The taxi driver taking me to Mumbai airport was initially nonchalant. He arrived at my hotel at the requested hour early on a Sunday morning, turned up the air conditioning, provided me with a small bottle of dubious water and asked, just to check, as we hit Mumbai’s inevitable stationary traffic, despite it being a very early hour on a Sunday morning: “What time is your flight, Madam?”
“One o’clock,” I said.
He was baffled. You are required to turn up early for international flights these days, so that staff can consult databases to see if you might be harbouring a bomb in your carry-on, or so that they can sell off your seat if you appear to be non-committal about actually undertaking the journey you have booked and paid for (happened to me once in Delhi). My driver considered the timings and was appalled. “But you will be one and a half hours early, Madam. One and a half hours early for the three hours early.”
I knew. I also knew that there was little to do at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport that I hadn’t enjoyed doing on a previous trip a few weeks before. I wasn’t getting to the airport early for the shopping; I was getting to the airport early because I didn’t want to miss out on the plane that was taking me HOME.
“I am a nervous traveller,” I said. “I like to make sure I am on time.”
I was in Mumbai during Ganesh Chaturthi, the festival that honours the birth of the much-loved elephant-headed god. “Have you seen the celebrations, Madam?” asked my driver.
I admitted I hadn’t. I had been in a recording studio every working day and had made sure to finish with the team before 3 o’clock so that voice artistes, sound engineers, my Hindi-speaking guru and myself could get back to our respective lodgings before the streets clogged up with families taking their idol to bathe in the sea.
“Then I will take you to see the god.”
We went to see the god.
The bad fairies at my christening allotted me an inordinate amount of acceptance. I simply accepted the fact that my drive to Chhatrapati Shivaji airport would now include a visit to the elephant god. Ganesh is a remover of obstacles so I didn’t think he would be putting obstacles in my way for my planned international travel. I trusted that much, at least.
Ganesh was waiting for me in a temple down a small street where my taxi driver plied with aplomb between families choosing chickens to have their heads cut off. (I did not take a picture of this as I felt it was unfriendly to the chickens.) (I did, however, wonder if I could smuggle a chicken home, being a cheap take on a Sunday roast, although I wasn’t certain that a) it was legal b) British Airways would refrigerate a headless chicken for me en route. I therefore resigned myself to doing what I usually do on a Sunday flight that gets me home late, which is to eat all the in-flight snacks.)
I took off my shoes at the temple door, wondering about the dust and chicken-blood getting between my toes, and contemplated Ganesh. He is a friendly god. I had not prepared any prayers as I thought I was going straight to the airport so said an impromptu one. I was envious of a Kashmir silk carpet I had seen on a previous visit to India; I had had no time at all on this visit to search out its like. I had admired the carpet’s lustre, its softness, its subtle colours, and the charming way it could cover an old stain on my dining-room floor. I mentioned to Ganesh that if he could rustle up a suitable carpet in the few hours in India that were remaining, I’d be very grateful.
Back outside, my driver announced that while he would now take me further in the direction of the airport, we would stop once more on the way.
“We will see my brother.”
“Oh. Okay,” I said, conscious that my preferred margin for early arrival at international airports was growing increasingly shorter. We pitched up outside an arts-and-heritage craft affair where the owner invited me in with easy ease.
“Take some tea, Madam?”
“I have no time to take tea. I was meant to be at the airport an hour ago.”
“You’ve still got three and a half hours in hand, madam, we think?” His brother had obviously radioed ahead. “What would you like to see?”
“Got any carpets?”
Did he have carpets? He had the finest selection of carpets this side of the airport, he assured me. He instantly commanded a harried lad to unroll some for my inspection. “Roll!” That made me smile. The lad actually had something to roll. In our Bollywood studio all week, whenever we were good to go, the sound engineer called out: “Rolling!” to our voice artiste. There was physically nothing in the equipment any more that could roll, no tape, no film, just some computer memory deep in a hard drive, but we like to keep the old terminology sometimes.
“I don’t want these carpets.” A veritable cascade of carpets had unrolled at my feet, some larger than the entire area of my dining room. “I don’t want a carpet that I don’t want.”
“Which carpet do you want?”
I indicated with my hands. “About so big. And Kashmir silk.”
There was just the one in the store. One. The patient lad unrolled it at my feet. “It folds very small,” said the brother, while the lad demonstrated his folding talents, twisting it down to the size of a sugar cube and rolling it out again, unharmed. “Very easy for travel.” The brother launched into further paeans to the carpet which included the words ‘hand-knotted’, ‘genuine’, and ‘one hundred per cent’. I didn’t hear much as I was looking at the blue and the silk and the shine and thinking that I had troubled Ganesh for a carpet and he had provided me with one. To reject it would be ungrateful.
If you have ever done any shopping in India, you will know that these words constitute not so much an invitation to state the actual price, but the opening price. The brother and I began a fierce war of bids on the calculator while the rolling lad folded again. Eventually, I left with both our honours intact. I had paid much less for the carpet than I had hoped; the vendor had probably sold it for much more than he had hoped. If my flight had been later, I could probably have wrangled a chicken under my arm into the bargain.
Still, I had a carpet. One that I wanted. It went into my suitcase no problem (ceremonially placed there by my driver who, on reflection, was probably not a brother of the carpet-vendor but merely on commission). It flew home with me because, of course, I arrived at Chhatrapati Shivaji with so much time before my flight that my journey was never in doubt.
Thank you, Ganesh. The carpet shines and covers the stain most beautifully.