Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No Jhan-Jhat!

The coast of Kerala’s trimmed with mile after golden mile of sun kissed beach, lapped by crystal sea, but we’re not in Kerala, we’re in Mumbai, so we go to Juhu instead, where the sand’s pale black and the sea’s soupy. It’s still more scenic than Mankhurd, though, so nobody minds.

We will leave at eight o’clock, because the traffic will be small, early in the morning,” ordains Bhavika-didi, whose word is law. “You will come at a quarter to, do you follow?” Every child’s mouthing the catechism of rendez-vous, dress code, and kit-bag instructions, while slithering into chappals at the classroom door, two days before. I feel obliged to point out to Bhavika, that with such an early kick-off, I may well still be in my pyjamas. “Come in your pyjamas, Caroline-didi, why not? As long as we have your presence!”

This is my second marine day in a row, if you can have a row of two. Mr Roland and I make Monu drive for almost three hours, so we can dip our white toes in the Arabian Sea. The beach at Alibaug is black, too, but I’m thinking volcanic, and am happy to paddle. I find out later, it’s oil-dumping, but my feet are salty by then, it’s too late. At the water’s edge, buggy-drivers queue, offering rides across the sand spit to the island fortress of Kolaba, their ponies rake-thin, with coats rough with salt. The nearest pair have rainbow-coloured feather-dusters, stuck to their pommels, which nod, as they gallop through the shallows. Mr Roland and I go rock-pooling instead, and a meagre trawl it is. We find fish, only marginally more important than plankton, and crabs so small, they’d have to be polite to the spiders we get in the bath, at home. The rocks are covered with limpet-shell wreckage, but there’s not a gastropod in sight – either the locals are partial to fruits de mer, or the swell’s more brutal than it looks. On the other hand, there’s wild life under the rocks, along the promenade. Monu finds a litter of round-bellied puppies, playing in a rock-den, in the rubble, while their mum sleeps, unconcerned, under a concrete bench nearby. I’m just choosing the brown one, when I notice that Monu and Mr Roland are sloping back off to the car, in a disowning sort of way.

Back in Mankhurd, we pull up outside the tenement block, seven minutes late, ready to apologise, but find only Mehul and Rahul, sitting on the step of the padlocked door, clutching their waterbottles. Monu shrugs, “Indian time!” We’re shrouding the back-seats in bedsheets, just in case, when Rani-didi arrives, with a red rose tucked behind one ear, clearly in the mood for a party. Roll-call might take some time, at this rate, so we assemble in the upstairs classroom, away from the street with its decaying litter and opaque puddles. Rani-didi has this quaint notion about sitting quietly on a mat to wait, but Khaja arrives, with his built-in nuclear reactor, which only works on “Max,” thus knows nothing of “quiet” or “sitting.” We therefore rocket round the room in wild laps, pausing only for a cartwheel of joy, when exuberance overtakes us. Not me, obviously, the under-eights. I’m ready for a sit-down and a chocolate Hob-Nob, just watching them.

Finally, we crocodile off downstairs, with bats and balls and an orange Frisbee, to pile into the Monu-bus. We’re only an hour later than scheduled - quite punctual, by Indian watches. There’s a minor scrimmage, to decide who’s with me, in the front seat. I’m feeling flattered, and popular, when I remember the fascination of the dashboard, with all its switches and buttons. In the end, I promote Nikita to sit on my lap, because she has bones like a sparrow’s, and I’m not sure she’s up for the hurly burly of the back-seat. You forget what a novelty it can be, opening and closing an electric window. Before we hit second gear, Monu meanly disables all door and window controls, so Nikita has to make do with the AC fans and vents. She makes her hands icy cold then presses them on my face, for a few miles, until she’s distracted by a roadside hoarding, advertising pension schemes. “Do you have a plan?” she reads. Would that I did...

When we arrive at Juhu beach, an hour later, Ashish-in-the-back is olive green, and his eyes are dull. To be fair, there’s not a lot of sick, nothing that half a yard of wet-wipes can’t sort out, but Monu clearly thinks that some is more than none, in this case.

We decant, and corral the children in a wobbly circle, on the gritty beach. They park their bottles and chappals, pêle-mêle, and run off to play ball, and Frisbee, and cricket, all at the same time. Ashish sits on a mat, in the shade, a small heap of woe. We sift the sand for shells, and label everything in sight: helicopter, water, umbrella, dustbin. I-Spy, without the guesswork. Then Bhavika-didi says the magic word, “Sea!” and Ashish is cured. Salt water generally makes you sick, but in Ashish’s case, it does the reverse, and he’s in there up to his knees, before Bhavika’s finished saying, “Stay holding hands, in your group!” Sadly, his jeans are only wound up to mid-shin, but the sun’s got nothing else to do.

Saris have to be the least convenient thing to wear, for a paddle, I think. Then I notice Rani-didi, whose sari’s mysteriously eight inches shorter than a minute ago, although it’s beyond me, what she’s done with the spare bit.

The children squeal in terror and delight; the waves overtake them, then suck the grey sand from under their feet, on the way out, leaving a trail of cappuccino froth. Anand and Mayur grip my hands so tightly, my knuckles are fusing together. I soon discover, that it’s considerably easier to get the children into the water, than it is to get them out again. I marshal two of my group beach-wards, and turn back for a third. The first two instantly run away to sea - great fun for everyone except me. I see, yet again, that my discipline only applies, when I’m asking them to do something they already want to do. I have no control whatsoever over these briny brats, shrieking with laughter and running away from me in seven different directions. In my defence, I don’t lose any of them.

Back on the mats, there’s the silence which only comes with food. Let them eat crisps. (Or wafers, in Bhavika-speak.) A policeman comes to address us, while we munch, then we give him a hip-hip-hooray before he goes back to his patrol van. I assume it’s “Don’t touch strange objects!” – a slogan we’re seeing more than enough of, since 26 November – but I’m wrong, it’s a recruiting campaign. You’re never too young to be a police cadet, in Mumbai, it seems. His best bet would be to give away free sunglasses, as worn by all Bollywood stars and traffic policemen, that’d have them signing up in droves, but he’s gone before I can tell him.

Then we make our cardinal error. Orangeade. They guzzle gallons of fizzy orange, to wash down the last crisp crumbs, before we brush the sand off our feet and head for home. It’s hot, the car’s jerking in the stop-start traffic, and soon Kavita - whose name means “Poem” – is sick, in the back. Rani-didi’s closest, and she waves it off airily as nothing. I don’t find out how copious a nothing, until we’re in Mankhurd again. Halfway home, though, Salim’s sick, too, and before you can say ipecacuanha, I’m on the verge, sluicing vomit off rubber car-mats with Bisleri, with curious tuk-tuks whizzing past my ear. I tell Monu, it’s good practice for when he’s got Shukti and Pooja, but he doesn’t look convinced.

When I get back in the car, fragrant as a baby-wipe, Rani-didi’s telling Monu, that it’s all my fault. It’s in Hindi, but the words “Caroline-didi” and “biscuit” aren’t hard to isolate. We're talking gingernuts, here, not Waggon-Wheels. What I swill off the mats looks a lot more like orangeade, I say, pointedly. Then we need to change the subject, because the whole back row’s turning green.

Sorry about the car, Monu,” I say, being careful where I sit, driving home.
My car,” he says, sadly, “tch!”
Never mind “My car!” - you’re supposed to say, “No jhan-jhat!”” I say - No problem! He looks at me, in the rearview mirror, and shakes his head.
No jhan-jhat!” he smiles.