Friday, October 24, 2008

School's Out

On the way to school, I point to a man, carrying a sleeping child across each shoulder. “Look, Monu, could be you, this time next year. You, with Pooja and Shukti.” Monu laughs. These are his favourite girl’s names. “But I bet you have a boy, first!” He slaps the wheel and shakes his head, “Boy very danger!”

Danger” is the most useful not-adjective I have ever come across. In Monu World, it describes urban decay, local traffic - and local traffic police, for that matter - the Aarey Milk Colony after 9 p.m., muslims, lemon juice from the street vendor, tuk-tuk drivers, Dharavi and all its million residents, alcohol, beggars, pollution in general, Mumbai railways, Kashmir, and now boys. That’s a lot of work, for one little word. I’d be surprised if it didn’t want to go to bed early, tonight.

Boys are not danger, in my book, but Monu’s still going tsk! tsk! and shaking his head, so I tell him my wysiwyg theory, about the nature of your basic boy. “A thought comes into a boy’s head,” I say, miming Ashish doing his takeaways, putting a number in his head, “and it comes straight out of his mouth. No problems. Direct.” Monu nods, being a bit of a wysiswg boy himself. “A thought comes into a girl’s head, and stays. Think-think-think, then yak-yak-yak.” I make my hands bicker with each other, on the back seat. The driver of the tuk-tuk, pulled up next to us at the lights, is mesmerised, and forgets to drive off, when the lights change. “Girls, all time thinking,” Monu says. He’s wising up, the boy from Lucknow. “Boys have a problem,” I say, warming to my theory, “Boy Number One hits Boy Number Two on the nose, problem sorted. Carry on with the cricket.” It’s getting like Punch and Judy, in the back, but without the hand-puppets. Naked Punch and Judy, then. “Girls have a problem, no punch, just yak-yak-yak, all day, and the next day, and the next day.” I mime infinity. I love charades. “Girls mouth-fight,” Monu nods, “very danger.” Too right.

Today, at Akanksha, we break up for Diwali, so everyone’s demob-happy. Bhavika-didi writes some sentences on the board, for copying into our English books.

At Diwali we pray to God.
We wear new clothes.
We eat sweets.
We light diyas in our homes, and burst crackers in the street.
We wish everybody a Happy Diwali

When we get to the “new clothes” bit, Ashish lifts up his blue Ananksha t-shirt, to show me the yellow one, underneath. Two bags of Diwali goodies, one from Bhavika-didi and one from me, are glowing, gently radioactive, at the front, drawing all eyes. How can they concentrate on seven minus nine won’t go, borrow ten? I’m so excited, I can hardly do it, myself, and I stopped using my fingers and toes as an abacus, years ago. The air’s simmering, but we still have to do ascending and descending order, and fractions. Khaja solves his excess of energy, by tickling my feet, every time Bhavika’s eagle gaze is elsewhere. I might have to go and stand at the back, in a minute, for laughing. “Go, take your punishment!"

Instead of punishing me, though, Bhavika presents me with a gift – a photo-frame, and a little embroidered bag for my mobile phone – together with thank-you cards made by the children, laminated for posterity. I promise to keep them forever.

We fold our legs, join our hands and close our eyes early, today, because we have one last Diwali treat, a Medical Check-Up - not as laugh-out-loud jolly, as a picnic or a theatre trip, for example, but more useful. The medical’s sponsored by Larsen and Toubro - the largest engineering and construction business in India – proving that a conglomerate can have a face, after all. Good for them.

We crocodile through the tenement blocks, waving like royalty. The doctor’s in another Akanksha classroom, in an adjacent street. We tiptoe over rotting rubbish and foetid grey puddles; I note that Aanchal’s barefoot, but she’s not bothered, so what right have I to be fastidious? We pass the crowd, gathered round the policeman, beating a man with a stick, and pick our way up the littered stairs, to register and queue. There’s a class before us, and the one after us is already at the door. It’s a long wait, and it’s hot.

At last it’s Ashish’s turn. The doctor holds his hands, looking into his eyes, as if no-one else in the world existed, gently asking him questions, sounding his chest, checking his glands. Ashish is a little soldier, I’m bursting with pride. Next up’s Khaja the irrepressible; I’ve never seen him so quiet. I whisper to Bhavika, that we could do with the doctor in all our lessons, maybe...

The children are given a paper, which serves as a prescription, for the mobile medical van, waiting on the street, downstairs. Ashish gets a bottle of medicine for worms, and stuffs it precariously into the top of the plastic bag he uses, to carry his books. He’s long since chewed off the handles, so has to cradle it in his arms.

My home, didi, come!” He’s desperate to show me where he lives, and I spare a fleeting thought for his poor mother, unsuspecting of her son’s lavish invitation, nursing the pot of dal at base-camp. Bhavika says it’s ok, though, so we go.

We climb three flights of stairs, stepping over broken furniture, paintpots, abandoned shoes and assorted debris. The fragrance is indescribable. Ashish disappears in front of us, on his little dancing feet, then pops his head back out, to make sure we’re following. He’s the Distant Early Warning System, so his Mum and his sister, Savita, are on the landing to meet us. They’re both small and beautiful, unsurprisingly. Then, here we are.

Inside, all the walls are bubblegum pink, and everything’s picture-perfect. To the right of the door, a sofa, where Ashish slings his tatty school-bag, and on the left, above head-height, a small temple with a Ganesh, all pooja’d up for Diwali. Through a doorway, I see a little kitchen, but can’t investigate, because Ashish whisks me behind a curtain, to show me his bedroom, which is also pink. He points at a tiny table, and a mirror, “Didi, see, didi!” - all the mod cons, in fact. “For makeup,” Savita says. Not Ashish, surely? Nor Savita, I tell her, she’s already sundar.

Now I’ve met his Mum, I feel guilty about wanting to take Ashish home with me. I’ll just have to be firm, that’s all.

In the car, on the way back to Powai, I show Monu the children’s cards.

Didi helped me in English. – Mehul”

“Didi, thank you for helping in Maths. - Kajal Brijesh Gautam.” Sunday-best name, too, Kajal. Good job I won’t be here, when you’re tackling differentiation and integration. My mathematical savoir faire stops with goes-intos.

She hep me in learning. - Sachin” I think we should all hep each other, if we can, don’t you?

"Thank you to help us in all the things. – Naina” I’m just beginning to feel like Mother Theresa, when I see Sadabh’s offering.

Thank you for the choclate, didi.” I applaud his spelling, and his honesty. See, boys are not danger, after all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Riotous Times

I nearly rang you yesterday, to tell you that we were ok, despite all the riots in Mumbai, but then it occurred to me that you wouldn’t know who Raj Thackeray was anyway, if he jumped up on the table in front of you and stuffed a paratha down your patiyala. RT’s got very big for his Size Tens, this side of the Arabian Sea, though. Also, it was 4 a.m. where you are, when you’d be still hopefully pushing out the zeds, so couldn’t possibly have started worrying about us yet. Now you’re awake, you’ll be glad to know - we’re ok.

Thackeray – the press chummily call him “Raj,” as if he weren’t a criminal – has been arrested again, charged with provoking hatred among communities and endangering public safety, so his MNS cronies are up in arms. The basic posit of Raj’s party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, is that jobs in Maharashtra belong to people born here, not interlopers from the North. A lot of tuk-tuk drivers are Bihari, it turns out, and our very own dear Monu’s from Uttar Pradesh. Raj hasn’t got global monopoly on territorialism gone mad, we’ve heard it all before, but India’s political palate is less jaded than ours in the blasé west. Things are getting so heated and so sticky, we’ll be making treacle toffee before long, just in time for Bonfire Night. It’s no longer just words and insults flying about, either, it’s sticks and stones. Real sticks, and real stones. Tuk-tuks overturned and set alight, tyres burned in the road, generally Much Unpleasantness, out and about. The word to the wise is to stay indoors. So we do.

Thus it is that I do the first politically active thing, of my entire life. I’m feeling quite cutting-edge and urbane, except that it’s not really an act, and I’m not really the agent. I consider trail-blazing women, standing up and being counted, like Joan of Arc or Emily Pankhurst, and the glamour fizzles out of my staying at home instead of going to school. I had to change my plan because of a political situation, then. Except, I didn’t change it at all, Monu changed it for me.

This is the pattern of all my days. Monu says, “Ma’am, tomorrow, what plan?” So I tell him what I want to do, the next day, and he unfocusses his eyes, and wags his finger to and fro, tick-tock, while he has a think. Then he tells me what I am, in fact, going to do, which quite often has a passing resemblance to my original plan. It works very well. Don’t be thinking I’m being bullied, here, it’s merely submission to the Voice of Reason. Well, Reason and Geography. I’m inclined to concoct unlikely schedules – for example, Mankhurd school in the morning, Good Earth for lunch, then a quick whisk round In Orbit in the afternoon. This is the Mumbai equivalent of going to Nottingham for a couple hours, then to Plymouth for a bowl of soup, then popping back to Brent Cross for a browse. You can see why I leave it to Jeeves.

We’re nearly confined to barracks, today, too, because Raj spends the night in custody, and the streets are still running with molten tyres, when we get up. But there are eighty thousand police out there, enforcing Law and Order, so we risk it, and arrive scatheless, at office and school, respectively.

This morning, we limp out of Powai, on the wrong side of the road. They’re digging up all the nice tarmac again, mostly, I think, because it’s not been interfered with, for at least six weeks. Where road surfaces are concerned, Mumbai District Councillors are like schoolboys, in a field of virgin snow. They don’t stop us using the road, while they’re working on it, obviously, so we bob and weave, in and out of the pneumatic drills, and the steam-rollers with OM painted on their noses, and it takes an extra three-quarters of an hour, to get anywhere. We’re jubilant to notice that they’ve nearly finished the new flyover, so we have our first go on that, this week. Only on the way home, though, the outgoing carriageway’s not ready for business, yet.

India should have In Medias Res running through its core, like Blackpool rock. There’s never an end or a beginning, everything’s permanently simultaneous or over-lapping. I go to the swimming-pool, this afternoon, and it’s only at the end of my third length, that it percolates through my unlovely rubber hat to my thick skull, that there are swimming lessons in progress. Then I notice twenty-five Mums in saris, perched on plastic chairs, at the edge of the water, encouraging their chubby little snugglebums with the waterwings and floats, to listen to the teacher. I’m parked at the deep end, trying to exude nonchalance, and failing, watching the sun dip behind the building-site next door. I’m thinking they’ll have to get out in a minute, because there’s only so much chlorine a six-year-old can swallow in any one afternoon, so I’ll sit it out. The temperature’s in the mid-thirties, but I’m still beginning to get goosebumps on my corrugated goosebumps, so I sling my goggles back on, and swim across to ask swimming-didi, how much longer they might be. “Three hours,” she says. THREE HOURS. Why don't they close the pool to the public? “Club members can still come and swim,” Aqua-didi adds, graciously. With a dripping hand, I indicate all the small brown people, splashing and floundering their way to mastering the crawl, and shrug. You don’t need words, sometimes. “Come back at six,” she smiles.

India’s very good at interleaving its jobs. When I have the washing-machine on at the same time as the dish-washer, at home, I think interleaving’s a key skill. I’m beginning to think otherwise.

This evening, friend Raj has been released on bail. I thought you’d like to know. Just so’s you don’t worry.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Our Day Out

I absolutely can’t decide. I’m trying to weigh all the options, but there’s not a chapatti to choose between them. I could do what Mr Roland does, when I’m in a shopping-fix, ie shall I have the blue or the turquoise? Have both, he always says. This passes for generosity, in our salad days, but now I see he just wants to get out of the shop, asap. As a decision-making process, though, the system has its merits, so, OK, I’ll have them all. Nineteen for Heathrow, please. Does Jet Airways do discounts for block-booking? Window-side if possible: these scallywags have barely been outside Mankhurd before, they’ll be wanting to see everything. Get ready to kill the fatted lentil, Akanksha’s coming to England.
Today’s our day out. We bring the Diwali party forward to this afternoon, instead of Thursday, because Kavita’s going to her home village for the holidays, and Bhavika-didi doesn’t want her to miss out. Monu gives up his day’s cricket with the lads, to chauffeur the Monu-Bus. By the time we find out Kavita’s not coming, after all, the picnic’s already packed. What’s Hindi for, c’est la vie?

Monu’s polished the car show-room clean, which is a bit like tidying up before Christmas, in my book. January’s full of pine-needles woven into the carpet, shreds of tinsel behind the radiator, and corks under the sofa; this evening, our car will be up to its axles in crisps and sweet wrappers, paintwork and windows invisible under small smudgy hand-prints. We’re outside school, engine running, at ten to one, and there’s not an Akanksha t-shirt in sight. In England, the kids would have been ready and queuing since ten in the morning, for a one o’clock kick-off, but we’re on India-time.

Our children emerge, one by one, from the tenements they call home, more carefully dressed and coiffed than I have ever seen them, cross-legged on the mats, in the schoolroom upstairs. Their hair’s smarmed down with oil or water, their faces pale with “woman’s powder.” I’m hoping this unnatural state won’t last long: in my experience, children can’t have fun unless they’re making a) a noise and b) a mess.

New cloth, didi!” says Salim. I agree he’s looking very sundar – my word of the week, beautiful – in his kingfisher-blue trousers, and sparkly shirt. The girls are desperately trying to act normal, when clearly all they can think about is their sequins and frills. They seem very grown up, in floor length skirts, but their matching stoles give them away. Instead of being artfully looped about their necks, they’re pinned at shoulder and waist, so the girls can run around without unravelling. The flawless Miss India poise you see in every shop/office/street, has to start somewhere, I suppose.

Rani-didi arrives, also in her Sunday best. It begins to dawn on me, that it doesn’t quite cut the lime pickle, picking Any Old Thing up off my wardrobe floor, this morning, flicking the dust away, and throwing it on – I was thinking, cartwheeling about the park and sitting on the grass, whereas everyone else was clearly thinking, Night at the Opera. Must get more sequins out, next time...

The children are as high as the kites, which polka-dot the skylines and phone-lines of Mumbai, these days. Just to tip them over into hysteria, I produce my camera. “I photo, didi!” It takes forever, because they clamour to see each picture as soon as it’s taken. We’re just starting to hyperventilate with joy, when Bhavika-didi decides we’re quorate, so we can take to the carriages. It’s a good thing Bhavika ordains uniform t-shirts, on top of all the glitz, because I’d surely pack in a few bystanders, otherwise.

Monu-bhaiya marshalls the milling troops, and stacks the car, filing seven small bottoms into the back seat, then seven more on the row in the middle. We have seatbelts for six – a three and a three - but we carry fourteen. Not including Ashish, who’s on my knee in front. Fifteen, then. (Don’t say what you’re thinking, I think it too, but I bet you’d do the same.) Monu’s curiously unencumbered. He’s got his impassive Whose Idea Was This? face on, so I give him a chocolate éclair. He says two words of Hindi to his diminutive passengers, over his shoulder. I’m assuming it’s “SIT DOWN!” – not that I’m getting secretly fluent, or anything, it’s just that fourteen little faces instantly disappear, like bubbles popping, so it’s not hard to work out. Inevitably, after three seconds, it’s Khaja who pops back up first, laughing, then the rest, one by one. It’s good, though, that Monu shows them who’s boss, right from the start. “You beat them with stick?” he asks, hopefully.

Then, with much waving to Mums and Dads and Big Sisters, we’re off, like a royal cavalcade, merely thirty-five minutes late, so, quite good, by Indian standards. We’re in with a chance of seeing most of the film, except we get slightly lost, and prove instead that it’s better to journey, than to arrive.

At Imax Dome Theatre, finally, we still have time for a quick photo-shoot, before crocodiling into the auditorium. We watch Island of Sharks, a wrap-around film about assorted aquatic life on a coral reef. The commentary’s in English, and, since the children’s marine vocabulary only extends to “sea” and “fish,” I can only assume much of it goes over their heads. Literally. Their enjoyment is undented, however. Happily, there are no more than three members of the ordinary public in the audience with us, as our children take it in turns to shout “WOW!” and “Didi, I scared!” every time a hammerhead shark puts his nose up to touch ours.

A hermit crab shuffles up to a new shell, checks out the vacancy, and does a nifty shift. “Crab eating, didi?” asks Swapnil. No, I say, he’s moving house. Old house, new house. Swapnil thinks for a minute, then says, “Crab room-change!” Which makes complete sense, if everyone you know lives, with all their family, in one room.

In real time, the starfish appear to be doing nothing, just drifting with the ebb and flow of the water. It’s a different story, on fast-forward: they’re tumbling and sliding over and under and around each other, co-ordinated and chaotic, at the same time - like Mumbai traffic, but with more grace. Khaja shakes my arm, “Didi, starfish dancing!” I am enchanted, and not just by the fishy cha-cha.

Back in the main entrance hall, Bhavika - out for her money’s worth from the adventure - spies an escalator. We have to negotiate with the escalator man, who’s fearful that we might nip off for a sly pre-view of Quantum of Solace, ticketless, while we’re upstairs, but with eighteen children, four didis and a bhaiya, we’re not going anywhere unseen or unheard. So, we joy-ride the escalator, and come clattering back downstairs again, where the lady in Crossword says we can show the children round her shop. Looking’s free, isn’t it? Bhavika makes each child put both hands on the shoulders of the child in front, so we can conga round the aisles, without touching any books. She makes them read aloud the section headings, “Children’s Books,” “Food and Drink,” “Self Improvement.” I don’t know if anyone else is felled by the irony.

Even having a drink in a plastic cup, from the water-cooler, is an adventure, if you look at it the right light. Crocodiling back to the cars, we break rank only to hold hands.

On the way to Bhakti Park, for our picnic, Swapnil and Sadabh have a knee each, in the front seat, fizzing with excitement. They’ll eat their crisps by osmosis, if they’re not allowed to open the packets, soon. We process through the park – the crocodile increasingly raggedy – until we reach a covered bandstand, where they kick off their chappals, then hurtle back to the slides and roundabouts. They don’t stop squealing and rocketing about, until Bhavika says the magic word, “Snacks!”

Then there’s quiet, for at least forty-five seconds. You can’t say much, with your mouth full of crisps and mango juice.
We wipe the sweat from our brows, and reform marching order to shout Hip-hip-hooray! before winding our way out of the park, singing “Old MacDonald had a Farm.” We pile back into the car, only slightly sticky, and sing along to the radio all the way home. Well, I think they’re singing along, in seven different keys, with child-distorted lyrics. “Singer kin, singer kin, singer kin!” they croon. I look at Monu, since Singh definitely is King, in our car, and he’s laughing, despite what’s happening to his upholstery. On my knee, Nikita puts my lipstick on, and Rahul tries on my sunglasses.

Nineteen for Heathrow, then.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Water, Water, Everywhere......

Bhavika takes me somewhere for lunch, where I would not boldly go alone: the Cafe Madras, in South Mumbai. At ground level, it’s heaving, so we climb the narrow stairs to the mezzanine layer, ducking under the padded beams. It’s like tiptoeing into someone’s loft. I want to cast about, looking for boxes of Christmas decorations, but it’s 35 degrees out there, that’s no place for jolly robins and fat Santas. We slide along our plastic seats, filing ourselves out of harm’s way, industrial fans whistling round our ears.

Bhavika calls the waiter Bhaiya (older brother), but I don’t think they’re related, and anyway he looks about twelve. Ordering’s so slick, when you know what to ask for. We’re slick-with-knobs-on, in fact, because we don’t even use the menu. Some people love menus, like food pornography. Pas moi. I’ll have what you’re having, unless it’s a) duck or b) artichokes. Bhavika chooses. We have Mysore Sada Dosa, which comes folded onto stainless steel trays, with a crop of satellite dishes, brimming with spicy or coconut sauce. I sit on my left hand, so’s not to show Bhavika up in public, but no-one’s looking, which is as well, since my plate’s carnage within two bites. It’s delicious, substantial, but insubstantial. Then we have Onion Rawa Sada Dosa, which is even deliciouser – lacily crisp, more holes than pancake. Onion, green chillies and coriander seeds, glued together with batter: what could be nicer? We wash it down with tap water, which I don’t remember not to drink, until my stainless steel cup’s empty. I’ll let you know, later.

You like juice?” Bhavika asks, back on the street again. I’m so used to her in the classroom at Mankhurd, I keep expecting her to say, “Yes or no?” I do like juice, I say, but Monu won’t let me buy any from the street stalls. (“Dirty waters, no washes glass.” The Juice Gestapo.) Bhavika’s juice-stall of choice is a bit more credible than the usual orange crate with a lemon-squeezer, though. I stop understanding the menu, once it gets beyond pure single fruit, and put myself at Bhavika’s mercy - I just hope she’s not a fan of Lassi, that’s all. My good manners reach as far as, but do not include, fermented milk. Happily for us all, she orders a Zoom and a Boom. See, I said you have to know what you’re talking about. The juice-wallah kindly splits both, so we use up four glasses, for the sale of only two juices. I feel like offering to wash up for him. The Boom’s pale green and foaming, made with sweet lime, lemon and khus, which I’ve never heard of, as fragrant as guava. (Vetiver, I later discover, if you care, a relative of lemongrass. Educational as well as scrummy.) We’ve barely wiped off our froth moustaches, when Juice-Boy thrusts the Zooms into our hands. Pink and bubbly, sweet lime and lemon again, but with rose, this time. I thought Tropicana Pure Premium Sanguinello was cutting edge, juice-wise. I have much to learn. Sated, we head for the car.

Last night, at about nine in the evening, a little man arrives on our doorstep, to deliver our gym membership cards. You know, the ones which come included in the apartment lease, THOSE ones. How long is it since our arrival, I hear you wonder. Nine months, exactly. I could make – and have made – a whole new human being, in that time, yet they struggle to laminate two gym cards.... Indian efficiency at its shiniest, I feel. Today, I go for a swim, to celebrate.

It’s a decent twenty-five metre pool, a proper rectangle, I’m glad to see, not amoeba-shaped, like a poncey spa-pool. It’s open-air, as is the building site next door, unsurprisingly, but by the time the chlorine’s clouded up my contact lenses, what I can’t see, doesn’t bother me. A swimming-cap’s compulsory. Which sadist invented these? Getting it to go on and stay on, is more of a work-out, than flick-flacking up and down the pool for an hour. I’m supposing, rather defensively, that Indian heads are smaller than English ones, although curly hair does use up more room, I would have thought. I pop on my new goggles to complete a truly stunning ensemble. Small wonder that I waste no time at all, getting into the water. There’s only so much you can ask, of Lycra. Put your hands up, if you think you’re invisible, once you’re up to your neck in swimming-pool?... So do I.

At first, there’s only me and a pigeon, unless you count the assortment of pool attendants on hand. Whether they’re there to life-save, garden, or spectate, laughing, is anyone’s guess. I’m on my twenty-ninth lap, when it occurs to me that I’m in water. There seems little point, brushing my teeth in bottled water, and refusing ice in any drinks, and not eating salad, then going swimming. I’m assuming, here, that I’m not doing my best breast-stroke in 47,000 gallons of Bisleri but it ain’t necessarily so, as Porgi once said to Bess. I conclude, newly karmic, that it’s a done deal by this point, so there’s no point getting out now.

I’m on my thirty-sixth lap, heading for forty, when half the jeunesse dorée of Powai emerges on the balcony of the badminton hall, at the deep end. Except they’re not golden, they’re brown, obviously. Jeunesse bronzée, then. They’re still there, laughing and chatting, when I reach my target, so I have to stay in the pool, hiding, to do some more. I’m on forty-six, when they saunter off, twirling their bats, but there’s not only Mr Roland with OCD, in our house, so I notch up a half-century, before crawling out, hoping my legs don’t buckle under me, frightening the pigeon.

I linger longer in the shower, wallowing in the wateriness of it, compared with the spasmodic fizzing spout we still have at home. Then I hop about in the toilet, trying to get dressed without breaking one or both elbows. There’s something about communal changing-rooms that I can’t take to. The communal part, I guess. It takes forever, to thread my damp legs into my churidar, and I decide to wear something different, next time, something less taxing. Or, to bring the talc. Or alternatively, to dry my legs properly. I put on my sunglasses, to hide the attractive panda-weals left by my new blue goggles, and slope off home, forgetting to sign out. They’ll be looking for me, come ten o’clock tonight, when they want to close up and go home.

So, today, I have drunk tap water in a cafe, random juice from an anonymous street stall, and a swig of swimming-pool, by way of dessert. I can hardly wait for tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Because You're Worth It

When I slide into my seat today, on the floor next to Aanchal and Kunda, we’re doing subtraction. (I called them take-aways until I was in senior school, but there’s no such namby-pambying here. When we do fractions, in Mankhurd, we do numerators over denominators, no less. The kids aren’t the only ones on the floor to learn something that day...) So, forty-one minus seventeen, then.

Where do we start, with the ones, or with the tens?” Bhavika asks. The general consensus of opinion on the mats, is that we start with the ones. “Which is greater, one or seven? Seven, right... So can we take seven from one?” Rahul, who has been watching an ant on the floor, not the writing on the wall, accidentally says, “Yes!” and Bhavika pounces.

Yes, Rahul? We can take seven from one?” Rahul casts about him for moral support, or just a clue as to which way to jump.

No!” Swapnil says, helpfully. Bhavika’s eagle eye swivels to Swapnil.

And you are Rahul, no?” She switches the heat back to Rahul. “One is greater than seven, Rahul, yes or no?” Rahul back-pedals furiously, “No, didi!” – and we’re on track again.

We cannot take seven from one, so what do we do? We go to the tens place, and we say, “Can we borrow some?” – Ashish, do we borrow one, or do we borrow ten?”

One!” says Ashish. Bhavika’s voice drops an octave, into tragedy.

We borrow one?”

No, ten, didi, ten!” Seven voices from the floor. Take-aways were never this dramatic, in my day. It’s King Lear and Aladdin rolled into one, in Room 112.

So we put ten here, in the ones place. Now we have ten plus one, what do we have?.... Accha, eleven. And here in the tens place, we take away the four, and we put?... Three!” It’s a triumph.

The next bit’s my favourite, I could watch them do this all day.

And now we have eleven, and we have to take seven. Put seven in your head, and count to eleven.” The young mathematicians smack themselves roundly on the temple, inserting the seven, then count forward to eleven, on their fingers. Then they count their fingers, to get the difference.

“Four, didi, four!” Bhavika pretends to put four in the tens column, to see who’s awake, but no-one’s napping now. The climax is on the horizon, galloping towards us.

And one from three is? ... Two! So the whole answer is? .... Twenty-four, right?” I feel a round of applause coming on. Maths have never made me laugh out loud before.

These children are six, seven, eight years old, and they’re doing all the functions – adding, subtracting, carrying one - in a foreign language. I don’t think Ofsted have a category called “Tour de Force” but that’s where Bhavika belongs. I can’t wait to do goes-intos, after Diwali.

Khaja’s first past the post with his finished worksheet, as ever, so while the others are still
wrestling with ascending and descending order, he chooses “Rabbit Gets Lost” for a reading book. I point out Rabbit’s chums, Piglet, Pooh and Tigger. He patiently corrects me, “No Tigger, didi, Tiger!” so I let him have the right of it. In a wanton moment, I explain what “bounce” means, and Khaja leaps off like a frog on a rocket, going “Boing!” and landing on anyone too mathematically distracted to move out of his way. “Quiet reading” has no meaning, here.

Libraries should chuck out their “SILENCE!” signs, and tackle literature with Khaja’s zest. I bet it’d get A A Milne’s vote. Go and have a quick flick through “Rabbit Gets Lost” and count the bounces and boings. It’s a serious workout, for active readers, but by the time the happy ending rolls round, Khaja’s energy’s not even dinted. He’s not unlike Tigger, in fact. I mean, Tiger.

I have some good news,” Bhavika says. “We have the results of the Akanksha assessments today. In English, our centre got 79%! Is that good, yes or no?” We all clap. "And in Maths, we got 89%! What do we say?"

Thank-you, didi! Thank-you!” they chorus.

No, we don't say thank-you! We say, HURRAH!!!” So we all cheer, and shout “hurrah!” and punch the air, like we’ve just won an Olympic Gold, and why not? – I’d like a re-run of results day, in the school hall, in August. There should definitely have been more hurrahs.

Down to earth with a bump, Bhavika has to warn the children about playing alone in the compound. A brother and sister have been murdered, and their kidneys harvested, in Mankhurd. I mention it to Monu, horrified, and he says in Malad, where he lives, three people – two adults, one child – have died the same way. It doesn’t bear belief. “If someone you don’t know offers you a chocolate, what must you say?.... No!”

They know me, however, so I’m allowed to give them gifts. On our Kerala trip, Melanie-Ma’am and I scoop up the rows of little bottles of shampoo and shower-gel, in the free shop - ie the bathrooms of all the smart hotels we stay in. Today, I bring our booty-bag to school, for sharing. I’m not sure Khaja and co, with their petal-soft cheeks, will be needing the shaving-kit any time soon, so I take it out, to give to Monu instead.

If you’ve ever felt a frisson of disappointment, opening your fourth bottle of bubble bath on Christmas Day, you need to come to Mankhurd, with your fists full of soap, to find out how fascinating toiletries can be, with the right mind-frame. We have some energetic mimes, of what talc and toothbrushes might be for, but body lotion requires more than re-enactment, it needs authenticity. I open a bottle, dab some on my wrist, and rub it in. A forest of skinny brown arms appears before me, and soon we’re all silkily fragrant. The boys sniff their arms, and do backward rolls of ecstasy. It’s funny, the point of body lotion passes me by, until today. There should be a re-cycling scheme, for hotel toiletries, it would make more of a difference to the world, than nobly using the same towels, two days in a row.

Join your hands, fold your legs, close your eyes,” says Bhavika. Time for prayers. They thank God for the world so sweet, and run out, laughing and dancing, into the sunshine of the slums, their hotel freebies clutched in their hands. Who needs the perfumes of Arabia?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Votre Santé

Don’t tell Pakhi the Pigeon, but we have new feathered visitors – four green parrots, sitting on our window-sill. They only stay long enough for a brief squawkathon and a photo opportunity, and then they’re gone. A propos matters avian, the eggs on our bathroom ledge have hatched out, you’ll be glad to know, despite the hostility of the crèche facilities, here on the thirty-third floor. I know the pigeon population of Mumbai’s hardly what you’d called endangered, but it’s churlish, not to celebrate new life. Hello, boys - I mean, Namaste! The hatchlings are already bigger than their Mum and Dad, but that could be all fluff, for as much as I know.

On the way to school, we pass men painting a zebra-crossing on the road. The road’s still in use, of course, this is India; we have to slalom round them. How can a white line survive, unmolested, I wonder? It comes to me, that road markings are cosmetic here, where a three-lane highway hosts seven seething streams of traffic, so who cares what’s written on the tarmac?

Further along, a man’s drinking water, from a stainless steel cup, chained to a tap. There’s a row of taps, each with its fettered cup, for drinking, with the lads. Drinking’s a new skill, for us, here. Bottle or cup, you pour your drink into your mouth, without your lip touching the vessel – you try it. Can I just say, you can’t do it, and walk at the same time.

Speaking of drinking - when we appear at Star Wines (next door to The Great Punjab, long live their jeera rice...), they flick all their other customers out of the way, like ants off a picnic. We demur, but they have good reason, because we are their Most Cherished Clients, with pockets as long as our drinking arms. We order Kingfisher Beer (“Half and half, chilled and room temperature, yes?” See, it already comes ready to drink, how cool is that?), Sula wine (who’d have thought they could make a decent Cabernet Shiraz, in India?), and a crate of Bisleri (we don’t care if this comes chilled or un-, since it’s just water...). We’re swept into the inner sanctum, to make with the PIN number and signature (never one or the other, here, always both), and then they dispatch an unmuscled minion to carry it all home for us. From Star Wines, you could do two cartwheels, then a hop, skip and a jump, and you’d have your feet on our Welcome mat. (OK, a very high jump...) They still insist on freight. We wander home unburdened, then give the beer-wallah ten rupees and a glass of water, which seem to be enough. It’s going to be tough, getting used to Sainsbury’s, again.

The small persons, in dhotis and brickdust, swept aside to make way for Mr Roland’s credit card, are construction men, straight from work. I can’t catch what they order, but it comes in a tiny bottle, from under the counter, and goes into a tiny brown paper bag. A tiny note changes hands, then they tuck their purchase into a fold of their loincloth, and saunter away. I consult the Lucknow Oracle, and he says it’s GM, the local moonshine, guaranteed to take the enamel off your teeth and turn your liver into a pumice-stone within a week. It costs twelve rupees. If you’re only earning Rs 120 a day, any more would be out of your reach. I’m looking for the moral high ground, here, and finding none.

The next time we stop to stock up on eau potable, out of devilment, and spurred on by the presence of Melanie-Ma’am and David-Sir, I ask for a bottle of GM. Star Wines ceases trading for a moment, while all the guys come to watch the white lady buying bootleg liquor. “Twenty-five rupees,” the boss says. Full of glee, I accept what’s clearly the pasty-face price, and can hardly speak for laughing, when I get back to the car. I whip off the brown paper bag, with a flourish, and Monu’s truly gob-smacked. I’m delighted, so far into our relationship, that I still have the power to surprise him. He doesn’t know whether to confiscate it, or laugh too. He puts his head into his hands, with a rueful smile. And our bottle’s twice the size of the worker’s nightly medicine, so it isn’t a rip-off, after all. We have a thimbleful each, later, and it tastes like greasy cherries in gasolene. Come to think of it, that’s probably the recipe. I would definitely buy it again, to polish my furniture, or give the kitchen floor what-for. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

At school, Bhavika’s planning a Diwali treat. We’re going to the cinema, bring on the popcorn. She thinks it would be good, if the children could go in our car. I say, gormlessly logistical, there are twenty of them. She says, “No, no...Nineteen.... And they are so small and so thin.” Well, that’s alright, then... Monu will have one on each knee, then three rows of tiddlers behind. He’s from Lucknow, he’ll cope. I’ll sit in the boot, with the Monsoon Box. I just hope we don’t see the danger Traffic Police en route. Twenty rupees, at least....

On the way home, we see the Dog Patrol Car. I’m fearful of what this may mean, given the huge population of street dogs, but Monu says it’s a Force for Good. “Catch the dog, check the body.” So, not Officer Dibble territory then. I’m relieved, thinking the Dog Patrol may have had more sinister motives. “Kill the danger dog,” he says. Oh.

Nearer home, the cow with the curly horn’s been busy, of late. The calf’s only a couple of days old, when the monsoon’s last tantrum washes us all into the gutter, one more time for old times’ sake. But either he’s made of sterner stuff, or the rain hit harder in Goregaon, where I was, than in Powai, where he lives. Après le deluge, moi, then.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Intermittent Showers

Today, the taps gush with fresh air, hissing and fizzing. No water. Mr Roland the Unwashed enquires of the concierge, and is told, “Pump problem. Five minutes, fix.” Two hours later, we’re still trying to work up a lather with hiss and fizz. I may bob round to Monu’s, later, to see if I can pick up a slot in his water-line. (On yet another tour round Dharavi, this week, we ask about water supply in the slums. “Water available two or three hours a day,” Krishna says, smiling. “No problem with supply.” In the UK, I say, two to three hours a day would be the problem. We are very high maintenance, in the west.) At midday, the taps burp rustily, and the water runs brown for a minute, then sparkling clean. Good job it’s the weekend.

The magnificent sweeping new entrance to Haiko Mall is unveiled, I note, flanked with lollipop trees in pots, and festooned with the usual auspicious orange garlands. When work first begins, in June, we’re surprised to find the Culture Shop, on the first floor, still valiantly open for business, in the middle of a building-site. When our supplies of elephants-in-elephants run low, we have to infiltrate the shop the back way, using the service elevator, past mingled heaps of discarded boxes and unpacked stock. On the half-landing, amid the debris, a street dog’s having a quick nap, out of the rain. When will normal service be resumed, I ask my favourite assistant. (Every time I put my nose round the door, he arrives at my elbow, and escorts me straight to the elephants and Ganeshes aisle, so I don’t waste any time perusing the appliquéd cushion-covers and lacquered tissue-boxes. That’s what I call Customer Care...) He’s airily confident. “One more week.” Four months later, the sheets of plastic are finally gone, and the plate glass doors are at last flung wide. In quintessentially Indian style, there’s the grand opening, with fanfares and a uniformed doorman, on his plastic chair with his Mumbai Express, yet the marbled foyer’s still littered with workmen’s trestles and decorating ladders, with the odd dusty bucket on its side, in the front window. In India, it’s never over, ‘til it’s over.

I go to see my new Best Friend, Ramona, twice, today. First at hospital, and later at her own clinic in Powai. In Hiranandani Hospital, Dentistry shares a waiting-area with Cardiology, and the Hair Loss Therapy and Replacement Clinic. Obvious, when you think about it. I’m sitting there, clutching my file – patients keep their own case-notes here, not the dentist – and as I’m nudging my contact lens around, trying to make it settle down, I feel someone staring at me. The old lady opposite is watching me. I slide my eyes sideways, Britishly, but when I furtively check again, she’s still staring, with the unblinking gaze toddlers use for the television. Against everything your Mum ever told you, staring’s not rude, here. It’s impossible to be offended, because there’s no malice in it, and it’s fundamentally more honest than the eye ping-pong we reserve for people-watching, on the QT, at home.

Ramona drills away the temporary filling she put there yesterday, which I quite liked, I’m not sure why we’re discarding it. The radio’s playing “Om Shanti Om,” and Ramona’s assistant’s crooning along behind his mask, as he dreamily whirls the suction-nozzle round my gums. He sings like Monu. He swabs my eyebrows and ears, and Ramona says, “We like to make sure you get a shower. Free water!” So I try to be glad, damply. She drills up as far as my cerebellum, and I have to remind myself that she only has me down for a porcelain crown, not a frontal lobotomy. It’s taking me all my energy, not to bite her, then she whips out the drill and says chummily, “Do you want me to inject you?” I’m beyond caring, at this point, so choose martyred pain over comfort. She makes an impression (of my teeth, not à la Rory Bremner) with some clever strawberry-flavoured gak, which turns from pink to yellow as it hardens. I have to see her again later, so she can fit the temporary crown she’s going to make while I’m not-having lunch. The radio launches into “Singh is King” – a big favourite, in our car - and I’m so blissed-out at the absence of the drill in my head, I join in. La, la, la....

Ramona’s other surgery’s in the Galleria. All these months, I have been staring at it, unknowing, as I munch my garlic nan and tarka dal, at Kareem’s, the other side of the galleried courtyard. And now, here I am, at Doc Thakur’s, unable to munch on anything, staring back at Kareem’s. And at Mocha, Powai’s best coffee-shop, which has had to have extensive alterations inside, to cater for the new smoking ban. My favourite bit’s the smokers’ corner, sectioned off with purple organza strips, tapered and beaded, which I love because of its label, “For Hookahs Only.” I’m sad to see that the diaphanous tent’s gone, replaced by glass partitions, to segregate those “desirous of smoking” from those clean of lung. I’m unsure why this doesn’t still count as smoking in a public place, and intend to snitch, as soon as I find an honest bobby. Then again, it was a source of much innocent entertainment, for Mr Roland and me, watching the waiter, with seventeen-inch hips and a pinny down to his flip-flops, lighting and relighting the embers on top of the hookahs; we’re going to have to start talking to each other, now.

The waiting-room chez Ramona’s as big as two phone-booths glued together. You can work out how many patients are already waiting, by counting the shoes, lined up outside, and dividing by two. A couple with a small child, a man on his own, and me. And then we are seven - another man arrives, with a small girl, who has the slenderest feet I have ever seen, her perfect toes like vermicelli. She passes the time, air-writing Hindi script, which looks alien even when it’s invisible. The other three-quarters of the little lock-up form the L-shaped surgery, the other side of the sliding door. In the crook of the “L,” what I think is an unused shelving unit is, in fact, a flight of shallow steps, leading up to a closed trapdoor. Presumably someone lives above the shop - not Ramona, I’m thinking. It takes her two minutes to pop in the temporary crown. She tells me the name of her favourite dress shop in Bandra, and promises to ring. Then I’m out on the hot pavement again, looking for Mr Roland. It’s thirty-eight degrees, all the dogs are asleep and the tarmac’s sticky, yet it’s only four days since the roads ran like rivers. The UK hasn’t completely monopolized the market in Interesting Weather, then. I find Mr Roland in the Culture Shop, panic-buying door-swags for Christmas. It’s already October, after all.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Dasera at the Dentist's

Today is Dasara (or Dasera, or Dasehra), the tenth day of Navaratri, and a public holiday. Well, for everyone except Monu, obviously. And my dentist, Ramona, who brings my appointment forward to eight-thirty this morning, to free the day for festivities.

We segue straight from the Ganpati shindy into Navaratri, with barely enough time to get new candles. Navaratri’s the Festival of Joy, to celebrate the victory of Rama over Ravana, who had captured Rama’s wife, Sita. Rama’s a model of continence and piety during the separation, and attracts the admiration of all, including the monkey-god Hanuman. (Don’t go thinking you understand: nothing’s ever this simple in Hinduism, so Rama is one of the incarnations, or attavars, of Vishnu, as Sita is of Lakshmi. The legends and stories are more intertwined than the ribbons on a maypole.) Or the celebration marks the vanquishing of the wicked Mahisha by the ten-armed goddess Durga. Whichever version you favour, the cause of all the joy (and new clothes, let’s be honest), is the victory of Good over Evil, and every moment of today is considered auspicious. Not a bad day for a dental appointment, after all.

In Powai, the pandal takes forty days to build – this is serious construction, for a transient place of worship and partying – but they whisk away the last stick of bamboo scaffolding and have every last fairy-light and flower-head in place, with seconds to spare. The streets are gridlocked in the evenings, as all Mumbai brings his wife and mother-in-law in their sparkly new saris, to admire and worship. This year, the inspiration – and indeed, the builders and the materials – have been brought from Calcutta. Or Kolkata, if you want to be PC. The end result is breath-taking.

We visit several times during the preparations, and are welcomed by organisers and builders alike, all enjoining us to come back for the grand opening. Free food, stalls, music, dancing. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking about. When we visit officially, we have to join queues for security screening, segregated by gender not creed, to pass through the electronic portal into the pulsating courtyard beyond. To the right of the temple, a concert-arena is set up, where known idols of the Indian pop world will produce enough rocking decibels to crumble the fake plaster off the pretend walls, with a warm-up act of small children, singing and dancing to their loving Mums and Dads on the front row. The programme’s eclectic, and as all-embracing as Hinduism itself.

This replica of the Dakshineswar Mandir in Calcutta, dedicated to Durga, is made of expanded polystyrene on a wooden frame, and will be dismantled after today, leaving scrubby wasteland again, where shining fantasy now has its brief moment. Inside the temple, the centrepiece is a twenty-foot plaster model of Durga in the very act of defeating Mahish with his curly moustache. I’m pleased to note Ganesh gets a place at top table, too.

This morning, the whole world’s pooja’d, even the tuk-tuks. Monu’s horrified at the idea of my walking to my hospital appointment, and I’m just thinking, how dear of him, when it comes to me that he doesn’t think I shouldn’t, he thinks I couldn’t, because I am so lardy and white. I am Trex Woman. I walk anyway, to show him, and arrive in a slight glow. The heat of the morning, you understand.

As I arrive, two dental assistants are climbing on chairs, to string garlands of bells and orange flower-heads over the door. More dentists should consider a bit of pooja, I feel, basking in the festive orange glow. There’s a man already queuing, shouting into his mobile, so that all independent thought’s suspended. Ramona turns up. He snaps his phone shut, kicks his shoes off, and nips under the bells and flowers. Clearly disconcerted, Ramona comes back out of the surgery to explain. He’s pushed in: he didn’t confirm his rescheduled appointment, therefore has no appointment: “I am coming in for you, not for him! There will now be a ten minute delay!” Vodafone boy’s supine in the chair of torture, complacent, but within earshot. I’m just glad to be informed. Can you imagine it, down at your local walk-in clinic? “Mrs Gower, this baby’s swallowed a pin-cushion, so we’re fast-tracking him through A&E. We know you were here first, with your suspected sprained thumb, but we hope you understand.” There’d be a lot less chunnering, at the WRVS stall, is for sure. Information is key.

Hare Krishna, Hare Rama,” croons the radio, as the dental assistant pads about in his socks, whipping a green napkin under my chin, and lining up the medieval ironware on the trolley. Ramona’s doing a telephone consultation, even as she pings on her rubber gloves. They don’t do single-tasking, here. “Catherine, if you feel pain,” she says, “raise your left hand.” I devote my whole self to worrying about her getting my name wrong – what if “Catherine” is rhesus negative, for example, and I get a toxic transfusion, when everything goes papaya-shaped, in a bit? I forget to notice the lack of anaesthetic, until she’s flailing about with a drill. Descaling’s more of a trauma than root canal work, and I’m so tense, I hover six clenched inches above the bed under me. Ramona, meanwhile, entertains a casual visitor with idle chat. “Where’s your dupatta?” she chides, hollowing out a cavity the size of Portugal, where I used to keep my lower right sixth molar. She’s addressing a colleague who’s just sauntered along, in a snowy kurta and pyjama bottoms. He shakes his little pony-tail sadly, “No dupatta. My son already says I look like a girl....”

I’m still in shock, when she processes me through her pooja’d front door, back into the marbled stadium of a reception desk. "Don't you do anaesthetic, here?" I venture to ask, now she's not got a drill in her hand. "Only if there is pain. You didn't have pain, did you?" she says with retroactive confidence. Now you mention it, no, I didn't. Neither did Catherine. I don’t even get an “I’ve been a good girl at the dentist’s today” sticker, and I'm still shaking: Ramona only stopped twice, during the whole half-hour, for me to spit lead and blood into the basin. There’s a flower on the credit-card machine, however, which consoles me for much. “Happy Dasera!” Ramona says. I smile my new smile, and wish her the same.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Nothing but the Tooth

The flash lunch we have at the Renaissance proves costly, since I succumb to the temptation of that well-known Indian delicacy, lardons, and crack a tooth. I should have stuck with idli-sambar, I realise now; the irony is not lost on me. By way of compensation, a whole new world of subcontinental medical care unfolds in front of me, today, and that has to be worth a molar or two, in my book.

It says on the wall outside, and on every piece of headed paper inside, that the Hiranandani Hospital in Powai aims “to be the preferred choice for healing and good health.” Thus inspired with confidence, I creep into the huge marble atrium masquerading as an entrance hall, where a uniformed receptionist directs me to the first floor - “Take this stair here!” (I obviously don’t look very intelligent, then...) There, another fleet of administrative accolytes waits, one eye on their flickering computer screen, one ear glued to a phone.

The waiting area outside the dental suite is busy, and I have to choose my slot along the row with care. What I think is an abandoned pile of rags turns out to be a lady in a blue and yellow sari, lying curled across three chairs. It doesn’t happen down the Queen’s Medical Centre, in Nottingham, I can tell you. Nor do you have to take your shoes off at the door, before you pad in, barefoot, to open wide and say “Ahh!” When in Mumbai, do as the Mumbaikers do, however. I kick off my sandals, leave them jostling cosily with all the flip-flops by the door, and enter.

There seem to be about seventeen people in white coats and green facemasks, milling about with patient files under one arm, or glinting surgical weapons in their fists. I am ushered into a chair by the desk. A long, low cupboard separates administration from treatment, so discretion is a matter of mutual politeness and goodwill. I haven’t met my dentist yet, but we’re already on first name terms. Ramona. She tells the man on his way out - in English then in Hindi - that he can’t expect to wear the same set of dentures for fifteen years, without causing damage. I think the English is for me, so I don’t feel left out. When he leaves, Ramona chats to a young disabled girl, who’s sitting by me, waiting for her mother to be treated. We like Ramona. She tells me her name and her qualifications, then asks, “Would you like to meet me?” I’m thinking, I just have, but agree anyway. I notice she’s left-handed, and has a particularly nice bangle on, so I relax completely.

I’m not taking such a karmic view of things, three minutes later, when the torture chair flips back and winches up. Over my head, Ramona finishes her consultation with the previous patient - he must use a soft brush, up and down, not side to side. (Please note, the dentally careless among you, it may save you Rs 265 later down the line, not to mention the odd canine.) She pings on her medical Marigolds and fills my mouth with prongs and mirrors. “Oh, you didn’t go for your check-up, last year!” she says, sadly. I hate to disappoint her. She tells me not to worry about twelve times, so I begin to wonder if she’s seen the first stirrings of some dread and possibly fatal buccal decline, but apparently it’s a cracked tooth. Even I knew that.

The entire gamut of enamelled retail possibilities is available to me, because, Ramona says, they don’t have dental insurance, here in India, and all pockets have to be catered for. So, I can have a crown made out of an old clothespeg and a bit of Blutac, for Rs 2000, or a full porcelain job for Rs 16000. Or an inlay, with gold inside the porcelain, for Rs 12000. (Since when has gold been cheaper than china? Someone should tell Hallmark to realign their wedding anniversary range.) I consider the rock and the hard place, and say, like I always do, that I’ll consult my husband. This is not financial dependence or uxorious subservience, it’s my get-out line. Then I have a dental epiphany, and treat myself to the best of the best – not quite such a paradable souvenir as a Mr Raymond suit, but hopefully longer-lasting.

Ramona and I make our farewells, wreathed in smiles, and I head for the door and my sandals. It then takes me approximately three times the length of the consultation, to pay. Shopping at Fabindia’s the same. I have ample time to read the industrial-sized flat-screen on the wall (I skip the Hindi pages), where I learn that everyone has a right to “uniform care, whatever the class of patient,” which presumably explains why I am allowed in, and to “personal dignity and privacy during consultation.” I can’t quite square this with the overhead chats I’m party to, while prostrate on the chaise longue of torture, but no-one else seems to mind, so how can I object? I’m more than tempted by the Body Contouring Clinic, but the screen flickers before I can write down the number to ring. “Anyone desirous of smoking,” it now advises, “may kindly use the open spaces outside the hospital premises.” I smile, because this is newly illegal: India’s public smoking ban will be a week old on Thursday. Monu’s danger-boss gets hauled over twice in a week, for infringement, Rs 200 a pop. (Monu and his mates, need I say, cartwheeling with joy...)

Queuing, still queuing. Fellow patients make and receive phone calls on their mobiles, to while away the wait. I offer the receptionist Rs 500, to cover the Rs 265 charge, but she can’t make change, so I have to pay £3 with a credit card. As I fiddle with my PIN number, she answers the phone, and, between one sentence and the next, dials out on a second phone, while tapping at her computer, and dealing with stray enquiries passing by, thrusting banknotes at her. Small wonder, that it takes forty minutes, to process my piffling account. A man comes to remonstrate – as in all hospitals the world over – that he’s been overlooked in the queue. I think he’s got a plaster on his head, and should be seen immediately, but on closer inspection, I see it’s a very fancy bindi, so he can wait his turn like anyone else.

On the way out, I spy the Mahesh Stores, in the glossy foyer, where you can buy flip-flops, or sheets, or t-shirts, or baby-bottles, or coca-cola, or sponge footballs, or shiny magazines. At the above-mentioned QMC, there’s a whole floor dedicated to franchises from Costa Coffee to W H Smiths, and here it all is, in a stall the size of the Tardis.

I can’t wait to go back on Thursday.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Welcome to Mumbai

I note that this week’s WikipediaHindu God of the Week” is aptly Indra, God of Weather. (He’s also the war-wallah, but I’m choosing to ignore that bit, focussing on Indra’s Michael Fish incarnation.) Yesterday, the five-day forecast read, “chance of storm,” whereas today, it says, “chance of rain,” so things are definitely looking up. Just as Monu the Oracle said. “Monu-magic,” according to David-Sir.

We now have David-Sir and Melanie-Ma’am, under our leaking roof, but it’s all looking good. It’s quite difficult to type with all my fingers crossed, but the monsoon appears to have stopped monsooning. Last shower: Saturday evening. It politely holds off, until we have our feet curled under the table at Utsav; we don’t find out, until we hit the pavement again, fragrant with garlic and ginger. (We all eat the same, so there’s no social disruption.) We splash home through the puddles, which seep blackly up my trouser-legs. As my Mum was wont to point out, I am a nice one, for white. My wardrobe will be glad to see the turn of the season. There’s no laughing and clapping in the rain, now, torrential downpour’s lost its jolly, so the sunshine’s a welcome novelty.

Clear skies and unrelenting sunshine are a must, anyway, since a wet washday’s no fun, and the Dhobi Ghats are top of our agenda, today. This is where All-Mumbai gets his shirts and socks washed, for a fistful of rupees. We hang over the bridge at Mahalaxmi Station, and watch the dhobis flogging the stone troughs with somebody’s kurta. I’m sure they’re very efficient, but I don’t know that I’d send my sparkly-best salwar-kameez here, to have all its beads and sequins whacked off on the unrelenting concrete. I’m thinking they don’t use Lux flakes, for that extra-gentle wash. As well as line upon line of bedlinen, hotel staff uniforms gather here for laundering – it could be some bloke in Bandra with seventeen pairs of identical buff cotton trousers, I suppose, but I favour the corporate theory. The whole railway cutting’s zigzagged with strung linen, it looks like Navy Day on Plymouth Hoe.

A small lady, her arms bristling with embroidered purses, explains that each man washes “a hundred cloth” every day. I watch them, stripped to the waist, torturing pillowslips, and wonder what on earth they have for breakfast. They must have corrugated toes, standing up to their knees in opaque tepid water, all day, every day. It’s a family business, so their fathers had wrinkled toes, before them. The purse-lady (good thing she’s not selling bags) points out the covered sheds where the dhobis iron the sundried linen, and the adjoining shacks where the families sleep. For all her cunning sales-talk, which only after the tourist information broadcast, subtly turns to retail, it’s a lost cause. All my worldly wealth is in the car, with Monu the Custodian, the only thing at the bottom of my pockets is the bottom of my pockets. I thank her anyway, but she clearly feels you can’t put a smile and a grateful Shukria! on the table for dinner. In all fairness, she started it...

Our pasty-faced presence does not go unnoticed among the beggar-community, either. Just as the purse-lady melts sadly away, another woman appears at my elbow, toting a child on one hip. She bunches the fingers of her free hand, and rapping them again and again towards her mouth, then towards the child’s mouth, before thrusting her open palm at me. No word is said, but there’s no mistaking what she wants. I note irrelevantly that the child’s wearing a Red Riding-Hood cape, so she’s Muslim. Doesn’t make her any less hungry, I know. She could have everything in my kitchen cupboards, and welcome, but it’s not food she’s after, because she can’t fob the beggar-master off with half a bag of lentils. Turning away doesn’t get any easier.

This time, as we scramble out of the car at the frantic junction by the Haji Ali mosque, Monu forbears to issue the usual “Only look, no speak!” advice which generally precedes contact with Islam, in our Innova, but his work is already done. It’s all I can do to make eye-contact, here, with passing locals. I warn Melanie-Ma’am about the heart-wrenching gauntlet we’re about to run, through the double row of beggars lining the promenade out to the island-mosque, parading their stumps and flaunting their blindness, as they rattle their tins. There are tiny children, and very, very old ladies, abandoned. I’m steeling myself to test the tensile strength of the quality of my mercy, when we reach the pier. Not a beggar in sight: monsoon stops play, apparently. I cannot pretend that I am not relieved.

At the gateway to the inner mosque, a stallholder stands behind a wall of thin packages, wrapped in newspaper and string. We are mystified. We leave our shoes with the Chappal-Minder, and our soles sizzle on the hot slabs. David-Sir peels off right, through the Men’s entrance, to view the ninety-nine names of Allah on the ceiling and walls.

Melanie-Ma’am and I are consigned to the side entrance, where we're allowed to peer at male mysteries over the fence, with other women, cloaked in suffocating black. The mystery parcels turn out to be squares of bright flimsy fabric, in red or green, with sparse tinsel tacked round their four sides. The receiving priest unwraps them, shakes them free of creases, and whips them over a mound of similar cloths, under the central canopy. This is the tomb of Haji Ali, Muslim merchant saint, who died on his way to Mecca, and whose casket floated back to fetch up on the western shores of India. We come back out into the sun, blinking, to find our hot shoes again.

As we reach the wooden promenade back to the mainland, a family arrives. Before they enter the mosque, they pause, to hurl tied plastic sacks into the sea, where they bob gently on the incoming tide. A floral offering, I assume – but what I take for a red rose turns out to be a coke tin, so this is tidying-up, Mumbai-style. Small wonder the Arabian Sea doesn’t sport many swimmers.

We crawl home through the stop-start traffic, to the familiar music of beeping horns. Tuk-tuks cut across our path, at right-angles, weaving in and out of the lanes, like girls, dancing round a Maypole. Men stretch out on the pavement for forty blissful unconscious winks, covered by a ragged blanket, or nothing at all. Women bend over to slap their washing on the kerb, rinsing it in the puddles at their feet. Children crouch to defecate on the pavement, a handy pot in their right hand. Black kites wheel and drift in the warm air, and the sky-scrapers turn red as the sun dips below the horizon.

Welcome to Mumbai.