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.