Thursday, July 3, 2008

Story Time

Monu and I are reading “The Magician’s Nephew.” We were doing grammar, but he can spot the difference between the simple present and the continuous present, with one brown eye closed (more than can be said for the majority of native English speakers, I fear) – so I thought he was ready for literature. If you’re wanting a parallel text in Hindi, it’s either Narnia or Harry Potter, down at Crossword. I choose Digory and Polly, with the promise of wardrobes to come. I wonder what Monu will make of it, but he wipes out my misgivings immediately, “Very nice, nice story.” Bring on Mr Tumnus.
We run across the phrase, “as quiet as a mouse,” and I stop. (Did CS coin this phrase, or does Oxford claim professorial immunity, to the blood-on-parchment law about avoiding clich├ęs? Just wondering...) “Do you know what a mouse is?” I ask. Monu doesn’t so much as lift his eyes from the text. “Small rat.” A few pages further, we come upon “guinea-pig.” Not a simile, this time, a real one, as used by wicked Uncle Andrew in his magic experiments. I explain about pets, and cages, and flick up a gallery of guinea-pigs, on Google Images. Monu takes one look. “Is rat.” No, I explain, flicking again, “THIS is a rat.” But he won’t be said, our Indian boy. “All rat.”
Back at Matheran, horse-leader, Krishna, kindly points out local fauna, as we clip-clop by. “See, Madame,” he says, “Indian squirrel.” It takes me a moment, to unpick his words and understand them, because he says “squirrel” without any vowels. You try it. In any case, when I locate the sqrrl, spiralling up a tree, it turns out to be a chipmunk. Or possibly a chpmnk, I don’t know, I can’t see properly without my glasses. I know, they’re related. But related isn’t the same as, is it? Do they call lions and leopards and fluffy tabbies all cats, then? You don’t get whole raw wildebeest, in the Kit-e-Kat aisle, at Sainsbury’s, do you? As Bhavika-didi says daily, “Opposite of different is?.... Same. Opposite of same is?.... Different.” Couldn’t have put it better, myself.
Meanwhile, my Hindi vocabulary’s growing somewhat slower than moss. My acquisitions are slightly random, but still precious. I can say ladder – siddi – because we pass a B&Q-type small-small shop, every day, and love – pyaar – because there’s a new film out, "Thoda Pyaar, Thoda Magic"Some Love, Some Magic, and washrooms – sulabh. Other than these wayfaring gleanings, I’m still stuck at the fruit and vegetable stall. It comes in handy all the time, though. The assistant in Life Style’s helping me compile a name plaque, on a wooden rack. He offers me a small picture tile, to fill in the end gap. “You want this, madame? Is Indian religious symbol.” It looks like a pot-plant, to me, but I humour him. “This, leaf, this, coconut,” he explains. So it is. “Like at weddings?” I say. “Coconut - nariyal!” I’m showing off, now. “Madame, you speak Hindi!” He puts his hand on my arm, delighted. I’ve got myself up a gum tree, here, no mistake. I’ve already used up half my Hindi facility, and he’s wanting to chat. I confess to ignorance, and drift off, blushing, to pay, while he glues my plaque together. He gives me an extra layer of bubble-wrap, for at least trying. Sukriya, I say, unable to quit while I’m winning. Thanks.
At the jewellery counter, next door, in Spencer’s, I learn another new word, firozi. It means sky-blue, and I can’t think how it’s evaded me all this time, given my preferred slice of the rainbow. “This black, this red, this firozi,” says the bangle-wallah. I slip the blue one on. “Look! This bracelet very nice!” he says, pointing. “Look! This salesman very good!” I reply, pointing back. I buy all three, anyway, just to prove myself right. One girl wraps them, while four more assistants parade the rest of the stock before my eyes, tempting me with what they call the “buy-one-get-one” offer. Head of Sales writes down “firozi” for me. “Kali, lali,” I say, pointing to the black and red bracelets. I only know this because that’s what Monu’s Dad calls his two calves – I’ll let you work out why. (As a person who called her black cat “Blackie” I have no criticism to offer, at this point...)The salesman looks at me, and writes “kaala” and “lal,” but he’s just being pedantic, in my opinion.
Monu’s boss goes to see “Thoda Pyaar, Thoda Magic” and says it’s rubbish – no romance, no action, “Three hours, all bored bored.” I see a poster for it, in English, which translates “pyaar” as “life” not “love,” so I question the oracle. “Life, love, same,” he shrugs. Back to same and different, then. Shikha, Monu’s unseen bride-to-be, is a lucky girl, if he thinks life and love are the same thing. The prospect of marriage no longer daunts him, now he’s breathed in and out a few more times. “How’s the happiness quotient?” I ask. “One hundred and one percent!” he smiles.
At the where’s-my-hankie? sad end of for better, for worse,“U Me aur Hum” - out on dvd at last. It’s months since I bought the soundtrack – they launch film music before films are released in cinemas, here - so I warble along happily to all the songs. What’s more, with benefit of subtitles, I can now find out for the first time, what I’ve been crooning, all these weeks. Poor Piya’s diagnosed with Altzeimer’s not long after the first anniversary of her marriage to Ajay. When she nearly kills the baby, by forgetting she’s put him in the bath, Ajay has to have her committed to a care home. Several song and dance routines later, he’s smote by conscience, and brings her home again, where she belongs. It doesn’t say, but I presume he baths the baby, from now on. Fast-forward twenty-five years, and they’re celebrating their silver wedding, on a cruise, with resuscitated son bringing in the cake, at the end. “All people, all-time weep,” says Monu. There are wet eyes, in our house too - pass the Kleenex - and Mr Roland’s so traumatised, he falls asleep. In all fairness, he’s had a hard day.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

One for Jamie and Nigella

Yesterday, you’d have thought it was the monsoon. Schools were closed, but not the office, to the chagrin of administrative Mumbai, including Mr Roland. Hours of serious rain, until the chocolatey floodwater was swishing right up to the tops of your wellies. Even when it wasn’t raining, it felt like it was still raining, the humidity was so high, crinkling the papers on our coffee table with damp, even through closed windows. The dusting of grime’s now iced firmly to the glass panes, but it gives me the bends, just thinking about cleaning them, so we’re getting used to the new defused view, up here on the thirty-third floor.
Today, not a drip.
The fruit and vegetable stall, on the street corner, below our apartment, has moved back to its original pitch, now the road-works are finished (Indian-finished, I mean with a souvenir heap of leftover grit and rubble, as a testament to industry, for the next eight months, or until they dig the road up again, whichever’s sooner). Such hither-and-yinning is of no avail: whichever side of the crossroads the Veg Man pitches, he’ll have soggy root ginger and wet lemons, as soon as the cloud bursts, because it’s in a dip. The retail instinct’s indomitable, here, though. Unaccountably, the lighting shop, closed since the beginning of June (no lights on, but somebody’s home), has opened for business again, stringing up a selection of new pink chandeliers, between two leaning trees, rosily winking to tempt passers-by. The chandelier family had retreated under a yellow tarpaulin, as big as a double garage, but with fewer amenities. They’ve now have popped out again, on the offchance of a little trading, between showers. I don’t see anyone stopping to buy, though. Monu always slows down, as we pass by, so I can rubber-neck properly.
At school today, we make fruit salad. First, Varun-bhaiya takes a select group to market, to market, to buy a fat mango. I give Varun the benefit of long experience: I tell him to count his charges, before he goes, and to bring the same number back. Preferably the same ones. The smalls, meanwhile, are in a ferment of excitement. They must go shopping with their Mums every day, to the same street-stalls, but this is by way of being An Expedition. (I tell Monu, the children have to do their own shopping, to see how many bananas they can get for ten rupees. If I had ten rupees, I say.... and he laughs. We both know that I would come back with three wrinkled grapes and half a banana, without supplementing the budget....)
We do “Community” in a circle, and I get to read the questions. “What’s your favourite thing about school?” I ask Aanchal. She holds her hands out, with a coy smile. “My favourite thing about school, is teacher,” she croons, her head on one side. (I’m very susceptible to a bit of verbal. On the street, a boy’s trying to wheedle a coin out of flinty-hearted Mr Roland. “Maharajah, one rupee!” he begs. I’m just curling a derisory lip, because Mr Roland patently fancies himself in the role, wouldn’t he just, when the beggar-boy turns to me. “Maharani, just one rupee!” I’ve never been called a maharani before, I’m just handing over bank details and arranging for a standing order, when Maharajah spoils it all, and drags me away...) Poor Aanchal, it so nearly works, her winning line in flannel. It’s too late, though, I’ve already asked Bhavika-didi if I can have Swapnil to take home with me, at the weekend, and she definitely said, “Yes.” I have witnesses. I just need to re-arrange my packing a little bit. I can bring the forty-seven sacks of Hibiscus Tea, next time. Or maybe I could also jettison the consignment of elephants-in-elephants, for the time being, and bring Aanchal, too?
The happy shoppers come back, twittering like a bunch of parakeets. I count nine, and look anxiously at Varun, but he gives me the thumbs-up: nine was the allocation. He only just brings back enough children, then. While the fruit salad is being chopped up, onto a tray, in the corner, on the floor, we limber up with a bit of work on opposites. This is one of my favourites, because I like watching Bhavika-didi do fat and thin, in her Lulu-husky voice, mirrored by the rapt audience at her feet – although Khaja and the gang couldn’t look authentically fat, even if they jumped into a barrel of melted chocolate and rolled around in Coco-Pops for a bit.
Then it’s time for our picnic – the children have never sat so still and straight. The fruit’s doled out onto little squares of newspaper, cupped into waiting hands. As well as the statutory mangoes, it turns out to contain not only cucumber but also tomatoes, in an interesting new take. And the sliced bananas are tossed in, skin and all. I’m looking dubiously at the portion in my hands, when I notice Varun refuse his, and the mango-slice screeches to a halt, half-way to my open mouth. Does he think the children need it more than he? Or does he quail at eating banana skin salad, with yesterday’s news printed on it? Or is it – surely not? – a hygiene issue? Too late, now, for misgivings. In for a paise, in for a rupee, I always think, though I do delegate my banana to Raj, cross-legged by my side. Tomato and mango’s quite an interesting combo, after all, once you open your mind and your tastebuds to a new experience. Expect it, next time you come to dinner at my house.