Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 21 |
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Chapter 21

MIRANDA DID NOT throw Sanjay out because of Mumtas. She decided to make a joke of it. This was made easier for her by advance knowledge. She was tipped off by Pratiba, of whom she had made a friend. It would have been in Miranda’s interests anyway, to befriend a promising gossip columnist and bring her dose. But the fact was that she and Pratiba liked each other enormously right from the start. Miranda was only fifteen years older than Pratiba but the gap was enough to let them play mother and daughter as well as sister and sister. They spent hours on the phone to each other late at night, often to Sanjay’s annoyance. He would be shunted aside, turfed out, and sometimes even denied access altogether. It was during one of these comfortless banishments to his own room that Pratiba told Miranda the big news about Mumtas.

“You know her manager, Subash Chakraborty?” asked Pratiba, as one asks a preliminary question so as to prepare the ground for a smooth unfolding of a revelation.

“He is an old horror,” said Miranda. “I knew him fleetingly at one stage, when he was managing Rahul. Before Rahul caught him milking the contracts. Awful manners and very vulgar.”

“Don’t forget violent. He is also that. He arranges accidents for his enemies. Anyway, she has just started sleeping with him.”

“With him? No. I don’t believe it. He is too old and ugly.”

“She is mad about him. It is a burning passion. With all those billionaires she could get she goes and gives herself to this low-rent thug. No wonder she is desperate to keep it a secret.”

“Only stupid billionaires,” Miranda pointed out. “No smart ones would touch her. Her conversation consists entirely of bird noises and the squeal of small animals. I have heard her. Yes. It would play hell with her image if the news got out.”

“Yes. Anyway. She is head over heels for this vulgarian, and always he has gone after every woman he could get. So she is not only desperate to keep it secret, she is desperate to keep him interested.”

“She is flirting harder than ever.”

“She is flirting harder than ever with every handsome young man she meets.”

“How very interesting.”

If Sanjay had known all this it might have saved him from certain misapprehensions. When he turned up on the set for his film with Mumtas, almost the first thing he encountered was her burning glance beamed in his direction. He was already riding on a crested wave of possibility before he got near enough to her to see down her cleavage. From close to, her beauty had the force of nature. Not even the way she flaunted it could detract from it. Learned articles in the magazines had made the absurd claim that she had copied her pout from some western fashion model married to a magician. Juxtaposed photographs purported to prove this theory. Sanjay could see straight away that there was nothing in it: Mumtas’s pout was all her own. She could pout with her mouth closed. She could pout with her mouth open. She could pout while she was singing. In the first day on set Sanjay had little to do beyond jumping off the occasional balcony, so he could stand around and observe her while she flirted with her leading man, none other than Kamar Bose, whose dark glasses worn indoors Miranda had found so ridiculous. He was wearing them again now. Sanjay would have liked to find him ridiculous too but could not help envying him his status. His entourage was the size of a small army. He could sit down without looking and never had to lift a finger to light a cigarette. Above all, he had the attention of Mumtas. While waiting between takes she would drape herself around him for support. Sanjay, seeing how she always managed to clutch one of his thighs between both of hers while absorbing one of his biceps between her breasts and breathing in his ear, wondered how the poor man kept from bursting out of his leather pants like a charging tiger. But Sanjay’s jealousy was tempered by the certainty that whenever Kamar was not on the set, Mumtas would transfer her attention to himself. Sometimes she would do this even when Kamar was there. It was heavily rumoured that Kamar was already mad for her and was facing death threats from the brothers of his latest lifetime companion, Sparkle Bhatt. Sanjay could see how Kamar would think the prize was worth the risk. The beauty of Mumtas was its own reality. In her vicinity all possibilities altered.

By the end of the first week, Kamar, when he was required to be on set, whether in the studio or at the location, was accompanied always either by Sparkle in person or by her mother. Mumtas retaliated by keeping Sanjay close to her at all times when he was not throwing punches or going backwards over balconies to land with a crunch in the cardboard boxes below. On several occasions he was almost alone with her in her caravan while she learned her lines. This she did with difficulty, because even her most elementary lines necessitated rapid rearrangements of her pout. Sanjay, serving as a model, would hold his face close to hers and say the line so that she could study his lips. She did not quite kiss him, just as, when she brushed against him or leaned on him for support, it was never quite an embrace. But it was more than enough to make him believe that it would be only a matter of time before his would be the spoon chosen to stir the smooth immobility of that lovely face into a raging whirlpool of insupportable pleasure. It was half happening already. There was a particularly promising moment in her caravan, in the afternoon of the last shooting day of the week, just after she had been called back to the set. There was nobody else present except her hairstylist, who was busy repacking a bank of curlers.

“Come, we must go,” said Mumtas. It was a long speech for her to attempt without a script, but her body, as always, was eloquent. As she brushed past him, she pushed a hot upper thigh against his pleading groin, crammed a perfumed soft breast into the hollow of his heart, and passed her pout so close over his open mouth that he caught her breath. Sanjay was in such a state that he could not follow her. He had to stay behind for a couple of minutes and pretend to the hairdresser that he knew how to mend the plug of her curling iron.

News that Mumtas was vamping both Kamar and the new unknown Sanjay Nool was soon in the gossip columns. Sanjay was expecting a sticky reception at home. He was defiantly ready to counter an attack. It never came. Miranda persisted in being sweetly reasonable. That, in Sanjay’s mind, was the most unreasonable aspect of her conduct. She was patronising him. At another of her damned dinner parties she even dared to mention his relationship with Mumtas.

“Now take our young friend here,” she said, tilting her head fondly towards Sanjay with everyone watching. “He is in love with one of our young film stars. He thinks she is a princess. And why not? That is the way our films work. Princesses instead of people.”

There was a British journalist among the guests. Apparently he was a prominent film critic who also appeared on the famous BBC2 television to talk about films. He wore strange eyeglasses: they were two dark circles no bigger than bottletops. His hairstyle was stranger: it stuck straight up like the bristles of a brush lying on its back.

“That’s the most striking thing about the whole scene here,” said the British film critic loudly, not looking at Miranda or anyone else, as far as could be ascertained. “I mean the discrepancy between the films and the people who make them. I mean it’s an absolute gulf.”

“That is because”, said Miranda, “there is a discrepancy between the people who make them and the people they make them for.” You must forgive me if I find that attitude cynical. It presumes that most of the population of your country is less intelligent than you.

“I presume no such thing,” said Miranda, with a smile that Sanjay could identify as a sign of impatience. “The people are not less intelligent than we are. But they are incomparably less well-informed. In Uttar Pradesh women are still daubed with cow dung after childbirth so as to prevent infection. Daubed with cow dung and washed with urine. That is only one instance among millions. It would be useless to show them Satyajit Ray films. You think they need an Ingmar Bergman festival? They want their princes and princesses. After all, you have yours.”

“I take your point,” said the film critic, not looking very much as if he did. “And I suppose any genre can have vigour. Hong Kong chums out thousands of kick-boxer films and they’re all technically inept as well as totally mindless. I mean, they aren’t even any good on their own terms. But John Woo came out of all that.”

“Thanks for the comparison,” said one of the directors. “You’re telling us that if we study hard we’ll get a chance to go to Hollywood.”

“Sorry,” said the film critic, not looking very sorry. “I only meant that any genre can be redeemed by a product of sufficient energy. It’s just hard to prove it. Hard from my angle, I mean. I mean ...” He hesitated.

“What do you mean?” asked Pratiba without hesitation. She was sitting only two places from Miranda and had often, during the course of the evening, acted as a spokesperson.

“I mean that as a writer I didn’t have much trouble proving that The Bonfire of the Vanities was a lousy movie. But I did have trouble proving that Alien Nations was a wonderful movie. It was tightly written, well acted, brilliantly directed. But it came from a bad genre: science fiction. And really what you’ve saddled yourselves with is a bad genre: crazy musical melodramas where people sing and dance instead of kiss.”

“Oh, we’re a bit beyond that now,” said Miranda, signalling for the coffee to be brought. “Some of the young ones are giving us their all. Being dragged through the village naked.”

“We call it exposing,” said Pratiba. “They expose.”

“You should hear the lyrics of Meri pant bhi sexy,” said one of the producers.

“Sing it, Akim,” Miranda ordered. The producer rose to his feet so as to give himself room for the appropriate hip movements while he sang his version of the new hit song that had scandalised the country. Pratiba translated, to hilarious effect. An evening that had threatened to drown in solemnity was saved. But nothing could save it for Sanjay. He had grown indifferent to conversations in which he could not participate properly. The unknown was no longer a goad. He had come to realise that it had no limits and could not be attained. There was an infinity of unknowns. There was no end to learning about history and geography and Ingmar Bergman Festival, whoever he was. Sanjay’s curiosity had at last revealed to him the impossibility of its ever being satisfied. He had made his choice. There was a course open to him that he could master. It led by way of Mumtas into the world of MTV. There he could find his path and there he could grow. He was thinking all these things while the party drew to its protracted end. His mind was elsewhere. When all the guests had gone and even Pratiba had been packed off into the night, he was still abstracted. His thoughts were present only to the extent of apprehension that Miranda might follow up her sarcasm about Mumtas. But Miranda seemed to have preoccupations of her own. She reached for him. Glad to avoid a scene. Sanjay relaxed into her bed. It was, after all, familiar ground. It was just that this setting no longer satisfied his daydreams — or, rather, that by satisfying a precise set of daydreams it had made them change. Now he took it for granted, even took it for his right, that he should be lying here using her bosom for his pillow while she talked into the candlelight.

“What a rude prick that film critic is,” she said to the shadows. “But he is more than half right, that’s the hell of it. Ismael Merchant will make exactly one film here this year. The only film made by a proper production company about an Urdu poet. I know all about Urdu poetry. I can read Urdu. I am the right age, the right looks. But Shabbana Azmi gets the role. She is a good actress and very beautiful. She deserves it. And she is very intelligent, I have to admit it. I suppose she would have felt the same if I had got it. Frustration. There are so few opportunities to work seriously. You can’t know what it’s like, to have your gift wasted.”

Sanjay had long ago grown tired of being told what he couldn’t know. She must have sensed this, because she was talking to the ceiling. He could tell that without looking, from the way the muscles of her neck felt against his cheek. She felt and tasted warm and sweet as always, but he was not inclined to make love to her for a second time. It was a relief when she put on a video-tape of the episode of The Bold and the Beautiful whose transmission they had missed during the dinner party. The Bold and the Beautiful always brought them together. It was doing the same thing for the whole of India. Everyone who had access to a television set was watching it. By the time the episode was finished the two lovers were so friendly that Sanjay felt it incumbent upon him to be passionate all over again.

“I am the bold and you are the beautiful,” he said after he had brought her at last to rest.

“I’m afraid that both titles belong to you,” she said with the smile he liked best, the one with the half-closed heavy eyes. But she spoiled it all again by talking about things he was never going to catch up with.

“I love it when we lie together like this,” she said softly. “We are like the two lovers in a marvellous Polish film I saw over and over when I was very young in Paris. Ashes and Diamonds. She lets the young man make love to her because he comes out of nowhere and he will be gone tomorrow. But he falls in love with her and that is the end of him. He dies wrapped in a sheet.”

“A sad story.”

“But beautiful. He was a very beautiful young man, like you. Made more beautiful by his awful past. He wore dark glasses all the time so you could not see his eyes. It made you look at his mouth. The most beautiful, sculpted mouth. More sensual even than hers. More cruel. Sensitive only to its own pleasure. Your mouth is like that. In France they would call you a savage infant.”

After all this publicity for his mouth he thought he had better kiss her with it, but really he was annoyed. He didn’t want to hear about Polish films if he was never going to see them. He could not go back with her into the past, to Paris, to the ashes and the diamonds. So why was she bringing all that here? Why was she heaping it all on him? Recrimination might have unmanned him. Luckily he had done his duty. He left for his room, resolved to advance his claims on Mumtas during the following week’s filming. He was forgetting the warmth of Miranda’s body even as he climbed the stairs. He met Ghita, the speaker of the unspeakable, coming down them.

“If you throw all this away,” she said, “you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought. Don’t you realise that you’re hurting her? Is that your gratitude?”

“Ghita. Go to bed.” He had copied Miranda’s cadence exactly.

And so he went to bed himself, by himself, and honestly convinced that she had as much reason to be grateful to him as he to her, so the accounts were square. Such was the irony that made a rarefied illusion out of a friendship in flesh and blood. Neither of them ever realised that the gap separating them was so wide the opposite edges were invisible. Miranda, with the encouragement of Sanjay’s taciturnity on the subject, thought that Sanjay’s past life must have hurt his character merely by the absence of good things: she never suspected the presence of evil ones. Sanjay thought that the gulf between them was social. He thought that he had placed and crossed a bridge between his inferiority and her superiority. It had never occurred to him that Miranda’s superiority was genuine, extending far beyond her social position. He cherished her intensely as a type and a symbol. When he penetrated her body he took possession of an ideal. But he never penetrated to her individuality. The unusual integrity of her personality remained a mystery to him, because his own personality had no integrity of its own. It was fragmented, and so could never focus its appreciation.

Had things been otherwise, however, there still could have been no guarantee that the most stable relationship of his life would have lasted. Mumtas was a powerful destabilising force. In the course of the following week’s filming, Sanjay’s suspicion that he would soon be regaled with the universally coveted favours of the Indian film industry’s most sumptuous young star grew to a certainty. He would stagger out of the crushed ruins of a box-fall to find himself bathed in her glance. She would insist, when he was not required on the set, that he stand beside her chair so that she could drape her arm around his waist and rest the swell of a breast against his thigh. A new speciality, when they were both watching a scene that included neither of them, was for her to embrace him from behind with sleepy casualness, seemingly resting her helpless fragility against the spine of his manly strength. Mumtas being dearly possessed of tireless energy, this pose was unconvincing, but Sanjay was in no position to question it. He could not see what was going on back there. He could only feel it. Her breasts were in his back like hot cushions, the soft swell of her lower belly treating one or other of his reflexively tautened buttocks to a comprehensive sponge and press. Her breath torched the nape of his neck and the back of his ears. He needed every trick of his mind to control an incipient erection. He conjured up memories of being caned by a relay of policemen. He ran slow-motion replays of Swill breaking his nose. The presence of his old enemy Vikram, who was choreographing most of the fight scenes, usefully helped to remind him of how his lip had hurt when it was healing. Recalling the exemplary thoroughness with which his father had thrashed him worked for a while. But finally the tricks ran out. His embarrassment was well developed when he was called to the set. He unwrapped Mumtas’s arms from around his waist and turned away as if he had a small errand he must first complete before he went into action. Mumtas chose that moment to trail her hand across the front of his trousers. She looked away from him as she did so, but the flare of her nostrils and the rush of air through her pout were flagrant signals of desire. He had to back into the scene bent over, pretending to be looking for something he had lost. The director’s amplified voice was sympathetic but no comfort.

“Are you hurt?”

Sanjay shook his head.

“We can shoot this later if you are hurt.”

Sanjay shook his head again. He was ready. A few seconds later he was reeling backwards under a flurry of punches from the hero’s best friend. The last punch sent him over a parapet which would later be matched to the top of a building he had already fallen off This time he had only to roll over it backwards and lie on a mattress. As he lay there he saw Mumtas looking at him as if he had just dived out of an aeroplane to save her from the sharks. It was at that moment that he decided it was worth the risk of asking her out. He might lose the protection of Miranda. He might attract the sinister attention of Mumtas’s manager’s notoriously heavy friends. The only bright spot was that Mumtas’s manager obviously did not mind her provocative behaviour, otherwise she would not have reserved her most blatant manoeuvres for when he was somewhere in the vicinity. If a man as powerfully ugly as that had threatened to turn nasty, Sanjay might have had sufficient reason to think again. As things were, he decided to go ahead.

She was ahead of him. She said, in a variation on her usual succession of fledgling bird calls, that she and a few of her friends had plans to go dancing at The Tiger Hunt in Juhu. Would he care to come? At the thought of grooving with Mumtas, Sanjay almost ejaculated on the spot. He was going to see those nipples stroked by cloth: actually see it happen. Her eyes promised that much else would happen too. Sanjay’s mind was made up. At the end of the day’s filming he went home to change, determined, if Miranda was there, to tell her — simply tell her — that he was going out dancing. She wasn’t there. He was told that she had left suddenly and would be gone for the whole weekend at the very least. Gradually convincing himself that he was sorry not to have had the chance to breathe defiance, he showered and dressed with fanatical care. He felt svelte. When he descended the stairs to the living-room, Ghita, the speaker of the unspeakable, was there to bathe in his radiance.

“She will hear of this.”

“Go ahead and tell her.”

“You are a very foolish young man. There is something for you to cat in the kitchen. I hope you choke on it.”

From Miranda’s apartment building to The Tiger Hunt was a short distance but a long way. It was a different kind of life. The noise was as devastating as the entrance fee. He was glad he had eaten already because nobody was eating here. They were scarcely even drinking. They were just swallowing things in the toilets. Mumtas arrived with her manager and an augmented entourage, including one of the most prominent male models, a figure of enviable elegance against whom she flung herself rhythmically in time to the beat of a song by Madonna. Sanjay was starting to see the point of Madonna. Previously he had thought her to be suffering from a deadly combination of abbreviated legs and bad teeth, but if this kind of music could inspire Mumtas to such a frenzy then there must be something in it. One member of Mumtas’s entourage lamented the absence of something called techno-punk but Sanjay declined to be daunted. He was in the right place. Suddenly Mumtas’s hip was against his groin again and this time there seemed no limit to what might eventuate. Surely the way her manager bit the end of his cigar could only be a gesture of approval. Sanjay gave himself up to the event. Dancing backwards in front of him, Mumtas drew him by the cupped magnet of her body heat into the booming, shrieking depths of the dance floor where the light splashed and split. He danced like a man whose prayers were in the process of being answered. He danced like a rain dancer who could already taste the rain.

He danced the same way the next night as well. Mumtas had moved into The Tiger Hunt and set up shop. It was her place. All present were her possessions. Unfortunately Sanjay’s plans for possessing her kept on not quite coming to fruition. She would touch him, stroke him, breathe into him. She would give her manager her lighted cigarette to hold while she sighed smoke into Sanjay’s mouth from a millimetre away, undid his shirt buttons with her frosted nails, brushed her thinly encased breasts against his chest, and drew him back into the dance floor by the tips of his collar. Everyone in Juhu had heard of how she was dancing with him. The gossip columnists were already shuffling their clichés into unprecedented combinations. Yet somehow the promise of the night was never fulfilled.

Nor was the promise of the day. On the free day before shooting started again, Mumtas and Sanjay lay on adjacent sun-loungers beside the swimming-pool at her house. Her imported pale blue swimming costume was an incitement to violence. It was cut high at the sides and when she walked Sanjay could see in detail the form of the plush divide that he was designed to fill. But there were always at least half a dozen other people present including her manager, who was constantly on the telephone. The most Sanjay received, apart from a light lunch on a glass plate, was the by now dubious benefit of a comprehensive course of titillation. Mumtas rubbed oil into his back as he lay face down. She rubbed oil into his upper thighs. Her oiled hand slid in between. His erection threatened to pierce the lounger and punch into the concrete like the bit of a pneumatic drill. She could not have been more blatant. But once again the occasion petered out In the late afternoon Mumtas changed clothes, climbed into the passenger seat of her manager’s colossal BMW, and was quietly transported somewhere out of reach. If it had been going to happen, it should have happened here. Perhaps she wanted to be taken away. Sanjay wondered if he might not have already clinched it, if he had known where to take her. But the slum would not do and Miranda’s apartment was impossible. Too many people would know.

Shooting resumed next day and so did Mumtas’s teasing campaign. She had a new refinement: licking his car lobe. He could not go on like this. His mind was not on the job. Falling off balconies was already tough enough without having to counteract the effects of a throbbing groin. Sooner or later he would have to make a drastic decision involving money. He would have to rent somewhere suitable to take her. He arrived home that evening to find that the decision had been forced on him. He had plans for a slow, careful primping before he advanced on the nightclub for a concerted attack on Mumtas’s final defences. The first thing he was looking forward to was a shower. The first thing he ran into was Ghita, the speaker of the unspeakable. Just inside the main door of the apartment, in the foyer, she was aligning large plastic bags full of clothes beside his solitary suitcase.

“She is on the terrace. You had better see her straight away. And don’t say I didn’t tell you.”

Miranda was standing up beside the coffee table on the terrace. In a yellow sari against a divided background of pale blue evening sky and silvering sea, she reminded him of a wrathful goddess on the back of a fateful card already being plucked at by the divinatory parrot. She did not sit down and did not invite Sanjay to do so either. There was a large book on the table, almost covering its surface. It was called Bombay Blues. Without lifting it from the table, Miranda opened it.