Thursday, May 15, 2008

At Street Level

Our last full day in Mumbai, before decamping to the UK for a couple of weeks, and I feel the need to drink it all in. People call Mumbai a “happening city,” with its cool bars and throbbing nightclubs, but Mr Roland and I do not lead this rockety jet-set kind of existence, it may surprise you to learn. Our idea of a top evening’s a bowl of dahl and rice, with a daredevil garlic naan, down at the Great Punjab, followed by a Bollywood special, feet up on the coffee-table. You see how where-it’s-at Mumbai might be wasted on us.
For me, it all happens on the pavement. The monsoon’s only two clouds away, and all the street life, which makes Mumbai Mumbai, will be washed back into the villages, as soon as the tarmac hisses with the first fat rain.
The shoeshine man charges three rupees, for polishing your shoes. Or five, it depends. “Five rupee,” Monu says, “more...” “More shoe?” I say, wittily, “big feet?” “No, no big shoe. More shine.” So if you want to see your face in your toecaps, you need to splash the cash around a bit.
The keycut man sits on the pavement (where else?), a huge, slightly wonky cardboard key suspended above his head, in case the rusty files and the rows of blanks in front of him aren’t clues enough. Getting a front-door key cut, fifty rupees. Sixty pence, to you. If it doesn’t fit, when you get it home, you take it back, once, twice, however many times you need. Keycutting’s not a precise science, here, it’s intuitive. An art.

If you chew pass-time, like our Monu, it costs one rupee a packet, in the foiled strips. If you want more than a toothful at a time, traffic-light vendors sell it in twisted newspaper cones, for twenty rupees. Perched on top of sacks of rags, in the back of the open van in front, there’s a man in a dhoti. His gums are red, he’s got no front teeth, he could be forty, he could be sixty, there’s no telling. Monu promises me, there’s neither betel nor tobacco, in pass-time, but I might snitch to his Mum, anyway, to be on the safe side.
On Saturday, most cars sport a nimbu mirchi, tied to the front bumper. Lemon and chilli, on a string, a talisman for protection against the evil eye. The salesman drifts along the idling cars, his fingers full of strung lemons, selling peace of mind, for two rupees.

The street barber’s my favourite stall. You can get a wet shave, in the sunshine – four rupees, economy, or six rupees, deluxe. What’s the difference, I ask. “Six rupee, with chair.” Is this where everyone comes, to offer a lathered throat to a bare blade? “Twenty percent,” says Monu, ever the statistician. “Eighty percent, home.” Some stretches of road have five barbers, all in a row, five gowned customers with their backs to the passing traffic, their foamy white chins poking out, like Popeye, at the squares of mirror wedged on the facing wall. I don’t know why they don’t make postcards of it, for the tourists. I’d buy one.

Or, a bloke, who’s feeling flush and unkempt, can get his hair cut for ten rupees. Twelve pence. I ask, what it costs for a lady, and, even as Monu opens his mouth to answer, I know what he’s going to say. “Women, no cut.” If you see an Indian lady with short hair, she’s rich. I go to the parlour at the Renaissance hotel, across Powai Lake. The coiffeuse says “Good morning, Madame,” then doesn’t speak until she’s doused me with a spray-gun, bearing down on me, flexing her scissor-hand. She even starts snipping, before she pauses to say, “Is trim, yes?” I look at the floor, when she’s finished, and, to be honest, you’d get more hair shaving a gooseberry, but it still costs me six hundred and fifty rupees. Mr Roland doesn’t even notice. Mind you, he doesn’t notice, when it costs seventy-five English pounds, so I’m not down-hearted, nor am I surprised.
Driving lessons cost fifteen pounds, but before you start thinking, that’s not very different from the UK, your twelve hundred rupees buy you a year’s lessons, here. Fifty rupees, for the sound-track of a film, on audio cassette, and the film itself, a hundred and fifty. Less than £2, for a dvd. You can get a cotton sari from D-Mart, for 169 rupees, although you can pay that many pounds, for something flash from a designer sari shop. Masala chai’s five rupees, from the street stall, or only three, if you want half a glass. Crushed sugar cane, three rupees, mango juice, five or ten, lime juice, twelve, it’s your shout. The vendor at the coconut stall wields a machete, deftly hacking the top off the fruit, before popping in a straw. Even the most alpha of males, needs two hands, for a fresh coconut, with both shells on. Cabaret, as well as refreshment, for ten rupees.

Flower-sellers, by the temple, have garlands on sale, anything from five to twenty rupees, depending on whether you want jasmine or roses. If the florist strangles the poor blooms into a garish conical arrangement, trailing ribbons and straw bobbles on sticks, you could pay as much as two hundred rupees, for the pleasure of watching it wilt, on the sideboard, at home. You have to be quick, though, it doesn’t take long. The one we buy for a friend, at Haiko, saves us the wait, since the petals are already fading into translucency, but it’s the only one left, and we’ve got the engine running. I’m too ashamed to tell you what we pay for it, but it makes Monu laugh. Our retail faux-pas afford him hours of innocent amusement. You can get most things, on the streets of Mumbai, but not wisdom, as far as we’re concerned.
It’s easy to feel rupee-rich, not just because Indian notes seem like Monopoly money, but with Gandhi’s shiny pate and John Lennon specs. The numbers seem an order of magnitude out of kilter – you shouldn’t have to pay a thousand of any currency, for a pair of trousers, yet it’s only twelve pounds. More than anything, a pocketful of rupees goes further than a pocketful of pounds, in the business of living, whether you’re buying an electric kettle, or a bag of samosas. We relegate our rupees, for the time being, to the sock under the bed, and steel ourselves, not to be scandalised by the price of a cup of coffee, at Heathrow.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What the papers say

Last night’s bombings in Jaipur are front page news in all the papers, today. Well, excepting the Mumbai Mirror, where the terrorist attacks don’t appear until page 12. (The Mirror’s front page strap-line, in fact, reads “We undertake all kinds of killings,” then, in smaller print, specifies “cockroaches, termites, rodents, bedbugs” – a Godrej Hi-Care advertisement, eye-catching, but more concerned with commerce than good taste.)
Our breakfast idli are hard to swallow, this morning. Less than a month ago, we were at more than half of the bomb-target sites, innocently snapping holiday photos to remember the Pink City, trying to evade the anxious clutches of the perfume-sellers and cloth-merchants. With up to eighty casualties, and twice that number of injured, it’s horrific, so the reporting can be nothing less. More shocking, to our protected western sensitivities, are the graphic photos, which make Jaipur more a Red City, than a pink one.
Under the headline, “Jaipur Jolted,” the Hindustan Times carries an aftermath picture, in colour, unnecessarily labelled “Blood and mangled remains of vehicles at one of the blast sites.” (At the bottom of the page, a large publicity shot of Shah Rukh Khan, the very one I have on my kitchen wall, his undone shirt and his six-pack both rippling in the breeze – free fan-poster with our DVD of Om Shanti Om. They’re planning to open Bollywood stores, where you’ll be able to buy SRK memorabilia from as little as Rs 50. Can I use the word “contrast” again, or are you tired of it?)
The Times of India’s more discreet, at a cursory glance, but the photo of the cycle-rickshaw, with its driver, utterly relaxed, head lolling back, knees splayed, brings tears to my eyes. He looks like the thousands of drivers we pass every day, parked up by the kerb, snatching a quick forty winks while business is slack, except this one’s not sleeping, he’s dead. “BLOOD AND GORE: P11” – in case you’d not had enough. Even the flowers at the flower market in Chauti Chaupar are spattered in blood. We’ve been there.
Not only tourist sites, but popular local temples are targeted, hence the cruel timing. “Tuesday is my God Day,” as Monu says, so Hanuman’s Temple’s packed with chanting Hindus. The bomb takes out an entire family of seven, arriving for worship.
The dead are laid out in overcrowded hospital corridors, and the mobile phones in their pockets start to ring. The doctors use the phones, to ring relatives, with nothing but sad news. It’s beyond imagining.
All of life’s here, in newsprint, a distilled microcosm, including the ridiculous. In the same edition as man’s inhumanity to man, home thoughts from abroad – what a proud moment for us Brits – comprise speculation about Liz Hurley’s pregnancy, a report on the £20K “Hen Night” of Wayne Rooney’s bride to be, before their £3M wedding, and more column inches, for Cheri Blair, than she deserves. And – how random is this? - Bath University, it seems, is offering a degree in funerals.
On the subject of Education, it’s prime recruiting-time for next year’s courses, so in Horizons, HT’s supplement for the young, seats of learning across the world are touting for takers. You could do an MBA in the USA, or go to France to study International Finance (in English), or you could do an MA in Media and Film Production, at our very own Sheffield Hallam, which apparently offers “the Number One Learning Experience in the UK.” If you’re after a business qualification with real clout, though, consider the Mumbai Educational Trust. “Admissions open for razor sharp minds,” MET says, “at the thirteenth best MBA school in South Asia.” You can’t do better than that. Well no, maybe there are twelve other options you should try, first.
Whole rainforests are dedicated to cricket news, and it’s not all good. Next to a picture of racily clad cheer-leaders (this one won’t go away, til the girls pack up their batons and flags, and go away, themselves...), an outraged Kishor Tiwari. It’s more serious than sequinned bikinis, this time. Mr Tiwari’s head of the Vidarba JAS, a non-government organisation for distressed farmers. Since June 2005, three or four farmers a day, in Vidarba, have resorted to suicide, no longer able to make a living off the land. Not only the hard-pressed farmers, but widows and families, have been promised food security and healthcare, yet no support’s forthcoming. Mr Tiwari’s incensed, because the Government’s proposing to waive the 25% entertainment tax – levied on all public events where a profit is to be had – for the IPL matches in Mumbai, at a loss of Rs 8-10 crore.(£1M+) You can’t help but feel, Mr T has a point.
The devil reliably being in the detail, I turn to the small ads, and am not disappointed. Classified – the microcosm, in microcosm. If you want English lessons, personality improvement, pigmentation control, a life partner or just a holiday in Santa Cruz, this is where you should look. If it’s a job you’re after, there are openings for every career, from chief cardiologist or sales engineer, to sandwich artist or office-assistant-cum-payment-follow-up-person. I give you this verbatim. I’ll save the page, if you don’t believe me.
The In Memoriam section’s compulsive reading. For Rs 850 – ten lines plus photo, fifty rupees per extra line - your loved one can appear in “The Unforgettables.” Here, we slip back a century or so, to a time when there’s definitely someone unamused on all the pennies in your pocket. Shri B.N.J.’s family make their anniversary pledge: ”To his august memory we rededicate ourselves.” So they should, since he’s “sagacious as an entrepreneur.” There’s a more lyrical tribute for Shri P.S.: “Your memories are like fragrance, spread through our lives.” You can tell a lot about a people, from the way they treat their departed, I always feel.
My favourite bit’s the rewriting history section. “I have changed my name,” says one ad, “from Rajdeep Suresh Gawhane,” – I’m expecting something radical, like Ron Stevens, but no – “to Rajdeep Suresh Gavahane.” As per affidavit. You wonder, why they bother. I might consider bothering with the next section, though, the Change of Date of Birth. “I, Ashwin P., had changed my Date of Birth, from 08/01/1962 to 08/09/1963, as per Govt. of Mara., Gazette Number....” Why? Had he been lying about his age? Was the new birthday more auspicious? Did he not want a bus-pass? And why, why the pluperfect?
Three little words, for the end of the news review, letting a picture paint a thousand words. In the background, the corrugated walls of a building-site. Centre stage, boys playing cricket in the dusty road. The picture’s taken over the top of a man, spark-out, lying on a pile of bricks, lost in sleep. The caption: Snores and Fours. All-Mumbai, in the click of a shutter.
As Sir Paul said, just another day.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Time to buy a hat...

I have one surprise,” says Monu, manoeuvring across four lanes of oncoming traffic. “My Mum, she ring last night. She say, my marriage is arrange.”

I have a bit of an Emma Woodhouse Epiphany, except Monu’s Monu, not Mr Knightley, and I wasn’t thinking matrimony. It does go through me, though, with the speed of an arrow, that I was thinking repatriation... I squawk round, in the back of the car, in manner of scalded hen, the only words I can say for fifteen minutes being, “Oh!” “No!” and “Monu!” in all permutations. I’m delighted, and devastated. I quite thought he might come home with us, come December, to be our driver on the non-danger roads of Nottinghamshire, and to look after the elephants. Oh, that’s the other part of the plan. – Just a small elephant, to make it easy for Jet Airways, then she can do all her growing in our back garden. I tell Monu about the elephant project – shall I take two, so they won’t be lonely? “Yes, two, good idea.” I’m just working up to telling him about the mahout part of the deal – and indeed, telling Mr Roland, come to think of it – when he springs this wedding-thing on me, and just laughs, until I start breathing again, and can start 20 Questions, Mumbai-style.

Do you know her?”
No, Ma’am. Her dad, my dad friend.”
Is she Hindu?”
Is she vegetarian?”
Does she smoke?”
Does she drink?”
No, Ma’am.”
Is she the same age as you?”
Ma’am, I, twenty-three. This is, twenty-one.”
Perfect. Could almost have been arranged deliberately. Oh, it was.

On the down-side, she’s a teacher. “Look out, Monu,” I say, the harbinger of doom, “marrying a teacher, very danger. Ask Mr Roland...” He just laughs. “My Mum, she very happy.”
Engagement, 10 December, wedding 11 January. “Nice time. All, all green. No too hot.” My mind keeps snagging on the fact that they’re setting off for eternity together, and they’ve not even met.

What colour are her eyes? Let me guess... Brown?”
“Yes, Ma’am, this is brown eyes
Monu,” I say, tentatively, in case he’s not thought of it, “what if she looks like a buffalo?” He just laughs. No, really, what if she does look like a buffalo? She’s called Shikha. I expect she’s very beautiful.

We pass by a buffalo farm, in fact, every day, on the way in and out of town. How like Mumbai, in all its overcrowded contrariness, to have acres of farmland, in the middle of the city. Aarey Milk Colony, home to thousands of cattle and buffalo. They’re supposedly open for visitors between four and six in the evening, but Monu’s “not confident” so we call and check on the way home. He leaves me in the car – engine and aircon running – and disappears up a mud-track. He comes back within five minutes. “Is closed,” he says, sadly, and then can’t not laugh – “Fifty rupees, is open!” I hand over the Open Sesame ticket with Gandhi’s face on it, and we’re in.
We’re instantly up to our fetlocks in manure. White probably wasn’t a clever choice, for today’s ensemble.

Buffalo – stop me if you know this – are made of black leather. Monu – a country boy at heart – can distinguish strains in the shuffling melee: “This is black buffalo. This is brown.” My buffalo finesse is limited to saying, “That cow looks a bit funny!” so I have nothing to criticise. We acquire an audience – when do we not? – so here are Janesh and Ilesh, who live on the farm, and don’t go to school. The buffalo between them is over twenty years old, and has three-seater horns. At the other end of the spectrum, the calf, with Monu and the boys.

Weeks ago, when the future was all comfortable theory, I ask Monu if he’d like children of his own.
Two. Two childrens.”
“A boy and a girl?”
“No, no. No boy. Two girl. Boy very danger.”
“You’re not wrong there, Monu
...” I should know.

On the way home from the farm, I say, “This wedding, Monu. Your Mum very happy. Are you happy?”
He has to think. “Fifty percent.” It’s my turn to laugh.
Forget about the fifty percent happy. Why fifty percent Unhappy?”
He thinks some more.
Married life is, no freedom.” And so say all of us, dear Monu. But, it’s not as if he lives in the fast lane, our bachelor boy. He’s hardly the lynch-pin of the Mumbai jet-set, throwing his hard-earned rupees around at Indigo in Colaba, or Bombay Blue in Goregaon. He plays cricket on a Sunday, and goes to see the occasional film at the cinema. I don’t see where freedom comes into it. “Indian wife, very danger, all time, go to mall, shopping, shopping.” Does he think Mr Roland’s miserable, then, shackled to Retail Rita? “No, no, Rolandsir all time very happy.” There you are, then.

Two days later, Monu has his first conversation with Shikha (“this is very nice voice”) but won’t see her until August. But what if she looks like a buffalo/bullock/cow, won’t it be too late to say no? “I like cow,” he says, in his karmic way. He could go next week, while we’re in the UK.
Maybe. I ask Boss.” He’s not told his boss yet – “I only say Tariq...”
And me....”
And you... Tariq say, all drivers - ” so Tariq’s the blabbermouth, because you won't tell anyone, will you? “All drivers make party for me, all drinking beer.”
Did you have a beer, Monu?”
One glass, one small, small glass!” he laughs. See, that Shikha’s not got a ring on her finger, yet, and she’s already turned my Indian boy to drink.

To Monu and Shikha.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

When the cat's away....

...... the mouse takes his credit card shopping. Mr Roland’s on a course, and Monu won’t hear of having the day off. “New mall,” he says, bossily, “Nice nice shops.” Well, that’s almost what he says, but he can’t pronounce “sh” properly. He says “fis” instead of “fish.” He also says, “Sit!” when we hit bad traffic, but, in his defence, he doesn’t smoke or drink, and he only plays cards for matchsticks...
So, the Oberoi mall. New shopping precinct, with its paint still wet. It’s supposed to open the last week of May, but has flung wide its doors, a whole fortnight ahead of schedule. It wouldn’t happen in the UK. Over the gleaming entrance, it promises “Fun, food, fashion, films!” I tell Monu, that I’m not coming out again, until I’ve had some of everything.

First, there’s the gauntlet of security to run. At the entrance to malls and big hotels, the car’s searched too – we have to open the bonnet, and they pass a dubious Heath Robinson contraption – a makeup mirror lashed to a stick – under the back of the car, checking for “devices.” I could have a pocketful of grenades, and a stick of gelignite stuffed down my salwar, but the security man’s too busy saluting me, and saying good morning, to find out. (At the entrance to our local Haiko, my handbag’s not only searched, but locked, with a thin strip of plastic looped through the zip and round the handle. How do they think I’m going to pay, by osmosis?)
At the Oberoi mall, my bag and I go separate ways, for ratification. We join forces again, the other side of the metal-detector doorway, officially Fit To Shop.
In a heartbeat, it’s obvious how they were able to open the Oberoi a fortnight early. It’s not finished yet, that’s why. Three-quarters of the shops are still boarded up, promising marvels soon. It will be four storeys of gliding elevators and plate glass, thronged with middle India, out browsing, and spending its new wealth. The piped music’s making my contact lenses wobble. I can hear hammers and drills, the other side of the boarding, where Mothercare and Debenhams are about to spring into being, but the Body Shop’s already open for business, as is Mr Raymond’s, the gentleman’s outfitter. In Lifestyle, welcome garlands festoon the stairwell, while workmen huddle on the floor, finishing the grouting. Shoppers step over them, on the way to “Jewellery and Watches.” I take my purchases to the pay-counter, where no less than eleven assistants clamour to serve me. In fairness, one of them’s a displaced security guard, and there’s also a lady from accounts, going through a file – but I occupy at least five of the remaining cashiers, processing my transaction, and packing my shopping, as if they were freighting the Holy Grail across the subcontinent.
At the other end of the mall – when I have gone up and down all the escalators several times, so I won’t be out again too soon, and have Monu think his idea wasn’t a good one – there’s Central. The fragrances for men and women department has racks of glossy, underlit shelves, but no perfume or aftershave. The customers have arrived before the stock. I’m given a rose, which compensates me for much.
In Central’s Food Bazaar, I pick up what looks like a packet of pasta, but it’s a snack. I ask the assistant, if it has to be fried. He so wants to help, he’s almost in tears, but can’t understand the question, let alone frame an answer. He goes for his mate. His mate goes for his mate. I mime my dilemma - to deep-pan-fry, or not to deep-pan-fry? (I catch myself saying, “Small, small oil?” Monu has a lot to answer for) – but apparently, it’s the 4-star heart-attack option, bring on the ghee. Salt? I say-and-mime. No salt, mercifully. For a minute there, I thought our arteries were in trouble.
I choose a bar of chocolate for Monu, in the absence of any home-bred boys to pamper, and ask the confectionery-wallah the price – “This one, ten rupee.” He picks up a different bar: “This one, five rupee.... this one, ten.... this one, ten....” and, suddenly, I have nine treat bars in my confused hands, and a small retinue of well-meaning shop-assistants, come to watch big spending, western-style. I hope Monu likes chocolate...

It’s very Indian, having the opening launch, before the men have towed the final skip away. The Mahindra Bank opens its Powai branch, with flowers and balloons and potted bay trees, before the building shell’s complete, let alone the fixtures and fittings. The roof’s not yet on the sixth floor, and the surrounding shops are still having finishing touches like walls and floors installed, but the Bank’s trading. To safeguard unwary customers, a net’s vaguely looped over the shop front, to catch falling masonry. Well, hopefully, to catch it. Unit by unit, the little arcade sparkles into life – Papa John’s pizzeria, Adam’s and Cabbage Patch kids’ stores – all foreign franchises, no room for quirky one-off shops like Kuldeep Scooters or Shivam Glass House or the Chauhan Cloth Centre. The Mahindra Bank will be up for its first repairs, before the Subway Sandwich Shop sells it first Chicken Madras-filled focaccia.
I feel a real pang for the little lock-ups in the streets. I tell Monu about the death of corner shops, back home, and the aircraft-hangar multiples which have crushed them. We shake our heads, sadly. Mumbai’s turning into just another modern city, and they’re calling it progress. Looking around, though, at the cows grazing on the pavement, and the heaps of rubble lining every road, the day, you can’t tell if you’re in Mumbai or Barcelona, is a long way off.

Friday, May 9, 2008

But is it cricket?

If cricket’s your thing, look away now. No, I mean it. This is only going to annoy you. Go and make yourself a cheese doorstep, and get a beer. Watch Scrubs for a bit, go on.

So. IPL match, Mr Roland says, do I want to go? If you’re still here, I’m assuming you don’t know – or indeed, care - that this is Indian Premier League cricket. As it happens, I don’t want to go, I’d rather watch the shoe-shine man shine shoes for three hours. In all my life, I’ve only seen one notable over of cricket, when Gary Sobers hit six sixes, about three centuries ago, and I thought things were looking up. There’s been little follow-through, as far as I know. I say yes, anyway, in the interests of sociability, but I’m not deeply hopeful.

Monu’s a big cricket-wallah. “One team, twenty over,” he explains. “All match, forty over.” I tell him off, because even I know there aren’t three teams, and I can cope with the maths. He only laughs. The whole match will last “three and four hour,” so I offer to look after the car for him, while he spectates, but it’s not to be. Rear offside tyre pops, within tooting distance of D Y Patil Stadium, Navi Mumbai, so we abandon our lovely boy, in a dead car, in seven lanes of honking traffic. As soon as we touch tarmac, we’re sucked, helplessly, into the slipstream of cricketing aficionados, like salmon going to spawn.

Street artists offer to paint my face with tiny flags, orange, green and white, but I’m already conspicuous enough in my select female pasty-face subset. At the D Y Patil Marg Entry gate, there are six channels for men, and one for Ladies. I have to surrender my bottle of water, but the contraband banana in my bag escapes notice. Twenty seconds later, we buy more water at the drinks stand.

I feel I have the rudiments of cricket instilled, after endless Sundays of Hot Rice at Tatton Park – the ball’s your enemy, your only weapon’s the bat, the bowler’s merciless, and everyone out there’s against you. My real cricket experience, to date, comprises a half-day at Trent Bridge, last summer, England v India. “So, what’s a wicket?” I ask, as we find our seats. “Graham, I think you’d better sit next to Caroline,” says Tricia. In our quest for a bacon baguette, we meet David Gower, going the other way. I can’t work Graham’s smarty-pants binoculars. India’s already won, before we slap on the Factor 25. What more do I need to know?

So, here I am. Seat 33 D, South A Bay, Level 3. The cheer-leaders – a controversial innovation – strive to out-wiggle each other. The local ones, fettered in lycra, have nothing but their arms and feet on show, with racy tinsel at the hips. The imported ones – Eastern European - are in shorts and cropped tops. I’m sure cheer-leaders in America go to church in less, but in India, it creates reams of expostulating footage in the press, about family values and disrespecting women. Then again, you can be arrested here, for kissing on the street.

This is the Mumbai Indians’ home turf, and their supporters aren’t shy. I tell Kamal – event organiser - that I feel sorry for the Rajasthan Royals, with just a brave smattering of followers, with their tailed turbans and drums. He laughs. Rajasthan have five consecutive wins under their belt, and are Top Dogs. Mumbai win the toss, and let Rajasthan bat first.

The stadium seats fifty-five thousand. It’s a sell-out. The row in front of us - ten seats, eleven Indians - all sport turquoise “10 – Tendulkar” shirts. Mr T - I call him Sachin -is their star batsman. He’s injured, but his followers don’t care whether he’s playing or not, he’s only got to poke his nose onto the display-screens, for the crowd to boil with joy. He’s offering a personal gift, to the fan who catches Mumbai Indians’ first six. I’m jockeying for position, myself...

Play begins. A hail of paper aeroplanes from the tier above douses the light, for a moment. I think Rajasthan are playing their mascot, but it turns out to be Swapnil Asnodka, who’s the best and bravest of them all. When the first of the Royals is caught out, the entire stadium’s on its feet, roaring. The fielders mass ecstatically for a group hug. Cricket's more like football, than I had realised. What happened to the Stiff Upper Lip?

This whole new breed of cricket incites a new style of play. The tendency, with a 20s match, I’m reliably informed, is to “twonk it one.” (I instantly adopt this as my favourite verb, at least until Christmas, so long as it’s not rude.)
What’s Hindi for Mexican wave? It goes anti-clockwise, ten times. Can you believe, Hindi for “Whoaaa!” is “Whoaaa!” The waves and the paper planes proliferate, when play is dull, but as soon as someone twonks a six, all flights are cancelled.

Rajasthan are all out for 103, and haven’t even used up all their overs. It’s not going to be too tricky, to whup that. There’s talk of tactical play, as the Tendulkar fans buy MacDonalds burgers from the vendor, inching his way down the aisle. At some point, the gates have been opened to Joe Public, and every step and gangway’s crammed with non-paying guests. Fire regulations, I think, fleetingly, but dismiss the thought. Our tickets cost IRs 1000 each, as much as Monu earns in a week. By now, tyre fixed, he’s sitting on a stair, somewhere the other side of the stadium. Fire regulations don’t come into it. If you’ve seen an Indian train, dripping passengers, you wouldn’t think to notice the packed stadium.

Rajasthan captain, Shane Warne, whacks out a Mumbai Indian with his first ball. The row in front is silent and still, flags lowered. It’s not just a game, then. The play’s half-hearted, despite promise of twonks. Tellingly, the moat’s fetlock-deep in paper-planes.

After 27 overs, I say, “So, there’s a bowler at each end, then?” Mr Roland looks at me, incredulity flitting across his face, just in front of tolerant amusement. We only ever had one bowler, in Hot Rice. Now I think about it, with the runs and everything, it’s only logical...

Mumbai Indians grind away the score in singles, and win on a wide, with a whimper not a bang. Even so, the fifty-six thousand people, heading for the exit, are euphoric. Against all the odds, it’s an amazing night. I might take cricket up, after all. Graham, please note.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

First Business Today

In downtown Kathmandu, the tourist market’s crammed with foreigners, haggling over carvings of Ganesh, coral necklaces or handmade paper lampshades, but the ordinary market, full of ordinary Nepalese, buying ordinary bags of lentils and chillies, is nothing short of exotic, if you’ve got a Sainsbury’s loyalty card in your purse. We see the birdman, with live songbirds in domed wire cages at one end of his yoke, and green parrots at the other. The tobacconist sells cigarettes three at a time, from an open packet. Between the stalls selling fake designer watches and mobile phone chargers, a wizened crone crouches over a curved metal bowl on the floor, feeding her panful of fire with offcuts of wood, turning corncobs over and over in the embers.

Men lean perpendicular from the hip, to heft a load heavier than themselves, supported by a strap across the forehead. Not just the picturesque, conical head-baskets, you see in the National Geographic, full of carrots, but any and everything, from bundles of sugar canes and sacks of rubble, to microwave ovens and television sets. The hands-down winner – literally – man toting a fridge-freezer. I wonder how many Shredded Wheat the average Nepalese eats for breakfast?
We go to Freak Street, named for the unrepentant hippies of the 60s and 70s, since – believe it or not – we were too young to trek to Kathmandu, in its heyday, and too sensible, in ours. Now more commonly known by its local name, Jochne, it’s bit passé and sad, though you can still get your tent laundered here, at need. It’s not entirely abandoned, we see new century hippies, with artless dreadlocks and multiple piercings, meandering along, hand in hand, though Children of the Universe, these days, are more inclined to favour Thamel, to the north.
The shopkeepers of Thamel aren’t picky. They’ll have your money, whoever’s head’s on the banknotes. “Cheap price!” they croon, enticingly. We stroll by, impervious, so they regroup, calling, “Nicht teuer!” to no avail, because we’re crossing territorial boundaries into next-door’s patch. “Bon marche!” they cry after us, in desperation. They’d concuss you, bind you, and carry you in, if only it didn’t draw so much attention on the street.
A man stalks us, whipping out of his duffel bag a musical instrument, which looks like it was cobbled together at his kitchen table, out of something from under a car bonnet, a bean-tin, and four clothes-pegs. He follows us, grinding a tune, like an inverted Pied Piper. When he drops back, defeated, another tout silkily slips into place. “Madame, Sir,” he says, “you like knife?” It sounds like a threat, but he peels a cloth back, and there is a baby scimitar, in all its hammered glory. Not today....

The salesman on the bone-carving stall says, “Please, madame, first business today, I give you good price....” I stop, and lend an ear: I’m quite susceptible to a tale of woe. What I’m wanting, is a Buddhist prayer-wheel (standard table-top version, not the rattle-type) inlaid with turquoise and coral. “Is the prayer inside?” I ask. “Madame,” he says, disappointed with me, “no prayer inside, no is prayer-wheel.” Obviously. He prises off the lid, and the prayer scroll looks to be antique, but I have singed enough honest A4 in my time, steeped in strong tea, to make pirate maps or Hear Ye scrolls, with the boys, to know that this dates back to all of the week before last.

So, I stop for a prayer-wheel, and what do I buy? I buy the King and Queen of Nepal, with long Mandarin plaits, etched with peacocks and fish and dragons. He says they’re made of bone, so if you have a suspicion about resin, when you see them, don’t say.

Next-door, the stall-holder already has a turquoise-inlaid prayer-wheel in his hand – “You’ve been listening!” I say. “Is my brother!” he says. “Come, Madame, first business of the day, I give you good price.....” One by one, twenty more salesmen ply the same wheedling line, but I’m progressively more savvy and less charmed. Either things are not going well down Thamel Chowk way, or they’re lying, but for sure, someone needs to set up a rota, for first dibs on the hard luck story.
Just when I’m flagging, we find The Paper Park. I’d go back to Nepal, just for this shop. You need to have stationery in your soul, to understand.
We come, empty-handed, out of one jeweller’s store, and his neighbour pounces on us, “Come, you see his shop. It’s my turn now.” Foxed by the purity of his logic, we go in. When I hold up a necklace and say, this would do, but for this, this and this, Barkat does no more than snip off the ends, and restring it in front of me. I hand him every bead. He says, his father tells him off for remaking necklaces, he should sell what’s in the shop, but he doesn’t agree. No obligation to buy, of course. We pay up, of course.

Mindful of the boys’ need to have something different, to take to the charity shop, when we snuff it, we decide to take home some dragons. In the streets, we’re offered prices ranging from 6000 NRs for a lone dragon, to 25000 NRs for a pair. Finally, Shyam takes pity on us, and shows us a dragon-factory in Patan. This isn’t like any factory I’ve ever seen – it’s someone’s home, with a workshop attached. We leave our shoes at the door, and pad our way up stairs and along galleries, to the showroom. There’s barely room for us all to sit on the floor, flanked by Shiva in gold, Ganesh in bronze, and Buddha in brass. If you care about these things, it’s lost wax casting. Kaji Shakya, the sculptor, with his long hair and Catweasel beard, looks a bit like Buddha, himself. Our dragons aren’t dragons at all, as it happens, they’re Temple Lions, and they come in pairs, male and female. I try to discern anything girlie about the female in my hands, but I’m hopelessly Disney-trained, looking for long eyelashes and cupid’s-bow lips. Kaji picks up her mate, “Madame,” he says, handing him over, “see in back.” - So I see in back, and he’s not wrong. We buy the pair, for 8000 NRs. Kaji calls his son home from a wedding party, while we sip water in his living-room, because he can carve gods out of wax, but he can’t work the Visa machine.
In the wood-craft shop, while Mr Roland’s admiring peacocks the size of cartwheels, without intention, I buy a small carved “OM.” The woodman says “300,” and I say, “250,” and we’re done, practically before we’ve started. Not what a connoisseur would call haggling, strictly speaking, but as far as I’m prepared to go. Woodman looks a bit thwarted at the easy kill, so I sing him a line from “Om Shanti Om,” to make up for my lack of bartering finesse. He’s suitably stunned. Game to me, then, against all the odds.
We buy witty t-shirts for the boys, which say, “Yak, yak, yak – Nepal” – don’t read this, boys! – and then we consider our part in tourist revival done. We gird up loins and shopping bags, and head back to the Soaltee, where the house musician plays "Hey there, Georgie Girl," double time, on the untuned piano, through the power-cut, and winks at me, when the lights come up again. He launches into "Hello, Dolly!" with more gusto than skill, and hysteria obliges us to leave. We have to pack, anyway.

Do you have to declare lions, at Customs, do you know?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mopping Up The Culture - Kathmandu

You can’t help but wonder if Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal watched John Goodman in “King Ralph.” Whether you wipe out the entire royal family in a fizzing plug-in-a-puddle stunt, or in a hail of bullets, the result’s the same: a clean slate. In a drunken killing spree, in 2001, Prince Dipendra turned the royal palace into the set of Caligula, littered with corpses, to put himself on the throne. He didn’t stay there long enough to have his picture on the banknotes, however, being comatose for his three-day reign, thus disinclined to pose for the Royal Mint engraver. Uncle Gyanendra became King of Nepal, when his trigger-happy nephew died, giving the conspiracy theorists fat to chew for decades to come.
None of this had a very stabilising effect on this troubled little nation. Gyanendra’s segued from autocrat to figurehead, as the country officially becomes a secular republic, instead of a Hindu monarchy. Fascinating times. The concomitant unrest’s not done a lot for tourism, it has to be said, in a country where there are seven good uses, for every rupee wrung from the juicy wallets of the west.
For what it’s worth, I think they’re wrong about the secular bit. You can’t fall over, here, without banging your nose on a temple, with a resident monkey or two, cheekily thieving fruit from the offering-bowl. (“You like Nepal?” Monu asks, taking charge of our bags at the airport, back in Mumbai. “Yes, we’ve seen four hundred and twenty-seven temples,” I say. “Four hundred twenty-seven,” he says, impressed, in spite of himself. I can see that I need to explain artistic hyperbole, but I’m too tired, tonight.)

Two calves sit, top to tail like a pair of commas, in the middle of Kalimati Chowk, impassive, despite the jamming traffic on either side. “These cow here five and six days,” says Shyam, treating them as a bovine roundabout. Killing a cow, in Nepal, carries a two-year jail sentence. “Hindus people like me, they pray the cow. Like god, no?” Later, we see a cow wandering through the crowded market. A man passes her without stopping, but strokes her back gently, then touches his head and his heart in one fluid movement.

At the Monkey Temple, a posse of boys watches the tourists, watching them. Like any other gaggle of rascally schoolboys, except these are infant lamas, trainee monks. At the age of five, they come to live at the temple school. Unimaginable. Three shaven-headed graduates pass by, resplendent in orange and red, just as they’ve looked for centuries, except the middle one’s on his mobile phone. We meet a full-grown lama, Bijaya Rana, at his Thangka shop, in Bhaktapur. Cross-legged in front of his canvas, a two-hairs-wide wisp of a brush in his hand, he’s in civvies, understandably, not wanting to get paint on his robes. His apprentice, Anil, has two years training under his belt, but needs another four, to be a master Thangka artist. He’s already a qualified salesman, though, unrolling and explaining canvas after canvas, in a ceaseless patter. He addresses himself to me, but when we make our choice, he shakes hands with Mr Roland. Whether this is to do with etiquette-nicety or credit card-location, we’ll never know.

Shyam reckons the cost of living’s rocketing, in Nepal. The price of rice has more than doubled in four years. Not only is petrol rationed, but so are water and electricity. Water’s only available for twenty-one hours out of twenty-four, the timing of the three-hour cut-off rotated to keep people the smart side of mutinous. (Still, better than in Dharavi, where the inverse ratio applies...) Surrounded by medieval stupas and golden temples, the women queue to fill their bowls and jugs with water. When the water’s turned off at source, the women leave their vessels queuing in their stead, and go away, until the supply’s reconnected. They carry home every drop they use, in vast pots balanced on their heads, or yoked to a bamboo rod, across an aching back.

There’s obviously not a lot of capital investment on infrastructure, either, as the crumbling roads testify. Up in the villages, just outside Kathmandu, the roads degrade into rutted cinder tracks; small wonder the suspension’s shot on every vehicle we climb into. If there’s so much as a large beetle, coming the other way, one of you has to pull over onto the stony verge, to let the other through. The road to China’s what Shyam calls “very jig-jag,” with an eloquent twist of his hand, perilously off the driving-wheel.
At first, the absence of street-dwellers fools me into thinking Nepal’s more prosperous than India, but more than thirty percent of Nepalese live below the poverty line, compared with twenty-five percent of Indians. Not a competition anyone wants to win, is it? Driving south out of the capital, to Patan, we see a no-lakh housing estate, huddled by the river. “This poor poor peoples,” Shyam waves again. “Bihari,” he says, by way of explanation. I wonder what he’d make of Mumbai, with its under-flyover villages and traffic-light communes.
Now, though, he says, the tourists are beginning to drift back. The Himalayan Times (2 May) has a picture of a blonde woman, buying pottery at the market in nearby Bhaktapur, to prove it. The previous day’s edition carries a picture of Labour Day demonstrators in a peaceful but lively procession through Durbar Square, Kathmandu. You can’t actually see Mr Roland and me, in the paper, because the procession’s busy processing between us and our car, but we’re at the kerb, trying to blend in.
Driving back, we nudge down streets as wide as the car, plus a chickpea on either side. We could reach out and touch the shops. The driver of the ambulance in front does just that, buying himself a pair of trousers. I’m hoping he’s on the way back from a hospital drop-off... We gawp shamelessly out of the windows, and they gawp shamelessly back, tit-for-tatting. A lot of smiling goes on, the entente is very cordiale. At the crossroads, the traffic policeman on duty pulls down his surgical mask, and licks his ice-cream. In fairness, it’s very hot, although I don’t think they’d get away with it at Piccadilly Circus.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Roof of the World

There’s only a brick wall between domestic and international, at Kathmandu airport, the runways cosily mingled together. The tannoyed messages are indecipherable, as in airports the world over, but here they’re indecipherable in Nepali, which adds an exotic Asian flavour to our ignorance. Through the window of the departure lounge, we watch a dog, trotting along the runway, until he’s out of sight. It’s chaos.
We get up at five thirty, to catch Everest in her morning glory, but it’s seven o’clock already, and we’re still grumpily terrestrial. We play the bored passenger version of musical chairs, trying out a selection of the uncomfortable plastic seats which fringe the hall, edging nearer and nearer the transit bus exit, our tickets going limp in our clammy fists. I check out the tea-stall, for a cup of cheer, but the chai-wallah’s crouched down, pouring into glasses on the grimy floor, so we limit our desires to the bottle of tepid water in my bag.
Every so often, a little man comes in through the exit, and spirits lift. “Cosmic Air Flight Number 432,” he calls. There’s a shifting in the hall, and the elect few bustle through the disappointed many. The little man does important laps of the hall, practising his human tannoy number, scraping up the stragglers. He must have had special training, to strangle his larynx: nature, imitating art, imitating nature.
You can choose from three airlines, to do the Everest thing – Cosmic Air, Yeti Airlines, or Buddha Air. Apparently, Buddha Air fly closest to the mountain (how close do you want to be, I wonder?) – so that’s where our money is. In US dollars, of course.

Still waiting. I come out the other side of impatience, into karmic acceptance, that it’ll never be our turn. It doesn’t make the minutes pass any less slowly, I just don’t mind their being slow. Finally, megaphone-man calls “Buddha Air 201,” but we’re so far beyond hope, we stay put for a while, before cramming into the bus. I look around, as I always do, at the motley rag-bag of random strangers I might have to share eternity with, should things go awry once we’re airborne. A French couple and their friend, a young Eastern-European pair, some indefinable Scandinavians, a smattering of Americans, Mr Roland, and me. The usual cocktail.

The plane’s a Beechcraft 1900D, which doesn’t look man enough for the school run, let alone leaping up and down the Himalayas. Every seat’s an aisle seat, Roland says, which puzzles me until I see the plane, which is like a silver Smartie tube. Seven rows of single seats, either side the narrow aisle, every one with its own window, so we don’t have to take turns. The middle ones have a bit of a job on, with the wings. Course, without the wings, we’d all have a bit of a job on...
The air hostess sashays up with a tray of cotton wool balls, and gives us each a boiled sweet. The do-it-yourself altitude kit. I don’t believe in deferred pleasure, what if the engine explodes before the end of the runway? I pop my sweet in, and finish the last lick before we even start to gather speed. The continent Mr Roland, whose sweet’s still in its wrapper, looks smug... I distract myself, looking for the trotting dog, as we thunder into the air.

We look at the Legoland of farms and houses, laid out, below us, on the brown mountainside. There’s cloud, and when we break through that, snow. The skyline’s on the other side of the plane, so all I can see is the back of Mr Roland’s head. I’m already more than familiar with that particular topography, so I look out of my own window, but all I can see is cloud, and anonymous pieces of Himalaya. Roland bobs about, taking photos through the smeary double-glazing.
The hostess moves down the plane, showing each passenger landmark mountain tops, first in the living rock, then on the standard issue line-drawing attached to the seat in front. One by one, we’re invited up to the cockpit, for an “Omigod!” moment. The pilot and co-pilot have the best view – but they’re driving, so I suppose it’s only fair. They do two flights a day, because they can’t guarantee visibility beyond mid-morning, when the haze sets in. What a great job – two laps of some of the loveliest and most dramatic scenery on earth, then back home for elevenses and a chocolate Hobnob.
I’m just clunk-clicked back in my seat, when we do a U-turn, and the mountains are on my side (of the plane, I mean, Mr Roland and I aren’t falling out. With each other, I now mean... did I mention I was a linguist?)
There they are, the Himalayas, sparkling in the sun. They’re older than time, but look fresh-minted. Everest – known to the people, who live at her feet, as Sagarmatha – has a fragile beauty which makes you catch your breath, and forget how many lives she’s cIaimed. Worse than cruel, she’s indifferent. I take photos, then want to watch with my own eyes, not through a camera lens. Then I feel guilty that I’m not garnering the moment, to gorge on, later. I establish a click-gawp loop, broken only by the lady from 4A (wingside seat, so near yet so far), wondering if she may take a picture out of my window. She may.
The hostess catches the soft underbelly of satisfied ambition, and whips out t-shirts and dvds for sale. The t-shirt says, “I didn’t climb Mount Everest, but I touched it with my heart.” You can imagine how tempted Mr Roland is, but they don’t have his size. Nor mine. Nor anybody’s, for that matter. Unfortunately, the same schmaltz is on the sky baptism certificates we’re all awarded, which means they won’t be on the dining-room wall, framed, any time soon.

The snow gives way to brown earth again, underneath us. Even in the warm sun, it looks inhospitable. I think of these isolated farmers, scratching a meagre living from the bare rock, when the tourists have all gone home to their cable tv and micro-waved dinners. A breath-taking Himalayan landscape clambering over every window-sill comes at a price.
We land. We thank the Captain, and de-plane. No-one says much on the bus, which takes us straight to the car-park, where we scatter forever, without so much as a good-bye. We’ll not be sharing eternity, as it turns out, but we’ll be in the cropped bit of each other’s photos of this magical day.

Monday, May 5, 2008

On the Hippie Trail - Kathmandu

Within a hundred yards of Kathmandu airport, Nepal, I see two of the things I love most about India – tuk-tuks, and people getting an al fresco hair-cut, on the pavement. I settle back into the taxi, feeling right at home.

Nepal has more than a billion Chinese breathing down its ear to the north, and virtually the same number of Indians to the south: it’s no wonder this little nation of less than thirty million souls finds it hard to make itself heard. China’s arguably the largest country in the world, but its communist principles extend to chronology, so from Khashgar to Shanghai, there’s only one time-zone - an awful lot of Chinese people must get up in the dark, and go to bed in sunshine. India makes her bid for independence by being not four, not five, but four and a half hours ahead of BST, perverse but charming. Nepal trumps the whole of Asia, though, with the temporally unimaginable. As we cross the border with India, we set our watches forward fifteen little minutes. Nepal’s a quarter of an hour different from India. How’s that for elegant foot-stamping?

It takes us nearly as long, to clear airport administration, as it does to fly here from Mumbai. At the visa desk, we see our first topi - typical Nepalese millinery for men, this one in pink and orange. Unfortunately, there’s a megalomaniac underneath it, waving his rubber stamp about, keeping us waiting, just because he can. If he’s processing someone too slickly, he breaks off, laughing, to dispense advice to the bloke at the next desk, or to take a phone call. Bizarrely, we have to pay in American dollars. Governmental edict. So we pay $30 dollars each, then, duly stickered and stamped, we're finally allowed out into the Nepalese afternoon.

Banners straddle the streets of Kathmandu, to wish us “Happy New Year!” New Year’s in the middle of April, here, so 2065’s just a fortnight old. No, not a typo, I mean, two thousand and sixty-five, fifty-seven years ahead of the rest of the world. Nepal’s so brave, and so bold – the wren to our eagle.

The city must have been lovely, with its curly tiered temple roofs and wandering yaks, before the internal combustion engine found its way here. Kathmandu’s less than a tenth the size of Mumbai, but the traffic’s as bad. Our driver, Shyam, apologises, “Six o’clock in morning, no problem. Office hour, traffic bad.”
You can understand the roads better, if you look at oriental lift-etiquette. As soon as the doors open, here at the Soaltee Hotel, people barge in, without waiting for those already in, to get out. Waiting would be not only the polite, but the sensible option, if you think about space available. Thus, the first and only rule of the road, I’ll just nip in here. Result, gridlocked chaos.
I don’t think they do lead-free petrol, in Nepal, if the billowing plumes of exhaust fumes are anything to go by. They don’t do any petrol at all, some days, Shyam says. He can – and frequently does - queue for two hours, to be allowed to buy only ten litres of fuel. Pedestrians sport surgical masks, or bandanas tied across their faces like highwaymen. The tuk-tuks, we note, are white, with blue or green trimmings. It makes a change from black and yellow, though the sardines-and-tin principle still holds, as far as shoehorning in passengers is concerned. The real “danger men” (Monu absent only physically, note) are the motorcyclists, though, who are susceptible to neither conscience nor fear.

Two minutes on the streets of Kathmandu would incite a panic attack in all but the stoutest hearts. Most of the pavement’s taken up by fruit and vegetable sellers, squatting nonchalantly with their backs to the traffic, their cloth-stall spread on the stones, dotted with neat heaps of garlic cloves, swollen knuckles of ginger root, and fresh chillies. Potential customers boil over the kerb onto the roads, like seething maggots. Frustrated drivers rev their engines and hammer their horns, tyres squeal as a motorbike swerves across a path, and, over all the cacophony, people shout. At first I think it’s in anger - I spy out nervously for Maoists and Taoists - but it’s just the bus service, drumming up evening business. The Nepalese omnibus is a transit-van, door wedged open, honking its way through the traffic. The conductor hangs out of the door, banging the roof or van-side, shouting destination and route, over and over, like a mantra. There are perhaps fifteen or twenty of them, competing in a raucous chorus, but the wayfarers seem able to hear sense in the chaos, locating their own bus and piling in. Having a label on the front saying, “No 10 – Trent Bridge to Ruddington” seems a bit of a colourless solution, now I think about it.

We pick our way back to our hotel oasis, smiling and Namaste-ing for England, for a beer, and a think.