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.