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.