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.