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.