The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall are packing a lot of events into their nine-day trip to India, which began on November 6 - the official lineup of engagements includes meeting President Pranab Mukherjee, having lunch with Vice-President Hamid Ansari, visiting women’s groups (though the royal couple have made it clear “they won’t take questions on the Delhi and Mumbai gang rapes”) and such like. But the highlight for Charles and Camilla will come this weekend.
Simon Martin, Deputy Private Secretary to Their Royal Highnesses on Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, has revealed: “Both Their Royal Highnesses will attend a gala dinner in Mumbai with Bollywood stars.” The British, the royal family included, have been persuaded that all that is young, energetic and dynamic about the new India of 9 per cent GDP growth (no matter that this has fallen dramatically) is represented by something called “Bollywood”.
So who is being invited to this dinner? “We have left it all to Mukesh Ambani,” said a well-placed source, who probably realized there was going to be blood on the carpet. Ambani is chairman of the India wing of the British Asian Trust, one of the Prince’s 17 charities that is particularly close to his heart. Not much is known about who has made the cut but there are hopes it will be a spectacularly vulgar occasion, though the line may be drawn at the likes of Mallika Sherawat and anyone who has been inside Bigg Boss.
Unless anyone has offended Mukeshbhai in some way, it is being assumed in London that “the Bachchans will be asked along with the Khans - Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman - plus perhaps Saif Ali Khan Pataudi and his wife Kareena, Ajay Devgn and his wife Kajol, Rani Mukherjee, Vidya Balan, Shilpa Shetty (winner of Celebrity Big Brother in 2007) Irrfan Khan and Subhash Ghai”. However, when it comes down the food chain, it will be every wannabe starlet for herself. It will be recalled that in 1980 Padmini Kolhapure did the only thing for which she has been remembered - attempt a liplock with Prince Charles or, at least, a peck.
The dabbawallahs of Mumbai, who gifted Camilla a green silk sari when she became Charles’s Biwi No 2 in 2005, may want to know why she has not worn it once - even Samantha Cameron tried out a russet coloured silk “Diwali sari” when she visited the Swaminarayan Temple in Neasden, north London, on Monday. Another highlight will be a visit to the Doon School by Camilla while the couple are in Dehradun. The school (founded in 1935) likes to flatter itself by claiming to be “the Eton of India”. Eton (founded 1440) has produced 19 prime ministers, the latest being David Cameron, compared with Doon’s Rajiv Gandhi.
Eton is one of the most academic schools in Britain, while even the Doscos in the UK privately admit it is basically “a school for duffers”, allowing in not very bright children of rich fathers who had been at Doon. But this is probably unfair - Doon has produced many distinguished Indians in all walks of life. However, Tarun Tahiliani, the fashion designer, remembers being told off after being caught drawing pictures of little girls in pretty frocks. For the son of an admiral, this was “not a manly thing to do”. Still, Camilla is going to Doon because boys are helping underprivileged women in the community.
Doon has one advantage, though. A “Dosco” is not a term of abuse in India - not yet, anyway. In Britain, “OE” - Old Etonian - is. It is an expression used by the Left to indicate that the “toffs” have little knowledge of the hardships of life. A royal spokesman, who had done his homework, pointed out that Doon’s motto - Knowledge Our Light - preached the philosophy that “the boys should leave Doon as members of an aristocracy, but it must be an aristocracy of service inspired by ideas of unselfishness, not one of privilege, wealth or position”.
Compared with Etonians, who tend to be insufferably smug, Rajiv Gandhi at least exhibited a Dosco sense of humour when asked about the badge on his old school jacket on his first day at Trinity College, Cambridge. “That’s the lamp of knowledge, sir,” he proudly told a tutor. The tutor, according to Rajiv himself, responded: “Well, it’s a pity they didn’t light it while you were there!”
Charles Philip Arthur George, to give him his full name, will turn 65 on November 14, while he is in India. He has been heir to the throne since the death of his grandfather King George VI in 1952 when he was three. A big part of the popular press in Britain has taken against Charles, trying to ridicule him at every turn and even, on occasion, suggesting that the succession should jump a generation and go to his son, William. Papers make fun of Charles because he believes in homoeopathy and holistic healing.
Fortunately, the one-million-strong Indian community in Britain has steered clear of the anti-Charles lobby. India does not have too many friends in high places in Britain but he is one of them. He first visited India in 1975 at the age of 26. The current trip is his eighth. Though his diary gets packed two years in advance, he always makes time for Indian functions, having acquired his love of India and all things Indian from his late great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Analysts say Indians should not jump to label him a symbol of colonialism, as the Queen was in 1997 - she has not set foot in India since.
Charles will officiate for the Queen at the opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo on November 15. Now 87, she is cutting down on her long-haul trips. Some argue that Charles should not automatically succeed her as head of the Commonwealth, but it would be in India’s interests if he did, observers say. In a speech in 2000 in Trinidad, Charles summed up: “I have long had an instinctive sense of the value of the Commonwealth. It encourages and celebrates cultural diversity and makes no attempt to homogenize.”
By way of preparing for his trip, Charles held a reception for Indian A-listers at St James’s Palace, attended by the usual suspects - comedian Sanjeev Bhasker (who urged Charles and Camilla to switch off global roaming on the mobile phones they do not have, drink only bottled water and haggle in the Mumbai bazaar), and film director Gurinder Chadha. Singer-songwriter Navin Kundra, a 28-year-old from Coventry, insisted on belting out not one or two but three Bollywood songs, got Charles to call his wife ‘mehbooba’, and then broke royal protocol by being over-familiar with Camilla, touching her on the arm - a complete no-no according to palace rules. Only Michelle Obama got away with slipping her arm round the Queen’s waist - but then she is American.
On the current trip, the royal couple are visiting Dehradun, New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Kochi. In Mumbai, it is understood they will lay a wreath inside the Taj Mahal Hotel in memory of those killed in the 2008 terrorist outrage. Camilla, on her third official trip to India, may take some “me time” out for an Ayurvedic massage to which she is apparently partial. She also has a thing for horses and “takes an active interest in the Marwari Horse”, which is bred by an old friend of the royals, Gaj Singh, erstwhile Maharajah of Jodhpur.
“The frequency of these visits reflects the importance the British Government attaches to its relationship with India,” commented Martin. “In terms of key themes, they will undertake a broad range of engagements to promote the very strong and growing UK-India partnership in many areas including conservation, education, women’s empowerment and training. They will also have the opportunity to celebrate India’s religious diversity, creativity, family ties between our two countries as well as emphasizing strong military and business links.” He said: “The visit as a whole is going to celebrate the extraordinary breadth and depth of the UK-India partnership.”
Incidentally, one thing Mukesh Ambani should not do is ask Charles, who has strong views on modern architecture, what he thinks about Antillia. HRH might be provoked into giving him an honest answer. He once famously described the Sainsbury Wing extension to the National Gallery in London as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”.