COMPETITION LITERALLY LOST NUMBER 84
Sunday 04 July 1999
he rising mercury changed everything. In the gardens the animals shrivelled and died. The earth cracked; the lawns became bald and bleached. The tar on the roads glistened like liquid quicksilver.
People became tired and listless. Fruit decayed: an uneaten mango, firm at breakfast, could be covered with a thin lint of mould by evening. Water shot boiling from the cold taps. There was no relief except to shower with bottles of cold water from Mrs Puri's fridge.
Added to the morning procession of salesmen were melon sellers and juice boys, cool water vendors (50 paise a glass) and great caravans of ice cream wallahs. In the Old City men set up small roadside stalls around big red earthenware pots containing jal jeera, a dark, spicy, green liquid which burns the mouth but cools the body: a more primitive yet more effective coolant than anything on offer in the new town.
Unconsciously, we adapted our routine to suit the new conditions. We rose at five-thirty and breakfasted outside on fresh mangoes. After a light lunch we would siesta in our bedroom, and not emerge until sunset. The balmy evenings were the compensation for the unpleasantness of the day. At six p.m. we would call Mr Singh to take us to swim in one of the hotel pools or maybe to wander among the old tombs in the Lodhi Gardens; as we passed, black bats would flit through the ruins like departed spirits.
Later we would sit outside on the terrace reading and drinking cold beer by candlelight; translucent green geckos would hoover up the mosquitoes from around the flames as we read. Sometimes, on the nights when there were power cuts and the ceiling fans ceased to whirr, we would drag our mattresses outside and sleep under the stars.
As the sun grew more fierce, our complexions darkened and Olivia's freckles sprang into prominence. I thought them beautiful, but they clearly alarmed Mr Singh who was not used to my wife's Celtic colouring. One morning, while driving through the Old City, he turned quite suddenly into the Meena Bazaar near the Jama Masjid. Without any explanation, he jumped out and approached one of the Ayurvedic healers who for centuries have sat on the roadside here, surrounded by the ingredients of their trade: live iguanas whose fried juices are said to cure impotence; ginseng for philtres used to spread or extinguish the fires of love; tree bark to ward off a woman's menopause; the bringraj herb from the high Himalayas said to conquer baldness or thicken the beard of the most effete Sikh.
As I sat in the hot taxi I could see Balvinder Singh haggling with one of the healers. Eventually Balvinder handed over a pocketful of change and the healer gave him a small pot of white powder. On returning to the car, to my surprise Balvinder solemnly handed the pot to me.
"For madam," he said earnestly.
"Thank you," I said. "But what is it?'
"Medicine," said Balvinder. "To cure Mrs William.'
"Her face," said Balvinder, drumming his fingers on his cheekbones. "This powder will cure Madam's pox." He pointed to the sky: "Indian sun. Very bad for British ladies.'
I looked baffled; my friend looked embarrassed.
"Sahib," he whispered. "This powder will make Mrs William's skin white again."
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