Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 5 |
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Chapter 5

BY THE END of the rains, Sanjay had still not reached the city, though it would soon be in sight. He had kept to the coastline, with the occasional foray into the suburbs in search of scraps, whose efficacy was proved by the increasing tightness of his clothes: he was growing as he moved. But before the northern suburbs of Bombay turn into the central immensity of Fort Bombay, the city proper, they first have to climb the hills of the Malabar peninsula, and Sanjay had to climb with them. That was how he found the Towers of Silence. They are really called that. It isn’t a make-believe name like the Silver Castle. The Towers of Silence are a garden in the hills where the Parsees put out their dead for the vultures. Sanjay didn’t know what a Parsee was. He barely knew that he was a Hindu, or that he spoke the Hindi language. But he could tell the Parsees were different because of their neatness. They lived in apartment blocks that were hard to infiltrate, and even the people who worked for them wore shoes, so a barefoot boy was very conspicuous. Sanjay was rarely able to get past the car-park under the buildings, and if he managed to penetrate into the stairwells and corridors he was soon picked up and thrown out. But what things he discovered! One day he reached a balcony where empty white tables surrounded by clustered white chairs were dotted along a narrow long green lawn whose deep green grass was made of prickly cloth that exuded a tiny sucking noise when he walked on it. There had been nothing like that even in Long Ago. From the balcony he could look a long way out into the sea and count the boats by ten. There were ten times ten at least. There were other countries out there. One of them had a city on it made of domes. They shone white instead of silver but they reminded him of the Silver Castle in their splendid definition. From one end of the balcony, where it wrapped around the corner of the building, he could look back in the opposite direction and see another wonder. There was a huge garden, as big as a whole country, further up the hill. From the high balcony he could look down into it. It was full of flat spreading trees bigger than anything in Long Ago. Big birds were circling above it and would occasionally drop down into it, crying like sick children. Sanjay had only just begun to contemplate all these new phenomena when a man in white clothes suddenly appeared between him and his means of escape. He ran a series of small quick circles around the man, nipped back down the stairwell he had come up, and scooted out again through the car-park, noting freshly stacked sacks of garbage as he ran. That night he came back to pick a hole in one of the sacks and see what it held. The Parsees packed their garbage neatly. They had no rubbish tips: not, at any rate, of the sort you could live in. But if you chanced on a sack with food scraps in it they could be sumptuous. Sanjay found some melon rinds with a lot of melon still on them and some shards of nutshell still plump with meat. He stashed these treasures in his hidey-hole under a hedge and lived off them for two days before he transferred his residence higher up the hill, across the road from the wall that surrounded the Towers of Silence. There was no penetrating that wall if you were not a corpse, a funeral party or a vulture. It was a vulture that brought Sanjay his lucky charm.

This is not a superstitious book. Of all the countries in the world that need less superstition than they already have, India is up there near the top of the list. But nobody who believes in chance can rule out coincidence. It is one of the properties of randomness to produce patterns, and one of the patterns it produced in Sanjay’s growing years can only be called his luck. The scrap that fell from the sky might have landed too far away for him to hear. Or it might have landed where it did, yet made no noise. The only reason it made a noise — an infinitesimal, single click — was that it contained metal. Sanjay bent to examine the rotten but still identifiable outline of a human ear. The metal was a tiny domed cylinder in its lobe. The tiny domed cylinder gleamed with the same deep colour as the belt buckle of the shining man. The look of gold is plentiful in India. One of that country’s many attractions is that a woman of no great wealth may wear a sari lavish with gold filigree even as she carries a basket of rotting fish on her head. The gods in the ashrams glow like El Dorado behind their smoke-screens of burning incense. But all that golden fretwork and folderol is no thicker than a molecule. The solidity of real gold is so rare that there is no mistaking it once you have seen the difference. You can weigh it with your eyes. Sanjay, an aesthetic instinct being one of his strengths, looked at the gold piece and knew that it was precious. He couldn’t know its history, which was quite unusual. The ear came from the body of a Parsee girl who had broken her father’s heart at least twice, the second time by dying young and the first by having her ears pierced in a completely unacceptable way during a trip to London. She had never been allowed to wear the earrings she brought home, but had argued successfully for the right to plug the holes, and after she had broken her father’s heart again — ruinously this time, by succumbing painfully to a blood disease whose progress not even his fortune could halt — he expiated some of his anguish by allowing her to keep her twin miniature adornments when she was laid out to be picked apart. Where one of them had gone was known only to the vultures who were still busy at her corpse. But the other now lay at Sanjay’s feet, where it started a new history, as his talisman instead of hers. He pulled it from the putrescent flesh and hid it in his secret compartment, a special pocket in his shorts just under where his belt would have been had he possessed one. The one thing he knew for sure about his gold piece was that he wouldn’t keep it long if anyone bigger than he was saw it, and the world was full of people who answered that description. He didn’t yet know that they were growing fewer. He didn’t know he was growing. But he knew enough to be cautious. The concept of coming in handy one day was already present in his mind, another token of its precocity. Thus armed, Sanjay negotiated the last street of the peninsula which had until then been concealing from him a view of his next stamping ground. There it was, stretching away behind the gently curving beach into the far distance, with buildings near the other end that were taller than the hills, and a hinterland going back to infinity that was packed with nothing except more buildings, which experience had already taught him must be packed with people, who would also proliferate in all the streets between. It was bigger than the sea. It was Bombay.