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.