Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 24 |
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Chapter 24

SANJAY WAS RIGHT. The gold piece had made it possible for him to do the only thing that could save him. There were people who wanted to help him after they heard about his accident on the film set, but they were too late. When Miranda and Pratiba got back from Goa, Pratiba heard about it from her contacts in the minor purlieus of the film world. She told Miranda, and Miranda immediately sent her to find him. Pratiba thought that she remembered the way. She did indeed remember where the slum was but once she got into it she was soon lost. It was enormous. There was no end to it. Her enquiries were useless. So she brought back the packet of money Miranda had given her and the two women discussed what to do. Finally Pratiba tracked down Aziz and for a consideration wormed Sanjay’s address out of him. Armed with that, she went back to the slum. This time she knew what to ask for. But she was too late. There was a whole family living in Sanjay’s room, including an older female relative who, if not yet quite dead, was certainly no longer among the living except in a technical sense. Elizabeth, when she arrived independently a few days later, found the same scene, minus the older female relative. Elizabeth had some money with her too. It might have staved off the inevitable, but not for long. Sanjay was a child of the streets, and the children of the streets are on their own. They have to be strong. If they are injured, and need charity, they have to be stronger still. A windfall might only have robbed Sanjay of the determination he needed to do what was necessary. Anyway, no help reached him. He helped himself, and did it. His right hand had lost its cunning. It offended him, so he cut it off.

He became a more successful beggar after that. The competition was still fierce, but now he had something to show. When he had recovered from shock and infection, he went back to work at the crossroads at the bottom of the hill, where the main road comes in from the coast. Some of the cars and buses visiting Film City still turn there to start the long shallow climb to the gate. Beyond the gate, back in the low hills, the Silver Castle has been rebuilt and replaced so often by now that it has small resemblance to the edifice Sanjay knew when he was little. There is still the occasional adventurous street child who emerges from the bushes to see it and believe it, but for Sanjay it is not even a memory. He has enough to worry about. Any of the cam and buses might contain the rich person with the spare annas, or even the spare rupees. He has to approach, press his face against the window, tilt his upper body, and hold up his stump as best he can before the intact faces inside can turn away. He doesn’t do as well as the mothers with children, and nothing like as well as the children with babies. But he does better than the man with the twisted legs on the little trolley, or the man with no legs at all. Sanjay is higher up, moves more quickly into position, and he has his tears. Once, when he was young, working the trains and boats, his tears were schooled. Now they are spontaneous. Ever since his accident he has cried a little all the time. It is something to do with the nerves in his face. He is a sight to touch the conscience. Foreign television crews on the poverty tour have filmed him several times. Elizabeth was with a Dutch crew on the way to Film City. They stopped to film Sanjay beside the road. So Elizabeth gave Sanjay ten rupees without knowing who he was. Nor did he know her. His eyes were wet, the light was behind her, and his head hurt with the heat. Elizabeth had once been a little bit in love with Sanjay’s face, and love for something perhaps makes it harder to recognise when it drastically changes. Also she knew nothing about what had happened to his hand, and he walked with a different posture. There is also the consideration, although it should be put with care, that she lived locally, and the inhabitants of Bombay are less likely than visitors to look closely at a beggar. The price of habituation is a certain indifference, and it remains terribly true that the most deserving cases are out of sight, wasting away in a dark silence.

Sanjay will never go back now to the heart of the city. It is too far. Once he tried, in the dim hope of finding Urmila, but he was barely a third of the way there when he was stopped by a giant roadside sign with a strange word on it. The sign said ‘Häagen-Dazs’. The completeness with which he did not understand this word left him desolate. He turned for home. So now he is stuck there at the fringe, in the same area where he was born. But for someone who started from nothing he got a long way. A few steps more and he might have been a legend. As things worked out, he is remembered only by those who knew him, but they remember him well. There aren’t many street children who go so far, and few indeed who go further. Sunil, uniquely subtle, was one of them. Using all the money he had so carefully saved, he got all the way to England. He entered the country in a sealed container and was one of the lucky ones who were still alive when it was opened. He even managed to obtain a job, at the Ganges Sporting Club in Birmingham. He kept the job until his character was called into question. Now he works at other things related to the Indian community, but must always face the problem that most of the work available is legal. He will probably overcome this difficulty. He has the talent. It would have been nice to say that Urmila, too, managed to escape her circumstances. A more romantic God would have rescued her to become a catwalk model or a film star. Unfortunately she was without the inner resources. When they were through with her at Falkland Street, she retraced her always graceful steps to her old home in the alley, and there she still is, a mouth to feed that tries to pay its way by cleaning the pot in which the food is cooked.

One of the opulent cars to which Sanjay daily makes his mute appeal might have been Miranda’s by now if she had gone on with her career. But she had seen the writing on the wall, in twenty different Indian languages, and given up. There were no good films waiting for her, and too many bad ones. She married Gupta. He had probably been planning it already when he told her about Sanjay. Gupta wanted the right woman — beautiful, distinguished, intelligent — as a front. He had political ambitions. Miranda disliked him but could not help admiring his power. She was approaching bankruptcy, a condition which makes power easier to admire. Also she was approaching the age when any man was likely to betray her eventually, so she chose a man who would betray her from the beginning, without draining her of love and trust. Miranda is in a new phase of her life now. She spends much time in London and New York and her beloved Paris. When Gupta makes his elaborate deals, she presides at his dinner tables, not just flattering and cajoling but personally and truly representing that rich civilization which her great country has always held waiting within it, and which will soon contribute to a wider world, the unimaginable tomorrow. Gupta’s booming home-grown legitimate computer program enterprise in Bombay would have been hardly possible if the Bangalore software pirates had not first been tamed; the government regulations that tamed them would not have been possible without pressure from the American communications giants; and it was Miranda, with the aid of her personal assistant Pratiba, who showed the American lawyers how to frame and address their letters of protest so that the bureaucrats of Delhi could not bury them in the pending tray. Miranda is better than Gupta at that kind of thing, and he knows it. His charitable works were his own idea, but it takes her enlightened chairmanship to make them plausible. Gupta has improved under her tutelage. He is no nicer, but less proud of being ruthless. At least he is natural. There are one or two men in India who are richer than he is. Based in Britain, Sri and Gopi Hinduja count as two of the richest men in the world. There is at least one Indian tycoon based in India who is richer than both of them put together. But he believes in fairies and flying saucers. Gupta has a clear mind, even if it is cold. He is not everything that India needs, but he is certainly something. Miranda also advises him closely on his growing interests in the film industry, and it might be that from his studio, under her cultivated influence, the kind of films will finally come she should always have been in. A new Satyajit Ray might emerge. Why not? He did before, and in circumstances far less propitious. Meanwhile, working as long a day as her driven husband, Miranda is very busy. But she is alone in the night, and lying in the dark she often thinks of what she ought to have done for Sanjay that she did not do.

It is kind of her. Though afraid of time and ruled too much by her fears, she is a good person, and her guilt is misplaced. Long before he met her, Sanjay was already condemned. Even as she groomed him he was on the slide. Lately our biologists and philosophers have begun to reach something like agreement on the nature of human consciousness. Apparently it is fragmentary, and we have no central mind making sense of everything. Coherence is an illusion: a necessary illusion, but an illusion nevertheless. Time and experience oblige us to accept that the things we know do not form a complete picture. They are just bits of a puzzle. But we have some idea of what the puzzle is. We can see its edges even though there are whole patches of sky, sea and earth missing, and we can guess the subject even though there is a whole heap of pieces at our elbow that we will never have the time or the aptitude to make fit. It is a picture of a lost ship, called Western Civilization; of a radiant long cloister called the Grace of God; or of a glittering, variegated procession called the Ascent of Man. There is a unity, even if it is only suggested: a congruence of hints. But the young Sanjay, even at his brightest, could see no edges. For him there was no picture. The pieces of the puzzle were never together on the table in front of him. They were never in the same room, or even in the same house. They were scattered through time and space, never to be joined even potentially. In view of that cruel fact, he did well, and his story, though sad, should give us cause for hope. There was nothing and no one to form his character, yet his character, though of necessity opportunistic, was still much more benevolent than it might have been. He was a thief but no murderer. Hurt often, he seldom hurt other people. When he did, he hardly did it out of calculation, and still less from pleasure. There was a tenderness to him, and it was inbred. It is a comfort to believe that tenderness can be instinctive. Miranda, who valued his light touch and helped him to value it in his turn, was right to regard it as his best gift. If Mumtas had given herself to him she might have learned something.

Mumtas is the biggest star of all, for now. There is talk of flattening the Silver Castle so as to make room for a multilevel set — built out of real metal scaffolding — for the first Indian cyberpunk movie, in which she will star. She will stand poised in midair, magnificent in studded leather, holding her pout in profile against the hot sky. There is talk of her going to Hollywood. No Indian film star has ever flourished when thus transplanted, but there is always a first time, and Mumtas certainly has the drive. She is a princess. A princess must take her destiny in her own hands or she will be destroyed by the dreams that the rest of us have on her behalf. Mumtas is not the wisest princess that has ever reigned over the Indian film world. Nor is she the kindest. But she is one of the loveliest, and in that respect she is a fitting representative of a form of art that matches a way of life, that gives something to people who have nothing, and that might not survive in so foolishly innocent a form. For the next Sanjays who come trekking in from the beach or from under the wharf, the dreams on the screen will never again so exactly supply the deficiencies of their real lives. Generated on computers in the shadow factories of Los Angeles, detached even from the sunlight, the techno future will be a less comfortable dreamland to escape to than Long Ago. The techno future might come true, for some. The enchanted past never could, for anyone. That was its point. Deprivation was shared. There was a democracy of longing. It was the one thing that everyone had been given in common. No doubt it would be better if everyone could go to school instead, but such an elementary requirement might be a long time on the way. Before the new way of life comes, there is an old one to be lost. It had something to it. If you visit Bombay soon, you might just be in time to see the last of it before it goes.

Sanjay is only one person among many millions waiting for the first scraps of the new free enterprise society to come drifting down. There are signs that the situation is at least no worse, or at any rate bad in a more promising way. There is less corruption in the public services. There are only half as many people who have to be paid off if you want to get anything done. They have to be paid twice as much, but at least you save time. It would be nice to think that time did not matter, but fine talk about eternal India should not be allowed to obscure the fact that it does. The poor live with tight margins. When the subsidies were removed from kerosene and cooking oil, feeding a family got harder, not easier. As a direct result of deregulation, lentils and chappati bread got dearer, not cheaper. There is no sense, and no decency, in saying wait to people who can’t. Young economists may spout confident jargon about the trickle-down effect and the eventual certainty of the benefits kicking in. They had better be right. Meanwhile the poor don’t just wait, they increase in numbers. In the country villages they go on having as many children as possible so as to gather things in. When all the things are gathered in and gone, the families leave their wasted districts, come to the big city, and join the population of the pavements. It has all been going on for a long time and the chances are — overwhelmingly are — that it will go on for a long while yet. That is why it is such an education to go to a city like Bombay for even a little while. The poverty in the streets is not like a disaster in the past. When we see the train tracks in Poland and think of the little children, or when we see the dreadful photographs from Cambodia of the torture factories where the victims were hurt worse if they screamed, we say it is impossible to bear but we don’t quite mean it, because we can bear it: it is in the past, the situation altered, it is over, it won’t happen again. In Buenos Aires, when the Mothers of the Disappeared parade each Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo, the photographs of their missing children that hang around their necks are terrible to see. That beautiful daughter who was going to be the scientist could have been your daughter. It could have been your daughter who was raped and tortured and thrown alive out of an aeroplane into the hungry ocean. But the children playing in the square, the next generation, are healthy and safe: it is not going to happen to them. And the children in the street of Ho Chi Minh City, the children known as the Dust of Life: one day, when the city is called Saigon again, those children might vanish, never to be replaced, because there is no irreversible reason for them to be there. And those terrifying African countries, the ones where the starving children swell up like cherry bubbles until pricked at last by the pin of death: those countries could all feed themselves if they were well governed, if the tribes would stop killing each other, and if the West could find a way of helping that doesn’t hinder. Though it is a lot to hope for, there are no irreversible reasons why those horrors happen. But in Bombay, for all we know, and for as much as we dare to guess, the reasons are irreversible. The impoverished are there with the all-pervading applicability of a natural law, like gravity or decay. Every advance in medicine or economics seems to bring more deprivation: deprivation of everything beyond mere sustenance. They don’t starve any more, but they hardly live. Think of your own life minus all the things worth living for wouldn’t that be a kind of death? Well, there it is, no further away than the thickness of a car window.

Travelling through Bombay, you will see many Sanjays. If you go out to his area you might even see the man himself. Though he always looks in hope, he has still never seen, in the passing cars, anyone that he recognises. Whether you recognise him, if you ever pass that way, is for you to decide. We have to ask ourselves what our lives would have been like if we had had no advantages at all. It is harder to imagine than we imagine. We always put our character into the picture, as if we got it from nowhere. But the mighty, infinitely malleable Stendhal was right about that: we can acquire anything in solitude, except character. And Bombay, for all its inescapable propinquity, is the world’s clearest proof that a great city is a great solitude. If you were alone, like the people of the streets, you too would be without the means even to conjecture that your true life, the life you were meant for, had been misplaced. Yet the picture of desolation is mercifully incomplete. There is not much violence that moves fast enough to be seen. That young beggar with the scarred face and the ball of rags for a hand might annoy you but will not attack you. It is not because he is too weak, or too afraid, but because it has not yet occurred to him to doubt that you are only someone else like him, on a different journey. Perhaps you will see that in his ruined eyes. You will look through him and see yourself reflected. If you do, the spirit of the city will enter into you, and Bombay will be with you always, for the rest of your life.