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.