Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 1 |
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Chapter 1

THE PAVEMENT where Sanjay was born, and lived out his first difficult years, can only be loosely described as a pavement. Mainly it consists of packed earth, irrigated at intervals by rivulets of sewage. Americans would call it a sidewalk and be more accurate, because at least there would be nothing paved about the word itself. But in India the English language harks back to the Raj, so a stretch of hard dirt like Sanjay’s birthplace will always be called a pavement, and give you the idea of something impermeable and slick instead of what it is — friable, porous, simply waiting to be washed away. About an hour and a half by bus out of downtown Bombay on a busy day, a right turn off the main road leading northish through the coastal suburbs takes you through yet more suburbs to an area where there are enough trees and scrub so that you can delude yourself for a few minutes that you have left the city. But leaving Bombay is never that easy. The ragged-edged asphalt two-lane road up through the low hills is heading for Film City, where much of India’s enormous movie output for any given year is created in a concentrated version of that uniquely subcontinental business atmosphere combining somnolent chaos and last-minute urgency. For a long stretch, on the left side of the road as you drive up, a low-level shanty town scaled down for crouching people is laid out in a linear manner on the bare earth, a sort of ribbon development for the unfortunate. Nothing has been omitted from the picture of deprivation. There are garbage dumps with women pissing behind them and men pissing on top. Someone’s mother-in-law is dying in full view on a spread sack in front of her front door while a couple of listlessly copulating dogs teeter past her mute scream. A little boy gets kicked in mid-shit by his elder brother. Meanwhile Film City, only a mile up the road, is providing and alternative and more easily contemplated reality. When Sanjay was tiny, the Film City back lot had just started to grow too, but like him it was unmistakeably there. They both exuded the energy that makes growth seem inevitable. In India, where life is much chancier than we are used to in the West, the inevitability of growth is quite a thing to exude.

Sanjay, of course, didn’t know that Film City even existed, even when he grew old enough to grasp what was going on around him. To start with he grasped nothing much except his mother’s breast. There wasn’t a lot in that, but luckily there was enough. Other children in Sanjay’s row of hovels were given more water than milk. The water wouldn’t have been sufficient even if it had been clean, which it never was, just as it was never cool. On the Bombay pavement, clean, cool water takes time and effort to come by. You can see a man selling it from a dented churn mounted on a cart. The sun heats the metal and the metal warms the water. Among the poor people of Bombay, systems gain heat, in a local reversal of the second law of thermodynamics. Sometimes only a wall away from them but many income levels above, air conditioning, with a soft roar and rattle, puts that law back into effect. The rich, the very rich, are cool. We can indulge ourselves, if we wish, in pronouncing it their fault that they breathe sweeter air, but to share that coolness out among all the mouths born to inhale the heat will take a better plan than any philanthropist has yet devised. It is said nowadays that general prosperity will work the trick, but the people who say so are already prosperous themselves, and few among them have ever lived on a Bombay pavement.

In the hovel next up the hill to the one inhabited by Sanjay’s family, there was little by like Sanjay who didn’t even have a mother. His father was a bottle-sorter in a reprocessing shed who had several older relatives living with him, so the baby was short of air as well as nourishment. One of the earliest sounds that Sanjay got used to was the sound of that little boy crying next door. On the pavements, an expression like ‘next door’ must be used approximately. Really all the shanties join together. They aren’t neat, separate constructions like the little cardboard houses that the Japanese builders’ labourers from out of town put together for themselves every evening in the underground walkways of Shinjuku station in Tokyo. Bombay pavement shanties join together in long lines because they are all made of the same scarce materials: rags, bags, the ever-precious kindling and the very occasional, jealously guarded piece of tin or sheet plastic. Detached residences would waste a wall. By the same token, to make shared walls thick would be wasteful too, so they are composed of not much more than an old grain bag lined with a random collection of rags and paper stuck on any old how, usually just by accumulated dirt. It’s caked dirt that holds whole houses together and joins them to the houses on either side, and so on until the pavement runs out at the next crossroads.

You can see these improvised sub-cities in almost every part of Bombay, even in the flash areas like Juhu Beach and the Malabar Hills. Except where the Parsees exert their influence, in the policed and barbered territories around the burial ground they call the Towers of Silence, the poverty of Bombay is always closing in on any new area of luxury and threatening to take over. In Rio, most of the shanty towns, the favelas, are up on the garbage tips above the city, and the majority of the little houses are made of colour-washed cement, so you will see a bay girl playing in pig-shit but at least she has a solid doorway to go back into when danger threatens, just like your daughter. But in Bombay the rag-and-bone suburbettes are all over the place, right in amongst the city like a parallel universe, and garbage is what they are made of. They have no colour except all the shades of dust and dirt. Dirty and dusty are often the same adjective in Hindi, reflecting the fact that the two substances are variations on a common theme. Just add heat or water to one of them and you’ll soon get the other. Add too much of both ad you get hot mud. When the monsoon comes the shanty towns in the lower-lying areas are the first to melt away, except for the few inspired constructions incorporating sheets of tin or hard plastic in the roof. In the monsoon it becomes easy I see why the pavement dwellers, though they are an aristocracy to those who sleep on the open streets, are a hopelessly underprivileged sub-class compared to those who live in the most noxious slum. Slums are not soluble. The shanties are, but in the long stretch of dry hot weather they look better than nothing, although only just.

 Look inside one of them and you will usually see somebody sick: a grandmother getting ready to die, a teenage boy coughing like phlegmatic clockwork. When Sanjay made his first journey, about a yard up the slightly sloping pavement to the door of the next hovel, what he saw inside was a young version of himself lying naked and struggling. The baby’s wailing and strangling noises were the audio accompaniment to Sanjay’s first sentient year. Sanjay’s mother told him not to look inside that resonant doorway but Sanjay, having been born with a contrary spirit, always did. He was fascinated by the waving legs. There were old women in there too, but they scarcely moved. When the baby’s father cracked under the strain and lost his bottle-sorting job it must have been a clear choice whether to kill himself or the baby. He compromised by going begging, using the baby as bait. He worked the last set of traffic lights on the main road inland, before the turn-off. It was a cherished spot that he sometimes had to fight for. The baby acquired a conspicuous facial injury during one of these fights and its father noticed that his prospects for attracting donations correspondingly improved. It was short step to improving the prospects further. Mysteriously the baby list its left hand. Bound up in grey rag smelling of petrol, the stump was thrust by the father at the windows of cars waiting at the traffic lights. Cars containing western visitors to Film City were a sure bet. How the baby survived its early medical history is a puzzle best left to science. It didn’t survive its later one, but by that time Sanjay was beyond regarding the short trip to the next doorway as an adventure. He had bigger plans.

During the day, Sanjay’s father was seldom home to stop him wandering. Sanjay’s father had a more or less steady job sorting plastic bags. Getting to the recycling shed, however, meant a long commute by bus that cost most of what he earned, and a newly acquired habit of drinking cost much of the rest. He was a man of disappointed hopes. He had brought his young wife and family in from the country with some confidence that he would find work washing clothes in one of Bombay’s vast open-air laundries which the whole state of Maharashtra has heard about.  But jobs at the laundries turned out to be booked up years in ahead. He had found himself at the back end of a dispirited mob funnelled between walls, with a tantalising view over one wall of the laundry stretching away into the distance, the thousands of laundry workers swatting cloth against the smooth stone tables with the air of men who knew where their next meal was coming from, even if it came slowly. The whole place was running with water. The water was dirty yet somehow the clothes emerged clean. Again, here is something that makes India marvellous: dirty water can give you clean clothes. In mainland China, by contrast, a thousand million people previously world famous for their ability to do laundry are now, through the miracle wrought by Communism, unable to wash your white shirt without turning it grey, or to press it without crushing the buttons like aspirin in a spoon.  In India they know how. Yet Bombay’s gigantic open-air laundry system held no place for Sanjay’s father. Having no work was a step worse than what he had left behind in his village, where the daily labour of scratching the earth was intolerable but at least tangible, and, if he managed to generate enough sons, might even one day offer rest. Here he was nothing. By the time his luck turned and he got the sorting job he had run through his capital. A room in a slum was out of the question. He could only just afford the shanty.  He was at work the day Sanjay was born so he didn’t see he dogs eat the afterbirth.

Sanjay’s father and mother had left farming behind but not its mentality. There were up-to-date poor people in India who went on having children because they didn’t know how not to, but might have stopped if they could have understood the technology. Sanjay’s father didn’t even have the desire to stop. He still thought of male children as a source of strength. That he did not arrange accidents for his female children he made a point of religious pride. He was a man of conviction. A reasonable number of very young pavement children are rounded up to be inoculated and sometimes even carted off to school, but such a fate had never befallen his children. He would not hear of it. If his wife had an opinion, she was given little respite in which to express it. As a consequence Sanjay was soon no longer the youngest child. When there were a couple younger than him, he was able to extend his voyages without fear of being missed, as long as he was back by nightfall. His father, when he finally got home, could often scarcely walk but he could still count.

Sanjay’s first big trip was across the road. He reached the other side on what would have been recognised as his third birthday, if anyone had known the date. The other side of the road was even more thronged than his own side. After running the gauntlet — cabs, cars, toot-toot micro-cabs, he emerged in another country. Instead of hovels there were place where people spread things out so that other people could look at them and sometimes buy them. There were all kinds of glittering things spread on mats and rugs. There were hundreds of different kinds of food. Some of it was being cooked right there where you could watch. Sanjay soon learned not to snatch at scraps. A slapped writ stings. But sometimes he was given a scrap to eat because of his winning looks. Looks shape life and among the poor they help stave off death. So on the pavement among the stalls Sanjay received the tiny amount of extra energy that made the difference between irreversible damage and the possibility of health. He was at knee height to the thousands of people passing along and he could look the stall-holders in the eye as they squatted. Some of them sat on low stools. One man sat on a painted stool with cards spread out in front of him that he could read, and so tell people what would happen to them in the future. The cards had lavish pictures on the back. The man said they were gods and goddesses. He had a parrot who would turn over the card that the client had picked out. The man on the coloured stool was the one who old Sanjay that it would be better to take a shit on the rubbish dump near his home in the morning than to try to find a place to shit amongst all these stallholders because it made some of them angry and they would not feed him scraps. That was the first item in Sanjay’s education, if you didn’t count his mother’s telling him not to piss inside the hovel. Not that she ever really told him: she just hit him when he did, whereas the man on the coloured stool had a kind voice and appealed to reason. As a consequence, Sanjay learned the lesson after a single telling, because his brain, against all the odds, was potentially as quick as his body was strong and healthy. Circumstances were contrived to under nourish them both, but the conclusion was not forgone. This was unusual, because on the Bombay pavements it almost always is.