Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 11 |
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Chapter 11

“SO THERE SHE WAS, the biggest soprano still in existence,” said Mr Rochester with an expansive gesture, “and they’d given her a shelf of rock that a lizard couldn’t have slept on without falling off. It was like a playground slide. I thought she was going to come zooming down it and plug the orchestra pit. Believe me, darling, you’re in the right place. Seven thousand miles cast of Covent Garden is exactly the right place to be. Half the world away from those Marxist maniac producers. Bloody Krauts. What did that Australian critic say? Nowadays they produce operas because they aren’t allowed to invade Poland? Thank God the Wall’s down. Now the Poles can invade them. Give the mad bastards something else to think about. All that and a Wotan who sings the way I do. A truly hideous evening.”

If this speech of Mr Rochester’s had been aimed solely at Sanjay it would have been greeted with respect for its torrential fluency but with little comprehension. Sanjay, however, was only a spectator. Mr Rochester’s real interlocutor was an American called Adrian Desmond. He was much younger than Mr Rochester, possibly still in his thirties, but clearly of a similar persuasion, although his voice swooped less and he looked, on the whole, more conventionally masculine. It was his eyes that gave him away. They strayed towards Sanjay at the slightest opportunity. Mr Rochester and Mr Desmond were seated opposite one another in Mr Rochester’s hotel suite sitting-room. Every time Mr Rochester found a reason to get up — to fetch more drinks, or a book he was recommending, or to adjust the air-conditioning, or simply to rearrange cushions elsewhere in the room because they had been allowed to remain undisturbed by his electric energy for too long — Mr Desmond’s gaze transferred itself to Sanjay, who, smoking with elaborate casualness an imported cigarette, was comfortably seated in his own chair, square on to the one-sided verbal contest. But when Mr Desmond was given a chance to speak, he too spoke well, and for Sanjay’s purposes he spoke better, because his forms of expression could be appreciated even when the subject was a mystery. It was the afternoon before Mr Rochester’s frequently advertised and loudly lamented date of departure. After more than a week of his company, Sanjay was exhausted. This visit from a third party was a nice rest.

“But that’s enough from me,” said Mr Rochester uncharacteristically. “And I suppose you get most of the Euro-news anyway. You must be well settled in by now.”

“Oh sure,” said Mr Desmond. “But the more I blend in with the landscape the more I hanker after gossip like this. I’ll be here another year at least and I’m already on the phone for an hour every day just finding out what’s going on back home. Finding out how Dan Quayle gets his rocks off, for example. Stuff like that. The International Herald-Trib has all the juice squeezed out of it.”

“What are you working on now?” asked Mr Rochester, with the strain that always marked his voice on those rare occasions when he asked a question he did not intend to answer himself. “A terrible pity you were out of town. You could have shown me.”

“Still the same book. It’s getting longer. There’s a collection of miniatures here that has some of the key pictures for studying one of my manuscripts, the Gajendra Muksha. That’s ‘The Deliverance of the Elephant by King Gajendra’. An episode of the Baghavata Purana, you know it?”


“One of the most informative pictures is in the Jagdish Goenka collection, right here in Bombay. I can walk there from my apartment. Nothing like as lush as the stuff they have in Jaipur or the Banares Hindu University in Varanasi. But important. The miniature of the Elephants and the Water Sprites is really important. And when I’m through with that I’ll stay on here and finish the book even if I have to make the occasional trip to Delhi or somewhere. I just like it here. There’s something about the place.” At the end of this last sentence he cast a glance at Sanjay.

“Isn’t there though?” said Mr Rochester, with what seemed to Sanjay like a mixture of pride and regret. “But there aren’t many quite like him. A sexual omnivore, this one. You should have seen him eyeing the lobby girls the first time I brought him here. Drinking in the female talent. Kind, generous, respectful and bent both ways, the little darling.”


“Exactly. How very perceptive of you, as always. There was a time when I would have been teaching him the Great Game. Only now the game’s different. And he seems to have learned it all by himself, haven’t you, love?”

Sanjay caught enough of this to know he was being patronised. He also caught Mr Desmond’s discomfort. Mr Desmond could be embarrassed, in sharp distinction to Mr Rochester, for whom there was nothing between overweening confidence and utter humiliation.

“I’m going to give you Adrian’s address,” said Mr Rochester after his friend had gone. “I want him to look after you. I’ll die of jealousy but at least I won’t die of shame. You’ll never know what it means, saying toodle-oo to you.”

Mr Rochester was right. Sanjay never did find out what saying ‘toodle-oo’ meant. But in that last evening together he got the general idea. There were a lot of tears, all of them from Mr Rochester. Some of them soaked the palliasse on Sanjay’s pallet, because Mr Rochester insisted that their last encounter should take place in the slum.

“So real here,” sobbed Mr Rochester. “For once in my life I have lived in reality. Ange plein de gaité, connaissez-vous l’angoisse? No, of course you don’t. Dear, dear boy. Isn’t it funny? I used to feel this way about Adrian. A thousand years ago. But he grew up. And you never will, because I’m going to leave you. So you’ll always be like this, won’t you?”

“Yes,” said Sanjay, because when Mr Rochester was talking it was always a safer response than no.

Early the next afternoon Sanjay accompanied the departing Mr Rochester to the airport. It was by far the longest ride Sanjay had ever had in a wheeled vehicle. The vehicle was the more luxurious, or at any rate the less austere, of the two types of taxi available in central Bombay. Not counting the toot-toot, which is confined to the city’s outskirts, there are basically only two types of taxi in Bombay even today. At the time we are talking about, before deregulation, there were really only two types of car altogether, even among those owned by private individuals. A few film stars owned imported cars, but otherwise everything on wheels was of state manufacture. Both types of car were copied from obsolete western models. So there were a small type of taxi and a slightly larger one. The slightly larger one resembled, and indeed actually was, the English Morris Oxford dating from about fifteen years back. Robust, simple enough to be repaired by its owner, it was short of frills. But at the small price of doubling its fuel consumption and halving its acceleration, it had been given air-conditioning. Hence it was known by the shorthand name of an A/C car. For Sanjay, the splendour of being in an A/C car while travelling such an incredible distance was in itself worth all the trouble of having had to listen to Mr Rochester for more than a week. Up they went over flyovers to see the city spreading everywhere except into the ocean. They travelled slowly single file through miles of roadworks, with hundreds of men and women shifting stones while Sanjay, nominally their compatriot, sat back in luxury to watch them toil, every puff on his cigarette tasting all the sweeter for his comparative idleness. Or else they travelled quickly in multiple lanes of traffic, edging past other cars, zooming past trucks that threatened to spill loosely tied loads of junk. The vibrating drivers of the trucks looked down and sideways resignedly, disowning the accident that would soon fall off the back and happen to someone behind them. The A/C car’s driver spoke good enough English to reassure Mr Rochester they were going in the right direction. Eventually there was confirmation: the whistle and silver gleam of huge aircraft strangely dose to the ground. Some of them, more than strangely, were actually on the ground, moving around on wheels, like enormous cars. Sanjay was enthralled, but retained enough of his wits to stop Mr Rochester paying the driver far too much money. The driver’s parting glare at Sanjay was not fond. Mr Rochester’s was. Inside the airport building, after all the formalities at the desk, Mr Rochester gave him a small but heavy parcel and made a farewell speech.

“It had to be this way. You do realise that, don’t you? I could never bring you home legally. And I couldn’t bear the thought of you sitting there in quarantine at Heathrow while they killed themselves laughing at your fake papers. I just can’t imagine you — dear, darling, fastidious you — squeezed into some airless container with fifty other people. Squashed between two fat women with condoms full of heroin in their stomachs. Just part of another juggernaut load of human misery that gets stopped at Dover. And suppose you made it? Freezing in Neasden with socks and sandals and seven sweaters. You’re too fine for that. This is your country. Be beautiful here. Live beautifully for India.”

There were tears to accompany all this. Sanjay could tell that most of them were inspired by Mr Rochester’s profound appreciation of his own threnody. But there was real affection too. The money Mr Rochester offered him was proof of that. This time Sanjay took it, and not just with the satisfaction of a successfully completed manoeuvre. He knew that he could do nothing more generous for his departing friend at this moment than to accept his bounty.

“Adrian will look after you. I have to go. Fled is that music. If only we could kiss. Kiss me, so long as but a kiss may live. But this will have to do.”

They shook hands. Mr Rochester turned and went, leaving Sanjay embarrassed, speechless and rich.

Mr Rochester had ordered the A/C car driver to wait and take Sanjay back to town. Along with his tip, the driver had been given enough to cover the return fare. Sanjay negotiated with the driver to get this money back. After a protracted shouting match he managed to secure almost all of it. Followed by the driver’s curses, he caught a rattletrap bus all the way back through the gathering darkness to Victoria Terminus. From there he walked to the slum, where he at last opened his parcel. It was a thick book called The Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Not knowing what concise meant, he looked it up, the way Pratiba had taught him. What a useful book. He put it on top of his pile of magazines. Then he spread the money out on his bed, one note beside the other, in rows. Gathering the notes up again, he neatened them into a wad, tucked the wad under his thin pillow, and slept on it. Next day he would have to work out how to keep it safe when he was not at home.