Sunday, November 30, 2008

Just Another Day

It all looks very normal, peering down at Powai from our poured concrete eyrie. Being nonchalant’s easy in the sunshine, but confidence leaches out, as the light fades. In the wee small watches, it’s a different matter.

The construction workers don’t stop, just because it goes dark round them. They release the rubble skip, which hurtles thirty floors down in its shaft, and you’d swear it was a building collapsing. The midnight dogs scream, and we turn up the fan to drown them out. At five in the morning, I wake to the sound of a plane landing on the roof. I have never noticed our being on a flight path, until this moment, so I get out of bed, to make sure it’s not trying to come in through the spare room window (directly the fault of CNN reporters: the phrase “Indian 9/11” seems to follow every comma for the past three days). It isn’t, but I’m up now, so I check out Powai. All quiet on the eastern front. I flick on the television, to catch the news. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, there’s nothing new. So little, in fact, I suspect the network of plugging in an old tape, to run through the night, so they can all slope off home for some well-earned shut-eye.

Climbing back into bed, I’m felled by pains in my chest. I considerately kick Mr Roland (because, to quote our driver-friend Sanjay in Delhi, “it he job...”), for a bit of sympathy. “I’ve got chest pains!” I say. “Where?” he says, pretending to be more or less conscious. I don’t say, “In my foot,” and this is the most worrying symptom of all, but we doze off, before I can work myself up to a full cardiac infarction. As you can see, though, we’re skittish.

I try to ascertain how legitimate it is, being out and about again. Our French friends have emails and texts, from their caring representatives at the French Embassy. We have lots of emails and texts, too, but all from people on our Christmas list, and none of them is an ambassador, as far as I know. I do a little spirited research, to find advice, and there it is: they do care, after all! The British Consulate has a reception centre for British nationals at the British Council Library, in Mumbai, and it’s open all night. How much more solicitous could they be? Let’s get our coats... Hold on, where exactly is it, this haven of ex-patriate refuge? Nariman Point. Now that’s what I call handy. If you draw a triangle joining the Taj, the Oberoi and Nariman House, what’s in the middle? Right, the British Council Library. They want us to leave the safety of leafy Powai, to queue up for advice in the killing zone. Suddenly, I feel less cherished. Suddenly, I decide we can look after ourselves.

On the street, it’s just another day. Outside KFC, in the Galleria, the security guards are nursing rifles, but they’re still sitting on plastic garden chairs, to show their human side. The cricket’s back on, in the park, if not on the India-Pakistan Pakistan tour. At the side of the swimming-pool, a white woman’s painting her toenails red, with every appearance of unconcern; I decide it’s safe to assume the two boys hosing down the path and walls are, in fact, pool attendants. I can get back to concentrating on being annoyed by the chubby sons of Powai, who like to bob-bob-bob across my path, every second length. No point waiting it out, either: in my experience, boys don’t get out of water until they grow gills or get hungry. I resign myself to swimming self-righteous banana-lengths, before going home to pick up the marathon television vigil.

Nothing happens, while I’m deserting my sofa-post, except government ministers resign from this and that, before they’re pushed. East and west have more in common, than I imagined, it seems.

In between political finagling and analysis, they screen the funerals of “the brave hearts of India.” They don’t go in for muted mourning, here, the unshed tear, the bitten lip, the averted gaze. They don’t do discreet or contained, they do weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, pulling out hair and clawing at clothes, and I’m with them every sob of the way. There’s no shortage of pomp and ceremony, with fanfares on silver bugles, and solemn wreaths of funeral lilies. I can cope with solemnity. What takes the dhurrie out from under my feet, is the ordinary tenderness. They say goodbye to the man on the open bier, stroking his face, kissing his hair, patting a stray garland into place - little last tidying twitches, to give their hands something to do, while they’re thinking, like tucking a child into bed. And then, they light the pyre. Anaesthetising flames.

There’s fireworks, tonight, too, across the other side of Powai Lake. The explosions make us jump, until we see the sparks, flowering over the Renaissance Hotel. A wedding. At first, I think the timing is unfortunate, then I decide, it couldn’t be better.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

So, Where Were We?

At dawn, it rains, a benison on beleaguered Mumbai. In the morning, we wake to wet pavements and a free city. The temperature drops from the mid-thirties to a gentle twenty-eight - at home, we’d be rootling out the charcoal, and ringing round to see who’s got a bag of buns, to go with the sausages in our freezer, but here, it’s just nicely do-able.

The gates in the basement of Verona are still locked; the security guard has to unbolt them, to let me out. The air’s soft with rain and a new lightness, as yesterday’s determined chin of defiance sags with relief. Everybody goes about their business, not jubilant, just quietly glad.

How difficult was it, for you?” a Times Now reporter asks a commando, as he hops onto a bus with his comrades, once the Taj is secured, and they’re allowed to clock off. He grins, and shakes his head. “For us, nothing is difficult.” Before the translator reaches the end of the sentence, I have tears in my eyes.

The Black Cat commandos are out, blinking in the morning sun, after sixty hours of unimaginable strain. They look like they could do with twenty-four hours’ sleep, a shave, and a hug from their Mums; not necessarily in that order. The camera catches one of them, mobile in hand, leaning on the harbour wall, overlooking the Arabian Sea. His smile says everything.

Azam Amir Kasav, sole surviving terrorist, is only twenty-one years old. On its front page, the Times of India refers to him, in a matey way, as Azam, but by page two, they’re calling him Kasav. Either way, he’s from Pakistan, and confesses the plan to blow up the entire Taj hotel. According to him, the team undertook the assignment, in the belief that they would come out alive: this was no suicide mission, the police find the chart of their proposed return route, by sea.
Word now is, the terrorists were heavily drugged. What is this drug, which will remove all fear, but leave a person capable of operating an AK47? Mad, misguided, barbarous, clean-shaven and well-pressed – yet every one of them, some mother’s son, as my Nan used to say.

Every visitor we have wants to see the Gateway of India. It’s disappointing, I always say. It’s in the Lonely Planet Guide, they always say back. So we go. “Gateway of India, please, Monu,” I mumble, as we climb into the car, avoiding his eye. Monu doesn’t say anything, but he can go Tch! with his shoulders, and does. The Gateway’s a two-hour drive, even with three Ganeshes on the dash-board and a following wind. (This is what I say to Worried of Stokesley, when the terrorists land in Colaba. Even if they had our actual names on a hit-list, we could be in London, with time to take in a show, before they reach Powai by road...) We pile out of the car, crumpled, and take in the grubby glory of the Gateway. In practice, you can hardly look at it anyway, you’re so busy swatting away touts, flogging everything from plastic Eiffel Towers to dubious ice-cream out of a bucket, as well as photographers brandishing digital cameras, with tiny portable printers round their necks, and picturesque child-beggars in rags and bare feet. I have yet to see the Gateway, not shrouded in tattered tarpaulin and bamboo scaffolding. Now you’ve seen that, I say, turning our visitor round, look at this. The Taj Mahal Hotel. The doormen wear puttees, and have moustaches as wide as buffalo horns – they’re very smiley, even when you’ve got a red nose and mad hair, straight off the boat from Elephanta Island. The Taj is an oasis of civilisation.

And now it’s gutted, despite all its tinkling chandeliers and priceless antiques. The cameras are allowed in again. In the ruined hotel foyer, where so many people died, a tall vase of gladioli stands, untouched, on a side table.

Security in India is stricter than in the UK. You enter every mall through a magic doorway, and have to surrender your bag for scrutiny. “What are you doing reading this poster?” chides the billboard on the steps of In Orbit, “when you could be looking around for suspicious objects?” I am routinely waved in with a smile, whereas Mr Roland gets frisked, every time – not because I am lovely and he looks shifty, it’s a boy/girl thing. Terrorist organisations across the world are coming to realise this loophole, and are using not only women, but women with mental handicaps, in burkhas, on suicide missions.

Five-star hotels are the regular stamping-ground of ex-pats, in a country which does neither pubs nor street cafés. We turn into the drive, and stop, while the security men give the car the once-over. Monu pops the bonnet open, and they look inside, to discover that that’s where we keep the engine. They run a handbag mirror, lashed to a stick-on-wheels, under all four sides of the car, in as many seconds. If they’re really rigorous, or short of things to do, they tap the boot, and Monu surrenders the ignition key, inscrutably, while they check out the monsoon box and the emergency umbrella. I sit in the back, smiling, trying to make the guards smile back. They always do, waving us on. “Just because the boot’s full of kittens and lollipops,” I say, “it doesn’t mean I haven’t got a grenade in my handbag.” Monu laughs. – It hasn't seemed so funny, since Wednesday.

The death toll stands at 195, as I write, comprising crack anti-terrorist officers, policemen, tourists, businessmen, waitresses, even children. Every Indian we speak to is angry, not scared. Now the guns are cooling, the name and shame game has begun, and politicians abandon the united front they assumed in troubled times. Obvious suspects, like Pakistan and Al-Qaeda, are top of the list, but Britain is also implicated, because two of the dead terrorists are carrying British passports. Even Taj staff are accused of complicity. It’s going to take longer to sort out, than it did to live through.

Our year in India is so nearly over. We won’t be bullied into scuttling home early, nor do we want to stay out of stubborn foolhardiness. When the dust settles – sadly, literally – we will see, and decide. Until then, a waiting game.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A City Under Siege

High temperature, no appetite, listless, subject to mood swings – all the symptoms of cabin fever. Being besieged is less glamorous than you think. I recall gloomily that “siège" is French for seat, and that about sums up our crisis so far - glued to the sofas, noses to the small screen. We’re becoming couch aloo.

On Wednesday, we drop my brother at the airport. “Last guest gone,” Monu smiles, edging the car back into the seething traffic, heading for home. “Old life starts.” He couldn’t be more wrong. Just as Michael’s plane is taking off, terrorists put the “bomb” back into Bombay, with co-ordinated attacks in ten locations across the south of the city. “Old life” goes on hold.

Thirty-six hours later, the National Security Guard’s still operating to “sanitize” the three remaining occupied buildings. It’s difficult to know what’s happening – the NSG has gagged the media, because terrorists are tracking operations via television, but that doesn’t stop twenty-four hour coverage of the events. Old footage is played in permanent loops, with live voiceovers, and the flashing strap-line “Breaking News” – you get blasé about being on tenterhooks, after the first twelve hours.

We’re told to stay indoors, until advised otherwise, although the attacks are centred miles away in South Mumbai. I try to rustle up a sock-knitting, bandage-rolling attitude, and am grumpily ironing (in thirty-five degrees of sunshine, Stoicism doesn’t come near the mark...), when I discover that a colleague has gone outside to shop. If she can, I can, I think, reaching for my goggles. I know going for a swim would hardly cut the mustard, with the Maquis, but it’s a small gesture of defiance. Also, if I have to stay indoors a minute longer, I am going to start making friends with the cockroaches...

The heavy iron gates in the basement are bolted, but the security guard smiles Good Morning, and lets me out onto the street. And there is Powai, with his wife and golden Labrador, going about his business. Everything looks normal – the road diggers are digging the roads, the vegetable-man’s sitting on his stall, selling custard apples and guava, and a woman’s chasing dust-heaps, with a whisk-broom, back and forth. The only difference, today, is the tuk-tuks at the side of the road. They’re gathered in their usual nest, like a pile of beetles, but their drivers aren’t sleeping, with their legs looped over the handlebars and their feet poking out into the fresh air. The men in khaki are poring over the news, six heads bent over one paper. Something’s definitely up.

I peer into every young brown face, looking for the telltale signs of Deccan Mujahideen membership. It’s tricky because no-one had heard of them until now, so they hardly have a signature look, yet. Rumour’s running away with itself, with a microphone in its hand. Pakistan’s mentioned, the LeH, but officials won’t be drawn into speculation, and are prioritizing saving lives over apportioning blame, for the time being. Good for them. The bullets don’t fly any thinner or slower, for knowing whose finger’s on the trigger.

Yesterday, Bhavika rings in the early morning. “Akanksha centres are closed today,” she says, “so I will see you tomorrow.” I find solace in her supposing we’ll all be here by then, to tackle our three times tables down in Mankhurd. In the event, schools are closed, today, too, although the Indian Stock Exchange is trading again, I note.

Monu checks in. “Sir, you want this car?” More than anything, I want to see him, breathing in and out, but have to concede that this is perhaps not a good reason to drag him across a besieged city, so he stays in Malad. I assume he was breathing, to make the phonecall.

They even nip and tuck the advert breaks, on CNN, so the coverage is unbroken. The drama unfolds maddeningly slowly, it’s more padding than news, but you can’t not watch it, in case.... Every hour, a new tag-team takes over as co-ordinating front-men, in the studio. They edge in, from the wings, rustling an important fistful of A4 sheets. The veterans slide off their stools, and include them in the conversation, “So give us an update on what’s happening at the Taj right now, Yogita...” Then, as the new team take up the narrative, the retiring team nod sympathetically, without taking their eyes off the newcomers, whilst moving, crab-wise, out of shot. Le roi est mort, vive le roi. Seamless.

Within the hour, registration numbers of terrorists’ vehicles are on screen (MH01 ZA 102 and MH01 BA 579, if you’ve that kind of a memory and you’re in the Colaba area) followed by numbers to ring with information. We also wake up to chilling and very real requests for blood donations, from St George’s Hospital.

There’s more gore on screen, than in “Saving Private Ryan”. A man’s bundled into the back of a car, his head lolling, the pavement behind him red. “Is he....?” I start to say. “He’s unconscious,” says Roland, firmly. They fold the man’s legs in, like tidying up a trailing sleeve, escaping from a suitcase, and slam the door. We both know he’s dead. In the next half-hour, we see him summarily despatched at least a dozen times, by way of screen-saver to the unfolding news.

In the first gun-battle at Cama Hospital, the Anti-Terrorism Squad loses three of its top officers. The screen splits into three, playing over and over the last footage of each of them, alive. Ironic, poignant, ATS chief Hemand Karkare is shown being fitted with a flak jacket and hard hat, which clearly did him no service. Additional Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte was India’s answer to Bruce Willis. The CNN journalist reporting his loss was at college with him, and says he remembers ACP Kamte winning the record for eating the most bananas in a day (18), because he wanted to be a body-builder, before he decided to join the force. This irrelevant, irreverent detail is very moving, somehow. Ridiculous, frail, human. We see the officer in his combat hat and fatigues, addressing troops, then the screen flickers to his funeral, where this man of action is still at last, his stern face peaceful, framed in garlands of flowers.

The police recover bags dropped by the terrorists. Money, rounds of bullets, RDX and survival supplies. I’m charmed to discover that these boys are armed not only with AK47s, but with bags of peanuts, too. A local shopkeeper now comes forward, and says the terrorists bought Rs 50,000 worth of dried goods, a couple of days ago; as if they were laying in for a siege, in fact. Almonds for Vitamin E, apricots to keep them regular. We, on the other hand, without the luxury of foreknowledge, are living on what’s in the cupboard. Unless the situation’s recovered soon, we’ll have to resort to the goat cubes I bought in a fit of ethnic enthusiasm, months ago, and which I’ve had neither the heart nor the stomach to cook. They’re in the freezer, with half a tub of ice-cream we got in, when Jacob was in residence. Don’t worry about us, though. We’ve also got two bottles of Kingfisher and half a bag of Bombay mix, we’re sorted.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I'm glad you're a camel too, Mabel...

No turbaned maharajahs by scented fountains, no welcome leis, no bindi – we’re wondering what five-star tourism has come to. This is Osyan - we’re sleeping in tents, in the desert, tonight. Not what you’d call “grand luxe” but not exactly slumming it, either – as a veteran of the Dharavi tour, in Mumbai, I can confirm, this is definitely not a slum. Electricity and water on demand, there’s even an en suite bathroom, with canvas walls, and a stone pit for a shower – what’s not five-star about that?
Our welcome drink – the ubiquitous nimbu-paani, lemon water – hisses on the back of our parched throats. We’re on the edge of the Thar Desert. I suggest a swim, for a cheap laugh, and our host spins round, “Swimming-pool is here. Come, I show.” We’re so surprised, it’s some minutes before we get the wind back in our sails, to enquire about the ice-rink, for later.

We’re handed over to our personal minder, who has big brown eyes, and a small speech impediment. It’s a winning combo, I’m charmed already, and he’s only told us his name. Micky. I know, not very Indian, maybe his real name’s Suresh, and he’s given up the unequal struggle. He is, he says, at our service.

“This is your programme I have made for you.” I feel cherished already. “First, have the relaxing swim. Next, you will have the camel safari, one hours. Then, after one hours, come back, go to tent and fresh up.” You try this with a lisp, a stammer and an Indian accent. I ask him a question, just so I can hear him say it all again. “Next, seven o’clock, the entertainment. The singing and the dancing of Rajasthan. Then you will eat the dinner, no?” Sounds like a plan, to me, Micky.

We fall into the unlikely pool-in-the-desert, and warm it up a couple of degrees, only climbing out again when we reach thermal equilibrium. And then, we’re on safari.

Wading through the soft sand to the camel-park, I ask if all our worldly goods will be safe, back at base camp. Micky stops and turns, on a 50-paise piece, shocked. “All security men here is Rajput,” he says simply. He peers at me, because I don’t look impressed enough. “You see the earring and the moustache, no? This is Rajput peoples.” Rajput – warrior caste, race of kings. NOW I’m impressed. “Rajput peoples very honourable. Your things is safe.” So we drift off on safari, leaving our goods and chattels in the trusty hands of the sons of princes.

We hear the camels, before we see them, rumbling to one another. It’s all very well, hopping onto a low-slung camel, with his legs folded under him. You have then to stay on, while he stands up, back end first. I find muscles I’d forgotten about, trying not to catapult over Mr Roland’s head. I don’t exactly stay in my seat, but I don’t bite the sand, either, so I count that as a success. I have bits of string, instead of stirrups, which are doing a cheese-wire thing to my bare feet, so I abandon them. Then I nearly fall off again (it’s a long way down), so I opt for stability over comfort. In fairness, no-one said this was going to be a ride in the park.... Oh, no, wait, it IS a ride in the park....

This is boy. This is boy. Both boy,” says the boss. (Unnecessarily, at least from where I'm sitting.) “This one Bappu, this one Moti.” Baby and Pearl. Perhaps it was more obvious, when they were what Monu would call “camel-child.” Also, you wouldn’t call them Scarface and Stinky, just to be honest, would you? Well, not in the nicer parts of Rajasthan, anyway.

The camel-keepers spend all day, every day with their beasts, it’s not surprising the novelty’s worn thin. I still think their nonchalance borders on neglect, though, as they stroll along, with a frayed rope draped over one shoulder, guiding ten-feet of bored camel a-piece. What if Bappu and Moti decide to have a race, just to relieve the tedium of the afternoon? Our keeper’s mobile rings, incongruously, in the middle of the desert, and he chats to that, on and off, as the signal dips in and out, for the whole hour. It dispels the Lawrence of Arabia feel, somehow.

At the furthest point from home, they bring the camels to a standstill, nose to nose. “See. Is sunset. Take picture. I take picture, you want?” So here we are. Moti’s the one with the coquettish red bobble, on the bridge of his nose.

It’s dark, when we get back. The floor show’s cranking up, so we slither into place, on one of the wide, backless settees, fringing the courtyard, camel-scented just as we are, with no time to “fresh up.” Flames crackle in a huge cooking-pot, in the centre of the courtyard, the musicians in a row behind, the dancers in front, bare feet on beaten earth. We’re all rapt, until the dancers peel off to recruit volunteers, then we all suddenly find the middle-distance fascinating. Robin-Sir isn’t quick enough, and we’re still laughing, when we’re all conscripted. She’s only four feet six, the dancing-girl, but I bet she’s Rajput, too. Without missing a beat, she slings a ladleful of kerosene on the sulky embers. It livens things up no end. As we whirl round, I’m too busy trying not to be sucked into the inferno, to feel self-conscious.

What time you want the dinner?” asks Micky, solicitous.
Eight o’clock, please,” I say.
Micky makes a note. “Eight o’clock, ok,” he says, then pauses. “Seven-thirty is also good time....” He works along the row, discovering dining preferences. We all sit down to eat together, at seven-thirty. Why didn’t he say so, in the first place?

After dinner, we’re herded into the bar, where Micky’s holding a trayful of glasses. “House on the rum!” he smiles. “What time you want the breakfast?” We’ve only got a plane to catch, tomorrow, so I think a late kick-off’s in order.
Nine o’clock, please,” I say, foolishly thinking it’s up to me.
Nine o’clock, ok!” You know what’s coming next. “Eight o’clock is also good time....” and he even has a programme, to prove it. “Eight o’clock, eat the breakfast. Nine o’clock, have the swim. Small swim. Ten o’clock, pack the bag and pshht!” He flicks his hand, as if he were swatting a fly, to indicate the parting of the ways. Resistance is futile.

The night’s broken by trains and mosquitoes. Local train-drivers like to play “Name That Tune” with a fog-horn at three o’clock in the morning, we discover, and anytime’s right for a bite, for a mosquito with the munchies. So, sleep doesn’t come into it much, but we need an early start, because we have a programme to get through. It’s not as if we’re on holiday, after all.

If you can’t get down to the gym, this week, have a go on a camel. Wear six pairs of trousers, though, it’s quite demanding on the saddle (yours, not the camel’s). Two days later, we all still walk like John Wayne, after just one hour on the hump.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

PS: Jodhpur's Pants

I bet you thought Jodhpur was one leg of a pair of dubious baggy trousers, which fit everywhere and nowhere, didn’t you? In fact, Jodhpur means, the City of Jodha (you can work out for yourself which bit means “city” then...) because Rao Jodha founded it in 1459. Jodhpurs, as worn on polo fields the world over, were invented here. Today, Shivraj Singh, the Crown Prince of Jodhpur, is captain of the city’s own polo team, the Jodhpur Eagles, so the tradition carries on. I like a bit of continuity.

The road to Jodhpur is long and often unmade. Mano’s a top driver, and the Innova’s newer than our own, in Mumbai, but the air-conditioning’s either temperamental or defunct, and any more than ten minutes driving anywhere leaves us all limp.

Along the dusty track, we pass a woman, toting a baby on one hip. She’s towing three more children, between two and five, and a goat, all on the same piece of string. (This is exactly why women aren’t in charge of UNESCO or the G8, or even ASDA – they are irreplaceable, multi-tasking and managing, on the domestic front.) I give her a sisterly wave, as we sail by, and she smiles, and waves back.

You can’t drive for two minutes, in Rajasthan, without meeting a cow. They drift along, with their own bovine agenda, unaware of the traffic whistling by their horns. Are English cows exceptionally wussy and skittish, or are Indian cows coolly phlegmatic and nonchalant, in the safe knowledge of their protected status? When they learn to talk, these Indian cows, their first words will be, “Two years in the clink, mate, mind the fetlocks....”

We swerve to avoid a stranded truck, flanked by four loose cobbles. It’s only the third time I see this arrangement, like Contrary Mary’s cockleshells, all in a row-ho-ho, that it comes to me – it’s a red triangle, Rajasthan-style. In Mumbai, they use a torn-off tree branch, as a Distant Early Warning of trouble ahead, but here, cobbles are clearly the way to go. Very pragmatic, since everyone’s boot’s usually full of passengers and goats.

We go round Mehrangarh Fort together, but not together. We have separate audio-guides, so we drift along in a pack, without speaking. We’re all more or less at the same spot in the tourist-blurb, focussed on the middle-distance, listening to a disembodied voice, and you can guess when we each get to the amazing/saucy bit, because there’s a small Mexican wave of silent gasps/giggles. We stare at the grim plaque, by the inner gate, where Rajiya Bhambi was walled in, to secure prosperity, when the fort was built. He volunteered to be buried alive, and his descendants still live on the estate, gifted to them by a grateful Jodha, more than five centuries ago.

From the walls of Mehrangarh, much of the housing you can see is painted blue. In Jodha’s day, only members of the Brahmin caste were allowed to use indigo emulsion – it is not only cooling, in the heat of summer, but it also acts as an insect-repellent. These days, I’m glad to hear, any old peasant can paint his house blue, if he likes.

Within the fort is the Chamunda Devi temple, where hundreds of worshippers lost their lives only weeks ago, during the Durga festival. There was a stampede, in the men’s queue. Our papers, in Mumbai, said it was because the stone path was slippery with coconut milk, from the ritual offerings, but the current theory is that an explosion nearby caused panic. They couldn’t get the death toll right for days, because people came to recover their own dead, without telling the authorities. In Mumbai, there were collections, even in Muslim communities, for the families of the Hindu victims.

While the boys are absorbed by cannons and scimitars, in the museum, I drift off to look at a nineteenth-century cosmetic box. It comes complete with an ivory-inlaid exercise-club, which I’d have trouble fitting into my make-up bag. I begin to realise that my four-minute wash-and-brush-up may be inadequate; there are apparently sixteen rituals of adornment for a woman, from painting the lips with beeswax, to placing the final tikka on the forehead, before she’s ready for love. This box clearly belonged to a woman who was not responsible for rolling out the chapattis or swilling down the fort sulabh, then.

In the courtyard, a man takes his hat off, and everyone applauds. We’re not so starved of entertainment, here in the far reaches of north India, that a bloke with his cap in hand creates a ripple of delight – this is millinery like you’ve never seen before. His mate holds the loose end, and by the time the bareheaded one has unravelled his hat, they’re at opposite ends of the courtyard. He then winds eighty-two feet of fabric (I know: I asked) back round his head, into a neat turban, and tucks the end in. More applause.

We admire the hookah, in its little alcove, complete with a real-live sheesha-wallah, with his curly moustache. He has a downcast look about him, probably because of the new smoking ban. Does it count as smoking, if your tobacco’s water-filtered? He’ll be relegated to weddings and bar mitzvahs, at this rate. I’m charmed to note, that the guide says, “Opium and hospitality go hand in hand.” Not in the East Midlands, they don’t.

When we finish our communal-but-separate fort-tour, there’s the unexpected bonus of a market, on the way out. Some of us are a little less up for this bizarre bazaar, than others, so they sit around looking bored, while I buy seventeen scarves and a pair of curly-toed camel-leather shoes. I only stop then, because Mr Roland squirrels away his credit card, before I find the jewellery stall. Look away, if you’re expecting a parcel, under my Christmas tree, and feign surprise and delight, when you open one of Ishfab’s tie-dyed specials. Ish is the craftsman, but his brother, Rav, has the patter off – well, pat, really. He switches to French, then Dutch, as variously flavoured tourists pass by. I ask him for “Look at these lovely scarves!” in German, then in Italian, and he doesn’t miss a beat. He can do Russian, and Korean, if you ask nicely, too. I ask him to say, “I’d like a cup of coffee!” and he admits defeat, laughing. He’s brilliant, if you want to know about washing instructions, or wax resist techniques, in a dozen languages, though. Camilla stopped to shop, when she was here with Prince Charles. I wonder if she got a free one, for buying in bulk? I did. Don’t worry, it’s not the one I’m giving you.

Then, glutted with culture and retail, we find Mano again, and head north-west, for the desert. Follow that camel.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Happy Baal Diwas!

Nikita invitingly pats the space next to her, on the mat, in the upstairs room, at Mankhurd, so I sit down beside her. She smiles, and sighs, and leans against my knee. I could sit here forever.
Bhavika’s catechizing the assembled troops, meanwhile.
Whose birthday is it today?”
“Chacha Nehru!”
“Right, Chacha Nehru! What is Chacha Nehru’s other name?”
This one creates a ripple of dismay, and I have every sympathy. I know the answer, but I can’t get my tongue round it, either, even if you write it in four-inch capitals on a piece of paper, and stuff it into my fist, so I’m not rating their chances.
Chacha Nehru is...... Jawaharlal Nehru. Who is he?”
“Jawaharlal Nehru
!” No one else on the floor seems to find this unpronounceable, now they’ve had a steer from didi. Just me, then. I’ll stick to Pandit, I decide.
And who was Jawaharlal Nehru?... He was the first Prime Minister of India! What was he?”
“First Prime Minister
!” At least one person’s listening.
Well done, Swapnil!” (Wouldn’t you know? With a bit of luck and a following wind, Swapnil will be Prime Minister himself, one of these days.) “Of which country was he Prime Minister?”
India, didi, India!” Politicians can’t all be bad, it seems to me.
And what did Chacha Nehru love?... He loved children. What did he love?”
So what is his birthday, what do we say, Chacha Nehru’s birthday is.....?”
“Children’s Day
!” We all smile so much, our teeth go dry, congratulating ourselves.
So didi has brought cake!” The mats fizz with joy, and everyone’s tidy padmasan falls apart. Cake.
Who will have cake, yes or no?” No-one has much of a problem, working this one out.

We’ve only just got over Diwali fireworks, and now it’s Baal Diwas, Children’s Day. It’s not news to me, they’ve been advertising it on the tv, all week, promoting a day-long cartoon orgy for all the family. And on the way into school this morning, we pass a fairy princess in a spangly crown, trying to tame her frothy layers of tulle and wave her wand at the same time, as she trips along at her mother’s sari-end. She strikes an incongruously exquisite note, in the detritus of the gutter, which laps at her tiny slippered feet.

The rest of the world celebrates Children’s Day on 20th November, but India makes a bid for independence, and lights her fireworks a week early, on Nehru’s birthday. It’s nearly fifty years since he died, but all the children of India still call him “Uncle” – Chacha Nehru.

Celebrate Baal Diwas!” cajoles the poster on the hoarding by the link road. “Banish child labour!” A sobering thought, amid all the balloons and chocolate bars. “Make Children’s Day happy for all children.” If only. One of the cuties, on the mats, here at Akanksha, was found abandoned, two or three days old, in a dustbin, by the woman he thinks is his mother. It’s all I can do, not to package him up and mail him to myself, in the UK.

At the traffic-lights, Monu points to a child, hobbling down the central reservation, his foot swathed in filthy bandages, a padded crutch under each arm.
See this boy?” We both watch him hop-skipping along, for a moment. “His foot complete.” So, the dressing and the crutches are his professional props? Monu nods. “See, this girl, too.” And sure enough, there’s his sister, equally misfortunate in the matter of sound limbs, crutches flailing. I say, someone should tell them to work different sets of traffic-lights, they add nothing to each other’s credibility. Unless they’re just a really accident-prone family. Still, I don’t expect there’ll be much in the way of Baal Diwas cake, doing the rounds, on the pavement where they live, tonight.

In our Values lesson, we’re doing Respect. What is respectful, what is disrespectful.
If you want didi to teach you something, do you say, “Didi, teach it!”
Yes!” says Sachin, and he’s right, that’s exactly what he does, except in mime. More exactly, he pokes you with his book, and pushes everyone else’s book off your knee, then pinches your arm, to make sure you understand. That’s Sachin’s normal MO.
You will say, “Teach me!”?” says Bhavika-didi, scandalised. Sachin loves either/or questions, because when he gets it wrong, there’s only one answer left, and it’s always the right one.
No, didi!” he bellows, and looks round for applause. He’s sweet, really.

We write respect words in our English note-books. Sorry. Please. Thank you. Excuse me. Not for the first time, I wish I had a video-camera, to make a salutary short, for Year 9 Citizenship Lessons, in the UK. Come to think of it, some of the favoured sons and daughters of leafy Powai could do with a bit of revision, in this module, too. At the swimming-pool, I’m just dripping towards the changing-rooms, when a boy of about twelve hurtles round the corner, and cannons into me. Without looking at me, or missing a step, he scrambles on. “Excuse me!” I say in my loudest, school-missiest, most sarcastic voice. “That’s ok!” he says, airily, over his shoulder. Indignation, more strong than a belt in the solar plexus, quite vanquishes me.

Meanwhile, Bhavika’s waxing warm to her theme.
When Caroline-didi gives you little bottles of shampoo and soap, do you take one and say, “Didi, I have no gift!” – is that what you should do?” I think of the free shop, disappearing hand over fist, last lesson, and wonder if this rings a bell with anyone.
Yes, didi!” says Khaja the Snitch. “Sonal, two soap!” He tugs on my sleeve, and points at Sonal, who pulls a face and turns away. Either she’s innocent as charged, or she doesn’t understand. It has to be said, her English isn’t that hot, though. “Hair-comb, didi, me?” Khaja croons, his nose pressed to mine. Forget thirty pieces of silver, the price of this super-grass is a plastic comb. I harden my heart, and refuse. I would give this child the sun, moon and stars, if I could find a piece of wrapping-paper big enough, but he’s not having a comb, today.

Before we go home, a game. We split into three: Team Sachin, Team Salim and Team Ashish. Each round, a player is nominated, who chooses which level question he wants, worth 10, 20, 30 or 50 points. After two turns, caution goes out of the window with no glass, and everyone’s bidding for tops.
For fifty points, if I have ten sweets, then I get five more – wait, I haven’t finished, keep it in your head – then I give ten to my Mother, how many sweets do I have?” I hold my breath, but Khaja doesn’t.
Five sweets!” Team Ashish do a war-dance of victory.
Swapnil goes for broke, too.
If I have twenty-five sweets, and I want to give forty, how many sweets do I need?” He’s allowed to do it on the board, instead of the back of his eyelids, but even then has to have three goes, to get to fifteen. It’s not the maths lacking, it’s the nerve, but perhaps he should think of an alternative to the premiership, by way of career.
It’s looking like a walk-over for Team Ashish, raking in fifty after fifty. Then Khaja gets a ten-point penalty for dancing up and down to distract Rahul, so the race is on again.

It all hinges on Kunda, the last question of the last round. She’s a wobbly ten-point person, at heart, but she’s carried away by the madness of it all, and bids wildly for fifty. Didi writes “-ag,” “-ot,” and “-ip” on the board, and Kunda has to find three words for each. She’s thinking about it. I have to gag Naina with one hand and Khaja with the other, as Kunda begins to write “tag” in uneven nano-letters. By the time she gets to the last column, we’re all miming “sip” or “dip” or “pip” like it was New Year’s Charades, but she has her own ideas, and finally writes “lip,” bagging fifty for the team.

Final scores: Sachin’s team - 230; Salim’s team – 190; Ashish’s team – 240. Much cheering and laughter. No-one says, “My question was harder than hers!” or “He had help with his!” and mostly they don't say, “It’s not fair!” - so the respect lesson is well learned. I don’t know that the dangerous ten-point dock has taught Khaja anything about sitting-down and shutting-up, but the whole world’s out there, waiting to knock the stuffing out of him, there’s time yet for a bit of irrepressible joie de vivre.

Kunda’s so overwhelmed by her success, she gives me her cake, on the way out. She’s had a baby brother and a brutal haircut in the same week, I’m surprised she can still spell her own name. I put the cake back in her hand, and she gives me a shy smile.
Happy Children’s Day, Kunda!”
“Thank-you, didi!”
she says, and scampers off down the stairs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Rajasthan, Land of Kings

Our guide du jour is the silver-tongued, snake-hipped Karan Singh Rathore. He wants to be world-famous, and he might well be, one of these days. He’s learnt all his admirable English, not at school, but from tourists – he’s evidently had some street-savvy customers, over the years. His Pink City patter’s interspersed with snippets like “No wife, no life!” and “No money, no honey!” He’s not married, at the time of writing, so if you need a Jaipur guide, or a husband, ask me nicely, and I’ll give you his email address.

Jaipur has a population of five million. Most of them seem to be at the Amber Fort, with us. The walled city has seven gates, Karan says. “You know why seven? Because heaven itself has seven gates.” Obvious, when you know. The city’s painted “pink for happiness” and has been rosily so, since the Prince of Wales’ visit in 18-something – so he left his mark in Rajasthan in no uncertain terms. If you indulge in a bit of chromatic rebellion, here in the Old City, and splash out on a pot of mauve shellac or fuchsia gloss, for example, you’re up for a Rs 5000 fine, and two months in jail. And there’s you, all this time, thinking you can’t go wrong with magnolia...

We pass through the marketplace, where dairymen bring churns of milk to sell. Aluminium lids are wedged tight with a fistful of straw, straight off the floor of the cowshed, by the look of it. They’re prised off, for a potential buyer, who – here’s the tasty bit – dunks his hand up to the wrist in the milk, to test its quality with his bare fingers. What if he says no – what if the next punter, and the one after him, say no? By the time it gets to your breakfast Weetabix, your milk could have been through dozens of hands. – So, next time you’re in Jaipur, if anyone asks you, “How do you like your tea?” – say, “Black!”

We drive up the hill to the Black City, wiggling the Innova through tiny cobbled streets too congested for a push-bike. It’s most interesting, when someone else’s Innova’s coming the other way. Brinkmanship’s still the only rule of the road. Mano’s a passed master, and yields to none. There are shops selling rice and peas, full of veiled and sari’d housewives, jostling next to shops full of bermuda’d tourists, selling Rajasthani puppets and camel leather shoes. Eclectic retail.
Karan says, “Do you want to go to Fort by car, or by elephant?” Oh, Karan..... We drive to the elephant park where some of us are so excited, we can hardly get out of the car. Mr Roland and the boys tolerantly join the queue, trying not to look bored. We’re three steps up the elephant-mounting ziggurat – so close, I can smell the poo – when disaster strikes. Karan nips nimbly up the steps with a Don’t Shoot The Messenger look on his face, and I accept defeat before he opens his mouth. “Is too hot for elephant. This is last ride.” He points to the porky tourists climbing aboard even as he’s speaking, and I hate them. I don’t know who they are or where they’re from, they just look despicable. “We go by car,” says Karan. “Sorry...” Well, that’s better than having some poor pachyderm lumber up the hill, in the heat of the day, with a bunch of gora on his back, isn’t it? – No, frankly, it isn’t, but I work myself into believing it, by the time we get to the Amber Fort, prosaically on four wheels.

We’re just in time to nip into Ganesh’s temple, inside the palace, before closing time. We have to take off not only our shoes, but cameras, phones, and leather belts, before crossing the threshold. Between the statues on the back wall, and the rail to keep out the yeomanry, monks shuttle back and forth, ferrying offerings one way to the gods, and blessed Prasad the other, to the faithful. Not only fruit and flowers, we see one man hand over a bottle of gin (unequivocally labelled “Gin” to take the guesswork out of voyeurism) – which a monks upends into a flask. Incredulous, we ask Karan, and he says, “For Hindu, the fruit and the wine, is all offering.” Broad church, indeed...

We admire the Hall of Mirrors, its tiny mosaics winking in the sun, and the royal bathrooms, where you could swim in rose-scented water. The walls are tinted, but not with paint. The sixteenth century decorators ground up the off-cuts of semi-precious stones, from in the inlays, and mixed the powder with lemon juice and oil and seventeen other secret ingredients, to form a paste, which they used to paint the marble. I salute their parsimony. Like making jam tarts, with pastry scraps, I say, but no-one quite sees the similarity.

The Maharajah who built the fort, Raja Man Singh I, was a man of many talents. Not least, he ran twelve wives and two hundred concubines, simultaneously. (Mr Roland says that he has trouble running just the one. It’s all very well, being witty in company, but he’s going to have to be alone with me, sooner or later...) Each Mrs Raja Man Singh I had her own quarters, and her own kitchens. One woman, one kitchen, you can see the wisdom of that. When RMS was in residence, the wives weren’t allowed to talk to each other, which proves that, despite having two hundred and twelve women all to himself, Raja knew nothing about the fair sex. When he was off, going to war to have a rest, of course they talked to each other. Who in their right mind wouldn’t? “So what did he get you for Diwali, then?” “Is that a new tiara, or have you had it ages?” - The queens, he visited in their separate chambers, but the concubines were slumming it, three or four to a cell, so they were summoned to his rooms, as required. It comes as no surprise when Karan says, “You want to see the secret passages?” RMS has a rabbit-warren of interconnecting hidden corridors, so he could think his business was his own. Men, who’d have them?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Crown Palace

I look around the lift, on the way down to the lobby: we’re an unprepossessing lot. In all fairness, it’s still dark outside, but the muezzin’s up before us. As far as the boys are concerned, there’s only one 5.30 in any twenty-four hours, and this isn’t it. No-one speaks, but “It Had Better Be Worth It” is ricocheting, loud and clear, off the mirrored walls. The Taj Mahal will be up for the photo-shoot, but the camera lens will need more Vaseline than a baby’s bottom, to soft-focus the bags under our eyes. Then I remember the magic that is photoshop, and chalk up one to technology...

Downstairs, Niraj is waiting for us, in his crisp cotton shirt and pressed jeans. You can’t not notice, that his face and chest are badly scarred by burns. I lean in to catch his words, watching his mouth, then look away, in case he thinks I’m staring, so I miss the next bit, and have to look again. This delicacy ping-pong continues, until I understand that it’s my problem, not his. Niraj, with his disfigured face, spends every day showing off the most exquisite building in the world, with no thought of irony.

Mano takes us halfway, up to the combustion-engine exclusion zone, where we hop into an electric tuk-tuk for the last lap. The ambience teeters between surly and laconic. The conversation’s not monosyllabic, though, because someone would need to say something for that...

The day dawns, as we join the queue. It’s fully light, but with a blue filter. The early birds are opening their shops for the tourist worms. We watch the stall-holders, with their whisk brooms, sweeping up dust from the shoes of yesterday’s customers, which they leave in tidy piles at the doorway, for today’s customers to walk through and bring back in. I love recycling.

Most of the silent queue’s as pole-axed as we are, except the talkative American lady behind me. She’s clearly a morning person, but she doesn’t have long to live. Then, just as I’m going to have to stab her, the kaleidoscope of fate turns, and the queue moves forward, so she lives to chat another day.

We’re herded into separate lines, men on the right, ladies on the left, and at first, I’m winning, because my team’s numerically challenged. The advantage is temporary, though, because the men’s queue processes at walking pace, a quick flick with the bomb-detecting paddle, then, Next Please! The ladies, however, are all carrying enough stuff to put Mary Poppins’ carpet-bag to shame, plus a family picnic in the other hand. I’m twitching irritably, watching kitchen sink after kitchen sink clatter onto the security man’s desk. Do these women know nothing? My capsule handbag contains a lipstick, a phone, a tube of mints and a hundred-rupee note, folded small, for emergencies. (In England, £1.25 would not get you out of many emergencies, I know, unless you were desperate for half a cup of coffee, but in India, Rs 100 pretty well has you covered.)

It’s the last Saturday of the Diwali hols, and the turnstile’s spinning. There’s a queue inside, for posing on the Princess Di seat and looking wistful, with your head on one side, but fortunately, we don’t want to. On Fridays, the Taj Mahal’s closed. The mosque on its left, looking from the gate, is still used for prayer, by the workers who live in the outer courtyard. The mosque faces west, which puzzles me, until I have a geographical epiphany, and work out that Mecca is only to the East, if you are west of Mecca...

Niraj shows us sneaky Hindu lotus blossoms, in the inlaying, inside the central dome. Shah Jehan was Muslim, but his mother was Hindu, and this is a wink to her. Niraj cups his hands round a section of curling fronds of petals and leaves, in the carved wall panels, and there is a perfect marble OM.

The four towers on sentry-duty, at the corners, tilt outwards, so that, in an earthquake, they would fall away from the central dome. They think of everything, these seventeenth century Mughal architects, don’t they? You used to be able to climb them, until fifteen years ago, when some thoughtless love-shorn desperado threw himself off the top of one of them, onto the unforgiving marble beneath. I trust SHE was satisfied. One more copycat suicide, and the authorities drew the bolts for good, to prevent a stampede of unrequited lovers. Not very nice for Mumtaz.

I thought this was the fairest of Indian monuments, but I was wrong. Not in the mirror-mirror sense, I mean racial equity for tourists. Foreigners pay Rs 750, and, last time, I thought Indian residents paid Rs 520, which makes the mark-up for pasty-faces a reasonable fifty percent. In fact, Indians pay Rs 20, you can do the maths yourself. Don’t be indignant, though – they have to pay two rupees, to use the toilets, by the exit, and we get in for free. I don’t find this out, until we’re leaving, or I’d have gone twice, to get my money’s worth.

Shah Jehan also built the Red Fort, at Agra, so we give that the once-over, before hitting the Jaipur trail. The Fort has twin towers, where the royal princesses slept. The first, for Jahanara, is of white marble. Its partner looks identical, but is made of red sandstone, painted to match. This was the bedroom of Gauhara, whom Shah Jehan was never able to forgive, because his beloved Mumtaz died giving birth to her. Explain that one, to a four-year-old...

On the way to Jaipur, we linger longer at Fatehpur Sikri, to complete a hat-trick of World Heritage sites in one day. It’s a whole city, built in the late sixteenth century, to be capital of Uttar Pradesh, but abandoned after only a decade, for lack of water. Even though I’m still not speaking to Akbar the Great, after yesterday’s revelations, there’s no denying its loveliness. I especially like the open-sided five-tiered palace, which looks like a Buddhist temple. This, the guide informs us, is where Akbar would retire to take the evening air and, “have joy with his wives.” Small wonder it needed to be five-storied, then.

Next stop, the Pink City.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On The Road Again

Before we leave the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Delhi, I raid the free shop in the bathroom, and my conscience keeps its own counsel. It’s amazing how rapacious you can be, in someone else’s name. As I scoop all the little bottles, for my Akanksha cuties, into my free Taj Mahal Palace bag - how thoughtful of them to provide a bag, too! - I notice a tempting invitation from the hotel spa, hooked on the back of the door. “Try our exclusive massages at our wellness centre, by our professional masseurs, as they take you to a world of private bliss.” I don’t think they have “wellness centres” in the slums of Mankhurd, back in Mumbai, or if they do, they’re very discreet about it. “Relax, Relive, Rejuvenate,” oozes the brochure. The advice on the wall at Akanksha’s mission control is similarly alliterative, I recall, if slightly less hedonistic: “Rigour, Relevance, Relationships, Reflection.” Back in the hymn to hygiene, which is the tiled bathroom attached to Room 256, at the TMP, I tally the cost of gratification. A “Classic Swedish” will set you back Rs 2000, or, if you’ve had a bad day, and need more pampering, you can restore the balance with a “Balinese Massage” (don’t ask!) for a mere Rs 3,500. The star prize, however, is the Special Spa Package imaginatively called “Indulgence” which lasts a hundred and twenty minutes. It’d need to, for Rs 4,500. It’s difficult to square that, with what’s lapping up the marble steps, just outside. Two hours of “Indulgence” costs nearly as much as Rani-didi earns in a month, working six full days a week, at the Akanksha centre, and she keeps herself and four children on it. I look into my TMP bag, bristling with freebies, and tip in all the bedside pads and pencils, and the sewing-kit, too.

To make up for the shambles of yesterday’s sight-seeing, we fast-forward, this morning, through the edited highlights of Delhi’s World Heritage Sites. The Qutb Minar’s still standing, though Dinesh laments that the public’s no longer free to scamper up its unbanistered spiral staircase, inside. In 1981, a child slipped and knocked down all his classmates, climbing up behind him, like so many skittles. Eighty-five children suffocated, and the tower was shut. The warmth goes out of the sun, for a while.

The adjacent Muslim mosque is built resourcefully from bits of ransacked Hindu and Jain temples, as you can see from the carved pillars. Muslim architecture usually scorns animate subjects, preferring geometrical or floral decoration, but here, human figures and animals are sculpted into the stone. Before they incorporated these borrowings into their Mosque, though, the Muslim builders thoughtfully chipped off the faces of the Hindu gods. Quelle finesse.

Dinesh abandons us to the rest of our lives, at this point, so we say a golden goodbye to him, and head off for Agra with our tour driver, Mano. (I know, so near, yet so far...) The road’s a string of grit and hardcore, welded together with the odd stretch of tarmac. No-one’s fussy about which carriageway to use, which makes for a bit of extra-curricular cardio-vascular exercise in the passenger seat. It’s a long drive, it’s a good job that camel-carts are so charming. We while away the miles playing “Spot the Over-Loaded Tuk-tuk,”- an oriental variant on standard in-car Eddie Stobart hunting - as the road unravels before us.

Mano reckons we’re not going to reach Agra by sunset, when the Red Fort will be more in the way of being the Black Fort, so we console ourselves, en route, with Akbar’s Tomb, instead, where we mop up a bit of culture while the sun’s still shining. I’m very fond of Akbar. He was a mighty Moghul king, famous for contriving harmony out of strife, binding Muslim and Hindu into co-existence if not unanimity. I know this, not from the Tomb Tour Guide, but from Bollywood, having munched Bombay Mix and swigged Kingfisher, through three hours of the film epic “Jodhaa Akbar.” (Very nice frocks, but a mite over-long, and more gory than need be, in places – grand finale with elephants, though, so ultimately redeemed...) I imbibe the romantic fantasy wholesale, as I do the beer, and am thus Stunned and Dismayed to learn that Akbar had two other wives, one Muslim, and one Christian. Is this not taking ecumenicalism to the point of attenuation? Jodhaa the Hindu was his documented favourite, because she produced his first son, but this doesn’t cheer me up much. Bollywood also failed to make even the most passing of references to Akbar’s three hundred and fifty concubines. Absent-minded, to say the least. It’s too late, though: I’ve gone off Akbar big time, I don’t care if he was a peace-maker. He’d hardly have the energy to make war, after all....

We star in Other People’s Holiday Albums, on our way out, holding grizzling babies, embracing some random Grandma/daughter/uncle and saying “Cheese!” (I always wittily say, “Paneer!” but no-one ever, ever laughs.) Robin and Owen are much in demand, and have to bracket giggling brown beauties, one by one, while trying to look casual, relaxed, happy, and white. Why would you want a photo with a complete stranger, whom you’ve never met before and never will again, whose name you don’t even know, and whose face will clutter your holiday snaps and puzzle your friends forever? We wait for strangers to get OUT of the frame, before we click, where I come from. I am at a loss. I could live here for another thousand years, and still not understand.

If I could say one word to you about the Taj Hotel at Agra, it might be “don’t!” The turbaned fortune-teller, in the lobby, and the sitar-player, in the bar, lend a certain ambience, but the food’s lamentable. The menu’s more fun than the meal, though, every line’s a gem. I am tempted to slip one into my gooodie-bag, for future delight. Maybe we should have opted for the champagne dinner, instead of fish and chips? “Sparkle your love with cheerful personal evening discovering each other through the flight of culinary tastes.” - A tall order, for a prawn cocktail, by any standards. - “Treasure this evening as memorable moments of your life and make your better half realise how much you love and care for.” Care for what? It doesn’t say. If the sentence had stopped after “realise,” I reckon it would be worth Rs 5000 (plus taxes) for Mr Roland’s and my cheerful personal evening.

The first thing I check out, upstairs in our new room, is the free shop. Just as I suspected, lean pickings. Good thing I picked up the shoe-shine kit and the slippers, in Delhi, then. It'll be like Diwali all over again, for Rani-didi, when I get back.

Monday, November 10, 2008

PS: Delhi Revisited

Dinesh is Our Man in Delhi. His eyes aren’t quite interested in the same thing, behind his pebble-glasses, and he comes up to about Mr Roland’s third rib. Within a heartbeat of his whipping into the front seat of our Tourist Innova, we learn that he has two sons and a daughter, 18, 16 and 11, that he used to be a jeweller, in Bandra, Mumbai, that he speaks Japanese, and that he’s lived in Delhi for twelve years. We’re well out of the diplomatic area, with its spacious embassies and copiously-sprinkled lawns, and into the Mumbai-familiar scurry and scramble of Old Delhi, when Dinesh sees fit to mention his wife, before segueing smoothly back to his tourist patter. It seems the Presidential Palace of Delhi was home to the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, who employed more than four hundred gardeners, to service its grounds, and fifty soldiers, as human scarecrows....

At the Jama Mashid Mosque, we feed single file through the bomb-detecting door-frame, and up the wall of stepped slabs beyond. The threat of terrorism's never far from anyone's mind, here, so it's not surprising, that they're so hot on national security. What is surprising, though, is that the bomb-dectecting door-frame's not wired up to anything other than fresh air. Indian security's so... Indian.

We’re just kicking off our shoes, breathless, before entering the central courtyard, when we’re shooed away by sentries – it’s four o’clock, and the muezzin’s revving up for the evening call to prayer. As we’re littering the doorway, with our mouths hanging open like bumpkins fresh in from the west, a posse of youths clatters up the stone stairs, three at a time. They flick their shoes to the chappal-wallah without breaking their stride, pulling their lacy skull-caps straight: they’re late.

Dinesh, apologetic, offers to bring us back in half an hour, when prayers are said, and the faithful no longer need protecting from the taint of prying observers, but I point to the schedule of house rules, by the entrance archway. “Number Eight: Women are not permitted to enter after the evening prayer.” I am the only female fly in this particular ointment, so I consider offering to wait outside, while they go in and fulfil themselves touristically, but I think better of it, before my kindness gets past my teeth. So, we peek in at the gateway, and that’s as much mosque as we see today.

At the foot of the steps, a whole Muslim community springs up on every side. If you don’t spot the crocheted cap stalls, the butchers are a dead giveaway, their counters curtained with grim carcasses, and laid with strings of dark meat. I turn away quickly, but not quickly enough, I’ve already seen the basket of goat-heads on the floor. Dinesh says, “Very danger area,” and flips the central lock. (Does that remind you of anyone you know? Anyone from Lucknow, for example?) At night, here, our man from Delhi says, only Muslims walk abroad.

We crawl through the maze of packed streets, happy to drink in local colour now we’re locked in - small shops, wooden stalls, or even bits of rag, spread on the bare pavement, then arranged with fragrant piles of garlic or heaps of toasted nuts for sale. There’s a whole unglamorous row specializing in car parts. “We keep the car moving,” says Dinesh, sagely, “We stay still, ten minutes, all car gone.” Just like Liverpool, I think... “Then, we come here, buy car back again, one piece this shop, one piece next shop...”

We drive to the Gandhi Memorial, and our afternoon of untourism is complete. It’s closed. The guard slouches on his plastic chair, his rifle leaning cosily against his khaki knees, but he wakes up for a consultation with Dinesh. Thus we learn that tomorrow’s the anniversary of the assassination of Indira Gandhi – 31 October – so the park’s secured twenty-four hours in advance: you can’t get in to mooch round the mausoleum, in case you’ve got a bomb stuffed down your salwar. Fair enough. “Is just square of black marble,” Dinesh says dismissively, as we do another U-turn, “... and eternal flame.” I wonder, why we were going to see it in the first place, since it’s such a non-starter, but I don’t say...

Plan C’s Birla’s Temple, and – desperate for some sights to see – we agree before Dinesh reaches the question-mark. We screech away from the lights, as soon as they turn green: dust and exhaust-fumes shroud the motley crew of somersaulting beggars, lady-boys, and coconut vendors, plying their various trades. An occupational hazard, if you live at the cross-roads.

Happily for us – and even more happily for Dinesh - Birla’s Temple’s a winner. Mr Birla’s big in construction, second only to Mr Tata, here in India, so the temple’s by him, rather than to him. It’s also known as the Lakshmi Ganesha Temple, but you could guess that from the statuary at the gate. Mr Birla has a statue of his own, but it’s in the back garden, to eliminate any possible misunderstanding.

Indian enterprise is ever alert to a retail opportunity. Before being overwhelmed by spirituality at this place of worship, they slip in a tourist shop by the front entrance. It doesn’t say “Tourist Shop,” obviously, it says, “Foreigners this way!” and by the time you realise it’s actually a shop, they’ve got your shoes. And, in our case, your mobile phones and your camera, too... There are elephants-in-elephants on sale, and pashminas, and sandalwood Buddhas, but there’s no obligation to buy. Not unless you want your phone back, that is. The temple’s dedicated to Ganesh, the God of Business, and to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Money, so how could there not be a shop on the way in?

Dinesh kisses the steps, and makes for Ganesh’s shrine, for a private word. With the ring-finger on his right hand, he presses a red kum-kum bindi, first on his own forehead, then on each of ours. His wife must know where he’s been, I say, when he gets home, of an evening.

The bell above the central arch, on the way into the main temple, is suspended out of reach, so you have to jump, to hit the clapper and make it ring. A French lady asks Owen to pick up her friend, to help him sound the bell, so he does. The Frenchman’s fairly substantial, and I’m just wondering why he needs a lift, when I notice, he’s blind.

On the way out, I buy a lacquered elephant, to redeem our shoes. In my own defence, it’s very small and blue, and therefore inevitable. Or, that’s what I tell Mr Roland.

We’re staying at the Taj Palace Hotel, in Delhi. So are the Australian and Indian cricket teams. We draw up at the grand entrance, and are swept out of the car and into the hotel, by Maharajah doormen in cockaded turbans and curly moustaches. The marble steps are flooded with reporters and random passers-by, brandishing cameras and mobiles, but I don’t twitch my kurta straight, or even pat my mad hair. Dinesh jostles importantly past the liveried flunkies. “So, tomorrow,” he says, avoiding the chief doorman’s eye, “we meet here in the foyer, nine-thirty, right?” I’m almost sure that’s right, because it’s what we agreed in the car, less than fifteen seconds ago. Dinesh needs a passport beyond the plate-glass doors, though, and we’re it. He abandons us instantly, and scuttles off to harass cricketing legends, and to be swatted out of the way by their minders. I’m thinking, it’d be nice to take some photos, too, for our cricketing boy, back in Mumbai, but there’s a small snag. I wouldn’t recognise Sachin Tendulkar if he served me my breakfast egg, unless he was labelled. Mr Roland contrives to catch Australia between floors, though, without getting punched, so our happy conjunction is not lost to posterity, after all.