Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 17 |
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Chapter 17

ALTHOUGH SANJAY had another few days of shooting to walk through, in his mind the film was over from that evening, and a new episode in his life began. Miranda’s entourage, with him included, drove in a fleet of cars to her apartment in Juhu Beach. The director came too, and later on the producers turned up, with their own retinues of legal people and lackeys. High up in one of the tallest buildings, the apartment was more than big enough to hold everyone concerned. Sanjay sat drinking cold mango juice with the plump speaker of the unspeakable and three more of Miranda’s women in a set of soft, peach-coloured, calico-covered chairs grouped around a glass table near the sliding glass doors leading to the terrace. The glass doors were open, a gentle breeze came in, and the sea began to glitter beyond as the exhausted sun prepared to join it. Miranda’s women were talking scandal as usual. Sometimes the subjects of the scandal were in the room. Miranda’s women did not have to moderate their voices. The accumulated chatter in the vast apartment amounted to an uproar. In the distance, Miranda moved among her guests, leaning on the arm of her director, who still had his hat tilted forward over his eyes. Groups of men arrived to pay court to her. One of the men Sanjay recognised as the famous Kamar Bose, the very man selected, according to Smart Alec, for Sharon Prabhakar’s sexy man ensemble in her recently conducted poll. He wore a white suit with a black shirt and dark glasses. His hair was magnificent, a creation in black lacquer, piled and whorled like soft ice-cream.

“He would like to have her on his curriculum vitae,” said one of the lesser women at Sanjay’s table. “It would be a real sign of arrival.”

“She will never go for him,” said the speaker of the unspeakable. “He is too pretty-pretty. That hairstyle of his should have rear-view mirrors. How can he see out of the sides?”

“They say that his ...” said another of the lesser women, but she put her hand beside her mouth and whispered so that Sanjay could not hear the rest of it. There was a cascade of giggles. He didn’t mind being left out of the joke. He felt included enough already. more so than allowed him to be fully comfortable. At the moment of sunset he rose as if to leave.

“Where are you going?” asked the speaker of the unspeakable.

Sanjay said it was probably time for him to go home.

“No, you mustn’t. She would want you to stay. You stay right where you are.” The other women were suddenly studying their glasses of mango juice. Later on, as the party began to thin out, Miranda, in a break from doing her social rounds, momentarily joined them.

“No, don’t get up,” she said to Sanjay as she approached. Sanjay, who hadn’t been getting up, half got up. Her hand on his shoulder pressed him back into his seat. It was the first time she had touched him. He would have to remember about getting up. Mr Desmond and Gupta had never made him do that. He deduced that it should be done for women. Thrillingly she shared the chair of the woman nearest to him so that she could lean forward and talk to him as if they were alone.

“So, are you enjoying your party?”

Sanjay indicated that he was.

“You must stay for dinner.” She saw the fear in his eyes. “Don’t worry. It will be just me and a few people. Very relaxed. We have had a hard last day. Are these women looking after you?”

Sanjay indicated that they were.

“You are the sort of man that women enjoy looking after, I think. Now I must begin to throw people out. Starting with that posturing jackass in the dark glasses. Otherwise they will all be here until dawn. Would you like a proper drink?”

Sanjay indicated that as far as he was concerned mango juice was a proper drink Then she was gone again, having touched his wrist in farewell.

“You see what you get for looking natural?” asked the speaker of the unspeakable.

“If you were wearing a white suit like a glass of milk she would not look at you twice.”

“I wonder what else he will get?” giggled one of the lesser women.

“Be quiet, Indira. You will frighten him.”

Dinner was not quite as the hostess promised. It was indeed a relaxed occasion, but there were a dozen guests, with others coming and going. They all sat on chairs, western style. Two servants were constantly on their way between the table and the double doors. Sanjay was at the far end of the table from his hostess and could not always hear her speak. People spoke in small groups. Sanjay had no trouble keeping his end up in the conversation because the people near him demanded only a listener, not an interlocutor. They interrupted each other constantly while he turned his head attentively from one to the other and copied the way they ate. The director sat nearby, addressing two producers and a journalist. The speaker of the unspeakable sat between the two producers. Even she, like Sanjay, was reduced to merely turning her head. The director and the journalist did most of the talking.

“That Oliver Stone movie about JFK, what was it called ... ?”

“JFK,” said the journalist.

“Did you see that thing? I saw it in has Angeles. You know what it made me feel? It made me feel nostalgic.”

“Nostalgic for what?”

“For when I thought Elephant Walk was a bad movie. When I see such horrors I am almost glad we arc making our own silly stuff. Hollywood is turning into something awful. Badness has grown wings.”

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst ...”

“Have budgets of thirty million dollars and up.”

“You could make fifty films for that,” said one of the producers, finally getting a word in edgeways.

“With you producing, a hundred.” They were all drawn away again into separate conversations. The only person who was allowed to speak to the entire table was apparently the editor of a great newspaper. Of a certain age, with a polished high forehead, he spoke wondrously well. Sanjay, though he could not understand a lot of what was said, knew by the attitude of his audience that it must be good. Sometimes they let the man speak for a whole minute without interrupting.

“The maturity of a social system”, said the editor in his low but commanding voice, “is whether it can survive the assassination of its great men. That is why we know the Weimar Republic was weak. It could not do without Rathenau. Its last years were one long hopeless lament for the loss of a genius. Pity help the nation that needs heroes. Brecht said that.”

“Yes, but what are you saying?” said one of the producers. “You are talking about Gandhi. Come out with it.”

“Yes, I am talking about Gandhi. But I am talking about Indira Gandhi too.”

“All the Gandhis,” said the other producer.

“Indira was not a Gandhi,” said Miranda. “She was a Nehru, poor creature. Like that late and unlamented smiling idiot son of hers. But come on, Naveen, what are you saying here, really?”

“I am saying that Chaudhuri was right about Gandhi.”

“Chaudhuri!” said the first producer. “But this is preposterous. He is an expatriate traitor.”

“He is worse than Rushdie,” said the other producer. “Chaudhuri is not a baby in a beard. He is an old man who knows what he is up to. Selling us out abroad.”

“He is our greatest writer even if he lives in England,” the editor pressed on. “And he was right about Gandhi. The Indian intellectuals had a cult of Gandhi. They always have the cult of the leader, a Führerprinzip. Or else they have a cult of history, which is the same thing. The wave of the future. They worship success. In the war they longed for the defeat of Britain even though it would have meant the Japanese would have killed us by the million. And Gandhi was right with them. The Quit India movement in 1943 would have meant the suicide of our country if it had succeeded. But they were all for him then. They joined him in his mad fetish about rejecting western influence. And now the same sort of people have a fetish about accepting it in all its worst forms. The only thing that has changed is the form of the power worship. The form of the defeatism. But defeatism it still is. And still it hungers for a redeemer.”

“This is too sophisticated for me,” said the first producer. “Surely now we have the greatest opportunity we have ever had. Secularisation. A free market. At last we can grow.”

“Secularisation”, said the editor, “will mean nothing without tolerance. What we want from the West is their tolerance for belief, not their lack of belief. Under the old Empire the British left recruitment for the army to the tribes and castes, and look what happened. The movement towards tolerance was nipped in the bud. With bayonets. And now this new secularisation is the biggest threat to tolerance there has ever been.”

“How is that?” said the second producer.

“Because it will leave each religion prey to its own fanatics. It will strip each religion of its reasonable people and leave only the mad bombers who really have had only one religion all along. That is fundamentalism. Whose only expression is terror. The biggest threat we face. The great world threat of the next century, and it is already here.”

“So we are a modern country after all,” said Miranda.

“In that respect we are,” said the editor, “sad though I am to say so. But in our incurable longing for a great mats or a great woman, we are not modern at all. We are a throwback still. We are a backwater.”

“Well, all I can do is disagree,” said the first producer. “What about Margaret Thatcher?”

“My point exactly,” said the editor. “Look at the mess Britain is in now, and all because they hail any strong leader they can get as a new Churchill. But we should no longer be thinking about Britain. We should be grateful, as Chaudhuri says. But we should be grateful and move on. We should be thinking about Norway or Sweden. Successful countries whose prime ministers we cannot name.”

“Olof Palme,” said Miranda. “My mother knew him well.”

“The only famous one,” said the editor. “But when he was assassinated they survived it. All right, let’s say that we should be thinking about Iceland. Any country that enjoys honest, working, durable institutions. No dramas. We should lower our sights and lengthen our breath. We should settle down for the long haul, as the Americans call it. And above all,” he thumped the table with a rhetorical fist, “this above all ...”

“What above all, Naveen?” asked Miranda with a smile. “Out with it. And watch out for my table.”

“You are saying India is like Iceland?” It was the second producer, but the editor ignored him.

“This above all. We should not make a fetish of the free market.”

“Why not?” asked the first producer.

“Because the first thing it will produce is more poverty,” said the editor, and what had been a discussion turned into an argument that lasted an hour. Some of the men tried to win by shouting. Sanjay, who had understood little of the symposium except the emotions involved, shared the only available silence with Miranda. From the other end of the table she sent him a smile of delighted complicity that propelled them both into a separate world. Later, when almost everyone else had gone home except for her immediate retinue of women, she sat him down beside her in one of the great couches while coffee was brought.

“So,” she said, “I thought you put up with the noise level very well. Were you impressed?”

Sanjay said he had been.

“Deafened too, I expect. But Naveen can be very eloquent when there are fewer people present who get his goat. He is turning into a bit of a bore in his old age but he is generally right. He has a mixed marriage, you know. His wife is a Muslim. Did you know that?”

Sanjay shook his head.

“With my parents it was the same thing. It gives you perspective.”

Sanjay nodded, guessing that perspective was a good thing to have.

“But he is seduced by Bombay. His hopes are too high. This has always been a tolerant city, relative to the rest of India. A few bombs now and then but nothing much. That is why I came here from Calcutta. The life of my parents was a nightmare. You cannot imagine the horrors they saw. How are you getting home?”

Sanjay said he would walk.

“I will send you in a car. But I want you to come back tomorrow and stay with me here as my bodyguard and general equerry. Would you consider that?”

Sanjay indicated assent as well as someone can who has stopped breathing.

“You will not have to go everywhere with me. But it would be a comfort to have such a strong-looking individual around the house. Life is not always perfectly safe for someone in my position. With your fighting skills available I will feel a little more secure.”

Sanjay, who knew that his fighting skills were largely illusory, decided not to protest. If the illusion convinced her, it might convince her potential assailants.

“There is a little room upstairs which might suit you. Perhaps you should see it. Ghita!”

The speaker of the unspeakable was suddenly in attendance.

“Would you show our young man the little room upstairs and see what he thinks? And wipe that smile off your face.”

Sanjay had had no idea that there was another floor to the apartment. The polished wooden staircase up to it was wide enough for four people and the little room could have fitted his own room into it twice. It had sparse but proper furniture and a carpet on the floor. The bed was covered with a woven spread. A window looked away from the sea and across the city, far beyond the Pepsi sign, in the direction of the Silver Castle. Perhaps, in the daylight, he would be able to see it shining.

“You are a very lucky young man,” said the speaker of the unspeakable. “There is many a man who would like to be offered this little bed. Men of all ages and nations. There is a bathroom next door and you can put your laundry in this bag at any time. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Especially where this goddess is concerned. A word to the wise.”

When she led him downstairs again, the arrangements for the car had all been made. Miranda was talking on the telephone. She stopped only long enough to lift her spare hand, give the smallest of waves, and mouth a word that must have meant tomorrow.