Friday, September 12, 2008

Water Features

Mumbai will never be finished. When the steam-rollers pull out, a new road’s show-off weeks are numbered, before the flip-flop gang are back with their drills and pick-axes, to dig the perfect surface up again, because they forgot to lay the phone cables. It’s only five years since the no-lakh housing estates of Mankhurd were wiped off the map, to make way for high-rise tenement blocks, trading horizontal slums for vertical ones, and already the roads have more potholes than Derbyshire, since local tarmac has the tensile strength of a Chocolate Krispie. And don’t say wear and tear, I hardly think four tuk-tuks and a bloke with a cartload of bananas constitute aggressive over-use, day to day.

On the left, as we drive through Parkside – just before the newsagent’s stall - there’s been a landslide. A whole side of someone’s house has slithered into the road, courtesy of yesterday’s rains. Much of this estate perches precariously on an outcrop, which must make for uneasy sleep. The raw cliff-face is netted and pinned, though what protection that would offer, should two metres of cliff lose the battle against water and gravity, it’s hard to discern. The monsoon brings more than the inconvenience of mildewed shoes, to Parksiders.

To our right, long-limbed youths bowl their way to school, literally: there’s never no time for cricket, here. Their school uniform’s pink polo shirts and mauve shorts, yet they’re still laughing. Find me a single Year 9 English boy, who’d be happy to show his knees in public, in mauve shorts, and his name will be Billy No-Mates. I don’t want to stir the silt of racial stereo-typing, here, but the British are chromatically challenged. Is it the climate, or are people, who are happy to eat mashed potato and Rich Tea biscuits, temperamentally inclined towards beige? (Not forgetting the timeless appeal of classic black, navy blue, and bottle green, of course. If you ask me, you can only pull off bottle green, if you’re a bottle...) I take my taupe hat off to this sequinned nation.

Nearing Bandra, smoke billows across the street. I flinch, thinking of the car which stopped the traffic, weeks ago, blazing in the outside lane, costing two lives. I’m almost too afraid to ask. “Fire?”No fire, is ..... medicine,” says Monu, making nipping movements with his fingers and thumb. “Fumigate?” I say, inspired. “You mean, cockroaches?” I nip my fingers, too, in the panglobal sign for “vile crawling thing which will survive an all-out nuclear attack and rule the world.” “Cockroach,” Monu does Incey-Wincey spider, again, “...and small small thing.” We come level with the open Piaggio Ape, trailing clouds of insecticide. Spraying’s a weekly treat (if you’re a besieged resident, that is - obviously if you’re a beetle or a bedbug, it’s not that much fun). In Powai, we don’t get the fumigation-wagon, we’re too posh for cockroaches. They could do the evil deed under cover of dark, like in Camelot, I suppose, but they’d have to have a hundred metre nozzle, to do us any favours, up here on the thirty-third floor.

Vimala Dermatological Centre, it says on the vehicle in front. Ambulance. No flashing lights, no sirens, it’s filled to the rafters with parcels and packages. “This part-time job,” Monu smiles. “What if it’s an emergency,” I say, “do they deliver the post first?” I also wonder, uncharitably, if they have “Ambulance” painted on the side, so they can melt through the traffic more quickly, thus get their deliveries done on time. But then I remember, no-one moves over for an ambulance, in Mumbai.

The clouds look peevish and threatening, like on a Sunday School picnic. A policeman secures a polythene bag over the business end of his gun, with an elastic band. Coming towards us, a lady rides side-saddle, behind her turbaned husband, her petal-perfect sari hidden under a pakamac. It’s a duller world, when it rains. No wonder we paint our hallways magnolia, under more temperate western skies.

Today I learn what the water-line is, and it has nothing to do with plimsolls. Monu’s yawning, and I think it’s Mr Roland’s fault, for wining and dining a customer, last night, ‘til our Innova turns back into a pumpkin. But no, Monu says he was up and doing, when the dawn chorus was still snoring, because “water come in my room.” Only yesterday, we talk of roof-lagging, to keep the monsoon out, so I assume he means a leak. I’m wrong. He means, it’s his turn, for a wash.

The water-line is the queue, at the standpipe. Monu says his “water-number” today is 510. I think he means, five hundred and ten, but it’s not a number, it’s a time. 5.10. As in, a.m.. If he wants to wash, he has to get up at five in the morning. After ten minutes, the water stops, and it’s the next person’s slot. You quickly learn to be fairly nippy with the shampoo, I imagine. There are boys, of my personal acquaintance, who stand under the shower for ten minutes, just to come to terms with being awake, before they even think about abluting.

In Malad, the water supply’s switched on at four in the morning, so people are allocated, every day, to sacrifice sleep to cleanliness. Monu says, if you’re on at four, you wash, and go back to bed, clean, for a couple of hours. In the evening, there’s no water at all. Electricity’s another matter, though. Monu lives in the shadow of In Orbit mall, so is happily on the same circuit, and can plug his kettle in, at any hour of the day or night. There won’t always be water in it, of course, which is a great pity, because tea’s the only thing he can cook.

In our flat – which we treat like a Wendy House - we have three showers, and only one body each. Hot water on tap, at two minutes’ notice. It’s not fair. Stop me if I’m boring you, it’s not the first time I’ve said it, nor will it be the last. I offer Monu our spare room, and he laughs. I’m not joking, though.