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.