Monday, December 15, 2008

Bleak House

Dear Sir,” writes Mr Roland, “We are moving out today. Please would you allow the removal van in the compound?” It’s not the enemy, at the gates, it’s Writer Relocations, and the security men won’t let them in. India’s India to the last gasp. Mr Roland takes the letter, hot from the printer, down to the spat in the foyer, and leaves all the uniforms to sort out their differences, in Hindi. Eventually, Sachin, chef d’équipe in orange, arrives with his team, in yellow. They kick their shoes off at our door, and begin to wrap our eastern world in tissue paper, ready for home. With toothpick-sized knives, they make cardboard boxes in situ, round our chattels, using up approximately a hectare of rainforest - still, my Rs 300 vase from Life Style should reach Nottingham in one piece. I say Rs 300, it’s worth a fiver of anyone’s money...

Head Honcho, Xerxes (who does the smooth talk and the measuring, and doesn’t sully his hands with sticky tape or bubblewrap) tells me, when assessing the original estimate, that the difficulty lies not in transporting, but in transporting intact. If they open a box, at Customs, things are inclined to grow little legs... The solution’s simple: grease palms. So, palm grease is included in the estimate. It’s good to know where we stand.

It seems we roll around India, accruing worldly goods, like a hedgehog collects leaves. Mr Roland signs over nineteen boxes, to Sachin. Our materialism’s very spiritual, though, at least half the boxes are full of Ganesh, with his chums Buddha and Shiva, a carved OM from Nepal, and a quarter of a ton of incense sticks. It could be worse – we’re leaving the bronze Hanuman behind, to keep an eye on Monu.

And then it’s done. At breakfast-time, it’s home. By morning coffee, it’s a bomb-site. By lunch-time, it’s a shell. Sachin and his boys put the “apart” into “apartment” without breaking into a sweat. The place has never been tidier, or cleaner. Under every piece of furniture the men move lurk huge dust-wallabies - like dust-bunnies, but three times bigger. Having no common language absolves me of the need to explain my sluttish ways, which is very liberating. I’m definitely ringing the Reykjavik branch of Pickfords for a quote, next time I move house.

When they go – leaving me one or two trees’-worth of tissue-paper, for wrapping plates to give to Monu – the flat looks unbearably vacant and lugubrious. We go out, to find solace in retail, while there’s still a rupee in our pockets.

The man, cleaning the mirrored walls of the lift, is 4’10”, so there’s half a yard of grimy glass out of his reach, a dado-rail of dust. You can see how wallabies might prosper round here. Outside on the pavement, a man in shorts feeds street dogs, with what looks like bread, out of a Haiko carrier-bag. (In case you’re interested, I give them my defrosted goat-cubes, too, to prove that terrorism will not win, and that the streets of Mumbai belong to the citizens of Mumbai - canine solidarity and faith in peace, with one cast. Obviously, it worries me, introducing unreproduceable richness to the scraps and gravel they're used to, but Mr Roland says, it’s a nice problem to have. I also buy a large bag of Rose and Jasmine-flavoured Tide, the day after the bombings, to indicate that we’re not going anywhere until we’re ready. And when we go, we’ll have clean clothes.)

The universal female panacea – a two-hour soak in extremely expensive bubbles – is unavailable to me here, with our three bathrooms and no bath, so I opt for the next best thing: the hairdresser’s. At the Renaissance Health and Beauty Salon (aspirational on all counts), I have a farewell eyebrow-threading, or, as we call it, in the West, torture. Vela The Impaler patters across the tiled floor, all smiles, with her little lacquered box of talc, and her innocuous bobbin of cotton. “Hold here, please,” she says, and you are thus an accomplice to the crime, while she rips out follicles with a twist of thread. I’m grinding my teeth to calcium powder, reflecting on pain-barriers, when I play back conversation with Monu, on the way here. His brother-in-law-to-be, Shikha’s soldier-brother, is shot, fighting terrorists in Kashmir. Only a flesh-wound, it takes him out of the action for a month – if I were Shikha’s Mum, I’d be seeing nothing but silver lining, here.

Reassuringly, the hair-dresser – even if he’s only a boy - looks at my hair dry, rather than the spritz-and-snip approach I get, last time I came here. (Chop-chop-chop: “You want trim, right?”) I mime what I would like (when did that ever make any difference, once you’ve got the free-size overall on, and a rubber mat round your shoulders?) – Layers, please, I don’t want to look like Crystal Tips, and leave the fringe alone (following ill-advised fringe DIY, don’t ask -). He mimes back his version of the Plan of Action – “Fringe, small small cut? ........ No, Ma’am, please...” He’s not impressed by my self-coiffing, then. I engage in jolly hairdressing-banter – “How long have you been a hairdresser?” “Are most of your clients here western?” “Does your Mum live near here?” He answers, “OK, OK!” every time. “WOULD YOU NOT CUT MY FRINGE?” - It costs me more than the sari for Rani-didi and the salwar-suit for Shikha, which Monu buys on my behalf. Mind you, if I’d done my own shopping, I could probably have had woven highlights, a couple of teeth crowned and a botox injection, and still had change.

You’d think, after switch-to-max Diwali only a month ago, our fire-crackers would be spent, but you’d be wrong. Christmas is coming, to Mumbai. This isn’t India being ecumenical, this is India loving to party. (Oh it’s Thursday, let’s put fairy-lights on the building society! It’s my brother’s wife’s pedicurist’s wedding anniversary, let’s make it a National Holiday and have cake! Hinduism alone has thousands of gods, so it’s never no-one’s birthday.) Before Diwali’s last diya’s cleared off the remaindered shelf at HyperCity, you can buy a fluffy snowman, brandishing a picket, saying “Let It Snow!” Christmas is still tackily Christmas here, the fake trees gaudily draped in multicoloured tinsel. If designer-trees are out of place anywhere, it surely has to be in the Land of Sequins.

HyperCity also boasts the thinnest, brownest Father Christmas you have ever seen. What’s the current UK stand on having your darling Snugglebum sit on the knee of a complete stranger, for a secret chat? Santa’s subcontinental surrogate strolls up and down the aisles, waylaying small children to offer them sweets from his satchel. I don’t qualify for a sweet, but I do get a photo.

All this frantic shopping for souvenirs, but what I most want to take home won’t go in a cardboard box. Don’t think I haven’t asked.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Jobs For The Boys

At the Post Office, we’re shocked to have to lick our own stamps. It appears self-adhesive hasn’t percolated the sub-continent, yet. The glue on the back of the stamps is too busy sticking your tongue to the roof of your mouth, to do a proper job on an envelope, so there’s a handy yogurt pot of extra paste, with a dibber, to make up the shortfall. Here, self-adhesive envelopes mean exactly what they say, get your own glue: it’s Blue Peter time. We also have to hand-write “By Air Mail” on nine hundred and forty-two Christmas cards, but we’ve long understood that stream-lined and automated are never going to happen, in India, while laborious and time-consuming still have breath left in them.

It’s easy to get into trouble, by not understanding the system. We go awry constantly, in the early days, helping the cashier’s sidekick, to pack our bags, at the supermarket, or opening doors for hotel doormen, who are carrying seventeen suitcases. Nearly a year on, we still stub our toes against common practice, although the check-out pantomime’s wilful self-harming, these days. Even so, repatriation will be a culture shock, next week.

Pakistan and India continue to circle round each other, growling and snapping at heels, but I’m glad to see Verona’s stepped down from Red Alert. This morning, I don’t have to turn sideways to slip out of shackled gates, in the basement, they’re flung wide again, to let in sunshine and street dogs. Just inside the entrance, the security guard, in epaulettes and peaked cap, sits on a wonky chair at a wonky table, armed with phone, pen, and water-bottle. He nods and waves, when he sees me, before standing up to say Good Morning. He doesn’t salute, but it’s only a matter of time... I struggle to remember the set-up, in the basement of the building where I live in England, and then it comes to me – it’s my house. There isn’t a basement, just a cellar, where people over the age of nine can’t stand up - full of spiders, and dusty demi-johns, from when Mr Roland was going through his home-brew phase. And there certainly isn’t a doorman, or anything in the way of security, not since the dog lost interest in barking at strangers, or even in getting off his bed. Catapulting down thirty degrees of heat, overnight, is going to be the least of our re-adjustment problems.

In India, the level of service is over-whelming, but you get used to it, just like you get used to having tea without milk, by habit. Helpful insistence on independence can cost someone else his job, so keep your hands in your pockets – if you’re uncomfortable, look the other way. We salve our conscience by making a point of saying thank-you, which marks us as alien more clearly than our white faces.

My third favourite shop, in Mumbai, is Star Wines, down on Daffodil Row, Powai. (First favourite, the al fresco Lighting Shop, on Adi Shankaracharya Marg, for chandeliers and lifting of sorry hearts: second, Something Special, in Bandra, for everything you need from hand-rolled paper to candles which blossom into lotus flowers, singing “Happy Birthday To You” – and third, our local offy.) When we darken their not-door, the shop front, they swat thirsty construction workers out of the way, to clear our path. The builders’ tipple of choice - a medicine-bottle of GM (Government Made, apparently, although that doesn’t mean that the Government actually Made it, any more) costs twelve or thirteen rupees, whereas a bottle of Kingfisher’s sixty-three. We buy a box of beer at a time. You work out Mr Star Wines’ priorities. They even bring us a present for Diwali - liqueur chocolates we can’t even give to teetotal Monu, and a set of glasses ironically inscribed “Apple.” We never feel this loved, at Oddbins or Bottoms Up.

In Haiko, this week, a three-generation shopping expedition, in front of me in the queue – grandma’s paying for groceries, mother and child entertaining each other while they wait. Grandma puts her purse back in her bag, snaps it shut, then the whole family moves off. The maid steps up to the counter, collects all six bags of shopping, and falls into step behind them. Am I the only one who thinks this is unfair? I look round at the busy shoppers, busily shopping. Yes, I am. I’m not born into the system, and won’t buy into it, but neither can I opt out of it; it’s been a year on a tight-rope.

Next week, in Loughborough Sainsbury’s, there’ll be riots in Christmas queues, anxious to get home to their turkeys. I’ll be standing gawping, as my shopping piles up and tumbles off the end of the conveyor belt, with no smiling assistant to pack for me. You won’t be able to get in my house, for the sacks of rubbish spilling out the door, without an anonymous refuse-fairy, to whisk it all away in the night. I’ll sit in restaurants, hungrily looking at dishes full of food, trying to remember how a serving-spoon works. It’ll be a novelty, in the Ladies, turning on taps, squirting soap, filing used paper-towels in the bin, without assistance. I’ll break my nose cannoning into shop-doors, with no maharajah to sweep them open before me. Worst of all, I’ll sit in the back of my little blue Ford Focus, waiting for Monu to turn to me and say, “Today, Ma’am, what plan?”

With this particular deficit in mind, I buy a Monu-in-a-Box – a 3-D digital photo in a Perspex cube, so he can sit on a shelf, in my English kitchen, and watch me cook, at home. Well, we buy two, in fact, one for me, one for his Mum. “How did you persuade Monu to sit for it?” a friend asks, amused. Strange he should mention it, because I work out a very subtle plan. I say, “Monu, I need you now... Sit there... Smile... Thank-you.” The boy from Lucknow clearly thinks I’m as mad as a box of frogs – pagal, my new Hindi word – but he suffers gladly, there being no alternative. The final artefact is a thing of beauty thus a joy forever, we all agree. Well, Monu smiles and goes “Tch!” so I think he thinks so. I know his Mum will.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Per Ardua ....

After yesterday’s Mexican wave of vomit, we’re up for a bit of grown-up culture, today. We head out of Mumbai, in search of ancient Buddhist caves, exercising what Monu calls “temple-interest,” with neither a child nor a crisp in sight.

We pull up, in a cloud of dust, in what appears to be a building-site. Monu says inscrutably, “No speak the people,” before cruelly abandoning us to the tourist touts. It’s the car, which attracts them. I’m sure if we wound our way up the hill, in a dusty tuk-tuk, or sitting on a pile of cotton waste, in the back of a ramshackle camel-cart, we’d slip through unnoticed. As it is, we seem to look like we need an alabaster Shiva, or a Taj Mahal keyring, everywhere we set foot. (Don’t panic, if you’re on our Christmas list, we’ve hardly bought any keyrings, and we like our Shivas in wood...)

Karla Cave is a rock-cut Buddhist temple, dating from around the second century B.C. The Lonely Planet promises it’ll be impressive, and so it is. What they fail to mention, is that you’ll have your alveoli hanging out, on the end of your tongue, by the time you scramble up nine thousand uneven cobbled steps to the entrance. Happily, there’s a panoramic view available every other cobble, so you can pause, and pretend to admire the vista, while your respiratory tract relocates itself where it belongs, every so often. Small stalls line the route, but who’s going to believe you’re interested in examining peeled cucumbers, or scummy pots of lassi, really? The cafe set in a cranny, halfway up, definitely takes the khari-biscuit for unpretentiousness, with its modest pair of sun-bleached garden chairs, for the comfort of passing patrons. There aren’t any, at the moment, so the waiter polishes his bottles of Fanta, again. I understand some of the retail opportunities on offer - for instance, a garland of flowers, a coconut or two, perhaps even a fresh tub of red kumkum powder, are all perfectly logical requirements, on the way to worship - but which pious Buddhist suddenly needs a new sari, at the temple-gates?

We arrive, only slightly rosier than when we set off, and don’t turn a hair at the two thousand percent mark-up on the entrance fee, for being pasty-faced. They clearly aren’t inundated by visitors from the west, or there’d be more evidence of maintenance. As it is, they slap on a bit of cement, when the cobbles are conspicuously falling apart, although I imagine tourist casualties have to hit double figures, before they crack open a bag of Birla’s finest. Still, we don’t begrudge them a hundred rupees a-piece, so we slide a couple of Gandhi portraits across the counter, and we’re in.

Sadly, so are about four hundred grey-uniformed school children, pencils and notebooks poised for cultural input. We create a ripple, just walking along. As they spy us, they put education on hold for a minute, to say hello, and ask us how we are. It will be a shock, being back in the UK, where very few people care how we are, and even fewer ask. However, all representatives of the Little Flower High School of Thane are fascinated to know, so we bask in pretend fame, while we can.

In the upper chamber of the caves, India finally gives in to graffiti, and I’m delighted to see that it’s in transliterated Hindi, so even I can get the point. - Scrawling on walls really isn’t a big thing, here, apart from hand-painted adverts for The Speak Well English Academy, or for Lux Cozi Innerwear For Men, which are creeping green with mildew, just before, just after, and during the monsoon. The one bit of graffiti you can’t help but notice, as soon as you step off the plane, is the word “Beanbag” and a phone number, sprayed in aerosol-paint, on every available piece of corrugated aluminium. We ask, and ask, wondering about this obsession with floor cushions, but no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming for ten months. Then, enlightenment: “Beanbags” are Ladies of the Night. Perfect. We’re given back-word, a fortnight later, but it’s too late, and “beanbag” has passed irretrievably into the family lexicon. – Here, on the cave-wall, it says, in the manner of lovesick British schoolboys, “Raj Prem Atish” – Raj loves Atish. I don’t know Hindi for “4 EVA” but I expect that’s there too.

While we’re peering into monastic cells and admiring stupa, up above, the beggars arrive for business. We hit Beggar Row, flaunting stumps and hollow-flanked babies. “Namaste – hello – hi – bakshish – money – bakshish – hello...” The litany follows us down the steps. Received wisdom recommends giving to an organised charity, not through car-windows to a syndicate, but round a bend, we pass an ancient lady, who takes up less room than a floor-cloth. We both turn, remembering the same line from the guide-books, and tip the coins from our pockets into her lap. Give to the old. We look at each other and laugh, because we now have no money for the sulabh-wallah, who guards toilets, so we’ll have to cross our legs all the way home.

Today, Buddhist temples are on a two-for-one offer, apparently, because we climb back into the car, and Monu says, “One more!” He doesn’t believe Mr Roland’s map, so we stop to ask for directions of every paan-seller and stray cyclist on the way. This time the car-park’s only vaguely within sight of the mountain trail leading to Bhaja Caves. – “See this stairs? Go!” says the boy from Lucknow, so we do.

There’s no big entrance, the wonky path just melts into caves, at the top. On the way up, we pass three goats, sprawled across the steps, enjoying the view, in the midday sun. I’m quite glad to see them, because, this week, it’s the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha. Think “turkey” and “Christmas.” “Cut the goat!” says Monu, slicing his finger across his throat. We see goats in their hundreds, led by the ears, along the street, or in double-decker lorries, all heading in one direction, to slaughter. Goats, with tinsel woven into their fringes, and ribbons tied round their silky ears, goats in necklaces. We see a child, kissing his goat goodbye, while another pulls the heads of two tethered goats together. Monu laughs. “Make the fight,” he says. Outside Mankhurd school, a boy straddles a branch, twenty feet up a tree, to cut leaves, for his goat’s last supper. On the road, I see small hooves sticking out of a sack, in the vehicle alongside us, then realise the whole truck’s filled with corpses. No refrigeration, nothing more subtle or hygienic than a hessian bag for a shroud. Lentils have increasing appeal. – So it’s good, to see goats still breathing in and out, after Tuesday.

When we get there, panting again, Bhaja Caves are empty, except for the man on the gate, who welcomes us in, then, before our shadows are well clear, hawks and spits on the floor. I’m almost certain it’s a coincidence. We look down into the valley, where bullocks are pulling a ploughshare. Or, plugging, according to our Delhi guide, Amit. I ask him, what they do with all the boy calves, since (Cow is God) they can’t be of use at the table. “They plug the field,” he says, simply. Outside Mumbai, just before we join the motorway, the sign reads, “No bullock-carts on the expressway.” They’re allowed in the maze of city roads, though. We often see them, impervious to seven honking lanes of maypole-traffic, trotting on with their water-tank or cartload of melons.

I peek over the parapet, down the hillside. You can peer over any ledge or wall, in India, however remote or sacred, and never not see an avalanche of litter below. It’s not that no-one cleans up here - they do - but then someone else come and tips it all out again, to sift through, and abandon. This country has the most picked over litter in the world. Picked over, just not picked up.

The caves are brilliant, better than the famous Kandheri Caves, in Sanjiv Gandhi National Park, better than the Elephanta caves, a boat-ride over the Arabian Sea. And, no crowds. On the way back down, we meet maybe a dozen culture-vultures, on their way up. A long way, we tell them, but worth the climb.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No Jhan-Jhat!

The coast of Kerala’s trimmed with mile after golden mile of sun kissed beach, lapped by crystal sea, but we’re not in Kerala, we’re in Mumbai, so we go to Juhu instead, where the sand’s pale black and the sea’s soupy. It’s still more scenic than Mankhurd, though, so nobody minds.

We will leave at eight o’clock, because the traffic will be small, early in the morning,” ordains Bhavika-didi, whose word is law. “You will come at a quarter to, do you follow?” Every child’s mouthing the catechism of rendez-vous, dress code, and kit-bag instructions, while slithering into chappals at the classroom door, two days before. I feel obliged to point out to Bhavika, that with such an early kick-off, I may well still be in my pyjamas. “Come in your pyjamas, Caroline-didi, why not? As long as we have your presence!”

This is my second marine day in a row, if you can have a row of two. Mr Roland and I make Monu drive for almost three hours, so we can dip our white toes in the Arabian Sea. The beach at Alibaug is black, too, but I’m thinking volcanic, and am happy to paddle. I find out later, it’s oil-dumping, but my feet are salty by then, it’s too late. At the water’s edge, buggy-drivers queue, offering rides across the sand spit to the island fortress of Kolaba, their ponies rake-thin, with coats rough with salt. The nearest pair have rainbow-coloured feather-dusters, stuck to their pommels, which nod, as they gallop through the shallows. Mr Roland and I go rock-pooling instead, and a meagre trawl it is. We find fish, only marginally more important than plankton, and crabs so small, they’d have to be polite to the spiders we get in the bath, at home. The rocks are covered with limpet-shell wreckage, but there’s not a gastropod in sight – either the locals are partial to fruits de mer, or the swell’s more brutal than it looks. On the other hand, there’s wild life under the rocks, along the promenade. Monu finds a litter of round-bellied puppies, playing in a rock-den, in the rubble, while their mum sleeps, unconcerned, under a concrete bench nearby. I’m just choosing the brown one, when I notice that Monu and Mr Roland are sloping back off to the car, in a disowning sort of way.

Back in Mankhurd, we pull up outside the tenement block, seven minutes late, ready to apologise, but find only Mehul and Rahul, sitting on the step of the padlocked door, clutching their waterbottles. Monu shrugs, “Indian time!” We’re shrouding the back-seats in bedsheets, just in case, when Rani-didi arrives, with a red rose tucked behind one ear, clearly in the mood for a party. Roll-call might take some time, at this rate, so we assemble in the upstairs classroom, away from the street with its decaying litter and opaque puddles. Rani-didi has this quaint notion about sitting quietly on a mat to wait, but Khaja arrives, with his built-in nuclear reactor, which only works on “Max,” thus knows nothing of “quiet” or “sitting.” We therefore rocket round the room in wild laps, pausing only for a cartwheel of joy, when exuberance overtakes us. Not me, obviously, the under-eights. I’m ready for a sit-down and a chocolate Hob-Nob, just watching them.

Finally, we crocodile off downstairs, with bats and balls and an orange Frisbee, to pile into the Monu-bus. We’re only an hour later than scheduled - quite punctual, by Indian watches. There’s a minor scrimmage, to decide who’s with me, in the front seat. I’m feeling flattered, and popular, when I remember the fascination of the dashboard, with all its switches and buttons. In the end, I promote Nikita to sit on my lap, because she has bones like a sparrow’s, and I’m not sure she’s up for the hurly burly of the back-seat. You forget what a novelty it can be, opening and closing an electric window. Before we hit second gear, Monu meanly disables all door and window controls, so Nikita has to make do with the AC fans and vents. She makes her hands icy cold then presses them on my face, for a few miles, until she’s distracted by a roadside hoarding, advertising pension schemes. “Do you have a plan?” she reads. Would that I did...

When we arrive at Juhu beach, an hour later, Ashish-in-the-back is olive green, and his eyes are dull. To be fair, there’s not a lot of sick, nothing that half a yard of wet-wipes can’t sort out, but Monu clearly thinks that some is more than none, in this case.

We decant, and corral the children in a wobbly circle, on the gritty beach. They park their bottles and chappals, pêle-mêle, and run off to play ball, and Frisbee, and cricket, all at the same time. Ashish sits on a mat, in the shade, a small heap of woe. We sift the sand for shells, and label everything in sight: helicopter, water, umbrella, dustbin. I-Spy, without the guesswork. Then Bhavika-didi says the magic word, “Sea!” and Ashish is cured. Salt water generally makes you sick, but in Ashish’s case, it does the reverse, and he’s in there up to his knees, before Bhavika’s finished saying, “Stay holding hands, in your group!” Sadly, his jeans are only wound up to mid-shin, but the sun’s got nothing else to do.

Saris have to be the least convenient thing to wear, for a paddle, I think. Then I notice Rani-didi, whose sari’s mysteriously eight inches shorter than a minute ago, although it’s beyond me, what she’s done with the spare bit.

The children squeal in terror and delight; the waves overtake them, then suck the grey sand from under their feet, on the way out, leaving a trail of cappuccino froth. Anand and Mayur grip my hands so tightly, my knuckles are fusing together. I soon discover, that it’s considerably easier to get the children into the water, than it is to get them out again. I marshal two of my group beach-wards, and turn back for a third. The first two instantly run away to sea - great fun for everyone except me. I see, yet again, that my discipline only applies, when I’m asking them to do something they already want to do. I have no control whatsoever over these briny brats, shrieking with laughter and running away from me in seven different directions. In my defence, I don’t lose any of them.

Back on the mats, there’s the silence which only comes with food. Let them eat crisps. (Or wafers, in Bhavika-speak.) A policeman comes to address us, while we munch, then we give him a hip-hip-hooray before he goes back to his patrol van. I assume it’s “Don’t touch strange objects!” – a slogan we’re seeing more than enough of, since 26 November – but I’m wrong, it’s a recruiting campaign. You’re never too young to be a police cadet, in Mumbai, it seems. His best bet would be to give away free sunglasses, as worn by all Bollywood stars and traffic policemen, that’d have them signing up in droves, but he’s gone before I can tell him.

Then we make our cardinal error. Orangeade. They guzzle gallons of fizzy orange, to wash down the last crisp crumbs, before we brush the sand off our feet and head for home. It’s hot, the car’s jerking in the stop-start traffic, and soon Kavita - whose name means “Poem” – is sick, in the back. Rani-didi’s closest, and she waves it off airily as nothing. I don’t find out how copious a nothing, until we’re in Mankhurd again. Halfway home, though, Salim’s sick, too, and before you can say ipecacuanha, I’m on the verge, sluicing vomit off rubber car-mats with Bisleri, with curious tuk-tuks whizzing past my ear. I tell Monu, it’s good practice for when he’s got Shukti and Pooja, but he doesn’t look convinced.

When I get back in the car, fragrant as a baby-wipe, Rani-didi’s telling Monu, that it’s all my fault. It’s in Hindi, but the words “Caroline-didi” and “biscuit” aren’t hard to isolate. We're talking gingernuts, here, not Waggon-Wheels. What I swill off the mats looks a lot more like orangeade, I say, pointedly. Then we need to change the subject, because the whole back row’s turning green.

Sorry about the car, Monu,” I say, being careful where I sit, driving home.
My car,” he says, sadly, “tch!”
Never mind “My car!” - you’re supposed to say, “No jhan-jhat!”” I say - No problem! He looks at me, in the rearview mirror, and shakes his head.
No jhan-jhat!” he smiles.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mumbai Meri Jaan

It’s a week on, and, although you couldn’t say things were the same, they’re making a good job of trying. The Leopold’s open, and thronged with defiant Mumbaikars. The Taj is cordoned off, but determined to rebuild. I can’t help smiling.

When they dig a road up, in Mumbai – usually before the tarmac’s set – to lay the cable or water-pipe, which they forgot in the first place, they then pat all the debris back in the trench. Well, except for this little pile here, which they leave in a tidy heap at the side of the mended road, to show where they’ve been: MMDC’s calling-card. For about four months, it weathers by attrition, and cows sitting on it, and dogs seeing if there’s anything to eat, under it. By then, it’s nearly time to dig everything up again.

So, clearing-up and rebuilding south Mumbai will be fascinating. They don’t need mementoes, there’s enough stored digitally by passing Kumars and curious Guptas, to paper the Taj inside and out. The Mumbai Mid Day carries a photo of people, taking pictures of bullet holes in the walls at CST station, with the caption “Titillation” – journalistic double jeopardy: clearly it’s not ghoulish, taking a photo of other people being ghoulish.

Even in leafy Powai, feeling’s running strong. This morning, a demonstration passes the foot of our building, with marching soldier cadets, waving banners and chanting, followed by ranks of uniformed school-children, in their ribboned plaits and snowy-white bobby-socks. There are candle-lit vigils, and the ubiquitous flowers-tied-to-railings. I’m still moved by posters on roadside billboards, with cameos of the dead framed in golden laurels, to applaud the mighty fallen and inveigh against evil. I’m duped, because I can’t read the small print. Let’s face it, in Hindi, I can’t read the foot-high capitals, either. The whole campaign’s condemned as party political inanity, capitalising on tragedy, as parties fall over themselves to out-mourn each other, or to be seen to out-mourn each other. Civic tenderness degrades into tastelessness.

The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke, quoted in Mid Day, to launch their campaign of resistance: “Don’t stay Mum-bai!” I think it sounds more like an inducement to mass exodus, but they’re trying to urge everyone to have a voice. “Don’t stay mum – speak up!” Resilience is essential to survival, but picking up “old life” is not enough. “... that’s what cattle do after being attacked by leopards – go back to grazing.” I don’t think the world’s in danger of not knowing what Mumbai thinks, in these troubled times.

The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the BMC, is rewarding all firemen who participated in rescue operations, to help NSG commandos during the attacks, with two pay increments, plus two months’ salary, in hand. Bravo.

Mumbai Police only have one speedboat, I’m stunned to discover. In case you’re forgetting, this is the Mumbai which is built on a series of islands, with more water-front than Venice – THAT Mumbai. The one-boat police flotilla has no searchlight, no siren, no wireless set, and no night-vision binoculars. What, I hear you ask, have they done with the £4M handed over in 2006, labelled, Speedboats for Mumbai Police?

I have a theory: the Police probably spend most of their money on text-messaging. We get so many from them, I’m beginning to think we’re on their Best Friends listing. During the Ganpati festival at the end of September, they send us this: “For Ganesh immersion day: 1. Come early. No fire crackers on beach. 2. Entry on beach only for the car with Idol. 3. Drivers to remain in car.” Frankly, this worries me, more than reassures me, and I cast about for bubbles of riotous behaviour, but Monu says everyone gets the same message. At Diwali, in October, the Anti-Terrorist Squad send us this: “Be alert Mumbaikar! Look for any suspicious object and inform police on 100. Do not believe in rumours. Do not accept any article from unknown person. Join hands with the police in fight against terrorism. ATS.” At Diwali, the streets are littered with unexploded fireworks, and shells of spent crackers. It sounds like Beirut, at ground level – every street-dog and dead rocket looks suspicious, what do they want us to do?

Today’s offering from the police is hopeful oil on self-inflicted troubled waters. “False rumours are being spread thru SMS of possible attacks on schools and hotels.” - I know at least one lady, who keeps her children out of school, because of it - “We assure all citizens, city is absolutely safe. Pls don’t panic, nor add to rumours.” Quite tricky, this last, because there’s still only one topic of conversation, over every cup of masala chai, round here, how could rumour not be getting fat on it?

Rumour should be classified as a weapon. On Friday, in the middle of the siege, CNN abandons live action at the Taj, the Oberoi and Nariman House, to report fresh firing, at Victoria Station (CST). People glued to their televisions ring their nearest and dearest, in transit, and pandemonium breaks out, on the trains and the quays. False alarm. CNN apologizes for scaremongering.

So, what are you doing, tonight? If there’s nothing on tv, come and make a stand for peace. “Walk for Mumbai” starts at six - indomitable citizens are invited to meet at the Gateway of India, to march for peace and harmony, for not giving in, and for carrying on in spite of everything. The “I want my Mumbai back” rally is opposite the Taj, at the same time. You don’t need to decide which one to go to, you’ll already be at both, because opposite the Taj IS the Gateway. The ad can’t be accused of subliminal brain-washing, it says simply, “If you give a F***, then walk!” (To be fair, the asterisks are included, and it is a half-rhyme, technically... It comes quaint, though, from a nation of English-speakers who happily lay their tongue to words like “thrice” or “misfortunate” or “lest” in everyday speech.) You are asked to wear white, and a “Mumbai Meri Jaan” t-shirt.

Mumbai Meri Jaan’s a film, released a few months ago. Based on the 2006 serial blasts on Mumbai’s suburban railway network, it’s almost too pertinent. The lives it follows, coping with the aftermath of the attacks, are ironically those of a journalist, a policeman, a businessman and a coffee-vendor. I ask Monu, what “jaan” means. “Life,” he says. Then, at the next traffic lights, he says, “Jaan mean, you know...... love.” Life and love, in one word, how apt. I look it up, when I get home, and find it also means spirit, understanding, strength, essence – even wizard. I tackle Monu on the economy of language, the next day. He laughs and shrugs. “This is Hindi!”

So, Mumbai Meri Jaan – I love Mumbai. Mine’s a Medium, please, and a Large for Mr Roland.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Old Life

Today, to borrow Monu’s phrase, old life start, a week late. Mr Roland goes to the office (albeit in a playing-out shirt, because he’s only going to say his goodbyes and collect his tea-cup), and I go to Mankhurd, in the hope of a bit of normality, on the straw mats, in the upstairs room.

Bhavika’s late, so we play Hangman until she arrives. I’m quietly confident, with my fourteen-letter word, and indeed, my chalk-man is dangling, with only one leg to go, but I’m reckoning without Swapnil (Prime Minister of India, circa 2045). He springs into the air from a cross-legged start (you try it), shouting, “RESPONSIBILITY, didi!” How can you not be impressed?
Bhavika arrives, and tries to slip in behind Anand and Kajal, who are also late. I’m not having this.
“Bhavika-didi, you are late! Go stand at the back, take your punishment!”
Shall didi stand here, she is late?” Bhavika asks, laughing. “Come Anand, come Kajal, stand at the back with me, we must take our punishment...” The children drum their heels on the floor, for joy, and I realise, that’s what I’ve not done for five days, smile...

What did you see, on the television news, this weekend?” Bhavika asks. Khaja – never loath to be first – is on his feet, spraying the class with imaginary bullets, before she gets to the question-mark. I don’t think on-the-doorstep terrorism’s any more real to them, than James Bond or Harry Potter, they’ll certainly not be in need of counselling. Older, wiser, we didis exchange scandalised looks, before we turn to composition.

Bhavika says her aunt and family live near the Taj (“this hotel, backside”) and hear every last bullet and grenade, of the three-day siege. I practically need sedating, watching it all play out on television, fifteen miles away: having live action at the bottom of the garden doesn’t bear thinking about. Mumbaikars are clearly made of sterner stuff, and pride themselves on their resilience: within hours, cafes, shops, offices, are all open again. On Friday, a hawker looks sadly at the empty street, as the traffic-lights wink pointlessly through their sequence. “I’m just waiting for a traffic-jam,” he says, “then I can sell my flowers.” His roses wilt, unsold, so the terrorists find their mark, here, too. Today, though, he’s poking bundles of flowers, scented with exhaust-fumes, through open car-windows, and the world’s the right way up, again.

Ashish pushes his book onto my lap. “My name is Ashish,” he writes. “I am a boy. I stay with my family.” So far, so good. His next sentence leaps off the page at me - “My Akanksha is war.” Maybe he is traumatised, after all? I read on. “My didi is war nes. Caroline-didi is war nes.” He beams at me, “I no help, didi – one star?” Bhavika, cruel but fair, only rewards DIY work. He reads aloud. “My didi is very nice....” So, not psychologically scarred by atrocity, after all. Relieved, I draw him a turtle and a milk-bottle (his request) to go with his star. Ashish is war nes, too.

The politicians continue to wrangle and snipe, but there’s no hope of their being stopped by Black Cat commandos. The latest SMS doing the rounds says, “Don’t be afraid of the men who got in with boats, fear the men who got in with the votes.” I fail to understand all the retrospective finger-pointing, about slack security, sea-side, at the Gateway – even Swapnil could have worked this one out. The little boats jockey for position in the harbour, and tourists pile on to the nearest one, until the plimsoll-line disappears, then it chugs away, grating along the seawall, ricocheting off neighbouring boats, whose crew fend it off, with their bare feet. Organised, it isn’t. Ticket vendors at the top of the steps have no allegiance to any particular boat, no one counts passengers on or off. Crisp-sellers, chai-wallahs, sun-hat merchants, all follow you on board, wheedling, cajoling, haranguing, and have to take a running leap at the disappearing harbour steps, as the boat pulls away, belching diesel fumes. You could smuggle in a bull elephant wearing a golden howdah, and no-one would blink twice. It makes a mockery of all the metal-detector doorways, and the mirrors on sticks, land-side. Small wonder they landed an arsenal, unchecked.

Mumbai safe,” says Monu, stoutly, although his Mum wants him back in Lucknow, NOW. Being mobile again’s something of a novelty, so we drive to one of our early haunts, in Mulund, for a bit of affirming retail. On the way home, the opposite carriageway’s at a stand-still, blocked by dozens of men, marching in their shirt-sleeves. It looks like a political demonstration, and I’m about to duck, in case tempers are raw, when Monu says, “This funeral. You know, policeman, killed in troubles? This his funeral, local people come.” Behind the marching men, in their off-white shirts, a tow-truck, strung with orange flowerheads. Men in the cab, men on the cab, men in the truck-bed, keeping company with the departed, under his blanket of marigolds.

By the roadside, posters showing cameos of five of the officers who died last week, asking for contributions to help the bereaved families, in the hope of offering them each Rs 15 lakh. I’m sure they’d rather have their Dad back, than a twenty-thousand pound bonus, but it’s a good thought, and Mumbai’s digging deep.

Despite which, I come home tonight feeling saner and more whole. The past five days have been wall-to-wall bullets and blood, desecration, death, man’s inhumanity to man - and while they are part of life, they are not all of life. I just remembered that, in Mankhurd.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Just Another Day

It all looks very normal, peering down at Powai from our poured concrete eyrie. Being nonchalant’s easy in the sunshine, but confidence leaches out, as the light fades. In the wee small watches, it’s a different matter.

The construction workers don’t stop, just because it goes dark round them. They release the rubble skip, which hurtles thirty floors down in its shaft, and you’d swear it was a building collapsing. The midnight dogs scream, and we turn up the fan to drown them out. At five in the morning, I wake to the sound of a plane landing on the roof. I have never noticed our being on a flight path, until this moment, so I get out of bed, to make sure it’s not trying to come in through the spare room window (directly the fault of CNN reporters: the phrase “Indian 9/11” seems to follow every comma for the past three days). It isn’t, but I’m up now, so I check out Powai. All quiet on the eastern front. I flick on the television, to catch the news. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, there’s nothing new. So little, in fact, I suspect the network of plugging in an old tape, to run through the night, so they can all slope off home for some well-earned shut-eye.

Climbing back into bed, I’m felled by pains in my chest. I considerately kick Mr Roland (because, to quote our driver-friend Sanjay in Delhi, “it he job...”), for a bit of sympathy. “I’ve got chest pains!” I say. “Where?” he says, pretending to be more or less conscious. I don’t say, “In my foot,” and this is the most worrying symptom of all, but we doze off, before I can work myself up to a full cardiac infarction. As you can see, though, we’re skittish.

I try to ascertain how legitimate it is, being out and about again. Our French friends have emails and texts, from their caring representatives at the French Embassy. We have lots of emails and texts, too, but all from people on our Christmas list, and none of them is an ambassador, as far as I know. I do a little spirited research, to find advice, and there it is: they do care, after all! The British Consulate has a reception centre for British nationals at the British Council Library, in Mumbai, and it’s open all night. How much more solicitous could they be? Let’s get our coats... Hold on, where exactly is it, this haven of ex-patriate refuge? Nariman Point. Now that’s what I call handy. If you draw a triangle joining the Taj, the Oberoi and Nariman House, what’s in the middle? Right, the British Council Library. They want us to leave the safety of leafy Powai, to queue up for advice in the killing zone. Suddenly, I feel less cherished. Suddenly, I decide we can look after ourselves.

On the street, it’s just another day. Outside KFC, in the Galleria, the security guards are nursing rifles, but they’re still sitting on plastic garden chairs, to show their human side. The cricket’s back on, in the park, if not on the India-Pakistan Pakistan tour. At the side of the swimming-pool, a white woman’s painting her toenails red, with every appearance of unconcern; I decide it’s safe to assume the two boys hosing down the path and walls are, in fact, pool attendants. I can get back to concentrating on being annoyed by the chubby sons of Powai, who like to bob-bob-bob across my path, every second length. No point waiting it out, either: in my experience, boys don’t get out of water until they grow gills or get hungry. I resign myself to swimming self-righteous banana-lengths, before going home to pick up the marathon television vigil.

Nothing happens, while I’m deserting my sofa-post, except government ministers resign from this and that, before they’re pushed. East and west have more in common, than I imagined, it seems.

In between political finagling and analysis, they screen the funerals of “the brave hearts of India.” They don’t go in for muted mourning, here, the unshed tear, the bitten lip, the averted gaze. They don’t do discreet or contained, they do weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, pulling out hair and clawing at clothes, and I’m with them every sob of the way. There’s no shortage of pomp and ceremony, with fanfares on silver bugles, and solemn wreaths of funeral lilies. I can cope with solemnity. What takes the dhurrie out from under my feet, is the ordinary tenderness. They say goodbye to the man on the open bier, stroking his face, kissing his hair, patting a stray garland into place - little last tidying twitches, to give their hands something to do, while they’re thinking, like tucking a child into bed. And then, they light the pyre. Anaesthetising flames.

There’s fireworks, tonight, too, across the other side of Powai Lake. The explosions make us jump, until we see the sparks, flowering over the Renaissance Hotel. A wedding. At first, I think the timing is unfortunate, then I decide, it couldn’t be better.