Friday, February 29, 2008


If shopping is your favourite sport, here’s some handy hints, to facilitate and enrich your retail experience, in Mumbai.
Whether it’s the big Shoppers Stop in the mall, or the pocket-sized Haiko on the corner of your block, before you’re allowed across the threshold, expect to have your already-shopping confiscated, in exchange for a token. I find this offensive, at first, because it intimates that I look shifty, like one inclined to pilfer, whereas I have zero intention of making off with so much as an illicit incense cone. Then it seems like a great idea, to be disencumbered ready for a fresh onslaught. The drawback is, when you trade in your token on the way out, you have twice as much shopping as you can carry. This is where having a Monu is critical.
Once safely in the shop, you have to run the gauntlet of the fleet of eager assistants, calling out their wares. They probably did their training in Portobello Road. In the perfume section alone, twenty-six salespersons beckon, atomisers poised, from behind the counter. Belt to their braces, an additional sprinkling of allies roams loose on the shop-floor, enticing currently fragrance-free customers to try, then buy. At first, I feel politeness-bound to explain to each one, that I’m not in the market for men’s trousers, or that I have a pressure-cooker at home, or that I’m already wearing perfume, but this rapidly shows signs of using up my whole life, so I resort to smiling retreat, with a tiny regretful shake of the head. Try it.
If you want to see what you look like in a salwar-kurta confection, don’t ask for the changing-room, it’s called the Trial Room. How appropriate is that? Well, if you’re a size 6, and you never have to lie on the floor to fasten your jeans, you may not understand. So I’m in the Trial Room, seeing about the salwar-kurta (very forgiving, by the way, like glamorous pyjamas), and when I emerge, there are two giggling assistants, waiting to pounce. Their arms are laden with a heap of other clothes I might like to try. (One of them’s brought a green combo, does she not know me at all?) “See, you like this cloth, Madame? Is perfect size for you!... Or we alter?” – If you hand a thing over for alteration, it’s ready practically before you’ve got your own t-shirt back on. The more items you dismiss, the more alacritous they are in finding alternatives. They take the word tenacious, turn it inside-out, then give it a good shake and a new zip. I’m speechless with admiration. It’s not going to happen in Next, is it, or in Dorothy Perkins? In my experience, home-grown shop assistants are too busy analysing their love-lives, or dissecting Big Brother, to actually shop-assist any tentative customers.
I go to the Culture Shop, to panic-buy a few shawls before my trip home, and a young man scoots across from wall-hangings and paintings to collect me. “See, Madame - Ganesh!” he says. It’s not religious fervour, he’s not trying to convert me - the last time I came in here, there was a bit of an elephant theme going on, in my trolley, and he’s remembered. “New stock!” he says, with a flourish. What salesmanship – it works, though, I add another model to my collection – it’s blue, and it’s an elephant, what more do you want?

This has to be my favourite shop in the whole world. Which mercantile genius thought of having a chandelier shop in the open, under the trees, on the main road? Monu now slows down when we pass by, we don’t even have to ask. The overwhelming majority of Mumbaikers live in two-lakh houses, or small apartments, or on the pavement, so where is this man’s market? Suppose you were rupee-rich, would you buy a chandelier for your ballroom at the roadside? I think you should. Here’s to effrontery, hope, and surrealism, up a gum-tree.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Red Lights and Ladyboys

All these years, I’ve been celebrating my birthday in May, whereas in fact, it seems, I was born yesterday. (I’m suddenly Pisces. but we Taureans think astrology’s a load of rubbish, as you know.)
Yesterday, then, I’m sitting in the crawling traffic, which constitutes seven-eighths of any journey in Mumbai. The lights turn red, and a little beggar-girl comes tapping. She’s maybe seven, or eight years old. “Auntie, auntie, one rupee! Two rupee!” She claws at the window, giggling and singing “Jingle Bells.” Well, the only words she knows are “Jingle” and “Bells,” which she repeats forty-seven times, then fast-forwards through the rest, until it’s time for the refrain again. We crack the window open, and give her a sweet. She wants hard cash. At least, she can eat a chocolate éclair, before it’s annexed by her minder. The lights change. She takes the sweet, and waves us off, laughing and chewing.
I mention the jolly beggar-girls I saw, singing and clapping, a few days ago, and my friend looks at me, to see if I’m for-real. “Hijras,” she smiles. Ladyboys. I’m tempted to open the window again, so I can throw out all pretence I ever had, to worldly wisdom. Ladyboys? What would my mum have said?
Here, it’s called the Third Gender – a blanket term covering multiple variants, including trans-sexual, transvestite, eunuch. Sometimes, they’re castrated, often, not. For a postulant truly to belong to the hijra community, the operation’s supposed to be done by a midwife, without anaesthetic. Appropriately enough, the process is known as Nirvan, or rebirth. (Hands up, if you're wincing...)
A hijra’s characterised as having the body of a man, but the soul of a woman. Once a boy becomes aware of his ‘true’ nature, he – she, then - is often abandoned by her family, and ‘adopted’ by a hijra, who becomes her guru. A guru has five such pupils (chelas) to train, who work for her, and will look after her, in her old age, very much like the parent-child relationship.
The hijra hold a bizarre place in this society, at once revered and reviled. For the most part, they’re illiterate, having had little or no education, which obviously limits the careers open to them. They make their living begging on the streets, or performing, singing and dancing, at celebrations, or by prostitution. People give money to hijras out of fear, since refusal can mean being cursed. Ironically, the hijra are childless, yet their curse is sterility. Failure to pay also provokes lewd behaviour, in order publicly to shame the victim into giving.
Uninvited guests at weddings, birth ceremonies and even stag nights, hijras wield a double-edged sword. The hosts are careful to avoid incurring their wrath, which would bring bad luck to the bridal couple or to the baby. The hijra are paid to bestow their blessings instead, invoking good fortune and fertility.
Regardless of the spread of more tolerant attitudes, the new century’s not the time for the hijra to thrive. Sophisticated music technology is increasingly available, making hijra singing and dancing redundant as entertainment, and the dancers more and more reliant on their two alternative sources of income, begging and prostitution. Exact statistics are understandably hard to come by, but as many as fifty percent of hijras are thought to be HIV positive.
So, this puts the laughing, clapping, beautiful girls I see at the lights into a whole new perspective. It takes a lot to stand out, in the sequinned glamour of an Indian street, but these girls out-glitter them all. I thought they were hungry-thin, not boy-thin. I wondered about prostitution, and found pathos in their bravado. Now I know differently, and am filled with even more pity.
They said travel would broaden my mind.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Des Res in Mumbai

In the rush-hour traffic, the flyover becomes a car-park. I look across at the settlement which hugs the main road, working out where one house begins and its neighbour ends, in the flotsam and jetsam of corrugated plastic and tarpaulin. A man in a loin-cloth lifts a flap, and hauls himself onto the roof. He rifles through random piles of stuff at his feet, and Monu says, “This bad. Man change cloth.” Sure enough, he picks out a pair of shorts, shakes them, and puts them on, wriggling discreetly out of the discards. He would do well on a British beach. To get a bit of privacy, he’s come on the roof, away from his housemates.
Monu says, “Mumbai. Very many small house.” I assume, when we arrive, that this is where the poor people live. I’m wrong. (I often am, it needs be said...) The people who live in these houses work in offices, or shopping malls, or they drive taxis. So why are they living in poverty-line accommodation? Good question. You’d hesitate before keeping a secondhand lawnmower, in one of these houses, but in Mumbai, this is by no means the bottom of the pile. “Small house” cost two or three lakh rupees to buy, which is beyond the reach of your average Mumbaiker. A couple of thousand pounds. (First-time buyers in the UK commonly have to find ten thousand pounds deposit, just to get a foot on the bottom rung of the property ladder.) To rent a modest Mumbai pied-a-terre, fifteen hundred rupees a month - less than £20. What did you spend, the last evening out you had?
Say you’ve got the 2 or 3 lakh, what do you get for your money? Four walls, but not necessarily a door - since there’s never no-one at home, security’s not an issue. There’s neither water nor electricity. They cook on kerosene stoves. I think about how much I’m missing my lovely lovely Aga, and feel ashamed. I’m going to stop comparing my life, with their lives, soon, when I find the off-switch.
No electricity. At least they won’t spend all evening watching tv, I say, but Monu says, “Small small television. Battery.” Well, you’d need something, wouldn’t you?
No bathroom, no running water in the house. There’s a standpipe, or often an open-air shower. Morning ablutions are a common sight, first thing. We watch the men brushing their teeth, standing on the pavements, watching us drive by.
The Hyatt Hotel, Mumbai, offers guests every conceivable facility, from a marble bath with phone, to high-speed internet connection, via complimentary robes and slippers. The more you pay, the more bananas in the fruit bowl. One night, one person - anything from 15 to 23 thousand rupees. A night in the cheapest room would cover nearly a year’s rent, on a small house. A lonely week for one in the best suite would buy you a whole house, if you could dispense with the marble bath. Yet even here, in all its plate-glass, shag-piled luxury, there are mothballs in the wash-basins and drains, to fend off cockroaches, and we see mice running under the tables in the banqueting hall, after the smart corporate buffet.
What, then, can it be like in Standpipe Lane?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Urban Safari

Sanjay Gandhi National Park, in North Mumbai, covers more than a hundred square kilometres, making it the biggest enclosed urban parkland in the world. It’d be churlish not to have a peep. On the way, by way of hors d’oeuvre, we see an elephant, just minding his own business, going home, blending in with all the other suburban traffic.
As soon as we’re through the park gates, I start spying out for lions. After a couple of tense minutes, concentrating on the lion-coloured undergrowth, we see children playing in the dust-track ahead, and, through the thicket of trees, houses, with lines of drying washing outside. I stop looking for lions. I do see some hens, though they’re not what you’d call Big Game. This is the foresters’ settlement.
We visit the Kanheri caves, as a sop to culture. Entrance fee – 100 rupees for non-nationals, 5 rupees for residents. Even at £1.20 per outsider, they can be barely covering the cost of maintaining the hand-rails, so we’ve got no problem with the lack of parity. The caves are two and a half thousand years old, and there are one hundred and six of them. We don’t visit them all individually – well Roland says we don’t, but it feels like we do, to me. The Buddhist monks, who chibbled them out of the bare rock, must have been nimble as mountain goats. We, who are less goat-like, keep stopping to 'admire the view' and re-establish speaking terms with our lungs. In one of the caves, a man’s lying on his back, arms wide, singing at the top of his voice. The acoustics are fabulous, it sounds as if there are seventeen of him. Our guide laughs. “Indian man. Sing when happy.” And why not?
On the way down again, I’m asked to take a photo. Or, I think that’s what they want, all bobbing and laughing. But it turns out, they want me the other side of the lens, for some reason. They give me the baby to hold, but it starts screeching instantly, and I don’t know Hindi for “There, there!” But inept or not, a foot taller than the womenfolk who crowd round me, holding a wailing baby, I’m still in their holiday album.
Back in the jungle, we pull up to admire the monkeys at the roadside. I give them a banana, or two. I like watching their tiny black hands unzip them. Roland says – and I already know this, really, I am just carried away by their monkeyness - that they will learn to associate cars with food, and get run over. I’m now bowed down with the weight of three monkey souls, and will keep my bananas to myself in future.
The bus-tour, to see the lions and tigers, costs 30 rupees each, wherever your father was born. We’re loaded on the ricketiest bus you’ve ever seen – if you sit down too quickly, it will collapse; the guide holds the folding doors together with pinched fingers. The windows are reassuringly screened with mesh, but there are thoughtful holes, for unimpeded viewing. Just big enough, to poke a camera through, from the inside out, or a paw, from the outside in. We rattle to a halt, and the guide points. After half an hour’s earnest peering, we make out two white tigers, lolling in the grass. This brings our combined lifetime white-tiger sightings to two, so we’re more than pleased, even if the tigers look a bit grubby.
Our teeth are only slightly looser, when we stop for the lion-sighting. Not until it moves, do I realise that it’s not an it, it’s a they. Unless it’s got a head at both ends, of course, but I’m sure they’d have been selling postcards of it at the ticket booth, were that the case. All those years, I played “Sleeping Lions” with the boys, and this is what they really look like. We’re all very excited, on the bus, except for the little girl in the sticky-out frock, on the seat in front of us, who clearly thinks Roland and I are more interesting than the wild-life outside. She may have a point.
Finding the lions and tigers, on our photos, is an act of faith, so they’re not for public consumption. I’ll show them to you, if you like, but you have to promise not to laugh...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Hare Rama, Hare Krishna

Today, we’re tourists, at the Hare Rama Hare Krishna temple in Juhu. We surrender our shoes to one of the four men behind the counter outside, just like at Superbowl. We hardly need the token he gives us in exchange: among a million flip-flops, our footwear’s not hard to spot. The white marble dazzles our eyes, and fries our soles. To one side of the main entrance, there’s a line of taps, where people are drinking, and washing their feet. Still confined to tap water, and too uptight to ablute in public, we hobble up the hot stairs and into the cool interior, to exchange light for sound.
In the central open space, people sit on chairs, or mats, chatting, thinking. A few are prostrate, slowly inching forward in progressive prayer-stops. Anxious not to obstruct, offend, or appear foolish, we creep round the perimeter. There are tableaux to admire, stories to read. A grandma holds her small grandson up to see, show-and-tell. I know I’d find her version more accessible than the explanation panels, but she only comes in Hindi. There are hundreds of thousands of Hindu gods, there’s a small boy with a lot of listening to do. Trying to fathom it all, is like unravelling all the wool in the world, wound up in one ball – no sooner do you think you’ve got one thing straight, than three more loose ends pop up. There appears to be a core knowledge, A-list deities like Ganesh and Shiva and Hanuman, but the fine-tuning is for scribes and scholars. I gather scraps, fascinated.
At the front, incense, candles, flowers and song clamour for your attention. “Fight the good fight” and two strangled gladioli wouldn’t even appear on the radar, here. The shaven-headed, bare-chested monks, in their complicated looped skirts, take the offerings the worshippers bring – baskets of fruit, orange and yellow posies – in exchange for a dab of ash on the forehead. Other visitors are openly filming the proceedings on a mobile, but we believed the signs meant what they said, and switched ours off at the door. Anyway, we’re far too conspicuous to transgress.
Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare – I’m humming along – the piped music’s so loud, the flowers are trembling. The words appear on an LCD screen, discreetly to one side, but I know them already, thanks to George Harrison. I watch the screen, which then flashes, “Beware of Pickpockets.” (My handbag’s built to take one tissue and a lipstick, but is further crammed with two mobile phones, a hairbrush, credit cards, cash, two pens, a spiral-bound notebook, as well as a retractable ruler (don’t ask). Anyone who can so much as open it, without the whole shebang exploding across the mosaic tiles, is welcome to what he can swipe.)
We complete the circuit – like the Stations of the Cross, but with more gore and elephants – and leave the main temple by the back door. In the next chamber, a little retail is on offer, with stalls selling ropes of wooden beads, small statues, holy books like the Bhagavad Gita, self-help meditation DVDs, or sitar music on CD. I wonder fleetingly if bartering is the way to go, here, but I’m not wanting an illustrated edition of the Vedas, so the question remains theoretical. The nearer you get to the sunshine, the more worldly the merchandise. At the threshold, you can buy cups of coffee, and slices of pizza – you can’t get much more worldly than that. We tumble out, blinking like bats at noon.
A monk sits on a low wall, in front of him a bowl the size of a dustbin-lid, full of something which looks like couscous but is the colour of mashed carrots. He’s got quite a crowd of takers, all with outstretched hands. He’s doling it out with his fingers. They all look well-heeled (if you can be well-heeled and barefoot), so he’s not distributing a charitable offering to the parish poor. Sliding by, we take it all in peripherally, because it’s rude to stare, where we come from. Gingerly trying to find a path kind to our nesh western feet, we set off, in search of our shoes.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Uninvited Guests

During a swift spot of post-prandial exercise, we stumble upon a wedding in full spate. We mill, with the milling crowds, admiring the decorated groom on his decorated horse. As well as the elaborate tufted turban, he wears a veil of fine chains over his face, which he lifts, periodically, to peep out. Personal curtains.
It’s tricky, just being another face in the throng, when yours is the only white one. Well, the only white two. We’re greeted like long lost friends, and invited to join the celebrations. A person we’ve known for less than a minute introduces us to another complete stranger, “See, my daughter, this is your Auntie and Uncle from England.” It’s easy to see how the guest list got to over three hundred, if this is how it was drawn up. Later, he says to her, “What is your name, daughter?” so either he’s a very forgetful/unusually fruitful father, or it’s a courtesy title. She’s called Shweta, which they tell us means “White.” She’s put in charge of me (!), while her not-father, Raj, spirits Roland away to do Boy Things. I watch his retreating back, wondering if I’ll ever see him again. For the first time, I’m without a mobile phone. When I try to find him, half an hour later, another guest puts two and two together (or, white stranger and white stranger together, more precisely), and points me to the car-park.
The Boy Things in question involve a bottle of whiskey, inevitably. The wedding is teetotal, so the men fortify themselves before attending. In the car-park, a black-turbaned Sikh has the back of his car open, dispensing liquid fortification. Shweta and I remind the lads that there is, in fact, a wedding going on, so we leave the Pub-In-The-Boot, and head for the bright lights.
Remember that an Indian woman will wear her own weight in sequins, just out shopping for potatoes. Imagine her, in full flig, for a special occasion. The spectacle in the wedding pavilion is breath-taking, with the ooh-aah factor of a firework display. I feel more conspicuous for drabness than for whiteness, with not the merest sequin or bead to call my own. When they’ve finished painting their faces, they paint their hands and feet. Weddings take all day to set up, using bushels of fresh flower heads, and miles of twinkly lights. I’m definitely going Hindu, next time. Hardly surprising, then, that the feast can last four days. False economy to be any shorter, if you think about it.

I ask my new Best Friend Shweta, if this is an arranged marriage - are we seeing the bride and groom, seeing each other for the first time? But Shweta says, it’s a love marriage. Rahul and Deepti – we don’t meet them, but their names are picked out in flowers, on the stage – have chosen to take one another “into my heart” for the rest of their lives. It’s also a mixed marriage, very 21st century. Not what you’d call radical, the bride and groom are merely different kinds of Hindu, but even that wouldn’t have been tolerated, a generation ago.
The more we try and wriggle away, the more they press delicacies on us, to make us to stay. If I looked less like I’d been double-digging the vegetable patch all day, I might be tempted. But we take our last photo, and tear ourselves away. “Say, ‘Bye-bye, Auntie!’” says a mother, to the child in her arms. We’re given a royal send-off, then these people can get back to the rightful focus of attention, the nuptial pair. It’s eleven o’clock at night, the wedding ceremony will take place at one-thirty in the morning. There’s some serious partying to do, before then. To Rahul and Deepti, much joy.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Spice of Life

We cross a rickety but troll-free bridge, made of matchsticks overlaid with red coconut matting, to reach the island spice plantation. As we step off, we’re welcomed with leis, and ginger and lemon tea, before the tour begins. In our group, there are about twenty of us, Danish, German, Iranian, a fair cocktail of nationalities, but Martin, our Indian guide, does his spiel in English.
Within twelve seconds of leaving the bamboo-roofed home-base, I am lost, utterly bejungled. All coconut palms look the same to me. Needless to say, Mr Roland’s keeping the sun over his left shoulder, or he’s got the compass out of his Pathfinder shoes, because he knows where he is at all times. “Stay close to me, Madame,” Martin says. “I will show you the way. You do not mind, sir?” Sir doesn’t look as if he minds at all ....
Martin’s favourite game is “Guess the Spice.” He drops a torn leaf or bark fragment onto our open palms. We inhale enthusiastically, then try to name the plant. By the time we finish the tour, we’re hyperventilating, and as high as kites. They work hard, the plants, not only in the kitchen cupboard, but also in the medicine-cabinet. Doc Martin reels off recipes for embrocations and infusions to cure all ailments, from toothache to depression. (Cloves and cardamom, respectively. See, I was listening.)
Do you know, if you leave your nutmeg in its shell, it’ll keep for ten years? Without the shell, two or three years. I choose not to tell Martin about the nutmegs loitering on my spice-rack at home, which will be old enough to apply for a driving licence soon... Nutmeg’s a soporific, apparently. If you chew a piece the size of a peppercorn, “before you go to the bed,” you will have hours of sweet sleep. “But warning: you eat whole nutmeg, sleep for hours and hours and not wake up again.” Martin strolls off to the next tree, laughing. I spit my nutmeg shard into my hand, and put it in my pocket, for later.

We examine the cashew tree. Each cashew apple produces a single nut, which, bizarrely, grows on the outside. It could therefore take a whole treeful, to make one bag of nuts. Think about that, next time you’re in Tesco’s. The apples are crushed and boiled, and distilled in earthenware pots. Second distillation produces Feni, forty-five percent proof liqueur. You can understand its use as cheering-up juice, but Goan mothers give this to their children, too - a spoonful, mixed with honey and water, Nature’s Lemsip. I cough, hopefully, but Martin is impervious to entreaty, and we move on, to discover the secrets of the Betel tree.
With a bit of twig, he scrapes the earth at his feet to reveal a knobbly root. Ginger. We all nod, complacently, and say “Ginger!” to each other. “Is no ginger,” says Martin, deflating us. “Is turmeric.” He generously forgives us for being confused. “The ginger and the turmeric, they are as sister.” If you think turmeric’s just for turning rice yellow, get this: you can sprinkle a pinch on an open wound, and it will stop the bleeding. But, beware: unscrupulous spice-dealers will sell you turmeric, and call it saffron, the scally-wags, so don’t buy it on the streets. Martin said.
We sniff our final leaf. Cardamom? Ginger? Cinnamon? Our guesses come fast and thick, until Roland has a herbal epiphany, and says “Allspice!” Martin makes him Head Boy, and I go and stand next to him, to catch some glory and look omniscient by association.
On our way back, trip-trap, over the rickety bridge, we see a snake, swimming in the water. “What do they eat?” I ask. “Tourists?” Martin’s not just a spice-wallah, he’s a business-man. “If snake eat tourist,” he says, concisely, “No people coming.” The tourist industry, in a nutshell.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Panaji, Capital of Goa

You can call it Panjim, if you want, but it annoys the Goans. It was Panjim for four hundred and fifty years, under the rule of the Portuguese. The Indian version, Panaji (The Land That Does Not Flood), was symbolically resurrected after the intruders were shown the door in 1961. The language, architecture, cuisine and art of Goa still reflect its sometime rulers, but then, fifty years is but the wink of a painted eye, as far as cultural heritage is concerned. We’re staying in the Panjim Inn, which seems a bit contrary, but the wonky letters on the wall look as if they were there long before Portugal got the boot. By way of recompense, the retreating Portuguese left all their furniture, or so it seems from a brief glance at our room, which is decorated in the monolithic style, and smells lung-crushingly of mothballs.
Panaji's not much bigger than Knutsford, if it puffs it chest out. We can walk most of its length without recourse to CPR, or even a glass of beer. Most of its 60,000 population is on the pavements, watching us watch them. They do a bit of ore-mining, and tinker with building the odd rusty boat, but Goa largely depends for its living on magnolia-tinted tourists. You’d think, factoring out rarity value, that we’d be less entertaining to the locals. However, we get helloed and patted and pointed at, even by people not wanting to sell us a marble elephant, or a pair of fake Ray-bans. Possibly we got unusually gorgeous overnight, but, sadly, I don’t think so.
We couldn’t be more struck by the differences from Mumbai, if we had gone to Knutsford instead. For example, there are hardly any dogs worth throwing a stick for, and no people living under the flyover, or in the central reservation. In the whole of Panaji, I count less than twenty-five tuk-tuks (is OCD catching, do you think?), which means the roads are roads, not vibrating car-parks. Our weekend taxi-man, Amit, is what dear Monu would call “danger driver,” quite happy to over-take a car already over-taking a bus, on a blind bend. We long to shuffle along in the fumes and congestion of our new home-town, where fifth gear is a thing dreams are made of, but Amit only takes his foot off the accelerator to show us a delapidated shrine to Mother Mary, or the Church of St Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the Indies. (I can’t not tell you this: they take the saint’s four-centuries-old body for a walk round town, once every ten years. Well, what’s left of it: his right arm’s gone to Rome, the other hand to Japan, part of his intestines are in South-East Asia, and a Portuguese woman bit off his little toe off in 1534. So much for Requiescat-ing in Pace...)
It’s hotter, too, and yet, it contrives to rain. I say rain, not what we’d call rain, back home. A score of spots spatter the paving-slabs with a hiss, practically evaporating before we have time to notice them. If you stand still for thirty seconds, you can watch the whole water-cycle in action, over and over.
We retire to our camphorated suite to recuperate, while the sun goes down. Roland swots up on Goa in the Rough Guide, while I lie on the bed, under the whirring fan, wishing I’d not eaten half a bag of Bombay Mix, and trying to feel zen. Beneath our window, the taxi-drivers gather, chatting, eating oranges, talking about the cricket, waiting for some guest to put a single pink toe across the hotel threshold. One of their mobiles goes off – “London Bridge is Falling Down” (where’s the Portuguese influence there, then?). A monkey wanders into view on the ridge of the tiled roof opposite. A whole other India.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lolita and me

Are you one of those people who’s never ridden an elephant? I’m not.
Did I say, she’s called Lolita? Although, she’s probably answering to “Omigod!” now, because that’s all I can say for the first ten minutes. If you have the chance, you must get nose to trunk with an elephant, it’s the best best thing. I can’t look Lolita in the eyes, not because my house is brimming with shameful artefacts in ivory, but because I can only see one of her eyes at a time, I’m so close. I try each eye, in turn, hoping to pierce the mystery of her speechlessness, but she just blinks back at me, unfathomable. I give up. She’s probably thinking, “Another squealing pasty-face. I wonder how much she weighs?” so it’s perhaps as well we don’t do the mind-meld thing.
Her skin’s Brillo-pad tough, deeply corrugated and bristly, so it surprises me that her trunk’s more flexible than wet spaghetti. She curls the end of it round my hand – she’s got quite a grip, for a girl - and I wonder in passing if she’s going to eat me, but she’s just being as curious about me as I am about her. This is how distracted I am: I forget to ask her keeper his name. Let’s call him Bernard. He tells me Lolita’s 25 years old, and that she eats 250 kilos of food a day, which makes me feel better about that second slice of toast this morning. She won’t have her first calf until she is 30 or 35. Quite the modern woman, then, establishing a career before starting a family. To regulate her temperature, she waves her translucent ears back and forth, back and forth. Bernard says it also helps with her breathing. He should know.
And then it’s time. In front of me, a flight of brick stairs, like a slice of ziggurat. I climb, as fast as my wibbly knees will allow, and stand at the top, waiting for Lolita to shuffle herself into position. At a syllable from Bernard, she offers him her curled trunk. He steps onto it, as if it were an elevator, and she lifts him into the air, setting him down lightly on her own head. (Fancy that being an ordinary part of your every working day...) With a guiding hand from Bernard’s sidekick, I step onto Lolita’s back, and sit on the cane-and-sisal contraption strapped to her. This isn’t something you should do, wearing a skirt. Before you get dressed each morning, consider whether elephant rides are potentially on the agenda, so you can select your day’s ensemble accordingly. It’s also an advantage, if you’re slightly double-jointed at the hip. Have you seen how wide an elephant’s back is?

We set off. I’m so paralysed by joy, not only can I not speak, I can barely breathe. Perhaps I should try waggling my ears. The ride’s very much as you think it would be, slow, lumbering – Lolita’s not built for speed, thankfully – but you’re never not aware of her sheer mass and strength. When we reach the park gates, she seems inclined to take to the high road. I’m well up for it, but Bernard gives her a poke on the back of the head, with what looks very much like a crow-bar. She turns back to the park, huffing.
How much is an elephant?” I want to know. Bernard says, “One elephant, one million rupees.” I wonder what my portfolio’s worth, then remember I don’t have one, so I start calculating what’s in the sock under our mattress. Roland says it’s just an unreachable figure, as far as Bernard’s concerned. Still, £12,500. Does anyone want to go halves with me?
Too soon, too soon, we make it back to the landing-stage. There’s no-one waiting. Bernard asks if I want another lap, and I’m so overwhelmed, I nearly say no. I don’t though. We go for a second turn. I almost can’t wait to get off, so I can start thinking about it. Dismounting, my legs are as bendy as Lolita’s trunk. Bernard makes her lift that selfsame trunk, in a goodbye salute, and I hear my heart crack. I think I’m in love.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Goan Away For The Weekend

By coincidental but benign providence, just as the internet connection turns up its electronic toes, we already have a weekend away booked, thereby saving a) marriage and b) sanity. Our conjugal karma’s clearly in stasis. We head for Goa, the Pearl of the Orient.
At the airport, ladies are siphoned off for private screening. Men are frisked in the hurly burly of airport to-ing and fro-ing, because they don’t have fragile psyches. Ladies, who do, are invited one by one into an enclosure, protected from prying eyes. First of all, I’m liking this special consideration. Then, it occurs to me to wonder WHAT THEY WANT TO DO TO ME, THAT THEY NEED NO WITNESSES? I don’t have long to fret. You have to stand on a platform in a glorified cupboard, while a female official frisks you with a paddle. (Not as much fun as it sounds, by the way. She makes jolly small-talk, but so do the dentist and the gynaecologist...) I’m not sure what she’s looking for, but I definitely haven’t got any.
We’re bussed out to the waiting plane. The driver noses our vehicle just under the wing of the 737, thus thoughtfully reducing the distance to walk across the bubbling tarmac. It also reduces Mr Roland to apoplexy. I’m thinking, he’s a bit obsessed with the whole “Health and Safety” malarkey, when we see two of the aircrew, nonchalantly leaning on the inside of the engine casing, just finishing off a bit of paperwork before take-off. Do their pens have loose tops, I wonder, and do they know how many paperclips they had to start with? Roland takes a photo, but manages not to get arrested.

We board, stash our chattels, and gawp out of the window. What do we see? A worksite. After a month in India, we now tend to think that a workman in hob-nailed boots, hard hat, and high-vis jacket must be a bit of a pansy. Along the runway, real men, in bare feet, push along wheelbarrows of cement. In their wake, women carry baskets of dust and rubble on their heads, in their hands, dustpans and whisk-brushes. I think of the Concorde, felled in Paris by a stray piece of debris under its wheels. I hope these people are meticulous in their work. There’s no notion of this being a secure zone, it looks like market-day out there. The biggest slum in the world hugs the perimeter of Mumbai airport, with nothing but a rickety fence in between. I think wanly of Ganesh, Protector of All and Destroyer of Obstacles. You can see why he’s so popular.
We ignore the safety instructions in Hindi, then ignore them again in English. We’re served small bottles of chilled lemon juice, by air-stewardesses trim enough to make Kate Moss look chubby. The lemon’s surprisingly substantial, and tastes like Dioralyte. In my normal life I only consider electrolytes fit for consumption after a week of gastro-enteritis, but it’s some weeks since “normal” has been any kind of criterion. The label says it’s made “by reverse osmosis process.” Squeezing lemons, then. There’s zero possibility of being offered a splash of Gordon’s to go with it, so we glug it back, neat.
Three hundred miles unravel under our feet, and we land at Goa airport. You’ll have heard jokes about having traffic-lights on the runway? Go to Goa. Not a joke. Taxi-ing in, we pass through a graveyard of old planes (all in active service, need I say?), which one of us finds fascinating and one of us doesn’t.
Seasoned Mumbaikers, we think we have the hang of India. Goa’s about to prove us wrong.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day!

You wouldn’t think they’d do Valentine’s Day, here, what with Valentine being a saint, and everything, and nothing to do with elephants or cows. Money talks, however, or at least it buys red roses, in Mumbai. Business will do cross-culture, if there’s a rupee in it, it seems. The big picture window down at D-Mart is decked in red clothes, although why buying red gardening trousers might increase your chances of romance, is anybody’s guess. Haiko are also making an effort, their window’s full of plush love-hearts and teddy-bears, mysteriously facing inwards to beguile the shoppers they’ve already snared, leaving the yet-to-be-bewitched ones still on the pavement outside, looking at bear bottoms. In down-town Mumbai, it’s not hard to find jolly robins and fat Santas, painted on shop windows and even people’s houses, and we’re only a hot cross bun away from Easter. I resign myself to being charmed by entwined hearts until Michaelmas.
In a society where arranged marriage is still the norm, the boyfriend/girlfriend market simply doesn’t exist. Campaigns are therefore targeted at newly-weds – “Make your first Valentine’s Day together one she’ll never forget...” – the intimation being that this is more likely with a gold necklace than a dying flower. You can see how that might work.
In Life Style, at the In Orbit mall, a lady with a lollipop microphone circles round uneasy shoppers, encouraging them to join her, in a Valentine’s Day dancing competition. She’d get nowhere in Selfridge’s, for example, or BhS, she’d have the store cleared faster than a bomb alert. Yet, here, there’s patently more romance and less reserve, she hardly has to pressgang at all. I’m touched to see that the “volunteers” span the entire ambulant age spectrum. She puts a piece of newspaper on the floor in front of each pair – the disco-arena - and the dancing couple aren’t allowed to step over the edges. Since we’re talking tabloid, here, it makes for some very cosy cha-cha-chaing. The couples sway, shopping abandoned with their shoes, while onlookers smile and nod. The lollipop lady flicks a switch and shatters the magic. Bristling with prizes, she thrusts the microphone into the winners’ faces: “Have you one little personal love-message for her, sir, this Valentine’s Day?” By this point, over-sensitive to the Cringe Factor, I’m two floors away, but the intimate moment’s being tannoyed across the whole store, proving that you can run, but you can’t hide. From Saucepans and Pressure Cookers, I hear him stammering, but am spared his blushes. (They’ll sort that one out for next year, I imagine, with a wide screen television by the elevators.) Like a wind-up toy, the man produces the three little words we’re all waiting to hear; honour’s satisfied on all sides. Lollipop woman releases the lovers back into the wild, and goes off in search of fresh victims. Reluctant to have newsprint on my soles (or indeed soul), I leave the store via the scenic route, like the Wise Men...
At the traffic lights, the touts have got a new seasonal line going – heart-shaped balloons. They must be aiming at the tuk-tuk/Hero Honda market, because who’d want a massive balloon in the back of a car? The roads are worse than ever. “Valentine’s Day,” says Monu, philosophically. “Everybody take wife out to dinner.” (Yes, but whose?)
Leaving the restaurant, lady diners are each presented with a shiny gift, a red plastic rose sellotaped to the back. Inside, a vase painted with hearts – also the word “LOVE” about twenty-six times, in case you hadn’t got the drift (must be aimed at the British market, then) – supported by two moonstruck china bears. If you’ve got an Easter Fete planned in your village, tell me. I’ve got something you can have for the raffle...
The next morning, I see Monu has stuck the plastic rose into the air-freshener on his dashboard, next to Ganesh and the flags. Very nice too.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Indian Inquisition

Beyond the intimate workings of the internal combustion engine, for example, or Space, the Final Frontier, Roland is largely incurious about his fellow men. For my part, I can only change a plug, if I undo another one, to copy from, and I stopped being able to recognise any car-makes when the Ford Anglia went out of production. I fail to find wonder, for instance, in the miracle of aeronautics, or even the mobile phone, but I do like to know who’s going out with whom, and what colour your new three-piece is. Together, we cover all the bases.
So, he’s content to sit for hour upon hour, in companionable manly silence, while Monu drives. I, on the other hand, regard this captive audience as ripe territory for the Indian Inquisition. I find out what he has for dinner (curry), what his father does for a living (farmer), and what he does on his day off (sleep). (It has to be said, Monu’s brilliant at sleeping, blissfully unconscious, barely before the car door clicks shut behind us. Then again, he’s a vegetarian, non-drinking, non-smoking, hard-working bachelor boy, why shouldn’t he sleep easily?)

On his evening off, he says, he sees “Taare Zameen Par” at the cinema. “Yes,” I say, “Every Child is Special.” He’s visibly impressed by my comprehensive filmic knowledge. I don’t disabuse him of the notion, though in fact, it’s the one and only Hindi film I’ve ever heard of, and I recognise its name just because Roland and I try to go and see it. We’re laughed out of the queue by the little man at the Box Office, who tells us it’s in Hindi, no dubbing, no sub-titles. Why, then, is all the advertising for it in English, I wonder? The ticket-man offers us “Alvin and The Chipmunks” by way of consolation, but that’s neither beaste nor fowle, so we refuse, with regret.
Originally from Lucknow, The Golden City of the East, Monu moved here six years ago, working at first as a taxi-driver, now as a chauffeur. He’s a Top Driver, for which I thank him on a daily basis, but a mite over-fond of the air-conditioning, which he sets to permafrost. If we have more than four hundred yards to go, Roland and I arrive with blue noses.
On the dashboard, underneath the paper Indian flags, Monu has a tiny model, one and a half inches tall, of the elephant-god, Ganesh. “Son of Shiva and Parvati,” I say, showing off. Monu turns to me, facing backward, driving forward, and says, “You know these thing?” Of course, I know these thing. I’ve made it my business to know these thing. Shiva unwittingly cuts off his own son’s head. Parvati is – forgivably, I feel – somewhat upset, so Shiva cuts the head off the first living thing he encounters, an elephant, and attaches that, bringing his son back to life. Ganesh, lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. An obvious choice, in the hurly-burly of Mumbai congestion.
Monu tells us his father has three dairy cows and three buffalo. “Cow milk good for ladies,” he says. Buffalo milk’s richer, apparently, so more suitable for men, although I don’t know if he means that the chaps deserve the extra calories, or that the ladies are afraid of them. On the farm, they have a four-year-old dog, called Rajah.
I point out saris I like, as we drive along, and Monu laughs at me, saying his favourite colours are black and white - how like a boy - although his Mum tries to make him choose blue. We’ve covered the essentials, there’s nothing else I need to know about Mrs Singh: she loves her dog, and her favourite colour’s blue. Across the cultural divide, I shake hands with Monu’s Mum.

Longo post tempore

I consider throwing my new laptop out of the window, for it to chance its electronic arm from the thirty-third floor, because it’s of more use to me as a kite, than as a computer, today. I resist the temptation, and watch “You’ve Got Mail” ironically, because I patently haven’t. The delusion of being settled disappears with the internet connection. What I thought was a crutch, to make walking easier, turns out to be an exoskeleton, to make walking possible. Then, the magician from INTEL comes, to restore connection and sanity, and I’m not even allowed to offer him a cup of chai.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Small change

When the traffic lights turn red, the beggars come calling, tapping or scratching at the window of the car. More often than not, the women carry a baby, swaddled in tired rags, or tote a small barelegged child on one hip. When the child’s old enough to walk, he begs for himself. They tap, and point, first at you, then themselves. The signs they use are unmistakeable: food, and money. They’re insistent, pressing their case on one side of the car, then the other, assessing, scratching. The open-sided tuk-tuks are more vulnerable, their passengers often harangued until the lights turn back to green. When their customers move on, the beggars drift back to the middle of the road, and wait for the traffic to stop again. They’ve got all day.
In more than three weeks, I see not a single rupee exchange hands. Monu says this is normal, people don’t give to street beggars. Other beggars, lining the way to the temple, have proper pitches, and fare better, with clients on their way to worship. Meanwhile, at the traffic lights, the women bring up their babies in carbon monoxide fumes, in the full glare of the midday sun. I would do nothing to perpetuate this system, but it goes against the grain, turning my face away.
Each time the car stops, we are besieged by salesmen, too, toting their wares. We’re offered squares of orange cloth for polishing the car, tiny lemons and chillies strung like pendants, toy helicopters and cars, crayoning books, Indian flags made of plastic or paper, punnets of strawberries, bags of white grapes, and even, on a Sunday, strings of bright orange flowerheads. A man, with an armful of shrink-wrapped novels, peers into the car, sees our white faces, and clicks his fingers, summoning the child-beggars from further down the line. The smaller one’s possibly three years old, already adept at miming his hunger and despair.
Two very pretty, dark-skinned girls, in acid-bright saris, clap their hands, laughing, and sing little snatches of song to each other, as they work the line of stationary traffic. They look so carefree and happy, I don’t quite understand that they’re beggars, at first. It’s as if they’re doing it for a dare, laughing at themselves, for being in such a situation. I find more pathos in them, than in the tiny children with big eyes and dusty feet.
The only angry beggar we see has a growth on the side of his neck, half the size of his head. He gesticulates aggressively, and hits the car refusing him, before moving on, shouting. It’s the only time I feel threatened.
Money’s hard-won, in Mumbai. Tiny lock-up shops line the streets in their thousands, selling washers, or inner-tubes, or cane chairs, or motor-cycle helmets. Everything looks third-hand, and slightly battered. Old stock, unsaleable even by Mumbai standards, they sling on the roof, a retail graveyard. The whole city’s a permanent garage sale. I never see anyone actually buying anything, but I’m told business goes on. The stallholders work fourteen or sixteen hours a day, hoping to take two or three hundred rupees. Less than four pounds. Enough to keep them off the streets, just about.
Received wisdom says don’t. Don’t give to the street-beggars. It’s very hard, when they’re pulling at your pockets. If you give to a child, your money’s likely to be taken from him by an overseeing adult. Often adults who beg don’t get to keep what they’re given for their own. Giving to help ironically serves to keep them on the streets. But, don’t ignore them, either. If you contribute to an organised charity working in Mumbai, there’s some hope of doing a little permanent good. And keep your pockets full of sweets, for the little ones.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Week-ending in Mumbai

Alone and friendless in Mumbai, what’s the obvious thing to do? Quite. We join le Club de France. Well, Le Club d’Angleterre’s not conspicuously beating a path to our door, so we take the proffered hand of welcome, which is French. Vive l’entente cordiale!
Our first soirée’s at The Meridian (or “Lee Meridien,” as Monu calls it). They’re still putting the twinkly lights on the Eiffel Tower, when we arrive (“Vous êtes les premiers!”), so we accept the ten-point penalty for uncoolness, and slope off to the bar upstairs, to wish away a bit of time. Eventually, we have du vin, du pain, and even du Boursin. Nothing has been overlooked, in the desire to bring a bit of home to these ex-pats. I wonder what stranded Englishmen are offered, by the Bulldog Branch –Yorkshire pudding? Marmite sandwiches? Or Jammie Dodgers, perhaps? Washed down with a pint of Tetley’s best - tea or beer, au choix.
As well as feeding our faces, we meet some très sympa people. In fact, it’s a lovely evening altogether, marred only by my eating the crunchy end of my crevette as well as the squashy end. In fairness, the lighting’s subtle. Roland ought really to think twice, before taking me out into society... More and more, we realise that we have a whole new world of social gaffes to go at, here. Every step’s fraught with the possibility of unwittingly doing something unacceptable.
For the first time, we go for lunch to a real Indian person’s real home, and the welcome is warmer than the weather. I’m a bit worried about the leaving-the-shoes-at-the-door thing, but am so busy crossing the threshold itself, I forget until I’m parked on the sofa. I notice our hostess’s Mum also wearing her shoes, so feel better. Later, I discover she can’t tolerate the cold marble on her feet, so she leaves her outside shoes at the door, and wears inside ones indoors. Slippers, then. But it’s too late, I’ve brought the pavement in. It makes sense in the monsoon, when everything outside is germ soup.
We sit and eat. Roland and I hawkishly watch our hosts, so we don’t do the spiced equivalent of pouring custard on our fish pie. No-one else has cutlery. Eating one-handed is a challenge – you try it! – but even more so, when the hand you desperately want to use has to lie unloved in your lap. Unsurprisingly, I’m rubbish at it, and frequently resort to a surreptitious shovel-up with my spoon. I’m allowed, at the repeated insistence of our gracious but annoyingly dextrous hostess. “Be comfortable!” she says. A great day, to have chosen to wear white.
It must be harder, I think, for a person, used to eating with the fingers of the right hand, to have to learn to cope with a knife and fork, because they’re so unnatural. I suppose at some point, I used to eat with my fingers, I just need to remember better (and get a Pelican bib, perhaps...).
The food’s so lovely, and so copious, we have to wait a while for dessert to seem feasible. When we finally get up from the table, we’re replete, and, amazingly, I’m still Persil-white.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The One Tree Festival 2008

We go to a concert, The One Tree Festival 2008, in Bandra Kurla, Mumbai. Joe Bonamassa warming up for Robert Cray. No, I haven’t heard of them, either, but Rock Boy is very excited. The ground’s as big as two football pitches. We trample our way to the front, so we can see the sweat dripping off their brows, and smell the WD40 on the guitar pegs. There are four other people in the grounds, but we still manage to bag our pitch.
Traffic is the curse of this city, so we set off in good time, and meet none. We arrive, therefore, nearly two hours early, when the scrubby car-park has yet to be transformed into a magical arena. Even after whiling away time with coffee, we’re still unfashionably ahead of ourselves, uncoolly first in the queue. (We don’t learn: invited out for eight on Friday, we arrive at eight, and the men are still putting the decorations up and unloading glasses onto the bar...)
What Roland doesn’t tell me, before dragging me out of arm’s-reach of my wardrobe, is that the concert’s open-air. Not a sari in sight. Rock chicks wear jeans – well, not this rock chick, obviously. I’m dressed for an indoor no-I-won’t-have-another-olive-thank-you kind of an evening, not bivouacking on canvas in front of 10,000 watt speakers. Nor is it helpful, that people are now drifting by in fleeces, carrying backpacks of all-weather gear and storm-lanterns. The girl in front’s wearing not only a woolly, hooded jumper and scarf, but also fur-lined boots. We’re in the Tropics, the nail-paring of a moon is lying on its back, not balancing on its point, and she’s wearing fur-lined boots. You can see how, in my shivering georgette, I might hate her.
The stage set’s built with scaffolding more robust than anything we see on a multi-storey construction site, here. Well, it’s metal, for a start. Still secured with rope, though.
When the pre-amble recorded music starts, it’s so loud, it makes my sternum rattle. I think I can feel an attack of arrhythmia coming on, but Joe Bonamassa comes on instead. I patently have sole rights, as far as ignorance is concerned, because the Indian fans around us are all singing and waving and shouting requests. We’re not the only wrinklies, I’m thankful to note, Mumbai has its share of senior citizens with a taste for the blues. (Unlike the Van Morrison concert we attend in the UK, where the coach-trips are evidently booked through Saga...)
As a race, Indians are more finely-built than we burly Western types. How unlucky is it, then, that I spend the second half directly behind Mumbai’s largest son, not only tall, but broad-shouldered and shaggy-haired. I jiggle and bob about, trying to see. From behind, this may well pass for dancing, so it’s not all bad news.
Robert Cray turns out to be v.g.. Well done, Robert. Also by this point, I have Roland’s jumper (donated, not requested, nota bene), thus am feeling a lot more receptive to the Muse. The keyboard player and bassist are about 105 each, but, as the years roll by, I’m increasingly inclined to think that ageism’s wrong. Rob (I call him Rob) has the crowd eating out of his hand and baying for more. Well, I think they’re baying, but they’re very polite about it, which I think nonplusses Rob a bit. The pigeons tumble off their roosts with the final encore, and we slope off to find Monu in the car-park, before the mass exodus. Unbelievably, he’s asleep.
Still, we’ve done a rock concert now. Roland owes me at least one chapatti-making demonstration, a Happy Divali card workshop, and two cat-shows.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Day Trippers

We drive about a hundred miles out of Mumbai, to visit Pune for the day. No, you’re saying it wrong. Poonay. On the expressway - “very danger road” – Monu hits fifth gear for the first time. With no other traffic in sight, he lines up the centre of his bonnet with the white line, straddling both lanes, the Indian way. We’re learning not to be backseat drivers, so we say nothing. In fact, we’re learning not to be driving-seat drivers, come to think of it, more accustomed to gawping at the scenery, than watching the traffic. All roads will be “very danger,” once we’re back in the UK.
The roadside slums, on the way out of the city, are different from anything we’ve seen so far. The pavement-people we see every day get on with the life they’ve got, without seeming resentful or disappointed, or depressed. As the streets of Mumbai give way to open countryside, her very last citizens look like they’ve gone through despair and come out the other side. Weariness and resignation are engrained in their faces, like the dirt in their skin. Think poverty, and drag out all the adjectives: grinding, unremitting, relentless – it’s all of that, and more. We see what despair is, the absence of hope.
By the side of the express-way, fruit-growers set up stalls, to attract passing motorists. Imagine pulling over on the M42, to buy a bag of apples, on your way home from work. Cuts out the middle man, though, out of the field right into your hand, still warm from the sun.
We don’t make it as far as Pune city centre, the office we’re visiting being in the suburbs. Another building site. Isn’t India going to run out of bricks? I ask, and everyone laughs, but it isn’t a joke, it’s a question. In the video-conferencing room with its tinted windows, they discuss the convenience of technology. I sit on the black marble sill, and look down at the workers’ shanty-town at the gates. There are goats, picking over the rubbish heap, a hen, busybodying about with her string of chicks, and three men, sitting round a sulky fire. A woman flannels down two small boys, and they run off, laughing, before she can whip a t-shirt over a wet head. This overlaps completely with my own experience of small naked boys, she has my every sympathy. The workers can afford neither the time nor the money to commute, so they build their makeshift homes next to their jobs. However luxuriously appointed a new office-block or hotel, at its foot, there will always be a pâté of corrugated iron and flapping tarpaulin roofs, with barefoot children and dogs playing in the dust. It must be miserable in the rainy season.

We drive to another development park, where more office-blocks are sprouting. Millions of dollars of investment, and they still use bamboo scaffolding. The money’s there, it just needs to percolate through the social strata a bit. They seem to think it will, eventually.
On the way home, we pass an outdoor production line. Workers pack clay into moulds, tip them out, then leave them to dry in the sun. It seems that India isn’t going to run out of bricks, after all.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

How can you get a sunburnt nose, and have to wear socks in bed ON THE SAME DAY? It’s a mystery only India can unlock. I thought we Brits had sole rights to preoccupation with meteorology, but the weather headlines the news here again today. Temperatures in Mumbai are the lowest recorded in over fifty years (maybe we brought it with us? I felt at the time, they should have been more thorough, checking our cabin-bags, at the airport...). Maximum temperature today, a mere 24 degrees. This would trigger firing up the barbie, and asking next-door round for a sausage in a bun, in some countries, like England, for instance. Here, though, people are wearing coats. Further north, following snowstorms in Pulwama, the whole Kashmir valley is cut off, stranding thousands of Haj pilgrims. According to Your Day Today on NDTV, essential supplies are running out, as even the emergency trucks are failing to get through. I have every sympathy, since the entire social fabric disintegrates back home, with a surprise overnight powdering of snow. In the absence of a war, it counts as adversity in the suburbs, though, and people in bus queues break their stiff-necked reserve to talk to one another, for a change.
Here, once the sun goes in, the temperature plummets. Tonight, it’s expected to reach 11 degrees, too cold to sleep on the pavement, whichever country you’re in. Driving home in the dark, we see little fires springing up every few yards, so that, by the time the daylight is completely quenched, the pavements are studded with flames. People living on the streets husband every unwanted cardboard box and packet, carefully flattening and folding them for onward sale – I can’t help but wonder what they’re finding to burn, to keep warm.
On tv and in the newspapers, the debate continues about global warming, condemned as having created this extraordinary weather. Blame, of course, is laid at the communal feet of the developed world. And yet, the roads here are so silted with traffic, it can take an hour and a half, to drive two miles across the city. There are many – from traffic police to pillion passengers - who wear protective breathing masks over their faces, since the air’s blue with fumes. There’s much to be done in this part of the world, as well as in the West, to reduce carbon emissions.
It’s common enough, on the roads of Mumbai, to see a whole family on one motorbike – small child perched astride the petrol tank in front of Dad, driving, then an even smaller child wedged between him and Mum, bringing up the rear. Not a sight for the highly-strung – or indeed, anyone who’s ever been a parent. I look away. They’re proposing to replace Every Dad’s Hero Honda with a small car, to be launched at the end of the year. What can they be thinking? Other than crippling the circulation, and embossing our carbon footprint even more securely, what can they be hoping to achieve?
The cars in Kashmir are emitting nothing, however, as the snow jams the traffic flow. NDTV shows footage of drivers whiling away their chilly wait, playing snowballs across the bonnets of their cars. No English child, though, would recognise the snowman, who also stars on this morning’s news. He's thin, with a long head, and outstretched arms made of snow, rather than the cop-out twigs we always annexe. You have to admire the engineering. No carrot-nose. No coal-buttons. Hardly a snowman at all, then, in fact.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Divided by a common language

You’d think English would be a universal language here, since all children have to learn it in school. The thing is, not all children get to go to school. About 40% of India’s population can’t read or write, which does much towards limiting their horizons.
Uncertain English fluency on their part, and utter Hindi incompetence on mine, combine to make every shopping adventure into a circus. I try to buy a simple bag of pancake batter, at K-Mart, and, before long, have three assistants, the door-man, and a customer on her innocent way out, all “helping.” Meantime, I’m doing my much under-rated re-enactment of “coriander sauce” – but to no avail. A man in a long kurta and matching cap weighs in, with his two rupees’ worth. He has a beard but no moustache, a disconcerting combo which I don’t understand but overlook, because his English is good. I have barely concluded my well-oiled explanation, when the shop-manager virtually arm-wrestles him out of the way, so I sigh, and start again. I give him my word-perfect pancake tale, and he nods, knowingly. He goes back to the forgotten batter-seller, his version in Hindi being for some reason three times longer than the original. As he’s talking, he’s energetically heaving his way through the available selection of bagged dosa batter, before turning to me with a shrug. He tells me what I already know, in my heart: there’s no coriander sauce in there. I shrug back, Hindily. No sale, today. We part with smiles.
Labour’s without doubt India’s biggest resource, a glance at the building site or shopping mall will show you. Workmen load gravel and small stones into baskets, little larger than those I use to take bread to the table at home. They heft them onto their heads, then carry them to scatter onto hardcore, the forecourt of yet another new high-rise building. At least six labourers, plus their wives, all in flip-flops, not a hard-hat between them, in this back-breaking, soul-withering work. The next morning, the pile is gone.
We want to buy a kettle, standing – not unreasonably – in front of the kettle section of the small electrical goods aisle in Spencer’s (no relation to Marks &, I suspect). The orange-shirted assistants materialise out of the bare ether, flanking us in a neat pincer movement. “We’re looking for a kettle,” we say, not shy of stating the obvious. “Kettle!” they murmur, and summon reinforcements. Soon, we get the “kettle” mantra going, gathering adherents in a retail frenzy, until, finally, the boys resort to their secret weapon, Ramesh from vacuum-cleaners. He, with his superior communication skills, deserts his post to come to our aid, swiftly apprising himself of the situation. He turns to us, with a flourish, indicating the shelf in front of us. “Is kettle!” So glad to have sorted that one out, then. What can we do, in the face of such comprehensive salemanship? We buy a kettle.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Repair and Restoration

Little voices in my head say, “Lovely drying weather. Let’s wash all the curtains!” There’s no shortage of sunshine, but, up here on Floor 33, an outside clothes-line isn’t an option I’m prepared to consider, not without Suresh to do his heart-stopping trapeze number. (See view from apartment window: now do you believe me?)

So this is the system: Mr Francis says, “Any cloths, Madame?” and I hand over the laundry, coyly looking the other way. (Not underwear – I think you have to be married to a person for 28 years before they’re allowed to wash your underwear. I sneakily wash it myself - then, in the absence of radiators to deck with socks and boxers, drape the window-sills instead. In case you were wondering. And, frankly, even if you weren’t.)
Mr Francis washes our “cloths,” in my own washing-machine, here in the apartment. Whites and coloureds, pêle-mêle, together, but it doesn’t matter, because the water’s cold. Then he takes the sodden pile somewhere mysterious to be dried. I hope he has a machine for this, or at least an outside line, I can’t bear the thought of his house being festooned in our washing. It’s bad enough, if it’s your own...
Then – and this is the magic bit – he takes them to be ironed. A pile of clean shirts, each meticulously folded round a piece of newspaper, arrive in a crisp parcel, tied with thin string. It’s like having a new shirt, every day – except it’s better, only the front rectangle of new-out-of-the-pack shirts is creasefree, whereas these are perfect from collar to cuff. What can you say, for 10 rupees a pop? I struggle with my conscience for about four seconds, then decide the ironing-man is better at it than I am, and if I were to make a stand against slave labour, there’d be less lentils in the pot on his table tonight, so I give in. I undo the parcel, and wind up the string to keep. Citizen of Mumbai for less than three weeks, I’m becoming very Indian in my recycling ways.
There’s a problem under the sink, the kitchen’s awash. Suresh’s trousers are wet to the knee. Mr Francis summons the experts, then leaves. When the electrician and his side-kick arrive, it turns out the only English word they know is “electrician,” so an elaborate ballet ensues, culminating in their disappearing to buy a spare part. I feel very at home with this scenario, and settle down for a three-hour wait. Then the plumber arrives, but he also only knows one word of English. His, unsurprisingly, is “plumber.” After much smiling and pointing at watches, he goes away again, too. Within half an hour, Mr Francis brings him back. He sorts out the drain problem, and charges me 100 rupees (an iniquitous £1.20). It takes him longer to write out the receipt, than it does for him to unblock the drain. I’m just thanking him effusively, seeing him to the door (I’m not sure you’re supposed to offer cups of tea to plumbers in India, must check it in my Service Etiquette Manual), when the electrical men reappear. They show me the part – they have bought two to be on the safe side – so I try to exude admiration. It looks like a screwdriver stuck in a plug, as far as I can see, I’m none the wiser, but I nod. They fit it. We all nod, then say, “Thermostat,” in turn, like singing in a round. I pay them their fourpence and they go too.
An exhausting morning, one way and another. But at least, we have hot water again.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Posh Nosh in Mumbai

I’ve never been more aware of being left-handed, than I am here. One time, when I was a Girl Guide, selling raffle tickets at the Old Folks’ Hotpot Supper, some old bat said to me, “Don’t they smack you for that, at school?” – but this was inspired by random geriatric malice, not centuries of religious tradition. Next to us, a woman sits, eating with the bunched fingers of her right hand, while her left hand droops inert in her lap. If I had to eat with my right hand, I think, what kind of a vaudeville performance what that be? I’d feel – what’s the word? – gauche.
The inscrutable waiter, in his extravagantly swagged culottes, sets before us a selection of dips with a basket of crisps and poppadums. I home in on what I think is a crisp, cunningly shaped like a chilli. By the time I discover it’s a for-real chilli, cunningly deep-fried to a crisp, it’s too late; my teeth have melted. Who’d do that to a visiting ingénue? I imagine they have a scoreboard, on the back of the kitchen door. High-fives all round, to the lads in skirts. Meanwhile, my taste-buds are quietly doing double-somersaults with a back flip, not remotely assuaged by the fourteen litres of water the waiter assiduously pours. I just know he’s laughing, behind his lack of scrut. Anyway, I don’t need water, I need yogurt. Since I don’t have the Hindi, or indeed, the breath, to make this need plain, I carry on attractively spluttering and barking, until there’s not one single person in the restaurant, who isn’t looking at me. It’s difficult to appear gracious, when your eyeballs are on fire, and your tongue won’t fit back into your own mouth. Stylish. It puts being left-handed into perspective, though.
You have to try rumali roti, not because it’s delicious, although it is. It means “handkerchief bread” and that’s exactly what it looks like, piled onto your side-plate like a crumpled napkin. How dainty is that? I do realise that I perhaps shouldn’t mention “dainty” in view of the foregoing, but still...
We eat off banana leaves. I try to look as if we eat off banana leaves every day at our house, but small whoops of joy keep percolating out of control. I remember when black pepper seemed the height of culinary savoir-faire, and wish my Mum could see me now. I recall that I’ve already shot myself in the foot, as far as any pretence to gastronomic sophistication is concerned, here at Le Sheraton, but in my own defence, I manage not to eat the banana leaf. I know that this is largely because it’s a foot across, and I’m armed only with chopsticks. I also accept that, were it a starter on a doily of banana leaf, and they gave me a knife, I’d have a go, probably.
When the lemon consommé arrives, I remember to rinse my fingertips in it, rather than eat it, so we end the evening on a positive note, after all. The waiter’s smiling, but I can’t work out if it’s bonhomie or sympathy, so I resolve not to come back here for a couple of decades, or until my next incarnation, whichever is the later.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Traffic Karm-ing

I sit in the car, in seven lanes of stationary traffic. Our reservation at the restaurant is already forty minutes out of date. Monu’s singing under his breath, his face smooth. Every couple of minutes, we hiccup forward half the length of a tuk-tuk. Cars edge across sideways, changing lanes, jockeying for position with a chirpy admonitory beep. At home, windows would be opaque with frustration by now, cumulative rush-hour irritation accounting for at least a couple of degrees of global warming. Here, it couldn’t be more different.
All the faces I see – immobilised drivers, passengers who should already be somewhere else, side-stepping pedestrians – are wiped clean of emotion. They wait, not resigned, just passive.
Mother-child, husband-wife, colleague-colleague, friend-neighbour – the whole gamut of possible human interaction is here, most of it right in front of us on the pavement. But not anger. And, because I don’t miss it, it’s a couple of days before I notice.
Karma’s a word regrettably abused in the mouth of the West, with our Pic’n’Mix take on world culture. Anyone who talks about the colour of your aura, or tells you how to Feng Shui your fish-tank, will probably have a brief fandango with karma, before long, if they haven’t already. But the passivity all around us is definitely philosophical.
Karma is rooted in philosophy and religion, and has been fundamental to Hinduism and Buddhism for thousands of years. It’s the doctrine of causality. It’s not judgemental, but deals pragmatically with what is. Each person, therefore, is responsible for his or her own life. (As someone who devoted whole slices of her university life to putting Free Will through its paces, I don’t know how I can have read Siddhartha, and not noticed this. I was too busy flirting with existentialism, I think, batting my eyelids at Sartre and his chums...)
Karma’s like banking, you can only get out what you put in: beneficial effects can only result from past beneficial acts. (I used to tell my exam classes exactly this, relative to hard work and revision, but it applies equally well to the whole rich pageant of life.) It therefore follows that only evil can come from evil deeds. Work it out: we’re responsible for making our own hell, as well as heaven. In this philosophy, free will still exists, even though it seems you spend your days mechanically living out the price of what you did yesterday. Your active choice involves tomorrow.
The tricky thing I didn’t consider, in my undergraduate musings, was accumulation. All our thoughts and deeds have repercussions, but the tally doesn’t die with you. Reincarnation is central to Hinduism, so past lives also have to be taken into consideration. This explains, incidentally, how bad things can happen to seemingly good people. We can’t always attribute causality, because our knowledge of past lives is necessarily limited. It also clarifies how the Baddy sometimes appears to get away with his evil deeds – the fact is, he doesn’t, ultimately. And, taking the longer view, it explains the inequality of birth. Karma means inequality is not down to chance.
This One-Size-Fits-All philosophy explains both tsunamis and traffic jams. I look again at the peaceful faces in the idling cars on all sides, and it comes to me that nothing I can do will alter the outcome. Dinner or no dinner. So what? I feel strangely calm - or is it karmic? - and decide that this is something, along with the saffron spikes and embroidered slippers, that I definitely want to take home with me.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

What’s got a bottom at the top?

In his bathroom, I see, Mr Roland keeps Harpic Fresh and Easy-Off Bang by the shower. He must get very dirty at the office. Our conjugal electric toothbrush is also lurking there, I discover, so the nice grey one Jet Airline kindly supplied, to match my free pyjamas, can go into hibernation. Piqued, I instigate a forensic sweep, which reveals that he’s shamelessly annexed my emergency shampoo, too. I can’t help but feel that Perfect Curls is hopelessly aspirational in his case, but I’m on shaky ground for criticism. I’m the adman’s dream, happy to gobble my way through forty-six packets of Hall’s Soothers, in the fond belief that some strange man’s going to come and kiss my neck. No luck so far. So, I’m putting all my trust in Fa, the Indian deodorant I buy at D-Mart, which promises you it will “lead you into a new exciting world and spread a sense of paradise.” I’m aware that it’s a big ask for a small pink aerosol, but I spray in hope.
Advertising here often plays on the borrowed sophistication of the English language. We find chocolate chip cookies, called “Hide and Seek” – obviously the economy version - and condoms branded “Good Knight” – this could be a typo, of course, therefore unwittingly witty, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. This is jolly kind of me, because I’m actually scrutinising a pack in my hand, before I realise that “safe moments together” doesn’t refer to family holidays, as per picture on pack, so that I’m not in fact holding a disposable camera, as I imagined. Don’t run away with the idea that shopping‘s easy, in a foreign field...
We smile at the tiny savoury snacks, labelled “cheeslings,” and laugh at the range of biscuits with “Eet Sum Mor” emblazoned across each packet, like D H Lawrence doing his Nottinghamshire accent. As for the brand of sauces and spices known as “Git’s” – it’s just a Chris Tarrant moment, waiting to happen.
Enjoy a High Quality Holistic Coffee Experience!” invites the poster on the wall at Coffee World, in the Shopper’s Stop mall. I’m just pondering what this might include, when my coffee arrives. I’ve had latte perhaps twice, in all my long-legged life. Inexplicably, we land in Mumbai, on a determined quest for authenticity, and this least Indian of drinks becomes something of a craving. Sadly I’m left-handed, so I turn the cup round to drink, and the heart, lovingly piped in the frothing milk on the top, becomes a little bottom. Still cute, though.
Something missing in your coffee?” asks another poster. (Not in mine, for sure!) - “If it’s a smile,” it goes on, “your coffee is free!” Very kind, but a safe bet. A fortnight since our arrival, and I’ve yet to see a single angry person. Or, not even angry, just mildly vexed. At home, three minutes in Sainsbury’s car-park, or two in the average British classroom, and the air would be crackling with invective. (Which came first, Ms Catherine Are-You-Calling-My-Dad-A-Pikey Tate, or the British Schoolgirl, standard specimen?) Or maybe I’m just spreading a sense of paradise wherever I go, thanks to Fa?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mourning into Morning

Driving out in the evening, we pass a lumber-yard. At least, I assume, glimpsing the stacks of wood, that it’s a timber merchant’s. But no, it’s a Hindu crematorium. Then, I notice the ranks of chairs facing the pyre, and am perversely chilled. Yet, the more I find out about the way Hindus deal with death, the more I admire it.
A Hindu funeral generally takes place within a day of death. Makes sense, in a hot country. Hindus believe in reincarnation, but the soul can’t enter a new body until the old body’s completely gone. Cremation’s the kind way to go, therefore, if you’re looking out for your loved one on their way to Nirvana. By some anomaly, babies and unmarried people can be buried. These days, cremation often takes place in a furnace, familiar practice in the UK. Here in India, burning a body on a wooden pyre is still commonplace. At first, I think it’s barbaric, macabre even. Again, I’m driven to conclude in its essential rightness. We have anodised and sanitised death so much, it’s little wonder it takes months, years, even, to recover from a loss. This much more intimate, brutal contact with death means you have to deal with it NOW. Once you’ve sat watching flames consume a coffin, with the heat on your own living face, there’s no way you can kid yourself that it’s not happened.
The Zoroastrians, or Parsi, on the other hand, hold fire to be sacred, so it can’t be used to cremate the dead, nor can the earth be polluted by contact. Their primary concern is that the dead should not injure the living by contamination. These people expose their naked dead on Towers of Silence, to be consumed by vultures. Now, though, the vulture population of Mumbai has been decimated by infection, so a system which has been in place for centuries is under threat.
Here, white is the colour of mourning. The deceased is dressed in white, as are the principal mourners. If a woman dies before her husband, however, she wears red bridal clothes in her coffin. Western weddings must seem inappropriately lugubrious and ill-omened, to Hindu eyes.
The rituals around death are well-defined in Hindu culture. Everybody knows where you are and what you’re doing. On the way back from the funeral, the whole family have to bathe and change their clothes completely before entering the house again, which is itself purified by the priest. Then begins a twelve-day period of mourning, samskara, when the family keep to the house, because they’re considered impure. On the thirteenth day, there is a final ceremony, kriya, before the family resume their normal lives. You concentrate for that intense period of bereavement, then life beckons.
In my experience, bereavement means being catatonic for six months, with people crossing the road to avoid speaking to you. The Hindu way is so much more healthy, because it allows death a place. You bite on the sore tooth of loss, until the pain is its own anaesthetic. And then life says, “Enough!”

Friday, February 1, 2008

Easy Hindi for the Tourist

Easy Hindi for the Tourist – as well as being a paradox – is a priceless volume costing 100 rupees, which claims to be in its thirteenth reprint. There must be decades between reprints, is all I’m saying.
No less a person than Nehru is responsible for the uplifting introduction. I don’t think he was thinking of prefacing a pocket phrase-book when he said it, he was probably addressing the UN, but it’s highly apposite, and I fully intend poaching it, if ever I write a dictionary. He concludes, “There is nothing that the world needs today more than mutual understanding.” See, I said it was uplifting. It needs to be, if you’re proposing to tackle the arcane delights of Hindustani.
The book’s without doubt a bargain. As well as all the words, you get free advice on what you can bring into the country, so’s you don’t fall foul of the customs wallahs. It’s called, somewhat obtusely, “What You Can Bring.” You’ll want to keep the whole book under your pillow, for this page alone. Permitted in your packing, then: “ portable wireless receiving set, one portable record player with ten records... one canoe provided it is not longer than five and a half metres... one pair skis and two tennis racquets...” What kind of holiday do they think you’re hoping to have? In these uncertain days, though, you’ll be glad to know some weapons are NOT permitted, for example, “.410 muskets; pistols or revolvers above .32 bore...”( And they the gall to have a problem with my tweezers, at Heathrow...) Doesn’t mention anti-tank rifles or intercontinental ballistic missiles, though, that’s a bit of a loop-hole.
Every page positively crackles with more gems, than there are currants in a Christmas cake. For instance, a few telling questions, to help you interview a prospective employee: “Are you clean in person? Do you bathe daily?” No equal ops policy in place here, yet, it would seem. Should you need to repress the insubordinate, try this: “Fetch my stick!” I only ever say this to my dog, and he shrugs his canine shoulders as if to say, “Fetch it yourself...” I’ll give it a go with the Hindi, though...
The best section has to be Hunting and Sports. I’m definitely going to learn, “I’m going to bag a jungle-cock.” How useful will that be? Admittedly, I don’t particularly know what it means in English, but it’s sure to guarantee social advancement, at Ambassador’s receptions, and the like. Although, when was the last time anyone said, “I want to get a tiger,” and survived to tell the tale and sit on the rug? Apart from another tiger, obviously.
My favourite sequence has to be read as one side of a dialogue:
.....“Can we touch this?
......“Is he angry?"
......“Now we must go!
Small wonder it’s “a must for every tourist” – only a fool would take on the sub-continent without knowing how to say, “Send the bearer to my room!” I don’t begrudge a single rupee, and shall treasure it always. Meanwhile, should you need the Hindi for “sealing-wax” or “typewriter-ribbon” in a hurry, I’m your woman. Don’t bother with the cable office, like it says in the book, just text, and I’ll text you right back.