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.