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.