Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 15 |
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Chapter 15

SANJAY’S PROGRESS towards a career in films was only gradual. He was short of contacts. Though the economy had at last been deregulated and Bombay had been officially declared India’s boom town in several different fields, most of the foreign television crews visiting the city were still interested mainly in poverty. Elizabeth could always be relied on to recommend him as their van minder. When it was a simple job she would recommend him as the fixer and not even come on the job herself. He would split the extra fee with her and count himself lucky. He needed the money. Gupta was rich but not very generous, even though he was by far the most wealthy Indian Sanjay had yet encountered. The renegade son of a renowned cosmopolitan plutocrat, Gupta was doing brilliantly well out of the new economic freedom. With a Cambridge education, perfect English, and valuable connections abroad, he knew what to import and how to get it. He knew how to persuade the government agencies to put up the risk capital for a new enterprise: the idea for microwave ovenettes was his, but the seed money was theirs. As the consumer markets expanded, the clothes and expensive toys favoured by famous young people like Mamta and Mumtas were all brought in by people like Gupta, and none of his competitors could match his nose for a fad. He was famous himself. You could see him in the group photographs in all the glossy gossip magazines, the only one not smiling, a serious presence, a ‘dark horse’. He lived in a palatial triplex penthouse apartment on the point at Malabar near Raj Bhavan, with glass walls, a swimming-pool, and a collection of East Asian sculpture that experts pronounced to be of museum quality. The experts came to his parties, along with prominent people from business, politics and sport. Unlike Mr Desmond, Gupta did not often betray his proclivities by restricting his guest list. Sanjay was rarely invited to a party unless extra help was needed. When he was, he felt out of place. The conversations were bewildering. Often they were in English even when few foreigners were present.

“Go to Aspen,” said a splendidly suited young man wearing a Rolex. “You’re wasting your time in the Alps.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said another splendidly suited young man wearing a Rolex. “I certainly never want to see Gstaad again. The red runs were scraped clean. It rattled my teeth. The moguls were the size of Volkswagens.”

“Never happens at Aspen. On Ajax they don’t even allow snow-boards. The trails are like ballrooms. You can cruise for miles and never feel a bump. It’s bliss.”

“When do we go?”

Sanjay didn’t know what they were talking about. When Mr Desmond had talked about Moguls he was talking about history. But what kind of moguls were these? It was not much fun being at one of Gupta’s parties. The people were not sufficiently artistic to suit Sanjay’s taste. On the other hand, being alone with Gupta was not much fun either. Gupta said the minimum. He kept his best thoughts for his friends. He was not generous with his mind as Mr Rochester and Mr Desmond had been. He was not generous with anything. Sanjay could not afford to take it easy with his work. The only bright note was that he was able to extend his range as a van minder. He was no longer confined to the poverty circuit. He also became first choice as a van minder for the foreign television crews covering the Bombay film industry. Robin had passed the word along. There was usually an Indian fixer. When it was Elizabeth, she would happily leave him to do the minor fixing while she went off to arrange the big interviews. Even when the fixer was not Elizabeth and insisted on doing everything, Sanjay still made himself invaluable as a source of information on the stars. As a result, tips were plentiful. But he did not make very many useful contacts. The film industry people, the actual Bollywood personnel, thought of him as something of a pest. In his own language, so as to avoid the possibility of being overheard by some member of the foreign crew he was working for, he would ask if there were any openings going for a stunt-man. All too often he was laughed at or rebuffed abruptly. But eventually, when he had almost given up hope, the day came when he was given advice instead of abuse. A kind second assistant director told him not to waste his time by trying to be taken on as a stunt-man. No one could be a stunt-man without training. The way in was to be taken on as an extra. The man even gave him an address where he could apply.

The time came when he had three dear weeks between jobs. Wearing his second-best shirt, he found his way to the hiring hall for bit-part players and extras. It was only a mile or so from Victoria Terminus but hard to find, at the end of a chain of crowded alleyways. There was an anonymous door you had to knock on and then you had to talk your way in. Sanjay had a letter from Elizabeth that proved he was connected to the agency providing help for foreign television companies and was empowered to do research on their behalf. He used this letter to talk his way past the doorkeeper and after that he quietly made himself part of the scenery. The scenery consisted almost entirely of men; men of all ages and conditions. They sat in tiers along both sides and one end of an enormous room with a dirty cracked concrete floor and a high corrugated iron ceiling that capped an unclear clerestory of dusty glass. At the other end of the room was a sort of gallery reached by a ladder. In the gallery sat men with telephones. The atmosphere was one of waiting. Sanjay found a place in one of the only empty spaces in the second tier on the far side of the room, quite a distance from the gallery. He sat still and thought of other things.

He sat there for a long time. Near the end of the first day, an older man sitting beside him told him that he would not even be called for an interview in less than a week. The older man said he had spent most of his career waiting in this room. He gave Sanjay all kinds of tips on how to arrive and leave in a conspicuous manner, how to sit always where the sunlight fell most brightly, and how to talk to one’s neighbours in a way that would show animation and energy. “You must remind them of your personality,” he said. “Even when you go out to the toilet, you must walk in a vigorous manner.” Sanjay privately decided that if the older man had spent so much more time waiting than working, his advice was probably not very good. Sanjay decided to arrive, sit and leave as inconspicuously as possible. Events proved this to be a wise tactic. On the afternoon of the third day a man wearing a spectacular floral shirt and an improbable hairstyle parted low on the side climbed down from the gallery, walked the length of the room, stood in front of him, and beckoned with a crooked forefinger. He was being called to the gallery.

Sitting quietly in the hiring room had been hot work but the gallery was hotter still. There were several men sitting up there looking important. It was easy to see which of the men mattered most. He had a small electric fan and two telephones on his desk and was enormously fat. The only way you could tell he was sitting in a swivel chair was that he swivelled. Almost bald, with a huge head that shone like good furniture, he turned his whole body towards Sanjay and looked up at him where he stood. Sanjay tried to show the appropriate blend of deference and self-possession. When doing this he always found that it helped to think about Sabbandra. It gave him the look of an apologetic but fundamentally confident pupil.

“Your name?”

Sanjay gave his name, using his first name twice.

“Previous experience?”

Sanjay said he was just starting. He thought it best not to lie about that. This man must know a lot.

“It is a nice change to hear a confession of ignorance. Usually they tell me they are Shashi Kapoor’s cousin. Say a line to me.”

Sanjay asked him what line he meant.

“Any line. A line of dialogue. Make it up if you must. Pretend that I am a beautiful woman. Make love to me.”

“You can claw my back any time.”

“That is not bad. Your voice is clear. What do you want to do?” Sanjay said he thought he could do stunts.

“Nobody begins as a stunt-man. People are very lucky to start as an extra. But you have proved that you have the patience to wait.

Being an extra mainly consists of waiting without going away. Usually I would have made you wait another few days, just to be sure.”

Sanjay took this as a good sign.

“You have a good face. A pity it has been injured. But it will help you look like somebody tough. You will be one of a group of tough-looking extras in the film Barj Barj That name means nothing. They will change it later, after filming is completed. It starts on Friday of next week and you will work for two weeks at Film City. You will not need a suit. It is a costume drama. Mr Mehta over there will arrange your payment, which you get at the end of the film, not the start. You understand?”

Sanjay smiled a small smile to show that he understood.

“Don’t smile when you get there. For this part you must look tough. When you smile you look like a baby that has been beaten up. Meanwhile I will put you on the register so you do not have to lie to get in here.”

Sanjay nodded, concealing his delight. It was only after the formalities were complete and he was walking home along the crowded pavements that he began to tackle the problem of how he could start his next scheduled job for Elizabeth when there would still be another week’s work to complete at Film City. He decided not to tell her straight away. He decided not to think about it at all, for the moment. Instead, he bought an ice-cream: a rare indulgence. Like all home-grown brands of ice-cream it was well supplied with stiffeners to delay the certainty of its liquefying in the heat, so several minutes passed before he had to stop walking and lean over in case drops from the last few mouthfuls descended on his shoes. A few small street children gathered to watch him, as if he were a Chowpatty side-show. He gave them a tough look.

For most of the ensuing week he practised looking tough in front of the mirror. When he walked the streets of the city, he walked them toughly. Thinking of Dilip helped. People recoiled from Sanjay’s path. He went to visit Urmila in Falkland Street. He climbed the stairs very toughly. When he found her with dead eyes and drowsy with smoke, however, he did not know how to express his toughness. The truth was, he was afraid of the people there. He could bargain with them, but he did not see himself threatening them. If they could do these things to her, what would they do to him? He felt a similar timidity about telling Elizabeth of his plans. He let time go by. It was not that he was nerving himself up: he just avoided the issue. He spent evenings talking and smoking heroin with Sunil and his friends on the toilet roof, under the floodlit canopy of the enormous trees, with the crowds milling below. He spent half an afternoon just killing time on Chowpatty beach with Ajay: they watched the boy going into the box and coming out of the sack, the man who bent spears by leaning on their points with his throat, the men who whipped themselves. He spent a whole afternoon playing cricket in Azad Park. Finally, far too late, he faced the fact that if he did not tell Elizabeth he might never mind a van again.

“Why did you wait so long to tell me?” she said in the hardest voice she had ever used. They were in her little office in the street of the sari shops. It had taken him an hour to walk the length of the block, looking in every shop, convincing himself he was fascinated by the racks of colour.

“You must have realised that the later you told me the worse it would be. Didn’t you realise that?”

Elizabeth had all kinds of postcards pinned to the board above her desk. The postcards came from all over India and other parts of the world. There were several from London, where she had lived. He recognised the big red buses. There are some big red buses in Bombay too, but the background is different.

“The Japanese crew have the same assistant producer as before and he remembered you. He asked for you especially. Calling from Tokyo. And now I have to tell him he will have to use someone he doesn’t know for the whole first week. While you are off dressing up as a gangster. I had better not tell him that, had I?”

Her eyes were very big and white around their black centres. She was finely made, Elizabeth, but he had never found her beautiful. His charm did not work with her, and so her good looks did not work with him. She made him uncomfortable. She reduced him infallibly to silence.

“If I was in my right mind I would replace you for the whole shoot and let you get on with your mad new career. But I suppose I will find a substitute for the first week. Mohandas can do it. He has the brains of a cow but at least he is honest. If he was going to be a week late he would tell me.”

The appointments were made and the agony was over. Sanjay left with the mixed feelings he always took away from a meeting with Elizabeth. She made him feel awkward, uneducated and inferior. On the other hand he recognised that there was a kind of compliment in the way she valued his work for itself, without placing any value on his winning ways. She treated him as an erring adult: that was what was so uncomfortable. He preferred to be treated as a gifted child. Sometimes he was sorry he had ever met her. But now he was walking briskly. This time he did not pretend to look into the sari shops. He preferred to look at the saris in the street, the ones with women inside them. He was alive again. He was on the road to a new adventure, with his old job waiting for him if the adventure failed. He had worked the trick.

Once it finally started, the adventure was not much to get excited about. It was lucky that he gave himself two whole hours to get out to Film City, because the bus journey featured, at an early stage, a full half hour stuck in a traffic jam on the flyover, with nothing to do except struggle silently for an extra inch of standing room by breathing deeply. Fortunately he was close enough to a window to get a good view of the work being done on a tall building nearby. They were putting up a big electric sign for Pepsi Cola. It was a talisman of deregulation, a token of Bombay’s booming, bustling new economy that they were talking about in the magazines. When the bus finally proceeded and the road sank back to ground level it was possible to detect what had been holding up its progress. As another token of the booming, bustling new economy, the road was being refurbished. Hundreds of workmen were each carrying a bucket of sand or gravel very slowly, while hundreds more, with almost equal slowness, carried empty buckets in the other direction. The bus crawled past them with similar dynamism. Finally it speeded up. Sanjay consulted his watch by looking up at his wrist. The watch was his latest acquisition. It was not a famous brand, but at least it was stolen. Only the stolen watches, Dilip had told him, were worth buying. It had the plain look which Sanjay, from studying the society photographs in the magazines, had deduced was desirable. In all other respects he was glad that he had worn only his second-best clothes. Although he rarely sweated, he was dose to it, and the people around him were certainly very close to him. When the bus went up the last long stretch of road to Film City, the house where he was born was somewhere behind his back. He was not sure that he would have looked at it anyway.

At the castle he handed in his work chitty and was given a costume to change into. There was a red turban, a sort of wraparound red blouse, and a pair of baggy pants. The cloth was coarse and hot. None of it flowed like Chablis. The only sign of real toughness was the black belt, which had silver studs and a curved dagger in a sheath. He tested the curved dagger. It was made of some soft metal that bent and stayed that way until you bent it back again. There were no shoes. A busy man who had fifty other extras to look after found just enough time to say that Sanjay could wear his ordinary shoes today: if his feet were ever needed in shot he would be issued with boots. Thinking ahead, Sanjay had already solved the problem of what to do with his gold piece. He had purchased a thin money-belt with a small pouch just big enough to hold his personal effects, including the new watch, which he had correctly guessed he would not be allowed to wear when in costume. The money-belt was already in place under his street clothes, so after he had finished changing in the extras’ communal dressing shed, everything he could not afford to lose was safely on his person, instead of dangerously left with his neatly folded kit. He noticed that he was one of only a dozen extras dressed in red. Dozens of others were dressed in yellow. From their facial features he guessed that the men in red were going to be the tough ones and the men in yellow were going to be not so tough. But at this stage the different colours were jumbled together as they all moved out into the sunlight and made their way, marshalled by a man with a megaphone, into the main courtyard. Sanjay felt awkward in his ordinary shoes, as if his feet came from the twentieth century and the rest of him from Long Ago. He really would have felt better with some proper boots. But it was already all too evident that nobody cared very much about how he felt. To the organisers he was just another extra and to the extras he was just another competitor standing between them and preferment. Some dark looks from the men in yellow, indeed, were clearly meant to inform him that he had no tight to be dressed in red without having done his time in yellow first. He concluded that it was a privilege to be dressed in red.

The privilege consisted of taking part in an individual shot. The men in yellow formed such a large group that they were never all in shot at once unless the camera was high up on a crane. The men in red stood or moved as a body. They were required to move menacingly. Usually they stood or moved behind the actor playing the bad bandit chief. The good bandit chief, the hero of the film, was being played by the celebrated Anupam Ghai, who was treated as royalty at all times, whether the camera was turning or not. The bad bandit chief was of lesser importance and was consequently played by a character actor. But the bad bandit chief and his men in red still had to participate in at least one scene every day, and since there was no telling when their scene would be filmed, they all had to stand by in costume. There was a great deal of waiting. Then, when the scene finally happened, there was a great deal of hurrying. The bad bandit chief and his men in red would arrive, look menacing, and leave. When the bad bandit chief had lines to deliver, his men in red would look menacing in the background. It was only towards the end of the first week that Sanjay noticed he was always further in the background than anybody else. It occurred to him that the other men in red were engineering this. At the start of the second week he started to insinuate himself closer to the front. In the middle of the second week his efforts were rewarded with a pair of boots.

“Cut,” said the director, who was not a sympathetic man. “The one in the second row on the right. I can see he hasn’t got any boots. Put him at the back.”

“It won’t match,” said the assistant director. “He’s already there in the wide shot.”

“Give him some boots, then. Quickly, please.”

So Sanjay got his boots, plus some dark looks from the other men in red, and still darker looks from the men in yellow who had been looking at him darkly since the first day.

At the end of the second week, Sanjay overdid it. They were filming up on the battlements. The bad bandit chief and his men in red had just scaled the walls and were looking down menacingly into the courtyard. The shot of them scaling the walls had not yet been done. They were doing the menacing look shot first. The camera was a long way away, down on the ground on the far side of the courtyard, aiming up. Because the camera was a long way away, Sanjay put some extra emphasis into his menacing look.

“Cut.” The camera operator was talking to the director. The director picked up his electric horn and aimed it upwards. Sanjay felt that it was being aimed at him. He was right.

“You. The one second on the right. What is your name?”

Sanjay hated to raise his voice. His father had beaten him once for talking loudly enough to wake him up. But this time it seemed politic to do so, so he shouted his name.

“The same name twice? You’ve got your own echo. Listen to me. The camera is far away but the lens is close, you understand? So stop trying to win the Academy Award. Do it the same way you did it in the rehearsal. Film stock is expensive. You understand?”

Sanjay shouted yes, though he would have preferred to take the curved dagger from his belt and cut his own throat with it. He had never been so embarrassed since Sabbandra had caught him with his hand down Pratiba’s blouse. Later on, however, the assistant director was very kind. “Don’t worry,” he said. “At least he noticed you. And it shows you were thinking of the camera, even if you got it wrong. Most of these idiots don’t even know whether they’re in shot or not.” Sanjay took some consolation from that. Another unexpected consequence of his public humiliation was that some of the other extras started to talk to him during the lunch break. Sometimes the shared bottle of warm Thums Up even gravitated his way.

On the day that the bad bandit chief and his men in red scaled the wall, Sanjay distinguished himself. A team of stunt-men did the actual scaling in the wide shot, but there was a mid shot in which the bad bandit chief and his men in red scaled a section of wall lying flat on the ground. As he scaled, Sanjay cast some grimaces towards the camera which were meant to combine menace and effort. Apparently they were successful. The assistant director, who was in charge of the shot in the absence of the director, looked pleased. “That was good. You’re coming on. You’ve got an idea of what the camera can see. Just don’t spin it out, OK? Keep it simple and quick.”

Luckily Sanjay was given this praise when none of the other men in red could hear it. Almost fatally, however, it inspired him to bigger things. Towards the middle of the third week, with the filming almost over, the bad bandit chief and his men in red were due to be wiped out in a big fight scene with the good bandit chief and his men in yellow, who had superior numbers on their side. The big day had been preceded by two and a half days of waiting while the open-air sections of a big dance number were slowly blocked out, rehearsed and filmed. The dance number revolved around the two stars of the film. The celebrated Anupam Ghai had been joined by the illustrious Sushila. It was the first time Sanjay had seen her in the whole of the filming. Though she was not one of his favourite actresses, he was fascinated by her professional approach. He had plenty of time to observe this professionalism. Most of the extras were outside the castle trying to find some relief under the trees from the hot sunlight. Sanjay had found himself a place in the terraces where he could be safely out of shot while he observed. What he observed was dedication. Sushila had none of the artistic temperament that the magazines always mentioned when they talked about Mamta or Mumtas or the other young actresses. Sushila was not precisely a young actress any more, but she had a schooled grace to make up for it. If he had not already known from her magazine profiles, Sanjay thought he would have been able to tell that she had been to Cathedral School, followed by St Xavier’s Senior College and further education abroad at the famous finishing school called Swiss. If there had to be another take, she moved back into position quickly and without protest, so as to save time and energy. When the dancing mistress showed her the next step, she learned it in at most three tries. A blown take was never her fault. Any suggestion she made was instantly adopted. Sanjay deduced from this that her suggestions must be reasonable, because the director was an irascible man who despised idle chatter and always thought he knew best. Sushila worked harder than she was asked to. She gave more. Giving more, she got more. The make-up and lighting people were especially attentive to her. Sanjay decided that there was a lesson here.

Unfortunately he overinterpreted the lesson. In the fight, the men in red were handicapped not only by their inferior numbers, but through having only their curved daggers with which to do battle against the straight swords of the men in yellow. Sanjay thought he did quite well in the wide shots. It was another extra, one at the back wearing ordinary shoes, who ruined a take when he could not get his dagger out of its sheath and wandered off in search of help. It was pleasant to hear the director vent his amplified wrath on someone else. It made Sanjay more confident: always a dangerous condition when in a strange environment.

For the closer shots, some of the men in red had to die more spectacular deaths. The team of stunt-men were brought in. One by one they received sword thrusts to their vital parts. Clutching these, they threw themselves backwards in a spectacular manner on to the ground, alighting in various postures. It took most of an afternoon. Towards the end of the day one of the stunt-men failed to get up again after a rehearsal. He had sprained his wrist so severely that the muscles of his forearm were upside down, as if it had been incorrectly drawn.

“We need another death,” said the director, in the same tone he had used previously when asking for a bottle of water.

“He will not be able to do it,” said the fight arranger. “He cannot break his fall with his hand. His wrist is gone.” Sanjay was almost sure that the fight arranger was the same person who had once, long ago, picked him up and carried him. But in those days, if Sanjay had ever been told the name, he had failed to register its significance. Now Sanjay knew who the man was. He was the famous Rajiv Bharati, memorably described by the magazines as the scarred veteran of many a fracas. After he had fallen off more than his fair share of battlements and exploded through many a window made of real glass, he had graduated to organising action sequences in which young men had to do the same. He tried to keep the casualty rate as low as possible, not just to avoid paperwork but out of real compassion. Finally, however, what counted was getting the scene done.

“Somebody has to die,” said the director. “We are losing the light.”

Sanjay was suddenly discovered to be standing in the right place. “You are willing to do this?” asked Rajiv. “You have done falls before?”

“Yes, I have,” Sanjay lied.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“OK. That’s better. This is comparatively easy but there is a trick you must remember. Drop your dagger and clutch your wound with the same hand, like this. But use your other hand to smack the ground when you come down. You understand?”

“Quickly,” said the director. “No rehearsal.” The camera operator was looking at the sun through a filter.

“Slate,” said the assistant director.

“Action,” said the director.

Run through under his right arm by the straight sword of a fiercely shouting man in yellow, Sanjay screamed, threw himself into the air in a spectacular manner, dropped his curved dagger, clutched his wound, and smacked the ground when he came down.

“Cut. Good. Got it. Not bad.”

Sanjay tried to get up again as lithely as possible but Rajiv the fight arranger had to lend a helping hand. Under the peak of his American-style cap his eyes were concerned.

“You are hurt?”


“You are lying. You have to smack the ground before you land. It breaks your fall. Otherwise all the shock goes into your back. Can you breathe all right?”

Sanjay pretended that he could.

“You are lying again. In this kind of work you must tell the truth all the time or you will get badly hurt and I will have to spend hours filling out forms. This is not Hollywood. In Hollywood they would prepare the ground. They would make it soft. This is unprepared ground, baked hard by the sun.” Rajiv stubbed the ground with the toe of his American-style trainer shoe. “If you do not break your fall first you will bruise the little bones in your back and end up walking with a limp. Can you breathe better now?”

Sanjay tried to say yes without wheezing.

“You are lying again.” Rajiv looked annoyed. “Tomorrow is the last day. Don’t volunteer for anything else. Just walk through it with the others. If you make me fill out any forms I will make sure that I never have to worry about you again. Now go and get changed. Go home.”

Sanjay tried to walk upright as he walked away. That night he woke up whenever he rolled over on to his back. When the usual clamour outside in the passage woke him up at dawn he had trouble getting out of bed. But once again he made the long journey to Film City. The last day was pay day. The men in red had only a couple of scenes to do. In the morning they lay still being dead bodies while the prince and the princess met among the heaped corpses and stared lovingly into each other’s eyes, on the point of kissing as the massed ranks of men in yellow cheered. At lunchtime Sanjay was invited to sit down under a tree and cat his roll with two of the stunt-men. They each had fish paste for their rolls and one of them shared his fish paste with Sanjay.

“A very convincing fall yesterday,” said the stunt-man who had given him the fish paste.

Very convincing,” said the other stunt-man.

“Don’t try it again,” said the stunt-man who had given him the fish paste. He was tapping Sanjay on the knee with the end of his white plastic knife. “You could get hurt badly next time. This work is for professionals. You understand?”

“There is no room for amateurs,” said the other stunt-man.

Sanjay said nothing. He was examining his knee. There was a trace of fish paste on it.

After lunch the men in red worked outside the castle. They ran towards it while the camera filmed them from the battlements. Running towards a death that he had already died, Sanjay would have been impressed all over again by the remorseless logic of film-making, but he was afraid of having to do too many takes. It hurt him to run. He did his best not to show it, of course. He tried to stay up near the front even though it would have been easier to drop back. Rajiv was up on the battlements with his own megaphone, giving instructions to the stunt-men who had to be hit by arrows. When it was all over and Sanjay stood in the queue for his pay, Rajiv came over and took him aside.

“Don’t worry, you will not lose your place in the line. You feel better today?”

Sanjay managed to say yes without wheezing.

“Lying again. But at least you are determined. You really want to go on with stunt work?”

This time Sanjay did wheeze when he said yes.

“You have no qualifications for it at all. Except one qualification. You think if somebody else can do it, you can do it. And you are not bad looking. OK. On your next film you can have junior trainee grade. You know how that works?”

Sanjay shook his head.

“At last an honest answer. It means we show you a few things to do but you don’t get the full pay, and you have to work as an extra as well. You understand?”

Sanjay nodded.

“OK. Next time you go to the hiring room you hand in this chitty. And don’t forget to practise telling the truth. Otherwise you will have a bad accident.”

Sanjay pocketed the chitty with as little fuss as possible. Rajiv did not exactly smile, but he nodded approval of Sanjay’s discretion.

“Make sure that is the only form I ever have to fill out for you.”

With his pay safe in his money-belt, Sanjay went slowly back to town through the rush hour in a bus jammed with extras. The pressure of the people around him made the pain in his back hard to bear, but he was still happy. Something had been achieved. When the bus got stuck on the flyover, he had enough of a view through the window to see that the work had been completed on the Pepsi sign. This fact in itself was evidence of the new economic tempo. In the past it had been a rare building project which was ever completed quickly enough for people to remember when it started. The bus stopped there, locked in the honking traffic, as the sky grew darker. To gasps of admiration from those passengers who could see it, the sign came on, like the sudden dawn of a new era.

With his back at last hurting a little less, Sanjay picked up his minding work with the Japanese. The assistant producer, Yoshida-san, was glad to see him. Apparently his substitute had been merely satisfactory. Sanjay tried to live up to his reputation, but his heart was not in it. The previous Japanese presenters had been dignified men speaking in solemn tones. This time the presenters wore bits and pieces of different military uniforms, with epaulettes that reminded Sanjay of photographs of the white American entertainer Michael Jackson he had seen in the magazines. The chief Japanese presenter was called Soho and he jumped and yelled all the time. The producer had decided on a combined treatment of both the film industry and the poverty. Soho would turn away from the film dancers, point back at them, and snort knowingly into the camera. Oddly enough, he would do the same when his subject was poverty. The camera would pan off a little boy pissing in the street to reveal Soho crouching, snorting, pointing and laughing. Sanjay was deputed by Elizabeth to do some of the fixing as well as the minding. He did a smooth job, but he felt that he was prostituting his talent. There was also the consideration that opportunities to drop into the hiring hall were few, and although he now had his precious chitty working in his favour, it was still advisable to be there waiting. You had to be seen. Nobody would think of you if you were absent.

Yet Sanjay disliked the idea of being driven to a choice. It was all too unsure. He felt the same way about his friendship with Gupta. The friendship was not very friendly, but its advantages could not be gainsaid. It yielded a certain amount of steady income, even at the cost of humiliation. Gupta could be counted on to humiliate him at some stage, either when they were alone together or else in the middle of a large party, but the situation in which Gupta seemed determined to humiliate him from the outset was when they were surrounded by a small group of Gupta’s like-minded friends, lounging in the square array of pale blue velvet couches in the centre of Gupta’s vast living-room, which would have made Sanjay think of an art gallery if he had ever seen one. One of these friends, an economist of rich background who spent most of each year in California, treated Sanjay as part of the furniture. Sanjay felt that if he did not stay alert he would be used as an ashtray.

“And you know,” the economist said with his habitual impatience and scorn, “her folks are only Brahmins by the skin of their teeth. What right do they think they have to pull her out of the marriage? They should count themselves lucky. She is good looking, but I could get her bride price if I sold my bloody Porsche, let alone one of my really good cars.”

“You have to see their viewpoint or you won’t get what you want,” said Gupta. “She is here, waiting. You are over there running around with an American actress. They heard about it. If they hadn’t heard about it there would have been no problem. You should have run around with a waitress.”

“I don’t screw waitresses. You do. I don’t.”

“What waitress have I ever screwed?”

“Him. An Untouchable.” “Sanjay is not an Untouchable,” said Gupta, but Sanjay knew better than to think a compliment was coming. “Sanjay is an Unthinkable. An Indescribable.”

“He does not know his place.”

“He has no place to know. That’s the whole point. We are entering a new world. What was so marvellous about the old one?”

When everyone else had gone, Sanjay tried to plead backache. He was hurt all right, but it was not his back that was hurting. He felt that he had been humiliated. There was no point saying so, however, because he had long ago guessed that for Gupta the infliction of mental anguish was part of the thrill. It was lucky that he did not feel the same about physical anguish.

“You’re no use to me if you come here injured. I don’t want you moaning and groaning. Not in that way, anyway. You had better think hard about this new profession of yours.”

Sanjay said he was thinking about it. “Well, go home and think about it. Don’t think about it on my time. Here. Take this much for serving the drinks.”

With a lot less than half of his usual subvention, Sanjay walked home. He could have taken a taxi, but perhaps it was time to save money. Sooner or later he would have to decide whether this friendship was worth it. A letter from Mr Rochester vividly reminded him of what generous treatment had felt like. With his dictionary beside him he could understand the letter’s warm tone, if not all its detail.

Dearest Sanjay, my Kim, my jewel,

Words can’t describe how I miss my darling boy. I never told you that of all the other loves I had in my damned life before you, there was actually one who matched you for his delicacy, his charm, and his gift for embodying the essence of the culture from which he sprang. He was a Japanese boy that I knew in London. But my rapport with him was doomed to remain merely spiritual: an amitié amoureuse, as you might say. With you, Gott sei dank, the dream came entirely true. Strangely enough, that makes the memory more dream-like than ever. You are a nonpareil, a singleton, an avatar. What a cruel paradox that the only thing sustaining the many-layered society which gave birth to you is its inability to comprehend and value the uniqueness of your unrepeatable individuality. The base Indian threw a pearl away worth more than all his tribe.

I heard from dear Adrian that you met my old and loving friend Ian Cuthbert. I wish I could have been there to see how he impressed you with his mind. We were on the same stair at Selwyn and have known each other for ever. Being so grotesquely tall he always felt that the good things in life were placed beyond his reach, but downwards instead of upwards. Nevertheless he has a great gift of happiness — or had, until he went to Argentina. What an irony that he was hoping to meet some rough trade, as we say. Something that he always dreamed of but never dared. Well, he certainly met some, the poor forked creature. He probably told you that he found a true friend with whom he might have built a life at long last, but that the friend’s sister was picked up by those devils in dark glasses and so vilely treated that she died. The friend — how natural to use the term that Ludwig II lavished so appropriately on Wagner, don’t you agree? — fell into a melancholy, and from there into a metamorphosis, and there was nothing Ian could do except rail against fate. So now all that fine energy of his expends itself in...

Sanjay gave up at the word ‘metamorphosis’ and decided to save the bulk of the six-page letter for later. It was miracle enough that it had reached him. The people who had taken over Mr Desmond’s flat had given the letter to Elizabeth. She had handed it to him by way of compensation after breaking the news that there would be no minding or fixing work for another month. Sanjay made a promise to be available at that time, but the same thing happened as before. He waited for a week in the hiring hall and then he was given a job.

“You are coming up in the world,” said the casting master. “You can be junior stunt-man in a film about gangsters. Chunky is the star. A very important film, with six songs and eight murders. You will have to do box-falls but no broken glass. Can you do box-falls?”

Sanjay said he could.

“You see on your chitty there is this little square drawn here with a circle inside it? That is a secret message from the fight arranger saying that you lie a lot. Can you do box-falls?”

Sanjay said he couldn’t.

“Much better. But you will learn. Work starts in one week and lasts for three weeks. You have a suit? Careful now.”

Sanjay said he would buy one.

“You can make it a good suit. It will not get damaged because when they throw you off a building they will give you an old suit the same colour. With pads.”

Sanjay went off to start looking for a good suit. It would be difficult to steal one. He would have to pay. He was worried about what that would do to his currency reserves. He was also worried about Elizabeth. Once again the filming would overlap with his next minding job by a week. Once again he put off telling her. There was too much to think about. Finding a good suit in his price range took several days. It came from one of the several western-style tailor’s shops within a few blocks of the Tajma. Since the light fawn and sand-coloured suits were expensive, he settled for a dark blue suit, which anyway, he thought, looked more western, and went with his new lace-up black shoes. He did not see himself supplementing those with brown shoes: not at this stage. To buy a suit with a zip was breakthrough enough. The expense was already disturbing. Feeling disturbed about that, he decided to put off feeling disturbed about Elizabeth. There was also the matter of his unfriendly friendship with Gupta. That had always been disturbing, and on one particular evening it became more disturbing still. It was one of those unpleasant occasions when only a few of Gupta’s friends were present: all businessmen, all talking about their wealth, and all treating him, Sanjay, like a deaf-and-dumb servant, a machine combining the virtues of an ashtray and a drinks trolley. It was especially galling because for the first time he was wearing his new suit, in the hope of being accepted as some sort of equal. Instead, he was ignored. He was not even the object of sarcasm. He was just an object, like the objects they were talking about, although obviously far less valuable.

“So what happened to the Lamborghini?” asked Gupta, in the way he always had, when he asked a question, of not being able to care less about the answer.

“Oh, the insurance people are fixing it,” said a man in a blue suit. The blue suit had fine white lines on it and Sanjay could see that it was a better suit than his own.

“Pity they can’t fix the woman,” said Gupta, with a smile.

“Which woman is that?” asked another friend.

“Didn’t you hear about it?” asked Gupta, with his first real sign of animation. “In Bayswater Road that flying saucer of his hit a woman on the pavement and smashed her legs.”

“Her fault for standing there,” said the friend in the suit. “It was damned lucky I had diplomatic status. I would have been in real trouble.”

“You were in trouble from the moment you bought that thing,” said Gupta. “A Lamborghini in London makes no sense at all. Those fat wheels are just for decoration. They can’t possibly absorb all that power. For London or Paris you should have a Mercedes 500SL with an automatic top.”

“Too pretty,” said the friend in the suit. “I like something that looks the part. Like my Cobra. My dear fabulous amazing Cobra. What a brute. With a big bulge on the hood. Boom!

“You have a Cobra?” asked the other friend.

“Used to have.”

“Where is it now?”

“Last I saw of it, it was in a window in Los Angeles.”

“For sale? Can I buy it?”

“No, not that kind of window. The window of an antique shop. I hit a patch of oil. It’s time we went.”

Gupta’s friends left early. They were going to a fashion show at the Hilton. The mysterious name Givenchy had been mentioned. Sanjay heard them leave but did not see them. He had long ago made his escape into Gupta’s books. “I am in his good books,” thought Sanjay, wishing he could say it to Pratiba. Unlike Mr Desmond, Gupta did not allow books or any other written material into his living-room. His books were in a special room of their own, called the library. They seemed very advanced. The word ‘philosophy’ kept cropping up in the titles. The ones Sanjay tried were very hard to read, even when they were in English. Some of them were in languages he didn’t even recognise.

“Where the devil did you get to?” asked Gupta with more than usual asperity. “Some of them wanted a last drink. I had to do it myself. If I’d known you were going to spend the evening improving your bloody Greek I wouldn’t have given my man the night off.”

“What does this one say?” asked Sanjay, who had taken down another book at random and was pretending to consult it, hoping to head off Gupta’s bitterness.

“It preaches the virtues of an unrestricted free market. The value of the sweatshop. You just happened to pick the one book that helped me to realise I’d wasted fifteen years of my his reading all the others.”

The Road to Serfdom” Sanjay had pronounced the book’s title with something like success.

“Bravo. But it’s ‘serfdom’. The same sound as the surf you swim in. Not that you’ve ever swum in any, I expect.”

“What is serfdom?”

“Nothing for you to worry about. Come on, let’s go to work. We can have a bite to eat later.”

Sanjay went to work, but could not quell his restlessness. When Gupta lay replete on the wide bed — it was the only time he ever relaxed — Sanjay was gazing intently out of the window at the city lights and the sea. The Pepsi sign was brilliant and only half broken. The sea had lights too. They were the lights of the fishing boats. Sanjay remembered what life had been like under the wharf. Suddenly it seemed close behind him. The effect was to urge him further forward. He felt he was on the verge of a great risk.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” Gupta murmured.

Sanjay told him that it was perhaps time for their friendship to end.

“Get out then. Put on your pathetic clothes and go. And don’t take anything with you. I know where everything is and what everything is worth.”

Sanjay knew it was the truth, but after he had dressed and left the bedroom he still lingered a while in the huge living-room, looking at the objects. Even the very smallest were lit up individually where they lay in their cases or stood on their velvet plinths, adding their reflections to the intricate interplay of indirect light on the white silk drapes that covered the glass walls, a personally planned aurora shutting out the chaotic night. There were miniature jewelled daggers, gods shrunk to the size of pebbles, polished wooden squatting Buddhas that could have fitted inside an ivory tennis ball. Some of these objects were very small indeed: pocket sized. Sanjay knew that he could sell any one of them for as much as he could make in a whole year and that he might even be able to brazen it out with the police. After all, he had a job now. He was a junior stunt-man. And Gupta would have to explain why he had received such a visitor and how he had known who his visitor was and where he lived. But Sanjay had hesitated for too long. His souveniring instinct was overcome by a growing determination to be quit of Gupta and all his works. The man he wanted to hear about life from now was Rajiv, the famous fight arranger, scarred veteran of many a fracas. Sanjay contented himself with taking an apple from the silver bowl of fruit on the crystal table that he had so often barely avoided walking into. On the way down in the elevator he took a bite out of the apple. A mixture of juice and saliva dribbled unexpectedly from his mouth. He only just managed to bend forward in time to avoid staining the lapel of his new suit. The dribble hit the floor of the elevator. It gave him an idea. When the elevator doom opened at the ground floor he pressed the button to close them again and held it while he unzipped himself with his other hand and copiously pissed, aiming to cover as much of the floor as possible without endangering his shoes. Gupta might suspect him, but would not be able to prove it.