Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 6 |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Chapter 6

SANJAY WENT DOWN into the main part of the city and his real education began. Some of it even included the kinds of things that we call education when they happen to our own children. Most of it, however, was, for want of a better word, informal. Sanjay learned to beg by watching other beggars. He soon learned that his charm did something to offset his principal disadvantage, which was that he had nothing obviously wrong with him. Foreign tourists are at their most generous to beggars with limbs twisted or missing. Sanjay didn’t fit that description. But he had a soulful look that appealed to the more discriminating. Soulfulness works better than cheekiness. Foreign tourists soon learn that they can’t give something to every cripple in Bombay without courting penury in their turn. Having learned to hold back from the halt and the lame, they won’t fork out for the facetious and ebullient, in however small a package. But a little boy who looks spiritual is in with a chance. Tourists were attracted to Sanjay as he was attracted to them. At first he met them only at the windows of the cabs and buses. A demand in search of its supply, he panhandled his way instinctively southwards towards the big hotels, from which the tourists began their journey into the city and its hinterlands. Before he quite got there, however, he was detained for a season at Chowpatty Beach.

Chowpatty is much more down-market than Juhu. The people who go there to relax and be entertained are ordinary citizens of Bombay who have little money to spare for the poor, from whom they are only a step up, but there is money to be made in supplying them with drink, food and spectacle. In addition to the regular funfairs with their donkey rides, Ferris wheels and shooting galleries, the beach offers a copious supply of freelance side-shows. Anyone who can do anything to hold a crowd can just move in and start work, provided he can find a space. At any one time in daylight, and far into the evening under the light of lamps, the beach will feature the acrobatic family, the troupe of flagellant dancers, the man buried alive, the snakecharmer, the strong man who ties knots in an iron bar, and any other routine even mildly interesting. Around each act, a crowd forms three deep in a talkative circle. At the busiest times, on rest days, the crowds practically touch each other. If you aren’t tall, it’s like fighting your way through a crowd without even knowing why it’s there, until suddenly you burst through into a clear space and find a man sitting in the middle of it with a fire flickering on his turban while he kisses a cobra. Sanjay, being the reverse of tall, could see between people’s legs, but it was still hard to guess what he would find next. Lucky as usual, he found a family of magicians on the very afternoon when their youngest son was discovered to have grown too big for the disappearing trick. He could still get into the box all right but when he curled up in the secret compartment he couldn’t uncurl afterwards. The boy was handed over to a nearby fakir in the hope that he could be straightened out. The father of the family was worrying about how to replace him at the exact moment Sanjay showed up.

Sanjay proved a natural for the act. The father of the troupe taught him to look apprehensive when he climbed into the box and to look pleased later on when he jumped out of the bag. But it was Sanjay who added the little skip of delight, the finger pose and the flashing smile. The usual murmur of wonder elicited by this apparent teleportation was boosted by Sanjay’s antics into a round of applause and a detectable increase in revenue. None of the money trickled down to Sanjay, but at least he was fed, and for a while he took advantage of the corner of the family hovel that was assigned to him for sleeping quarters. They even had a blanket. Until then, Sanjay’s method of getting warm on a cold night had been to shiver until he was exhausted. He might have settled in to stay if the older boys in the family hadn’t made life miserable for him. They were envious and strong — an unbeatable combination. Sanjay lasted only one season. One of the older boys, however, had friends in a scavenger gang, to which Sanjay, making a quiet deal behind the older boy’s back, transferred his allegiance. The gang worked the esplanade all the way south to the point, and then back again on the inside of the harbour to the small peninsula jutting out in front of the Taj Mahal hotel, usually called the Tajma for short. In front of the Tajma, the Gateway to India stands, marking the place where invaders have come ashore since the time of the Portuguese. Once the British army landed there. In recent times, European and American television crews have pretended to arrive there by boat even though they really drove in from the airport. It is Bombay’s heart, into which Sanjay, at the age of about nine, was eventually drawn like a blood corpuscle. The analogy is useful, because a heart pumps blood corpuscles out as well as in, and Sanjay wasn’t there long before he was driven out again by the force of the competition.

Rounded by the sea wall, fronted by the towering gate, and backed up by the cliff-like Tajma, the foyer of Bombay is the big time for the city’s beggars, the Broadway of their essentially histrionic profession. It might look like a casual assembly point for strolling buskers, but in fact it is all staked out. Below the sea wall, the big motor launches take on their passengers for the trip out to the islands that guard the harbour, the islands which Sanjay had thought were other countries. In the tourist season, visitors of every nationality crowd the upper decks of the boats. While waiting for their trip to start they watch small boys jumping and diving off the sea wall into waves the colour of mud. The cleverest of the boys can catch coins on the way down. There is always at least one boy who can somersault — quite a thing to learn by yourself if you have never been in a swimming bath, or even in a bath. It all looks spontaneous and joyous but any boy who tried to join in unasked would face a pitiless interview panel after the first jump.

Inside the parapet of the sea wall, on the broad flag-stoned expanse around the gate, all the stall-holders have their assigned pitch. The snakecharmer wants no other animal act near him. Coiled hissing in his basket lies the means to discourage rivals if it ever comes to the point. The little boy who blacks your shoes doesn’t own his kit. His protector does. There are only three men doing lightning sketches and there is no place for a fourth. Women selling trinkets from glittering mats are evenly spaced, with never two mats adjacent. The boys selling fake bottled mineral water to the foreign boat-trippers are working for the man who has the monopoly on buying the used cloudy blue plastic bottles, filling them with very ordinary tap-water, and capping them with the old machine his brother stole for him from the factory. (The fake bottled water trade rather depends on the unwitting purchasers not catching anything more serious than hepatitis, so amateur fake bottlers — bogus fake bottlers, as it were —are not encouraged, for fear they will lower the standard.) The beggars look less well organised than the merchants and entertainers but a new arrival still has trouble getting started. There are only so many spots for crippled women with babies. The star amputee can paddle his trolley fast enough to keep up with a taxi as it slows to turn beyond reach into the guarded driveway of the Tajma. He would paddle it just as effectively straight at any other trolley that tried to crowd his pitch.

Isolated and insulated in your hotel room, you can look down into this open-air theatre and gradually work out how its cast is able to stage such an all-feature-player, no-star spectacular without a single shout from a producer. Devoid of any ambition except to continue, inspired by nothing except its own customs and system of seniority, the show is an infinitely renewable yet entirely outdated automatic perennial, in the way that the Moscow Arts Theatre lived on without Stanislavsky, the NBC Symphony Orchestra without Toscanini, and the Glenn Miller big band without Glenn Miller. Such reflections are a luxury you can afford. Your mini-bar is full of real Pepsi, a touch of the remote control will bring you MTV, the BBC and all those wonderfully terrible Indian movies, you will sleep between sheets and soon you will be going home. But for them down there, this is home: a self-regulating economic system within pitiably diffident limits, desperation only a breath away. If a group of visitors tries to undertip the snakecharmer after he shows them how the mongoose bites the head off the new-born cobra, he will follow them with a writhing sack held high until they get the point. The policeman on the beat will be slow to intervene.

Sanjay tried begging from a taxi full of visitors turning into the Tajma and had his ankle skinned from behind. The amputee on the trolley shook his head with firm regret. Since his head was one of the few moving parts he had left, the gesture was doubly emphatic. Sanjay tried a few other dodges but everything was taken. The heart was pumping him out. It was all for the best. He wasn’t ready for the major leagues. An overriding consideration was that there was nowhere to hole up. Every niche was occupied. The elite of the younger beggars and thieves slept on the roof of the public toilet in the square to one side and just inland from the Tajma. It was the top spot. On hot nights, the sea breeze filtering across the roof did much to offset the piercing salience of the odour rising from below. Savvy and cocksure, the ruling clique smoked heroin off silver paper, swapped gossip and made plans for the next day. Listening from a distance, Sanjay was attacked by the envy that fuels ambition. Vowing to come back, he moved on for a few blocks inland, where he providentially arrived at the crucial open area in front of Victoria Terminus, the biggest railway station in Bombay.

As its name implies, Victoria Terminus is a leftover from the Raj. Like all the big imperial buildings in that area of Bombay it has the polychrome brick texture of Victorian architecture at the height of its confidence and the depth of its pocket. At a glance, and if you could filter out the people, the general effect of the area would be to remind you of the South Kensington museums, except on an even grander scale and less invaded by anachronistic disimprovements. In the principal Victorian buildings of London all the architectural styles of Europe were transferred through time to a harmonious meeting point. In Bombay the same transference occurred not just in time but in space. Historic Europe took off like Laputa and landed seventy-five degrees of longitude to the east, in the wrong context but the right atmosphere. The buildings look worn, but they have worn astonishingly well. A bit of dirt and a few cracks hurt them less than a too-meticulous restoration might have done. In Kensington you can see the danger of re-pointing heritage is stripped of history, and what was once created in the full flush of practicality starts looking as re-created as any too-clean Californian simulacrum of the Globe theatre, saved from belonging to Disneyland only by the absence of Donald Duck. No such danger threatens Bombay’s imperial centre in general or Victoria Terminus in particular. The station, indeed, is an ideal example of how such a building should age — in its own time, like the human face, with no nips and tucks. It can’t be denied, however, that when you get close up you can see how erstwhile grandeur has fallen on hard times. The great station no longer plays hostess to great trains. This is appropriate, because there are no longer any great people to travel great distances. When the grand go a long way, they fly. Into Victoria Terminus nowadays come the commuters from the suburbs and the visitors from outlying districts. Only the commuters can be relied on to go out again, and they will be coming back in next morning, more of them all the time. So Victoria Terminus, even more than the bus stations and much more than the airport, is a funnel to force-feed Bombay with people. The more prosperous the city gets, the more they come, to generate poverty in step with the wealth. Just how poor some of them are going to get is indicated to them as they arrive. They debouch into the yammering propinquity of the station concourse, stiff at all times with beggars, very small-time merchants and con-men so giftless they can’t fool a foreigner. Gangs of scavenging children work the tracks to gather the detritus of the trains bulging with people. But the most edifying hint of what the city holds in store lies in the square outside and its attendant roads. It lies there to sleep through the hot nights. It is the population of the asphalt and the concrete. They curl up to sleep on the footpaths and traffic islands.

Sanjay slept on a traffic island for a few nights while he spent the daylight doing a reconnaissance in depth of the station concourse and all the surrounding area. His first sight of the imperial buildings had overwhelmed him. If they had been painted silver he would have thought he had arrived at the capital city of Long Ago. Victoria Terminus was not only ten times as big as the Silver Castle, it had a roof, so that when he got inside it he experienced its vastness like an absurdly expanded room. But he soon began to suspect that he had come to the wrong place. Begging opportunities around the station were thin. He had long before realised that an Indian reduced to begging from his fellow Indians was fated not to prosper. On the other hand, opportunities for trade seemed to be all wrapped up. The scavenging gangs of children who worked the tracks made it painfully clear that they weren’t taking on any new recruits for the present. Outside the station, business prospects were all the more bleak for being lit up by the unrelenting sun. Starting near the station concourse and stretching away past Azad Park on the Mahapalika Marg, there is a footpath bazaar whose personnel hold qualifications fit to stifle the hope of the most ambitious interloper. Here, the fortune teller has three parrots. The painter of miniature portraits has a different brush for each colour. The shoe-shine man has polish of every colour and can actually mend shoes with real tools, including a new-looking hammer free of rust. Sanjay was particularly impressed by the dentist. At the time we are talking about, India’s economy had not yet been deregulated. That inevitable change was already imminent, however, and small businessmen were beginning to appear all over the city. But the really small businesses, run by solo entrepreneurs with a single carpet doubling as their open-air office and show-room, had always been there, long before they were supposed to be, and would probably go on being there tomorrow even if the country were ruled from Beijing. The pavement dentist has been tending teeth since before Independence, providing a service that no government-controlled economy had ever managed to extend to the less well-off, despite loudly dedicating itself to doing so. He is still there now, ready to remodel mouths that have unaccountably failed to catch their share of the wealth which in theory has already begun to trickle down, nay gush, from the new prosperity. Sitting cross-legged on his mat with his back against the railings, surrounded by an appreciative crowd, he pokes the gaps in a squatting patient’s dentition with his experienced fingers. From a tin can full of teeth extracted from previous patients he finds one to fill the empty space. He glues it into position and the patient goes away happy. Patients needing an extraction are less happy because the dentist has no anaesthetic, but he doesn’t charge much either, so it balances out. For customers with a lot of teeth missing he can offer upper and lower plates with roughly the right number of teeth in the right place. For customers with no teeth at all he can offer a complete set. It used to belong to somebody else, but what he does not offer is an explanation of how he got hold of it. In Cairo, as Naguib Mahfouz tells us in his great novel Midaq Alley, the dentists in the bazaar notoriously rob graves. A Bombay street dentist is more likely to have his sets of false teeth willed to him by patients to whom he only hired them out in the first place, on the understanding that they will revert to him upon the patient’s demise. Whatever way he gets them, he’s got them. They are all there on the mat beside him, marshalled in ranks, a cheerful collection of Cheshire smiles. On the day Sanjay came by, the dentist was fitting a shoeless man with a new upper left incisor. It had once been somebody else’s upper right incisor but with a bit of chiselling it filled the gap. Sanjay was impressed by how the dentist, without taking his eyes off the patient’s open mouth, rinsed his instruments in an enamelled tin bowl full of water before drying them with a rag and laying them out. For almost the first time in his life, Sanjay made a verbal suggestion.

“Can I do that?” he asked, pointing to the rinsing bowl. “I can do it.”

The dentist, still holding his squatting patient’s jaws apart with the extended fingers of one hand while he wielded a probe with the other, glanced at Sanjay and made a lightning calculation. The dentist knew that rinsing the instruments made no real difference because the water was changed only once a day: it was just for show. And the boy was filthier than the water. But his smile was a potential drawcard. His teeth blazed. So the dentist nodded and Sanjay joined the act.

It should have worked out. The crowd responded to Sanjay’s subtle histrionics. Sitting beside the dentist, he frowned suitably when a new patient opened his mouth to reveal the nagging damage. When it had been repaired, Sanjay held up an approving thumb and flashed his smile. Also he made a great show of precision when rinsing and drying the instruments. By the afternoon of his second day on the job he had learned their names and could hand them up when called for. Viewed as a spectacular, the dentist’s routine had gained a new dimension of expressiveness. But to please the crowd was not the principal object. The number of customers did not increase, so at the end of the day Sanjay was paid off with a few annas and a small photograph of Rajiv Gandhi at his most radiant — one of a supply of celebrity snaps which the dentist drew upon to help convince customers, against all likelihood, that he had once plied his trade in high circles. Another photograph Sanjay might have asked for was of the shining man, his smile white beneath his moustache like the moon cut off by a black cloud. But when Sanjay saw that face he felt betrayal. It was a familiar feeling. All over the city there were big pictures with writing on them up on the walls of buildings. Sometimes the pictures were of the shining man or the beautiful woman. Sometimes they were together. Sanjay rarely looked up at them for long. They made his eyes wet.

That, for a while, was the end of Sanjay’s career in the acting profession. A foundation had been laid, but for some time he was not to know that. It was his closely allied talent for deception that led him into his next phase — providentially, because what he now needed most in life was a new set of clothes, and helping out with street theatre would never have brought him that. Retiring, temporarily defeated, from the stage, he went back into the echoing, Acherontic ostinato of Victoria Terminus just in time to be adopted as a decoy by a shoe-stealing gang. The gang worked the trains on their way to the outer suburbs and beyond. Commuters flush enough to own shoes often took them off to rest their feet, especially if, by some miracle, they had found room to stretch out. Most of them were on guard against losing their shoes while they were awake. When they slept, they were open to having their shoes lifted by the dab hands of the shoe stealers. Good shoe stealers could steal a man’s shoes even when they were still on his feet, provided he was sufficiently drowsy or distracted. Sanjay got the job of being distracting. It worked all right the first day, but on the second day the older boy to whom he had been apprenticed made the mistake of working a compartment that was merely full instead of bursting. There was room for the insufficiently unwitting victim to lunge. He forfeited his shoes, but he came up with Sanjay, who found himself travelling back to Victoria Terminus in the company of a policeman.

It was a turning point, because Sanjay might have gone to children’s prison right then, without going to school first. Luckily the police were sufficiently sadistic to believe that school might be a worse punishment than the cane, though they caned him for a while anyway, just to show him what he was being spared. As a resident of the second biggest traffic island in front of Victoria Terminus, Sanjay was not strictly within the catchment area of the Bibhuti Road Youth Club, a Christian foundation which offers a day of schooling once a week to any street children within a mile radius. From Victoria Terminus to Bibhuti Road is more than a mile. But he was delivered there anyway. If schooling were all that the Youth Club offered then no child would go near it except at the point of a policeman’s whippy stick. Nor is the initial compulsory rub-down with soap and water an enticement. Once the muddy suds are sluiced off, however, the bounty starts to flow. On first attendance, and once a year thereafter, the street children can choose a new set of old clothes to replace their old set of old clothes. Set up in the courtyard there is a small Ferris wheel — a child of the big one on Chowpatty beach — on which they are allowed to play so long as they don’t fight. At the apex of the day there is the irresistible prospect of an actual meal, with several different kinds of food on the one paper plate: a cornucopia that adds up to more than most of them have eaten for the rest of the week. To sit and learn for an hour or so is a small price to pay for all that. There are other penalties too: the man with the booming voice who runs the place unaccountably feels compelled to make you sit in line, segregated by sex, and recite votes of thanks aimed at someone in the sky, the performance climaxing in a mass cheer which he induces by swinging his right arm many times backwards in a blurred circle while rising on his toes as if the action were pulling him off the ground. Sanjay moved his mouth at the right times. The policeman had made it clear that a bad report from the man with the booming voice would result in worse punishment than this.

Sanjay’s level of rebellion had been unnaturally low ever since he had been pushed through the gate along with the hundred and fifty other children streaming into the Club. He had been the only one accompanied by a policeman and obviously the only one who didn’t know where he was. Along with a batch of boys, he was pushed into a walled-off washing area and given a preliminary dousing with his clothes still on. A big boy in a white suit attacked him with a bar of soap. The object seemed to be to get his clothes clean before he took them off. Everyone else was yelling so he felt less self-conscious than he might have done about yelling as well. Judging by the noise coming from the other side of the wall, a batch of girls were getting the same treatment. When he had to remove his sodden clothes he complied, whereupon the soap was applied directly to his person. The big boy seemed intent on removing his cane-weals along with the dirt. Creamed thickly, Sanjay had his eyes shut when the waterfall from an abruptly upended bucket descended on his head. Only the deeply etched memory of his first day at the Silver Castle made this comprehensible. Otherwise he might have tried to run off naked. But that would also have meant leaving his gold piece behind. When he was told to put his sodden clothes back on again, he checked to make sure the gold piece was still there. The next thing that happened was comparatively pleasant, although still bewildering. He and the rest of his batch were released into the playground to dry off. He was taught to take his turn on the small Ferris wheel by being punched when he tried to jump the queue. When he lost at a game of checkers, he had his ear twisted to dissuade him from calling his opponents cheats. Bruised but clean, he was in mixed spirits when he was led inside the hall. But the next thing was amazing.

There was a table of clothes and a woman in a sari to help him choose some to fit. She explained that they had to be a bit bigger than seemed right, because they had to last a year, and he didn’t want them to get as tight as the ones he had on now, did he? Her voice was strict but her movements were kind. His only real concern was to transfer his gold piece safely from his old pair of shorts to the new pair. This he accomplished, although he was worried that he had nowhere to put it except into the empty depths of a side pocket. Later on, when he got the chance, he would find a secret compartment. “We might manage some form of footwear, later,” said the strictly kind woman. “After school.” What she said was too complicated to follow. His punishment, he now found, was only beginning, because he was marched over to sit with twenty or so other boys in front of a big blackboard held off the floor on a wooden stand. The strictly kind woman covered the board with a stiff piece of paper full of pictures and signs as if the parrot man’s cards had been stuck together edge to edge — and what was to pass for Sanjay’s formal education commenced.