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?