Monday, June 30, 2008

Stationary Stationery

Rani-didi helps out at Akanksha, because her daughter’s a pupil. Her English isn’t as confident as Bhavika’s, and she often lapses into Hindi, taking the unavailable-to-me short-cut to understanding. She sounds cross, but don’t be fooled. You only have to see her, lavishly pencilling in whole constellations of Well Done stars, on the kids’ books, to know that she’s a soft touch.
When they’ve finished an exercise, the children come clamouring for it to be marked. Mehur flops his book onto my lap, only to have Swapnil flop his on top. One-potato, two-potato.... The trend picks up steam, (Rani's not the only soft touch...),but before I suffocate under a pile of maths books, I beg for mercy, disinterring Mehur’s and Swapnil’s books from the bottom of the heap, as prior claimants. When I investigate, they’ve both already been marked by Varun-bhaiya, a student-volunteer. This seems to be of little interest to the boys, who thrust their pencils into my hand, wanting me to sign their work, “Didi, name!” and add any further embellishments I think they may have earned, “One star, Didi? Three star?” I feel Rani-didi’s somewhat cornered the stellar market, so instead, I draw a little heart on one, and a cup of tea on the other. This is where it all begins to unravel, like the mats we’re sitting on. We lose the drift of our Odd or Even? number-work, in the Harrods’ sale quest for artistic approval. (I say, artistic, we’re not talking M F Husain, here, we’re talking clip-art, but this lot are definitely know-what-they-like merchants, so I’m home-free.) “One more heart,” says Khaja. “This small heart,” he points, “Make big heart, here.” Since I lost my heart to Khaja weeks ago, I see no problem with this. Sultana, on the other hand, is resistant to market change, and remains faithful to the star system. I have to rub out a primitive house on her book, and draw a sprinkling of stars. Naina gives me her book, and three centimetres of pencil. She’s not happy with the “Very Neat Work!” already inscribed, she wants, “Excellent!” “No!” says Khaja, “no excellent this!” It’s a cut-throat world, approbation. I’m also unsure that Bhavika-didi’s going to be thrilled, to see the kids’ careful columns of figures doodled into extinction, as the teacups blossom in the margins...
Next, we tackle Grammar. We learn to start sentences with a capital letter, to leave a space between words, and to put a full-stop at the end. Sentences in Hindi end with a line, like the end of a bar, in music script: the full stop’s a whole new concept. Sonal’s much inclined to put her football full-stop on the line above, rather than the line where her writing is, but other than this, we’ve largely got the idea. We’re all issued a wooden lolly-stick, to mark the divide between words, our “Spaceman Stick.” I decorate mine with little flowers, as well as my name, then so do all the little girls around me – it’s not tricky to work out, why I like coming here. Khaja, on the other hand, colours his a jolly black. You can’t win them all.
Each child’s “folder” is a green cloth bag, with Velcro tabs, in which all books and stationery are kept. A quick eyeball along the row, reveals that some children have magpie tendencies (check Sultana’s bag for an Aladdin’s Cave, if you can prise it out of her hands...). Number One hot-hot-hot property is the rubber, much prized and fought-over. I see Nikita using a rubber the size of a pea, but then she has tiny fingers, I suppose. Next favourite, in the worldly goods line, is the pencil-sharpener, or the cutter, as the kids call it. This is why Naina’s pencil is so short, they love sharpening. They have a few crayons each, but the interesting colours are whittled down to shards.
I can solve this, I think, in my Lady Bountiful way. I go to Something Special, on Hill Road - my favourite shop in Mumbai, but the grimiest outlet in the whole of retail, every last box of paperclips filmed in dust. (If I have mentioned it before, you’re allowed to go to sleep for two lines, but... are there more than four pairs of scissors in your house? Can you lay a ready hand on at least three kinds of sticky-tape? Do you own any glitter-glue AT ALL? If the answer to any or all of these is “Yes,” you need to get yourself down to Something Special. No, really.) I buy packs of crayons, rubbers, and pencil-sharpeners, twenty-five of each. It costs me £4. And some smiley face stickers. Well, who could resist?
Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” – my signature piece – is by way of being an Old Favourite, by now. It’s chaos, but everyone’s having fun, until Anand gets an elbow in the eye, and we have to curtail proceedings. I wonder about the wisdom of putting our left leg in, and then out, and then in, and then out, and shaking it all about, next time, but I haven’t seen a First Aid Kit in Didi’s cupboard. Still, bring on the Hokey-Cokey, I say.
When I hand over the booty-bag to Bhavika-didi, she says thanks, but then stashes it on a high shelf, out of reach. I’m allowed to give out just three rubbers, to share. At the end of the morning, only one comes back. I’m about to launch a thorough-going investigation, upending everyone’s folder, starting with Sultana’s, Chief Squirrel, when it occurs to me, that these small people probably don’t have much, in the way of possessions, at home. If they want an orange rubber, they’re welcome.
We give Bhavika a lift home, and in the car, she says, that if they have rubbers and sharpeners, they will spend all their time, rubbing out perfect work and sharpening already sharp pencils, just for the pleasure of using the facilities. I’m awash with sympathy, remembering Miss Miller’s desktop sharpener, with the crank-handle, at Beaumont Juniors. We used to stab our pencils, under the desk, to snap the point, so we could queue up to use it.
Tomorrow, says Bhavika, she will explain, that any pupil writing a whole page, with no rubbing out, will get a smiley-face sticker, to cheer up the so-far empty Star Chart on the wall. If the scheme works, I think, the rubber stash in Didi’s cupboard will still be healthy, when Khaja’s grandchildren are on the mat in Room 112, thanking God for the birds that sing.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Dal Queen

Dal wasn’t a big feature on the menu, when I was growing up. We had mushy peas, though, and that’s more or less the same, isn’t it, just without the eastern promise? What’s a few cumin seeds, between friends? Old habits die hard, and my first few attempts at proper dal turn into either pease pudding or lentil soup. Today, I watch an expert at her craft: the Dal Queen, whose masala tin I am unworthy to take a spoon to.
Since I’m sous-chef to her Delia, I prepare for her arrival by doing skill-free labour, such as chopping onions and tomatoes. I leave them trailing round the hob, in a flotilla of satellite dishes, just like on Delia. I’m very pleased with myself, until she says kindly, “We would usually chop the onion finer than this for the dal.... but it’s ok.” So now I can’t even chop onions. Dammit.
First into the hot oil, go the mustard seeds. When they start to go snap, crackle and pop, add the cumin seeds, and as much ground chilli as you’re up for. Let this sizzle around for a bit, but don’t abandon it. That way charcoal lies. We add the onion (magnanimously overlooking coarseness of inexpert chopping) and powdered coriander, turmeric, and asafoetida powder. (Helps digestion, that’s all I know. I can spell it, though, that surely counts for something? I look it up, for some retroactive wisdom, now I own a little pot of it. It’s from the parsley family, and it stinks so much, that, across the world, its common names mean Devil’s Dung - “Merde du Diable.” Given that, in its freshest state, it smells like garlic going off, whoever thought it’d be ok to pop it in the balti, in the first place? Very handy for Jains, though, who aren’t allowed so much as an onion to pique a tired palate...)
Back to the pan in hand. Add garlic, and root ginger, peeled, chopped, sliced, crushed, however you prefer to subjugate it. Then it all fizzes away to itself, until the onion’s transparent. I quite like crispy little brown edges, to the onion, though this is probably a taste born of necessity – onions, in my kitchen, always sneak past the required, softened stage, into something crunchy, when my back’s turned, usually when I'm rootling in the fridge for half a lemon to go in my gin and tonic. Cook’s perks.
When everything’s nicely got to know each other, add chopped tomatoes. Not as many as today’s hopeless sous-chef has chopped. Just some. Indian tomatoes, I have learnt, keep their shape when cooked, unlike home ones, which collapse if you show them a frying-pan. Put the lid on your onion-mix, and wait until you can see the oil reappearing, round the edges of the tomatoes. Now you can add your lentils, which you've already washed until the water runs clear. Add water, bring to the boil, and simmer, for fifteen minutes. Less water for a thick dal, more for a runny one – it’s not rocket science, lads.
While that’s all going hubble-bubble, you’ve got time to make chapatti. Tip a mound of wheat-flour into a two-tone metal bowl, dribble in a little oil, to soften the dough, and enough water. Less is easier than more, to correct, it’s always good to remember. Corral all the loose flour, squish everything into a ball, and give it five minutes’ gentle knuckling. Pull it into egg-sized balls (small eggs), flatten them slightly, and dip in more flour. If you have a marble chapatti-rolling-out block, and a wooden chapatti-rolling-out pin, now’s a great time to get them out. If not, improvise. Chopping-board, milk-bottle, whatever. Each egg-ball of dough should roll out thinly to a circle about eight inches across, but don’t get the tape-measure out, it's not that kind of a chapatti.
Now. Have you got a tawa? We have. Admittedly, it still has the sticky label on it, because we only bought it yesterday, in HyperCity. There’s no HyperCity, near your house, you can live dangerously, and use a frying-pan. No oil. When the pan’s hot, flap the first chapatti in, and watch. When the edges turn white, turn it over. You have to pat it, with a cloth, lovingly, and turn it again, and again. If it’s behaving itself, it will start to puff up. When it gets little brown freckles, it’s cooked. Take it out, with your asbestos fingers, and put it on that handy plate you’ve already got out. The chapattis stay soft, if you wrap them in a cloth. (You need a lot of cloths, for this recipe. Clean ones.) Then start again. The first one’s often tricky, while the pan gets used to the idea – just like pancakes, I say, supportively. This afternoon, though, the first one’s perfect, like the next eight, so we have nothing to offer hovering boys or dustbin dogs. Just as well, since both are in short supply.
The dal’s done. All it needs, is as much of the pile of sous-chef-chopped coriander leaves, as you can fit in your bunched fingers. This is comfort eating, big time. The Dal Queen says that, in India, they cook rice and lentils, onions and spices together, to make khichdi, a dish traditionally fed to invalids. We turn it into kedgeree - why do we have to add flaked fish and boiled eggs? I blame the Raj.
Nothing's weighed or measured, here, you will notice. Learning to cook Indian food, hanging on the loose end of your Mum's sari, everything's down to fingertips and intuition. The scales can stay in the cupboard.
So, anyway, pasta’s edging off the last-meal-before-you-die radar. Dal’s my new soul food. Next, I'm wanting to tackle aloo gobhi, but there's the small matter of onion-chopping, to sort out, first.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


We turn our backs on the rags and rubble of Mumbai, heading across the estuary, in search of some green and pleasant land. Monu suggests Matheran, a hill-station about sixty miles east. We’ve never heard of it, but we give it a go. It turns out, when we get there, that he’s never been, either, so it’s a bit of a pig in a poke. (Not very pc, I know, given our current co-ordinates, but you think of a veg alternative – ‘an aubergine in a hessian sack’ doesn’t quite do it, does it?) Happily for Lucknow’s favourite son, Matheran exceeds all our green hopes, even the monsoon hides in the wings, until we’re back in the car, on our way home.
As soon as we leave the expressway, nature takes over. Against all expectations, it’s like Scotland, hill after craggy hill, head in the clouds and feet in the mist. We wind the windows down, and the hot air rushes in. So, not quite like Scotland, after all.

We see a washerwoman, by the well, slapping her linen on the rocks, wringing it out, then piling it into her basket to carry home, on her head. I think we should have basket-balancing on the National Curriculum, it does wonders for deportment and posture.
Women bend, ankle-deep in the flooded rice-fields, weeding. Only a quarter of each field is green with new shoots, the remainder to be seeded as the season unfolds. I feel sorry for the bullocks, straining to pull their ploughs through the mud, but Mr Roland, the country-wise, reckons they’re up for it. I don’t recall seeing many bullock-carts in Buckinghamshire, so I’m unsure how he knows, but I suppose he’s right.
The local school’s painted egg-yolk yellow - farm egg, not supermarket egg, obviously, I don’t think they do colour-chart chemical interference, here. The small girls wear navy-blue pinafores over white blouses, with red ribbons in their looped plaits, just to be cute. Their school bags are bigger than they are. Their older sisters wear long white kurtas over navy salwars, with navy dupattas. Simple, but stunning. For the first time, I see that the words “elegant” and “school-uniform” can be in the same sentence, without starting a fight. The boys are in white shirts and beige shorts, or beige longs, depending on the size of boy.
The further up the mountain we go, the more crumbly the road, which makes interesting driving on hairpin bends. Monu’s slightly inclined to survey the scenery, so I offer to drive. He laughs. I don’t doubt him for an instant, which is more than I can say of Mr Roland, swerving up and down the Gorges du Tarn...
Near the top of the hill, we run into a dead-end. Cars aren’t allowed any further, in the interests of pure air and tourism. As soon as we slow down, we’re surrounded, and Monu replaces his chauffeur’s cap with his guide-and-protector hat. If we want to reach Matheran, we have three choices. We can walk, we can take the mini-train, or we can go on horseback. Guess?
We choose c)... I know....
We invite Monu to come with us. “This very long price...” he says, doubtfully reporting negotiations so far, but then he capitulates. “OK, I come.” So the horsemen bring our noble steeds. Monu gets a pony (“Very nice horse, very small, very fast. I like my horse.”) Roland gets Meghraj, King of the Clouds, speckled brown and white. And mine is beautiful, a glossy chestnut called Raja, just a foot taller than everyone else’s. Now is this because a) I look instantly like a competent horsewoman, exuding equestrian savoir-faire; b) Raj has the nicest nature, and I visibly need all the help I can get; or (depressingly) c) I have such an enormous backside, a smaller mount won’t do? Don’t tell me what you think...
Despite having read every word from J Cooper’s pen, I still think horse-riding’s not really a sport. I mean, the horse does all the work, doesn’t it? You just have to sit there, enjoying the view... Head Horseman Krishna accompanies Raja and me (thus supporting possibility b) above – also Raja’s his top horse, so it’s in his interest to hold onto the bridle every inch of the way...). “Straight back, straight back,” he reproves, “no soft back.” I sit up, and immediately forget how to hold the reins. “This brake, this left, this right. This finger, this finger, like this. Hold tight.” My spine sags. If you think it’s easy, go and give yourself a scrub-down with a curry-comb right now. It’s harder than it looks. So this is me, eating humble pony-cubes.
I ask Krishna, if Raja’s a boy or a girl horse, because I’m too busy, getting my handbag trapped on the pommel, as I hurl myself into the saddle from a standing start, to check out Raja’s credentials. I think he says, “she,” so I ask, interestedly, if she’s had a foal...Puzzlement. A baby horse? Blank. A horse baby, then? Light dawns. “This boy horse, all boys,” he says. No baby, then. It seems he didn’t say, “she,” he said, “this sneeze,” when Raja was spluttering. It’s going to be a long trek.
About a million miles up the stony path, we sidle to a halt, and I winch myself off Raja, glad to be on terra firma, even with wobbly legs.
In the rapid exchange Monu has with the drivers, I hear the magic words “restaurant” and “market” – shopping and lunch, what could be nicer? Apparently, though, we’re here for the view. Well, once we scramble down a steep track, through a copse, we are. En route, Monu stops, and points to a craggy mound of red earth. Mr Roland and I crane forward. “This snake house.” We take a step back, to admire it more fully. “He sleeping,” says Monu, confidently. He’s turning into a bit of a Patrol Leader, our Monu. We tiptoe away. No-one likes being woken up from a nice nap, do they?

The thing about getting off the horse, is that you have to get back on again. When you go by plane, it’s not the actual flying that’s dangerous, it’s the takeoff and landing. Same with horses. I can cope with the clip-clop, clip-clop in between, just about. Fortunately, there’s a handy wall, so it’s more of a walk-on, this time.
You like, go fast?” asks Krishna, “you stand, you sit, stand, sit, one-two, one-two.” Before I can answer, he says something in horse, with his tongue and his teeth, and we take off. I think I may be doing sit-stand, instead of stand-sit, because I get a thorough saddle-spanking, and it occurs to me Raja and I aren’t ready for the Way the Farmer Rides, just yet.
The mud’s a darker shade of Heinz Tomato Soup, witness Mr Roland’s fawn trouser-bottoms. I ask if the horses have to be washed every day, like our car, but Krishna says, only once a fortnight, more often’s not good for them. “But every night, massage.” I think he means the horses.
We stop for another view, down another track, but ignore the verdant panorama in favour of a monkey-dog fight. Four snarling dogs, one very persistent monkey. Youths lounging nearby encourage him, in English, for our benefit, shooing away the dogs. “You no hear what I speak?" They punctuate their request with stones. "Go away, no-good bastard dogs!” The dogs yelp
back up the path to the street. After a little while, the monkey follows. He’s clearly not had enough.
There’s another conference about lunch, but it’s destined not to be, so we sling our legs over our horses’ backs, again, for the homeward trek. We meet men, pulling and pushing cartloads of stones and grit, up to the village. “Indian men, very small, very strong,” says Krishna, steering out of their way. We stop, where the railway track crosses the path, waving to the train as it squeaks to a halt. Like the local Mumbai train, this one has doors which are never closed, and the passengers loll out, on all sides.
This horse jump,” Krishna informs me. He clicks twice, and Raja does a spirited wiggle and a kick, at the end of which, I’m lying across his neck, sliding sideways, stirrups flying. Monu, ever supportive, is behind me, laughing. It’s alright for him, on My Little Pony, back there...
We ride to within three feet of the car, which is as well, because I can’t walk, once Raja and I go our separate ways. “You want see this horse jump?” Krishna asks, as we’re leaving. We do. He manoeuvres about a bit, then does a standing leap, Heigh Ho Silver, without banging his nose on Raja’s neck. We clap and wave.
I roll the window up, as we gather a little speed, but the damage is done. Out of conditioner this morning, open-window drive, horseback exposure to elements, natural tendency to madness – factor in the monsoon, and you have a coiffure like a mousy pan-scourer. I will not get a comb through this until next Tuesday.
In the car, I ask Monu why we don’t have lunch, and he says, “No nice. Village women very dirty.” He pulls in, at a road-side stall. We drive home, munching Magic Masala Balaji Wafers, aka crinkle-cut crisps, washed down with mango juice. Or coke, if you’re Monu.
A perfect day.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ticket to Ride

Buy ticket from ticket office,” Monu says, “no from person outside station.” He means it – inside the station, on the wall, a notice declares, “Ticket from a tout is a ticket to jail.” So we queue up, duly chastened.
Victoria Station – V.T. to its friends – is about two hours’ drive from our flat. We climb out of the car, and do a quick double-take – V.T.’s the twin of London St Pancras, contriving to be impressive and pretty at the same time. Inside, you couldn't be anywhere but India. We're confronted by dozens of ticket windows, with explicit, but, to us, incomprehensible directions, about which stations are served from each. A kind man, in a pale blue shirt and cream trousers (unofficial official uniform here, as for Michael Palin), sees our white-faced bewilderment, and tells us we need the first floor, desk 53 for foreigners. Monu’s words ringing in my ears, I’m inclined to doubt him, but he wants neither payment nor thanks, so we do what he suggests. Halfway up the sweeping marble stairs, where the first floor’s cut away to accommodate the staircase, there’s a plinth lagged in cushioned plastic, for the protection of unwary heads, who presumably choose to bound up four stairs at a time. I look around me, and the only head, I can see, in need of protecting, is Jacob’s.
Buying a ticket’s the most cumbersome, time-consuming exercise I’ve ever seen. You have to fill in a form for every journey you want to make, with train time, name, number, and date, as well as everything about the passenger you’d need, to register with Dateline. Now, and only now, we discover that they only accept pounds or rupees. Everyone puts his credit card back in his wallet. Happily, there’s a magic wall on the ground floor, in its own little kiosk, so Jacob and I go to collect a million rupees, then slope back upstairs, trying to look inconspicuous. By now, three people have been served, but one has pushed in, so it’s still not our go. The ticket lady, with a lab coat on over her sari, slides a wooden sign in front of her window - “Please wait” – and disappears. “She go lunch,” says the pusher-in, fatalistically. Painted on her window - underneath the depressing news about credit cards - “11.50 – 12.10 lunch.” The ticket clerks obviously dine alone, at Indian railways, a twenty-minute lunch-break doesn’t include time to chat. We chat, though, to some nice Americans in the queue, behind us, swapping travel tales and life stories and Soft Mints. Some would-be travellers try to start an ancillary queue, to my left, so I put a proprietary arm out, casually, to the marble counter, blocking the pass. It also fences in the pusher-in, but it serves him right for pushing in, in the first place. If anyone else tries to queue-jump, I will cheerfully punch them. Happily for international peace, no-one does, and, when Mrs Patil finally comes back from her chapatti-wrap, new-minted tickets are handed over. She needs to see the ATM receipt, though, in case I might have been counterfeiting rupees in our spare room, with hand-rolled paper and a box of crayons, of an evening. You’d be brilliant at drawing Gandhi, if you did, his face is on every banknote.
The foreign tickets allocation only covers journeys within two days, so we have to join the scrum on the ground floor, to buy tickets for the rest of the boys’ Indian adventure. It’s like at Sainsbury’s deli counter, you have to get a token first, and wait for your number to be allocated. Sadly the ticket-for-a-ticket queue snakes round the whole of the ground floor. We join it, disgruntled but resigned – isn’t queuing our specialist subject, in the UK? Before we’ve properly exhaled our first sigh, another charming man in a blue and cream ensemble, tells us we don’t have to queue, if we have credit cards, so we skip off to windows 11 & 12, and are served almost instantly. The bloke behind us openly reads our forms over our shoulders, inching forward bit by bit, until he’s one of us, then at the counter between us, and I even have to ask him to move, so I can sign the receipt pushed under the screen. They don’t do personal space, in Mumbai. Well, logically, there’s not room for it.
So, we succeed, but Monu doesn’t. He needs a ticket home. An Indian person, at an Indian railway station, wanting an Indian ticket, from Mumbai – in India - to Lucknow – also in India – and he needs ID. Not a single word of ill-will against British Rail will ever pass my lips again.
The boys’ train’s early evening, so we spend the day touring Elephanta Island, to get our money’s worth out of the repeat two-hour trek to south Mumbai. Back in the car, all sporting bizarre monsoon-tan, we have lots of time, until we drift to a standstill. We were always going to hit traffic, because that’s Mumbai, but this is carpark-traffic, and our hour and a half leeway’s beginning to melt. “Sit. Sit. Sit,” says Monu, so we know it’s bad. “Today, V.V.I.P. visit Mumbai, all all road stop.” In a bold move, we leave the car, and cross the road, to Marineline Station, where we catch an urban train into Central Station. Only three stops. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?
Put aside all the articles you read about Mumbai railways having the highest passenger fatalities, not to mention over-crowding and pick-pocketing. None of the signs, blossoming on every post, is in English. It’s definitely our lack, for not understanding Hindi, but knowing that, doesn’t make it any easier to find a ticket, or a platform, or a train. We hop up stairs, across walkways, down stairs, no ticket office, ask again, increasingly desperate. The boys manfully tote all their worldly goods, without a murmur. I’m finding three cartons of juice and a bag of caramels for the train, almost more than I can bear, though in fairness, I’m also weighed down by an invisible rucksackful of panic. Our tickets are seven rupees each. Platform 1.
A million Indians are on Platform 1. We excuse-me, sorry our way through the throng, turning heads with our white-and-Elephanta-Island-pink faces. I ask four different people if the next train’s to Mumbai Central. Apparently so. We move forward, as the next train comes in, and everyone round us laughs, wagging fingers, holding us back. Ladies only. A whole train, just for ladies. It’s a very short train, with daylight visible between fluttering saris. It looks like a very nice train, but – I check out all the y-chromosomes around me – it’s not for us.
Less than two minutes later, a train we can board. Well, with some polite elbowing then hefty shoving, we can. Sardines have room for potted plants and scatter cushions, in their tin, compared with this. My second foot’s barely landed, when the train starts to move, and I turn back, to count the boys, in a panic. One, two, three. Mr Roland, bonus. It’s all a bit real, clamouring for attention from every sense, but olfactory has it, by a nose...
An Indian friend tells us about four businessmen he sees, travelling on such a commuter-train into the city, who balance a briefcase on top of their four pot-bellies, to play a hand of cards. I don’t think it’d work, with a back-pack.
Think sausages. When you puncture a sausage skin, the unconfined sausage, inside, just pops out. So, the urban network, here. “Indian train, doors all-time open, very danger,” says Monu. People hang out, catching the view or the evening air, or pushed by the sausage behind, I’m not sure.
We pull in to Central Station. People behind us are already tunnelling through us, to get off. We burst out together, onto the platform. I count heads. Roughly quorate. Chelo.
Local’s divided from national by a slender footbridge, and it’s another world. We’re still the only westerners visible, but there’s slightly more organisation in the air. After all the adrenalin, there’s an hour in hand. On the platform, no train, but a passenger list, including Gower, Pomeroy and Hardy, our own trio of musketeers.
Whole families are camped, in the main waiting-area, picnicking or sleeping. The boys buy chips and coke from the unlikely MacDonald’s, but Jacob – eager to embrace the whole Indian experience, his insides still unruffled – prefers idli, and watermelon-juice.
Freedom’s just a boarding-step away, so the boys allow a photo-opportunity, before they escape.

Monu – like Radar – appears at our side. We would have made the train, if we’d stayed in the car. It takes us more than two hours, to drive home. As we pass a tv shop, Monu leans out of the car to catch the cricket results. India’s winning. By the time we get home, the boys are halfway to Jaipur.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Welcome to India

Well, they’re here.

Driving to the airport at four in the morning, even Monu’s looking pale. We’re all glad of the covering darkness; at least two of us close our eyes for a bit. On the other hand, the roads are a piece of chum chum, and we whisk along in under fifteen minutes, instead of the usual fifty. I suggest rescheduling office hours, to maximise the benefit of this early morning facility, but it falls on stony ground. I pass round the Soft Mints, and we chew our breakfast in silence.

At Arrivals, we feel less like the only people left on the planet, because they’re queuing six-deep, by the exit doors. This isn’t just to catch the first possible glimpse of a newly de-planed Grandma, or long-lost Cousin Rahul, it’s because the air, escaping from the airport lounge, has been conditioned, and is therefore cool, rather than the ambient warm felt.

I’m not sure, if Indian people understand about queuing, or is it just the ones in our immediate vicinity, who get it wrong? First off, if we sense someone, elbowing into our personal space, we step back, and usher them past. Then, it occurs to me, they’re not muscling through, to reclaim their abandoned child, who’s wriggled to the front, at the barrier, they’re just muscling through, full stop. So I wind in my crowd-etiquette antennae, ignore the signals, and stand my ground. Futile. The man on my right hand – literally – insinuates himself in the not-space between me and the woman in front, like cramming a too-fat newspaper through a letter-box. He ends up standing on the other side of Mr Roland, where he could have walked, round the back of us, with no worming at all. Maybe he likes a challenge. I think of Hugh Grant, going to the arrivals lounge at Heathrow, in Love Actually, to have his faith in humanity restored, and I can only assume he doesn’t go at four thirty in the morning, when everyone’s crabby and unlovely.

The security officers nurse their rifles, nonchalantly. The one sitting down, overwhelmed by the responsibility of superior rank, nods off for ten minutes. Mayhem’s too tired to break loose. He wakes up, and compensates for taking his eye off the ball, momentarily, by snapping orders at small sari’d ladies, with impossibly loaded trolleys.

It’s a long time since yesterday’s four-word conversation with itinerant son, from Gatwick. Between then and now, he has the possibility of missing not one, but two flights, including the hurdle of not letting his stop-over, in Qatar, turn into a sleep-over. It’s not without anxiety, that I scrutinise every emerging face. In all truth, I can tell pretty quickly if it’s Jacob or not, without even having to play the telltale genetics card. Baggage-trolleys emerge round the corner in front of their owners, and I know Jacob’s not likely to be bringing a microwave oven, or a home entertainment centre with him. If the first thing I see is a box of mangoes, or a washing-airer, all swathed in bubble-wrap, I don’t even look at the person pushing. Ditto, matching designer luggage – it’s the raggle-taggle gypsies I’m waiting for, so tatty ruck-sacks will be the order of the day. I even think, no trolley.

And there they are, blinking in the fluorescent light, hefting seasoned back-packs, trolleyless, after all. They look pale, but they’ve been in transit for twenty hours, the pre-dawn light leaches the roses from their cheeks, and everyone else is brown - how could they not look pale? I have no leis, nor bindi, with which to welcome them, so I give them a Soft Mint, instead.

We motor through untypically deserted streets, but they won’t know, until tomorrow, how much of a miracle this is. It’s still dark, so it’s like looking round a house, shrouded in dust-sheets. Once across the threshold, they have showers, eat a loaf-ful of toast, and fall into bed, asleep before they’re horizontal. After six hours, we winkle them back into consciousness with more tea.

The promised rain doesn’t arrive until we’re stranded in the middle of Powai, but, since we’re sitting on the canopied terrace of Mocha Coffee Shop, upstairs at the Galleria, we’re happy to spectate. We brave the scrum at D-Mart, in search of what Monu calls “rain-dress,” but Mr & Mrs Kumar of Powai, et al., are out and about, panic-buying moths-balls and brown jaggery cones, so the aisles are too thronged, to be able to turn round, let alone try cagoules on. Going for a browse round D-Mart seems to be the local pastime of choice, on a damp Sunday afternoon, much as people, in the UK, idle away the slack hours til tea, mooching around yellowing trays of impatiens, at the garden centre. We buy a bag of khari biscuits, to eat on the way home, and some grandpa vests for the boys, to test out the Indian theory, that it’s cooler, with the extra insulation.

The boys make bold plans to quarter the sub-continent – so much India, and so little time. The Rough Guide may well fit it all on one page, but they're not going to fit it all into one month. We walk to Utsav for dinner – ordering in the hot evening air, outside, eating in the saving cool, inside.

When we get home, Jacob has his third shower of the day. They say, no-one can come to India, and remain unchanged. QED.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ars gratia artis

So, where’s that monsoon gone, then? We haven’t had wet toes since last Saturday, seven days of drought. I’ve got two umbrellas which haven’t even been unfurled yet, except in the shop. The corporation water tankers are out, today. I see a little bloke up a ladder, with a big green curly hose, force-feeding a civic tree gallons of water. We had about a foot of rain last week, I can hardly believe the local flora’s spitting feathers, just yet. Maybe he gets paid per bole.

I think it rained, in the night, but our windows are indented, thus immune to splashing, and there’s only so much you can say for definite, at midnight, as far as damp tarmac’s concerned, a hundred yards below. In traffic-light retail, back at day-time street-level, umbrellas have ceded the field to colouring-books and car-polishing cloths, again, so we’re lulled into thinking the monsoon may be remarkably short, this year. Four months, down to eight days - global warming, I’m thinking.

Today, we spring-clean, in anticipation of house-guests. Scrubbing three toilets and ferreting the dust-bunnies out from underneath the sofas, I’m not unaware of a certain irony. The third scion of the House of Gower is the least tidy person the world’s known, since Man first stood on his back legs, and said, “This cave could do with a spruce up, Maureen, where’s the Ewbank?” Jacob’s more than happy, to slouch in front of his computer, curled up in a blissful mélange of lecture notes, toast crusts, beer-bottles and unwashed boxers. He lives, what you might call, in medias res – the detritus of living laps chummily about him, and, if you ask him to do something, he’s always just in the middle of doing something else. More sensitive to words than bacteria, he’s offended if you say “mess,” or “pig-heap,” or “e-coli,” in his presence. “I don’t know what you mean,” he protests, stung, “I tidied up for you...” The ironic thing about this piece of irony, though, is that it doesn’t make any difference: even as I tell myself, that Jacob and his mates won’t a) notice or b) care, I’m still hurtling round the flat, like a whirling dervish, with a mop. I make the beds, with the seven-piece embroidered coverlet set, matching the curtains. I have yet to meet a man who can see the point of cushions, but I tweak and fluff, nonetheless. Mr Roland, meanwhile, prepares for the invasion by laying in a crate of beer, and even I can see that this is the targeted kind of forward thinking, which knocks embroidered pillowslips into a cocked hat, as far as noticing and caring are concerned. We are what we are, I reflect, peevishly polishing the bathroom taps, and unwrapping peaches and fruits moisturizing soap with aloe vera.

Out there, on the streets of Mumbai, last week’s initial skirmishing, with torrential rain, has given the lorries a much-needed wash and brush-up. In India, the lorry’s an art-form unto itself – a vehicle in more than one sense, then. I feel, increasingly, that we’re repressed, lorrily, in the UK. We have acres of vanside devoted to “Eddie Stobart” or “Alfred McAlpine” – how interesting isn’t that? Here, the only limit’s your imagination, and why not? We see not only butterflies, and shells, and flowers – the lotus is very popular, for obvious reasons – but also whole scenes unravelling, on the flanks of passing trucks. There are pastoral tales, with calves suckling, or balmy beaches, or birds in flight. There are religious tableaux, with Ganesh and his missus, or Krishna, cavorting with his flute and his glee-chorus of cowherdesses. Often, the petrol tank’s painted with a tiger, its mouth snarling round the inlet. And propaganda, “India is great!” just above the "HORN - OK - PLEASE." I wonder, if you have to be handy with a paintbrush, to drive a lorry, here, or if there’s a fleet of peripatetic truck-artists you can employ, to embellish your rig, in a lay-by somewhere. I wave and smile at a lot of lorry-drivers, to while away the long hours of traffic-jam prison, and they smile and wave back, but I don’t yet know any of them, on first name terms. When I do, I’ll ask. Even the cement-mixers, down on the building-sites in Powai, are painted with flowers. We’re missing a whole aesthetic opportunity, here. Why not lorries?

Chain-fringeing’s also a favourite, here, along lorry bumpers, but it passes my understanding – does it have a function (lightning conducting, for example), or is it just heavy metal lace? Long tassels of tinsel dangle from the wing-mirrors, and swags of orange flowers festoon the cab. A hundred years ago, in January, it seemed tawdry, but now, it’s normal, so a lorry, without garlands, looks positively lustreless and bah-humbug.

Wasp-waisted 1950s showgirls, in swimsuits (or not), languish on the windscreens of lorries back home, next to a loving inscription - “Christine” or “Waynetta” – wife? girlfriend? 1950s showgirl, maybe? Here, there’s not a cab you couldn’t show your Mum – the decals depict praying hands, entwined with a blooming rose, or a jolly god, having a think and setting the world to rights, or just a spangly “Om.”

Monu’s picking us up at four o’clock in the morning, to meet Jacobsir’s plane. Guess when the monsoon’s scheduled to make a reappearance? Timing is all, I always think. Hope the boys have packed their sou’westers, wrapped round their Lonely Planet Guide to India. I've parked my broom, because we're ready, more or less. As well as Mr Roland’s stash of Kingfisher, we’ve got an industrial sack of Bombay Mix in the cupboard, and enough pappads to tile the whole apartment. Just need to pop to the Culture Shop, to see if they’ve got any guest-towels with Ganesh on.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Bhavika-didi’s a better man than I am. We’re doing opposites, today, and she says, “Is Didi fat, or is Didi thin?” Catch me putting my own head on that particular chopping-block. She prompts the children with mime, blowing out her cheeks and stomping among the rows, like an elephant. The kids shout, “Fat!” Fat!” and squeal with delight. Bhavika-didi obviously has a healthier self-image than mine.
Self-esteem’s on the curriculum, here at Akanksha, though, and Didi’s getting tough. Just as, with our happy triggers, there came a point when mangoes weren’t allowed to make us happy, and we had to find something a little more cherché (like coming to Akanksha, or reading a book), so, now, the same upgrade, with compliments. Although Didi at first accepts, “Raja has a nice t-shirt,” or “Ashish has nice hair,” she now says we’re done with nice this and nice that, “I want something more about Ashish inside.” “Ashish is a good friend,” says Kajal, with a little prompting. And we’re off. Within ten minutes, we’re all good friends, but I like to think that that doesn’t stop our having nice hair, as well.
We also do what makes us unhappy (not-smiley face on board) – which turns up fascinating results. “I don’t like it when Didi shouts.” “I don’t like it if my friend cries.” “I don’t like it when my mother beats me.” The Child Protection Agency’d have a field day here. It’s a lot more direct and honest, somehow, a small clip round the ear. If a child’s fidgeting, Bhavika gets hold of his arm, swivels him back into position, taps him on the head, and restores order, all without breaking the flow of her odd and even numbers explanation. In the UK, a pupil can whip a knife out of his pocket, and the only sanction we have for protection, is to threaten to keep him in at playtime. Show me the youth, brandishing a broken bottle in your face, who will be cowed into submission at the prospect of doing lines after school... If Bhavika were unkind, the kids would simply stop coming. As it is, sending them away is her most powerful weapon: they’ll do anything, to keep their place on the frayed mats in Room 112. I think again, of the UK education system, where consistent truancy is punished by exclusion – how did we get that crazy?
Education’s not free, in India, but, as with all retail, there’s a whole spectrum on offer, depending on your purse. You can buy a sari for less than £2, down at D-Mart, or you can spend hundreds of pounds on a designer number, at Sakhi, in Santa Cruz. So with education. For those of more slender means, there’s education to be had at Rs50 a month (60p). Or, for something a little more up-market, you can pay Rs1,500 a month (nearly £20). Before you think, that’s less than you spend on cigarettes/wine/Indian takeway in a week, do a Mr Micawber balance-sheet, and consider that the average income, here in Mumbai, is between three and five thousand rupees a month (£50-£60).
For your child to be eligible for the Akanksha scheme, he or she has to attend state school, your monthly family income has to be Rs5,000, and you have to have a ration card. To get a ration card, you have to be resident in Mumbai for five years. (Our own Monu thus has a ration card, entitling him to buy basic commodities at a special price, “All cheap – flour, sugar, rice – all, all cheap.” Since making a cup of tea stretches the outside edges of his culinary capabilities, though, he’s not best placed for this to be much of a financial advantage.) The point of the salary and the ration card, by way of guarantee, is all about stability. Every day, another thousand people come to live in Mumbai, to discover, like the thousand from yesterday, that the streets are paved with rubble and excrement, not gold. Akanksha needs to make best use of its resources, by supporting children who will come week after week. It’s not a holiday club. In the state school, there’s no limit to class size, the average being around sixty pupils. There’s little in the way of interaction – child-centred learning hasn’t reached the sub-continent yet - so Akanksha, with classes of no more than twenty-five, hopes to furnish the missing personal touch. They can’t cover the whole curriculum, in two and a half hours a day - which is why attendance at state school is also necessary - but they undertake the TLC side of things.
In Mumbai, there are more children, needing educating, than there are centres of education, so the school premises work a double shift, starting early morning (as early as 6 a.m.!) and finishing in the evening. Some areas have a primary shift, then secondary, others, vice versa. My Mankhurd class loses Akash, because he’s changed state school – he was doing Akanksha in the morning, and ordinary school in the afternoon, but his new school runs in the morning, so he’s been reallocated an afternoon Akanksha session elsewhere. I’m very sad, he was extremely cute, but who am I to stand in the way of a boy’s education?

At the end of every session, there are parents waiting at the door, to complain to Bhavika about their wayward offspring, not wanting to go to state school in the afternoon. Bhavika keeps them behind, after the rest have thanked God for the world so sweet, etc., and been dismissed. She gives the recalcitrant scholars a right old drubbing, first in English, then in machine-gun Hindi, for good measure. Didi doesn’t believe in sitting on the fence.
Today, I'm in charge of “Head, shoulders, knees and toes,” which we do with more enthusiasm than melody, it has to be said. (I’m glad to note, that I can still touch my toes, without involving the knee-joint, although my padmaasana’s still lop-sided.) In a bold move, I try to get the children to miss out the word “head,” just doing the action instead, but it creates primordial chaos in about fourteen seconds. It does wonders for my playground cred, though – when Bhavika asks everyone to sit in a circle, Khaja and Sultana pat the floor next to them, invitingly, tugging at my dupatta, “Didididididididididi...” I don’t need asking twice.
When we do our thinking and stretching, at pack-up time, Bhavika says, “How does a mountain stand? That way we’ll always stand. Like a mountain.” We go back out into the world, with straight spines.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Reading Matters

Crossword - India’s answer to WH Smith – has a branch on every street corner, not to mention pocket franchises in department stores, such as Life Style, at In Orbit mall. Bigger outlets, like the one at Mulund, have a coffee-shop, toilets, and a play area for visiting children. They take their reading seriously, here in Mumbai.
Powai Crossword has a small frontage, but don’t be deceived. It’s a Tardis, and goes on and on forever, once you’re inside. There’s a doorman, to usher you in, then a baggage person, to relieve you of your umbrella and already-shopping, then, unencumbered, you’re free to browse. Browsing’s second only to cricket, by way of top national sport, here. Chairs are placed in strategic nooks and crannies, and small stools or beanbags pepper the Children’s section. Or alternatively, readers find a book they fancy, and just drop in their traces, for a more comfortable floor-based peruse, before purchase. Consequently, as you hoover along the shelves, you have to pick your way over the sprawled legs of absorbed almost-customers. I make it a policy, never to buy the front copy of any book I want, anyway, so this thorough raking-through, before paying, does not disconcert me, unduly. (It reminds me of when I bought a copy of Brideshead Revisited, for my Mum, one Christmas, then developed tunnel vision, trying to read it, without opening it more than an inch, and cracking the spine. It acquired a certain thumbed air before long, so I gave it to her for not-Christmas, in October, instead...)
In HyperCity, just after you and your bag have been frisked by the laughing-but-ruthless security guard, but before you enter the shop proper, there’s a DesiCafe, then a Crossword. (I have a fondness for the Desicafe, because it’s where I have my first Chola Batura – basically a pancake, served with sauces, ranging from hot to paint-stripping. The pancake’s inflated, so it arrives on your plate like a fluffed-up pillow, but it collapses as soon as you puncture it. You definitely have to try it, for entertainment value, if only of your fellow diners.)
Today, there’s the monsoon gauntlet to run, before getting inside HyperCity. Mr Roland’s all for turning back, because of undue exposure to the elements, but we see they’ve rigged up a ramshackle bamboo shelter, roofed in sheet plastic, for the convenience of patrons. Well, in order to have any patrons, at all, in fact. Unexpected waterfalls, spilling from backed-up rooftops, still make me laugh or squeal (depending on preposition: looking at, or standing under) – and I have to keep reminding myself that everyone else sees this every year, like we see Christmasses come and go. We're the monsoon virgins, here.

The HyperCity edition of Crossword’s tiny but packed, though the shelves appear to have been stocked by the pin-in-a-book-catalogue method. The central island, on promotion this week, can only be described as eclectic. As well as cookery books and tv guides – including the Sunday Times Where To Eat Guide, for some reason – there’s a mountain of PG Wodehouse, Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and the Complete Works of Kahlil Gibran. (This is only 225 rupees, for all twelve books, in one volume. Not really a bed-time, or even less, a bath-time read, unless you have reinforced wrists, but a bargain, nonetheless. Am considering starting Christmas shopping right now, except see above, re insatiable curiosity leading to tunnel vision.) How "Cozy Country Cottage Decorating" gets into the window display, I'll never understand. Whether you're under cardboard and tarpaulin, at the traffic lights, or on the fourteenth floor of a tower block, or even if you're Shah Rukh Kahn, with his million-lakh pied-a-terre in Juhu, country cottages don't come into it. But then, coffee table books are for coffee tables, not for reading, the world over. There are about 47 copies of Doris Poosner’s “An Indian Man’s Guide to Success” - whether they’re hoping for a big run on it, later this afternoon, or whether they radically miscalculated their order, only time will tell. Nestling next to Ms Poosner’s magnum opus, there’s “The Greatness Guide” by Robin Sharma, then a stack of “Mein Kampf” in gilt-embossed leather. Or guilt-embossed leather, I have to suppose. It flits across my mind, to stay here all day, to see who buys this stuff. The heaps of Salman Rushdie and Khaled Hosseini, you’re kind of expecting, but who would have nominated J Archer, as sub-continental fave read? Pas moi, for one. Yet there he is, Lord A, pushing Paolo Coelho off the top shelf. We’re not short of classics, with Tolkien, and Agatha Christie, and C S Lewis, or neo-classics, like James Herriot, or even neo-neo-classics, like Sophie Kinsella. I said, eclectic, didn’t I?
Whichever branch of Crossword you’re in, by far the most shelf yardage is dedicated to the Self Improvement Section, comprising everything from Teaching your Toddler to do Sudokus, to Living your Life True to Marxist Ideals. The most significant sub-category fathoms the what-where-when-how-and-why, of Getting Ahead in Business – how could you turn your back on “Success Built to Last: Creating a Life that Matters” (Jerry Porras & Co) or “The Magic of Thinking Big” (David J Schwartz)? Most of these have a distinctly transatlantic flavour to them, but if there were ever a ripe audience, India has to be it, a whole population dedicated to climbing out of wherever they are, or to grafting untiringly, so their children won’t have to. I pick up “Seven Mantras to Excel in Exams,” by Prem P Bhalla – clearly an Indian writer, but on the same onwards-and-upwards bandwagon. It’s exhausting, just being in this aisle. I slope off, without ambition, to pastures more comfortable.
And there’s Mills & Boon, the ultimate salve, right next to the till. They’re celebrating their centenary this year, bless them - “One hundred years of Pure Reading Pleasure.” A chacun, as they say. Impulsive, compulsive reading, at 99 rupees a pop, how could you say no? Except, I do, abjuring the temptation of “The Millionaire’s Inexperienced Love-Slave” and even “The Sheikh’s Blackmailed Mistress.” Instead, I buy Binoo K John’s enchantingly entitled, “Entry From Backside Only.” Contrary to what you’re currently thinking, shame on you, it traces the history of the quirky, hybrid language which is Indian-English, with all its quaint Victorian phrasing and subverted usage. (Mention this phenomenon to any Mumbai ex-pat, and they will smile, and say, “Backside!” Monu says, “Rolandsir backside!” when he means, behind the office where Mr Roland works. You can see how confusion might arise, though.) Roland fluffs up his gravitas, and selects “Maximum City” by Suketu Mehta, “a brilliantly illuminating portrait of the megalopolis and its people,” - according to the blurb on the back cover, anyway. Sadly, the only non-fiction I’m happy reading, is by Jamie Oliver or Collins-Robert, but I do know that the lack is in me. While Mr Roland’s footling around for small notes, in his wallet, I show my cultural colours, by asking the assistant when “U Me Aur Hum” is out on dvd. Look, it’s still culture, you just don’t have to work so hard for it. There's substantive evidence of the same Arabian sea change, not only on bookshelves and film collection, here in Powai, but in fridge and wardrobe, too. To adapt Sanjay-from-Delhi’s global blood-is-blood-God-is-God philosophy, culture is culture. “All same, no different.”

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Sunday Stroll

We try to go for our Sunday pre-prandial constitutional, but turn back, before we hit daylight. As we’re putting our first toe on the pavement outside, it starts to rain, juicy, fat, splatty drops, darkening the concrete as we watch. By the time we get back to the thirty-third floor, though, it’s stopped, so we turn again, a la Whittington, suitably armed against the caprice of the clouds. (Our umbrella-pot now has five occupants, ie three already ones, and two newcomers: a telescopic number, forgotten by a visitor, and a fourth purchase, printed with a patchwork of Indian newsprint, destined for coriander-nostalgic rainy days, back in the UK. I might need to get a bigger umbrella-pot, soon.)
We walk to Mr Roland’s office, first through the building sites of leafy Powai, then up into the one-lakh housing estate beyond, eventually coming out on Vikhroli Road. It has to be said, we turn more heads in the inner-city village, than we do round our way. We drive through this area twice a day, there and back, but it’s very different, having actual dust between your toes, and direct eye contact with the residents. I’m longing to go inside one of the cramped hutments, but can quite see that you need to be invited, first.

Each front door opens directly onto a deep flood-drainage channel, bridged by a paving-slab. Even the tiniest children know to take care. A bit of loose scree serves as pavement. Just as in the UK, Sunday’s clearly the day for tinkering with the car, so we have to pick our way through the roadside tuk-tuk clinic. The danger drivers are stripped down to their loincloths, up to the elbows in axle-grease, their tuk-tuks tipped up, for under-carriage maintenance, like dogs, with a leg cocked. We pass small-small shops, selling car parts which look like they’ve already been in three different engines. One tyre-shop claims “tubless tyres mended, all kind of puncher.” Not all of the auto-rickshaws are in dock, the rest of them saunter up alongside us, offering a ride. Obviously, we don’t look as if we could or would or should go anywhere on our own feet.
Some of the houses are well-equipped, patched with corrugated sheets, and scraps of blue plastic sheeting, to deal with everything the monsoon can throw at them, when it’s on the rampage. Some of them are even up a short flight of six or seven stone steps, hoisting them well out of harm's way. Others are not so well-placed, the whole house being below the surface of the road, which means that heavy rain puts the lives of entire families in jeopardy. On the outskirts of the village, there are those even less fortunate. The no-lakh housing estate, on a piece of rough ground. The women and children sit in front of their tent, laughing and chatting. The stench is unspeakable.

At Parkside Cricket Club, up to a dozen matches are in full flow, on a field the size of a football pitch. I can only assume the players know which is their ball, in the same way a hen knows her chicks from the farmyard scrum. The gathered spectators are suddenly more interested in the pasty tourists, taking photos, than in any of the games in front of them. We move swiftly on.
Pavements are reinstated, up the hill, but don’t be seduced into thinking you can use them. Manhole covers have been lifted by Municipal Corporation workers, to ease flooding. You can walk into the voids easily enough, if you’re busy rubber-necking during the day, or even when you think you’re being careful, after dark. When the flood's in full spate, the murky swirling water conceals everything. Right now, the drains we peer down are clogged with bits of branches, rags, broken flipflops – little wonder they flood. So much for Mumbai Council’s much-vaunted “ninety-nine percent drain clearance” – unless we’ve chanced upon the one street still left to do? No, I don't think so, either.

We stop at Cafe Coffee Day, where the waiter’s stammering with apologies, before we even sit down. “AC no working, is ok?” The only way Mr Roland and I will ever be “cool” is with the help of air-conditioning, so it’s a great pity, but we’re British, and good at adversity, so we sit down, anyway. It takes four of them twenty-five minutes, to produce two coffees. He’s just parking my latte, I can even smell it, when he misjudges the relationship between table and saucer, and upends the whole frothing cupful. I can’t decide if they’re more aghast at the waste, or at our trying to help them mop up.
I see, from the mirror in the Rest Room, that I'm coiffed with bed-springs, and begin to understand the term “monsoon hair,” in the Fructis adverts on tv. I ask Mr Roland, if my hair looks mad. “No madder than usual,” he says, unthinking. The chasm of conjugal infelicity yawns at our feet, like a monsoon manhole, but a) I’m too hot to argue and b) he’s right anyway. Accha.
Abjuring tempting offers from passing tuk-tuks, we wend our way home, creating little eddies of interest, as we pass, among both bunches of hard-hatted construction workers, going back to work after lunch, and posses of small boys, drifting about looking for trouble, as aimless boys do. They stare, we smile, they grin. I say, “Hello!” and they erupt with joy. “Hello, Merry Christmas!”Their laughter follows us up the hill, where we come upon three Sikh gentlemen, sitting on a wall. They’re bare-legged, but in long sleeves, and their beards are whiter than their turbans. They put their hands together, and bow, greeting us with a smile. “Namaste!”
We pass two boys, with bikes. The smaller one’s trying to mount a bike taller than himself. “Big bike!” I say, and his face splits in a grin. He wobbles off, and I wave. He takes one hand off the handlebars, to wave back, and I have a small cardiac infarction, right there on the pavement, as he swerves out of the way of a lorry, coming the other way. I see, breathing again, that he’s ok, and he waves again, as he wobbles out of sight. Maybe I haven't got the hang of karma, after all.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sticky Moments

Today we don’t have to stop to ask twenty-seven assorted tuk-tuk drivers and newspaper-sellers for directions, so we get to school on time, just before nine o’clock. Monu’s been once, and like a boy, has logged the co-ordinates of Mankhurd Akanksha School, into his Mumbai Knowledge. I still have to be virtually in the shadow of our building, Verona, before I know where we are. To be fair, it casts quite a long shadow. I have patch pockets of The Knowledge, little snatches of awareness – like where my favourite street barber has his pavement stall, opposite the flyover, or where the closed-until-the-sun-comes-back lighting shop is, on the road out of Powai, or where the scrawny calves live, in the alleyway between the no-lakh hutment and the chai-seller, at the junction – I just don’t know how they all fit together, into anything coherent. It’s a kaleidoscopic world, mine. Unsurprisingly, I miss my own house, sometimes, sailing past the end of our drive, and we’ve lived there since 1996.
“Good morning, didi!” the early-birds chorus, even before I have kicked off my crocs at the door. Bhavika has them spaced to the last quarter-inch, on the mats, where she wants them. If they fidget, she invites them to entertain the whole class with a dance. I’m very aware of changing position every two minutes, myself – marble’s very unforgiving – so I resolve to practise my lotus on the floor, at home. I seem unable to sit cross-legged, without one knee being higher than the other, yet, when I do a surreptitious scout-round, no-one else’s padma’s asymmetrical. Reluctant joints creaking, I put it on my To Do list, and make a conscious effort to be still, in case didi asks me to dance...
Akash arrives. He slithers out of his chappals at the door, and curls round the jamb, balancing on one foot, until Bhavika notices him. “Didi, may I come in?” I’m felled by such charm - in the hurly-burly of school corridors, back home, it’s every man for himself – but no-one else in Room 112 bats an eyelid. Two minutes later, he goes out again, to liberate a spider with academic aspirations. He returns it carefully to the wild, then hovers on the threshold again, waiting for permission to come back in.
By way of starter, a prayer:

O god, give us strength.
O god, give us peace.
Make us good.
Make us strong.
Make us good and strong.

Eyes open. “Good morning, didis!”
Bhavika writes “Values” on the board, underneath the date, and we revise being happy, for a bit. Kajal wins the laurels with “It makes me happy, when I read a book!” – laudable, if visibly propagandist, given the context. You can’t have happiness without sharing, so the next logical step is paying a compliment. Didi – bold as brass – asks for compliments. “Eating a banana,” volunteers Anand. “No!” says didi firmly, “we are done with being happy!” A bit drastic, for seven year olds, I reckon, but she’s only thinking of our Values lesson, not Life In General. “Now give didi a compliment!”
Didi’s dress is clean!” says Rajul. To her credit, didi manages not to look crestfallen, evidently believing in taking compliments gratefully, as and where she finds them. Anyway, battling through drifts of slurry, to get to school, with her frock unscathed, deserves special mention. “Who can give Caroline-didi a compliment?” She chooses Khaja, with the cheeky eyes. “Caroline-didi’s hair,“ - I hold my breath – “is very nice.” I smile at Khaja, and feel like my birthday and Diwali have come all at once.
In my group this morning, I have Swapnil, who’s cute enough for me to overlook the small matter of a runny nose (seriously cute, then...), solemn Mehul, who takes some winning over, Ashish, who likes to work on his knee, where I can’t see it, rather than flat in front of him, on the floor, where I can, and Sultana, who strokes my earrings and needs to sharpen her pencil – already as pointy as a syringe – several times, before settling down to write. Once she starts rubbing things out, they’re all clamouring for the eraser, so I have to confiscate it, gloating with power. This is what teaching’s about, being in charge of the rubber.
We make sentences, using “a,” “an,” “am,” “and,” and “after.” Ashish tries the scatter-gun, two-birds-one-stone approach, and says, “I am an elephant.” I’m not convinced he’s completely GOT this.
When we do the Days of the Week, all my hard-won classroom skills are really put to the test. Bhavika has a sheet for everyone, with the days scrambled out of order, so it’s time – deep joy – for a bit of Cutting and Sticking. What’s more, we can’t drop bits on the floor, because we’re already on the floor. With only one pair of scissors for every three or four children, progress is slow – particularly with Swapnil’s key-hole surgery approach to cutting-out. However, Bhavika-didi doesn’t know that Caroline-didi can slice up worksheets, sitting in the dark, at the bottom of a swimming-pool, with one hand tied behind her back. AND I have a secret weapon. Don’t tell anyone: I wipe a stripe of glue down the middle of the page before we start, which saves anyone from sticking Sunday to their own knee, by accident. It also means that I have to be a bit nifty, intervening, if anyone slaps down Tuesday in front of Monday, for example, but on the plus side, I am the only one with sticky fingers, at the end. I don’t wish to blow our own trumpet, here, or anything, but MY GROUP FINISHES FIRST!!! Yes, alright, alright, I know it’s not a race, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be the winners, does it?
By way of plenary – you guessed – a prayer. These children have waded here, through unspeakable flotsam and jetsam, yet they still have the innocent grace, to give thanks for the world being so sweet. The breath sticks in my throat, for a moment, then Khaja cheers me up, with a high-five, on his way out. “Bye, didi!”

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Looking on Clouds from Both Sides

How trusting is this? The unmanned brolly park, at the entrance to Mr Roland’s office. We have bought three umbrellas in as many days, but it’d do no harm to have a look, would it?
It’s not all paper-boats and rainbow waterproofs, the monsoon. According to the Mumbai DNA (Daily News Analysis), the rains have claimed three lives already. One hundred and thirty-five accidents have left dozens injured, and it only started raining on Thursday night. This year, instead of blaming potholes and unfinished road-works, they’re blaming finished ones, for a change. The notorious Eastern Highway has been re-surfaced too smoothly, it appears. If it means anything to you, it’s mastic asphalt, not enough grit in the mix, according to the wisdom of hindsight. With a glug of oil and a few hundred gallons of water, the road’s turned into a skating rink. Factor in local disinclination to adjust speed, unless the water’s lapping high enough to disable the windscreen-wipers, and you have an accident waiting to happen. Or not waiting, in fact.
Arboreal casualties are even higher – nearly forty trees, roots-up, in less than a week. When the rain starts to fall, not only does it weigh down the canopy, but, even as it reaches the roots, it loosens the soil, so all it needs is a wilful storm wind, for the tree to topple, like a ninepin. They’re all still out there, blocking roads and strewing paths – I don’t know if Mumbai council (BMC ) is trying to make a point, or if they’re waiting for a clear day to do the tidying up. The trees will have turned into coal, by September...When a fully-grown tree’s lying across half the carriageway, and the other half’s under a foot of water, no-one’s going anywhere, fast. The BMC claim, from behind a bolted door, I imagine, that the flooding’s caused by the one percent of drainage channels or nullahs, which they haven’t managed to desilt between the end of last year’s rainy season, and the beginning of this year’s. All I can say, looking around, is that it’s a good job they had time to fit in the other ninety-nine percent, or we really would be up to our knees in trouble... Oh, we are.
It’s reassuring to note that Mumbai’s metropolitan police force boasts five thousand officers – “2000 of them specially trained” - ready to “wade in” to combat monsoon emergencies, in flood-prone zones. What about the other 3000, were they filling in traffic reports or making butterfly cakes, when their mates were learning CPR?
On the plus side, I see a tuk-tuk driver this afternoon, ploughing through the brown lake which used to be the over-taking lane, and he’s actually laughing – you only need to be in Mumbai for quarter of an hour, to know that that’s an aberration of nature. Where the greater malady is fixed, and all that...
It’s 94% humidity, today, according to World Weather on the BBC. Actually, you could work it out for yourself, if you had a packet of Bombay Mix to hand. Tip a handful into a clean bowl, out of a newly opened pack, and it loses its crunch, before the head’s settled on your Kingfisher. How damply unfair’s that? I decide to invent the Bombay Mix Pig (adapted canapé version of the salt-pig), but I’m thinking I might have to market it under a different name.
If it weren’t enough, taking the bite out of your snacks, the wet air creeps into your wardrobes and along your bookshelves, leaving a wanton trail of mould and rot. Not all is lost, however. You can tempt the damp away from your Prada suit and your Armani jacket, by the judicious placing of open packets of rock salt, in the bottom of your closet. This strategy also works with Primark jeans and BhS t-shirts, thankfully. If you have limp books (I mean the paper, not your poor choice of author) – sprinkle talc along the edges, leave them for a bit, then shake off excess, et voilà, Robert est ton oncle, dry books (again, I mean non-soggy pages, not stuff about comparative linguistics or paleontology, or somesuch – why are you determined to misunderstand?).
I know people who decamp for the monsoon, and leave their ceiling fans on for four months, unattended. How can they sleep, cosily tucked up in Seattle, when their ventilator might break loose and decapitate a burglar in Mumbai, at any minute? People don’t take worrying seriously, these days, I have noticed.
Today’s the day for Monsoon Shopping. I don’t mean buying a satin sheath-dress encrusted with seed pearls and sequins, I mean Emergency Provisions. When Monu was trapped in the car for eight hours, in 2005, he and his passenger had a small bottle of water between them. Did they have anything to eat, I ask, showing him our in-car emergency picnic (juice, biscuits, dried apricots, mints, and cashew nuts - unsalted, we won’t want to be more thirsty than we already are, because that will have only one consequence, and I haven’t steeled myself to bucket-shopping, yet). “No food,” he says. “Was it a Tuesday?” I ask. – (Tuesday’s Monu’s God Day, and he fasts.) – We all chortle at my extreme wit, but I look it up, when I get home, and 26 July 2005 turns out to be a Tuesday, after all. I hope, if it’s given to us, to be trapped in the car, for hours, that it’s not a Tuesday, because Roland and I will be chomping our way through packet after packet of Punjab Shortbread, while Monu spectates wistfully, in the rear-view mirror... Maybe all bets are off, in dire circumstances? I park the picnic, with the baby-wipes and tissues, and the spare umbrella, in the boot, and Mr Roland and Monu exchange a maddening “Women! What will they get into their little heads next?” look, entre hommes. Don’t think I don’t see it, boys. They’ll be glad, when we’re marooned down a pothole in Colaba – well, if it’s between Wednesday and Monday, they will. Without my Girl Guiding instincts, we’d have to rely on the untrained MP officer, coming to our rescue with a Tupperware box full of fairy cakes, instead of oxyacetylene cutting-torch.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The New Didi - Akanksha

In Lalubhai Compound, the road’s awash. Little boys wade out from the kerb, up to their shins, in the swirling floodwater, to play. They float paper boats, and waft a tatty carrier-bag to and fro, under the surface, to catch as much as they can, then they lift it clear, and shriek as it spouts and collapses over them. The monsoon’s not all bad news, it seems. They’re giddy with the novelty of their new game – the rains only started four days ago, no-one’s jaded yet, at least, no-one under ten - so I stifle curmudegeonly thoughts about pollution, and let boys be boys.
This isn’t the best-heeled end of Mumbai – in fact, it’s often not shod at all. Every turn takes us further and further off the tarmacked track: as each res we pass becomes progressively less des, the potholes in the road increase, until they’re in a majority, and the way forward is more broken cinders than made road. A goat kneels on all fours, to eat scraps from a stainless steel bowl. A white hen, and her half-grown chicks, fastidiously pick their way across the rubbish-silted path, trying to keep their feet dry. We’re in Mankhurd.
The tenements run into each other seamlessly, and the building I’m looking for has no name, only a number. The painted numerals aren’t Arabic, forcing me into the backseat, navigationally, as well as physically. We find it the way we find everything, by getting into the zone, and asking, and asking, and asking, until we narrow down the options to our ultimate goal. (I say we. I mean Monu. I loll about looking gormless, as always. I point out to Monu, that if I didn’t have him, I’d still be at the airport, bleating, “Can you tell me the way to Powai, please?” in ever shriller tones. He laughs, but it’s no joke.)
I’m after Room 112, on the first floor. Akanksha, the slum school. And here it is.
Akanksha” - Sanskrit for “wish” - is a non-profit-making organisation, founded in 1990, by a young student with a vision. The scheme aims to improve the lives of less privileged children, through education, helping to make their dreams come true. These children don’t dream of Disneyland Florida or a new iPod, they dream of having a flat with running water, or a job in a decent hotel. It makes you think.
The original recipe was simple: enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers, unused rooms in forgotten corners of buildings, and youngsters, wanting the chance of a new future. Simple, but not easy - the establishment always resists change. Akanksha only needed one person with the imagination to take a risk. They started with one class of fifteen pupils. The programme now reaches three thousand children of all ages, in nearly seventy schools and centres across Mumbai and neighbouring Pune. A young girl explains what Akanksha means to her: “If I will not be educated, people will not treat me well, and then my life will be a waste. I’ll get married to an alcoholic, and have babies, that’s my life without education.”
It’s difficult to say how big Room 112 is, here in Mankhurd, because there’s no furniture, apart from a tall cupboard in the far corner, and a plastic stool to one side of the blackboard. The floor’s covered with small people sitting, cross-legged, on straw mats, all wearing red t-shirts which say, “Be The Change.” I walk in, then walk straight out again, to leave my shoes nudging cosily up to their little flip-flops, outside the door.
At the front, Bhavika’s in control. Eighteen pairs of brown eyes follow her every move. We’re in the middle of doing What Makes Us Happy, as far as I can tell. There’s a big smiley face on the board, surrounded by suggestions from the floor. Apparently, what makes us happy, so far, is eating: there’s mango, and chocolate, and ice-cream – children wouldn’t be children, otherwise - but Bhavika wants us to think beyond our stomachs, now. When Rakesh says “It makes me happy, when I eat banana,” she agrees, but it doesn’t make the blackboard. Khajit – with some coaching – finally produces, “It makes me happy, when I play computer game.” The whole room erupts with admiration. I clap too.
You will notice we have a new didi, today,” says Bhavika. (I assume “didi” is “teacher” but I find out later that it means “big sister” which I instantly prefer to “Miss.”) I stand up, and tell them about myself. They think it’s very funny, that my baby boy is taller than me. It has to be said, he thinks it’s very funny, too. One by one, they stand up to return the compliment, the shy and the not-so-shy. You can spot mischief a mile off, even when all he says, is his name.
We do reading from flashcards, and sentence-building. We have to use “am” in a sentence, which is trickier than you'd think, because it's Hindi for "mango." Once over that hurdle, we get a bit stuck in the “I am a girl/I am a boy” groove, until someone says “I am a teacher,” which turns out to be witty as well as grammatical. “I am a doctor” brings the house down altogether.
We do personal descriptions, which takes less time than in a primary class back home. There’s not a single blonde hair or blue eye in the room (present company excepted), and, as they’re all below waist height, no-one fairly qualifies as “tall”. Even the girl/boy divide’s a matter of fact, not discretion. And then, I get sent to the back of the class. Not for being naughty. For Group Work.
Let me introduce you to my group. There’s Sultana, with looped plaits tied up with ribbons. She likes copying. Anand, with no front teeth for the time being. He’s very shy, but, it turns out, he’s a good speller. Kajal’s the tallest person in the class. She has dangly earrings and, a perfectionist, is over-fond of the eraser. She’s still drawing her fringe, for the twenty-seventh time, when everyone else is colouring in their t-shirt. And Khaja, who tells me he’s seven, but who’s very small. His self-portrait includes hopeful muscles on his arms, bulging Popeye kneecaps, and a rather fine frill of toes on each foot. Then he pencils in roller skates, for good measure. Open-topped ones, obviously. He demonstrates how they might work, until Bhavika tells him to sit down, from across the room. I would quite like to take Khaja home with me. I see that all four of them draw themselves with beaming smiles, and I’m glad.
Like diligent scholars, all round the world and back again, these children are longing to hear those three little words – “Right, pack away!” There’s a flurry of activity, then each child sits down again, in an enviably plasticine-limbed lotus, eyes closed, fingers and thumbs joined into little circles, palms turned up. We have a stretch and a think, and straighten our spines. Then we say,
“Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything.”
Bhavika-didi makes us do it again, because we were shouting, not praying. Everybody thanks everybody else, and the mat-monitors stash away the mats for tomorrow. Then they all scamper off, for a flip-flop free-for-all, on the landing. I tell Miss, that I used to sing the same poem, at school, when I was five, and she says, “Next time, you show us, we will sing.” So, that’s a plan, then.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Singing in the Rain

Sudden onset Seasonal Adjustment Disorder and acute jetlag are not a great combo, I discover. Need new batteries for the body clock, and a replacement personal thermostat, because my one’s had it. Apart from that, reintegration’s going à roulettes.
How can an entirely locked-up, uninhabited flat accrue dust? It does, though, which proves we’ve got seepage. Or illicit lodgers, who don’t wipe their feet. Every surface – the dust isn’t picky about horizontal or vertical - is filmed with silt, so the flat looks like it’s made of Fuzzy Felt. And if you close a door which has been propped ajar for the duration, you will find out where dust bunnies go, in the mating season. Cleaning’s the usual self-defeating waste of time, because at best all you’re achieving is relocation. Can you tell I’ve got a mop in my hand, and my hair in a Flo Capp chignon? Mr Andy, meanwhile, sits on the sofa, with a beer in one hand, and the racing results in the other, shouting at the telly, with a fag stuck to his bottom lip. Well, ok, he’s wrangling with his tax returns, but that’s not as interesting, is it?
While I’m sluicing behind the washing-machine, something dark scuttles out from under the kitchen cupboard door. I squawk for Akela, because all I see is movement, and I don’t want to come nose to feeler with a cockroach. By the time he springs into action, I can see it’s a small lizard, still feisty, despite my bopping it on the head with my squeegee mop. Mr Roland gives chase, but it whips back down the drain, where it came from. Local practice is for kitchen and bathroom drains to be flush with the tiled floors, covered only by a perforated metal saucer, which sits loose over the hole. The one in the cupboard under the sink is askew, so I slide the trapdoor back into position, and ponder the $64K question: did the lizard climb all the way up to the thirty-third floor, or was he born here? And – bonus question - if the latter, where’s his Mum? We’re a hundred yards up, we look down, not only on the circling birds, but now, on the rolling rainclouds, so visiting lizards aren’t even on the radar. Or, weren’t. The moral of this story is, never clean behind the washer.
I open the windows, to let a bit of monsoon in. It’s going great guns, at ground level. The tuk-tuks leave the best bow-waves, because three-wheelers are more streamlined than blunt-nosed four-wheelers, it seems. Don’t mock, this counts as empirical scientific observation, if you’re me. Also, the tuk-tuks, with their danger drivers, make no concession to being up to their running-boards in chocolatey floodwater, so their speed’s undiminished. They’ve all sprouted plastic side-panels, like baby-buggy aprons, to entice custom with comfort, though the drivers don’t enjoy the same refuge.
On the forecourt of the block next to ours, Sunday cricket continues, though the rain’s falling out of the sky in a fat spate. Shouts of laughter float up to me, leaning on my dusty sill. Pedestrians saunter along, with or without umbrella, for all the world as if the plugs hadn’t been pulled, over their heads. I begin to wonder why we scurry along, in the wet, back home, like everyone except Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. I can’t suppose that Debbie Reynolds has enchanted every last Indian, down to the last humble hod-carrier, has she?
We wait for the storm to pass, but it’ll go dark first, so we sally forth wetly to D Mart, where all of Powai and his wife are out doing the weekly shop. First, you have to park your umbrella at the door. There’s a designated umbrella-wallah, whose sole and soggy job is to marshal the umbrella-sanctuary, giving each customer a numbered plastic dog-tag in exchange for the collapsed specimen thrust under his nose, scattering liberal drips like a shaggy dog. I smile at him, in a winning what-can-you-do? manner, looking for an ally in elemental adversity, but he’s having none of it. There’s only so much bonhomie you can muster, after seven hours on umbrella-parking, I suppose.
Inside the store – like at Haiko, coincidentally – the umbrella aisle’s doing a roaring trade. There’s patently no superstition, this side of the Arabian Sea, about putting up umbrellas indoors. Given the number of people I see getting poked with a spoke, there perhaps should be.
On the way home, my feet are wet in less than the time it takes to say “Wellingtons,” which means they swim backwards out of my sandals with every step. By the time we get to Crossroad bookshop, just a hop, skip and a jump later, I have got cramp in my toes from over-zealous clenching, so I take my shoes off and carry them. This flies in the face of every inch of monsoon survival advice in the guidebooks. Above all, they say, watch out for pollution, especially in the early days. If I don’t go barefoot, though, I’m about to fall over, possibly down a flooded manhole I don’t know is there, because it’s cunningly disguised as wet pavement, and the ambulance won’t be able to get through because the road’s under-water... You see the dilemma. I’ll spritz down with Dettol, when I get to dry land, honest.
The tv has also taken a turn for the rainy season. The adverts promote vitamin-enhanced fruit juices, to keep the germs at bay, or extra control conditioner, for unruly monsoon-hair. Apparently, this weather’s likely to make my hair frizzy. Perish the thought.
Tomorrow, I’m shopping for my Monsoon Box. According to received wisdom, you have to keep emergency supplies in the car, for if. One day in July 2005, Mumbai had 27 inches of rain, a world record; our very own Monu was stuck in the car, on a bridge, for eight hours. So, that proves it. Tomorrow, I’m collecting water, juice, biscuits, towels, spare shoes, a bucket and a blanket (don’t ask what these two are for...), as well as in-car entertainment. I’ll teach Monu how to play Uno, in exchange for Hindi lessons. I just hope the flash-floods don’t arrive, before we get to Hyper City.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Cataracts and Hurricanoes

We hurry back to Mumbai, but the monsoon beats us to it. The temperature’s still in the thirties, but the pavements are glossy with standing water, and the air feels like wet felt. We find Monu again - omnibus rejoicing. He commandeers the luggage trolley, grinning. “Rains come!” he says, needlessly: we’re already holding our trousers up, clear of the puddled tarmac. We pick our way across the car-park, like curtseying ladies, marvelling at the pewter clouds, as if we hadn’t lived under Manchester’s cardboard skies for twelve years. Mumbai’s a different city, wet, but love not being love which alters, etc., etc., it’s still home.

It’s like Postman Pat’s Rainy Day, without Mrs Goggins or Jess. “It had rained and rained for days and days, and it seemed that it would never stop.” Greendale comes to the sub-continent.
On the way home, through pebbled windows, we admire the washed trees, which turn out to be green-leaved, after all, underneath the dust veneer. Not all of them make it through the storm, though. The pavement’s littered with split branches, and even whole trunks. It seems whimsical of nature, to say the least, to have them survive the long months of drought, only to fell them at the first drop of saving rain.

As the Reverend Timms remarked cheerily, “It rains on the just, and on the unjust!” It has to be said, it’s difficult, here in Powai, to sort out the righteous from the sinners. We can – and do – all get wet, it’s just that some of us have less access to getting dry again any time soon. I see the niftiest solution, this afternoon: a man – hatless, sockless, pretty well everything-less, except for his loincloth. Not an option immediately available to half of the population, but the man in his skin won’t still be waiting for the rain to evaporate off his shirt, this time tomorrow.

At the entrance to Inorbit Mall, a dripping attendant, in a floor-length mac, opens cars and taxis, to escort shoppers inside, under his rainbow umbrella. Sweepers draw endless figures of eight, criss-crossing the marble floors, inside and out, again and again, banishing wet footprints, again and again.

The “small, small shops” are open for business, but there’s no-one buying. Each shop’s about twelve foot wide, and the whole of the front opens up, by way of entrance, so it’s not a question of “Mind the step and close the door behind you.” Over the ironmonger’s shop, the blue plastic awning bellies with rain, so the ironmonger pokes it gently with a stick, and the water cascades onto the beaten earth. The pavements will dissolve before the weekend’s out. At the Great Punjab, our favourite street restaurant, the owner puts sandbags like stepping-stones, from the road to his front step, to enable his customers to dine with vaguely dry feet. Despite his forethought, we are the only takers. Is it the weather, we ask, putting people off? But no, three new TV shows start tonight. In the time it takes us to eat our rice and dahl, they’ve sent out twenty orders of takeaway, to be eaten off knees in homes across Powai, in front of the small screen. East and West are closer than we think.

Pavement life’s reduced to the diehards. On Barbers’ Row, we see one solitary barber, brandishing his razor, squatting – hopefully on a tarpaulin of some sort – to shave a customer, under a makeshift awning. The paan-wallah sleeps, curled under a golfing-umbrella. I wonder how rose-petal paste and betel nuts fare in the damp? A forlorn sherbert-seller rigs a sheet of plastic, in the overhanging branch of a tree, his lemons already running with water. Monu wouldn’t let me buy juice from this stall, in May. “Just photo, no drink! – No wash glass. Dirty waters.” Maybe his glasses will benefit from the extra rinse, now. A bareheaded man stands behind a barrow-load of wet bananas, his face the picture of karmic resignation. After the first minute or so, you can’t get any wetter, so there’s no point trying to keep any bits dry. The rain’s warm, anyway. “’It’ll be wet letters, and wet everything,’ said Pat.” Quite.

Post-deluge, everywhere has that newly-shriven look of the scrubbed schoolboy, but eight months’ accumulated detritus is a big ask for a single shower of rain, however diluvial. Slurries of waste lap at every kerb; the “Clean Up Mumbai” trucks are bulging. Rag-pickers still sift through rubbish-heaps with a poking stick. Their only concession to the monsoon, wearing plastic bags on their heads, like chefs’ hats, or draping their shoulders in a bin-bag cloak, like oriental super-heroes.

On the balconies of the high-rise flats, washing hangs limply to dry. Is this absent-minded or aspirational? In either case, you’d have not to be in a hurry for your white jeans, I think. I can only applaud the optimism. Most of the beggars, who conduct their fishbowl lives on the pavement, have upped sticks – literally – and gone back to the villages. The rare few remaining can’t be bothered to work the traffic, huddling further into the meagre shelter of the flyover. It’s going to be a long haul.

We’re in Haiko, busily buying tomatoes and lentils, when the clouds unzip, and pour forth. Monu’s parked only ten yards from the door, but the rain’s a whiteout, and we can’t see him, let alone reach him. Mr Roland ducks back into the shop to buy an umbrella. Would you believe it – how prescient of Haiko - there’s an umbrella section right by the till. Only a million to choose from. Sadly, I’m on trolley-guarding duty, so our new model’s maroon with a tartan trim. Yes, I know. Still, between now and when the rain eases off, in about September, we’ll have plenty of time to sample the entire waterproof catalogue of available umbrellas, so I’m unperturbed. We heave the dripping bags into the back of the car, and squelch in ourselves. Monu slams the boot shut, laughing. “Nice, nice weather. I like rain.” This is just as well, four months is a long time to be crabby. “Will it rain every day?” I ask. “All, all day, rains!” he smiles. I like rain, too, but mostly from the smug warm-and-dry-inside perspective. Currently, it’s fascinating. Give me ‘til Tuesday of next week, and ask me again.