Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 7 |
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Chapter 7

SITTING DOWN cross-legged and looking up, Sanjay was faced with the Hindi alphabet. Although he was weeks behind the rest of his class, he caught up half the distance in that first hour. Along with a good memory he had the priceless extra quality which is best described as a knack for language. Talent is too exalted a word for it: there are people who can learn a dozen languages without effort but are unable to say anything of interest in any of them. The knack for language is, however, a characteristic which, like musicality, can look like magic to those who don’t possess it. Long before the obediently chanting Sanjay had memorised all the symbols of the alphabet, he had already figured out that this must be a system for writing down and reading out the same things that he could say. Each letter of the alphabet was represented on the chart by a thing whose name began with the letter. Sanjay soon grasped that the rest of the name must be composed of letters too. Rapidly he arrived at the point of being able to guess what the next letter to be learned must be, because he had already seen it as part of the word written out in full under a previous thing. This process was made easier for him by the nature of the Hindi alphabet, which is phonetic: the letters are really the invariable symbols of a syllabary. Phonetic alphabets may look different from each other but they have the advantage in common of providing an exact transcription, syllable by syllable, of what is said. Written down, Hindi looks like rows of little pots with lids and farm implements hanging from their handles, the lids and handles all joining up in a straight line along the top, like a shelf. Gujarati, the other main Indian language of the area, looks like Hindi but without the shelf. The resemblance is not surprising because both Hindi and Gujarati are derivatives of Sanskrit. If Bombay, as might have happened, had joined the state of Gujarat instead of the state of Maharashtra, Sanjay might have been learning Gujarati. He would have found it just as easy. If he had come from a Muslim household, he might have been learning Urdu, which sounds the same as Hindi, but is written down in Arabic notation. Written Arabic looks like the rippled patterns of sand under clear water, and sometimes the ripples combine into intricate whorls of linked arabesques which take a certain amount of unscrambling, but basically a phonetic script is what it is: you say what you see.

All over the world there are phonetic alphabets and each has its individual beauty. Hebrew looks like flames, and the only reason it is hard for the foreigner to learn is that the sparks — the dots indicating the vowels — are usually not presented, because it is assumed that you know where they must come, having grown up watching the fire. Hiragana, one of the two phonetic alphabets which combine with the Kanji characters to form Japanese, is already graceful even before you can read the poetry that is partly written in it, whereas Katakana, the other Japanese phonetic alphabet, is already a memorably sharp collection of knives and hooks before you can read the foreign loan-words it so aggressively transcribes. If Japanese were written solely in one of its phonetic alphabets, or even in both, anyone could learn it. What makes Japanese impossible to learn quickly is the Kanji — a set of complicated ideographs which have to be memorised separately and in combination, like Chinese only more so: Japanese children spend ten years of school learning the first thousand, with thousands more still to go. It sounds hard to do and it is. Yet people brought up in the English language often fail to realise that they learned their own language in the same way. The alphabet in use throughout western Europe comes close to being a phonetic transcription only in those languages which, like Italian and Spanish, offer you the advantage of saying more or less what you see. But in English you can do that even less than you can do it in French, and far less than you can do it in German. English could be learned much more quickly if it were written down in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, the only logical aspect of the Russian language. In English, learning the alphabet is only a small first step towards learning to read, because in actual words the letters are often used in combinations which have to be memorised like ideographs. A little word like ‘phlegm’, for example, contains two of them: a one-syllable word with five consonants in it, like a whole family of circus dwarves in their trick car. It is no wonder, then, that with the decline, in many ways welcome, of prescriptive schooling, the English-speaking countries now produce generation after generation of people who are at a loss to read as well as they can speak, and that foreigners studying English have to be trained scholars in the first place if they are ever to read anything complicated. One of the most unpalatable facts about the great synthetic nation of India is that its lingua franca, English, is written down in an alphabet so insanely unfaithful to what is said, whereas the principal sectarian languages can, in their written form, be mastered with comparative ease. So the alien language which was meant to unite India has turned out to be universal only in its frustrating elusiveness, whereas the languages which divide it have one dangerous element in common — they feel like home. Chanting along with his Hindi class for one hour of one day of each week for a month, stocking the shelves of his mind with all those pots and tools, Sanjay made a good start on building for himself a house to live in —the one house to which he would ever enjoy the undisputed title. The house was only in his mind, but at least he would be able to find his way about in it, as so few of our own children really can. If English had been the first language that the strictly kind woman had tried to teach him, he would have got nowhere, because time would have been against him, as it always was, even before he was born.

The strictly kind woman had seen many bright street children come and go. There was always at least one of them in each class. The bright boys might go on to become better equipped thieves than they would otherwise have been, the girls to become slightly more liberated child prostitutes. Even more than her husband, the strictly kind woman had learned to temper boundless hope with realistic expectations, and to regard the small improvements she could make as an absolute good, without brooding about the consequences. Sanjay was one of those exceptionally bright boys who made her fear for them almost as much as she feared for the girls. His astuteness was pure, like virginity. She enjoyed his smile but found it untrustworthy, as well she might have done, because it had come in useful too often: it had the look of knowingness about it. He had learned his shy charm in a different and harder school. But a thirst for knowledge is not the same as knowingness. For as long as the first burns, the second evaporates; and there were moments, as he sat in class, when a flash of comprehension transfigured his face, replacing the self-conscious giving out of delight with the far more delightful forgetfulness of a revelation taken in. At those moments she enjoyed him without reserve. Though she loved her own children they were lifeless by comparison. Sanjay’s hand would go up automatically when he knew the answer. He would come to the blackboard as if drawn by a magnet. Only on his way back to his place, after explicating the chart with a speed and certainty that left his classmates variously awed, envious and annoyed, did he once again adopt the smirk and swagger that marked his pleasure in his own energy. After his first few classes, when some of the older boys had often enough taken him aside in the playground to encourage greater humility, he took care to mask his satisfaction, converting the swagger into a casual walk and the smirk into a look of near contrition.

The strictly kind woman easily guessed that these new attitudes were as posed as the old. But when he made a new connection there was no disguising his radiant surprise. He sat there like a little Buddha with the light flooding into him instead of out. The strictly kind woman was thought by all the children, including Sanjay, to be without variable emotions. She just stood there conducting the lesson, deploying praise and blame with an even hand, in an even voice. She was always careful to play no favourites. In her mind, however, she cherished Sanjay and resolved to give him what extra treats she could, if only to ensure that he would come back, and not go to waste immediately as most of the brighter boys did eventually, just like the dull ones. At the end of the first hour she made sure that he got a pair of sandals. At the end of subsequent hours she coached him for ten or fifteen minutes of private conversation, correcting his sentences without letting it feel too much like a lesson. She asked him where he was living.

“I sleep in front Victoria,” he said.

“I am sleeping in front of Victoria,” she said, strictly but kindly. In Hindi the continuous form of the verb is marked by a suffix, rather the way it is in English. Sanjay absorbed the construction and soon started using it with other verbs as well. The capacity for generative grammar is meant to be a human characteristic but some humans find it easier than others and Sanjay seemed to find it as easy as breathing. Moved to a rare concession, the strictly kind woman told him that outside of class he should call her by her first name, Sabbandra.

“Sure, Sabbandra.”

“Don’t be so cocky. It makes a bad impression. Just say yes, Sabbandra.”

“Yes, Sabbandra. I sorry.”

“I am sorry.”

“I am sorry.”

“No. Just I am sorry. Don’t emphasise it.”

“I am sorry.”

“That’s perfect.”

Sabbandra pretended that Sanjay’s new T-shirt didn’t fit him. Actually it did — it was about two years’ too big, which was even better than one year too big — but secretly she thought a plainer design would be more attractive. She found him a plainer, pale pink T-shirt in slightly better material and made him change into it. Giving him extra food would have been too blatant.

So Sanjay had a guardian angel. Unfortunately her sphere of influence stopped at the church gate. Outside he was back in the real world, which was getting harsher as he grew. When the monsoon came again he was washed off the traffic island in front of Victoria Terminus and had to trek a long way before he found shelter he could occupy without a fight. He ended up under a fishing wharf further around the harbour and back in an inlet. It was a long way to school through the rain but he only had to make the two-way trip once a week and by now he was much less likely to get lost: a map of the city was forming in his mind.

Meanwhile the wharf gave him shelter. There were at least fifty other street children there to fill the places not occupied by fishermen’s dependants who had gathered when the rains started and had found no room in the hovels. Yet Sanjay had been able to find a good spot against a piling and had formed alliances to protect it when he was away. Most of the street children belonged to gangs. One of the gangs worked the tourist boats out to Elephant Island. The gang’s leader was an older boy called Dilip. He had a very dark, pitted skin and wore long pants. His gang must have been doing well because he smoked all the time and sported a heavy signet ring with his initials on it. Dilip took a fancy to Sanjay, who in this case, it must be confessed, found it diplomatic to make himself fanciable. Dilip’s demands in that regard were not excessive. In the darkness he asked only to be stroked until some stuff came out. He held up a lighted match so that Sanjay could watch it happen. Dilip in turn made sure that Sanjay got a good share of the stolen fish. The fishing went on even in the rain. There were tubs of small fish everywhere. Big fish lay piled on planks. Sting-rays with their tails cut off were spread out on the sand like thick mats. The fishermen and their families couldn’t watch it all. Dilip’s gang usually had a fire burning somewhere or other so they could eat their fish cooked. Sanjay was interested to discover that the fish tasted better that way. Though the stench under the wharf was paralysing, it would last only for a season, and soon the tourists would be on their way again to Elephant Island. Dilip invited Sanjay to join his gang when the traffic resumed. One of the other senior gang members was annoyed that he had not been consulted. Dilip reconciled him to the situation by stubbing out a cigarette on the back of his hand.

The rain stopped and the boats leaving from the Gateway of India once again began to fill with tourists. First of all, however, the gang had to build up a bank, because it was hard to get on a boat without a ticket. Dilip had money. He had shown it to Sanjay. It was a sodden pad of blue fifty anna notes kept in a purse. But he wanted to hang on to it. So for a week the gang scavenged along the railway lines of the suburban stations a mile inland. The pickings would have been better in Victoria Terminus, but in Dilip’s view it wouldn’t have been worth a fight with the gangs that were there already, especially with so many police around. Sanjay was relieved: he didn’t want to meet that policeman again. The suburban stations were slow work but steady. You just had to be careful about listening for a fast train. They lost one gang member that way. “Best thing, really,” said Dilip. “Anja always was too slow on his feet.”

Their best prize was a wallet with half a dozen brown notes in it — one of them for a whole ten rupees — that must have fallen out of somebody’s pocket as he clung to the outside of one of the scrums around the train doors. Everything else was junk they had to trade in. Eventually they had enough to buy tickets for the whole gang, now reduced from seven boys to six. With Dilip in the lead they trekked on foot to the Gateway of India and waited amongst the hubbub for the right boat.

“The Japanese are useless,” Dilip told Sanjay.

“They never give you anything unless their group leader tells them to. If their group leader tell them to jump in front of a truck they all do it. Otherwise they do nothing. What we want is Europeans, especially Italians.”

“How can you tell which is which?” Sanjay was fascinated.

“By the way they sound. You’ll pick it up.”

In the middle of the morning the top deck of one of the boats filled up with a lot of different groups of people speaking English and one big group speaking the language that Dilip said was Italian. So the gang got on board too and climbed to the top deck, where the Italian group had taken the seats and benches at the back. Another ten minutes went by before the boat cast off. Small, nearly naked boys were jumping off the sea wall into the muddy water beside the boat. One of them could do a somersault. The Italian men threw coins to the boys on their way down. The Italian women dapped and laughed. One of them cried into a handkerchief when a boy swimming back to the stone steps was thrown against them by a wave and skinned his leg from knee to ankle.

“Perfect,” said Dilip. “Go and stand in front of the women and give them a smile. But don’t ask for anything yet. Wait until we get to the island.”

Sanjay did some smiling as the boat headed out into the bay. The women adored him. He could tell that, even though the words were strange.

Poverino! Che belle!

He adored them, although in a different way. It was their clothes and their skin. The materials were so soft and clinging, and there was so much skin left uncovered. Their sandals had fine straps that crossed and re-crossed over their ankles like basket work. His own sandals smelled of rotten fish and were already falling apart. One of the men tried to give him a fifty anna note but he shook his head. He could tell straight away that this made a good impression. Dilip was clever. Sanjay went back to join him near the front of the top deck.

“Just right,” said Dilip. “Well done. On the island you can take what they give and it will be more.”

The boat chugged past a headland behind which a huge grey ship rode at anchor.

“Aeroplanes land on that ship,” said Dilip, who knew everything. Sanjay looked hard but could see no aeroplanes. He knew what aeroplanes were because he had seen them in the sky. They were silver, so he had always assumed that they came from Long Ago. Halfway to Elephant Island they passed the smaller island on which, at the water’s edge, stood the domed white city he had once seen from the apartment block near the Towers of Silence. From close up it looked a bit less like Long Ago than it had from far away. Dilip could see that he looked puzzled.

“That’s the atomic power station.”

“Do people live there?”

“They have to wear white suits.”

Perhaps it was Long Ago after all. Sanjay shelved the question when some of the English-speaking people loudly called him over to join in a photograph.

“They’re Americans,” said Dilip. “You can tell by how loud they are all the time. The Australians talk loudly when they’re drunk. The English talk softly except if the men have short haircuts. Be shy for a while and then go over and do some smiling. Don’t take any money.”

Some of the other gang members were doing their best to ingratiate themselves as well. They had had more practice, but Sanjay did better from the jump, especially with the women. It was the last year of his cuteness. Soon he would be good looking, which is a different thing, and more threatening.

The boat docked beside the long stone jetty that serves Elephant Island. From the lower deck the Indian passengers streamed ashore. The European passengers shuffled down the wide staircase beside the wheel-house to follow them across the gangplanks and up the stone stairs from the landing to the level of the causeway.

A whole family which just happened to be washing its dishes and clothes at the water’s edge successfully demanded compensation for being photographed. They got a rupee for each ooh and aah. Already the chair-bearers and the merchants were yelling at the Europeans from the jetty. Leaning against the railing at the head of the staircase, Sanjay smiled at the Italian women as they descended. He could see down their blouses and marvelled at the firm roundness, the skin you could look into. Under the skin he could see little branches of sky.

“You’re too old to suck on those,” said Dilip. “Too old and too young.”

On shore, some of the Americans had hired carrying chairs. Each American got into a chair and was lifted up by four chair-bearers, one at each end of two long poles that supported the chair. Under the weight of one of the American men, a giant, the poles curved and creaked. He looked pleased instead of angry when the American women laughed. There were only a few chairs but not all of them were hired. Most of the Europeans elected to walk, first along the jetty and then along the causeway leading to the island. Beggars and merchants accosted them as they walked. Some of the merchants would set out a stall, wait until everyone had gone by, fold up the stall, run ahead, and set it out again. The Italians joined the end of the procession. The woman who had cried at the injured diver waved at Sanjay as he was crossing the gangplank. She was waving him towards her, shouting a word he didn’t understand.

Vieni! Vieni!

“She says come, come,” said Dilip.

“She is saying come, come.”

“Don’t correct me again or I’ll smash your head, you little turd.

Now get after her and hold her hand.”

Adopted by the Italian woman, Sanjay accompanied her group as it made its slow way up the hill on the stone path. Dilip and the rest of the gang went ahead to stay near the Americans and the English. From both sides of the path, peddlers and beggars vocally assaulted the tourists. Souvenir shops gave way to trinket sellers as the path zig-zagged upwards, often in the form of a staircase whose stone steps were worn concave. The tourists walked the gauntlet, the more gullible weighing themselves down with knick-knacks as they ascended. Sanjay stayed near the hip of his marvelling woman. It was all new to him, too, so he was glad of the company. At the top there was a stone-paved plaza among the trees. Monkeys came to be fed. The tourists bought bread to feed them. Sanjay was given bread too. He could tell that the woman feared him less than she feared the monkeys.

In the cave at the top of the hill a temple to the gods had been fashioned out of the living rock, long before the Portuguese came. When they came they hacked off the faces and breasts of the female gods together with all their attendant erotic minor statuary. The defaced deities sit there in semi-darkness, inscrutably resisting the last erosion, a steady murmur of foreign voices that swells and ebbs with the seasons of the year. There is not much left to be astonished by. Bombay is not the place to come to if Indian art is what you’re after. Sanjay’s woman did her best. She oohed and aahed, in a soft register overwhelmed by the boom of the Americans. The Italians were last in and last to leave. As they were leaving, Sanjay felt a tug at his sleeve. Dilip drew him behind one of the thick columns joining the floor to the roof.

“Wait until they get outside,” he said quietly, “and then go and give them this.”

It was a wrist-watch. From his point of concealment Sanjay could see his woman looking around for him. Now that she was alone, the heels of her sandals could be heard clicking on the stone floor. Finally she seemed to assume that he had gone ahead, and she went out into the sunlight.

“Wait for a minute,” said Dilip. “Wait until he realises he’s lost it. He’ll start yelling.”

There were raised voices outside.

“Now. Just show it and tell them you found it. Don’t hold out your hand afterwards. They’ll give you something anyway.”

It all worked out the way Dilip said. “Tesoro! Tesoro!” wept Sanjay’s woman. He could tell it was a kind word. Once again Sanjay was impressed by how clever Dilip was. Sanjay didn’t mind, later on, when Dilip took all the money off him and put it in his own pocket. That was a right conferred on him by his cleverness and long pants. On the way back down the hill the woman held Sanjay’s hand except when she was buying souvenirs. The Italians bought so much merchandise they needed the rest of Sanjay’s gang to help carry it. Sanjay ended up carrying an elephant covered all over with mirrors and coloured thread. By the end of the boat ride back to the Gateway of India, all the boys had been given money, even if it was only a few rupees.

For weeks Dilip’s gang worked these tricks and many others, shuttling back and forth to the island with a constantly changing cast of tourists. Sanjay developed a few tricks of his own. He could cadge the boat fare to the island just by standing near the gangplank and wiping tears from his eye. He learned his come-on in English, parrot fashion.

“I am living on island. They are taking my money.”

Even when the English-speaking tourists didn’t believe him they couldn’t resist his act. Sanjay put his heart into his new trade. He didn’t miss a day with the gang except when it was time to go to school. But the gang didn’t work the boats every day. When they had built up a sufficient bank they went to the movies. Dilip was so rich he could have paid for them all to get in. He made them pay anyway, in case they got lazy. The rule with all the street gangs in Bombay is that they feed themselves mainly from the rubbish bins behind restaurants and hotels and they spend their money on the movies, although some of the older boys smoke heavily as well. Even the boys who smoke heroin, however, go to the movies regularly, because the cinema is where you can find what you can’t beg, steal or inhale — luxurious surroundings, the faces and extensively bared bodies of giant women, their stunning loveliness.

Sanjay was astounded by his first movie. He started being astounded at the entrance to the Palace cinema. He had never been among so many people trying to get into one place. It beat Victoria Terminus during the rush hour. When all the soldiers and dancers at the Silver Castle had broken for lunch it had been like this, but there they were fighting to get out of an open door, whereas here they were pushing against a closed one. In the foyer there were smaller versions of the huge posters in the streets that carried the stars’ faces and the names of the films — names which Sanjay could now sometimes read. The faces of the stars were painted on the posters. Rahul Kapoor, the shining man, and Miranda, the beautiful woman, were both often represented, but Sanjay was never shocked into particular recognition, because the truth is that the film poster portraits are so indifferently painted that everyone looks the same. He still found the posters a continuous source of fascination. In the streets, they lined his path with enchantment. When he looked up, it was as if he were an ant walking through a tunnel made from the cards of the fortune teller. So the foyer was in some sense familiar. But when the gang got inside and raced for seats along with everyone else, Sanjay found something he had never experienced before except as a passenger in the car from Long Ago — the luxury of a soft seat just for himself It was soft under his bottom and soft behind his back. Around and above him, the pillars and vaults of the Palace soared and swooped. Darkened by dirt, flaky with neglect, nevertheless the old art deco extravaganza found in Sanjay its ideal admirer. The architect, if he could have come back from oblivion, would have been pleased. At Nuremberg rallies there had been young Nazis less impressed by the dome of searchlights than Sanjay was by these cliffs of curried plaster. Their creator would have thought that his masterpiece had been distempered with dysentery. Sanjay thought he was in heaven. Better than that: he was back in Long Ago, and this time there were no uncertainties and humiliations, only reassurance and delight.

Working the boats almost every day as the tourist season picked up, Dilip’s gang could afford to go to the movies twice a week: sometimes three times. And Sanjay was still making it to school once a week. It added up to a busy schedule. Sanjay, although keen to learn, was no saint in the making: he would probably have cut school if Sabbandra had not known how to blackmail him with a laden paper plate. But he would never have missed a film. For a long time, almost the whole of that first year, he found it hard to believe that what he saw on the screen was the result of the kind of work he had seen done at the Silver Castle. He found it hard to believe even when he recognised Rahul Kapoor and Miranda, which he did often, because they were in many films, although more often separately than together. Unlike in the film posters, on the screen they were disturbingly real, just as he had once seen them. But their surroundings were different. Even when he thought he recognised the Silver Castle, only bits of it appeared. All the essential components were missing: the camera, the director, the small large woman and the crackling trumpet — they never appeared. The magic trumpets on the battlements produced sound instead of silence. It was a puzzle. There was an older boy, another gang leader called Sunil, who claimed to have the solution. Sunil’s gang often sat in the row behind Dilip’s gang. Dilip said that Sunil’s gang were rent boys and always getting thrown in gaol. Dilip despised Sunil for not being clever. And indeed no other gang leader was as clever as Dilip: Sanjay could tell that. Only Dilip could have figured out that if you stole things from tourists and tried to sell them you would get caught, whereas if you found them and handed them back you would get paid. But Sanjay could also tell that Dilip had another reason for hating Sunil. Sunil was handsome whereas Dilip was not. Sunil’s skin was as smooth as smoke and his teeth were straight. Sunil had charm. He was interesting. He plainly had access to all kinds of information denied to Dilip. Sunil had been places. Sunil had not actually been to the Silver Castle, but he seemed to know all about it. He said that there was no difference between what happened there and what happened on the screen. At the Silver Castle everything might happen ten times just as Sanjay had said, but later on, according to Sunil, they joined it all together so that it happened only once. Sanjay, without quite believing him, was very interested in this theory. Dilip, seeing that Sanjay was interested, grew annoyed. Sanjay learned not to turn around in his seat when Sunil was expounding, otherwise Dilip would take reprisals. This behaviour confirmed Sanjay’s impression that Dilip didn’t really like the idea of Sanjay’s having had any life at all before he first came in under the wharf and out of the rain. Dilip was possessive, like Sanjay’s father. It was advisable to be circumspect.

One afternoon Sanjay forgot his caution. The gang had arrived late at the movies and missed the opening titles of the main feature. Sanjay knew from the publicity that Rahul Kapoor and Miranda were both in it and that it was not new. But he was not prepared for the moment when the swordfight stopped, Rahul and Miranda locked eyes, and everyone began to dance. For Sanjay it was as if years had collapsed. He recognised every movement. He was so transported that he even forgot how what he was watching had led to his humiliation. He remembered only the enchantment of it all. He experienced the acute satisfaction of someone for whom a mystery has explained itself simply because its component parts have been moved sufficiently close together. Many times during that year, in half a dozen different films, he had seen Miranda’s plum-stained lips part in a smile. But for this smile he had been there. When the screen filled with nothing but Miranda’s face, and then with nothing except Rahul’s face, as if the two faces were looking at each other, Sanjay was in delighted possession of the secret information that they weren’t really looking at each other at all. They were just looking at the camera. He knew.

Sunil’s gang was not sitting behind Dilip’s gang that afternoon, but after the film the two gangs met each other in the crowd outside. Sanjay made the mistake of telling Sunil about his moment of truth. Sanjay spoke as off-handedly as possible but could not keep the excitement out of his voice.

“That was the film they were making when I was there.”

“What did I tell you?” said Sunil. “She still lives down at Juhu. I know someone who has been in her apartment, delivering groceries.”

Dilip overheard this conversation and seemed tolerant at the time. Later on, when he got Sanjay alone, he still didn’t look angry. He just looked cold. First he positioned Sanjay carefully, almost clinically, against a wall. He cracked Sanjay’s nose with the first blow of his fist. Before Sanjay had even raised his hands to hold the injured area, a second blow from the same fist split the skin above his left eye. Dilip walked away wiping blood from his heavy signet ring. Sanjay was left alone to slump into a sitting position against the wall with blood and tears seeping through his hands, as if what he had seen on the screen, multiplied in its impact as it sped out of the past, had exploded in his face like a revelation.