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.