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.