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.