Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 4 |
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Chapter 4

SIMPLY BY leaving home, Sanjay became one of the children of the street. In Bombay the children of the pavement have somewhere to live. The children of the street live nowhere and everywhere, so if that is what they are going to be, it is best if they start early, because there is a lot to learn. At the age of seven and a bit, Sanjay was already a late starter. Luckily he was a quick learner. Above all he had an untapped natural capacity for theft. His quick mind could see an opportunity and his quick feet could carry him away from the consequences. The pavement stall-holders had managed to slap his wrists because he came at them from in front. Now he learned to creep up from behind, look innocent if he was challenged, and scuttle adroitly away with his booty when he was not. That way he managed to keep himself fed. But as one area of street learned to be on the lookout for him, he had to move on to another area where they had not. Thus he acquired a trajectory. He had no idea where he was heading, but a satellite overhead would have been able to predict his course if it had cared. He had made a left turn out of the teeming mile where he was born and was heading along the main road of the area towards the beach. It took him about three weeks to get there and by then he was already an expert at finding places to sleep at night. Paradoxically, the smaller children get the best positions, despite their lack of fighting strength. It is because they fit into smaller holes and can get under lower things. You might see a little girl living in an abandoned cardboard suitcase on a rubbish dump. When she grows too big, she has to move on, and then someone smaller will come along and take over. At one stage Sanjay lived for several days under a discarded slab of cement, until somebody dumped a lot of garbage that stopped up the gap between the slab and the earth. So he moved on. He had already forgotten his second name, which he had never heard used more than half a dozen times. At the beach he met some other street children and entered into the economy of Bombay.

The important thing to say about Bombay’s economy is that it works. You are not dealing with some broken-down, post-political African country where the food has given out, the mad Marxist dictator has gone into exile with all the remaining aid money, and the people have no recourse except to lie down and die. Though malnutrition stunts the growth of millions, not many people actually die of starvation in Bombay, despite the fact that so many of its poorer people have come in from the country to escape precisely that possibility. Bombay can accommodate its continually burgeoning population because nothing is wasted. Everything is recycled. Bottles are re-used until they break. That happens in the West, too, but with us the bottle is usually re-used for the same sort of thing. In Bombay it is re-used for every sort of thing. When a Bombay bottle eventually breaks under the strain of having contained everything that quenches, inebriates, lubricates or scarifies, the broken glass goes into the furnaces and becomes part of another bottle, whose own event-strewn saga then begins, like a Maupassant story rewritten by Proust. Soft-drink cans are collected, crumpled and sold on from the single collector to the specialist used soft-drink can shop, and from there to the crushing plant, which in turn transforms all that silver flash and bright colour into useful metal. Nothing imperishable escapes collection, right down to the scrap of polythene, the nail and the pin. There are shops that specialise in dead batteries. Every form of rag is collected, and every form of paper. One of the results is that the rubbish tips on the pavements or between the houses are all organic — picked clean of anything inert, they are always rotting, but they never really grow. The little girl with the suitcase for a house had better not stray too far from it, or someone will take it away and sell it.

The solid junk of the city is forever being folded back in, and at every stage of an object’s return journey to the source there is a trade-off, even if the value involved can scarcely be measured in the tiniest fraction of an anna. Sanjay became part of this process when he joined a gang of children scavenging the beach. He was never paid except in food, but not all of the food passed out by the gang’s leaders was stolen from the bins at the back of restaurants. Some of it was new food purchased from street vendors. The purchase price came out of the profits after the gang leaders sold the day’s haul of rags and paper and base but precious metals to the men in the shops who would sort it into categories and grades. Sanjay soon established himself as a key recruit. He could find significantly more negotiable detritus in a day of beachcombing than it cost the gang leaders to feed him. Sanjay was especially good at standing near picnicking families on the beach and looking longingly at the bottles they were drinking from. Often his winsomely charming vigil was rewarded by the outright gift of empty bottles whose owners could have returned them to the shop for cash on the nail, if they had not been rendered generous by the sunlight, the frivolity of the beach, and Sanjay’s artfully yearning eyes. The gang leaders saw him in action and knew they had a star.

For the last weeks of the holiday season, when all of working Bombay wanted to sit on the sand on the weekends and the evenings, Sanjay’s gang combed the beach all the way to Juhu, where the apartment blocks of the new rich rise side by side so thickly that the vertical slices of sky between them look drawn in with a blue pencil. At sunset, if you are on the beach and looking inland, the light comes in from behind you across the sea and sets the upper windows of the apartment blocks on fire as if they had been blinded by a death-ray in their ponderous advance to the water. One morning, on the beach below these apartment blocks, one of the gang leaders told Sanjay that the famous film star Miranda lived up in that apartment block there, the third balcony from the top. The whole day they were in the area, Sanjay’s scavenging performance suffered as he checked the designated place with his glance. Towards the end of the afternoon he thought he saw her, and stood transfixed. He could tell it was a woman. Women curve, even at a distance. He strove to get her in focus, but the effort was doomed because she already was. She was just too far away and too high up to be identified. Probably it was not her, because she just stood there instead of going back in and coming back out again ten times, the way she would have done if she was really from Long Ago. It never occurred to him that she might be some other film star called Miranda, and not the beautiful woman. He thought there was only one film star called Miranda. He thought there was only one film star. Finally the glass lit up around her and she disappeared into the silent fire of the reflected sunset. Sanjay turned around in defiance to face the horizon. Poised to vanish, the sun blinded him as if he, too, were a building — a little one, but similarly petrified.

That was the limit of the rich pickings. The logic of their trade took the gang of miniature scavengers south again, so as far as Sanjay’s manifest destiny was concerned he was heading in the right direction when the monsoon came. The rain drove the gang members into holes under the esplanade as if they were crabs backing away from massed squadrons of hungry squid. Falling water washed them apart. Soon Sanjay was alone again, condemned to finding scraps that he could eat. Everything was wet, so he could drink at the same time. He scavenged and stole his way southwards towards the city. He didn’t realise yet that he had only been on the edge of it. He had no idea how big it was, or how unfriendly. Perhaps it would have been better for him if he had never seen the Silver Castle, never felt a guiding hand, never blinked at an unstained smile. Then he would not have missed these things. It is just possible, however, that the memory of his first visit to Long Ago sustained him. Imagination and energy are part of each other, and few of us, even though we live in circumstances far more favourable, would ever get to where we arc going unless a picture of it, however inaccurate, was already in our minds. If we had to, we too would have to dodge the rain between rubbish dumps, on the long journey back to the taste of a cheese roll, the tang of sparkling water, trumpets that crackle and toe-nails stained with plums. We don’t have to, but Sanjay did.