Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 13 |
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Chapter 13

“DON’T BE QUIXOTIC,” said Mr Desmond one evening. “There’s no poverty in America that couldn’t be fixed somehow, except maybe for the blacks. The poverty in LA is Mexican, not American. Real poverty is endemic. Real poverty is here. This is a country where a kid as smart as this doesn’t even get to go to school. He doesn’t even get to fail.”

As so often during these soirées, Sanjay was being referred to rather than addressed. The addressee was another American, called Scott, which was apparently his first name even though it sounded like his last. The good-looking Suresh was there again, and another Indian young man fully as splendid. But all paled beside the splendour of Scott. He was a head taller than anyone else, and the head was as magnificent as his body, which filled his fine tan clothes with muscle. His hair and moustache were blond like the good straw used to pack plates. From the stretches of conversation that he could understand, Sanjay had deduced that this creature from the clouds was on television in America. Sanjay found it hard to imagine how. He had seen something of Indian television, whose on-screen personnel, though sometimes quite good looking, all behaved as if they had been drugged into submission. Scott was alive. It was just that he was so unlikely, as handsome as an advertisement for American cigarettes in a foreign magazine.

“I never said America had the poverty of want,” said Scott, confusingly pronouncing it warnt. “What we have is the poverty of abundance. We’re insulating our kids from the world as thoroughly as the poor nations are. More thoroughly. The average kid in the US right now has far more electronic equipment in his bedroom than there used to be on an aircraft-carrier ten years ago. He can’t do without all that stuff. You can switch him off at the wall. So what does he know about the real world compared to this little faggot?”

“The American kid has much more information,” ventured Suresh. “He can press a button and sec how big India is. Sanjay can’t do that. How big is India, Sanjay?”

“Very big.” “Very big, India,” giggled Suresh.

“He’s the new Noel Coward,” giggled Suresh’s friend.

“Give him a break,” said Mr Desmond, who liked to hold the monopoly on making Sanjay feel uncomfortable. “Scott has a point. Sanjay can look after himself on the street. And we’re talking about a Bombay street. An American kid the same age wouldn’t last five minutes on Fifth Avenue. He’d be lost without his electronics.”

“He’s lost with them,” said Scott. “Alienated. I never thought a Marxist word like that would pass my lips.”

“Has anything else interesting passed your lips since you got here?” asked Mr Desmond, to universal laughter in which Sanjay politely joined. It turned out that Scott would be in Bombay for two weeks to film a report on Bombay’s poverty, an increasingly popular subject for foreign television crews, especially if they came from countries whose inner cities were no-go areas. A more liberal Indian government was now letting them in, and paying the usual penalty of seeing everything that used to be even worse held up as the worst thing in human history. Scott was just a particularly imposing soldier in a growing army of occupation. Sanjay was given the job of fixing him up. Sensibly Sanjay decided to consult Ajay, who was delighted to make an appointment. Ajay thought that a meeting in the slum would be a bad idea. He specified the steps of the Jahangir art gallery, a place which for some reason was a centre of attraction for educated foreigners. The next afternoon Sanjay walked Scott to the appointed place.

“Adrian’s very jealous about you,” said Scott as they walked. For Sanjay it was like walking beside a living statue. They had their own small crowd going with them, pushing through the larger crowd going the other way, some of whom turned around and joined their crowd. “I’ve never seen him like that before. You must really have something. What do you know about him?”

“He is a kind man.”

“Oh sure. He’s that all right. A little bitchy, but nice underneath. What he really is, though, is smart. The smartest. Smarter than a poem by James Merrill. When I first knew him he was a boy-wonder professor at Barnard. I was just in from the sticks and here was this guy barely older than I was who could talk about anything. Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy, Richard Feynman’s physics, John Rawls’s political theory, Diane Arbus’s photography, Diana Vreeland’s lipstick. He talked about them all as if he knew them personally. And Jesus Christ, it turned out that he did. If they were still alive of course. Can you imagine the impact?”

Sanjay, for whom Jesus Christ had been the only even vaguely recognisable name in this catalogue, was reminded of Mr Rochester all over again. Luckily this time it would be Ajay who would have to deal with the flood. Where did all these talkative foreigners find the time to listen to one another? Then Scott said an interesting thing.

“A kid like you would make a good runner for us while we’re here.”

“I can run very quickly,” said Sanjay with some truth, neglecting to add that he ran most quickly when holding someone else’s property.

“I bet you can. But it’s not really about running. A runner goes to find things, or minds the truck. That kind of stuff I’ll talk to my producer about taking you on.”

Sanjay filed this away for the future. At the museum steps he handed Scott over to Ajay. It was instantly apparent that the two of them would get on well, and Sanjay was not surprised to hear later on that Ajay, instead of passing his new client along to one of his subsidiaries, offered himself personally for the task and was accepted. The immediate result was that Scott more or less disappeared. Several days went by before the message was passed through Mr Desmond that if Sanjay wanted some casual work as a runner he should report to the Tajma at the time specified.

“This could be the beginning of a whole new career in the mass media,” said Mr Desmond as they lay in bed with a window open to the soft roar of the warm evening. Sometimes, in the right weather, Mr Desmond liked that sound better than the rattle of air-conditioning. Lulled by the second orgasm and the third Martini, Mr Desmond was disposed to talk nonsense. “Don’t stop talking to me when you’re famous.”

Sanjay laughed dutifully but wondered for the first time what fame would be like if applied to himself. He saw himself riding in the back seat of a foreign car with Urmila beside him, richly dressed. When he showed up in front of the Tajma the next morning, however, it turned out that none of the big cars in the forecourt belonged to the American television crew. Scott and his associates were all grouped around a minibus with its back door open. Already it looked like hard work. Big silver boxes were being loaded into the back of the bus by two fat young American men wearing loose trousers and sweat-soaked T-shirts marked with giant initials. Though their shining cargo evoked romance, their groaning and grunting indicated effort. Sanjay cannily made a gesture towards helping with one of the boxes that was still on the ground. All set to pretend that he couldn’t budge it, he was relieved to find that no pretence was necessary. It was as if set in concrete.

“Leave that to these guys,” said Scott with a laugh. “All you have to do is help the driver mind the truck when we’re out of it. Mitch, Thad, this is Sanjay. He’s our new Indian guide.”

“Indian guide, huh? Hi there, Kemosabe,” said the fat one known as Mitch.

“How,” said the fatter one known as Thad.

“And this is the person in charge, Melanie,” said Scott, introducing a slight young woman whose initialled T-shirt and tennis shoes were separated by a pair of trousers, as if she had turned into a man halfway down.

“Goodbye,” said Melanie in Hindi. Sanjay, quickly realising that she had misplaced the word for hello, adroitly converted his puzzlement into a look of astonished appreciation. “How’s my accent?” she added. There was that word ‘how’ again, but this time it was comprehensible.

“Your Hindi is coming on,” said Sanjay.

“Wow,” said Melanie, raising her dark glasses. “We have a genius here. You sure can pick ’em, Scott baby.”

“Sanjay picked himself,” said Scott. “He’s one in a million.”

“One in twelve and a half million, according to the latest official estimates.” It was another young woman talking. As fat as Thad and Mitch put together, she too was wearing trousers, but her trousers were tight: a miscalculation on a monumental scale.

“And this is our researcher, Barbara Tibbets. But we all call her Boots.”

“Hello,” said Boots in Hindi, thereby placing Sanjay on the horns of a dilemma. How could he show his appreciation of her use of the right word without indicating that the person in charge had used the wrong one? He tried a subdued look of amazement incorporating a wry awareness that his native language was unduly rich in words of greeting. It was not a success. Luckily Melanie’s impatient wince was not directed at him, but at Boots. There seemed to be some kind of rivalry going on.

Sanjay was allocated a small jump-seat near the front of the crowded bus, at a convenient angle so that its driver could ignore him. The driver obviously resented having his position as sole local eroded by a minor. Once they were under way, however, Scott’s overwhelming bonhomie soon suppressed all tensions. With the fluttering and hammering hands of beggars filling the windows at every intersection, after only twenty minutes they were at their destination. Disconcertingly it was the very alley-way shanty town where Urmila lived. Sanjay was glad that their parking place was not too close to her house. It would have been a bad start to his new career if one of her brothers had seen him sitting there, helping the driver to mind the bus. Nor does minding the bus mean that the minder can always crouch inconspicuously inside. If the bus has to shift position, the minder has to get out and supervise the crowd while it reverses, otherwise there can easily be a time-consuming incident. But on the whole Sanjay was happy to stay with the bus. Immobility here was better than mobility further in. It was better than going down under a flailing heap of Urmila’s brothers. Everyone else had got off and headed along the alley in a tight group clustered around the camera. Around this tight group was clustered half the alley’s mobile population, so the centre of attraction was soon invisible. Sanjay concentrated on not letting anyone into the bus on any excuse. Since he knew all the excuses, he was an ideal doorkeeper. People took up their beds and walked towards the bus. He turned them around again and sent them back. When the inevitable underoccupied policeman demanded that the bus be repositioned, Sanjay could spot exactly which child was likely to run expensively beneath the wheels as it reversed. He slammed sliding windows expertly on the necks of aspiring thieves. A poacher turned game-keeper, he enjoyed the feeling of respectability.

The most interesting part of the day was the lunch break. Everyone came back to the bus and they all sat in it with the air-conditioning roaring while the windows filled with constantly shuffled hands and faces, a sky of flesh. Sanjay was given a bread roll with sliced egg in it and his choice from a big styrofoam box full of canned and bottled soft drinks packed in ice. For once he passed up his beloved Limca. There were cans of Coca-Cola in there. He had only ever seen Coca-Cola in the form of advertisements, decorating English-language magazines from abroad. He had never tasted it. The taste was stunning. It was like Pepsi Cola speeded up. It was taste times texture: a compressed fizz, half of which went into the hollow passages of the head while the other half went down like a barely controlled explosion, a gas grenade. Sanjay belched stealthily through his nose but Scott must have seen his nostrils flare.

“The taste of America,” said Scott, barely fitting under the roof of the van even though he was sitting down. “You’ve got it coming, kid. Well minded. You’re a good minder. Isn’t that the English word?”

But that was as long as the attention was on Sanjay. A heated discussion started that he couldn’t follow for a minute. Americans always shouted at each other. He should have been used to it. But he could never get used to the way they shouted at each other even when they were close together.

“NBC will shut down the bureaus even if News makes a profit,” shouted Boots.

“Why should they do that?” shouted Melanie. “Who says so? They can’t.” “They can. Because GE calls the shots and Welch is a cost-cutter. News costs. Goodbye baby and amen.”

“What about CBS?” shouted Scott. He didn’t usually shout, but he had to shout now because the women were shouting. The bus was rocking to their shouts.

“CBS will dose the bureaus because Loew’s calls the shots and Tisch is a cost-cutter,” shouted Boots.

“I’ve met him,” shouted Melanie. “He’s a nice guy.”

“Like Charles Manson is a nice guy!” shouted Boots.

“And what about us?” shouted Scott.

Sanjay was not to know that he would have failed to understand this conversation even if he had understood the words. All he knew was that he did not understand. It felt like failure.

“Dearly beloved ABC will keep the bureaus open because Cap Cities calls the shots and they know something about television,” shouted Boots. “And also if anyone tries to shut me down I’ll pour gasoline on myself and give CNN the exclusive rights to the footage. Kaboom!”

“Bwah!” shouted Thad.

“Pfwoosh!” shouted Mitch.

“Anyway,” shouted Scott slightly less loudly, “when did you meet Tisch? When did you just happen to start playing footsie with the head honcho of a rival organisation? And what were you wearing at the time? Clothes?”

“Oh, a while ago. Just socially.”

But by this time Thad and Mitch were shouting about something separate. Sanjay’s incomprehension switched to them. They were using a small TV set in a steel box to look through all the pictures that they had taken that morning. Sanjay had his eye on the street just in case Urmila showed up, but he knew she wouldn’t. She would hide. She was gone, he felt. Meanwhile his ears were fully occupied with what Thad and Mitch were saying. The team had been joined by a rich young Indian woman in western clothes. Scott, Melanie and Boots engaged her in a long discussion about the locations she had been scouting, whatever that meant. Thad and Mitch were left alone with each other at the back of the truck, walled off from the others by the stack of equipment, shut in from the world by rear windows full of hands and faces. Through the soft roar of the air-conditioning, Sanjay eavesdropped on them with fascination. This was more like it. Full of names and initials, their conversation was impossible to follow in detail, but they talked with such concentration that Sanjay knew it must be important.

“Kim Basinger,” said Mitch, “has the lips.”

“Too big,” said Thad. “The mouth is too big, man. That broad is just Mick Jagger with better skin. Demi Moore has the lips.”

“A hunch-back.”

“It’s just the way she stands. She’s guarding those perfect jugs.” At this point Sanjay began having problems with the vocabulary.

“How can you say she’s not a hunch-back because it’s just the way she stands? That’s what a hunch-back is, for Christ’s sake.”

“Listen, this is an argument about delicious young female screen hopefuls who are going to make it, right? Well, Demi Moore has already not made it. She gets married to Bruce Willis. Of her own free will! That is already not making it.”

“Wait for Die Hard. Willis could be huge.”

“Wait forever. The woman who is really going to make it is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.”

“Oh yeah. Now we’re in agreement. Very spiritual stuff. After she changes her name.”

“After she changes her name why?”

“A name like Mastrantonio will never make it on the marquee. Sounds like Marcello Mastroianni having a period.”

At this point Sanjay began losing the drift.

“Wrong. Very wrong. What that name says is, this broad is exotic. Like Isabella Rossellini. Like — get this, here it comes — Nastassia Kinski.”

“Now there is a pair of lips.”

“Polanski. He finds them by radar. He’s down there at pussy-sniffing level. You see this new broad he’s gonna many?”

At this point Sanjay began to wonder whether they were still speaking English.

“How old? Thirteen? Twelve? Go on, hurt me. Tell me she’s eleven.”

“Take it easy, she’s eighteen. But exotic. With lips.”

“Bridget Fonda is going to make it. You seen Shag? Great teeth.”

“Yeah. Great mouth. And — this is important — delicately shaped pubic area. Looks excellent in panties only.”

“Like Geena Davis. Also Brooke Shields will be enormous.”

“Only in the physical sense. Too many peanut butter sandwiches.”

“Regular sex with me will solve that problem.”

“OK you guys,” said Scott. “Back to reality.”

Sanjay was relieved. The rest of the day was like the start of the day and lasted even longer. They went to several locations, all poor. Sanjay had spent time in all of them and was sometimes able to make suggestions about where the most foetid cul-de-sac was, the most pitiable heap of dust. The rich young Indian woman did not seem pleased at first, but Scott declared Sanjay invaluable and Sanjay, though he modestly shook his head, found it hard to disagree. This was, after all, his area of peculiar expertise. The rich young Indian woman, who had an English name, Elizabeth, eventually seemed reconciled to his presence.

For as long as the Americans were in the city Sanjay was busy. Truck-minding was taxing work. The monetary reward was not all that high. It was not like being handed a wedge of notes by a weeping Mr Rochester. On the other hand Mr Desmond, who seemed to be more amused than angry at Sanjay’s new ambition, did not cut back on remuneration for services rendered, so when the two sources of income were added together Sanjay was out ahead. After the Americans left there was a welcome lull. Ajay, reputedly, was distraught: Scott had supplied him with a new wardrobe from top to toe and apparently there had been a promise, alas unfulfilled, of a motorcycle to match. Ajay went incommunicado. Sanjay, for his part, was well content. There had been suggestions that his name would be passed on to other foreign television and film crews. As a truck-minder and all-purpose guide to Bombay poverty his career was launched. So he relaxed in the grand manner. He bought himself one or two new items of clothing. Having the great virtue of a sense of proportion, he was not carried away by the advertisements in the English-language glossy magazines. He merely permitted them to stoke his initial excitement.

“Image Incarnation,” he read. “A line of suits and prime sophisticate signature style blazers for the connoisseur. And trousers that flow like Chablis. In provocative textures and colours. A timeless, urbane look that doesn’t wear out. For the gentleman who goes against the grain. His just deserts. Image Incarnation. Punctuate Your Personality.”

Then he would go and buy himself a timeless, urbane pair of socks. Sanjay, who by now was reading his English magazines almost as fluently as, or with no greater lack of fluency than, he could read their Hindi equivalent, knew when to call a halt. He couldn’t have everything all at once. Ajay had lost his head: powerful evidence of the appeal of foreign glamour, because Ajay’s head had previously been famous for being level. You had to stay calm. It helped that the glamour of the gossip columns, even abetted by a dictionary, was sometimes so hard to puzzle out that the ardour and envy had time to cool.

“With things going great guns for momma,” one paragraph began, “daughter Twinkle couldn’t be too far behind. In case you’ve forgotten, she’s still going strong with Gattu and they’re even doing a film together. Plus they make it a point to go out every other night. Call it love, bubble-gum style hons. It’s a dream-team alright.”

The dictionary advised him that ‘hons’ was an abbreviation of ‘honours’. He didn’t quite see how that fitted in. But on the whole he was at home with the Bombay film world and all its offshoots. From the semi-comprehensible conversation of Thad and Mitch he had deduced that there was another film world, a foreign one, full of strange names and unimaginable attributes, such as perfect jugs. At the time we are talking about, with deregulation on the horizon but not quite arrived, the quota system was still so strict that hardly any American films reached Bombay. It is questionable whether Sanjay would have been impressed even had they done so. They would have lacked the support system of the local product. The newspapers and the magazines flooded the city to almost its lowest levels with information about the Bollywood stars. When Sanjay went to the movies, as he did every day in these days of leisure, he already knew the name, face and biography, official and unofficial, of everyone he was going to see on the screen. He had the same information about some of the people in the audience. One of them was Dilip. There was a late afternoon when Dilip accosted him after the movie finished.

“Bet you got hard looking at Nagma,” said Dilip. “Bet Sunju wanted ten takes of that shot where she gets on the horse. What a pussy. Like a lychee wrapped in muslin. Kiss kiss.”

Sanjay said nothing. Dilip had a couple of his toughest boys with him. Besides, Sanjay had got hard when he looked at Nagma: not when she had climbed on the horse, but when she and Sunju had almost kissed at the end of the last dance. Their open mouths had been on the point of touching. They must have been able to taste each other’s breath.

“By the way,” said Dilip with elaborately affected casualness. “That girl of yours that you used to fool around with at the Youth Club. What was her name, Urmila?”

Sanjay said less than nothing.

“I hear she’s got a job in Falkland Street. About twenty chaps every day using her as a toilet. Easy come, easy go. Nice socks you got there. Business must be brisk, dick-licker.”

Dilip had gone before Sanjay could react. He wasn’t sure he knew how to. Dilip’s parting shot had hurt him like being hit in the nose all over again. At least it was a clear indication of where she was. He went to Falkland Street next day. He spent a long time looking for her. If she had already been working there when he helped to guide Scott’s television crew as they made a pass down the road in their truck, it was no wonder that he hadn’t seen her. The girls standing at the doors amounted to only a fraction of the number of those concealed inside in little rooms one customer in length, off dark wooden staircases one customer in width. The rooms were just big enough in plan form to contain the bed, with a few inches to spare in both dimensions and a bucket in the corner. Customers could get past each other in the stairwells and corridors if they cooperated. Most of the girls had less freedom of movement. At busy times they just stayed where they were. Pretending to be a choosy customer, Sanjay attracted much vilification as he searched.

“You think she is not good enough for you? She was good enough for Rajiv Gandhi! Get out! Don’t come back!” It turned out that more than a hundred girls had each been the love of Rajiv Gandhi’s life. It was a long and weary morning and half an afternoon before Sanjay found her: two floors up, the third crib on the right, in the pungent semi-darkness.

Sanjay was a man now: sixteen years old at least, and because so much had happened to him his eyes were older still. He was looking through those eyes when he saw her again, and what he saw was someone who had left him behind. She was still pretty, she was still graceful; but what had once been mystery, a holding back, was now an emptiness. Her potential was gone. She was finished. She looked at him, remembered him, yet did not seem able to connect him with anything that had ever been hopeful or joyful. The woman in charge named her price. Sanjay met it with everything he had in his pocket and was left alone with Urmila in her little box of a room. It was like a box open at the top. It was made of partitions that ended well short of the roof. There were rafters up there, and cracked tiles that let in daylight. As well as the bed, the room contained the usual bucket. A westerner would have deduced, correctly, that hepatitis hung in the air like a fine mist. Sanjay, whose accustomed body had antibodies to spare, breathed in nothing except the proximity of her sweet look. She still looked lovely, despite everything. Her eyes had gone dead but she still brought him alive.

“I work here every day except the weekend,” said Urmila. Her voice, which had never been big, was now the merest gesture: something to do instead of not talking.

“I am glad you have employment,” said Sanjay.

“It is for my family,” said Urmila. “You had better do it with me or I will get into trouble.”

Sanjay did it with her. It was not difficult to achieve a state of excitement: she was as pleasing to be near as she had ever been, and more so when her dress came off over her head. She was wearing nothing else. At last he saw what he had so often thought of He piled his clothes at the end of the bed because the floor looked inhospitable. Entering her was very easy. Dilip had once explained that to rape young girls was impossible because they were too tight: hence any rape stories were fantasies on the part of the girl’s family. Sunil, during an especially long night-time symposium on the toilet roof, had once delivered an extended speech on the necessity of foreplay. Illustrating this lecturette with a wiggling forefinger, he had caused such hilarity that one of his listeners had fallen off the roof, never to return. Ajay, on the other hand, had warned that virginal young women had an extra set of baby teeth down there, which did not drop out until after they attained womanhood. When Sanjay had objected that he had found nothing like this in the case of Pratiba, Ajay had countered with the information that the teeth were usually made of gristle rather than bone, and did not manifest their rigidity until the male member had been inserted beyond the chance of withdrawal. Sanjay was relieved to find all this advice was irrelevant. It was easy. It felt light, soft and sweet. He was pleased. My just deserts, he thought. It was only after he reached a quick climax that he found anything amiss. What he missed was any sign of pleasure from Urmila. He had not missed it at the time, but thinking back on it he missed it now. Perhaps Pratiba had spoiled him. Perhaps Pratiba was the only one like that. But Sanjay had read about it too often in the magazines to be in any real doubt. “You may think this is too sweeping a generalisation,” said Savvy magazine, “but too many Indian women are robbed of ecstasy by male partners with a tandoori-and-scotch breath.” Women were supposed to be driven mad with passion. They were supposed to thrash about in frenzy.

“You never moved,” murmured Sanjay, just managing to lie beside her on the narrow bed. Even replete, he found the delicate shape of her pubic mound an aesthetic miracle to be contemplated endlessly, with his fingertips the antennae of his eyes.

“For everyone else I have to,” said Urmila. “They check up on me and make sure I do.”

“Then for me you must not,” said Sanjay. “For me you will just think.”

“You are coming back?”

“I will always come back.” Sanjay had borrowed this line from a film, but he delivered it with sincerity.

“You must not try to take me away. For my family this is very important. My brother will hurt you worse than before. Much worse.”

“I understand. I won’t try.”

The sad fact was that he didn’t want to. It suited him for her to stay where she was. When Urmila’s keeper saw him down the stairs, telling him that Urmila was one of Rajiv Gandhi’s favourites, Sanjay had already realised that Urmila was one among thousands, a cliché. He still felt tender towards her: she had an accommodating, untroubled spirit, and nothing short of violence could ever injure her grace. Only a few yards down the street there was the special clinic where all the girls went once a week to have their diseases taken out. She would be looked after. She would not die the way these girls used to. But her mystique was gone. It had gone before he reached her. It had all drained out of her as casual familiarity was pumped in. Sanjay was a romantic. He would come back; he would be kind; but he would not risk his life to rescue a life that was already over. Urmila was a casualty of the streets, and Sanjay was not that: not yet.

In fact for a street child Sanjay was doing so amazingly well that it was possible to forget his origins. Another monsoon came and went. His roof kept him dry. His clothes by now could get hint through almost any door. They punctuated his personality. They flowed like Chablis. He had found out from Mr Desmond what Chablis was: it was a French drink. The year began in which Mr Desmond would go back to America, leaving Sanjay without protection. But Sanjay had resources to see him through. There was a certain small amount of capital which could be reached through his bank book. On top of that there was his income, which was earned on the truck, the van, the bus or whatever the foreign TV crew happened to call the vehicle in which they travelled around. Sanjay had become an established truck minder, runner and assistant fixer. The rich young woman, Elizabeth, who had done the fixing for Scott’s crew, had been very snooty at the time, always looking at Sanjay as if she had just scraped him with difficulty off the sole of her sandal. Of mixed Indian and Portuguese background, wearing a little cross around her neck like the one on the spire of the Youth Club, she came from a place called Goa, and apparently she was ‘acatholic’. Assuming this word was an adjective, Sanjay was not able to find it in his dictionary, but guessed that it might mean snooty. It had turned out, however, that such was only her manner. For the new season she made a point of asking for him to join each new documentary unit to which she had been appointed fixer. Since Elizabeth was the first choice for the best crews, this meant that Sanjay rode in all the best minibuses. Almost all of them did the poverty tour, so Sanjay became increasingly skilled at knowing just where those extra vignettes of squalor could be found which would give the sequence the seal of authenticity. While he was helping the television crews, the television crews were helping him, even if they didn’t know it. He listened in on all their conversations. In this way he picked up something of their languages to go with his smattering of English. At the same time his smattering of English became better than a smattering. It did not, and never could, amount to mastery, but it got him by. It came in especially handy with some of the foreign crews when he had little of their language and they had none of his. For communicating with the Japanese and Germans it was a big help. After several trips around the poverty circuit with the different Japanese channels Sanjay picked up quite a lot of useful set phrases and made a start with generating simple sentences from the two main verbs. Asoko ni ikenakucha he would say. We must go over there. Unfortunately the Japanese, while keen to demonstrate how impressed they were when a westerner showed himself willing to grapple with their language, felt no such compulsion when someone from the East did the same. From the Japanese, amused tolerance was the warmest emotion Sanjay seemed able to arouse. Laughter filled the basu, their word for the bus. Luckily he, and they, had English to fall back on, although their English was often fiendishly difficult to understand, and became more so if his face displayed puzzlement. Similarly with the Germans: he had to be ready to ask for clarification in English, and then, if the clarification was not clear, to take the chance of doing the wrong thing. But whereas the Japanese spoke English with the vital ‘l’ sound transposed to ‘r’, the Germans merely swapped around a few sounds that didn’t much matter, and sometimes their English was startlingly good. There was a crew from ZDF who spoke better English than the English. After Sanjay said Guten Morgen in the morning, he didn’t have to venture anything else in their own language until he said Auf Wiedersehen in the evening. Meanwhile he picked up all kinds of useful little bits just by listening, and then later on he would score points and a further tip by using them in the right place. Einverstanden was a good one. I understand. Quite often he didn’t, but he had made the gesture.

The ZDF crew were in town for two weeks doing the entire poverty tour, with nothing left out: in the fishing village they waited for more than an hour until a seagull plucked a dead fish from the crippled little girl’s hand. They would have given the little girl’s mother enough money to start a riot if Sanjay had not stepped in. Their researcher was very apologetic. Her name was Trudeliese and she had long blonde hair held back with a velvet band. She wore an apricot T-shirt that showed off her breasts, khaki slacks that showed off her hips, and American deck shoes that showed off her access to dollars. Sanjay had never seen a western woman so beautiful, not even the Italian woman who had once held his hand on the boat to Elephant Island. While the crew was out shooting in the tumultuous heat, Trudeliese would often sit in the cool of the kombi and read, seemingly undisturbed by the press of faces and hands against the window. For a few days in the second week there was a young Englishman called Rupert who came along in the kombi with the Germans and wrote down what they did. He was writing an article for an English newspaper about foreign coverage of poverty in Bombay. It soon became clear that he was highly appreciative of Trudeliese. While the crew were out of the kombi shooting, Rupert usually found a reason for staying on board, so that apart from the driver and Sanjay there was nobody else there except him and her. Rupert would speak tenderly to her, as if they were alone. Sanjay could hear the solicitation in Rupert’s voice even when they spoke German. When they spoke English, Rupert’s regard became even more evident.

“One of the most beautiful sights in the world,” said Rupert, “is to watch a girl like you reading The Magic Mountain for the first time.”

“It’s my second time, actually,” said Trudeliese in her clear English. “And stop sounding like my uncle.”

“It must be wonderful to read it like a native. I had a hell of a time with the vocabulary.”

“So do we. Some of the words you can’t find in the dictionary. He made them up.”

“I can remember what a relief it was when Hans and Claudia started talking French together. A nice holiday from all that tangled syntax. A bit like the French conversations in War and Peace. It gets you out of wrestling with Russian for a few blessed minutes.”

“You were learning Russian too?”

“My people were dreaming of the Foreign Office.”

“The whole British people were dreaming about you?”

“It’s a way of saying my parents. There are certain aspects of English usage that not even you can master by intuition.”

“A class thing, yes? Like your Foreign Office. Like this place.”

“What place? Bombay?”

“Yes, Bombay. Isn’t this yours, really? Fort Bombay? Your Empire in the East?”

“I suppose so. Once upon a time. Although, if you’ll forgive me, and I don’t mean your generation of course, but if you think of your Empire in the East, say about January 1943...”

At that point a sympathetic conversation about a book turned into an acrimonious argument, but Sanjay was struck by the way the underlying emotion, on Rupert’s part anyway, failed to change. It was all love play. Sanjay began to see that a conversation need not necessarily be concerned with its nominal topic, and that the language of affection can be spoken in tones as much as actual words. For the moment, however, this was an insight he had no occasion to apply. His affection for Urmila demanded practical expression. As the Italians succeeded the Germans, the French the Italians and the Spanish the Japanese, Sanjay went on acquiring his useful smatterings, improving his English, and saving money, although less money than he would have saved if he had not been visiting Urmila in Falkland Street. This last activity was the only one in which he felt that he was not getting anywhere. There was no progress to be made. It was a kind of desperate standstill. Twice a week — which was as often as he could safely afford — she would greet him as a saviour. Saving her was exactly what he could not do. Even if he could have afforded to burden himself with her, her family would not have permitted him to take her away. Yet he found a sense of having failed hard to quell. In one way he did try to help. An American woman photographer, who loudly proclaimed herself to be famous in her own country and something she called The Whole Civilized World, wanted to take photographs in the house where Urmila worked. The proprietor and the two proprietresses formed a committee to choose which girl should be photographed while working. Urtnila was their choice. Several of Urmila’s regular customers were approached with regard to their possible participation. All of them, for various personal reasons, declined to be included. Sanjay heard about it and volunteered. It made Urmila feel slightly less miserable about the whole project, and Sanjay had a plan which he thought might make her eventually feel that she had done a good thing. Sanjay negotiated his personal fee separately with the photographer. The committee was initially not happy with this idea but as a regular customer, and one used to bargaining with foreign media people, he was able to put the deal through with a businesslike briskness. After much noisy preparation, the photographer, who luckily was not as large as many of her countrymen, climbed up into the rafters. She was wearing dark green clothes with random brown patches on them and a hat to match, so she was hard to see up there in the half light, especially since there was so much direct dazzle lower down. She had erected special hot lights on thin metal stands in the corners of Urmila’s little room. Sanjay manfully did it with Urmila while clicks, grunts and instructions came from above, even after he had finished and was lying beside her.

“That’s it, Mack. Now you’re drowsy. So drowsy. You got what you came for and now you’re thinking of tomorrow. Can you tell her to move her hand off her snatch? Off her thing?”

The business took a couple of hours so there would have been real money involved even just counting Urmila’s time. On top of that there must have been a lot more. The house got nearly all of it, of course. But since Sanjay’s fee came direct to him, when he and Urmila were finally alone together he was able to give all the money to her. That had been his plan all along. Her misery, however, was not alleviated. She was not in tears or even close to them. She looked beyond that, as if staring at desolation. In a voice that went on vanishing in the direction of its source she said she had nowhere to keep the money; nowhere to go and buy anything with it; nowhere to go. Sanjay wondered if it was not time to give up on her. He left her lying there, holding her unexamined wedge of precious brown ten rupee notes up beside her shoulder as if it were a torch she might as well set alight, so as to see at least a little further into the darkness of her future. Her toes were curled tightly, as if in pain. Sanjay, as always, said he would be back, but he found it hard to believe himself. He could hear doubt in his voice.

Sometimes he even doubted himself. Not long after the bad afternoon with the photographer he had a whole bad fortnight with an English television crew. They had come to make a television programme for the BBC based on Mr Rupert’s newspaper article about the foreign television coverage of poverty in Bombay. Their researcher was very nice. She was also very pretty, almost as pretty as Trudeliese, and like Trudeliese she read a book during her spare time alone in the van. It was called Out of Africa. Her colleagues kept saying that the book they wanted to read was called Out of India. They were not enjoying their visit. They didn’t like the accommodation, the food, or even the water. Nor did they seem to much like the people. They were quite nice, but like all English television crews they posed an acute problem to Sanjay: it was the way they spoke English. Their lighting man, officially called Sparks, but confusingly addressed as Harry, often turned out to have meant something crucially different to what he had said. “Leave it out,” he said testily when Sanjay tried to remind him of a heavy silver box that had not been loaded on the van. So Sanjay left it out, and they almost set off without it. It turned out that Sparks had merely not wanted to be reminded, because he was doing something difficult at the time. So everyone ended up laughing at Sparks, and Sparks ended up not liking Sanjay. To multiply the confusion, the English spoke at least two different versions of their own language. The people in charge put in all the consonants but used their own peculiar grammar. “Do you want to wait here?” meant “Wait here”; it wasn’t a question, it was an order. The people who were not in charge left out half the consonants and used a different grammar altogether. “Do me a favour” was another version of “Leave it out”. It meant to stop doing something, it wasn’t an order, it was an admonition. Sometimes both kinds of people would use the same language but they both used it in reverse: “charming” meant “not charming”, and so on.

“I just finished framing up on this little bugger when he squatted down and shat.”


“I got the whole thing with a slow zoom out.”

“Did we get it on sound?”

“Nobby was reloading. But you wouldn’t have wanted to hear it, believe me. Sort of liquid rush.”

“Sounds lovely.”

Then they all laughed. Why did they do that? And Nobby was the sound man, so if there was no sound how could it sound lovely? None of it made sense. But sometimes Sanjay heard phrases that he could store away with some confidence for future use. “You’re beautiful when you’re angry,” said the cameraman to Sparks, one of the least beautiful Englishmen that Sanjay had ever seen. That was a good one. It meant the opposite of what it said, but there was intimacy underneath. You couldn’t say it to a stranger. Sanjay would save it until he met someone who was not a stranger.

What Sanjay could not know was that the English language of Britain, quite apart from all the English languages of the old Empire, had become a world of its own, with its own countries, all held at a distance by mutually incomprehensible accents. The accents and the idioms of the classes and regions within Britain have generated internecine borders that only the classical language can cross, except that there is almost no one left to speak it. The reason why Sanjay could make himself understood to all the different kinds of Englishmen was that the Americans actually spoke English with all the sounds left in. Thus Mr Desmond, in this respect as in so many others, was a stroke of luck. By unintentionally assimilating the way Mr Desmond spoke, Sanjay, as he had from Pratiba, had learned a pedantically inclusive pronunciation which enabled him to speak a form of the language that made him comprehensible to all the different kinds of English speakers even when they could not comprehend each other. His vocabulary was limited and his grammar often patchy, but what he said was clear. He knew that he owed some of this to Mr Desmond even if he did not know quite why. What he now had to face was the loss of his surest guide. The time approached for Mr Desmond to go home to America. He had finished his book. There was a party to celebrate this accomplishment. The apartment was crowded. A large part of the crowd consisted of one man: an unbelievably tall Englishman called Mr Cuthbert. The middle part of him was folded into a soft chair in the corner of the sitting-room, and the rest of him went halfway up the wall and a good way towards the centre of the room. His head was framed in a mirror and his feet were crossed on the carpet in front of a couch full of Mr Desmond’s rich Indian friends, the ones Sanjay had grown to like no better as time went on. But he liked Mr Cuthbert immediately. Mr Desmond seemed to hang on his every word, so Sanjay tried to do the same, even though he couldn’t tell what any of it meant. Mr Rochester had been a miracle of clarity compared to this.

“You can’t imagine how sick I got of Buenos Aires. I was dying of envy every time I thought of you surrounded by these delightful people. Especially this delightful person. I certainly guessed right about him.”

“Give me a break,” said Mr Desmond fondly. “You used to tell me how that place had everything.”

“That was before I got there, sweetie. It’s got everything if you like eating burnt steak on the back of a polo pony that can dance the tango. Otherwise nada.”

Up until this point, Sanjay had more or less understood the conversation.

“What about Borges? Did you finish the book?”

“You were writing a book about Borges?” piped Suresh. “I admire his short stories so mu...”

“Hold it,” said Mr Desmond, and indeed he held up his hand as if he was holding something back. Good phrase, thought Sanjay. Hold it. The same as leave it out, but the American version was better. “Let Ian complain,” Mr Desmond continued. “He has a complaint.”

“Don’t talk to me about Borges,” said Mr Cuthbert.

“No, you talk to us about Borges. The great passion of your life, as I remember.”

Sanjay was ceasing to understand, but he tried not to show it.

“It’s too sordid. I just got sick of him. I couldn’t keep track of all those dialogues. They were coming out in Spanish twice as fast as in English. That stuff in the New Yorker was just the tip of the slag-heap. The older he got, the more there were. Last Dialogues with Borges, Absolutely Last Dialogues with Borges, Dialogues with Borges On the Point of Death, Dialogues with Borges When Actually Dying. And then he croaked and the production line really speeded up. Dialogues with Borges Shortly After Death. And then they started publishing the books he’d repudiated, followed closely by the books he’d never published at all, with good reason in most cases. And I started thinking, who the fuck needs a book about Borges from me?”

“Yours might be the sensible one.”

Sanjay had ceased to understand altogether, but he adopted a look of comprehension.

“Fat chance. I just lost sympathy with the whole mad scramble. And you know, I ended up not even liking him any more? Is any of his stuff really about anything? Games with mirrors. That sodding labyrinth. Bifurcation. As if reality wasn’t already bifurfuckingcated enough. Here’s a man who never rode a horse in his life and he was still glorifying these long-gone gaucho knife-fighters when the soldiers were clipping electrodes to girls’ nipples only a few blocks from his house. Deflowering virgins with electric cattle prods because they’d been caught reading Simone de Beauvoir. What did he ever say about that? He just wrote fairy stories instead. Or articles proclaiming the genius of Wilkie Collins. Spare us.”

Flying blind, Sanjay essayed a small laugh of delight: very small, in case it was a bad guess. But it turned out to fit the mood.

“You got too close,” said Mr Desmond, sounding more fond still, evidently enjoying the way Mr Cuthbert was whipping himself up. “What did you expect him to do? Right from the jump he said he loathed Peron. Peron could have killed him for that. Peron killed his own brother-in-law for less. And Borges was an old man when the generals took over, but he still came out for human rights.”

“He sucked up to Pinochet.”

“He didn’t. He just didn’t know what was going on in Chile. How can a blind man read newspapers?”

Sanjay nodded in agreement. How could a blind man read newspapers?

“He could hear.”

“Anyway, he admitted his mistake about Pinochet.”

“In some damned dialogue. But the sheer bloody frightfulness of that whole stretch of his country’s history didn’t touch his creative work one little bit. Brilliant language, of course. Bloody floods of that. The dazzle that conceals. Like those tremendously sexy lines in American movies but they screw each other with the sheet up around their waists. You can search the stories and poems from end to end and never find any horrors that didn’t come out of Edgar Allan Poe.”

“But that was the point, wasn’t it?” asked Mr Desmond. “The regime did come out of Edgar Allan Poe.”

Again Sanjay nodded in agreement, as if backing up Mr Desmond’s opinion from his own experience.

“Quoth the raven, never more,” said Suresh’s friend.

“I think you’ll find that ‘quoth’ rhymes with oath, not cloth,” said another young rich Indian. He was not as handsome as Suresh or his friend but Sanjay knew that he was very clever. His name was Gupta and he had been in the apartment quite often recently. He had a disdainful face and never seemed to enjoy himself except when someone else felt at a loss. Mr Cuthbert went on as if nobody except Mr Desmond had spoken. Sanjay realised that this was because they were old friends. As Pratiba might have put it, they were on the same wavelength.

“I wish you were right, but the fact is that when I got deep enough into the dreadful reality I couldn’t escape from the conclusion that the old man had dodged it. When I started using On His Blindness as a working title for my book I realised it was time to give up. Three years of my spare time straight down the drain. Time I could have spent writing about someone I admired, like Montgomery Clift. Or Rock Hudson.”

“Perish the thought.”

“R.I.P.” Sanjay missed the next part of the symposium because he was sent to help the servant carry plates. When he came back, the subject of the conversation had changed. They were talking about Mr Rochester. “I’m sorry to have missed Ted,” said Mr Cuthbert. Sanjay knew what ‘to miss’ meant. It meant to be sad about someone not being with you. But he could not quite grasp why Mr Cuthbert spoke in the past tense, as if he had stopped missing Mr Rochester. Mr Cuthbert would rush on and Mr Desmond would argue with him in a way that made him rush on even more. He was also managing to absorb enough cool drink to ensure that he would rush on more loudly. But it was still possible to start another conversation elsewhere in the room. Sanjay ventured to try out some advanced English on Gupta, whose attention had obviously wandered. “Mr Desmond,” said Sanjay, “punctuates Mr Cuthbert’s personality.”

“Well said,” said Gupta. “Where do you learn things like that?” Sanjay would have been more flattered by Gupta’s question if it had not been framed in Hindi. After some time Sanjay noticed that Mr Desmond was following their conversation. It was a trick he had: he could talk in a perfectly collected manner to one person while listening to someone else. The party went on until very late and Gupta was the last guest to leave.

“I have a feeling Gupta might inherit you from me,” said Mr Desmond. “You could do worse. He’s wasting a fine brain being a businessman. And he’s a bit of a cold bastard. But he has good connections. The prospect takes some of the sting out of saying goodbye. Not all of it, though. Not all of it.”

“Mr Cuthbert seems very clever,” said Sanjay, to ward off embarrassment. To hold it.

“Ian is a very clever man,” said Mr Desmond, reaching to stroke the scar in Sanjay’s eyebrow with his fingertip. “But he’s sterile, and the brilliantly sterile always feel threatened by creativity. By creativity and by innocence. We take it as a reproach.”

Later on Sanjay had a shower, a luxury he always took pains to enjoy. He soaped his behind gingerly, feeling sore. Mr Desmond had used rubber, the way he always did on the nights he wanted something extra. When Sanjay went back into the bedroom, he was wearing a towel like a sarong, the way he had seen Chunky do in one of the magazines. Mr Desmond was holding Sanjay’s trousers in one hand and with the other was holding the gold piece to the light of the bedside lamp.

“Can I keep this?” asked Mr Desmond without looking at him. “I’ll give you twice as much as it’s worth. I’d like to have a little something to remember you by, and this is very little. Our little secret.”

The last word, secret, he only half pronounced, because Sanjay had hit him on the side of the head. Mr Desmond fell against the headboard of the bed and the gold piece fell on the carpet. Sanjay had retrieved it and put it back into the secret compartment in the waistband of his trousers before he began to worry about what he had done. Then he worried a lot. It was too late to stop the quarrel. He couldn’t hold it. Mr Desmond’s ear was bleeding. He was shocked and angry and sent Sanjay away.

Back in the slum, Sanjay locked himself into his room and slept badly. His friendship with Mr Desmond was due to end anyway, but to let it end in rancour had been foolish and probably expensive.

The next morning there was a knock on the door. Sanjay, only half dressed, opened it. There stood Mr Desmond, flanked by a struggling small crowd of curious people. Sanjay ushered him in and shut them out.

“Finding you took a lot of asking,” said Mr Desmond, with uncharacteristic awkwardness. He had a patch of white sticking-plaster on his ear. “Is this all you have to read? You should have told me you needed a proper mirror. I suppose I could have found out.”

Sanjay said nothing. He didn’t know what to say. Mr Desmond had taken the top magazine from one of Sanjay’s several neat stacks and opened it at random.

“I should have done more for you,” he said, shutting it and putting it back. “I should have taught you to read, the way Valmiki taught the sons of Kama in the Ramayana. When they came to him for refuge. Did I tell you about that?”

Sanjay shook his head. Mr Desmond, though he had always kept his cultural references local just for Sanjay’s benefit, had never fully realised that his ward was just as ignorant about India as he was about anywhere else.

“No. Because it didn’t suit me. Forgive me. I find friendship ... difficult. I have manners instead of love. It’s all locked up. The way it is in you. But one day you will break loose. Will you come with me to the airport?”

Sanjay said he had to go to work.

“And what kind of work is that, I wonder? Hell, it’s your business. I was going to give you this when we got there. I may as well give it to you here. It looks like this place could use it.”

It was a thick sealed envelope.

“Buy yourself a mirror, sweetheart. You should see yourself every day. You’re a sight to behold.”

There was that word ‘hold’ again. Mr Desmond held him for a little while and then went. Inside the envelope was Gupta’s telephone number and a startling amount of money.