Thursday, March 27, 2008

Elephanta Island

Today, we go to Elephanta Island. We have to cross Mumbai, to the south of the city, just a few kilometres away. It takes us two and a half hours. Diana says, you could have travelled from Middlesbrough to Liverpool in less time, but that’s Mumbai for you. The traffic’s in no more of a hurry than the pedestrians, weaving between the seething taxis.
We see a bullock-cart, parked up at the side of the road. The bullocks stand, still as stone, while their owners sell melons out of the cart at the back. Behind them, seven streams of traffic jostle on a four-lane road, beeping and pushing in. If you hesitate for a nanosecond, with a yard of road in front of the nose of your car, three tuk-tuks slip in. There’s an art to Mumbai driving, but you need Grade 8 Karma Proficiency, as well as a driving permit, in order not to die of apoplectic frustration, every time you want to go anywhere.
Elephanta Island’s a popular destination for locals, as well as tourists. Ferries leave every half hour, from the Gateway of India. 120 rupees, return. The sea slaps against the harbour wall, making climbing onto the heaving boat slightly interesting, but none of us contrives to disappear down the gap, to the disappointment of the gang of boys, porpoising around in the muddy water. After an hour in an open boat, some of us look like Medusa, and our skin’s tight with salt. On the island, a persistent guide hounds us, along the whole of the kilometre-long pier, to no avail. We’re accosted by wizened ladies with very dark skin and not much going on dentally, who offer to pose for us, balancing piles of stainless steel pots, taller than themselves, on their heads. Smile, please.
We have thali for lunch, in a bold manoeuvre. The floor show arrives in the form of a cow, putting its face in at the door. It doesn’t happen in Stokesley.
After lunch, and the culture shock of the “rest-rooms,” we set off in search of temples. Elephanta Island’s famous for its caves, carved out of the rock. Contrary to what you might suppose, no elephants. The island was named hundreds of years ago, after a great carving of an elephant at the entrance to the caves. The Portuguese tried to make off with it, but dropped it in the sea. Serves them right. Our hopes of pachyderms rest in Jaipur, so today, we satisfy our fauna requirements with the monkeys, which line the path to the caves, sitting on the walls, scavenging discarded corn-cobs and sweet wrappers.
At the foot of the steps, we’re offered a lift. Ordinary kitchen chairs, lashed to great bamboo rods, and two scrawny porters. The stone steps are uneven in depth and spacing, one hundred and fifty of them. It’s punishingly hot. We’re torn, as always, reluctant to deprive the porters of a living, but not wanting to play the rich exploitative westerners, either. We decline, and run the gauntlet of the tourist stalls on foot. We can understand the carved elephants and alabaster coasters featuring Ganesh and his chums, but are utterly baffled by the Eiffel Tower key-rings nestling next to them. Tourists are universal, and so’s the tat, I suppose.
Entrance to the caves costs 250 rupees for visitors. For Indian nationals, the price is 5 rupees. After a two and a half hour drive, an hour in a boat, a sweltering walk along the prom and then 150 steps to climb, we’re not about to quibble over the inequality of a 5000% mark-up, so we pay up gladly, and it’s worth it. The caves are amazing. As well as being a national monument and a favourite Indian picnic zone, the temples are in active use. We don’t realise until we see one of the official guides, slipping his shoes back on at the doorway. Inside, there’s a dome-shaped stone, looped in a circlet of orange flowers, incense burning on the ledge.
In the main cave, the massive three-faced statue of Shiva is magnificent, as they said it would be. The central image is supposed to be the most serene face in India, although Andrew says, it’s a pity he closed his eyes just as Diana clicks the shutter.
We sit on the wall, in the amphitheatre outside the temple, waiting for the drifting black kites to come near enough to photograph. We wait. And wait. Diana dismantles and stashes away her Bollywood-sized camera, and says, “Camera packed. Cue kites.” Sure enough, six of them wheel into view over the edge of the cliff, cavorting and diving. We can almost hear them laughing.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Haji Ali's Mosque

Today, in the company of our first visitors, we’re tourists. We go to Haji Ali’s mosque and Mahalaxmi Temple. As we climb out of the car, Monu, who considers all Muslims “very danger people”, says, “Go see temple. No talk to anyone. Just looking.” So I promise to keep my lip zipped.
The mosque - shrine of Muslim saint Haji Ali - is at the end of a pier. He died on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the casket containing his body floated back to this spot on Mumbai's coast. We pass dozens of stalls selling everything from garlands of flowers to boxer shorts. The flowers are not yellow and orange, for a change, but red roses and slender tubes of white blossom. We watch the stall-holder, sitting on his stall, not behind it, twisting the blooms together with white cotton. He’s so nimble-fingered, he barely needs to look at what he’s doing, like an old lady, with her knitting. Goats are chewing and jockeying for position at the water’s edge, and small naked boys are diving and splashing each other, as small boys are wont. On the pier itself, more vendors line up, selling lacework and CDs and glass bangles. Beggars, with stumps where a hand or foot should be, sit by their begging bowls. A tiny girl, cross-legged, pulls the apron of her dress taut, rolling a rupee around. A man sits under an umbrella, by an upturned crate, loaded with stacks of rupees. A woman gives him a ten-rupee note, accepts the change, and slips another coin into the child’s lap. The woman gives away all her rupees, one at a time, as she passes along the line of beggars. Some of them aren’t even begging, but lie curled in the sun, asleep.
The mosque's very striking, but the ranks of deformed beggars somehow overshadow its magnificence. The sun’s exhausting, and on the way back along the pier, we’re glad of the breeze coming off the sea.
At the traffic lights, a small girl walks round the car, giving it a perfunctory swipe with the rag in her hand. Monu lowers his window a crack, and gives her a rupee. She’s not thrilled, and patently asks for more. I ask Monu what she’s saying. “This say, money for new cloth.” This could mean a new blouse, or a new cleaning-rag, in Monu-speak, I’m not sure. The lights seem glued on red. The little girl’s laughing and waving. She’s now joined by an even smaller girl, so alike, they have to be sisters. Monu says, “This now say, ‘Welcome to Mumbai!’” I ask him not to tell me anything else, I’ll be putting in adoption papers before the lights turn green. The smaller child’s waving her arms about like a windmill, and accidentally socks her big sister in the eye. This wipes the smile of her face fairly pronto, and she starts to cry in good earnest, big juicy tears, breaking off momentarily to administer a retaliatory clout, to make her feel better. Then the lights change, and we pull away, leaving them wailing and squabbling by the roadside.
Since we’re unashamedly tourists, today, we also do the Dhobi Ghats. It’s a huge open-air laundry by the river. From the bridge, it looks like a shanty town, with row upon row of concrete pens containing tanks, filled with what looks to be dirty water. The dhobi wallahs work barefoot, standing in the water, soaking the dirty linen one piece at a time, then thrashing it on the concrete flogging-stone. Not the sort of laundry you could set up any old where – it’d certainly be too parky in Gomersal, for instance. The washing’s then thrown into vats of boiling starch, and finally hung up to dry. The view from the bridge is different every day, as the linen changes. They process half a million items a day, each piece marked with symbols decipherable only by the dhobi wallahs, so the clean clothes can find their way home again, beautifully pressed and folded in newspaper, tied with cotton string.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Fancy Dress

To my great chagrin, thanks to Kevin from Vodafone (lovely boy, but patently from Mumbai rather than Stoke-on-Trent, for example), I discover that I’ll never be Mrs Caroline. He asks (on my mobile, what a nerve) for Mr Roland. He’s out, raking in the shekels, I say. Kevin says, “You Mrs Roland?” So I stop thinking wistfully of Deborah Kerr as Mrs Anna in The King and I. This is more Princess Michael of Kent, but without the tiara. India’s no place for a liberated woman, despite the “Empowering Women” lettered on the back of the tuk-tuk in front. Feminism isn’t scheduled to take India by storm until about the twenty-third century, and I can’t wait that long.
You can tell a lot about a person from the way they dress, and it’s not just whether their jeans are Asda or Armani, here. You can tell where a person’s from, whether they’re married, what their father does for a living, almost when their cat last had kittens – all from the way they wrap their sari. It’s a social code we’re not privy to.
Mumbai straddles the sartorial culture-gap. We stand still for two minutes, at the entrance to In Orbit shopping mall, and see men dressed in jackets over wrap-around skirts, and women with sequinned kurtas over jeans, as well as polyester trousers and saris. You could stand blindfold, in front of your wardrobe, and select any random, mismatched ensemble, and you wouldn’t turn heads.
The Maharashtrian way to wrap a sari requires a longer length of fabric: the final twist passes between the legs before being tucked in. It results in a sumo-wrestler culotte-style effect, which, in my humble vanilla opinion, is much less elegant than its undivided Gujerati equivalent. While we’re waiting for Mr Roland to try on a swathe of kurtas, in Fabindia, the assistant tells me that the divided skirt is old-fashioned, but her grand-parents and their chums still favour it. I’ve seen the sari worn this way, in Mumbai, I tell her, but only... and then I hesitate, because I can’t say what I need to say, without appearing judgemental. “By street-sweepers,” she finishes for me. She takes the words right out of my mouth, with a smile and a shrug. “More practical, for the physical work.” Too right.
The traditional outfit comes in three pieces, the fitted bodice, or choli, the petticoat, and the sari itself. You pay more, to have saris laundered, because of the length and the extra starch. In my book, a fourth element’s pre-requisite, a slender brown midriff. Indian ladies of considerable proportions walk about in broad daylight thus exposed, without twitching drapes and folds into camouflage for comfort. I can only assume they acquire the habit before they acquire the embonpoint.
Trouser-wise, you have two options. The salwar, or the churidar. These are essentially the same at the top end – about as slinky and fitted as the average binbag, with a draw-string – but the salwar ends in a neat cuff at the ankle, whereas the churidar goes on for another half a yard, tapering off to a point. My churidar is taller than I am, when I hold it against me. You have to thread your feet in, and all the extra length sits in rings at your ankles. “Churi” means “bangles” and “dar” means “like” – on me it’s inevitably more Nora Batty than bangles, but you get the drift.
The salwar-kameez, the long tunic or shirt, over the baggy pyjama bottoms, is like a tracksuit, but glossier. So far, so good - then they give you the dupatta, the stole, which sorts out sheep from goat, in a flick of beaded chiffon. Indian women adjust their scarves unthinkingly, as you might smooth back your hair behind your ears. We, in the West, are out of our comfort zone, with two yards of georgette slithering off our shoulders. When they wise up to the market, and set up evening classes in dupatta-fettling, instead of flower-arranging, for hopeless ex-pats, I’ll have my name down quicker than you can say khadi dhoti.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Son of Holi

The after-effects of Holi are clear in Powai today, pavements spattered with purple and green paint. We even see a street dog, anointed in Holi magenta, though when he’ll be washed clean, is anyone’s guess. As they daub our faces, the Indian revellers assure us that it all comes out in the wash, so we’re happy to be streaked pink and orange. Then an American (with an Indian wife and two ravishing little sons) whispers to us, “If you don’t wash it off soon, it’ll stain. Use baby oil.”
Obviously the staining properties of Holi colours are maximised on a pasty canvas. It’ll need more than a little water to clear us of this deed, despite Lady Macbeth’s optimism. Even after scouring, Roland’s still a redneck, and I have to bin my underwear. They don’t tell you this, in the guide-books.
From Land’s End to John O’Groats, there’s not a schoolboy who wouldn’t love Dhundi. She’s an ogress, and not conspicuously lovable, at first sight, but in Hindu religious mythology, she’s a bit of a star. Although very powerful, she’s cursed by Vishnu, to be susceptible to the taunts and pranks of village boys. A bunch of them band together, and vanquish her with their abuse. At Holi, therefore, boys are allowed to shout rude words, without anyone taking offence. Can you just imagine....
The Festival of Fun and Frolic also costs us two pairs of shoes. We go down to the Loft in the Galleria. All the assistants have bright pink palms, and would patently rather be still at the Holi party they had to leave to come into work. Roland buys some man-sandals, which he insists on wearing home, so the shocked shop-boy has to bundle up a pair of sodden Holi shoes. All the ladies’ shoes are only fit for Barbie, in my opinion. Even venerable grandmas, here, wear spangled flip-flops, Start-Rite doesn’t come into it. I have to be careful, with my tricky ankles and wonky insteps: no Indian lady would poke a slender brown toe near the shoes I choose. Mr Roland’s man-sandals are so expensive, he gets a thousand-and-one-rupee credit-note, so my unlovely shoes are free, which is the best I can say about them.
People drenched in colour lose their identity: at Holi, caste doesn’t matter. In practice, this liberalism has constraints. I see young boys tentatively approach a doughty dame, paint in hand, to douse her in Holi colours. She clearly says, “No!” and the boys wither away, to splat their mates instead, to much better effect.
The music and dancing at Holi are supposed to rejuvenate the system. The colour from the paint is said to penetrate the body and improve health and beauty. Dancing round the Holika fire kills bacteria, and cleanses the whole body. To ensure the flow of positive energy, people rid their house of clutter. If only it were so simple....

A show of hands at the Culture Shop. Bura na mano, holi hai!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Happy Holi!

Take Christmas, New Year, and a fistful of the best birthdays you’ve ever had, and put them all in a balloon. Fill the balloon with red paint, then pop it over someone you love. They’ll know it’s because you love them, so they’ll laugh. And that’s Holi, essentially - the Festival of Spring, of Romance, of Fun. You can’t hope to put your nose out of your own front door, on this day, and not be swept along with the revellers.
Bizarrely, Holi takes its name from the villainess of the piece. Holika was the sister of the demon-king, Hiranyakashipu. To cut a long story short, he got a bit above himself, and wanted everyone to worship him instead of the gods, but his son, Prahlad, refused. His Auntie Holika had the gift of being able to go through fire without burning, so the king asked her to kill her rebellious nephew, by taking him through fire. The plot was foiled by Lord Vishnu, who had Holika consumed by the flames, preserving the life of Prahlad, his faithful follower.
On the eve of the festival itself, bonfires are lit, to commemorate the defeat of Holika, celebrating the victory of good over evil. People take the embers home to kindle domestic fires, and spread good fortune and prosperity. On Friday, we see bonfires, festooned in ribbons and bows, waiting for night to fall.
Krishna, word has it, was very dark-skinned, but his mate, Radha, was much fairer. When Krishna complained to his mum, Yashoda, she said, “Paint her, then!” – Or words to that effect, in more elegant Hindi. So he daubed colour on her cheeks, to redress the tonal balance. From such small beginnings, an entire technicolour epidemic springs – Dhuledi, the Festival of Colours.
By the roadside, the vendors squat, doling out bags of powder from a rainbow of paintpots. The lock-up shops are selling pump-action water-pistols faster than they can unpack the boxes. Even sedate Powai is febrile with anticipation. We’re quite excited, and we’ve no idea what’s going on.
We get more of an idea, when we’re jolted from our still jet-lagged bed this morning, by hundreds of decibels of joy. Craning from every window, we can’t locate the source. Like fools, we SHOWER first, then go down to investigate. And there it is, in our own backyard – or rather, front parking-lot. It’s mayhem, with a hosepipe in his hand. You can either dance, or join in the water-fight. Only small babies, old ladies, and very old gentlemen, are excused. One of the maintenance men stands on the porch roof with an industrial hose. He’s very catholic in his spraying.
How long do you think it takes Roland to join the fray? I’ll tell you. He takes four, maybe five photos, then he gets splatted by the local small fry. Ask any of our own home-grown water-fighters, and they will tell you, he doesn’t do defeated, in these circumstances. So, it is seconds before he commandeers a bucket, and is drenching tiny Holi-persons. Yes, I know he’s a lot bigger than they are. Tell Roland.
Meanwhile, I’m spectating, trying not to look as if Roland’s anything to do with me. Bit tricky, with giveaway matching pasty faces. I’m invited to dance, but I need to fathom the punch-bowl first, and a) it’s eleven in the morning, and b) there isn’t one. A mother brings a very small baby to me, to paint orange stripes on my cheeks, and wish me a happy Holi. It’s very moving.
A man in a newly tie-and-dyed kurta comes to ask, "You want to dance? I get my wife to invite you." How organised is this society? I can't ask you to dance, but I know someone who can...
Eventually, I succumb, without benefit of punch-bowl. The maintenance-man-on-the-roof-with-all-the-power has got it in for me, and I am wet to the bone, within seconds. After that, you can’t get any wetter, can you? I tell the lady I'm dancing next to, that I had a shower this morning, and she says, "Holi day, nobody showers!" I consider myself told.
Holi’s the time for brotherhood and unity. Drenched in colour, people lose individual identity, so caste ceases to matter. We talk to more people in twenty minutes, than we have in two months.
There’s a respite, for cleaning and drying, then a shared feast. Our tickets – in Roland’s pocket throughout the water-cannoning – are shreds of pink pulp, but the concierge laughs, and waves us in. Welcome to India, and Happy Holi!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Home, Sweet Home

Powai, we’re told, is “an up-market residential area.” We think fondly of leafy Cheshire, or manicured Mayfair. As it turns out, Powai’s a building site. There’s at least one dog per square yard of pavement, that’s if there is a pavement – most of them have been deconstructed, because the builders forgot to put in the phone/electricity/gas/water, so there are piles of do-it-yourself pavements lining every route. Pedestrians can teeter along a ledge skinnier than a spice-rack, or take their chances with the manic tuk-tuks on the open road. One peremptory beep, and they consider you warned. Anything that happens is your own fault.
Returning to India, I have a broader perspective on local real estate. I can distinguish the city pied-à-terre of Bollywood actors from no-lakh under-flyover housing, for example, with hardly any hesitation at all. Now I better understand the Mumbai property spectrum, I see that Powai’s quite like Hampstead, after all. There’s even a park, at the foot of our building, though when I go to investigate it, one afternoon, it’s closed. It opens again at eight in the evening, when Powai’s out and about for a pre-prandial constitutional. At the swings, I count eighteen mothers, accompanying children swarming across rope-bridges or hurtling down slides. The fathers huddle for political warmth, the other side of the fence. It’s late, for the two-year-olds, but no self-respecting toddler toddles anywhere here, in the heat of the day.

This is our building, Verona. Its twin sister’s called Avalon. Only ten years ago, this area was still jungle, with real tigers. Then Mr Hiranandani had a great idea and a serious bunch of rupees to spare, and, abracadabra, Hiranandani Gardens were born. We live at the top of Verona. Only the lift housing is above us, and some very brave pigeons. I try to go up onto the roof, out of goaded hardihood, but it’s locked. I’m not that sorry.
There’s allocated parking, within the gates, for residents. It takes four men, to paint yellow lines on the brick sets, marking the individual bays. Two squat, one holding the paint-brush, the other, the pot of yellow paint. The supervisor and the foreman stand over them, inspecting. Good job, though, no wobbles on the cobbles.
The entrance hall’s very flash, with its huge columns and marble plaques. The elegance takes a knock every evening at about seven, when the foyer turns into a playground. All the resident under-tens congregate for a screech and a punch-up, with the usual child paraphernalia of bikes and cricket bats and doll’s prams and mothers.
There are three lifts, but it’s not up to you, which one to use. The lift decides. It’s a Miconoic 10, so you can believe it probably knows better. You tap in your floor number, on the huge key pad, and it has a think, then tells you where to go and stand. Try not to get Lift C, though, I have my doubts about that one. “Walk into your assignated elevator, and enjoy the ride.” Every wall’s mirrored, which is a bit disconcerting, when you stroll in, unthinking, with your street face on. The air-conditioning’s just a fierce fan in the middle of the ceiling, so wherever you stand, you end up looking like Janis Joplin on a bad hair day. The lift pings when it gets to your floor, and ushers you out. I invariably turn in the wrong direction, so have to pretend I’m just counting the flip-flops outside next-door’s, before going home.
And this is home. We’ve done our pasty-faced best to make it cosy (not easy without the shag-pile and the dralon, believe me). When you come, you don’t have to be nice about the sofas(inherited) but watch what you say about the cushions and the hangings (lovingly chosen by me and chauffeured home by Monu). And don’t set too much store by the Bombay Mix on the table, either. It’ll probably be gone, by the time you get here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Weather Changes

Mumbai’s so close, I have to fasten my seatbelt and turn off “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” (In the night, I watch the first forty-nine minutes of “Atonement” – twice - before my personal in-flight entertainment system freezes – twice – so that’s two more dvds to root out at Planet M in the Galleria, the nearest thing we have to Blockbuster here in Powai.) Peering out of the plane window, it looks like someone’s spilled sacks of slates, pêle-mêle, all across the city: the one-lakh housing estates. We lose height, and can see tiny people, going about their ordinary Thursday business. It’s midday, so they're in no hurry. When the temperature gets over thirty, the urgency goes out of things, somehow.
We stumble out of the plane, glad to be upright. Two paces beyond the cabin door, even though we’re still in airport corridor, we smell the city. It’s the puff of air you get, when you rip open a bag of damp cement, not fragrant, but appealing, somehow. Add in frying spices and drains, and you have a lungful of Mumbai.
The heat of the white sun nails us to the floor. Taxi-drivers and tourists haggle for deals, but we wave them off complacently, and find Monu again. “Sir, Madame,” he says, taking charge of the luggage-trolley, “today very hot.” I’m charmed, as always, by his perspicacity. I show him the woollen coat I had with me in Brussels, and he looks at it, as if it were a Martian toasting-fork. Indian people aren’t equipped, culturally or historically, to live in a British climate, where the cold forces them to pull ungainly Marks and Spencer’s cardigans over their beautiful saris. Then I think of how we cope in the heat, and the lumpy cardi suddenly seems elegant by comparison.
Even before we reach the car, we are under siege. Men grapple to wrench the case from Roland’s hands, to carry it a hundred yards, in the hope of a rupee or two. “This is car-park!” one of them says, helpfully, underlining the indispensability of the native guide. A lady, her sari end draped over the bundle in the crook of her arm, pecks at our clothes with her free hand, “This baby much crying, needing milks.” Her baby is silent. In fact, it isn’t even a baby. Sadly, we turn away and climb into the car.
At the roadside, we see a stall set up with rusty spokes, odd fragments of metal, and unnameable tools. It’s the umbrella-mender’s. There’s been no rain, here, since September. Until the monsoon starts again in June, he’ll have a lean time of it, but he appears unconcerned, lying on the pavement, among the tools of his trade, reading a newspaper, one eye on the lookout for passing parasols.
The tuk-tuks are still weaving their crazy dance, to the incidental music of constant car horns. In January, the airport-to-apartment transit was a nightmare of near-misses, of both collisions and cardiac infarctions. Today, we smile indulgently, like fond parents at the school nativity play. If there’s room for a nan-bread, between you and the next car, a motor-bike pushes in. If there’s room for a chapatti, a taxi squeezes in. If there’s room for a Wonder Loaf, you’re clearly not in Mumbai.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In Viaggio

For the first three days back in England, my nose is blue, and I have toes to match. I crank up the central heating to tropical, and wear all the clothes I possess, on top of each other, eventually adjusting to seven degrees of permafrost. On the London Underground, I’m shocked by the crowds, and the enforced proximity. Six weeks of languishing, toute seule, in the back of a chauffeur-driven people-carrier, have evidently taken their toll on my democratic spirit. Looking about me at my fellow-passengers, a pasty-face among pasty-faces again, I note that drab is the new black. The whole ditchwater spectrum seems very in. Amazingly, my own wardrobe starts with charcoal and gets progressively less bold, but this is to do with history rather than fashion, it has to be said. I’m accidentally à la mode.
Now we have to do it all in reverse, to the disgruntlement of our personal thermostats and body-clocks. I’m very much looking forward to sari-dazzle, when I get back.
When you travel, you have only to walk through the doors, into the airport lounge, to be in an alien world. Roland needs just the faintest whiff of aviation fuel, before he starts using expressions like “airside” and (worse) “deplane” - since when was that a word? Do they say “enplane” for climbing aboard, then? I will “get off the plane” in an anglo-saxon manner, I will even “disembarkà la française, but I draw the line at “deplaning.” I feel, in my etymological soul, that it comes from the same dictionary as “diarize,” so I abjure it. Anyway, the tubery/pipery of corridor they attach, these days, to the door of the aircraft itself, means that I am never sure where the plane ends, and the airport begins. What happened to stairs? How does the Pope kiss the ground, if he’s half way through passport control before he clocks that he’s somewhere else?
We have two suitcases, one large, one small. This is an excellent arrangement, when we come to divvy up the luggage for schlepping round the airport, because I get the Barbie one. I can’t pick up the bigger one, even when it’s empty. The lady at check-in, less impressed, states flatly, “Too heavy!” I’m instantly offended because I think she means me, then I realise she’s looking at our case on the scales. We have no alternative, but to unpack and repack it, right there in front of everybody. They’re all bored of queuing, what else do they have to do, but gawp at our disembowelled baggage? Why is it, however discreetly you tuck away your socks and knickers, in hidden corners, under piles of more socially acceptable outerwear, they always spring out first, as soon as you crack open the case? If it happens to you, next time I’m in the airport, I’m definitely looking away, I promise.
We land, no fanfares, no floor-kissing, for a two-day stay, in Brussels.
Within half an hour of arriving here, at the Crowne Plaza, I use all the towels and the whole collection of tubes and sachets of bath-time gunk. I try out the shoe-shine kit, claim the only spare pillow, and eat my one of the two complimentary Speculoos biscuits. I’m just lolling about on the bed, in the sumptuously fluffy hotel dressing-gown, flicking through tv channels in half a dozen languages, when I spy the minibar. It’s not even locked. I know what a Twix looks like, so I don’t pick that up. Ditto the Coke, the Toblerone, and the Bacardi. What I don’t recognise, is the tin on the bottom shelf, inside the door, so I do pick that up, and discover it’s an Intimacy Kit. Why would you keep condoms in the fridge? As I’m laughing, and reading the contents to Roland, I notice the note in the Minibar Tariff, which says the system is computerised. “Please be aware that all items in this minibar are sensored and removal will automatically incur a charge.” (In case you're interested, 8 Euros.) When Roland’s paying the bill, tomorrow, I’ll wait in the car...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hanuman's Festival

The narrow road to Hanuman’s Temple turns into a street market. It’s easy to see why pilgrims, picking their way to worship, might need stalls selling garlands and posies of yellow and orange flowers, or grapes and apples in careless heaps. Why would you need a pressure-cooker, though, or a rusty billhook? You can buy plastic earrings, spanners, Disney pyjamas, mobile phone rechargers, soup ladles, jewelled flip-flops or a Playtex bra, all on your way to church. By the side of the temple, a sunken swimming-pool, the public baths, with a lone bather in a white loincloth.

Where two or more are gathered, they’ll be wanting to eat, sooner or later. Providing snacks for the five thousand requires advance planning, especially if you need to make the oven before you can make any food. The stall-holders build clay-ovens right there, where the pavement would be, if there were one. They stoke up with sun-bleached logs, and cook in vast, blackened pans, like cart-wheels. An infant crawls around the feet of the head chef, investigating, but no-one shrieks, or hauls her to safety, nor does she come to any harm. At another stall, we see a boy of eight or nine, on pan-duty, leaning out at full stretch across the boiling oil, to rake in the fried snacks, like a croupier at a casino.
When night falls, Panaji spills out onto the streets, in all its finery, and the festival really begins. The first cart in the procession carries the music – what you might call, the band-wagon. The pianist and singer process, crab-wise, alongside the cart and its trumpet-speakers, following the temple route, flanked by eight musicians, stifling in braided hats and jackets. If you care more about volume and rhythm than harmony, it’s a joyful noise. The cacophony doesn’t disturb anyone’s sleep, though, because nobody’s in bed. Happily, every Goan child’s out and about, in his or her new festival clothes, clamouring for a balloon or a bag of popcorn.
The second cart’s more sparsely flowered; it carries nothing but a huge generator, which you can only hear between songs. On the other end of the cables attached to it, are the Bearers of Light, who appear to be waving long fluorescent tubes about, to cast a little clarity on the cart behind. This is the wagon the worshippers lining the street have all been waiting for. They compress together, in anticipation, then surge forward. Flowers cover the cart’s domed vault and walls. Inside, the god. A tiny gold replica of Hanuman. Robed priests marshall the milling crowds. There’s no hurry. This will take as long as it takes. People bring offerings on ornately decorated trays, lit with candles, or in supermarket plastic bags, or just in their bare hands. It’s the jolliest of Harvest Festivals. The priest takes the gift, heaps it into the wagon, does a bit of orange-and-banana-juggling, then gives the giver a pile of someone else’s offering. The giver returns home with it, and cuts it into many, many small portions, so that its benefit can be shared far and wide, amongst family and friends. The priests ensure Hanuman gets his allocation too: lay-workers hoist onto their heads huge wicker baskets of fruit, in a constant relay from the wagon to the temple.
You can’t help but like Hanuman, the monkey god, known for his musicianship and mischief. Blessed with divine powers, he’s also cursed with forgetfulness, so has to be reminded of his abilities before he can put them to good use. Humble, yet brave.
The procession finally moves off. It’s quiet and dark again. A lady, in a glittering sari, stands waiting, at the end of our street. A car pulls up, and she climbs in, carefully balancing her tray full of fruit and lit candles on her lap. We give each other our “Health and Safety” look, but we're used to it now, and, anyway, we trust Hanuman’s got his eye on her.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Viva Panjim

If you sneeze at an injudicious moment, you can easily miss the Viva Panjim restaurant, tucked down a tiny cul-de-sac, off a nondescript side-street in Goa. We spot it in the daylight – the taxis are swerving round the 2’ x 3’ placard parked in the middle of the road, so it’s hardly detective work. Still, it’s less chancy, locating the restaurant after nightfall, when the sun’s gone in and hunger’s come out again. Despite there being only five other diners (a Danish couple, here for Her Nephew’s Wedding, and three Germans we fail to bond with (whose fault’s that, I ask you?)), we’re squished onto a table-for-two the size of a small tea-tray. By way of ambience, fragrant spiced odours from the kitchen meet less fragrant emanations from the toilets, half-way, over our heads. After a while, I don’t notice.
One row of tables perches on the veranda, then there’s a slender passageway, then a second row of tables nestles against the wall. All the waiters are very thin, it seems. It’s probably on the job spec – “Two years’ experience in restauration, menu-English and seventeen-inch hips.” They are the politest, smilingest waiters I’ve ever met. Our one shows us the label on the cold, sweating beer-bottle, saying, “May I?” Don’t let me stop you, Rajesh...
We bend over the menu, sharing glasses – not the beer, the spectacles – until we give up and submit to superior knowledge, as always. It depends on how hungry we are, how long this charade lasts. The wine list is called, “Liquid Diet.” Someone must have known we were coming.
As we pore, tonight, a motorbike weaves its way through the dining-room, hesitating and stumbling as it meets table-legs and tourist-feet. The rider parks his bike, noisily, in the courtyard at the end of the alleyway, and goes into his house, already having a conversation with someone three floors away. We’re all poised, mouths open, forks suspended. No, really, who needs Eastenders? Within fifteen minutes, he’s out again, helmeted and goggled, to run the gauntlet of foreign diners. He comes back, with a bag of potatoes hooked over his handlebars. Twenty minutes later, he goes out again, for a newspaper. Then a third exodus, for nothing we can see. Either he has a very demanding and forgetful wife, or he’s making a strategic point. For us, it’s the cabaret, with carbon monoxide on the side.
We order Xacuti fish, a relic of Goa’s Portuguese days. You should try it, it’s gorgeous. The window by the kitchen has been taken out, and replaced with a fish-tank. We watch the chefs, chopping and laughing and arguing, through a watery filter, which we hope doesn’t include our dinner.
More customers arrive, and are sidelined, with smiles, into a holding-pen. We sit with full plates and glasses, pity mingling with complacency. We’ll do the unfashionably early 7.30 kickoff tomorrow, too. The would-be diners pile up, so the waiters drag out extra chairs and tables, filling the courtyard, much to biker-man’s disgruntlement. In the middle of the square, visibility’s reduced to zero, but nobody seems to mind.
As we eat, piped music soothes our digestion. Everything about this evening leads us to think we’ve slipped into an alternate universe – we’re on a Goan Le Mans circuit, with wallpaper fish, and Indian waiters serving us Portuguese food, listening to “Moon River.” I don’t know which car-boot sale this tape came from, but it’s a winner. Next up, it’s “Lara’s Theme” from Dr Zhivago, followed by “Tomorrow’s Another Day.” Then the waiter brings the cardamom seeds and the bill, and we float out, to the strains of “The Way We Were.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Don't Do-It-Yourself

IKEA has everything we need: desk, spoons, sheets, candles – in short, a homeful, under one roof. Unfortunately, IKEA’s not here. We try to buy a bookcase, in every shop which IS here, except the bookshop, funnily enough. Mumbai residents do own books, there’s a “Crossword” bookshop on every street corner. So, where do they keep them? CD racks, 10 a rupee. If only books were all five inches square. And lamps. If you don’t want to illumine a Star Wars set, or a brothel, you’re out of luck. IKEA would seem to be the ideal solution – yet the Kings of Flat Pack wouldn’t last a minute, in a country where “Do-It-Yourself” is virtually out-lawed. At the supermarket-checkout, I try doing-it-myself, to speed things along a little, but get an offended stare from the packing-man. Gently but firmly, he takes the washing-up liquid out of my left hand, and the carrier-bag out of my right. Without a word, I give in.
When we manage to find a desk (in a dress shop, obviously), we have to fill in a quadruplicate form with the usual essentials - bank account, inside leg, starsign, favourite ninja turtle, etc.. The Fabindia order book makes carbon copies in pink, yellow and blue, and we get the top white original to surrender on delivery. We check the date: it’s still 2008.
They don’t help themselves, these retailers. In The Dollar Shop (Mulund) – I’m not kidding – I ask my shadow acolyte, if there’s a kitchen-roll-holder on sale. “No have,” she says, sadly. “What’s this?” I ask, tentatively, holding up a kitchen-roll-holder. “Is tissue holder,” she says, dismissively. I buy it, behind her back. It’ll do for the kitchen-roll.
When I ring to check the progress of my new desk, I ask for Kabir, our only Fabindian friend in the world, but he’s on holiday. I’m passed along several other people, but as soon as the line clicks open, and I say, “Hello!” they say “Oh!” in great disappointment, and abandon me again. I hold the line, slightly incredulously listening to “Joy to the World!” and “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas,” as per my Mum’s “A Christmas Sing with Bing,” only played by a fairy orchestra, and without the voice. Marginally better than a synthesised version of “The Entertainer,” but, whichever way you cut it, it’s still surreal for the beginning of March.
Against all the odds, my desk’s a fortnight early. I wait in all day – nothing new there, then, Indian delivery men don’t have exclusive rights to that one. At six-thirty, when I’m ready to give up hope, the doorbell rings. Two men – one barefoot, one in his socks – carry the boxes in. “Where is desk?” one asks, which puzzles me at first, because if he doesn’t know, I’m sure I don’t. I eventually show them where the desk is going to live, and they set about unpacking and creating it in front of my very eyes. They hand me the little widget with a flourish, “Is finish, Madame!” This is where IKEA go wrong. All they give you are instructions in seven languages and a universal spanner for opening sardine-tins and horses’ hooves. It’ll take more than that, to make a master carpenter out of me. Give me a Fabindia aide-de-camp, with or without his socks, any day.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggedy-jig

We’re in the car, on the way to the airport, and no-one’s saying anything. At the lights, Monu furtively hands me a parcel, “Madame, is your gift.” Instead of wrenching it open with my teeth, as usual, I thank him, and politely ignore it. I’m learning Indian etiquette. (When I give Monu a framed picture of himself, for his Mum, he just says, “Oh!” in a slightly disappointed way, and stashes it out of sight. He does like it, though, I ask him two days later – “Very nice. I and my car.”) I look the other way, while the parcel sits on my knee, a small glittering tea-chest with its large plastic rose. Practical says, let Roland repatriate it to the apartment. Sentimental says, lug it with. No contest. So, I now have a suitcase the size of Portugal but a little heavier, a laptop in a bag crammed with toiletries as well, in case Jet Airways don’t give free toothbrushes to peasants in Economy, a coat for the hostile Northern climes, and my Monu-mental gift. I wonder when I’m going to get the cabbage and the Crackerjack pencil.
I very sad. Come back early,” Monu says. I suppose he means “soon” but I’m not in the mood to quibble about adverbs. I can’t give him a hug, because it’s Not Done, so I pat his hand meaningfully, and totter off behind Mr Roland. Before I reach the pavement, I’m already staggering, and I’m only carrying my passport. It’s going to be a long night.
In the airport lounge, everybody looks like they should have been in bed hours ago. It’s two in the morning, why wouldn’t they? In the absence of a bed, some sleep right there on the carpet, pillowed on all their worldly goods. I open my present. It’s Ganesh, Lord of Success and Destroyer of Evils and Obstacles. Perfect.
Then I don’t speak for fourteen hours, other than to say “Yes, please!” or “No, thank-you!” approximately four times each. (All good journeys should offer a new experience, and this is mine.) The air-stewardesses all look like Miss India, a cunning plot by the airline to make you feel even more dishevelled and travel-stained, in yesterday’s clothes. My eleventh-hour upgrade at check-in means I get another pair of Jet Airways pyjamas, to add to my collection. I’d quite like to add my breakfast china, too, but my pilfering hand is stayed by the lack of space in my hand luggage (see above). Am already going to be hard-pressed, squidging in my lovely new pyjamas and washbag.
We travel 36,000 feet in the air, at a speed of over 400 miles an hour. It’s my profound belief that flying’s against nature, so I watch the statistics bob about on the screen, in mesmerised horror. It’s minus 36 degrees outside (outside the plane, not just outside the comfort of Business Class). If you fell out, I wonder, would you die of cold, or lack of oxygen, at this altitude? I feel certain that Roland would know the answer to this, but where is he when I need him?
Every time a light doze threatens to establish itself, Captain Steve comes on the air, telling us to put our safety belts on, because we’re going through some tricky weather. Not much of a lullaby.

Ten hours later, we crunch down on English tarmac, all intact. “Good morning, and welcome to London, Heathrow,” says the Captain. “Local time is 7.45, and the temperature in London this morning is three degrees.” I look dubiously at my sandalled feet. I still have my Jet Airways slipper socks on, too. It’s not a great look, to be honest, but there’s no choice, if I’m determined to keep all ten toes. I collect my miscellany of hand-luggage, and head for the hatch.
Whoever said, it’s better to journey than to arrive, was clearly not going home.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Cottoning on

Gandhi didn’t always wear a loincloth, you know. Before he was the Father of the Nation, when he was still Mohandas to his mates down the office, he wore suits, like lawyers should. He adopted the loincloth to make a political point. Support local industry, or it will die. Importing machine-made cotton from the looms of Manchester would pierce the heart of the villages of India with their own spindles – “If the village perishes, India will perish.” The loincloth said, Freedom. The fabric of his simple dhoti was always coarse cotton, khadi - undyed, homespun, homewoven by locals. What they call, “the turban used for trousers.” Gandhi put his money where his mouth was – or rather, his wardrobe where his principles were. His dress never varied, whether he was meeting widows and orphans in rural India, or foreign kings and princes. When Churchill met Gandhi, he said the Indian leader’s ‘posing as a fakir’ was ‘alarming and nauseating.’ Not our proudest moment.
Gandhi’s symbol, the spindle, or charkha, is a traditional part of a bride’s trousseau, to encourage her to clothe her family from home. The charkha was the centre-piece of India’s national flag, until recently, when it was replaced by the Buddhist symbol of the wheel (confusingly, the chakra).
India invests a lot in her flag. According to the Code, it’s supposed to be made of homespun, khadi, neatly combining symbolism with practicality. Today, the demands of production over-run manual capacity, so this particular rule goes into soft focus, sometimes. The Code also dictates that no other flag or bunting should be placed higher than the Indian flag; it can’t be hung out of windows or draped on vehicles. (Think, World Cup football stadium.) We find an article in the Bombay Times, which shows Sania Mirza, a female Indian tennis-player, at an international tournament in Australia. She’s leaning back in her chair, her bare feet, crossed, resting on the table next to a small copy of the flag. The writer’s scandalised: the runner would have been punished - imprisoned even - for such rudeness, in India – disrespecting the flag, not only by slouching next to it, but by turning the soles of her feet in its direction. Think of the tourist tat foist on us, from Trafalgar Square to Blackpool Pier – Union Jack milk-jugs, Union Jack boxer-shorts, and even Union Jack toilet-paper. I wonder where we went wrong?
Nehru, the architect of modern India, educated at Harrow and Cambridge, was so impressed by Gandhi, he gave up his habitual western dress, and obliged his family to do the same. He embraced the homespun ethic whole-heartedly, putting the enforced idleness of political imprisonment to good use, weaving a pink wedding sari in khadi, for his daughter, Indira. This sari’s still worn by brides in the Nehru/Gandhi family to this day.
Gandhi, and then Nehru, upheld the importance of the homespun philosophy, because they wanted to wipe out discrimination on the basis of caste. Things have moved on since the 1920s. With the irony of wheels turning full circle, it’s almost inevitable that khadi now has designer chic. In 1990, Delhi designer, Ritu Kumar, launched the Tree of Life collection, which landed her on the world stage. She not only championed khadi as a fabric, she resuscitated interest in neglected traditional embroidery crafts. Villager spinners and weavers can barely keep up with demand. Nearly twenty years on, at our favourite Mumbai mall, In Orbit, the Ritu Kumar shop specialises in bridal dresses, prêt-à-porter, and fusion wear.
Meanwhile, on the building-site here in Powai, workmen wear western shirts and polyester trousers.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Cup of Kindness

At the Barista cafe, on Juhu road, I’m waiting for service. The young man swabbing the decks isn’t qualified to put the kettle on, seemingly, so he disappears behind a bead curtain, to find someone who is, before resuming his Forth-Bridge mop-duties. The kettle-wala asks me where I’m from, then swipes the sinuous music off the CD player, and puts on Shania Twain, in deference to my Englishness. I know she’s from Canada, but “Still the One” has no sitar, no tabla-drum, no poongi-flute, so Shania’s still the one for western ears. When he brings my latte, it’s got, “Welcome to India” piped in chocolate syrup on the froth, and I let the coffee go cold while I take its picture. When I go to pay the bill, I ask the waiter his name. He’s cagey, and asks me if I want to complain, because he saw me writing in my little black book. Trying to work out ten percent of not-very-much, for the tip, I assure him otherwise, and show him my shopping list. He tells me his name’s Pal. Never one to let a pedagogic opportunity go by, I start to tell him what “Pal” means in English, but he stops me. “I know, Pal is best friend. Now you have one more friend in India.” I’m only sorry I didn’t have oysters and champagne, so I could leave him a million rupees under my plate.
At Coffee Day, the best-known cafe chain in Mumbai, we order our usual - Americano for Mr Roland, latte for me, how unauthentic can you get? We could have had Masala Chai, but I’m not brave enough yet. Anyway, I don’t want a safe, sterile version, I want my Masala Chai from the Chai Wala on the street. If you’re thinking tea, stop right there. Chai’s half milk, half water, made with not only tea leaves but a blend of spices – cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger - all boiled up together, with enough sugar to make your fillings panic. (The Average Indian has a very sweet tooth – when we refuse sugar, they’re so amazed, they practically write it down, so they’ll remember to tell their Mums later.) If you’re having Chai, put aside all PG Tips associations, think rather of a fragrant cousin of hot chocolate. The street vendors serve it in small glass tumblers – we see them squatting to swirl them in milky water, for a quick rinse, then set them on the gritty pavement to dry before re-use. This is possibly why Madhur Jaffrey says, “Don’t!” But I’m going to, Madhur, very, very soon.
Our Coffee Day waiter brings the bill. “It’s been a pleasure to serve you,” is written in blue up the side. I admire the grammar, but lick the receipt, to see whether their till-roll is printed that way, to charm customers on purpose, or if it’s our own waiter’s particular note to two specific pasty-faced punters. Scientific analysis says it’s genuine, so I allow myself to be charmed. I stash the receipt in my handbag forever.