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.