Saturday, December 13, 2008

Jobs For The Boys

At the Post Office, we’re shocked to have to lick our own stamps. It appears self-adhesive hasn’t percolated the sub-continent, yet. The glue on the back of the stamps is too busy sticking your tongue to the roof of your mouth, to do a proper job on an envelope, so there’s a handy yogurt pot of extra paste, with a dibber, to make up the shortfall. Here, self-adhesive envelopes mean exactly what they say, get your own glue: it’s Blue Peter time. We also have to hand-write “By Air Mail” on nine hundred and forty-two Christmas cards, but we’ve long understood that stream-lined and automated are never going to happen, in India, while laborious and time-consuming still have breath left in them.

It’s easy to get into trouble, by not understanding the system. We go awry constantly, in the early days, helping the cashier’s sidekick, to pack our bags, at the supermarket, or opening doors for hotel doormen, who are carrying seventeen suitcases. Nearly a year on, we still stub our toes against common practice, although the check-out pantomime’s wilful self-harming, these days. Even so, repatriation will be a culture shock, next week.

Pakistan and India continue to circle round each other, growling and snapping at heels, but I’m glad to see Verona’s stepped down from Red Alert. This morning, I don’t have to turn sideways to slip out of shackled gates, in the basement, they’re flung wide again, to let in sunshine and street dogs. Just inside the entrance, the security guard, in epaulettes and peaked cap, sits on a wonky chair at a wonky table, armed with phone, pen, and water-bottle. He nods and waves, when he sees me, before standing up to say Good Morning. He doesn’t salute, but it’s only a matter of time... I struggle to remember the set-up, in the basement of the building where I live in England, and then it comes to me – it’s my house. There isn’t a basement, just a cellar, where people over the age of nine can’t stand up - full of spiders, and dusty demi-johns, from when Mr Roland was going through his home-brew phase. And there certainly isn’t a doorman, or anything in the way of security, not since the dog lost interest in barking at strangers, or even in getting off his bed. Catapulting down thirty degrees of heat, overnight, is going to be the least of our re-adjustment problems.

In India, the level of service is over-whelming, but you get used to it, just like you get used to having tea without milk, by habit. Helpful insistence on independence can cost someone else his job, so keep your hands in your pockets – if you’re uncomfortable, look the other way. We salve our conscience by making a point of saying thank-you, which marks us as alien more clearly than our white faces.

My third favourite shop, in Mumbai, is Star Wines, down on Daffodil Row, Powai. (First favourite, the al fresco Lighting Shop, on Adi Shankaracharya Marg, for chandeliers and lifting of sorry hearts: second, Something Special, in Bandra, for everything you need from hand-rolled paper to candles which blossom into lotus flowers, singing “Happy Birthday To You” – and third, our local offy.) When we darken their not-door, the shop front, they swat thirsty construction workers out of the way, to clear our path. The builders’ tipple of choice - a medicine-bottle of GM (Government Made, apparently, although that doesn’t mean that the Government actually Made it, any more) costs twelve or thirteen rupees, whereas a bottle of Kingfisher’s sixty-three. We buy a box of beer at a time. You work out Mr Star Wines’ priorities. They even bring us a present for Diwali - liqueur chocolates we can’t even give to teetotal Monu, and a set of glasses ironically inscribed “Apple.” We never feel this loved, at Oddbins or Bottoms Up.

In Haiko, this week, a three-generation shopping expedition, in front of me in the queue – grandma’s paying for groceries, mother and child entertaining each other while they wait. Grandma puts her purse back in her bag, snaps it shut, then the whole family moves off. The maid steps up to the counter, collects all six bags of shopping, and falls into step behind them. Am I the only one who thinks this is unfair? I look round at the busy shoppers, busily shopping. Yes, I am. I’m not born into the system, and won’t buy into it, but neither can I opt out of it; it’s been a year on a tight-rope.

Next week, in Loughborough Sainsbury’s, there’ll be riots in Christmas queues, anxious to get home to their turkeys. I’ll be standing gawping, as my shopping piles up and tumbles off the end of the conveyor belt, with no smiling assistant to pack for me. You won’t be able to get in my house, for the sacks of rubbish spilling out the door, without an anonymous refuse-fairy, to whisk it all away in the night. I’ll sit in restaurants, hungrily looking at dishes full of food, trying to remember how a serving-spoon works. It’ll be a novelty, in the Ladies, turning on taps, squirting soap, filing used paper-towels in the bin, without assistance. I’ll break my nose cannoning into shop-doors, with no maharajah to sweep them open before me. Worst of all, I’ll sit in the back of my little blue Ford Focus, waiting for Monu to turn to me and say, “Today, Ma’am, what plan?”

With this particular deficit in mind, I buy a Monu-in-a-Box – a 3-D digital photo in a Perspex cube, so he can sit on a shelf, in my English kitchen, and watch me cook, at home. Well, we buy two, in fact, one for me, one for his Mum. “How did you persuade Monu to sit for it?” a friend asks, amused. Strange he should mention it, because I work out a very subtle plan. I say, “Monu, I need you now... Sit there... Smile... Thank-you.” The boy from Lucknow clearly thinks I’m as mad as a box of frogs – pagal, my new Hindi word – but he suffers gladly, there being no alternative. The final artefact is a thing of beauty thus a joy forever, we all agree. Well, Monu smiles and goes “Tch!” so I think he thinks so. I know his Mum will.