Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 23 |
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Chapter 23

SANJAY WENT BEGGING but did not prosper. He covered a wide territory, often walking as far as Juhu so that he could haunt the rich cars at the traffic-lights. The clothes on his back, the last clothes he had, were rags by now. He looked the part. Unfortunately there were lots of other beggars who looked the part too. They would surround a car so that you could barely see it: you could only hear it honk feebly like a hunted animal. Once he thought he remembered where Miranda’s apartment block was, but he must have picked the wrong one, because the few people at the entrance who could bear to look at his face did not want to let him in. He cried, because he knew that if she could see him she would give him some money. When he cried they chased him away. So he went back to the traffic-lights and continued with his begging. He was given the odd blue note and on one occasion a brown one, but nothing wonderful. His problem was that although his damaged face registered well enough, his immobilised arm was hard to believe. He might have just been holding it like that. The competition flaunted injuries and deformities whose authenticity was unmistakable. In the late afternoon he would limp home discouraged. His household was not doing well. Even a few annas would make a difference. He had one thing left to sell. It would have to be sold to some effect. It would have to be an investment.

To walk back all the way into the heart of the city took a long time. It had to be done. That was where he would find the only man who could help him. The man was still there, squatting in front of the railings on Mahapalika Marg with Azad Park behind him. He was still hemmed in by snarling sets of teeth arranged in ranks. It was the pavement dentist. Slowly, having trouble with some of the words and sometimes mixing his languages, Sanjay explained what he wanted. The dentist did not seem shocked. Pavement dentists are hard to unsettle with a tale of woe. They are practical men. The dentist demanded to see the colour of Sanjay’s money. It was the colour of gold. For much of his waking life Sanjay had allowed no other hand but his own to touch the gold piece and he was not going to relinquish it now, so he was the one who held it dose to the dentist’s expert eye. After nodding agreement, the dentist told Sanjay that what he wanted could not be done until just before dawn, but they would need to start walking at least an hour before that. Rather than make a complicated rendezvous he allowed Sanjay to lie down on the mat to sleep the night until the appointed time. Very tired, Sanjay soon slept the untroubled sleep of a man whose dilemma is resolved. The last thing he saw before his eyes closed was a silent convocation of lipless smiles.

When the dentist left he took all his kit with him but kindly left the mat, calculating that nobody was going to steal it out from under his client. The dentist returned to find that somebody had stolen the mat. The dentist was unmollified by Sanjay’s assurance that he had not felt it go. This was a had start to their deal. There was nowhere to go but up. As they walked beside the railway tracks in the mild night under the stars, the dentist gradually restored himself to a good humour. He told stories of teeth gone by. Sanjay occupied himself with his own memories, such as they were. He knew that there were blanks. What bothered him most was that there might be blanks he didn’t know about. Eventually, after they had walked for an hour, the dentist announced that this was the spot. He put down the little bag that he had been carrying and set out some instruments on a cloth, only a few feet from the tracks. Then he demonstrated the way he wanted Sanjay to lie down. Sanjay had trouble doing it. The dentist said that they would have to hurry because the first train would be along soon. The dentist helped to get Sanjay’s dead hand into the correct position across the rail. Because Sanjay’s arm was cramped against his body, it meant that he had to lie face down very dose beside the rail. He had barely got into the correct position before the train came. Perhaps that was another stroke of luck. It meant that there was less time to think about it. With so little sensation in his arm, Sanjay hardly felt the hand go. He was much more struck by the noise and the vibration. The dentist, who had pinned him down so that he would not be dragged along, helped to roll him out of the way as soon as the job was done.

It was only the first part of the job, of course. That was why the dentist was there, to make sure the amputation was properly tidied up. The dentist wanted the gold piece before he started. Too shocked to argue, Sanjay could only comply. He fumbled at his money-belt. He pointed to the secret compartment. The dentist took the gold piece, held it up to check it in the light of the rising sun, and put it in a pocket of his own. Then, an honourable man, he got to work. Sanjay fainted, which was probably just as well. His last conscious thought for some time was of how wise he had been always to keep the gold piece safe, until the day came when it could make the difference between life and death.