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.