Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Walk on the Wild Side

We have a new friend, of the winged variety. I’m fighting the urge to give him a name (hopelessly anthropomorphic, I know. I had a tea-pot called Enrico, so there’s no hope in this department...) and was considering Percy, but that would get him mobbed, here in Mumbai. I’m now thinking Pakhi, which means “bird.” What do you reckon? Anyway, he comes every day - if you sit very still, he comes right in. Mr Roland’s less than thrilled by the advent, because Pakhi’s a pigeon, but I’m honoured by his presence. I choose to believe that it’s the same pigeon, every day. The possibility of there being Pakhi I and Pakhi II and Pakhi III, ad inf., is unpalatable to me, so it’s fortunate that all pigeons bear a passing resemblance to all other pigeons. Flying rats, Mr Roland says, but I think you have to be a bit more ornithologically condolent. I’m not feeding him (yet), Pakhi comes to peck between the window runners, where I can only suppose there’s microscopic life.

There’s also life, on the ledge, outside our bathroom. Pigeons, again. A man comes to check for leaks, since the rains are giving all the mortaring what-for, on the roof. He opens the louvred door between our shower and a hundred yards of fresh Powai air. This is a first for me - I look at the little bolts, as I slap on the conditioner every morning, but I’ve never actually opened the door. Now I do, I quite see why I haven’t. Our man doesn’t find any leaks, but he does find eggs. Poor, poor pigeons, making a nursery out of hostile concrete. But, human babies are born, every day, on the streets of Mumbai, with paving-slabs for cradles, so it should be no surprise that the birds have to make do and mend. The nest’s right by my window, which explains why I think Ma and Pa Pigeon are actually under my pillow, cooing and flapping, first thing in the morning, with their avian PA system. The only drawback that I can see, is that, should we ever have a break-in, as the burglars jemmy their way into our apartment, we’ll just say, “Oh, drat the pigeons!” and roll over back to sleep, as the felons stuff their booty bag full of laptops and carved elephants in elephants. The Pasty-face Who Cried Pigeon.

Yesterday, the discussion, in the car, concerns the Cow with the Poorly Leg, which lives on the road, as you turn into Powai from Parkside. She has a problem with her front nearside leg, which seems not to bear weight. I wonder, since cows are objects of veneration, here, and you can expect two years in prison, if you run over one, why no-one has brought this limping specimen to the attention of a vet. According to Monu, “Many people no like the cow!” Today, he says that, retracing his steps after dropping me at home, yesterday afternoon, he comes upon the cow again, and this time he stops, and gets out. “I examine the cow,” he says. Dr Singh reckons it’s a birth defect, there being no sign of injury or breakage. You can take the boy out of the farm, I tell him, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. I’m just being utterly charmed, when I remember. How come he’s allowed to touch the cow? I get out of the car, to take a photo of the Cow with the Lying-Down Horns, on the road to Powai Lake, and Monu whips on his Bovine Police hat. “No touch the cow, very danger animal!” Aforementioned cow does not want to be patted, I discover, but I think it’s a language-barrier thing. A toss of the head, a flick of the ears, even I can understand that. When the ears wiggle, the horns move too. If you don’t believe me, here she is. Or he is. I wasn’t born on a farm in Uttar Pradesh, like some, so what would I know?

Since we’re on a wildlife roll, here, let me tell you that the kites are back - black kites, and plastic kites, both. The birds are such a feature of the Mumbai skies, I don’t know if they get wet feathers and stay indoors, for the monsoon, or if they slope off to sunnier climes for the duration – I imagine the thermals are a bit damp, in the rainy season, for lazily looping the loop all the livelong day. But, they’re in circulation again, which has to be a good sign. The little – and not so little – boys are back, too, flying their kites, to the peril of life and limb. They balance on a concrete plinth by the roadside, spanning the railway, with power cables overhead – it couldn’t be any more dangerous, unless they had a burning sword clenched in their teeth, and a loose tiger fore and aft. If kite-flying were an Olympic sport, we’d all be whistling Jana Gana Mana by the end of Week One. It’s an art-form, and these boys are masters, even with a kite made from a supermarket carrier-bag.

What's more, it's dragonfly season. At home, it’s rare to see more than two, in one eyeballful, but here, they hunt in packs. Or flocks. Or shoals. Whatever the collective noun is for dragonflies, they’re doing it, and very beautifully too.

The monsoon’s still monsooning, and I’m getting twitchy about our UK visitors, due this weekend. On Tuesday, the rain’s so heavy and insistent, the roads flood. Monu and Tariq can’t get back across town to go home, and have to sleep in their cars. I’m just about to ask, if they were warm enough, when I have a small internal geography lesson, concerning climate, and keep my mouth shut. (It was bound to happen, at some time....) I refer to the car, wittily, as the Hotel Innova, but I am appalled, nonetheless. This morning, however, the sun’s streaming through the windows, like the first day of the summer holidays in Enid Blyton stories.

I delegate meteorological responsibility to Monu, who’s quietly confident. “Last rain, Saturday. Sunday, no rain. I arrange.” I’m not the only comedian round here, I see...

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Morning After The Night Before

Monday traffic whisks by, kicking up spray from last night’s rain. Pedestrians jostle at the roadside, waiting for a crack in the attention of any passing driver, before surging forward to claim the highway. More often than not, they stake their camp across the inside lane, anyway, reducing traffic flow just by standing still.

Everyone’s looking a bit more Mondayish than usual, on account of yesterday’s Ganesh farewell shindies. Even in sedate Powai, the fireworks were still going strong in the wee small watches of the night, so you’d have no chance of a little shut-eye, in downtown Mumbai. Our very own non-smoking teetotal vegetarian Monu didn’t go to bed at all – “All all night, enjoy the festival!” I’m happy to note, he’s changed his tune, though – at the beginning of the festivities, he wasn’t up for partying with his colleagues, choosing instead to take us shopping, on his day off, because “all driver drink the wine, then sleep...” – a fair synopsis of most parties I’ve ever been to, as it happens. He sounds more chirpy than he looks, and definitely has a serious snooze in his diary for this afternoon. We play “Spot the Muslim” for a bit – it’s Ramadan in the Islam world, and they’re not eligible for Ganesh Jollies, anyway. They’re conspicuously, annoyingly, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, this morning. At the same time – who said men can’t multi-task? - we do the usual nature trove (a vanload of chickens in cages, a flock of sheep, two goats, and a fat little puppy: a good haul). The miles fly by.

In the midst of all the jaded business-as-usual, there’s a funeral procession. Not all families were out, dancing Ganesh on his way, last night, it seems. A straggle of mourners precedes the hearse-cart, and another trails behind. The man leading the cortege has a fat-bellied terracotta pot of smoking incense, and, behind him, a second official dips into his carrier-bag, flinging rice by the handful over his shoulder, showering deceased, mourners, and passers-by alike. The flat-bed cart’s very plain, just rough wood. On it, the man making his final journey, in a bed of flowers. Flowers for a pillow, flowers for a blanket. His face is showing, he looks like he might wake up at any moment. There’s nothing indecorous, nothing without grace, but it still shocks, so I’m almost afraid to look at the face of this dead stranger, in Mankhurd.

We live under a Perspex dome of polite usage, in the west, and death’s processed into social acceptability. Here, there’s no such filter. So it’s normal, for the Bombay Times to publish the photograph of a dead two-year-old, by the roadside, after a car accident. We think tacky, intrusive, voyeuristic. They think, real.

Even in the supermarket, the difference is clear. I wander into the segregated zone for carnivores - charmingly called “Non Veg,” because the majority is other – looking for protein. Normally, I allow Mr Roland to do this, fulfilling his hunter-gatherer aspirations, because I don’t like the smell. As soon as the doors sense your approach and slide open, the smell wafts out and sucks you in. I usually slope off and check out the coffee-cups, or drift further, to the incense and candle aisle which promises to cater to all my Pooja needs. This day, however, Mr Roland is too busy hunting and gathering rupees, to forage in HyperCity for a pack of chicken breasts, so I have to take a deep breath and Go It Alone. I find what I am looking for, but I also find polystyrene trays of chicken gizzards (yum), frozen Emu cubes (check out what Jamie has to say about that), and goat trotters. I don’t know why I’m surprised that they look like little goats’ feet, because that’s what they are. Real.

And yet, they do censorship. The sub-titles of English-language films are heavily edited, here, not even words like “damn” or “knickers” get through. By the time they’ve taken all the effing and blinding out of your everyday drug-running gun-toting Bronx special, the sub-title typists need hardly touch the keyboard. The sieve also filters potential religious slights. In the Julie-Andrews-squeaky-clean “Music and Lyrics,” Hugh Grant’s line, “She thought the Dalai Lama was, in fact, a llama,” survives as, “She thought.” We all have our agenda.

At school, you can tell who’s been tripping the light fantastic. Rani-didi, for one – not in bed before four in the morning, and her, a mother of three, who should know better. We have a new volunteer, who’s going to do Saturday mornings with the catch-up crew. Her name’s Didi, so the smalls have to call her – yes - Didi-didi. It makes me laugh, but She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is kind enough not to send me to the wall of shame. - “Go stand at the back,” she says to non-producers of homework, without ruth, “take your punishment.” And they go, quiescent as lambs. No answering back, no “yes, but...,” no rolled eyes, no finger-drumming.

We do “-ub” words. Rub, tub, cub - “pub” doesn’t come into the “-ub” story, for some reason. “Akash has a small cub,” Bhavika reads, “What is cub?” I’m the only one who knows, but I don’t put my hand up. “You,” she says, pointing at Khaja, her visual-aid, “man:child. This, lion:cub!” And thus Kipling becomes clear to me, after all these years.

On the way back home, we see empty wooden carriages, with hoods, like gypsy wagons, painted silver and gold, parked at the kerb. The horses paw the wet tarmac, idly. “This, funeral car,” says Monu. So, he got a good send-off, after all. I'm glad.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Anyone for Prasad?

If you’re wanting to give blood, or get your hearing tested in Mumbai, now’s the time. I don’t quite understand the link, myself, but the ten-day Ganesh Birthday Bash has community medicine among its many more openly festive traditions. Imagine celebrating Christmas by having your blood pressure checked (not a bad idea, now I come to think of it....), or popping into the clinic to get your personal plumbing MOT’d, before buying your Easter eggs . The roads here are strewn with mobile health units, which Monu has added seamlessly to his All-Mumbai Tour: “Madame, you know clinic?” He takes one hand off the wheel, to direct our attention to the right. “This eye clinic.” Sure enough, there’s the camper-van, with the hand-cranked ophthalmoscope and the reading-charts. They’re probably all in Hindi script, anyway, so I wouldn’t even be able to read the top line. It occurs to me, that I can’t read the top line in English, even when it’s always a “Y” - thus myopia gives me racial inclusion.

Day 10, and the community-Ganeshes are taken for a final triumphant procession, before the aquatic farewell. For the past week and a half, families have been taking their small domestic Ganpati to immerse in the lake – I say “small” – some of them are bigger than the oldest child in the family – but, for the grand finale, the municipal Ganeshes, from the local pandals, take centre stage. Day 11’s the send-off. Except, it’s pouring down.

In England, we do wellies and umbrellas; at a push, waders and sou’westers. Here, rain-evaision is an art-form, requiring much ingenuity and no expense. There’s the ever-popular chef’s hat carrier-bag on the head, which you would clip a four-year-old for trying. There’s the casual newspaper draped from ear to ear – Look, Mum! No hands! - Not for blondes, this one, unless you want yesterday’s headlines inked into your barnet for a week or so... A much-favoured resort is the ubiquitous orange cloth. As soon as you stop at traffic lights, someone appears at your window, flogging a pile of what look like tea-towels. For some reason, the orange ones are always on top. “Is cloth for car,” says Monu. Is also cloth for rainhat, as far as I can see. I ask, what they cost. “This man say, ten and fifteen rupee, and you say six and eight rupee, and he say, ok.” THAT’s how you barter. Well, you may do, not me. I just go, “Fifteen rupees, ok, here you are,” thereby ruining the whole system. They like taking your money, but they’re aggrieved at the lack of harangue, which is all part of the process. I’m not built for the east.

My far-and-away winner, in the rainwear category, is the bloke nipping in front of the simmering lanes of traffic, just as the lights turn green. Wearing a dhoti (like Gandhi) and a polyester shirt (not like Gandhi), he steps barefoot across the puddled tarmac, holding a banana-leaf over his head for an umbrella. I’m too busy applauding, to get the camera out. Sorry.

Armed with an umbrella a-piece, we stroll down to the lake, where all-Powai and his wife - and the kids, and grandma, supported by a string of nephews and neighbours - are singing Ganesh home. The air’s heady with incense, and the drums call to each other, from truck to truck. Everyone appears to be wearing orange, although there’s so much colour powder in the air, they may well have set out in white. The jasmine-and-rose-flavoured Tide’s going to have all on, getting this little lot clean, tomorrow. As we turn off the road onto the track leading to the water’s edge, a man dips his forefinger into his bag of powdered dye, and paints a red stripe on our foreheads, wishing us a happy Ganesh Chathurti. We feel very welcome and participative, if a little conspicuous with our pasty faces.

Ganeshes are arriving in tuk-tuks, in the family car, on the heads of believers, in horsedrawn Cinderella-carriages, strung with fairy-lights. Communities hire lorries to carry Ganesh – and themselves – to the waterside. We see statues as small as tea-cups, and others as large as grown elephants. Everywhere, lit trays of incense and spices. A man beckons, and shows us what to do: you take a pinch of spice, scatter it over the statue, pass your hand through the flame, and then over your face and hair. Excellent, have a piece of Prasad.

Tonight, even though four policemen are sitting on plastic chairs, having a bit of a picnic, there’s some evidence of crowd control. A rope cordons off one side of the thoroughfare, to separate arrivals and departures along the spit, and speed up the throughput. At home, there’d be a row of temporary posts in the ground, to hold the rope, but here the job’s done by a team of ladies in black and white saris, with yellow basketball caps. Unlike the policemen lining the route of royal processions, in England, who have to face the crowds and miss the fun, these ladies have prime viewing spots, for the parade of Ganeshes, making their final journey to the water. Parties start arriving as soon as it goes dark, at about seven, then there's an unbroken flow of celebrants, until the small hours. It’s a long night, for the rope-gang.

Another length of womanned rope holds back the crowds from the very edge of the lake. Only the families, whose Ganeshes are finally reaching the water, are allowed into the final pen. Before we reach the rope, we’re ushered in, even though we’re clearly Ganesh-less. Positive racism, I think.

This time, instead of the queue of swimmers, the boys in the orange t-shirts are crewing two rafts. The land-crew collect the Ganesh from the family, and carry it to the raft. Some need two porters, others, four. A huge Ganesh arrives, and no fewer than ten men shuffle it across the landing stage. We wonder whether the raft will capsize, but it doesn’t.

The raft is poled out a few yards offshore, and the statues are slipped into the water, one by one. The smaller ones are dunked in and out, one, two, three, by the kneeling porter, before being dropped into the lake. The boys lift a large Ganesh over the side of the raft, and he slips from their grasp, and plunges underwater, without ceremony, irrecuperably. The watching family are clearly disconcerted, and stop their chanting mid-morya. When the next hefty statue's shuffled overboard, two boys slide into the water to receive him, so that due dunking can be observed.

We duck under the cordon, to head for home. It takes us a while, to find the road again, because we have to stop to shake hands or say “Namaste!” every two paces. When we reach the shadow of our building, the heavens open, so we do need our umbrellas, after all.
At the lakeside, the festivities are clearly undampened. From our window, we can’t smell the incense, but the pipes and drums and firecrackers will be keeping sleep at bay, yet a while. Tomorrow, it’ll be business as usual, but for tonight, there’s still time for another round of Ganpati Bappa – Morya!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Water Features

Mumbai will never be finished. When the steam-rollers pull out, a new road’s show-off weeks are numbered, before the flip-flop gang are back with their drills and pick-axes, to dig the perfect surface up again, because they forgot to lay the phone cables. It’s only five years since the no-lakh housing estates of Mankhurd were wiped off the map, to make way for high-rise tenement blocks, trading horizontal slums for vertical ones, and already the roads have more potholes than Derbyshire, since local tarmac has the tensile strength of a Chocolate Krispie. And don’t say wear and tear, I hardly think four tuk-tuks and a bloke with a cartload of bananas constitute aggressive over-use, day to day.

On the left, as we drive through Parkside – just before the newsagent’s stall - there’s been a landslide. A whole side of someone’s house has slithered into the road, courtesy of yesterday’s rains. Much of this estate perches precariously on an outcrop, which must make for uneasy sleep. The raw cliff-face is netted and pinned, though what protection that would offer, should two metres of cliff lose the battle against water and gravity, it’s hard to discern. The monsoon brings more than the inconvenience of mildewed shoes, to Parksiders.

To our right, long-limbed youths bowl their way to school, literally: there’s never no time for cricket, here. Their school uniform’s pink polo shirts and mauve shorts, yet they’re still laughing. Find me a single Year 9 English boy, who’d be happy to show his knees in public, in mauve shorts, and his name will be Billy No-Mates. I don’t want to stir the silt of racial stereo-typing, here, but the British are chromatically challenged. Is it the climate, or are people, who are happy to eat mashed potato and Rich Tea biscuits, temperamentally inclined towards beige? (Not forgetting the timeless appeal of classic black, navy blue, and bottle green, of course. If you ask me, you can only pull off bottle green, if you’re a bottle...) I take my taupe hat off to this sequinned nation.

Nearing Bandra, smoke billows across the street. I flinch, thinking of the car which stopped the traffic, weeks ago, blazing in the outside lane, costing two lives. I’m almost too afraid to ask. “Fire?”No fire, is ..... medicine,” says Monu, making nipping movements with his fingers and thumb. “Fumigate?” I say, inspired. “You mean, cockroaches?” I nip my fingers, too, in the panglobal sign for “vile crawling thing which will survive an all-out nuclear attack and rule the world.” “Cockroach,” Monu does Incey-Wincey spider, again, “...and small small thing.” We come level with the open Piaggio Ape, trailing clouds of insecticide. Spraying’s a weekly treat (if you’re a besieged resident, that is - obviously if you’re a beetle or a bedbug, it’s not that much fun). In Powai, we don’t get the fumigation-wagon, we’re too posh for cockroaches. They could do the evil deed under cover of dark, like in Camelot, I suppose, but they’d have to have a hundred metre nozzle, to do us any favours, up here on the thirty-third floor.

Vimala Dermatological Centre, it says on the vehicle in front. Ambulance. No flashing lights, no sirens, it’s filled to the rafters with parcels and packages. “This part-time job,” Monu smiles. “What if it’s an emergency,” I say, “do they deliver the post first?” I also wonder, uncharitably, if they have “Ambulance” painted on the side, so they can melt through the traffic more quickly, thus get their deliveries done on time. But then I remember, no-one moves over for an ambulance, in Mumbai.

The clouds look peevish and threatening, like on a Sunday School picnic. A policeman secures a polythene bag over the business end of his gun, with an elastic band. Coming towards us, a lady rides side-saddle, behind her turbaned husband, her petal-perfect sari hidden under a pakamac. It’s a duller world, when it rains. No wonder we paint our hallways magnolia, under more temperate western skies.

Today I learn what the water-line is, and it has nothing to do with plimsolls. Monu’s yawning, and I think it’s Mr Roland’s fault, for wining and dining a customer, last night, ‘til our Innova turns back into a pumpkin. But no, Monu says he was up and doing, when the dawn chorus was still snoring, because “water come in my room.” Only yesterday, we talk of roof-lagging, to keep the monsoon out, so I assume he means a leak. I’m wrong. He means, it’s his turn, for a wash.

The water-line is the queue, at the standpipe. Monu says his “water-number” today is 510. I think he means, five hundred and ten, but it’s not a number, it’s a time. 5.10. As in, a.m.. If he wants to wash, he has to get up at five in the morning. After ten minutes, the water stops, and it’s the next person’s slot. You quickly learn to be fairly nippy with the shampoo, I imagine. There are boys, of my personal acquaintance, who stand under the shower for ten minutes, just to come to terms with being awake, before they even think about abluting.

In Malad, the water supply’s switched on at four in the morning, so people are allocated, every day, to sacrifice sleep to cleanliness. Monu says, if you’re on at four, you wash, and go back to bed, clean, for a couple of hours. In the evening, there’s no water at all. Electricity’s another matter, though. Monu lives in the shadow of In Orbit mall, so is happily on the same circuit, and can plug his kettle in, at any hour of the day or night. There won’t always be water in it, of course, which is a great pity, because tea’s the only thing he can cook.

In our flat – which we treat like a Wendy House - we have three showers, and only one body each. Hot water on tap, at two minutes’ notice. It’s not fair. Stop me if I’m boring you, it’s not the first time I’ve said it, nor will it be the last. I offer Monu our spare room, and he laughs. I’m not joking, though.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Songs of Praise

In the middle of the road through Parkside, the no-lakh housing estate, cheek-by-jowl with leafy Powai, the newspaper vendor has his pitch. He sits on the crumbling wall, separating the two carriageways, with tuk-tuks zooming or not-zooming by his ears, and sells his papers through car-windows as they stop and start by, or to pedestrians prepared to zig-zag across impatient morning traffic. He’s one of the landmarks I use, to pin down the unstable geography, which is Mumbai, in my head. He’s also my barometer. On a sunny day, he fans his papers out, along the wall in front of him, for ease of choosing. On an uncertain day, they’re stacked, between his knees, under a plastic sheet, and you have to know what you’re asking for; no mooching. Today, he’s not even there. Serious sou’wester weather ahead, then.

As we leave Powai, there’s a man taking his dog for a walk, in the rain. A honey Labrador, wearing a blue raincoat. A minute down the road, in Parkside, I see a child dressed in a supermarket carrier-bag, holding the hand of an even tinier boy, wearing nothing but a piece of string, for a loincloth. All of life rolls by our window.

At school, we can’t concentrate, because of Ganesh. Not that religious fervour has elbowed fractions and dictation out of everyone’s mind, it’s the music. In the courtyard, framed by the four tenement blocks, a pandal has been erected, amid all the flotsam and jetsam of slum life. It looks like a builders’ shack, from the outside, but it’s cloaked in tasselled orange glory, within. Every waking moment, piped music fills the air and all our senses, at such a volume as would shatter the window-panes, except we haven’t got any, here in Mankhurd. Bhavika-didi cranks her personal volume up 'til her throat’s on fire, and presses on with tenses.

Yesterday I was sad,” thumb jerk to the left, crying face. "Today I am happy!” Forefingers down to the ground, big smiles. “Do you follow, yes or no?”

Didi, and tomorrow?” says Swapnil, clearly aware of the transitory nature of happiness, a child after my own heart.

Tomorrow, no, Swapnil!” Didi barks, “Tomorrow comes after. We’re thinking about today!”

Rani-didi – Woman of Many Parts, Distributor of Worksheets and Custodian of the Erasers – closes the door, and pulls the skimpy curtains across the metal bars of the window – they don’t reach, at either side. We can either hear, or breathe, but not both, it seems. When the electricity cuts out, the room plunges into murkiness, and the fan slithers to a halt. The heat washes in instantly, and Rani-didi cracks the door open again. Ganesh’s glee chorus has stopped – power-cuts aren’t all bad news – and silence fills the courtyard, for an interval. We work in the gloom for a bit, peering at smudgy pencil on rough paper, then the light comes on – fiat lux! – and the fan whirrs into action. Before we have time to blink and refocus, the air’s throbbing with joyful music, again.

Think of Songs of Praise. Now think of everything that isn’t Songs of Praise - mewling women, pulsing drums, and a thousand decibels – and you have Hymns to Ganesh. I don’t know how Indian music is annotated; they’re very hot on syncopation, yet seem to sing everything glissando, if that’s not a musical paradox. Whatever the theory, it’s all very catchy. I hum along happily, in the car, for miles (well, hours), playing “Name That Tune” with Monu. Joss Stone and Jack Johnson, and everyone else who lives in our CD drawer, in Rempstone, are going to have to spice things up a little, when we get home.

Bhavika-didi writes “YWBAT” on the board, corralled tidily off to one side. I watch her do this maybe twenty times, before I associate it with what she’s saying as she writes – “You Will Be Able To...” Even in a classroom with no chairs, no desks, no glass in the windows, we still have to have Aims and Objectives. Today, YWBAT understand co-operation. That’s a tall order, for most undergraduates I know, but here’s a floorful of seven-year-olds desperate to tackle it, in a foreign language. Co-operation is working together, didi says.

What is co-operation?”

“Working together!”

Yesterday, we did responsibility, which most of us understand better than we can pronounce. It’s not just about spelling and sums, in Akanksha, you know.

Bhavika-didi’s telling the story of Aju, a big fish with scary teeth, who bites a hole in the fisherman’s net, to save all the little fishes caught inside, proving that even people, who don’t seem kind, can be caring. I’m supposed to be testing Ashish on his sight words, mother, father, cupboard, same, different.... but clearly Aju’s adventures are far more exciting – for Ashish and me both – so I ask the Boss if we can go and sit on the terrace, to read. She smiles at me, the way you smile at people of impaired understanding, and says no. Apparently the modus operandi for local housewives is to dispose of anything unwanted straight out of the window. Dirty water, paper scraps, yesterday’s leftover dal, vegetable peelings, and worse. And even worse. So, sitting on the terrace outside, for a spot of paired reading, in peace, is not an option.

Back at the apartment, and the clouds are gathering with intent, so the newsagent-barometer did well to stack his Hindustani Times. I can hear the rain, but I can’t see it, looking straight out of the window at the leaden sky. The end of the street, where you turn left for the Great Punjab, or right for D-Mart, is thinly visible, but this is more folk-memory, than sight. Beyond that, it could be the nearside of Powai Lake, it could be a cloud-bank. The other side of the Lake might as well be Kathmandu, for all I can tell.

Down below, the green-grocer’s stall is cloaked in blue plastic, but there are no takers, this afternoon. The stall-holder sits, cross-legged, with his empty balance and weights, behind his pyramids of custard-apples and papaya, waiting for the rain to exhaust itself, and his customers to come out again. I hope he’s got a crossword, then, because the heavens are rocking and rolling. It’ll be a while before anyone’s in the market for snake gourds.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Word from Our Sponsors

Rain stops play, here in Powai, so we become couch aloo, and spend the day channel-hopping, great exercise for thumbs. We vacillate between HBO (Home Box Office) and Star Movies, depending on whether we’re up for Kindergarten Cop or Rambo First Blood Part 2. There’s going to be a lot of pec-flexing, whichever way we go.

Currently, about half of the ads on television, here, are pushing technology. Cars are a big feature, which puzzles me, since we hardly see anything four-wheeled which is not a taxi or an Innova. Well, bullock-carts, I suppose, but none of them has a catalytic converter or a cigarette-lighter. The rest of the road’s filled with fringed lorries and bulging single-decker buses, with a tuk-tuk or two in every nook and cranny in between. So why do they spend so much money, advertising cars no-one buys? “Changes your style,” purrs the ad for the all-new Indica Visita, “Changes your life.” The sleek red car hurtles round bends, gobbling up the road. “Changes everything.” Well, it would have to change the traffic in Mumbai, for starters, or you’d never get out of third gear.

Toyota’s Corolla Altis – “designed to inspire envy” – has a campaign fronted by Orlando Bloom, even if they do think he’s from Hollywood, not Canterbury. I’m sad to note that he’s in a tux, not his Legolas outfit. And don’t even think of saying, anachronism, because I’m willing to suspend belief for pointy ears and a swishy cape... All he says is, “Tonight, I’d like to introduce a new star...” and then the car zooms up the catwalk. Not a bad day’s work, by any standards. Still, the new Toyota can hardly be flying out of the showrooms, in a city where most people earn less than £2 a day.

On the other hand – or rather, in the other hand – plugging the mobile phone makes more sense. I’m possibly the only person on the sub-continent, who can’t handle a phone which does anything apart from make phonecalls. Jockeying for business is fierce. In Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest “social housing” area, we see barefoot workers, lolling on sacks of recyclable rubbish in their stinking factories, having a break, doing what idle youths do the world over, to fill a fallow moment, texting their mates. People who don’t have shoes, have a mobile phone, it seems. Technology’s the birthright of youth, though, or so the telly says. “Ciao, babe!” says the Aged Parent, in the Motorola advert, mimicking his son, as he dances and poses in front of the mirror. LOL, as they say in txt-spk. Evidently, you’re not allowed to say “Ciao!” if you’re over 25. Unless you’re Italian, I suppose... The boy in the Virgin Mobile ad is immobilised in a hospital bed, begging the pretty nurse to answer his phone for him. She searches his pockets, to his clear delight. He tries to return the favour for his mate, but his door’s opened by a male nurse with a gelled quiff and a glint in his eye. “Keep calls between friends free!” chuckles the punch-line. Propaganda with a smile. ROFL, even...

Wrinklies have their moment in the limelight, though. The ad for Masti Mobile music downloads has Grandma on her deathbed, surrounded by grieving generations. She gasps her last request, which puzzles Son, but Grandson opens his mobile, and downloads her favourite Golden Oldie, which plays on her pillow. Thus, Grandma can slip away, smiling beatifically. Never get past the censors, the Yorkshire Pudding side of the Arabian Sea.

Interestingly, the only foods to make it onto the small screen, are imports, Domino’s Pizza and the ubiquitous MacDonalds. Obviously, this audience need no introduction to rice and dal, and anyway, everyone eats their Mum’s, at home, not some shop-bought preservative-laced travesty. Both pizza and burger ads feature senior citizens, because the younger generation have long since sold their souls to the west, and are past seducing.

This afternoon, we see more overt sexuality, in tv adverts, than in all of the Bollywood movies on our groaning shelf, put together. No such thing as the watershed, here, then. However much writhing and wriggling about the leading man does around/with his leading lady, in a film, his lips never get to touch hers. You just think they’re going to – after a hundred and twenty minutes of build-up, you’d be quite glad if they would – when she tucks her chin in, and he kisses her chastely on the brow. You might get a glimpse of his gleaming six-pack, if he’s swash-buckling about vanquishing the villain, but there’s no hand-to-hand wrestling for the hero and heroine. You’ll see sequinned tops and diaphanous baggy pants, in the set-piece dance routines, but no underwear on show, not even passion-quenching Nora Batty tights or clip-over-the-shoulder Bridget Jones knickers. Imagine our surprise, then, to have our living-room suddenly pulsing with body after body – male and female – clad only in the odd spiral of colour and clever lighting. Mr Roland and I exchange scandalised looks over our Bombay Mix. Kansai Nerolac’s campaign to launch their new Impressions range certainly catches the eye, even if it leaves the imagination redundant. This is where my Hindi lets me down – I assume it’s yet another skin cream, because the slogan runs, “Show your true colours!” and there’s a marked obsession here, with skin-lightening. Turns out, it’s paint. – You wouldn’t have known, either....

Several other paint manufacturers are showing their colours, too, which speaks of the monsoon. As soon as the last drop of rain is squeezed from the last cloud, there will be an emulsion-frenzy, in time for Diwali, at the end of October. "All people, paint the house," according to the Mumbai Oracle, at the steering-wheel. The competition’s underway already. My money’s on Kansai Nerolac, now I know that’s it’s for slapping on the walls, not on my chops.

Beauty’s big business, though, with or without the Impressions range. In deference to the season, a desperate woman irons her hair on the ironing board. Then she discovers Garnier Fructis Sleek and Shine , which restores a patent gloss to her silken tresses, and we all live happily ever after. “Bye-bye, frizz!” As one who has long cultivated the monsoon look, I take exception to this. Mere shampoo – even one boasting “olive strength” –is surely not up to tackling the unravelled tea-cosy which is and always will be “le look” as far as I’m concerned? If Mr Roland ever sees himself reflected in my Sleek and Shiny hair, he'll know he's in the wrong house. Let’s hear it for tea-cosies....

Friday, September 5, 2008

Ganpati Bappa Morya!

Powai Lake’s lit like a Christmas tree. The approach road’s jammed, strings of headlights tailing off into the distance. Fireworks pepper the sky, and the night pulses with the beat of drums. Ganesh is going home.

One and a half days after Hindus welcome the figure of Ganesh into their homes, with special prayers and rituals, he’s carried out to be sent on his way again, by being symbolically immersed in a body of water. The enormous public Ganeshes, in communal pandals, remain in place until the end of Sarvajanik, after the full ten days’ celebrating. So, tonight is family night.

The family go to the idol-maker, to collect their Ganesh, and pay him in cash, wrapped in a mango leaf. The journey home’s precarious, because if the idol’s mishandled, and chipped or damaged in any way, the celebrations are over for the family, for that year. It’s with considerable relief, all round, then, that Ganesh is safely installed in the home, duly anointed with kumkum and presented with the traditional brass tray of fruit and vegetables, the PhalavaLi.

From our apartment, we walk round the block, into the centre of Powai, where it’s business as usual. People are shopping at D-Mart and Crossword, Papa John’s Pizza restaurant’s full, the paan-seller’s got his circle of punters, like every other night. It’s hard to find a pandal. “Rich people, no interested in Ganesh festival,” says Monu flatly. By the lake, where the labourers live in the no-lakh housing estate, there’s a pandal every hundred yards, so there seems some justification in Monu’s dismissive categorizing.

We leave the shops and restaurants, and walk down to the lakeside, following the sound of drums and singing. By the edge of the water, it’s like a funfair. Tuk-tuks pull up at the kerbside, and whole families spill out, in all their sequinned finery. Further along, in the lamplight, peering through a windscreen, we make out Ganesh sitting on Grandpa’s knee, in the passenger seat of the family car, Dad driving, and Mum, Grandma and the kids crammed in the back seat. The air’s electric with excitement and incense.

We’re a bit diffident about intruding – we’re not going anywhere unnoticed, not only do we have radio-actively pale faces, but we’re just about the only people not wearing orange – so we teeter diffidently at the entrance. Within a heartbeat, we’re hailed like long-lost relatives, with smiles and waves, and pulled inside. Within a minute, our hands are full of food.

Special dishes are prepared for this evening, and carried with the idol to the water’s edge, where final ceremonies are performed. Once food which has been offered to the deity, it’s considered to contain his blessing, and is distributed to share that blessing. Prasad. I have in my cupped hand sweets like tiny asteroids, shredded coconut, rice, shards of jaggery. Mr Roland, more conservative, accepts a green lemon.

Definitely spectators here, we’re longing to take photographs, but politeness stays our hands. After the fourth family take our photos, though – with or without the baby – we decide this can be a reciprocal arrangement, and Lord Lichfield gets the camera out.

Lining up by the water, a row of men - smooth-cheeked youths and grizzled elders alike - wearing orange or yellow t-shirts and loincloths. They stand, fidgeting on the uneven shingle in their bare feet, their chapals abandoned on the rocks. A family approaches, singing and chanting. “Ganpati Bappa...” shouts the man of the house. “Morya!” his family respond. “Mangal Moorti...” he calls. “Morya!” they finish. O Father Ganesh, come early again next year. It’s quite catching.

The Ganesh is handed over, on his plinth, to two of the bearers in the queue. Between them, they carry him to the lake, and one of them swims out, backwards, with the bobbing idol, so the family, on the shore, can watch their Ganesh enter the water. When the swimmer’s out of his depth, he lifts up the Ganesh, then plunges him underwater, then again, then again. When he immerges the idol for the last time, he puts a foot on him, to keep him submerged, until the lake seeps into the plaster. Ganesh, water-logged, is gone for good, thus safely on his way home to Kailash. The swimmer does a fast crawl back to shore, where he recovers the plinth, and deposits a symbolic nugget of river mud in its centre, before returning it to the family, who bear it off triumphantly.

The swimmers are paid, individually, by the family whose Ganesh they carry. They wait in patient line, but if a family tarries too long, chanting and waving and video-ing the departure of their Ganesh, the queue of porters gets restive, and encourages them to move on with unmistakable hand gestures and equally unequivocal unholy words.

We stand and watch, as family after family arrive, for the send-off. There’s no organised order of play, as far as we can determine, but the crowds seem to flow into order accidentally, like the Mumbai traffic at a crossroads.

An objective onlooker can’t help but see an element of competition, here, as neighbouring families strive to out-Ganesh one another, keeping up with the Kumars. It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to India, think of the flashing reindeer and inflatable snowmen which proliferate on English lawns in December. Not on the street where I live, obviously. Nor you.

On the way out again, we pass waves of new arrivals, and collect smiles and handshakes, as well as a palmful of fruit salad. Mr Roland declines, but I munch my way through chunks of apple and unpeeled lime, dotted with bright pippins of pomegranate. I have a furtive ball of modak, steamed rice dumpling, screwed into a tissue in my handbag, because I can’t swallow it, but I’m up for chopped fruit, any day.

At the entrance, there’s a right song and dance. A Ganesh has arrived, in a lorry, framed by fronds of palm, accompanied by a band of drummers and musicians, and an entire dynasty doing jigs and reels in its wake. Their painted statue is too beautiful – and surely too costly – to dissolve in the lake, but the belief is that Ganesh takes all your worries with him, so his loss is ultimately your gain. And there’s always next year, to look forward to.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

La Donna è Mobile...

Indian army,” says Monu, pointing at the five trucks lined up in front of us, going nowhere in the stationary traffic. They’ve drafted in the boys in khaki, to add backbone to Mumbai’s police force, during Ganesh Chaturthi, since, as well as being a time of celebrations, it’s a time of civil unrest. After the riots of 1992, the peace between Hindu and Muslim is only ever queasy, at best. Monu takes a hand off the wheel, to gesture at the trucks. “Army, all-time guns!” I look into the back of the open truck, at the crammed rows of soldiers in camouflage caps and shirts, leaning casually on their guns. I also see, peering closer between the rows, several bare brown feet waving in the air. ”These soldier, sleeping.” Course they are, having forty off-duty winks, just like the tuk-tuk drivers at the side of the road. I don’t know that I could concentrate on sleeping, with my nose pressed up against the stock of someone else’s gun, but perhaps this is what the military mean by fatigues.

Monu adjusts the garland looped round his three dashboard Ganeshes. Orange and yellow marigold blooms threaded together, punctuated with folded mango leaves, with a faceted disco-bauble, in eye-catching electric fuchsia, as the centre-piece. Thirty rupees, half price. A bargain.

We’re mobile shopping. I don’t mean, that we kerb-crawl, hopping into the car for the four seconds of pavement between shops. I mean, my phone’s given up the unequal struggle, and acceded defeat. Vodafone, nil – Monsoon, one. Vijay Sales is air-conditioned and roomy, with three uniformed assistants to every gleaming yard of glass counter. If you can plug it in, they sell it here.

It takes perhaps four minutes, to choose the only Nokia available, which doesn’t tell jokes, sing lullabies and double as a George Foreman Lean Mean Grilling Machine. “This model, no Bluetooth,” Sanjay the mobile-wala says, shaking his head, sadly. “This model,” I say, picking up my defunct phone, “I can’t work the calculator, so this model, no Bluetooth – no problem!” In a rare break from tradition, I opt for the pink version. I know, revolutionary. Sanjay returns, smiling, apologetic, destined to thwart. No pink in stock. By way of consolation, he brings me the blue one, which proves what I have long thought, that blue is my destiny. I’m not meant to stray beyond the turquoise-to-navy quadrant of the spectrum.

Another four minutes, and we have selected a small Philips cd-player. Silver and chubby, it also plays tape-cassettes, which only teachers and Indians still have on their shelves. Impressively, we’ve been in the store for under ten minutes, which qualifies as what Mr Roland calls “surgical shopping.” (Most men do not understand the concept of shopping as a pastime, I’ve noticed. “What are you looking for?” he will ask, helplessly. “I don’t know until I see it,” I reply, shuffling my credit cards, meaningfully.)

Just when we’re getting complacent about retail precision, it takes more than forty minutes, to pay. Our cashier, Ameeta, rejects Mr Roland’s credit card because he can’t prove he is who he claims to be. But, you never know when you might need to leave the country in a hurry, I think, so I have my passport about my person. My ID is documentable, even if I do look slightly like Myra Hindley before she had her roots done, so I still count as the better credit risk at Vijay’s. Ameeta sends off a minion, to the photocopier in the basement, so we watch the cashier beside her, stock-taking. The crumpled carrier-bag on her desk looks as if it might contain old gym-shoes, or last year’s Christmas cards, but she delves in, and draws out a fat wodge of banknotes, which she counts, moving her lips. (I’m desperate to know if she’s counting in Hindi or English. At our local D-Mart, many of the sales staff don’t speak English, so when you ask for sticking-plasters, for example, they have to whistle for their mate, then their mate’s mate, before they can be of assistance. If you should ever be stuck in Powai in need of plasters, by the way, ask for bandages. It’s a vocabulary thing.... And yet, in the middle of a stream of Hindi, they will give a price or a product code in English.) Our Vijay cashier wraps small torn strips of paper round each wad of counted notes, before she rubber stamps the bundle, four times, in the innocent belief that an elastic band provides some kind of security. A thin boy, with an even thinner moustache, approaches, on the public side of the cash-counter, to collect carboned invoices of the morning’s work so far. For the first time, I notice a plastic-mesh laundry-basket, at the feet of each cashier. The office-boy tips the baskets, one by one, into his own laundry-basket, and drifts back to HQ, kicking it in front of him.

A man stands barefoot on the ledge which runs round the cash-desk, doing a spot of painting. He steps off the ledge, onto the cashiers’ work-surface, to swap his paint-brush for a hammer, then climbs back up, to nail a strip of plastic edging, over the still-wet paint. His sidekick’s in the music centre showroom, the other side of the plate glass partition, with a tray of emulsion and a roller, less than a foot from the home cinema display. They don’t do Closed For Refurbushing, here, which I find utterly charming.

We manage to pay, at last, with only four signatures, and are given a letter of ownership, together with a certificate of exit. We go to two separate counters, to collect our new belongings. Then, at the door, we’re stopped by the security guard. He has not missed a heartbeat of our transactions, since there’s precious little else going on, on the shop-floor, but we have to open our bags while he checks that the product code on the goods tallies with the numbers on the exit certificate. He sends his friend, to bring our salesman, just to double check. You can’t be too careful, can you?

As Monu nudges the car out of the surprisingly leafy car-park, we pass yet another security guard. He’s using one plastic garden chair to sit on, and another to rest his bare feet. He’s fast asleep.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ganesh Chaturthi

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi! Today Mumbaikers celebrate Ganesh’s birthday, and pink elephants are definitely on parade. The building sites are silent, the school-rooms are empty, everyone’s on holiday.

Time was, the goddess Parvati needed a guard for the door, because she wanted to have a bath. She made Ganesh out of what she had to hand - sandalwood paste, for her bath - and breathed life into him. When Shiva came home, Ganesh challenged him at the threshold, so Shiva lopped his head off. I imagine it didn’t take long, for Parvati to point out to her husband the error of his ways, but there could be no quick-fix, because the head was nowhere to be found. Shiva sent out his troops, to bring back the head of the first animal they came across facing north, the propitious direction. They came across an elephant, and the rest is Hindu history.

Bhavika-didi brings a small Ganesh to school, as a visual aid. Well, he is supposed to be the Supreme God of Wisdom, and the Remover of Obstacles, so it makes good sense. We are doing Ganesh, for our Caring Lesson. She's ready to begin, so I unwind my handbag from round Sadabh’s neck – he’s pretending to be me - and it occurs to me, not for the first time, that I am not so much an assistant, as a distraction, in the classroom. We face forwards. I love being read to.

The shops of Mumbai are bristling with statues, tiny hand-held ones for domestic use, to elephant-sized Ganeshes which need a flat-bed truck for transport. They have collections, within each community, to buy not only the statue (the big ones cost more than £200), but also the pandal, the temporary pavilion, set up for the shindig. Built of scaffolding and blue plastic sheeting, they’re swagged with organza inside, decked with garlands and strings of twinky lights to within a two-watt bulb of their lives, and they make Oxford Street at Christmas look subtly underlit.

The gods came to Shiva and Parvati, Bhavika says, to ask which among them was the chief god.
Whom do they ask?”
What do they ask him, who was chief.....”
” Bhavika’s brilliant at question-and-answer routines.

The Mankhurd children are fizzing with excitement – I’m feeling a bit giddy myself, and I don’t even know where the story’s going. They fidget, spilling out of their padmasan, then quickly scramble their limbs back into position. It could be genetic, or it could be my wonky knees, but my padmasan’s still a bit lop-sided, even after weeks of sitting on a concrete floor with only a rush mat for solace. Bhavika’s too discreet to mention it, but continues with the Ganesh-tale.
Shiva decrees that there will be a race. The gods have to go round the earth three times – or “thrice” as they are fond of saying here – and the first to report back to Shiva and Parvati will be declared the chief god. Ganesh is more than a little cheesed off, at this point, and who could blame him? His own parents, and they cut him no slack...
Ganesh Chaturthi is a moveable feast – like Easter - somewhere in the last week of August, and the first week of September. Hindus believe Ganesh bestows his presence on earth among his followers during the festival, and when he leaves again, he takes their troubles with him. No wonder they sing and dance in the streets.

Ganesh has which vahana?” asks Bhavika. Even I know the answer to this. - All Hindu gods have a vehicle, a vahana, which is unique to them. This bearer always takes the form of an animal – for example, Shiva is borne on a bull, and Parvati on a lion. Ganesh’s vahana is ............ a mouse. You can see why he might be a little put out, that the chief god is to be chosen by means of a race.

Does the mouse go fast or slow?”
“If he goes slow-slow, will Ganesh win the race, or lose?”
The situation's not looking great for Ganesh.
These birthday celebrations last ten days, and conclude with the immersion of the idols in a body of water, sea, lake or river. Ganesh is carried into the water, to send him on his way back to Mount Kailash, where his parents live in perpetual meditation. (Hindus and Buddhists make pilgrimages to Kailash, in the Tibetan Himalayas, although they are forbidden to set foot on its slopes. Out of deference to their beliefs, no other climber sets foot on the holy mountain, either.)
But, Ganesh isn’t the Remover of Obstacles for nothing. He leaps on his noble steed, the mouse, and runs rings round his Mum and Dad. Three rings, to be precise. He then says, his parents are the world, to him. Thus he fulfils the task. Shiva acknowledges not only his son’s filial devotion, but also his wisdom, and declares Ganesh the chief of the gods. The children cheer. I have tears in my eyes. (It’s like the infant school nativity: I have no defence against small people with tea-towels on their heads, nor against clever elephant-boys, it now appears.)
So, at the temple, Ganesh is always...?”

This year, having solicited the blessings of Ganesh for spiritual and material success in any auspicious undertaking, the big focus is on the environment. The Indian on the street is encouraged to enjoy an eco-friendly Ganesh Chaturthi, and the message is rammed home by politicians and soap-stars alike. Originally, when the festival was privately celebrated, at home, the models were made of clay, and would dissolve harmlessly in river or lake. For the last century, Ganesh Chaturthi has been a public event, thanks to Lokmanya Tilak, a social reformer, who wanted people of all castes to have a common meeting-place. Increased demand has meant the idols are now made of Plaster of Paris, which is slower to dissolve, and poisons the water with toxic elements. Fish die in their thousands, at the end of Ganesh Chaturthi. So, it’s go back to terra cotta, or introduce the recyclable Ganesh. The jury's still out.

Who did Ganesh show respect for?”
“We must respect our parents and elders! Whom do we respect?”
“Old men!”
says Kajal, cross-legged next to me. I think this is not going in any good direction, and, if you ask me, it’s high time Bhavika-didi got out the teaching-clock, for a bit of practice with our quarter tos and ten pasts.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Monsoon Virgins

Monu looks at me, tentatively, through the rear-view mirror. “You angry, Mam?”

Angry? The only reason I’m not doing a jubilant double somersault with a back flip, is that I’ve got my seat-belt on. Not especially angry, then.

Eight day late. Tariq say, Mam very angry!" Monu’s best friend, Tariq, has been our fill-in driver for the week. He wears a baseball cap, and drives carefully, always smiling, never late. What he doesn’t do, is channel-hop on the radio, to find my favourite song (Pehli Nazar Mein),or pre-select the lightest bags of shopping for me to carry from the car, or draw my attention to passing bullock-carts, if I’m gazing out of the wrong window, or smile and nod, at street barbers. In short, he’s not Monu.

Not angry,” I say, “sad.” I tell him about the spore invasion, in the flat, and he tells me about his father’s farm, in Lucknow. He shows me a picture of Shikha, who is very beautiful, as I secretly suspected, thus not like a buffalo, after all. A hundred and one percent happy, all round.

It turns out, the creeping mildew’s our own fault. The owner of the flat – who owns the whole of the top floor, in fact – comes to highlight our shortcomings, as tenants. When he arrives, slipping his shoes off at the door, Mr Kumar fails to strike me as a South Asian potentate, more like just the bloke next door. As it happens, that’s exactly what he is – eight months, we’ve been chasing him, to sign our Hiranandani gym application, and he lives on our landing. Or rather, we live on his. He insists I go into his apartment, to check its mildewlessness.

I get a crick in my neck, swivelling round to drink in all the lusciousness: he has a plasma-screen the size of a billiard table, a life-size oil-painting of his mother (or her mother, I guess, or even his mother’s mother), and a tasselled jhula, rocking lightly, in the breeze from the open door. He also has a gated staircase – to the roof, I can only imagine? (Would you go to a roof-terrace barbecue, thirty-three floors up?.... Quite. I decide not to feel peevish about not having a balcony.... Although next-door have adjoining double balconies, from either end of the football-pitch-sized living-room... Still a mile high, though. No, really, no balcony is fine....) Maybe Next-Door is an eastern magnate, despite everything. Slack-jawed, I forget to eyeball his walls, and pad home, barefoot.

Ventilation’s the answer. Locking up before going away, we do what any sane person would, and batten down the hatches. One of us (the one whose mouldy chinos we throw away, the one with the dainty respiratory tract, the one who wasn’t in Africa at the time, in fact) – leaves the air-conditioning on, as an added pre-cautionary measure. So, for a fortnight, the cooled air has nowhere to go, except to condense on every surface and create a cosy home for wandering microbes.

What we should have done (now they tell us!) was to turn off the AC and leave all the windows ajar, to enable the free circulation of air. Where we come from, we’re bred to be more concerned with the free circulation of thieves and vagabonds, it goes against every instinct to fling wide the casements and high-tail off to the airport. I suppose, you don’t need a burglar-alarm, a hundred yards in the sky, unless Spiderman gives in to the dark side. Still, we’ll know, next time; the rainy season won’t catch us on the back foot, again. Pity the monsoon doesn’t reach Nottinghamshire, we’d be a fount of meteorological knowledge, and a boon to all who knew us.

Maybe the habitual hardship and misery of the monsoon dictates that this should be festival season, Christmas in December. Last week, it was Janmashtami, Krishna’s birthday. A moveable feast, like Easter. Terracotta pots, dahi-handi, are filled with money and strung high in the air. Youths make human pyramids, to reach them , and claim the booty within. These days, they can contain hundreds of pounds’ worth of rupees. In Mumbai alone, more than four thousand dahi-handi dangle in the streets, to tempt the Krishna gangs.

When Krishna was a child, he lived with a cowherd, Nand, and his wife Yashoda, who fostered him, to protect him from his wicked uncle, King Kansa. Krishna was full of mischief, and used to steal butter and curds from the pots in the dairy. Yashoda would hang them up high, to hide them, but Krishna found he could reach them, by climbing on the backs of his friends, which gave rise to the tradition of dahi-handi.

Mr and Mrs Andrew and I see dahi-handi being made, in Kumbharwada, the pottery of Dharavi, in central Mumbai. The clay is drawn from a nearby estuary, then trodden to soften it. In the workshop of the potter we visit, the clay has been prepared for the next day by his own mother. She sifts it through her fingers and thumbs, to find and remove any small stones, then divides it into slabs, weighing about twelve kilos a-piece. The potter’s finished for the day, when we put our heads round his door, but he takes a block of clay from tomorrow’s stash, and switches his electric wheel back on again. He apologises that the clay is a little soft for working, because it normally would have the chance to dry out a little, overnight. From the one block, he makes eight pots in as many minutes, fat-bellied and identical. Each litre pot, once fired, sells for five rupees. The pot-man on the street sells them on for ten rupees. This is what India means by “disposable” – not tissues or nappies or tablecloths, which take years to biodegrade, but terra cotta pots, which will melt back into clay, earth to earth.

If it’s still Krishna you’re wanting to celebrate, and you’ve got more than ten rupees to spend, you can buy a silver figure of him, with his lovely bride Radha, at Frazer and Haws, in Bandra West. It will set you back more than Rs 79,000 (a thousand of your English pounds). Something for every pocket. As they say, it’s a broad church.

I know the weather’s not playing fair, in the North. I know that rivers are bursting their banks, changing course, and wiping whole villages away. But it’s more real to me, that Monu’s Mum is having to hand-rear Lali the calf, because her mother drowned in the flood. Fields of crops are under water, none to eat, none to sell. It’s going to be a tough year, in Uttar Pradesh. Small wonder, that our Indian Boy was eight day late.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back

Excuse me, are you real?” asks the man, eight or ten steps below me on the escalator. We’re suspended in the atrium of In Orbit mall, gliding towards the ground floor. Allergic to confrontation, I slide my gaze sideways into the middle distance, focusing on nothing. It’s not hard, when myopia is your factory setting.

Excuse me, Ma’am? Is this eyes really you?” He points at his own peepers, then mine. Guilty as charged, I say, Mum, Dad, brother, sister, and me, I say, all blue eyes. This is how I was born. “Thank-you! Thank-you so much!” The escalator tips him out at street level, and he turns left, heading for Life Style. He’s beaming, like I’d just given him a winning lottery ticket. I try to reduce my beam to a smirk, and turn right, towards Shoppers Stop. Here we are, again: India.

Coming back after six weeks away, I thought India would be a constant, in the flickering kaleidoscope of life, but it’s changed. It’s still monsoon, but a weary monsoon. I look at the grimy bedraggled streets, and struggle to remember the triumphant first rains, when umbrellas blossomed on every pavement, and laughing children waded in the floodwater, playing with plastic bags and paper boats. You’d think three months of relentless rain would wash the city clean, but you’d be wrong. The all-pervading dust simply turns to mud, and the street dogs are grubby and wet, instead of just grubby. It’s like the end of summer, in England, when the leaves on the trees look fed up and jaded, as autumn limbers up, in the wings. The monsoon’s nearly ready to be over.

It’s not over, in our apartment, though. There has been an invasion, in our absence. Walls, ceiling, furniture, clothes – every surface is covered with wispy fungus. We strip the bed and bin the bedding, irrecuperably black-spotted. My favourite kurta has grown an extra layer of gauzy mould, which happily washes out, but Mr Roland’s chinos are beyond saving, ditto my suede sandals. Crocs go in the washing machine, to un-fungus. The trays of salt in the wardrobes, our Heath Robinson dehumidifiers, are standing in water. All our Fabindia furniture – bookshelves, bedside cabinets, console and laundry basket - is whiteover with mildew. The drawers are warped and wedged shut, the lid’s buckled, and we could wish we had gone for plain, not latticed. Sheesham’s no fan of the monsoon. And so say all of us....

The wisdom of hindsight comes rushing in, too late as per usual. In HyperCity, as soon as the monsoon shows its wet nose round the door, there’s a whole aisle devoted to covers – handkerchief covers, television covers, saree covers, microwave covers, transparent blouse covers (that’s the cover, not the blouse.... I’m supposing...). You name it, they’ll zip-lok it into plastic for you, and now I know why.

We spend the whole of Sunday, cleaning the walls with a pan-scourer, and excavating the King and Queen of Nepal from beneath their shroud of dust and mildew. Disgruntled doesn’t come close. Try hysterical. It’s like being burgled, but without anybody to arrest. Violation.

We move into the Rodas Hotel for the night, since Mr Roland’s alveoli aren’t up to spores, and I try to get my 10,000 rupees’ worth out of the occasion, steeping in a cocktail of revitalising ginseng bath foam, and bio-basil hair salad, and aloe vera lotion. I line the little bottles up along the edge of the bath, hopefully. An hour later, I emerge, corrugated and unsmiling - there’s only so much you can ask, of bubble-bath.

So, our Indian home has been taken over by microbes. The mango season is over. We have no internet connection. The al fresco lighting-shop on Adi Shankaracharya Marg, which never fails to lift my spirits, has packed up until the sun comes back, ironically. And, the unkindest cut of all, Monu’s not here. He’s still in Lucknow, with his Mum, and his newly-met bride-to-be, Shikha. I did say, as I left, in July, that, if his Mum needed him, he should stay. But I didn’t mean it, obviously. And he’s got a return ticket, I checked.

All things considered, Mumbai has not got a great deal going for it, currently. I have the resilience of a tooth-pick, slightly used and infinitely snappable. Mr Roland, solicitous, wary, asks what he can do. Take me home, I say, fingering my passport.

Then, not on a white charger, but in a white Airbus, come Mr and Mrs Andrew, to save the day, and our Indian adventure, and quite frankly, our marriage. In the forty-minute trip from the airport, I say more words, than in the whole of the preceding four days. Common courtesy obliges me to pull my face straight, for once. The Hostess with the Leastest. It’s almost painful, smiling.

Welcome to Mumbai, I say. This is our poxy flat. Here is your room, with the unmade bed and the excessive spore-count. Would you like a cup of tea after your flight? Oh, no milk, forget the tea. Would you like a glass of tepid water, instead? Very refreshing. There’s nothing for lunch, because I haven’t been here for six weeks, but I know where the shop is. Unless you fancy parmesan cheese and mango jam? Mr Roland’s hysteria-antennae are twitching, as well they might be, and he slopes off to work, in a dutiful but cowardly manner.

Mr and Mrs Andrew and I – duly restored by above-mentioned tepid water – tiptoe across the building-site which is leafy residential Powai, to sample the moderate delights of the Haiko retail experience. To whit, we buy a kilo of tomatoes, a bunch of coriander, a fistful of cucumbers, and a bag of milk. We pick our way, over the open manholes and pitted roads, back to Verona (the scenic route), where we lunch in splendour on tuna salad. “What lovely wall-hangings you have,” says Mrs Andrew, guava-juice in one hand, ladleful of oil in the other, for pouring on troubled waters...

By the time Mr Roland reappears, several hours later, the status has found its way back to the quo.