Indian in England

Musings of a student

Monday, April 26, 2004

What do I miss about India?

MANY people I meet ask me: what do I miss the most about India?

“My salary,” I tell them. “My Big Fat Mumbai salary.”

And that is almost the truth, though I must admit the size of my former salary is more a distortion of my mind than actual fact. In any case, I quite enjoyed having a certain amount deposited into my account every month in lieu of the faultless and extraordinary services I provided -- exercising the equipment in the gym regularly, ensuring no food or drink the canteen produced ever went waste, standing behind colleagues to make rude remarks about their work, snapping at people to bring cheer and liveliness into the office… in short, keeping everyone on their toes.

I bring all this up not to point out I was criminally underpaid -- which, of course, I was, and I plan to sue my ex-employers for it -- but to mention there is something I miss about Mumbai more than my salary.

Namely, my dance classes.

That’s right: my ballroom dance classes.

I took up ballroom after my successful failure at jazz dancing. Actually, that’s not true; I had started even before that, about the time I decided to marry a certain lady of my acquaintance, though it was only in the last seven or eight months before I left India that I put on my serious dancing shoes.

My Editor-in-Chief, exhilarated by the fact he was finally getting rid of me (he had tried hard for six-and-a-half years, poor chap, sending me again and again to unhealthy places), was too busy writing glowing testimonials for me and troubleshooting with the management on my behalf to supervise what exactly I was doing. Which left me enough time for some serious dancing.

Till then I had tried mostly Standard ballroom, at the J J Rodriguez’s, one of Mumbai’s venerable (not to mention expensive) institutes, a couple of levels alone, and then in the company of my delightful friend Jyotsna. Both of us were exceptionally gifted -- me with a few left feet and she more traditionally --and I must say that made for a most exciting partnership.

Last summer, having put the Ed-in-Chief to some useful work, I started on Latin ballroom. My interest in Latin owed a lot to Deepa Karkera, who I met on while furiously surfing for people to join Footknots, an interest group for ballroom dancers I had launched in the throes of my initial dance-mania.

My major concern was whether I would be able to get the fantastic hip movements that Latin (Rumba, Cha Cha, Bolero…) so called for, especially since my hips were, well, a bit unmoveable. To compound things, I was used to Standard dances like Waltz and Foxtrot, which called for the exact opposite -- upper body sways with absolute stillness of the lower body, and rise and falls.

“Oh, don’t worry!” Deepa said. “The hip movements are easy… It depends on correct foot-placement, nothing else!”

She bullied me into visiting The Quickstep, the institute she worked for in Andheri -- and I was floored.

It was the basic batch I watched that day, dancing to Desert Rose, quick-quick and slow, forward and side, backward and side, gracefully, teasingly, in what is arguably the most sensuous of all dances, Rumba.

I signed up the next day.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I gave my bosses the slip and disappeared for a couple of hours.

A month on, I signed up for more. For Salsa, and another special Standard batch, increasing my time on the floor to six hours every Tuesday and Thursday, and four hours each on Saturdays and Sundays. My classes were only four hours, but I stuck on for some extra dancing with the other batches.

My Executive Ed, a pony-tailed gent with a strange weakness for long taxi-rides wearing expensive sunglasses, was most curious about my lengthy absences. I told him the truth -- that I was having an affair, with a series of beautiful women -- but he only looked at me suspiciously and mumbled “Bugger!”

A friend who saw my initial efforts was amazed at my talent. He complimented me, saying I looked exactly like I was lifting weights in the gym. Encouraged, I moved on, through lots and lots of Rumba and Cha Cha, a bit of Samba and Tango, some Salsa, R&R and Jive, more Waltz, more Foxtrot…. and finally Bolero (which is my second favourite dance, after Rumba and ahead of Waltz). I learnt the girl’s part too, just so I could force-feed my wife whenever I got the chance.

By September I was moving fairly okay (my cucurachas, which I spent hours practising in front of the mirror, had stopped looking like I had severe hip spasms), at least enough for me to be allowed to play stand-in trainer occasionally. Now this is where I introduce -- and lavishly plug -- my instructor-friend Anand Majumdar.

Anand, an engineer-turned-dancer, is a brilliant -- and I mean brilliant -- teacher. (Let’s face it: he actually got me moving.) A perfectionist, he insisted on correct footwork and posture, repeatedly, engagingly, and I like to think we got most of it down. So if you are in Mumbai and interested in ballroom, he is your man. Write to him, do, or ring him on 9820399296.

And now, and now, and now… My batch-mates are two levels my seniors, the Bandra branch (which I like to think of as my paternal property) is doing heavy business, Footknots have 39 members (ahem), The Quickstep has opened a branch in Mumbai Central… and I sit here missing ballroom!

Or is it the people I miss? Is it gentleman Jokhi, graceful Ruksana, meticulous Majumdar, wonderboy Vineet (17 years and, gosh, what a dancer!), madcap Mehejebeen (aka Ms Salsa), sweet Deepa, kind Kruti, tranquil Tejas, charming Maheep, clever Kalpaja, matter-of-fact Smita, and perfectionist Pam… and my online mates in Bangalore, Prithvi (people, he runs Rock Around the Clock and can be reached at (080) 567 29383 or by clicking here) and Epi and Pat and Frida and Celia -- is it them I miss?

Strange. In cold pale faraway England, instead of the hot curries and warm weather and the colour and confusion and chaos (not to mention the Big Fat Mumbai salary) I left behind, I am nostalgic for Rumba and Bolero and Waltz. Who would have thought.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

He's still smiling

IN September or October or November, or whenever I save up enough money for a quick trip home, I have a lunch date in Mumbai -- and I will be darned if I miss it.

It’s a date I made on March 22 by email. With two new friends, Anjum and his wife Patcy.

I call them ‘new friends’ because though I worked with Anjum for three years, we never really interacted. He was this cheerful, chubby guy, who looked a bit like the Malayalee film star Mohanlal (the two of them had a long chat, incidentally, one rainy day in Mumbai). At meal times Anjum always managed to order food that looked far more appetising than the stuff on my plate, and our interactions stopped with me raiding his plate shamelessly.

Seven months ago Anjum went to a GP with a rash on his abdomen. The GP got some tests done -- and told Anjum he had cancer.

Anjum went for a second opinion, to one of the most reputed hospitals in Mumbai. More tests were called for, and the outcome was gloomy.

Anjum had adrenal cancer. It had spread to his liver and lungs. His chances were slim.

Anjum was 31.

I met Anjum and Patcy when they returned from that appointment. Anjum’s face was a bit red, but that was the only indication something was wrong. He was still smiling, struggling to appear normal, and succeeding.

Over the next months, Anjum and Patcy proved themselves most gritty. They lived their private hell. But rarely did they let it show.

I met them a week later for lunch. In his jocular way, Anjum spoke about the relatives who came to visit him in a steady tearful stream. Patcy added her own comments, punctuating it at regular intervals with her trademark ‘Tereko maloom nahin main kya cheez hoon [You don’t know what stuff I am made of]’, and we all had a pleasant time talking about an unpleasant topic.

Only once was there an uncomfortable moment. Speaking about their long relationship -- they have been together since they were teenagers -- Patcy broke off suddenly.

“I have been around him for so long,” she said. “And now suddenly…”

“Now suddenly what?” Anjum said. “I will be here as before.”

Chemotherapy began. Anjum shaved his head to prevent his hair falling. He continued to attend office.

By the time I was ready to leave for England, Anjum was too weak to work. I spoke to him on November 10, the day I flew out. He sounded normal, discussing with me in detail his treatment, and how he was doing.

About a month ago, I spoke to him again. This time, on Rediff Bol, an instant messenger.

Arre, yaar [What, mate],” he said, as chirpy as ever, “now I have lost my moustache too!”

Exactly a month ago, Anjum was wheeled in for surgery. They cut out his tumour. But he developed septicaemia and walked to death’s doorstep before breaking free.

He is home now, drained of strength, resting before the next bout of crucial chemo to tackle the secondary cancer.

He is still smiling.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Burning Bournemouth

BOURNEMOUTH is a town that is always setting itself on fire here or there.

Every five minutes there is a fire tender tearing down the town centre roundabout on two wheels. Sometimes there are two, blaring sirens and all, followed by an ambulance driven by a succession of pretty girls (or is it just one girl, going back and forth?). Gosh, what a din they create.

The frequency of this road-race seriously alarmed me. The last thing I wanted was the town to burn itself out before I finished my thesis. So I threw myself into frenzied research.

A few weeks ago I was huffing it out in the university gym when the fire alarm sounded. Unused to obeying silly sounds I continued huffing -- till an instructor dragged me off the treadmill.

I tried to tell her I was from India, where we walked through fire all the time, and anyway I didn’t burn easily. But she pushed me towards the door.

“Hang on,” I said. “Let me get my clothes.”

“No, no, out!”


“Out! NOW!”

So I stepped out into the cold and modelled in my shorts and singlet. After five minutes, I was ready for some serious defrosting.

Worse, there was no sign of fire, not even a wisp of smoke. But they would not let us in. The alarm had sounded and the premise evacuated. Now nobody could go in till the fire force arrived and gave the all-clear. That was that.

Just as I was seriously considering setting fire to the place myself, the fire tender arrived. A couple of firemen got out calmly. After a lengthy, painstaking investigation lasting 30 seconds they confirmed nothing was burning.

The next day I keyed in ‘UK fire statistics’ in Google and came up with this bit of official info: In 2001 there were 1,027,500 fire alarms across the country -- of which 481,000 were false.

And of the false alarms, which has increased by four per cent, more than half (279,800) were due to apparatus malfunction -- an increase of six per cent since 2000.

Now I know Bournemouth is not burning. We just happen to have a lot of faulty fire alarms here.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Spare change, sir?

BOURNEMOUTH is windy. Wickedly windy. Through the day, every day.

Anyone under 12 stones is at serious risk here. Every year hundreds of children and anorexic adults are blown away never to be heard of again. An equal number -- mainly women on diet, I believe -- is deposited atop distant lampposts, trees and high-rise ledges, necessitating immediate rescue by hefty firemen wearing weighted boots.

This, of course, is the real reason why Bournemouth is such an expensive place to live in. The constant demand for rescue operations pushes up the council tax, which, in turn, hikes pretty much everything else.

Initially I found the wind cute. There I would be walking along and suddenly a gust would half-carry me a few furlongs. I would take a few more steps and the wind would do its bit again. It certainly was a faster way of commuting.

But once I made it clear I was going to be around for three years, the wind turned nasty. Now it always blows from the opposite direction, forcing me to fight my way. And when I am at the height of my struggle, leaning into it with all my weight, it would stop, just like that, and I would end up scurrying the next few metres to regain my balance.

Not just me, all Bournemouthians are exposed to this harassment in my part of the town. Around Lansdowne, which is close to the beach, you will see people doing this curious walk -- two steps in slow motion leaning forward, the next four at a run leaning back -- at any point of the day, hanging on for dear life to bulging, white ASDA bags.

The only person immune to all this is a lady of inscrutable age, who sits in a doorway near my office building. Wind or storm, she is there most evenings, wrapped in a brown blanket, her bright -- and sometimes glazed -- eyes shining out of a leathery face.

For the past five months, she has been trying to part me from my pennies. Needless to say, she hasn’t had any success, and I don’t think she ever will.

“Excuse me, sir,” she will sing out as I approach, “Would you have any spare change, please?”

And as I hurry past keeping a very firm hand on my wallet, “Thanks anyway sir, enjoy your evening…”

It’s amazing, her perseverance. I thought she would give up if I walked by pretending not to hear. I tried this for a few weeks.

Then I decided to give her my malevolent stare. I practised it in front of the mirror till my brow hurt and let her have it the next evening. No dice. For a person who sits still shrugging off the elements of nature, that was water of a duck’s back, I guess.

My nerves grated raw by her continued assault, I decided to be nasty to her. Choosing an evening when no one was within earshot, I walked towards her as soon as she began her song.

“Don’t have any change to spare,” I said. “Nor will I for the next three years. So you can stop asking!”

“Thanks anyway, sir,” she sang out through a mouth of reddish, broken teeth and liquor stench. “Enjoy your evening…”

She still asks me for money. But it doesn’t get under my skin anymore. We are allies now, and not just against the wind.