead, please?”
If, he figured, an espresso was a cappuccino in these parts then a cappuccino had to be an espresso.
“I’m sorry, Sir,” the waiter said with sloping shoulders and a sudden droop in his moustache as he stood there holding the cappuccino, “We don’t serve cappuccino …”
There are many cafes in Indian cities that serve cappuccinos and espressos just like South Africans know and like them, and better. But, every now and then, India turns reality as we know it on its head.
The heat, the dust, the traffic, the multitudes in the streets at all hours, the utter foreignness and vastness of the place, and the mad passion for cricket that seems to burn in everyone from porters to the president add greatly to the challenge of touring there.
That SA had no experience of playing in India before 1991 makes these factors stand out in even sharper relief.
So much so that it took them almost nine years since to come away from India with either a test or one-day series win. They have not won any of their subsequent six rubbers there.
But is the magical mystery that is touring India being eroded by western norms of modernity that have been encroaching since the country’s economy started opening to the world in the 1990s?
“Every time I go there there’s a little more progress,” security consultant Rory Steyn, who has been visiting India for the past six years in the cause of keeping sports teams safe, said.
“You still sit in traffic, but that’s because they’re improving their infrastructure.”
He also felt that “cricket is one of the driving forces of their economy”: an opinion that will have been influenced by the major upgrades to India’s stadiums and overall infrastructure before the 2011 World Cup.
Steyn said India was “a difficult security environment to predict because, geographically, it’s about the whole region – but I certainly don’t feel as unsafe there as I do in Brazil or even in Joburg”.
Another reason for India losing its edge is that, since 2008, the world’s best cricketers and a host of mediocrities have turned up every year for several weeks to play in the Indian Premier League.
And to play not as the national team’s opponents but as that special being who is beloved like no other by India’s adoring cricket aficionados.
So, when SA touch down in Delhi later this month, India won’t be as foreign as before. But, if they order an espresso, they should be prepared for anything.