Monday, December 1, 2008

Old Life

Today, to borrow Monu’s phrase, old life start, a week late. Mr Roland goes to the office (albeit in a playing-out shirt, because he’s only going to say his goodbyes and collect his tea-cup), and I go to Mankhurd, in the hope of a bit of normality, on the straw mats, in the upstairs room.

Bhavika’s late, so we play Hangman until she arrives. I’m quietly confident, with my fourteen-letter word, and indeed, my chalk-man is dangling, with only one leg to go, but I’m reckoning without Swapnil (Prime Minister of India, circa 2045). He springs into the air from a cross-legged start (you try it), shouting, “RESPONSIBILITY, didi!” How can you not be impressed?
Bhavika arrives, and tries to slip in behind Anand and Kajal, who are also late. I’m not having this.
“Bhavika-didi, you are late! Go stand at the back, take your punishment!”
Shall didi stand here, she is late?” Bhavika asks, laughing. “Come Anand, come Kajal, stand at the back with me, we must take our punishment...” The children drum their heels on the floor, for joy, and I realise, that’s what I’ve not done for five days, smile...

What did you see, on the television news, this weekend?” Bhavika asks. Khaja – never loath to be first – is on his feet, spraying the class with imaginary bullets, before she gets to the question-mark. I don’t think on-the-doorstep terrorism’s any more real to them, than James Bond or Harry Potter, they’ll certainly not be in need of counselling. Older, wiser, we didis exchange scandalised looks, before we turn to composition.

Bhavika says her aunt and family live near the Taj (“this hotel, backside”) and hear every last bullet and grenade, of the three-day siege. I practically need sedating, watching it all play out on television, fifteen miles away: having live action at the bottom of the garden doesn’t bear thinking about. Mumbaikars are clearly made of sterner stuff, and pride themselves on their resilience: within hours, cafes, shops, offices, are all open again. On Friday, a hawker looks sadly at the empty street, as the traffic-lights wink pointlessly through their sequence. “I’m just waiting for a traffic-jam,” he says, “then I can sell my flowers.” His roses wilt, unsold, so the terrorists find their mark, here, too. Today, though, he’s poking bundles of flowers, scented with exhaust-fumes, through open car-windows, and the world’s the right way up, again.

Ashish pushes his book onto my lap. “My name is Ashish,” he writes. “I am a boy. I stay with my family.” So far, so good. His next sentence leaps off the page at me - “My Akanksha is war.” Maybe he is traumatised, after all? I read on. “My didi is war nes. Caroline-didi is war nes.” He beams at me, “I no help, didi – one star?” Bhavika, cruel but fair, only rewards DIY work. He reads aloud. “My didi is very nice....” So, not psychologically scarred by atrocity, after all. Relieved, I draw him a turtle and a milk-bottle (his request) to go with his star. Ashish is war nes, too.

The politicians continue to wrangle and snipe, but there’s no hope of their being stopped by Black Cat commandos. The latest SMS doing the rounds says, “Don’t be afraid of the men who got in with boats, fear the men who got in with the votes.” I fail to understand all the retrospective finger-pointing, about slack security, sea-side, at the Gateway – even Swapnil could have worked this one out. The little boats jockey for position in the harbour, and tourists pile on to the nearest one, until the plimsoll-line disappears, then it chugs away, grating along the seawall, ricocheting off neighbouring boats, whose crew fend it off, with their bare feet. Organised, it isn’t. Ticket vendors at the top of the steps have no allegiance to any particular boat, no one counts passengers on or off. Crisp-sellers, chai-wallahs, sun-hat merchants, all follow you on board, wheedling, cajoling, haranguing, and have to take a running leap at the disappearing harbour steps, as the boat pulls away, belching diesel fumes. You could smuggle in a bull elephant wearing a golden howdah, and no-one would blink twice. It makes a mockery of all the metal-detector doorways, and the mirrors on sticks, land-side. Small wonder they landed an arsenal, unchecked.

Mumbai safe,” says Monu, stoutly, although his Mum wants him back in Lucknow, NOW. Being mobile again’s something of a novelty, so we drive to one of our early haunts, in Mulund, for a bit of affirming retail. On the way home, the opposite carriageway’s at a stand-still, blocked by dozens of men, marching in their shirt-sleeves. It looks like a political demonstration, and I’m about to duck, in case tempers are raw, when Monu says, “This funeral. You know, policeman, killed in troubles? This his funeral, local people come.” Behind the marching men, in their off-white shirts, a tow-truck, strung with orange flowerheads. Men in the cab, men on the cab, men in the truck-bed, keeping company with the departed, under his blanket of marigolds.

By the roadside, posters showing cameos of five of the officers who died last week, asking for contributions to help the bereaved families, in the hope of offering them each Rs 15 lakh. I’m sure they’d rather have their Dad back, than a twenty-thousand pound bonus, but it’s a good thought, and Mumbai’s digging deep.

Despite which, I come home tonight feeling saner and more whole. The past five days have been wall-to-wall bullets and blood, desecration, death, man’s inhumanity to man - and while they are part of life, they are not all of life. I just remembered that, in Mankhurd.