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.