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.