Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shopping Assistance

Mr Roland mutters some feeble excuse about having to go out and earn rupees, for me to sprinkle round In Orbit with such largesse, so I take Monu shopping with me instead. And do you know what? He doesn’t ask for a cup of coffee every twenty-five minutes, nor does he keep trying to slope off to Mr Raymond’s, tailors, to get himself measured for a rack of new shirts. Accha!
In Monu-world, all shops fall into one of three categories. First, “big mall shop, very nice, very famous.” Then, “small shop, no fixed price, very danger.” And lastly, the lock-ups: “small, small shop, all day open.” These include, by way of sub-set, the pavement shops, with nothing to lock up. Everything, from strips of pre-packed paan and cycle helmets, to coconuts and chandeliers, can be bought in the fresh air, on a Mumbai pavement.
When Monu comes to collect me, for our retail marathon, he’s got an orange bindi on his forehead. I ask, if he’s been to the temple. “Today, my god-day. First, go to temple, seven o’clock.” Ganesh gets up early, then. We drive to Malad, Monu’s home turf, and park at the kerb. He points down the street with a flourish. “Twelve and fifteen furniture shop.” (I will shoot the person who teaches him to say “to” and not “and” – “two to three hours” in Monuspeak is “two and three hour”- it makes me smile every time.)
Today, I’m after a sofa-bed. For the first three shops, we have a communication problem, then Monu says politely, “This is, folding-bed,” and the way forward unravels, on castors. The man, in the folding-bed shop, picks up the demo model off the pavement, and wrestles it into his lair. “Sit!” he barks at me. I smile, and shake my head, in case sitting concludes the contract. “You will sit,” he says, gritting his teeth, “please!” What can I do? I sit. “Five thousand five hundred rupee!” I'll take it, I think. Monu closes his eyes, and turns his face fractionally away, but I’m watching, and don’t get the sockful of rupees out of my handbag, just yet. Instead, I point at a mark on the fabric seat. Monu and folding-bed man chorus, “No this one! New one!” in horrified amusement. So I sift through the swatch-book, and choose a cloth. Then I check out several hundred more samples, to make sure we like the first one best. Isn’t it always the way?
Monu and the man strike up a heated debate, but since it’s in Hindi, all I can say for definite, is that they don’t mention lemons or bangles. (Nimbu aur churi.) The man’s getting a bit theatrical and aggressive, many gestures and throat-slitting mimes. I wonder if Monu’s making disparaging remarks about his mother. Every so often, Monu laughs, and looks away, shaking his head. Then, he stares at the man, and starts again. It’s interminable. I’m just about to start tip-toeing towards the door, when Monu says, “Madame, four thousand ok?”
See, the next best thing to knowing how to barter, is having a Monu.
I fill in the usual form – name, address, inside-leg, favourite pizza topping, etc. – and they discuss delivery. I think we’re arranging to collect it next week, but this moves folding-bed man to desperate English, “No collect. I come. Six o’clock.” Given that it’s gone mid-day, this is going to involve some pretty nifty stitching, but this is India. We all say, “Six o’clock. Today,” in a round, pointing at the floor, for some reason. The deal’s done.
Outside, Monu says, “This man angry, first he say, his benefit only 300 rupees.” If his profit margin on five and a half thousand rupees is only three hundred rupees, how come we get a fifteen hundred discount? Retail’s a complete fiction. I wonder if all transactions are ripe for frowning negotiation. Monu waxes economically expansive: “Big malls – In Orbit, Phoenix – government shops, fixed price. Small shops, no fixed price, very danger.” I say, in future, he can come shopping with me, and Mr Roland can drive the car.
Monu laughs. He thinks I’m joking.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Dharavi - Thinking Again

Keeping up is critical. Geography’s not my forte (don’t ask me what is. I can do quite nice Lazy Daisy stitch, as and when the need arises...). I can – and do – get lost in my own Sainsbury’s, if they put parsnips where the cornflakes were, last week. The maze of Dharavi’s criss-crossing runnels and alleys would tax even Mr Roland’s innate compass, so we can’t afford to let Ravi get more than an eyelash in front. There’s so much to look at, in the residential zone, I’m getting neck-ache from swivelling side to side, as our guide nimbly hops across open sewers and darts down alleyways. Every young person we meet wants a hello or a high five, but I see Ravi’s chatting, too. He says, they’re all asking him about his exams. He’s about to sit his pre-university exams, and has been home to his village, preparing. Even the dogs we meet, he knows by name. We’re in good hands.

I ask him, what a house here is worth (entire floor space, less than a double garage), and he says, three, maybe four lakh (£40-50,000). I’m amazed, having had the Monu Singh All-Mumbai Property Tour, because Dharavi houses are more cramped and altogether less luscious, than the two lakh houses elsewhere. Then I remember the three most important things about real estate, no less true here, than in Putney. Little wonder, that developers are circling round and round, like black kites.

At the patisserie, trays of Khari biscuits – cooked and uncooked – are stacked in towers, on the floor, round the ovens. “You want to try?” Ravi says, ducking in and filching a hot handful. They’re like little mouthfuls of nothing, so light, probably about 840 calories each. We continue our trek, munching, spraying crumbs, and I worry about paying for our snack. “Don’t worry,” Ravi says, “you’re with me.”

We have to take off our shoes, to go into the sewing-factory. I leave my new trainers conspicuously lurking on top of a mountain of flip-flops at the door, and step inside. Everyone stops working, to come and talk to us. We count twelve men, each with a sewing-machine, and a heap of fabric pieces. They’re making baby clothes, pink and blue, to be sold locally. I ask how long their working day is. Ten hours. Twelve machines, twelve men, tiny room, no windows. As working conditions go, it’s not great. They’re all laughing, though, and proud of their work.

We see animals by the ark-ful, cats, chickens, dogs, goats, but no children under three or four. Where are the babies? “Inside house,” Ravi says. “All people looking at, no good for child. Stay inside with...” his English fails him, and he mimes the rest. They keep their babies away from public glare, marking their faces with a black dot, to mar their perfection, so as not to attract the Evil Eye.

Dharavi has water for three hours a day. When the tap’s working, you fill your blue water-tub, for the rest of the day. There’s approximately one toilet per fifteen hundred inhabitants, so the offices of necessity aren’t very appealing. Instead, people use Mahim Creek, or the ironically named Mithi (sweet) River. “Are you hot? Do you fancy a swim?” asks Ravi. He points, laughing, to the opaque grey water of the creek, with its unspeakable flotsam and jetsam. “You go, I’m waiting here!” We say, another day, maybe.

The poppadum ladies roll out balls of dough, and lay them on tilted round wicker trays, to dry in the sun. They’re paid 20 rupees per kilo, which the manufacturers sell on for 120 rupees. Ravi’s disgusted – he says it looks like they’re providing jobs, but it’s slave-labour. The women make maybe 60 rupees a day, which Ravi says is ok, for a woman. I teach him the phrase “thin ice” – but he says, women also are responsible for home and family, and can’t work a full day. I watch a lady, harvesting the dried papad, and she drops one. It lands, half on the floor, half on her sandal, and she picks it up to stack it with the rest. Well, it needs cooking before eating, it’ll be fine.

Crossing the tanners’ sector, we interrupt a cricket game, but everyone’s delighted to break off, to come and shake hands. We stand, discussing the tanning industry, and the young cricketers drag along their even younger siblings to meet us - “This my sister, she say hello!” We see the machines, for buffing the goatskins, before they’re stretched to dry. The tanners are Muslim, mostly. Before the riots, in the early 1990s, Muslim and Hindu lived cheek by jowl. Hundreds of people died, during the fighting, and the two peoples had to separate, to co-exist. Now, Dharavi’s more segregated, but peaceful.

Ravi takes us to the school, set up by Reality Tours. English lessons are available to all. Some pay a nominal fifty rupees, Ravi says, because if they don’t pay anything, they think they don’t have to come. Others don’t pay at all. The classroom’s tiny, fourteen desks. A course in electronics is also available, for aspiring electricians. We fill in a feedback form (every time you buy a sandwich here, you have to tell them, in writing, whether you’re delighted or devastated, with not only your name and phone number, but your birthday and wedding anniversary...). I’m supposed to say what I think of my visit to the Pottery, but we’ve not been yet. Shall I assume, I ask Ravi, that it will be Very Interesting? “You keep the form,” he says. “See later.”

The potters – kumbhar – have more space, and more substantial housing, it seems, than the recyclers. Pot-throwing’s done in the morning, to give the pots time to dry out, in the sun, before being fired in the evening, when the heat of the day has diminished. The women sit under the awning, rubbing the clay under their thumbs, to take out small stones, which would destroy a vessel in the firing. In the house, the men use electric wheels to shape the clay into fat-bellied pots. Outside, the ovens are walled in, like pig-pens. The smouldering cotton, blanketing the kilns, produces a heat-shimmer, and the air’s thick with drifting waste. They can’t use sawdust or wood-chippings, because they burn too fast, and scorch the outside of the pot before the inside’s dry.

A potter takes my hand, and keeps it, while he tells me about his family and his business, and enquires about mine. I’m a chapatti away from exchanging email addresses with him, when Ravi drags us on to visit his mate, Dave, ex-tour guide extraordinaire, slum-dweller on the way up. His new job’s with a merchant bank, and he’s learning, via his two-week induction course, how to talk to clients. Ravi shares with us the tiny spiced mangoes he swipes from Dave’s Mum, who’s making pickle indoors. A bit of a magpie, our Ravi, but he gets away with everything. He’ll be a millionaire, before he’s finished.

This settlement couldn’t and shouldn’t be decanted into high-rise flats. The potters, and the tanners, and the recyclers, they all need floor-space. If you weren’t here before 2000, in any case, you’re not entitled to any compensation or re-housing. “Vision Mumbai” – designed to make a world-class city of Mumbai within five years – is, at best, naive. Less charitably, it’s opportunist profiteering.

Suddenly, there’s Monu, across the road, waving, and we’re back in the real world. Except, all the tin-polishers and rag-pickers and khari-bakers are still there, polishing and picking and baking, after their lives coincided with mine for a snatched minute. It makes you think.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dharavi - The Heart of Mumbai

It’s 38 degrees today, which is a great pity, because there’s not a cat’s chance of aircon, where we’re going. The book says, wear covered shoes, and don’t take a camera. Monu’s clearly uncertain of the touristic value of our planned expedition, and refuses to leave us until our afternoon’s guide, Ravi, appears and introduces himself.

We cross over the railway bridge at Mahim Station, and step into Dharavi, the biggest slum in the slum-capital of the world, Mumbai. I’m almost frightened of what we’re going to see, but it turns out to be as breath-taking as the Taj Mahal. Not for the same reasons, obviously.

In the early days, Dharavi used to be a carbuncle on the very outskirts of Mumbai, but the city’s since spread to meet and encompass it. Dharavi now occupies the central square mile of the City of Dreams. If you’re thinking, real estate – and that’s precisely what the developers are thinking – it’s a gold mine, with open sewers. Location, location, location. The scheme in bud, is to rehouse Dharavi’s inhabitants upwards, thus using only half their current square footage. You may ask, where’s the wisdom in replacing horizontal slums with vertical slums? The other half of the cleared slum-site is then up for grabs for – you guessed – luxury apartments and shopping malls. Just what Mumbai needs, another mall...

Slum’s such a negative word, trailing notions of deprivation, squalor and disease. After half an hour in Dharavi, I go looking for alternatives, but reject polite euphemisms like “social housing” as being condescending. I come full circle, back to the word “slum,” which just needs redefining.

Ravi’s worked for Reality Tours, since the company was conceived two and a half years ago, by Krishna Poojari and Chris Way, who had exactly that redefinition in mind. It was a feat of imagination and daring, since Dharavi’s hardly a classic tourist destination. As you enter its precincts, there are no touts, trying to flog you pictures of it on postcards or mugs or t-shirts. It’s not to make a spectacle out of poverty, that this company was created, but to dispel received opinion, about slum-dwelling. Before crossing the threshold, I expect to feel pity and distaste. With my eyes and ears and – let’s be honest – nose full of Dharavi, I feel nothing but admiration and amazement.

As we swerve along the broad main swag through the district, past the mango-sellers and street barbers, Ravi fires facts and figures at us. Dharavi’s a hub of manufacturing and recycling, accommodating thousands of small businesses, with a combined annual turnover of more than £330M. Not so easy, to brush under the developers’ carpet, then.

We turn off the high street – watching our feet – into the rat-runs of tiny paths behind the shop fronts. Some of the alleyways are so narrow, you have to turn sideways, and walk like a crab, ducking jutting beams and swinging light-bulbs overhead, not to mention spiders of exposed cables, hanging free. A tricky place to come home to, I say, after a night out with the lads....

Ravi puts his head into a doorway. Inside, a man sits at a band-saw, slicing chunks off a block of wood. Ravi leans in, picks up a sliver, and puts it in my hand. Rounded contours are carved into it. “Heel for shoe,” he says. In the little booth, the saw sounds like a dentist’s drill, and the air’s thick with dust. On the floor, oblivious of drill and visitors, a second man stretches asleep, on a thin mattress – he’s the evening shift. The machinists need to sleep, but the machine doesn’t.

Dharavi’s the heart of Mumbai’s re-cycling industry. Nothing’s wasted. On the streets, you see old ladies, poking through the contents of rubbish-bins, with a stick. The waste-bins, in the park near our apartment block, are upturned every night, in the same quest. We put our recycling material in bags, in the stairwell, on the thirty-third floor, and the following morning, it’s gone. Someone’s prepared to collect it and hand it on, for a few rupees. Most of it ends up in Dharavi.

There are whole streets full of recycling factories. “Factory” gives you the wrong grandiose idea. These are buildings the size of a domestic shed, with hot machinery and even hotter operators. The plastic waste – water-bottles, drinking-cups, food packaging – is sorted by colour, then ground to cinder-like granules. At another “factory” the granules are melted, and extruded to make plastic spaghetti, to be cooled and chibbled into uniform chips, for onward sale and a new life. It’s hot, in the waste-strewn alley outside. Inside, with the molten plastic and furnace, it’s almost unbearable. The seven workers are all smiling, though, and happy to tip before and after samples into our curious hands.

Ravi asks, if we want to see the can-recycling street. We do. A swift right-turn, and we’re in Tin-Can Alley. On cue, a man walks by, with twenty or more shining two-gallon cans, balanced on his head. After use, the empties are greasy, rusty and dented. At home, they’d be fit for the tip. Here, they’re collected and painstakingly restored. Inside a steaming shed, men sit on the floor to scour the cans inside and out, with hot water and chemicals. I put my hand inside the hole at the top of a can, to see if it’s possible. It’s possible. With wooden hammers, they scrupulously tap out the dents, and the cans are sold back to the original owners, for reuse. Next-door, even more amazingly, they recondition paint-tins.

Everything, re-use,” says Ravi, emphatically, and takes us to the cardboard-box revitalising suite. He picks up the top one of a stack of flattened boxes, and shows us the inside. Bisleri, it says. They take a used box, remove the staples, turn it inside out, trim it, and restaple it for Round Two. What a waste, I say, all those discarded old staples. “Staples,” Ravi says, “no throw away - collect, melt down, re-use.” Even after two incarnations, the box isn’t finished – there are chemical treatments, to remove industrial ink, making the box blank and available for service yet again. The conservation of particles, in everyday life.

We’re in the industrial quarter of Dharavi, where workers live above their tiny factories. Their wives and families live outside Mumbai, in the villages on the mainland. “You want to see residential area?” Ravi asks. “Here people living, but go outside to work, cab-drivers, factory workers, doctors...” “Doctors?” I say. “No big doctors in government hospitals, small, small doctors,” he says. “This way, come. Be careful, your feet.”

Ravi leads. We follow.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Mumbai In Black and White

Speak of India, and you won’t get as far as the first full stop, without needing the word, “contrast.” Nowhere is that need more apparent, than in Mumbai.
In the villages, life’s pared down to its simplest. It’s as basic as it gets – breathe, eat, excrete, sleep, reproduce. Living doesn’t come much simpler than that. In the city, on the other hand, simple’s the last thing life is, whether home’s a six-bedroomed penthouse, in the clouds, or a canvas tent, propped up by an old stick, under the flyover. The haves of Mumbai society are bewildered by constant choices thrust under their noses. Which restaurant? Which tailor? Which foreign holiday? Which new car? For the have-nots, it’s the lack of choice, which complicates life.
Lolling on cushions, in cool five-star comfort, we sip imported wine, while we browse through a menu as big as a family bible. We’re never not aware, though, that there’s a whole other world, the other side of the plate-glass demarcation line, patrolled by liveried doormen, in the hot night outside. It taxes my personal thermostat, popping constantly in and out of the air-conditioning, plunging more than ten degrees down, then flipping back up again, into the felted air. It’s even worse, swinging from sybaritic indulgence to grinding need, a hundred times, in the space of one short car-ride. My psyche’s exhausted, just watching life unroll on the pavement.
The big restaurants are decorated daily, with enough flowers to keep Ganesh happy for a month. Monu drops us off, but before we’re ushered into marbled splendour, we give him a fistful of rupees, so he can go and eat, whilst he’s waiting. The luxury tax winches prices up accordingly, so when the bill sidles coyly onto the table, you need to relocate your mind and your credit card a few thousand miles west. Monu’s dinner costs less than fifty rupees, and ours, more than he earns in a month.
I know.

We drink bottled water, and congratulate ourselves on being cool enough, to ask for it room temperature, instead of chilled. The pavement children use the stand-pipe, or filch from an unguarded water-lorry, or they slip into nearby office blocks, to fill their water-carriers. A scrawny girl comes begging at the lights. She’s starvation-thin, not out of Kate Moss chic, but rather the absence of alternatives. She points at the bottle of Bisleri, on the seat next to me, in the back of the car, so I open the window and hand it to her. I’m not supposed to give money, but no-one said anything about water. She runs off, holding it aloft, jubilant. When was the last time clean water made you laugh?

Back at the Sheraton, should you wish to avail yourself of The Facilities, a sari’d lady will welcome you in – “Good evening, Ma’am!” - and hover attentively outside your cubicle. It’s only because there’s a locked door between you and her, that the service isn’t more extensive... When you emerge, she turns on the taps, for you to wash your little white hands, then hands you a folded square of starched linen, to dry them. You toss the once-used napkin into a lined laundry basket, before having a go of the free cologne and hand lotion. Try as I might, I can’t justify the need to open a complimentary comb or toothbrush or nail-file, but I do try to buff up my grubby sandals in the shoe-shine machine. Altogether, a cherishing experience.
On the street, things are less fragrant and lovely. A bare-bottomed child wanders ten yards along the pavement, away from his home. You know what he’s about, because he’s carrying a little pot of water. He flicks his shirt up round his shoulder-blades, and squats over the gutter to defecate, in full view of the traffic whizzing by. He’s no more self-conscious than your dog, on his evening stroll, since, of necessity, the most private of functions is a public spectacle, here. Job done, he makes his way back to the cooking-fire, to rejoin the rest of his family.

Many millions – not only rupees, but US dollars and UK pounds – are invested here. Rich corporations and conglomerates throw up buildings designed on Mars, alien silhouettes on the Mumbai city-scape. At the feet of these gleaming edifices in mirror-glass and marble, the no-lakh housing estates.
Like I said. Contrast.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bapu and Ba

Shopping, Madame?” That Monu thinks he’s got my number, but I’m after culture, not retail, today. “No,” I say, “the Gandhi Museum.” His face falls. “Gandhi House?” I stop, one leg in, one leg out of the car. Butter-side-down territory, for sure. If I say Yes, there’ll be two different establishments, and we’ll end up at the one I don’t want. I scuttle back to the thirty-third floor, to get precise co-ordinates from my Best Friend, The Internet. It’s the work of moments. I then have a small doorstep crisis, because, according to Hindu lore, returning home so soon after leaving, allows in evil spirits. You can either dash in and dash out again, five times over the threshold, or, sit down and have a drink of water, as if you’re staying. Either cunning stratagem confuses them. I opt for the latter, hoping that swigging from a bottle counts, and slam out again, complacently. Back in the car, I tell Monu, I've foiled the evil spirits. He’s utterly baffled. This isn't widespread Indian lore, then - clearly didn’t get as far as Lucknow – which tips my Eccentric Quotient over the edge into outright madness. Am thus on sticky wicket from now on...

Two and a half hours later, we pull up at the top of Laburnum Road, Gamdevi. “This Gandhi house street,” says Monu, laconic as ever. I lose all confidence in the enterprise, and want to go home. It’s only because we’ve come so far, that I get out of the car at all. Monu comes with me to the museum door, swatting away street vendors (Do I want to buy a spangly purse? NO.) “Gandhi house,” he points. “I waiting here.” I have no choice.

Mohandas and Kasturba, known to all-India as Bapu and Ba - were betrothed at seven, but their marriage was delayed until they reached the ripe old age of thirteen. Later, Gandhi says this was ill-considered of all parents concerned, but admits that, at the time, he was too preoccupied with new clothes, party food, and a strange playmate, to wonder at the wisdom of early marriage.
Ba was illiterate. Despite years of intermittent but patient teaching by her husband, she died at the age of 64, still trying to master her Gujerati primer. (She has my every sympathy - I have spent hours, myself, drawing Hindi script characters, and it is Jolly Hard. The only thing I’m confident of recognising, without sneaking a look at the answers, in the back of the book, is the word “OM” – and that’s because it’s embossed or embroidered on virtually every wall-plaque or cushion cover from Amritsar to Chennai.) Lettered or un-, Ba stood by him – or at times, confronting the world’s press in his absence, instead of him – all of her life.

The museum’s musty and sad. This may be on the job spec of all museums, thinking about it. There’s nothing interactive for kids, here, for instance. Everything was pasted onto boards, the day after Gandhi died in 1948, and no-one’s dusted since. Yellowing letters to and from Tolstoy, Eisenhower and Hitler. Black and white photos, quotations from Nehru on Gandhi, Gandhi on Nehru. After our pilgrimage drive, I need to be in here for longer than fifteen minutes, so I write down what Einstein said: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe, that such a one as this, ever, in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth.” I look for Churchill, but, interestingly, in all the panoply of early twentieth century “A”-list celebs, he doesn’t merit so much as a postcard. Serve him right, for calling Gandhi a savage.

Not only was he the Father of the Nation, Gandhi was also the mastermind behind non-violent civil disobedience, famously “prepared to die” but not “prepared to kill.” “The cry of blood for blood,” he said, “is barbarous.” I write this down, too. There’s an American woman, having a sit-down, opting out of the final staircase, but whether she’s overcome by emotion or tired feet, I wouldn’t like to say. She encourages her compatriots, as they pass through, to look at the Tolstoy correspondence, to prove she can do culture, sitting-down.
Only two days before he was shot dead by Vinayak Nathuram Godse, Gandhi said, “If I am to die by the bullet of a mad man, I must do so smiling.... God must be in my heart and on my lips.” (His last words were, “He ram!” (“My God!”) – so he got that bit right.) The assassin’s not honoured by so much as the mention of his name, in the museum, nor does it say, after three floors of non-violence and passivity, that he was executed for his troubles. Monu tells me – or rather, mimes me – in the car, on the way home.

When Gandhi died, the whole of India came to a standstill, plunged into the traditional Hindu thirteen days’ mourning. Sixty years on, his birthday’s still a national holiday, here. His ashes were immersed finally into the Arabian Sea, this January.

It’s the sandalwood, which moves me to tears, at last.

-- Out shopping for souvenirs, we find a small elephant-in-an-elephant, no bigger than a matchbox, but handsome, priced the wrong side of £40. In whitewood, the salesman says, it would be a tenth of the price. Apprentice carvers aren’t allowed to touch sandalwood, until they’ve had a chisel in their hand for more than four years, because sandalwood’s precious. Finer grained, for finer carving – and the fragrance, the exquisite fragrance, which lasts for ever. --

Sandalwood’s what they choose, for Gandhi’s funeral pyre. Love’s last gift.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mermier Bal Ashram, New Mumbai

One lakh, as they say locally. A hundred thousand, to you and me. That’s how many children live on the streets of Mumbai. In the whole of India, twenty million. Try as you might, there’s no way to make that a comfortable tally. That’s a lot of small people, who don’t know what bedtime stories are. It makes you think.

We go to visit the Mermier Bal Ashram, in Koparkhairane, New Mumbai, home to fifty-five “street children and rag-pickers,” between the ages of four and eighteen. As we stand in the reception area, with boxes of lentils and flour at our feet, boys drift downstairs, to have a look at us. Some of them risk a quick “Hello!” before scampering away, stifling giggles. Whatever their past or future, they’re still just boys.

In 1834, in Annecy, France, Father Pierre Mermier founded a missionary religious congregation under the patronage of Saint Francis de Sales – the Missionaries of Saint Francis de Sales, known as Fransalians. When Father Mermier asked Rome for a mission, he thought he’d be sent to Africa, but the African mission wasn’t to happen for another century. Instead, India was to be his first challenge. In 1845, after a three-month voyage, Father Mermier and his five fellow-missionaries finally landed at Pondicherry, South India. Today, the work of the Fransalians is widespread across India, as well as many other developing countries.

In 1996, current members of the order decided that the street children of Mumbai needed direct, practical help, and set up a charitable trust, the Jan Vikas Society. In 2000, The Mermier Bal Ashram was opened, offering not only accommodation, but aiming to cater for the children’s “nutritional, educational, and psychological needs.” They now have rehabilitation centres for girls, such as the Vaduz Bal Ashram in Panvel, as well as several day centres.

On the wall, by the entrance to the Koparkhairane ashram, their mission statement: “to actualise the individuality of the child and make him a mature and self-sufficient man in his future.” Underneath it, a card reads, “rescue, redress, rehabilitation.” It all seems very grandiose and laudable, and then I look at the skinny-legged boys, washing the floor of the open-sided ground-floor hall, hoping to be those very same mature and self-sufficient men, at some point. “Later, we have Mass here,” explains the Father in charge, waving his thanks to the floor-sweepers.

Collected from railway-stations or bus depots, or just off the streets, these boys have all been abandoned. One of the staff, Vijay, points to the smallest of them, and says, “This boy no know, ‘Here is my house.’ Home here now.” Too small, when he was found on the street, to have any idea of where he came from. The original plan, to re-unite these children with their families, had to be reconsidered, because of the growing number of children abandoned deliberately, now too traumatised to return. Some of them are simply orphans, others have one parent who can’t cope, or can’t afford to keep their own child. If they have a parent, there are occasional trips back, for a brief visit. Otherwise, the ashram’s home.

Upstairs, in the playroom-classroom-dormitory, maybe twenty boys are whiling away the afternoon until tea-time. None of them has shoes on his feet, but this is India: their battered trainers and worn flip-flops are in racks by the door. A couple of the older ones flick tokens across a board, in some souped-up version of draughts. Others have nothing better to do than spectate, or idly throw a ball around. Younger ones scoot toy cars to each other across the dusty floor, absorbed - brmm-brmm would appear to be substantially the same in Hindi, as far as I can tell. It’s at once so familiar, yet so other. None of the boys looks at us, hovering in the doorway, but they all know we’re here.

Vijay’s worked at the ashram for eleven years, so he’s seen the first rescued children grow into young men. They learn English, he says, calling a boy over. I ask him his name. He points at his own chest. “I name Akash.” “And, how old are you, Akash?” I reckon he’s about eight. “I thirteen,” he says. He has cheeky eyes and an irresistible grin, the Essential Boy, in my book. Vijay says that, as well as lessons, they’re taught a trade – carpentry, or tailoring, or welding – so that they can find work, when they leave at 18. The society funds itself, in part, by running a printing business, so the boys can learn this skill, too.

Up another floor, more dormitories and offices, and a computer-room, with half a dozen PCs, swathed in plastic against the permanent seeping dust. It’s holiday-time, now, but the boys still have scheduled IT lessons. On the “Holiday” timetable pinned to the wall, I notice both morning and afternoon slots labelled “STUDY,” and can’t help but think of some boys of my personal acquaintance who’d take a very dim view of that...and of the “9.00 p.m.: Good Night!”

It has to be said, they look happy enough – the carers are very caring, the boys are fed, they’re off the street, they’ve got a real hope of staying off the streets, and, most importantly, they have each other. It’s still not what you and I understand by “childhood,” though.

As we leave, a boy hurtles past us, on the stairs, furiously ringing a hand-bell in every doorway, with a summons no-one will ignore. It’s time for tea.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Goats and Gourds in Goregaon

We go to Mega Mall, in Goregaon. (Monu’s idea: “Very nice, nice mall. Very famous.” – It’s been open less than a month, but already world-renowned, according to the Fount of All Mumbai Knowledge.) The piped muzak hits us harder than the wall of heat, as soon as we set foot out of the car. We stop at Costa Coffee, to gird our retail loins, but have to move tables almost instantly. Two men, quaffing tea at the adjacent table, are talking over each other so aggressively, I can’t hear what I’m thinking, and Mr Roland’s pearls of wisdom are more than lost on the desert air. It sounds like a real bust-up, next-door, but their shouting-match is punctuated by laughter, and they’re sharing a toasted sandwich, so I don’t think it’ll come to blows.
The mall’s like malls the world over – polished floor, stretched escalators, wall-fountains, glossy shops. Since we’ve not come four and a half thousand miles to stroll through BhS, or Pepe Jeans, or Watch It, we head for the hypermarket in the basement, more at home, sifting through aisles of sandalwood soap and stainless steel plates, than racks of over-priced t-shirts at Ted Lapidus.
We buy some more Bollywood classics, for the long summer evenings. Tom Hanks and Will Smith are going to have to try pretty hard to entertain us, when we get back, after a year on undiluted sequins and sitars. We choose five films with English subtitles. They all appear to have the same story-line, but the pictures on the front are different, and anyway, there are only seven plots in the world, what do you expect? Fewer than that, if you’re Barbara Cartland. (A propos, she’s very big here, the Queen of Romance. More than twenty titles from the Cartland Canon are on sale, at teeny-weeny Jaipur airport. I buy “Lessons In Love,” which is every bit as good as you’d imagine. First printed in 1974, this version, the Rupa Paperback Edition (New Delhi), came out in 2007. Whoever said romance was dead, should know, it’s alive and well and living in Rajasthan.)
Our trolley’s nothing, if not eclectic. We buy a fruit-bowl, some fine-liners, plug-in mosquito repellent, bleach, a cotton kurta for me, and some vests for Mr Roland. (Local wisdom, contrary to common sense, says it’s cooler, with a vest on. - We’re talking temperature, here, not fashion.) We collect an armful of toiletries, including a bucket of leave-in conditioner for blonde hair, shamelessly pressed on us - well, on me - by a depressingly petite raven-haired assistant. Mr Roland’s no longer a prime target for Elvive Reps, I’ve noticed. They don’t cater for curly hair, for some reason.
In the party-goods aisle (which includes top-of-birthday-cake fire-bombs - get that one through customs, if you can), congratulations streamers nestle next to anti-bacterial face wipes for teenage spots, and naphthalene pellets for cockroach-prohibition. Whether it’s deliberate antithetical juxtaposition, or someone gormless on shelving, I don’t know, but the randomness of it makes me laugh out loud, to the consternation of three assistants in a gaggle by the checkout.
We hit the greengrocery section, to stand in front of glistening heaps of greenstuff we don’t know how to pronounce, let alone cook. We buy a mango weighing more than a pound, which costs thirty pence, and a pineapple for thirty-five. The root vegetables look like they were grown on Mars. We fall gratefully on one we at least recognise, but it’s labelled “Beetroot” in big cheery letters, so we feel less accomplished than we might.
How many types of gourd can you name? – I thought as much. Me, too. Here, there are dozens of them, as big as pumpkins, as small as peas. As I’m queuing, to get my after-thought tomatoes and grapes weighed, I see a lady with a bushel of ridged gourds, in her trolley, so I ask how she cooks them. Indians – can I just say here? – are never less than generous with their time and knowledge. I’ve never yet asked a question, and received less than an encyclopaedic response. (fyi: peel it, chop it, fry it with lots of onions, garlic, tomatoes, and “your usual masala” and Babu’s your uncle. I love most that she thinks I’ve got a “usual masala.”)
The meat and fish section’s Behind Closed Doors – or at least, behind flaps of industrial polythene, to protect innocent herbivores in the vicinity. We’re thinking, spaghetti Bolognese (well, we’d go out if we wanted chicken tikka, wouldn’t we?), so I pick up a pack of meat. The label says “Goat Mince.” I put it down again. The truth is, this particular frontier’s been crossed, dozens of times, in restaurants, since our arrival, so I take a deep breath, and pick up the pack again. See how native we’re going?
In the car, on the way home, Roland points to a flock of goats, tumbling along the pavement-rubble, as if they were playing tag. I reach for the camera, charmed, then gasp, remembering what's in the bag in the boot. I look out of the other window, hurriedly.
We watch Om Shanti Om (only 160 minutes long - I might have slipped into a coma for some bits of it, but the plot’s so haphazard, it doesn’t matter) - and eat our goat pasta special. It’s disgusting. – No, just kidding, it’s lovely, especially with mushrooms. If you don’t believe me, the leftovers are in the freezer for emergencies, if you should call round on spec, one night next week.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Prem Daan, Mumbai

At first glance, I think it’s Mother Theresa, in her white and blue tea-towel ensemble, but it’s not. It’s Sister Maria. She runs the Missionaries of Charity establishment, here in Airoli, in North Mumbai. There’s been a collection, at the office, and we’ve brought bags of rice and lentils, and soap, and books. There’s the Social Committee, the driver and his mate (he gets out and bangs the back of the van, when we need to reverse), two porters, to carry the boxes, and me, pasty-faced hanger-on. We all make the tour.
The house is called Prem Daan, the Gift of Love, home to nearly two hundred women and children, from the very elderly and infirm, to the very young. Able-bodied residents help care for those with physical or mental handicaps, in need of constant nursing. What they have in common, is that they’re all unwanted, abandoned, on the very fringes of society.
In the long, low room, tubular-framed cots stand in rows. In each cot, a child lies curled. When children can’t speak, the language barrier loses its importance, so I bend to say hello, anyway. I think this child may be four or five, but she could be twice that, since she’s lying down, and her limbs aren’t straight. It’s difficult to tell. I stroke her cheek. She nuzzles her face into my palm. Her hands are cramped into right-angles, but someone’s taken the time to paint her fingernails red. Each child responds to the gentlest of touches, flowers turning to the sun. It’s like watering a row of seedlings in a greenhouse. It troubles me, giving each one such perfunctory attention. It’s a wrench, moving along to the next cot.
At the end of the dim room (power cuts a daily trial – no light, no ceiling fans), ten children sit at a plastic table, drumming their hands in a welcome tattoo. The small ones put their hands out, to be picked up. The older ones wind their arms round your waist, or lock their fingers in yours, or investigate your watch. They love the office ID tags on yoyo strings. I think we should have jettisoned the rice and moong beans, and just brought a box of ID tags, instead, for them to spool in and out all day. The nursing sisters are very loving, ruffling hair or patting heads en passant, but there are so many of these children, and each sister has just the one pair of hands.
Under the shady terrace, round the bright courtyard, women sit on benches, or in chairs, or on the floor itself. They call greetings, and wave, or put their hands together, smiling, nodding. The narrow beds in the dormitories are less than six inches apart. None of these ladies speaks English, but they reach for my hand, to shake, or stroke. I get unreasonable mileage out of “Namaste!”
Just outside the doorway to the compound, women and children sit on the hard earth, queuing, waiting. Sister Maria tells us that what spare food they have at Prem Daan, at the end of the day, is given away to the street children and their families. “Next day, God will provide.” She smiles, and nods at the boxes of provisions we have brought in the company van. She makes a scrupulous note in her log book. Always, in her diary, she says, there’s something good on the horizon – people book to come for wedding anniversaries or birthdays, bringing a special feast to share their day with the residents, a real act of benevolence. “And how,” she says to me, “are you coping with the heat?” Being a bit hot shouldn’t appear on the radar, given the scale of things here, but she asks, so I tell her, air-conditioning makes it worse. She agrees.
She asks if we would like to see the Chapel, so we slip off our shoes, and follow her. Rows of chairs face the altar, with its embroidered cloth and fresh flowers. On the walls, the Stations of the Cross. She slips into a seat, amid the tidy piles of hymnbooks, and forgets about her visitors for a while.
Sister Maria has seen the world, having served in Vietnam, in Ethiopia, in South America. She joined the Mother House in Calcutta at the age of 24, when she became “espoused to Jesus” – so it’s just coming up to their Golden Wedding anniversary. Sister Maria’s 74. This isn’t a job you retire from. Now, she’s here, at Prem Daan, in the northern suburbs of Mumbai. Pragmatic, tough as nails, she’s possibly the most serene person I’ve ever met.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Every Breath You Take

What’s different about India? Everything. The only constant’s the interior landscape behind my own eyelids, and even that smells of coriander and turmeric, these days. Each morning, filtering into consciousness, I mislocate myself, hearing rain drumming on the windows, before I remember that it’s the purr of the ceiling fan, chasing the hot air around. Even with my eyes shut, I can tell the light’s not northern – like when you know it’s snowed overnight, before you open the curtains.
I slide out of bed, and my feet touch marble – not the hostile marble of gravestones and statues, this is warm. (It’s also a dust-magnet – does the same amount of dust land on carpet, but we just can’t see it? There’s no such thing as a marble floor that doesn’t show the dirt... what a disgusting criterion for carpet-buying, anyway.)

In the bathroom, everything says alien. The toothpaste’s Spicy Fresh - translucent red, with cooling crystals. If toothpaste says mint, to you, think again. (Am now having minor panic, because small print on tube says, “Do not swallow.” Am at last squeeze of 150g pack, think it may be too late... Mr Roland’s dentally faithful to his Colgate Total, which means I have eaten 145g of unswallowable Spicy Fresh – they use betel nuts, in toothpaste, here, not only addictive but carcinogenic. Without knowing or choosing, I could be a betel-head, just by brushing twice a day...)
Talcum powder’s not yet fallen from grace, in India. (Why, in the UK, if it’s not recommended for adults, do they still sell baby powder?) My pack’s Godrej No 1 Jasmine Talc - “alluring fragrance” slightly veering towards catpee, but what do you expect, for 19 rupees? Next to it, Fiama Di Wills shampoo, Magnolia Blossoms and Watercress flavour ("nature and science" – you can’t fight that combo). The shower gel – Clear Springs (with Jojoba Beads) comes with a free loofah. Margo, the handwash, for “clean and clear hands,” is one hundred percent neem extract. (What’s a neem? What do you extract from it? – So many questions...)
I buy a 27g bottle of nail varnish remover, only just bigger than the nail varnish bottle itself. I’m non-plussed by this, at first, but I decide it makes sense. The bottle in my bathroom at home has been there for about three decades, and I’m still only an inch down the gallon.
The writing on the Tiger Balm’s so molecular, I have no idea what it’s for, when I find it in HyperCity, but I buy because a) the jar’s tiny and hexagonal and b) there’s a tiger on the lid. Don’t be silly, I mean an embossed one. As luck would have it, it’s a magic embrocation: for stuffy noses, insect bites, headaches, muscular aches, itchiness, simply “Apply Tiger Balm gently on the affected area.” It also claims to cure flatulence. Don’t ask me where to apply it for that...
While you’re in the bathroom, you can’t help but notice the extra plumbing. For the first weeks, I choose to believe the handy supplementary nozzle’s for cleaning the shower (or the toilet floor, in Phoenix Mall) - but I don’t know anyone well enough to ask. Finally, Dutch friends disabuse me of the naive notion. It’s a hand-held bidet. (In our house, it’s still a shower-shower, ok?)

The kitchen’s even further from home than the bathroom. Before you can reach for the kettle, you have to reach for the water purifier. It only takes two minutes, and obligingly beeps at you when it’s done the deed. The water it produces is warm, so not for drinking, but fine for kettle or saucepan. We only drink bottled water. We rinse salad in purified water (hot lettuce, mmm...), but wash our dishes in tap-water. The logic comes unstuck, somewhere along the pipeline. (When I try to fill a flowervase from the kitchen tap, it produces only hissing, so we have very privileged roses living in Bisleri from a bottle. Don’t remind me of street children drinking from polluted stand-pipes. I know.)
If you want tea with milk, the milk comes in a bag, (if cheese in a tin, why not milk in a bag?) - but it’s not the same, hence promotion of Hibiscus over PG Tips. You buy ground cumin or ginger by the pound, rather than by the ounce, because every recipe requires a shoeboxful of everything. The cupboard’s bristling with tamarind paste and cardamom powder. The Bombay Mix is called Delhi Mix, and the washing-powder (Jasmine and Rose flavour) only works in cold water, for the whiter whites (it’s BRILLIANT too). The fridge’s packed with Kingfisher beer (look out for the glycerine) and Sula wine (too sweet for you) but most of the empties are water-bottles, promise.

Apart from that, and the self-inflicted preponderance of elephants round here, it’s just like home, but with more garlic.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Walk in the Park

I’m up before the birds – insomnia, not joie de vivre. It’s still dark, so when I slide the windows open, and lean out, I can’t see enough to make my insides melt. No movement on the building-sites camped round us, yet. Even the fruit-man on the corner’s not set up his barrow for the day. In the background, the hum of a big city, breathing.
An hour later, the light’s seeping in, and I can pad about, without barking my shins on the glass-topped coffee-table. Construction workers clock in for an early start, to beat the heat of the day, as the muezzin weighs in, calling the faithful to prayer. Not to be outdone by pneumatic drills, the dawn chorus opens its corporate beak to out-decibel them all. I can’t see how anyone can still be asleep between here and Pune. In the park, down below, tiny figures, running.
Seven thirty, and the fruit man’s doing brisk trade, at his corner stall, if you were wanting a gourd or a mango for breakfast. Mr Roland risks a little consciousness. Welcome to Wednesday! We decide to take a walk in the park, aware that it’ll take more than a stroll, to whittle off three months of chapattis – basically, we’re baling out a battle-cruiser with a thimble – but the spirit’s willing....
We’re not alone. It’s a race track, at ground level. A steady clock-wise stream of walkers loops the loop, on a brisk pre-breakfast constitutional. One old man does his laps widdershins, out of perverseness or sociability, it’s hard to say.
Beds of flowers and shrubs flank the wide concrete path. Shallow terraces are landscaped within its orbit, dotted with sculptures and the odd trickling fountain. The pond’s decked with water-lilies, its level receding practically before our eyes, as the summer gathers momentum.
Children play with bats and balls in the soft light, their mothers on the sloping grass behind them, watching and chatting. Young men pose about, self-absorbed, doing stretches in sweat-stained designer t-shirts, while, in the bandstand, the parliament of grandpas convenes, to put the world to rights.
Next to us, on the path, as we slip into the stream, a silver-haired lady has her sari tucked up. She’s traded her beaded flip-flops for trainers. The man in front’s talking to himself, I think, but he’s wired up to his mobile phone, the working day already underway.
As we loop round the top of the circuit, we see figures standing on the skyline, at the top of the embankment above us. Construction workers, from the no-lakh housing estate, brushing their teeth in a row, watching us, watch them.
Nine o’clock, and the park’s empty, except for the gardener, trailing miles of hosepipe, before the sun gets too insistent. His progress is marked by wet concrete, but not for long, in the gathering heat.
In the middle of the day, assuming the Mad Dogs of Englishmen rule, the park’s closed. All animation’s suspended - even the birds are having a little siesta.
At five, I look down, and the park’s dotted with walkers again, like the Wacky Races. By eight, it’s throbbing. Powai's home, showered, changed, and out to take the tender evening air. The playground at the far end’s seething with small people, hurtling down slides and up rope-ladders. In England, they’d be long asleep (wee-teeth-story-bed), but here the sun has the last word.

Eleven o’clock, and it’s all in darkness, swept, pruned, and watered, ready for tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ironing Out The Differences

My new Best Friends are the dhobiwallahs. When I pass the laundry, even without the habitual hundredweight of ironing in hand, they all come out to wave. I feel very cherished, but, inside, I know it’s only cupboard-love. Or, ironing-board love, in their case.
Mr Francis talked himself out of the ironing contract, weeks ago. I don’t mind a judicious amount of ripping off, but I have my pride, and my limits. So, I find instead Sree Krishna Steam Press, which you can see from our living-room window. (Mind you, since we’re thirty-three floors up, the only reason you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from here, is the heat haze.) Their address is Shop Number 2, Sunflower, Hiranandani Gardens. Isn’t that charming? It’s a sweat shop. The furnace of pavement gives way to the sultry depths of a glorified pantry, where obliging youths are dashing away with the smoothing iron. Not only steam irons, but stove-irons. You’d be sweating, too.
When I call with my booty-bag - forgive me for feeling a little bit famous - they all stop work, and come front of shop, to count my laundry and say hello. The chief dhobiwallah unpicks the bag, one-two-three, and says, “Fourteen cloth?” I agree, it’s fourteen cloth, so he notes it down in his carbon-copied log-book. At the bottom of the receipt, it says, “We are not responsible after 24 hours.” I think this means for left laundry, but wouldn’t it be great, to abrogate Responsibility for Everything, in a small-print disclaimer at the bottom of your life? I wonder if all the abandoned shirts are raffled off, on the first Thursday of every month? Without asking, he writes our address at the top of the receipt (see, I told you I was a little bit famous...), and says, “I come, five o’clock.”
From the pile spilling over the counter, I pull a crumpled cotton top. At point of sale, the assistant in the shop advises me to have it dry-cleaned, first time, then I’m allowed to wash it myself, at home. I forget this, until I’m pulling it, wet, from the washing-machine. Still, her contradictory advice puzzles me, so I consult the dhobi oracle, for an explanation. They smile and nod sympathetically, fingering the cotton. “Dry-clean, thirty rupee.”No,” I say, “Is clean. I wash.” (Living here’s doing NOTHING for my English.) I have four of them, hanging on my every charade. “Yes. Yes. Yes,” one says, finally, in the light of dawn, “Dry clean, thirty rupee!” Back to Square One - it’s pretty much where I live, these days. I put the shirt with its mates on the counter, and say, “Nimbu amrud nariyal,” with what I hope is some authority. It does nothing to iron out our current dilemma, sadly, since it means “lemon, guava, coconut,” but we’re all full of joy, to meet, at last, on a plane of mutual understanding. I run nimbly through my green-grocer vocabulary, for them. I say my word, then they have to unmangle it into something recognisable. One of them gets carried away, and says, “Kela – banana!” but I already know this, so I have to tell him off for stealing my thunder. I can see that it’s going to be a while, before I’m safe to tackle the fruit-vendor with his barrow, alone. I put both hands on the heap of linen. “No dry-clean,” (throat-slitting mime). “Iron.” Actions speak louder, etc., etc....
It costs more, to have bedlinen pressed, but if they’re prepared to wrestle with a king-sized duvet cover, for just money, I’m more than happy. A tea-towel costs the same as a dress-shirt, on their tariff. Exactly what that tariff is, depends on your birth certificate. Indian residents pay one or two rupees, per item. We pay five, or ten if you want steam-ironing, and all your buttons intact. (I think this is crazy – if they have to tackle a crispy-dry shirt without steam, the inconvenience is to them, surely, they’re doing the ironing, so why are we blackmailed into choosing the more expensive option for our clothes? I understand taxi-drivers, saying a fare is 200 rupees, or 300 with aircon, because it’s obvious what’s in it for us...) At first, I object to this lack of laundry parity, and am considering enlisting Monu, as our brown-faced go-between. But then, I have an economic epiphany, and it comes to me, that it’s simply a domestic version of the National Treasures entrance fees. There’s the small matter of perspective – if you’re only earning 120 rupees a day, you can’t afford to have your shirts ironed at 10 rupees a pop. With our pasty faces and fat wallets, we can. It’s a question of balance, like the Moody Blues said. I muster something akin to grace, and give in.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Mumbai’s the home of Bollywood – the “B” of Bombay, plus Hollywood, you can work it out for yourself, if you try, although I suppose that should make it Mollywood, these days. Somewhere between 800 and 900 films are produced here, annually, each on a budget of less than half a million dollars. The average cost of making a film in the USA is fourteen million dollars. I can’t see where the other thirteen and a half million goes, to be frank – how much does Meg Ryan cost, for example?
In the early days, at the beginning of the twentieth century, acting was not considered a reputable profession, hereabouts, forcing one Indian director to employ a young man, to play the female lead in his film, “A Salunke.”. A bit like Shakespeare’s day, then. It’d have the film censors down the Labour Exchange, if everyone had to keep a decent shirt on his or her back.

Nowadays, people flock to Mumbai, as they do to Hollywood, in the hope of making it big in the movies. And, it has to be said, in a city, where more than half of the population live in squalor, in slum housing, the Bollywood stars have it made, if their walled mansions in Bandra and Juhu are anything to go by. Monu points them out, all the time, “Is famous actor house. Bollywood star.” – although we never see anyone coming in or out, wiggling their hips and eyebrows, so it could well be the YMCA, for all I know.

U Me Aur Hum’s out this week. You, Me and Us. We’ve been crooning along to it, in the car, me and Monu, for weeks. Pre-launch marketing, I feel like I know it already. The stars are real-life husband and wife, Ajay Devgan and Kajol, whose history’s a fairytale in itself. The film’s about a couple coping with Alzheimer’s, so you’ll be needing the Kleenex as well as the popcorn. Monu steals a march on me, and sees it on his day off, “Madame, I see film. Nice, nice film, very sad, all all people weeping.” I contemplate explaining “chick flick” to him, but don’t think either of us is up to it.
Bollywood’s as formulaic as its transatlantic cousin, except ‘genre’ doesn’t particularly come into it, here on the sub-continent. They don’t do ‘horror’ or ‘romance’ or ‘action,’ it’s more a cocktail of everything, in order not to exclude any specific audience. Hence the label ‘masala films.’

By way of Bollywood baptism, we watch Awarapan, starring Emraan Hashmi, who is fairly scenic, so we barely need the subtitles. It’s your kind of film, I just know. It has to be, because it has everything - thwarted romance, broken hearts, car chases, gunfights, despotic underworld chiefs, slavery, prostitution – it just needs a couple of pirates and a bit with a dog... I can quite understand that the main character, Shivam, should turn to life in the underworld, when his Muslim girlfriend’s father takes a pot shot at him, to avoid the shame of his daughter marrying out. Shivam ducks – why wouldn’t you? – so Dad contrives to kill the girl instead, then shoots himself as well. You can see already, that things aren’t going in a great direction. Years on, Shivam’s evil boss, Malik, has a slave/prostitute girlfriend abducted from Pakistan, and, when he discovers she’s plotting her escape, he asks Shivam to kill her. Shivam struggles with his Inner Self, and, I’m just thinking, he’s going to get the girl, after all, to rekindle his dead heart, when he does the Bollywood equivalent of throwing himself on his sword – ie massive shoot-out at the pier, stage littered with corpses. Kidnapped prostitute heads off to freedom on ferry. Meanwhile dead girlfriend (see above, keep up...) makes an ethereal appearance, now joined by ethereal Shivam, getting his just rewards in heaven. So, no belly-laughs, then. But still, I can buy all that, even without taxing the corsets. As one whose hold on reality is only ever tenuous at best – for instance, I’m quite prepared to believe that Shrek really happened - I can do the willing suspension of belief with practised ease. What I don’t get, is the need for musical interludes. Perhaps the subtlety’s lost in translation, but where’s the link between the sad life of a captive sex worker, and a ra-ra disco number, singing and dancing on top of a bus? It leaves me wondering if I’ve been asleep for thirty crucial minutes. (Not unknown on sofas in and around Rempstone, I have to say...)
According to the Bollywood Mission Statement, no cinema-goer should think a single rupee of his ticket-money wasted, hence tendency to throw genres into the blender, to please one and all. There are huge multi-screen cinemas, here, even super-plush ones, offering reclining leather sofas-for-two, with gloved butlers waiting on. The small-small-housing estates, though, have small-small-cinemas, to match. They peep between the lock-up shops, their frontage no bigger than your garden shed. You won’t need your glasses, because you’ll be within arm’s reach of the screen – well, tv set, really - in a select company of maybe a dozen others. Your ticket’ll cost you ten or fifteen rupees. It’ll be worth every paise.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Don't tell Monu...

Mr Roland rather racily suggests taking a tuk-tuk home. We’re at the D-Mart, which is only a hop across an open drain, and a skip over a pile of rubble, away from home. But we’ve got our arms full of pineapples and lentils and guava juice and cucumbers, and it’s 36 degrees. Even the construction site workers are melting in the shade of a tree, on the hot pavement. I say, “What will Monu say?” And Mr Roland, with his habitual Akela-logic, says, “Monu isn’t here.”

(We go out with friends to a hotel restaurant, and I make the mistake of offering Monu the night off, after he drops us, so he doesn’t have to kick around on the pavement, waiting for us to emerge again at eleven. “We can take a tuk-tuk home.” Monu takes his hands off the wheel, in shock – “No tuk-tuk, THIS car! Tuk-tuk danger drivers!” I’m suitably chastened, then Monu relents and says, “My Mum, she like tuk-tuk. No you.” And that’s final.)

I concede reluctantly to Mr Roland’s anarchic idea – I’m never going to broach life in the fast tuk-tuk lane toute seule, after all. He leans into the tiny cab, and says, “Verona?” The driver shrugs and shakes his head. I see this all the time, waiting for Monu outside In Orbit mall, the tuk-tuk drivers are picky about where they’re prepared to go. Would-be passengers shrug back, and stroll on to tackle the next little black and yellow cab in waiting. Mr Roland, incarcerated in his air-conditioned ivory tower all the livelong week, doesn’t know this, however, and leaps in with alacrity, saying, “I’ll show you!”
So we climb in, stowing our worldly goods at our feet. Before our backsides have made contact with the plastic seat, the driver pulls out of the queue, wrenching right on the handlebars, to turn perpendicularly into the stream of traffic. He’s got one bare foot tucked cosily under him, and is patently the Indian son of Evel Knievel, since he Knows No Fear. He’s also a Star Trek junkie, his maxim clearly being To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before. Never mind man, he goes, we now discover, where WD40 wouldn’t.

It comes to me, with what I imagine are my last breaths, that our lovely Monu is a Top Driver: he slows to zero miles an hour, to tackle the tussocks and crevices of the highway. “I sorry, Mumbai road, no very good!” he says daily, laughing at me, doing my aerobic work-out, to keep upright in the back of the car. Our tuk-tuk driver, on the other hand, seems to think it’s a steeplechase, and hits every pebble full tilt. Even a brand-new tuk-tuk has 0 suspension to worry about, so it shouldn’t be surprising.

In Jaipur, we see tuk-tuks - “three passengers only” hopefully painted on their sides – with ten, twelve, fifteen people on board, hanging on by their toenails, with a baby or a goat held between the teeth. We’re only two (plus shopping), but I’m still deeply unsure about the whole endeavour. Did I say, there’s nothing but fresh air between me and the tarmac, as we pole-vault our way home? It’s entirely due to gravity and momentum, that we stay in our seats, at all. I hate relying on science.
We’re back at Verona, in less than two minutes. It’s only a couple of blocks, but it whittles years off my life. Mr Roland airily hands over ten rupees, while I try to make my wobbly legs work again. Maybe Monu has a point after all.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Last Word to Sanjay - Golden Triangle 10

Sanjay springs into our lives, as new as the morning milk, with gleaming teeth and a spotless white jacket, buttoned up to the neck. Before we’ve got our seatbelts fastened, he’s told us he’s got two children, his wife speaks five languages (“She very clever. I no very clever.”), his rent’s two thousand rupees a month, and if we want him tomorrow, we need to ask at Reception, his driver number’s 23. It’s good, to get this sorted out so soon. We roll out of the Taj driveway, waving at saluting Maharajahs. By the time the back axle’s across the threshold, Sanjay’s peeling off his white cotton gloves, to stash in a little hidey-hole near the gearbox. “Gloves, is hotel requirement. No good for drive. You want all-Delhi tour? I take.”

In a burst of enthusiasm, he comes round the Qutb Minar with us, explaining in bullet-point English, or sometimes in just point, forget the English. He wrests the camera from Lady Snowdon, and bullies us into a group photo. “Many jobs,” I say in the Monu-speak which I favour of late, “Driver, guide, photographer – can you cook?” “No cook, wife cook.” So much for five languages, then.

Driving along later, with a brace of monuments already under our belts, Mr Roland and Mrs Andrew feel the need to photograph something presidential. “No is parking,” says Sanjay, flatly. We slow down to tickover, so Mr Roland and Mrs Andrew can hop out to be digitally creative. Mr Andrew and I stay put, cruising up and down Government Row at three miles an hour, in front of seventeen boy-soldiers, sprawled on steps leading nowhere in particular. Their heads swivel up and down, following our not-progress, like a Wimbledon crowd in slo-mo. Nepalese, Sanjay informs us, racily hitting second gear. As we kerb-crawl, I ask Sanjay, if his children want to be drivers, too. “My hopes is doctor, or civil engineering, or work in government job,” he says. Why not a driver, I wonder. “No driver,” he says, sadly, “Being driver, no life.” It’s all I can do, not to send him home and slide behind the wheel myself, but I have more chance of flying Apollo 15, than I have of tackling the highways and by-ways of Delhi, bumpers and limbs intact.

Sanjay’s parents didn’t have much, scratching a bare living from poor soil, in the country. He’s their success story. Standing on their shoulders, he’s holding down a steady job, in the big city. In his turn, he makes his children’s education his first priority, working hard, so they can hope to be more than drivers. His daughter doesn’t have medical ambitions, though. She wants to be a pilot. Good for her, already kicking over the traces, and she’s only five years old.
This whole country’s steered into thinking of the future. A proud father beams down from a billboard we pass, advertising insurance. In front of him, his daughter, in cap and gown, brandishes a degree scroll, grinning. “Whatever she needs, you’ll be ready.” Another bill-board, on contraception: “Girl or boy, small family is joy!” It makes you think, all this aspirational propagandist campaigning, and literacy levels are below 50% in some parts of the country.

We see mosques, we see temples, we see churches. Sanjay says, “All religion, same. Blood is blood,” he draws a nail across his wrist, “God is God, same. All God same. Christian sign is plus,” he takes his hands off the wheel to make a cross with his forefingers, “Hindu sign is swastik. Is same. One God.” I take my hat off to Sanjay the philosopher, with a vocabulary of ten words.
If I were Hindu, I would be really fed up with Hitler, for purloining the holiest of symbols, and having the whole of the world associate it with death and inhumanity, for the rest of forever. I see Gandhi’s letter to Hitler, from 1938. “Dear Friend,” it starts, “Are you sure you want to do this? Sorry for interfering. All the best, Gandhi.” I paraphrase, slightly. I also digress....

By the time we’re on our third or fourth bottle of water from Sanjay’s cafe, he’s stopped all pretence of harvesting the rubbish for discreet disposal later. He takes the empties out of our hands, and throws them on the floor. “I pay twenty rupees, man in car park, he clean. He job.” We try lobbing our own bottles on the floor, to save Sanjay the trouble of being the middle man, and it’s almost more than we can bear. Try it. See what I mean? Now, go and pick it up.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jai Mahal Palace - Golden Triangle 9

We’re nosing along the hot streets, looking for our hotel. Sanjay claims intimate knowledge of every last alleyway of Jaipur, but he’s lying through his perfect teeth. He’s lost. He knows he’s lost, and we know he’s lost. And, what’s more, he knows, that we know he’s lost. He takes a confident right, which jars Mr Roland’s innate compass, prompting him to take over navigation, putting his faith in the Rough Guide’s two-inch-square town plan. He and Mr Andrew are like pigs with truffles, unerring. Finally – finally – we swing into the gates of The Jai Mahal Palace Hotel, Jaipur. It turns out to be exactly where Sanjay thought it was, in the first place - “I confuse.”

We fall out of the car, sweaty, dusty, unkempt (and that, with benefit of aircon and chauffeur – what would we have been like with a rucksack and a beanie hat apiece, on the No 98 from Agra, twice daily, no goats allowed?). A beaming Maharajah salutes us, with every appearance of sincerity, and a musician strikes up a hymn of welcome. We try to look casual, as if people are always saluting us, but give ourselves away, by giggling, and saying thank-you too many times. We climb the marble steps as fast as our sticky, cramped limbs will allow, into the coolth of the foyer. It’s hard not to cartwheel with joy, and I refrain only because I can’t do cartwheels. Well, not without falling over.
Mr Roland and Mr Andrew busy themselves with passports and credit cards (there has to be some reason why we brought them), while Mrs Andrew and I have a crisis of our own, choosing which plush sofa to sink into. We choose the furthest from reception, because Roland’s still got his ill-bought sun-hat on. But the ever-alert Miss India spies us, and sashays across the polished floor, to wreathe us in garlands of orange flowers, before pressing a welcome bindi on each of our foreheads in turn, with a slender thumb. “Is traditional,” she says, apologetically. We sip chilled mango juice, waiting for the formalities to conclude. We look ethnic and rather lovely, in our flower necklaces and face-paint, whereas the boys look like they’ve just landed at Honolulu Airport.

The Jai Mahal’s a converted palace, dating back to around 1745. It’s in better nick than any monument we’ve yet seen (except for Mumtaz’s place) – they should open a few more World Heritage sites as B&Bs, they’d rake in the rupees faster than with means-tested entrance fees. The corridor’s an open terrace. We catch glimpses of trim gardens, and pergolas, and an enormous chess set on wheels. Our rooms are fragrant with fresh flowers, but we barely have time to bounce on the bed, open all the drawers, and play with the lotions and potions in the bathroom, before we go exploring. It takes us all of twenty-five minutes, to explore our way to the bar. In fairness, it has to be six o’clock, somewhere in the world...
The musician wanders onto the terrace, bowing, singing, tapping his slippered feet, and spinning. The rawanhattha’s one of the oldest known stringed instruments. It’s basically a length of bamboo, set into a coconut shell, and it produces the least English sound I’ve ever heard. The player’s fingernails are long and yellow, but I overlook this, in the emotion of the moment.

When the band arrives, Mr Roland goes cataleptic for a spell. I’m wondering, what we’re going to have to leave out of the case, to fit in the sitar we’ll be buying tomorrow, when the dancers shimmy up the stairs. They twirl and weave, then they twirl and weave with pots on their heads, then they twirl and weave with lit lamps, in the pots, on their heads. It’s spell-binding.

Over the breakfast table, next morning, we’re treated to live sitar-music, from the pergola, as an aid to digestion. It’s all very alien and oriental, until he strikes up with “Frère Jacques,” segues smoothly into “If you’re happy and you know it,” before finishing off the continental set with “Alouette.” An English girl, blonde-haired, five years old, sits at their feet, applauding wildly.

Our first Taj hotel, in Delhi, could have been anywhere, from Singapore to Los Angeles. The Jaipur Taj has five stars, too, but each one's individually crafted, and appliquéd by hand. We could be nowhere, except Rajasthan.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Window Shopping without the Windows - Golden Triangle 8

A bazaar thing happened to us on the way to the shops. No, really. Sanjay turns off the main road, down a side street as wide as the car, plus a grain of rice on either side. He has to reverse out of his first attempt, on account of a truck coming the other way. It’s all brinkmanship. We pull into a parking slot, and all open our eyes. Well, not Sanjay, hopefully. We crack open the car-doors, and step into a wall of heat. It smells like a urinal, on the tiniest of breezes. We wanted local colour.
Radiating from a central square, in the heart of the Pink City, these shopping streets are famous, the world over. Tripolia Bazaar points west, Ram Ganj Bazaar goes east, Hawa Mahal Bazaar, north, and Johari Bazaar, south. If you want authentic, here it is. Not for the faint-hearted, nor the easily-led.
The roads are busy with the usual madcap taxis and trucks, so progress is halting. You need one eye on the traffic, another on the uneven foothills of concrete and stones doing service as a pavement, and your third eye on the sights you’ve come to see, the shops. I say ‘shops,’ but don’t think Brent Cross, or Arndale Centre. These are lock-up shops, like rows of garages, welded together, filled to the lintels with any and everything, from writing ledgers and industrial pots of paint to loose tea and push-bikes. For each booth, add four or five barefoot salesmen within, and two shod ones, touting, without, and you have some idea of retail experience, Jaipur-style.
We saunter, hopelessly conspicuous, along the first row. At first, the shops seem like murky caves. Coming out of the white-hot sun, it’s difficult to see, on the shady side of the street. This is sewing-machine alley. They all look like the curvy black and gold Singer my Mum used to have, in another century, which could sew a perfect, even, straight stitch, better than any computer-on-board-do-you -want-a-row-of-ducks-with-that modern contraption I’ve had since. It makes sense, given the dictates of local fashion. Some are loose for inspection, being flicked with a rag. Others are mummified in swathes of plastic, against the dust. Every other shop’s a pots-and-pans store. The goods are stacked in diminishing size, in towers taller than me, like stainless steel Matrioshka dolls. The salesmen don’t even get up from the floor, to tempt us in. Evidently, we don’t look like we’re in the market for a sewing-machine, or a pressure-cooker. It’s as close to invisibility as we’re going to get, today.
The next street’s seething with colour. Sari-shops. You have to peep past the dazzling curtain of sequinned chiffon, to see the rainbow of fabrics lining the walls inside. The floor’s spread with sheeting, and customers sit on cushions, tell-tale flip-flops parked at the threshold, as the sari-wallah unravels bolt after bolt around them, in gleaming heaps. I’d love to linger longer, but the sales-pressure’s overwhelming, and it’s all we can do, to tear ourselves away. “Later,” I say, “we’ll come back, later.” “Promise?” “Promise.” We’re allowed to pass, unmolested. Diana says, she hopes God will forgive me for telling lies – but it’s Ganesh, who’s the remover of obstacles, isn’t it?
We pass the shoe-seller, with his racks of would-be Adidas trainers, and curly-toed camel-skin slippers, and the paan-man, soaking betel leaves in water, and the drink-seller, crushing ten-foot lengths of sugar cane into sweet pulp. Interspersed among the tourist tat, honest-to-goodness everyday shops for the Jaipur housewife: laundrymen alternating hot irons for cold, straight off the stove; dyers, dropping lengths of white cotton into hissing vats of boiling pink or green, on the pavement; and the iceman, hacking bricks from huge blocks of ice, to crush in a hand-grinder. Gunsmiths, locksmiths, cobblers.
Look at the spices!” Diana says. The man in front of me says, “Is no spices. Is tobacco.” Loose shards, in mountains, on the counter. Now we don’t need introducing, he invites us to his off-street silversmithy, but we don’t go. Later, maybe... “Look at the tobacco!” Diana says, with new wisdom, two yards further on.

On the pavement, a man’s making a necklace, feeding beads onto a thread hooked round his big toe. The flower-seller sits on his stall, threading blossoms. We take his picture. We’re charmed. He’s charmed. We’re all charmed. He gives us each a rose. The perfume-seller next door paints our wrists with patchouli, jasmine, lotus and amber. We smell like a brothel. We smell what I think a brothel might smell like, I mean. On squares of grubby cloth, in front of the spice-stall, piles of graded chillis, red and brown. A whole booth, full of wedding turbans for the groom’s men. Then another. And another.
What we need, is a little cafe, where we can sit under a parasol, and watch the world go by, drinking it all in. What we’ve got, is the chai-wallah, rinsing smeary glasses in cold milky water, in an aluminium bowl, in the gutter. We head for home, intoxicated, exhausted, and drink tepid bottled water, instead, at Cafe Sanjay, the boot of his car. “You like Jaipur shop?” he asks. “Yes,” we say, “we like.”

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Elephants on Parade - Golden Triangle 7

It’s after hours, strictly speaking, when we get to the elephant house. They only work until eleven in the morning, because of the heat. But we’re special, apparently, so we get a private viewing. I bet Mr Kumar’s up there with special guests, twice a day, in the high season, but we don’t care: our eyes, ears, and noses are full of elephant. They’re just standing there, like pretty maids all in a row, except their massive ankles are shackled, with chains you could use, to park up the QE2. The smell is intense stable. The boys call to one another, and stop to watch us, being overwhelmed by proximity. It’s just another day, for them. The elephants are snuffling, shuffling. We’re invited to step up, for a bit of hands-on, and I’m there, trunk-patting, before you can say “sticky bun.” Some members of our merry band are more reticent, and this is when I know that she’s going to bottle out. Don’t forget, I was there for the Donkey Episode, a million years ago, and look how that turned out. I just know, I’ll be twelve foot in the air, teetering on an elephant’s spine, and she’ll say, “Tell you what, I’ll hold the coats.” Metaphorical coats, that is.

The elephants are all female - either that, or they’ve had both ends seen to. They’re in their party best, with flowers, hearts and leaves painted in pink, blue and gold, across their bulging brows and down their long grey noses. I hope this isn’t just for the tourists, it’s a bit like putting eyeliner and lipgloss on a baby. I prefer my elephants unadorned. In defence of tourism, the Indians do like to decorate their elephants, in celebration of festivals like Holi, or Diwali, or any day ending in a “y”, in fact.
Meanwhile, the backroom boys are strapping howdahs onto two elephants at the far end of the hangar. What do you say to an elephant, to make her curtsey low enough to throw a saddle across her back? She’s making her way across. For the first time, I notice the staircase in the corner, leading nowhere, and I’m up it like a ferret, balancing on one foot, ready to hop on, as soon as she manoeuvres close enough. The hop-on’s less elegant than I’d hoped, and the mahout does a little mime, saying, “Madame! Feet, feet...,” from which I intimate, I’m not supposed to be astride... Part of me’s quite glad, because she’s not daintily made, this elephant, and I’m doing the sideways splits. While my knees are re-acquainting themselves with each other, Mr Roland climbs up beside me, and we reverse out.

My head’s going round like a bobbin, to make sure Diana and Andrew get on their elephant. She’s at the top of the stairs, it’s do-or-die time. Then, she’s on! And Mr Andrew’s on, and even his feet aren’t touching the floor. I take it all back. Mrs Andrew’s not looking ecstatic, just yet, but there’s time. Then, we’re off.

Now, we’re not racing, here. We’re lumbering up the middle of the village, trying not to look self-conscious. We gather a small retinue of boys, who contrive to be fascinated by our passage, despite being born and bred on Elephant House Street, Old Jaipur. (I hate it, when children lose their curiosity about life, don’t you?) So, they run along, shouting our theme tune, “Hello, how are you?” with occasional variants such as, “Are you fine?” And, against all the odds, we are fine, actually.
Our drivers put the anchors on for yet another photo. They hand over their red turbans, for us to play Maharajahs. I take hold of the wrong bit, of ours, and it slithers into about twenty yards of crumpled cotton, in my hands. The mahout winds it back round his head, deftly twisting and swivelling, until he’s made it look like a hat again.
We’ve not been so exhaustively photographed, since our wedding day. I’m quite flattered, thinking, after a whole day touristing round temples and ramparts, that I must suit being on an elephant, and perhaps am looking unusually lovely... Then he asks for our hotel name, and it occurs to me, he’s a photographer. He’ll print up the least obnoxious of his shots, and bring them round to our hotel, to blackmail us into retail. I’m half expecting him to shout, “Bride’s family only, this way, please!”
Then we queue up by the staircase again, for the dismount. Or, as Mr Roland would say, the de-elephant. But we’re not finished yet. We go into the Inner Sanctum, the nursery shed, to meet the baby elephants. They’ve been taking cute pills, again. I wonder how the one I’ve selected is going to cope with the British climate?

A bit of animal magic to round off the day: Diana and I, hanging on our boom, boom pachyderm (with apologies to Joni Mitchell...).

Monday, April 7, 2008

Jaipur, the Pink City - Golden Triangle 6

The Pink City’s a lot more robust than you’d suppose. It’s not Barbie-pink, it’s salmon - and it’s our fault, anyway. When the Prince of Wales came to visit Jaipur, in 1853, they painted the whole city pink, to welcome him, and it’s been the model of urban monochromy ever since. The salmon stucco’s meant to resemble sandstone, in keeping with native geology. There’s a sprinkling of rebel blue houses about – you have to admire their spirit – but I don’t think the local B&Q does much trade in green or purple paint, for example.
Our guide for the day, Mr Kumar, takes us to cut our touristic teeth on a temple to my friend Ganesh, then on for a whistle-stop at Hawa Mahal, the Wind Palace, inspiration for many a Disney confection. It has no less than nine hundred and fifty-three latticed windows, with screened balconies, so that royal ladies and their entourage, in purdah, could observe without being observed. This excessive fenestration also permitted the free circulation of air, to keep the palace cool on hot summer days.

Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, is the first planned city of India, but don’t be thinking, Milton Keynes. Don’t be thinking, New Delhi, either, though. Just up the hill, former capital, Old Jaipur, was abandoned two centuries ago, since the population was expanding, but the water supply wasn’t. Today, a few hundred people still live in Old Jaipur, the Black City. Modern houses nestle up to ancient monuments, in a very familiar manner, and building work – rendering, mortaring, brick-laying – goes on daily, just like in Mumbai.
The current Maharajah of Jaipur, Sawai Bhawani Singh Bahadur, lives with his second wife at the City Palace, in the middle of the pink bit. He’s something of an entrepreneur, so most of the palace is open to visitors. In fact, for an extra 2,500 rupees, all of it is. The official town residence of the royal family is the creamy bit upstairs - two flags flying, means they're at home.
The Maharajah and Wife II have adopted his grandson, Kumar Padmanabh Singh, son of his only daughter by Wife I, as official heir. Grandpa’s in his seventies, Wife II and daughter are in their thirties. Our own Mr Kumar watches my chin hit the dusty floor. “He very old, but he very rich. For wife, old is no problem.” Couldn’t have put it better, myself.
At the gates of the City Palace, a snake-charmer lurks in wait for gullible tourists. At our approach, he whips the lid off his basket, and starts tootling on his pungi. The hooded snake wiggles upright, then patently loses all interest, and flops back into his basket, bored. In fairness, it’s very hot, and none of us feel like dancing, either...The charmer pauses in his charming, and gives the snake a smack on the nose, to buck up its ideas, but by now, we’re over the hills and far away.
Mr Kumar takes guiding very seriously, and won’t tolerate inattention. When Diana strays off, to take an unscheduled photo, he breaks off his monologue mid-syllable, never mind reaching the nearest comma. “Come here, Boss. Listen. This very important. I explain very interesting.” What can you do? So, we go through all of the Maharajahs of Jaipur, one at a time. I’m pleased to say, there are seventeen of them. We look at their clothes, their paintings, their drinking vessels, their elephant-harnesses, their polo outfits, leaving no peacock feather unturned. After an hour and a half, we’re fairly maharajahed-out, but no-one could see Madho Singh the First’s pyjamas and remain unmoved. “This one, big as small elephant,” says Mr Kumar, patting his own modest paunch. Seven foot tall and four wide, Madho was obviously no stranger to the pleasures of the table. “Madho Singh big wine-drinker,” says Mr K, jerking his thumb towards his mouth, with a sneer. “Drink wine, no brain. He only rule seventeen years.” Pathetic...
We drag our thoughts away from such wanton destruction of little grey cells, and move on to the largest stone observatory in the world, the Jantar Mantar, built by the founder of Jaipur, Jai Singh II, in 1727. Don’t ask me anything about it, though, because at this point I stop listening. To be honest, I nearly stop breathing too. Maharajah Gower and Maharajah Stott are fairly riveted, in a show-off boyish manner, but I suspect they’re faking it, knowing that Diana and I are bound to start clamouring for a sit-down with a chapatti, some time soon. How right they are.
You can’t have a thirst for knowledge, when you have just got a thirst, full stop. Lunch restores our fluid/thermal/interest levels to something like normal, so we can countenance more culture – Old Jaipur, in fact.

Here, we visit the Amber Palace and Jaigarh Fort. Mr Kumar airily swats a brace of small Indian persons out of the way, so we can enjoy the Hall of Mirrors unimpeded. This is not to do with an entertaining succession of hysterically distorted versions of yourself, à la Blackpool Pier – it’s an exquisite mosaic of tiny mirror tiles laid into marble. We see Mr & Mrs Raja Jai Singh’s summer and winter bedrooms, with their ingenious 16th century aircon system (it’s about pulleys, ask Roland), and their elephant park (not a free-range enclosure for pets, it’s where they used to park their elephants...), and the massive cooking-pots used for entertaining thousands of festival guests – a ton of rice in one, a ton of fish curry in the other. The palace should be reflected in the lake at its feet, but they haven’t had any rain since 2003, so we have to imagine it, in the dust.
Later, we drop off Mr Kumar, to get his bus home. “Next year, you marriage son,” he says to me, by way of farewell. He's aghast to discover we have a hat-trick of decrepit sons, all unwed. “Then tell son, come Jaipur for honeymoon.”

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Agra to Jaipur - Golden Triangle 5

Agra’s emptying as we leave town. Whole families are on the road, picnic baskets slung between them, paniers on their heads, trailing young, straggling behind. Red flags festoon the dingiest of alleyways, and youths have tinselled fillets bound in their hair. Something’s up.
We ask Sanjay, as the car noses along the gaudy streets. “Ram Nomi,” he says, as if that meant anything to any of us. “Ah, Ram Nomi,” we say, knowledgeably. “Of course.” It’s the celebration of the birth of Shri Ram Ji, I find out later, but Sanjay’s English isn’t up to it for now. Neither, to be honest, is our Hindi.
We drive for mile after hot mile, still passing pilgrims. The route’s punctuated by impromptu resting-places, chairs and decking set out, with refreshment available for weary travellers – like the village hall, without the walls. The celebrants from Agra will take days to reach their destination on foot, but journeying’s all part of the fun.

We pass a pond by the railway, where buffalo are cavorting like teenagers, and get out of the car to take photos. Passing locals, picnics in tow, take a moment out of their Ram Nomi procession to watch us, wondering, laughing. If you found someone taking a photo of a person buying bread at Greggs, you’d laugh too. Although, some of the loaves are wise to the tourist trade. Mr Andrew and I lean out of the car, to photograph a flock of sheep - when it says ‘lamb’ on a menu here, it usually means ‘goat’, so we want substantive evidence of some ovine commitment. The shepherd has his hand out for rupees before the shutters click.
Dual carriageway’ is a very fluid notion, in Uttar Pradesh. If they’ve dug up your side of the road, you just slip across to the other for a bit. It’s disconcerting, to find traffic hurtling towards you in what you thought was your overtaking lane – motor bikes, camels, trucks – but Sanjay has the measure of it. We even pop across to the other side ourselves, occasionally. In our new Innova, with AC and liveried chauffeur, we’re quite well up the wayfarers’ pecking order, but I wouldn’t argue with a laden camel-cart.
A man on a bike has a monkey riding pillion, its hand resting companionably on his shoulder. Another cart carries a huge bullock, instead of vice versa. One camel stands, ever patient, while its driver sorts out the spilled load of chaff, blocking the road. The chaff fuels the kilns, in the local brick-factories. Field after field of bricks are stacked to dry in the sun, before being processed through the kiln. No wonder Mumbai’s not finished yet.
By the road, we see women, carrying loads on their heads, with perfect poise. My walk is so uneven, my hair only stays on because it’s attached. They carry any and everything, from a pot of water, to a fardel of kindling. It occurs to me, that, if a woman’s marriageability is measured by the weight she can bear, hereabouts, I’d be an old maid.

And everywhere, there’s poo. It shouldn’t be a surprise, with all the bullocks and goats and camels grazing on every porch. We ask Sanjay, about the little “huts” in all the fields. “Cow, buffalo – latrine,” he says. There’s a pantomime moment, as he tells us what we’d been reluctant to understand. Apparently, the poo’s collected (in handy pats), dried, and stored for fuel. Makes sense, really.
So, if they ask you to a barbecue, in Uttar Pradesh, say, “No.”