Monday, December 15, 2008

Bleak House

Dear Sir,” writes Mr Roland, “We are moving out today. Please would you allow the removal van in the compound?” It’s not the enemy, at the gates, it’s Writer Relocations, and the security men won’t let them in. India’s India to the last gasp. Mr Roland takes the letter, hot from the printer, down to the spat in the foyer, and leaves all the uniforms to sort out their differences, in Hindi. Eventually, Sachin, chef d’équipe in orange, arrives with his team, in yellow. They kick their shoes off at our door, and begin to wrap our eastern world in tissue paper, ready for home. With toothpick-sized knives, they make cardboard boxes in situ, round our chattels, using up approximately a hectare of rainforest - still, my Rs 300 vase from Life Style should reach Nottingham in one piece. I say Rs 300, it’s worth a fiver of anyone’s money...

Head Honcho, Xerxes (who does the smooth talk and the measuring, and doesn’t sully his hands with sticky tape or bubblewrap) tells me, when assessing the original estimate, that the difficulty lies not in transporting, but in transporting intact. If they open a box, at Customs, things are inclined to grow little legs... The solution’s simple: grease palms. So, palm grease is included in the estimate. It’s good to know where we stand.

It seems we roll around India, accruing worldly goods, like a hedgehog collects leaves. Mr Roland signs over nineteen boxes, to Sachin. Our materialism’s very spiritual, though, at least half the boxes are full of Ganesh, with his chums Buddha and Shiva, a carved OM from Nepal, and a quarter of a ton of incense sticks. It could be worse – we’re leaving the bronze Hanuman behind, to keep an eye on Monu.

And then it’s done. At breakfast-time, it’s home. By morning coffee, it’s a bomb-site. By lunch-time, it’s a shell. Sachin and his boys put the “apart” into “apartment” without breaking into a sweat. The place has never been tidier, or cleaner. Under every piece of furniture the men move lurk huge dust-wallabies - like dust-bunnies, but three times bigger. Having no common language absolves me of the need to explain my sluttish ways, which is very liberating. I’m definitely ringing the Reykjavik branch of Pickfords for a quote, next time I move house.

When they go – leaving me one or two trees’-worth of tissue-paper, for wrapping plates to give to Monu – the flat looks unbearably vacant and lugubrious. We go out, to find solace in retail, while there’s still a rupee in our pockets.

The man, cleaning the mirrored walls of the lift, is 4’10”, so there’s half a yard of grimy glass out of his reach, a dado-rail of dust. You can see how wallabies might prosper round here. Outside on the pavement, a man in shorts feeds street dogs, with what looks like bread, out of a Haiko carrier-bag. (In case you’re interested, I give them my defrosted goat-cubes, too, to prove that terrorism will not win, and that the streets of Mumbai belong to the citizens of Mumbai - canine solidarity and faith in peace, with one cast. Obviously, it worries me, introducing unreproduceable richness to the scraps and gravel they're used to, but Mr Roland says, it’s a nice problem to have. I also buy a large bag of Rose and Jasmine-flavoured Tide, the day after the bombings, to indicate that we’re not going anywhere until we’re ready. And when we go, we’ll have clean clothes.)

The universal female panacea – a two-hour soak in extremely expensive bubbles – is unavailable to me here, with our three bathrooms and no bath, so I opt for the next best thing: the hairdresser’s. At the Renaissance Health and Beauty Salon (aspirational on all counts), I have a farewell eyebrow-threading, or, as we call it, in the West, torture. Vela The Impaler patters across the tiled floor, all smiles, with her little lacquered box of talc, and her innocuous bobbin of cotton. “Hold here, please,” she says, and you are thus an accomplice to the crime, while she rips out follicles with a twist of thread. I’m grinding my teeth to calcium powder, reflecting on pain-barriers, when I play back conversation with Monu, on the way here. His brother-in-law-to-be, Shikha’s soldier-brother, is shot, fighting terrorists in Kashmir. Only a flesh-wound, it takes him out of the action for a month – if I were Shikha’s Mum, I’d be seeing nothing but silver lining, here.

Reassuringly, the hair-dresser – even if he’s only a boy - looks at my hair dry, rather than the spritz-and-snip approach I get, last time I came here. (Chop-chop-chop: “You want trim, right?”) I mime what I would like (when did that ever make any difference, once you’ve got the free-size overall on, and a rubber mat round your shoulders?) – Layers, please, I don’t want to look like Crystal Tips, and leave the fringe alone (following ill-advised fringe DIY, don’t ask -). He mimes back his version of the Plan of Action – “Fringe, small small cut? ........ No, Ma’am, please...” He’s not impressed by my self-coiffing, then. I engage in jolly hairdressing-banter – “How long have you been a hairdresser?” “Are most of your clients here western?” “Does your Mum live near here?” He answers, “OK, OK!” every time. “WOULD YOU NOT CUT MY FRINGE?” - It costs me more than the sari for Rani-didi and the salwar-suit for Shikha, which Monu buys on my behalf. Mind you, if I’d done my own shopping, I could probably have had woven highlights, a couple of teeth crowned and a botox injection, and still had change.

You’d think, after switch-to-max Diwali only a month ago, our fire-crackers would be spent, but you’d be wrong. Christmas is coming, to Mumbai. This isn’t India being ecumenical, this is India loving to party. (Oh it’s Thursday, let’s put fairy-lights on the building society! It’s my brother’s wife’s pedicurist’s wedding anniversary, let’s make it a National Holiday and have cake! Hinduism alone has thousands of gods, so it’s never no-one’s birthday.) Before Diwali’s last diya’s cleared off the remaindered shelf at HyperCity, you can buy a fluffy snowman, brandishing a picket, saying “Let It Snow!” Christmas is still tackily Christmas here, the fake trees gaudily draped in multicoloured tinsel. If designer-trees are out of place anywhere, it surely has to be in the Land of Sequins.

HyperCity also boasts the thinnest, brownest Father Christmas you have ever seen. What’s the current UK stand on having your darling Snugglebum sit on the knee of a complete stranger, for a secret chat? Santa’s subcontinental surrogate strolls up and down the aisles, waylaying small children to offer them sweets from his satchel. I don’t qualify for a sweet, but I do get a photo.

All this frantic shopping for souvenirs, but what I most want to take home won’t go in a cardboard box. Don’t think I haven’t asked.

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