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.