Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 10 |
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Chapter 10

SANJAY FOUND IT hard to accept that he had seen Urmila for the last time. It was several days before he was able to go back to earning a living, so he had to hustle hard when he did. He could not really afford the time to hang around the vicinity of the school on the next day she would be there, and wait for her to come out. He did so anyway, until he noticed that one of her brothers had turned up. There was another brother the following week. She was a family asset. They had plans for her. They weren’t going to let her be wasted on a nobody. So Sanjay shelved the project. He postponed his love, telling himself there would be another day. Besides, he had another area of interest. Throughout this period of disappointment he had continued to participate in weekend cricket matches. He had developed into a reasonable batsman who could hit the ball in some way or another every second time. As a bowler he could at least project the ball in the right general direction. For cricket as played by the Bombay rag-tag and bobtail, these were high enough standards, and he was content to field for hours on end while he occupied himself with his own thoughts. It was a time he could spend considering his life. One afternoon he realised someone else was considering it too.

Weekend cricket in Azad Park is not much of a spectacle unless you are actually participating. There are a dozen games going on at once, with far more than the regulation number of players in each team. It is quite possible, indeed frequent, for a fielder to be active in several matches at once. The ball is only a tennis ball. There is no effective umpiring except by gang leaders. Superficially the whole arrangement looks like a shambles, but closer inspection reveals it to be nothing as grand as that. It isn’t a broken down system. It never was a system. The occasional talented boy might show up but in these circumstances he won’t develop. The cricketers who become national heroes start off in less humble circumstances and get better at playing the game because the game they play has some degree of organisation to it. Apart from the very occasional natural, nobody who plays cricket in Azad Park is going anywhere. Their game is like their lives. Nothing happens that is worth looking at, so anyone who wanders by and stops to watch must be curious about something else. This spectator obviously was.

He was a foreigner. When Sanjay realised that the man was looking at him, he returned the scrutiny, and detected all the signs of someone rich from England. The man wore a suit but it was light in colour and weight, well adapted to the heat. Though tall, stooping and half bald in that typically English way, he was well groomed. As with all people of European origin it was easy to tell his age. He was no longer young, but not yet in decline. Sanjay found the man’s shoes especially telling: a sort of soft, unpolished, cloth-like leather that the very rich Indians sometimes wore to establish their connection with the glories of past times. These shoes, together with a certain limpness of gesture and an unduly fond smile, convinced Sanjay that the man was interested in boys. After half an hour there could be no mistaking that Sanjay had been chosen. It was so noticeable that some of the other boys had started to laugh. So Sanjay abandoned his position and strolled over to where the man was standing at the notional edge of the field. One of the other boys whistled as Sanjay went by and he paid the whistle back with a subtle but obscene gesture formed by the fist and extended knuckle.

“Well,” said the man, in English. “I must say I’ve been admiring your fluent style in the field.”

“A poor thing but mine own,” said Sanjay.

“And your English is beautiful too! You’re beautiful all round. A beautiful all-rounder, if I can allow myself the pun.”

Sanjay sensed that the man was unsettled and talking for the sake of talking, so he took the initiative.

“My name is Sanjay.”

“Mine’s Rochester. Edward Rochester. Rochester sahib, I suppose they would say here. But I want you to call me Ted.”

Ted also wanted Sanjay to come back to the Tajma for a drink. Sanjay was in his second-best clothes and guessed that he would not get past the door even under his new friend’s guardianship. He said that he would have to go home and change. Mr Rochester, as Sanjay preferred to call him, insisted on coming along. Sanjay was at first worried that the sight of how he lived might put his companion off. During the long walk to the slum, however, Sanjay, obliged to use up most of his English phrases in a heavily edited recounting of his life story, discovered that Mr Rochester, far from being repelled by details of street life, was attracted by them. When they reached the slum and plunged into its festering interstices, Mr Rochester’s interest intensified to excitement.

“My dear!” he exclaimed. “This place does wonders for my nostalgie de la boue. In fact I’m not sure I’ve ever had this much boue to be nostalgic about, if you get me.”

Sanjay didn’t get him. Mr Rochester’s use of the English language was unfathomable for threequarters of the time he was speaking, which was nine-tenths of the time available. But his emotions were easy to read. When Sanjay unlocked the door of his little room, Mr Rochester’s excitement was at fever pitch.

“Oh my darling! You mean a lovely beast like you strides out of this? But no, it’s perfect. It’s your gouffre obscur. Don’t change a thing.”

Sanjay caught the word ‘change’ and said he had to change his clothes. “You go ahead. I won’t watch. I’ll turn away. But there’s not much of an away to turn to, is there? I’ll keep my hands over my eyes.”

Sanjay took off his sweat-shirt, dropped it on the bed, and lifted his best shin reverently from one of the stacked cardboard boxes that formed his cupboard. When he changed his trousers he would have to be careful about transferring the gold piece. Then he realised that Mr Rochester had been looking into the fragmentary mirror through his fingers. “You look like one of those cubist photo-montages that dear David Hockney does. Only much, much prettier. Such skin. Subcontinental blend, ground fine.”

Mr Rochester wanted only to be stroked and sucked and to do some stroking and sucking: nothing compared to some of the Arabs. Afterwards he lay replete on the bed while Sanjay knelt beside him on the mat. But Mr Rochester, except when his mouth was full, never stopped talking for long.

“And to think I’m only going to be here for another ten days. I could have found you a week ago. Think of the time we’ve wasted.”

Sanjay politely stroked the strange, brindled hair showing in the space of Mr Rochester’s still unfastened shirt, although the belt buckle below had been done up again with hasty modesty.

“Ma femme est morte, je suis libre! A poet you perhaps don’t know. Baudelaire. You can’t imagine how poignant that line seems at this moment. Do you realise I’ve got a wife and three children? Used to, anyway. My elder girl is your age by now. Probably looking for a young man like you. But I found you, didn’t I?”

Sanjay was already getting used to Mr Rochester’s habit of asking himself questions. A nod of assent was usually sufficient reply.

“Finish getting changed and we’ll go back to the Tajma for that drink,” said Mr Rochester. “But you promise me I’ll be coming here again, won’t you? With the emphasis on the coming, if you’ll permit the pun.”

With his new mentor as a sponsor, Sanjay at last penetrated the sacred gate of the Tajma, whose facade had dominated his existence for so much of his life. The giant bearded and turbanned guardians of the forecourt looked at him sideways but did not raise a gloved hand to bar his way. Reverently manhandled by flunkeys, the glass doors sighed open and he passed through into the conditioned air of the lobby. On the left, stretching away into the distance, was the front desk, with a number of beautiful women behind it and an even greater number of beautiful women standing in front of it, all modelling the same wealthy pattern of sari. The rest of the vast floor space was full of chairs and couches radiating their own plump softness. Rich people of all nationalities sat quietly drinking or moved unhurriedly about without once raising their voices. All that could be heard was a plush murmur, as if sound had been conditioned like the air. Sanjay blinked. Mr Rochester, who was not entirely without sensitivity, realised that his protégé was suffering from shock.

“I suppose this must be like an air-lock to a space station if you aren’t used to it,” he said. “Why don’t we sit down for a little while here and have a drink or two before we go up and see my room?”

The waitress brought Mr Rochester something low and glowing in a heavy glass and Sanjay a Limca colder than its own ice-cubes: it numbed the hand with which he picked it up and the first mouthful left his lips tingling.

“Put it on the coaster so it won’t leave a ring,” said Mr Rochester strangely. “Pity to mark that teak. Comfy?”

The couch was so soft in texture that Sanjay felt he might have fallen through it if it had not somehow buoyed him up with its puffy inner being. His eyes were everywhere. It was an effort to stop his skull swivelling to follow them. Luckily he was facing in the right direction to sec the young women at the desk without having to look over his shoulder. They all looked like film stars. There was one who looked like Sridevi. Perhaps it Was Sridevi. Following Mr Rochester’s lead, Sanjay reached into the bowl of nibbles and crammed a random selection into his mouth. One of them tasted like cheese. For the first time in a long while, he was back in the Silver Castle.

“Did you know it could be like this in your own country?”

“No,” said Sanjay, and he was not just being polite. He had had glimpses. He had peered into forbidden places. In the hotel bathrooms of Arabs he had pocketed toothbrushes wrapped in thin plastic. He knew. Knowing, however, is not the same thing as experiencing. There were more experiences on the way along the main corridor linking the new wing of the hotel to the old. There were banks and travel bureaux and shops. He had seen something like them in the streets, but nothing like them for their opulence. There was a shop full of gold: not the filigree gold that you could see at street-side wedding ceremonies, but solid like his gold piece — solid and wrought into the shapes of elephants and tigers, devils and dragons, fighting fish like contending treasures, birds whose tails spread in a fan of glory like a paralysed sunrise. They came to another lobby that opened on to a huge courtyard in which a swimming-pool as big as a small ocean lay glittering with a deep coolness the thirsty sun could not suck up inside a year. A slim western woman climbed out of it. She was wearing almost nothing except two stripes of lime. She had come from another temperature. Mr Rochester tapped him on the shoulder.

“More of that some other day. Dream about them in your little room. My little room is four floors up.”

Sanjay had been in a hotel elevator before but not like this one. Six Japanese men in suits followed them into it and there was still room to spare. The Japanese men stayed in it when it reached the fourth floor. Sanjay followed Mr Rochester along a railed walkway skirting an atrium. Sanjay had seen a hotel atrium before but not like this one.

“Splendid creation isn’t it? This was the old part of the hotel, all built like a barracks. The sahibs used to be in here like a separate world. Those were the days. All it took was the occasional Amritsar massacre and the whole system went like clockwork. Tickety-boo.”

Sanjay had no idea what Mr Rochester was talking about but didn’t care. He had already guessed that Mr Rochester would say everything again eventually, or something very like it. ‘Tickety-boo’ was probably a way of indicating ‘here we are’, because Mr Rochester had taken from his pocket the key that he had picked up at the desk, and was fitting it into the lock of the door to room 419. Mr Rochester held the door open and politely ushered Sanjay ahead of him, into the most astonishing experience yet. “My little room,” Mr Rochester said again.

It was a palace. The room was huge and there was another huge room beyond it, through an archway. Each room had windows from which Sanjay could look down on the world he had left behind, as if he needed reminding of the contrast. He was looking down on crowded hard stones where he had once not even been rich enough to beg. Now he had carpets underneath him like compressed clouds. In the first room there were chairs and couches and cushions, but none of it was of leather as in the lobby: it was all done in some costly material with flowers imprisoned in the weave. On the walls there were square and oblong pictures like magazine pages, except that they were framed and you could see their texture, as if they were inviting fingers as well as eyes. There was a bowl of fruit that would have fed him for a week. There was a television set in each of the rooms. Not even the Arabs had had two television sets. In the second room, the bed was big enough for a game of cricket. There was a bathroom he could have lived in if he had sunglasses to shield his eyes. He fought to stay calm, but was sensible enough not to overdo it: indifference would not have been welcome. Mr Rochester obviously wanted him to be impressed.

“How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen. The little room of our own dear little queen. For as long as I’m here I want you to make yourself zu Hause. It’s the least I can do for you.”

“Thank you. You are very kind.” Sanjay was guessing, but it sounded like the thing to say.

“Really, your English is astonishing. You really are the most astonishing young man, aren’t you? On top of your beauty. Which is where a lot of people I know would like to be, believe me.”

After they had both consumed what Mr Rochester called a real drink, they did things on the bed. Mr Rochester wanted something extra this time but Sanjay did not mind. The real drink had left him slightly abstracted. It completed the distancing effect induced by his new friend’s almost incessant stream of chatter. Whether verbally or physically, the only participation required was essentially passive. Sanjay grew alert again, however, when Mr Rochester began to indicate that the afternoon sojourn was nearing its end.

“We must make arrangements to meet again tomorrow. But just in case you should think better of it, perish the thought, I want you to have some money. I can’t transform your existence. I only wish I could. I’d like to give you wings so you could fly home beside me. My desolation angel. But at least I can do this much.”

Mr Rochester was offering a fortune. Sanjay looked at the proffered notes and had to catch himself or he would have licked his lips. He was looking at six months of idleness. Just in time he remembered Sunil’s teachings.

“It is too much. Just this much.” He took the smallest note and handed back the rest.

“You really are the sweetest boy. I’ll take you down to the lobby and see you away safely.”

Keeping pace with the long, satisfied strides of his protector, Sanjay retraced his adventurous course along the corridor of jewels and precious metals to the pavilion of women. He knew he would be coming back. There had never been any danger that he would think better of it. Mr Rochester might have, but would not now. It was the boy, not the man, who had made a slave.