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.