Thursday, January 31, 2008


Have Indians got fewer bones than we have in the West, or are we just not trying? They’re so flexible, it’s awesome – by which, I mean supple of gristle and thew, not broad of mind (though that too, probably). A man squats, knees by his ears, hands free to mend engine parts, weigh beans, fold cardboard, whatever. Or just to sit by the kerb, if he prefers, waiting for a piece of day to go by. Where I come from, only toddlers and athletes telescope in on themselves so neatly. Do you think we lost the skill, with the advent of the chair? I see an old man offered a chair in the sun, and he sits on it, cross-legged.
For the first time since our arrival, we notice a woman driver. The tuk-tuk in front of us has “Empowerment of Women” painted on its ribbed roof, but the driver’s a man, one foot on the pedal and the other tucked under him, as usual. (Banks here offer a personal loan to anyone wanting to buy a rickshaw and set up business, in a bid for independence. This perhaps explains why the tuk-tuks appear to reproduce by budding overnight...) Protection of the fair sex from the rigour of the working world doesn’t extend further than the two-stroke engine, though. At the roadside, small-made, dark-skinned women heft picks, scraping gravel and stones into baskets, bright saris trailing in the dust. They carry the full baskets on their heads, to the wall their menfolk are constructing.
A woman walks by the side of her school-boy son, and unwinds a swathe of sari to drape over him as a parasol. It’s winter here, but the sun’s still hot. In case you’re worried about the cows, earlier clocked grazing on rubble, they go home for dinner, at the end of the working day, like everyone else. The cow’s what Monu calls “a mini-god” in Mumbai. They’re brought in, sometimes with their calves, to sit by the road, and passers-by make a small offering, one or two rupees, out of respect. If you were worried about the cows, you’re probably wondering about the puppies, too, but all’s well. They’re there, chasing their own tails and getting into trouble with grumpy adults, just like puppies everywhere, knocking my conspiracy theory nicely on the head. I feel sorry for the street dogs, though, unpatted and unloved. My heart goes out to them, if not my hand.
January and February are prime time for weddings here, because the temperature’s comparatively mild. You’d steer clear of the high season too, if you had nine yards of sari to wiggle into, in 40 degrees of summer heat. And you wouldn’t want to get married during the monsoon, either, because there’s no “maybe” about the rain then. So, it’s January or February, according to our own personal Fount Of Mumbai Knowledge, and, to prove it, we see six weddings along a piece of sea-front the length of a cricket-pitch. Monu’s own sister is to be married next month, although he hasn’t met his future brother-in-law yet. I’m not sure if his sister has, either.
Despite reaching 26 or 27 degrees, in the day, the heat goes with a click, as soon as the sun sets. Little fires spring up, on the building site, and the workmen squat round them, for a chat and a warm, their faces uplit. It’s been a long day, and it’ll be tomorrow soon enough.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Domestic Bliss

I spend all morning cleaning the kitchen. If it’s death-defying window-buffing you’re after, Suresh is your man, but I don’t think he feels the same way I do, about wiping sockets. Don’t misunderstand me, in my normal incarnation, I’m far from as far from a Cillit Bang zealot as it’s possible to get, just this side of clostridium difficile, as you will know if you’ve ever had dinner at our house. In a strange kitchen, though, germs need to prove their pedigree, which means starting with a clean slate. The sockets can go unmolested now, until we leave.
Today’s about conquering dal. Or dahl. Or daal. Or even dhal, though I’m uncomfortable with that configuration. Anyway, it requires shopping, since all we have in is a mango and some porridge oats. (I’m sure deft Indian cooks could make dal out of these, but not me.) D-Mart it is, then. I try to hit the store at a different time each day, so’s not to become the three o’clock cabaret for locals. At two thirty, therefore, armed with my shopping-list, short-sightedly written in English, I stand looking hopelessly at the spices, while a shop-girl, on a tall, wobbly stool, lobs unwanted packets of rice-cakes over her shoulder, without looking, into the trolley behind. I try to concentrate on determining whether “Dhania powder” is cumin or coriander, as rice-cakes fly past my ear. With the aid of a friendly fellow-shopper, who rings her husband to find out what “cardamom” is in Hindi, I locate about half of what’s on my list, which is a result, in my book. Another lady, haplessly behind me at the till, is subjected to the Mumbai inquisition, about how she cooks everything in her basket. Not the toothpaste, obviously. “You finding out about India?” she says, with a smile. They’ll probably have a new sign outside D-Mart soon, saying “She’s here, come back in half an hour,” or “She’s not in, come quick!” – but I won’t know, because it’ll be in Hindi.
Home again, I set about messing up the kitchen I spent all morning cleaning. Sic transit, and all that. Then I discover we have no garlic – how this slithered off the list is unimaginable, since here, we have garlic on our cornflakes. But I have a cunning plan. Instead of going all the way back to D-Mart, I tackle the roadside stall almost at our gates. This is a first, and I nearly nearly swerve by. The stall-holder’s chum gives me the eyebrows-to-toenails once-over, and, for a moment, I think I’m in France. I buy six heads of garlic for 25 rupees, and return home as if I’d just bagged the Holy Grail. I’m just swirling my stash of garlic round my head, like a drum majorette, when I am accosted from behind. “Madame! Madame! You need massage?”
The dal turns out like lentil soup with attitude, but that’s what dal is, isn’t it? Roland eats it, anyway. He knows there’s no alternative, other than the aforesaid mango and porridge oats, and that’s for breakfast. With garlic, of course.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Aliens Have Landed

As it turns out, the “Mr” in Mr Francis is a courtesy title. He’s just Francis. Charmed by this notion, I hopefully encourage Roland to call me “Mrs Caroline” (like Mrs Anna, in The King and I, but with less hoops in my skirts). To my regret, but true to his counter-suggestive soul, he won’t play ball. Francis and Monu call me “Madame,” but, having taught French since Marie Antoinette was a shepherdess, this has zero novelty value for me, and no-one says Memsahib any more.
Mr Roland and I go to the Special Branch Building today, to register as aliens. Lack of external scales and dorsal fins can only fool people for so long. Official registration’s just rubber-stamping what generations of grubby schoolboys have privately thought for years. We wouldn’t even find the building, without a sextant, a Geiger counter and a following wind, but we have Monu instead, who has the Mumbai Knowledge. The Special Branch Building, complete with hens clucking in the foyer, is tucked behind St Xavier’s College, on Badruddin Tayabi Lane, should you ever need to know. The office staff wear delightful uniform saris, little black tops and black-beige-and-cream paisley saris. Well, the ladies do, anyway.
Registering proves the most cumbersome piece of administration known to man, or at least, known to this woman. Our aide and secret weapon is Sanjay, who greases wheels and smoothes our path, or we’d be there yet. Several signatures, a pair of tokens and a stamping frenzy down the line, I’m ready for a little cup of tea and a lie-down in a darkened room. This isn’t an option, although, bizarrely, there are crisps on sale next to the photo-copying machine. People are feeding babies and having picnics in the holding-area. We clearly need to have brought sleeping-bags.
Every race apart from Vulcans has representatives in this waiting-room. We roll our eyes, and go “Tch! Bureaucracy!” at fellow Brits, but we only have ourselves to blame. Well, not precisely Mr Roland, or me, or cute little Josh’s father, in front of us in the queue, but the Raj. It’s our corporate responsibility. We weighed in with Queen Elizabeth I, and sloped out again with King George VI, leaving this huge administrative beast as our legacy.
We fill in a form on the computer, confessing everything from whether we eat shellfish, to our mother’s neighbour’s cat’s nationalisation certificate number. Well, not quite. But we do need to remember what our flight number was, and to be honest, we’ve had a sleep since then. Mr Roland’s OCD comes in handy here – 9W117 – so we’re well away.
We have to buy Residential Permits - another queue, more forms. Carbon paper and flimsies, less than two metres from a bank of computers - 1950 snuggles cosily up to the twenty-first century. Also (insult to injury territory) we have to buy our own files, for the archives, somewhere in the fundament of this building. They’re brand new yet already rust-marked, somehow. The official staples our photos to the front page, and I wince. You would, too. At least the permit has the grace to be blue.
We go through six pairs of hands, and emerge reeling, as if we’d spent the morning trapped in a revolving door. Mr Roland and Mrs Caroline, legal aliens, just as Year 11 always suspected.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Here Comes the Bride

The Shoe-shine Man spreads a cloth on the pavement, and sits on it। In a neat row, in front of him, he arranges the tools of his trade: brushes, rags, pots of polish and wax. Then, cross-legged, he waits for business. You can’t help but notice, all the feet passing by are bare, or in flip-flops - this isn’t what you’d call a well-heeled area. It’s going to be a long day for the Shoe-shine Man. If he had clippers, and a nail-file... The busy road’s flanked by now familiar lock-ups, selling everything from bags of cement to glasses of milky tea. I still can’t tell whether the flapping linen’s for sale, or just drying. “Goat,” says Monu, emphatically, pointing. He’s worked out that I harbour a small penchant for local fauna. I see a goat, then another with a kid, then more. “Is Muslim area. Muslim like goat.” So that explains it. Not a single woman to be seen, and the streets are awash with goats. Some bone-rattling along the way (the roads, not the suspension), Monu breaks off crooning to the Indian pop-song on his tape, an octave above his comfort range, pointing again. “Is wedding. Hindu wedding. I stop?” So we pull over, and go for an unashamed gawp.

The bride’s on her mobile phone, bored. By her side, her future husband fidgets uneasily. He looks about twelve. The horses, with their golden bridles, toss their heads, waiting, and the carriage shifts. Everyone’s too busy having a good time, to pay any attention to the nuptial pair. Behind their coach, the women chatter and laugh, their wedding finery blinding in the midday sun. In front of the horses, the male guests dance and clap, wearing wedding turbans in cream silk, with crested cockades and Davy Crockett tails at the back. They circle, chanting and stamping, while a waiter in a bow-tie distributes glasses of water from a tray held above his shoulder. The bride closes her mobile phone with a snap, and stashes it in the sequinned bag on her lap. She lifts her face, to smile at the groom.
“Rich people?” I ask Monu, dazzled by glittering nosebands and festooned silk. “No, no rich. No rich people,” he says. Well, someone’s Dad’s definitely going to be “no rich” when they’ve paid for this lot.
I wonder how much arranging culminates in today – not just the mother-of-the-bride’s shoes, and what to serve the guests in the swagged pavilion, when the official ceremony is over, but the selection of this bride for this groom, and the negotiations over the dowry. Our society rails against arranged marriage, but are we the unenlightened ones? Here, it’s a business venture, rooted in common sense, rather than a sentimental undertaking. It suddenly seems naive, to base the most important decision of your life on what could be an adolescent impulse, or just chemistry. An arranged marriage is also an act of love, I’m told - the family’s love for their son or daughter. After all, you wouldn’t let a schoolboy buy a house, would you? And there is love, they say, in an arranged marriage, it just comes after. We leave the Hindu bride getting to know her husband, and climb back into the car.
On the way home, I fall asleep. Monu kindly wakes me up, to admire a passing buffalo, and there’s the Shoeshine Man, buffing black leather to a fine gloss, while the unshod owner wiggles his toes in the evening air. I wonder if he does a discount, for sandals?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Gateway of India

Today we’re tourists. Our new driver, Monu, takes us to the Gateway of India, on the waterfront in South Mumbai. We’re unsurprised to find it shrouded in tarpaulin - “Under Restoration.” I imagine the Taj Mahal, by the time we get there, will be invisible beneath bamboo scaffolding, “For Cleaning.”
Before one toe touches the pavement, we’re swamped by street traders and beggars. We don’t want to buy a gaudy necklace/bag of popcorn/dubious unwrapped lolly-on-a-stick, however, nor do we want to have our photograph taken with a charming urchin or two, so we’re a dead loss, commercially. We also churlishly shy from having bindi painted on our foreheads. I thought bindi indicated caste, or marital status, or symbolised religious observance, but no, tourists in Bermuda shorts can have them, too, apparently. You can’t trust bindi, anyway, these days, they’re often as not chosen to match the wearer’s sari. (Tch! The young...)
We see more white faces here, than in all of the ten days since leaving Heathrow. I note, school-marmily, that some of them fall short on the modesty front, as far as appropriate dress in concerned. They wouldn’t have passed muster on a school trip to Montmartre, let alone the inflammable sub-continent. It’s an effort, but I manage not to say anything.
Perhaps naively, I have great hopes of the Gateway. “Two hours?” Monu says, before driving off. But it’s rather less than fifteen minutes before we’re done. The truth is, the Mumbai Court of Justice is a much prettier, more impressive edifice, though I don’t see anyone peddling popcorn there.
There’s no shortage of offers to take you round Crawford Market, either. You can buy custard apples, spikes of saffron, sleepy puppies, even hair extensions – “Indian bride like big hair!” Sukur says. Sukur works here. In fact, he’s worked here for the last twenty-five years. We’re walking away, smiling and shaking our heads, when he explains he’s paid by the market to protect tourists. “I show market. You look, no buy. Take plenty photos. Is ok. No pay me. Market pay me.” Fair enough. It’s soon clear, though, that Sukur possibly has another agenda, possibly to do with commission? We buy mangoes and pistachios, we play with puppies in cages, sadly turn down an offer on a baby rabbit, and then... then we brave the meat market. I know the person who sells meat at home is called ‘the butcher,’ but why does the whole business look so much more like ‘butchery’ in another land? Two men sit facing each other, at either end of a zinc counter, trimming meat for sale. They’re barefoot, cross-legged, on the counter with the meat. At another stall, crates of live chickens are stacked, while at the far end, trays of prepared meat are ready for sale. In the middle, I realise too late, is the process. “Kill chicken,” says Sukur, flatly, and I see the knife before I give myself a crick in the neck, swivelling away. We lead very anodine lives, in the Midlands.
By the time we get to Vijay’s shop, we know Sukur has a deal going. He’s quicker with the price, composition, and provenance of every last tea-towel, than either Vijay or his son. Anything you could conceivably want, which can be made of fabric, is folded on shelves here, yet the Vaishali Silk House would fit into my dining-room at home. Before long, half the shop’s at my feet, unravelled. I only want a cushion-cover. Sukur knows a sucker when he sees one, however. We buy so much, we get 500 rupees discount AND a free shawl. Grimy transactions with plastic and pin done, we linger another half-hour, learning. We’ll be back. If you don’t want a pashmina for Christmas, say now.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Happy Republic Day!

Today’s Republic Day. In the hotel below, the concert’s so loud, it’s probably keeping the pigeons in Leicester Square awake, never mind the ones on our window-sill. This morning, we have to shop early, before the afternoon processions make the roads impassable. Saturday’s not a normal school-day, but, today, uniformed children flock to attend a special ceremony of celebration, to salute the flag. Just imagine telling Year 11 – “Saturday tomorrow, but as it’s the Queen’s birthday, you just need to pop into school to sing the National Anthem...” Fat chance. National pride is a given, here: even the shop assistants sport lapel flags saying, “I love my India!”
Mumbai’s answer to PCWorld is Croma, where it takes us less than fifteen minutes to collect a digital camera (hurrah!), a printer with consumables, a wireless router and two dvds. Ashvin, our smiling guide, would also like us to give a new home to a mini-laptop, proving the store’s motto – “We help you buy” – should read: “We help. You buy.” I don’t know what you’re paying Ashvin, Mr Croma, but it isn’t enough.
On the third floor of a tenement block, a man is showering in the open air, on his own balcony, his modesty preserved by a discreet loin-cloth, which he whips, conjuror-like, from beneath his towel. As one who has yet to fathom the vagaries of any of the three showers in our apartment, I’m impressed. My best attempt so far has produced forty seconds of hot water, followed by a glacial but unavoidable two minutes to rinse. With the sun hot on his back, Balcony Man has the better deal, I think, although the al fresco system does seem to favour the male of the species.
We visit Raymond the Tailor. Roland is measured for a suit, costing more than all our tech shopping put together, a fact which we try, and fail, to justify. The streets of Mumbai are lined with people, who live in houses less substantial than the tents I used to make for my boys, in the garden, with a handful of pegs and an old sheet, slung over the washing-line. It’s obscene. I don’t know how Roland sleeps at night. In fact, his conscience isn’t the only thing keeping him awake. Our mattress is as loving and giving as a tombstone draped in a J-cloth. We try to buy something squishier, for the comfort of our western bones, but granite seems to be the density of the month. This is how fakirs come to lie on beds of nails with such impunity, I expect, having had early-years training with iron slabs in their cots. The nails will just be a bit tickly...
When the light goes, the partying starts. Near the Culture Shop (if only it were so easy!),KFC is packed with Indians, celebrating Republic Day ironically, entertained by a man in a fluffy chicken-suit. The disco in the Galleria makes my sternum rattle, but attracts shoals of young men, and three girls. Bizarrely, the girls shuffle self-consciously in a corner, and the boys gyrate and play air-sitar, throwing themselves around the marble floor like Albert Brennaman.
At Kareem’s, a message interrupts the Indian pop videos and clips of Walt Disney’s Jungle Book, on the widescreen tv: “This Republic Day, let us pledge to uphold the promise of the Constitution,” to facilitate the digestion of loyal diners and the contemplation of the hookah-smokers. The yellow dahl, we decide, is even better than the black, but if we go back to Kareem’s one more time, I might have to marry Joe.
Back home, and through our window on the thirty-third floor, float the strains of that old Indian folk song, “We will - we will – rock you...” We brush our teeth, with bottled water, and call it a day.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Meet the Paan Wallah

Can I introduce you to the Paan Wallah? You’d walk straight past him, I bet, with your eyes politely focussed on the middle distance, in case being caught looking committed you to anything. I know I would. But I am in the presence of an expert, and on his recommendation, we approach with intent. The paan-seller’s pavement stall is no more than a metre square, curtained in bright orange silk. There are less reputable outlets, but our man’s credentials lie in his proximity to the restaurant behind him, whose acceptance endorses his wares.
We order Meetha Paan all round, then, mesmerised, watch its five-act creation. A dainty package, pungent with sweet spices and fruit, taken after meals to aid digestion, cleanse the palate and freshen the breath, Meetha Paan can be bought on every street corner in India. I don’t think they sell it in Sainsbury’s.
Paan is made with betel leaves, and you’re thinking, that’s a Bad Thing, surely? I used to think that, until today. Betel nuts are from the Betel Palm (not nuts at all, really), and are chewed whole or crushed into a different kind of paan. It’s a stimulant, which produces mild euphoria, and heightens awareness. Wait, there’s a downside. As well as staining the mouth and teeth red, with prolonged use, the betel nut is a known carcinogen. What’s more, eventually, the gums recede, and the teeth fall out. There’s some evidence that betel prevents dental cavities, which is why it was used as an ingredient in toothpaste - but what is the point of having a perfect tooth, if it’s in the palm of your hand? Paan made with betel nuts often also contain tobacco, which only reinforces the health risk. Don’t worry, our paan are made with the leaf of the Betel Pepper, a completely different plant, which contains a digestive enzyme called Pepsin (origin of the Pepsi brand). Our teeth will be unsullied, you’ll be glad to know.
The paan-seller takes a heart-shaped betel leaf, and smears lime paste on it with a finger. To concoct the filling, he sprinkles cardamom, fennel seeds, coconut powder, cloves, from a battalion of glass-lidded stainless steel containers in front of him. He catches a fingerful of honey, and binds the small heap of spices and seeds together into a scented slurry, which he tops with rose petal paste, and shards of date. The smell is like cachous, but edgier than violets. He deftly wraps the leaf into a tiny triangle, like a samosa, and hands it to me in a napkin. “Eat,” he says. “Is good for digest.”
I haven’t eaten leaves since an ill-advised experiment with privet, at the age of six. I look at my betel leaf, and I’m very unsure; all of me wants to, except my mouth. The paan-seller insists. This is no time for faint-hearted nibbling. I put the whole paan on my tongue, and chew. My mouth explodes with sweetness and spice. The broken leaf is an odd sensation, but you need to chew, chew, chew, until your whole self is suffused with fragrance. The garlic is banished, and the car smells like a rose-garden.
As we drive away, the paan-seller wipes his sticky, spicy fingers on the orange silk covering his stall.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Seafood Diet

Mahesh is the best fish restaurant in Mumbai, but don’t tell anyone, or we won’t get a table next time. Hopeful diners wait on sofas, in the pavement foyer outside, but we have a reservation. It appears not to matter that we’re an hour late, thanks to the swell of rush-hour traffic. We’re ushered upstairs, past a gleaming tank full of huge mouthing fish. I look away. Hopelessly anthropomorphic, I couldn’t possibly eat anything once I’ve named it. Therapeutic fish, I can understand. How could you not have a soothed spirit, with fish in your life, drifting in effortless circles, just saying “Bob” to each other, en passant? As I’m deciding which wall to knock down to house the aquarium, back home, we’re shown our seats.
We peruse the menu, for form’s sake, then resort, as we always do, to asking the waiter. The charming custom here is to show you your dinner before it is cooked. How entertaining would that be, in a vegetarian restaurant? Madame, the cauliflower! See, the lentils! We’re shown kingfish, which is new to me, but, let’s be honest, it just looks like a fish. The waiter tells us what he’s going to do with it; we nod and salivate accordingly. With a flourish, he brings prawns on a plate, grey and huge. Then a pair of lobsters, each the size of a small dog. It’s like roll-call. Greed vies with panic for an instant, then restraint wins, and we ask for just one. And finally, a crab, with its pincers tied. I think this must annoy it - it could while away the long wait playing itself a tune, using its pincers for castanets. It’s patently not thrilled, because it keeps trying to get into the waiter’s pocket. I’m not sure I like this see-food-then-eat-it diet.
When the prawns arrive in due course, it occurs to me that there were only four on the plate on parade, yet we are five. Now, we’re each given a massive prawn, curling its foiled tail in the air. The maths is easy enough, even for me. So I postulate my theory: the show creatures aren’t for consumption at all. They’re salaried. They come out, wave their claws round a bit, then go back into a rest-area in the kitchen, to play gin-rummy. Over and over, all through the night. What we actually eat is out of tins. I find much solace in this posit. I would like to put it to the test, marking the crab with a dot of Tipp-Ex to see if he really is doing the rounds. Unthinkably, I have no Tipp-Ex with me, so the theory remains untried.
The prawns are served, and we’re offered the heads to suck. We decline. The stir-fried vegetables are exquisite, so we overlook eating our own body-weight in garlic. When our plates are collected after the lobster, the waiter ominously parks our knives and forks on our side-plates. We’ve forgotten the crab. The waiter remembers it, though. He brings aprons and industrial ironmongery. I’m so full, I haven’t even got room to lick my own lips. Only the gourmet diehards are left brandishing their forks. The crab, I’m told, is ambrosial. When I’m hungry again, in perhaps six or seven years, I’ll try it. This time, I’ll remember to take the Tipp-Ex.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Day at the Races

You’d be forgiven, stumbling blearily out of the airport, for thinking you’d walked onto the set of Bugsy Malone. The streets of Mumbai teem with tiny cars, as if you’d just put your garden fork into an ants’ nest. Remember the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, vehicle of choice for every discerning play-grouper? I give you its black and yellow Indian cousin, the autorickshaw. Most of them are black, with a yellow stripe. Sometimes, the ribbed roof is yellow too. In nature, black and yellow are angry colours of warning, but don’t think wasps and hornets, think bees.
I look under the front end of one, expecting to see the driver’s feet furiously pedalling, but I’m disappointed. Smaller than a milk-float, larger than a golf-cart, these flat-fronted three-wheelers dominate the roads here. They can turn on a rupee, and do, arguing with buses and lorries, thumbing their snub-noses at unwieldy taxis. Every journey’s like a ride in a bumper-car, except, unaccountably, the rickshaws never touch. The one behind you pulls up so close in traffic, you’d have a job sliding a chapatti between your screen and and his, you can practically see whether the driver’s brushed his teeth or not – but no contact. The rolling boil of traffic moves like a flock of birds, individuals synchronised into one organic entity.
On the street, the rickshaws come kerb-crawling by, touting for business. The drivers obviously think I don’t look like I should be out and about on foot, and, if you could see my ankles, you’d understand why. (A propos ankles, I have THREE mosquito bites on ONE ankle – I have to admire the precision bombing, even as I slap on the retro-active Mosi-Guard.) I put “Rickshaw Ride” next to “Market Barter” on my To Do List, and wave them away with a sigh, soldiering on through the dust and rubble which pass for a pavement.
Vans and lorries have the quaint instruction “Horn – OK – Please” painted in wobbly letters on their back bumper, which must make American tourists look twice. Drivers need no second bidding, though, and the symphony of car-horns plays all through the day and night. In England, a blaring horn (or in my case, very often, a good blast of the windscreen-wipers...) indicates anger or frustration, a shot over the bows. In India, it couldn’t be more pacific. No stress, no irritation, no worries. A beep of the horn just says, “I’m here!” - more than necessary, when the tiny rickshaws nestle up close to the trucks, then take a perpendicular swerve in front of them. In a gridlocked traffic jam in the evening, I look around me. Every horn is tooting. Every face is calm.
The roads in India are truly democratic, every single vehicle and pedestrian has an equal right to be there. When you shrug off your western ways, and stop having an apoplectic fit every four yards, it is quite heart-warming. The only requirement is to let every other road-user know you are there, then it’s a free-for-all. Whoever put white lines on the roads of Mumbai, should have let the paint stay in the tin. You can no more control the flow of traffic, than you can control the path of raindrops running down a window-pane.
It shouldn’t work, it’s mayhem, but it does. Highway Code, do I hear you mutter? That’s for sissies.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

To hawk, or not to hawk?

“SAVE US FROM THE HAWKING MENACE,” says the poster in bossy capitals, tied to the fence of a nearby park. “DON’T TURN THIS BEAUTIFUL TOWNSHIP INTO UGLY ONE!” its partner cries, four steps further on, grammar the victim of passion.
My first thought is of rogue bands of falconers, wilfully plying their jesses, to the peril of our neighbours’ smaller offspring. For once, this isn’t mere caprice. Mumbai’s skies are constantly patrolled by black kites, drifting on thermals in lazy spirals. From our apartment, we look down on them, quartering the city. (Have not had one land on the windowsill yet, but feel it to be a matter of time. Am wondering what they eat, and if I have any in the fridge. Have not shared this plan with Roland yet, he is not a Nature Lover at heart, only smiling at wildlife when it is on the barbecue.)
My second thought, which I instantly try to unthink, concerns expectoration. Unequivocal “NO SPITTING!” notices elsewhere make this theory plausible, however unwilling I am to consider it. Red splats of betel juice polka-dot the pavements: I hastily avert the gaze, but I’ve seen them. I’m famously not clever with emissions – if, for example, in our nonage, Roland waxes bronchitic, I’m hiring in a rosy-bosomed wench in a nurse’s uniform to look after him, then I’m running away with my gerontologist.
Roland the Pragmatic says, however, he thinks hawking refers to street traders. You’d be hard pressed to stop street trading here. People just seem to prop up one wall of their house as an awning, and anything that’s not nailed down is for sale. If business is slack, the shopkeeper just has a quick snooze, confident that, should a potential customer present himself, the goat tethered to one leg of his cot will serve as a doorbell. And Britain’s called the nation of shopkeepers - did Napoleon never get as far as India?
I’ve yet to brave the delights of the open market, convinced I have “Please feel free to triple your prices” hennaed on my pasty white forehead, but the shops-as-we-know-them - with tills and uniformed doormen, but no goats - retain all of their allure. I attempt to buy a packet of safety pins in D Mart (“Experience the Convenience”) from a charming lady in mercery. I can still only say “Namaste” but feel it hardly meets the case. I already have a small following, on account of aforementioned pasty face, but they look like they’re on my side. After some futile initial skirmishing, I take out my trusty pad, and draw a safety-pin. Inspired. My assistant consults her friend. They laugh and nod, and bring me nail-clippers. I put aside the slight to my artwork, to deal with later, alone. My entourage is now blocking the aisle, but no-one wants to go anywhere, the show’s right here. I take a deep breath, and MIME a safety-pin. If I say so myself, I’m very good. The reception is tumultuous. Five assistants are now clapping with joy, congratulating one another in triumph, they know exactly what I’m after...but no, they’re out of stock. Dilgir. Sorry.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hurrah for Hibiscus

There’s no sitting on the fence with hibiscus tea, either you like it, or you don’t. It’s one of those evocative, exotic names, like bougainvillea or jacaranda, which are obliged to mean something wonderful - a big burden of responsibility, for one little cup of tea. I’m almost frightened to take my first sip, in case I don’t like it - witness deep childhood disappointment with HONEY, after all the Enid Blyton hype. Happily (for me, I don’t suppose the hibiscus cares one way or the other...) it’s delicious: a rich, red tea, as deep and fruity as blackcurrant.
We sit sipping it at 2 a.m., when our confused body-clocks have tipped us out of sleep, and I wonder, idly, whether hibiscus is a stimulant, and thus against our purpose? Hands up, ye of little faith...How could I doubt it? Hibiscus is not only innocent, but actively heroic - taken to reduce fever, blood pressure, cholesterol, congestion, liver problems, you name it, hibiscus will have a go. Practically the only thing not mentioned is cloning, and I expect that’s out of moral finesse rather than lack of skill. So, it’s definite. Hibiscus is the new PG Tips.
You’d think life at the top of a monolith would be quiet, away from the hurly-burly of the street, but you’d be mistaken. In the background, the clatter and thrum from the building-sites, overlaid with the melody of car horns. In the foreground – well, let’s be honest, right by my ear – the pigeons bicker and coo, all day long. It’s either one very vocal pigeon with a lot to say, or else they do it in shifts. They’re very bold, peering in at my kitchen window, laughing at me trying to make Indian pancakes, as well they might. They like to sit in the lift-shaft, so their voices are magnified. Or possibly they have a PA system, I’m not sure. Deep in the night, when the bulldozers are finally silent, the odd car still beeps his horn, despite having the road to himself and no-one to beep at. When the street dogs set up their relay-barking across the city, we put on the fan, to drown them out with its gentle hum.
Everywhere you look, there’s a dog or three. You don’t always see them at first, because they’re usually asleep, and they’re the same colour as the pavement. I can’t imagine any of them running to fetch a ball, like a mad English dog. They all seem to be of the same heritage, the greyhound/sphinx cross. Judging from their undercarriage, every other one has just had a litter, although we see no puppies around. The temptation to pat them, en passant, is a constant risk.
I would at this point paint a thousand words with a picture, but one of us (not including me) has lost the camera, and its replacement is still in the shop. As an interim measure, for visual relief, I offer you Doug the Dog, currently putting his paws under the table at Ab Kettleby.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Favouring Curry

Namaste! See, three days in, and practically fluent...
I have my first kiss from a real Indian person, right there in the middle of the bakery aisle at the Haiko supermarket. She’s fifteen months old, on her mother’s hip, receiving instruction in the noble art of blowing kisses. The first two go up her nose, obviously, but the next one’s definitely mine. I return the honours, thus establishing the anglo-indian entente cordiale, and stroll off to moong beans, smirking.
Today, we’re Jamil-less, and therefore carless, so we set out boldly on foot, to quarter our new quarters and locate ourselves. At the same time, it has to be said, the locals locate us. It’s difficult to be inconspicuous, when you’re a foot taller than everyone else, especially combined with the attractive shade of magnolia which is my keynote tint. (You can’t walk two blocks without seeing an advert for skin lightening products, just as in the UK we are cornered into wanting to look tanned. If all the Indians moved to Britain, and all the Brits moved out here.... perfect solution!) Still, having resigned myself to the Invisibility of the Woman of a Certain Age, I find the attention not unwelcome...
We walk a million miles, looking for a restaurant for this evening, but only find KFC and Pizza Hut – or rather, they find us, as brash and unaccommodating here as the world over. Neither fried chicken nor calzone come within our remit for authentic cuisine, so we walk on by. Completely by accident, as we’re about to bow to the inevitability of the baked bean (again), we find an entire gallery of eating houses.
The ground floor of the little precinct nearby accommodates rabbit runs of bright stalls, selling everything from colour printers to flower arrangements, and boxer shorts to painted elephants. Upstairs, on the first floor, is a warren of restaurants. No wonder the streets are deserted, except for the odd sleeping cab-driver, with his legs hooked over the steering wheel – Mumbai is here, shovelling up rice with his fingers, until he can see his face in the shining stainless steel.
When sun sets, which it does with the speed of a curtain falling, we return. The world and his wife are out and about, trailed by a string of small children, a bike, and a dog. Of course, it makes perfect sense, to wait until the heat of the day abates, before going out meeting and greeting. We just don’t work it out, until we happen to see it in action. We’re out at 10 a.m., rattling the doors of locked shops, wondering where all the people are. Like going out in France at one in the afternoon, and being amazed to find it closed – it’s a question of knowing local habits. We’ve got you sussed, now, Mumbai.
Tonight, we have our longed-for gastronomic baptism of welcome. You need to go to Kareem’s, in the Gallery, near the Hiranandani Gardens. When you go, ask for Joe (unlikely, but true), and he’ll tell you to have the black dahl, with cumin rice. He’s not wrong. We have kebabs (Roland chicken, me prawn, but we share, as contracted to, circa 1979), followed by some chicken dish made in heaven with more butter than is good for you, and naan so garlicky, you can probably smell it, if you put your head out of the window where you are. See, I said we would do culture, today.
For the nonce, Achchha!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Gymnastics and Retail Therapy

In the ads, this gated complex shows majestic buildings flanked by nodding palms and bright lawns. In the flesh, the trees are weary and grey. Acclaimed panoramic views from the apartment, over the garden and lake, are blocked by the opaque windows, crusty with dust outside and in. Hardly surprising, given that this whole luxury park is, in fact, a building site. Everything seems in the process of construction or dilapidation - witness random heaps of masonry by the road (IN the road, even), often with stray cows, lying grazing on rubble. Maybe it would be better, to come and stay in maybe ten years’ time, when all the newly excavated pits we see, rimmed by curious onlookers, will be tinkling fountains or marbled squares. I will bet you a thousand rupees, that Mumbai will never be anything other than a work in progress, though, so one year is as good as the next.
Mr Francis brings his silent but compliant acolyte to clean the windows, this morning. They leave their shoes at the door, like calling-cards. I am given to wonder if any illicit entertaining goes on in this city. Mr Francis slides the window open, and stands back. His helper hops up onto the marble sill, in his socks. Holding on to the frame with one hand, he lurches out to swipe at the windows with a squeegee mop, held in the other. Did I say, we are thirty-three floors up? My heart changes places with my stomach for a moment. I walk away.
Less than an hour later, at the shopping-mall, there’s a Venture Scout, doing a sponsored abseil, to raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind. In fact, it is a workman, washing down the outside of a high-rise building. Head and feet bare, he swings out from the wall, grappling for the window with a round sucker on his hand, like a glove.
Eighteen million souls call Mumbai home. That shouldn’t mean, surely, that they aren’t precious, each and every one? Life insurance does exist in India, I know, I google it when we get home. If workmen in flipflops use pneumatic drills and club hammers, or trust their lives to scaffolding made of bamboo lashed with rope, what must the premiums amount to?
Assailed on all side by foreignness, we turn to a familiar solace. We go shopping. Only in shops, mind, none of this street trading. Am currently only brave enough to pay the price on the ticket, there is no question of bartering yet. I wasn’t brought up to haggle. What would they say in Marks and Spencer’s, for example, if you swanned up to the counter and said, “I know this says £25.00, but how about £16.00?... No, I don’t want it. See, I am walking away.... £17.50? Done.” My children would go unshod and hungry, if I had to liaise with the vendors. I set myself the target of bartering by June. Or July, possibly.
I buy a velvet patchwork tote bag and a carved wooden elephant. Roland buys a set of pliers and a screwdriver. Price as per ticket. We are both sated with retail.
We promise to do some culture vulture stuff tomorrow.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mumbai, City of Dreams

“So,” Roland said last March, strategically from Stuttgart, “how do you fancy living in India for a year?”
“No,” I said, peering through the gloom of a wet car-park in Melton Mowbray. “No. Absolutely not, not ever, no. Never.”
Our apartment in Mumbai is on the thirty-third floor of a charming if dusty block called Verona, from where we can enjoy the sights and sounds, if not the smells, of the city below. We moved in this afternoon.
Our driver is called Jamil. He comes with the Innova, which he drives as if it were a part of him, squeezing into gaps where I would hesitate to park a domestic stapler. He has beautiful eyes, a boyish smile, and about four words of English. That is four more than my Hindi – bravo, Jamil - but the situation is not promising.
Mr Francis from Housekeeping comes to do the welcome spring-clean (sadly post not pre our arrival), and offers to cook dinner. We come home from the mall three hours later, eagerly sniffing the air for some fragrant clue. All we can smell is Lemon Cif. The marble floor is clean enough to eat off, but there is nothing to eat off it. “No food!” says Mr Francis, beaming. We haven’t eaten since breakfast with Jet Airways, and are now beginning to look on Lemon Cif with some favour. Apparently the arrangement - clear to Mr Francis but not to us - is that we buy the food, he cooks it. Tomorrow, we will have our gastronomic introduction to the City of Dreams. Tonight, we dine on baked beans.