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.