Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 9 |
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Chapter 9

SANJAY’S SPIRITS rose again after he was released, because Sunil showed sympathy. Sunil had not taken another favourite while Sanjay was away so it was good for both of them to be back together. Sanjay was restored to his place of honour on the toilet roof. His reception at the Youth Club school was less heartwarming. Sabbandra had found out that he had been in gaol. She let him rejoin his class but there was no extra conversation afterwards. It took several weeks before he got back into her good books, and by that time the monsoon had come again.

The monsoon washed Sunil and his inner cabinet off the toilet roof and away into the streets. Sunil, as always, had a course of action all worked out. His gang scattered all over the district to improvised shelter. He himself, however, had a proper place all set to receive him. It was a back room in one of the hundreds of slum houses packed together along the north bank of the outlet from the Love sewage plant, where the outlet apes a river before it meets the sea. Under the eye of eternity, the Love sewage plant slum village is no picture of loveliness. It is more likely to strike you as a kind of flameless burning ghat in which people are consumed alive by squalor, instead of dead by fire. The river trickling past it, in the middle of a deep, wide culvert, is less like water stiffened with sewage than sewage diluted with water. The houses share their cement walls like a sick beehive. The alleyways are never wider than two men and every one of them has its own channel of slime cut down the middle. Where the slum village and the foetid river both reach the sea, there is a breakwater built across which is used at night as a latrine by people too poor to have lodgings in the slum: people who dream of getting into it the way the people who live there dream of getting out. It is not a beautiful area. If you are attracted by the redemptive, ecstatic qualities of Indian poverty, it is the kind of place that might make you think again. Yet for Sanjay, who had never before slept in anything approaching a proper room, it looked like a big step up. Street children dream of pavement shanties, and the children of the shanties dream of a room, or would do if they knew about such a thing — a room with a door. Behind a door you can accumulate goods. Sunil’s door had a lock on it. When he opened the door, all kinds of things were revealed. There was a mattress, a box for his clothes, a mirror, a dish for washing. More amazing still, there was a stack of movie magazines. Sanjay had seen movie magazines on news-stands. Sometimes he had managed to hold a magazine long enough to half work out a few sentences in a story, before he was chased away. The occasional magazine had circulated on the toilet roof. Now, suddenly, he faced a glut of what he had thought was a rarity. For access to this treasure, whatever Sunil asked of him was a trifling fee.

When it was raining too hard to work, they read the magazines. Sunil knew every story inside out. By nature Sanjay found it hard to admit it when he could not understand something. He struggled to overcome his reluctance. His curiosity demanded satisfaction even at the cost of handing Sunil such an inestimable advantage. Sunil became his second tutor. Sunil didn’t know how to read as well as Sabbandra but he was there every day. Sunil was surprised by how quickly Sanjay caught up. Except when he was sent off to forage for food, Sanjay did nothing in the daylight hours except read the magazines. If Sunil was out, Sanjay would underline words he didn’t know and ask Sunil what they meant when he came back. From being able to work out a sentence he progressed quickly to being able to work out a paragraph and finally a whole story. The feeling was almost as voluptuous as looking at the photographs of Madhuri and Poojah, Sridevi and Karisma, Manisha, Meenakshi, and the strangely named, sumptuously loveable Dimple.

When Sanjay went to school, Sabbandra was bowled over by how quickly he was coming on. As always she tried hard not to let her excitement show. It wasn’t just because of her natural reticence. Sanjay was going to be twelve soon, or perhaps he already was, and the Youth Club offers no help for children beyond that age. Soon she was going to lose him and she didn’t want it to be too much of a wrench. She was sparing with her compliments and affection. When the time came for the year’s set of new clothes, however, she made sure he got some good ones. Again he conducted his secret annual ritual, the transferral of his gold piece to a safe place.

After the rain stopped, Sanjay accompanied Sunil back to the toilet roof. Sunil had sworn him to secrecy about the room in the slum. According to Sunil, the rank and file of his gang would not work for him properly if they knew he had a solid refuge. So the two friends reoccupied their elevated positions and the year settled into a pattern. Though Sunil had lieutenants who did more of the organising than Sanjay, nobody was closer to the throne than he. Sanjay was the nearest gang member to Sunil, whether the gang was on duty or off. At the movies, Sanjay sat beside Sunil. When they played cricket in Azad Park at the weekend, Sanjay was vice-captain, even though, as a late starter from out of town, he was initially not much use as a cricketer. If jealousy was aroused, it did not show. Sunil severely discouraged jealousy. It was the only time he was ever severe: he had none of Dilip’s cruelty. He did not even feel, as Dilip would certainly have felt, threatened by Sanjay’s increasing capacity to absorb any information available to him. Sometimes when the gang members were scattered all over the central district pulling their different tricks, Sunil and Sanjay went home to the slum with a new batch of magazines and worked through them one by one. By now Sanjay could read a story as fluently as Sunil. It got to where Sunil would lie back and smoke while Sanjay read out loud to him about the sexy, wild behaviour of one of the new female stars. It was about this time that the first scandalously suggestive songs were cropping up in the new films, and the magazines would print lines from the lyrics as captions to the photographs of the latest rising starlets as they aimed smouldering glances out of the page above a readily detectable cleavage. Sunil, with his pants around his ankles, liked to be jerked off while being read to. Sometimes, as the critical moment neared, he demanded that a specific passage be repeated. It was during one of these colloquia that Sanjay himself first produced fluid at the moment of maximum interest. Sunil looked proud, almost fatherly. Sanjay found it difficult to imagine his real father being so pleased.

Taking his cue from Sunil, Sanjay also was now smoking nicotine with some regularity. The extent of his habit depended on how much money Sunil allowed him to keep. He was unable to smoke as much as he would have liked. Possibly he would never have been able to do that. It is often thought that smokers miss the breast. Heavy smokers seem to miss more than that: they need not just their mouths full but their lungs also, as a way of getting back into the amniotic fluid, a dry re-run of that first drowning. For Sanjay, birth had been the beginning of a permanent displacement. Smoking took him back beyond it. Reading was part of the same relief. It took him out of himself. “Speculation about the Poojah Bhatt–Bobby Deol marriage continues to gather momentum,” he would read. “While neither has come up with a definite yes or no, many insist that they are lawfully man and wife. In fact, one very reliable insider ...” Reading this, Sanjay would release smoke from his mouth, suck it back through his nostrils, and feel that he was a very reliable insider himself. Then he would turn the page, be confronted by a photographic portrait of Miranda, and the feeling of displacement would return with renewed intensity. Once, in reality, that dreamed-of face had smiled on him, and when he had reached out for it he had been rejected. It would have been better if all that had never happened. If he had never told Dilip about the Silver Castle, Dilip would never have broken his nose. Sanjay was glad that he had told Sunil so little. He should have said even less. What beauty, though, in Miranda’s lips and eyes. She was more beautiful even than Sridevi, whose mouth, though as lush, was not so subtly plump in the lower lip. Miranda was far more beautiful than Zeenat, Mamta, Parveen, Nanda, Sadhana, Vajyanthimala, Waheeda...

Repeatedly read, soon the magazines fell open by themselves to reveal female film stars in their full-page glory. Sanjay found the male film stars interesting too, but mainly for what they wore, how their hair was arranged, and what they possessed. Akbar Khan wore a black silk shirt open at the neck to show a gold medallion; Chunky’s hair was very full at the sides and back; Faizal Khan owned a foreign car with its seats covered in white fur. The way they looked could make Sanjay envious, but never set him dreaming. The women carried him away. His eyes could taste them. It was the taste of Long Ago.

One of the magazines had the new teenage sensation Mumtas on the cover. She was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and jeans cut down to frayed-hemmed shorts, western style. She was holding one knee up with her long-nailed hands as she sat on the other leg. He could see between her legs, where the swell of her light skin emerged from the fray. She was looking at him defiantly, as if he were one of her enemies who were listed in the article inside. Below her delectably open legs there was a line of English print he could not quite understand. “I Care A Damn For These Slimeballs!” He looked at the cover picture of Mumtas so often that the words were committed to his memory along with every detail of her succulent appearance. He would mouth her name. Mumtas. Moom-tas. Mmm. Umm. Mumtas!

From the films, from the magazines about the films, from the film posters in the streets, hundreds of names and faces had entered Sanjay’s memory and accelerated the process of converting his frame of reference from the abstract to the concrete, the mythically sweeping to the empirically meticulous — which in itself is a dry, empirical way of talking about lost innocence. The Silver Castle was no longer the central building of Sanjay’s mental city: it had been joined by the toilet roof, the concourse of Victoria Terminus, the gaol cell in which he had slept with life crawling over him, the room in the slum beside the putrescent river. The Silver Castle was losing its strangeness. Its significance had become specific. From those days, only his gold piece still held for Sanjay the unplumbed allure of the inexplicable: only his gold piece, and the look of lovely girls. About anything else, in all other respects, he was becoming a realist, an analyst. Surrounded by millions of people who were susceptible to every astrological cult and fad, he was immune. Even the hard-headed Sunil was a mystic beside Sanjay. Sunil thought Vishnu and Krishna mattered. He had been known to visit the ashram even on those nights when food was not being handed out. Sanjay, too, enjoyed the spectacle in the ashram: the floodlit cows, the fires and the bells. But Sanjay, just by thinking about it, knew that it was all nonsense. With no religion, with no memory even of belonging to a caste, he was a born rationalist. Yet it was not by rational analysis that he understood how only an increased access to information could increase his powers of thought. It was by instinct. Here was Sanjay’s true uniqueness. Though his awareness of his own sharp wits made him cocky — and sometimes, on the inside where it didn’t show, drove him to private ecstasies of superiority — he was never satisfied with what he already knew. A gift for unravelling mysteries didn’t slake his thirst for more of them. He was always on the road to Long Ago. Sabbandra knew this about him. At the church school which he was no longer supposed to attend, she had made her dispositions so as to be able to break a rule on his behalf. She had persuaded her husband, who ran the mission and of course commanded her life, to let Sanjay in for an extra year. Her plan was that he should learn English.

He couldn’t learn it all, of course. Not even the English can do that, unless they go to school every day. Sanjay rarely managed more than half an hour a week under Sabbandra’s personal supervision. While she conducted the Hindi class from which he had nothing left to learn, he sat to one side looking at an elementary text book and not, at first, getting very far with it on his own. Not getting past the first page, really. After the class was dismissed she would spend some time with him, taking him first of all through the alphabet and then later, in the weeks to come, through the first reading passages, where it turned out that the different letters of the alphabet were not always pronounced in the way that he had learned them. He made some progress but it was very hard: much, much harder than Hindi, because he had heard so little of the spoken language to back it up.

Eventually Sabbandra found the burden of an additional, individual pupil too much. Her husband was looking at her askance, something that his burning black eyes equipped him very well to accomplish. The rest of her work was suffering. So she passed Sanjay on to one of the rich daughters who did volunteer work at the mission. Enlightened middle-class families of Bombay commonly sent their sons and daughters to help at the mission for one day a week. The sons and daughters wore special uniforms; white or tan shirts and trousers for the sons, grey shirts and skirts for the daughters. The sons and daughters weren’t always rich — sometimes their families were only professionals of the middle rank — but to Sanjay and the other poor children anyone was rich whose shoes laced up. The rich daughter to whom Sabbandra consigned Sanjay was called Pratiba. Though only three years older than Sanjay, she might have been his mother where education was concerned — except, of course, that his mother had had no education. Pratiba was not good looking and very conscious of the fact. Among the other rich daughters there were always two or three beauties in attendance at the mission at any given time, and even the least pretty among the rest of them had a refinement of features and extremities that Pratiba conspicuously lacked. In one of the most subversive and shocking passages of his great novel, Flaubert tells us of Madame Bovary’s astonishment when she discovers that the rich are more finely formed than the poor. In India the discrepancy is not so obvious. The sari is a great equaliser. There is many a penniless rag-picker’s wife who carries a plastic bag full of bottle-tops on her head as if it were the turban of a Mogul’s favourite concubine. Nevertheless the women of the well-to-do are often marked by their unmarked faces and finely tapering hands. Pratiba had pitted cheeks to go with a set of features which avoided distinction by all possible means short of deformity. Nor was her thick-set body endowed with any special agility to make up for its lack of grace. Her hands echoed the characteristics of her torso: the fingers were short, fat and awkward. She was a human demonstration of the self-similarity so noticeable in the natural world — a branch is like a tree, a twig is like a branch, a leaf is like a twig — except that in her case it was the negative quality of clumsiness which was repeated at each step of the scale from the totality down to the part. Her spirit, however, redeemed her appearance, if not in her own eyes then in the eyes of others — although never, naturally enough, in the eyes of her father, who thought only of her future marriage, and therefore correctly assessed her readiness of wit as a negative attraction. And indeed her own opinion of herself was that she would have been better off pretty like all her friends, and that her friends would have been better friends to her had that been so. But her mother had prepared her well for the harsh truths about appearance and reality. Pratiba could take a detached view of her condition and even laugh at it. She had a sense of humour. It was the first time in his life that Sanjay had encountered such a thing.

At first he was not sure that he liked it. Next to the kitchen of the church hall there was a small room half full of spare pews, piles of prayer books and stacks of chairs made out of brown painted pipe and once-cream canvas. Sabbandra had assigned this room to Pratiba and Sanjay. On a pipe and canvas chair each, they sat facing each other across a small table. There was always noise from the kitchen, where paper plates of food were prepared which would, as has been said, constitute, for all the children eligible to visit the mission, their only square meal of the week. But with the door closed — although never, naturally, locked — teacher and pupil could concentrate on their difficult task. Pratiba’s teaching methods involved a good deal of laughing at Sanjay’s ignorance and lack of manners.

“If you must pick your nose,” said Pratiba off-handedly, “do you really have to look at your finger afterwards? Can’t you tell just by feel whether you’ve succeeded?”

Sanjay didn’t enjoy this initially. After the first lesson he was rather hoping that there would not be another. But after a while he got into the swing of it. It helped that she could be just as cutting about herself.

“Today we’re going to start reading a story about a prince who falls in love with a princess in disguise. She is so beautiful that even when disguised as a boy she entrances him with her charms. Try to imagine me dressed as Yasser Arafat and you’ve got it.”

Sanjay had no idea who Yasser Arafat was — possibly some American film star — but he still appreciated her capacity for self-mockery. Though it was not the way he really felt about himself, he incorporated it among his own armoury of devices for staving off wrath. Charm can’t be taught to those born without it, but in those who have it as a gift it can certainly be cultivated, and by no method more effectively than from example. Sanjay absorbed everything about the way Pratiba talked. Since the price of the extracurricular lesson was to make progress with the curriculum, he had an extra motivation to get ahead with his English. For a good part of each lesson Pratiba spoke to him in that language, doing her best not to break back into their shared speech in order to explain difficulties —the constant temptation for the untrained teacher of languages.

“You can run your finger under the line when you are reading it out,” she would say, “but I would have preferred it if the finger had been cleaned first. This text book belongs to me. There is a useful English expression: a poor thing but mine own.”

Pratiba was a great influence on Sanjay’s standards of personal hygiene and mode of dress. Due to lack of resources he was in no danger of turning into a dandy, but to accompany his naturally good eye for simplicity and elegance she helped to bring out in him a care for detail. When the annual day came to choose a new set of old clothes, she was there beside Sabbandra to help make sure that Sanjay got the best. Later on he was in their tutorial room and just completing the change into his first ever pair of long trousers when Pratiba entered.

“Even as his legs are covered up, in compensation the superb muscles of his upper body are revealed to the world at last,” she said, closing the door behind her. “And I was extremely glad to see that his hands had been washed without any prompting.”

Sanjay was wrong-footed. In his new trousers he felt doubly conscious that his chest was uncovered. Worse, he had not yet quite finished transferring his gold piece into a small gap he had just found in the stitching of his waistband. So he was fumbling at his waist and shuffling in his new sandals.

“Why so nervous?” asked Pratiba, laughing because she didn’t really mean it. But when he said nothing, she realised that he actually was nervous, and her face fell. She was standing quite close to him so he decided to kiss her. They had been reading about the prince and princess doing this. Unlike in Indian films, in English stories everybody seemed to kiss all the time. Sanjay and Pratiba had shared several jokes about how it must taste. “It probably tastes like whatever they ate last,” Pratiba had ventured. But Sanjay had thought at the time that Pratiba looked unusually thoughtful even while she wove these fantasies, so now he dared, and discovered to his surprise that it didn’t taste like anything.

It felt like something. It felt like softness in depth, warmth in density. All the gradations of sweet touch were there that he had felt when acting on the instructions of Dilip and Sunil, together with the airy tension that had sometimes invaded his own head on those occasions, as if his body was concentrating in his brain. In addition, there was the shock of experiencing so much sensation by making physical contact with someone he had not longed for, dreamed about, or even really noticed. Pratiba just stood there lumpishly with her eyes closed. After a few seconds she broke off the kiss, moved her head back a few inches, and looked at him. He did not find her face any prettier than it had been before. There was a difference though. She looked guilty. She glanced at the door. Suddenly looking resigned, she reached around him and ran her hands quickly all over his back, then just as quickly all over his shoulders and chest, as if blindly trying to memorise every thin contour. Finally she moved against him for one more kiss, and this time he could distinctly feel her breasts against him. He was still getting over the shock of that after she had broken away and sat down.

“Put on your new shirt,” she said, pretending to be looking for something specific in the text book. He put on the shirt, tucked it in, and sat down too, managing to do so with a swaggering flourish that he didn’t really feel.

“Don’t you ever dare do such a thing again,” she said.

Sanjay, under the impression that she was the one who had done it, showed his confusion.

“And don’t look so sorry. It wasn’t that bad, was it?”

He showed more confusion. Her expression softened. After glancing at the door again, she reached out with her left hand and stroked his right wrist.

“Don’t worry. I just couldn’t resist these pretty bones. Some of us are less lucky with our skeletons. Now let’s find out what the prince and princess are doing this week. She asked him back to her castle. Start from there.”

“She asked him back to her castle,” Sanjay pronounced haltingly. It was the precise thing that Pratiba could not do. Her castle was her parents’ apartment in that swanky curve of the beach between Chowpatty and the promontory, and he would never be allowed into it. If her parents found out that he had so much as touched her it would mean serious trouble for them both. Besides, she was not his princess. He had no personal feelings for her beside his acute curiosity as to how she would react physically when he did things to her body, which for purposes of experiment he was prepared to regard as desirable. Intensely focused on himself, he tended, like most children and some adults, to believe that everyone else felt and thought as he did, so he assumed that she, too, had a purely exploratory interest. It seemed that way. In the ensuing weeks and months, each lesson would include a short period of physical communication to supplement their verbal interchange. She, much more than he, was likely to keep an eye on the door that they could shut yet not lock. Fearful of interruption, she would not permit any noticeable adjustment of her clothing. But progressively, from occasion to occasion, he was permitted greater intimacies with her well-developed breasts. Though their large size was part of her awkwardness, he forgot that fact while cupping their warmth under her blouse and squeezing their hard nipples to make her gasp. It was a month before he was allowed to advance his stroking of her spread thighs to the occasional light stroking at the inner edges of her panties. It was two months before he could begin to press between the edges with the side of his finger and feel a softness even warmer than a breast. The way she breathed altered radically in just the half a minute that she allowed him. It gave him the beginnings of an actual experience to illuminate some of the things he had been reading in Sunil’s movie magazines, about ecstasy, about being carried away. (“The fact remained that she was not strong enough to resist what happened. It was an explosion of her inner being. She yielded to him as if gasping for air after holding her breath for too long. Oh, Mohitlal!”) It gave him a version, drained of all beauty but injected with tangible actuality, of those open-mouthed expressions he had looked up at in the darkness of the cinema. He was fascinated. He always wanted more. No matter how demanding of concentration the rackets in which he was engaged, he looked forward all week to going further with his invasion of her person. But because, for him, the adventure was in no way connected with her personality, he assumed that she felt the same detachment. It never occurred to him that Pratiba would have permitted none of these familiarities had she felt indifferent. He assumed that she was seizing the only possible access to such pleasures that she would ever get.

If Sanjay had feelings of love, they were directed towards someone else. A street girl in her last year at the school, her name was Urmila. For the previous two years he had seen her around the place but suddenly she had flowered into his consciousness. Even in her rags she had uncommon grace. She was almost like one of the rich girls in the way she moved. Though Urmila rarely smiled, her mouth and eyes were an enchantment to him. Perhaps the lack of happiness in her face was the secret of her appeal. She had melancholy, yet without vulnerability. It was a self-possessed sadness. Her figure was still slight even though her breasts had become unmistakably divided and prominent under her faded lemon threadbare dress. At the mere thought of touching them, he felt a hungry tenderness which the actual touching of Pratiba’s breasts did not produce. To go with this princess to her castle seemed something worth dreaming about. But to spend even a little time with her was difficult. He would arrive early and manage to be with her for a little while between the end of her class and the start of his. Sabbandra, however, did not favour the friendship, and Pratiba was positively put out by it. A few words with Urmila cost him ten minutes of cutting remarks from Pratiba at the start of the class, and sometimes it was the end of the class before he even got to touch her, and without her touching him in return. A tradition had arisen that she would stroke him for a little while through his trousers as part payment for what he did to her. Careful management was necessary because the results had to die down before the door was opened at the end of the class. But he had learned to depend on the excitement, and to have it withheld was a serious punishment. Though he had learned to say that he was in no way interested in Urmila except as a friend, Pratiba had a way of accepting the explanation without being satisfied with it.

“Sheep’s eyes for your friend and a dog’s breath for your teacher. Thanks for the favour, but are you sure she’s stupid enough for you? There’s still a chance she might learn to spell before she gets out of here. Still, I suppose you’d feel at home if you could get a look at the piddle-stained pants she’s wearing under that rag. If she’s wearing any.” Sanjay would have been withered by such invective if Pratiba’s anger had not been accompanied by the incipient tears he could see glinting in her eyes. They helped to tell him that she would not be bothering to speak at all if she had not been dependent on him. His only mistake was to believe that her dependence was like his, detachable and transferable, a mere indulgence.

Urmila, however, was an obsession in the making, and all the more so for being elusive. There came a time when he would break off his afternoon participation in Sunil’s rackets to be at the gate of the school when Urmila came out and walk with her to where she lived. While they walked, he tried to charm her with his newly learned self-deprecation. It seemed to be working. “My shoes don’t look magic, do they? But they always take me to you. Watch this.” The magic shoes idea was a good one: he had got it from a story in the English text-book. Urmila still didn’t smile, but at least she didn’t send him away. Capering and joking around her while she walked in a straight line, he travelled twice as far as she did to end up in the same place. Her castle was a but in one of the most populated shanty-town alleys of central Bombay. They are not alleys in a shanty town. Each alley is a shanty town all by itself, with strips of joined-up hovels on each side leaving only enough room down the middle for push-carts and a central gutter in which urine and washing-up water form that oddly milky effluvium everywhere recognisable as the world-girdling river system of poverty. You can see it flowing down the middle of the street in Palestinian refugee camps, in the favelas of Rio, in the alleys of Shanghai on the banks of Shouchu creek, in the grim clusters of fibro-and-corrugated-iron gunyahs on the outskirts of Australian country towns, in the backyard improvised villages of Nairobi where the piece-workers live who spend their day carving wooden animals in the souvenir factory. But in flat central Bombay it doesn’t flow. It just lies there. If the heat were not so intense you would catch a disease just from looking at it. Urmila’s castle had this for a river view. Her family included several brothers, so Urmila at first found it prudent to say goodbye to him at the mouth of the alley. Gradually, as the weeks and their walks continued, he accompanied her further in. Only after months had gone by did he get her all the way to her door. Urmila introduced him to her mother as the young man who had been assigned by the school to see her home safely. The mother barely grunted. The father, luckily, was not at home. The eldest of the three brothers present looked darkly suspicious. Fortunately there was an old dying female relative lying on a pallet in front of the hovel. She took a turn for the worse, which occupied everyone’s attention. Sanjay volunteered to fetch some medicine. At the far end of the alley, around the corner in the main street, there was an apothecary’s shop that sold Love Care energy cream, whose efficacy was so unimpeachable that it was advertised on the bottle in the English language. “Yes, Love Care energy cream fulfils you with a new joy and great feeling of life in its prime. Made most scientifically with the latest technique on advanced machines.” Sanjay understood only some of these words, but they were repeated in Hindi with a longer description besides. It was made exhaustively clear that Love Care cured everything. To buy a bottle of it used up most of the money in Sanjay’s pocket. Luckily he managed to steal another bottle while the apothecary was wrapping up the first one, so things evened out. When Sanjay got back to Urmila’s home and presented his bounty, he found himself, if not precisely celebrated, at least less disapproved of. The contents of one of the bottles was rubbed on the face and limbs of the patient without causing any noticeable worsening of her condition. The other bottle was held in reserve. Urmila was allowed to accompany Sanjay when he left. Though she went with him no further than eyeshot of the darkly suspicious brother, it felt almost like being alone with her.

“Thank you,” she said. “You have been very kind.”

“I would like to kiss you,” said Sanjay. “I know how.”

“I do not,” said Urmila. “Pretend that you were doing so. What would you be doing?”

“I would be breathing your breath,” said Sanjay, quoting a magazine story without acknowledgment. Afraid that two small boys staging a pissing competition in the gutter nearby were spoiling his effect, he brought out his best phrase. “There would be an explosion of your inner being.”

He got the sense that Urmila had not fully understood what he had said but was impressed anyway. She allowed him to linger. Standing there in the crowded thoroughfare, they talked for a little while that for Sanjay lasted a sweet always, like one of those magazine love dialogues that stretched out into the time it took to read. These were not magazine-like surroundings. Nor were the circumstances of her family life, as she recounted them, particularly glamorous. Her brothers worked at sorting plastic bags and dead batteries, when they worked at all. Only one of her elder sisters had a job, in the Falkland Street prostitution trade. Her father came home intermittently and more often to get money than to bring it. All this would have bored Sanjay if he had not loved her voice and her appearance. But he did, and that transformed everything. His love for her was all the more intense for being so pure. The small curves of her breasts under her ragged dress, the way she swapped her light weight from one hip to the other as she stood, turning out the opposite foot on its heel so that the toes waved above the hot asphalt — it was an exalted display of light and line, an aesthetic aurora that consumed desire like cold flames. When he left her he took a hundred memories with him, pictures to leaf through in his mind. The thought of touching her was almost too beautiful to bear.

So he touched Pratiba instead. In this way his emotional life was neatly divided. If he had been a grown-up poet — to the extent that poets ever grow up — Urmila would have been his muse and Pratiba his wife: a classic dichotomy which has little to do with personal appearance, and all too much to do with a fear of finality. All Sanjay’s interludes with Urmila were spent in a timeless, directionless haze of barely articulate afflatus, punctuated by his carefully rehearsed poetic borrowings from such clear springs of literary feeling as Cine-Blitz. With Pratiba he made strictly diachronic progress in the finer uses of his native language, the elementary capacities of English, and the study of heterosexual physical sensation. This demanding curriculum was made easier to cope with by Pratiba’s sense of humour, which he would have valued more highly if he had realised how rare it was. But his having met it only once was not yet enough to tell him that he would meet it seldom. A sense of value is not one that young men, be they ever so precocious, can be expected to possess. Even if deprived, they haven’t lost enough. It takes time to build regrets.

The disjunction of Sanjay’s emotional life between Pratiba and Urmila was strict but equal. Just as strict, but far from equal, was the discrepancy between his emotional life and his practical existence: the daily, continual effort to stay alive. Though less of a struggle than it had been, this still took almost all his time. To keep well in with Sunil, to keep him sweet, to keep a grip on all the privileges that accrued from the relationship — the best place on the toilet roof, the first choice of food, the precious hours off in the slum room with its treasure trove of darkly printed words and glowing photographs — Sanjay had to work the rackets. Sanjay was quite the young man by now, with an Adam’s apple showing above the collar of his pale shirt and always, it seemed, another half inch of ankle appearing below the cuffs of his long trousers. His voice had cracked and deepened, giving the built-in thunder of his Hindi an extra boom which from now on he would always have to hold in, or else offend his own sense of propriety. He had already noticed how the best foreigners flinched from too much volume in the voice. Not even the Americans liked to be shouted at. They preferred to do the shouting.

Sanjay was watching himself, grooming himself. He spent time in front of Sunil’s mirror. Sunil took him to a barber. In the course of time Sunil also took him to a fellow gang chief called Ajay, an older boy, a young man really, who ran a racket known as the Arab Season. Sunil rented Sanjay out to Ajay on a part-time basis. Ajay’s slum room was even more splendid than Sunil’s, with a bed held off the floor by short wooden legs. After Sunil discreetly withdrew, Ajay poured Sanjay another beer and gave him a packet of cigarettes that was almost full.

“Keep these,” said Ajay.

“I appreciate it,” said Sanjay, lighting one.

“There’s plenty more where those came from,” said Ajay. “All you have to do is please the Arabs.”

While they smoked and drank, Sanjay was told what was involved. When they had finished their cigarettes, he was shown. Kneeling on the mat with his upper body on the bed, he could see what was happening in the mirror. He didn’t much like the look of it but it felt less bad than he expected.

“It won’t hurt so much next time,” said Ajay. “Soon it won’t hurt at all, as long as they use plenty of jelly. You carry the jelly with you just in case they haven’t got any. Tell them they’ll like it better that way.”

When Sanjay had pulled his trousers back up they sat together on the edge of the bed and had another smoke while they finished their beers. “Quite often they don’t even want that much,” Ajay explained. “You just have to pull them off or suck them. It’s money for nothing. Just remember the money goes to me and then I pay you. But after you give Sunil his share you’re still going to have more left over than you’ve ever seen before, believe me.”

“How much, exactly?”

“You’re going to be able to get into any movie you want. Put it like that. And into any girl too. Some day soon you’ll be able to wander down Falkland Street and take your pick.”

Sanjay didn’t attain to that latter luxury immediately, partly because he wasn’t sure he knew how it was done and didn’t want to make a fool of himself; partly because Pratiba and Urmila combined to regale his divided sensuality and reverence with enough stimulus to be going on with; and mostly because a sudden hike in discretionary income faced him with more pressing possibilities. Arabs who regard Bombay as a source of sexual opportunity are not necessarily of the highest rank. Like the Japanese who go to Bangkok in search of the satisfactions so misleadingly promised by their pornographic magazines at home, the Arabs who come to Bombay are not rulers, merely servants. They own no oil-wells. They shuffle paper. Though their wealth seems unimaginable to the Indian boys they come in search of and easily find, they do not always stay in the very best hotels. But the second-best hotels were still a revelation to Sanjay, who had never seen a clean sheet in his life, or even two pillows against the same headboard, let alone four — with a bed covering that did nothing more than cover the bed when it was not being slept on. When he took his turn in the bathroom he would stand in awe, bathed merely by its dean brilliance: he did not have to run the water to feel cleansed. In the beginning he was offered only a few appointments a week, and sometimes he was one of a group, which lowered his cut still further. He still had to spend most of his time working the rackets. It is galling to spend a long morning on the trail of a tourist bus or acting out tragedies at train windows when your head is full of the previous afternoon’s air-conditioned luxury: cold bottles of Limca freely available, a television set showing interesting foreign videos, the puffy carpet underfoot running all the way to the wall. But soon the balance of his activities had tilted far enough towards this unprecedented abundance for him to contemplate satisfying his new, bold ambition for a slum room of his own, thus to emulate the privilege that really fascinated him about his hosts: not their promiscuous pleasures, which in truth left him cold, but the pampered solitude they could enjoy after he and his friends, and then their own friends, were all gone. They even had their own telephones in there. They could connect themselves to the world by wire if they wished, and, even more enviably, shut it out by speaking a command. They could be alone with everything they wanted, and dose the door on anything they didn’t want. They were in paradise.

So Sanjay made a veiled suggestion to Sunil that he, Sanjay, might rent a room of his own, not far away in the same slum. Dilip would have greeted such a suggestion with violence. But Dilip was a figure of the past, even though Sanjay still saw him occasionally at the movies and never looked in a mirror without remembering him vividly. Sunil, as always, was a better psychologist. Realising that the best way to keep his burgeoning puppy was on a long leash, Sunil made the arrangements for a room in the next alley but one. It was a smaller room than Sunil’s, and of course far smaller than Ajay’s, but it had a door. Sunil gave him a padlock as a housewarming present, and passed on a small stack of some of Sanjay’s favourite magazines to be the seed corn of his own library. It was agreed that though Sanjay’s income did not as yet match the rent, the difference would be an interest-free loan. Since Sunil was lying slightly about the rent, and Sanjay had been holding back some of his take from the rackets, both were satisfied. A certain degree of mutual chiselling can be a useful prophylactic against bad blood: by the time both parties find out that they are entangled, it feels like fellowship.

In his exiguous spare time Sanjay happily occupied himself with furnishing his room. He accumulated a pallet to lie on, a palliasse to cover it, a basin to wash in and some boxes for his belongings. He even found some broken bits of a mirror, which, by resting their edges on half driven nails, he managed to attach to the crumbling concrete wall in sufficient proximity to one another to give him an image of himself fractionated, but then so was he. None the less he felt more of a piece, and at one with the world, than he ever had before. This was lucky, because it was around that time that a few things in his emotional life went wrong, and he might not have been able to sustain his losses so easily had he felt less secure in the material sense.

It was near the end of the scholastic year when Sabbandra caught him with his hand down Pratiba’s blouse. Things might have been worse. He might have been on his knees beside her with her dress up around her waist as he pressed her panties into her to make them wet. They had done that only the previous week. That would have been very hard to laugh of Even as things were, there was big trouble. Sanjay’s explanation that he was looking for his pencil was not accepted. Sabbandra slapped him repeatedly without speaking. When she spoke, it was worse.

“I gave you my trust. I gave you my trust and this is how you repay me.” The Hindi word for trust stung like a stroke from the cane. Pratiba came in for abuse too, but Sanjay was able to stave some of it off on her behalf, by saying it had all been his idea. Sanjay did not know it, but here he was at his best. He did not want her to suffer and was prepared to pay the price. Pratiba, in loud tears, with her head in her hands, did not participate. She was still sitting there when Sabbandra ushered him out of the room and rapidly through the crowded church hall, with everybody watching the commotion. She marched him all the way out into the yard, pushed him through the iron gate, and shut it behind him. The policeman on duty tapped his cane speculatively against his own hand and asked if she required assistance. Luckily she told him no in a loud, impatient voice. Then she whispered to Sanjay through the bars. The whisper was a hiss.

“You are on your own.”

For a while Sanjay felt that he really was, but after a few weeks the sense of loss faded. After all, he had other means of continuing his education. He soon forgot most of his embarrassment, and nearly all of Pratiba’s, although to do him credit he was relieved to find out that she had not been expelled. One day when he was lurking across the street waiting for Urmila, he saw Pratiba come out with a couple of her glamorous friends. As always she looked like the odd girl out — what she would call the gooseberry — but at least she was there, and not noticeably miserable. She and her friends went off northwards to their rich lives. He made a vague plan to trail her home one day and try to catch her alone so as to apologise and perhaps pick up where they had left off. Urmila, however, was a more pressing issue. He would have to be careful about making any actual physical contact with her in sight of her family. It did not occur to him that this more spiritual relationship might also go wrong, if in a different way.

What happened was painfully simple. Urmila’s glowering oldest brother had somehow found out that Sanjay was not the school’s official appointee to walk her home. He had found out that Sanjay had been lying through his teeth. Unaware that he had been detected, Sanjay was particularly eloquent as he walked Urmila home along the mile of crowded broad pavements that led to the narrow alley. It was a perfect day: not so hot that Urmila really needed the second-hand sandals she was wearing, although Sanjay was pleased to see them on her pretty feet. They made her look even more lissom and luxurious, as if she were a rich girl going to a party, the way they did in the magazines. As the pair of them entered her alley, Sanjay was quoting to her some lyrics from one of the latest hit movies that she herself had not yet seen, and probably never would see. He did not try to sing them, but he could recite them as if they were poetry, which to him they seemed to be. In English translation they might seem slightly ridiculous, but in his own language they had a mellifluous ardour which his new deep voice was well equipped to bring out.

“Your sexiness,” he intoned, “triggers procreation in the world.” Hearing this, Urmila hung her head as she walked, but she was smiling as much as she ever did, and in an appreciative way, too, as if struck by the rhythmic aptness of the phrasing.

“Life without you is like a cactus.”

She was fascinated. Sanjay in his turn was fascinated with the effect he was having. He watched her downcast eyes as they tried not to shine, her tongue as it fought not to lick her lips. So neither the princess nor her troubador was looking ahead, or they might have seen her big brother working his way purposefully towards them through the late afternoon crowd. The first thing Sanjay noticed was his head ringing from a blow to his right ear. Urmila wailed softly but already from a distance. Sanjay was on his way out of the alley even faster than he had left the school.

“You are poor!” shouted her brother. “You are not really rich at all!” Her brother could kick like a sacred cow demolishing a cake stall. Sanjay had to dodge and run with his left leg almost entirely out of action from a kick under the buttock.

“She is not for you!”

Sanjay limped home with wounds in places he couldn’t lick. They were superficial, but they hurt, and the humiliation hurt worse, lingering long after the physical pain had ebbed, as a line of jetsam marks the long reach of the tide under the wharf.