Wednesday, 13 May 2015

On the Buses

If someone had told me a year ago that my main mode of transport for 2015 would be ‘the bus’, I’d have thought they were a deck short of a double decker. Me? On the bus? I’m scared of buses; I don’t even know how to catch one. Buses are way too complicated; how do you know which one to get? Where is it going? When will it come? So many unknowns and anyway, I drive a car so why on earth would I ever need to catch a bus?

Reader, what was I thinking? Six months after arriving in Hong Kong, I can’t get enough of buses. I’m a massive bus fan. I flippin’ love ‘em, especially the 75 (Sham Wan to Central via Causeway Bay and Admiralty) Every time it comes sailing down the hill I get a little rush of dopamine because I’m so happy to see it. The 75 takes me to all the best places in air-conditioned comfort. I am also partial to the 72a but I don’t care for the 71, which takes a circuitous route through Pokfulam and made me very late for an AWA early morning cycle once. (Again ladies, apologies!)

I’ve come a long way since Day Two in Hong Kong when I accidentally caught a bus to Hung Hom (107) instead of Aberdeen (48). My husband Mick pointed out the bus stop the day before and gave me explicit instructions on which bus to get.
But in the heat of the moment I panicked and got on the first bus that came along. I waited until I was absolutely confident that it was going the wrong way and then called Mick to accuse him of sending me on a mission I was not yet ready for: “It’s your fault” I cried, “I told you I didn’t know how to catch a bus!”

I know; it’s pathetic when I think about it now, but I was so traumatised by the Hung Hom incident that I didn’t go out for a week. Eventually, Mick gently coaxed me onto the 75 and suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes. The last time I rode the bus regularly was in the early 1980’s as a schoolgirl in a fug of cigarette smoke – this is a whole new bus experience. Spotlessly clean with air-conditioning, TV and even free Wi-Fi – what’s not to love?

OK, well actually there is something not to love. As Jane Austen might have said: It’s a truth universally acknowledged that there are sometimes nutters on the bus. It’s the same in every country in the world; the general rule is: Avoid the back seat upstairs at all costs.

I have made the mistake of sitting on the back seat twice, both times next to different nutters; one watching a cockfight on his phone at full volume and the other enjoying as spot of porn, occasionally looking up to photograph the girl sleeping opposite. Creepy.

Other than this, I cannot sing the praises of the Hong Kong buses highly enough. Oh well, perhaps I do have one more tiny criticism: You have to hold on VERY TIGHT if you are going up or down the stairs while the bus is moving. I am surprised there aren’t more loss-of-momentum related accidents. Other than the nutters and the HANGING-ON-FOR-DEAR-LIFE stair moments, I love, love, love the HK buses. And now I have discovered the ‘Easy Rider’ app, there’s no stopping me. See a bus coming, punch in the number and see exactly where it’s going. It’s the future! I’ll never get lost again. Only another 16 years until I’m entitled to the senior citizens’ Octopus card. Can’t wait!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Baby, You're a Rich Man

When my daughter was about nine, she came out of the bathroom asking why her friend’s dad was in the newspaper next to David Bowie. She had been perusing The Sunday Times Rich List, which I had chucked on the floor in a jealous rage when I got out of the bath.

The friend’s dad is a financier with a few million quid more than Bowie and a few less than Jagger. I explained that he was in the paper because he was one of the richest men in the world but she wasn’t very impressed. 

“Really?” she said,  “he’s never even heard of TK Maxx” 

She’d been round for a sleepover and the dad said he liked her pajamas which she said came from TK Maxx and he said he’d never heard of TK Maxx and she said I can’t believe you’ve never heard of TK Maxx and was so surprised that it was the first thing she told me when she came home in the morning. 

She didn’t tell me a thing about the mansion, which the family had recently moved into after trouncing Roman Abramovich and Robbie Williams in a bidding war. It meant nothing to a nine year old. When I asked what the house was like she said it was ‘quite big.’ 

At what stage does money become a thing? And why should it bother me how much other people have? 

According to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, Britain’s richest people are wealthier than ever before with a combined fortune of 520 billion pounds. That’s a 15 per cent jump on the total wealth of the richest 1,000 individuals, couples or families in just one year.

So, it comes as no surprise, the rich are getting richer. I hear on the news today that even the IMF and the World Bank are getting increasingly nervous about the levels of inequality in our society.

Tycoons the Hinduja brothers topped the list with a combined worth of 11.9 billion pounds. I don’t know how much Mukesh Ambani’s got but that’s probably walking around money for him. I bet he’s never heard of TK Maxx either, or a good architect for that matter.

And now India has Narendra Modi, great news for the economy, not so great for human development. 

You could say that many of the super rich are at the heart of the economy and their success brings more jobs and more wealth to the country but does it really filter down to the common man or is the common man exploited to bring even more wealth to the individuals at the top?

I’m going to go off at a bit of a tangent here but when Samir drove me to the airport yesterday he pointed to the flyover and said it was funny that the people who had actually done all the backbreaking work, would probably never ever get to use it. They would probably never ever enter the airport building or catch a plane. Samir and I interviewed some itinerant workers when I was working on a project last year. Most of them came from villages in UP and MP, they came to work and earn money for their families back home. They had no concept or awareness that they were helping to build a mega city, the projects they were working on meant nothing to them. They just needed to earn the money to send to their families so that they could survive. Some of them had come to Mumbai at the age of 13 or 14, they stay in labour camps where they have to cook for themselves and average about five hours sleep a night. The rest of the time they are working. Up at 4 am to cook a bit of dhal before heading off to work again.  They have nothing to look forward to but the twice yearly trip home, they all miss their mothers, wives and children, and for this they get paid between 3,000 and 4,000 rupees a month (about 40 quid). It’s bloody shameful actually and I felt like crying when we were talking to them. I asked one of them if he ever got to the cinema on his day off and he looked at me like I was mad. There is no money for leisure, all the money is sent home. Compared to these people I am rich beyond belief.

On the day of the election results I was having a fabulous day in Colaba with my old mucker Bombay Jules, celebrating her birthday in style. We stayed at the Taj Palace, dined at the Table and shopped ourselves stupid. We even went for a ride in a horse-drawn tourist carriage. I loved every minute; it was a day to remember, especially as she is leaving Mumbai, our last hurrah. Of course, I chronicled the day in a volley of Facebook updates: Here’s me at the Taj, here’s me stuffing my face, here’s me shopping till I drop, here’s me quaffing Champers on a dry day. A comment appeared on one of my posts from an activist friend in the UK who (half?) jokingly accused me of (effectively) fiddling while Rome burned. She is right to prick my conscience like that but it didn’t stop me from enjoying myself. I am afraid it’s getting easier and easier to turn off. After a while, one gets used to the poverty.

I went to Amritsar a couple of weeks ago and was deeply moved by the sight and atmosphere of the Golden Temple. The people there were calm, happy and almost otherworldly, they seemed to light up from within. Their devotion and contentment was tangible. It was a beautiful thing but there, lurking at the back of my mind was the thought: “I wonder if there’s a Guru Nanak knick knack shop ‘cos I want to buy a fridge magnet.” 

Compared to these people, I’m a pauper.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Driving Miss Hazy

If I lost my phone and someone found it and called the first number under ‘favourites’ they would not be speaking to my husband or my mum in Somerset but to one Mr. Samir Khan from Kolkata – the very man I would want them to call because he would have it back to me in no time.

I have become so reliant on this man that I sometimes relinquish sections of my brain and become ineffectual and floppy when it comes to tasks such as paying my Vodaphone bill because I know he will sort it out for me. If the AC is leaking I call him up, point to the problem and shuffle off.   

Samir is employed to drive the car. His job description does not include getting stuff fixed, babysitting, sorting out the Wi-Fi, paying bills or putting Sir to bed that time when I was out of town and he’d had a few. But still he does it. And what’s more, he tells me he is happy to do it. I doubt I’d be so amenable if my old boss at the local newspaper had asked me to fix his television, mow his lawn, walk his dog or whatever. 

Over the Easter holidays I was back in the UK in my role as mummy-the-servant. I woke the kids up with a cup of tea, picked up the dirty laundry, made the breakfast, washed up, drove them to wherever they wanted to be, acquired whatever they needed, entertained and fed them and paid their bills. Much as I love ‘em, I was glad the day I dropped them back to school and headed to Heathrow where I flopped on a plane, watched three films back to back and necked a few miniatures. Nine hours airtime is all it takes for me to transmogrify into, well I suppose, a dependent child myself. 

Standing, slightly worse for wear, outside Arrivals at 12.45 AM I realized I hadn’t called Samir to tell him what time I was landing. But there he was, waiting to take the trolley from me and lead me to the car. I don’t know whether he’s psychic or he rang the office to find my ETA but somehow, he always knows where I am and he always finds me.

He asks me what films I saw on the plane, whether I slept and what food I ate and it’s all I can do not to call him ‘Dad’ as I drift off in the back. The kids and their demands are a distant memory. Out of sight is out of mind (though not if you’re reading this my angels which I know you most definitely will not be)

There was a dark and very terrible time a few weeks ago when Dad, I mean Samir, and I became separated in a very busy area and I got lost.

We had been to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) a most frightening and labyrinthine place where there be monsters. I had switched my phone to silent, so as not to incur the wrath of the giant (you know, that massive bloke who walks around shouting at people). Miraculously (and with the help of a little palm greasing) my Resident’s Permit was handed to me within the hour so I decided to go to The Contemporary Arts Centre to celebrate. However, this did not end happily.

For the first time in the history of his career, Samir was not exactly sure where CAC was. I casually asked him to drop me near where I thought it was, telling him I would find somewhere for breakfast, visit CAC, drop in at nearby Chimanlals paper craft store and call him in a few hours when I would require him to drive me to my friend’s house in Colaba where I was expected for afternoon tea. I knew he would be happy to park somewhere shady and have a kip so off I went. 

Five minutes later I realized I had no idea where CAC was. The hot sun was melting my face and I recalled that scene in ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ where they fried an egg on the bonnet of a jeep. I reached into my bag for my phone and my world came crashing down when I realized I had left it on the seat in the car – ON SILENT. The horror of the situation unfolded in slow motion. The last time I felt like this was 39 years ago when I got lost in the sand dunes on a beach holiday. By nightfall I lay down and covered my legs in sand, accepting my fate and preparing to die when the coastguard found me. 

I took on the expression of a lost child but at 48-years-old, no one seemed to notice or care. I trudged up and down the road like a lost soul until, as if by magic, CAC appeared before my very eyes. I put my predicament neatly to one side while I had a snoop around, enjoying the AC and nick knacks but all too soon I had to face reality again and head out into the unknown. 

Actually Chimanlals is just around the corner from CAC so I suspended reality briefly once more to check out the lovely paper crafts. As soon as I made my non-essential paper craft purchase ‘The Fear’ returned. How will I let my friend know I can’t come ‘cos I don’t know where she lives or where I am? I don’t know anybody’s phone number. Woe is me etc. I asked the shop worker if I could use her phone to call my phone in the car but to no avail. I imagined Samir snoozing indefinitely in a shady side street with my phone silently trembling on the back seat. All the numbers are on my phone, I don’t know Samir’s number, my husband’s number or even my mum in Somerset’s number. My life is effectively over (unless of course I get a cab back to Andheri, God forbid!)

Just then, outside Chimanlals, an angel appeared in the form of a lady who I vaguely recognized from an MC coffee morning. “Are you the lady who does the magazine?” She enquired, “You look a bit worried, can I help?” 
The poor woman had to listen to the whole sorry tale before lending me her phone. 
“Call your driver” 
“I don’t know his number”
“Call your husband and ask him to call your driver”
“I don’t know his number either”
“Call the office”
“Your home, ask your maid for your driver’s number”
“Don't know it”

I emptied the contents of my bag onto the pavement and pulled out the recently acquired Resident’s Permit. There was a number on it which I thought might be the number of the office but turned out to be that of a former employee on maternity leave who had once acted as a referee. Fortunately, despite (or perhaps because of?) my jumbled blathering she recognized who I was even though I had no idea who she was and called Mick (out of a meeting) who in turn called Samir who in turn turned up within the minute.

Once in the car and safely on my way to my friend’s house for tea, I got a right telling off: “Write my number on a piece of paper and keep it in your purse! If it wasn’t for that nice lady I might never have found you!”

Hmm. Lesson learned.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Home or Away? - A Place in the Sun

Hi Honey, I'm home! And oh, I see you've knocked up a brand new international airport while I've been away. Oooooh, Chhatrapati Shivaji, look at you all gussied up with your glass walls and natural lighting like a big, proper airport but hang on a minute, what's this?

CARPET! CARPET! CARPET! CARPET! Migraine inducing purple and orange swirls, as far as the eye can see. I haven't slept a wink all night, I've had nothing but five small bottles of white wine to sustain me and now this?   

Not only is it enough to pop the eyeballs out of your head but it also gobbles up wheels, making my nippy Samsonite a dead weight. I swear it'd be easier to drag a dead body the length of Juhu Beach than to cross this carpet from A to B with a clinking carry-on full of Duty-Free. Forty million passengers a year are going to be cursing the numpty who said: "I know, why don't we have carpet instead of normal airport floor?" as they lug their stuff through this shag-pile soup. #I'm just sayin'.

Personally, the top two things I look for in an airport are 1. A Mulberry Store and 2. A smooth surface upon which to glide luggage.

(I haven't seen the first yet but I've only been in Arrivals - Epic fail on the second) 

That said, other than THE CARPET (I'm shouting 'cos it's loud) a big thumbs-up for Mumbai's shiny new airport. It's a substantial improvement on the last.                      
At Baggage Reclaim I got chatting to an earnest young American in the city for the very first time. "So what are you doing here?" I asked.

"I'm a magician, here to teach tricks to the children of sex workers." His reply.

So deft was the elevation of my eyebrow that I think he missed it. Mind you, if I'd have held up both eyebrows with my middle fingers, I think he would have missed that too. He was EVER SO earnest and I am a b-yatch. A joke formed in the darkest part of my brain but I quickly swallowed it down. I've only been back five minutes and the madness has started. 

Day Two in this fine city and I nipped across the road to the foot spa for a three-way with two lovely Thai boys who stretched me out on a rack, one pulling my hair while the other cracked my toes. I was home for breakfast before 11am (ladies fingers and a coconut) with the Mumbai Mirror (natch)

My highlights of today's news:

1. A water pipe has burst in a place called Seepz. 
2. A policeman by the name of PI Pimple is in trouble for being lazy and neglecting his duties. 

There is obvs a lot of other heavy stuff going on but snippets like this amuse me all day. Now I'm feeling guilty about Mr Magic, at least he's doing something, if only pulling rabbits out of hats, not just sniggering at the papers and having three-ways like me. I would like to get down to Kamathipura to offer my services at Kranti, a fantastic NGO which helps the daughters of sex workers find their place in the world. They are looking for folk to help with homework etc but need a six month commitment which I cannot give because of my comings and goings. 

For the past nine months I have been supervising building works at my house in Hunton, Kent. I wore the same clothes everyday and stopped everything at 3.40 pm to watch 'Home or Away? - A Place in the Sun' on More 4. In this show, a couple who cannot decide whether they want to live in the UK or somewhere abroad look at properties in the UK and abroad, usually France, Spain or Florida. I have yet to see an episode where the couple can't make up their minds whether to live in Kent or Mumbai. 

Fortunately, that decision has been made for me. I live in both and life could not be more different in each.

Last week in Hunton:

1. Went to Tesco to get kippers

2. Painted window frame

3. Went for walk

This week in Mumbai:

1. Dined under stars (and flight path) in beach restaurant rammed with with Bollywood A-listers

2. Sat down in the road outside HSBC Juhu crying in frustration after staff told me I didn't exist (despite banking with them for the past five years)

3. Played Mah Jong at a five-star (only because best Mumbai friend had gone away on a black buck safari) with three women, each from a different continent, whooping them at every game (All the while wearing LK Bennett killer heels - I only wear wellies or slippers in Hunton)

4. Martin Scorsese was in town 

5. Joined Om-chanting class

I honestly couldn't tell you which life I prefer. Each one helps me to better appreciate the other. Last week in Hunton, I opened the window in the dead of night to listen to the silence, broken only by the hoot of an owl. The sky was velvety black and the only light, the moon. I missed my husband Mick, four thousand miles away in Mumbai.
My dawg (who lives with me when I'm in Hunton)
the view

But now, one week later, here I am in the Maximum City. I can hear drilling, wailing, banging, honking, barking, shouting, whirring and drumming. The noise never stops, it goes on all night and is relentless. Mick sleeps through it, as he always does, while I pace the flat like a demented thing seeking peace. The lights are off and the curtains are drawn but the electric yellow light seeps in under doors and through gaps. I don't sleep much here but I read a lot more.
Our other place (at night)
The other view

The quiet of Kent is a welcome respite from this madness but this madness is also a welcome respite from the quiet of Kent.

Thing is, I don't feel I belong in either. 

Friday, 10 May 2013

Forever Beautiful

I have been a bit discombobulated of late because I’m reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and there’s no getting away from it - life really is that bad for many people in Mumbai’s slums. It’s like we’re living in a parallel universe. We live in the same city and share the same roads but we inhabit entirely different worlds. This morning I saw a man grab a dog by the throat and punch it in the face as bare-bottomed kids looked on. It was a desperate scene. Maybe the dog had eaten a bit of food he was saving? I was just on my way home from yoga, thinking about popping over to the Thai spa for a foot massage and now this? (‘This’ is always there but most of the time I’m not looking, I can’t look)

When I got home, the new lift boy jumped to attention as I entered the lift. He had been sitting on the lift stool with his head in his hands staring at the blank metallic wall. He’s a lanky lad of about 15 and the trousers of his uniform were flapping above his ankles. I guess they used to belong to the old lift guy who left.  I thought about my own grumpy 15-year-old who’d had a go at me the day before for paying for a rugby skills camp in Normandy organised by the school, because it fell in the summer holidays and it would eat into his precious Xbox time. I bet that lift kid wouldn’t mind if somebody paid for him to go on a rugby skills camp in Normandy but let’s face it, that’s not going to happen.

I’m not saying anything new here, I’ve written about these contrasts loads of times but reading this book has opened my eyes to the absolute desperation of it all. We hear and read about all these ‘initiatives’ and ‘co-operatives’ aimed at improving the lives of the slum-dwellers but it seems there is always someone in authority, some corporator or other creaming off a bit for themselves, exploiting the poor and telling benefactors one thing and doing another. It’s bloody hopeless really. Corruption is integral to India in every which way - there's always someone who needs their palm greasing.

To be honest, I switch off from it most of the time because that’s the only way I can deal with it. How else do I reconcile the fact that my (white??)teenybopper daughter gets paid Rs 4,000 for an hour’s work modelling pajamas when a grown woman working on a construction site in the  blistering sun is paid Rs 200 (less than $4) for a whole day’s work. If she’s working a 10 hour day, she’s earning 200 times less than a child who doesn’t even need the money. I did suggest she might like to donate it to an NGO but she’s saving for some shoes from Top Shop and who can blame her, she’s 13.

And while I’m on about such discrepancies, I might just add that the last time I went to Byculla Zoo, it cost me five rupees to get in (and I saw a bear fight! - it’s a tragic place though, I thoroughly don’t recommend it) compared to a tin of tomatoes I bought on the way home for Rs 125. That’s 25 times more!  I could have got 25 people into the zoo for the same price as a  tin of toms! If I took 25 people to the zoo in London today it would cost me GBP 625.00, that’s Rs 52, 331 as opposed to Rs 125. If my maths is right, I could get 10,466 people in to Byculla Zoo for the same price as I could get 25 people into London Zoo. But after all those crazy stats, I guess a woman earning Rs 200 a day might pay five rupees to visit the zoo on her day off but would certainly NOT buy a tin of imported tomatoes for more than 60 per cent of her daily wage. ENOUGH!

I think foreigners are more shocked than Indians by  living conditions in the slums  because it’s something totally alien to us. Unless you were brought up in the favelas of Brazil, you won’t have seen anything like it.  I guess that’s why we feel we need to respond in some way. Many Indian folk have grown up looking at slums all their lives and in many instances are quite disdainful. When the shoeless beggars come a-tapping at the car window, our driver Samir will complain that they should be out trying to find a proper job. I’d have thought job opportunities were pretty  thin on the ground if you’d never been to school and you only owned one pair of raggedy trousers but Samir , who grew up in a slum himself after his father died, is not so sympathetic. To look at him now you’d think he was some high flying exec in his neatly pressed shirt and trousers. His mother worked hard to ensure that he and his brothers went to school and were well turned out. He pumps iron five nights a week and owns his own modest home. He’s a big softie though and gives sweets and money to the street kids, telling them they should go to school and stay off the lighter-fuel.

I wonder what goes on in the heads of Mumbai’s super-rich when they look at the slums from the tinted windows of their Bentleys. I expect they look away like I do, hoping the hand cart puller standing there in the rain won’t scratch the paintwork when the lights change. There but for the grace of God...

One of my kids told me that a super wealthy classmate (the sort who has Russian bodyguards waiting in the playground) once asked for a maid to be sacked because she didn’t like lizards and the maid’s name was Liz which made her think of them. Seems to me the parents should spend less on bodyguards and more on lessons in compassion (I am sure, for the right price, you could find such lessons in Mumbai!)

Once I witnessed a well-heeled Indian lady nearly choke to death on her cupcake because I mentioned in passing at a coffee morning that our maid Lucy used the house loo and not the communal ‘servant’ loo on the stairs. I thought I was going to have to perform the Heimlich maneuver on her, she was that shocked. It’s certainly a topsy turvy world. I expect some people look at my life and have a view on it. The same billionaire kid is apparently fascinated with Polly’s lunchbox everyday. Most days I do not have the patience to spread rock hard Amul butter onto paper-thin Wibs bread so I end up desperately rifling through the cupboards.
“Mum, can you make me butter chicken today?”
“No love, but I can do you Marmite on crackers or why don’t you take a tin of soup. It’s a ring-pull?!”

That billionaire kid must say to her mother, “ooh, that poor firingi girl brought in last night’s Chinese takeaway for her lunch today” (don’t judge me!)

Nobody knows what really goes on in other people’s lives but we all have opinions nonetheless.

As I leave Mumbai on June 1st (I'm coming back in Jan) and drive to the International Airport, instead of worrying about the weight of my suitcase and whether they'll be time for a quick V and T before I get on the plane, I am going to look out for the fence erected to hide the slums of Annawadi from airport users like me. I wonder if the sunshine yellow ads for Italian floor tiles are still there, as it says in the book. The ads that read FOREVER BEAUTIFUL, FOREVER BEAUTIFUL, FOREVER BEAUTIFUL. The people who live behind the forever beautiful fence won't know or care that I lived here for four years or that now I am leaving but I will be thinking about them, perhaps forever.

Monday, 22 April 2013

What do you do all day?

I’ve got the painters in - that’s not a euphemism - they’re painting my empty, white apartment even whiter. Last week I had the packers in - they took everything except the white linen sofa, TV, laptop, white goods and a mattress. By the end of the day we’ll be living like John and Yoko and I am finding it strangely liberating.

We are not leaving Mumbai - far from it, we have just renewed the lease but I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by all the stuff in this apartment (stuff we brought with us and stuff bought here) and, with Polly starting her new school in the UK in September, I felt it was time to unfurl, to spread out a bit.

More than 100 boxes have been shipped back home - we’ve gone from ‘Steptoe’s Yard’ to the ‘Imagine’ video in one easy step and it’s made me realise just how little we actually need day to day. So far I have missed nothing. We used to have seven mirrors in this house and every time I passed one, I would have to have a little inspection or critique which would inevitably leave me with a mild depression. With no possessions I have more time to NOT do things like that and that makes me happy. With all the paraphernalia out of the way, I am free to concentrate on what I really want to do, which is, er.... what?

It’s amazing how you can fill the time when you are not working. Every morning Mick asks me what I am going to do today and somehow it feels like an accusation - maybe that’s just guilt on my part. So let me think. What do I do all day? I either go to yoga or the gym in the morning, maybe go for a run on the beach. By the time I’ve come home and had a shower it’s nearly lunchtime so I pop into Nature’s Basket for a snack. After lunch I go into the office and write a bit but I have been known to get sidetracked - last week I cleaned out a drawer, right down to the last pen top, paperclip, marble and fluff ball, while listening to the Archers Omnibus - that’s 75 minutes on one drawer!

But all this clearing out has been wonderfully cathartic. The only person who has enjoyed it more than me is our maid Lucy. She has had to arrange special transport on some days for all the stuff she is redistributing. I suddenly realised when sorting out the children’s books - more than a thousand of them - that, at the ages of 13 and 15, they are never going to read Mr Pinkwhistle or Teddy Robinson again. I opened a science encyclopedia to find someone (Hugh?) had cut through all the pages to make a hiding place which was filled with empty sweet wrappers. I saved just 10 books and gave the rest to Lucy’s son’s school so we're all feeling good.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to confront myself by taking everything else away because I am easily distracted. With both my children soon to be living apart from me, it’s time I considered my future. But what do I want to do?

When I first came to Mumbai I could barely use a computer and had a crap phone I didn’t know how to use and worse, I didn’t even care that I didn’t know how to use it! With no job to go to and with Lucy in the house all day, I’ve had the perfect opportunity to attend all sorts of courses. I can now do almost anything on my Apple Mac and have learnt to operate my DSLR camera without having to rely on the idiot button. I have uploaded all the photos and CDs and am lost without my iphone. I barely recognise the incompetent techno-buffoon of yesteryear.
Editing the mag for Mumbai Connexions has kept me busy  -not exactly throwing myself into the humanitarian cause (as I know some people do) but I haven’t been sunning myself by the pool at Waterstones everyday for four years either.

So I’m going back in June to sort out my house for re-rental and to buy a small 'lock 'n' leave' flat to keep our stuff in. I will settle Polly into her new school and then come back to Mumbai to start a new phase of life - one where I am not a full time mum anymore. Mick will be OK here on his own for a bit - with his one fork, one knife and one spoon. There is a hair-shirt quality about my Michael so I think he will secretly enjoy it. He will be quite happy lying on the mattress listening to Radio 4 and he can watch as much cricket as he likes without me telling him it makes me want to stick pins in my eyes. I will eat Cornflakes every night for dinner and he will doubtless live on masala Pot Noodles, both doing what we need to do to improve our lives longterm, but we'll miss each other.

I have no idea for how much longer we will live in India or where we will go to next. Our family life is very different to what it was four years ago. Maybe we will never all live under the same roof again, apart from holidays, who knows?
So there I was,counting down the weeks, biding my time and whistling 'Dixie' while my possessions were bobbing about on the high seas - when I got a phone call. 
Dripping wet (I was in the shower at the time) I picked it up and spoke to the vice president of one of the big construction companies behind India's new mass transportation system. Would I consider collaborating on a book documenting the displacement of tens of thousands of people from the Mumbai slums?
Opportunity knocks?

Friday, 15 March 2013

Hey Mr Rabbit, why are you so twitchy?

Last Sunday I got up at 6 to take part in the Rotary Club Fun Run which was due to start at 6.45. (Stay with me, hopefully this'll get better) The flyer promised a goody bag worth 4000 rupees for all participants of the 8km race - carrot enough for me!

Mick had been up half the night watching rugby but was still up before me (now watching cricket) when I shuffled past to put the kettle on at 6.15. He is always ready before me - a source of great irritation to us both. I know what time it is, I know what time we have to leave and I cannot and will not be chivvied along.

We arrived at the meeting point at Lokhandwala at 6.40 to find a few hundred people milling about looking lost; a DJ blasting out 'Hotel California' to the point of distortion and the President of the Rotary Club urging everyone to form an orderly queue to register.

Both of us, tightly wound as we are, became instantly bad tempered at the lack of organisation.  Why didn't people register earlier in the week as we had? Why do they always play 'Hotel California'?

The Rotary guy delivered the standard 'Women's Day' platitudes ("Womans is very important because without womans we would not be here!") and, rather scarily, warned runners to watch out for the traffic because "your life is more important than winning the race." (Hmm, I'll bear it in mind) Thanks for those pearls of wisdom but it's 7.15, can we start the race now?

No, we cannot. We must first warm up with some Zumba dancing led by a trio of exuberant teens who danced their legwarmers off in spite of the ear-splitting feedback from the sound system. I plonked myself down next to some elderly ladies in saris and trainers and took in the scene before me. There were girls from an orphanage in matching caps shaking their booties to the salsa beat. A man who must have been knocking on for 100 was waving his arms about and having a ball. It was 7.30 by this time and even though it was hotting up weather-wise and otherwise, Mick and I started to calm down a bit. So what if the race hadn't started yet? These people were having a blast. It was all very good-natured so why on earth were we getting so het up?

In true Indian style, just as it looked as though the race would never start, a steward came out of nowhere, released some balloons and we were off!

I guess a couple of hundred people took part in the 8km race with a couple of hundred more taking part in the 5km and 2.5km races which were for women only. As we ran head on into the early morning traffic, dodging rickshaws and buses, I watched several male runners slip off to relieve themselves at the side of the road (so long had we all waited for the race to start). Curious, I thought, especially as this was a race organised to celebrate 'Women's Day' that there should be no toilets for women (or anybody) en route. What was all that blather about respecting "womans" earlier on? Real change will only happen when details like this are not routinely overlooked.

Twenty-five minutes into the race, just as I was beginning to regret the cup of tea I'd had before I left the house, I saw the finish line and Mick sitting on the kerb rifling through his goody bag.

"What? Is it finished? No way was that 8km!"

"Yeah, I know, they got it wrong, it was actually 4.7km," he laughed.

The 4000 roop goody bag contained a packet of broken biscuits, some noodles and two multi-vitamin pills, along with money-off coupons for products and services I would never use. I started to explain to the official at the finish line that the course was not 8km as advertised but she just smiled and said "well-done, dear!" As far as she was concerned we were raising money and having fun and I guess that's all that matters.

An expat friend who left last year always used to say: "halve your expectations and then halve them again and you will never be disappointed." She was only here for a short time and, now I think about it, I don't actually agree with her. It's not a question of raising or lowering expectations, it's about realizing that everyone's expectations are so very different. What seems like chaos to us as foreigners, is often just good-natured fun to Indians. It's a question of acceptance and learning to go with the flow.

When I worked in West Africa years ago, a local man told me that you could always tell how long a foreigner had been in the country by how fast he was walking. Newbies fresh from the airport were practically sprinting everywhere but those who'd had time to drink in some of the local atmosphere were moving at a far more chilled pace. The trick is to adapt to your new environment and the sooner you do that, the more you will get from the experience.

So, for those of you who remember the Cadbury's Caramel ad, "Hey Mr Rabbit, why are you so twitchy? You just need to take everything really easy..."

P.S Thanks to Bombay Jules for the blog lessons this week. At last I can write in a font that you can't see from space!