Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 12 |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Chapter 12

IN THAT DEPARTMENT Mr Desmond was a great help. He opened a bank account in Sanjay’s name. Sanjay was given a little book with his name on it. Because he had forgotten, or never known, his second name, Mr Desmond advised him to fulfil the requirements by giving his first name twice. In this way Sanjay Sanjay was enabled to limit his pay-off to Ajay and Sunit Sensibly he did not try to avoid it altogether. The price in resentment would have been too high. Sanjay calculated their respective kickbacks nicely, so that even if they suspected that he was holding out on them, they were pleased enough with what they received to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’. That had been one of Pratiba’s phrases. Sanjay resolved to see her again, a resolution at odds with the quiet life he was now enjoying for the first time since he had been too young to think. He had a nice thing going with Mr Desmond. It was a smooth inheritance. Mr Desmond did not demand very much, and his first-floor apartment near the West End Hotel would have been a pleasure to visit even if agony had been the price. It had three rooms as well as a bathroom and a separate kitchen. To Sanjay, whose previous standards of expansive domesticity ran to a two-room hotel suite at most, three rooms seemed like eight. There were couches, cushions, pictures, books in several languages, cigarettes in a silver box, and a small forest of bottled drinks whose labels were like pictures too. If this was Mr Desmond’s idea of ‘camping out’, as he called it, how must he have lived where he came from? The apartment had rich, sophisticated people drifting in and out of it all the time. There were more men than women, naturally enough, and more westerners than Indians, but those of Sanjay’s compatriots who were in attendance were of a splendour and cultivation that he had not previously encountered. His own role, when he was there, was to be a sort of moveable fixture: part of the furniture, but dancing attendance, helping to fetch things, being Mr Desmond’s right-hand man. He attracted a certain amount of curiosity, and more than a little envy, but he offset it by his attentiveness. He drank in the conversations even when he did not understand them.

“You can see the sky-dwellers and the nymphs up here,” said Mr Desmond, showing spread pages of a big picture book to one of his Indian friends, Suresh, a radiant young man in a black silk jacket. “That’s Mara and the rest of the gang leading their heavenly existence. But the Crocodile Demon is lurking in the depths, you dig? So the Elephant Boy has to be saved by Vishnu. Vishnu gets off his butt, swoops down on his birdman steed like Flash Gordon, and slices off the beast’s head with a well-flung quoit. Which are you, the croc or Garuda?”

“Who was Garuda? I thought that was an airline.” Bent over the picture, Suresh reached up to take a drink brought to him by Sanjay. “You know more about our culture than we do. It’s too shaming, actually.”

“Well, you probably know more about our culture than we do. That Oxford education of yours wasn’t available where I came from, believe me. I was in my sophomore year before I heard of Georgia O’Keeffe. And there weren’t too many mullioned windows on the subway to Columbia.”

“I wouldn’t overrate the dreaming spires. All I ever learned at Balliol was how to piss in the sink.”

Sanjay understood only enough of conversations like this to reinforce his feeling of being left out. By now he had learned that he belonged to a country, not just a city, but he had also learned that he knew little about his country beyond the growing realisation that it stretched back into time as well as an unfathomable distance into space. Yet to know that you did not know was better than not knowing. It was painful, but it was better. And on those occasions when he was alone with Mr Desmond he received many an invaluable lesson in language. It was not an exchange lesson. Mr Desmond’s Hindi was fluent. But he was generously good at teaching little tricks to help with colloquial English.

“The gas gave out, the motor gave up, and I gave in. But maybe you should say the petrol gave out, not the gas. Gas is American English. And we’re teaching you English English. Try it.”

“The petrol gave out, the motor gave in, and I gave off.”

“Nice try. But say the motor gave up. And gave off is something else. Like you might say the motor gave off fumes. But you won’t need that one. Try again.”

“It’s hard.”

“Yeah. I know. It’s the little things that are the hardest. Give up and give in are practically the same anyway, but let’s hasten slowly. Try it again. The gas gave out, the motor gave up, and I gave in.”

This time Sanjay got it right. He enjoyed his visits to Mr Desmond, who called them visits with. With his inborn canniness, Sanjay was careful not to visit every day. There were evenings when he made himself unavailable. He did not let his new mentor take him for granted. One consequence was that Mr Desmond was generous with money. Another was that Sanjay had time on his hands.

Mr Desmond never came to the slum. Unlike Mr Rochester, he had no interest in exploring the realities of his protégé’s everyday life. Quite the opposite: he expected standards of dress and fastidiousness that Sanjay, despite his gift for neatness, sometimes had trouble meeting. It was not enough to have clean fingernails. Mr Desmond expected them to be filed. There was nothing as formal as a personal inspection at the threshold: Sanjay was always welcomed with something as close as his undemonstrative host could manage to open arms, but there could be sharp words waiting among the soft furnishings. This particularity on Mr Desmond’s part would lead to serious trouble later on, but for the moment Sanjay was relieved to be left alone: he could lead his life unobserved, and with a hitherto undreamed-of freedom to dispose of his own time. Since he did not count his relationship with Mr Desmond as part of his emotional life — it was purely practical — his thoughts naturally turned to unfinished business. Pratiba and Urmila both fell into that category, and Sanjay was surprised to find that the matter of Pratiba was the more urgent. Perhaps it was not so surprising. When Sanjay dreamed, he usually dreamed of choking, of falling, or of being beaten with canes by yelling policemen. Sweet dreams were rare. He would dream of Urmila, but only of her outline: the sweep of her dusty black hair, the swing of her dress over thin limbs lithely rearranged, her bare foot pivoting on its heel with toes turned up. Dreams of Pratiba were more specific: her breath deepening, her nipples hardening, her hips moving vividly with his hand between them. Sometimes he would wake up to the feeling of his wet right hand and find it under his dribbling mouth. Desire does not outrank love, but often does precede it. Sanjay, better fed than ever before in his life and older by several pairs of trousers, had sex on his mind. Studying photographs of Mumtas was no longer enough. He wanted the living, breathing girl, and he wanted her breath to change because he had caused it. He wanted that feeling of tender power. There was also the consideration that he missed the way Pratiba talked. Like Mr Desmond she could talk sharply, but the way she did it did not sting.

Sanjay prepared carefully with a new haircut from the pavement barber. By now the proud owner of three pairs of trousers, two to switch and one kept for best, he wore the second pair, just back from the open-air laundry with a sharpish crease. As always he transferred the gold piece with ceremonial care. His peppermint green shirt, newly bought, featured a very fine wavy gold weave that he thought Pratiba would admire for its subtlety, or at least not mock. “Will it be the crisp look or the unsculpted look for you?” an advertisement in one of the English-language film magazines had asked. He had begun a tentative acquisition of second-hand English-language magazines even though he could barely puzzle out a paragraph. The words in the advertisements for men’s clothes were especially incomprehensible, but always worth half an hour with the dictionary which he was slowly realising to have been the most precious among Mr Rochester’s final shower of gifts, up there with the expensive pair of rubber thongs which Sanjay now regularly employed for the long trip to the latrine. For his new shirt he had chosen the unsculpted look. The spare cloth in the sleeves, he thought, gave an air of understated flamboyance, of ‘devil-may-care’ as the advertisements put it. His black shoes, though not lustrous, were at least dean, set off by thin grey socks that were almost new. Thus attired he took up his weekly position opposite the Youth Club and discreetly trailed Pratiba’s group of privileged girls on their long, laughing walk home to the apartment blocks on the esplanade of Back Bay where the languorously extended sweep of beach begins its curve to the peninsula. Having arrived in that blessed area, the group began to split up. They all lived in different apartment blocks. Strangely, these buildings, though not identical, were united in a style unlike anything else in Bombay. Sanjay was not to know that they were unlike anything else in India, except perhaps the old cinemas and administrative buildings left over from the last glory of the Raj. One and all, they were perfect expressions of art deco. Today they strike the western eye like the row of small hotels along Miami’s South Beach, but without the dubious charm of over-restoration. The pioneering blocks of home units on Port Philip Bay in Melbourne have been too meticulously maintained to acquire the appropriately distressed air of the past tense: it all looks as bright and fresh and unbelievable as the Recoleta district of Buenos Aires. A closer comparison, for their mood of a suspended dream, would be with the buildings along the Shanghai Bund and old hotels like the Jing-Jang, or, in old Saigon, the Majestic, now known as the Nine Dragons. The diplomatic district of Cairo provides an even closer comparison, because there, as in Bombay, it has been the very effort of underfunded upkeep which has provided the patina of time’s damage: spare windows plugged with breeze-blocks, unfortunate additions, the wrong paint. In Cairo, however, the doors are guarded by soldiers with loaded rifles and there is nowhere for the common run of humanity to set up camp. In Bombay, as always, the common run of humanity is unstoppable. There they are, swarming at street level, penetrating into every crack, while above them the facades of the West’s most exuberant modern architectural style deploy their geometric flourishes in patterned brick, cement rendering and discoloured plaster — cornices curved like the bumper ends of pre-war Detroit cars, free-floating entablatures like laminated ziggurats, blind portholes from Cunard liners made of tiles, vertical grilles of crushed glass brick that once filtered light instead of dust. Inside these superannuated fantasies, beyond the heavy doors of the apartments, dwell the comfortably off, looking down from various but equally unattainable heights on all who are not so: the millions who may not enter but will not stop trying. Pratiba’s family lived somewhere up one of those sets of chipped stairs and Sanjay would have to step lively if he was to catch her alone. The moment she separated from the last of her friends and turned into the communal foyer of an apartment block still wanly flaunting the last vestiges of its original pink and sea-green plaster, Sanjay crossed the street and walked quickly in after her, the hands in his pockets meant to make it look as if he belonged. He caught her halfway up the first set of stairs. Between him and her was a man evidently meant to be on guard. He seemed to have his own family with him along with some of their furniture: the staircase was in the process of becoming inhabited. There was enough confusion for Sanjay to slip through and softly call Pratiba’s name.

“Oh no! What are you doing here?”

Sanjay had not expected to be greeted with pure pleasure, but the look on her face was undiluted fright.

“Quick, come down this way,” she continued, recovering her wits with an urgency plainly induced by apprehension. “And look casual.”

Sanjay, having taken his hands out of his pockets, put them in again. Pratiba led him back down the stairs and through the foyer towards the rear of the building. She pushed open a door and suddenly they were among parked cars. They must belong to the people upstairs, thought Sanjay: people like her family. There was a man slapping at one of the cars with a dirty rag. He turned to look at the intruders on his labour. Another car was missing its wheels and appeared to have people living in it. Pratiba took him through another door, up a short flight of cracked steps, and through another door held open with a bucket. She brought the bucket inside with them, into a store room lit only by a small window at shoulder height, some of whose glass had been replaced with plywood.

“This is the only place to be alone,” said Pratiba, “and not for long.” She was already kissing him. She had her hands on his behind.

“I am sorry to have frightened you,” said Sanjay, having withdrawn his tongue after going further with it into her mouth than ever before.

“Your shirt would have been enough to scare me witless.”

“It is the unsculpted look.”

“It is the pits. But your English is coming on. Quick. Touch me here.”

Sanjay did. It was happening just the way it did in his dreams, only much faster. But even as her hips moved she kept talking.

“This is crazy. If that bitch Sabbandra had told my parents they would have married me off to a this collector. There. Not so hard. If we get caught now I’ll be killed. And so will you. Harder. This is so crazy. And I love it so much. I’ve been thinking about it so much. So much.”

She had one arm around his neck and with her other hand she was squeezing the swelling in his trousers hard enough to hurt. Half the time she was looking down into his shoulder and he couldn’t even kiss her. But his fingers were inside her panties and one of them was inside her. He thought it might break when she finally convulsed, letting out a long sob that made him worry about the man cleaning the cars. Her plainness was transformed into an abrupt beauty. Then, just as abruptly, prompted by the reassembling of her dispersed panic, it returned to what it was. With a haste that struck Sanjay as bordering on the ungrateful, she led him back down the cluttered steps, past the cars, through the foyer and out into the street.

“Stay a few feet away from me in case somebody can see us,” she said on the way. “If my parents weren’t away I wouldn’t even have turned around to say hello. Now please go away quickly. Please. Go.”

Sanjay guessed that she would like to make another appointment, as long as it was not here. He suggested that after her tour of duty at the Youth Club the following week she should leave her friends on some pretext and walk in the other direction. He would be watching and he would take her to where he lived, a room with a lock. Or perhaps they could make a rendezvous earlier: tomorrow, for example.

“Good heavens no. The rest of the week they watch me like hawks. Next week, then. I’ll walk the other way. For a little while, you understand. And you can’t have any more than this. Now go. Please.”

Sanjay was confident that she would give him more. She had made the connection between the swelling in his trousers and his finger pushing up into her soft wet. He would get it into her. It was a sure thing, as Mr Desmond would say. Meditatively Sanjay sniffed his fingers. Essence of wharf. Beneath the callous certainty of his thoughts there was the disorienting softness of feeling that he always had when he had been with Pratiba. Something about the way she had been moved had moved him.

Children imitate their parents’ emotions, and when they have no parents they imitate the feelings of people they meet. Much depends on who those people are, and what they do. It’s a matter of luck, which more than it ought to has to do with looks. During that week of waiting, a further threat, comparable to Dilip’s fist, materialised to Sanjay’s personal appearance. When visiting Mr Rochester at the Tajma, Sanjay had been impressed to discover that a couple of opulently wrapped foreign chocolates appeared by magic on the pillow of the enormous double bed at some time between the afternoon and the evening. Mr Rochester, moved by the innocence of Sanjay’s awe, had offered him the chocolates, two for every day of their relationship. Sanjay had always taken them home and eaten them in solitude the last thing before he went to sleep. The immediate result had been an intense rush of well being, like heroin you could chew. The long term effect was a decayed incisor. Feeling the pain, Sanjay looked closely into a piece of his multiple mirror, and thought that he could see where the pain was coming from. Nothing stopped it, not even Love Care smeared on thickly. Mr Desmond said that he could recommend a dentist. Sanjay, with an ill-timed show of pride, said that he already had a dentist of his own. But the pavement dentist was better at replacing missing teeth than he was at repairing a tooth in situ. The way he chiselled off the affected part was hard on the nervous system, and the wedge of amalgam he cemented into the gap was even harder on the eye. When Sanjay squared up to his multiple mirror again he could tell straight away that the repair would not pass muster: he looked as if he had been trying to catch a bullet in his teeth. Shame-faced, he climbed the stair to Mr Desmond’s apartment. Mr Desmond made his distaste obvious. Though he also kindly made quick arrangements to have the damage repaired properly, it was his look of annoyed disappointment that Sanjay remembered. Sitting there with his mouth open while the proper dentist chipped out the botched plug and replaced it with something more fitting, Sanjay had never felt more powerless.

“You’re lucky,” prattled the dentist, “to know someone who can pay for this. Quartz doesn’t come cheap. Whoever stuck that thing into you should be repairing locomotives. Some relative of yours?”

Sanjay could give no answer beyond a gargle. As often happens, a feeling of impotence in one area led to delusions of grandeur in another. The injection wore off, the edge of his tooth gleamed like new, and he had become a person who had his teeth seen to while reclining in a special chair instead of squatting on the pavement at the centre of a small crowd. There was a swagger in his step when he intercepted Pratiba as she walked in the wrong direction from the Youth Club. For her this was already an unprecedented boldness. It needed tentativeness from him to match her mood.

“You’re awful when you’re cocky. At least that’s a better shirt.” He adjusted his features to a suitable solemnity. Yet somehow, as they walked, things were already not quite right. They got less right when Pratiba saw the slum, and not right at all when she saw his room.

“Oh no. This is hopeless.”

Sanjay made a mistake. He should have played for sympathy and waited. But he tried to repair the situation by kissing her immediately, and there was angry impatience in the kiss. She felt it and broke away.

“No. Don’t. Let’s sit down for a minute and talk.” She made it dear that even to sit on his bed was a large concession on her part. The cover was relatively clean but she didn’t want to rest her shoulders against the wall. He sat down beside her as her eyes went from the fractionated mirror to the neat heap of magazines. Unfortunately Mumtas was on the cover of the top one, showing her legs.

“And I suppose you play with yourself while you look at these. I suppose I’m just the 3-D version. Are you all swollen up now?”

This time he had the sense to do nothing except look charmingly lost. It was the expression he had perfected outside train windows and beside the boats to Elephant Island. Pratiba’s hand strayed to his trousers as if it were only visiting. But as always she was interested in what she found. The situation was partly restored. Sanjay helped her to open his trousers.

“It’s the first time I’ve actually seen one of these. Is it clean? How do you get anything clean in a place like this?”

“It’s as clean as a whistle,” said Sanjay. The use of one of her own phrases made Pratiba smile and lent generosity to her hand. It felt much better than anyone of his own gender doing it. There was a puffy tenderness to it. Luckily he had a sort of towel within reach.

“What a flood. Oceans of stuff. How very weird and wonderful. And rather revolting, really.”

She said this last part with a rueful smile, to take the sting out of it. But things were still out of synchronisation. The scene, he now realised, had been played fatally in reverse. It should have started with her. Now it was as if his satisfaction had been hers. When he tried to touch her she was thoughtful, instead of seized by the thoughtlessness that sanctioned her usual abandonment. She was self-conscious. She wanted to go home. When they were standing up he made one last effort. There was something mechanical about it, and again she felt it.

“You just want to hear some heavy breathing. Save it for your magazines. Save it for Mumtas.”

Had he commanded the words for his deeper feelings, he would have told her that while it indeed made him feel powerful to render her helpless, her satisfaction was more important to him than his; that it was the moment when the world revealed its full strangeness and a plain girl became beautiful. Perhaps it was lucky that he could not articulate this unflattering thought. Anyway, it was certainly the wrong moment for a cockroach to run down the wall. Another one chased it.

“I have to go. Now. I have to go home.”

All the way to the main street through the noisy, noisome labyrinth of the slum, Sanjay tried to fix another appointment. But Pratiba was vague. In the narrow alley she only just managed to dodge a peeing little boy without getting her shiny shoes wet. Sanjay cuffed the little boy but scored no points for gallantry. When they got to the street she hailed the first taxi that came by.

“It’s just best that we don’t see each other for a while.” Her eyes were wet. “It’s a terrible risk for me. And it is all wrong, you know. You do know that, don’t you?”

He shook his head but he had nothing to say. She got in and went.

So Sanjay had never even seen what he had so often touched. Reluctantly but firmly he wrote Pratiba off. After all, it was not as if he loved her. There were many girls he could have now. One hot afternoon he took a walk along Falkland Street to look them over. Some of them were very pretty. They stood at the doorways so that potential customers could choose. Some of them wore exciting western-style dresses. One of them daringly wore a pair of tight trousers. Sanjay found such plumage too strident for his taste. But there was a strong contingent of pretty, reasonably reticent-looking girls, most of them no older than he was, and some of them conspicuously younger. All of them, even the most modest-looking, smiled and beckoned. “You’re more beautiful than we are,” one of them shouted. “Put on a skirt and come to work.” Giggles crossed the crowded narrow street. There were dozens and dozens of them: a whole harem just for him. It was a slack part of the day and he was the centre of attention. He could just about afford one if he wanted to. He decided to put it off. It would eat into his nest egg. And you couldn’t be sure how clean they were. The VD clinic was the busiest looking building in the street. On the toilet roof, Sanjay had heard a lot about sexual diseases during long discussions in the haze of heroin. Apparently the worst diseases came from girls who had had abortions. Also some of the girls tried to make you wear rubber things that were diseased. Sanjay could think of a dozen reasons for postponement. He put on a look of someone who just happened to be going along Falkland Street on the way to somewhere else. The truth was that he was shy about making a fool of himself. It was an area

where he needed guidance but he no longer had that subservient relationship with Sunil and Ajay. He had established himself as their equal. It was too late to become a pupil again. And although Mr Desmond knew almost everything about almost everything, this was scarcely one of his areas of expertise. Once again Sanjay was paying the penalty of being out on his own.