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.