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These Foolish Things
(LT article about film of book, film called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)
Funnily enough, it all started with an article I wrote for The Times. I’d been pondering old age, and where I’d like to end up. Certainly not banged up in some care home staring at a ploughed field. When I’m stuck in a chair I don’t want to be removed from the world, I want to be shoved into the thick of it, with life going on outside my window. I decided my ideal place would be a bustling street market, so I called the article “Bazaar Ends”. At that point I pictured Berwick Street Market in Soho, but afterwards I thought about it more and decided India would be a better bet. After all, we outsource everything else there — why not the elderly?
It’s not as mad as it sounds. We’re all living too long, the pensions time-bomb ticking away; basically there’s not enough money to care for us and the NHS will soon collapse under the strain. People are already travelling to India for new hips — great hospitals at a fraction of the cost. Why not go the whole hog?
India is cheap — really cheap. It’s warm — a perfect climate for arthritic bones. The elderly aren’t marginalised; they’re included in society, they’re listened to as wise old birds, kids call them aunty and uncle. The streets are teeming with interest, and there’s a noticeable absence of hoodies. English is spoken everywhere and there’s a residual respect for Brits, from the days of the Raj. For those who find Britain a foreign country nowadays, certain Indian towns bear a striking resemblance to Tunbridge Wells in the 1950s. Air fares are scandalously low — it’s cheaper to buy a holiday in Goa than a first-class rail fare to Scotland. Grandchildren are far more likely to visit than to shlepp out to Woking on a wet Thursday afternoon. What’s not to like, except that it’s rather far away?
It seemed such a good idea that I decided to turn it into a novel. I created a bunch of pensioners who for various reasons could no longer afford to live in this country — investments had crashed, care homes had closed, and so on. One of them didn’t want to be a burden to her children; another one — a randy old goat called Norman — kept getting chucked out of residential homes for inappropriate behaviour. I set up a ramshackle guesthouse in Bangalore, run by a go-getting but incompetent chap called Sonny, and sent them out there. Most of them were fearful about the whole enterprise but had no choice. One or two had a sense of adventure, in particular a merry widow called Madge who was determined to find herself a rich maharajah.
What they discover confounds their expectations; India has a transformative effect on all of them. It’s a comic novel about East and West, about getting older and the possibilities of change, and I called it These Foolish Things. When it was published it caused quite a stir in India. In fact, when I was in the bath I had a phonecall from the interior minister of Madhya Pradesh; he asked me about these retirement homes: “Can you tell me about the medical insurance facilities, Miss Moggach? And your plans for pension arrangements?” Trying not to splash, I replied that actually it was all fiction, I’d made it up.
When I travelled to Mumbai for a literary festival, however, I discovered that India itself was starting to address the problem of its ageing population. As the country modernises, family life is changing and many grandparents can no longer be cared for in the home. As a result, the first retirement complex has recently been announced. Built on the Western model, it’s called the Dignity Foundation and they asked me to speak at their launch party. Though this was for Indian residents they were interested in my idea, and in fact I soon met an English couple who had read my novel and, inspired by it, were building a place in Udaipur as a business proposition.
Sometimes, just sometimes, a novel has another life. Seven years after its publication here I am on a film set deep in the Rajastani countryside. Birds sing, the sun beats down; far off, a megaphone booms “and . . . ACTION!” Those figments of my imagination have become thrillingly real. In front of me stands a solid hotel, now renamed “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. It’s a beautiful building with filigreed balconies; in real life it’s an equestrian centre and its stables are full of Rajastani horses. For our film they’ve shabbied it down and also built some extra bedrooms on the roof to house our characters (which will remain there after the shoot has finished).
Around me stretches a sea of white — unit vans, trailers, huge catering tents and kitchens. Hundreds of extras are resting in the shade — Rajastani tribesmen with their camels, women in colourful saris suckling babies and batting away the flies. Other extras are chic young kids, flown in from Mumbai for the shoot, handsome dudes in shades, with iPhones and motorbikes. This is because our hotel is supposed to be situated in a city, Jaipur, and the street outside has to reflect an urban population.
Most exterior scenes will in fact be shot in Jaipur at a later date; these particular scenes will just consist of the hotel interior and exterior, and a little bazaar that the art department has knocked up — spice stalls, clothing stalls, stalls selling electrical goods — here in the middle of nowhere. “Stallholders” sit there, fanning themselves in the heat. As I walk through it I have to resist the temptation to buy something, it looks so real.
Finally I track down our stars. They sit, resting between takes, shielded from the sun by members of the crew holding parasols. And what a cast they are! Two Dames — Judi Dench and Maggie Smith; Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup — and Dev Patel, star of Slumdog Millionaire, who is playing Sonny. They jump up and greet me, uttering the words that are music to a writer’s ears: “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your lovely book.”
Despite the occasional attack of Delhi Belly they are having the time of their lives. They all know each other and have worked together many times; they’re in sunny India, in November, in a beautiful hotel, working with the director John Madden who is adored by all. What’s not to like? Some of them have never been to India before and their experience is a voyage of discovery which echoes that of their characters. And this location is an oasis of calm before they travel to Jaipur to shoot scenes in the chaos of the streets. I’m visiting only briefly but their adventure has barely begun.
I watch the scene being shot of their arrival — jet-lagged, wary — with Sonny greeting them from the roof of the hotel. And afterwards, as I sit with the cast drinking tea, listening to the two dames reminiscing with gales of laughter, watching Bill Nighy sitting chatting to the extras, I think of that germ of an idea, all those years ago. How it has sent hundreds of people flying across the world to this magical country — a journey that is only now ending, this month, in the equally magical darkness of the cinema.
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