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.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

So, Where Were We?

At dawn, it rains, a benison on beleaguered Mumbai. In the morning, we wake to wet pavements and a free city. The temperature drops from the mid-thirties to a gentle twenty-eight - at home, we’d be rootling out the charcoal, and ringing round to see who’s got a bag of buns, to go with the sausages in our freezer, but here, it’s just nicely do-able.

The gates in the basement of Verona are still locked; the security guard has to unbolt them, to let me out. The air’s soft with rain and a new lightness, as yesterday’s determined chin of defiance sags with relief. Everybody goes about their business, not jubilant, just quietly glad.

How difficult was it, for you?” a Times Now reporter asks a commando, as he hops onto a bus with his comrades, once the Taj is secured, and they’re allowed to clock off. He grins, and shakes his head. “For us, nothing is difficult.” Before the translator reaches the end of the sentence, I have tears in my eyes.

The Black Cat commandos are out, blinking in the morning sun, after sixty hours of unimaginable strain. They look like they could do with twenty-four hours’ sleep, a shave, and a hug from their Mums; not necessarily in that order. The camera catches one of them, mobile in hand, leaning on the harbour wall, overlooking the Arabian Sea. His smile says everything.

Azam Amir Kasav, sole surviving terrorist, is only twenty-one years old. On its front page, the Times of India refers to him, in a matey way, as Azam, but by page two, they’re calling him Kasav. Either way, he’s from Pakistan, and confesses the plan to blow up the entire Taj hotel. According to him, the team undertook the assignment, in the belief that they would come out alive: this was no suicide mission, the police find the chart of their proposed return route, by sea.
Word now is, the terrorists were heavily drugged. What is this drug, which will remove all fear, but leave a person capable of operating an AK47? Mad, misguided, barbarous, clean-shaven and well-pressed – yet every one of them, some mother’s son, as my Nan used to say.

Every visitor we have wants to see the Gateway of India. It’s disappointing, I always say. It’s in the Lonely Planet Guide, they always say back. So we go. “Gateway of India, please, Monu,” I mumble, as we climb into the car, avoiding his eye. Monu doesn’t say anything, but he can go Tch! with his shoulders, and does. The Gateway’s a two-hour drive, even with three Ganeshes on the dash-board and a following wind. (This is what I say to Worried of Stokesley, when the terrorists land in Colaba. Even if they had our actual names on a hit-list, we could be in London, with time to take in a show, before they reach Powai by road...) We pile out of the car, crumpled, and take in the grubby glory of the Gateway. In practice, you can hardly look at it anyway, you’re so busy swatting away touts, flogging everything from plastic Eiffel Towers to dubious ice-cream out of a bucket, as well as photographers brandishing digital cameras, with tiny portable printers round their necks, and picturesque child-beggars in rags and bare feet. I have yet to see the Gateway, not shrouded in tattered tarpaulin and bamboo scaffolding. Now you’ve seen that, I say, turning our visitor round, look at this. The Taj Mahal Hotel. The doormen wear puttees, and have moustaches as wide as buffalo horns – they’re very smiley, even when you’ve got a red nose and mad hair, straight off the boat from Elephanta Island. The Taj is an oasis of civilisation.

And now it’s gutted, despite all its tinkling chandeliers and priceless antiques. The cameras are allowed in again. In the ruined hotel foyer, where so many people died, a tall vase of gladioli stands, untouched, on a side table.

Security in India is stricter than in the UK. You enter every mall through a magic doorway, and have to surrender your bag for scrutiny. “What are you doing reading this poster?” chides the billboard on the steps of In Orbit, “when you could be looking around for suspicious objects?” I am routinely waved in with a smile, whereas Mr Roland gets frisked, every time – not because I am lovely and he looks shifty, it’s a boy/girl thing. Terrorist organisations across the world are coming to realise this loophole, and are using not only women, but women with mental handicaps, in burkhas, on suicide missions.

Five-star hotels are the regular stamping-ground of ex-pats, in a country which does neither pubs nor street cafés. We turn into the drive, and stop, while the security men give the car the once-over. Monu pops the bonnet open, and they look inside, to discover that that’s where we keep the engine. They run a handbag mirror, lashed to a stick-on-wheels, under all four sides of the car, in as many seconds. If they’re really rigorous, or short of things to do, they tap the boot, and Monu surrenders the ignition key, inscrutably, while they check out the monsoon box and the emergency umbrella. I sit in the back, smiling, trying to make the guards smile back. They always do, waving us on. “Just because the boot’s full of kittens and lollipops,” I say, “it doesn’t mean I haven’t got a grenade in my handbag.” Monu laughs. – It hasn't seemed so funny, since Wednesday.

The death toll stands at 195, as I write, comprising crack anti-terrorist officers, policemen, tourists, businessmen, waitresses, even children. Every Indian we speak to is angry, not scared. Now the guns are cooling, the name and shame game has begun, and politicians abandon the united front they assumed in troubled times. Obvious suspects, like Pakistan and Al-Qaeda, are top of the list, but Britain is also implicated, because two of the dead terrorists are carrying British passports. Even Taj staff are accused of complicity. It’s going to take longer to sort out, than it did to live through.

Our year in India is so nearly over. We won’t be bullied into scuttling home early, nor do we want to stay out of stubborn foolhardiness. When the dust settles – sadly, literally – we will see, and decide. Until then, a waiting game.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A City Under Siege

High temperature, no appetite, listless, subject to mood swings – all the symptoms of cabin fever. Being besieged is less glamorous than you think. I recall gloomily that “siège" is French for seat, and that about sums up our crisis so far - glued to the sofas, noses to the small screen. We’re becoming couch aloo.

On Wednesday, we drop my brother at the airport. “Last guest gone,” Monu smiles, edging the car back into the seething traffic, heading for home. “Old life starts.” He couldn’t be more wrong. Just as Michael’s plane is taking off, terrorists put the “bomb” back into Bombay, with co-ordinated attacks in ten locations across the south of the city. “Old life” goes on hold.

Thirty-six hours later, the National Security Guard’s still operating to “sanitize” the three remaining occupied buildings. It’s difficult to know what’s happening – the NSG has gagged the media, because terrorists are tracking operations via television, but that doesn’t stop twenty-four hour coverage of the events. Old footage is played in permanent loops, with live voiceovers, and the flashing strap-line “Breaking News” – you get blasé about being on tenterhooks, after the first twelve hours.

We’re told to stay indoors, until advised otherwise, although the attacks are centred miles away in South Mumbai. I try to rustle up a sock-knitting, bandage-rolling attitude, and am grumpily ironing (in thirty-five degrees of sunshine, Stoicism doesn’t come near the mark...), when I discover that a colleague has gone outside to shop. If she can, I can, I think, reaching for my goggles. I know going for a swim would hardly cut the mustard, with the Maquis, but it’s a small gesture of defiance. Also, if I have to stay indoors a minute longer, I am going to start making friends with the cockroaches...

The heavy iron gates in the basement are bolted, but the security guard smiles Good Morning, and lets me out onto the street. And there is Powai, with his wife and golden Labrador, going about his business. Everything looks normal – the road diggers are digging the roads, the vegetable-man’s sitting on his stall, selling custard apples and guava, and a woman’s chasing dust-heaps, with a whisk-broom, back and forth. The only difference, today, is the tuk-tuks at the side of the road. They’re gathered in their usual nest, like a pile of beetles, but their drivers aren’t sleeping, with their legs looped over the handlebars and their feet poking out into the fresh air. The men in khaki are poring over the news, six heads bent over one paper. Something’s definitely up.

I peer into every young brown face, looking for the telltale signs of Deccan Mujahideen membership. It’s tricky because no-one had heard of them until now, so they hardly have a signature look, yet. Rumour’s running away with itself, with a microphone in its hand. Pakistan’s mentioned, the LeH, but officials won’t be drawn into speculation, and are prioritizing saving lives over apportioning blame, for the time being. Good for them. The bullets don’t fly any thinner or slower, for knowing whose finger’s on the trigger.

Yesterday, Bhavika rings in the early morning. “Akanksha centres are closed today,” she says, “so I will see you tomorrow.” I find solace in her supposing we’ll all be here by then, to tackle our three times tables down in Mankhurd. In the event, schools are closed, today, too, although the Indian Stock Exchange is trading again, I note.

Monu checks in. “Sir, you want this car?” More than anything, I want to see him, breathing in and out, but have to concede that this is perhaps not a good reason to drag him across a besieged city, so he stays in Malad. I assume he was breathing, to make the phonecall.

They even nip and tuck the advert breaks, on CNN, so the coverage is unbroken. The drama unfolds maddeningly slowly, it’s more padding than news, but you can’t not watch it, in case.... Every hour, a new tag-team takes over as co-ordinating front-men, in the studio. They edge in, from the wings, rustling an important fistful of A4 sheets. The veterans slide off their stools, and include them in the conversation, “So give us an update on what’s happening at the Taj right now, Yogita...” Then, as the new team take up the narrative, the retiring team nod sympathetically, without taking their eyes off the newcomers, whilst moving, crab-wise, out of shot. Le roi est mort, vive le roi. Seamless.

Within the hour, registration numbers of terrorists’ vehicles are on screen (MH01 ZA 102 and MH01 BA 579, if you’ve that kind of a memory and you’re in the Colaba area) followed by numbers to ring with information. We also wake up to chilling and very real requests for blood donations, from St George’s Hospital.

There’s more gore on screen, than in “Saving Private Ryan”. A man’s bundled into the back of a car, his head lolling, the pavement behind him red. “Is he....?” I start to say. “He’s unconscious,” says Roland, firmly. They fold the man’s legs in, like tidying up a trailing sleeve, escaping from a suitcase, and slam the door. We both know he’s dead. In the next half-hour, we see him summarily despatched at least a dozen times, by way of screen-saver to the unfolding news.

In the first gun-battle at Cama Hospital, the Anti-Terrorism Squad loses three of its top officers. The screen splits into three, playing over and over the last footage of each of them, alive. Ironic, poignant, ATS chief Hemand Karkare is shown being fitted with a flak jacket and hard hat, which clearly did him no service. Additional Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte was India’s answer to Bruce Willis. The CNN journalist reporting his loss was at college with him, and says he remembers ACP Kamte winning the record for eating the most bananas in a day (18), because he wanted to be a body-builder, before he decided to join the force. This irrelevant, irreverent detail is very moving, somehow. Ridiculous, frail, human. We see the officer in his combat hat and fatigues, addressing troops, then the screen flickers to his funeral, where this man of action is still at last, his stern face peaceful, framed in garlands of flowers.

The police recover bags dropped by the terrorists. Money, rounds of bullets, RDX and survival supplies. I’m charmed to discover that these boys are armed not only with AK47s, but with bags of peanuts, too. A local shopkeeper now comes forward, and says the terrorists bought Rs 50,000 worth of dried goods, a couple of days ago; as if they were laying in for a siege, in fact. Almonds for Vitamin E, apricots to keep them regular. We, on the other hand, without the luxury of foreknowledge, are living on what’s in the cupboard. Unless the situation’s recovered soon, we’ll have to resort to the goat cubes I bought in a fit of ethnic enthusiasm, months ago, and which I’ve had neither the heart nor the stomach to cook. They’re in the freezer, with half a tub of ice-cream we got in, when Jacob was in residence. Don’t worry about us, though. We’ve also got two bottles of Kingfisher and half a bag of Bombay mix, we’re sorted.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I'm glad you're a camel too, Mabel...

No turbaned maharajahs by scented fountains, no welcome leis, no bindi – we’re wondering what five-star tourism has come to. This is Osyan - we’re sleeping in tents, in the desert, tonight. Not what you’d call “grand luxe” but not exactly slumming it, either – as a veteran of the Dharavi tour, in Mumbai, I can confirm, this is definitely not a slum. Electricity and water on demand, there’s even an en suite bathroom, with canvas walls, and a stone pit for a shower – what’s not five-star about that?
Our welcome drink – the ubiquitous nimbu-paani, lemon water – hisses on the back of our parched throats. We’re on the edge of the Thar Desert. I suggest a swim, for a cheap laugh, and our host spins round, “Swimming-pool is here. Come, I show.” We’re so surprised, it’s some minutes before we get the wind back in our sails, to enquire about the ice-rink, for later.

We’re handed over to our personal minder, who has big brown eyes, and a small speech impediment. It’s a winning combo, I’m charmed already, and he’s only told us his name. Micky. I know, not very Indian, maybe his real name’s Suresh, and he’s given up the unequal struggle. He is, he says, at our service.

“This is your programme I have made for you.” I feel cherished already. “First, have the relaxing swim. Next, you will have the camel safari, one hours. Then, after one hours, come back, go to tent and fresh up.” You try this with a lisp, a stammer and an Indian accent. I ask him a question, just so I can hear him say it all again. “Next, seven o’clock, the entertainment. The singing and the dancing of Rajasthan. Then you will eat the dinner, no?” Sounds like a plan, to me, Micky.

We fall into the unlikely pool-in-the-desert, and warm it up a couple of degrees, only climbing out again when we reach thermal equilibrium. And then, we’re on safari.

Wading through the soft sand to the camel-park, I ask if all our worldly goods will be safe, back at base camp. Micky stops and turns, on a 50-paise piece, shocked. “All security men here is Rajput,” he says simply. He peers at me, because I don’t look impressed enough. “You see the earring and the moustache, no? This is Rajput peoples.” Rajput – warrior caste, race of kings. NOW I’m impressed. “Rajput peoples very honourable. Your things is safe.” So we drift off on safari, leaving our goods and chattels in the trusty hands of the sons of princes.

We hear the camels, before we see them, rumbling to one another. It’s all very well, hopping onto a low-slung camel, with his legs folded under him. You have then to stay on, while he stands up, back end first. I find muscles I’d forgotten about, trying not to catapult over Mr Roland’s head. I don’t exactly stay in my seat, but I don’t bite the sand, either, so I count that as a success. I have bits of string, instead of stirrups, which are doing a cheese-wire thing to my bare feet, so I abandon them. Then I nearly fall off again (it’s a long way down), so I opt for stability over comfort. In fairness, no-one said this was going to be a ride in the park.... Oh, no, wait, it IS a ride in the park....

This is boy. This is boy. Both boy,” says the boss. (Unnecessarily, at least from where I'm sitting.) “This one Bappu, this one Moti.” Baby and Pearl. Perhaps it was more obvious, when they were what Monu would call “camel-child.” Also, you wouldn’t call them Scarface and Stinky, just to be honest, would you? Well, not in the nicer parts of Rajasthan, anyway.

The camel-keepers spend all day, every day with their beasts, it’s not surprising the novelty’s worn thin. I still think their nonchalance borders on neglect, though, as they stroll along, with a frayed rope draped over one shoulder, guiding ten-feet of bored camel a-piece. What if Bappu and Moti decide to have a race, just to relieve the tedium of the afternoon? Our keeper’s mobile rings, incongruously, in the middle of the desert, and he chats to that, on and off, as the signal dips in and out, for the whole hour. It dispels the Lawrence of Arabia feel, somehow.

At the furthest point from home, they bring the camels to a standstill, nose to nose. “See. Is sunset. Take picture. I take picture, you want?” So here we are. Moti’s the one with the coquettish red bobble, on the bridge of his nose.

It’s dark, when we get back. The floor show’s cranking up, so we slither into place, on one of the wide, backless settees, fringing the courtyard, camel-scented just as we are, with no time to “fresh up.” Flames crackle in a huge cooking-pot, in the centre of the courtyard, the musicians in a row behind, the dancers in front, bare feet on beaten earth. We’re all rapt, until the dancers peel off to recruit volunteers, then we all suddenly find the middle-distance fascinating. Robin-Sir isn’t quick enough, and we’re still laughing, when we’re all conscripted. She’s only four feet six, the dancing-girl, but I bet she’s Rajput, too. Without missing a beat, she slings a ladleful of kerosene on the sulky embers. It livens things up no end. As we whirl round, I’m too busy trying not to be sucked into the inferno, to feel self-conscious.

What time you want the dinner?” asks Micky, solicitous.
Eight o’clock, please,” I say.
Micky makes a note. “Eight o’clock, ok,” he says, then pauses. “Seven-thirty is also good time....” He works along the row, discovering dining preferences. We all sit down to eat together, at seven-thirty. Why didn’t he say so, in the first place?

After dinner, we’re herded into the bar, where Micky’s holding a trayful of glasses. “House on the rum!” he smiles. “What time you want the breakfast?” We’ve only got a plane to catch, tomorrow, so I think a late kick-off’s in order.
Nine o’clock, please,” I say, foolishly thinking it’s up to me.
Nine o’clock, ok!” You know what’s coming next. “Eight o’clock is also good time....” and he even has a programme, to prove it. “Eight o’clock, eat the breakfast. Nine o’clock, have the swim. Small swim. Ten o’clock, pack the bag and pshht!” He flicks his hand, as if he were swatting a fly, to indicate the parting of the ways. Resistance is futile.

The night’s broken by trains and mosquitoes. Local train-drivers like to play “Name That Tune” with a fog-horn at three o’clock in the morning, we discover, and anytime’s right for a bite, for a mosquito with the munchies. So, sleep doesn’t come into it much, but we need an early start, because we have a programme to get through. It’s not as if we’re on holiday, after all.

If you can’t get down to the gym, this week, have a go on a camel. Wear six pairs of trousers, though, it’s quite demanding on the saddle (yours, not the camel’s). Two days later, we all still walk like John Wayne, after just one hour on the hump.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

PS: Jodhpur's Pants

I bet you thought Jodhpur was one leg of a pair of dubious baggy trousers, which fit everywhere and nowhere, didn’t you? In fact, Jodhpur means, the City of Jodha (you can work out for yourself which bit means “city” then...) because Rao Jodha founded it in 1459. Jodhpurs, as worn on polo fields the world over, were invented here. Today, Shivraj Singh, the Crown Prince of Jodhpur, is captain of the city’s own polo team, the Jodhpur Eagles, so the tradition carries on. I like a bit of continuity.

The road to Jodhpur is long and often unmade. Mano’s a top driver, and the Innova’s newer than our own, in Mumbai, but the air-conditioning’s either temperamental or defunct, and any more than ten minutes driving anywhere leaves us all limp.

Along the dusty track, we pass a woman, toting a baby on one hip. She’s towing three more children, between two and five, and a goat, all on the same piece of string. (This is exactly why women aren’t in charge of UNESCO or the G8, or even ASDA – they are irreplaceable, multi-tasking and managing, on the domestic front.) I give her a sisterly wave, as we sail by, and she smiles, and waves back.

You can’t drive for two minutes, in Rajasthan, without meeting a cow. They drift along, with their own bovine agenda, unaware of the traffic whistling by their horns. Are English cows exceptionally wussy and skittish, or are Indian cows coolly phlegmatic and nonchalant, in the safe knowledge of their protected status? When they learn to talk, these Indian cows, their first words will be, “Two years in the clink, mate, mind the fetlocks....”

We swerve to avoid a stranded truck, flanked by four loose cobbles. It’s only the third time I see this arrangement, like Contrary Mary’s cockleshells, all in a row-ho-ho, that it comes to me – it’s a red triangle, Rajasthan-style. In Mumbai, they use a torn-off tree branch, as a Distant Early Warning of trouble ahead, but here, cobbles are clearly the way to go. Very pragmatic, since everyone’s boot’s usually full of passengers and goats.

We go round Mehrangarh Fort together, but not together. We have separate audio-guides, so we drift along in a pack, without speaking. We’re all more or less at the same spot in the tourist-blurb, focussed on the middle-distance, listening to a disembodied voice, and you can guess when we each get to the amazing/saucy bit, because there’s a small Mexican wave of silent gasps/giggles. We stare at the grim plaque, by the inner gate, where Rajiya Bhambi was walled in, to secure prosperity, when the fort was built. He volunteered to be buried alive, and his descendants still live on the estate, gifted to them by a grateful Jodha, more than five centuries ago.

From the walls of Mehrangarh, much of the housing you can see is painted blue. In Jodha’s day, only members of the Brahmin caste were allowed to use indigo emulsion – it is not only cooling, in the heat of summer, but it also acts as an insect-repellent. These days, I’m glad to hear, any old peasant can paint his house blue, if he likes.

Within the fort is the Chamunda Devi temple, where hundreds of worshippers lost their lives only weeks ago, during the Durga festival. There was a stampede, in the men’s queue. Our papers, in Mumbai, said it was because the stone path was slippery with coconut milk, from the ritual offerings, but the current theory is that an explosion nearby caused panic. They couldn’t get the death toll right for days, because people came to recover their own dead, without telling the authorities. In Mumbai, there were collections, even in Muslim communities, for the families of the Hindu victims.

While the boys are absorbed by cannons and scimitars, in the museum, I drift off to look at a nineteenth-century cosmetic box. It comes complete with an ivory-inlaid exercise-club, which I’d have trouble fitting into my make-up bag. I begin to realise that my four-minute wash-and-brush-up may be inadequate; there are apparently sixteen rituals of adornment for a woman, from painting the lips with beeswax, to placing the final tikka on the forehead, before she’s ready for love. This box clearly belonged to a woman who was not responsible for rolling out the chapattis or swilling down the fort sulabh, then.

In the courtyard, a man takes his hat off, and everyone applauds. We’re not so starved of entertainment, here in the far reaches of north India, that a bloke with his cap in hand creates a ripple of delight – this is millinery like you’ve never seen before. His mate holds the loose end, and by the time the bareheaded one has unravelled his hat, they’re at opposite ends of the courtyard. He then winds eighty-two feet of fabric (I know: I asked) back round his head, into a neat turban, and tucks the end in. More applause.

We admire the hookah, in its little alcove, complete with a real-live sheesha-wallah, with his curly moustache. He has a downcast look about him, probably because of the new smoking ban. Does it count as smoking, if your tobacco’s water-filtered? He’ll be relegated to weddings and bar mitzvahs, at this rate. I’m charmed to note, that the guide says, “Opium and hospitality go hand in hand.” Not in the East Midlands, they don’t.

When we finish our communal-but-separate fort-tour, there’s the unexpected bonus of a market, on the way out. Some of us are a little less up for this bizarre bazaar, than others, so they sit around looking bored, while I buy seventeen scarves and a pair of curly-toed camel-leather shoes. I only stop then, because Mr Roland squirrels away his credit card, before I find the jewellery stall. Look away, if you’re expecting a parcel, under my Christmas tree, and feign surprise and delight, when you open one of Ishfab’s tie-dyed specials. Ish is the craftsman, but his brother, Rav, has the patter off – well, pat, really. He switches to French, then Dutch, as variously flavoured tourists pass by. I ask him for “Look at these lovely scarves!” in German, then in Italian, and he doesn’t miss a beat. He can do Russian, and Korean, if you ask nicely, too. I ask him to say, “I’d like a cup of coffee!” and he admits defeat, laughing. He’s brilliant, if you want to know about washing instructions, or wax resist techniques, in a dozen languages, though. Camilla stopped to shop, when she was here with Prince Charles. I wonder if she got a free one, for buying in bulk? I did. Don’t worry, it’s not the one I’m giving you.

Then, glutted with culture and retail, we find Mano again, and head north-west, for the desert. Follow that camel.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Happy Baal Diwas!

Nikita invitingly pats the space next to her, on the mat, in the upstairs room, at Mankhurd, so I sit down beside her. She smiles, and sighs, and leans against my knee. I could sit here forever.
Bhavika’s catechizing the assembled troops, meanwhile.
Whose birthday is it today?”
“Chacha Nehru!”
“Right, Chacha Nehru! What is Chacha Nehru’s other name?”
This one creates a ripple of dismay, and I have every sympathy. I know the answer, but I can’t get my tongue round it, either, even if you write it in four-inch capitals on a piece of paper, and stuff it into my fist, so I’m not rating their chances.
Chacha Nehru is...... Jawaharlal Nehru. Who is he?”
“Jawaharlal Nehru
!” No one else on the floor seems to find this unpronounceable, now they’ve had a steer from didi. Just me, then. I’ll stick to Pandit, I decide.
And who was Jawaharlal Nehru?... He was the first Prime Minister of India! What was he?”
“First Prime Minister
!” At least one person’s listening.
Well done, Swapnil!” (Wouldn’t you know? With a bit of luck and a following wind, Swapnil will be Prime Minister himself, one of these days.) “Of which country was he Prime Minister?”
India, didi, India!” Politicians can’t all be bad, it seems to me.
And what did Chacha Nehru love?... He loved children. What did he love?”
So what is his birthday, what do we say, Chacha Nehru’s birthday is.....?”
“Children’s Day
!” We all smile so much, our teeth go dry, congratulating ourselves.
So didi has brought cake!” The mats fizz with joy, and everyone’s tidy padmasan falls apart. Cake.
Who will have cake, yes or no?” No-one has much of a problem, working this one out.

We’ve only just got over Diwali fireworks, and now it’s Baal Diwas, Children’s Day. It’s not news to me, they’ve been advertising it on the tv, all week, promoting a day-long cartoon orgy for all the family. And on the way into school this morning, we pass a fairy princess in a spangly crown, trying to tame her frothy layers of tulle and wave her wand at the same time, as she trips along at her mother’s sari-end. She strikes an incongruously exquisite note, in the detritus of the gutter, which laps at her tiny slippered feet.

The rest of the world celebrates Children’s Day on 20th November, but India makes a bid for independence, and lights her fireworks a week early, on Nehru’s birthday. It’s nearly fifty years since he died, but all the children of India still call him “Uncle” – Chacha Nehru.

Celebrate Baal Diwas!” cajoles the poster on the hoarding by the link road. “Banish child labour!” A sobering thought, amid all the balloons and chocolate bars. “Make Children’s Day happy for all children.” If only. One of the cuties, on the mats, here at Akanksha, was found abandoned, two or three days old, in a dustbin, by the woman he thinks is his mother. It’s all I can do, not to package him up and mail him to myself, in the UK.

At the traffic-lights, Monu points to a child, hobbling down the central reservation, his foot swathed in filthy bandages, a padded crutch under each arm.
See this boy?” We both watch him hop-skipping along, for a moment. “His foot complete.” So, the dressing and the crutches are his professional props? Monu nods. “See, this girl, too.” And sure enough, there’s his sister, equally misfortunate in the matter of sound limbs, crutches flailing. I say, someone should tell them to work different sets of traffic-lights, they add nothing to each other’s credibility. Unless they’re just a really accident-prone family. Still, I don’t expect there’ll be much in the way of Baal Diwas cake, doing the rounds, on the pavement where they live, tonight.

In our Values lesson, we’re doing Respect. What is respectful, what is disrespectful.
If you want didi to teach you something, do you say, “Didi, teach it!”
Yes!” says Sachin, and he’s right, that’s exactly what he does, except in mime. More exactly, he pokes you with his book, and pushes everyone else’s book off your knee, then pinches your arm, to make sure you understand. That’s Sachin’s normal MO.
You will say, “Teach me!”?” says Bhavika-didi, scandalised. Sachin loves either/or questions, because when he gets it wrong, there’s only one answer left, and it’s always the right one.
No, didi!” he bellows, and looks round for applause. He’s sweet, really.

We write respect words in our English note-books. Sorry. Please. Thank you. Excuse me. Not for the first time, I wish I had a video-camera, to make a salutary short, for Year 9 Citizenship Lessons, in the UK. Come to think of it, some of the favoured sons and daughters of leafy Powai could do with a bit of revision, in this module, too. At the swimming-pool, I’m just dripping towards the changing-rooms, when a boy of about twelve hurtles round the corner, and cannons into me. Without looking at me, or missing a step, he scrambles on. “Excuse me!” I say in my loudest, school-missiest, most sarcastic voice. “That’s ok!” he says, airily, over his shoulder. Indignation, more strong than a belt in the solar plexus, quite vanquishes me.

Meanwhile, Bhavika’s waxing warm to her theme.
When Caroline-didi gives you little bottles of shampoo and soap, do you take one and say, “Didi, I have no gift!” – is that what you should do?” I think of the free shop, disappearing hand over fist, last lesson, and wonder if this rings a bell with anyone.
Yes, didi!” says Khaja the Snitch. “Sonal, two soap!” He tugs on my sleeve, and points at Sonal, who pulls a face and turns away. Either she’s innocent as charged, or she doesn’t understand. It has to be said, her English isn’t that hot, though. “Hair-comb, didi, me?” Khaja croons, his nose pressed to mine. Forget thirty pieces of silver, the price of this super-grass is a plastic comb. I harden my heart, and refuse. I would give this child the sun, moon and stars, if I could find a piece of wrapping-paper big enough, but he’s not having a comb, today.

Before we go home, a game. We split into three: Team Sachin, Team Salim and Team Ashish. Each round, a player is nominated, who chooses which level question he wants, worth 10, 20, 30 or 50 points. After two turns, caution goes out of the window with no glass, and everyone’s bidding for tops.
For fifty points, if I have ten sweets, then I get five more – wait, I haven’t finished, keep it in your head – then I give ten to my Mother, how many sweets do I have?” I hold my breath, but Khaja doesn’t.
Five sweets!” Team Ashish do a war-dance of victory.
Swapnil goes for broke, too.
If I have twenty-five sweets, and I want to give forty, how many sweets do I need?” He’s allowed to do it on the board, instead of the back of his eyelids, but even then has to have three goes, to get to fifteen. It’s not the maths lacking, it’s the nerve, but perhaps he should think of an alternative to the premiership, by way of career.
It’s looking like a walk-over for Team Ashish, raking in fifty after fifty. Then Khaja gets a ten-point penalty for dancing up and down to distract Rahul, so the race is on again.

It all hinges on Kunda, the last question of the last round. She’s a wobbly ten-point person, at heart, but she’s carried away by the madness of it all, and bids wildly for fifty. Didi writes “-ag,” “-ot,” and “-ip” on the board, and Kunda has to find three words for each. She’s thinking about it. I have to gag Naina with one hand and Khaja with the other, as Kunda begins to write “tag” in uneven nano-letters. By the time she gets to the last column, we’re all miming “sip” or “dip” or “pip” like it was New Year’s Charades, but she has her own ideas, and finally writes “lip,” bagging fifty for the team.

Final scores: Sachin’s team - 230; Salim’s team – 190; Ashish’s team – 240. Much cheering and laughter. No-one says, “My question was harder than hers!” or “He had help with his!” and mostly they don't say, “It’s not fair!” - so the respect lesson is well learned. I don’t know that the dangerous ten-point dock has taught Khaja anything about sitting-down and shutting-up, but the whole world’s out there, waiting to knock the stuffing out of him, there’s time yet for a bit of irrepressible joie de vivre.

Kunda’s so overwhelmed by her success, she gives me her cake, on the way out. She’s had a baby brother and a brutal haircut in the same week, I’m surprised she can still spell her own name. I put the cake back in her hand, and she gives me a shy smile.
Happy Children’s Day, Kunda!”
“Thank-you, didi!”
she says, and scampers off down the stairs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Rajasthan, Land of Kings

Our guide du jour is the silver-tongued, snake-hipped Karan Singh Rathore. He wants to be world-famous, and he might well be, one of these days. He’s learnt all his admirable English, not at school, but from tourists – he’s evidently had some street-savvy customers, over the years. His Pink City patter’s interspersed with snippets like “No wife, no life!” and “No money, no honey!” He’s not married, at the time of writing, so if you need a Jaipur guide, or a husband, ask me nicely, and I’ll give you his email address.

Jaipur has a population of five million. Most of them seem to be at the Amber Fort, with us. The walled city has seven gates, Karan says. “You know why seven? Because heaven itself has seven gates.” Obvious, when you know. The city’s painted “pink for happiness” and has been rosily so, since the Prince of Wales’ visit in 18-something – so he left his mark in Rajasthan in no uncertain terms. If you indulge in a bit of chromatic rebellion, here in the Old City, and splash out on a pot of mauve shellac or fuchsia gloss, for example, you’re up for a Rs 5000 fine, and two months in jail. And there’s you, all this time, thinking you can’t go wrong with magnolia...

We pass through the marketplace, where dairymen bring churns of milk to sell. Aluminium lids are wedged tight with a fistful of straw, straight off the floor of the cowshed, by the look of it. They’re prised off, for a potential buyer, who – here’s the tasty bit – dunks his hand up to the wrist in the milk, to test its quality with his bare fingers. What if he says no – what if the next punter, and the one after him, say no? By the time it gets to your breakfast Weetabix, your milk could have been through dozens of hands. – So, next time you’re in Jaipur, if anyone asks you, “How do you like your tea?” – say, “Black!”

We drive up the hill to the Black City, wiggling the Innova through tiny cobbled streets too congested for a push-bike. It’s most interesting, when someone else’s Innova’s coming the other way. Brinkmanship’s still the only rule of the road. Mano’s a passed master, and yields to none. There are shops selling rice and peas, full of veiled and sari’d housewives, jostling next to shops full of bermuda’d tourists, selling Rajasthani puppets and camel leather shoes. Eclectic retail.
Karan says, “Do you want to go to Fort by car, or by elephant?” Oh, Karan..... We drive to the elephant park where some of us are so excited, we can hardly get out of the car. Mr Roland and the boys tolerantly join the queue, trying not to look bored. We’re three steps up the elephant-mounting ziggurat – so close, I can smell the poo – when disaster strikes. Karan nips nimbly up the steps with a Don’t Shoot The Messenger look on his face, and I accept defeat before he opens his mouth. “Is too hot for elephant. This is last ride.” He points to the porky tourists climbing aboard even as he’s speaking, and I hate them. I don’t know who they are or where they’re from, they just look despicable. “We go by car,” says Karan. “Sorry...” Well, that’s better than having some poor pachyderm lumber up the hill, in the heat of the day, with a bunch of gora on his back, isn’t it? – No, frankly, it isn’t, but I work myself into believing it, by the time we get to the Amber Fort, prosaically on four wheels.

We’re just in time to nip into Ganesh’s temple, inside the palace, before closing time. We have to take off not only our shoes, but cameras, phones, and leather belts, before crossing the threshold. Between the statues on the back wall, and the rail to keep out the yeomanry, monks shuttle back and forth, ferrying offerings one way to the gods, and blessed Prasad the other, to the faithful. Not only fruit and flowers, we see one man hand over a bottle of gin (unequivocally labelled “Gin” to take the guesswork out of voyeurism) – which a monks upends into a flask. Incredulous, we ask Karan, and he says, “For Hindu, the fruit and the wine, is all offering.” Broad church, indeed...

We admire the Hall of Mirrors, its tiny mosaics winking in the sun, and the royal bathrooms, where you could swim in rose-scented water. The walls are tinted, but not with paint. The sixteenth century decorators ground up the off-cuts of semi-precious stones, from in the inlays, and mixed the powder with lemon juice and oil and seventeen other secret ingredients, to form a paste, which they used to paint the marble. I salute their parsimony. Like making jam tarts, with pastry scraps, I say, but no-one quite sees the similarity.

The Maharajah who built the fort, Raja Man Singh I, was a man of many talents. Not least, he ran twelve wives and two hundred concubines, simultaneously. (Mr Roland says that he has trouble running just the one. It’s all very well, being witty in company, but he’s going to have to be alone with me, sooner or later...) Each Mrs Raja Man Singh I had her own quarters, and her own kitchens. One woman, one kitchen, you can see the wisdom of that. When RMS was in residence, the wives weren’t allowed to talk to each other, which proves that, despite having two hundred and twelve women all to himself, Raja knew nothing about the fair sex. When he was off, going to war to have a rest, of course they talked to each other. Who in their right mind wouldn’t? “So what did he get you for Diwali, then?” “Is that a new tiara, or have you had it ages?” - The queens, he visited in their separate chambers, but the concubines were slumming it, three or four to a cell, so they were summoned to his rooms, as required. It comes as no surprise when Karan says, “You want to see the secret passages?” RMS has a rabbit-warren of interconnecting hidden corridors, so he could think his business was his own. Men, who’d have them?