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.