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!

Friday, 8 March 2013

Women's Day...I Just Don't Buy It!

Call me a cynic, but I am just not comfortable with all this Women’s Day stuff. “Let’s celebrate Women!” Yeah, let’s celebrate cats while we are at it. Do we need celebrating? Would the men folk like to be celebrated too? Or might they find it a bit demeaning?
Giving the li’l’ ladies their very own special day, I feel, undermines the struggle for equality. I expect Emeline Pankhurst will be spinning in her grave.

The HR woman at my husband’s office thought it would be a lovely idea for all the women to go home at lunchtime. You can just imagine their male colleagues thinking: ‘Hang on a minute, you want equal pay but you also expect special treatment because you’re a woman?’ You can’t have it both ways. This sort of thing breeds resentment between the sexes. And see how the whole Women’s Day thing (like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day) has been totally hijacked by the very businesses that seek to exploit women. Today’s papers are full of adverts peddling bullshit to women who feel inadequate about themselves.  

“Saluting the spirit of Womanhood!” says the ad for ‘Nurture Health Care’ which invites women to lose weight without exercise or diet. There is a photo of a gorgeous, slim woman and absolutely no mention of how this can be achieved but whatever it is, it’s 10 per cent off because it’s Women’s Day!
And then we have ‘Desire’ (strap line: ‘Women of 21st Century are Fat Free’ - really, is this true?) which is advertising a special ‘Women’s Day’ package where, for a little under 11,000 rupees, you can have your fat melted away by massage. Now, I’m no scientist, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that this is utter bull. And now I see that politicians are jumping on the bandwagon. "Women vote now, yeah? OK, let’s run on that ticket!"
I was at a festival of Music and Arts on Saturday night as my daughter was performing with her dance troupe. The festival had been organized by some political bigwig who used it as a platform to promote himself under the guise of promoting the arts in my neighbourhood.  Most of the seats were empty when we arrived so we plonked ourselves down in the second row, behind the politician and his family.
Eventually the sound system erupted with some ear-splitting jingle on a loop (which didn’t seem to bother anyone but me) This went on for a good 15 minutes until a disjointed voice announced our hostess for the evening: “And welcome on stage, the face of Whirlpool for the past six years, Miss………!”
The face of Whirlpool was certainly a looker but her presenting skills needed a fine tune. She had a wonderful gift of undermining everyone who came up on stage.
“Hey, has anyone here ever seen a funny female comedian? I certainly haven’t, so let’s give it up for……”
Turns out the comedienne was very funny and would have made a much better hostess than Whirlpool Face. Shame she wasn’t considered for the job. (I wonder why?)
The highlight of the evening was an appearance by  'heartthrob actor Varun Dhawan who delivered an emotional speech about two friends of his who were killed in a fight as they tried to defend their girlfriends. Whirlpool Face was so busy swooning and choosing who would be allowed up on stage to touch Varun that she didn’t hear him and asked him to repeat what he had just said. The poor guy looked mortified at having to deliver the same heartfelt speech twice. Then it was the turn of the politician to stand up and proclaim his great respect for females as the screens showed a film of women around the world being raped, attacked and felt up by their horrible bosses. Emotions running high, the politician pontificated about how everyone should be given equal respect. Perhaps he was not aware that his mother, a rather hard-faced and porcine lady in an expensive sari, was all the while ordering security to eject people who were sitting in the front seats as her relatives had now turned up. I guess everyone is equal but some are indeed more equal than others.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

About a Girl

There’s an advert on the telly for a pressure cooker which makes me want to leap off the balcony because I find it so utterly depressing.
 The husband brings all his mates home from work – unexpectedly – and tells wifey to get in the kitchen and rustle up something quick sticks. The look in his eye suggests she might get a whack around the head with a frying pan if it doesn’t pass muster. 
While all the suits make themselves at home, checking their Blackberries and probably stinking the house out with a heady mix of Playboy and Axe man spray, wifey chucks some lentils into the pressure cooker and hey presto, dinner is served.
The tension is palpable but hubby gives her the thumbs up and we can all breathe easily. She smiles nervously as one of the guys sidles over and rather creepily puts his hands on her shoulders and murmurs: “Whose wife is she anyway?”
The ad implies that if you knock up some tasty grub in a pressure cooker, guys might even notice you in your own home. Nice.
The ad comes on while I am watching ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ (except me) with my 13-year-old daughter, Polly.
“This advert is so annoying,” she says.  
“Yeah, I know, it really annoys me too. Advertising like this defines women in relation to men, whereas men are usually defined in relation to their work, their creativity or their play.”  I say, rather eruditely.
“No, it’s not that,” she says, “it’s just that in reality she wouldn’t cook the dinner herself, she’d get the maid to do it.”
Perhaps we’ve been living in India for too long.
“That’s not the point, Polly. He was treating his wife like a servant, not an equal and that is not acceptable.”
“When you ask Lucy to cook the dinner, are you treating her like a servant?”
“Lucy gets paid to do a job…”
“Shut up now mum, it’s coming back on”
And so we’re back to Raymond’s plaid shirt-wearing world of circa ‘96 America.
Raymond’s mother moves in with her son and his wife Debra after an argument with her husband, Frank. Her babying of Raymond drives Debra out of the house.
“You see, when sons are put on a pedestal by their mothers, they expect to be pampered by all women.”
“You put Hugh on a pedal stool.”  I want to laugh but I let it go because I’m trying to have a serious mother-daughter conversation here.  Polly will be starting at the same UK boarding school as Hugh in September and our telly-watching days together are numbered.
I watch my smart little girl eating with her fingers in front of the telly. She expertly mops the dhal with the folded chapatti and scoops it into her mouth.  The meal has been cooked by Lucy - in the pressure cooker.
We turn over to Comedy Central and shout in unison: “I’M NOT A SELL OUT! WHAT’S A SELLOUT?”  They must play that catch phrase a thousand times a day, it’s beyond annoying but we’ve learnt to live with it after all this time.
Finally, we settle down to watch the only decent thing on telly, ‘Two and a Half Men’ but the one with Charlie Sheen and not Ashton Kutcher (which is rubbish). We’ve been watching this show on and off for the past four years, though not necessarily in chronological sequence. One minute Jake is 17, the next he’s a chubby eight-year-old kid. It’s always funny though - if a little misogynistic.
“So let me get this straight,” says Polly.  “If your mum pampers you as a boy, you grow up expecting all women to pamper you?”
“Er yes, generally.”
“But if your mum doesn’t pamper you as a boy, like Charlie Sheen’s mum, you should grow up to treat women as equals, right?”
I am horribly out of my depth because I know what’s coming.”
“So why does Charlie treat all women as sex objects?”
“Yes, that is ironic,” I say, making a quick exit to the kitchen for a pre-weekend gin and tonic.
There was a time when whatever I told the kids was gospel but now even the youngest is questioning me and challenging my all-knowingness.  It’s a good thing I know but all the same I feel as if the last vestige of something is slipping away.

When we first came to Mumbai, Polly was nine and very gung-ho about this new family adventure. She travelled to school in a rickshaw and integrated seamlessly with the other children, adopting a Mumbai accent and wobbling her head with the best of them. Soon it will be time for her to leave and I wonder how much of India she will take with her.
Samir, our driver of three and a half years, asked me how old I was when I lived in South Africa. I told him I was exactly the same age as Polly is now. He wanted to know if I remembered much of it and I told him I did, very clearly, why did he ask?
I want Polly to remember me when she grows up.” He said.
The two of them sing along to Hindi pop songs in the car and share a mutual love of ‘Gossip Girl’. If ever there was a meeting of cultures…
“Mum, can you bring me a coconut out of the fridge please!”
I take my gin and tonic and her coconut and straw, back into the lounge.
“Anyway, I was thinking” she says “what do you mean when you say ‘ironic’?”
"Well, it comes from the word ‘irony’ which means, erm, you know, let me think…erm.... ”
Polly: “I know, it’s ironic that somebody like you, who is supposed to be so good at English, can’t give me a definition of ironic!”
“Come over here, and give me a cuddle” I say, buoyed by the gin, “I’m going to miss you!”

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Life's a Beach

The first time we went to Goa, we stayed in Candolim in the North because we didn’t know any better. Drunken, sun-burned Brits staggered about in the hot sun and Russians in two sizes (miniscule or massive) sat around in bars drinking beer and vodka for breakfast. You could select your menu option in most restaurants from a laminated photo and enjoy a BOGOF bucket of Long Island Ice Tea with your meal.

We got wise after this and picked the brains of long-term expats in Mumbai: Where’s the best place to go for a beach holiday in Goa? After a lot of cajoling we finally managed to extract, from good friends, the name of their secret Goan destination.  I can’t tell you where it is or I will have to kill you. Oh, alright then, it was Agonda Beach in the South. We loved it so much that we stayed in the same ramshackle beach house the next four times we visited Goa. The kids spent the days digging a hole in the sand and Mick and I read books or played Scrabble on the verandah, occasionally looking out to sea and wondering if it was too early to pop next door to Madhu’s for a beer. We would have carried on like this every time we had a few days off, but when Hugh shipped off to boarding school, Polly decided we couldn’t go to Agonda without him so we had to come up with a new short-break destination. As luck would have it, I was chatting to beach wear designer Sophie Paget Stevenson, when she mentioned her pop-up shop, Beach Candy, on Morjim Beach. She told me Fashion Designer Jade Jagger had a chalet in Morjim and also a boutique on the beach. As I am the sort of person who is very impressed by this level of name-dropping, my decision to go was made then and there.  Sophie said she always stayed at Palm Grove on Ashvem Beach so this was duly booked within the hour.

The journey was almost too easy. Getting out of Mumbai and arriving in such an idyllic spot really should take more than a few hours door to door –but it doesn’t.
Palm Grove is a small boutique resort run by a Swedish couple, who looked as though they’d arrived in Goa 20 years ago and made the decision to stay on and make a living for themselves in Paradise. It was a bit pricier than our place in Agonda, but hey ho, it was a lot more glamorous.
Our new home for the week ‘Honey Bunny’ was a large, half-brick, circular house with a palm frond roof and en-suite shower room. The majestic four-poster bed was rather romantically swathed in mosquito netting and fragrant candles were placed about the room.
Having set off from Mumbai mid afternoon, by the time our bags were brought to the room, we decided to pop down to the beach restaurant for a swift half and to watch the sun set.
After a few swift halves and a magnificent light show from Mother Nature, I nipped back to the room to use the loo. It was dark but I could make out the white toilet seat by the light of the moon slicing through the roof fronds. I had earlier noticed a large spider at the base of the bamboo wall facing the toilet so I thought I’d better just find the light switch in case it had moved. It’s a good job I did because there on the loo seat sat a shiny red frog. I dread to think what might have happened in the dark. By this time I was desperate so I banged the bamboo wall and the frog jumped to the floor, just as the spider leapt forward. They stood facing each other an inch apart. I don’t particularly like frogs but I am more scared of spiders. Especially this one as it was very big. The three of us stood there rooted to the spot until, rather spectacularly, the frog shot out its tongue and whipped the spider into its mouth and started chowing down on its big, black, hairy legs. It was the best thing I have ever seen in my life. I sat down and marveled at the wonders of nature and then kicked myself for not filming on my phone which was all the while in my hand. It would have gone viral! I couldn’t wait to get back to the bar and tell Mick and Polly how exciting my trip to the loo had been.
I wish this was a video clip of the frog eating the spider - soz

That was the highlight of the week, which suited us just fine! I spent the rest of the holiday collecting shells and building sand castles with Polly while Mick read his book and slept around the clock. We tried sun-bathing on the beach one day but felt too inadequate next to the bronzed and athletic bodies of professional beach people, mostly Russians. One of the knick-knack sellers on the beach asked me why I was so white. You wouldn’t think I’d lived in India for four years! I guess I’m just not the tanning type.
And so, every evening at sunset, Mick would wake from his day’s sleeping/reading and accompany us to one of the many beach bars so we could enjoy a cocktail and a piece of fresh, meaty fish and watch the hippies do yoga poses on the beach. I suppose they will have to get a job one day, we muse to each other as the sun goes down.
There are definitely some upsides to living in Mumbai and this is one of them!

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The name's Kunte, Sitaram Kunte

Ah, Mumbai Mirror, I love you. Every day you bring me joy and laughter as well as sadness and tears. The moment you slip from the virgin folds of the mostly unread (in this house, anyway) Times of India, the roller-coaster begins.

Mr Kunte
One minute I am devastated by the deaths, by intentional poisoning, of 10 pygmy elephants accompanied by a photo of a three-month-old pygmy elephant calf trying to wake its dead mother, the next you tell me that the BMC chief is called Sitaram Kunte. Hahahaha. I still haven’t got over the Chief Minister of Delhi being called Sheila Dikshit. Hahahaha. What’s wrong with me? I am a delinquent 47-year-old mother-of-two with a weakness for toilet humour.

When my son came home from his first day at school here in Mumbai, aged 11, he couldn’t wait to tell me the names of some of his classmates.
“Guess what, mum? There’s a girl called Pooja and another one called Ishita! But best of all… a boy called Aasman. It sounds like ‘arse’ doesn’t it, mummy?”
“Yes son,” I said, “and what if his surname was Pandit, it would be Aasman Pandit like Arse Bandit, wouldn’t it!”
Both of us fell about laughing. Hahahaha. As a mother, I should be discouraging this sort of behaviour, but I can’t help myself. This is not responsible parenting.
When I was a cub reporter at the Kentish Times, I used to cover the inquests at the Coroner’s Court in Dartford and the names of all the officials caused me no end of amusement. The coroner was called Coroner Warrener, his wife, also a coroner, was called Coroner Helena Warrener, the pathologist was Pete Jerreat and the Doctor, and I kid you not, was Doctor Dot. Hahahaha, I thought as I sat looking serious on the press bench. I would listen and take notes on the most gruesome and tragic of deaths, all the while thinking hahahaha every time one of the officials was mentioned by name.
There is absolutely no depth to this post (is there ever?) so please don’t expect any. I am writing it because it is January 30 and my resolution this year was to post entries other than my once a month 'Chalo' column. I cannot break into February not having made the effort. It is also borne out of envy of Bombay Jules, who I just had lunch with, a most prolific blogger who notches up at least ten beautifully crafted and witty entries a month (with photos!)  I am also curious to see what happens to my hit counter which only has four boxes to contain the number of hits which is currently at 9857. What happens when it hits 10,000? Will I have to go back to 0000? These things trouble me because I am a technospaz but I am hoping this too can be improved upon in 2013.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Big Mouth Strikes Again

A  Chalo reader gave me pause for thought today when she suggested this column was anti- Mumbai and seemed out of place among the travelogues and festival articles. Believe it or not, after nearly four years here, I am actually very pro-Mumbai, I just don’t like some of the stuff that goes on. I could write about how colourful all the saris are and how funny it is to see a cow in the traffic but I don’t want to. There is more afoot.

 I love living in Mumbai and the people are wonderful but the facts are:  A) it’s been in decline for years and B) it’s been over-developed to within an inch of its life - all at the same time!  Haphazard planning together with a total lack of civic vision have led to a chaotic city in need of a great deal of TLC.  I know I am a guest here but I can see as well as anyone else that the powers-that-be are corrupt and apathetic and in need of a good shake up. Can I say this as a foreigner without coming across as a closet Imperialist?

I have just read a story buried on page NINE of the Mumbai Mirror about a baby girl who died after having her face ‘nibbled’ by a rat while sleeping between her parents in Borivali. The father says: “Rats are a problem but we have no choice.” Whaaatttt! It’s 2013! (And ‘nibbled’ is such a delicate euphemism – is it an attempt to make it sound less horrific?  How about ‘chewed off?’ ‘cos them’s the facts) The BMC has asked its pesticide officer for a report on the number of rats killed in the area. End of (I suspect).  We are always reading stuff like this in the newspapers. Must I avert my eyes?

Another euphemism commonly used is ‘Eve-teasing’ - that’s sexual harassment to you and me.  It’ll be interesting to see if this quaint term gets kicked to the curb now that the eyes of the world are fixed on India, watching to see how the authorities - accused of not taking it seriously enough - deal with the recent gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi. This is a case not just about women’s rights; it’s also deep-rooted in caste so it will be interesting to see how it unfurls.
Yes, India, you are indeed a mystery to the rest of the world and we are intrigued by your contrasts and contradictions. In Mumbai, we watch open-mouthed as billionaires and beggars move around cheek by jowl. Cows are sacred yet we see them eating rubbish piled up on the roadside. Stray dogs roam in packs, all skin-‘n’-bone-‘n’- ripped-off ears, while pet shops/spas on every corner sell all-organic birthday cakes for pet pooches. What gives?  Sometimes it’s really hard for me, as a foreigner, to process the information in front of me. Toddlers run about in the traffic looking for coins while chauffeured Bollywood wannabes in eight inch stilettos “Yaaaa, Nooo” into their Blackberries.   

Where I live there is a swanky jewellers called ‘Daily Diamonds’ right next-door to a grim-looking roach-coach called ‘Fisheteria’ (formerly ‘I Heart Prawns’) I don’t know why but this is too much of juxtaposition for my little brain to cope with.

There seems to be a great pride in the nation - when you go to the cinema everyone stands to sing the national anthem – but where’s the civic pride? Mumbai has few green open spaces, death-trap footpaths, polluted rivers and open sewers. I’m confuuuused!

On the one hand we have booming India striding into the future; its young and dynamic population taking over the world yet on the other, there are enclaves where time seems to stand still.

Most Saturday mornings at 7am I go for a run in Aarey Milk Colony, a dairy farming area in Goregaon with jungle-crested hills and clear(ish)-running rivers. At that time in the morning, a low mist and thick smoke from hundreds of small fires add to the other-worldliness and people and animals go about their business uninterrupted by the modern world. Suddenly I come bursting into this rural idyll with my new Asics trainers, heart-rate monitor and ipod blasting out a bit of Alt-J, I feel incongruous, like a ghost from the future who shouldn’t be there. Last week I ran past a figure standing alone in the mist, thin as a pin and wrapped in a dark wool blanket. I glanced fleetingly at the wrinkled face but couldn’t make out if it was a man or a woman. The figure would not have been out of place standing there 500 years ago. I don’t know what was going on in his/her mind but I’m pretty sure he/she wasn’t worrying about getting an organic birthday cake for his/her dog.  

As I run by people are performing their morning ablutions. Men in loin clothes lather-up their sinewy bodies and use water from a broken pipe to rinse. I dare not look left or right into the sparse woods because if I do, I might catch the eye of one of the many squatting figures quietly doing the needful.

 It seems cockamamie to me that there are so many spas for dogs but not nearly enough toilets for humans. Apparently almost half of all the homes in India – the world’s largest democracy- do not have a toilet. Go figure.

When India’s minister for rural development - Jairam Ramesh - recently announced that India was more in need of toilets than temples, an angry mob descended on his home and yet he still went on to say that women should refuse to get married unless they could be guaranteed a toilet in the new home. High-Five Jairam-ji! It’s not what everybody wants to hear so it takes a Big Mouth to say it!


P.S The title Big Mouth Strikes Again – is, of course, an homage to the world’s most eloquent poet, Morrissey who was this week strung up by that most insidious rag - The Daily Mail - for daring to say, amongst other things: “If I kicked a dog I would be fined 200 pounds yet we are asked to accept (David) Cameron shooting down a majestic stag for a hoot.” The DM refers to this perfectly reasonable comment as ‘a rant’. I attempted to add my own online comment in support of the great Mozza but the DM (like Stalin) does not allow any comments which are not wholly favourable to them.  A very sinister publication indeed.