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.