Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 2 |
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Chapter 2

THE FIRST TIME Sanjay ever saw the Silver Castle, he was about seven years old. By then he was used to travelling the whole length of the road on both sides, past all the shanties on one side and all the shops and stalls on the other, as far downhill as the crossroads and as far uphill as where the road was closed. It was closed by a guarded gate through which only those buses, cars, cabs and toot-toot micro-cabs could go that had permission. The people who had permission were all dressed as if they were rich. Some of them, the women who sat in the back seats of the cars, looked like the unimaginably rich goddesses who gleamed in gold and radiant colours on the cards the parrot turned over. All these rich people were going somewhere forbidden. One day Sanjay struck out along the wire fence that separated him from what he was not allowed to see. Eventually he left behind the last vestige of the area where the shops and stalls were, with all their own attendant shanties in an extended hinterland. It didn’t extend forever, although it was a long way for his short legs. But eventually it turned into scrub land, just like the scrub land on the other side of the fence. So it was natural that when there was not much for the fence to shut out, it gave up. There was a whole section of it lying rusting in the scrub. Sanjay picked his way over it and headed up through the thick shrubbery. The occasional person was living there — there are few places in Bombay free of inhabitants — but on the whole it was the most unpopulated territory that Sanjay had ever seen. It was so unusual that he forgot to look around and take landmarks so that he could find his way out again. Perhaps he was just too small to think of it. Anyway, he kept going up and around the top of the hill, and then suddenly he was looking at a stretch of road that he knew must carry the vehicles that were allowed through the barrier. There was a car going along it now, with a rich woman in the back seat. He could tell she was rich because of the gold and green and red shining from her sari, and because she was in a car. It was going somewhere. He looked to see where it was going.

There it was, at the end of the road, at the top of the next slope, rising far above the shrubbery, higher even than the trees. It was the biggest building he had ever seen. It had pointed towers at the corners and was all as brilliant and precious as a pile of soft-drink cans, which up to then had been the most dazzling thing in his experience. Just by looking at his construction, he could tell why he wasn’t allowed to be there. It made him blink. Even as he blinked he went closer, keeping to the dusty edge of the road, off the hot asphalt. When a bus or a car or a cab or a toot-toot came along, he ran into the scrub, so it was in a zig-zag fashion that he approached the Silver Castle. His course was undeviating nevertheless, like destiny.

When he finally arrived at the wide stretch of bare earth before the castle, men were pouring out of its big front door and heading for the shade of nearby trees so that they could sit down and eat food from cardboard boxes. Sanjay had never see men dressed like these. Most of them wore silver-studded black jackets, billowing red pants, and turbans with a black cone sticking out of the top. They all carried silver swords. Many of them had ordinary shoes or sandals on their bare feet but the tallest ones ha shiny boots that went all the way up to the knee. There was a group of men who were not dressed like this but still looked rich. They were sitting around a table beside a white van talking loudly.

“We start again in an hour. An hour means one hour, not two. Ready or not.”

“She won’t be ready. She only just got here. It takes her two hours to put her face on.”

“So we shoot around her.”

Sanjay could hear all this but couldn’t understand it. He was ready to scoot away if anyone tried to grab him but nobody seemed to care. Emboldened, he walked slowly lose to the most magnificent of all the men with swords. This man, instead of being dressed in black and red, wore a brown fringed soft-looking suit with very high brown boots that looked soft also and had, around their folded tops, fringes of their own. Even though he was sitting down, it was easy to see that he was tall. Elaborately flowing hair made him taller. He was looking at his hair in a mirror. He had more hair on his top li, which he lifted so that he could look at his teeth. They shone. He shone all over. He was surrounded by other men wearing ordinary clothes, but richly clean and untattered, with proper shoes. One of these attendant men was talking urgently.

“They’re saying she won’t be ready for two hours, so we have to shoot around her.”

“Then they can shoot around me too,” said the shining man in brown, patting his hair. “I could be at the beach. I could be in Paris. Who needs it?”

This last phrase was said in a language Sanjay didn’t understand, any more than he understood expressions like shoot around or Paris. He was to hear this language many times in the next hours. It was a special language they spoke here at the castle. The shining man put down his mirror, stretched back, pressed his fingertips gently to his eyes, lowered his hands, looked around and saw Sanjay.

“Who’s the kid?”

Sanjay was all set to scuttle off but something in the shining man’s tone encouraged a postponement. The shining man wasn’t angry. He was like the parrot man. The grand total of people in Sanjay’s life who weren’t angry with him had increased to two.

“Some poor cockroach from outside the fence,” said one of the shining man’s rich companions.

“He doesn’t look bad for where he’s come from,” said the shining man. “Bring him over and we’ll get some food into him.”

The shining man’s rich companion walked towards Sanjay, who thought for a few seconds, decided he didn’t like the look of the situation, and took off. When it became apparent that he wouldn’t be able to outpace his pursuer by running in a straight line, he ran in circles. The shining man and his other companions were laughing and crying out.

“Go, kid, go!”

“Go right!”

“Left, left!”

“You’re too fat Deepak! Try lying down suddenly and maybe he’ll run into you!”

Eventually the man dived, flung out a hand, caught Sanjay by the ankle and carried him upside down back to the shining man’s throne.

“Take it easy, kid,” said the shining man. “I just wanted to give you a bread roll. It’s got a slice of cheese in it, see?” American style. Ever see that? Take a bite.”

Sanjay obeyed. The effect was strange but instantly satisfactory: a real mouthful, all the way down to his stomach.

“Thums up?”

Sanjay had several times been offered a few mouthfuls of Thums Up by the parrot man but this was the first time he had ever been handed a whole bottle of it to keep. Also this time it was cold, not just cool. It was the coldest thing he had ever tasted. Thums Up is the Coca-Cola of India. Like all the world’s countries which have ever been under the sway of the Soviet Union or even just loosely associated with it in an attempt to stave off the cultural influence of the United States, India had felt itself obliged to develop a Coca-Cola substitute. India’s is called Thums Up and is one of the world’s better local colas. Like all the others — try the Israeli version someday — it can be savoured on the teeth for ab hour after it has been drunk, but at least it doesn’t taste of petrol. To Sanjay it tasted like a new life. He was swallowing coldness.

“Wow, look at that stuff go down,” said one of the rich companions.

“He needs six more bottles to wash himself with,” said another.

“The dirt’s holding him together,” said the shining man. “He reminds me of what my life was like before I got into all this crap. Simple. The life of the senses.”

“You’re not telling us you were ever poor,” said a special man who had just arrived. You could tell he was special because he had a special thing dangling round his neck.

“If you’d been my first director I would have ended up looking like this pitiful little bastard does now.”

“Sure. You would have had only one BMW.”

“Let’s put him in the film.”

“Not a bad idea. He certainly runs faster than you can. Probably acts better too. But he doesn’t fit.”

The special man walked back towards the castle entrance. The shining man rose from his chair, standing so tall he interfered with the sunlight.

“Dump some water over him and let him stick around. Useful reminder of the great public we’re all working for.”

The ordeal by water would remain in Sanjay’s mind as one of the most intense of all the intense experiences that made up his initiation into the magic of the Silver Castle. Some of them were thrilling, some of them were shocking, but this one was devastating. Luckily they didn’t try to get his clothes off. They just inundated him where he was. The sun soon dried him off, but the shameful memory remained of fingers being stuck in his ears and men showing the palms of their hands to each other after they had scarped at his arms and legs. He was on the point of heading home right there, but his trembling legs wouldn’t carry him. That was lucky, because everything that happened next was wonderful.

He was taken inside the castle, which was even more dazzling inside than out. In actuality it was made of planks, roughly-dressed joists, plaster of Paris and frosty silver paint, and the film had to be finished before the monsoon came to strip the terraces and the battlements bare of their glory and turn the patchy grass of the courtyard to uninterrupted mud. But to Sanjay it looked like the place where the creation of the Earth must have been planned, the fortress of the gods. There were armies manoeuvring inside it, marshalled by the special man, who would squint through his special thing and had a younger man to shout for him. The special man would say something softly and then the man who did the shouting for him would say it loudly. Then everybody mad complicated movements on the grass and up in the terraces. Occasionally the shining man rose from his canvas chair and joined in. Sanjay was given a job. When the folding chair was moved to wherever the shining man was going next, Sanjay was allowed to help carry it. He could barely keep his end of it off the ground but apparently that was all that was deemed necessary, so that no speck of dust could be picked up from the chair and transferred to the shining man’s impeccable person. It all went on for hours and Sanjay couldn’t imagine how his excitement could grow any more acute. It did, though, because She appeared, the most beautiful woman in the world.

She appeared out of nowhere. All the soldiers were on the terraces with their swords drawn. By now Sanjay knew that the swords weighed almost nothing because one of the soldiers had let him hold one. It didn’t cut you. It just gave you splinters. But the swords flashed in the sunlight when they were held up. The shining man was once again in position for the short walk and pause he had been doing for half an hour. But now the beautiful woman was present and everything changed. Half the soldiers went away. They were replaced in the terraces by richly dressed women. None of these, however, was dressed half so richly as the beautiful woman was. Just the jewels n her slippers made her look as if she had stepped through a precious puddle. In her bare belly, above the billowing trousers and below her bejewelled halter, there was a plug reflecting different colours of light. When she smiled, her teeth looked as clean as the shining man’s, although he was not smiling. But she was not smiling at him anyway. She was smiling at the special man, the director, who was squinting at her through his special thing.

“I think I dimly recognise you,” said the director. “Didn’t we once work together on a film?”

“I wanted to look my best.”

“Well, you certainly look that, so we’d better get on with it. Re-set for the dance.”

“Re-set for the dance!” shouted the man who did the shouting.

A large though not tall woman with bells on her fingers and toes joined the new focus of attention ad began to make gestures, which the beautiful woman copied.

“What is happening?” asked the shining man, who with Sanjay’s help had arranged his chair so as to be facing the other way.

“She’s being taught the step that renders you helpless with lust,” said one of his entourage.

“It will take forever,” said the shining man.

The rest of the afternoon’s work was consumed by the beautiful woman’s seductive step. She had to repeat it ten times and it took ten minutes each time to get all the machinery ready. Some of it Sanjay was beginning tor recognise. Everything seemed to revolve around the machine called a camera which was as big as a toot-toot and ran on rails that told it where to go. Sanjay had been taught not to get where it could see him. Otherwise he was free to move about. He watched in awe as the beautiful woman flung herself down the terrace, paused, looked at her own curved fingers, and undulated. When she had finally done that often enough, she did the same thing again, except that the shining man joined her with the same short run and pause he had been doing earlier. Sanjay was at a loss as to why everything had to be done over and over, but it suited him. His eyes could linger over it. When the beautiful woman and shining man were near each other they smiled at each other until the director told them to stop, whereupon their smiles disappeared like drops of spit on a hot pavement. Until then, their radiant dental displays reflected each other. The air burned in the beam between. Then everyone started to go away. The shining man had been joined by the biggest car Sanjay had ever seen from so close up. It drove straight in through the gateway of the castle and stopped on the grass. Three families could have lived in the shade of it.

“Come back tomorrow kid,” said the shining man. “You’re my lucky charm. Where do you live?”

Mainly by gesture, Sanjay explained that he lived outside the gate.

“Deepak! Get your gofer to drop the kid off.”

The shining man was swept away in his enormous car, but Sanjay’s exit from the castle was no less glorious in his own mind. He was sitting in the back of a toot-toot: something he had never done before although he had dreamed of it often. The toot-toot, or two-seater as it is known officially, is India’s most salient example of that type of vehicular urban proliferation which is the infallible mark of all developing countries: the motorcycle trying to be something more. The toot-toot has a motorcycle’s single front wheel and suspension, but with two wheels at the back to stabilise its canopy, under which two passengers can sit behind the drive in relative comfort while the toot-toot pops along, producing a plosive profusion of polysyllabic vocables — Apocalypse, Papandreou, Popocatepetl — and occasionally, on a smooth stretch of macadam, threatening itself with apoplectic paralysis as its apocopated patter perks up to a peremptory peak, all the more pestilential for being practically powerless. Multiply the effect of this prose by ten and you’ll be in a position to appreciate the quality of migraine that a single toot-toot can engender if it goes past you once. Toot-toots aren’t allowed in downtown Bombay because their onomatopoeic prattle makes the air hideous and lowers the tone. But in the suburbs they swarm. In the suburbs is where a toot-toot belongs. A ride in a toot-toot is only one step up from running along the ground all by yourself. For Sanjay, however, it was a culmination: the shining man, the cheese rill, the whole bottle of Thums Up, Her, and now this. Perched cross-legged on the bouncing back seat, he was too proud to even grin. When they crackled through the area gate and started going down the street where he lived his first plan was to say nothing, so that the blissful ride could go on longer. Unfortunately his mother spotted him.

He climbed out, was interrogated for his story, and when his father came staggering home he was punished. Apparently his worst crime was having let a stranger bathe him. He had to promise that he would never go to the Silver Castle again. Next morning he could hardly walk.