India shows it is more British than the British when Queen arrives

It was as though the empire had never ceased to exist. Queen Elizabeth II of England stood alone under a crimson canopy, reviewing an honor guard. A service band of Bengali lancers, with cocked plumes in their green berets, stood at solemn attention, next to turbaned Sikhs.

An open, gilded carriage transported the Queen to an equestrian performance by members of the presidential guard, all in vivid red riding jackets and cockaded turbans of red, blue, and gold.

As the sun set behind the magnificent pink sandstone viceregal palace, Indian soldiers - as they do daily - ''beat the retreat.'' The flag was struck slowly, and, as in the days of British India, a military band played ''Abide with me.''

Prince Philip, who returned with the Queen to India on their first visit in 22 years, mounted an elephant, to go in search of tigers in Andhra Pradesh, even though the days of royal bagging are one of the few Raj remnants forever gone.

The Queen's ladies-in-waiting, in three-quarter gloves and wide-brim straw hats, could have been Edwina Mountbatten, the glamorous, last vicereine - a symbol, as much as anyone, of that imperial India that was - and remains.

For, if the British fascination with India continues, sparked by a reign of nearly 400 years, the Indians are, in many respects, more British than the British, living in continuing ambivalency, then incredulity and awe, of that era that never again will exist in history - the days of the British Raj.

From tea and crumpets, to fancy lawns and sporting clubs: from English newspapers to pig-sticking, the imperial spirit and traditions of the sahibs and memsahibs remain part of India.

It is an extraordinary world of dust storms in the springtime, unrelenting summer monsoons, cane furniture on sprawling verandas, crows in the garden of New Delhi's fashionable Gymkhana Club.

One ''comes out'' to India, one doesn't arrive. One ''takes up'' a sport on joining a fashionable gentleman's club. One still ''dresses'' for dinner in the homes of India's elite, where entertainment is verboten until the ''season'' begins, that longed-for ''winter'' period when the October breeze begins blowing off the desert of Rajasthan and temperatures fall to a merciful 80 degrees F.

Indian films, in true Victorian spirit, still prohibit kissing on the screen. An Indian girl often does not date before marriage. Marriages of propriety are still arranged and ''English-educated'' brides are still considered a steppingstone to a higher class.

English is, after all, still the lingua franca of the educated Indian elite, a move that met with more opposition from the crown than from the Indians when, years ago, it was first decreed.

The enduring Indian civil service (the term itself deriving from the East India Company) is a continuing nightmare of bureaucrats and permissions: stamps, seals, and files - many wrapped in the same red ribbons and crested wax drippings inherited from the Raj.

Many of the laws the British drew up hastily to suppress the Indian independence movement remain on the books - press laws, travel laws, police laws and codes. When an accredited, resident foreign correspondent wants to leave India, regardless of the time of night or day, he or she must first dutifully receive permission from the registration bureau of the Indian police.

The government of Kashmir, as was the practice of the British governor-general, still moves the capital from the Himalayan resort of Srinagar to the warmer, Jammu plains, when the first hint of winter floats off Dal Lake. And the traditions of the bored memsahibs, sent to the hill stations to do needlework during the summer heat, are still followed by all who can afford it - whether Indian or foreigner today.

Weevils still find their way into the flour, rice, and dried foods of New Delhi kitchens during the summer heat. But, this reporter's ''bearer,'' as many before him, patiently explained that the weevils were only hiding from the summer sun. So, as other ''memsahibs'' before me, I inspected the ''cleansing process'' atop our bungalow roof. Bed sheets were spread out on the surface. Flour, sugar, rice, and pasta were spread out on the sheets. Sure enough, the weevils, when hit by sunlight, scurried away in fright. Everything was then neatly returned to its jars. As memsahibs before me, I was struck with incredulity.

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