Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 8 |
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Chapter 8

SCHOOL WAS FOUR days away, so by the time Sabbandra saw Sanjay’s injured face the cut above his eye was already infected. He had been sleeping in the open again, which didn’t help. She dressed the wound to the best of her ability, but when it healed there was a scar: a clear channel running obliquely through the eyebrow. She sent him to a doctor to help mend his nose. Whatever the doctor did, it didn’t help. When the swelling finally went down, Sanjay’s dead straight nose had healed crooked: not by much, but by enough to spoil his looks. He still had his allure. It was just a less symmetrical poem. Previously he had grown more handsome as you looked closely. Now he grew less so. Yet he was still enough of a catch for Sunil to take him over. They met a few weeks later at the movies when Sanjay was sitting alone, as many rows away from Dilip’s gang as he could get. Sunil’s gang was sitting behind Dilip’s. Sunil left his gang and came to sit with Sanjay. The movie was a favourite for both of them, Andaz Apna Apna. It was the usual story of a frustrated love between a prince and a princess, played by Chunky and Poojah. First they hated each other, singing and dancing separately, but after the princess had disguised herself as a boy and run away to join the bandits, they fell in love properly in the middle of a battle. Then they danced together while their royal fathers looked wisely on. No story could have been more predictable. The singing and the dancing, however, were exceptionally fine, and Poojah’s celebrated breasts were given many opportunities to dominate the screen. As was mandatory, they were well covered, yet their shape was so salient that there could be no doubt, in Sanjay’s opinion, that the rumours were all wrong about her bodice being padded. Sunil had never believed these rumours anyway. He seemed to know everything about Poojah, and all the other stars as well.

Sanjay joined Sunil’s gang in the coveted position of favourite. During the hot months Sunil’s inner cabinet lived on the roof of the Tajma square toilet, the very place which Sanjay had once enviously marked down as the object of his aspiration. Now he was back to stay if he wanted to, because Sunil reigned supreme up there. There were never fewer than twenty boys in residence and they all deferred to him. Sunil had the best sleeping position, near the end of the roof where the bough of the tree spread low overhead to provide a kind of canopy. He gave Sanjay the place of honour beside him. Sunil wanted a little more from him than Dilip had but not much more. Some nights he wasn’t even there. When he was, he required Sanjay’s mouth as well as a helping hand. It was no great price to pay for the hospitality and Sanjay even found it emotionally satisfactory, because Sunil did things to him too. There were no tangible results, yet the excitement was intense: a kind of fever that made his head throb in the dark, under the stars.

It was a good place to sleep. The smell from below was significant but not overwhelming — certainly less pervasive than the smell under the fishing wharf where he had lived with Dilip. The olfactory truth about Bombay is that for all its squalor it doesn’t smell very much. It’s too hot for that. Organic waste rots quickly and evaporates. Odours get eaten up. Some of the odours rising from the toilet took a lot of counteracting but it was worth it for the sea breeze. The toilet roof was at just the right height to catch it. Only a hundred yards away the tourists in the Tajma were living in air-conditioned luxury. Sunil knew all about how they lived. He had friends, he said, who had actually been in there: one of them had an important job tending the minibars. Sunil knew everything. If Sunil said that the toilet roof was as comfortable as the Tajma, it must be so.

“Of course in the Tajma,” Sunil said when they were smoking one night on the toilet roof, “you can get room service.”

“Of course,” said Sanjay, not really knowing what room service was but reluctant to display his ignorance.

“You can’t get that here,” said Sunil, releasing a slow stream of smoke after the last word. They were smoking heroin, one sip at a time from the same paper tube, in the cautious manner which Sunil favoured.

“No,” said Sanjay, “but here you’ve got the breeze.” He, too, strove to release the smoke in the most miserly plume possible.

“Some people go crazy from smoking this stuff,” said Sunil. “People with no control. You have to take things a bit at a time. Then you last. No use going places if you can’t last.”

“No use,” said Sanjay. “You said it.” Though heroin has always been cheap in Bombay, Sunil wasn’t making the kind of money to buy much of it, so Sanjay was scarcely in mortal danger. But Sunil did well enough. Compared to Dilip, Sunil was a big operator. His rackets were small-time and unsubtle, but there were a lot of them. They added up to an empire. He would split his gang up into sections so they could work different tricks in different places. That way they didn’t present too conspicuous a target for the police. It was through Sunil that Sanjay first cracked the big-time begging and con-trick spot: Victoria Terminus. Sunil taught Sanjay that it wasn’t enough to cry and pretend you had lost your ticket home. You had to be in the right spot at the right time so as to catch the right people who were catching the right train. Sanjay did well with the women. They all travelled in the two carriages at the end of the train, so as to be unmolested by the male commuters. Sanjay worked below the windows of these two carriages before the train pulled out. All he had to do was think of his nose being broken and the tears came in floods. Sometimes one woman would give him the whole fare. Another of Sunil’s begging units concentrated on small tourist buses. When a small tourist bus left from one of the downtown hotels, Sunil would know its itinerary and send his troops to the last stop: Gandhi’s house, for example. Outside Gandhi’s house the begging was always good after the tourists came out — good because their consciences were bad. You could even get something off the Japanese without having to steal it. At other places you had to work harder. Unlike Dilip, Sunil was not above encouraging his troops to steal. Some of the troops would distract the bus minder by annoying a tourist, usually a female, who was too bus-sick to go into the museum or the temple or whatever the place was, but who couldn’t stay in the bus because while it was stationary with its engine off there was no air-conditioning and it heated up like an oven. So she would be standing out on the footpath and they would gang up on her. The bus minder would go to her assistance and a couple of other troops could be into the bus long enough to lift something good. Once they got a whole camera bag with everything in it, including the camera. Theft from tourists was a hard assignment because the police were merciless. Sunil had seen his people go to gaol in batches. But that was the point: he had seen them go to gaol. It was a long time since he had been there himself. Sanjay was impressed by Sunil’s capacity to divide and rule.

One time Sunil sent Sanjay to learn the bottled water business. There was a lot involved. The scavengers would turn up with pale blue plastic bottles rescued from garbage dumps. After a bottle had been filled with tap water, the man with the bottle-capping device —the key item of equipment — capped the bottle so that it looked professional. But he couldn’t distribute the finished product himself. That was where the gangs came in. Sunil told Sanjay that everything depended on whom you approached, and when. Sophisticated tourists would never fall for it, and not even the stupid ones wanted to know at the start of their day. You had to catch them at the end of a long walk, but before the heat went out of the sun. Sunil had a list of the places and the times. He had thought it all out. It wasn’t Sunil’s fault that Sanjay got caught. The police just happened to be making a sweep of the Malabar Hills at the very time that Sanjay and three of Sunil’s troops were working a big bus load of Germans. It was hot enough to make you sweat just from carrying the bottles, so they were making sales. Unfortunately they were making one when the police showed up in a van.

Sanjay was in gaol for three weeks, which meant that he missed three days of school. He got another kind of education instead, one that taught him to stay out of gaol if it was at all possible. There were five hundred boys in the cage and the police seemed determined to beat all of them every day. The gaol was a pit. For someone like Sanjay, used to the luxury of sleeping on top of a toilet, being obliged to sleep inside one was a severe come-down.

During his final week of captivity, as a sort of grand finale, he was sent on a closely supervised pick-up detail along the railway tracks that skirt the miles of docks before they head out into the Greater Bombay suburbs that never seem to end. The task was to pick up the pieces of passengers who had fallen under the wheels of the trains. It happened with some frequency because in the rush hours there weren’t just people clinging to the outside of the trains, there were people clinging to those people. Sanjay was glad that his detail had hit a quiet patch. Only one body was found. But it was very widely distributed and it took two days to find one of the feet. The foot finally turned up in a culvert. Sanjay was glad he was not the one who found it. He saw it though, held up by a laughing policeman: a severed, withered cow’s udder in a plastic bag full of water. Reminded of the ear that fell from the sky, Sanjay checked the lucky charm in the belt-band of his shorts. He wasn’t feeling very lucky.