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.