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.