Salman Rushdie Midnight's children Book One

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Salman Rushdie
Midnight's children
Salman Rushdie
Midnight's children
for Zafar Rushdie who,
contrary to all expectations,
was born in the afternoon
Book One
The perforated sheet
I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won't
do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's
Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too.
Well then: at night. No, it's important to be more… On the stroke of
midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful
greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of
India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were
gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds
later, my father broke his big toe; but Ms accident was a mere trifle when
set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because
thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been
mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to
those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no
escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my
arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in
the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface,
Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily
embroiled in Fate-at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And
I couldn't even wipe my own nose at the time.
Now, however, time (having no further use for me) is running out. I will
soon be thirty-one years old. Perhaps. If my crumbling, over-used body
permits. But I have no hope of saving my life, nor can I count on having
even a thousand nights and a night. I must work fast, faster than
Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning-yes, meaning-something. I admit
it: above all things, I fear absurdity.
And there are so many stories to tell,-too many, such an excess of
intertwined lives events miracles places rumours, so dense a commingling
of the improbable and the mundane! I have been a swallower of lives; and
to know me, just the one of me, you'll have to swallow the lot as well.
Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me; and guided only
by the memory of a large white bedsheet with a roughly circular hole some
seven inches in diameter cut into the centre, clutching at the dream of that
holey, mutilated square of linen, which is my talisman, my open-sesame, I
must commence the business of remaking my life from the point at which it
really began, some thirty-two years before anything as obvious, as present,
as my clock-ridden, crime-stained birth.
(The sheet, incidentally, is stained too, with three drops of old, faded
redness. As the Quran tells us: Recite, in the name of the Lord thy Creator,
who created Man from clots of blood.)
One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather
Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while
attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril,
hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on the
prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his
head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his
eyes had solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds
contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never again to kiss earth for
any god or man. This decision, however, made a hole in him, a vacancy in
a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history.
Unaware of this at first, despite his recently completed medical training, he
stood up, rolled the prayer-mat into a thick cheroot, and holding it under his
right arm surveyed the valley through clear, diamond-free eyes.
The world was new again. After a winter's gestation in its eggshell of
ice, the valley had beaked its way out into the open, moist and yellow. The
new grass bided its time underground; the mountains were retreating to
their hill-stations for the warm season. (In the winter, when the valley
shrank under the ice, the mountains closed in and snarled like angry jaws
around the city on the lake.)
In those days the radio mast had not been built and the temple of
Sankara Acharya, a little black blister on a khaki hill, still dominated the
streeets and lake of Srinagar. In those days there was no army camp at the
lakeside, no endless snakes of camouflaged trucks and jeeps clogged the
narrow mountain roads, no soldiers hid behind the crests of the mountains
past Baramulla and Gulmarg. In those days travellers were not shot as
spies if they took photographs of bridges, and apart from the Englishmen's
houseboats on the lake, the valley had hardly changed since the Mughal
Empire, for all its springtime renewals; but my grandfather's eyes-which
were, like the rest of him, twenty-five years old-saw things differently… and
his nose had started to itch.
To reveal the secret of my grandfather's altered vision: he had spent
five years, five springs, away from home. (The tussock of earth, crucial
though its presence was as it crouched under a chance wrinkle of the
prayer-mat, was at bottom no more than a catalyst.) Now, returning, he saw
through travelled eyes. Instead of the beauty of the tiny valley circled by
giant teeth, he noticed the narrowness, the proximity of the horizon; and felt
sad, to be at home and feel so utterly enclosed. He also felt-inexplicably-as
though the old place resented his educated, stethoscoped return. Beneath
the winter ice, it had been coldly neutral, but now there was no doubt; the
years in Germany had returned him to a hostile environment. Many years
later, when the hole inside him had been clogged up with hate, and he
came to sacrifice himself at the shrine of the black stone god in the temple
on the hill, he would try and recall his childhood springs in Paradise, the
way it was before travel and tussocks and army tanks messed everything
On the morning when the valley, gloved in a prayer-mat, punched him
on the nose, he had been trying, absurdly, to pretend that nothing had
changed. So he had risen in the bitter cold of four-fifteen, washed himself in
the prescribed fashion, dressed and put on his father's astrakhan cap; after
which he had carried the rolled cheroot of the prayer-mat into the small
lakeside garden in front of their old dark house and unrolled it over the
waiting tussock. The ground felt deceptively soft under his feet and made
him simultaneously uncertain and unwary. 'In the Name of God, the
Compassionate, the Merciful…'-the exordium, spoken with hands joined
before him like a book, comforted a part of him, made another, larger part
feel uneasy-'… Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Creation…'-but now
Heidelberg invaded his head; here was Ingrid, briefly his Ingrid, her face
scorning him for this Mecca-turned parroting; here, their friends Oskar and
Ilse Lubin the anarchists, mocking his prayer with their
anti-ideologies-'…The Compassionate, the Merciful, King of the Last
Judgment!…'-Heidelberg, in which, along with medicine and politics, he
learned that India-like radium-had been 'discovered' by the Europeans;
even Oskar was filled with admiration for Vasco da Gama, and this was
what finally separated Aadam Aziz from his friends, this belief of theirs that
he was somehow the invention of their ancestors-'…You alone we worship,
and to You alone we pray for help…'-so here he was, despite their
presence in his head, attempting to re-unite himself with an earlier self
which ignored their influence but knew everything it ought to have known,
about submission for example, about what he was doing now, as his
hands, guided by old memories, fluttered upwards, thumbs pressed to ears,
fingers spread, as he sank to his knees-'… Guide us to the straight path,
The path of those whom You have favoured… 'But it was no good, he was
caught in a strange middle ground, trapped between belief and disbelief,
and this was only a charade after all-'… Not of those who have incurred
Your wrath, Nor of those who have gone astray.' My grandfather bent his
forehead towards the earth. Forward he bent, and the earth,
prayer-mat-covered, curved up towards him. And now it was the tussock's
time. At one and the same time a rebuke from Ilse-Oskar-Ingrid-Heidelberg
as well as valley-and-God, it smote him upon the point of the nose. Three
drops fell. There were rubies and diamonds. And my grandfather, lurching
upright, made a resolve. Stood. Rolled cheroot. Stared across the lake.
And was knocked forever into that middle place, unable to worship a God in
whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve. Permanent alteration: a
The young, newly-qualified Doctor Aadam Aziz stood facing the
springtime lake, sniffing the whiffs of change; while his back (which was
extremely straight) was turned upon yet more changes. His father had had
a stroke in his absence abroad, and his mother had kept it a secret. His
mother's voice, whispering stoically: '…Because your studies were too
important, son.' This mother, who had spent her life housebound, in
purdah, had suddenly found enormous strength and gone out to run the
small gemstone business (turquoises, rubies, diamonds) which had put
Aadam through medical college, with the help of a scholarship; so he
returned to find the seemingly immutable order of his family turned upside
down, his mother going out to work while his father sat hidden behind the
veil which the stroke had dropped over his brain… in a wooden chair, in a
darkened room, he sat and made bird-noises. Thirty different species of
birds visited him and sat on the sill outside his shuttered window
conversing about this and that. He seemed happy enough.
(… And already I can see the repetitions beginning; because didn't my
grandmother also find enormous… and the stroke, too, was not the only…
and the Brass Monkey had her birds… the curse begins already, and we
haven't even got to the noses yet!)
The lake was no longer frozen over. The thaw had come rapidly, as
usual; many of the small boats, the shikaras, had been caught napping,
which was also normal. But while these sluggards slept on, on dry land,
snoring peacefully beside their owners, the oldest boat was up at the crack
as old folk often are, and was therefore the first craft to move across the
unfrozen lake. Tai's shikara… this, too, was customary.
Watch how the old boatman, Tai, makes good time through the misty
water, standing stooped over at the back of his craft! How his oar, a
wooden heart on a yellow stick, drives jerkily through the weeds!
In these parts he's considered very odd because he rows standing
up… among other reasons. Tai, bringing an urgent summons to Doctor
Aziz, is about to set history in motion… while Aadam, looking down into the
water, recalls what Tai taught him years ago: 'The ice is always waiting,
Aadam baba, just under the water's skin.' Aadam's eyes are a clear blue,
the astonishing blue of mountain sky, which has a habit of dripping into the
pupils of Kashmir! men; they have not forgotten how to look. They
see-there! like the skeleton of a ghost, just beneath the surface of Lake
Dali-the delicate tracery, the intricate crisscross of colourless lines, the cold
waiting veins of the future. His German years, which have blurred so much
else, haven't deprived him of the gift of seeing. Tai's gift. He looks up, sees
the approaching V of Tai's boat, waves a greeting. Tai's arm rises-but this
is a command. 'Wait!' My grandfather waits; and during this hiatus, as he
experiences the last peace of his life, a muddy, ominous sort of peace, I
had better get round to describing him.
Keeping out of my voice the natural envy of the ugly man for the
strikingly impressive, I record that Doctor Aziz was a tall man. Pressed flat
against a wall of his family home, he measured twenty-five bricks (a brick
for each year of his life), or just over six foot two. A strong man also. His
beard was thick and red-and annoyed his mother, who said only Hajis, men
who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, should grow red beards. His hair,
however, was rather darker. His sky-eyes you know about. Ingrid had said,
They went mad with the colours when they made your face.' But the central
feature of my grandfather's anatomy was neither colour nor height, neither
strength of arm nor straightness of back. There it was, reflected in the
water, undulating like a mad plantain in the centre of his face… Aadam
Aziz, waiting for Tai, watches his rippling nose. It would have dominated
less dramatic faces than his easily; even on him, it is what one sees first
and remembers longest. 'A cyranose,' Ilse Lubin said, and Oskar added, 'A
proboscissimus.' Ingrid announced, 'You could cross a river on that nose.'
(Its bridge was wide.)
My grandfather's nose: nostrils flaring, curvaceous as dancers.
Between them swells the nose's triumphal arch, first up and out, then down
and under, sweeping in to his upper lip with a superb and at present
red-tipped flick. An easy nose to hit a tussock with. I wish to place on
record my gratitude to this mighty organ-if not for it, who would ever have
believed me to be truly my mother's son, my grandfather's grandson?-this
colossal apparatus which was to be my birthright, too. Doctor Aziz's
nose-comparable only to the trunk of the elephant-headed god
Ganesh-established incontrovertibly his right to be a patriarch. It was Tai
who taught him that, too. When young Aadam was barely past puberty the
dilapidated boatman said, That's a nose to start a family on, my princeling.
There'd be no mistaking whose brood they were. Mughal Emperors would
have given their right hands for noses like that one. There are dynasties
waiting inside it,'-and here Tai lapsed into coarseness-'like snot.'
On Aadam Aziz, the nose assumed a patriarchal aspect. On my
mother, it looked noble and a little long-suffering; on my aunt Emerald,
snobbish; on my aunt Alia, intellectual; on my uncle Hanif it was the organ
of an unsuccessful genius; my uncle Mustapha made it a second-rater's
sniffer; the Brass Monkey escaped it completely; but on me-on me, it was
something else again. But I mustn't reveal all my secrets at once.
(Tai is getting nearer. He, who revealed the power of the nose, and
who is now bringing my grandfather the message which will catapult him
into his future, is stroking his shikara through the early morning lake…)
Nobody could remember when Tai had been young. He had been
plying this same boat, standing in the same hunched position, across the
Dal and Nageen Lakes… forever. As far as anyone knew. He lived
somewhere in the insanitary bowels of the old wooden-house quarter and
his wife grew lotus roots and other curious vegetables on one of the many
'floating gardens' lilting on the surface of the spring and summer water. Tai
himself cheerily admitted he had no idea of his age. Neither did his wife-he
was, she said, already leathery when they married. His face was a
sculpture of wind on water: ripples made of hide. He had two golden teeth
and no others. In the town, he had few friends. Few boatmen or traders
invited him to share a hookah when he floated past the shikara moorings or
one of the lakes' many ramshackle, waterside provision-stores and
The general opinion of Tai had been voiced long ago by Aadam Aziz's
father the gemstone merchant: 'His brain fell out with his teeth.' (But now
old Aziz sahib sat lost in bird tweets while Tai simply, grandly, continued.) It
was an impression the boatman fostered by his chatter, which was
fantastic, grandiloquent and ceaseless, and as often as not addressed only
to himself. Sound carries over water, and the lake people giggled at his
monologues; but with undertones of awe, and even fear. Awe, because the
old halfwit knew the lakes and hills better than any of his detractors; fear,
because of his claim to an antiquity so immense it defied numbering, and
moreover hung so lightly round his chicken's neck that it hadn't prevented
him from winning a highly desirable wife and fathering four sons upon her…
and a few more, the story went, on other lakeside wives. The young bucks
at the shikara moorings were convinced he had a pile of money hidden
away somewhere-a hoard, perhaps, of priceless golden teeth, rattling in a
sack like walnuts. Years later, when Uncle Puffs tried to sell me his
daughter by offering to have her teeth drawn and replaced in gold, I thought
of Tai's forgotten treasure… and, as a child, Aadam Aziz had loved him.
He made his living as a simple ferryman, despite all the rumours of
wealth, taking hay and goats and vegetables and wood across the lakes for
cash; people, too. When he was running his taxi-service he erected a
pavilion in the centre of the shikara, a gay affair of flowered-patterned
curtains and canopy, with cushions to match; and deodorised his boat with
incense. The sight of Tai's shikara approaching, curtains flying, had always
been for Doctor Aziz one of the defining images of the coming of spring.
Soon the English sahibs would arrive and Tai would ferry them to the
Shalimar Gardens and the King's Spring, chattering and pointy and
stooped. He was the living antithesis of Oskar-Ilse-Ingrid's belief in the
inevitability of change… a quirky, enduring familiar spirit of the valley. A
watery Caliban, rather too fond of cheap Kashmiri brandy.
Memory of my blue bedroom wall: on which, next to the P.M.'s letter,
the Boy Raleigh hung for many years, gazing rapturously at an old
fisherman in what looked like a red dhoti, who sat on-what?-driftwood?-and
pointed out to sea as he told his fishy tales… and the Boy Aadam, my
grandfather-to-be, fell in love with the boatman Tai precisely because of the
endless verbiage which made others think him cracked. It was magical talk,
words pouring from him like fools' money, past Ms two gold teeth, laced
with hiccups and brandy, soaring up to the most remote Himalayas of the
past, then swooping shrewdly on some present detail, Aadam's nose for
instance, to vivisect its meaning like a mouse. TMs friendship had plunged
Aadam into hot water with great regularity. (Boiling water. Literally. While
his mother said, 'We'll kill that boatman's bugs if it kills you.') But still the old
soliloquist would dawdle in Ms boat at the garden's lakeside toes and Aziz
would sit at Ms feet until voices summoned Mm indoors to be lectured on
Tai's filthiness and warned about the pillaging armies of germs Ms mother
envisaged leaping from that hospitably ancient body on to her son's
starched white loose-pajamas. But always Aadam returned to the water's
edge to scan the mists for the ragged reprobate's hunched-up frame
steering its magical boat through the enchanted waters of the morning.
'But how old are you really, Taiji?' (Doctor Aziz, adult, redbearded,
slanting towards the future, remembers the day he asked the unaskable
question.) For an instant, silence, noisier than a waterfall. The monologue,
interrupted. Slap of oar in water. He was riding in the shikara with Tai,
squatting amongst goats, on a pile of straw, in full knowledge of the stick
and bathtub waiting for him at home. He had come for stories-and with one
question had silenced the storyteller.
'No, tell, Taiji, how old, truly? And now a brandy bottle, materialising
from nowhere: cheap liquor from the folds of the great warm chugha-coat.
Then a shudder, a belch, a glare. Glint of gold. And-at last!-speech. 'How
old? You ask how old, you little wet-head, you nosey…' Tai, forecasting the
fisherman on my wall, pointed at the mountains. 'So old, nakkoo!' Aadam,
the nakkoo, the nosey one, followed his pointing finger. 'I have watched the
mountains being born; I have seen Emperors die. Listen. Listen,
nakkoo…'-the brandy bottle again, followed by brandy-voice, and words
more intoxicating than booze-'… I saw that Isa, that Christ, when he came
to Kashmir. Smile, smile, it is your history I am keeping in my head. Once it
was set down in old lost books. Once I knew where there was a grave with
pierced feet carved on the tombstone, which bled once a year. Even my
memory is going now; but I know, although I can't read.' Illiteracy,
dismissed with a flourish; literature crumbled beneath the rage of his
sweeping hand. Which sweeps again to chugha-pocket, to brandy bottle, to
lips chapped with cold. Tai always had woman's lips. 'Nakkoo, listen, listen.
I have seen plenty. Yara, you should've seen that Isa when he came, beard
down to his balls, bald as an egg on his head. He was old and fagged-out
but he knew his manners. 'You first, Taiji,' he'd say, and 'Please to sit';
always a respectful tongue, he never called me crackpot, never called me
tu either. Always aap. Polite, see? And what an appetite! Such a hunger, I
would catch my ears in fright. Saint or devil, I swear he could eat a whole
kid in one go. And so what? I told him, eat, fill your hole, a man comes to
Kashmir to enjoy life, or to end it, or both. His work was finished. He just
came up here to live it up a little.' Mesmerized by this brandied portrait of a
bald, gluttonous Christ, Aziz listened, later repeating every word to the
consternation of his parents, who dealt in stones and had no time for 'gas'.
'Oh, you don't believe?'-licking his sore lips with a grin, knowing it to be
the reverse of the truth; 'Your attention is wandering?'-again, he knew how
furiously Aziz was hanging on his words. 'Maybe the straw is pricking your
behind, hey? Oh, I'm so sorry, babaji, not to provide for you silk cushions
with gold brocade-work-cushions such as the Emperor Jehangir sat upon!
You think of the Emperor Jehangir as a gardener only, no doubt,' Tai
accused my grandfather, 'because he built Shalimar. Stupid! What do you
know? His name meant Encompasser of the Earth. Is that a gardener's
name? God knows what they teach you boys these days. Whereas I'…
puffing up a little here ..'I knew his precise weight, to the tola! Ask me how
many maunds, how many seers! When he was happy he got heavier and in
Kashmir he was heaviest of all. I used to carry his litter… no, no, look, you
don't believe again, that big cucumber in your face is waggling like the little
one in your pajamas! So, come on, come on, ask me questions! Give
examination! Ask how many times the leather thongs wound round the
handles of the litter-the answer is thirty-one. Ask me what was the
Emperor's dying word-I tell you it was 'Kashmir'. He had bad breath and a
good heart. Who do you think I am? Some common ignorant lying pie-dog?
Go, get out of the boat now, your nose makes it too heavy to row; also your
father is waiting to beat my gas out of you, and your mother to boil off your
In the brandy bottle of the boatman Tai I see, foretold, my own father's
possession by djinns… and there will be another bald foreigner… and Tai's
gas prophesies another kind, which was the consolation of my
grandmother's old age, and taught her stories, too… and pie-dogs aren't far
away… Enough. I'm frightening myself. Despite beating and boiling, Aadam
Aziz floated with Tai in his shikara, again and again, amid goats hay
flowers furniture lotus-roots, though never with the English sahibs, and
heard again and again the miraculous answers to that single terrifying
question: 'But Taiji, how old are you, honestly?
From Tai, Aadam learned the secrets of the lake-where you could
swim without being pulled down by weeds; the eleven varieties of
water-snake; where the frogs spawned; how to cook a lotus-root; and
where the three English women had drowned a few years back. There is a
tribe of feringhee women who come to this water to drown,' Tai said.
'Sometimes they know it, sometimes they don't, but I know the minute I
smell them. They hide under the water from God knows what or who-but
they can't hide from me, baba!' Tai's laugh, emerging to infect Aadam-a
huge, booming laugh that seemed macabre when it crashed out of that old,
withered body, but which was so natural in my giant grandfather that
nobody knew, in later times, that it wasn't really his (my uncle Hanif
inherited this laugh; so until he died, a piece of Tai lived in Bombay). And,
also from Tai, my grandfather heard about noses.
Tai tapped his left nostril. 'You know what this is nakkoo? It's the place
where the outside world meets the world inside you. If they don't get on,
you feel it here. Then you rub your nose with embarrassment to make the
itch go away. A nose like that, little idiot, is a great gift. I say: trust it. When
it warns you, look out or you'll be finished. Follow your nose and you'll go
far.' He cleared his throat; his eyes rolled away into the mountains of the
past. Aziz settled back on the straw. 'I knew one officer once-in the army of
that Iskandar the Great. Never mind his name. He had a vegetable just like
yours hanging between his eyes. When the army halted near Gandhara, he
fell in love with some local floozy. At once his nose itched like crazy. He
scratched it, but that was useless. He inhaled vapours from crushed boiled
eucalyptus leaves. Still no good, baba! The itching sent him wild; but the
damn fool dug in his heels and stayed with his little witch when the army
went home. He became-what?-a stupid thing, neither this nor that, a
half-and-halfer with a nagging wife and an itch in the nose, and in the end
he pushed his sword into his stomach. What do you think of that?'
…Doctor Aziz in 1915, whom rubies and diamonds have turned into a
half-and-halfer, remembers this story as Tai enters hailing distance. His
nose is itching still. He scratches, shrugs, tosses his head; and then Tai
'Ohe! Doctor Sahib! Ghani the landowner's daughter is sick.'
The message, delivered curtly, shouted unceremoniously across the
surface of the lake although boatman and pupil have not met for half a
decade, mouthed by woman's lips that are not smiling in long-time-no-see
greeting, sends time into a speeding, whirligig, blurry fluster of
…'Just think, son,' Aadam's mother is saying as she sips fresh lime
water, reclining on a takht in an attitude of resigned exhaustion, 'how life
does turn out. For so many years even my ankles were a secret, and now I
must be stared at by strange persons who are not even family members.'
…While Ghani the landowner stands beneath a large oil painting of
Diana the Huntress, framed in squiggly gold. He wears thick dark glasses
and his famous poisonous smile, and discussed art. 'I purchased it from an
Englishman down on his luck, Doctor Sahib. Five hundred rupees only-and
I did not trouble to beat him down. What are five hundred chips? You see, I
am a lover of culture.'
… 'See, my son,' Aadam's mother is saying as he begins to examine
her, 'what a mother will not do for her child. Look how I suffer. You are a
doctor… feel these rashes, these blotchy bits, understand that my head
aches morning noon and night. Refill my glass, child.'
… But the young Doctor has entered the throes of a most
un-hippocratic excitement at the boatman's cry, and shouts, 'I'm coming
just now! Just let me bring my things!' The shikara's prow touches the
garden's hem. Aadam is rushing indoors, prayer-mat rolled like cheroot
under one arm, blue eyes blinking in the sudden interior gloom; he has
placed the cheroot on a high shelf on top of stacked copies of Vorwarts and
Lenin's What Is To Be Done? and other pamphlets, dusty echoes of his
half-faded German life; he is pulling out, from under his bed, a
second-hand leather case which his mother called his 'doctori-attache', and
as he swings it and himself upwards and runs from the room, the word
heidelberg is briefly visible, burned into the leather on the bottom of the
bag. A landowner's daughter is good news indeed to a doctor with a career
to make, even if she is ill. No: because she is ill.
… While I sit like an empty pickle jar in a pool of Anglepoised light,
visited by this vision of my grandfather sixty-three years ago, which
demands to be recorded, filling my nostrils with the acrid stench of his
mother's embarrassment which has brought her out in boils, with the .
vinegary force of Aadam Aziz's determination to establish a practice so
successful that she'll never have to return to the gemstone-shop, with the
blind mustiness of a big shadowy house in which the young Doctor stands,
ill-at-ease, before a painting of a plain girl with lively eyes and a stag
transfixed behind her on the horizon, speared by a dart from her bow. Most
of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence: but I seem to have
found from somewhere the trick of filling in the gaps in my knowledge, so
that everything is in my head, down to the last detail, such as the way the
mist seemed to slant across the early morning air… everything, and not just
the few clues one stumbles across, for instance by opening an old tin trunk
which should have remained cobwebby and closed.
… Aadam refills his mother's glass and continues, worriedly, to
examine her. Tut some cream on these rashes and blotches, Amma. .. For
the headache, there are pills. The boils must be lanced. But maybe if you
wore purdah when you sat in the store… so that no disrespectful eyes
could… such complaints often begin in the mind…'
… Slap of oar in water. Plop of spittle in lake. Tai clears his throat and
mutters angrily, 'A fine business. A wet-head nakkoo child goes away
before he's learned one damn thing and he comes back a big doctor sahib
with a big bag full of foreign machines, and he's still as silly as an owl. I
swear: a too bad business.'
… Doctor Aziz is shifting uneasily, from foot to foot, under the
influence of the landowner's smile, in whose presence it is not possible to
feel relaxed; and is waiting for some tic of reaction to his own extraordinary
appearance. He has grown accustomed to these involuntary twitches of
surprise at his size, his face of many colours, his nose… but Ghani makes
no sign, and the young Doctor resolves, in return, not to let his uneasiness
show. He stops shifting his weight. They face each other, each suppressing
(or so it seems) his view of the other, establishing the basis of their future
relationship. And now Ghani alters, changing from an art-lover to
tough-guy. 'This is a big chance for you, young man,' he says. Aziz's eyes
have strayed to Diana. Wide expanses of her blemished pink skin are
… His mother is moaning, shaking her head. 'No, what do you know,
child, you have become a big-shot doctor but the gemstone business is
different. Who would buy a turquoise from a woman hidden inside a black
hood? It is a question of establishing trust. So they must look at me; and I
must get pains and boils. Go, go, don't worry your head about your poor
… 'Big shot,' Tai is spitting into the lake, 'big bag, big shot. Pah! We
haven't got enough bags at home that you must bring back that thing made
of a pig's skin that makes one unclean just by looking at it? And inside, God
knows what all.' Doctor Aziz, seated amongst flowery curtains and the
smell of incense, has his thoughts wrenched away from the patient waiting
across the lake. Tai's bitter monologue breaks into his consciousness,
creating a sense of dull shock, a smell like a casualty ward overpowering
the incense… the old man is clearly furious about something, possessed by
an incomprehensible rage that appears to be directed at his erstwhile
acolyte, or, more precisely and oddly, at his bag. Doctor Aziz attempts to
make small talk… 'Your wife is well? Do they still talk about your bag of
golden teeth?'… tries to remake an old friendship; but Tai is in full flight
now, a stream of invective pouring out of him. The Heidelberg bag quakes
under the torrent of abuse. 'Sistersleeping pigskin bag from Abroad full of
foreigners' tricks. Big-shot bag. Now if a man breaks an arm that bag will
not let the bone-setter bind it in leaves. Now a man must let his wife lie
beside that bag and watch knives come and cut her open. A fine business,
what these foreigners put in our young men's heads. I swear: it is a too-bad
thing. That bag should fry in Hell with the testicles of the ungodly.'
… Ghani the landowner snaps his braces with his thumbs. 'A big
chance, yes indeed. They are saying good things about you in town. Good
medical training. Good… good enough… family. And now our own lady
doctor is sick so you get your opportunity. That woman, always sick these
days, too old, I am thinking, and not up in the latest developments also,
what-what? I say: physician heal thyself. And I tell you this: I am wholly
objective in my business relations. Feelings, love, I keep for my family only.
If a person is not doing a first-class job for me, out she goes! You
understand me? So: my daughter Naseem is not well. You will treat her
excellently. Remember I have friends; and ill-health strikes high and low
… 'Do you still pickle water-snakes in brandy to give you virility, Taiji?
Do you still like to eat lotus-root without any spices?' Hesitant questions,
brushed aside by the torrent of Tai's fury. Doctor Aziz begins to diagnose.
To the ferryman, the bag represents Abroad; it is the alien thing, the
invader, progress. And yes, it has indeed taken possession of the young
Doctor's mind; and yes, it contains knives, and cures for cholera and
malaria and smallpox; and yes, it sits between doctor and boatman, and
has made them antagonists. Doctor Aziz begins to fight, against sadness,
and against Tai's anger, which is beginning to infect him, to become his
own, which erupts only rarely, but comes, when it does come, unheralded
in a roar from bis deepest places, laying waste everything in sight; and then
vanishes, leaving him wondering why everyone is so upset… They are
approaching Ghani's house. A bearer awaits the shikara, standing with
clasped hands on a little wooden jetty. Aziz fixes his mind on the job in
… 'Has your usual doctor agreed to my visit, Ghani Sahib?'… Again, a
hesitant question is brushed lightly aside. The landowner says, 'Oh, she will
agree. Now follow me, please.'
… The bearer is waiting on the jetty. Holding the shikara steady as
Aadam Aziz climbs out, bag in hand. And now, at last, Tai speaks directly
to my grandfather. Scorn in his face, Tai asks, 'Tell me this, Doctor Sahib:
have you got in that bag made of dead pigs one of those machines that
foreign doctors use to smell with?' Aadam shakes his head, not
understanding. Tai's voice gathers new layers of disgust. 'You know, sir, a
thing like an elephant's trunk.' Aziz, seeing what he means, replies: 'A
stethoscope? Naturaly.' Tai pushes the shikara off from the jetty. Spits.
Begins to row away. 'I knew it,' he says. 'You will use such a machine now,
instead of your own big nose.'
My grandfather does not trouble to explain that a stethoscope is more
like a pair of ears than & nose. He is stifling his own irritation, the resentful
anger of a cast-off child; and besides, there is a patient waiting. Time
settles down and concentrates on the importance of the moment.
The house was opulent but badly lit. Ghani was a widower and the
servants clearly took advantage. There were cobwebs in corners and
layers of dust on ledges. They walked down a long corridor; one of the
doors was ajar and through it Aziz saw a room in a state of violent disorder.
This glimpse, connected with a glint of light in Ghani's dark glasses,
suddenly informed Aziz that the landowner was blind. This aggravated his
sense of unease: a blind man who claimed to appreciate European
paintings? He was, also, impressed, because Ghani hadn't bumped into
anything… they halted outside a thick teak door. Ghani said, 'Wait here two
moments,' and went into the room behind the door.
In later years, Doctor Aadam Aziz swore that during those two
moments of solitude in the gloomy spidery corridors of the landowner's
mansion he was gripped by an almost uncontrollable desire to turn and run
away as fast as his legs would carry him. Unnerved by the enigma of the
blind art-lover, his insides filled with tiny scrabbling insects as a result of the
insidious venom of Tai's mutterings, his nostrils itching to the point of
convincing him that he had somehow contracted venereal disease, he felt
his feet begin slowly, as though encased in boots of lead, to turn; felt blood
pounding in his temples; and was seized by so powerful a sensation of
standing upon a point of no return that he very nearly wet his German
woollen trousers. He began, without knowing it, to blush furiously; and at
this point his mother appeared before him, seated on the floor before a low
desk, a rash spreading like a blush across her face as she held a turquoise
up to the light. His mother's face had acquired all the scorn of the boatman
Tai. 'Go, go, run,' she told him in Tai's voice, 'Don't worry about your poor
old mother.' Doctor Aziz found himself stammering, 'What a useless son
you've got, Amma; can't you see there's a hole in the middle of me the size
of a melon?' His mother smiled a pained smile. 'You always were a
heartless boy,' she sighed, and then turned into a lizard on the wall of the
corridor and stuck her tongue out at him. Doctor Aziz stopped feeling dizzy,
became unsure that he'd actually spoken aloud, wondered what he'd meant
by that business about the hole, found that his feet were no longer trying to
escape, and realized that he was being watched. A woman with the biceps
of a wrestler was staring at him, beckoning him to follow her into the room.
The state of her sari told him that she was a servant; but she was not
servile. 'You look green as a fish,' she said. 'You young doctors. You come
into a strange house and your liver turns tojelly. Come, Doctor Sahib, they
are waiting for you.' Clutching his bag a fraction too tightly, he followed her
through the dark teak door.
… Into a spacious bedchamber that was as ill-lit as the rest of the
house; although here there were shafts of dusty sunlight seeping in through
a fanlight high on one wall. These fusty rays illuminated a scene as
remarkable as anything the Doctor had ever witnessed: a tableau of such
surpassing strangeness that his feet began to twitch towards the door once
again. Two more women, also built like professional wrestlers, stood stiffly
in the light, each holding one corner of an enormous white bedsheet, their
arms raised high above their heads so that the sheet hung between them
like a curtain. Mr Ghani welled up out of the murk surrounding the sunlit
sheet and permitted the nonplussed Aadam to stare stupidly at the peculiar
tableau for perhaps half a minute, at the end of which, and before a word
had been spoken, the Doctor made a discovery:
In the very centre of the sheet, a hole had been cut, a crude circle
about seven inches in diameter.
'Close the door, ayah,' Ghani instructed the first of the lady wrestlers,
and then, turning to Aziz, became confidential. This town contains many
good-for-nothings who have on occasion tried to climb into my daughter's
room. She needs,' he nodded at the three musclebound women,
Aziz was still looking at the perforated sheet. Ghani said, 'All right,
come on, you will examine my Naseem right now. Pronto.'
My grandfather peered around the room. 'But where is she, Ghani
Sahib?' he blurted out finally. The lady wrestlers adopted supercilious
expressions and, it seemed to him, tightened their musculatures, just in
case he intended to try something fancy.
'Ah, I see your confusion,' Ghani said, his poisonous smile broadening,
'You Europe-returned chappies forget certain things. Doctor Sahib, my
daughter is a decent girl, it goes without saying. She does not flaunt her
body under the noses of strange men. You will understand that you cannot
be permitted to see her, no, not in any circumstances; accordingly I have
required her to be positioned behind that sheet. She stands there, like a
good girl.'
A frantic note had crept into Doctor Aziz's voice. 'Ghani Sahib, tell me
how I am to examine her without looking at her?' Ghani smiled on.
'You will kindly specify which portion of my daughter it is necessary to
inspect. I will then issue her with my instructions to place the required
segment against that hole which you see there. And so, in this fashion the
thing may be achieved.'
'But what, in any event, does the lady complain of?'-my grandfather,
despairingly. To which Mr Ghani, his eyes rising upwards in their sockets,
his smile twisting into a grimace of grief, replied: 'The poor child! She has a
terrible, a too dreadful stomachache.'
'In that case,' Doctor Aziz said with some restraint, 'will she show me
her stomach, please.'
Padma-our plump Padma-is sulking magnificently. (She can't read
and, like all fish-lovers, dislikes other people knowing anything she doesn't.
Padma: strong, jolly, a consolation for my last days. But definitely a
bitch-in-the-manger.) She attempts to cajole me from my desk: 'Eat, na,
food is spoiling.' I remain stubbornly hunched over paper. 'But what is so
precious,' Padma demands, her right hand slicing the air updownup in
exasperation, 'to need all this writing-shiting?' I reply: now that I've let out
the details of my birth, now that the perforated sheet stands between doctor
and patient, there's no going back. Padma snorts. Wrist smacks against
forehead. 'Okay, starve starve, who cares two pice?' Another louder,
conclusive snort… but I take no exception to her attitude. She stirs a
bubbling vat all day for a living; something hot and vinegary has steamed
her up tonight. Thick of waist, somewhat hairy of forearm, she flounces,
gesticulates, exits. Poor Padma. Things are always getting her goat.
Perhaps even her name: understandably enough, since her mother told
her, when she was only small, that she had been named after the lotus
goddess, whose most common appellation amongst village folk is 'The One
Who Possesses Dung'.
In the renewed silence, I return to sheets of paper which smell just a
little of turmeric, ready and willing to put out of its misery a narrative which I
left yesterday hanging in mid-air-just as Scheherazade, depending for her
very survival on leaving Prince Shahryar eaten up by curiosity, used to do
night after night! I'll begin at once: by revealing that my grandfather's
premonitions in the corridor were not without foundation. In the succeeding
months and years, he fell under what I can only describe as the sorcerer's
spell of that enormous-and as yet unstained-perforated cloth.
'Again?' Aadam's mother said, rolling her eyes. 'I tell you, my child, that
girl is so sickly from too much soft living only. Too much sweetmeats and
spoiling, because of the absence of a mother's firm hand. But go, take care
of your invisible patient, your mother is all right with her little nothing of a
In those years, you see, the landowner's daughter Naseem Ghani
contracted a quite extraordinary number of minor illnesses, and each time a
shikara wallah was despatched to summon the tall young Doctor sahib with
the big nose who was making such a reputation for himself in the valley.
Aadam Aziz's visits to the bedroom with the shaft of sunlight and the three
lady wrestlers became weekly events; and on each occasion he was
vouchsafed a glimpse, through the mutilated sheet, of a different
seven-inch circle of the young woman's body. Her initial stomach-ache was
succeeded by a very slightly twisted right ankle, an ingrowing toenail on the
big toe of the left foot, a tiny cut on the lower left calf. Tetanus is'a killer,
Doctor Sahib,' the landowner said, 'My Naseem must not die for a scratch.')
There was the matter of her stiff right knee, which the Doctor was obliged
to manipulate through the hole in the sheet… and after a time the illnesses
leapt upwards, avoiding certain unmentionable zones, and began to
proliferate around her upper half. She suffered from something mysterious
which her father called Finger Rot, which made the skin flake off her hands;
from weakness of the wrist-bones, for which Aadam prescribed calcium
tablets; and from attacks of constipation, for which he gave her a course of
laxatives, since there was no question of being permitted to administer an
enema. She had fevers and she also had subnormal temperatures. At
these times his thermometer would be placed under her armpit and he
would hum and haw about the relative inefficiency of the method. In the
opposite armpit she once developed a slight case of tineachloris and he
dusted her with yellow powder; after this treatment-which required him to
rub the powder in, gently but firmly, although the soft secret body began to
shake and quiver and he heard helpless laughter coming through the
sheet, because Naseem Ghani was very ticklish-the itching went away, but
Naseem soon I found a new set of complaints. She waxed anaemic in the
summer and bronchial in the winter. ('Her tubes are most delicate,' Ghani
explained, 'like little flutes.') Far away the Great War moved from crisis to
crisis, while in the cobwebbed house Doctor Aziz was also engaged in a
total war against his sectioned patient's inexhaustible complaints. And, in
all those war years, Naseem never repeated an illness. 'Which only shows,'
Ghani told Mm, 'that you are a good doctor. When you cure, she is cured
for good. But alas!'-he struck his forehead-'She pines for her late mother,
poor baby, and her body suffers. She is a too loving child.'
So gradually Doctor Aziz came to have a picture of Naseem in his
mind, a badly-fitting collage of her severally-inspected parts. This phantasm
of a partitioned woman began to haunt him, and not only in his dreams.
Glued together by his imagination, she accompanied him on all his rounds,
she moved into the front room of his mind, so that waking and sleeping he
could feel in his fingertips the softness of her ticklish skin or the perfect tiny
wrists or the beauty of the ankles; he could smell her scent of lavender and
chambeli; he could hear her voice and her helpless laughter of a little girl;
but she was headless, because he had never seen her face.
His mother by on her bed, spreadeagled on her stomach. 'Come,
come and press me,' she said, 'my doctor son whose fingers can soothe
his old mother's muscles. Press, press, my child with his expression of a
constipated goose.' He kneaded her shoulders. She grunted, twitched,
relaxed. 'Lower now,' she said, 'now higher. To the right. Good. My brilliant
son who cannot see what that Ghani landowner is doing. So clever, my
child, but he doesn't guess why that girl is forever ill with her piffling
disorders. Listen, my boy: see the nose on your face for once: that Ghani
thinks you are a good catch for her. Foreign-educated and all. I have
worked in shops and been undressed by the eyes of strangers so that you
should marry that Naseem! Of course I am right; otherwise why would he
look twice at our family?' Aziz pressed his mother. 'O God, stop now, no
need to kill me because I tell you the truth!'
By 1918, Aadam Aziz had come to live for his regular trips across the
lake. And now his eagerness became even more intense, because it
became clear that, after three years, the landowner and his daughter had
become willing to lower certain barriers. Now, for the first time, Ghani said,
'A lump in the right chest. Is it worrying, Doctor? Look. Look well.' And
there, framed in the hole, was a perfectly-formed and lyrically lovely… 'I
must touch it,' Aziz said, fighting with his voice. Ghani slapped him on the
back. 'Touch, touch!' he cried, 'The hands of the healer! The curing touch,
eh, Doctor?' And Aziz reached out a hand… 'Forgive me for asking; but is it
the lady's time of the month?'… Little secret smiles appearing on the faces
of the lady wrestlers. Ghani, nodding affably: 'Yes. Don't be so
embarrassed, old chap. We are family and doctor now.' And Aziz, 'Then
don't worry. The lumps will go when the time ends.'… And the next time, 'A
pulled muscle in the back of her thigh, Doctor Sahib. Such pain!' And there,
in the sheet, weakening the eyes of Aadam Aziz, hung a superbly rounded
and impossible buttock… And now Aziz: 'Is it permitted that…' 'Whereupon
a word from Ghani; an obedient reply from behind the sheet; a drawstring
pulled; and pajamas fall from the celestial rump, which swells wondrously
through the hole. Aadam Aziz forces himself into a medical frame of mind…
reaches out… feels. And swears to himself, in amazement, that he sees
the bottom reddening in a shy, but compliant blush.
That evening, Aadam contemplated the blush. Did the magic of the
sheet work on both sides of the hole? Excitedly, he envisaged his headless
Naseem tingling beneath the scrutiny of his eyes, his thermometer, his
stethoscope, his fingers, and trying to build a picture in her mind of him.
She was at a disadvantage, of course, having seen nothing but his hands…
Aadam began to hope with an illicit desperation for Naseem Ghani to
develop a migraine or graze her unseen chin, so they could look each other
in the face. He knew how unprofessional his feelings were; but did nothing
to stifle them. There was not much he could do. They had acquired a life of
their own. In short: my grandfather had fallen in love, and had come to think
of the perforated sheet as something sacred and magical, because through
it he had seen the things which had filled up the hole inside him which had
been created when he had been hit on the nose by a tussock and insulted
by the boatman Tai.
On the day the World War ended, Naseem developed the longed-for
headache. Such historical coincidences have littered, and pejrhaps
befouled, my family's existence in the world.
He hardly dared to look at what was framed in the hole in the sheet.
Maybe she was hideous; perhaps that explained all this performance… he
looked. And saw a soft face that was not at all ugly, a cushioned setting for
her glittering, gemstone eyes, which were brown with flecks of gold:
tiger's-eyes. Doctor Aziz's fall was complete. And Naseem burst out, 'But
Doctor, my God, what a nose? Ghani, angrily, 'Daughter, mind your…' But
patient and doctor were laughing together, and Aziz was saying, 'Yes, yes,
it is a remarkable specimen. They tell me there are dynasties waiting in it…'
And he bit his tongue because he had been about to add, '… like snot.'
And Ghani, who had stood blindly beside the sheet for three long
years, smiling and smiling and smiling, began once again to smile his
secret smile, which was mirrored in the lips of the wrestlers.
Meanwhile, the boatman, Tai, had taken his unexplained decision to
give up washing. In a valley drenched in freshwater lakes, where even the
very poorest people could (and did) pride themselves on their cleanliness,
Tai chose to stink. For three years now, he had neither bathed nor washed
himself after answering calls of nature. He wore the same clothes,
unwashed, year in, year out; his one concession to winter was to put his
chugha-coat over his putrescent pajamas. The little basket of hot coals
which he carried inside the chugha, in the Kashmiri fashion, to keep him
warm in the bitter cold, only animated and accentuated his evil odours. He
took to drifting slowly past the Aziz household, releasing the dreadful fumes
of his body across the small garden and into the house. Flowers died; birds
fled from the ledge outside old Father Aziz's window. Naturally, Tai lost
work; the English in particular were reluctant to be ferried by a human
cesspit. The story went around the lake that Tai's wife, driven to distraction
by the old man's sudden filthiness, pleaded for a reason. He had answered:
'Ask our foreign-returned doctor, ask that nakkoo, that German Aziz,' Was
it, then, an attempt to offend the Doctor's hypersensitive nostrils (in which
the itch of danger had subsided somewhat under the anaesthetizing
ministrations of love)? Or a gesture of unchangingness in defiance of the
invasion of the doctori-attache from Heidelberg? Once Aziz asked the
ancient, straight out, what it was all for; but Tai only breathed on him and
rowed away. The breath nearly felled Aziz; it was sharp as an axe.
In 1918, Doctor Aziz's father, deprived of his birds, died in his sleep;
and at once his mother, who had been able to sell the gemstone business
thanks to the success of Aziz's practice, and who now saw her husband's
death as a merciful release for her from a life filled with responsibilities,
took to her own deathbed and followed her man before the end of his own
forty-day mourning period. By the time the Indian regiments returned at the
end of the war, Doctor Aziz was an orphan, and a free man-except that his
heart had fallen through a hole some seven inches across.
Desolating effect of Tai's behaviour: it ruined Doctor Aziz's good
relations with the lake's floating population. He, who as a child had chatted
freely with fishwives and flower-sellers, found himself looked at askance.
'Ask that nakkoo, that German Aziz.' Tai had branded him as an alien, and
therefore a person not completely to be trusted. They didn't like the
boatman, but they found the transformation which the Doctor had evidently
worked upon him even more disturbing. Aziz found himself suspected,
even ostracized, by the poor; and it hurt him badly. Now he understood
what Tai was up to: the man was trying to chase him out of the valley.
The story of the perforated sheet got out, too. The lady wrestlers were
evidently less discreet than they looked. Aziz began to notice people
pointing at him. Women giggled behind their palms…
'I've decided to give Tai his victory,' he said. The three lady wrestlers,
two holding up the sheet, the third hovering near the door, strained to hear
him through the cotton wool in their ears. ('I made my father do it,' Naseem
told him, 'These chatterjees won't do any more of their tittling and tattling
from now on.') Naseem's eyes, hole-framed, became wider than ever.
.. .Just like his own when, a few days earlier, he had been walking the
city streets, had seen the last bus of the winter arrive, painted with its
colourful inscriptions-on the front, god willing in green shadowed in red; on
the back, blue-shadowed yellow crying thank god!, and in cheeky maroon,
sorry-bye-bye!-and had recognized, through a web of new rings and lines
on her face, Ike Lubin as she descended…
Nowadays, Ghani the landowner left him alone with earplugged
guardians, To talk a little; the doctor-patient relationship can only deepen in
strictest confidentiality. I see that now, Aziz Sahib-forgive my earlier
intrusions.' Nowadays, Naseem's tongue was getting freer all the time.
'What kind of talk is this? What are you-a man or a mouse? To leave home
because of a stinky shikara-man!'…
'Oskar died,' Ilse told him, sipping fresh lime water on his mother's
takht. 'Like a comedian. He went to talk to the army and tell them not to be
pawns. The fool really thought the troops would fling down their guns and
walk away. We watched from a window and I prayed they wouldn't just
trample all over him. The regiment had learned to march in step by then,
you wouldn't recognize them. As he reached the streetcorner across from
the parade ground he tripped over his own shoelace and fell into the street.
A staff car hit him and he died. He could never keep his laces tied, that
ninny'… here there were diamonds freezing in her lashes… 'He was the
type that gives anarchists a bad name.'
'All right,' Naseem conceded, 'so you've got a good chance of landing
a good job. Agra University, it's a famous place, don't think I don't know.
University doctor!… sounds good. Say you're going for that, and it's a
different business.' Eyelashes drooped in the hole. 'I will miss you,
'I'm in love,' Aadam Aziz said to Ilse Lubin. And later,'… So I've only
seen her through a hole in a sheet, one part at a time; and I swear her
bottom blushes.'
'They must be putting something in the air up here,' Use said.
'Naseem, I've got the job,' Aadam said excitedly. 'The letter came
today. With effect from April 1919. Your father says he can find a buyer for
my house and the gemstone shop also.'
'Wonderful,' Naseem pouted. 'So now I must find a new doctor. Or
maybe I'll get that old hag again who didn't know two things about
'Because I am an orphan,' Doctor Aziz said, 'I must come myself in
place of my family members. But I have come nevertheless, Ghani Sahib,
for the first time without being sent for. This is not a professional visit.'
'Dear boy!' Ghani, clapping Aadam on the back. 'Of course you must
marry her. With an A-1 fine dowry! No expense spared! It will be the
wedding of the year, oh most certainly, yes!'
'I cannot leave you behind when I go,' Aziz said to Naseem. Ghani
said, 'Enough of this tamasha! No more need for this sheet tomfoolery!
Drop it down, you women, these are young lovers now!'
'At last,' said Aadam Aziz, 'I see you whole at last. But I must go now.
My rounds… and an old friend is staying with me, I must tell her, she will be
very happy for us both. A dear friend from Germany.'
'No, Aadam baba,' his bearer said, 'since the morning I have not seen
Ilse Begum. She hired that old Tai to go for a shikara ride.'
'What can be said, sir?' Tai mumbled meekly. 'I am honoured indeed to
be summoned into the home of a so-great personage as yourself. Sir, the
lady hired me for a trip to the Mughal Gardens, to do it before the lake
freezes. A quiet lady, Doctor Sahib, not one word out of her all the time. So
I was thinking my own unworthy private thoughts as old fools will and
suddenly when I look she is not in her seat. Sahib, on my wife's head I
swear it, it is not possible to see over the back of the seat, how was I to
tell? Believe a poor old boatman who was your friend when you were
'Aadam baba,' the old bearer interrupted, 'excuse me but just now I
have found this paper on her table.'
'I know where she is,' Doctor Aziz stared at Tai. 'I don't know how you
keep getting mixed up in my life; but you showed me the place once. You
said: certain foreign women come here to drown.'
'I, Sahib?' Tai shocked, malodorous, innocent. 'But grief is making your
head play trick! How can I know these things?'
And after the body, bloated, wrapped in weeds, had been dredged up
by a group of blank-faced boatmen, Tai visited the shikara halt and told the
men there, as they recoiled from his breath of a bullock with dysentery, 'He
blames me, only imagine! Brings his loose Europeans here and tells me it
is my fault when they jump into the lake!… I ask, how did he know just
where to look? Yes, ask him that, ask that nakkoo Aziz!'
She had left a note. It read: 'I didn't mean it.'
I make no comment; these events, which have tumbled from my lips
any old how, garbled by haste and emotion, are for others to judge. Let me
be direct now, and say that during the long, hard winter of 1918-19, Tai fell
ill, contracting a violent skin disease, akin to that European curse called the
King's Evil; but he refused to see Doctor Aziz, and was treated by a local
homeopath. And in March, when the lake thawed, a marriage took place in
a large marquee in the grounds of Ghani the landowner's house. The
wedding contract assured Aadam Aziz of a respectable sum of money,
which would help buy a house in Agra, and the dowry included, at Doctor
Aziz's especial request, a certain mutilated bedsheet. The young couple sat
on a dais, garlanded and cold, while the guests filed past dropping rupees
into their laps. That night my grandfather placed the perforated sheet
beneath his bride and himself and in the morning it was adorned by three
drops of blood, which formed a small triangle. In the morning, the sheet
was displayed, and after the consummation ceremony a limousine hired by
the landowner arrived to drive my grandparents to Amritsar, where they
would catch the Frontier Mail. Mountains crowded round and stared as my
grandfather left his home for the last time. (He would return, once, but not
to leave.) Aziz thought he saw an ancient boatman standing on land to
watch them pass-but it was probably a mistake, since Tai was ill. The
blister of a temple atop Sankara Acharya, which Muslims had taken to
calling the Takht-e-Sulaiman, or Seat of Solomon, paid them no attention.
Winter-bare poplars and snow-covered fields of saffron undulated around
them as the car drove south, with an old leather bag containing, amongst
other things, a stethoscope and a bedsheet, packed in the boot. Doctor
Aziz felt, in the pit of his stomach, a sensation akin to weightlessness.
Or falling.
(… And now I am cast as a ghost. I am nine years old and the whole
family, my father, my mother, the Brass Monkey and myself, are staying at
my grandparents' house in Agra, and the grandchildren-myself among
them-are staging the customary New Year's play; and I have been cast as
a ghost. Accordingly-and surreptitiously so as to preserve the secrets of the
forthcoming theatricals-I am ransacking the house for a spectral disguise.
My grandfather is out and about his rounds. I am in his room. And here on
top of this cupboard is an old trunk, covered in dust and spiders, but
unlocked. And here, inside it, is the answer to my prayers. Not just a sheet,
but one with a hole already cut in it! Here it is, inside this leather bag inside
this trunk, right beneath an old stethoscope and a tube of mildewed Vick's
Inhaler… the sheet's appearance in our show was nothing less than a
sensation. My grandfather took one look at it and rose roaring to his feet.
He strode up on stage and unghosted me right in front of everyone. My
grandmother's lips were so tightly pursed they seemed to disappear.
Between them, the one booming at me in the voice of a forgotten boatman,
the other conveying her fury through vanished lips, they reduced the
awesome ghost to a weeping wreck. I fled, took to my heels and ran into
the little cornfield, not knowing what had happened. I sat there-perhaps on
the very spot on which Nadir Khan had sat!-for several hours, swearing
over and over that I would never again open a forbidden trunk, and feeling
vaguely resentful that it had not been locked in the first place. But I knew,
from their rage, that the sheet was somehow very important indeed.)
I have been interrupted by Padma, who brought me my dinner and
then withheld it, blackmailing me: 'So if you're going to spend all your time
wrecking your eyes with that scribbling, at least you must read it to me.' I
have been singing for my supper-but perhaps our Padma will be useful,
because it's impossible to stop her being a critic. She is particularly angry
with my remarks about her name. 'What do you know, city boy?' she
cried-hand slicing the air. 'In my village there is no shame in being named
for the Dung Goddess. Write at once that you are wrong, completely.' In
accordance with my lotus's wishes, I insert, forthwith, a brief paean to
Dung, that fertilizes and causes the crops to grow! Dung, which is
patted into thin chapati-like cakes when still fresh and moist, and is sold to
the village builders, who use it to secure and strengthen the walls of
kachcha buildings made of mud! Dung, whose arrival from the nether end
of cattle goes a long way towards explaining their divine and sacred status!
Oh, yes, I was wrong, I admit I was prejudiced, no doubt because its
unfortunate odours do have a way of offending my sensitive nose-how
wonderful, how ineffably lovely it must be to be named for the Purveyor of
… On April 6th, 1919, the holy city of Amritsar smelled (gloriously,
Padma, celestially!) of excrement. And perhaps the (beauteous!) reek did
not offend the Nose on my grandfather's face-after all, Kashmir! peasants
used it, as described above, for a kind of plaster. Even in Srinagar,
hawkers with barrows of round dung-cakes were not an uncommon sight.
But then the stuff was drying, muted, useful. Amritsar dung was fresh and
(worse) redundant. Nor was it all bovine. It issued from the rumps of the
horses between the shafts of the city's many tongas, ikkas and gharries;
and mules and men and dogs attended nature's calls, mingling in a
brotherhood of shit. But there were cows, too: sacred kine roaming the
dusty streets, each patrolling its own territory, staking its claims in
excrement. And flies! Public Enemy Number One, buzzing gaily from turd
to steaming turd, celebrated and cross-pollinated these freely-given
offerings. The city swarmed about, too, mirroring the motion of the flies.
Doctor Aziz looked down from his hotel window on to this scene as a Jain
in a face-mask walked past, brushing the pavement before him with a
twig-broom, to avoid stepping on an ant, or even a fly. Spicy sweet fumes
rose from a street-snack barrow. 'Hot pakoras, pakoras hot!' A white
woman was buying silks from a shop across the street and men in turbans
were ogling her. Naseem-now Naseem Aziz-had a sharp headache; it was
the first time she'd ever repeated an illness, but life outside her quiet valley
had come as something of a shock to her. There was a jug of fresh lime
water by her bed, emptying rapidly. Aziz stood at the window, inhaling the
city. The spire of the Golden Temple gleamed in the sun. But his nose
itched: something was not right here.
Close-up of my grandfather's right hand: nails knuckles fingers all
somehow bigger than you'd expect. Clumps of red hair on the outside
edges. Thumb and forefinger pressed together, separated only by a
thickness of paper. In short: my grandfather was holding a pamphlet. It had
been inserted into his hand (we cut to a long-shot-nobody from Bombay
should be without a basic film vocabulary) as he entered the hotel foyer.
Scurrying of urchin through revolving door, leaflets falling in his wake, as
the chaprassi gives chase. Mad revolutions in the doorway,
roundandround; until chaprassi-hand demands a close-up, too, because it
is pressing thumb to forefinger, the two separated only by the thickness of
urchin-ear. Ejection of juvenile disseminator of gutter-tracts; but still my
grandfather retained the message. Now, looking out of his window, he sees
it echoed on a wall opposite; and there, on the minaret of a mosque; and in
the large black type of newsprint under a hawker's arm. Leaflet newspaper
mosque and wall are crying: Hartal! Which is to say, literally speaking, a
day of mourning, of stillness, of silence. But this is India in the heyday of
the Mahatma, when even language obeys the instructions of Gandhiji, and
the word has acquired, under his influence, new resonances. Hartal-April 7,
agree mosque newspaper wall and pamphlet, because Gandhi has
decreed that the whole of India shall, on that day, come to a halt. To
mourn, in peace, the continuing presence of the British.
'I do not understand this hartal when nobody is dead,' Naseem is
crying softly. 'Why will the train not run? How long are we stuck for?'
Doctor Aziz notices a soldierly young man in the street, and thinks-the
Indians have fought for the British; so many of them have seen the world by
now, and been tainted by Abroad. They will not easily go back to the old
world. The British are wrong to try and turn back the clock. 'It was a mistake
to pass the Rowlatt Act,' he murmurs.
'What rowlatt?' wails Naseem. 'This is nonsense where I'm concerned!'
'Against political agitation,' Aziz explains, and returns to his thoughts.
Tai once said: 'Kashmiris are different. Cowards, for instance. Put a gun in
a Kashmiri's hand and it will have to go off by itself-he'll never dare to pull
the trigger. We are not like Indians, always making battles.' Aziz, with Tai in
his head, does not feel Indian. Kashmir, after all, is not strictly speaking a
part of the Empire, but an independent princely state. He is not sure if the
hartal of pamphlet mosque wall newspaper is his fight, even though he is in
occupied territory now. He turns from the window…
… To see Naseem weeping into a pillow. She has been weeping ever
since he asked her, on their second night, to move a little. 'Move where?'
she asked. 'Move how?' He became awkward and said, 'Only move, I
mean, like a woman…' She shrieked in horror. 'My God,what have I
married? I know you Europe-returned men. You find terrible women and
then you try to make us girls be like them! Listen, Doctor Sahib, husband or
no husband, I am not any… bad word woman,' This was a battle my
grandfather never won; and it set the tone for their marriage, which rapidly
developed into a place of frequent and devastating warfare, under whose
depredations the young girl behind the sheet and the gauche young Doctor
turned rapidly into different, stranger beings… 'What now, wife?' Aziz asks.
Naseem buries her face in the pillow. 'What else?' she says in muffled
tones. 'You, or what? You want me to walk naked in front of strange men.'
(He has told her to come out of purdah.)
He says, 'Your shirt covers you from neck to wrist to knee. Your loose
pajamas hide you down to and including your ankles. What we have left are
your feet and face. Wife, are your face and feet obscene?' But she wails,
'They will see more than that! They will see my deep-deep shame!'
And now an accident, which launches us into the world of
Mercurochrome… Aziz, finding his temper slipping from him, drags all his
wife's purdah-veils from her suitcase, flings them into a wastepaper basket
made of tin with a painting of Guru Nanak on the side, and sets fire to
them. Flames leap up, taking him by surprise, licking at curtains. Aadam
rushes to the door and yells for help as the cheap curtains begin to blaze…
and bearers guests washerwomen stream into the room and flap at die
burning fabric with dusters towels and other people's laundry. Buckets are
brought; the fire goes out; and Naseem cowers on the bed as about
thirty-five Sikhs, Hindus and untouchables throng in the smoke-filled room.
Finally they leave, and Naseem unleashes two sentences before clamping
her lips obstinately shut.
'You are a mad man. I want more lime water.'
My grandfather opens the windows, turns to his bride. 'The smoke will
take time to go; I will take a walk. Are you coming?'
Lips clamped; eyes squeezed; a single violent No from the head; and
my grandfather goes into the streets alone. His parting shot: 'Forget about
being a good Kashmiri girl. Start thinking about being a modern Indian
… While in the Cantonment area, at British Army H.Q., one Brigadier
R. E. Dyer is waxing his moustache.
It is April 7th, 1919, and in Amritsar the Mahatma's grand design is
being distorted. The shops have shut; the railway station is closed; but now
rioting mobs are breaking them up. Doctor Aziz, leather bag in hand, is out
in the streets, giving help wherever possible. Trampled bodies have been
left where they fell. He is bandaging wounds, daubing them liberally with
Mercurochrome, which makes them look bloodier than ever, but at least
disinfects them. Finally he returns to his hotel room, his clothes soaked in
red stains, and Naseem commences a panic. 'Let me help, let me help,
Allah what a man I've married, who goes into gullies to fight with goondas!'
She is all over him with water on wads of cotton wool. 'I don't know why
can't you be a respectable doctor like ordinary people are just cure
important illnesses and all? О God you've got blood everywhere! Sit, sit
now, let me wash you at least!'
'It isn't blood, wife.'
'You think I can't see for myself with my own eyes? Why must you
make a fool of me even when you're hurt? Must your wife not look after
you, even?'
'It's Mercurochrome, Naseem. Red medicine.'
Naseem-who had become a whirlwind of activity, seizing clothes,
running taps-freezes. 'You do it on purpose,' she says, 'to make me look
stupid. I am not stupid. I have read several books.'
It is April 13th, and they are still in Amritsar. 'This affair isn't finished,'
Aadam Aziz told Naseem. 'We can't go, you see: they may need doctors
'So we must sit here and wait until the end of the world?'
He rubbed his nose. 'No, not so long, I am afraid.'
That afternoon, the streets are suddenly full of people, all moving in
the same direction, defying Dyer's new Martial Law regulations. Aadam
tells Naseem, 'There must be a meeting planned-there will be trouble from
the military. They have banned meetings.'
'Why do you have to go? Why not wait to be called?'
… A compound can be anything from a wasteland to a park. The
largest compound in Amritsar is called Jallianwala Bagh. It is not grassy.
Stones cans glass and other things are everywhere. To get into it, you must
walk down a very narrow alleyway between two buildings. On April 13th,
many thousands of Indians are crowding through this alleyway. 'It is
peaceful protest,' someone tells Doctor Aziz. Swept along by the crowds,
he arrives at the mouth of the alley. A bag from Heidelberg is in his right
hand. (No close-up is necessary.) He is, I know, feeling very scared,
because his nose is itching worse than it ever has; but he is a trained
doctor, he puts it out of his mind, he enters the compound. Somebody is
making a passionate speech. Hawkers move through the crowd selling
channa and sweetmeats. The air is filled with dust. There do not seem to
be any goondas, any trouble– makers, as far as my grandfather can see. A
group of Sikhs has spread a cloth on the ground and is eating, seated
around it. There is still a smell of ordure in the air. Aziz penetrates the heart
of the crowd, as Brigadier R. Е. Dyer arrives at the entrance to the
alleyway, followed by fifty crack troops. He is the Martial Law Commander
of Amritsar-an important man, after all; the waxed tips of his moustache are
rigid with importance. As the fifty-one men march down the alleyway a
tickle replaces the itch in my grandfather's nose. The fifty-one men enter
the compound and take up positions, twenty-five to Dyer's right and
twenty-five to his left; and Aadam Aziz ceases to concentrate on the events
around him as the tickle mounts to unbearable intensities. As Brigadier
Dyer issues a command the sneeze hits my grandfather full in the face.
'Yaaaakh-thоооо!' he sneezes and falls forward, losing his balance,
following his nose and thereby saving his life. His 'doctori-attache' flies
open; bottles, liniment and syringes scatter in the dust. He is scrabbling
furiously at people's feet, trying to save his equipment before it is crushed.
There is a noise like teeth chattering in winter and someone falls on him.
Red stuffstains his shirt. There are screams now and sobs and the strange
chattering continues. More and more people seem to have stumbled and
fallen on top of my grandfather. He becomes afraid for his back. The clasp
of his bag is digging into his chest, inflicting upon it a bruise so severe and
mysterious that it will not fade until after his death, years later, on the hill of
Sankara Acharya or Takht-e-Sulaiman. His nose is jammed against a bottle
of red pills. The chattering stops and is replaced by the noises of people
and birds. There seems to be no traffic noise whatsoever. Brigadier Dyer's
fifty men put down their machine-guns and go away. They have fired a total
of one thousand six hundred and fifty rounds into the unarmed crowd. Of
these, one thousand five hundred and sixteen have found their mark, killing
or wounding some person. 'Good shooting,' Dyer tells his men, 'We have
done a jolly good thing.'
When my grandfather got home that night, my grandmother was trying
hard to be a modern woman, to please him, and so she did not turn a hair
at his appearance. 'I see you've been spilling the Mercurochrome again,
clumsy,' she said, appeasingly.
'It's blood,' he replied, and she fainted. When he brought her round
with the help of a little sal volatile, she said, 'Are you hurt?'
'No,' he said.
'But where have you been, my God?'
'Nowhere on earth,' he said, and began to shake in her arms.
My own hand, I confess, has begun to wobble; not entirely because of
its theme, but because I have noticed a thin crack, like a hair, appearing in
my wrist, beneath the skin… No matter. We all owe death a life. So let me
conclude with the uncorroborated rumour that the boatman Tai, who
recovered from his scrofulous infection soon after my grandfather left
Kashmir, did not die until 1947, when (the story goes) he was infuriated by
India and Pakistan's struggle over his valley, and walked to Chhamb with
the express purpose of standing between the opposing forces and giving
them a piece of his mind. Kashmiri for the Kashmiris: that was his line.
Naturally, they shot him. Oskar Lubin would probably have approved of his
rhetorical gesture; R. E. Dyer might have commended his murderers' rifle
skills. I must go to bed. Padma is waiting; and I need a little warmth.
Please believe that I am falling apart.
I am not speaking metaphorically; nor is this the opening gambit of
some melodramatic, riddling, grubby appeal for pity. I mean quite simply
that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug-that my poor body,
singular, unlovely, buffeted by too much history, subjected to drainage
above and drainage below, mutilated by doors, brained by spittoons, has
started coming apart at the seams. In short, I am literally disintegrating,
slowly for the moment, although there are signs of acceleration. I ask you
only to accept (as I have accepted) that I shall eventually crumble into
(approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and
necessarily oblivious dust. This is why I have resolved to confide in paper,
before I forget. (We are a nation of forgetters.)
There are moments of terror, but they go away. Panic like a bubbling
sea-beast conies up for air, boils on the surface, but eventually returns to
the deep. It is important for me to remain calm. I chew betel-nut and
expectorate in the direction of a cheap brassy bowl, playing the ancient
game of hit-the-spittoon: Nadir Khan's game, which he learned from the old
men in Agra… and these days you can buy 'rocket paans' in which, as well
as the gum-reddening paste of the betel, the comfort of cocaine lies folded
in a leaf. But that would be cheating.
… Rising from my pages comes the unmistakable whiff of chutney. So
let me obfuscate no further: I, Saleem Sinai, possessor of the most
delicately-gifted olfactory organ in history, have dedicated my latter days to
the large-scale preparation of condiments. But now, 'A cook?' you gasp in
horror, 'A khansama merely? How is it possible?' And, I grant, such
mastery of the multiple gifts of cookery and language is rare indeed; yet I
possess it. You are amazed; but then I am not, you see, one of your
200-rupees-a-month cookery johnnies, but my own master, working
beneath the saffron and green winking of my personal neon goddess. And
my chutneys and kasaundies are, after all, connected to my nocturnal
scribblings-by day amongst the pickle-vats, by night within these sheets, I
spend my time at the great work of preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is
being saved from the corruption of the clocks.
But here is Padma at my elbow, bullying me back into the world of
linear narrative, the universe of what-happened-next: 'At this rate,' Padma
complains, 'you'll be two hundred years old before you manage to tell about
your birth.' She is affecting nonchalance, jutting a careless hip in my
general direction, but doesn't fool me. I know now that she is, despite all
her protestations, hooked. No doubt about it: my story has her by the
throat, so that all at once she's stopped nagging me to go home, to take
more baths, to change my vinegar-stained clothes, to abandon even for a
moment this darkling pickle-factory where the smells of spices are forever
frothing in the air… now my dung goddess simply makes up a cot in the
corner of this office and prepares my food on two blackened gas-rings, only
interrupting my Anglepoise-lit writing to expostulate, 'You better get a move
on or you'll die before you get yourself born.' Fighting down the proper
pride of the successful storyteller, I attempt to educate her. 'Things-even
people-have a way of leaking into each other,' I explain, 'like flavours when
you cook. Ilse Lubin's suicide, for example, leaked into old Aadam and sat
there in a puddle until he saw God. Likewise,' I intone earnestly, 'the past
has dripped into me .'.. so we can't ignore it…' Her shrug, which does
pleasantly wavy things to her chest, cuts me off. 'To me it's a crazy way of
telling your life story,' she cries, 'if you can't even get to where your father
met your mother.'
… And certainly Padma is leaking into me. As history pours out of my
fissured body, my lotus is quietly dripping in, with her down-to-earthery, and
her paradoxical superstition, her contradictory love of the fabulous-so it's
appropriate that I'm about to tell the story of the death of Mian Abdullah.
The doomed Hummingbird: a legend of our times.
… And Padma is a generous woman, because she stays by me in
these last days, although I can't do much for her. That's right-and once
again, it's a fitting thing to mention before I launch into the tale of Nadir
Khan-I am unmanned. Despite Padma's many and varied gifts and
ministrations, I can't leak into her, not even when she puts her left foot on
my right, winds her right leg around my waist, inclines her head up toward
mine and makes cooing noises; not even when she whispers in my ear, 'So
now that the writery is done, let's see if we can make your other pencil
work!'; despite everything she tries, I cannot hit her spittoon.
Enough confessions. Bowing to the ineluctable Padma-pressures of
what-happened-nextism, and remembering the finite quantity of time at my
disposal, I leap forwards from Mercurochrome and land in 1942. (I'm keen
to get my parents together, too.)
It seems that in the late summer of that year my grandfather, Doctor
Aadam Aziz, contracted a highly dangerous form of optimism. Bicycling
around Agra, he whistled piercingly, badly, but very happily. He was by no
means alone, because, despite strenuous efforts by the authorities to
stamp it out, this virulent disease had been breaking out all over India that
year, and drastic steps were to be taken before it was brought under
control. The old men at the paan-shop at the top of Cornwallis Road
chewed betel and suspected a trick. 'I have lived twice as long as I should
have,' the oldest one said, his voice crackling like an old radio because
decades were rubbing up against each other around his vocal chords, 'and
I've never seen so many people so cheerful in such a bad time. It is the
devil's work.' It was, indeed, a resilient virus-the weather alone should have
discouraged such germs from breeding, since it had become clear that the
rains had failed. The earth was cracking. Dust ate the edges of roads, and
on some days huge gaping fissures appeared in the midst of macadamed
intersections. The betel-chewers at the paan-shop had begun to talk about
omens; calming themselves with their game of hit-the-spittoon, they
speculated upon the numberless nameless Godknowswhats that might now
issue from the Assuring earth. Apparently a Sikh from the bicycle-repair
shop had had his turban pushed off his head in the heat of one afternoon,
when his hair, without any reason, had suddenly stood on end. And, more
prosaically, the water shortage had reached the point where milkmen could
no longer find clean water with which to adulterate the milk :.. Far away,
there was a World War in progress once again. In Agra, the heat mounted.
But still my grandfather whistled. The old men at the paan-shop found Ms
whistling in rather poor taste, given the circumstances.
(And I, like them, expectorate and rise above fissures.)
Astride his bicycle, leather attache attached to carrier, my grandfather
wMstled. Despite irritations of the nose, his lips pursed. Despite a bruise on
his chest which had refused to fade for twenty-three years, his good
humour was unimpaired. Air passed his lips and was transmuted into
sound. He whistled an old German tune: Tannenbaum.
The optimism epidemic had been caused by one single human being,
whose name, Mian Abdullah, was only used by newspapermen. To
everyone else, he was the Hummingbird, a creature which would be
impossible if it did not exist. 'Magician turned conjurer,' the newspapermen
wrote, 'Mian Abdullah rose from the famous magicians' ghetto in Delhi to
become the hope of India's hundred million Muslims.' The Hummingbird
was the founder, chairman, unifier and moving spirit of the Free Islam
Convocation; and in 1942, marquees and rostrums were being erected on
the Agra maidan, where the Convocation's second annual assembly was
about to take place. My grandfather, fifty-two years old, his hair turned
white by the years and other afflictions, had begun whistling as he passed
the maidan. Now he leaned round corners on his bicycle, taking them at a
jaunty angle, threading his way between cowpats and children… and, in
another time and place, told Ms friend the Rani of Cooch Naheen: 'I started
off as a Kashmiri and not much of a Muslim. Then I got a bruise on the
chest that turned me into an Indian. I'm still not much of a Muslim, but I'm
all for Abdullah. He's fighting my fight.' His eyes were still the blue of
Kashmiri sky… he arrived home, and although Ms eyes retained a glimmer
of contentment, the whistling stopped; because waiting for him in the
courtyard filled with malevolent geese were the disapproving features of my
grandmama, Naseem Aziz, whom he had made the mistake of loving in
fragments, and who was now unified and transmuted into the formidable
figure she would always remain, and who was always known by the curious
title of Reverend Mother.
She had become a prematurely old, wide woman, with two enormous
moles like witch's nipples on her face; and she lived within an invisible
fortress of her own making, an ironclad citadel of traditions and certainties.
Earlier that year Aadam Aziz had commissioned life-size blow-up
photographs of his family to hang on the living-room wall; the three girls
and two boys had posed dutifully enough, but Reverend Mother had
rebelled when her turn came. Eventually, the photographer had tried to
catch her unawares, but she seized Ms camera and broke it over his skull.
Fortunately, he lived; but there are no photographs of my grandmother
anywhere on the earth. She was not one to be trapped in anyone's little
black box. It was enough for her that she must live in unveiled, barefaced
shamelessness-there was no question of allowing the fact to be recorded.
It was perhaps the obligation of facial nudity, coupled with Aziz's
constant requests for her to move beneath Mm, that had driven her to the
barricades; and the domestic rules she established were a system of
self-defence so impregnable that Aziz, after many fruitless attempts, had
more or less given up trying to storm her many ravelins and bastions,
leaving her, like a large smug spider, to rule her chosen domain. (Perhaps,
too, it wasn't a system of self-defence at all, but a means of defence
against her self.)
Among the things to which she denied entry were all political matters.
When Doctor Aziz wished to talk about such things, he visited his friend the
Rani, and Reverend Mother sulked; but not very hard, because she knew
Ms visits represented a victory for her.
The twin hearts of her kingdom were her kitchen and her pantry. I
never entered the former, but remembered staring through the pantry's
locked screen-doors at the enigmatic world within, a world of hanging wire
baskets covered with linen cloths to keep out the flies, of tins wMch I knew
to be full of gur and other sweets, of locked chests with neat square labels,
of nuts and turnips and sacks of grain, of goose-eggs and wooden brooms.
Pantry and kitchen were her inalienable territory; and she defended them
ferociously. When she was carrying her last child, my aunt Emerald, her
husband offered to relieve her of the chore of supervising the cook. She did
not reply; but the next day, when Aziz approached the kitchen, she
emerged from it with a metal pot in her hands and barred the doorway. She
was fat and also pregnant, so there was not much room left in the doorway.
Aadam Aziz frowned. 'What is this, wife?' To which my grandmother
answered, 'This, whatsitsname, is a very heavy pot; and if just once I catch
you in here, whatsitsname, I'll push your head into it, add some dahi, and
make, whatsitsname, a korma.' I don't know how my grandmother came to
adopt the term whatsitsname as her leitmotif, but as the years passed it
invaded her sentences more and more often. I like to think of it as an
unconscious cry for help… as a seriously-meant question. Reverend
Mother was giving us a hint that, for all her presence and bulk, she was
adrift in the universe. She didn't know, you see, what it was called.
… And at the dinner-table, imperiously, she continued to rule. No food
was set upon the table, no plates were laid. Curry and crockery were
marshalled upon a low side-table by her right hand, and Aziz and the
cMldren ate what she dished out. It is a sign of the power of this custom
that, even when her husband was afflicted by constipation, she never once
permitted Mm to choose Ms food, and listened to no requests or words of
advice. A fortress may not move. Not even when its dependants'
movements become irregular.
During the long concealment of Nadir Khan, during the visits to the
house on Cornwallis Road of young Zulfikar who fell in love with Emerald
and of the prosperous reccine-and-leathercloth merchant named Ahmed
Sinai who hurt my aunt Alia so badly that she bore a grudge for twenty-five
years before discharging it cruelly upon my mother, Reverend Mother's iron
grip upon her household never faltered; and even before Nadir's arrival
precipitated the great silence, Aadam Aziz had tried to break this grip, and
been obliged to go to war with his wife. (All this helps to show how
remarkable his affliction by optimism actually was.)
… In 1932, ten years earlier, he had taken control of his children's
education. Reverend Mother was dismayed; but it was a father's traditional
role, so she could not object. Alia was eleven; the second daughter,
Mumtaz, was almost nine. The two boys, Hanif and Mustapha, were eight
and six, and young Emerald was not yet five. Reverend Mother took to
confiding her fears to the family cook, Daoud. 'He fills their heads with I
don't know what foreign languages, whatsitsname, and other rubbish also,
no doubt.' Daoud stirred pots and Reverend Mother cried, 'Do you wonder,
whatsitsname, that the little one calls herself Emerald? In English,
whatsitsname? That man will ruin my children for me. Put less cumin in
that, whatsitsname, you should pay more attention to your cooking and less
to minding other people's business.'
She made only one educational stipulation: religious instruction. Unlike
Aziz, who was racked by ambiguity, she had remained devout. 'You have
your Hummingbird,' she told him, 'but I, whatsitsname, have the Call of
God. A better noise, whatsitsname, than that man's hum.' It was one of her
rare political comments… and then the day arrived when Aziz Arew out the
religious tutor. Thumb and forefinger closed around the maulvi's ear.
Naseem Aziz saw her husband leading the stragglebearded wretch to the
door in the garden wall; gasped; then cried out as her husband's foot was
applied to the divine's fleshy parts. Unleashing thunderbolts, Reverend
Mother sailed into battle.
'Man without dignity!' she cursed her husband, and, 'Man without,
whatsitsname, shame!' Children watched from the safety of the back
verandah. And Aziz, 'Do you know what that man was teaching your
children?' And Reverend Mother hurling question against question, 'What
will you not do to bring disaster, whatsitsname, on our heads?'-But now
Aziz, 'You think it was Nastaliq script? Eh?'-to which his wife, warming up:
'Would you eat pig? Whatsitsname? Would you spit on the Quran?' And,
voice rising, the doctor ripostes, 'Or was it some verses of 'The Cow'? You
think that?'… Paying no attention, Reverend Mother arrives at her climax:
'Would you marry your daughters to Germans!?' And pauses, fighting for
breath, letting my grandfather reveal, 'He was teaching them to hate, wife.
He tells them to hate Hindus and Buddhists and Jains and Sikhs and who
knows what other vegetarians. Will you have hateful children, woman?'
'Will you have godless ones?' Reverend Mother envisages the legions
of the Archangel Gabriel descending at night to carry her heathen brood to
hell. She has vivid pictures of hell. It is as hot as Rajputana in June and
everyone is made to learn seven foreign languages… 'I take this oath,
whatsitsname,' my grandmother said, 'I swear no food will come from my
kitchen to your lips! No, not one chapati, until you bring the maulvi sahib
back and kiss his, whatsitsname, feet!'
The war of starvation which began that day very nearly became a duel
to the death. True to her word, Reverend Mother did not hand her husband,
at mealtimes, so much as an empty plate. Doctor Aziz took immediate
reprisals, by refusing to feed himself when he was out. Day by day the five
children watched their father disappearing, while their mother grimly
guarded the dishes of food. 'Will you be able to vanish completely?'
Emerald asked with interest, adding solicitously, 'Don't do it unless you
know how to come back again.' Aziz's face acquired craters; even his nose
appeared to be getting thinner. His body had become a battlefield and each
day a piece of it was blasted away. He told Alia, his eldest, the wise child:
'In any war, the field of battle suffers worse devastation than either army.
This is natural.' He began to take rickshaws when he did his rounds.
Hamdard the rickshaw-wallah began to worry about him.
The Rani of Cooch Naheen sent emissaries to plead with Reverend
Mother. 'India isn't full enough of starving people?' the emissaries asked
Naseem, and she unleashed a basilisk glare which was already becoming
a legend. Hands clasped in her lap, a muslin dupatta wound miser-tight
around her head, she pierced her visitors with lidless eyes and stared them
down. Their voices turned to stone; their hearts froze; and alone in a room
with strange men, my grandmother sat in triumph, surrounded by downcast
eyes. 'Full enough, whatsitsname?' she crowed. 'Well, perhaps. But also,
perhaps not.'
But the truth was that Naseem Aziz was very anxious; because while
Aziz's death by starvation would be a clear demonstration of the superiority
of her idea of the world over his, she was unwilling to be widowed for a
mere principle; yet she could see no way out of the situation which did not
involve her in backing down and losing face, and having learned to bare
her face, my grandmother was most reluctant to lose any of it.
'Fall ill, why don't you?'-Alia, the wise child, found the solution.
Reverend Mother beat a tactical retreat, announced a pain, a killing pain
absolutely, whatsitsname, and took to her bed. In her absence Alia
extended the olive branch to her father, in the shape of a bowl of chicken
soup. Two days later, Reverend Mother rose (having refused to be
examined by her husband for the first time in her life), reassumed her
powers, and with a shrug of acquiescence in her daughter's decision,
passed Aziz his food as though it were a mere trifle of a business.
That was ten years earlier; but still, in 1942, the old men at the
paan-shop are stirred by the sight of the whistling doctor into giggling
memories of the time when his wife had nearly made him do a
disappearing trick, even though he didn't know how to come back. Late into
the evening they nudge each other with, 'Do you remember when-' and
'Dried up like a skeleton on a washing line! He couldn't even ride his-' and
'-I tell you, baba, that woman could do terrible things. I heard she could
even dream her daughters' dreams, just to know what they were getting up
to!' But as evening settles in the nudges die away, because it is time for the
contest. Rhythmically, in silence, their jaws move; then all of a sudden
there is a pursing of lips, but what emerges is not air-made-sound. No
whistle, but instead a long red jet of betel-juice passes decrepit lips, and
moves in unerring accuracy towards an old brass spittoon. There is much
slapping of thighs and self-admiring utterance of 'Wah, wah, sir!' and,
'Absolute master shot!'… Around the oldsters, the town fades into desultory
evening pastimes. Children play hoop and kabaddi and draw beards on
posters of Mian Abdullah. And now the old men place the spittoon in the
street, further and further from their squatting-place, and aim longer and
longer jets at it. Still the fluid flies true. 'Oh too good, yara!' The street
urchins make a game of dodging in and out between the red streams,
superimposing this game of chicken upon the serious art of
hit-the-spittoon… But here is an army staff car, scattering urchins as it
comes… here, Brigadier Dodson, the town's military commander, stifling
with heat… and here, his A.D.C., Major Zulfikar, passing him a towel.
Dodson mops his face; urchins scatter; the car knocks over the spittoon. A
dark red fluid with clots in it like blood congeals like a red hand in the dust
of the street and points accusingly at the retreating power of the Raj.
Memory of a mildewing photograph (perhaps the work of the same
poor brained photographer whose life-size blow-ups so nearly cost him his
life): Aadam Aziz, aglow with optimism-fever, shakes hands with a man of
sixty or so, an impatient, sprightly type with a lock of white hair falling
across his brow like a kindly scar. It is Mian Abdullah, the Hummingbird.
('You see, Doctor Sahib, I keep myself fit. You wish to hit me in the
stomach? Try, try. I'm in tiptop shape.'… In the photograph, folds of a loose
white shirt conceal the stomach, and my grandfather's fist is not clenched,
but swallowed up by the hand of the ex-conjurer.) And behind them, looking
benignly on, the Rani of Cooch Naheen, who was going white in blotches, a
disease which leaked into history and erupted on an enormous scale
shortly after Independence… 'I am the victim,' the Rani whispers, through
photographed lips that never move, 'the hapless victim of my cross-cultural
concerns. My skin is the outward expression of the internationalism of my
spirit.' Yes, there is a conversation going on in this photograph, as like
expert ventriloquists the optimists meet their leader. Beside the Rani-listen
carefully now; history and ancestry are about to meet!-stands a peculiar
fellow, soft and paunchy, his eyes like stagnant ponds, his hair long like a
poet's. Nadir Khan, the Hummingbird's personal secretary. His feet, if they
were not frozen by the snapshot, would be shuffling in embarrassment. He
mouths through his foolish, rigid smile, 'It's true; I have written verses…'
Whereupon Mian Abdullah interrupts, booming through his open mouth
with glints of pointy teeth: 'But what verses! Not one rhyme in page after
page!…' And the Rani, gently: 'A modernist, then?' And Nadir, shyly: 'Yes.'
What tensions there are now in the still, immobile scene! What edgy banter,
as the Hummingbird speaks: 'Never mind about that; art should uplift; it
should remind us of our glorious literary heritage!'… And is that a shadow,
or a frown on his secretary's brow?… Nadir's voice, issuing lowaslow from
the fading picture: 'I do not believe in high art, Mian Sahib. Now art must be
beyond categories; my poetry and-oh-the game of hit-the-spittoon are
equals.'… So now the Rani, kind woman that she is, jokes, 'Well, I shall set
aside a room, perhaps; for paan-eating and spittoon-hittery. I have a
superb silver spittoon, inlaid with lapis lazuli, and you must all come and
practise. Let the walls be splashed with our inaccurate expectorating! They
will be honest stains, at least.' And now the photograph has run out of
words; now I notice, with my mind's eye, that all the while the Hummingbird
has been staring towards the door, which is past my grandfather's shoulder
at the very edge of the picture. Beyond the door, history calls. The
Hummingbird is impatient to get away… but he has been with us, and his
presence has brought us two threads which will pursue me through all my
days: the thread that leads to the ghetto of the magicians; and the thread
that tells the story of Nadir the rhymeless, verbless poet and a priceless
silver spittoon.
'What nonsense,' our Padma says. 'How can a picture talk? Stop now;
you must be too tired to think.' But when I say to her that Mian Abdullah
had the strange trait of humming without pause, humming in a strange way,
neither musical nor unmusical, but somehow mechanical, the hum of an
engine or dynamo, she swallows it easily enough, saying judiciously, 'Well,
if he was such an energetic man, it's no surprise to me.' She's all ears
again; so I warm to my theme and report that Mian Abdullah's hum rose
and fell in direct relationship to his work rate. It was a hum that could fall
low enough to give you toothache, and when it rose to its highest, most
feverish pitch, it had the ability of inducing erections in anyone within its
vicinity. ('Arre baap,' Padma laughs, 'no wonder he was so popular with the
men!') Nadir Khan, as his secretary, was attacked constantly by his
master's vibratory quirk, and his ears jaw penis were forever behaving
according to the dictates of the Hummingbird. Why, then, did Nadir stay,
despite erections which embarrassed him in the company of strangers,
despite aching molars and a work schedule which often occupied
twenty-two hours in every twenty-four? Not-I believe-because he saw it as
his poetic duty to get close to the centre of events and transmute them into
literature. Nor because he wanted fame for himself. No: but Nadir had one
thing in common with my grandfather, and it was enough. He, too, suffered
from the optimism disease.
Like Aadam Aziz, like the Rani of Cooch Naheen, Nadir Khan loathed
the Muslim League ('That bunch of toadies!' the Rani cried in her silvery
voice, swooping around the octaves like a skier. 'Landowners with vested
interests to protect! What do they have to do with Muslims? They go like
toads to the British and form governments for them, now mat the Congress
refuses to do it!' It was the year of the 'Quit India' resolution. 'And what's
more,' the Rani said with finality, 'they are mad. Otherwise why would they
want to partition India?')
Mian Abdullah, the Hummingbird, had created the Free Islam
Convocation almost single-handedly. He invited the leaders of the dozens
of Muslim splinter groups to form a loosely federated alternative to the
dogmatism and vested interests of the Leaguers. It had been a great
conjuring trick, because they had all come. That was the first Convocation,
in Lahore; Agra would see the second. The marquees would be filled with
members of agrarian movements, urban labourers' syndicates, religious
divines and regional groupings. It would see confirmed what the first
assembly had intimated: that the League, with its demand for a partitioned
India, spoke on nobody's behalf but its own. They have turned their backs
on us,' said the Convocation's posters, 'and now they claim we're standing
behind them!' Mian Abdullah opposed the partition.
In the throes of the optimism epidemic, the Hummingbird's patron, the
Rani of Cooch Naheen, never mentioned the clouds on the horizon. She
never pointed out that Agra was a Muslim League stronghold, saying only,
'Aadam my boy, if the Hummingbird wants to hold Convocation here, I'm
not about to suggest he goes to Allahabad.' She was bearing the entire
expense of the event without complaint or interference; not, let it be said,
without making enemies in the town. The Rani did not live like other Indian
princes. Instead of teetar-hunts, she endowed scholarships. Instead of
hotel scandals, she had politics. And so the rumours began. 'These
scholars of hers, man, everyone knows they have to perform
extra-curricular duties. They go to her bedroom in the dark, and she never
lets them see her blotchy face, but bewitches them into bed with her voice
of a singing witch!' Aadam Aziz had never believed in witches. He enjoyed
her brilliant circle of friends who were as much at home in Persian as they
were in German. But Naseem Aziz, who half-believed the stories about the
Rani, never accompanied him to the princess's house. 'If God meant
people to speak many tongues,' she argued, 'why did he put only one in our
And so it was that none of the Hummingbird's optimists were prepared
for what happened. They played hit-the-spittoon, and ignored the cracks in
the earth.
Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the
facts. According to legend, then-according to the polished gossip of the
ancients at the paan-shop-Mian Abdullah owed his downfall to his
purchase, at Agra railway station, of a peacock-feather fan, despite Nadir
Khan's warning about bad luck. What is more, on that night of crescent
moons, Abdullah had been working with Nadir, so that when the new moon
rose they both saw it through glass. 'These things matter,' the
betel-chewers say. 'We have been alive too long, and we know.' (Padma is
nodding her head in agreement.)
The Convocation offices were on the ground floor of the historical
faculty building at the University campus. Abdullah and Nadir were coming
to the end of their night's work; the Hummingbird's hum was low-pitched
and Nadir's teeth were on edge. There was a poster on the office wall,
expressing Abdullah's favourite anti-Partition sentiment, a quote from the
poet Iqbal: 'Where can we find a land that is foreign to God?' And now the
assassins reached the campus.
Facts: Abdullah had plenty of enemies. The British attitude to him was
always ambiguous. Brigadier Dodson hadn't wanted him in town. There
was a knock on the door and Nadir answered it. Six new moons came into
the room, six crescent knives held by men dressed all in black, with
covered faces. Two men held Nadir while the others moved towards the
'At this point,' the betel-chewers say, 'the Hummingbird's hum became
higher. Higher and higher, yara, and the assassins' eyes became wide as
their members made tents under their robes. Then-Allah, then!-the knives
began to sing and Abdullah sang louder, humming high-high like he'd never
hummed before. His body was hard and the long curved blades had trouble
killing him; one broke on a rib, but the others quickly became stained with
red. But now-listen!-Abdullah's humming rose out of the range of our
human ears, and was heard by the dogs of the town. In Agra there are
maybe eight thousand four hundred and twenty pie-dogs. On that night, it is
certain that some were eating, others dying; there were some who
fornicated and others who did not hear the call. Say about two thousand of
these; that left six thousand four hundred and twenty of the curs, and all of
these turned and ran for the University, many of them rushing across the
railway tracks from the wrong side of town. It is well known that this is true.
Everyone in town saw it, except those who were asleep. They went noisily,
like an army, and afterwards their trail was littered with bones and dung
and bits of hair… and all the time Abdullahji was humming,
humming-humming, and the knives were singing. And know this: suddenly
one of the killers' eyes cracked and fell out of its socket. Afterwards the
pieces of glass were found, ground into the carpet!'
They say, 'When the dogs came Abdullah was nearly dead and the
knives were blunt… they came like wild things, leaping through the window,
which had no glass because Abdullah's hum had shattered it… they
thudded against the door until the wood broke… and then they were
everywhere, baba!… some without legs, others lacking hair, but most of
them had some teeth at least, and some of these were sharp… And now
see this: the assassins cannot have feared interruption, because they had
posted no guards; so the dogs got them by surprise… the two men holding
Nadir Khan, that spineless one, fell beneath the weight of the beasts, with
maybe sixty-eight dogs on their necks… afterwards the killers were so
badly damaged that nobody could say who they were.'
'At some point,' they say, 'Nadir dived out of the window and ran. The
dogs and assassins were too busy to follow him.'
Dogs? Assassins?… If you don't believe me, check. Find out about
Mian Abdullah and his Convocations. Discover how we've swept his story
under the carpet… then let me tell how Nadir Khan, his lieutenant, spent
three years under my family's rugs.
As a young man he had shared a room with a painter whose paintings
had grown larger and larger as he tried to get the whole of life into his art.
'Look at me,' he said before he killed himself, 'I wanted to be a miniaturist
and I've got elephantiasis instead!' The swollen events of the night of the
crescent knives reminded Nadir Khan of his room-mate, because life had
once again, perversely, refused to remain life-sized. It had turned
melodramatic: and that embarrassed him.
How did Nadir Khan run across the night town without being noticed? I
put it down to his being a bad poet, and as such, a born survivor. As he
ran, there was a self-consciousness about him, his body appearing to
apologize for behaving as if it were in a cheap thriller, of the sort hawkers
sell on railway stations, or give away free with bottles of green medicine
that can cure colds, typhoid, impotence, homesickness and poverty… On
Cornwallis Road, it was a warm night. A coal-brazier stood empty by the
deserted rickshaw rank. The paan-shop was closed and the old men were
asleep on the roof, dreaming of tomorrow's game. An insomniac cow, idly
chewing a Red and White cigarette packet, strolled by a bundled
street-sleeper, which meant he would wake in the morning, because a cow
will ignore a sleeping man unless he's about to die. Then it nuzzles at him
thoughtfully. Sacred cows eat anything.
My grandfather's large old stone house, bought from the proceeds of
the gemstone shops and blind Ghani's dowry settlement, stood in the
darkness, set back a dignified distance from the road. There was a
walled-in garden at the rear and by the garden door was the low outhouse
rented cheaply to the family of old Hamdard and his son Rashid the
rickshaw boy. In front of the outhouse was the well with its cow-driven
waterwheel, from which irrigation channels ran down to the small cornfield
which lined the house all way to the gate in the perimeter wall along
Cornwallis Road. Between house and field ran a small gully for pedestrians
and rickshaws. In Agra the cycle-rickshaw had recently replaced the kind
where a man stood between wooden shafts. There was still trade for the
horse-drawn tongas, but it was dwindling… Nadir Khan ducked in through
the gate, squatted for a moment with his back to the perimeter wall,
reddening as he passed his water. Then, seemingly upset by the vulgarity
of his decision, he fled to the cornfield and plunged in. Partially concealed
by the sun-withered stalks, he lay down in the foetal position.
Rashid the rickshaw boy was seventeen and on his way home from
the cinema. That morning he'd seen two men pushing a low trolley on
which were mounted two enormous hand-painted posters, back-to-back,
advertising the new film Gat-Wallah, starring Rashid's favourite actor Dev.
fresh from fifty fierce weeks in delhi! STRAIGHT FROM SIXTY-THREE
SHARPSHOOTER WEEKS IN bombay! the posters cried. second
rip-roarious year! The film was an eastern Western. Its hero, Dev, who was
not slim, rode the range alone. It looked very like the Indo-Gangetic plain.
Gai-Wallah means cow-fellow and Dev played a sort of one-man vigilante
force for the protection of cows. single-handed! and double-barrelled!, he
stalked the many herds of cattle which were being driven across the range
to the slaughterhouse, vanquished the cattlemen and liberated the sacred
beasts. (The film was made for Hindu audiences; in Delhi it had caused
riots. Muslim Leaguers had driven cows past cinemas to the slaughter, and
had been mobbed.) The songs and dances were good and there was a
beautiful nautch girl who would have looked more graceful if they hadn't
made her dance in a ten-gallon cowboy hat. Rashid sat on a bench in the
front stalls and joined in the whistles and cheers. He ate two samosas,
spending too much money; his mother would be hurt but he'd had a fine
time. As he pedalled his rickshaw home he practised some of the fancy
riding he'd seen in the film, hanging down low on one side, freewheeling
down a slight slope, using the rickshaw the way Gai-Wallah used his horse
to conceal him from his enemies. Eventually he reached up, turned the
handlebars and to his delight the rickshaw moved sweetly through the gate
and down the gully by the cornfield. Gai-Wallah had used this trick to steal
up on a gang of cattlemen as they sat in the brush, drinking and gambling.
Rashid applied the brakes and flung himself into the cornfield,
running-full-tilt!-at the unsuspecting cattlemen, his guns cocked and ready.
As he neared their camp-fire he released his 'yell of hate' to frighten them.
yaaaaaaaa! Obviously he did not really shout so close to the Doctor
Sahib's house, but he distended his mouth as he ran, screaming silently.
blamm! blamm! Nadir Khan had been finding sleep hard to come by and
now he opened his eyes. He saw-eeeyaaah!-a wild stringy figure coming at
him like a mail-train, yelling at the top of his voice-but maybe he had gone
deaf, because there wasn't any noise!-and he was rising to his feet, the
shriek was just passing his over-plump lips, when Rashid saw him and
found voice as well. Hooting in terrified unison, they both turned tail and
ran. Then they stopped, each having noted the other's flight, and peered at
one another through the shrivelling corn. Rashid recognized Nadir Khan,
saw his torn clothes and was deeply troubled.
'I am a friend,' Nadir said foolishly. 'I must see Doctor Aziz.'
'But the Doctor is asleep, and is not in the cornfield.' Pull yourself
together, Rashid told himself, stop talking nonsense! This is Mian
Abdullah's friend!… But Nadir didn't seem to have noticed; his face was
working furiously, trying to get out some words which had stuck like shreds
of chicken between his teeth… 'My life,' he managed it at last, 'is in danger.'
And now Rashid, still full of the spirit of Gai-Wallah, came to the
rescue. He led Nadir to a door in the side of the house. It was bolted and
locked; but Rashid pulled, and the lock came away in his hand.
'Indian-made' he whispered, as if that explained everything. And, as Nadir
stepped inside, Rashid hissed, 'Count on me completely, sahib. Mum's the
word! I swear on my mother's grey hairs.'
He replaced the lock on the outside. To have actually saved the
Hummingbird's right-hand man!… But from what? Whom?… Well, real life
was better than the pictures, sometimes.
'Is that him?' Padma asks, in some confusion. 'That fat soft cowardly
plumpie? Is he going to be your father?'
Under the carpet
That was the end of the optimism epidemic. In the morning a
sweeper-woman entered the offices of the Free Islam Convocation and
found the Hummingbird, silenced, on the floor, surrounded by paw-prints
and the shreds of his murderers. She screamed; but later, when the
authorities had been and gone, she was told to clean up the room. After
clearing away innumerable dog-hairs, swatting countless fleas and
extracting from the carpet the remnants of a shattered glass eye, she
protested to the University's comptroller of works that, if this sort of thing
was going to keep happening, she deserved a small pay rise. She was
possibly the last victim of the optimism bug, and in her case the illness
didn't last long, because the comptroller was a hard man, and gave her the
The assassins were never identified, nor were their paymasters
named. My grandfather was called to the campus by Major Zulfikar,
Brigadier Dodson's A.D.C., to write his friend's death certificate. Major
Zulfikar promised to call on Doctor Aziz to tie up a few loose ends; my
grandfather blew his nose and left. At the maidan, tents were coming down
like punctured hopes; the Convocation would never be held again. The
Rani of Cooch Naheen took to her bed. After a lifetime of making light of
her illnesses she allowed them to claim her, and lay still for years, watching
herself turn the colour of her bedsheets. Meanwhile, in the old house on
Cornwallis Road, the days were full of potential mothers and possible
fathers. You see, Padma: you're going to find out now.
Using my nose (because, although it has lost the powers which
enabled it, so recently, to make history, it has acquired other,
compensatory gifts)-turning it inwards, I've been sniffing out the
atmosphere in my grandfather's house in those days after the death of
India's humming hope; and wafting down to me through the years comes a
curious melange of odours, filled with unease, the whiff of things concealed
mingling with the odours of burgeoning romance and the sharp stink of my
grandmother's curiosity and strength… while the Muslim League rejoiced,
secretly of course, at the fall of its opponent, my grandfather could be found
(my nose finds him) seated every morning on what he called his
'thunderbox', tears standing in his eyes. But these are not tears of grief;
Aadam Aziz has simply paid the price of being Indianized, and suffers
terribly from constipation. Balefully, he eyes the enema contraption hanging
on the toilet wall.
Why have I invaded my grandfather's privacy? Why, when I might
have described how, after Mian Abdullah's death, Aadam buried himself in
his work, taking upon himself the care of the sick in the shanty-towns by the
railway tracks-rescuing them from quacks who injected them with
pepperwater and thought that fried spiders could cure blindness-while
continuing to fulfil his dudes as university physician; when I might have
elaborated on the great love that had begun to grow between my
grandfather and his second daughter, Mumtaz, whose dark skin stood
between her and the affections of her mother, but whose gifts of
gentleness, care and fragility endeared her to her father with his inner
torments which cried out for her form of unquestioning tenderness; why,
when I might have chosen to describe the by-now-constant itch in his nose,
do I choose to wallow in excrement? Because this is where Aadam Aziz
was, on the afternoon after his signing of a death certificate, when all of a
sudden a voice-soft, cowardly, embarrassed, the voice of a rhymeless
poet-spoke to him from the depths of the large old laundry-chest standing
in the corner of the room, giving him a shock so profound that it proved
laxative, and the enema contraption did not have to be unhooked from its
perch. Rashid the rickshaw boy had let Nadir Khan into the
thunderbox-room by way of the sweeper's entrance, and he had taken
refuge in the washing-chest. While my grandfather's astonished sphincter
relaxed, his ears heard a request for sanctuary, a request muffled by linen,
dirty underwear, old shirts and the embarrassment of the speaker. And so it
was that Aadam Aziz resolved to hide Nadir Khan.
Now comes the scent of a quarrel, because Reverend Mother Naseem
is thinking about her daughters, twenty-one-year-old Alia, black Mumtaz,
who is nineteen, and pretty, nighty Emerald, who isn't fifteen yet but has a
look in her eyes that's older than anything her sisters possess. In the town,
among spittoon-hitters and rickshaw-wallahs, among film-poster-trolley
pushers and college students alike, the three sisters are known as the
Teen Batti', the three bright lights…and how can Reverend Mother permit a
strange man to dwell in the same house as Alia's gravity, Mumtaz's black,
luminous skin and Emerald's eyes?… 'You are out of your mind, husband;
that death has hurt your brain.' But Aziz, determinedly: 'He is staying.' In
the cellars… because concealment has always been a crucial architectural
consideration in India, so that Aziz's house has extensive underground
chambers, which can be reached only through trap-doors in the floors,
which are covered by carpets and mats… Nadir Khan hears the dull rumble
of the quarrel and fears for his fate. My God (I sniff the thoughts of the
clammy-palmed poet), the world is gone insane… are we men in this
country? Are we beasts? And if I must go, when will the knives come for
me?… And through his mind pass images of peacock-feather fans and the
new moon seen through glass and transformed into a stabbing, red-stained
blade… Upstairs, Reverend Mother says, 'The house is full of young
unmarried girls, whatsitsname; is this how you show your daughters
respect?' And now the aroma of a temper lost; the great destroying rage of
Aadam Aziz is unleashed, and instead of pointing out that Nadir Khan will
be under ground, swept under the carpet where he will scarcely be able to
defile daughters; instead of paying due testimony to the verbless bard's
sense of propriety, which is so advanced that he could not even dream of
making improper advances without blushing in his sleep; instead of these
avenues of reason, my grandfather bellows, 'Be silent, woman! The man
needs our shelter; he will stay.' Whereupon an implacable perfume, a hard
cloud of determination settles upon my grandmother, who says, 'Very well.
You ask me, whatsitsname, for silence. So not one word, whatsitsname,
will pass my lips from now on.' And Aziz, groaning, 'Oh, damnation,
woman, spare us your crazy oaths!'
But Reverend Mother's lips were sealed, and silence descended. The
smell of silence, like a rotting goose-egg, fills my nostrils; overpowering
everything else, it possesses the earth… While Nadir Khan hid in his half-lit
underworld, his hostess hid, too, behind a deafening wall of soundlessness.
At first my grandfather probed the wall, looking for chinks; he found none.
At last he gave up, and waited for her sentences to offer up their glimpses
of her self, just as once he had lusted after the brief fragments of her body
he had seen through a perforated sheet; and the silence filled the house,
from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling, so that the flies seemed to give up
buzzing, and mosquitoes refrained from humming before they bit; silence
stilling the hissing of geese in the courtyard. The children spoke in whispers
at first, and then fell quiet: while in the cornfield, Rashid the rickshaw boy
yelled his silent 'yell of hate', and kept his own vow of silence, which he had
sworn upon his mother's hairs.
Into this bog of muteness there came, one evening, a short man
whose head was as flat as the cap upon it; whose legs were as bowed as
reeds in the wind; whose nose nearly touched his up-curving chin; and
whose voice, as a result, was thin and sharp-it had to be, to squeeze
through the narrow gap between his breathing apparatus and his jaw… a
man whose short sight obliged him to take life one step at a time, which
gained him a reputation for thoroughness and dullness, and endeared him
to his superiors by enabling them to feel well-served without feeling
threatened; a man whose starched, pressed uniform reeked of Blanco and
rectitude, and about whom, despite his appearance of a character out of a
puppet-show, there hung the unmistakable scent of success: Major
Zulfikar, a man with a future, came to call, as he had promised, to tie up a
few loose ends. Abdullah's murder, and Nadir Khan's suspicious
disappearance, were much on his mind, and since he knew about Aadam
Aziz's infection by the optimism bug, he mistook the silence in the house
for a hush of mourning, and did not stay for long. (In the cellar, Nadir
huddled with cockroaches.) Sitting quietly in the drawing-room with the five
children, his hat and stick beside him on the Telefunken radiogram, the
life-size images of the young Azizes staring at him from the walls, Major
Zulfikar fell in love. He was short-sighted, but he wasn't blind, and in the
impossibly adult gaze of young Emerald, the brightest of the 'three bright
lights', he saw that she had understood his future, and forgiven him,
because of it, for his appearance; and before he left, he had decided to
marry her after a decent interval. ('Her?' Padma guesses. 'That hussy is
your mother?' But there are other mothers-to-be, other future fathers,
wafting in and out through the silence.)
In that marshy time without words the emotional life of grave Alia, the
eldest, was also developing; and Reverend Mother, locked up in the pantry
and kitchen, sealed behind her lips, was incapable-because of her vow-of
expressing her distrust of the young merchant in reccine and leathercloth
who came to visit her daughter. (Aadam Aziz had always insisted that his
daughters be permitted to have male friends.) Ahmed Sinai-'Ahaa!' yells
Padma in triumphant recognition-had met Alia at the University, and
seemed intelligent enough for the bookish, brainy girl on whose face my
grandfather's nose had acquired an air of overweight wisdom; but Naseem
Aziz felt uneasy about him, because he had been divorced at twenty.
('Anyone can make one mistake,' Aadam had told her, and that nearly
began a fight, because she thought for a moment that there had been
something overly personal in his tone of voice. But then Aadam had added,
'Just let this divorce of his fade away for a year or two; then we'll give this
house its first wedding, with a big marquee in the garden, and singers and
sweetmeats and all.' Which, despite everything, was an idea that appealed
to Naseem.) Now, wandering through the walled-jn gardens of silence,
Ahmed Sinai and Alia communed without speech; but although everyone
expected him to propose, the silence seemed to have got through to him,
too, and the question remained unasked. Alia's face acquired a weigh
tiness at this time, a jowly pessimistic quality which she was never entirely
to lose. ('Now then,' Padma reproves me, 'that's no way to describe your
respected motherji.')
One more thing: Alia had inherited her mother's tendency to put on fat.
She would balloon outwards with the passing years.
And Mumtaz, who had come out of her mother's womb black as
midnight? Mumtaz was never brilliant; not as beautiful as Emerald; but she
was good, and dutiful, and alone. She spent more time with her father than
any of her sisters, fortifying him against the bad temper which was being
exaggerated nowadays by the constant itch in his nose; and she took upon
herself the duties of caring for the needs of Nadir Khan, descending daily
into his underworld bearing trays of food, and brooms, and even emptying
his personal thunderbox, so that not even a latrine cleaner could guess at
his presence. When she descended, he lowered his eyes; and no words, in
that dumb house, were exchanged between them.
What was it the spittoon hitters said about Naseem Aziz? 'She
eavesdropped on her daughters' dreams, just to know what they were up
to.' Yes, there's no other explanation, stranger things have been known to
happen in this country of ours, just pick up any newspaper and see the
daily titbits recounting miracles in this village or that-Reverend Mother
began to dream her daughters' dreams. (Padma accepts this without
blinking; but what others will swallow as effortlessly as a laddoo, Padma
may just as easily reject. No audience is without its idiosyncrasies of
belief.) So, then: asleep in her bed at night, Reverend Mother visited
Emerald's dreams, and found another dream within them-Major Zulfikar's
private fantasy, of owning a large modern house with a bath beside his
bed. This was the zenith of the Major's ambitions; and in this way Reverend
Mother discovered, not only that her daughter had been meeting her Zulfy
in secret, in places where speech was possible, but also that Emerald's
ambitions were greater than her man's. And (why not?) in Aadam Aziz's
dreams she saw her husband walking mournfully up a mountain in Kashmir
with a hole in his stomach the size of a fist, and guessed that he was falling
out of love with her, and also foresaw his death; so that years later, when
she heard, she said only. 'Oh, I knew it, after all.'
… It could not be long now, Reverend Mother thought, before our
Emerald tells her Major about the guest in the cellar; and then I shall be
able to speak again. But then, one night, she entered the dreams of her
daughter Mumtaz, the blackie whom she had never been able to love
because of her skin of a South Indian fisherwoman, and realized the
trouble would not stop there; because Mumtaz Aziz-like her admirer under
the carpets-was also falling in love.
There was no proof. The invasion of dreams-or a mother's knowledge,
or a woman's intuition, call it what you like-is not something that will stand
up in court, and Reverend Mother knew that it was a serious business to
accuse a daughter of getting up to hanky-panky under her father's roof. In
addition to which, something steely had entered Reverend Mother; and she
resolved to do nothing, to keep her silence intact, and let Aadam Aziz
discover just how badly his modern ideas were ruining his children-let Mm
find out for himself, after Ms lifetime of telling her to be quiet with her
decent old-fashioned notions. 'A bitter woman,' Padma says; and I agree.
'Well?' Padma demands. 'Was it true?'
Yes: after a fashion: true.
'There was hankying and pankying? In the cellars? Without even
Consider the circumstances-extenuating, if ever circumstances were.
Things seem permissible underground that would seem absurd or even
wrong in the clear light of day. 'That fat poet did it to the poor blackie? He
did?' He was down there a long time, too-long enough to start talking to
flying cockroaches and fearing that one day someone would ask Mm to
leave and dreaming of crescent knives and howling dogs and wishing and
wishing that the Hummingbird were alive to tell Mm what to do and to
discover that you could not write poetry underground; and then this girl
comes with food and she doesn't mind cleaning away your pots and you
lower your eyes but you see an ankle that seems to glow with
graciousness, a black ankle like the black of the underground nights…
'I'd never have thought he was up to it.' Padma sounds admiring. 'The
fat old good-for-notMng!'
And eventually in that house where everyone, even the fugitive Mding
in the cellar from Ms faceless enemies, finds his tongue cleaving dryly to
the roof of his mouth, where even the sons of the house have to go into the
cornfield with the rickshaw boy to joke about whores and compare the
length of their members and whisper furtively about dreams of being film
directors (HaniFs dream, which horrifies his dream-invading mother, who
believes the cinema to be an extension of the brothel business), where life
has been transmuted into grotesquery by the irruption into it of history,
eventually in the murkiness of the underworld he cannot help himself, he
finds his eyes straying upwards, up along delicate sandals and baggy
pajamas and past loose kurta and above the dupatta, the cloth of modesty,
until eyes meet eyes, and then
'And then? Come on, baba, what then?' shyly, she smiles at him.
And after that, there are smiles in the underworld, and something has
'Oh, so what? You're telling me that's all?'
That's all: until the day Nadir Khan asked to see my grandfather-his
sentences barely audible in the fog of silence-and asked for Ms daughter's
hand in marriage.
'Poor girl,' Padma concludes, 'Kashmiri girls are normally fair like
mountain snow, but she turned out black. Well, well, her skin would have
stopped her making a good match, probably; and that Nadir's no fool. Now
they'll have to let Mm stay, and get fed, and get a roof over Ms head, and
all he has to do is hide like a fat earthworm under the ground. Yes, maybe
he's not such a fool.'
My grandfather tried hard to persuade Nadir Khan that he was no
longer in danger; the assassins were dead, and Mian Abdullah had been
their real target; but Nadir Khan still dreamed about the singing knives, and
begged, 'Not yet, Doctor Sahib; please, some more time.' So that one night
in-the late summer of 1943-the rains had failed again-my grandfather, Ms
voice sounding distant and eerie in that house in which so few words were
spoken, assembled Ms children in the drawing-room where their portraits
hung. When they entered they discovered that their mother was absent,
having chosen to remain immured in her room with her web of silence; but
present were a lawyer and (despite Aziz's reluctance, he had complied with
Mumtaz's wishes) a mullah, both provided by the ailing Rani of Cooch
Naheen, both 'utterly discreet'. And their sister Mumtaz was there in bridal
finery, and beside her in a chair set in front of the radiogram was the
lank-haired, overweight, embarrassed figure of Nadir Khan. So it was that
the first wedding in the house was one at which there were no tents, no
singers, no sweetmeats and only a minimum of guests; and after the rites
were over and Nadir Khan lifted his bride's veil-giving Aziz a sudden shock,
making Mm young for a moment, and in Kashmir again, sitting on a dais
while people put rupees in his lap-my grandfather made them all swear an
oath not to reveal the presence in their cellar of their new brother-in-law.
Emerald, reluctantly, gave her promise last of all.
After that Aadam Aziz made his sons help him carry all manner of
furnishings down through the trap-door in the drawing-room floor: draperies
and cushions and lamps and a big comfortable bed. And at last Nadir and
Mumtaz stepped down into the vaults; the trap-door was shut and the
carpet rolled into place and Nadir Khan, who loved his wife as delicately as
a man ever had, had taken her into his underworld.
Mumtaz Aziz began to lead a double life. By day she was a single girl,
living chastely with her parents, studying mediocrely at the university,
cultivating those gifts of assiduity, nobility and forbearance which were to
be her hallmarks throughout her life, up to and including the time when she
was assailed by the talking washing-chests of her past and then squashed
flat as a rice pancake; but at night, descending through a trap-door, she
entered a lamplit, secluded marriage chamber which her secret husband
had taken to calling the Taj Mahal, because Taj Bibi was the name by
which people had called an earlier Mumtaz-Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Emperor
Shah Jehan, whose name meant 'king of the world'. When she died he built
her that mausoleum which has been immortalized on postcards and
chocolate boxes and whose outdoor corridors stink of urine and whose
walls are covered in graffiti and whose echoes are tested for visitors by
guides although there are signs in three languages pleading for silence.
Like Shah Jehan and his Mumtaz, Nadir and his dark lady lay side by side,
and lapis lazuli inlay work was their companion because the bedridden,
dying Rani of Cooch Naheen had sent them, as a wedding gift, a
wondrously-carved, lapis-inlaid, gemstone-crusted silver spittoon. In their
comfortable lamplit seclusion, husband and wife played the old men's
Mumtaz made the paans for Nadir but did not like the taste herself.
She spat streams of nibu-pani. His jets were red and hers were lime. It was
the happiest time of her life. And she said afterwards, at the ending of the
long silence, 'We would have had children in the end; only then it wasn't
right, that's all.' Mumtaz Aziz loved children all her life.
Meanwhile, Reverend Mother moved sluggishly through the months in
the grip of a silence which had become so absolute that even the servants
received their instructions in sign language, and once the cook Daoud had
been staring at her, trying to understand her somnolently frantic signalling,
and as a result had not been looking in the direction of the boiling pot of
gravy which fell upon his foot and fried it like a five-toed egg; he opened-his
mouth to scream but no sound emerged, and after that he became
convinced that the old hag had the power of witchery, and became too
scared to leave her service. He stayed until his death, hobbling around the
courtyard and being attacked by the geese.
They were not easy years. The drought led to rationing, and what with
the proliferation of meatless days and riceless days it was hard to feed an
extra, hidden mouth. Reverend Mother was forced to dig deep into her
pantry, which thickened her rage like heat under a sauce. Hairs began to
grow out of the moles on her face. Mumtaz noticed with concern that her
mother was swelling, month by month. The unspoken words inside her
were blowing her up… Mumtaz had the impression that her mother's skin
was becoming dangerously stretched.
And Doctor Aziz spent his days out of the house, away from the
deadening silence, so Mumtaz, who spent her nights underground, saw
very little in those days of the father whom she loved; and Emerald kept her
promise, telling the Major nothing about the family secret; but conversely,
she told her family nothing about her relationship with him, which was fair,
she thought; and in the cornfield Mustapha and Hanif and Rashid the
rickshaw boy became infected with the listlessness of the times; and finally
the house on Cornwallis Road drifted as far as August 9th, 1945, and
things changed.
Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed
to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the
past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately, this makes the
stories less juicy; so I am about to become the first and only member of my
family to flout the laws of halal. Letting no blood escape from the body of
the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted, press on.
What happened in August 1945? The Rani of Cooch Naheen died, but
that's not what I'm after, although when she went she had become so
sheetly-white that it was difficult to see her against the bed-clothes; having
fulfilled her function by bequeathing my story a silver spittoon, she had the
grace to exit quickly… also in 1945, the monsoons did not fail. In the
Burmese jungle, Orde Wingate and his Chindits, as well as the army of
Subhas Chandra Bose, which was fighting on the Japanese side, were
drenched by the returning rains. Satyagraha demonstrators in Jullundur,
lying non-violently across railway lines, were soaked to the skin. The cracks
in the long-parched earth began to close; there were towels wedged
against the doors and windows of the house on Cornwallis Road, and they
had to be wrung out and replaced constandy. Mosquitoes sprouted in the
pools of water standing by every roadside. And the cellar-Mumtaz's Taj
Mahal grew damp, until at last she fell ill. For some days she told nobody,
but when her eyes became red-rimmed and she began to shake with fever,
Nadir, fearing pneumonia, begged her to go to her father for treatment. She
spent the next many weeks back in her maiden's bed, and Aadam Aziz sat
by his daughter's bedside, putting cooling flannels on her forehead while
she shook. On August 6th the illness broke. On the morning of the 9th
Mumtaz was well enough to take a little solid food.
And now my grandfather fetched an old leather bag with the word
heidelberg burned into the leather at the base, because he had decided
that, as she was very run-down, he had better give her a thorough physical
check-up. As he unclasped the bag, his daughter began to cry.
(And now we're here. Padma: this is it.)
Ten minutes later the long time of silence was ended for ever as my
grandfather emerged roaring from the sick-room. He bellowed for his wife,
his daughters, his sons. His lungs were strong and the noise reached Nadir
Khan in the cellar. It would not have been difficult for him to guess what the
fuss was about.
The family assembled in the drawing-room around the radiogram,
beneath the ageless photographs. Aziz carried Mumtaz into the room and
set her down on a couch. His face looked terrible. Can you imagine how
the insides of his nose must have felt? Because he had this bombshell to
drop: that, after two years of marriage, his daughter was still a virgin.
It had been three years since Reverend Mother had spoken.
'Daughter, is this thing true?' The silence, which had been hanging in the
corners of the house like a torn cobweb, was finally blown away; but
Mumtaz just nodded: Yes. True.
Then she spoke. She said she loved her husband and the other thing
would come right in the end. He was a good man and when it was possible
to have children he would surely find it possible to do the thing. She said a
marriage should not depend on the thing, she had thought, so she had not
liked to mention it, and her father was not right to tell everyone out loud like
he had. She would have said more; but now Reverend Mother burst.
Three years of words poured out of her (but her body, stretched by the
exigencies of storing them, did not diminish). My grandfather stood very still
by the Telefunken as the storm broke over him. Whose idea had it been?
Whose crazy fool scheme, whatsitsname, to let this coward who wasn't
even a man into the house? To stay here, whatsitsname, free as a bird,
food and shelter for three years, what did you care about meatless days,
whatsitsname, what did you know about the cost of rice? Who was the
weakling, whatsitsname, yes, the white-haired weakling who had permitted
this iniquitous marriage? Who had put his daughter into that scoundrel's,
whatsitsname, bed? Whose head was full of every damn fool
incomprehensible thing, whatsitsname, whose brain was so softened by
fancy foreign ideas that he could send his child into such an unnatural
marriage? Who had spent his life offending God, whatsitsname, and on
whose head was this a judgment? Who had brought disaster down upon
his house… she spoke against my grandfather for an hour and nineteen
minutes and by the time she had finished the clouds had run out of water
and the house was full of puddles. And, before she ended, her youngest
daughter Emerald did a very curious thing.
Emerald's hands rose up beside her face, bunched into fists, but with
index fingers extended. Index fingers entered ear-holes and seemed to life
Emerald out of her chair until she was running, fingers plugging ears,
running-full-tilt!-without her dupatta on, out into the street, through the
puddles of water, past the rickshaw-stand, past the paan-shop where the
old men were just emerging cautiously into the clean fresh air of
after-the-rain, and her speed amazed the urchins who were on their marks,
waiting to begin their game of dodging in and out between the betel-jets,
because nobody was used to seeing a young lady, much less one of the
Teen Batti, running alone and distraught through the rain-soaked streets
with her fingers in her ears and no dupatta around her shoulders.
Nowadays, the cities are full of modern, fashionable, dupatta-less misses;
but back then the old men clicked their tongues in sorrow, because a
woman without a dupatta was a woman without honour, and why had
Emerald Bibi chosen to leave her honour at home? The old ones were
baffled, but Emerald knew. She saw, clearly, freshly in the after-rain air,
that the fountain-head of her family's troubles was that cowardly plumpie
(yes, Padma) who lived underground. If she could get rid of him everyone
would be happy again… Emerald ran without pausing to the Cantonment
district. The Cantt, where the army was based; where Major Zulfikar would
be! Breaking her oath, my aunt arrived at his office.
Zulfikar is a famous name amongst Muslims. It was the name of the
two-pronged sword carried by Ali, the nephew of the prophet Muhammad. It
was a weapon such as the world had never seen.
Oh, yes: something else was happening in the world that day. A
weapon such as the world had never seen was being dropped on yellow
people in Japan. But in Agra, Emerald was using a secret weapon of her
own. It was bandylegged, short, flat-headed; its nose almost touched its
chin; it dreamed of a big modern house with a plumbed-in bath right beside
the bed.
Major Zulfikar had never been absolutely sure whether or not he
believed Nadir Khan to have been behind the Hummingbird's murder; but
he itched for the chance to find out. When Emerald told him about Agra's
subterranean Taj, he became so excited that he forgot to be angry, and
rushed to Cornwallis Road with a force of fifteen men. They arrived in the
drawing-room with Emerald at their head. My aunt: treason with a beautiful
face, no dupatta and pink loose-pajamas. Aziz watched dumbly as the
soldiers rolled back the drawing-room carpet and opened the big trap-door
as my grandmother attempted to console Mumtaz. 'Women must marry
men,' she said. 'Not mice, whatsitsname! There is no shame in leaving that,
whatsitsname, worm.' But her daughter continued to cry.
Absence of Nadir in his underworld! Warned by Aziz's first roar,
overcome by the embarrassment which flooded over him more easily than
monsoon rain, he vanished. A trap-door flung open in one of the toilets-yes,
the very one, why not, in which he had spoken to Doctor Aziz from the
sanctuary of a washing-chest. A wooden 'thunderbox'-a 'throne'-lay on one
side, empty enamel pot rolling on coir matting. The toilet had an outside
door giving out on to the gully by the cornfield; the door was open. It had
been locked from the outside, but only with an Indian-made lock, so it had
been easy to force… and in the soft lamplit seclusion of the Taj Mahal, a
shining spittoon, and a note, addressed to Mumtaz, signed by her husband,
three words long, six syllables, three exclamation marks: Talaaq! Talaaq!
The English lacks the thunderclap sound of the Urdu, and anyway you
know what it means. I divorce thee. I divorce thee. I divorce thee. Nadir
Khan had done the decent thing.
О awesome rage of Major Zulfy when he found the bird had flown!
This was the colour he saw: red. О anger fully comparable to my
grandfather's fury, though expressed in petty gestures! Major Zulfy, at first,
hopped up and down in helpless fits of temper; controlled himself at last;
and-rushed out through bathroom, past throne, alongside cornfield, through
perimeter gate. No sign of a running, plump, longhair, rhymeless poet.
Looking left: nothing. And right: zero. Enraged Zulfy made his choice,
pelted past the cycle-rickshaw rank. Old men were playing hit-the-spittoon
and the spittoon was out in the street. Urchins, dodging in and out of the
streams of betel-juice. Major Zulfy ran, ononon. Between the old men and
their target, but he lacked the urchins' skill. What an unfortunate moment: a
low hard jet of red fluid caught him squarely in the crotch. A stain like a
hand clutched at the groin of his battledress; squeezed; arrested his
progress. Major Zulfy stopped in almighty wrath. О even more unfortunate;
because a second player, assuming the mad soldier would keep on
running' had unleashed a second jet. A second red hand clasped the first
and completed Major Zulfy's day… slowly, with deliberation, he went to the
spittoon and kicked it over, into the dust. He jumped on it-once! twice!
again!-flattening it, and refusing to show that it had hurt his foot. Then, with
some dignity, he limped away, back to the car parked outside my
grandfather's house. The old ones retrieved their brutalized receptacle and
began to knock it back into shape.
'Now that I'm getting married,' Emerald told Mumtaz, 'it'll be very rude
of you if you don't even try to have a good time. And you should be giving
me advice and everything.' At the time, although Mumtaz smiled at her
younger sister, she had thought it a great cheek on Emerald's part to say
this; and, unintentionally perhaps, had increased the pressure of the pencil
with which she was applying henna tracery to the soles of her sister's feet.
'Hey!' Emerald squealed, 'No need to get mad! I just thought we should try
to be friends.'
Relations between the sisters had been somewhat strained since
Nadir Khan's disappearance; and Mumtaz hadn't liked it when Major
Zulfikar (who had chosen not to charge my grandfather with harbouring a
wanted man, and squared it with Brigadier Dodson) asked for, and
received, permission to marry Emerald. 'It's like blackmail,' she thought.
'And anyway, what about Alia? The eldest shouldn't be married last, and
look how patient she's been with her merchant fellow.' But she said
nothing, and smiled her forebearing smile, and devoted her gift of assiduity
to the wedding preparations, and agreed to try and have a good time; while
Alia went on waiting for Ahmed Sinai. ('She'll wait forever,' Padma guesses:
January 1946. Marquees, sweetmeats, guests, songs, fainting bride,
stiff-at-attention groom: a beautiful wedding… at which the leather-cloth
merchant, Ahmed Sinai, found himself deep in conversation with the
newly-divorced Mumtaz. 'You love-children?-what a coincidence, so do I…'
'And you didn't have any, poor girl? Well, matter of fact, my wife couldn't…'
'Oh, no; how sad for you; and she must have been bad-tempered like
anything!''… Oh, like hell… excuse me. Strength of emotions carried me
away.''-Quite all right; don't think about it. Did she throw dishes and all?'
'Did she throw? In one month we had to eat out of newspaper!' 'No, my
goodness, what whoppers you tell!' 'Oh, it's no good, you're too clever for
me. But she did throw dishes all the same.' 'You poor, poor man.' 'No-you.
Poor, poor you.' And thinking: 'Such a charming chap, with Alia he always
looked so bored…' And,'… This girl, I never looked at her, but my
goodness me…' And,'… You can tell he loves children; and for that I
could…' And,'… Well, never mind about the skin…' It was noticeable that,
when it was time to sing, Mumtaz found the spirit to join in all the songs; but
Alia remained silent. She had been bruised even more badly than her
father in Jallianwala Bagh; and you couldn't see a mark on her.
'So, gloomy sis, you managed to enjoy yourself after all.'
In June that year, Mumtaz re-married. Her sister-taking her cue from
their mother-would not speak to her until, just before they both died, she
saw her chance of revenge. Aadam Aziz and Reverend Mother tried,
unsuccessfully, to persuade Alia that these things happen, it was better to
find out now than later, and Mumtaz had been badly hurt and needed a
man to help her recover… besides, Alia had brains, she would be all right.
'But, but,' Alia said, 'nobody ever married a book.' 'Change your name,'
Ahmed Sinai said. 'Time for a fresh start. Throw Mumtaz and her Nadir
Khan out of the window, I'll choose you a new name. Amina. Amina Sinai:
you'd like that?' 'Whatever you say, husband,' my mother said. 'Anyway,'
Alia, the wise child, wrote in her diary, 'who wants to get landed with this
marrying business? Not me; never; no.'
Mian Abdullah was a false start for a lot of optimistic people; his
assistant (whose name could not be spoken in my father's house) was my
mother's wrong turning. But those were the years of the drought; many
crops planted at that time ended up by coming to nothing.
'What happened to the plumpie?' Padma asks, crossly, 'You don't
mean you aren't going to tell?'
A public announcement
There followed an illusionist January, a time so still on its surface that
1947 seemed not to have begun at all. (While, of course, in fact…) In which
the Cabinet Mission-old Pethick-Lawrence, clever Cripps, military A. V.
Alexander-saw their scheme for the transfer of power fail. (But of course, in
fact it would only be six months until…) In which the viceroy, Wavell,
understood that he was finished, washed-up, or in our own expressive
word, funtoosh, (Which, of course, in fact only speeded things up, because
it let in the last of the viceroys, who…) In which Mr Attlee seemed too busy
deciding the future of Burma with Mr Aung Sam. (While, of course, in fact
he was briefing the last viceroy, before announcing his appointment; the
last-viceroy-to-be was visiting the King and being granted plenipotentiary
powers; so that soon, soon…) In which the Constituent Assembly stood
self-adjourned, without having settled on a Constitution. (But, of course, in
fact Earl Mountbatten, the last viceroy, would be with us any day, with his
inexorable ticktock, his soldier's knife that could cut subcontinents in three,
and his wife who ate chicken breasts secretly behind a locked lavatory
door.) And in the midst of the mirror-like stillness through which it was
impossible to see the great machineries grinding, my mother, the
brand-new Amina Sinai, who also looked still and unchanging although
great things were happening beneath her skin, woke up one morning with a
head buzzing with insomnia and a tongue thickly coated with unslept sleep
and found herself saying aloud, without meaning to at all, 'What's the sun
doing here, Allah? It's come up in the wrong place.'
… I must interrupt myself. I wasn't going to today, because Padma has
started getting irritated whenever my narration becomes self-conscious,
whenever, like an incompetent puppeteer, I reveal the hands holding the
strings; but I simply must register a protest. So, breaking into a chapter
which, by a happy chance, I have named 'A Public Announcement', I issue
(in the strongest possible terms) the following general medical alert: 'A
certain Doctor N. Q. Baligga,' I wish to proclaim-from the rooftops! Through
the loudhailers of minarets!-'is a quack. Ought to be locked up, struck off,
defenestrated. Or worse: subjected to his own quackery, brought out in
leprous boils by a mis-prescribed pill. Damn fool,' I underline my point,
'can't see what's under his nose!'
Having let off steam, I must leave my mother to worry for a further
moment about the curious behaviour of the sun, to explain that our Padma,
alarmed by my references to cracking up, has confided covertly in this
Baligga-this ju-ju man! this green-medicine wallah!-and as a result, the
charlatan, whom I will not deign to glorify with a description, came to call. I,
in all innocence and for Padma's sake, permitted him to examine me. I
should have feared the worst; the worst is what he did. Believe this if you
can: the fraud has pronounced me whole! 'I see no cracks,' he intoned
mournfully, differing from Nelson at Copenhagen in that he possessed no
good eye, his blindness not the choice of stubborn genius but the inevitable
curse of his folly! Blindly, he impugned my state of mind, cast doubts on my
reliability as a witness, and Godknowswhatelse: 'I see no cracks.'
In the end it was Padma who shooed him away. 'Never mind, Doctor
Sahib,' Padma said, 'we will look after him ourselves.' On her face I saw a
kind of recognition of her own dull guilt… exit Baligga, never to return to
these pages. But good God! Has the medical profession-the calling of
Aadam Aziz-sunk so low? To this cess-pool of Baliggas? In the end, if this
be true, everyone will do without doctors… which brings me back to the
reason why Amina Sinai awoke one morning with the sun on her lips.
'It's come up in the wrong place!' she yelped, by accident; and then,
through the fading buzzing of her bad night's sleep, understood how in this
month of illusion she had fallen victim to a trick, because all that had
happened was that she had woken up in Delhi, in the home of her new
husband, which faced east towards the sun; so the truth of the matter was
that the sun was in the right place, and it was her position which had
changed… but even after she grasped this elementary thought, and stored
it away with the many similar mistakes she had made since coming here
(because her confusion about the sun had been a regular occurrence, as if
her mind were refusing to accept the alteration in her circumstances, the
new, above-ground position of her bed), something of its jumbling influence
remained with her and prevented her from feeling entirely at ease.
'In the end, everyone can do without fathers,' Doctor Aziz told his
daughter when he said goodbye; and Reverend Mother added, 'Another
orphan in the family, whatsitsname, but never mind, Muhammad was an
orphan too; and you can say this for your Ahmed Sinai, whatsitsname, at
least he is half Kashmiri.' Then, with his own hands, Doctor Aziz had
passed a green tin trunk into the railway compartment where Ahmed Sinai
awaited his bride. 'The dowry is neither small nor vast as these things go,'
my grandfather said. 'We are not crorepatis, you understand. But we have
given you enough; Amina will give you more.' Inside the green tin trunk:
silver samovars, brocade saris, gold coins given to Doctor Aziz by grateful
patients, a museum in which the exhibits represented illnesses cured and
lives saved. And now Aadam Aziz lifted his daughter (with his own arms),
passing her up after the dowry into the care of this man who had renamed
and so re-invented her, thus becoming in a sense her father as well as her
new husband… he walked (with his own feet) along the platform as the
train began to move. A relay runner at the end of his lap, he stood
wreathed in smoke and comic-book vendors and the confusion of
peacock-feather fans and hot snacks and the whole lethargic hullabaloo of
squatting porters and plaster animals on trolleys as the train picked up
speed and headed for the capital city, accelerating into the next lap of the
race. In the compartment the new Amina Sinai sat (in mint condition) with
her feet on the green tin trunk which had been an inch too high to fit under
the seat. With her sandals bearing down on the locked museum of her
father's achievements she sped away into her new life, leaving Aadam Aziz
behind to dedicate himself to an attempt to fuse the skills of Western and
hakimi medicine, attempt which would gradually wear him down, convincing
him that the hegemony of superstition, mumbo-jumbo and all things
magical would never be broken in India, because the hakims refused to
co-operate; and as he aged and the world became less real he began to
doubt his own beliefs, so that by the time he saw the God in whom he had
never been able to believe or disbelieve he was probably expecting to do
As the train pulled out of the station Ahmed Sinai jumped up and
bolted the compartment door and pulled down the shutters, much to
Amina's amazement; but then suddenly there were thumps outside and
hands moving the doorknobs and voices saying 'Let us in, maharaj!
Maharajin, are you there, ask your husband to open.' And always, in all the
trains in this story, there were these voices and these fists banging and
pleading; in the Frontier Mail to Bombay and in all the expresses of the
years; and it was always frightening, until at last I was the one on the
outside, hanging on for dear life, and begging, 'Hey, maharaj! Let me in,
great sir.'
'Fare dodgers,' Ahmed Sinai said, but they were more than that. They
were a prophecy. There were to be others soon.
… And now the sun was in the wrong place. She, my mother, lay in
bed and felt ill-at-ease; but also excited by the thing that had happened
inside her and which, for the moment, was her secret. At her side, Ahmed
Sinai snored richly. No insomnia for him; none, despite the troubles which
had made him bring a grey bag full of money and hide it under his bed
when he thought Amina wasn't looking. My father slept soundly, wrapped in
the soothing envelope of my mother's greatest gift, which turned out to be
worth a good deal more than the contents of the green tin trunk: Amir, a
Sinai gave Ahmed the gift of her inexhaustible assiduity.
Nobody ever took pains the way Amina did. Dark of skin, glowing of
eye, my mother was by nature the most meticulous person on earth.
Assiduously, she arranged flowers in the corridors and rooms of the Old
Delhi house; carpets were selected with infinite care. She could spend
twenty-five minutes worrying at the positioning of a chair. By the time she'd
finished with her home-making, adding tiny touches bere, making fractional
alterations there, Ahmed Sinai found his orphan's dwelling transformed into
something gentle and loving. Amina would rise before he did, her assiduity
driving her to dust everything, even the cane chick-blinds (until he agreed
to employ a hamal for the purpose); but what Ahmed never knew was that
his wife's talents were most dedicatedly, most determinedly applied not to
the externals of their lives, but to the matter of Ahmed Sinai himself.
Why had she married him?-For solace, for children. But at first the
insomnia coating her brain got in the way of her first aim; and children don't
always come at once. So Amina had found herself dreaming about an
undreamable poet's face and waking with an unspeakable name on her
lips. You ask: what did she do about it? I answer: she gritted her teeth and
set about putting herself straight. This is what she told herself: 'You big
ungrateful goof, can't you see who is your husband now? Don't you know
what a husband deserves?' To avoid fruitless controversy about the correct
answers to these questions, let me say that, in my mother's opinion, a
husband deserved unquestioning loyalty, and unreserved, full-hearted love.
But there was a difficulty: Amina, her mind clogged up with Nadir Khan and
insomnia, found she couldn't naturally provide Ahmed Sinai with these
things. And so, bringing her gift of assiduity to bear, she began to train
herself to love him. To do this she divided him, mentally, into every single
one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioural,
compartmentalizing him into lips and verbal tics and prejudices and likes…
in short, she fell under the spell of the perforated sheet of her own parents,
because she resolved to fall in love with her husband bit by bit.
Each day she selected one fragment of Ahmed Sinai, and
concentrated her entire being upon it until it became wholly familiar; until
she felt fondness rising up within her and becoming affection and, finally,
love. In this way she came to adore his over-loud voice and the way it
assaulted her eardrums and made her tremble; and his peculiarity of
always being in a good mood until after he had shaved-after which, each
morning, his manner became stern, gruff, businesslike and distant; and his
vulture-hooded eyes which concealed what she was sure was his inner
goodness behind a bleakly ambiguous gaze; and the way his lower lip
jutted out beyond his upper one; and his shortness which led him to forbid
her ever to wear high heels… 'My God,' she told herself, 'it seems that
there are a million different things to love about every man!' But she was
undismayed. 'Who, after all,' she reasoned privately, 'ever truly knows
another human being completely?' and continued to learn to love and
admire his appetite for fried foods, his ability to quote Persian poetry, the
furrow of anger between his eyebrows… 'At this rate,' she thought, 'there
will always be something fresh about him to love; so our marriage just can't
go stale.' In this way, assiduously, my mother settled down to life in the old
city. The tin trunk sat unopened in an old almirah.
And Ahmed, without knowing or suspecting, found himself and his life
worked upon by his wife until, little by little, he came to resemble-and to live
in a place that resembled-a man he had never known and an underground
chamber he had never seen. Under the influence of a painstaking magic so
obscure that Amina was probably unaware of working it, Ahmed Sinai
found Ms hair thinning, and what was left becoming lank and greasy; he
discovered that he was willing to let it grow until it began to worm over the
tops of his ears. Also, his stomach began to spread, until it became the
yielding, squashy belly in which I would so often be smothered and which
none of us, consciously at any rate, compared to the pudginess of Nadir
Khan. His distant cousin Zobra told him, coquettishly, 'You must diet,
cousinji, or we won't be able to reach you to kiss!' But it did no good… and
little by little Amina constructed in Old Delhi a world of soft cushions and
draperies over the windows which let in as little light as possible… she
lined the chick-blinds with black cloths; and all these minute
transformations helped her in her Herculean task, the task of accepting, bit
by bit, that she must love a new man. (But she remained susceptible to the
forbidden dream-images of… and was always drawn to men with soft
stomachs and longish, lankish hair.)
You could not see the new city from the old one. In the new city, a race
of pink conquerors had built palaces in pink stone; but the houses in the
narrow lanes of the old city leaned over, jostled, shuffled, blocked each
other's view of the roseate edifices of power. Not that anyone ever looked
in that direction, anyway. In the Muslim muhallas or neighbourhoods which
clustered around Chandni Chowk, people were content to look inwards into
the screened-off courtyards of their lives; to roll chick-blinds down over their
windows and verandahs. In the narrow lanes, young loafers held hands
and linked arms and kissed when they met and stood in hip-jutting circles,
facing inwards. There was no greenery and the cows kept away, knowing
they weren't sacred here. Bicycle bells rang constantly. And above their
cacophony sounded the cries of itinerant fruit-sellers: Come all you
greats-O, eat a few dates-O!
To all of which was added, on that January morning when my mother
and father were each concealing secrets from the other, the nervous clatter
of the footsteps of Mr Mustapha Kemal and Mr S. P. Butt; and also the
insistent rattle of Lifafa Das's dugdugee drum.
When the clattering footsteps were first heard in the gullies of the
muhalla, Lifafa Das and his peepshow and drum were still some distance
away. Clatter-feet descended from a taxi and rushed into the narrow lanes;
meanwhile, in their corner house, my mother stood in her kitchen stirring
khichri for breakfast overhearing my father conversing with his distant
cousin Zohra. Feet clacked past fruit salesmen and hand-holding loafers;
my mother overheard:'… You newlyweds, I can't stop coming to see, cho
chweet I can't tell you!' While feet approached, my father actually coloured.
In those days he was in the high summer of his charm; his lower lip really
didn't jut so much, the line between his eyebrows was still only faint… and
Amina, stirring khichri, heard Zohra squeal, 'Oh look, pink! But then you are
so fair, cousinji!…' And he was letting her listen to All-India Radio at the
table, which Amina was not allowed to do; Lata Mangeshkar was singing a
waily love-song as 'Just like me, don'tyouthink,' Zohra went on. 'Lovely pink
babies we'll have, a perfect match, no, cousinji, pretty white couples?' And
the feet clattering and the pan being stirred while 'How awful to be black,
cousinji, to wake every morning and see it staring at you, in the mirror to be
shown proof of your inferiority! Of course they know; even blackies know
white is nicer, don'tyouthinkso?' The feet very close now and Amina
stamping into the dining-room pot in hand, concentrating hard at restraining
herself, thinking Why must she come today when I have news to tell and
also I'll have to ask for money in front of her. Ahmed Sinai liked to be asked
nicely for money, to have it wheedled out of him with caresses and sweet
words until his table napkin began to rise in his lap as something moved in
his pajamas; and she didn't mind, with her assiduity she learned to love this
also, and when she needed money there were strokes and 'Janum, my life,
please…' and'.. .Just a little so that I can make nice food and pay the
bills…' and 'Such a generous man, give me what you like, I know it will be
enough'… the techniques of street beggars and she'd have to do it in front
of that one with her saucer eyes and giggly voice and loud chat about
blackies. Feet at the door almost and Amina in the dining-room with hot
khichri at the ready, so very near to Zohra's silly head, whereupon Zohra
cries, 'Oh, present company excluded, of course!' just in case, not being
sure whether she's been overheard or not, and 'Oh, Ahmed, cousinji, you
are really too dreadful to think I meant our lovely Amina who really isn't so
black but only like a white lady standing in the shade!' While Amina with her
pot in hand looks at the pretty head and thinks Should I? And, Do I dare?
And calms herself down with: 'It's a big day for me; and at least she raised
the subject of children; so now it'll be easy for me to…' But it's too late, the
wailing of Lata on the radio has drowned the sound of the doorbell so they
haven't heard old Musa the bearer going to answer the door; Lata has
obscured the sound of anxious feet clattering upstairs; but all of a sudden
here they are, the feet of Mr Mustapha Kemal and Mr S. P. Butt, coming to
a shuffling halt.
'The rapscallions have perpetrated an outrage!' Mr Kemal, who is the
thinnest man Amina Sinai has ever seen, sets off with his curiously archaic
phraseology (derived from his fondness for litigation, as a result of which he
has become infected with the cadences of the lawcourts) a kind of chain
reaction of farcical panic, to which little, eaky, spineless S. P. Butt, who has
something wild dancing like a monkey in the eyes, adds considerably, by
getting out these three words: 'Yes, the firebugs!' And now Zohra in an odd
reflex action clutches the radio to her: bosom, muffing Lata between her
breasts, screaming, 'O God, О God, what firebugs, where? This house? О
God I can feel the heat!' Amina stands frozen khichri-in-hand staring at the
two men in their business suits as her husband, secrecy thrown to the
winds now, rises shaven but as-yet-unsuited to his feet and asks, 'The
Godown, gudam, warehouse, call it what you like; but no sooner had
Ahmed Sinai asked his question than a hush fell upon the room, except of
course that Lata Mangeshkar's voice still issued from Zohra's cleavage;
because these three men shared one such large edifice, located on the
industrial estate at the outskirts of the city. 'Not the godown, God forfend,'
Amina prayed silently, because the reccine and leathercloth business was
doing well-through Major Zulfikar, who was now an aide at Military G.H.Q,
in Delhi, Ahmed Sinai had landed a contract to supply leathercloth jackets
and waterproof table coverings to the Army itself-and large stocks of the
material on which their lives depended were stored in that warehouse. 'But
who would do such a thing?' Zohra wailed in harmony with her singing
breasts, 'What mad people are loose in the world these days?'… and that
was how Amina heard, for the first time, the name which her husband had
hidden from her, and which was, in those times, striking terror into many
hearts. 'It is Havana,' said S. P. Butt… but Ravana is the name of a
many-headed demon; are demons, then, abroad in the land? 'What rubbish
is this?' Amina, speaking with her father's hatred of superstition, demanded
an answer; and Mr Kemal provided it. 'It is the name of a dastardly crew,
Madam; a band of incendiary rogues. These are troubled days; troubled
In the godown;roll upon roll of leathercloth; and the commodities dealt
in by Mr Kemal, rice tea lentfls-he hoards them all over the1 country in vast
quantities, as a form of protection against the many-headed many-mouthed
rapacious monster that is the public, which, if given its heads, would force
prices so low in a time of abundance that godfearing entrepreneurs would
starve while the monster grew fat… 'Economics is scarcity,' Mr Kemal
argues, 'therefore my hoards not only keep prices at a decent level but
underpin the very structure of the economy.'-And then there is, in the
godown, Mr Butt's stockpile, boxed in cartons bearing the words aag brand.
I do not need to tell you that aag means fire. S. P. Butt was a manufacturer
of matches.
'Our informations,' Mr Kemal says, 'reveal only the fact of a fire at the
estate. The precise godown is not specified.'
'But why should it be ours?' Ahmed Sinai asks. 'Why, since we still
have time to pay?'
'Pay?' Amina interrupts. 'Pay whom? Pay what? Husband, janum, life
of mine, what is happening here?'… But 'We must go,' S. P. Butt says, and
Ahmed Sinai is leaving, crumpled night-pajamas and all, rushing
clatterfooted out of the house with the thin one and the spineless one,
leaving behind him uneaten khichri, wide-eyed women, muffled Lata, and
hanging in the air the name of Ravana… 'a gang of ne'er-do-wells, Madam;
unscrupulous cut-throats and bounders to a man!'
And S. P. Butt's last quavering words: 'Damnfool Hindu firebugs,
Begum Sahiba. But what can we Muslims do?'
What is known about the Ravana gang? That it posed as a fanatical
anti-Muslim movement, which, in those days before the Partition riots, in
those days when pigs' heads could be left with impunity in the courtyards of
Friday mosques, was nothing unusual. That it sent men out, at dead of
night, to paint slogans on the walls of both old and new cities: no partition
or else perdition! muslims are the jews of asia! and so forth. And that it
burned down Muslim-owned factories, shops, godowns. But there's more,
and this is not commonly known: behind this facade of racial hatred, the
Ravana gang was a brilliantly-conceived commercial enterprise.
Anonymous phone calls, letters written with words cut out of newspapers
were issued to Muslim businessmen, who were offered the choice between
paying a single, once-only cash sum and having their world burned down.
Interestingly, the gang proved itself to be ethical. There were no second
demands. And they meant business: in the absence of grey bags full of
pay-off money, fire would lick at shopfronts factories warehouses. Most
people paid, preferring that to the risky alternative of trusting to the police.
The police, in 1947, were not to be relied upon by Muslims. And it is said
(though I can't be sure of this) that , when the blackmail letters arrived, they
contained a list of 'satisfied customers' who had paid up and stayed in
business. The Ravana gang-like all professionals-gave references.
Two men in business suits, one in pajamas, ran through the narrow
gullies of the Muslim muhalla to the taxi waiting on Chandni Chowk. They
attracted curious glances: not only because of their varied attire, but
because they were trying not to run. 'Don't show panic,' Mr Kemal said,
'Look calm.' But their feet kept getting out of control and rushing on. Jerkily,
in little rushes of speed followed by a few badly-disciplined steps at walking
pace, they left the muhalla; and passed, on their way, a young man with a
black metal peepshow box on wheels, a man holding a dugdugee drum:
Lifafa Das, on his way to the scene of the important annunciation which
gives this episode its name. Lifafa Pas was rattling his drum and calling:
'Come see everything, come see everything, come see! Come see Delhi,
come see India, come see! Come see, come see!'
But Ahmed Sinai had other things to look at.
The children of the muhalla had their own names for most of the local
inhabitants. One group of three neighbours was known as the 'fighting-cock
people', because they comprised one Sindhi and one Bengali householder
whose homes were separated by one of the muhalla's few Hindu
residences. The Sindhi and the Bengali had very little in common-they
didn't speak the same language or cook the same food; but they were both
Muslims, and they both detested the interposed Hindu. They dropped
garbage on his house from their rooftops. They hurled multilingual abuse at
him from their windows. They flung scraps of meat at his door… while he,
in turn, paid urchins to throw stones at their windows, stones with
messages wrapped round them: 'Wait,' the messages said, 'Your turn will
come'… the children of the muhalla did not call my father by his right name.
They knew him as 'the man who can't follow his nose'.
Ahmed Sinai was the possessor of a sense of direction so inept that,
left to his own devices, he could even get lost in the winding gullies of his
own neighbourhood. Many times the street-arabs in the lanes had come
across him, wandering forlornly, and been offered a four-anna chavanni
piece to escort him home. I mention this because I believe that my father's
gift for taking wrong turnings did not simply afflict him throughout his life; it
was also a reason for his attraction to Amina Sinai (because thanks to
Nadir Khan, she had shown that she could take wrong turnings, too); and,
what's more, his inability to follow his own nose dripped into me, to some
extent clouding the nasal inheritance I received from other places, and
making me, for year after year, incapable of sniffing out true road… But
that's enough for now, because I've given the three businessmen enough
time to get to the industrial estate. I shall add only that (in my opinion as a
direct consequence of his lack of a sense of direction) my father was a man
over whom, even in his moments of triumph, there hung the stink of future
failure, the odour of a wrong turning that was just around the corner, an
aroma which could not be washed away by his frequent baths. Mr Kemal,
who smelled it, would say privately to S. P. Butt, 'These Kashmiri types, old
boy: well-known fact they never wash.' This slander connects my father to
the boatman Tai… to Tai in the grip of the self-destructive rage which made
him give up being clean.
At the industrial estate, night-watchmen were sleeping peacefully
through the noise of the fire-engines. Why? How? Because they had made
a deal with the Ravana mob, and, when tipped off about the gang's
impending arrival, would take sleeping draughts and pull their charpoy beds
away from the buildings of the estate. In this way the gang avoided
violence, and the nightwatchmen augmented their meagre wages. It was
an amicable and not unintelligent arrangement.
Amid sleeping night-watchmen, Mr Kemal, my father and S. P. Butt
watched cremated bicycles rise up into the sky in thick black clouds. Butt
father Kemal stood alongside fire engines, as relief flooded through them,
because it was the Arjuna Indiabike godown that was burning-the Arjuna
brand-name, taken from a hero of Hindu mythology, had failed to disguise
the fact that the company was Muslim-owned. Washed by relief, father
Kemal Butt breathed air filled with incendiarized bicycles, coughing and
spluttering as the fumes of incinerated wheels, the vaporized ghosts of
chains bells saddlebags handlebars, the transubstantiated frames of Arjuna
Indiabikes moved in and out of their lungs. A crude cardboard mask had
been nailed to a telegraph pole in front of the flaming godown-a mask of
many faces-a devil's mask of snarling faces with broad curling lips and
bright red nostrils. The faces of the many-headed monster, Ravana the
demon king, looking angrily down at the bodies of the night-watchmen who
were sleeping so soundly that no one, neither the firemen, nor Kemal, nor
Butt, nor my father, had the heart to disturb them; while the ashes of pedals
and inner tubes fell upon them from the skies.
'Damn bad business,' Mr Kemal said. He was not being sympathetic.
He was criticizing the owners of the Arjuna Indiabike Company.
Look: the cloud of the disaster (which is also a relief) rises and gathers
like a ball in the discoloured morning sky. See how it thrusts itself westward
into the heart of the old city; how it is pointing, good lord, like a finger,
pointing down at the Muslim muhalla near Chandni Chowk!… Where, right
now, Lifafa Das is crying his wares in the Sinais' very own gully.
'Come see everything, see the whole world, come see!'
It's almost time for the public announcement. I won't deny I'm excited:
I've been hanging around in the background of my own story for too long,
and although it's still a little while before I can take over, it's nice to get a
look in. So, with a sense of high expectation, I follow the pointing finger in
the sky and look down on my parents' neighbourhood, upon bicycles, upon
street-vendors touting roasted gram in twists of paper, upon the hip-jutting,
hand-holding street loafers, upon flying scraps of paper and little clustered
whirlwinds of flies around the sweetmeat stalls… all of it foreshortened by
my high-in-the-sky point of view. And there are children, swarms of them,
too, attracted into the street by the magical rattle of Lifafa Das's dugdugee
drum and his voice, 'Dunya dekho', see the whole world! Boys without
shorts on, girls without vests, and other, smarter infants in school whites,
their shorts held up by elasticated belts with S-shaped snake-buckles, fat
little boys with podgy fingers; all flocking to the black box on wheels,
including this one particular girl, a girl with one long hairy continuous
eyebrow shading both eyes, the eight-year-old daughter of that same
discourteous Sindhi who is even now raising the flag of the still-fictional
country, of Pakistan on his roof, who is even now hurling abuse at his
neighbour, while his daughter rushes into the street with her chavanni in
her hand, her expression of a midget queen, and murder lurking just behind
her lips. What's her name? I don't know; but I know those eyebrows.
Lifafa Das: who has by an unfortunate chance set up Ms black
peepshow against a wall on which someone has daubed a swastika (in
those days you saw them everywhere; the extremist R.S.S.S. party got
them on every wall; not the Nazi swastika which was the wrong way round,
but the ancient Hindu symbol of power. Svasti is Sanskrit for good)… this
Lifafa Das whose arrival Pve been trumpeting was a young fellow who was
invisible until he smiled, when he became beautiful, or rattled his drum,
whereupon he became irresistible to children. Dugdugee-men: all over
India, they shout, 'Dilli dekho', 'come see Delhi!' But this was Delhi, and
Lifafa Das had altered his cry accordingly. 'See the whole world, come see
everything!' The hyperbolic formula began, after a time, to, prey upon his
mind; more and more picture postcards went into his peepshow as he tried,
desperately, to deliver what he promised, to put everything into his box. (I
am suddenly reminded of Nadir Khan's friend the painter: is this an Indian
disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality? Worse: am I
infected, too?)
Inside the peepshow of Lifafa Das were pictures of the Taj Mahal, and
MeenaksM Temple, and the holy Ganges; but as well as these famous
sights the peepshow-man had felt the urge to include more contemporary
images-Stafford Cripps leaving Nehru's residence; untouchables being
touched; educated persons sleeping in large numbers on railway lines; a
publicity still of a European actress with a mountain of fruit on her
head-Lifafa called her Carmen Verandah; even a newspaper photograph,
mounted on card, of a fire at the industrial estate. Lifafa Das did not believe
in shielding his audiences from the not-always-pleasant features of the
age… and often, when he came into these gullies, grown-ups as well as
children came to see what was new inside his box on wheels, and among
his most frequent customers was Begum Amina Sinai.
But today there is something hysterical in the air; something brittle and
menacing has settled on the muhalla as the cloud of cremated Indiabikes
hangs overhead… and now it slips its leash, as this girl with her one
continuous eyebrow squeals, her voice lisping with an innocence it does
not possess, 'Me firth t! Out of my way… let me thee! I can't thee!' Because
there are already eyes at the holes in the box, there are already children
absorbed in the progression of postcards, and Ldfafa Das says (without
pausing in his work-he goes right on turning the knob which keeps the
postcards moving inside the box), 'A few minutes, bibi; everyone will have
his turn; wait only.' To which the one-eyebrowed midget queen replies, 'No!
No! I want to be firtht!' Lifafa stops smiling-becomes invisible-shrugs.
Unbridled fury appears on the face of the midget queen. And now an insult
rises; a deadly barb trembles on her lips. 'You've got a nerve, coming into
thith muhalla! I know you: my father knows you: everyone knows you're a
Lifafa Das stands silently, turning the handles of his box; but now the
ponytailed one-eyebrowed valkyrie is chanting, pointing with pudgy fingers,
and the boys in their school whites and snake-buckles are joining in,
'Hindu! Hindu! Hindu!' And chick-blinds are flying up; and from his window
the girl's father leans out and joins in, hurling abuse at a new target, and
the Bengali joins in in Bengali… 'Mother raper! Violator of our daughters!'…
and remember the papers have been talking of assaults on Muslim
children, so suddenly a voice screams out-a woman's voice, maybe even
silly Zohra's, 'Rapist! Arre my God they found the badmaash! There he u!'
And now the insanity of the cloud like a pointing finger and the whole
disjointed unreality of the times seizes the muhalla, and the screams are
echoing from every window, and the schoolboys have begun to chant,
'Ra-pist! Ra-pist! Ray-ray-ray-pist!' without really knowing what they're
saying; the children have edged away from Lifafa Das and he's moved, too,
dragging his box on wheels, trying to get away, but now he is surrounded
by voices filled with blood, and the street loafers are moving towards him,
men are getting off bicycles, a pot flies through the air and shatters on a
wall beside him; he has his back against a doorway as a fellow with a quiff
of oily hair grins sweetly at him and says, 'So, mister: it is you? Mister
Hindu, who denies our daughters? Mister idolater, who sleeps with his
sister?' And Lifafa Das, 'No, for the love of…', smiling like a fool… and then
the door behind him opens and he falls backwards, landing in a dark cool
corridor beside my mother Amina Sinai.
She had spent the morning alone with giggling Zohra and the echoes
of the name Ravana, not knowing what was happening out there at the
industrial estate, letting her mind linger upon the way the whole world
seemed to be going mad; and when the screaming started and
Zohra-before she could be stopped-joined in, something hardened inside
her some realization that she was her father's daughter, some
ghost-memory of Nadir Khan hiding from crescent knives in a cornfield,
some irritation of her nasal passages, and she went downstairs to the
rescue, although Zohra screeched, 'What you doing, sisterji, that mad
beast, for God, don't let him in here, have your brains gone raw?'… My
mother opened the door and Lifafa Das fell in.
Picture her that morning, a dark shadow between the mob and its
prey, her womb bursting with its invisible untold secret: 'Wah, wah,' she
applauded the crowd. 'What heroes! Heroes, I swear, absolutely! Only fifty
of you against this terrible monster of a fellow! Allah, you make my eyes
shine with pride.'
… And Zohra, 'Come back, sisterji!' And the oily quiff, 'Why speak for
this goonda, Begum Sahiba? This is not right acting.' And Amina, 'I know
this man. He is a decent type. Go, get out, none of you have anything to
do? In a Muslim muhalla you would tear a man to pieces? Go, remove
yourselves.' But the mob has stopped being surprised, and is moving
forward again… and now. Now it comes.
'Listen,' my mother shouted, 'Listen well. I am with child. I am a mother
who will have a child, and I am giving this man my shelter. Come on now, if
you want to kill, kill a mother also and show the world what men you are!'
That was how it came about that my arrival-the coming of Saleem
Sinai-was announced to the assembled masses of the people before my
father had heard about it. From the moment of my conception, it seems, I
have been public property.
But although my mother was right when she made her public
announcement, she was also wrong. This is why: the baby she was
carrying did not turn out to be her son.
My mother came to Delhi; worked assiduously at loving her husband;
was prevented by Zohra and khichri and clattering feet from telling her
husband her news; heard screams; made a public announcement. And it
worked. My annunciation saved a life.
After the crowd dispersed, old Musa the bearer went into the street
and rescued Lifafa Das's pecpshow, while Amina gave the young man with
the beautiful smile glass after glass of fresh lime water. It seemed that his
experience had drained him not only of liquid but also sweetness, because
he put four spoonfuls of raw sugar into every glass, while Zohra cowered in
pretty terror on a sofa. And, at length, Lifafa Das (rehydrated by lime water,
sweetened by sugar) said: 'Begum Sahiba, you are a great lady. If you
allow, I bless your house; also your unborn child. But also-please permit-I
will do one thing more for you.'
'Thank you,' my mother said, 'but you must do nothing at all.'
But he continued (the sweetness of sugar coating las tongue). 'My
cousin, Shri Ramram Seth, is a great seer, Begum Sahiba. Palmist,
astrologer, fortune-teller. You will please come to him, and he will reveal to
you the future of your son.'
Soothsayers prophesied me… in January 1947, my mother Amina
Sinai was offered the gift of a prophecy in return for her gift of a life. And
despite Zohra's 'It is madness to go with this one, Amina sister, do not even
think of it for one sec, these are times to be careful'; despite her memories
of her father's scepticism and of his thumbandforefinger closing around a
maulvi's ear, the offer touched my mother in a place which answered Yes.
Caught up in the illogical wonderment of her brand-new motherhood of
which she had only just become certain, 'Yes,' she said, 'Lifafa Das, you
will please meet me after some days at the gate to the Red Fort. Then you
will take me to your cousin.'
'I shall be waiting every day,' he joined his palms; and left.
Zohra was so stunned that, when Ahmed Sinai came home, she could
only shake her head and say, 'You newlyweds; crazy as owls; I must leave
you to each other!'
Musa, the old bearer, kept his mouth shut, too. He kept himself in the
background of our lives, always, except twice… once when he left us; once
when he returned to destroy the world by accident.
Many-headed monsters
Unless, of course, there's no such thing as chance; in which case
Musa-for all his age and servility-was nothing less than a time-bomb,
ticking softly away until his appointed time; in which case, we should
either-optimistically-get up and cheer, because if everything is planned in
advance, then we all have a meaning, and are spared the terror of knowing
ourselves to be random, without a why; or ebe, of course, we might-as
pessimists-give up right here and now, understanding the futility of thought
decision action, since nothing we think makes any difference anyway;
things will be as they will. Where, then, is optimism? In fate or in chaos?
Was my father being opti-or pessimistic when my mother told him her news
(after everyone in the neighbourhood had heard it), and he replied with, 'I
told you so; it was only a matter of time? My mother's pregnancy, it seems,
was fated; my birth, however, owed a good deal to accident.
'It was only a matter of time,' my father said, with every appearance of
pleasure; but time has been an unsteady affair, in my experience, not a
thing to be relied upon. It could even be partitioned: the clocks in Pakistan
would run half an hour ahead of their Indian counterparts… Mr Kemal, who
wanted nothing to do with Partition, was fond of saying, 'Here's proof of the
folly of the scheme! Those Leaguers plan to abscond with a whole thirty
minutes! Time Without Partitions,' Mr Kemal cried, That's the ticket!' And S.
P. Butt said, 'If they can change the time just like that, what's real any
more? I ask you? What's true?'
It seems like a day for big questions. I reply across the unreliable
years to S. P. Butt, who got his throat slit in the Partition riots and lost
interest in time: 'What's real and what's true aren't necessarily the same.'
True, for me, was from my earliest days something hidden inside the
stories Mary Pereira told me: Mary my ayah who was both more and less
than a mother; Mary who knew everything about all of us. True was a thing
concealed just over the horizon towards which the fisherman's finger
pointed in the picture on my wall, while the young Raleigh listened to his
tales. Now, writing this in my Anglepoised pool of light, I measure truth
against those early things: Is this how Mary would have told it? I ask. Is this
what that fisherman would have said?… And by those standards it is
undeniably true that, one day in January 1947, my mother heard all about
me six months before I turned up, while my father came up against a
demon king.
Amina Sinai had been waiting for a suitable moment to accept Lifafa
Das's offer; but for two days after the burning of the Indiabike factory
Ahmed Sinai stayed at home, never visiting his office at Connaught Place,
as if he were steeling himself for some unpleasant encounter. For two days
the grey moneybag lay supposedly secret in its place under his side of their
bed. My father showed no desire to talk about the reasons for the grey
bag's presence; so Amina said to herself, 'Let him be like that; who cares?'
because she had her secret, too, waiting patiently for her by the gates of
the Red Fort at the top of
Chandni Chowk. Pouting in secret petulance, my mother kept Lifafa
Das to herself. 'Unless-and-until he tells me what he's up to, why should I
tell him?' she argued.
And then a cold January evening, on which 'I've got to go out tonight'
said Ahmed Sinai; and despite her pleas of 'It's cold-you'll get sick…' he put
on his business suit and coat under which the mysterious grey bag made a
ridiculously obvious lump; so finally she said, 'Wrap up warm,' and sent him
off wherever he was going, asking, 'Will you be late?' To which he replied,
'Yes, certainly.' Five minutes after he left, Amina Sinai set off for the Red
Fort, into the heart of her adventure.
One journey began at a fort; one should have ended at a fort, and did
not. One foretold the future; the other settled its geographical location.
During one journey, monkeys danced entertainingly; while, in the other
place, a monkey was also dancing, but with disastrous results. In both
adventures, a part was played by vultures. And many-headed monsters
lurked at the end of both roads.
One at a time, then… and here is Amina Sinai beneath the high' walls
of the Red Fort, where Mughals ruled, from whose heights the new nation
will be proclaimed… neither monarch nor herald, my mother is
nevertheless greeted with warmth (despite the weather). In the last light of
the day, Lifafa Das exclaims, 'Begum Sahiba! Oh, that is excellent that you
came!' Dark-skinned in a white sari, she beckons him towards the taxi; he
reaches for the back door; but the driver snaps, 'What do you think? Who
do you think you are? Come on now, get in the front seat damn smart,
leave the lady to sit in the back!' So Amina shares her seat with a black
peepshow on wheels, while Lifafa Das apologizes: 'Sorry, hey, Begum
Sahiba? Good intents are no offence.'
But here, refusing to wait its turn, is another taxi, pausing outside
another fort unloading its cargo of three men in business suits, each
carrying a bulky grey bag under his coat… one man long as a life and thin
as a lie, a second who seems to lack a spine, and a third whose lower lip
juts, whose belly tends to squashiness, whose hair is thinning and greasy
and worming over the tops of his ears, and between whose eyebrows is the
telltale furrow that will, as he ages, deepen into the scar of a bitter, angry
man. The taxi-driver is ebullient despite the cold. 'Purana Qila!' he calls out,
'Everybody out, please! Old Fort, here we are!'… There have been many,
many cities of Delhi, and the Old Fort, that blackened ruin, is a Delhi so
ancient that beside it our own Old City is merely a babe in arms. It is to this
ruin of an impossibly antique time that Kemal, Butt and Ahmed Sinai have
been brought by an anonymous telephone call which ordered, 'Tonight. Old
Fort. Just after sunset. But no police… or godown funtoosh!' Clutching their
grey bags, they move into the ancient, crumbling world.
… Clutching at her handbag, my mother sits beside a peepshow, while
Lifafa Das rides in front with the puzzled, irascible driver, and directs the
cab into the streets on the wrong side of the General Post Office; and as
she enters these causeways where poverty eats away at the tarmac like a
drought, where people lead their invisible lives (because they share Lifafa
Das's curse of invisibility, and not all of them have beautiful smiles),
something new begins to assail her. Under the pressure of these streets
which are growing narrower by the minute, more crowded by the inch, she
has lost her 'city eyes'. When you have city eyes you cannot see the
invisible people, the men with elephantiasis of the balls and the beggars in
boxcars don't impinge on you, and the concrete sections of future
drainpipes don't look like dormitories. My mother lost her city eyes and the
newness of what she was seeing made her flush, newness like a hailstorm
pricking her cheeks. Look, my God, those beautiful children have black
teeth! Would you believe… girl children baring their nipples! How terrible,
truly! And, Allah-tobah, heaven forfend, sweeper women with-no!-how
dreadful!.-collapsed spines, and bunches of twigs, and no caste marks;
untouchables, sweet Allah!… and cripples everywhere, mutilated by loving
parents to ensure them of a lifelong income from begging… yes, beggars in
boxcars, grown men with babies' legs, in crates on wheels, made out of
discarded roller-skates and old mango boxes; my mother cries out, 'Lifafa
Das, turn back!'… but he is smiling his beautiful smile, and says, 'We must
walk from here.' Seeing that there is no going back, she tells the taxi to
wait, and the bad-tempered driver says, 'Yes, of course, for a great lady
what is there to do but wait, and when you come I must drive my car in
reverse all the way back to main-road, because here is no room to turn!'…
Children tugging at the pallu of her sari, heads everywhere staring at my
mother, who thinks, It's like being surrounded by some terrible monster, a
creature with heads and heads and heads; but she corrects herself, no, of
course not a monster, these poor poor people-what then? A power of some
sort, a force which does not know its strength, which has perhaps decayed
into impotence through never having been used… No, these are not
decayed people, despite everything. 'I'm frightened,' my mother finds
herself thinking, just as a hand touches her arm. Turning, she finds herself
looking into the face of-impossible!-a white man, who stretches out a
raggedy hand and says in a voice like a high foreign song, 'Give
something, Begum Sahiba…' and repeats and repeats like a stuck record
while she looks with embarrassment into a white face with long eyelashes
and a curved patrician nose-embarrassment, because he was white, and
begging was not for white people.'… All the way from Calcutta, on foot,' he
was saying, 'and covered in ashes, as you see, Begum Sahiba, because of
my shame at having been there for the Killing-last August you remember,
Begum Sahiba, thousands knifed in four days of screaming…' Lifafa Das is
standing helplessly by, not knowing how to behave with a white man, even
a beggar, and '… Did you hear about the European?' the beggar asks, '…
Yes, among the killers, Begum Sahiba, walking through the town at night
with blood on his shirt, a white man deranged by the coming futility of his
kind; did you hear?'… And now a pause in that perplexing song of a voice,
and then: 'He was my husband.' Only now did my mother see the stifled
breasts beneath the rags… 'Give something for my shame.' Tugging at her
arm. Lifafa Das tugging at the other, whispering Hijra, transvestite, come
away, Begum Sahiba; and Amina standing still as she is tugged in opposite
directions wants to say Wait, white woman, just let me finish my business, I
will take you home, feed you clothe you, send you back into your own
world; but just then the woman shrugs and walks off empty-handed down
the narrowing street, shrinking to a point until she vanishes-now!-into the
distant meanness of the lane. And now Lifafa Das, with a curious
expression on his face, says, 'They're funtoosh! All finished! Soon they will
all go; and then we'll be free to kill each other.' Touching her belly with one
light hand, she follows him into a darkened doorway while her face bursts
into flames.
… While at the Old Fort, Ahmed Sinai waits for Ravana. My father in
the sunset: standing in the darkened doorway of what was once a room in
the ruined walls of the fort, lower lip protruding fleshily, hands clasped
behind his back, head full of money worries. He was never a happy man.
He smelled faintly of future failure; he mistreated servants; perhaps he
wished that, instead of following his late father into the leathercloth
business, he had had the strength to pursue his original ambition, the
re-arrangement of the Quran in accurately chronological order. (He once
told me: 'When Muhammed prophesied, people wrote down what he said
on palm leaves, which were kept any old how in a box. After he died,
Abubakr and the others tried to remember the correct sequence; but they
didn't have very good memories.' Another wrong turning: instead of
rewriting a sacred book, my father lurked in a ruin, awaiting demons. It's no
wonder he wasn't happy; and I would be no help. When I was born, I broke
his big toe.)… My unhappy father, I repeat, thinks bad-temperedly about
cash. About his wife, who wheedles rupees out of him and picks his
pockets at night. And his ex-wife (who eventually died in an accident, when
she argued with a camel-cart driver and was bitten in the neck by the
camel), who writes him endless begging letters, despite the divorce
settlement. And his distant cousin Zohra, who needs dowry money from
him, so that she can raise children to marry his and so get her hooks into
even more of his cash. And then there are Major Zulfikar's promises of
money (at this stage, Major Zulfy and my father got on very well). The
Major had been writing letters saying, 'You must decide for Pakistan when
it comes, as it surely will. It's certain to be a goldmine for men like us.
Please let me introduce you to M. A. J. himself.. •' but Ahmed Sinai
distrusted Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and never accepted Zulfy's offer; so
when Jinnah became President of Pakistan, there would be another wrong
turning to think about. And, finally, there were letters from my father's old
friend, the gynaecologist Doctor Narlikar, in Bombay. 'The British are
leaving in droves, Sinai bhai.. Property is dirt cheap! Sell up; come here;
buy; live the rest of your life in luxury!' Verses of the Quran had no place in
a head so full of cash… and, in the meantime, here he is, alongside S. P.
Butt who will die in a train to Pakistan, and Mustapha Kemal who will be
murdered by goondas in his grand Flagstaff Road house and have the
words 'mother-sleeping hoarder' written on his chest in his own blood…
alongside these two doomed men, waiting in the secret shadow of a ruin to
spy on a blackmailer coming for his money. 'South-west corner,' the phone
call said, 'Turret. Stone staircase inside. Climb. Topmost landing. Leave
money there. Go. Understood?' Defying orders, they hide in the ruined
room; somewhere above them, on the topmost landing of the turret tower,
three grey bags wait in the gathering dark.
… In the gathering dark of an airless stairwell, Amina Sinai is climbing
towards a prophecy. Lifafa Das is comforting her; because now that she
has come by taxi into the narrow bottle of his mercy, he has sensed an
alteration in her, a regret at her decision; he reassures her as they climb.
The darkened stairwell is full of eyes, eyes glinting through shuttered doors
at the spectacle of the climbing dark lady, eyes lapping her up like bright
rough cats' tongues; and as Lifafa talks, soothingly, my mother feels her
will ebbing away, What will be, will be, her strength of mind and her hold on
the world seeping out of her into the dark sponge of the staircase air.
Sluggishly her feet follow his, up into the upper reaches of the huge gloomy
chawl, the broken-down tenement building in which Lifafa Das and his
cousins have a small corner, at the very top… here, near the top, she sees
dark light filtering down on to the heads of queueing cripples. 'My number
two cousin,' Lifafa Das says, 'is bone-setter.' She climbs past men with
broken arms, women with feet twisted backwards at impossible angles,
past fallen window-cleaners and splintered bricklayers, a doctor's daughter
entering a world older then syringes and hospitals; until, at last, Lifafa Das
says, 'Here we are, Begum,' and leads her through a room in which the
bone-setter is fastening twigs and leaves to shattered limbs, wrapping
cracked heads in palm-fronds, until his patients begin to resemble artificial
trees, sprouting vegetation from their injuries… then out on to a flat
expanse of cemented roof. Amina, blinking in the dark at the brightness of
lanterns, makes out insane shapes on the roof: monkeys dancing;
mongeese leaping; snakes swaying in baskets; and on the parapet, the
silhouettes of large birds, whose bodies are as hooked and cruel as their
beaks: vultures.
'Arre baap,' she cries, 'where are you bringing me?'
'Nothing to worry, Begum, please,' Lifafa Das says. 'These are my
cousins here. My number-three-and-four cousins. That one is
'Just practising, Begum!' a voice calls. 'See: monkey goes to war and
dies for his country!'
'… and there, snake-and-mongoose man.'
'See mongoose jump, Sahiba! See cobra dance!'
'… But the birds?…'
'Nothing, Madam: only there is Parsee Tower of Silence just near here;
and when there are no dead ones there, the vultures come. Now they are
asleep; in the days, I think, they like to watch my cousins practising.'
A small room, on the far side of the roof. Light streams through the
door as Amina enters… to find, inside, a man the same age as her
husband, a heavy man with several chins, wearing white stained trousers
and a red check shirt and no shoes, munching aniseed and drinking from a
bottle of Vimto, sitting cross-legged in a room on whose walls are pictures
of Vishnu in each of his avatars, and notices reading, writing taught, and
spitting during visit is quite a bad habit. There is no furniture… and Shri
Ramram Seth is sitting cross-legged, six inches above the ground.
I must admit it: to her shame, my mother screamed…
… While, at the Old Fort, monkeys scream among ramparts. The
ruined city, having been deserted by people, is now the abode of langoors.
Long-tailed and black-faced, the monkeys are possessed of an overriding
sense of mission. Upupup they clamber, leaping to the topmost heights of
the ruin, staking out territories, and thereafter dedicating themselves to the
dismemberment, stone by stone, of the entire fortress. Padma, it's true:
you've never been there, never stood in the twilight watching straining,
resolute, furry creatures working at the stones, pulling and rocking, rocking
and pulling, working the stones loose one at a time… every day the
monkeys send stones rolling down the walls, bouncing off angles and
outcrops, crashing down into the ditches below. One day there will be no
Old Fort; in the end, nothing but a pile of rubble surmounted by monkeys
screaming in triumph… and here is one monkey, scurrying along the
ramparts-I shall call him Hanuman, after the monkey god who helped
Prince Rama defeat the original Ravana, Hanuman of the flying chariots…
Watch him now as he arrives at this turret-his territory; as he hops chatters
runs from corner to corner of his kingdom, rubbing his rear on the stones;
and then pauses, sniffs something that should not be here… Hanuman
races to the alcove here, on the topmost landing, in which the three men
have left three soft grey alien things. And, while monkeys dance on a roof
behind the post office, Hanuman the monkey dances with rage. Pounces
on the grey things. Yes, they are loose enough, won't take much rocking
and pulling, pulling and rocking… watch Hanuman now, dragging the soft
grey stones to the edge of the long drop of the outside wall of the Fort. See
him tear at them: rip! rap! гор!… Look how deftly he scoops paper from the
insides of the grey things, sending it down like floating rain to bathe the
fallen stones in the ditch!… Paper falling with lazy, reluctant grace, sinking
like a beautiful memory into the maw of the darkness; and now, kick!
thump! and again kick! the three soft grey stones go over the edge,
downdown into the dark, and at last there comes a soft disconsolate plop.
Hanuman, his work done, loses interest, scurries away to some distant
pinnacle of his kingdom, begins to rock on a stone.
… While, down below, my father has seen a grotesque figure
emerging from the gloom. Not knowing a thing about the disaster which has
taken place above, he observes the monster from the shadow of his ruined
room: a ragged-pajama'd creature in the head-dress of a demon, a
papier-mache devil-top which has faces grinning on every side of it… the
appointed representative of the Ravana gang. The collector. Hearts
thumping, the three businessmen watch this spectre out of a peasant's
nightmare vanish into the stairwell leading to the landing; and after a
moment, in the stillness of the empty night, hear the devil's perfectly human
oaths. 'Mother-sleepers! Eunuchs from somewhere!'… Uncomprehending,
they see their bizarre tormentor emerge, rush away into the darkness,
vanish. His imprecations… 'Sodomizers of asses! Sons of pigs! Eaters of
their own excrement!'… linger on the breeze. And up they go now,
confusion addling their spirits; Butt finds a torn fragment of grey cloth;
Mustapha Kemal stoops over a crumpled rupee; and maybe, yes, why not,
my father sees a dark flurry of monkey out of the corner of an eye… and
they guess.
And now their groans and Mr Butt's shrill curses, which are echoes of
the devil's oaths; and there's a battle raging, unspoken, in all their heads:
money or godown or godown or money? Businessmen ponder, in mute
panic, this central riddle-but then, even if they abandon the cash to the
depredations of scavenging dogs and humans, how to stop the
fire-raisers?-and at last, without a word having been spoken, the inexorable
law of cash-in-hand wins them over; they rush down stone stairs, along
grassed lawns, through ruined gates, and arrive-pell-mell!-at the ditch, to
begin scooping rupees into their pockets, shovelling grabbing scrabbling,
ignoring pools of urine and rotting fruit, trusting against all likelihood that
tonight-by the grace of-just tonight for once, the gang will fail to wreak its
promised revenge. But, of course…
… But, of course, Ramram the seer was not really floating in midair,
six inches above the ground. My mother's scream faded; her eyes focused;
and she noticed the little shelf, protruding from the wall. 'Cheap trick,' she
told herself, and, 'What am I doing here in this godforsaken place of
sleeping vultures and monkey-dancers, waiting to be told who knows what
foolishness by a guru who levitates by sitting on a shelf?'
What Amina Sinai did not know was that, for the second time in
history, I was about to make my presence felt. (No: not that fraudulent
tadpole in her stomach: I mean myself, in my historical role, of which prime
ministers have written '… it is, in a sense, the mirror of us all.' Great forces
were working that night; and all present were about to feel their power, and
be afraid.)
Cousins-one to four-gathering in the doorway through which the dark
lady has passed, drawn like moths to the candle of her screech… watching
her quietly as she advanced, guided by Lifafa Das, towards the unlikely
sooth-sayer, were bone-setter cobra-wallah and monkey-man. Whispers of
encouragement now (and were there also giggles behind rough hands?):
'O such a too fine fortune he will tell, Sahiba!' and, 'Come, cousinji, lady is
waiting!'… But what was this Ramram? A huckster, a two-chip palmist, a
giver of cute forecasts to silly women-or the genuine article, the holder of
the keys? And Lifafa Das: did he see, in my mother, a woman who could be
satisfied by a two-rupee fake, or did he see deeper, into the underground
heart of her weakness?-And when the prophecy came, were cousins
astonished too?-And the frothing at the mouth? What of that? And was it
true that my mother, under the dislocating influence of that hysterical
evening, relinquished her hold on her habitual self-which she had felt
slipping away from her into the absorbing sponge of the lightless air in the
stairwell-and entered a state of mind in which anything might happen and
be believed? And there is another, more horrible possibility, too; but before
I voice my suspicion, I must describe, as nearly as possible in spite of this
filmy curtain of ambiguities, what actually happened: I must describe my
mother, her palm slanted outwards towards the advancing palmist, her
eyes wide and unblinking as a pomfret's-and the cousins (giggling?), 'What
a reading you are coming to get, Sahiba!' and, 'Tell, cousinji, tell!'-but the
curtain descends again, so I cannot be sure-did he begin like a cheap
circus-tent man and go through the banal conjugations of life-line heart-line
and children who would be multi-millionaires, while cousins cheered, 'Wah
wah!' and, 'Absolute master reading, yara!'-and then, did he change?-did
Ramram become stiff-eyes rolling upwards until they were white as
eggs-did he, in a voice as strange as a mirror, ask, 'You permit, Madam,
that I touch the place?'-while cousins fell as silent as sleeping vultures-and
did my mother, just as strangely, reply, 'Yes, I permit,' so that the seer
became only the third man to touch her in her life, apart from her family
members?-and was it then, at that instant, that a brief sharp jolt of
electricity passed between pudgy fingers and maternal skin? And my
mother's face, rabbit-startled, watching the prophet in the check shirt as he
began to circle, his eyes still egg-like in the softness of his face; and
suddenly a shudder passing through him and again that strange high voice
as the words issued through his lips (I must describe those lips, too-but
later, because now…) 'A son.'
Silent cousins-monkeys on leashes, ceasing their chatter-cobras
coiled in baskets-and the circling fortune-teller, finding history speaking
through his lips. (Was that how?) Beginning, 'A son… such a son!' And
then it comes, 'A son, Sahiba, who will never be older than his
motherland-neither older nor younger.' And now, real fear amongst
snake-charmer mongoose-dancer bone-setter and peepshow-wallah,
because they have never heard Ramram like this, as he continues,
singsong, high-pitched: 'There will be two heads-but you shall see only
one-there will be knees and a nose, a nose and knees.' Nose and knees
and knees and nose… listen carefully, Padma; the fellow got nothing
wrong! 'Newspaper praises him, two mothers raise him! Bicyclists love
him-but, crowds will shove him! Sisters will weep; cobra will creep…'
Ramram, circling fasterfaster, while four cousins murmur, 'What is this,
baba?' and, 'Deo, Shiva, guard us!' While Ramram, 'Washing will hide
him-voices will guide him! Friends mutilate him-blood will betray him!' And
Amina Sinai, 'What does he mean? I don't understand-Lifafa Das-what has
got into him?' But, inexorably, whirling egg-eyed around her statue-still
presence, goes Ramram Seth: 'Spittoons will brain him-doctors will drain
him-jungle will claim him-wizards reclaim him! Soldiers will try him-tyrants
will fry him…' While Amina begs for explanations and the cousins fall into a
hand-flapping frenzy of helpless alarm because something has taken over
and nobody dares touch Ramram Seth as he whirls to his climax: 'He will
have sons without having sons! He will be old before he is old! And he will
die… before he is dead.'
Is that how it was? Is that when Ramram Seth, annihilated by the sage
through him of a power greater than his own, fell suddenly to the floor and
frothed at the mouth? Was mongoose-man's stick inserted between his
twitching teeth? Did Lafafa Das say, 'Begum Sahiba you must leave,
please: our cousinji has become sick'?
And finally the cobra-wallah-or monkey-man, or bone-setter, or even
Lifafa Das of the peepshow on wheels-saying, 'Too much prophecy, man.
Our Ramram made too much damn prophecy tonight.'
Many years later, at the time of her premature dotage, when all k'nds
of ghosts welled out of her past to dance before her eyes, my mother saw
once again the peepshow man whom she saved by announcing my coming
and who repaid her by leading her to too much prophecy, and spoke to him
evenly, without rancour. 'So you're back ' she said, 'Well, let me tell you
this: I wish I'd understood what your cousinji meant-about blood, about
knees and nose. Because who knows? I might have had a different son.'
Like my grandfather at the beginning, in a webbed corridor in a blind
man's house, and again at the end; like Mary Pereira after she lost her
Joseph, and like me, my mother was good at seeing ghosts.
But now, because there are yet more questions and ambiguities, I am
obliged to voice certain suspicions. Suspicion, too, is a monster with too
many heads; why, then, can't I stop myself unleashing it at my own
mother?… What, I ask, would be a fair description of the seer's mach? And
memory-my new, all-knowing memory, which encompasses most of the
lives of mother father grandfather grandmother and everyone
else-answers: soft; squashy as cornflour pudding. Again, reluctantly, I ask:
What was the condition of his lips? And the inevitable response: full;
overfleshed; poetic. A third time I interrogate this memory of mine: what of
Ms hair? The reply: thinning; dark; lank; worming over his ears. And now
my unreasonable suspicions ask the ultimate question… did Amina,
pure-as-pure, actually… because of her weakness for men who resembled
Nadir Khan, could she have… in her odd frame of mind, and moved by the
seer's illness, might she not… 'No!' Padma shouts, furiously. 'How dare you
suggest? About that good woman-your own mother? That she would? You
do not know one thing and still you say it?' And, of course, she is right, as
always. If she knew, she would say I was only getting my revenge, for what
I certainly did see Amina doing, years through the grimy windows of the
Pioneer Cafe; and maybe that's where my irrational notion was born, to
grow illogically backwards in time, and arrive fully mature at this earlier-and
yes, almost certainly innocent-adventure. Yes, that must be it. But the
monster won't lie down… 'Ah,' it says, 'but what about the matter of her
tantrum-the one she threw the day Ahmed announced they were moving to
Bombay?' Now it mimics her: 'You-always you decide. What about me?
Suppose I don't want… I've only now got this house straight and already…!'
So, Padma: was that housewifely zeal-or a masquerade?
Yes-a doubt lingers. The monster asks, 'Why did she fail, somehow or
other, to tell her husband about her visit?' Reply of the accused (voiced by
our Padma in my mother's absence): 'But think how angry he'd've got, my
God! Even if there hadn't been all that firebug business to worry him!
Strange men; a woman on her own; he'd've gone wild! Wild, completely!'
Unworthy suspicions… I must dismiss them; must save my strictures
for later, when, in the absence of ambiguity, without the clouding curtain,
she gave me hard, clear, irrefutable proofs.
… But, of course, when my father came home late that night, with a
ditchy smell on him which overpowered his customary reek of future failure,
his eyes and cheeks were streaked with ashy tears; there was sulphur in
his nostrils and the grey dust of smoked leathercloth on Ms head…
because of course they had burned the godown.
'But the night-watchmen?'-asleep, Padma, asleep. Warned in advance
to take their sleeping draughts just in case… Those brave lalas, warrior
Pathans who, city-born, had never seen the Khyber, unwrapped little paper
packets, poured rust-coloured powders into their bubbling cauldron of tea.
They pulled their charpoys well away from my father's godown to avoid
falling beams and showering sparks; and lying on their rope-beds they
sipped their tea and entered the bittersweet declensions of the drug. At first
they became raucous, shouting the praises of their favourite whores in
Pushtu; then they fell into wild giggling as the soft fluttering fingers of the
drug tickled their ribs… until the giggling gave way to dreams and they
roamed in the frontier passes of the drug, riding the horses of the drug, and
finally reached a dreamless oblivion from which nothing on earth could
awaken them until the drug had run its course.
Ahmed, Butt and Kemal arrived by taxi-the taxi-driver, unnerved by the
three men who clutched wads of crumpled banknotes which smelled worse
than hell on account of the unpleasant substances they had encountered in
the ditch, would not have waited, except that they refused to pay him. 'Let
me go, big sirs,' he pleaded, 'I am a little man; do not keep me here…' but
by then their backs were moving away from him, towards the fire. He
watched them as they ran, clutching their rupees that were stained by
tomatoes and dogshit; open-mouthed he stared at the burning godown, at
the clouds in the night sky, and like everyone else on the scene he was
obliged to breathe air filled with leathercloth and matchsticks and burning
rice. With his hands over his eyes, watching through his fingers, the little
taxi-driver with his incompetent moustache saw Mr Kemal, thin as a
demented pencil, lashing and lucking at the sleeping bodies of
night-watchmen; and he almost gave up his fare and drove off in terror at
the instant when my father shouted, 'Look out!'… but, staying despite it all,
he saw the godown as it burst apart under the force of the licking red
tongues, he saw pouring out of the godown an improbable lava flow of
molten rice lentils chick-peas waterproof jackets matchboxes and pickle, he
saw the hot red flowers of the fire bursting skywards as the contents of the
warehouse spilled on to the hard yellow ground like a black charred hand of
despair. Yes, of course the godown was burned, it fell on their heads from
the sky in cinders, it plunged into the open mouths of the bruised, but still
snoring, watchmen… 'God save us,' said Mr Butt, but Mustapha Kemal,
more pragmatically, answered: 'Thank God we are well insured.'
'It was right then,' Ahmed Sinai told his wife later, 'right at that moment
that I decided to get out of the leathercloth business. Sell the office, the
goodwill, and forget everything I know about the reccine trade. Then-not
before, not afterwards-I made up my mind, also, to think no more about this
Pakistan claptrap of your Emerald's Zulfy. In the heat of that fire,' my father
revealed-unleashing a wifely tantrum-'I decided to go to Bombay, and enter
the property business. Property is dirt cheap there now,' he told her before
her protests could begin, 'Narlikar knows.'
(But in time, he would call Narlikar a traitor.)
In my family, we always go when we're pushed-the freeze of '48 being
the only exception to this rule. The boatman Tai drove my grandfather from
Kashmir; Mercurochrome chased him out of Amritsar; the collapse of her
life under the carpets led directly to my mother's departure from Agra; and
many-headed monsters sent my father to Bombay, so that I could be born
there. At the end of that January, history had finally, by a series of shoves,
brought itself to the point at which it was almost ready for me to make my
entrance. There were mysteries that could not be cleared up until I stepped
on to the scene… the mystery, for example, of Shri Ramram's most
enigmatic remark: 'There will be a nose and knees: knees, and a nose.'
Тhe insurance money came; January ended; and in the time it took to
close down their affairs in Delhi and move to the city in which-as Dr Narlikar
the gynaecologist knew-property was temporarily as cheap as dirt, my
mother concentrated on her segmented scheme for learning to love her
husband. She came to feel a deep affection for the question marks of his
ears; for the remarkable depth of his navel, into which her finger could go
right up to the first joint, without even pushing; she grew to love the
knobbliness of his knees; but, try as she might (and as I'm giving her the
benefit of my doubts I shall offer no possible reasons here), there was one
part of him which she never managed to love, although it was the one thing
he possessed, in full working order, which Nadir Khan had certainly lacked;
on those nights when he heaved himself up on top of her-when the baby in
her womb was no bigger than a frog-it was just no good at all.
… 'No, not so quick, janum, my life, a little longer, please,' she is
saying; and Ahmed, to spin things out, tries to think back to the fire, to the
last thing that happened on that blazing night, when just as he was turning
to go he heard a dirty screech in the sky, and, looking up, had time to
register that a vulture-at night!-a vulture from the Towers of Silence was
flying overhead, and that it had dropped a barely-chewed Parsee hand, a
right hand, the same hand which-now!-slapped him full in the face as it fell;
while Amina, beneath him in bed, ticks herself off: Why can't you enjoy, you
stupid woman, from now on you must really try.
On June 4th, my ill-matched parents left for Bombay by Frontier Mail.
(There were hangings, voices hanging on for dear life, fists crying out,
'Maharaj! Open, for one tick only! Ohe, from the milk of your kindness,
great sir, do us favour!' And there was also-hidden beneath dowry in a
green tin trunk-a forbidden, lapis-lazuli-encrusted, delicately-wrought silver
spittoon.) On the same day, Earl Mountbatten of Burma held a press
conference at which he announced the Partition of India, and hung his
countdown calendar on the wall: seventy days to go to the transfer of
power… sixty-nine… sixty-eight… tick, tock.
The fishermen were here first. Before Mountbatten's ticktock, before
monsters and public announcements; when underworld marriages were still
unimagined and spittoons were unknown; earlier than Mercurochrome;
longer ago than lady wrestlers who held up perfor-ated sheets; and back
and back, beyond Dalhousie and Elphinstone, before the East India
Company built its Fort, before the first William Methwold; at the dawn of
time, when Bombay was a dumbbell-shaped island tapering, at the centre,
to a narrow shining strand beyond which could be seen the finest and
largest natural harbour in Asia, when Mazagaon and Worli, Matunga and
Mahim, Salsette and Colaba were islands, too-in short, before reclamation,
before tetrapods and sunken piles turned the Seven Isles into a long
peninsula like an outstretched, grasping hand, reaching westward into the
Arabian Sea; in this primeval world before clocktowers, the fishermen-who
were called Kolis-sailed in Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the
setting sun. They caught pomfret and crabs, and made fish-lovers of us all.
(Or most of us. Padma has succumbed to their piscine sorceries; but in our
house, we were infected with the alienness of Kashmiri blood, with the icy
reserve of Kashmiri sky, and remained meateaters to a man.)
There were also coconuts and rice. And, above it all, the benign
presiding influence of the goddess Mumbadevi, whose name-Mumbadevi,
Mumbabai, Mumbai-may well have become the city's. But then, the
Portuguese named the place Bom Bahia for its harbour, and not for the
goddess of the pomfret folk… the Portuguese were the first invaders, using
the harbour to shelter their merchant ships and their men-of-war; but then,
one day in 1633, and East Indian Company Officer named Methwold saw a
vision. This vision-a dream of a British Bombay, fortified, defending India's
West against all comers-was a notion of such force that it set time in
motion. History churned ahead; Methwold died; and in 1660, Charles II of
England was betrothed to Catharine of the Portuguese House of
Braganza-that same Catharine who would, all her life, play second fiddle to
orange-selling Nell. But she has this consolation-that it was her marriage
dowry which brought Bombay into British hands, perhaps in a green tin
trunk, and brought Methwold's vision a step closer to reality. After that, it
wasn't long until September 21st, 1668, when the Company at last got its
hands on the island… and then off they went, with their Fort and
land-reclamation, and before you could blink there was a city here,
Bombay, of which the old tune sang:
@@@Prima in Indis,
Gateway to India,
Star of the East
With her face to the West.
Our Bombay, Padma! It was very different then,
there were no night-clubs or pickle factories or
Oberoi-Sheraton Hotels or movie studios; but the city
grew at breakneck speed, acquiring a cathedral and
an equestrian statue of the Mahratta warrior-king
Sivaji which (we used to think) came to life at night
and galloped awesomely through the city streets-right
along Marine Drive! On Chowpatty sands! Past the
great houses on Malabar Hill, round Kemp's Corner,
giddily along the sea to Scandal Point! And yes, why
not, on and on, down my very own Warden Road,
right alongside the segregated swimming pools of
Breach Candy, right up to huge Mahalaxmi Temple
and the old Willingd on Club… Throughout my
childhood, whenever bad times came to Bombay,
some insomniac nightwalker would report that he had
seen the statue moving; disasters, in the city of my
youth, danced to the occult music of a horse's grey,
stone hooves.
And where are they now, the first inhabitants?
Coconuts have done best of all. Coconuts are still'
beheaded daily on Chowpatty beach; while on Juhu
beach, under the languid gaze of film stars at the
Sun'n'Sand hotel, small boys still shin up coconut
palms and bring down the bearded fruit. Coconuts
even have their own festival, Coconut Day, which was
celebrated a few days before my synchronistic birth.
You may feel reassured about coconuts. Rice has not
been so lucky; rice-paddies lie under concrete now;
tenements tower where once rice wallowed within
sight of the sea. But still, in the city, we are great
rice-eaters. Patna rice, Basmati, Kashmiri rice travels
to the metropolis daily; so the original, ur-rice has left
its mark upon us all, and cannot be said to have died
in vain. as for Mumbadevi-she's not so popular these
days, having been replaced by elephant-headed
Ganesh in the people's affections. The calendar of
festivals reveals her decline: Ganesh-'Ganpati
Baba'-has his day of Ganesh Chaturthi, when huge
processions are 'taken out' and march to Chowpatty
bearing plaster effigies of the god, which they hurl into
the sea. Ganesh's day is a rain-making ceremony, it
makes the monsoon possible, and it, too, was
celebrated in the days before my arrival at the end of
the ticktock countdown-but where is Mumbadevi's
day? It is not on the calendar. Where the prayers of
pomfret folk, the devotions of crab-catchers?… Of all
the first inhabitants, the Koli fishermen have come off
worst of all. Squashed now into a tiny village in the
thumb of the handlike peninsula, they have admittedly
given their name to a district-Colaba. But follow
Colaba Causeway to its tip-past cheap clothes shops
and Irani restaurants and the second-rate flats of
teachers journalists and clerks-and you'll find them,
trapped between the naval base and the sea. And
sometimes Koli women, their hands stinking of
pomfret guts and crabmeat, jostle arrogantly to the
head of a Colaba bus-queue, with their crimson (or
purple) saris hitched brazenly up between their legs,
and a smarting glint of old defeats and dispossessions
in their bulging and somewhat fishy eyes. A fort, and
afterwards a city, took their land; pile-drivers stole
(tetrapods would steal) pieces of their sea. But there
are still Arab dhows, every evening, spreading their
sails against the sunset… in August 1947, the British,
having ended the dominion of fishing-nets, coconuts,
rice and Mumbadevi, were about to depart
themselves; no dominion is everlasting.
And on June 19th, two weeks after their arrival by
Frontier Mail, my parents entered into a curious
bargain with one such departing Englishman. His
name was William Methwold.
The road to Methwold's Estate (we are entering
my kingdom now, coming into the heart of my
childhood; a little lump has appeared in my throat)
turns off Warden Road between a bus-stop and a little
row of shops. Chimalker's Toyshop; Reader's
Paradise; the Chimanbhoy Fatbhoy jewellery store;
and, above all, Bombelli's the Confectioners, with their
Marquis cake, their One Yard of Chocolates! Names
to conjure with; but there's no time now. Past the
saluting cardboard bellboy of the Band Box Laundry,
the road leads us home. In those days the pink
skyscraper of the Narlikar women (hideous echo of
Srinagar's radio mast!) had not even been thought of;
the road mounted a low hillock, no higher than a
two-storey building; it curved round to face the sea, to
look down on Breach Candy Swimming Club, where
pink people could swim in a pool the shape of British
India without fear of rubbing up against a black skin;
and there, arranged nobly around a little roundabout,
were the palaces of William Methwold, on which hung
signs that would-thanks to me-reappear many years
later, signs bearing two words; just two, but they lured
my unwitting parents into Methwold's peculiar game:
for sale.
Methwold's Estate: four identical houses built in a
style befitting their original residents (conquerors'
houses! Roman mansions; three-storey homes of
gods standing on a two-storey Olympus, a stunted
Kailash!)-large, durable mansions with red gabled
roofs and turret towers in each corner, ivory-white
corner towers wearing pointy red-tiled hats (towers, fit
to lock princesses in!)-houses with verandahs, with
servants' quarters reached by spiral iron staircases
hidden at the back-houses which their owner, William
Methwold, had named majestically after the palaces of
Europe: Versailles Villa, Buckingham Villa, Escorial
Villa and Sans Souci. Bougainvillaea crept across
them; goldfish swam in pale blue pools; cacti grew in
rock-gardens; tiny touch-me-not plants huddled
beneath tamarind trees; there were butterflies and
roses and cane chairs on the lawns. And on that day
in the middle of June, Mr Methwold sold his empty
palaces for ridiculously little-but there were conditions.
So now, without more ado, I present him to you,
complete with the centre-parting in Ms hair… a
six-foot Titan, this Methwold, his face the pink of roses
and eternal youth. He had a head of thick black
brilliantined hair, parted in the centre. We shall speak
again of this centre-parting, whose ramrod precision
made Methwold irresistible to women, who felt unable
to prevent themselves wanting to rumple it up…
Methwold's hair, parted in the middle, has a lot to do
with my beginnings. It was one of those hairlines
along which history and sexuality moved. Like
tightrope-walkers. (But despite everything, not even I,
who never saw him, never laid eyes on languid
gleaming teeth or devastatingly combed hair, am
incapable of bearing him any grudge.)
And his nose? What did that look like?
Prominent? Yes, it must have been, the legacy of a
patrician French grandmother-from Bergerac!-whose
blood ran aquamarinely in his veins and darkened his
courtly charm with something crueller, some sweet
murderous shade of absinthe.
Methwold's Estate was sold on two conditions:
that the houses be bought complete with every last
thing in them, that the entire contents be retained by
the new owners; and that the actual transfer should
not take place until midnight on August I5th.
'Everything?' Amina Sinai asked. 'I can't even
throw away a spoon? Allah, that lampshade… I can't
get rid of one comb?'
'Lock, stock and barrel,' Methwold said, 'Those
are my terms. A whim, Mr Sinai… you'll permit a
departing colonial his little game? We don't have
much left to do, we British, except to play our games.'
'Listen now, listen, Amina,' Ahmed is saying later
on, 'You want to stay in this hotel room for ever? It's a
fantastic price; fantastic, absolutely. And what can he
do after he's transferred the deeds? Then you can
throw out any lampshade you like. It's less than two
'You'll take a cocktail in the garden?' Methwold is
saying, 'Six o'clock every evening. Cocktail hour.
Never varied in twenty years.'
'But my God, the paint… and the cupboards are
full of old clothes, janum… we'll have to live out of
suitcases, there's nowhere to put one suit!'
'Bad business, Mr Sinai,' Methwold sips his
Scotch amid cacti and roses, 'Never seen the like.
Hundreds of years of decent government, then
suddenly, up and off. You'll admit we weren't all bad:
built your roads. Schools, railway trains, parliamentary
system, all worthwhile things. Taj Mahal was falling
down until an Englishman bothered to see to it. And
now, suddenly, independence. Seventy days to get
out. I'm dead against it myself, but what's to be done?'
'… And look at the stains on the carpets, janum;
for two months we must live like those Britishers?
You've looked in the bathrooms? No water near the
pot. I never believed, but it's true, my God, they wipe
their bottoms with paper only!…'
'Tell me, Mr Methwold,' Ahmed Sinai's voice has
changed, in the presence of an Englishman it has
become a hideous mockery of an Oxford drawl, 'why
insist on the delay? Quick sale is best business, after
all. Get the thing buttoned up.'
'… And pictures of old Englishwomen
everywhere, baba! No place to hang my own father's
photo on the wall!…'
'It seems, Mr Sinai,' Mr Methwold is refilling the
glasses as the sun dives towards the Arabian Sea
behind the Breach Candy pool, 'that beneath this stiff
English exterior lurks a mind with a very Indian lust for
'And drinking so much, janum… that's not good.'
'I'm not sure-Mr Methwold, ah-what exactly you
mean by…'
'… Oh, you know: after a fashion, I'm transferring
power, too. Got a sort of itch to do it at the same time
the Raj does. As I said: a game. Humour me, won't
you, Sinai? After all: the price, you've admitted, isn't
'Has his brain gone raw, janum? What do you
think: is it safe to do bargains if he's loony?'
'Now listen, wife,' Ahmed Sinai is saying, 'this has
gone on long enough. Mr Methwold is a fine man; a
person of breeding; a man of honour; I will not have
his name… And besides, the other purchasers aren't
making so much noise, I'm sure… Anyway, I have told
him yes, so there's an end to it.'
'Have a cracker,' Mr Methwold is saying,
proffering a plate, 'Go on, Mr S., do. Yes, a curious
affair. Never seen anything like it. My old tenants-old
India hands, the lot-suddenly, up and off. Bad show.
Lost their stomachs for India. Overnight. Puzzling to a
simple fellow like me. Seemed like they washed their
hands-didn't want to take a scrap with them. 'Let it go,'
they said. Fresh start back home. Not short of a
shilling, none of them, you understand, but still, Rum.
Leaving me holding the baby. Then I had my notion.'
'… Yes, decide, decide,' Amina is saying
spiritedly, 'I am sitting here like a lump with a baby,
what have I to do with it? I must live in a stranger's
house with this child growing, so what?… Oh, what
things you make me do…'
'Don't cry,' Ahmed is saying now, flapping about
the hotel room, 'It's a good house. You know you like
the house. And two months… less than two… what, is
it kicking? Let me feel… Where? Here?'
'There,' Amina says, wiping her nose, 'Such a
good big kick.'
'My notion,' Mr Methwold explains, staring at the
setting sun, 'is to stage my own transfer of assets.
Leave behind everything you see? Select suitable
persons-such as yourself, Mr Sinai!-hand everything
over absolutely intact: in tiptop working order. Look
around you: everything's in fine fettle, don't you
agree? Tickety-boo, we used to say. Or, as you say in
Hindustani: Sabkuch ticktock hai. Everything's just
'Nice people are buying the houses,' Ahmed
offers Amina his handkerchief, 'nice new neighbours…
that Mr Homi Catrack in Versailles Villa, Parsee chap,
but a racehorse-owner. Produces films and all. And
the Ibrahims in Sans Souci, Nussie Ibrahim is having
a baby, too, you can be friends… and the old man
Ibrahim, with so-big sisal farms in Africa. Good family.'
'… And afterwards I can do what I like with the
house… ?'
'Yes, afterwards, naturally, he'll be gone…'
'… It's all worked out excellently,' William
Methwold says. 'Did you know my ancestor was the
chap who had the idea of building this whole city? Sort
of Raffles of Bombay. As his descendant, at this
important juncture, I feel the, I don't know, need to
play my part. Yes, excellently… when d'you move in?
Say the word and I'll move off to the Taj Hotel.
Tomorrow? Excellent. Sabkuch ticktock hai.'
These were the people amongst whom I spent
my childhood: Mr Homi Catrack, film magnate and
racehorse-owner, with his idiot daughter Toxy who
had to be locked up with her nurse, Bi-Appah, the
most fearsome woman I ever knew; also the Ibrahims
in Sans Souci, old man Ibrahim Ibrahim with his
goatee and sisal, his sons Ismail and Ishaq, and
IsmaiPs tiny flustery hapless wife Nussie, whom we
always called Nussie-the-duck on account of her
waddling gait, and in whose womb my friend Sonny
was growing, even now, getting closer and closer to
his misadventure with a pair of gynaecological
forceps… Escorial Villa was divided into flats. On the
ground floor lived the Dubashes, he a physicist who
would become a leading light at the Trombay nuclear
research base, she a cipher beneath whose
concealed-but I'll let it lie, mentioning only that they
were the parents of Cyrus (who would not be
conceived for a few months yet), my first mentor, who
played girls' parts in school plays and was known as
Cyrus-the-great. Above them was my father's friend
Dr Narlikar, who had bought a flat here too… he was
as black as my mother; had the ability of glowing
brightly whenever he became excited or aroused;
hated children, even though he brought us into the
world; and would unleash upon the city, when he died,
that tribe of women who could do anything and in
whose path no obstacle could stand. And, finally, on
the top floor, were Commander Sabarmati and
Lila-Sabarmati who was one of the highest flyers in
the Navy, and his wife with her expensive tastes; he
hadn't been able to believe his luck in getting her a
home so cheaply. They had two sons, aged eighteen
months and four months, who would grow up to be
slow and boisterous and to be nicknamed Eyeslice
and Hairoil; and they didn't know (how could they?)
that I would destroy their lives… Selected by William
Methwold, these people who would form the centre of
my world moved into the Estate and tolerated the
curious whims of the Englishman-because the price,
after all, was right.
… There are thirty days to go to the transfer of
power and Lila Sabarmati is on the telephone, 'How
can you stand it, Nussie? In every room here there are
talking budgies, and in the almirahs I find moth-eaten
dresses and used brassieres!'… And Nussie is telling
Amina, 'Goldfish, Allah, I can't stand the creatures, but
Methwold sahib comes himself to feed… and there
are half-empty pots of Bovril he says I can't throw…
it's mad, Amina sister, what are we doing like this?'…
And old man Ibrahim is refusing to switch on the
ceiling fan in his bedroom, muttering, 'That machine
will fall-it will slice my head off in the night-how long
can something so heavy stick on a ceiling?'… and
Homi Catrack who is something of an ascetic is
obliged to lie on a large soft mattress, he is suffering
from backache and sleeplessness and the dark rings
of inbreeding around his eyes are being circled by the
whorls of insomnia, and his bearer tells him, 'No
wonder the foreign sahibs have all gone away, sahib,
they must by dying to get some sleep.' But they are all
sticking it out; and there are advantages as well as
problems. Listen to Lila Sabarmati ('That one-too
beautiful to be good,' my mother said)… 'A pianola,
Amina sister! And it works! All day I'm sitting sitting,
playing God knows what-all! 'Pale Hands I Loved
Beside The Shalimar'… such fun, too much, you just
push the pedals!'… And Ahmed Sinai finds a cocktail
cabinet in Buckingham Villa (which was Methwold's
own house before it was ours); he is discovering the
delights of fine Scotch whisky and cries, 'So what? Mr
Methwold is a little eccentric, that's all-can we not
humour him? With our ancient civilization, can we not
be as civilized as he?'… and he drains his glass at
one go. Advantages and disadvantages: 'All these
dogs to look after, Nussie sister,' Lila Sabarmati
complains. 'I hate dogs, completely. And my little
choochie cat, cho chweet she is I swear, terrified
absolutely!'… And Dr Narlikar, glowing with pique,
'Above my bed! Pictures of children, Sinai brother! I
am telling you: fat! Pink! Three! Is that fair?'… But now
there are twenty days to go, things are settling down,
the sharp edges of things are getting blurred, so they
have all failed to notice what is happening: the Estate,
Methwold's Estate, is changing them. Every evening
at six they are out in their gardens, celebrating the
cocktail hour, and when William Methwold comes to
call they slip effortlessly into their imitation Oxford
drawls; and they are learning, about ceiling fans and
gas cookers and the correct diet for budgerigars, and
Methwold, supervising their transformation, is
mumbling under his breath. Listen carefully: what's he
saying? Yes, that's it. 'Sabkuch ticktock hai,' mumbles
William Methwold. All is well.
When the Bombay edition of the Times of India,
searching for a catchy human-interest angle to the
forthcoming Independence celebrations, announced
that it would award a prize to any Bombay mother who
could arrange to give birth to a child at the precise
instant of the birth of the new nation, Amina Sinai, who
had just awoken from a mysterious dream of flypaper,
became glued to newsprint. Newsprint was thrust
beneath Ahmed Sinai's nose; and Amina's finger,
jabbing triumphantly at the page, punctuated the utter
certainty of her voice.
'See, janum?' Amina announced. 'That's going to
be me.'
There rose, before their eyes, a vision of bold
headlines declaring 'A Charming Pose of Baby
Sinai-the Child of this Glorious Hour!'-a vision of A-1
top-quality front-page jumbo-sized baby-snaps; but
Ahmed began to argue, 'Think of the odds against it,
Begum,' until she set her mouth into a clamp of
obstinacy and reiterated, 'But me no buts; it's me all
right; I just know it for sure. Don't ask me how.'
And although Ahmed repeated his wife's
prophecy to William Methwold, as a cocktail-hour joke,
Amina remained unshaken, even when Methwold
laughed, 'Woman's intuition-splendid thing, Mrs S.!
But really, you can scarcely expect us to…' Even
under the pressure of the peeved gaze of her
neighbour Nussie-the-duck, who was also pregnant,
and had also read the Times of India, Amina stuck to
her guns, because Ramram's prediction had sunk
deep into her heart.
To tell the truth, as Amina's pregnancy
progressed, she had found the words of the
fortune-teller pressing more and more heavily down
upon her. shoulders, her head, her swelling balloon,
so that as she became trapped in a web of worries
about giving birth to a child with two heads she
somehow escaped the subtle magic of Methwold's
Estate, remaining uninfected by cocktail-hours,
budgerigars, pianolas and English accents… At first,
then, there was something equivocal about her
certainty that she would win the Time's prize, because
she had convinced herself that if this part of the
fortune-teller's prognostications were fulfilled, it proved
that the rest would be just as accurate, whatever their
meaning might be. So it was not in tones of
unadulterated pride and anticipation that my mother
said, 'Never mind intuition, Mr Methwold. This is
guaranteed fact.'
To herself she added: 'And this, too: I'm going to
have a son. But he'll need plenty of looking after, or
It seems to me that, running deep in the veins of
my mother, perhaps deeper than she knew, the
supernatural conceits of Naseem Aziz had begun to
influence her thoughts and behaviour-those conceits
which persuaded Reverend Mother that aeroplanes
were inventions of the devil, and that cameras could
steal your soul, and that ghosts were as obvious a
part of reality as Paradise, and that it was nothing less
than a sin to place certain sanctified ears between
one's thumb and forefinger, were now whispering in
her daughter's darkling head. 'Even if we're sitting in
the middle of all this English garbage,' my mother was
beginning to think, 'this is still India, and people like
Ramram Seth know what they know.' In this way the
scepticism of her beloved father was replaced by the
credulity of my grandmother; and, at the same time,
the adventurous spark which Amina had inherited
from Doctor Aziz was being snuffed out by another,
and equally heavy, weight.
By the time the rains came at the end of June, the
foetus was fully formed inside her womb. Knees and
nose were present; and as many heads as would
grow were already in position. What had been (at the
beginning) no bigger than a full stop had expanded
into a comma, a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a
chapter; now it was bursting into more complex
developments, becoming, one might say, a
book-perhaps an encyclopaedia-even a whole
language… which is to say that the lump in the middle
of my mother grew so large, and became so heavy,
that while Warden Road at the foot of our two-storey
hillock became flooded with dirty yellow rainwater and
stranded buses began to rust and children swam in
the liquid road and newspapers sank soggily beneath
the surface, Amina found herself in a circular first-floor
tower room, scarcely able to move beneath the weight
of her leaden balloon.
Endless rain. Water seeping in under windows in
which stained-glass tulips danced along leaded
panes. Towels, jammed against window-frames,
soaked up water until they became heavy, saturated,
useless. The sea: grey and ponderous and stretching
out to meet the rainclouds at a narrowed horizon. Rain
drumming against my mother's ears, adding to the
confusion of fortune-teller and maternal credulity and
the dislocating presence of strangers' possessions,
making her imagine all manner of strange things.
Trapped beneath her growing child, Amina pictured
herself as a convicted murderer in Mughal times,
when death by crushing beneath a boulder had been
a common punishment… and in the years to come,
whenever she looked back at that time which was the
end of the time before she became a mother, that time
in which the ticktock of countdown calendars was
rushing everyone towards August 15th, she would
say: 'I don't know about any of that. To me, it was like
time had come to a complete stop. The baby in my
stomach stopped the clocks. I'm sure of that. Don't
laugh: you remember the clocktower at the end of the
hill? I'm telling you, after that monsoon it never worked
… And Musa, my father's old servant, who had
accompanied the couple to Bombay, went off to tell
the other servants, in the kitchens of the red-tiled
palaces, in the servants' quarters at the backs of
Versailles and Escorial and Sans Souci: 'It's going to
be a real ten-rupee baby; yes, sir! A whopper of a
ten-chip pomfret, wait and see!' The servants were
pleased; because a birth is a fine thing and a good big
baby is best of all…
… And Amina whose belly had stopped the
clocks sat immobilized in a room in a tower and told
her husband, 'Put your hand there and feel him…
there, did you feel?… such a big strong boy; our little
Not until the rains ended, and Amina became so
heavy that two manservants had to make a chair with
their hands to lift her, did Wee Willie Winkie return to
sing in the circus-ring between the four houses; and
only then did Amina realize that she had not one, but
two serious rivals (two that she knew of) for the Times
of India's prize, and that, prophecy or no prophecy, it
was going to be a vey close-run finish.
'Wee Willie Winkie is my name; to sing for my
supper is my fame!' Ex-conjurers and peepshow-men
and singers… even before I was born, the mould was
set. Entertainers would orchestrate my life.
'I hope you are com-for-table!… Or are you
come-for-tea? Oh, joke-joke, ladies and ladahs, let me
see you laugh now!'
Talldarkhandsome, a clown with an accordion, he
stood in the circus-ring. In the gardens of Buckingham
Villa, my father's big toe strolled (with its nine
colleagues) beside and beneath the centre-parting of
William Methwold… sandalled, bulbous, a toe
unaware of its coming doom. And Wee Willie Winkie
(whose real name we never knew) cracked jokes and
sang. From a first-floor verandah, Amina watched and
listened; and from the neighbouring verandah, felt the
prick of the envious competitive gaze of
… While I, at my desk, feel the sting of Padma's
impatience. (I wish, at times, for a more discerning
audience, someone who would understand the need
for rhythm, pacing, the subtle introduction of minor
chords which will later rise, swell, seize the melody;
who would know, for instance, that although
baby-weight and monsoons have silenced the clock
on the Estate clocktower, the steady beat of
Mountbatten's ticktock is still there, soft but
inexorable, and that it's only a matter of time before it
fills our ears with its metronomic, drumming music.)
Padma says: 'I don't want to know about this Winkie
now; days and nights I've waited and still you won't
get to being born!' But I counsel patience; everything
in its proper place, I admonish my dung-lotus,
because Winkie, too, has his purpose and his place,
here he is now teasing the pregnant ladies on their
verandahs, pausing from singing to say, 'You've heard
about the prize, ladies? Me, too. My Vanita will have
her time soon, soon-soon; maybe she and not you will
have her picture in the paper!'… and Amina is
frowning, and Methwold is smiling (is that a forced
smile? Why?) beneath his centre-parting, and my
father's lip is jutting judiciously as his big toe strolls
and he says, 'That's a cheeky fellow; he goes too far.'
But now Methwold in what looks very like
embarrassment-even guilt!-reproves Ahmed Sinai,
'Nonsense, old chap. The tradition of the fool, you
know. Licensed to provoke and tease. Important social
safety-valve.' And my father, shrugging, 'Hm.' But he's
a clever type, this Winkie, because he's pouring oil on
the waters now, saying, 'A birth is a fine thing; two
births are two fine! Too fine, madams, joke, you see?'
And a switch of mood as he introduces a dramatic
notion, an overpowering, crucial thought: 'Ladies,
gentlemen, how can you feel comfortable here, in the
middle of Mr Methwold sahib's long past? I tell you: it
must be strange; not real; but now it is a new place
here, ladies, ladahs, and no new place is real until it
has seen a birth. The first birth will make you feel at
home.' After which, a song: 'Daisy, Daisy…' And Mr
Methwold, joining in, but still there's something dark
staining his brow…
… And here's the point: yes, it is guilt, because
our Winkie may be clever and funny but he's not
clever enough, and now it's time to reveal the first
secret of the centre-parting of William Methwold,
because it has dripped down to stain his face: one
day, long before ticktock and lockstockandbarrel
sales, Mr Methwold invited Winkie and his Vanita to
sing for him, privately, in what is now my parents'
main reception room; and after a while he said, 'Look
here, Wee Willie, do me a favour, man: I need this
prescription filling, terrible headaches, take it to
Kemp's Corner and get the chemist to give you the
pills, the servants are all down with colds.' Winkie,
being a poor man, said Yes sahib at once sahib and
left; and then Vanita was alone with the centre-parting,
feeling it exert a pull on her fingers that was
impossible to resist, and as Methwold sat immobile in
a cane chair, wearing a lightweight cream suit with a
single rose in the lapel, she found herself approaching
him, fingers outstretched, felt fingers touching hair;
found centre-parting; and began to rumple it up.
So that now, nine months later, Wee Willie Winkie
joked about his wife's imminent baby and a stain
appeared on an Englishman's forehead.
'So?' Padma says. 'So what do I care about this
Winkie and his.wife whom you haven't even told me
Some people are never satisfied; but Padma will
be, soon.
And now she's about to get even more frustrated;
because, pulling away in a long rising spiral from the
events at Methwold's Estate-away from goldfish and
dogs and baby contests and centre-partings, away
from big toes and tiled roofs-I am flying across the city
which is fresh and clean in the aftermath of the rains;
leaving Ahmed and Amina to the songs of Wee Willie
Winkie, I'm winging towards the Old Fort district, past
Flora Fountain, and arriving at a large building filled
with dim fustian light and the perfume of swinging
censers because here, in St Thomas's Cathedral,
Miss Mary Pereira is learning about the colour of God.
'Blue,' the young priest said earnestly. 'All
available evidence, my daughter, suggests that Our
Lord Christ Jesus was the most beauteous crystal
shade of pale sky blue.'
The little woman behind the wooden latticed
window of the confessional fell silent for a moment. An
anxious, cogitating silence. Then: 'But how, Father?
People are not blue. No people are blue in the whole
big world!'
Bewilderment of little woman, matched by
perplexity of the priest… because this is not how she's
supposed to react. The Bishop had said, 'Problems
with recent converts… when they ask about colour
they're almost always that… important to build
bridges, my son. Remember,' thus spake the Bishop,
'God is love; and the Hindu love-god, Krishna, is
always depicted with blue skin. Tell them blue; it will
be a sort of bridge between the faiths; gently does it,
you follow; and besides blue is a neutral sort of colour,
avoids the usual Colour problems, gets you away from
black and white: yes, on the whole I'm sure it's the one
to choose.' Even bishops can be wrong, the young
father is thinking, but meanwhile he's in quite a spot,
because the little woman is clearly getting into a state,
has begun issuing a severe reprimand through the
wooden grille: 'What type of answer is blue, Father,
how to believe such a thing? You should write to Holy
Father Pope in Rome, he will surely put you straight;
but one does not have to be Pope to know that the
mens are not ever blue!' The young father closes his
eyes; breathes deeply; counter-attacks. 'Skins have
been dyed blue,' he stumbles. 'The Picts; the blue
Arab nomads; with the benefits of education, my
daughter, you would see…' But now a violent snort
echoes in the confessional. 'What, Father? You are
comparing Our Lord to junglee wild men? О Lord, I
must catch my ears for shame!'… And there is more,
much more, while the young father whose stomach is
giving him hell suddenly has the inspiration that there
is something more important lurking behind this blue
business, and asks the question; whereupon tirade
gives way to tears, and the young father says
panickily, 'Come, come, surely the Divine Radiance of
Our Lord is not a matter of mere pigment?'… And a
voice through the flooding salt water: 'Yes, Father,
you're not so bad after all; I told him just that, exactly
that very thing only, but he said many rude words and
would not listen…' So there it is, him has entered the
story, and now it all tumbles out, and Miss Mary
Pereira, tiny virginal distraught, makes a confession
which gives us a crucial clue about her motives when,
on the night of my birth, she made the last and most
important contribution to the entire history of
twentieth-century India from the time of my
grandfather's nose-bump until the time of my
Mary Pereira's confession: like every Mary she
had her Joseph. Joseph D'Costa, an orderly at a
Pedder Road clinic called Dr Narlikar's Nursing Home
('Oho!' Padma sees a connection at last), where she
worked as a midwife. Things had been very good at
first; he had taken her for cups of tea or lassi or
falooda and told her sweet things. He had eyes like
road-drills, hard and full of ratatat, but he spoke softly
and well. Mary, tiny, plump, virginal, had revelled in
his attentions; but now everything had changed.
'Suddenly suddenly he's sniffing the air all the
time. In a funny way, nose high up. I ask, 'You got a
cold or what, Joe?' But he says no; no, he says, he's
sniffing the wind from the north. But I tell him, Joe, in
Bombay the wind comes off the sea, from the west,
Joe…' In a fragile voice Mary Pereira describes the
ensuing rage of Joseph D'Costa, who told her, 'You
don't know nothing, Mary, the air comes from the
north now, and it's full of dying. This independence is
for the rich only; the poor are being made to kill each
other like flies. In Punjab, in Bengal. Riots riots, poor
against poor. It's in the wind.'
And Mary: 'You talking crazy, Joe, why you
worrying with those so-bad things? We can live quietly
still, no?'
'Never mind, you don't know one thing.'
'But Joseph, even if it's true about the killing,
they're Hindu and Muslim people only; why get good
Christian folk mixed up in their fight? Those ones have
killed each other for ever and ever.'
'You and your Christ. You can't get it into your
head that that's the white people's religion? Leave
white gods for white men. Just now our own people
are dying. We got to fight back; show the people who
to fight instead of each other, you see?'
And Mary, 'That's why I asked about colour,
Father… and I told Joseph, I told and told, fighting is
bad, leave off these wild ideas; but then he stops
talking with me, and starts hanging about with
dangerous types, and there are rumours starting up
about him, Father, how he's throwing bricks at big
cars apparently, and burning bottles also, he's going
crazy, Father, they say he helps to burn buses and
blow up trams, and I don't know what. What to do,
Father, I tell my sister about it all. My sister Alice, a
good girl really, Father. I said: 'That Joe, he lives near
a slaughterhouse, maybe that's the smell that got into
his nose and muddled him all up.' So Alice went to
find him, 'I will talk for you,' she says; but then, О God
what is happening to the world… I tell you truly,
Father… О baba…' And the floods are drowning her
words, her secrets are leaking saltily out of her eyes,
because Alice came back to say that in her opinion
Mary was the one to blame, for haranguing Joseph
until he wanted no more of her, instead of giving him
support in his patriotic cause of awakening the people.
Alice was younger than Mary; and prettier; and after
that there were more rumours, Alice-and-Joseph
stories, and Mary came to her wits' end.
That one,' Mary said, 'What does she know about
this politics-politics? Only to get her nails into my
Joseph she will repeat any rubbish he talks, like one
stupid mynah bird. I swear, Father…'
'Careful, daughter. You are close to blasphemy…'
'No, Father, I swear to God, I don't know what I
won't do to get me back that man. Yes: in spite of…
never mind what he… ai-o-ai-ooo!'
Salt water washes the confessional floor.,. and
now, is there a new dilemma for the young father? Is
he, despite the agonies of an unsettled stomach,
weighing in invisible scales the sanctity of the
confessional against the danger to civilized society of
a man like Joseph D'Costa? Will he, in fact, ask Mary
for her Joseph's address, and then reveal … In short,
would this bishop-ridden, stomach-churned young
father have behaved like, or unlike, Montgomery Clift
in I Confess? (Watching it some years ago at the New
Empire cinema, I couldn't decide.)-But no; once again,
I must stifle my baseless suspicions.
What happened to Joseph would probably have
happened anyway And in all likelihood the young
father's only relevance to my history is that he was the
first outsider to hear about Joseph D'Costa's virulent
hatred of the rich, and of Mary Pereira's desperate
Tomorrow I'll have a bath and shave; I am going
to put on a brand new kurta, shining and starched,
and pajamas to match. I'll wear mirrorworked slippers
curling up at the toes, my hair will be neatly brushed
(though not parted in the centre), my teeth gleaming…
in a phrase, I'll look my best. ('Thank God' from
pouting Padma.)
Tomorrow, at last, there will be an end to stories
which I (not having been present at their birth) have to
drag out of the whirling recesses of my mind; because
the metronome musk of Mountbatten's countdown
calendar can be ignored no longer. At Methwold's
Estate, old Musa is still ticking like a time-bomb; but
he can't be heard, because another sound is swelling
now, deafening, insistent; the sound of seconds
passing, of an approaching, inevitable midnight.
Tick, tock
Padma can hear it: there's nothing like a countdown for building
suspense. I watched my dung-flower at work today, stirring vats like a
whirlwind, as if that would make the time go faster. (And perhaps it did;
time, in my experience, has been as variable and inconstant as Bombay's
electric power supply. Just telephone the speaking clock if you don't
believe me-tied to electricity, it's usually a few hours wrong. Unless we're
the ones who are wrong… no people whose word for 'yesterday' is the
same as their word for' tomorrow' can be said to have a firm grip on the
But today, Padma heard Mountbatten's ticktock… English-made, it
beats with relentless accuracy. And now the factory is empty; fumes linger,
but the vats are still; and I've kept my word. Dressed up to the nines, I greet
Padma as she rushes to my desk, flounces down on the floor beside me,
commands: 'Begin.' I give a little satisfied smile; feel the children of
midnight queueing up in my head, pushing and jostling like Koli fishwives; I
tell them to wait, it won't be long now; I clear my throat, give my pen a little
shake; and start.
Thirty-two years before the transfer of power, my grandfather bumped
his nose against Kashmir! earth. There were rubies and diamonds. There
was the ice of the future, waiting beneath the water's skin There was an
oath: not to bow down before god or man. The oath created a hole, which
would temporarily be filled by a woman behind a perforated sheet. A
boatman who had once prophesied dynasties lurking in my grandfather's
nose ferried him angrily across a lake. There were blind landowners and
lady wrestlers. And there was a sheet in a gloomy room. On that day, my
inheritance began to form-the blue of Kashmiri sky which dripped into my
grandfather's eyes; the long sufferings of my great-grandmother which
would become the forebearance of my own mother and the late steeliness
of Naseem Aziz; my great-grandfather's gift of conversing with birds whkh
would descend through meandering bloodlines into the veins of my sister
the Brass Monkey; the conflict between grandpaternal scepticism and
grandmaternal credulity; and above all the ghostly essence of that
perforated sheet, which doomed my mother to learn to love a man in
segments, and which condemned me to see my own life-its meanings, its
structures-in fragments also; so that by the time I understood it, it was far
too late.
Years ticking away-and my inheritance grows, because now I have the
mythical golden teeth of the boatman Tai, and his brandy bottle which
foretold my father's alcoholic djinns; I have Ilse Lubin for suicide and
pickled snakes for virility; I have Tai-for-changelessness opposed to
Aadam-for-progress; and I have, too, the odours of the unwashed boatman
which drove my grandparents south, and made Bombay a possibility.
… And now, driven by Padma and ticktock, I move on, acquiring
Mahatma Gandhi and his hartal, ingesting thumb-and-forefinger,
swallowing the moment at which Aadam Aziz did not know whether he was
Kashmir! or Indian; now I'm drinking Mercurochrome and stains the shape
of hands which will recur in spilt betel-juice, and I'm gulping down Dyer,
moustache and all; my grandfather is saved by his nose and a bruise
appears on his chest, never to fade, so that he and I find in its ceaseless
throbbing the answer to the question, Indian or Kashmiri? Stained by the
bruise of a Heidelberg bag's clasp, we throw our lot in with India; but the
alienness of blue eyes remains. Tai dies, but his magic hangs over us still,
and makes us men apart.
… Hurtling on, I pause to pick up the game of hit-the-spittoon. Five
years before the birth of a nation, my inheritance grows, to include an
optimism disease which would flare up again in my own time, and cracks in
the earth which will-be-have-been reborn in my skin, and ex-conjurer
Hummingbirds who began the long line of street-entertainers which has run
in parallel with my life, and my grandmother's moles like witchnipples and
hatred of photographs, and whatsitsname, and wars of starvation and
silence, and the wisdom of my aunt Alia which turned into spinsterhood and
bitterness and finally burst out in deadly revenge, and the love of Emerald
and Zulfikar which would enable me to start a revolution, and crescent
knives, fatal moons echoed by my mother's love-name for me, her innocent
chand-ka-tukra, her affectionate piece-of-the-… growing larger now,
floating in the amniotic fluid of the past, I feed on a hum that rose
higherhigher until dogs came to the rescue, on an escape into a cornfield
and a rescue by Rashid the rickshaw-wallah with his Gai-Wallah antics as
he ran-full-tilt!-screaming silently, as he revealed the secrets of locks made
in India and brought Nadir Khan into a toilet containing a washing-chest;
yes, I'm getting heavier by the second, fattening up on washing-chests and
the under-the-carpet love of Mumtaz and the rhymeless bard, plumping out
as I swallow Zulnkar's dream of a bath by his bedside and an underground
Taj Mahal and a silver spittoon encrusted with lapis lazuli; a marriage
disintegrates, and feeds me; an aunt runs traitorously through Agra streets,
without her honour, and that feeds me too; and now false starts are over,
and Amina has stopped being Mumtaz, and Ahmed Sinai has become, in a
sense, her father as well as her husband… my inheritance includes this
gift, the gift of inventing new parents for myself whenever necessary. The
power of giving birth to fathers and mothers: which Ahmed wanted and
never had.
Through my umbilical cord, I'm taking in fare dodgers and the dangers
of purchasing peacock-feather fans; Amina's assiduity seeps into me, and
more ominous things-clattering footsteps, my mother's need to plead for
money until the napkin in my father's lap began to quiver and make a little
tent-and the cremated ashes of Arjuna Indiabikes, and a peepshow into
which Lifafa Das tried to put everything in the world, and rapscallions
perpetrating outrages; many-headed monsters swell inside me-masked
Ravanas, eight-year-old girls with lisps and one continuous eyebrow, mobs
crying Rapist. Public announcements nurture me as I grow towards my
time, and there are only seven months left to go.
How many things people notions we bring with us into the world, how
many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility!-Because all of these
were the parents of the child born that midnight, and for every one of the
midnight children there were as many more. Among the parents of
midnight: the failure of the Cabinet Mission scheme; the determination of
M. A. Jinnah, who was dying and wanted to see Pakistan formed in his
lifetime, and would have done anything to ensure it-that same Jinnah whom
my father, missing a turn as usual, refused to meet; and Mountbatten with
his extraordinary haste and his chicken-breast-eater of a wife; and more
and more-Red Fort and Old fort, monkeys and vultures dropping hands,
and white transvestites, and bone-setters and mongoose-trainers and Shri
Ramram Seth who made too much prophecy. And my father's dream of
rearranging the Quran has its place; and the burning of a godown which
turned him into a man of property and not leathercloth; and the piece of
Ahmed which Amina could not love. To understand just one life, you have
to swallow the world. I told you that.
And fishermen, and Catharine of Braganza, and Mumbadevi coconuts
rice; Sivaji's statue and Methwold's Estate; a swimming pool in the shape of
British India and a two-storey hillock; a centre-parting and a nose from
Bergerac; an inoperative clocktower and a little circus-ring; an
Englishman's lust for an Indian allegory and the seduction of an
accordionist's wife. Budgerigars, ceiling fans, the Times of India are all part
of the luggage I brought into the world… do you wonder, then, that I was a
heavy child? Blue Jesus leaked into me; and Mary's desperation, and
Joseph's revolutionary wildness, and the flightiness of Alice Pereira… all
these made me, too.
If I seem a little bizarre, remember the wild profusion of my
inheritance… perhaps, if one wishes to remain an individual in the midst of
the teeming multitudes, one must make oneself grotesque.
'At last,' Padma says with satisfaction, 'you've learned how to tell
things really fast.'
August I3th, 1947: discontent in the heavens. Jupiter, Saturn and
Venus are in quarrelsome vein; moreover, the three crossed stars are
moving into the most ill-favoured house of all. Benarsi astrologers name it
fearfully: 'Karamstan! They enter Karamstan!'
While astrologers make frantic representations to Congress Party
bosses, my mother lies down for her afternoon nap. While Earl
Mountbatten deplores the lack of trained occultists on his General Staff, the
slowly turning shadows of a ceiling fan caress Amina into sleep. While M.
A. Jinnah, secure in the knowledge that his Pakistan will be born in just
eleven hours, a full day before independent India, for which there are still
thirty-five hours to go, is scoffing at the protestations of
horoscope-mongers, shaking his head in amusement, Amina's head, too, is
moving from side to side.
But she is asleep. And in these days of her boulder-like pregnancy, an
enigmatic dream of flypaper has been plaguing her sleeping hours… in
which she wanders now, as before, in a crystal sphere filled with dangling
strips of the sticky brown material, which adhere to her clothing and rip it off
as she stumbles through the impenetrable papery forest; and now she
struggles, tears at paper, but it grabs at her, until she is naked, with the
baby kicking inside her, and long tendrils of flypaper stream out to seize her
by her undulating womb, paper glues itself to her hair nose teeth breasts
thighs, and as she opens her mouth to shout a brown adhesive gag falls
across her parting lips…
'Amina Begum!' Musa is saying. 'Wake up! Bad dream, Begum
Incidents of those last few hours-the last dregs of my inheritance:
when there were thirty-five hours to go, my mother dreamed of being glued
to brown paper like a fly. And at the cocktail hour (thirty hours to go)
William Methwold visited my father in the garden of Buckingham Villa.
Centre-parting strolling beside and above big toe, Mr Methwold reminisced.
Tales of the first Methwold, who had dreamed the city into existence, filled
the evening air in that penultimate sunset. And my father-apeing Oxford
drawl, anxious to impress the departing Englishman-responded with,
'Actually, old chap, ours is a pretty distinguished family, too.' Methwold
listening: head cocked, red rose in cream lapel, wide-brimmed hat
concealing parted hair, a veiled hint of amusement in his eyes… Ahmed
Sinai, lubricated by whisky, driven on by self-importance, warms to his
theme. 'Mughal blood, as a matter of fact.' To which Methwold, 'No! Really?
You're pulling my leg.' And Ahmed, beyond the point of no return, is obliged
to press on. 'Wrong side of the blanket, of course; but Mughal, certainly.'
That was how, thirty hours before my birth, my father de-monstrated
that he, too, longed for fictional ancestors… how he came to invent a family
pedigree that, in later years, when whisky had blurred the edges of his
memory and djinn-bottles came to confuse him, would obliterate all traces
of reality… and how, to hammer his point home, he introduced into our
lives the idea of the family curse.
'Oh yes.' my father said as Methwold cocked a grave unsmiling head,
'many old families possessed such curses. In our line, it is handed down
from eldest son to eldest son-in writing only, because merely to speak it is
to unleash its power, you know.' Now Methwold: 'Amazing! And you know
the words?' My father nods, lip jutting, toe still as he taps his forehead for
emphasis. 'All in here; all memorized. Hasn't been used since an ancestor
quarrelled with the Emperor Babar and put the curse on his son
Humayun… terrible story, that-every schoolboy knows.'
And the time would come when my father, in the throes of his utter
retreat from reality, would lock himself in a blue room and try to remember
a curse which he had dreamed up one evening in the gardens of his house
while he stood tapping his temple beside the descendant of William
Saddled now with flypaper-dreams and imaginary ancestors, I am still
over a day away from being born… but now the remorseless ticktock
reasserts itself: twenty-nine hours to go, twenty-eight, twenty-seven…
What other dreams were dreamed on that last night? Was it then-yes,
why not-that Dr Narlikar, ignorant of the drama that was about to unfold at
his Nursing Home, first dreamed of tetrapods? Was it on that last
night-while Pakistan was being born to the north and west of Bombay-that
my uncle Hanif, who had come (like his sister) to Bombay, and who had
fallen in love with an actress, the divine Pia ('Her face is her fortune!' the
Illustrated Weekly once said), first imagined the cinematic device which
would soon give him the first of his three hit pictures?… It seems likely;
myths, nightmares, fantasies were in the air. This much is certain: on that
last night, my grandfather Aadam Aziz, alone now in the big old house in
Cornwallis Road-except for a wife whose strength of will seemed to
increase as Aziz was ground down by age, and for a daughter, Alia, whose
embittered virginity would last until a bomb split her in two over eighteen
years later-was suddenly imprisoned by great metal hoops of nostalgia,
and lay awake as they pressed down upon his chest; until finally, at five
o'clock in the morning of August I4th-nineteen hours to go-he was pushed
out of bed by an invisible force and drawn towards an old tin trunk. Opening
it, he found: old copies of German magazines; Lenin's What Is To Be
Done?; a folded prayer-mat; and at last the thing which he had felt an
irresistible urge to see once more-white and folded and glowing faintly in
the dawn-my grandfather drew out, from the tin trunk of his past, a stained
and perforated sheet, and discovered that the hole had grown; that there
were other, smaller holes in the surrounding fabric; and in the grip of a wild
nostalgic rage he shook his wife awake and astounded her by yelling, as he
waved her history under her nose:
'Moth-eaten! Look, Begum: moth-eaten! You forgot to put in any
naphthalene balk!'
But now the countdown will not be denied… eighteen hours;
seventeen; sixteen… and already, at Dr Narlikar's Nursing Home, it is
possible to hear the shrieks of a woman in labour. Wee Willie Winkie is
here; and his wife Vanita; she has been in a protracted, unproductive
labour for eight hours now. The first pangs hit her just as, hundreds of miles
away, M. A. Jinnah announced the midnight birth of a Muslim nation… but
still she writhes on a bed in the Narlikar Home's 'charity ward' (reserved for
the babies of the poor)… her eyes are standing halfway out of her head;
her body glistens with sweat, but the baby shows no signs of coming, nor is
its father present; it is eight o'clock in the morning, but there is still the
possibility that, given the circumstances, the baby could be waiting for
Rumours in the city: The statue galloped last night!'… 'And the stars
are unfavourable!'… But despite these signs of ill-omen, the city was
poised, with a new myth glinting in the corners of its eyes. August in
Bombay: a month of festivals, the month of Krishna's birthday and Coconut
Day; and this year-fourteen hours to go, thirteen, twelve-there was an extra
festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which
had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us
into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although
it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt,
was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which
would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective
will-except in a dream we all agreed to dream; it was a mass fantasy
shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and
would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be
provided by rituals of blood. India, the new myth-a collective fiction in which
anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty
fantasies: money and God.
I have been, in my time, the living proof of the fabulous nature of this
collective dream; but for the moment, I shall turn away from these
generalized, macrocosmic notions to concentrate upon a more private
ritual; I shall not describe the mass blood-letting in progress on the frontiers
of the divided Punjab (where the partitioned nations are washing
themselves in one another's blood, and a certain punchinello-faced Major
Zulfikar is buying refugee property at absurdly low prices, laying the
foundations of a fortune that will rival the Nizam of Hyderabad's); I shall
avert my eyes from the violence in Bengal and the long pacifying walk of
Mahatma Gandhi. Selfish? Narrow-minded? Well, perhaps; but excusably
so, in my opinion. After all, one is not born every day.
Twelve hours to go. Amina Sinai, having awakened from her flypaper
nightmare, will not sleep again until after… Ramram Seth is filling her head,
she is adrift in a turbulent sea jn which waves of excitement alternate with
deep, giddying, dark, watery hollows of fear. But something else is in
operation, too, Watch her hands-as, without any conscious instructions,
they press down, hard, upon her womb; watch her lips, muttering without
her knowledge: 'Come on, slowpoke, you don't want to be late for the
Eight hours to go… at four o'clock that afternoon, William Methwold
drives up the two-storey hillock in his black 1946 Rover. He parks in the
circus-ring between the four noble villas; but today he visits neither
goldfish-pond nor cactus-garden; he does not greet Lila Sabarmati with his
customary, 'How goes the pianola? Everything tickety-boo?'-nor does he
salute old man Ibrahim who sits in the shade of a ground-floor verandah,
rocking in a rocking-chair and musing about sisal; looking neither towards
Catrack nor Sinai, he takes up his position in the exact centre of the
circus-ring. Rose in lapel, cream hat held stiffly against his chest,
centre-parting glinting in afternoon light, William Methwold stares straight
ahead, past clock-tower and Warden Road, beyond Breach Candy's
map-shaped pool, across the golden four o'clock waves, and salutes; while
out there, above the horizon, the sun begins its long dive towards the sea.
Six hours to go. The cocktail hour. The successors of William
Methwold are in their gardens-except that Amina sits in her tower-room,
avoiding the mildly competitive glances being flung in her direction by
Nussie-next-door, who is also, perhaps, urging her Sonny down and out
between her legs; curiously they watch the Englishman, who stands as still
and stiff as the ramrod to which we have previously compared his
centre-parting; until they are distracted by a new arrival. A long, stringy
man, wearing three rows of beads around his neck, and a belt of
chicken-bones around his waist; his dark skin stained with ashes, his hair
loose and long-naked except for beads and ashes, the sadhu strides up
amongst the red-tiled mansions. Musa, the old bearer, descends upon him
to shoo him away; but hangs back, not knowing how to command a holy
man. Cleaving through the veils of Musa's indecision, the sadhu enters the
garden of Buckingham Villa; walks straight past my astonished father;
seats himself, cross-legged, beneath the dripping garden tap.
'What do you want here, sadhuji?'-Musa, unable to avoid deference; to
which the sadhu, calm as a lake: 'I have come to await the coming of the
One. The Mubarak-He who is Blessed. It will happen very soon.'
Believe it or not: I was prophesied twice! And on that day on which
everything was so remarkably well-timed, my mother's sense of timing did
not fail her; no sooner had the sadhu's last word left his lips than there
issued, from a first-floor tower-room with glass tulips dancing in the
windows, a piercing yell, a cocktail containing equal proportions of panic,
excitement and triumph… 'Arre Ahmed!' Amina Sinai yelled, 'Janum, the
baby! It's coming-bang on time!'
Ripples of electricity through Methwold's Estate… and here comes
Homi Catrack, at a brisk emaciated sunken-eyed trot, offering: 'My
Studebaker is at your disposal, Sinai Sahib; take it now-go at once!'… and
when there are still five hours and thirty minutes left, the Sinais, husband
and wife, drive away down the two-storey hillock in the borrowed car; there
is my father's big toe pressing down on the accelerator; there are my
mother's hands pressing down on her moon-belly; and they are out of sight
now, around the bend, past Band Box Laundry and Reader's Paradise,
past Fatbhoy jewels and Chimalker toys, past One Yard of Chocolates and
Breach Candy gates, driving towards Dr Narlikar's Nursing Home where, in
a charity ward, Wee Willie's Vanita still heaves and strains, spine curving,
eyes popping, and a midwife called Mary Pereira is waiting for her time,
too… so that neither Ahmed of the jutting lip and squashy belly and fictional
ancestors, nor dark-skinned prophecy-ridden Amina were present when the
sun finally set over Methwold's Estate, and at the precise instant of its last
disappearance-five hours and two minutes to go-William Methwold raised a
long white arm above his head. White hand dangled above brilliantined
black hair; long tapering white fingers twitched towards centre-parting, and
the second and final secret was revealed, because fingers curled, and
seized hair; drawing away from his head, they failed to release their prey;
and in the moment after the disappearance of the sun Mr Methwold stood
in the afterglow of his Estate with his hairpiece in his hand.
'A baldie!' Padma exclaims. 'That slicked-up hair of his… I knew it; too
good to be true!'
Bald, bald; shiny-pated! Revealed: the deception which had tricked an
accordionist's wife. Samson-like, William Methwold's power had resided in
his hair; but now, bald patch glowing in the dusk, he flings his thatch
through the window of his motor-car; distributes, with what looks like
carelessness, the signed title-deeds to his palaces; and drives away.
Nobody at Methwold's Estate ever saw him again; but I, who never saw
him once, find him impossible to forget.
Suddenly everything is saffron and green. Amina Sinai in a room with
saffron walls and green woodwork. In a neighbouring room, Wee Willie
Winkie's Vanita, green-skinned, the whites of her eyes shot with saffron,
the baby finally beginning its descent through inner passages that are also,
no doubt, similarly colourful. Saffron minutes and green seconds tick away
on the clocks on the walls. Outside Dr Narlikar's Nursing Home, there are
fireworks and crowds, also conforming to the colours of the night-saffron
rockets, green sparkling rain; the men in shirts of zafaran hue, the women
in saris of lime. On a saffron-and-green carpet, Dr Narlikar talks to Ahmed
Sinai. 'I shall see to your Begum personally,' he says, in gentle tones the
colour of the evening, 'Nothing to worry about. You wait here; plenty of
room to pace.' Dr Narlikar, who dislikes babies, is nevertheless an expert
gynaecologist. In his spare time he lectures writes pamphlets berates the
nation on the subject of contraception. 'Birth Control,' he says, 'is Public
Priority Number One. The day will come when I get that through people's
thick heads, and then I'll be out of a job.' Ahmed Sinai smiles, awkward,
nervous. 'Just for tonight,' my father says, 'forget lectures-deliver my child.'
It is twenty-nine minutes to midnight. Dr Narlikar's Nursing Home is
running on a skeleton staff; there are many absentees, many employees
who have preferred to celebrate the imminent birth of the nation, and will
not assist tonight at the births of children. Saffron-shirted, green-skirted,
they throng in the illuminated streets, beneath the infinite balconies of the
city on which little dia-lamps of earthenware have been filled with
mysterious oik; wicks float in the lamps which line every balcony and
rooftop, and these wicks, too, conform to our two-tone colour scheme: half
the lamps burn saffron, the others flame with green.
Threading its way through the many-headed monster of the crowd is a
police car, the yellow and blue of its occupants' uniforms transformed by
the unearthly lamplight into saffron and green. (We are on Colaba
Causeway now, just for a moment, to reveal that at twenty-seven minutes
to midnight, the police are hunting for a dangerous criminal. His name:
Joseph D'Costa. The orderly is absent, has been absent for several days,
from his work at the Nursing Home, from his room near the slaughterhouse,
and from the life of a distraught virginal Mary.)
Twenty minutes pass, with aaahs from Amina Sinai, coming harder
and faster by the minute, and weak tiring aaahs from Vanita in the next
room. The monster in the streets has already begun to celebrate; the new
myth courses through its veins, replacing its blood with corpuscles of
saffron and green. And in Delhi, a wiry serious man sits in the Assembly
Hall and prepares to make a speech. At Methwold's Estate goldfish hang
stilly in ponds while the residents go from house to house bearing pistachio
sweetmeats, embracing and kissing one another-green pistachio is eaten,
and saffron laddoo-balls. Two children move down secret passages while
in Agra an ageing doctor sits with his wife, who has two moles on her face
like witchnipples, and in the midst of sleeping geese and moth-eaten
memories they are somehow struck silent, and can find nothing to say. And
in all the cities all the towns all the villages the little dia-lamps burn on
window-sills porches verandahs, while trains burn in the Punjab, with the
green flames of blistering paint and the glaring saffron of fired fuel, like the
biggest dias in the world.
And the city of Lahore, too, is burning.
The wiry serious man is getting to his feet. Anointed with holy water
from the Tanjore River, he rises; his forehead smeared with sanctified ash,
he clears his throat. Without written speech in hand, without having
memorized any prepared words, Jawaharlal Nehru begins:'… Long years
ago we made a tryst with destiny; and now the time comes when we shall
redeem our pledge-not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially…'
It is two minutes to twelve. At Dr Narlikar's Nursing Home, the dark
glowing doctor, accompanied by a midwife called Flory, a thin kind lady of
no importance, encourages Amina Sinai: 'Push! Harder!… I can see the
head!…' while in the neighbouring room one Dr Bose-with Miss Mary
Pereira by his side-presides over the terminal stages of Vanita's
twenty-four-hour labour… 'Yes; now; just one last try, come on; at last, and
then it will be over!…' Women wail and shriek while in another room men
are silent. Wee Willie Winkie-incapable of song-squats in a corner, rocking
back and forth, back and forth… and Ahmed Sinai is looking for a chair. But
there are no chairs in this room; it is a room designated for pacing; so
Ahmed Sinai opens a door, finds a chair at a deserted receptionist's desk,
lifts it, carries it back into the pacing room, where Wee Willie Winkie rocks,
rocks, his eyes as empty as a blind man's… will she live? won't she?…, at last, it is midnight.
The monster in the streets has begun to roar, while in Delhi a wiry man
is saying,'… At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps,
India awakens to life and freedom…' And beneath the roar of the monster
there are two more yells, cries, bellows, the howls of children arriving in the
world, their unavailing protests mingling with the din of independence which
hangs saffron-and-green in the night sky-'A moment comes, which comes
but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new; when an
age ends; and when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance…'
while in a room with saffron-and-green carpet Ahmed Sinai is still clutching
a chair when Dr Narlikar enters to inform him: 'On the stroke of midnight,
Sinai brother, your Begum Sahiba gave birth to a large, healthy child: a
son!' Now my father began to think about me (not knowing…); with the
image of my face filling his thoughts he forgot about the chair; possessed
by the love of me (even though…), filled with it from top of head to
fingertips, he let the chair fall.
Yes, it was my fault (despite everything)… it was the power of my face,
mine and nobody else's, which caused Ahmed Sinai's hands to release the
chair; which caused the chair to drop, accelerating at thirty-two feet per
second, and as Jawaharlal Nehru told the Assembly Hall, 'We end today a
period of ill-fortune,' as conch-sheik blared out the news of freedom, it was
on my account that my father cried out too, because the falling chair
shattered his toe.
And now we come to it: the noise brought everyone running; my father
and his injury grabbed a brief moment of limelight from the two aching
mothers, the two, synchronous midnight births-because Vanita had finally
been delivered of a baby of remarkable size: 'You wouldn't have believed
it,' Dr Bose said, 'It just kept on coming, more and more of the boy forcing
its way out, it's a real ten-chip whopper all right!' And Narlikar, washing
himself: 'Mine, too.' But that was a little later-just now Narlikar and Bose
were tending to Ahmed Sinai's toe; midwives had been instructed to wash
and swaddle the new-born pair; and now Miss Mary Pereira made her
'Go, go,' she said to poor Flory, 'see if you can help. I can do all right
And when she was alone-two babies in her hands-two lives in her
power-she did it for Joseph, her own private revolutionary act, thinking He
will certainly love me for this, as she changed name-tags on the two huge
infants, giving the poor baby a life of privilege and condemning the
rich-born child to accordions and poverty… 'Love me, Joseph!' was in Mary
Pereira's mind, and then it was done. On the ankle of a ten-chip whopper
with eyes as blue as Kashmiri sky-which were also eyes as blue as
Methwold's-and a nose as dramatic as a Kashmiri grandfather's-which was
also the nose of a grandmother from France-she placed this name: Sinai.
Saffron swaddled me as, thanks to the crime of Mary Pereira, I
became the chosen child of midnight, whose parents were not his parents,
whose son would not be his own… Mary took the child of my mother's
womb, who was not to be her son, another ten-chip pomfret, but with eyes
which were already turning brown, and knees as knobbly as Ahmed Sinai's,
wrapped it in green, and brought it to Wee Willie Winkie-who was staring at
her blind-eyed, who hardly saw his new son, who never knew about
centre-partings… Wee Willie Winkie, who had just learned that Vanita had
not managed to survive her childbearing. At three minutes past midnight,
while doctors fussed over broken toe, Vanita had haemorrhaged and died.
So I was brought to my mother; and she never doubted my authenticity
for an instant. Ahmed Sinai, toe in splint, sat on her bed as she said: 'Look,
janum, the poor fellow, he's got his grandfather's nose.' He watched
mystified as she made sure there was only one head; and then she relaxed
completely, understanding that even fortune-tellers have only limited gifts.
'Janum,' my mother said excitedly, 'you must call the papers. Call them
at the Times of India. What did I tell you? I won.'
'… This is no time for petty or destructive criticism,' Jawaharlal Nehru
told the Assembly. 'No time for ill-will. We have to build the noble mansion
of free India, where all her children may dwell.' A flag unfurls: it is saffron,
white and green.
'An Anglo?' Padma exclaims in horror. 'What are you telling me? You
are an Anglo-Indian? Your name is not your own?'
'I am Saleem Sinai,' I told her, 'Snotnose, Stainface, Sniffer, Baldy,
Piece-of-the-Moon. Whatever do you mean-not my own?'
'All the time,' Padma wails angrily, 'you tricked me. Your mother, you
called her; your father, your grandfather, your aunts. What thing are you
that you don't even care to tell the truth about who your parents were? You
don't care that your mother died giving you life? That your father is maybe
still alive somewhere, penniless, poor? You are a monster or what?'
No: I'm no monster. Nor have I been guilty of trickery. I provided
clues… but there's something more important than that. It's this: when we
eventually discovered the crime of Mary Pereira, we all found that it made
no difference!. I was still their son: they remained my parents. In a kind of
collective failure of imagination, we learned that we simply could not think
our way out of our pasts… if you had asked my father (even him, despite all
that happened!) who his son was, nothing on earth would have induced him
to point in the direction of the accordionist's knock-kneed, unwashed boy.
Even though he would grow up, this Shiva, to be something of a hero.
So: there were knees and a nose, a nose and knees. In fact, all over
the new India, the dream we all shared, children were being born who were
only partially the offspring of their parents-the children of midnight were
also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can
happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream.
'Enough,' Padma sulks. 'I don't want to listen.' Expecting one type of
two-headed child, she is peeved at being offered another. Nevertheless,
whether she is listening or not, I have tilings to record.
Three days after my birth, Mary Pereira was consumed by remorse.
Joseph D'Costa, on the run from the searching police cars, had clearly
abandoned her sister Alice as well as Mary; and the little plump
woman-unable, in her fright, to confess her crime-realized that she had
been a fool. 'Donkey from somewhere!' she cursed herself; but she kept
her secret. She decided, however, to make amends of a kind. She gave up
her job at the Nursing Home and approached Amina Sinai with, 'Madam, I
saw your baby just one time and fell in love. Are you needing an ayah?'
And Amina, her eyes shining with motherhood, 'Yes.' Mary Pereira ('You
might as well call her your mother,' Padma interjects, proving she is still
interested, 'She made you, you know'), from that moment on, devoted her
life to bringing me up, thus binding the rest of her days to the memory of
her crime.
On August 20th, Nussie Ibrahim followed my mother into the Pedder
Road clinic, and little Sonny followed me into the world-but he was reluctant
to emerge; forceps were obliged to reach in and extract him; Dr Bose, in
the heat of the moment, pressed a little too hard, and Sonny arrived with
little dents beside each of his temples, shallow forcep-hollows which would
make him as irresistibly attractive as the hairpiece of William Methwold had
made the Englishman. Girls (Evie, the Brass Monkey, others) reached out
to stroke his little valleys… it would lead to difficulties between us.
But I've saved the most interesting snippet for the last. So let me
reveal now that, on the day after I was born, my mother and I were visited
in a saffron and green bedroom by two persons from the Times of India
(Bombay edition). I lay in a green crib, swaddled in saffron, and looked up
at them. There was a reporter, who spent his time interviewing my mother;
and a tall, aquiline photographer who devoted his attentions to me. The
next day, words as well as pictures appeared in newsprint…
Quite recently, I visited a cactus-garden where once, many years
back, I buried a toy tin globe, which was badly dented and stuck together
with Scotch Tape; and extracted from its insides the things I had placed
there all those years ago. Holding them in my left hand now, as I write, I
can still see-despite yellowing and mildew-that one is a letter, a personal
letter to myself, signed by the Prime Minister of India; but the other is a
newspaper cutting.
It has a headline: midnight's child.
And a text: 'A charming pose of Baby Saleem Sinai, who was born last
night at the exact moment of our Nation's independence-the happy Child of
that glorious Hour!'
And a large photograph: an A-1 top-quality front-page jumbo-sized
baby-snap, in which it is still possible to make out a child with birthmarks
staining his cheeks and a runny and glistening nose. (The picture is
captioned: Photo by Kalidas Gupta.)
Despite headline, text and photograph, I must accuse our visitors of
the crime of trivialization; mere journalists, looking no further than the next
day's paper, they had no idea of the importance of the event they were
covering. To them, it was no more than a human-interest drama.
How do I know this? Because, at the end of the interview, the
photographer presented my mother with a cheque-for one hundred rupees.
One hundred rupees! Is it possible to imagine a more piffling, derisory
sum? It is a sum by which one could, were one of a mind to do so, feel
insulted. I shall, however, merely thank them for celebrating my arrival, and
forgive them for their lack of a genuine historical sense.
'Don't be vain,' Padma says grumpily. 'One hundred rupees is not so
little; after all, everybody gets born, it's not such a big big thing.'
Book Two
The fisherman's pointing finger
Is it possible to be jealous of written words? To resent nocturnal
scribblings as though they were the very flesh and blood of a sexual rival? I
can think of no other reason for Padma's bizarre behaviour; and this
explanation at least has the merit of being as outlandish as the rage into
which she fell when, tonight, I made the error of writing (and reading aloud)
a word which should not have been spoken… ever since the episode of the
quack doctor's visit, I have sniffed out a strange discontent in Padma,
exuding its enigmatic spoor from her eccrine (or apocrine) glands.
Distressed, perhaps, by the futility of her midnight attempts at resuscitating
my 'other pencil', the useless cucumber hidden in my pants, she has been
waxing grouchy. (And then there was her ill-tempered reaction, last night,
to my revelation of the secrets of my birth, and her irritation at my low
opinion of the sum of one hundred rupees.) I blame myself: immersed in
my autobiographical enterprise, I failed to consider her feelings, and began
tonight on the most unfortunate of false notes.
'Condemned by a perforated sheet to a life of fragments,' I wrote and
read aloud, 'I have nevertheless done better than my grandfather; because
while Aadam Aziz remained the sheet's victim, I have become its
master-and Padma is the one who is now under its spell. Sitting in my
enchanted shadows, I vouchsafe daily glimpses of myself-while she, my
squatting glimpser, is captivated, helpless as a mongoose frozen into
immobility by the swaying, blinkless eyes of a hooded snake,
paralysed-yes!-by love.'
That was the word: love. Written-and-spoken, it raised her voice to an
unusually shrill pitch; it unleashed from her lips a violence which would
have wounded me, were I still vulnerable to words. 'Love you?' our Padma
piped scornfully, 'What for, my God? What use are you, little
princeling,'-and now came her attempted coup de grace-'as a lover?' Arm
extended, its hairs glowing in the lamplight, she jabbed a contemptuous
index finger in the direction of my admittedly nonfunctional loins; a long,
thick digit, rigid with jealousy, which unfortunately served only to remind me
of another, long-lost finger… so that she, seeing her arrow miss its mark,
shrieked, 'Madman from somewhere! That doctor was right!' and rushed
distractedly from the room. I heard footsteps clattering down the metal
stairs to the factory floor; feet rushing between the dark-shrouded pickle
vats; and a door, first unbolted and then slammed.
Thus abandoned, I have returned, having no option, to my work.
The fisherman's pointing finger: unforgettable focal point of the picture
which hung on a sky-blue wall in Buckingham Villa, directly above the
sky-blue crib in which, as Baby Saleem, midnight's child, I spent my earliest
days. The young Raleigh-and who else?-sat, framed in teak, at the feet of
an old, gnarled, net-mending sailor-did he have a walrus
moustache?-whose right arm, fully extended, stretched out towards a
watery horizon, while his liquid tales rippled around the fascinated ears of
Raleigh-and who else? Because there was certainly another boy in the
picture, sitting cross-legged in frilly collar and button-down tunic… and now
a memory comes back to me: of a birthday party in which a proud mother
and an equally proud ayah dressed a child with a gargantuan nose in just
such a collar, just such a tunic. A tailor sat in a sky-blue room, beneath the
pointing finger, and copied the attire of the English milords… 'Look, how
chweet! Lila Sabarmati exclaimed to my eternal mortification, 'It's like he's
just stepped out of the picture?
In a picture hanging on a bedroom wall, I sat beside Walter Raleigh
and followed a fisherman's pointing finger with my eyes; eyes straining at
the horizon, beyond which lay-what?-my future, perhaps; my special doom,
of which I was aware from the beginning, as a shimmering grey presence in
that sky-blue room, indistinct at first, but impossible to ignore… because
the finger pointed even further than that shimmering horizon, it pointed
beyond teak frame, across a brief expanse of sky-blue wall, driving my
eyes towards another frame, in which my inescapable destiny hung, forever
fixed under glass: here was a jumbo-sized baby-snap with its prophetic
captions, and here, beside it, a letter on high-quality vellum, embossed with
the seal of state-the lions of Sarnath stood above the dharma-chakra on
the Prime Minister's missive, which arrived, via Vishwanath the post-boy,
one week after my photograph appeared on the front page of the Times of
Newspapers celebrated me; politicians ratified my position. Jawaharlal
Nehru wrote: 'Dear Baby Saleem, My belated congratulations on the happy
accident of your moment of birth! You are the newest bearer of that ancient
face of India which is also eternally young. We shall be watching over your
life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own.'
And Mary Pereira, awestruck, 'The Government, Madam? It will be
keeping one eye on the boy? But why, Madam? What's wrong with
him?'-And Amina, not understanding the note of panic in her ayah's voice:
'It's just a way of putting things, Mary; it doesn't really mean what it says.'
But Mary does not relax; and always, whenever she enters the baby's
room, her eyes flick wildly towards the letter in its frame; her eyes look
around her, trying to see whether the Government is watching; wondering
eyes: what do they know? Did somebody see?… As for me, as I grew up, I
didn't quite accept my mother's explanation, either; but it lulled me into a
sense of false security; so that, even though something of Mary's
suspicions had leaked into me, I was still taken by surprise when…
Perhaps the fisherman's finger was not pointing at the letter in the
frame; because if one followed it even further, it led one out through the
window, down the two-storey hillock, across Warden Road, beyond Breach
Candy Pools, and out to another sea which was not the sea in the picture;
a sea on which the sails of Koli dhows glowed scarlet in the setting sun…
an accusing finger, then, which obliged us to look at the city's
Or maybe-and this idea makes me feel a little shivery despite the
heat-it was a finger of warning, its purpose to draw attention to itself; yes, it
could have been, why not, a prophecy of another finger, a finger not
dissimilar from itself, whose entry into my story would release the dreadful
logic of Alpha and Omega… my God, what a notion! How much of my
future hung above my crib, just waiting for me to understand it? How many
warnings was I given-how many did I ignore?… But no. I will not be a
'madman from somewhere', to use Padma's eloquent phrase. I will not
succumb to cracked digressions; not while I have the strength to resist the
When Amina Sinai and Baby Saleem arrived home in a borrowed
Studebaker, Ahmed Sinai brought a manila envelope along for the ride.
Inside the envelope: a pickle-jar, emptied of lime kasaundy, washed,
boiled, purified-and now, refilled. A well-sealed jar, with a rubber diaphragm
stretched over its tin lid and held in place by a twisted rubber band. What
was sealed beneath rubber, preserved in glass, concealed in manila? This:
travelling home with father, mother and baby was a quantity of briny water
in which, floating gently, hung an umbilical cord. (But was it mine or the
Other's? That's something I can't tell you.) While the newly-hired ayah,
Mary Pereira, made her way to Methwold's Estate by bus, an umbilical cord
travelled in state in the glove compartment of a film magnate's Studey.
While Baby Saleem grew towards manhood, umbilical tissue hung
unchanging in bottled brine, at the back of a teak almirah. And when, years
later, our family entered its exile in the Land of the Pure, when I was
struggling towards purity, umbilical cords would briefly have their day.
Nothing was thrown away; baby and afterbirth were both retained; both
arrived at Methwold's Estate; both awaited their time.
I was not a beautiful baby. Baby-snaps reveal that my large moon-face
was too large; too perfectly round. Something lacking in the region of the
chin. Fair skin curved across my features-but birthmarks disfigured it; dark
stains spread down my western hairline, a dark patch coloured my eastern
ear. And my temples: too prominent: bulbous Byzantine domes. (Sonny
Ibrahim and I were born to be friends-when we bumped our foreheads,
Sonny's forcep-hollows permitted my bulby temples to nestle within them,
as snugly as carpenter's joints.) Amina Sinai, immeasurably relieved by my
single head, gazed upon it with redoubled maternal fondness, seeing it
through a beautifying mist, ignoring the ice-like eccentricity of my sky-blue
eyes, the temples like stunted horns, even the rampant cucumber of the
Baby Saleem's nose: it was monstrous; and it ran.
Intriguing features of my early life: large and unbeautiful as I was, it
appears I was not content. From my very first days I embarked upon an
heroic programme of self-enlargement. (As though I knew that, to carry the
burdens of my future life, I'd need to be pretty big.) By mid-September I had
drained my mother's not inconsiderable breasts of milk. A wet-nurse was
briefly employed but she retreated, dried-out as a desert after only a
fortnight, accusing Baby Saleem of trying to bite off her nipples with his
toothless gums. I moved on to the bottle and downed vast quantities of
compound: the bottle's nipples suffered, too, vindicating the complaining
wet-nurse. Baby-book records were meticulously kept; they reveal that I
expanded almost visibly, enlarging day by day; but unfortunately no nasal
measurements were taken so I cannot say whether my breathing apparatus
grew in strict proportion, or faster than the rest. I must say that I had a
healthy metabolism. Waste matter was evacuated copiously from the
appropriate orifices; from my nose there flowed a shining cascade of goo.
Armies of handkerchiefs, regiments of nappies found their way into the
large washing-chest in my mother's bathroom… shedding rubbish from
various apertures, I kept my eyes quite dry. 'Such a good baby, Madam,'
Mary Pereira said, 'Never takes out one tear.'
Good baby Saleem was a quiet child; I laughed often, but soundlessly.
(Like my own son, I began by taking stock, listening before I rushed into
gurgles and, later, into speech.) For a time Amina and Mary became afraid
that the boy was dumb; but, just when they were on the verge of telling his
father (from whom they had kept their worries secret-no father wants a
damaged child), he burst into sound, and became, in that respect at any
rate, utterly normal, 'It's as if,' Amina whispered to Mary, 'he's decided to
put our minds at rest.'
There was one more serious problem. Amina and Mary took a few
days to notice it. Busy with the mighty, complex processes of turning
themselves into a two-headed mother, their vision clouded by a fog of
stenchy underwear, they failed to notice the immobility of my eyelids.
Amina, remembering how, during her pregnancy, the weight of her unborn
child had held time as still as a dead green pond, began to wonder whether
the reverse might not be taking place now-whether the baby had some
magical power over all the time in his immediate vicinity, and was speeding
it up, so that mother-and-ayah never had enough time to do everything that
needed doing, so that the baby could grow at an apparently fantastic rate;
lost in such chronological daydreams, she didn't notice my problem. Only
when she shrugged the idea off, and told herself I was just a good
strapping boy with a big appetite, an early developer, did the veils of
maternal love part sufficiently for her and Mary to yelp, in unison: 'Look,
baap-re-baap! Look, Madam! See, Mary! The little chap never blinks!'
The eyes were too blue: Kashmiri-blue, changeling-blue, blue with the
weight of unspilled tears, too blue to blink. When I was fed, my eyes did not
flutter; when virginal Mary set me across her shoulder, crying, 'Oof, so
heavy, sweet Jesus!' I burped without nictating. When Ahmed Sinai limped
splint-toed to my crib, I yielded to jutting lips with keen and batless gaze…
'Maybe a mistake, Madam,' Mary suggested. 'Maybe the little sahib is
copying us-blinking when we blink.' And Amina: 'We'll blink in turn and
watch.' Their eyelids opening-and-closing alternately, they observed my icy
blueness; but there was not the slightest tremor; until Amina took matters
into her own hands and reached into the cradle to stroke my eyelids
downwards. They closed: my breathing altered, instantly, to the contented
rhythms of sleep. After that, for several months, mother and ayah took it in
turns to open and close my lids. 'He'll learn, Madam,' Mary comforted
Amina, 'He is a good obedient child and he will get the hang of it for sure.' I
learned: the first lesson of my life: nobody can face the world with his eyes
open all the time.
Now, looking back through baby eyes, I can see it all perfectly-it's
amazing how much you can remember when you try. What I can see: the
city, basking like a bloodsucker lizard in the summer heat. Our Bombay: it
looks like a hand but it's really a mouth, always open, always hungry,
swallowing food and talent from everywhere else in India. A glamorous
leech, producing nothing except films bush-shirts fish… in the aftermath of
Partition, I see Vishwanath the postboy bicycling towards our two-storey
hillock, vellum envelope in his saddlebag, riding his aged Arjuna Indiabike
past a rotting bus-abandoned although it isn't the monsoon season,
because its driver suddenly decided to leave for Pakistan, switched off the
engine and departed, leaving a full busload of stranded passengers,
hanging off the windows, clinging to the roof-rack, bulging through the
doorway… I can hear their oaths, son-of-a-pig, brother-of-a-jackass; but
they will cling to their hard-won places for two hours before they leave the
bus to its fate. And, and: here is India's first swimmer of the English
Channel, Mr Pushpa Roy, arriving at the gates of the Breach Candy Pools.
Saffron bathing-cap on his head, green trunks wrapped in flag-hued towel,
this Pushpa has declared war on the whites-only policy of the baths. He
holds a cake of Mysore sandalwood soap; draws himself up; marches
through the gate… whereupon hired Pathans seize him, Indians save
Europeans from an Indian mutiny as usual, and out he goes, struggling
valiantly, frogmarched into Warden Road and flung into the dust. Channel
swimmer dives into the street, narrowly missing camels taxis bicycles
(Vishwanath swerves to avoid his cake of soap)… but he is not deterred;
picks himself up; dusts himself down; and promises to be back tomorrow.
Throughout my childhood years, the days were punctuated by the sight of
Pushpa the swimmer, in saffron cap and flag-tinted towel, diving unwillingly
into Warden Road. And in the end his indomitable campaign won a victory,
because today the Pools permit certain Indians-'the better sort'-to step into
their map-shaped waters. But Pushpa does not belong to the better sort;
old now and forgotten, he watches the Pools from afar… and now more
and more of the multitudes are flooding into me-such as Bano Devi, the
famous lady wrestler of those days, who would only wrestle men and
threatened to marry anyone who beat her, as a result of which vow she
never lost a bout; and (closer to home now) the sadhu under our garden
tap, whose name was Purushottam and whom we (Sonny, Eyeslice,
Hairoil, Cyrus and I) would always call Puru-the-guru-believing me to be the
Mubarak, the Blessed One, he devoted his life to keeping an eye on me,
and filled his days teaching my father palmistry and witching away my
mother's verrucas; and then there is the rivalry of the old bearer Musa and
the new ayah Mary, which will grow until it explodes; in short, at the end of
1947, life in Bombay was as teeming, as manifold, as multitudinously
shapeless as ever… except that I had arrived; I was already beginning to
take my place at the centre of the universe; and by the time I had finished, I
would give meaning to it all. You don't believe me? Listen: at my
cradle-side, Mary Pereira is singing a little song:
@@@Anything you want to be, you can be: You can be just what-all
you want.
By the time of my circumcision by a barber with a cleft palate from the
Royal Barber House on Gowalia Tank Road (I was just over two months
old), I was already much in demand at Methwold's Estate. (Incidentally, on
the subject of the circumcision: I still swear that I can remember the
grinning barber, who held me by the foreskin while my member waggled
frantically like a slithering snake; and the razor descending, and the pain;
but I'm told that, at the time, I didn't even blink.)
Yes, I was a popular little fellow: my two mothers, Amina and Mary,
couldn't get enough of me. In all practical matters, they were the most
intimate of allies. After my circumcision, they bathed me together; and
giggled together as my mutilated organ waggled angrily in the bathwater.
'We better watch this boy, Madam,' Mary said naughtily, 'His thing has a life
of its own!' And Amina, 'Tch, tch, Mary, you're terrible, really…' But then
amid sobs of helpless laughter, 'Just see, Madam, his poor little soo-soo!'
Because it was wiggling again, thrashing about, like a chicken with a slitted
gullet… Together, they cared for me beautifully; but in the matter of
emotion, they were deadly rivals. Once, when they took me for a pram-ride
through the Hanging Gardens on Malabar Hill, Amina overheard Mary
telling the other ayahs, 'Look: here's my own big son'-and felt oddly
threatened. Baby Saleem became, after that, the battleground of their
loves; they strove to outdo one another in demonstrations of affection;
while he, blinking by now, gurgling aloud, fed on their emotions, using it to
accelerate his growth, expanding and swallowing infinite hugs kisses
chucks-under-the-chin, charging towards the moment when he would
acquire the essential characteristic of human beings: every day, and only in
those rare moments when I was left alone with the fisherman's pointing
finger, I tried to heave myself erect in my cot.
(And while I made unavailing efforts to get to my feet, Amina, too, was
in the grip of a useless resolve-she was trying to expel from her mind the
dream of her unnameable husband, which had replaced the dream of
flypaper on the night after I was born; a dream of such overwhelming reality
that it stayed with her throughout her waking hours. In it, Nadir Khan came
to her bed and impregnated her; such was the mischievous perversity of
the dream that it confused Amina about the parentage of her child, and
provided me, the child of midnight, with a fourth father to set beside Winkie
and Methwold and Ahmed Sinai. Agitated but helpless in the clutches of the
dream, my mother Amina began at that time to form the fog of guilt which
would, in later years, surround her head like a dark black wreath.)
I never heard Wee Willie Winkie in his prime. After his blind-eyed
bereavement, his sight gradually returned; but something harsh and bitter
crept into his voice. He told us it was asthma, and continued to arrive at
Methwold's Estate once a week to sing songs which were, like himself,
relics of the Methwold era. 'Good Night, Ladies,' he sang; and, keeping up
to date, added 'The Clouds Will Soon Roll By' to his repertoire, and, a little
later, 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?' Placing a sizeable infant
with menacingly knocking knees on a small mat beside him in the
circus-ring, he sang songs filled with nostalgia, and nobody had the heart to
turn him away. Winkie and the fisherman's finger were two of the few
survivals of the days of William Methwold, because after the Englishman's
disappearance his successors emptied his palaces of their abandoned
contents. Lila Sabarmati preserved her pianola; Ahmed Sinai kept his
whisky-cabinet; old man Ibrahim came to terms with ceiling-fans; but the
goldfish died, some from starvation, others as a result of being so
colossally overfed that they exploded in little clouds of scales and
undigested fish-food; the dogs ran wild, and eventually ceased to roam the
Estate; and the fading clothes in the old almirahs were distributed amongst
the sweeper-women and other servants on the Estate, so that for years
afterwards the heirs of William Methwold were cared for by men and
women wearing the increasingly ragged shirts and cotton print dresses of
their erstwhile masters. But Winkie and the picture on my wall survived;
singer and fisherman became institutions of our lives, like the cocktail hour,
which was already a habit too powerful to be broken. 'Each little tear and
sorrow,' Winkie sang, 'only brings you closer to me…' And his voice grew
worse and worse, until it sounded like a sitar whose resonating drum, made
out of lacquered pumpkin, had been eaten away by mice; 'It's asthma,' he
insisted stubbornly. Before he died he lost his voice completely; doctors
revised his diagnosis to throat cancer; but they were wrong, too, because
Winkie died of no disease but of the bitterness of losing a wife whose
infidelity he never suspected. His son, named Shiva after the god of
procreation and destruction, sat at his feet in those early days, silently
bearing the burden of being the cause (or so he thought) of his father's
slow decline; and gradually, down the years, we watched his eyes filling
with an anger which could not be spoken; we watched his fists close
around pebbles and hurl them, ineffectually at first, more dangerously as he
grew, into the surrounding emptiness. When Lila Sabarmati's elder son was
eight, he took it upon himself to tease young Shiva about his surliness, his
unstarched shorts, his knobbly knees; whereupon the boy whom Mary's
crime had doomed to poverty and accordions hurled a sharp flat stone, with
a cutting edge like a razor, and blinded his tormentor in the right eye. After
Eyeslice's accident, Wee Willie Winkie came to Methwold's Estate alone,
leaving his son to enter the dark labyrinths from which only a war would
save him.
Why Methwold's Estate continued to tolerate Wee Willie Winkie
despite the decay of his voice and the violence of his son: he had, once,
given them an important clue about their lives. 'The first birth,' he had said,
'will make you real.'
As a direct result of Winkie's clue, I was, in my early days, highly in
demand. Amina and Mary vied for my attention; but in every house on the
Estate, there were people who wanted to know me; and eventually Amina,
allowing her pride in my popularity to overcome her reluctance to let me out
of her sight, agreed to lend me, on a kind of rota basis, to the various
families on the hill. Pushed by Mary Pereira in a sky-blue pram, I began a
triumphal progress around the red-tiled palaces, gracing each in turn with
my presence, and making them seem real to their owners. And so, looking
back now through the eyes of Baby Saleem, I can reveal most of the
secrets of my neighbourhood, because the grown-ups lived their lives in my
presence without fear of being observed, not knowing that, years later,
someone would look back through baby-eyes and decide to let the cats out
of their bags.
So here is old man Ibrahim, dying with worry because, back in Africa,
governments are nationalizing his sisal plantations; here is his elder son
Ishaq fretting over Ms hotel business, which is running into debt, so that he
is obliged to borrow money from local gangsters; here are Ishaq's eyes,
coveting his brother's wife, though why Nussie-the-duck should have
aroused sexual interest in anyone is a mystery to me; and here is Nussie's
husband, Ismail the lawyer, who has learned an important lesson from Ms
son's forcep-birth: 'Nothing comes out right in life,' he tells his duck of a
wife, 'unless it's forced out.' Applying this philosophy to his legal career, he
embarks on a career of bribing judges and fixing juries; all children have
the power to change their parents, and Sonny turned Ms father into a highly
successful crook. And, moving across to Versailles Villa, here is Mrs
Dubash with her shrine to the god Ganesh, stuck in the corner of an
apartment of such supernatural untidiness that, in our house, the word
'dubash' became a verb meaning 'to make a mess'… 'Oh, Saleem, you've
dubashed your room again, you black man!' Mary would cry. And now the
cause of the mess, leaning over the hood of my pram to chuck me under
the chin: Adi Dubash, the physicist, genius of atoms and litter. His wife,
who is already carrying Cyrus-the-great within her, hangs back, growing
her child, with something fanatical gleaming in the inner corners of her
eyes, biding its time; it will not emerge until Mr Dubash, whose daily life
was spent working with the most dangerous substances in the world, dies
by choking on an orange from which his wife forgot to remove the pips. I
was never invited into the flat of Dr Narlikar, the child-hating gynaecologist;
but in the homes of Lila Sabarmati and Homi Catrack I became a voyeur, a
tiny party to Lila's thousand and one infidelities, and eventually a witness to
the beginnings of the liaison between the naval officer's wife and the
film-magnate-and-racehorse-owner; which, all in good time, would serve
me well when I planned a certain act of revenge.
Even a baby is faced with the problem of defining itself; and I'm bound
to say that my early popularity had its problematic aspects, because I was
bombarded with a confusing multiplicity of views on the subject, being a
Blessed One to a guru under a tap, a voyeur to Lola Sabarmati; in the eyes
of Nussie-the-duck I was a rival, and a more successful rival, to her own
Sonny (although, to her credit, she never showed her resentment, and
asked to borrow me just like everyone else); to my two-headed mother I
was all kinds of babyish things-they called me joonoo-moonoo, and
putch-putch, and little-piece-of-the-moon.
But what, after all, can a baby do except swallow all of it and hope to
make sense of it later? Patiently, dry-eyed, I imbibed Nehru-letter and
Winkle's prophecy; but the deepest impression of all was made on the day
when Homi Catrack's idiot daughter sent her thoughts across the
circus-ring and into my infant head.
Toxy Catrack, of the outsize head and dribbling mouth; Toxy, who
stood at a barred top-floor window, stark naked, masturbating with motions
of consummate self-disgust; who spat hard and often through her bars, and
sometimes hit us on the head… she was twenty-one years old, a gibbering
half-wit, the product of years of inbreeding; but inside my head she was
beautiful, because she had not lost the gifts with which every baby is born
and which life proceeds to erode. I can't remember anything Toxy said
when she sent her thoughts to whisper to me; probably nothing except
gurgles and spittings; but she gave a door in my mind a little nudge, so that
when an accident took place in a washing-chest it was probably Toxy who
made it possible.
That's enough for the moment, about the first days of Baby
Saleem-already my very presence is having an effect on history; already
Baby Saleem is working changes on the people around him; and, in the
case of my father, I am convinced that it was I who pushed him into the
excesses which led, perhaps inevitably, to the terrifying time of the freeze.
Ahmed Sinai never forgave his son for breaking his toe. Even after the
splint was removed, a tiny limp remained. My father leaned over my crib
and said, 'So, my son: you're starting as you mean to go on. Already you've
started bashing your poor old father!' In my opinion, this was only half a
joke. Because, with my birth, everything changed for Ahmed Sinai. His
position in the household was undermined by my coming. Suddenly
Amina's assiduity had acquired different goals; she never wheedled money
out of him any more, and the napkin in his lap at the breakfast-table felt sad
pangs of nostalgia for the old days. Now it was, 'Your son needs
so-and-so,' or 'Janum, you must give money for such-and-such.' Bad show,
Ahmed Sinai thought. My father was a self-important man.
And so it was my doing that Ahmed Sinai fell, in those days after my
birth, into the twin fantasies which were to be his undoing, into the unreal
worlds of the djinns and of the land beneath the sea.
A memory of my father in a cool-season evening, sitting on my bed (I
was seven years old) and telling me, in a slightly thickened voice, the story
of the fisherman who found the djinn in a bottle washed up on the beach…
'Never believe in a djinn's promises, my son! Let them out of the bottle and
they'll eat you up!' And I, timidly-because I could smell danger on my
father's breath: 'But, Abba, can a djinn really live inside a bottle?'
Whereupon my father, in a mercurial change of mood, roared with laughter
and left the room, returning with a dark green bottle with a white label.
'Look,' he said sonorously, 'Do you want to see the djinn in here?' 'No!' I
squealed in fright; but 'Yes!' yelled my sister the Brass Monkey from the
neighbouring bed… and cowering together in excited terror we watched
him unscrew the cap and dramatically cover the bottleneck with the palm of
his hand; and now, in the other hand, a cigarette-lighter materialized. 'So
perish all evil djinns!' my father cried; and, removing his palm, applied the
flame to the neck of the bottle. Awestruck, the Monkey and I watched an
eerie flame, blue-green-yellow, move in a slow circle down the interior walls
of the bottle; until, reaching the bottom, it flared briefly and died. The next
day I provoked gales of laughter when I told Sonny, Eyeslice and Hairoil,
'My father fights with djinns; he beats them; it's true!… And it was true.
Ahmed Sinai, deprived of wheedles and attention, began, soon after my
birth, a life-long struggle with djinn-bottles. But I was mistaken about one
thing: he didn't win.
Cocktail-cabinets had whetted his appetite; but it was my arrival that
drove him to it… In those days, Bombay had been declared a dry stare.
The only way to get a drink was to get yourself certified as an alcoholic;
and so a new breed of doctors sprang up, djinn-doctors, one of whom, Dr
Sharabi, was introduced to my father by Homi Catrack next door. After that,
on the first of every month, my father and Mr Catrack and many of the city's
most respectable men queued up outside Dr Sharabi's mottled-glass
surgery door, went in, and emerged with the little pink chitties of
alcoholism. But the permitted ration was too small for my father's needs;
and so he began to send his servants along, too, and gardeners, bearers,
drivers (we had a motor-car now, a 1946 Rover with running-boards, just
like William Methwold's), even old Musa and Mary Pereira, brought my
father back more and more pink chitties, which he took to Vijay Stores
opposite the circumcising barbershop .in Gowalia Tank Road and
exchanged for the brown paper bags of alcoholism, inside which were the
chinking green bottles, full of djinn. And whisky, too: Ahmed Sinai blurred
the edges of himself by drinking the green bottles and red labels of his
servants. The poor, having little else to peddle, sold their identities on little
pieces of pink paper; and my father turned them into liquid and drank them
At six o'clock every evening, Ahmed Sinai entered the world of the
djinns; and every morning, his eyes red, his head throbbing with the fatigue
of his night-long battle, he came unshaven to the breakfast table; and with
the passage of the years, the good mood of the time before he shaved was
replaced by the irritable exhaustion of his war with the bottled spirits.
After breakfast, he went downstairs. He had set aside two rooms on
the ground floor for his office, because his sense of direction was as bad as
ever, and he didn't relish the notion of getting lost in Bombay on the way to
work; even he could find his way down a flight of stairs. Blurred at the
edges, my father did his property deals; and his growing anger at my
mother's preoccupation with her child found a new outlet behind his office
door-Ahmed Sinai began to flirt with his secretaries. After nights in which
his quarrel with bottles would sometimes erupt in harsh language-'What a
wife I found! I should have bought myself a son and hired a nurse-what
difference?' And then tears, and Amina, 'Oh, janum-don't torture me!'
which, in turn, provoked, 'Torture my foot! You think it's torture for a man to
ask his wife for attention? God save me from stupid women!'-my father
limped downstairs to make googly eyes at Colaba girls. And after a while
Amina began to notice how his secretaries never lasted long, how they left
suddenly, flouncing down our drive without any notice; and you must judge
whether she chose to be blind, or whether she took it as a punishment, but
she did nothing about it, continuing to devote her time to me; her only act of
recognition was to give the girls a collective name. 'Those Anglos,' she said
to Mary, revealing a touch of snobbery, 'with their funny names, Fernanda
and Alonso and all, and surnames, my God! Sulaca and Colaco and I don't
know what. What should I care about them? Cheap type females. I call
them all his Coca-Cola girls-that's what they all sound like.'
While Ahmed pinched bottoms, Amina became long-suffering; but he
might have been glad if she had appeared to care.
Mary Pereira said, 'They aren't so funny names, Madam; beg your
pardon, but they are good Christian words.' And Amina remembered
Ahmed's cousin Zohra making fun of dark skin-and, falling over herself to
apologize, tumbled into Zohra's mistake: 'Oh, notion, Mary, how could you
think I was making fun of you?'
Horn-templed, cucumber-nosed, I lay in my crib and listened; and
everything that happened, happened because of me… One day in January
1948, at five in the afternoon, my father was visited by Dr Narlikar. There
were embraces as usual, and slaps on the back. 'A little chess?' my father
asked, ritually, because these visits were getting to be a habit. They would
play chess in the old Indian way, the game of shatranj, and, freed by the
simplicities of the chess-board from the convolutions of his life, Ahmed
would daydream for an hour about the re-shaping of the Quran; and then it
would be six o'clock, cocktail hour, time for the djinns… but this evening
Narlikar said, 'No.' And Ahmed, 'No? What's this no? Come, sit, play,
gossip…' Narlikar, interrupting: 'Tonight, brother Sinai, there is something I
must show you.' They are in a 1946 Rover now, Narlikar working the
crankshaft and jumping in; they are driving north along Warden Road, past
Mahalaxmi Temple on the left and Willingdon Club golf-course on the right,
leaving the race-track behind them, cruising along Hornby Vellard beside
the sea wall; Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium is in sight, with its giant cardboard
cut-outs of wrestlers, Bano Devi the Invincible Woman and Dara Singh,
mightiest of all… there are channa-vendors and dog-walkers promenading
by the sea. 'Stop,' Narlikar commands, and they get out. They stand facing
the sea; sea-breeze cools their faces; and out there, at the end of a narrow
cement path in the midst of the waves, is the island on which stands the
tomb of Haji Ali the mystic. Pilgrims are strolling between Vellard and tomb.
'There,' Narlikar points, 'What do you see?' And Ahmed, mystified,
'Nothing. The tomb. People. What's this about, old chap?' And Narlikar,
'None of that. There!' And now Ahmed sees that Narlikar's pointing finger is
aimed at the cement path… 'The promenade?' he asks, 'What's that to
you? In some minutes the tide will come and cover it up; everybody
knows…' Narlikar, his skin glowing like a beacon, becomes philosophical.
'Just so, brother Ahmed; just so. Land and sea; sea and land; the eternal
struggle, not so?' Ahmed, puzzled, remains silent. 'Once there were seven
islands,' Narlikar reminds Mm, 'Worli, Mahim, Salsette, Matunga, Colaba,
Mazagaon, Bombay. The British joined them up. Sea, brother Ahmed,
became land. Land arose, and did not sink beneath the tides!' Ahmed is
anxious for his whisky; his lip begins to jut while pilgrims scurry off the
narrowing path. 'The point,' he demands. And Narlikar, dazzling with
effulgence: 'The point, Ahmed bhai, is this!'
It comes out of his pocket: a little plaster-of-paris model two inches
high: the tetrapod! Like a three-dimensional Mercedes-Benz sign, three
legs standing on his palm, a fourth rearing lingam-fashion into the evening
air, it transfixes my father. 'What is it?' he asks; and now Narlikar tells him:
'This is the baby that will make us richer than Hyderabad, bhai! The little
gimmick that will make you, you and me, the masters of that! He points
outwards to where sea is rushing over deserted cement pathway… 'The
land beneath the sea, my friend! We must manufacture these by the
thousand-by tens of thousands! We must tender for reclamation contracts;
a fortune is waiting; don't miss it, brother, this is the chance of a lifetime!'
Why did my father agree to dream a gynaecologist's entrepreneurial
dream? Why, little by little, did the vision of full-sized concrete tetrapods
marching over sea walk, four-legged conquerors triumphing over the sea,
capture him as surely as it had the gleaming doctor? Why, in the following
years, did Ahmed dedicate himself to the fantasy of every
island-dweller-the myth of conquering the waves? Perhaps because he
was afraid of missing yet another turning; perhaps for the fellowship of
games of shatranj; or maybe it was Narlikar's plausibility-'Your capital and
my contacts, Ahmed bhai, what problem can there be? Every great man in
this city has a son brought into the world by me; no doors will close. You
manufacture; I will get the contract! Fifty-fifty; fair is fair!' But, in my view,
there is a simpler explanation. My father, deprived of wifely attention,
supplanted by bis son, blurred by whisky and djinn, was trying to restore his
position in the world; and the dream of tetrapods offered him the chance.
Whole-heartedly, he threw himself into the great folly; letters were written,
doors knocked upon, black money changed hands; all of which served to
make Ahmed Sinai a name known in the corridors of the Sachivalaya-in the
passageways of the State Secretariat they got the whiff of a Muslim who
was throwing his rupees around like water. And Ahmed Sinai, drinking
himself to sleep, was unaware of the danger he was in.
Our lives, at this period, were shaped by correspondence. The Prime
Minister wrote to me when I was just seven days old-before I could even
wipe my own nose I was receiving fan letters from Times of India readers;
and one morning in January Ahmed Sinai, too, received a letter he would
never forget.
Red eyes at breakfast were followed by the shaven chin of the working
day; footsteps down the stairs; alarmed giggles of Coca-Cola girl. The
squeak of a chair drawn up to a desk topped with green leathercloth.
Metallic noise of a metal paper-cutter being lifted, colliding momentarily
with telephone. The brief rasp of metal slicing envelope; and one minute
later, Ahmed was running back up the stairs, yelling for my mother,
'Amina! Come here, wife! The bastards have shoved my balls in an
In the days after Ahmed received the formal letter informing him of the
freezing of all his assets, the whole world was talking at once… 'For pity's
sake, janum, such language!' Amina is saying-and is it my imagination, or
does a baby blush in a sky-blue crib?
And Narlikar, arriving in a lather of perspiration, 'I blame myself
entirely; we made ourselves too public. These are bad times, Sinai
bhai-freeze a Muslim's assets, they say, and you make him run to Pakistan,
leaving all his wealth behind him. Catch the lizard's tail and he'll snap it off!
This so-called secular state gets some damn clever ideas.'
'Everything,' Ahmed Sinai is saying, 'bank account; savings bonds; the
rents from the Kurla properties-all blocked, frozen. By order, the letter says.
By order they will not let me have four annas, wife-not a chavanni to see
the peepshow!'
'It's those photos in the paper,' Amina decides. 'Otherwise how could
those jumped-up clever dicks know whom to prosecute? My God, janum,
it's my fault…'
'Not ten pice for a twist of channa,' Ahmed Sinai adds, 'not one anna to
give alms to a beggar. Frozen-like in the fridge!'
'It's my fault,' Ismail Ibrahim is saying, 'I should have warned you, Sinai
bhai. I have heard about these freezings-only well-off Muslims are selected,
naturally. You must fight…'
'… Tooth and nail!' Homi Catrack insists, 'Like a lion! Like
Aurangzeb-your ancestor, isn't it?-like the Rani of Jhansi! Then let's see
what kind of country we've ended up in!'
'There are law courts in this State,' Ismail Ibrahim adds;
Nussie-the-duck smiles a bovine smile as she suckles Sonny; her fingers
move, absently stroking Ms hollows, up and around, down and about, in a
steady, unchanging rhythm… 'You must accept my legal services,' Ismail
tells Ahmed, 'Absolutely free, my good friend. No, no I won't hear of it. How
can it be? We are neighbours.'
'Broke,' Ahmed is saying, 'Frozen, like water.'
'Come on now,' Amina interrupts him; her dedication rising to new
heights, she leads him towards her bedroom… 'Janum, you need to lie for
some time.' And Ahmed: 'What's this, wife? A time like this-cleaned out;
finished; crushed like ice-and you think about…' But she has closed the
door; slippers have been kicked off; arms are reaching towards him; and
some moments later her hands are stretching down down down; and then,
'Oh my goodness, janum, I thought you were just talking dirty but it's true!
So cold, Allah, so coooold, like little round cubes of ice!'
Such things happen; after the State froze my father's assets, my
mother began to feel them growing colder and colder. On the first day, the
Brass Monkey was conceived-just in time, because after that, although
Amina lay every night with her husband to warm him, although she
snuggled up tightly when she felt him shiver as the icy fingers of rage and
powerlessness spread upwards from his loins, she could no longer bear to
stretch out her hand and touch because his little cubes of ice had become
too frigid to hold.
They-we-should have known something bad would happen. That
January, Chowpatty Beach, and Juhu and Trombay, too, were littered with
the ominous corpses of dead pomfret, which floated, without the ghost of
an explanation, belly-side-up, like scaly fingers in to shore.
Snakes and ladders
And other omens: comets were seen exploding above the Back Bay; it
was reported that flowers had been seen bleeding real blood; and in
February the snakes escaped from the Schaapsteker Institute. The rumour
spread that a mad Bengali snake-charmer, a Tubriwallah, was travelling the
country, charming reptiles from captivity, leading them out of snake farms
(such as the Schaapsteker, where snake venom's medicinal functions were
studied, and antivenenes devised) by the Pied Piper fascination of his flute,
in retribution for the partition of his beloved Golden Bengal. After a while
the rumours added that the Tubriwallah was seven feet tall, with bright blue
skin. He was Krishna come to chastise his people; he was the sky-hued
Jesus of the missionaries.
It seems that, in the aftermath of my changeling birth, while I enlarged
myself at breakneck speed, everything that could possibly go wrong began
to do so. In the snake winter of early 1948, and in the succeeding hot and
rainy seasons, events piled upon events, so that by the time the Brass
Monkey was born in September we were all exhausted, and ready for a few
years' rest.
Escaped cobras vanished into the sewers of the city; banded kraits
were seen on buses. Religious leaders described the' snake escape as a
warning-the god Naga had been unleashed, they intoned, as a punishment
for the nation's official renunciation of its deities. ('We are a secular State,'
Nehru announced, and Morarji and Patel and Menon all agreed; but still
Ahmed Sinai shivered under the influence of the freeze.) And one day,
when Mary had been asking, 'How are we going to live now, Madam?'
Homi Catrack introduced us to Dr Schaapsteker himself. He was
eighty-one years old; his tongue flicked constantly in and out between his
papery lips; and he was prepared to pay cash rent for a top-floor apartment
overlooking the Arabian Sea. Ahmed Sinai, in those days, had taken to his
bed; the icy cold of the freeze impregnated his bedsheets; he downed vast
quantities of whisky for medicinal purposes, but it failed to warm him up…
so it was Amina who agreed to let the upper storey of Buckingham Villa to
the old snake-doctor. At the end of February, snake poison entered our
Dr Schaapsteker was a man who engendered wild stories. The more
superstitious orderlies at his Institute swore that he had the capacity of
dreaming every night about being bitten by snakes, and thus remained
immune to their bites. Others whispered that he was half-snake himself, the
child of an unnatural union between a woman and a cobra. His obsession
with the venom of the banded krait-bungarus fasciatus-was becoming
legendary. There is no known antivenene to the bite of bungarus: but
Schaapsteker had devoted his life to finding one. Buying broken-down
horses from the Catrack stables (among others) he injected them with
small doses of poison; but the horses, unhelpfully, failed to develop
antibodies, frothed at the mouth, died standing up and had to be
transformed into glue. It was said that Dr Schaapsteker-'Sharpsticker
sahib'-had now acquired the power of killing horses simply by approaching
them with a hypodermic syringe… but Amina paid no attention to these tall
stories. 'He is an old gentleman,' she told Mary Pereira; 'What should we
care about people who black-tongue him? He pays his rent, and permits us
to live.' Amina was grateful to the European snake-doctor, particularly in
those days of the freeze when Ahmed did not seem to have the nerve to
'My beloved father and mother,' Amina wrote, 'By my eyes and head I
swear I do not know why such things are happening to us… Ahmed is a
good man, but this business has hit him hard. If you have advice for your
daughter, she is greatly in need of it.' Three days after they received this
letter, Aadam Aziz and Reverend Mother arrived at Bombay Central Station
by Frontier Mail; and Amina, driving them home in our 1946 Rover, looked
out of a side window and saw the Mahalaxmi Racecourse; and had the first
germ of her reckless idea.
'This modern decoration is all right for you young people,
whatsits-name,' Reverend Mother said. 'But give me one old-fashioned
takht to sit on. These chairs are so soft, whatsitsname, they make me feel
like I'm falling.'
'Is he ill?' Aadam Aziz asked. 'Should I examine him and prescribe
'This is no time to hide in bed,' Reverend Mother pronounced. 'Now he
must be a man, whatsitsname, and do a man's business.'
'How well you both look, my parents,' Amina cried, thinking that her
father was turning into an old man who seemed to be getting shorter with
the passing years; while Reverend Mother had grown so wide that
armchairs, though soft, groaned beneath her weight… and sometimes,
through a trick-of the light, Amina thought she saw, in the centre of her
father's body, a dark shadow like a hole.
'What is left in this India?' Reverend Mother asked, hand slicing air.
'Go, leave it all, go to Pakistan. See how well that Zulfikar is doing-he will
give you a start. Be a man, my son-get up and start again!'
'He doesn't want to speak now,' Amina said, 'he must rest.'
'Rest?' Aadam Aziz roared. 'The man is a jelly!'
'Even Alia, whatsitsname,' Reverend Mother said, 'all on her own,
gone to Pakistan-even she is making a decent life, teaching in a fine
school. They say she will be headmistress soon.'
'Shhh, mother, he wants to sleep… let's go next door…'
'There is a time to sleep, whatsitsname, and a time to wake! Listen:
Mustapha is making many hundreds of rupees a month, whatsitsname, in
the Civil Service. What is your husband? Too good to work?'
'Mother, he is upset. His temperature is so low…'
'What food are you giving? From today, whatsitsname, I will run your
kitchen. Young people today-like babies, whatsitsname!'
'Just as you like, mother.'
'I tell you whatsitsname, it's those photos in the paper. I wrote-didn't I
write?-no good would come of that. Photos take away pieces of you. My
God, whatsitsname, when I saw your picture, you had become so
transparent I could see the writing from the other side coming right through
your face!'
'But that's only…'
'Don't tell me your stories, whatsitsname! I give thanks to God you
have recovered from that photography!'
After that day, Amina was freed from the exigencies of running her
home. Reverend Mother sat at the head of the dining-table, doling out food
(Amina took plates to Ahmed, who stayed in bed, moaning from time to
time, 'Smashed, wife! Snapped-like an icicle!'); while, in the kitchens, Mary
Pereira took the time to prepare, for the benefit of their visitors, some of the
finest and most delicate mango pickles, lime chutneys and cucumber
kasaundies in the world. And now, restored to the status of daughter in her
own home, Amina began to feel the emotions of other people's food
seeping into her-because Reverend Mother doled out the curries and
meatballs of intransigence, dishes imbued with the personality of their
creator; Amina ate the fish salans of stubbornness and the birianis of
determination. And, althiough Mary's pickles had a partially counteractive
effect-since she had stirred into them the guilt of her heart, and the fear of
discovery, so that, good as they tasted, they had the power of making
those who ate them subject to nameless uncertainties and dreams of
accusing fingers-the diet provided by Reverend Mother filled Amina with a
kind of rage, and even produced slight signs of improvement in her
defeated husband. So that finally the day came when Amina, who had
been watching me play incompetently with toy horses of sandal wood in the
bath, inhaling the sweet odours of sandalwood which the bathwater
released, suddenly rediscovered within herself the adventurous streak
which was her inheritance from her fading father, the streak which had
brought Aadam Aziz down from bis mountain valley; Amina turned to Mary
Pereira and said, 'I'm fed up. If nobody in this house is going to put things
right, then it's just going to be up to me!'
Toy horses galloped behind Amina's eyes as she left Mary to dry me
and marched into her bedroom. Remembered glimpses of Mahalaxmi
Racecourse cantered in her head as she pushed aside saris and petticoats.
The fever of a reckless scheme flushed her cheeks as she opened the lid
of an old tin trunk… filling her purse with the coins and rupee notes of
grateful patients and wedding-guests, my mother went to the races.
With the Brass Monkey growing inside her, my mother stalked the
paddocks of the racecourse named after the goddess of wealth; braving
early-morning sickness and varicose veins, she stood in line at the Tote
window, putting money on three-horse accumulators and long-odds
outsiders. Ignorant of the first thing about horses, she backed mares known
not to be stayers to win long races; she put her money on jockeys because
she liked their smiles. Clutching a purse full of the dowry which had lain
untouched in its trunk since her own mother had packed it away, she took
wild flutters on stallions who looked fit for the Schaapsteker Institute… and
won, and won, and won.
'Good news,' Ismail Ibrahim is saying, 'I always thought you should
fight the bastards. I'll begin proceedings at once… but it will take cash,
Amina. Have you got cash?'
'The money will be there.'
'Not for myself,' Ismail explains, 'My services are, as I said, free, gratis
absolutely. But, forgive me, you must know how things are, one must give
little presents to people to smooth one's way…'
'Here,' Amina hands him an envelope, 'Will this do for now?'
'My God,' Ismail Ibrahim drops the packet in surprise and rupee notes
in large denominations scatter all over his sitting-room floor, 'Where did you
lay your hands on…' And Amina, 'Better you don't ask-and I won't ask how
you spend it.'
Schaapsteker money paid for our food bills; but horses fought our war.
The streak of luck of my mother at the race-track was so long, a seam so
rich, that if it hadn't happened it wouldn't have been credible… for month
after month, she put her money on a jockey's nice tidy hair-style or a
horse's pretty piebald colouring; and she never left the track without a large
envelope stuffed with notes.
'Things are going well,' Ismail Ibrahim told her, 'But Amina sister, God
knows what you are up to. Is it decent? Is it legal?' And Amina: 'Don't worry
your head. What can't be cured must be endured. I am doing what must be
Never once in all that time did my mother take pleasure in her mighty
victories; because she was weighed down by more than a baby-eating
Reverend Mother's curries filled with ancient prejudices, she had become
convinced that gambling was the next worst thing on earth, next to alcohol;
so, although she was not a criminal, she felt consumed by sin.
Verrucas plagued her feet, although Purushottam the sadhu, who sat
under our garden tap until dripping water created a bald patch amid the
luxuriantly matted hair on his head, was a marvel at charming them away;
but throughout the snake winter and the hot season, my mother fought her
husband's fight.
You ask: how is it possible? How could a housewife, however
assiduous, however determined, win fortunes on the horses, day after
racing day, month after month? You think to yourself: aha, that Homi
Catrack, he's a horse-owner; and everyone knows that most of the races
are fixed; Amina was asking her neighbour for hot tips! A plausible notion;
but Mr Catrack himself lost as often as he won; he saw my mother at the
race-track and was astounded by her success. ('Please,' Amina asked him,
'Catrack Sahib, let this be our secret. Gambling is a terrible thing; it would
be so shaming if my mother found out.' And Catrack, nodding dazedly,
said, 'Just as you wish.') So it was not the Parsee who was behind it-but
perhaps I can offer another explanation. Here it is, in a sky-blue crib in a
sky-blue room with a fisherman's pointing finger on the wall: here,
whenever his mother goes away clutching a purse full of secrets, is Baby
Saleem, who has acquired an expression of the most intense
concentration, whose eyes have been seized by a singleness of purpose of
such enormous power that it has darkened them to deep navy blue, and
whose nose is twitching strangely while he appears to be watching some
distant event, to be guiding it from a distance, just as the moon controls the
'Coming to court very soon,' Ismail Ibrahim said, 'I think you can be
fairly confident… my God, Amina, have you found King Solomon's Mines?'
The moment I was old enough to play board games, I fell in love with
Snakes and Ladders. О perfect balance of rewards and penalties! О
seemingly random choices made by tumbling dice! Clambering up ladders,
slithering down snakes, I spent some of the happiest days of my life. When,
in my time of trial, my father challenged me to master the game of shatranj,
I infuriated him by preferring to invite him, instead, to chance his fortune
among the ladders and nibbling snakes.
All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders
captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every
ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every
snake, a ladder will compensate. But it's more than that; no mere
carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is the unchanging
twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the
solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in
the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all
conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother; here
is the war of Mary and Musa, and the polarities of knees and nose… but I
found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension,
that of ambiguity-beca use, as events are about to show, it is also possible
to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake…
Keeping things simple for the moment, however, I record that no sooner
had my mother discovered the ladder to victory represented by her
racecourse luck than she was reminded that the gutters of the country were
still teeming with snakes.
Amina's brother Hanif had not gone to Pakistan. Following the
childhood dream which he had whispered to Rashid the rickshaw-boy in an
Agra cornfield, he had arrived in Bombay and sought employ, ment in the
great film studios. Precociously confident, he had not only succeeded in
becoming the youngest man ever to be given a film to direct in the history
of the Indian cinema; he had also wooed and married one of the brightest
stars of that celluloid heaven, the divine Pia, whose face was her fortune,
and whose saris were made of fabrics whose designers had clearly set out
to prove that it was possible to incorporate every colour known to man in a
single pattern. Reverend Mother did not approve of the divine Pia, but Hanif
of all my family was the one who was free of her confining influence; a jolly,
burly man with the booming laugh of the boatman Tai and the explosive,
innocent anger of his father Aadam Aziz, he took her to live simply in a
small, un-filmi apartment on Marine Drive, telling her, 'Plenty of time to live
like Emperors after I've made my name.' She acquiesced; she starred in his
first feature, which was partly financed by Homi Catrack and partly by D. W.
Rama Studios (Pvt.) Ltd-it was called The Lovers of Kashmir, and one
evening in the midst of her racing days Amina Sinai went to the premiere.
Her parents did not come, thanks to Reverend Mother's loathing of the
cinema, against which Aadam Aziz no longer had the strength to
struggle-just as he, who had fought with Mian Abdullah against Pakistan,
no longer argued with her when she praised the country, retaining just
enough strength to dig in his heels and refuse to emigrate; but Ahmed
Sinai, revived by his mother-in-law's cookery, but resentful of her continued
presence, got to his feet and accompanied his wife. They took their seats,
next to Hanif and. Pia and the male star of the film, one of India's most
successful 'lover-boys', I. S. Nayyar. And, although they didn't know it, a
serpent waited in the wings… but in the meanwhile, let us permit Hanif Aziz
to have his moment; because The Lovers of Kashmir contained a notion
which was to provide my uncle with a spectacular, though brief, period of
triumph. In those days it was not permitted for lover-boys and their leading
ladies to touch one another on screen, for fear that their osculations might
corrupt the nation's youth… but thirty-three minutes after the beginning of
The Lovers the premiere audience began to give off a low buzz of shock,
because Pia and Nayyar had begun to kiss-not one another-but things.
Pia kissed an apple, sensuously, with all the rich fullness of her
painted lips; then passed it to Nayyar; who planted, upon its opposite face,
a virilely passionate mouth. This was the birth of what came to be known as
the indirect kiss-and how much more sophisticated a notion it was than
anything in our current cinema; how pregnant with longing and eroticism!
The cinema audience (which would, nowadays, cheer raucously at the
sight of a young couple diving behind л bush, which would then begin to
shake ridiculously-so low have we sunk in our ability to suggest) watched,
riveted to the screen, as the love of Pia and Nayyar, against a background
of Dal Lake and ice-blue Kashmiri sky, expressed itself in kisses applied to
cups of pink Kashmiri tea; by the fountains of Shalimar they pressed their
lips to a sword… but now, at the height of Hanif Aziz's triumph, the serpent
refused to wait; under its influence, the house-lights came up. Against the
larger-than-life figures of Pia and Nayyar, kissing mangoes as they
mouthed to playback music, the figure of a timorous, inadequately bearded
man was seen, marching on to the stage beneath the screen, microphone
in hand. The Serpent can take most unexpected forms; now, in the guise of
this ineffectual house-manager, it unleashed its venom. Pia and Nayyar
faded and died; and the amplified voice of the bearded man said: 'Ladies
and gents, your pardon; but there is terrible news.' His voice broke-a sob
from the Serpent, to lend power to its teeth!-and then continued, 'This
afternoon, at Birla House in Delhi, our beloved Mahatma was killed. Some
madman shot him in the stomach, ladies and gentlemen-our Bapu is gone!'
The audience had begun to scream before he finished; the poison of
his words entered their veins-there were grown men rolling in the aisles
clutching their bellies, not laughing but crying, Hai Ram! Hai Ram!-and
women tearing their hair: the city's finest coiffures tumbling around the ears
of the poisoned ladies-there were film-stars yelling like fishwives and
something terrible to smell in the air-and Hanif whispered, 'Get out of here,
big sister-if a Muslim did this thing there will be hell to pay.'
For every ladder, there is a snake… and for forty-eight hours after the
abortive end of The Lovers of Kashmir, our family remained within the walls
of Buckingham Villa ('Put furniture against the doors, whatsitsname!'
Reverend Mother ordered. 'If there are Hindu servants, let them go home!');
and Amina did not dare to visit the racetrack.
But for every snake, there is a ladder: and finally the radio gave us a
name. Nathuram Godse. 'Thank God,' Amina burst out, 'It's not a Muslim
And Aadam, upon whom the news of Gandhi's death had placed a
new burden of age: 'This Godse is nothing to be grateful for!'
Amina, however, was full of the light-headedness of relief, she was
rushing dizzily up the long ladder of relief… 'Why not, after all? By being
Godse he has saved our lives!'
Ahmed Sinai, after rising from his supposed sickbed, continued to
behave like an invalid. In a voice like cloudy glass he told Amina, 'So, you
have told Ismail to go to court; very well, good; but we will lose. In these
courts you have to buy judges…' And Amina, rushing to Ismail,
'Never-never under any circumstances-must you tell Ahmed about the
money. A man must keep his pride.' And, later on, 'No, janum, I'm not going
anywhere; no, the baby is not being tiring at all; you rest, I must just go to
shop-maybe I will visit Hanif-we women, you know, must fill up our days!'
And coming home with envelopes brimming with rupee-notes… 'Take,
Ismail, now that he's up we have to be quick and careful!' And sitting
dutifully beside her mother in the evenings, 'Yes, of course you're right, and
Ahmed will be getting so rich soon, you'll just see!'
And endless delays in court; and envelopes, emptying; and the
growing baby, nearing the point at which Amina will not be able to insert
herself behind the driving-wheel of the 1946 Rover; and can her luck hold?;
and Musa and Mary, quarrelling like aged tigers.
What starts fights?
What remnants of guilt fear shame, pickled by time in Mary's
intestines, led her willingly? unwillingly? to provoke the aged bearer in a
dozen different ways-by a tilt of the nose to indicate her superior status; by
aggressive counting of rosary beads under the nose of the devout Muslim;
by acceptance of the title mausi, little mother, bestowed upon her by the
other Estate servants, which Musa saw as a threat to his status; by
excessive familiarity with the Begum Sahiba-little giggled whispers in
corners, just loud enough for formal, stiff, correct Musa to hear and feel
somehow cheated?
What tiny grain of grit, in the sea of old age now washing over the old
bearer, lodged between bis lips to fatten into the dark pearl of hatred-into
what unaccustomed torpors did Musa fall, becoming leaden of hand and
foot, so that vases were broken, ashtrays spilled, and a veiled hint of
forthcoming dismissal-from Mary's conscious or unconscious lips?-grew
into an obsessive fear, which rebounded upon the person who started it
And (not to omit social factors) what was the brutalizing effect of
servant status, of a servants' room behind a blackstoved kitchen, in which
Musa was obliged to sleep along with gardener, odd-job boy, and
hamal-while Mary slept in style on a rush mat beside a new-born child?
And was Mary blameless or not? Did her inability to go to
church-because in churches you found confessionals, and in confessionals
secrets could not be kept-turn sour inside her and make her a little sharp, a
little hurtful?
Or must we look beyond psychology-seeking our answer in statements
such as, there was a snake lying in wait for Mary, and Musa was doomed
to learn about the ambiguity of ladders? Or further still, beyond
snake-and-ladder, should we see the Hand of Fate in the quarrel-and say,
in order for Musa to return as explosive ghost, in order for him to adopt the
role of Bomb-in-Bombay, it was necessary to engineer a departure… or,
descending from such sublimities to the ridiculous, could it be that Ahmed
Sinai-whom whisky provoked, whom djinns goaded into excesses of
rudeness-had so incensed the aged bearer that his crime, with which he
equalled Mary's record, was committed out of the injured pride of an
abused old servitor-and was nothing to do with Mary at all?
Ending questions, I confine myself to facts: Musa and Mary were
perpetually at daggers drawn. And yes: Ahmed insulted him, and Amina's
pacifying efforts may not have been successful; and yes: the fuddling
shadows of age had convinced him he would be dismissed, without
warning, at any moment; and so it was that Amina came to discover, one
August morning, that the house had been burgled.
The police came. Amina reported what was missing: a silver spittoon
encrusted with lapis lazuli; gold coins; bejewelled samovars and silver
tea-services; the contents of a green tin trunk. Servants were lined up in
the hall and subjected to the threats of Inspector Johnny Vakeel. 'Come on,
own up now'-lathi-stick tapping against his leg-'or you'll see what we can't
do to you. You want to stand on one leg all day and night? You want water
thrown over you, sometimes boiling hot, sometimes freezing cold? We
have many methods in the Police Force…' And now a cacophony of noise
from servants, Not me, Inspector Sahib, I am honest boy; for pity's sake,
search my things, sahib! And Amina: 'This is too much, sir, you go too far.
My Mary I know, anyway, is innocent. I will not have her questioned.'
Suppressed irritation of police officer. A search of belongings is
instituted-'Just in case, Madam. These fellows have limited intelligence-and
maybe you discovered the theft too soon for the felon to abscond with the
The search succeeds. In the bedroll of Musa the old bearer: a silver
spittoon. Wrapped in his puny bundle of clothes: gold coins, a silver
samovar. Secreted under his charpoy bed: a missing tea-service. And now
Musa has thrown himself at Ahmed Sinai's feet; Musa is begging, 'Forgive,
sahib! I was mad; I thought you were going to throw me into the street!' but
Ahmed Sinai will not listen; the freeze is upon him; 'I feel so weak,' he says,
and leaves the room; and Amina, aghast, asks: 'But, Musa, why did you
make that terrible oath?'
… Because, in the interim between line-up in passageway and
discoveries in servants' quarters, Musa had said to his master: 'It was not
me, sahib. If I have robbed you, may I be turned into a leper! May my old
skin run with sores!'
Amina, with horror on her face, awaits Musa's reply. The bearer's old
face twists into a mask of anger; words are spat out. 'Begum Sahiba, I only
took your precious possessions, but you, and your sahib, and his father,
have taken my whole life; and in my old age you have humiliated me with
Christian ayahs.'
There is silence in Buckingham Villa-Amina has refused to press
charges, but Musa is leaving. Bedroll on his back, he descends a spiral iron
staircase, discovering that ladders can go down as well as up; he walks
away down hillock, leaving a curse upon the house.
And (was it the curse that did it?) Mary Pereira is about to discover that
even when you win a battle; even when staircases operate in your favour,
you can't avoid a snake.
Amina says, 'I can't get you any more money, Ismail; have you had
enough?' And Ismail, 'I hope so-but you never know-is there any chance
of… ?' But Amina: 'The trouble is, I've got so big and all, I can't get in the
car any more. It will just have to do.'
… Time is slowing down for Amina once more; once again, her eyes
look through leaded glass, in which red tulips, green-stemmed, dance in
unison; for a second time, her gaze lingers on a clocktower which has not
worked since the rains of 1947; once again, it is raining. The racing season
is over.
A pale blue clocktower: squat, peeling, inoperational. It stood on
black-tarred concrete at the end of the circus-ring-the flat roof of the upper
storey of the buildings along Warden Road, which abutted our two-storey
hillock, so that if you climbed over Buckingham Villa's boundary wall, flat
black tar would be under your feet. And beneath black tar, Breach Candy
Kindergarten School, from which, every afternoon during term, there rose
the tinkling music of Miss Harrison's piano playing the unchanging tunes of
childhood; and below that, the shops, Reader's Paradise, Fatbhoy
Jewellery, Chimalker's Toys and Bombelli's, with its windows filled with One
Yards of Chocolates. The door to the clocktower was supposed to be
locked, but it was a cheap lock of a kind Nadir Khan would have
recognized: made in India. And on three successive evenings immediately
before my first birthday, Mary Pereira, standing by my window at night,
noticed a shadowy figure floating across the roof, his hands full of
shapeless objects, a shadow which filled her with an unidentifiable dread.
After the third night, she told my mother; the police were summoned; and
Inspector Vakeel returned to Methwold's Estate, accompanied by a special
squad of crack officers-'all deadeye shots. Begum Sahiba; just you leave it
all to us!'-who, disguised as sweepers, with guns concealed under their
rags, kept the clocktower under surveillance while sweeping up the dust in
the circus-ring.
Night fell. Behind curtains and chick-blinds, the inhabitants of
Methwold's Estate peered fearfully in the direction of the clocktower.
Sweepers, absurdly, went about their duties in the dark. Johnny Vakeel
took up a position on our verandah, rifle just out of sight… and, at midnight,
a shadow came over the side wall of the Breach Candy school and made
its way towards the tower, with a sack slung over one shoulder… 'He must
enter,' Vakeel had told Amina; 'Must be sure we get the proper johnny.' The
johnny, padding across flat tarred roof, arrived at the tower; entered.
'Inspector Sahib, what are you waiting for?'
'Shhh, Begum, this is police business; please go inside some way. We
shall take him when he comes out; you mark my words. Caught,' Vakeel
said with satisfaction, 'like a rat in a trap.'
'But who is he?'
'Who knows?' Vakeel shrugged. 'Some badmaash for sure. There are
bad eggs everywhere these days.'
… And then the silence of the night is split like milk by a single,
sawn-off shriek; somebody lurches against the inside of the clocktower
door; it is wrenched open; there is a crash; and something streaks out on to
black tarmac. Inspector Vakeel leaps into action, swinging up his rifle,
shooting from the hip like John Wayne; sweepers extract marksmen's
weapons from their brushes and blaze away… shrieks of excited women,
yells of servants… silence.
What lies, brown and black, banded and serpentine on the black
tarmac? What, leaking black blood, provokes Dr Schaapsteker to screech
from his top-floor vantage-point: 'You complete fools! Brothers of
cockroaches! Sons of transvestites!'… what, flick-tongued, dies while
Vakeel races on to tarred roof?
And inside the clocktower door? What weight, falling, created such an
almighty crash? Whose hand wrenched a door open; in whose heel are
visible the two red, flowing holes, filled with a venom for which there is no
known antivenene, a poison which has killed stablefuls of worn-out horses?
Whose body is carried out of the tower by plain-clothes men, in a dead
march, coffinless, with imitation sweepers for pallbearers? Why, when the
moonlight falls upon the dead face, does Mary Pereira fall like a sack of
potatoes to the floor, eyes rolling upwards in their sockets, in a sudden and
dramatic faint?
And lining the interior walls of the clocktower: what are these strange
mechanisms, attached to cheap time-pieces-why are there so many bottles
with rags stuffed into their necks?
'Damn lucky you called my boys out, Begum Sahiba,' Inspector Vakeel
is saying. 'That was Joseph D'Costa-on our Most Wanted list. Been after
him for a year or thereabouts. Absolute black-hearted badmaash. You
should see the walls inside that clocktower! Shelves, filled from floor to
ceiling with home-made bombs. Enough explosive power to blow this hill
into the sea!'
Melodrama piling upon melodrama; life acquiring the colouring of a
Bombay talkie; snakes following ladders, ladders succeeding snakes; in the
midst of too much incident, Baby Saleem fell ill. As if incapable of
assimilating so many goings-on, he closed his eyes and became red and
flushed. While Amina awaited the results of Ismail's case against the State
authorities; while the Brass Monkey grew in her womb; while Mary entered
a state of shock from which she would fully emerge only when Joseph's
ghost returned to haunt her; while umbilical cord hung in pickle-jar and
Mary's chutneys filled our dreams with pointing fingers; while Reverend
Mother ran the kitchens, my grandfather examined me and said, 'I'm afraid
there is no doubt; the poor lad has typhoid.'
'O God in heaven,' Reverend Mother cried out, 'What dark devil has
come, whatsitsname, to sit upon this house?'
This is how I have heard the story of the illness which nearly stopped
me before I'd started: day and night, at the end of August 1948, mother and
grandfather looked after me; Mary dragged herself out of her guilt and
pressed cold flannels to my forehead; Reverend Mother sang lullabies and
spooned food into my mouth; even my father, forgetting momentarily his
own disorders, stood flapping helplessly in the doorway. But the night came
when Doctor Aziz, looking as broken as an old horse, said, 'There is
nothing more I can do. He will be dead by morning.' And in the midst of
wailing women and the incipient labour of my mother who had been pushed
into it by grief and the tearing of Mary Pereira's hair there was a knock; a
servant announced Dr Schaapsteker; who handed my grandfather a little
bottle and said, 'I make no bones about it: this is kill or cure. Two drops
exactly; then wait and see.'
My grandfather, sitting head in hands in the rubble of his medical
learning, asked, 'What is it?' And Dr Schaapsteker, nearly eighty-two,
tongue flicking at the corners of his mouth: 'Diluted venene of the king
cobra. It has been known to work.'
Snakes can lead to triumph, just as ladders can be descended: my
grandfather, knowing I would die anyway, administered the cobra poison.
The family stood and watched while poison spread through the child's
body… and six hours later, my temperature had returned to normal. After
that, my growth-rate lost its phenomenal aspects; but something was given
in exchange for what was lost: life, and an early awareness of the
ambiguity of snakes.
While my temperature came down, my sister was being born at
Narlikar's Nursing Home. It was September ist; and the birth was so
uneventful, so effortless that it passed virtually unnoticed on Methwold's
Estate; because on the same day Ismail Ibrahim visited my parents at the
clinic and announced that the case had been won… While Ismail
celebrated, I was grabbing the bars of my cot; while he cried, 'So much for
freezes! Your assets are your own again! By order of the High Court!', I
was heaving red-faced against gravity; and while Ismail announced, with a
straight face, 'Sinai bhai, the rule of law has won a famous victory,' and
avoided my mother's delighted, triumphant eyes, I, Baby Saleem, aged
exactly one year, two weeks and one day, hauled myself upright in my cot.
The effects of the events of that day were twofold: I grew up with legs
that were irretrievably bowed, because I had got to my feet too early; and
the Brass Monkey (so called because of her thick thatch of red-gold hair,
which would not darken until she was nine) learned that, if she was going to
get any attention in her life, she would have to make plenty of noise.
Accident in a washing-chest
It has been two whole days since Padma stormed out of my life. For
two days, her place at the vat of mango kasaundy has been taken by
another woman-also thick of waist, also hairy of forearm; but, in my eyes,
no replacement at all!-while my own dung-lotus has vanished into I don't
know where. A balance Mas been upset; I feel.cracks widening down the
length of my body; because suddenly I am alone, without my necessary
ear, and it isn't enough. I am seized by a sudden fist of anger: why should I
be so unreasonably treated by my one disciple? Other men have recited
stories before me; other men were not so impetuously abandoned. When
Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, dictated his masterpiece to
elephant-headed Ganesh, did the god walk out on him halfway? He
certainly did not. (Note that, despite my Muslim background, I'm enough of
a Bombayite to be well up in Hindu stories, and actually I'm very fond of the
image of trunk-nosed, flap-eared Ganesh solemnly taking dictation!)
How to dispense with Padma? How give up her ignorance and
superstition, necessary counterweights to my miracle-laden omniscience?
How to do without her paradoxical earthiness of spirit, which
keeps-kept?-my feet on the ground? I have become, it seems to me, the
apex of an isosceles triangle, supported equally by twin deities, the wild
god of memory and the lotus-goddess of the present… but must I now
become reconciled to the narrow one-dimensionality of a straight line?
I am, perhaps, hiding behind all these questions. Yes, perhaps that's
right. I should speak plainly, without the cloak of a question-mark: our
Padma has gone, and I miss her. Yes, that's it.
But there is still work to be done: for instance:
In the summer of 1956, when most things in the world were still larger
than myself, my sister the Brass Monkey developed the curious habit of
setting fire to shoes. While Nasser sank ships at Suez, thus slowing down
the movements of the world by obliging it to travel around the Cape of
Good Hope, my sister was also trying to impede our progress. Obliged to
fight for attention, possessed by her need to place herself at the centre of
events, even of unpleasant ones (she was my sister, after all; but no prime
minister wrote letters to her, no sadhus watched her from their places
under garden taps; unprophesied, un-photographed, her life was a struggle
from the start), she carried her war into the world of footwear, hoping,
perhaps, that by burning our shoes she would make us stand still long
enough to notice that she was there… she made no attempt at concealing
her crimes. When my father entered his room to find a pair of black Oxfords
on fire, the Brass Monkey was standing over them, match in hand. His
nostrils were assailed by the unprecedented odour of ignited boot-leather,
mingled with Cherry Blossom boot-polish and a little Three-In-One oil…
'Look, Abba!' the Monkey said charmingly, 'Look how pretty-just the exact
colour of my hair!'
Despite all precautions, the merry red flowers of my sister's obsession
blossomed all over the Estate that summer, blooming in the sandals of
Nussie-the-duck and the film-magnate footwear of Homi Catrack;
hair-coloured flames licked at Mr Dubash's down-at-heel suedes and at Lila
Sabarmati's stiletto heels. Despite the concealment of matches and the
vigilance of servants, the Brass Monkey found her ways, undeterred by
punishment and threats. For one year, on and off, Methwold's Estate was
assailed by the fumes of incendiarized shoes; until her hair darkened into
anonymous brown, and she seemed to lose interest in matches.
Amina Sinai, abhorring the idea of beating her children,
temperamentally incapable of raising her voice, came close to her wits'end;
and the Monkey was sentenced, for day after day, to silence. This was my
mother's chosen disciplinary method: unable to strike us, she ordered us to
seal our lips. Some echo, no doubt, of the great silence with which her own
mother had tormented Aadam Aziz lingered in her ears-because silence,
too, has an echo, hollower and longer-lasting than the reverberations of
any sound-and with an emphatic 'Chup!' she would place a finger across
her lips and command our tongues to be still. It was a punishment which
never failed to cow me into submission; the Brass Monkey, however, was
made of less pliant stuff. Soundlessly, behind lips clamped tight as her
grandmother's, she plotted the incineration of leather-just as once, long
ago, another monkey in another city had performed the act which made
inevitable the burning of a leathercloth godown…
She was as beautiful (if somewhat scrawny) as I was ugly; but she was
from the first, mischievous as a whirlwind and noisy as a crowd. Count the
windows and vases, broken accidentally-on-purpose; number, if you can,
the meals that somehow flew off her treacherous dinner-plates, to stain
valuable Persian rugs! Silence was, indeed, the worst punishment she
could have been given; but she bore it cheerfully, standing innocently amid
the ruins of broken chairs and shattered ornaments.
Mary Pereira said, 'That one! That Monkey! Should have been born
with four legs!' But Amina, in whose mind the memory of her narrow escape
from giving birth to a two-headed son had obstinately refused to fade, cried,
'Mary! What are you saying? Don't even think such things!'… Despite my
mother's protestations, it was true that the Brass Monkey was as much
animal as human; and, as all the servants and children on Methwold's
Estate knew, she had the gift of talking to birds, and to cats. Dogs, too: but
after she was bitten, at the age of six, by a supposedly rabid stray, and had
to be dragged kicking and screaming to Breach Candy Hospital, every
afternoon for three weeks, to be given an injection in the stomach, it seems
she either forgot their language or else refused to have any further dealings
with them. From birds she learned how to sing; from cats she learned a
form of dangerous independence. The Brass Monkey was never so furious
as when anyone spoke to her in words of love; desperate for affection,
deprived of it by my overpowering shadow, she had a tendency to turn
upon anyone who gave her what she wanted, as if she were defending
herself against the possibility of being tricked.
… Such as the time when Sonny Ibrahim plucked up his courage to tell
her, 'Hey, listen, Saleem's sister-you're a solid type. I'm, um, you know,
damn keen on you…' And at once she marched across to where his father
and mother were sipping lassi in the gardens of Sans Souci to say, 'Nussie
auntie, I don't know what your Sonny's been getting up to. Only just now I
saw him and Cyrus behind a bush, doing such funny rubbing things with
their soo-soos!'…
The Brass Monkey had bad table manners; she trampled flowerbeds;
she acquired the tag of problem-child; but she and I were close-as-close, in
spite of framed letters from Delhi and sadhu-under-the-tap. From the
beginning, I decided to treat her as an ally, not a competitor; and, as a
result, she never once blamed me for my preeminence in our household,
saying, 'What's to blame? Is it your fault if they think you're so great?' (But
when, years later, I made the same mistake as Sonny, she treated me just
the same.)
And it was Monkey who, by answering a certain wrong-number
telephone call, began the process of events which led to my accident in a
white washing-chest made of slatted wood.
Already, at the age of nearlynine, I knew this much: everybody was
waiting for me. Midnight and baby-snaps, prophets and prime ministers had
created around me a glowing and inescapable mist of expectancy… in
which my father pulled me into his squashy belly in the cool of the cocktail
hour to say, 'Great things! My son: what is not in store for you? Great
deeds, a great life!' While I, wriggling between jutting lip and big toe,
wetting his shirt with my eternally leaking nose-goo, turned scarlet and
squealed, 'Let me go, Abba! Everyone will see!' And he, embarrassing me
beyond belief, bellowed, 'Let them look! Let the whole world see how I love
my son!'… and my grandmother, visiting us one winter, gave me advice,
too: 'Just pull up your socks, whatsitsname, and you'll be better than
anyone in the whole wide world!'… Adrift in this haze of anticipation, I had
already felt within myself the first movings of that shapeless animal which
still, on these Padmaless nights, champs and scratches in my stomach:
cursed by a multitude of hopes and nicknames (I had already acquired
Sniffer and Snotnose), I became afraid that everyone was wrong-that my
much-trumpeted existence might turn out to be utterly useless, void, and
without the shred of a purpose. And it was to escape from this beast that I
took to hiding myself, from an early age, in my mother's large white
washing-chest; because although the creature was inside me, the
comforting presence of enveloping soiled linen seemed to lull it into sleep.
Outside the washing-chest, surrounded by people who seemed to
possess a devastatingly clear sense of purpose, I buried myself in
fairy-tales. Hatim Tai and Batman, Superman and Sinbad helped to get me
through the nearlynine years. When I went shopping with Mary
Pereira-overawed by her ability to tell a chicken's age by looking at its
neck, by the sheer determination with which she stared dead pomfrets in
the eyes-I became Aladdin, voyaging in a fabulous cave; watching servants
dusting vases with a dedication as majestic as it was obscure, I imagined
Ali Baba's forty thieves hiding in the dusted urns; in the garden, staring at
Purushottam the sadhu being eroded by water, I turned into the genie of
the lamp, and thus avoided, for the most part, the terrible notion that I,
alone in the universe, had no idea what I should be, or how I should
behave. Purpose: it crept up behind me when I stood staring down from my
window at European girls cavorting in the map-shaped pool beside the sea.
'Where do you get it?' I yelped aloud; the Brass Monkey, who shared my
sky-blue room, jumped half-way out of her skin. I was then nearlyeight; she
was almostseven. It was a very early age at which to be perplexed by
But servants are excluded from washing-chests; school buses, too, are
absent. In my nearlyninth year I had begun to attend the Cathedral and
John Connon Boys' High School on Outram Road in the old Fort district;
washed and brushed every morning, I stood at the foot of our two-storey
hillock, white-shorted, wearing a blue-striped elastic belt with a
snake-buckle, satchel over my shoulder, my mighty cucumber of a nose
dripping as usual; Eyeslice and Hairoil, Sonny Ibrahim and precocious
Cyrus-the-great waited too. And on the bus, amid rattling seats and the
nostalgic cracks of the window-panes, what certainties! What
nearlynine-year-old certitudes about the future! A boast from Sonny: 'I'm
going to be a bullfighter; Spain! Chiquitas! Hey, toro, toro!' His satchel held
before him like the muleta of Manolete, he enacted his future while the bus
rattled around Kemp's Corner, past Thomas Kemp and Co. (Chemists),
beneath the Air-India rajah's poster ('See you later, alligator! I'm off to
London on Air-India!') and the other hoarding, on which, throughout my
childhood, the Kolynos Kid, a gleamtoothed pixie in a green, elfin,
chlorophyll hat proclaimed the virtues of Kolynos Toothpaste: 'Keep Teeth
Kleen and Keep Teeth Brite! Keep Teeth Kolynos Super White!' The kid on
his hoarding, the children in the bus: one-dimensional, flattened by
certitude, they knew what they were for. Here is Glandy Keith Colaco, a
thyroid balloon of a child with hair already sprouting tuftily on his lip: 'I'm
going to run my father's cinemas; you bastards want to watch movies, you'll
have to come an' beg me for seats!'… And Fat Perce Fishwala, whose
obesity is due to nothing but overeating, and who, along with Glandy Keith,
occupies the privileged position of class bully: 'Bah! That's nothing! I'll have
diamonds and emeralds and moonstones! Pearls as big as my balls!' Fat
Perce's father runs the city's other jewellery business; his great enemy is
the son of Mr Fatbhoy, who, being small and intellectual, comes off badly in
the war of the pearl-tcsticled children… And Eyeslice, announcing his
future as a Test cricketer, with a fine disregard for his one empty socket;
and Hairoil, who is as slicked-down and neat as his brother is curly-topped
and dishevelled, says, 'What selfish bums you are! I shall follow my father
into the Navy; I shall defend my country!' Whereupon he is pelted with
rulers, compasses, inky pellets… in the school bus, as it clattered past
Chowpatty Beach, as it turned left off Marine Drive beside the apartment of
my favourite uncle Hanif and headed past Victoria Terminus towards Flora
Fountain, past Churchgate Station and Crawford Market, I held my peace; I
was mild-mannered Clark Kent protecting my secret identity; but what on
earth was that? 'Hey, Snotnose!' Glandy Keith yelled, 'Hey, whaddya
suppose our Sniffer'11 grow up to be?' And the answering yell from Fat
Perce Fishwala, 'Pinocchio!' And the rest, joining in, sing a raucous chorus
of 'There are no strings on me!'… while Cyrus-the-great sits quiet as genius
and plans the future of the nation's leading nuclear research establishment.
And, at home, there was the Brass Monkey with her shoe-burning; and
my father, who had emerged from the depths of his collapse to fall, once
more, into the folly of tetrapods… 'Where do you find it?' I pleaded at my
window; the fisherman's finger pointed, misleadingly, out to sea.
Banned from washing-chests: cries of 'Pinocchio! Cucumber-nose!
Goo-face!' Concealed in my hiding-place, I was safe from the memory of
Miss Kapadia, the teacher at Breach Candy Kindergarten, who had, on my
first day at school, turned from her blackboard to greet me, seen my nose,
and dropped her duster in alarm, smashing the nail on her big toe, in a
screechy but minor echo of my father's famous mishap; buried amongst
soiled hankies and crumpled pajamas, I could forget, for a time, my
Typhoid 'attacked me; krait-poison cured me; and my early,
overheated growth-rate cooled off. By the time I was nearlynine, Sonny
Ibrahim was an inch and a half taller than I. But one piece of Baby Saleem
seemed immune to disease and extract-of-snakes. Between my eyes, it
mushroomed outwards and downwards, as if all my expansionist forces,
driven out of the rest of my body, had decided to concentrate on this single
incomparable thrust… between my eyes and above my lips, my nose
bloomed like a prize marrow. (But then, I was spared wisdom teeth; one
should try to count one's blessings.)
What's in a nose? The usual answer: 'That's simple. A breathing
apparatus; olfactory organs; hairs.' But in my case, the answer was simpler
still, although, I'm bound to admit, somewhat repellent: what was in my
nose was snot. With apologies, I must unfortunately insist on details: nasal
congestion obliged me to breathe through my mouth, giving me the air of a
gasping goldfish; perennial blockages doomed me to a childhood without
perfumes, to days which ignored the odours of musk and chambeli and
mango kasaundy and home-made ice-cream: and dirty washing, too. A
disability in the world outside washing-chests can be a positive advantage
once you're in. But only for the duration of your stay.
Purpose-obsessed, I worried about my nose. Dressed in the bitter
garments which arrived regularly from my headmistress aunt Alia, I went to
school, played French cricket, fought, entered fairy-tales… and worried. (In
those days, my aunt Alia had begun to send us an unending stream of
children's clothes, into whose seams she had sewn her old maid's bile; the
Brass Monkey and I were clothed in her gifts, wearing at first the
baby-things of bitterness, then the rompers of resentment; I grew up in
white shorts starched with the starch of jealousy, while the Monkey wore
the pretty flowered frocks of Alia's undimmed envy… unaware that our
wardrobe was binding us in the webs of her revenge, we led our
well-dressed lives.) My nose: elephantine as the trunk of Ganesh, it should,
I thought, have been a superlative breather; a smeller without an answer,
as we say; instead, it was permanently bunged-up, and as useless as a
wooden sikh-kabab.
Enough. I sat in the washing-chest and forgot my nose; forgot about
the climbing of Mount Everest in 1953-when grubby Eyeslice giggled, 'Hey,
men! You think that Tenzing could climb up Sniffer's face?'-and about the
quarrels between my parents over my nose, for which Ahmed Sinai never
tired of blaming Amina's father: 'Never before in my family has there been a
nose like it! We have excellent noses; proud noses; royal noses, wife!'
Ahmed Sinai had already begun, at that time, to believe in the fictional
ancestry he had created for the benefit of William Methwold; djinn-sodden,
he saw Mughal blood running in his veins… Forgotten, too, the night when I
was eight and a half, and my father, djinns on his breath, came into my
bedroom to rip the sheets off me and demand: 'What are you up to? Pig!
Pig from somewhere?' I looked sleepy; innocent; puzzled. He roared on.
'Chhi-chhi! Filthy! God punishes boys who do that! Already he's made your
nose as big as poplars. He'll stunt your growth; he'll make your soo-soo
shrivel up!' And my mother, arriving nightdressed in the startled room,
'Janum, for pity's sake; the boy was only sleeping.' The djinn roared
through my father's lips, possessing him completely: 'Look on his face!
Whoever got a nose like that from sleeping?'
There are no mirrors in a washing-chest; rude jokes do not enter it, nor
pointing fingers. The rage of fathers is muffled by used sheets and
discarded brassieres. A washing-chest is a hole in the world, a place which
civilization has put outside itself, beyond the pale; this makes it the finest of
hiding-places. In the washing-chest, I was like Nadir Khan in his
underworld, safe from all pressures, concealed from the demands of
parents and history…
… My father, pulling me into his squashy belly, speaking in a voice
choked with instant emotion: 'All right, all right, there, there, you're a good
boy; you can be anything you want; you just have to want it enough! Sleep
now…' And Mary Pereira, echoing him in her little rhyme: 'Anything you
want to be, you can be; You can be just what-all you want!' It had already
occurred to me that our family believed implicitly in good business
principles; they expected a handsome return for their investment in me.
Children get food shelter pocket-money longholidays and love, all of it
apparently free gratis, and most of the little fools think it's a sort of
compensation for having been born. 'There are no strings on me!' they
sing; but I, Pin( cchio, saw the strings. Parents are impelled by the profit
motive-nothing more, nothing less. For their attentions, they expected, from
me, the immense dividend of greatness. Don't misunderstand m;:. I didn't
mind. I was, at that time, a dutiful child. I longed to give them what they
wanted, what soothsayers and framed letters had promised them; I simply
did not know how. Where did greatness come from? How did you get
some? When?… When I was seven years old, Aadam Aziz and Reverend
Mother came to visit us. On my seventh birthday, dutifully, I permitted
myself to be dressed up like the boys in the fisherman picture; hot and
constricted in the outlandish garb, I smiled and smiled. 'See, my little
piece-of-the-moon!' Amina cried cutting a cake covered with candied
farmyard animals, 'So chweet! Never takes out one tear!' Sandbagging
down the floods of tears lurking just beneath my eyes, the tears of heat
discomfort and the absence of One Yard Of Chocolates in my pile of
presents, I took a slice of cake to Reverend Mother, who was ill in bed. I
had been given a doctor's stethoscope; it was around my neck. She gave
me permission to examine her; I prescribed more exercise. 'You must walk
across the room, to the almirah and back, once a day. You may lean on
me; I am the doctor.' Stethoscoped English milord guided witchmoled
grandmother across the room; hobblingly, creakingly, she obeyed.
After three months of this treatment, she made a full recovery. The
neighbours came to celebrate, bearing rasgullas and gulab-jamans and
other sweets. Reverend Mother, seated regally on a takht in the
living-room, announced: 'See my grandson? He cured me, whatsits-name.
Genius! Genius, whatsitsname: it is a gift from God.' Was that it, then?
Should I stop worrying? Was genius something utterly unconnected with
wanting, or learning how, or knowing about, or being able to? Something
which, at the appointed hour, would float down around my shoulders like an
immaculate, delicately worked pashmina shawl? Greatness as a falling
mantle: which never needed to be sent to the dhobi. One does not beat
genius upon a stone… That one clue, my grandmother's one chance
sentence, was my only hope; and, as it turned out, she wasn't very far
wrong. (The accident is almost upon me; and the children of midnight are
Years later, in Pakistan, on the very night when the roof was to fall in
on her head and squash her flatter than a rice-pancake, Amina Sinai saw
the old washing-chest in a vision. When it popped up inside her eyelids,
she greeted it like a not-particularly-welcome cousin. 'So it's you again,' she
told it, 'Well, why not? Things keep coming back to me these days. Seems
you just can't leave anything behind.' She had grown prematurely old like
all the women in our family; the chest reminded her of the year in which old
age had first begun creeping up on her. The great heat of 1956-which Mary
Pereira told me was caused by little blazing invisible insects-buzzed in her
ears once again. 'My corns began killing me then,' she said aloud, and the
Civil Defence official who had called to enforce the blackout smiled sadly to
himself and thought, Old people shroud themselves in the past during a
war; that way they're ready to die whenever required. He crept awaу past
the mountains of defective terry towels which filled most of the house, and
left Amina to discuss her dirty laundry in private… Nussie
Ibrahim-Nussie-the-duck-used to admire Amina: 'Such posture, my dear,
that you've got! Such tone! I swear it's a wonder to me: you glide about like
you're on an invisible trolley!' But in the summer of the heat insects, my
elegant mother finally lost her battle against verrucas, because the sadhu
Purushottam suddenly lost his magic. Water had worn a bald patch in his
hair; the steady dripping of the years had worn him down. Was he
disillusioned with his blessed child, his Mubarak? Was it my fault that his
mantras lost their power? With an air of great trouble, he told my mother,
'Never mind; wait only; I'll fix your feet for sure.' But Amina's corns grew
worse; she went to doctors who froze them with carbon dioxide at absolute
zero; but that only brought them back with redoubled vigour, so that she
began to hobble, her gliding days done for ever; and she recognized the
unmistakable greeting of old age. (Chock-full of fantasy, I transformed her
into a silkie-'Amma, maybe you're a mermaid really, taking human form for
the love of a man-so every step is like walking on razor blades!' My mother
smiled, but did not laugh.)
1956. Ahmed Sinai and Dr Narlikar played chess and argued-my
father was a bitter opponent of Nasser, while Narlikar admired him openly.
'The man is bad for business,' Ahmed said; 'But he's got style,' Narlikar
responded, glowing passionately, 'Nobody pushes him around.' At the
same time, Jawaharlal Nehru was consulting astrologers about the
country's Five Year Plan, in order to avoid another Karamstan; and while
the world combined aggression and the occult, I lay concealed in a
washing-chest which wasn't really big enough for comfort any more; and
Amina Sinai became filled with guilt.
She was already trying to put out of her mind her adventure at the
race-track; but the sense of sin which her mother's cooking had given her
could not be escaped; so it was not difficult for her to think of the verrucas
as a punishment… not only for the years-ago escapade at Mahalaxmi, but
for failing to save her husband from the pink chitties of alcoholism; for the
Brass Monkey's untamed, unfeminine ways; and for the size of her only
son's nose. Looking back at her now, it seems to me that a fog of guilt had
begun to form around her head-her black skin exuding black cloud which
hung before her eyes. (Padma would believe it; Padma would know what I
mean!) And as her guilt grew, the fog thickened-yes, why not?-there were
days when you could hardly see her head above her neck!… Amina had
become one of those rare people who take the burdens of the world upon
their own backs; she began to exude the magnetism of the willingly guilty;
and from then on everyone who came into contact with her felt the most
powerful of urges to confess their own, private guilts. When they
succumbed to my mother's powers, she would smile at them with a sweet
sad foggy smile and they would go away, lightened, leaving their burdens
on her shoulders; and the fog of guilt thickened. Amina heard about
servants being beaten and officials being bribed; when my uncle Hanif and
his wife the divine Pia came to call they related their quarrels in minute
detail; Lila Sabarmati confided her infidelities to my mother's graceful,
inclined, long-suffering ear; and Mary Pereira had to fight constantly
against the almost-irresistible temptation to confess her crime.
Faced with the guilts of the world, my mother smiled foggily and shut
her eyes tight; and by the time the roof fell in on her head her eyesight was
badly impaired; but she could still see the washing-chest.
What was really at the bottom of my mother's guilt? I mean really,
beneath verrucas and djinns and confessions? It was an unspeakable
malaise, an affliction which could not even be named, and which no longer
confined itself to dreams of an underworld husband… my mother had fallen
(as my father would soon fall) under the spell of the telephone.
In the afternoons of that summer, afternoons as hot as towels, the
telephone would ring. When Ahmed Sinai was asleep in his room, with his
keys under his pillow and umbilical cords in his almirah, telephonic shrilling
penetrated the buzzing of the heat insects; and my mother,
verruca-hobbled, came into the hall to answer. And now, what expression
is this, staining her face the colour of drying blood?… Not knowing that
she's being observed, what fish-like flutterings of lips are these, what
strangulated mouthings?… And why, after listening for a full five minutes,
does my mother say, in a voice like broken glass, 'Sorry: wrong number'?
Why are diamonds glistening on her eyelids?… The Brass Monkey
whispered to me, 'Next time it rings, let's find out.'
Five days later. Once more it is afternoon; but today Amina is away,
visiting Nussie-the-duck, when the telephone demands attention. 'Quick!
Quick or it'll wake him!' The Monkey, agile as her name, picks up the
receiver before Ahmed Sinai has even changed the pattern of his snoring…
'Hullo? Yaas? This is seven zero five six one; hullo?' We listen, every nerve
on edge; but for a moment there is nothing at all. Then, when we're about
to give up, the voice comes. '… Oh… yes… hullo…' And the Monkey,
shouting almost, 'Hullo? Who is it, please?' Silence again; the voice, which
has not been able to prevent itself from speaking, considers its answer; and
then, '… Hullo… This is Shanti Prasad Truck Hire Company, please?…'
And the Monkey, quick as a flash: 'Yes, what d'you want?' Another pause;
the voice, sounding embarrassed, apologetic almost, says, 'I want to rent a
О feeble excuse of telephonic voice! О transparent flummery of
ghosts! The voice on the phone was no truck-renter's voice; it was soft, a
little fleshy, the voice of a poet… but after that, the telephone rang
regularly; sometimes my mother answered it, listened in silence while her
mouth made fish-motions, and finally, much too late, said, 'Sorry, wrong
number'; at other times the Monkey and I clustered around it, two ears to
earpiece, while the Monkey took orders for trucks. I wondered: 'Hey,
Monkey, what d'you think? Doesn't the guy ever wonder why the trucks
don't arrive?' And she, wide-eyed, flutter-voiced: 'Man, do you suppose…
maybe they do!'
But I couldn't see how; and a tiny seed of suspicion was planted in me,
a tiny glimmering of a notion that our mother might have a secret-our
Amma! Who always said, 'Keep secrets and they'll go bad inside you; don't
tell things and they'll give you stomach-ache!'-a minute spark which my
experience in the washing-chest would fan into a forest fire. (Because this
time, you see, she gave me proof.)
And now, at last, it is time for dirty laundry. Mary Pereira was fond of
telling me, 'If you want to be a big man, baba, you must be very clean.
Change clothes,' she advised, 'take regular baths. Go, baba, or I'll send you
to the washerman, and he'll wallop you on his stone.' She also threatened
me with bugs: 'All right, stay filthy, you will be nobody's darling except the
flies'. They will sit on you while you sleep; eggs they'll lay under your skin!'
In part, my choice of hiding-place was an act of defiance. Braving dhobis
and houseflies, I concealed myself in the unclean place; I drew strength
and comfort from sheets and towels; my nose ran freely into the
stone-doomed linens; and always, when I emerged into the world from my
wooden whale, the sad mature wisdom of dirty washing lingered with me,
teaching me its philosophy of coolness and dignity-despite-everything and
the terrible inevitability of soap.
One afternoon in June, I tiptoed down the corridors of the sleeping
house towards my chosen refuge; sneaked past my sleeping mother into
the white-tiled silence of her bathroom; lifted the lid off my goal; and
plunged into its soft continuum of (predominantly white) textiles, whose only
memories were of my earlier visits. Sighing softly, I pulled down the lid, and
allowed pants and vests to massage away the pains of being alive,
purposeless and nearly nine years old.
Electricity in the air. Heat, buzzing like bees. A mantle, hanging
somewhere in the sky, waiting to fall gently around my shoulders…
somewhere, a finger reaches towards a dial; a dial whirs around and
around, electrical pulses dart along cable, seven, zero, five, six, one, The
telephone rings. Muffled shrilling of a bell penetrates the washing-chest, in
which a nearlynineyearold boy lies uncomfortably concealed… I, Saleem,
became stiff with the fear of discovery, because now more noises entered
the chest: squeak of bedsprings; soft clatter of slippers along corridor; the
telephone, silenced in mid-shrill; and-or is this imagination? Was her voice
too soft to hear?-the words, spoken too late as usual: 'Sorry. Wrong
And now, hobbling footsteps returning to the bedroom; and the worst
fears of the hiding boy are fulfilled. Doorknobs, turning, scream warnings at
him; razor-sharp steps cut him deeply as they move across cool white dies.
He stays frozen as ice, still as a stick; his nose drips silently into dirty
clothes. A pajama-cord-snake-like harbinger of doom!-inserts itself into his
left nostril. To sniff would be to die: he refuses to think about it.
… Clamped tight in the grip of terror, he finds his eye looking through a
chink in dirty washing… and sees a woman crying in a bathroom. Rain
dropping from a thick black cloud. And now more sound, more motion: his
mother's voice has begun to speak, two syllables, over and over again; and
her hands have begun to move. Ears muffled by underwear strain to catch
the sounds-that one: dir? Bir? Dil?-and the other: Ha? Ra? No-Na. Ha and
Ra are banished; Dil and Bir vanish forever; and the boy hears, in his ears,
a name which has not been spoken since Mumtaz Aziz became Amina
Sinai: Nadir. Nadir. Na. Dir. Na.
And her hands are moving. Lost in their memory of other days, of what
happened after games of hit-the-spittoon in an Agra cellar, they flutter
gladly at her cheeks; they hold her bosom tighter than any brassieres; and
now they caress her bare midriff, they stray below decks… yes, this is what
we used to do, my love, it was enough, enough for me, even though my
father made us, and you ran, and now the telephone,
Nadirnadirnadirnadirnadirnadir… hands which held telephone now hold
flesh, while in another place what does another hand do? To what, after
replacing receiver, is another hand getting up?… No matter; because here,
in her spied-out privacy, Amina Sinai repeats an ancient name, again and
again, until finally she bursts out with, 'Arre Nadir Khan, where have you
come from now?'
Secrets. A man's name. Never-before-glimpsed motions of the hands.
A boy's mind filled with thoughts which have no shape, tormented by ideas
which refuse to settle into words; and in a left nostril, a pajama-cord is
snaking up up up, refusing to be ignored… And now-О shameless mother!
Revealer of duplicity, of emotions which have no place in family life; and
more: О brazen unveiler of Black Mango!-Amina Sinai, drying her eyes, is
summoned by a more trivial necessity; and as her son's right eye peers out
through the wooden slats at the top of the washing-chest, my mother
unwinds her sari! While I, silently in the washing-chest: 'Don't do it don't do
it don't do!'… but I cannot close my eye. Unblinking pupil takes in
upside-down image of sari falling to the floor, an image which is, as usual,
inverted by the mind; through ice-blue eyes I see a slip follow the sari; and
then-О horrible!-my mother, framed in laundry and slatted wood, bends
over to pick up her clothes! And there it is, searing my retina-the vision of
my mother's rump, black as night, rounded and curved, resembling nothing
on earth so much as a gigantic, black Alfonso mango! In the
washing-chest, unnerved by the vision, I wrestle with myself… self-control
becomes simultaneously imperative and impossible… under the
thunderclap influence of the Black Mango, my nerve cracks; pajama-cord
wins its victory; and while Amina Sinai seats herself on a commode, I…
what? Not sneeze; it was less than a sneeze. Not a twitch, either; it was
more than that. It's time to talk plainly: shattered by two-syllabic voice and
fluttering hands, devastated by Black Mango, the nose of Saleem Sinai,
responding to the evidence of maternal duplicity, quivering at the presence
of maternal rump, gave way to a pajama-cord, and was possessed by a
cataclysmic-a world-altering-an irreversible sniff. Pajama-cord rises
painfully half an inch further up the nostril. But other things are rising, too:
hauled by that feverish inhalation, nasal liquids are being sucked
relentlessly up up up, nose-goo flowing upwards, against gravity, against
nature. Sinuses are subjected to unbearable pressure… until, inside the
nearlynineyearold head, something bursts. Snot rockets through a
breached dam into dark new channels. Mucus, rising higher than mucus
was ever intended to rise. Waste fluid, reaching as far, perhaps, as the
frontiers of the brain… there is a shock. Something electrical has been
And then noise, deafening manytongued terrifying, inside his head!….
Inside a white wooden washing-chest, within the darkened auditorium of
my skull, my nose began to sing.
But just now there isn't time to listen; because one voice is very close
indeed. Amina Sinai has opened the lower door of the washing-chest; I am
tumbling downdown with laundry wrapped around my head like a caul.
Pajama-cord jerks out of my nose; and now there is lightning flashing
through the dark clouds around my mother-and a refuge has been lost
'I didn't look!' I squealed up through socks and sheets. I didn't see one
thing, Ammi, I swear!!'
And years later, in a cane chair among reject towels and a radio
announcing exaggerated war victories, .Amina would remember how with
thumb and forefinger around the ear of her lying son she led him to Mary
Pereira, who was sleeping as usual on a cane mat in a sky-blue room; how
she said, 'This young donkey; this good-for-nothing from nowhere is not to
speak for one whole day.'… And, just before the roof fell in on her, she said
aloud: 'It was my fault. I brought him up too badly.' As the explosion of the
bomb ripped through the air, she added, mildly but firmly, addressing her
last words on earth to the ghost of a washing-chest: 'Go away now, I've
seen enough On Mount Sinai, the prophet Musa or Moses heard
disembodied commandments; on Mount Hira, the prophet Muhammad
(also known as Mohammed, Mahomet, the Last-But-One, and Mahound)
spoke to the Archangel. (Gabriel or Jibreel, as you please.) And on the
stage of the Cathedral and John Connon Boys' High School, run 'under the
auspices' of the Anglo-Scottish Education Society, my friend
Cyrus-the-great, playing a female part as usual, heard the voices of St
Joan speaking the sentences of Bernard Shaw. But Cyrus is the odd one
out: unlike Joan, whose voices were heard in a field, but like Musa or
Moses, like Muhammad the Penultimate, I heard voices on a hill.
Muhammad (on whose name be peace, let me add; I don't want to
offend anyone) heard a voice saying, 'Recite!' and thought he was going
mad; I heard, at first, a headful of gabbling tongues, like an untuned radio;
and with lips sealed by maternal command, I was unable to ask for comfort.
Muhammad, at forty, sought and received reassurance from wife and
friends: 'Verily,' they told him, 'you are the Messenger of God'; I, suffering
my punishment at nearlynine, could neither seek Brass Monkey's
assistance nor solicit softening words from Mary Pereira. Muted for an
evening and a night and a morning, I struggled, alone, to understand what
had happened to me; until at last I saw the shawl of genius fluttering down,
like an embroidered butterfly, the mantle of greatness settling upon my
In the heat of that silent night (I was silent; outside me, the sea rustled
like distant paper; crows squawked in the throes of their feathery
nightmares; the puttering noises of tardy taxi-cabs wafted up from Warden
Road; the Brass Monkey, before she fell asleep with her face frozen into a
mask of curiosity, begged, 'Come on, Saleem; nobody's listening; what did
you do? Tell tell tell!'… while, inside me, the voices rebounded against the
walls of my skull) I was gripped by hot fingers of excitement-the agitated
insects of excitement danced in my stomach-because finally, in some way I
did not then fully understand, the door which Toxy Catrack had once
nudged in my head had been forced open; and through it I could
glimpse-shadowy still, undefined, enigmatic-my reason for having been
Gabriel or Jibreel told Muhammad: 'Recite!' And then began The
Recitation, known in Arabic as Al-Quran: 'Recite: In the Name of the Lord
thy Creator, who created Man from clots of blood…' That was on Mount
Hira outside Mecca Sharif; on a two-storey hillock opposite Breach Candy
Pools, voices also instructed me to recite: Tomorrow!' I thought excitedly.
By sunrise, I had discovered that the voices could be controlled-I was
a radio receiver, and could turn the volume down or up; I could select
individual voices; I could even, by an effort of will; switch off my
newly-discovered inner ear. It was astonishing how soon fear left me; by
morning, I was thinking, 'Man, this is better than All-India Radio, man;
better than Radio Ceylon!'
To demonstrate the loyalty of sisters: when the twenty-four hours were
up, on the dot, the Brass Monkey ran into my mother's bedroom. (It was, I
think, a Sunday: no school. Or perhaps not-that was the summer of the
language marches, and the schools were often shut, because of the danger
of violence on the bus-routes.)
'The time's up!' she exclaimed, shaking my mother out of sleep.
'Amma, wake up: it's time: can he talk now?'
'All right,' my mother said, coming into a sky-blue room to embrace me,
'you're forgiven now. But never hide in there again…'
'Amma,' I said eagerly, 'my Ammi, please listen. I must tell you
something. Something big. But please, please first of all, wake Abba.'
And after a period of 'What?' 'Why?' and 'Certainly not,' my mother saw
something extraordinary sitting in my eyes and went to wake Ahmed Sinai
anxiously, with 'Janum, please come. I don't know what's got into Saleem.'
Family and ayah assembled in the sitting-room. Amid cut-glass vases
and plump cushions, standing on a Persian rug beneath the swirling
shadows of ceiling-fans, I smiled into their anxious eyes and prepared my
revelation. This was it; the beginning of the repayment of their investment;
my first dividend-first, I was sure, of many… my black mother, lip-jutting
father, Monkey of a sister and crime-concealing ayah waited in hot
Get it out. Straight, without frills. 'You should be the first to know,' I
said, trying to give my speech the cadences of adulthood. And then I told
them. 'I heard voices yesterday. Voices are speaking to me inside my
head. I think-Ammi, Abboo, I really think-that Archangels have started to
talk to me.'
There! I thought. There! It's said! Now there will be pats on the back,
sweetmeats, public announcements, maybe more photographs; now their
chests will puff up with pride. О blind innocence of childhood! For my
honesty-for my open-hearted desperation to please-I was set upon from all
sides. Even the Monkey: 'O God, Saleem, all this tamasha, all this
performance, for one of your stupid cracks?' And worse than the Monkey
was Mary Pereira: 'Christ Jesus! Save, us, Lord! Holy Father in Rome, such
blasphemy I've heard today!' And worse than Mary Pereira was my mother
Amina Sinai: Black Mango concealed now, her own unnameable names
still warm upon her lips, she cried, 'Heaven forfend! The child will bring
down the roof upon our heads!' (Was that my fault, too?) And Amina
continued: 'You black man! Goonda! О Saleem, has your brain gone raw?
What has happened to my darling baby boy-are you growing into a
madman-a torturer!?' And worse than Amina's shrieking was my father's
silence; worse than her fear was the wild anger sitting on his forehead; and
worst of all was my father's hand, which stretched out suddenly,
thick-fingered, heavy-jointed, strong-as-an-ox,to fetch me a mighty blow on
the side of my head, so that I could never hear properly in my left ear after
that day; so that I fell sideways across the startled room through the
scandalized air and shattered a green tabletop of opaque glass; so that,
having been certain of myself for the first time in my life, I was plunged into
a green, glass-cloudy world filled with cutting edges, a world in which I
could no longer tell the people who mattered most about the goings-on
inside my head; green shards lacerated my hands as I entered that swirling
universe in which I was doomed, until it was far too late, to be plagued by
constant doubts about what I was for.
In a white-tiled bathroom beside a washing-chest, my mother daubed
me with Mercurochrome; gauze veiled my cuts, while through the door my
father's voice commanded, 'Wife, let nobody give him food today. You hear
me? Let him enjoy his joke on an empty stomach!'
That night, Amina Sinai would dream of Ramram Seth, who was
floating six inches above the ground, his eye-sockets filled with egg-whites,
intoning: 'Washing will hide him… voices will guide him'… but when, after
several days in which the dream sat upon her shoulders wherever she
went, she plucked up the courage to ask her disgraced son a little more
about his outrageous claim, he replied in a voice as restrained as the
unwept tears of his childhood: 'It was just fooling, Amma. A stupid joke, like
you said.'
She died, nine years later, without discovering the truth.
All-India radio
Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past,
the more concrete and plausible it seems-but as you approach the present,
it inevitably seems more and more incredible. Suppose yourself in a large
cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up, row by
row, until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the
stars' faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque
proportions; the illusion dissolves-or rather, it becomes clear that the
illusion itself is reality… we have come from 1915 to 1956, so we're a good
deal closer to the screen… abandoning my metaphor, then, I reiterate,
entirely without a sense of shame, my unbelievable claim: after a curious
accident in a washing-chest, I became a sort of radio.
… But today, I feel confused. Padma has not returned-should I alert
the police? Is she a Missing Person?-and in her absence, my certainties
are falling apart. Even my nose has been playing tricks on me-by day, as I
stroll between the pickle-vats tended by our army of strong, hairy-armed,
formidably competent women, I have found myself failing to distinguish
lemon-odours from lime. The workforce giggles behind its hands: the poor
sahib has been crossed in-what?-surely not love?… Padma, and the
cracks spreading all over me, radiating like a spider's web from my navel;
and the heat… a little confusion is surely permissible in these
circumstances. Re-reading my work, I have discovered an error in
chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages,
on the wrong date. But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of
events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the
wrong time.
Does one error invalidate the entire fabric? Am I so far gone, in my
desperate need for meaning, that I'm prepared to distort everything-to
re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a
central role? Today, in my confusion, I can't judge. I'll have to leave it to
others. For me, there can be no going back; I must finish what I've started,
even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began…
Ye Akashvani hai. This is All-India Radio.
Having gone out into the boiling streets for a quick meal at a nearby
Irani cafe, I have returned to sit in my nocturnal pool of Anglepoised light
with only a cheap transistor for company. A hot night; bubbling air filled with
the lingering scents of the silenced pickle-vats; voices in the dark.
Pickle-fumes, heavily oppressive in the heat, stimulate the juices of
memory, accentuating similarities and differences between now and then…
it was hot then; it is (unseasonably) hot now. Then as now, someone was
awake in the dark, hearing disembodied tongues. Then as now, the one
deafened ear. And fear, thriving in the heat… it was not the voices (then or
now) which were frightening. He, young-Saleem-then, was afraid of an
idea-the idea that his parents' outrage might lead to a withdrawal of their
love; that even if they began to believe him, they would see his gift as a
kind of shameful deformity… while I, now, Padma-less, send these words
into the darkness and am afraid of being disbelieved. He and I, I and he… I
no longer have his gift; he never had mine. There are times when he
seems a stranger, almost… he had no cracks. No spiders' webs spread
through him in the heat.
Padma would believe me; but there is no Padma. Then as now, there
is hunger. But of a different kind: not, now, the then-hunger of being denied
my dinner, but that of having lost my cook.
And another, more obvious difference: then, the voices did not arrive
through the oscillating valves of a transistor (which will never cease, in our
part of the world, to symbolize impotence-ever since the notorious
free-transistor sterilization bribe, the squawking machine has represented
what men could do before scissors snipped and knots were tied)… then,
the nearlynineyearold in his midnight bed had no need of machines.
Different and similar, we are joined by heat. A shimmering heat-haze,
then and now, blurs his then-time into mine… my confusion, travelling
across the heat-waves, is also his.
What grows best in the heat: cane-sugar; the coconut palm; certain
millets such as bajra, ragi and jowar; linseed, and (given water) tea and
rice. Our hot land is also the world's second largest producer of cotton-at
least, it was when I learned geography under the mad eye of Mr Emil
Zagallo, and the steelier gaze of a framed Spanish conquistador. But the
tropical summer grows stranger fruit as well: the exotic flowers of the
imagination blossom, to fill the close perspiring nights with odours as heavy
as musk, which give men dark dreams of discontent… then as now,
unease was in the air. Language marchers demanded the partition of the
state of Bombay along linguistic boundaries-the dream of Maharashtra was
at the head of some processions, the mirage of Gujarat led the others
forward. Heat, gnawing at the mind's divisions between fantasy and reality,
made anything seem possible; the half-waking chaos of afternoon siestas
fogged men's brains, and the air was filled with the stickiness of aroused
What grows best in the heat: fantasy; unreason; lust.
In 1956, then, languages marched militantly through the daytime
streets; by night, they rioted in my head. We shall be watching your life with
the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own.
It's time to talk about the voices.
But if only our Padma were here…
I was wrong about the Archangels, of course. My father's
hand-walloping my ear in (conscious? unintentional?) imitation of another,
bodiless hand, which once hit him full in the face-at least had one salutary
effect: it obliged me to reconsider and finally to abandon my original,
Prophet-apeing position. In bed that very night of my disgrace, I withdrew
deep inside myself, despite the Brass Monkey, who filled our blue room
with her pesterings: 'But what did you do it for, Saleem? You who're always
too good and all?'… until she fell into dissatisfied sleep with her mouth still
working silently, and I was alone with the echoes of my father's violence,
which buzzed in my left ear, which whispered, 'Neither Michael nor Anael;
not Gabriel; forget Cassiel, Sachiel and Samael! Archangels no longer
speak to mortals; the Recitation was completed in Arabia long ago; the last
prophet will come only to announce the End.' That night, understanding
that the voices in my head far outnumbered the ranks of the angels, I
decided, not without relief, that I had not after all been chosen to preside
over the end of the world. My voices, far from being scared, turned out to
be as profane, and as multitudinous, as dust.
Telepathy, then; the kind of thing you're always reading about in the
sensational magazines. But I ask for patience-wait. Only wait. It was
telepathy; but also more than telepathy. Don't write me off too easily.
Telepathy, then: the inner monologues of all the so-called teeming
millions, of masses and classes alike, jostled for space within my head. In
the beginning, when I was content to be an audience-before I began to
act-there was a language problem. The voices babbled in everything from
Malayalam to Naga dialects, from the purity of Luck-now Urdu to the
Southern slurrings of Tamil. I understood only a fraction of the things being
said within the walls of my skull. Only later, when I began to probe, did I
learn that below the surface transmissions-the front-of-mind stuff which is
what I'd originally been picking up-language faded away, and was replaced
by universally intelligible thought-forms which far transcended words… but
that was after I heard, beneath the polyglot frenzy in my head, those other
precious signals, utterly different from everything else, most of them faint
and distant, like far-off drums whose insistent pulsing eventually broke
through the fish-market cacophony of my voices… those secret, nocturnal
calk, like calling out to like… the unconscious beacons of the children of
midnight, signalling nothing more than their existence, transmitting simply:
'I.' From far to the North, 'I.' And the South East West: 'I.' 'I.' 'And I.'
But I mustn't get ahead of myself. In the beginning, before I broke
through to more-than-telepathy, I contented myself with listening; and soon
I was able to 'tune' my inner ear to those voices which I could understand;
nor was it long before I picked out, from the throng, the voices of my own
family; and of Mary Pereira; and of friends, classmates, teachers. In the
street, I learned how to identify the mind-stream of passing strangers-the
laws of Doppler shift continued to operate in these paranormal realms, and
the voices grew and diminished as the strangers passed.
All of which I somehow kept to myself. Reminded daily (by the buzzing
in my left, or sinister, ear) of my father's wrath, and anxious to keep my
right ear in good working order, I sealed my lips. For a nine-year-old boy,
the difficulties of concealing knowledge are almost insurmountable; but
fortunately, my nearest and dearest were as anxious to forget my outburst
as I was to conceal the truth.
'O, you Saleem! Such things you talked yesterday! Shame on you,
boy: you better go wash out your mouth with soap!'… The morning after my
disgrace, Mary Pereira, shaking with indignation like one of her jellies,
suggested the perfect means of my rehabilitation. Bowing my head
contritely, I went, without a word, into the bathroom, and there, beneath the
amazed gaze of ayah and Monkey, scrubbed teeth tongue roofofmouth
gums with a toothbrush covered in the sharp foul lather of Coal Tar Soap.
The news of my dramatic atonement rushed rapidly around the house,
borne by Mary and Monkey; and my mother embraced me, 'There, good
boy; we'll say no more about it,' and Ahmed Sinai nodded gruffly at the
breakfast table, 'At least the boy has the grace to admit when he's gone too
As my glass-inflicted cuts faded, it was as though my announcement
was also erased; and by the time of my ninth birthday, nobody besides
myself remembered anything about the day when I had taken the name of
Archangels in vain. The taste of detergent lingered on my tongue for many
weeks, reminding me of the need for secrecy.
Even the Brass Monkey was satisfied by my show of contrition-in her
eyes, I had returned to form, and was once more the goody-two-shoes of
the family. To demonstrate her willingness to re-establish the old order, she
set fire to my mother's favourite slippers, and regained her rightful place in
the family doghouse. Amongst outsiders, what's more-displaying a
conservatism you'd never have suspected in such a tomboy-she closed
ranks with my parents, and kept my one aberration a secret from her
friends and mine.
In a country where any physical or mental peculiarity in a child is a
source of deep family shame, my parents, who had become accustomed to
facial birthmarks, cucumber-nose and bandy legs, simply refused to see
any more embarrassing things in me; for my part, I did not once mention
the buzzings in my ear, the occasional ringing bells of deafness, the
intermittent pain. I had learned that secrets were not always a bad thing.
But imagine the confusion inside my head! Where, behind the hideous
face, above the tongue tasting of soap, hard by the perforated eardrum,
lurked a not-very-tidy mind, as full of bric-a-brac as nine-year-old pockets…
imagine yourself inside me somehow, looking out through my eyes, hearing
the noise, the voices, and now the obligation of not letting people know, the
hardest part was acting surprised, such as when my mother said Hey
Saleem guess what we're going for a picnic to the Aarey Milk Colony and I
had to go Ooo, exciting!, when I had known all along because I had heard
her unspoken inner voice And on my birthday seeing all the presents in the
donors' minds before they were even unwrapped And the treasure hunt
ruined because there in my father's head was the location of each clue
every prize And much harder things such as going to see my father in his
ground-floor office, here we are, and the moment I'm in there my head is
full of godknowswhat rot because he's thinking about his secretary, Alice or
Fernanda, his latest Coca-Cola girl, he's undressing her slowly in his head
and it's in my head too, she's sitting stark naked on a cane-bottomed chair
and now getting up, crisscross marks all across her rump, that's my father
thinking, my father, now he's looking at me all funny What's the matter son
don't you feel well Yes fine Abba fine, must go now GOT TO GET AWAY
homework to do, Abba, and out, run away before he sees the clue on your
face (my father always said that when I was lying there was a red light
flashing on my forehead)… You see how hard it is, my uncle Hanif comes
to take me to the wrestling, and even before we've arrived at Vallabhbai
Patel Stadium on Hornby Vellard I'm feeling sad We're walking with the
crowds past giant cardboard cut-outs of Dara Singh and Tagra Baba and
the rest and his sadness, my favourite uncle's sadness is pouring into me,
it lives like a lizard just beneath the hedge of his jollity, concealed by his
booming laugh which was once the laugh of the boatman Tai, we're sitting
in excellent seats as floodlights dance on the backs of the interlocked
wrestlers and I am caught in the unbreakable grip of my uncle's grief, the
grief of his failing film career, flop after flop, he'll probably never get a film
again But I mustn't let the sadness leak out of my eyes He's butting into my
thoughts, hey phaelwan, hey little wrestler, what's dragging your face
down, it looks longer than a bad movie, you want channa? pakoras? what?
And me shaking my head, No, nothing, Hanif mamu, so that he relaxes,
turns away, starts yelling Ohe come on Dara, that's the ticket, give him hell,
Dara yara! And back home my mother squatting in the corridor with the
ice-cream tub, saying with her real outside-voice, You want to help me
make it, son, your favourite pistachio flavour, and I'm turning the handle,
but her inside-voice is bouncing against the inside of my head, I can see
how she's trying to fill up every nook and cranny of her thoughts with
everyday things, the price of pom-fret, the roster of household chores, must
call in the electrician to mend the ceiling-fan in the dining-room, how she's
desperately concentrating on parts of her husband to love, but the
unmentionable word keeps finding room, the two syllables which leaked out
of her in the bathroom that day, Na Dir Na Dir Na, she's finding it harder
and harder to put down the telephone when the wrong numbers come my
mother I tell you when a boy gets inside grown-up thoughts they can really
mess him up completely And even at night, no respite, I wake up at the
stroke of midnight with Mary Pereira's dreams inside my head Night after
night Always at my personal witching-hour, which also has meaning for her
Her dreams are plagued by the image of a man who has been dead for
years, Joseph D'Costa, the dream tells me the name, it is coated with a
guilt I cannot understand, the same guilt which seeps into us all every time
we eat her chutneys, there is a mystery here but because the secret is not
in the front of her mind I can't find it out, and meanwhile Joseph is there,
each night, sometimes in human form, but not always, sometimes he's a
wolf, or a snail, once a broomstick, but we (she-dreaming, I-looking in)
know it's him, baleful implacable accusative, cursing her in the language of
his incarnations, howling at her when he's wolf-Joseph, covering her in the
slime-trails of Joseph-the-snail, beating her with the business end of his
broomstick incarnation… and in the morning when she's telling me to bathe
clean up get ready for school I have to bite back the questions, I am nine
years old and lost in the confusion of other people's lives which are blurring
together in the heat.
To end this account of the early days of my transformed life, I must
add one painful confession: it occurred to me that I could improve my
parents' opinion of me by using my new faculty to help out with my
schoolwork-in short, I began to cheat in class. That is to say, I tuned in to
the inner voices of my schoolteachers and also of my cleverer classmates,
and picked information out of their minds. I found that very few of my
masters could set a test without rehearsing the ideal answers in their
minds-and I knew, too, that on those rare occasions when the teacher was
preoccupied by other things, his private love-life or financial difficulties, the
solutions could always be found in the precocious, prodigious mind of our
class genius, Cyrus-the-great. My marks began to improve dramatically-but
not overly so, because I took care to make my versions different from their
stolen originals; even when I telepathi-cally cribbed an entire English essay
from Cyrus, I added a number of mediocre touches of my own. My purpose
was to avoid suspicion; I did not, but I escaped discovery. Under Emil
Zagallo's furious, interrogating eyes I remained innocently seraphic;
beneath the bemused, head-shaking perplexity of Mr Tandon the English
master I worked my treachery in silence-knowing that they would not
believe the truth even if, by chance or folly, I spilled the beans.
Let me sum up: at a crucial point in the history of our child-nation, at a
time when Five Year Plans were being drawn up and elections were
approaching and language marchers were fighting over Bombay, a
nine-year-old boy named Saleem Sinai acquired a miraculous gift. Despite
the many vital uses to which his abilities could have been put by his
impoverished, underdeveloped country, he chose to conceal his talents,
frittering them away on inconsequential voyeurism and petty cheating. This
behaviour-not, I confess, the behaviour of a hero-was the direct result of a
confusion in his mind, which invariably muddled up morality-the desire to
do what is right-and popularity-the rather more dubious desire to do what is
approved of. Fearing parental ostracism, he suppressed the news of his
transformation; seeking parental congratulations, he abused his talents at
school. This flaw in his character can partially be excused on the grounds
of his tender years; but only partially. Confused thinking was to bedevil
much of his career.
I can be quite tough in my self-judgements when I choose.
What stood on the flat roof of the Breach Candy Kindergarten-a roof,
you will recall, which could be reached from the garden of Buckingham
Villa, simply by climbing over a boundary wall? What, no longer capable of
performing the function for which it was designed, watched over us that
year when even the winter forgot to cool down-what observed Sonny
Ibrahim, Eyeslice, Hairoil, and myself, as we played kabaddi, and French
Cricket, and seven-tiles, with the occasional participation of Cyrus-the-great
and of other, visiting friends: Fat Perce Fishwala and Glandy Keith Colaco?
What was present on the frequent occasions when Toxy Catrack's nurse
Bi-Appah yelled down from the top floor of Homi's home: 'Brats! Rackety
good-for-nothings! Shut your noise!'… so that we all ran away, returning
(when she vanished from our sight) to make mute faces at the window at
which she'd stood? In short, what was it, tall and blue and flaking, which
oversaw our lives, which seemed, for a while, to be marking time, waiting
not only for the nearby time when we would put on long trousers, but also,
perhaps, for the coming of Evie Burns? Perhaps you'd like clues: what had
once hidden bombs? In what had Joseph D'Costa died of snake-bite?…
When, after some months of inner torment, I at last sought refuge from
grown-up voices, I found it in an old clocktower, which nobody bothered to
lock; and here, in the solitude of rusting time, I paradoxically took my first
tentative steps towards that involvement with mighty events and public lives
from which I would never again be free… never, until the Widow…
Banned from washing-chests, I began, whenever possible, to creep
unobserved into the tower of crippled hours. When the circus-ring was
emptied by heat or chance or prying eyes; when Ahmed and Amina went
off to the Willingdon Club for canasta evenings; when the Brass Monkey
was away, hanging around her newly-acquired heroines, the Walsingham
School for Girls' swimming and diving team… that is to say, when
circumstances permitted, I entered my secret hideout, stretched out on the
straw mat I'd stolen from the servants' quarters, closed my eyes, and let my
newly-awakened inner ear (connected, like all ears, to my nose) rove freely
around the city-and further, north and south, east and west-listening in to all
manner of things. To escape the intolerable pressures of eavesdropping on
people I knew, I practised my art upon strangers. Thus my entry into public
affairs of India occurred for entirely ignoble reasons-upset by too much
intimacy, I used the world outside our hillock for light relief.
The world as discovered from a broken-down clocktower: at first, I was
no more than a tourist, a child peeping through the miraculous peepholes
of a private 'Dilli-dekho' machine. Dugdugee-drums rattled in my left
(damaged) ear as I gained my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the
eyes of a fat Englishwoman suffering from the tummy-runs; after which, to
balance south against north, I hopped down to Madurai's Meenakshi
temple and nestled amongst the woolly, mystical perceptions of a chanting
priest. I toured Connaught Place in New Delhi in the guise of an
auto-rickshaw driver, complaining bitterly to my fares about the rising price
of gasoline; in Calcutta I slept rough in a section of drainpipe. By now
thoroughly bitten by the travel bug, I zipped down to Cape Comorin and
became a fisher-woman whose sari was as tight as her morals were
loose… standing on red sands washed by three seas, I flirted with
Dravidian beachcombers in a language I couldn't understand; then up into
the Himalayas, into the neanderthal moss-covered hut of a Goojar tribal,
beneath the glory of a completely circular rainbow and the tumbling
moraine of the Kolahoi glacier. At the golden fortress of Jaisalmer I
sampled the inner life of a woman making mirrorwork dresses and at
Khajuraho I was an adolescent village boy, deeply embarrassed by the
erotic, Tahtric carvings on the Chandela temples standing in the fields, but
unable to tear away my eyes… in the exotic simplicities of travel I was able
to find a modicum of peace. But, in the end, tourism ceased to satisfy;
curiosity began to niggle; 'Let's find out,' I told myself, 'what really goes on
around here.'
With the eclectic spirit of my nine years spurring me on, I leaped into
the heads of film stars and cricketers-I learned the truth behind the Filmfare
gossip about the dancer Vyjayantimala, and I was at the crease with Polly
Umrigar at the Brabourne Stadium; I was Lata Mangeshkar the playback
singer and Bubu the clown at the circus behind Civil Lines… and inevitably,
through the ramdom processes of my mind-hopping, I discovered politics.
At one time I was a landlord in Uttar Pradesh, my belly rolling over my
pajama-cord as I ordered serfs to set my surplus grain on fire… at another
moment I was starving to death in Orissa, where there was a food shortage
as usual: I was two months old and my mother had run out of breast-milk. I
occupied, briefly, the mind of a Congress Party worker, bribing a village
schoolteacher to throw his weight behind the party of Gandhi and Nehru in
the coming election campaign; also the thoughts of a Keralan peasant who
had decided to vote Communist. My daring grew: one afternoon I
deliberately invaded the head of our own State Chief Minister, which was
how I discovered, over twenty years before it became a national joke, that
Morarji Desai 'took his own water' daily… I was inside him, tasting the
warmth as he gurgled down a frothing glass of urine. And finally I hit my
highest point: I became Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister and author of
framed letters: I sat with the great man amongst a bunch of gaptoothed,
stragglebeard astrologers and adjusted the Five Year Plan to bring it into
harmonic alignment with the music of the spheres… the high life is a heady
thing. 'Look at me!' I exulted silently. 'I can go any place I want!' In that
tower which had once been filled choc-a-bloc with the explosive devices of
Joseph D'Costa's hatred, this phrase (accompanied by appropriate ticktock
sound effects) plopped fully-formed into my thoughts: 'I am the tomb in
Bombay .. .watch me explode!'
Because the feeling had come upon me that I was somehow creating
a world; that the thoughts I jumped inside were mine, that the bodies I
occupied acted at my command; that, as current affairs, arts, sports, the
whole rich variety of a first-class radio station poured into me, I was
somehow making them happen… which is to say, I had entered into the
illusion of the artist, and thought of the multitudinous realities of the land as
the raw unshaped material of my gift. 'I can find out any damn thing!' I
triumphed, 'There isn't a thing I cannot know!'
Today, with the hindsight of the lost, spent years, I can say that the
spirit of self-aggrandizement which seized me then was a reflex, born of an
instinct for self-preservation. If I had not believed myself in control of the
flooding multitudes, their massed identities would have annihilated mine…
but there in my clocktower, filled with the cockiness of my,glee, I became
Sin, the ancient moon-god (no, not Indian: I've imported him from
Hadhramaut of old), capable of acting-at-a-distance and shifting the tides of
the world.
But death, when it visited Methwold's Estate, still managed to take me
by surprise.
Even though the freezing of his assets had ended many years ago, the
zone below Ahmed Sinai's waist had remained as cold as ice. Ever since
the day he had cried out, 'The bastards are shoving my balls in an
ice-bucket!', and Amina had taken them in her hands to warm them so that
her fingers got glued to them by the cold, his sex had lain dormant, a woolly
elephant in an iceberg, like the one they found in Russia in '56. My mother
Amina, who had married for children, felt the uncreated lives rotting in her
womb and blamed herself for becoming unattractive to him, what with her
corns and all. She discussed her unhappiness with Mary Pereira, but the
ayah only told her that there was no happiness to be gained from 'the
mens'; they made pickles together as they talked, and Amina stirred her
disappointments into a hot lime chutney which never failed to bring tears to
the eyes.
Although Ahmed Sinai's office hours were filled with fantasies of
secretaries taking dictation in the nude, visions of his Fernandas or Poppys
strolling around the room in their birthday suits with crisscross cane-marks
on their rumps, his apparatus refused to respond; and one day, when the
real Fernanda or Poppy had gone home, he was playing chess with Dr
Narlikar, his tongue (as well as his game) made somewhat loose by djinns,
and he confided awkwardly, 'Narlikar, I seem to have lost interest in
A gleam of pleasure radiated from the luminous gynaecologist; the
birth-control fanatic in the dark, glowing doctor leaped out through his eyes
and made the following speech: 'Bravo!' Dr Narlikar cried, 'Brother Sinai,
damn good show! You-and, may I add, myself-yes, you and I, Sinai bhai,
are persons of rare spiritual worth! Not for us the panting humiliations of the
flesh-is it not a finer thing, I ask you, to eschew procreation-to avoid adding
one more miserable human life to the vast multitudes which are presently
beggaring our country-and, instead, to bend our energies to the task of
giving them more land to stand on? I tell you, my friend: you and I and our
tetrapods: from the very oceans we shall bring forth soil!' To consecrate
this oration, Ahmed Sinai poured drinks; my father and Dr Narlikar drank a
toast to their four-legged concrete dream.
'Land, yes! Love, no!' Dr Narlikar said, a little unsteadily; my father
refilled his glass.
By the last days of 1956, the dream of reclaiming land from the sea
with the aid of thousands upon thousands of large concrete tetrapods-that
same dream which had been the cause of the freeze-and which was now,
for my father, a sort of surrogate for the sexual activity which the aftermath
of the freeze denied him-actually seemed to be coming close to fruition.
This time, however, Ahmed Sinai was spending his money cautiously; this
time he remained hidden in the background, and his name appeared on no
documents; this time, he had learned the lessons of the freeze and was
determined to draw as little attention to himself as possible; so that when
Dr Narlikar betrayed him by dying, leaving behind him no record of my
father's involvement in the tetrapod scheme, Ahmed Sinai (who was prone,
as we have seen, to react badly in the face of disaster) was swallowed up
by the mouth of a long, snaking decline from which he would not emerge
until, at the very end of his days, he at last fell in love with his wife.
This is the story that got back to Methwold's Estate: Dr Narlikar had
been visiting friends near Marine Drive; at the end of the visit, he had
resolved to stroll down to Chowpatty Beach and buy himself some bhel-puri
and a little coconut milk. As he strolled briskly along the pavement by the
sea-wall, he overtook the tail-end of a language march, which moved
slowly along, chanting peacefully. Dr Narlikar neared the place where, with
the Municipal Corporation's permission, he had arranged for a single,
symbolic tetrapod to be placed upon the sea-wall, as a kind of icon pointing
the way to the future; and here he noticed a thing which made him lose his
reason. A group of beggar-women had clustered around the tetrapod and
were performing the rite of puja. They had lighted oil-lamps at the base of
the object; one of them had painted the ом-symbol on its upraised tip; they
were chanting prayers as they gave the tetrapod a thorough and worshipful
wash. Technological miracle had been transformed into Shiva-lingam;
Doctor Narlikar, the opponent of fertility, was driven wild at this vision, in
which it seemed to him that all the old dark priapic forces of ancient,
procreative India had been unleashed upon the beauty of sterile
twentieth-century concrete… sprinting along, he shouted his abuse at the
worshipping women, gleaming fiercely in his rage; reaching them, he
kicked away their little dia-lamps; it is said he even tried to push the
women. And he was seen by the eyes of the language marchers.
The ears of the language marchers heard the roughness of his tongue;
the marchers' feet paused, their voices rose in rebuke. Fists were shaken;
oaths were oathed. Whereupon the good doctor, made incautious by
anger, turned upon the crowd and denigrated its cause, its breeding and its
sisters. A silence fell and exerted its powers. Silence guided marcher-feet
towards the gleaming gynaecologist, who stood between the tetrapod and
the wailing women. In silence the marchers' hands reached out towards
Narlikar and in a deep hush he clung to four-legged concrete as they
attempted to pull him towards them. In absolute soundlessness, fear gave
Dr Narlikar the strength of limpets; his arms stuck to the tetrapod and would
not be detached. The marchers applied themselves to the tetrapod…
silently they began to rock it; mutely the force of their numbers overcame
its weight. In an evening seized by a demonic quietness the tetrapod tilted,
preparing to become the first of its kind to enter the waters and begin the
great work of land reclamation. Dr Suresh Narlikar, his mouth opening in a
voiceless A, clung to it like a phosphorescent mollusc… man and
four-legged concrete fell without a sound. The splash of the waters broke
the spell.
It was said that when Dr Narlikar fell and was crushed into death by
the weight of his beloved obsession, nobody had any trouble locating the
body because it sent light glowing upwards through the waters like a fire.
'Do you know what's happening?' 'Hey, man, what gives?'-children,
myself included, clustered around the garden hedge of Escorial Villa, in
which was Dr Narlikar's bachelor apartment; and a hamal of Lila
Sabarmati's, taking on an air of grave dignity, informed us, 'They have
brought his death home, wrapped in silk.'
I was not allowed to see the death of Dr Narlikar as it lay wreathed in
saffron flowers on his hard, single bed; but I got to know all about it
anyway, because the news of it spread far beyond the confines of his room.
Mostly, I heard about it from the Estate servants, who found it quite natural
to speak openly of a death, but rarely said much about life, because in life
everything was obvious. From Dr Narlikar's own bearer I learned that the
death had, by swallowing large quantities of the sea, taken on the qualities
of water: it had become a fluid thing, and looked happy, sad or indifferent
according to how the light hit it. Homi Catrack's gardener interjected: 'It is
dangerous to look too long at death; otherwise you come away with a little
of it inside you, and there are effects.' We asked: effects? what effects?
which effects? how? And Purushottam the sadhu, who had left his place
under the Buckingham Villa garden tap for the first time in years, said: 'A
death makes the living see themselves too clearly; after they have been in
its presence, they become exaggerated.' This extraordinary claim was, in
fact, borne out by events, because afterwards Toxy Catrack's nurse
Bi-Appah, who had helped to clean up the body, became shriller, more
shrewish, more terrifying than ever; and it seemed that everyone who saw
the death of Dr Narlikar as it lay in state was affected, Nussie Ibrahim
became even sillier and more of a duck, and Lila Sabarmati, who lived
upstairs from the death and had helped to arrange its room, afterwards
gave in to a promiscuity which had always been lurking within her, and set
herself on a road at whose end there would be bullets, and her husband
Commander Sabarmati conducting the Colaba traffic with a most unusual
Our family, however, stayed away from the death. My father refused to
go and pay his respects, and would never refer to his late friend by name,
calling him simply: 'that traitor'.
Two days later, when the news had been in the papers, Dr Narlikar
suddenly acquired an enormous family of female relations. Having been a
bachelor and misogynist all his life, he was engulfed, in death, by a sea of
giant, noisy, omnicompetent women, who came crawling out from strange
corners of the city, from milking jobs at Amul Dairies and from the
box-offices of cinemas, from street-side soda-fountains and unhappy
marriages; in a year of processions the Narlikar women formed their own
parade, an enormous stream of outsize womanhood flowing up our
two-storey hillock to fill Dr Narlikar's apartment so full that from the road
below you could see their elbows sticking out of the windows and their
behinds overflowing on to the verandah. For a week nobody got any sleep
because the wailing of the Narlikar women filled the air; but beneath their
howls the women were proving as competent as they looked. They took
over the running of the Nursing Home; they investigated all of Narlikar's
business deals; and they cut my father out of the tetrapod deal just as
coolly as you please. After all those years my father was left with nothing
but a hole in his pocket, while the women took Narlikar's body to Benares
to have it cremated, and the Estate servants whispered to me that they had
heard how the Doctor's ashes were sprinkled on the waters of Holy Ganga
at Manikarnika-ghat at dusk, and they did not sink, but floated on the
surface of the water like tiny glowing firebugs, and were washed out to sea
where their strange luminosity must have frightened the captains of ships.
As for Ahmed Sinai: I swear that it was after Narlikar's death and the
arrival of the women that he began, literally, to fade… gradually his skin
paled, his hair lost its colour, until within a few months he had become
entirely white except for the darkness of his eyes. (Mary Pereira told
Amina: 'That man is cold in the blood; so now his skin has made ice, white
ice like a fridge.') I should say, in all honesty, that although he pretended to
be worried by his transformation into a white man, and went to see doctors
and so forth, he was secretly rather pleased when they failed to explain the
problem or prescribe a cure, because he had long envied Europeans their
pigmentation. One day, when it was permissible to make jokes again (a
decent interval had been allowed to elapse after Dr Narlikar's death), he
told Lila Sabarmati at the cocktail hour: 'All the best people are white under
the skin; I have merely given up pretending.' His neighbours, all of whom
were darker than he, laughed politely and felt curiously ashamed.
Circumstantial evidence indicates that the shock of Narlikar's death
was responsible for giving me a snow-white father to set beside my ebony
mother; but (although I don't know how much you're prepared to swallow) I
shall risk giving an alternative explanation, a theory developed in the
abstract privacy of my clocktower… because during my frequent psychic
travels, I discovered something rather odd: during the first nine years after
Independence, a similar pigmentation disorder (whose first recorded victim
may well have been the Rani of Cooch Naheen) afflicted large numbers of
the nation's business community. All over India, I stumbled across good
Indian businessmen, their fortunes thriving thanks to the first Five Year
Plan, which had concentrated on building up commerce… businessmen
who had become or were becoming very, very pale indeed! It seems that
the gargantuan (even heroic) efforts involved in taking over from the British
and becoming masters of their own destinies had drained the colour from
their cheeks… in which case, perhaps my father was a late victim of a
widespread, though generally unremarked phenomenon. The businessmen
of India were turning white.
That's enough to chew on for one day. But Evelyn Lilith Burns is
coming; the Pioneer Cafe is getting painfully close; and-more
vitally-midnight's other children, including my alter ego Shiva, he of the
deadly knees, are pressing extremely hard. Soon the cracks will be wide
enough for them to escape…
By the way: some time around the end of 1956, in all probability, the
singer and cuckold Wee Willie Winkie also met his death.
Love in Bombay
During Ramzan, the month of fasting, we went to the movies as often
as we could. After being shaken awake at five a.m. by my mother's
assiduous hand; after pre-dawn breakfasts of melon and sugared
lime-water, and especially on Sunday mornings, the Brass Monkey and I
took it in turns (or sometimes called out in unison) to remind Amina: 'The
ten-thirty-in-the-morning show! It's Metro Cub Club day, Amma, pleeeese!'
Then the drive in the Rover to the cinema where we would taste neither
Coca-Cola nor potato crisps, neither Kwality ice-cream nor samosas in
greasy paper; but at least there was air-conditioning, and Cub Club badges
pinned to our clothes, and competitions, and birthday-announcements
made by a compere with an inadequate moustache; and finally, the film,
after the trailers with their introductory titles, 'Next Attraction' and 'Coming
Soon', and the cartoon ('In A Moment, The Big Film; But First… !'): Quentin
Durward, perhaps, or Scaramouche. 'Swashbuckling!' we'd say to one
another afterwards, playing movie critic; and, 'A rumbustious, bawdy
romp!'-although we were ignorant of swashbuckles and bawdiness. There
was not much praying in our family (except on Eid-ul-Fitr, when my father
took me to the Friday mosque to celebrate the holiday by tying a
handkerchief around my head and pressing my forehead to the ground)…
but we were always willing to fast, because we liked the cinema.
Evie Burns and I agreed: the world's greatest movie star was Robert
Taylor. I also liked Jay Silverheels as Tonto; but his kemo-sabay, Clayton
Moore, was too fat for the Lone Ranger, in my view.
Evelyn Lilith Burns arrived on New Year's Day, 1957, to take up
residence with her widower father in an apartment in one of the two squat,
ugly concrete blocks which had grown up, almost without pur noticing them,
on the lower reaches of our hillock, and which were oddly segregated:
Americans and other foreigners lived (like Evie) in Noor Ville; arriviste
Indian success-stories ended up in Laxmi Vilas. From the heights of
Methwold's Estate, we looked down on them all, on white and brown alike;
but nobody ever looked down on Evie Burns-except once. Only once did
anyone get on top of her.
Before I climbed into my first pair of long pants, I fell in love with Evie;
but love was a curious, chain-reactive thing that year. To save time, I shall
place all of us in the same row at the Metro cinema; Robert Taylor is
mirrored in our eyes as we sit in flickering trances-and also in symbolic
sequence: Saleem Sinai is sitting-next-to-and-in-love-with Evie Burns who
is sitting-next-to-and-in-love-with Sonny
Ibrahim who is sitting-next-to-and-in-love-with the Brass Monkey who
is sitting next to the aisle and feeling starving hungry… I loved Evie for
perhaps six months of my life; two years later, she was back in America,
knifing an old woman and being sent to reform school.
A brief expression of my gratitude is in order at this point: if Evie had
not come to live amongst us, my story might never have progressed
beyond tourism-in-a-clocktower and cheating in class… and then there
would have been no climax in a widows' hostel, no clear proof of my
meaning, no coda in a fuming factory over which there presides the
winking, saffron-and-green dancing figure of the neon goddess
Mumbadevi. But Evie Burns (was she snake or ladder? The answer's
obvious: both) did come, complete with the silver bicycle which enabled me
not only to discover the midnight children, but also to ensure the partition of
the state of Bombay.
To begin at the beginning: her hair was made of scarecrow straw, her
skin was peppered with freckles and her teeth lived in a metal cage. These
teeth were, it seemed, the only things on earth over which she was
powerless-they grew wild, in malicious crazy-paving overlaps, and stung
her dreadfully when she ate ice-cream. (I permit myself this one
generalization: Americans have mastered the universe, but have no
dominion over their mouths; whereas India is impotent, but her children
tend to have excellent teeth.)
Racked by toothaches, my Evie rose magnificently above the pain.
Refusing to be ruled by bone and gums, she ate cake and drank Coke
whenever they were going; and never complained. A tough kid, Evie Burns:
her conquest of suffering confirmed her sovereignty over us all. It has been
observed that all Americans need a frontier: pain was hers, and she was
determined to push it out.
Once, I shyly gave her a necklace of flowers (queen-of-the-night for
my lily-of-the-eve), bought with my own pocket-money from a
hawker-woman at Scandal Point. 'I don't wear flowers,' Evelyn Lilith said,
and tossed the unwanted chain into the air, spearing it before it fell with a
pellet from her unerring Daisy air-pistol. Destroying flowers with a Daisy,
she served notice that she was not to be manacled, not even by a
necklace: she was our capricious, whirligig Lill-of-the-Hill. And also Eve.
The Adam's-apple of my eye.
How she arrived: Sonny Ibrahim, Eyeslice and Hairoil Sabarmati,
Cyrus Dubash, the Monkey and I were playing French cricket in the
circus-ring between Methwold's four palaces. A New Year's Day game:
Toxy clapping at her barred window; even Bi-Appah was in good humour
and not, for once, abusing us. Cricket-even French cricket, and even when
played by children-is a quiet game: peace anointed in linseed oil. The
kissing of leather and willow; sprinkled applause; the occasional cry-'Shot!
Shot, sir!'-'Owzatt??' but Evie on her bicycle was having none of that.
'Hey, you! Alia you! Hey, whassamatter? You all deaf or what?'
I was batting (elegantly as Ranji, powerfully as Vinoo Mankad) when
she charged up the hill on her two-wheeler, straw hair flying, freckles
ablaze, mouth-metal flashing semaphore messages in the sunlight, a
scarecrow astride a silver bullet… 'Hey, you widda leaky nose! Stop
watching the schoopid ball, ya crumb! I'll showya something worth
Impossible to picture Evie Burns without also conjuring up a bicycle;
and not just any two-wheeler, but one of the last of the great old-timers, an
Arjuna Indiabike in mint condition, with drop-handlebars wrapped in
masking tape and five gears and a seat made of reccine cheetah-skin. And
a silver frame (the colour, I don't need to tell you, of the Lone Ranger's
horse)… slobby Eyeslice and neat Hairoil, Cyrus the genius and the
Monkey, and Sonny Ibrahim and myself-the best of friends, the true sons of
the Estate, its heirs by right of birth-Sonny with the slow innocence he had
had ever since the forceps dented his brain and me with my dangerous
secret knowledge-yes, all of us, future bullfighters and Navy chiefs and all,
stood frozen in open-mouthed attitudes as Evie Burns began to ride her
bike, fasterfasterfaster, around and around the edges of the circus-ring.
'Lookit me now: watch me go, ya dummies!'
On and off the cheetah-seat, Evie performed. One foot on the seat,
one leg stretched out behind her, she whirled around us; she built up speed
and then did a headstand on the seat! She could straddle the front wheel,
facing the rear, and work the pedals the wrong way round… gravity was
her slave, speed her element, and we knew that a power had come among
us, a witch on wheels, and the flowers of the hedgerows threw her petals,
the dust of the circus-ring stood up in clouds of ovation, because the
circus-ring had found its mistress, too: it was the canvas beneath the brush
of her whirling wheels.
Now we noticed that our heroine packed a Daisy air-pistol on her right
hip… 'More to come, ya zeroes!' she yelled, and drew the weapon. Her
pellets gave stones the gift of flight; we threw annas into the air and she
gunned them down, stone-dead. 'Targets! More targets!'-and Eyeslice
surrendered his beloved pack of rummy cards without a murmur, so that
she could shoot the heads off the kings. Annie Oakley in
tooth-braces-nobody dared question her sharp-shooting, except once, and
that was the end of her reign, during the great cat invasion; and there were
extenuating circumstances.
Flushed, sweating, Evie Burns dismounted and announced: 'From now
on, there's a new big chief around here. Okay, Indians? Any arguments?'
No arguments; I knew then that I had fallen in love.
At Juhu Beach with Evie: she won the camel-races, could drink more
coconut milk than any of us, could open her eyes under the sharp salt
water of the Arabian Sea.
Did six months make such a difference? (Evie was half a year older
than me.) Did it entitle you to talk to grown-ups as an equal? Evie was seen
gossiping with old man Ibrahim Ibrahim; she claimed Lila Sabarmati was
teaching her to put on make-up; she visited Homi Catrack to gossip about
guns. (It was the tragic irony of Homi Catrack's life that he, at whom a gun
would one day be pointed, was a true aficionado of firearms… in Evie he
found a fellow-creature, a motherless child who was, unlike his own Toxy,
as sharp as a knife and as bright as a bottle. Incidentally, Evie Burns
wasted no sympathy on poor Toxy Catrack. 'Wrong inna head,' she opined
carelessly to us all, 'Oughta be put down like rats.' But Evie: rats are not
weak! There was more that was rodent-like in your face than in the whole
body of your despised Tox.)
That was Evelyn Lilith; and within weeks of her arrival, I had set off the
chain reaction from whose effects I would never fully recover.
It began with Sonny Ibrahim, Sonny-next-door, Sonny of the
forcep-hollows, who has been sitting patiently in the wings of my story,
awaiting his cue. In those days, Sonny was a badly bruised fellow: more
than forceps had dented him. To love the Brass Monkey (even in the
nine-year-old sense of the word) was no easy thing to do.
As I've said, my sister, born second and unheralded, had begun to
react violently to any declarations of affection. Although she was believed
to speak the languages of birds and cats, the soft words of lovers roused in
her an almost animal rage; but Sonny was too simple to be warned off. For
months now, he had been pestering her with statements such as, 'Saleem's
sister, you're a pretty solid type!' or, 'Listen, you want to be my girl? We
could go to the pictures with your ayah, maybe…' And for an equal number
of months, she had been making him suffer for his love-telling tales to his
mother; pushing him into mud-puddles accidentally-on-purpose; once even
assaulting him physically, leaving him with long raking claw-marks down his
face and an expression of sad-dog injury in his eyes; but he would not
learn. And so, at last, she had planned her most terrible revenge.
The Monkey attended Walsingham School for Girls on Nepean Sea
Road; a school full of tall, superbly muscled Europeans, who swam like fish
and dived like submarines. In their spare time, they could be seen from our
bedroom window, cavorting in the map-shaped pool of the Breach Candy
Club, from which we were, of course, barred… and when I discovered that
the Monkey had somehow attached herself to these segregated swimmers,
as a sort of mascot, I felt genuinely aggrieved with her for perhaps the first
time… but there was no arguing with her; she went her own way. Beefy
fifteen-year-old white girls let her sit with them on the Walsingham school
bus. Three such females would wait with her every morning at the same
place where Sonny, Eyeslice, Hairoil, Cyrus-the-great and I awaited the
bus from the Cathedral School.
One morning, for some forgotten reason, Sonny and I were the only
boys at the stop. Maybe there was a bug going round or something. The
Monkey waited until Mary Pereira had left us alone, in the care of the beefy
swimmers; and then suddenly the truth of what she was planning flashed
into my head as, for no particular reason, I tuned into her thoughts; and I
yelled 'Hey!'-but too late. The Monkey screeched, 'You keep out of this!'
and then she and the three beefy swimmers had jumped upon Sonny
Ibrahim, street-sleepers and beggars and bicycling clerks were watching
with open amusement, because they were ripping every scrap of clothing
off his body… 'Damn it man, are you going just to stand and watch?'-Sonny
yelling for help, but I was immobilized, how could I take sides between my
sister and my best friend, and he, 'I'll tell my daddy on you!', tearful now,
while the Monkey, 'That'll teach you to talk shit-and that'll teach you', his
shoes, off; no shirt any more; his vest, dragged off by a high-board diver,
'And that'll teach you to write your sissy love letters', no socks now, and
plenty of tears, and 'There!' yelled the Monkey; the Walsingham bus arrived
and the assailants and my sister jumped in and sped away, 'Ta-ta-ba-ta,
lover-boy!' they yelled, and Sonny was left in the street, on the pavement
opposite Chimalker's and Reader's Paradise, naked as the day he was
born; his forcep-hollows glistened like rock-pools, because Vaseline had
dripped into them from his hair; and his eyes were wet as well, as he,
'Why's she do it, man? Why, when I only told her I liked…'
'Search me,' I said, not knowing where to look, 'She does things, that's
all.' Not knowing, either, that the time would come when she did something
worse to me.
But that was nine years later… meanwhile, early in 1957, election
campaigns had begun: the Jan Sangh was campaigning for rest homes for
aged sacred cows; in Kerala, E. M. S. Namboodiripad was promising that
Communism would give everyone food and jobs; in Madras, the
Anna-D.M.K. party of C. N. Annadurai fanned the flames of regionalism; the
Congress fought back with reforms such as the Hindu Succession Act,
which gave Hindu women equal rights of inheritance… in short, everybody
was busy pleading his own cause; I, however, found myself tongue-tied in
the face of Evie Burns, and approached Sonny Ibrahim to ask him to plead
on my behalf.
In India, we've always been vulnerable to Europeans… Evie had only
been with us a matter of weeks, and already I was being sucked into a
grotesque mimicry of European literature. (We had done Cyrano, in a
simplified version, at school; I had also read the Classics Illustrated comic
book.) Perhaps it would be fair to say that Europe repeats itself, in India, as
farce… Evie was American. Same thing.
'But hey, man, that's no-fair man, why don't you do it yourself?'
'Listen, Sonny,' I pleaded, 'you're my friend,
'Yeah, but you didn't even help…'
'That was my sister, Sonny, so how could I?'
'No, so you have to do your own dirty…'
'Hey, Sonny, man, think. Think only. These girls
need careful handling, man. Look how the Monkey
flies off the handle! You've got the experience, yaar,
you've been through it. You'll know how to go gently
this time. What do I know, man? Maybe she doesn't
like me even. You want me to have my clothes torn
off, too? That would make you feel better?'
And innocent, good-natured Sonny, '… Well,
'Okay, then. You go. Sing my praises a little. Say
never mind about my nose. Character is what counts.
You can do that?'
'… Weeeelll… I… okay, but you talk to your sis
also, yah?'
Til talk, Sonny. What can I promise? You know
what she's like. But I'll talk to her for sure.'
You can lay your strategies as carefully as you
like, but women will undo them at a stroke. For every
victorious election campaign, there are twice as many
that fail… from the verandah of Buckingham Villa,
through the slats of the chick-blind, I spied on Sonny
Ibrahim as he canvassed my chosen constituency…
and heard the voice of the electorate, the rising
nasality of Evie Burns, splitting the air with scorn:
'Who? Him? Whynt'cha tell him to jus' go blow his
nose? That sniffer? He can't even ride a bike!'
Which was true.
And there was worse to come; because now
(although a chick-blind divided the scene into narrow
slits) did I not see the expression on Evie's face begin
to soften and change?-did Evie's hand (sliced
lengthways by the chick) not reach out towards my
electoral agent?-and weren't those Evie's fingers (the
nails bitten down to the quick) touching Sonny's
temple-hollows, the fingertips getting covered in
dribbled Vaseline?-and did Evie say or did she not:
'Now you, Pr instance: you're cute'? Let me sadly
affirm that I did; it did; they were; she did.
Saleem Sinai loves Evie Burns; Evie loves Sonny
Ibrahim; Sonny is potty about the Brass Monkey; but
what does the Monkey say?
'Don't make me sick, Allah,' my sister said when I
tried-rather nobly, considering how he'd failed me-to
argue Sonny's case. The voters had given the
thumijs-down to us both.
I wasn't giving in just yet. The siren temptations of
Evie Burns-who never cared about me, I'm bound to
admit-led me inexorably towards my fall. (But I hold
nothing against her; because my fall led to a rise.)
Privately, in my clocktower, I took time off my
trans-subcontinental rambles to consider the wooing
of my freckled Eve. 'Forget middlemen,' I advised
myself, 'You'll have to do this personally.' Finally, I
formed my scheme: I would have to share her
interests, to make her passions mine… guns have
never appealed to me. I resolved to learn how to ride
a bike.
Evie, in those days, had given in to the many
demands of the hillock-top children that she teach
them her bicycle-arts; so it was a simple matter for me
to join the queue for lessons. We assembled in the
circus-ring; Evie, ring-mistress supreme, stood in the
centre of five wobbly, furiously concentrating
cyclists… while I stood beside her, bikeless. Until
Evie's coming I'd shown no interest in wheels, so I'd
never been given any… humbly, I suffered the lash of
Evie's tongue.
'Where've you been living, fat nose? I suppose
you wanna borrow mine?'
'No,' I lied penitently, and she relented. 'Okay,
okay,' Evieshrugged, 'Get in the saddle and lessee
whatchou're made of.'
Let me reveal at once that, as I climbed on to the
silver Arjuna Indiabike, I was filled with the purest
elation; that, as Evie walked roundandround, holding
the bike by the handlebars, exclaiming, 'Gotcha
balance yet? Mo? Geez, nobody's got all year!'-as
Evie and I perambulated, I felt… what's the word?…
Roundandroundand… Finally, to please her, I
stammered, 'Okay… I think I'm… let me,' and instantly
I was on my own, she had given me a farewell shove,
and the silver creature flew gleaming and
uncontrollable across the circus-ring… I heard her
shouting: 'The brake! Use the goddamn brake, ya
dummy!'-but my hands couldn't move, I had gone rigid
as a plank, and there look out in front of me was the
blue two-wheeler of Sonny Ibrahim, collision course,
outa the way ya crazy, Sonny in the saddle, trying to
swerve and miss, but still blue streaked towards silver,
Sonny swung right but I went the same way eeyah my
bike and silver wheel touched blue, frame kissed
frame, I was flying up and over handlebars towards
Sonny who had embarked on an identical parabola
towards me crash bicycles fell to earth beneath us,
locked in an intimate embrace crash suspended in
mid-air Sonny and I met each other, Sonny's head
greeted mine… Over nine years ago I had been born
with bulging temples, and Sonny had been given
hollows by forceps; everything is for a reason, it
seems, because now my bulging temples found their
way into Sonny's hollows. A perfect fit. Heads fitting
together, we began our descent to earth, falling clear
of the bikes, fortunately, whummp and for a moment
the world went away.
Then Evie with her freckles on fire, 'O ya little
creep, ya pile of snot, ya wrecked my…' But I wasn't
listening, because circus-ring accident had completed
what washing-chest calamity had begun, and they
were there in my head, in the front now, no longer a
muffled background noise I'd never noticed, all of
them, sending their here-I-am signals, from north
south east west… the other children born during that
midnight hour, calling 'I,' 'I,' T and 'I.'
'Hey! Hey, snothead! You okay?… Hey, where's
his mother?'
Interruptions, nothing but interruptions! The
different parts of my somewhat complicated life
refuse, with a wholly unreasonable obstinacy, to stay
neatly in their separate compartments. Voices spill out
of their clocktower to invade the circus-ring, which is
supposed to be Evie's domain… and now, at the very
moment when I should be describing the fabulous
children of ticktock, I'm being whisked away by
Frontier Mail-spirited off to the decaying world of my
grandparents, so that Aadam Aziz is getting in the way
of the natural unfolding of my tale. Ah well. What can't
be cured must be endured.
That January, during my convalescence from the
severe concussion I received in my bicycling accident,
my parents took us off to Agra for a family reunion that
turned out worse than the notorious (and arguably
fictional) Black Hole of Calcutta. For two weeks we
were obliged to listen to Emerald and Zulfikar (who
was now a Major-General and insisted on being called
a General) dropping names, and also hints of their
fabulous wealth, which had by now grown into the
seventh largest private fortune in Pakistan; their son
Zafar tried (but only once!) to pull the Monkey's fading
red pig-tails. And we were obliged to watch in silent
horror while my Civil Servant uncle Mustapha and his
half-Irani wife Sonia beat and bludgeoned their litter of
nameless, genderless brats into utter anonymity; and
the bitter aroma of Alia's spinsterhood filled the air and
ruined our food; and my father would retire early to
begin his secret nightly war against the djinns; and
worse, and worse, and worse.
One night I awoke on the stroke of twelve to find
my grandfather's dream inside my head, and was
therefore unable to avoid seeing him as he saw
himself-as a crumbling old man in whose centre, when
the light was right, it was possible to discern a gigantic
shadow. As the convictions which had given strength
to his youth withered away under the combined
influence of old age, Reverend Mother and the
absence of like-minded friends, an old hole was
reappearing in the middle of his body, turning him into
just another shrivelled, empty old man, over whom the
God (and other superstitions) against which he'd
fought for so long was beginning to reassert His
dominion… meanwhile, Reverend Mother spent the
entire fortnight finding little ways of insulting my uncle
Hanif's despised film-actress wife. And that was also
the time when I was cast as a ghost in a children's
play, and found, in an old leather attache-case on top
of my grandfather's almirah, a sheet which had been
chewed by moths, but whose largest hole was
man-made: for which discovery I was repaid (you will
recall) in roars of grandparental rage.
But there was one achievement. I was befriended
by Rashid the rickshaw-wallah (the same fellow who
had, in his youth, screamed silently in a cornfield and
helped Nadir Khan into Aadam Aziz's toilet): taking me
under his wing-and without telling my parents, who
would have forbidden it so soon after my accident-he
taught me how to ride a bicycle. By the time we left, I
had this secret tucked away with all my others: only I
didn't intend this one to stay secret for very long.
… And on the train home, there were voices
hanging on to the outside of the compartment: 'Ohe,
maharaj! Open up, great sir!'-fare-dodgers' voices
fighting with the ones I wanted to listen to, the new
ones inside my head-and then back to Bombay
Central Station, and the drive home past racecourse
and temple, and now Evelyn Lilith Burns is demanding
that I finish her part first before concentrating on
higher things.
'Home again!' the Monkey shouts. 'Hurray…
Back-to-Bom!' (She is in disgrace. In Agra, she
incinerated the General's boots.)
It is a matter of record that the States
Reorganization Committee had submitted its report to
Mr Nehru as long ago as October 1955; a year later,
its recommendations had been implemented. India
had been divided anew, into fourteen states and six
centrally-administered 'territories'. But the boundaries
of these states were not formed by rivers, or
mountains, or any natural features of the terrain; they
were, instead, walls of words. Language divided us:
Kerala was for speakers of Malayalam, the only
palindromically-named tongue on earth; in Karnataka
you were supposed to speak Kanarese; and the
amputated state of Madras-known today as Tamil
Nadu-enclosed the aficionados of Tamil. Owing to
some oversight, however, nothing was done with the
state of Bombay; and in the city of Mumbadevi, the
language marches grew longer and noisier and finally
metamorphosed into political parties, the Samyukta
Maharashtra Samiti ('United Maharashtra Party')
which stood for the Marathi language and demanded
the creation of the Deccan state of Maharashtra, and
the Maha Gujarat Parishad ('Great Gujarat Party')
which marched beneath the banner of the Gujarati
language and dreamed of a state to the north of
Bombay City, stretching all the way to the Kathiawar
peninsula and the Rann of Kutch… I am warming over
all this cold history, these old dead struggles between
the barren angularity of Marathi which was born in the
arid heat of the Deccan and Gujarati's boggy,
Kathiawari softness, to explain why, on the day in
February 1957 immediately following our return from
Agra, Methwold's Estate was cut off from the city by a
stream of chanting humanity which flooded Warden
Road more completely than monsoon water, a parade
so long that it took two days to pass, and of which it
was said that the statue of Sivaji had come to life to
ride stonily at its head. The demonstrators carried
black flags; many of them were shopkeepers on
hartal; many were striking textile-workers from
Mazagaon and Matunga; but on our hillock, we knew
nothing about their jobs; to us children, the endless
ant-trail of language in Warden Road seemed as
magnetically fascinating as a light-bulb to a moth. It
was a demonstration so immense, so intense in its
passions, that it made all previous marches vanish
from the mind as if they had never occurred-and we
had all been banned from going down the hill for even
the tiniest of looks. So who was the boldest of us all?
Who urged us to creep at least half-way down, to the
point where the hillock-road swung round to face
Warden Road in a steep U-bend? Who said, 'What's
to be scared of? We're only going half-way for a
peek'?… Wide-eyed, disobedient Indians followed
their freckled American chief. (They lulled Dr
Narlikar-marchers did,' Hairoil warned us in a shivery
voice. Evie spat on his shoes.)
But I, Saleem Sinai, had other fish to fry. 'Evie,' I
said with quiet offhandedness, 'how'd you like to see
me bicycling?' No response. Evie was immersed in
the-spectacle… and was that her fingerprint in Sonny
Ibrahim's left forcep-hollow, embedded in Vaseline for
all the world to see? A second time, and with slightly
more emphasis, I said, 'I can do it, Evie. I'll do it on the
Monkey's cycle. You want to watch?' And now Evie,
cruelly, 'I'm watching this. This is good. Why'd I wanna
watch you? And me, a little snivelly now, 'But I
learned, Evie, you've got to…' Roars from Warden
Road below us drown my words. Her back is to me;
and Sonny's back, the backs of Eyeslice and Hairoil,
the intellectual rear of Cyrus-the-great… my sister,
who has seen the fingerprint too, and looks
displeased, eggs me on: 'Go on. Go on, show her.
Who's she think she is?' And up on her bike… 'I'm
doing it, Evie, look!' Bicycling in circles, round and
round the little cluster of children, 'See? You see?' A
moment of exultation; and then Evie, deflating
impatient couldn't-care-less; 'Willya get outa my way,
fer Petesake? I wanna see lhat!' Finger, chewed-off
nail and all, jabs down in the direction of the language
march; I am dismissed in favour of the parade of the
Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti! And despite the
Monkey, who loyally, 'That's not fair! He's doing it
really good?-and in spite of the exhilaration of the
thing-in-itself-something goes haywire inside me; and
I'm riding round Evie, fasterfasterfaster, crying sniffing
out of control, 'So what is it with you, anyway? What
do I have to do to…' And then something else takes
over, because I realize I don't have to ask her, I can
just get inside that freckled mouth-metalled head and
find out, for once I can really get to know what's going
on… and in I go, still bicycling, but the front of her
mind is all full up with Marathi language-marchers,
there are American pop songs stuck in the corners of
her thoughts, but nothing I'm interested in; and now,
only now, now for the very first time, now driven on by
the tears of unrequited love, I begin to probe… I find
myself pushing, diving, forcing my way behind her
defences… into the secret place where there's a
picture of her mother who wears a pink smock and
holds up a tiny fish by the tail, and I'm ferreting
deeperdeeperdeeper, where is it, what makes her tick,
when she gives a sort of jerk and swings round to
'Get out!' screams Evie Burns. Hands lifted to
forehead. I bicycling, wet-eyed, diving ininin: to where
Evie stands in the doorway of a clapboard bedroom
holding a, holding a something sharp and glinty with
red dripping off it, in the doorway of a, my God and on
the bed a woman, who, in a pink, my God, and Evie
with the, and red staining the pink, and a man coming,
my God, and no no no no no…
'get out get out get out!' Bewildered children
watch as Evie screams, language march forgotten, but
suddenly remembered again, because Evie has
grabbed the back of the Monkey's bike what're YOU
DOING EVIE as she pushes it THERE GET OUT YA
BUM THERE get out to hell!-She's pushed me
hard-as-hard, and I losing control hurtling down the
slope round the end of the U-bend downdown, my god
the march past Band Box laundry, past Noor Ville and
Laxmi Vilas, aaaaa and down into the mouth of the
march, heads feet bodies, the waves of the march
parting as I arrive, yelling blue murder, crashing into
history on a runaway, young-girl's bike.
Hands grabbing handlebars as I slow down in the
impassioned throng. Smiles filled with good teeth
surround me. They are not friendly smiles. 'Look look,
a little laad-sahib comes down to join us from the big
rich hill!' In Marathi which I hardly understand, it's my
worst subject at school, and the smiles asking, 'You
want to join S.M.S., little princeling?' And I, just about
knowing what's being said, but dazed into telling the
truth, shake my head No. And the smiles, 'Oho! The
young nawab does not like our tongue! What does he
like?' And another smile, 'Maybe Gujarati! You speak
Gujarati, my lord?' But my Gujarati was as bad as my
Marathi; I only knew one thing in the marshy tongue of
Kathiawar; and the smiles, urging, and the fingers,
prodding, 'Speak, little master! Speak some
Gujarati!'-so I told them what I knew, a rhyme I'd
learned from Glandy Keith Colaco at school, which he
used when he was bullying Gujarati boys, a rhyme
designed to make fun of the speech rhythms of the
@@@Soo che? Saru che!
Danda le ke maru che!
How are you?-I am well!-ГII take a stick and
thrash you to hell! A nonsense; a nothing; nine words
of emptiness… but when I'd retited them, the smiles
began to laugh; and then voices near me and then
further and further away began to take up my chant,
how are you? I am well!, and they lost interest in me,
'Go go with your bicycle, masterji,' they scoffed, i'll
take a stick and thrash you то hell, I fled away up the
hillock as my chant rushed forward and back, up to
the front .and down to the back of the two-day-long
procession, becoming, as it went, a song of war.
That afternoon, the head of the procession of the
Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti collided at Kemp's
Corner, with the head of a Maha Gujarat Parishad
demonstration; S.M.S. voices chanted 'Soo che? Saru
che!' and M.G.P. throats were opened in fury; under
the posters of the Air-India rajah and of the Kolynos
Kid, the two parties fell upon one another with no little
zeal, and to the tune of my little rhyme the first of the
language riots got under way, fifteen killed, over three
hundred wounded.
In this way I became directly responsible for
triggering off the violence which ended with the
partition of the state of Bombay, as a result of which
the city became the capital of Maharashtra-so at least
I was on the winning side.
What was it in Evie's head? Crime or dream? I
never found out; but I had learned something else:
when you go deep inside someone's head, they can
feel you in there.
Evelyn Lilith Burns didn't want much to do with
me after that day; but, strangely enough, I was cured
of her. (Women have always been the ones to change
my life: Mary Pereira, Evie Burns, Jamila Singer,
Parvati-the-witch must answer for who I am; and the
Widow, who I'm keeping for the end; and after the
end, Padma, my goddess of dung. Women have fixed
me all right, but perhaps they were never
central-perhaps the place which they should have
filled, the hole in the centre of me which was my
inheritance from my grandfather Aadam Aziz, was
occupied for too long by my voices. Or perhaps-one
must consider all possibilities-they always made me a
little afraid.)
My tenth birthday
'Oh mister, what to say? Everything is my own poor fault!'
Padma is back. And, now that I have recovered from the poison and
am at my desk again, is too overwrought to be silent. Over and over, my
returned lotus castigates herself, beats her heavy breasts, wails at the top
of her voice. (In my fragile condition, this is fairly distressing; but I don't
blame her for anything.)
'Only believe, mister, how much I have your well-being at heart! What
creatures we are, we women, never for one moment at peace when our
men lie sick and low… I am so happy you are well, you don't know!'
Padma's story (given in her own words, and read back to her for '
eye-rolling, high-wailing, mammary-thumping confirmation): 'It was my own
foolish pride and vanity, Saleem baba, from which cause I did run from you,
although the job here is good, and you so much needing a looker-after! But
in a short time only I was dying to return.
'So then I thought, how to go back to this man who will not love me
and only does some foolish writery? (Forgive, Saleem baba, but I must tell
it truly. And love, to us women, is the greatest thing of all.)
'So I have been to a holy man, who taught me what I must do. Then
with my few pice I have taken a bus into the country to dig for herbs, with
which your manhood could be awakened from its sleep… imagine, mister, I
have spoken magic with these words: 'Herb thou hast been uprooted by
Bulls!' Then I have ground herbs in water and milk and said, 'Thou potent
and lusty herb! Plant which Varuna had dug up for him by Gandharva! Give
my Mr Saleem thy power. Give heat like that of Fire of Indra. Like the male
antelope, О herb, thou hast all the force that Is, thou hast powers of Indra,
and the lusty force of beasts.'
'With this preparation I returned to find you alone as always and as
always with your nose in paper. But jealousy, I swear, I have put behind
me; it sits on the face and makes it old. О God forgive me, quietly I put the
preparation in your food!… And then, hai-hai, may Heaven forgive me, but I
am a simple woman, if holy men tell me, how should I argue?… But now at
least you are better, thanks be to God, and maybe you will not be angry.'
Under the influence of Padma's potion, I became delirious for a week.
My dung-lotus swears (through much-gnashed teeth) that I was stiff as a
board, with bubbles around my mouth. There was also a fever. In my
delirium I babbled about snakes; but I know that Padma is no serpent, and
never meant me harm.
'This love, mister,' Padma is wailing, 'It will drive a woman to
I repeat: I don't blame Padma. At the feet of the Western Ghats, she
searched for the herbs of virility, mucuna pruritus and the root of feronia
elephantum; who knows what she found? Who knows what, mashed with
milk and mingled with my food, flung my innards into that state of'churning'
from which, as all students of Hindu cosmology will know, Indra created
matter, by stirring the primal soup in his own great milk-churn? Never mind.
It was a noble attempt; but I am beyond regeneration-the Widow has done
for me. Not even the real mucuna could have put an end to my incapacity;
feronia would never have engendered in me the 'lusty force of beasts'.
Still, I am at my table once again; once again Padma sits at my feet,
urging me on. I am balanced once more-the base of my isosceles triangle
is secure. I hover at the apex, above present and past, and feel fluency
returning to my pen.
A kind of magic has been worked, then; and Padma's excursion in
search of love-potions has connected me briefly with that world of ancient
learning and sorcerers' lore so despised by most of us nowadays; but
(despite stomach-cramps and fever and frothings at the mouth) I'm glad of
its irruption into my last days, because to contemplate it is to regain a little,
lost sense of proportion.
Think of this: history, in my version, entered a new phase on August
15th, 1947-but in another version, that inescapable date is no more than
one fleeting instant in the Age of Darkness, Kali-Yuga, in which the cow of
morality has been reduced to standing, teeter-ingly, on a single leg!
Kali-Yuga-the losing throw in our national dice-game; the worst of
everything; the age when property gives a man rank, when wealth is
equated with virtue, when passion becomes the sole bond between men
and women, when falsehood brings success (is it any wonder, in such a
time, that I too have been confused about good and evil?)… began on
Friday, February 18th, 3102 b.c.; and will last a mere 432,000 years!
Already feeling somewhat dwarfed, I should add nevertheless that the Age
of Darkness is only the fourth phase of the present Maha-Yuga cycle which
is, in total, ten times as long; and when you consider that it takes a
thousand Maha-Yugas to make just one Day of Brahma, you'll see what I
mean about proportion.
A little humility at this point (when I'm trembling on the brink of
introducing the Children) does not, I feel, come amiss.
Padma shifts her weight, embarrassed. 'What are you talking?' she
asks, reddening a little. 'That is brahmin's talk; what's it to do with me?'
… Born and raised in the Muslim tradition, I find myself overwhelmed
all of a sudden by an older learning; while here beside me is my Padma,
whose return I had so earnestly desired… my Padma! The Lotus Goddess;
the One Who Possesses Dung; who is Honey-Like, and Made of Gold;
whose sons are Moisture and Mud…
'You must be fevered still,' she expostulates, giggling. 'How made of
gold, mister? And you know I have no chil…'
… Padma, who along with the yaksa genii, who represent the sacred
treasure of the earth, and the sacred rivers, Ganga Yamuna Sarasvati, and
the tree goddesses, is one of the Guardians of Life, beguiling and
comforting mortal men while they pass through the dream-web of Maya ..
Padma, the Lotus calyx, which grew out of Vishnu's navel, and from which
Brahma himself was born; Padma the Source, the mother of Time!…
'Hey,' she is sounding worried now, 'let me feel your forehead!'
… And where, in this scheme of things, am I? Am I (beguiled and
comforted by her return) merely mortal-or something more? Such as-yes,
why not-mammoth-trunked, Ganesh-nosed as I am-perhaps, the Elephant.
Who, like Sin the moon, controls the waters, bringing the gift of rain…
whose mother was Ira, queen consort of Kashyap, the Old Tortoise Man,
lord and progenitor of all creatures on the earth… the Elephant who is also
the rainbow, and lightning, and whose symbolic value, it must be added, is
highly problematic and unclear.
Well, then: elusive as rainbows, unpredictable as lightning, garrulous
as Ganesh, it seems I have my own place in the ancient wisdom, after all.
'My God.' Padma is rushing for a towel to wet in cold water, 'your
forehead is on fire! Better you lie down now; too soon for all this writing!
The sickness is talking; not you.'
But I've already lost a week; so, fever or no fever, I must press on;
because, having (for the moment) exhausted this strain of old-time
fabulism, I am coming to the fantastic heart of my own story, and must write
in plain unveiled fashion, about the midnight children.
Understand what I'm saying: during the first hour of August 15th,
1947-between midnight and one a.m.-no less than one thousand and one
children were born within the frontiers of the infant sovereign state of India.
In itself, that is not an unusual fact (although the resonances of the number
are strangely literary)-at the time, births in our part of the world exceeded
deaths by approximately six hundred and eighty-seven an hour. What
made the event noteworthy (noteworthy! There's a dispassionate word, if
you like!) was the nature of these children, every one of whom was,
through some freak of biology, or perhaps owing to some preternatural
power of the moment, or just conceivably by sheer coincidence (although
synchronicity on such a scale would stagger even C. G. Jung), endowed
with features, talents or faculties which can only be described as
miraculous. It was as though-if you will permit me one moment of fancy in
what will otherwise be, I promise, the most, sober account I can manage-as
though history, arriving at a point of the highest significance and promise,
had chosen to sow, in that instant, the seeds of a future which would
genuinely differ from anything the world had seen up to that time.
If a similar miracle was worked across the border, in the
newly-partitioned-off Pakistan, I have no knowledge of it; my perceptions
were, while they lasted, bounded by the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal,
the Himalaya mountains, but also by the artificial frontiers which pierced
Punjab and Bengal.
Inevitably, a number of these children failed to survive. Malnutrition,
disease and the misfortunes of everyday life had accounted for no less
than four hundred and twenty of them by the time I became conscious of
their existence; although it is possible to hypothesize that these deaths,
too, had their purpose, since 420 has been, since time immemorial, the
number associated with fraud, deception and trickery. Can it be, then, that
the missing infants were eliminated because they had turned out to be
somehow inadequate, and were not the true children of that midnight hour?
Well, in the first place, that's another excursion into fantasy; in the second,
it depends on a view of life which is both excessively theological and
barbarically cruel. It is also an unanswerable question; any further
examination of it is therefore profitless.
By 1957, the surviving five hundred and eighty-one children were all
nearing their tenth birthdays, wholly ignorant, for the most part, of one
another's existence-although there were certainly exceptions. In the town of
Baud, on the Mahanadi river in Orissa, there was a pair of twin sisters who
were already a legend in the region, because despite their impressive
plainness they both possessed the ability of making every man who saw
them fall hopelessly and often suicidally in love with them, so that their
bemused parents were endlessly pestered by a stream of men offering
their hands in marriage to either or even both of the bewildering children;
old men who had forsaken the wisdom of their beards and youths who
ought to have been becoming besotted with the actresses in the travelling
picture-show which visited Baud once a month; and there was another,
more disturbing procession of bereaved families cursing the twin girls for
having bewitched their sons into committing acts of violence against
themselves, fatal mutilations and scourgings and even (in one case)
self-immolation. With the exception of such rare instances, however, the
children of midnight had grown up quite unaware of their true siblings, their
fellow-chosen-ones across the length and breadth of India's rough and
badly-proportioned diamond.
And then, as a result of a jolt received in a bicycle-accident, I, Saleem
Sinai, became aware of them all.
To anyone whose personal cast of mind is too inflexible to accept
these facts, I have this to say: That's how it was; there can be no retreat
from the truth. I shall just have to shoulder the burden of the doubter's
disbelief. But no literate person in this India of ours can be wholly immune
from the type of information I am in the process of unveiling-no reader of
our national press can have failed to come across a series of-admittedly
lesser-magic children and assorted freaks. Only last week there was that
Bengali boy who announced himself as the reincarnation of Rabindranath
Tagore and began to extemporize verses of remarkable quality, to the
amazement of his parents; and I can myself remember children with two
heads (sometimes one human, one animal), and other curious features
such as bullock's horns.
I should say at once that not all the children's gifts were desirable, or
even desired by the children themselves; and, in some cases, the children
had survived but been deprived of their midnight-given qualities. For
example (as a companion piece to the story of the Baudi twins) let me
mention a Delhi beggar-girl called Sundari, who was born in a street behind
the General Post Office, not far from the rooftop on which Amina Sinai had
listened to Ramram Seth, and whose beauty was so intense that within
moments of her birth it succeeded in blinding her mother and the
neighbouring women who had been assisting at her delivery; her father,
rushing into the room when he heard the women's screams, had been
warned by them just in time; but his one fleeting glimpse of his daughter so
badly impaired his vision that he was unable, afterwards, to distinguish
between Indians and foreign tourists, a handicap which greatly affected his
earning power as a beggar. For some time after that Sundari was obliged
to have a rag placed across her face; until an old and ruthless great-aunt
took her into her bony arms and slashed her face nine times with a kitchen
knife. At the time when I became aware of her, Sundari was earning a
healthy living, because nobody who looked at her could fail to pity a girl
who had clearly once been too beautiful to look at and was now so cruelly
disfigured; she received more alms than any other member of her family.
Because none of the children suspected that their time of birth had
anything to do with what they were, it took me a while to find it out. At first,
after the bicycle accident (and particularly once language marchers had
purged me of Evie Burns), I contented myself with discovering, one by one,
the secrets of the fabulous beings who had suddenly arrived in my mental
field of vision, collecting them ravenously, the way some boys collect
insects, and others spot railway trains; losing interest in autograph books
and all other manifestations of the gathering instinct, I plunged whenever
possible into the separate, and altogether brighter reality of the five
hundred and eighty-one. (Two hundred and sixty-six of us were boys; and
we were outnumbered by our female counterparts-three hundred and
fifteen of them, including Parvati. Parvati-the-witch.)
Midnight's children!… From Kerala, a boy who had the ability of
stepping into mirrors and re-emerging through any reflective surface in the
land-through lakes and (with greater difficulty) the polished metal bodies of
automobiles… and a Goanese girl with the gift of multiplying fish… and
children with powers of transformation: a werewolf from the Nilgiri Hills, and
from the great watershed of the Vindhyas, a boy who could increase or
reduce his size at will, and had already (mischievously) been the cause of
wild panic and rumours of the return of Giants… from Kashmir, there was a
blue-eyed child of whose original sex I was never certain, since by
immersing herself in water he (or she) could alter it as she (or he) pleased.
Some of us called this child Narada, others Markandaya, depending on
which old fairy story of sexual change we had heard… near Jalna in the
heart of the parched Deccan I found a water-divining youth, and at
Budge-Budge outside Calcutta a sharp-tongued girl whose words already
had the power of inflicting physical wounds, so that after a few adults had
found themselves bleeding freely as a result of some barb flung casually
from her lips, they had decided to lock her in a bamboo cage and float her
off down the Ganges to the Sundarbans jungles (which are the rightful
home of monsters and phantasms); but nobody dared approach her, and
she moved through the town surrounded by a vacuum of fear; nobody had
the courage to deny her food. There was a boy who could eat metal and a
girl whose fingers were so green that she could grow prize aubergines in
the Thar desert; and more and more and more… overwhelmed by their
numbers, and by the exotic multiplicity of their gifts, I paid little attention, in
those early days, to their ordinary selves; but inevitably our problems, when
they arose, were the everyday, human problems which arise from
character-and-environment; in our quarrels, we were just a bunch of kids.
One remarkable fact: the closer to midnight our birth-times were, the
greater were our gifts. Those children born in the last seconds of the hour
were (to be frank) little more than circus freaks: bearded girls, a boy with
the fully-operative gills of a freshwater mahaseer trout, Siamese twins with
two bodies dangling off a single head and neck-the head could speak in
two voices, one male, one female, and every language and dialect spoken
in the subcontinent; but for all their mar-vellousness, these were the
unfortunates, the living casualties of that numinous hour. Towards the
half-hour came more interesting and useful faculties-in the Gir Forest lived
a witch-girl with the power of healing by the laying-on of hands, and there
was a wealthy tea-planter's son in Shillong who had the blessing (or
possibly the curse) of being incapable of forgetting anything he ever saw or
heard. But the children born in the first minute of all-for these children the
hour had reserved the highest talents of which men had ever dreamed. If
you, Padma, happened to possess a register of births in which times were
noted down to the exact second, you, too, would know what scion of a
great Lucknow family (born at twenty-one seconds past midnight) had
completely mastered, by the age of ten, the lost arts of alchemy, with which
he regenerated the fortunes of his ancient but dissipated house; and which
dhobi's daughter from Madras (seventeen seconds past) could fly higher
than any bird simply by closing her eyes; and to which Benarsi silversmith's
son (twelve seconds after midnight) was given the gift of travelling in time
and thus prophesying the future as well as clarifying the past… a gift which,
children that we were, we trusted implicitly when it dealt with things gone
and forgotten, but derided when he warned us of our own ends…
fortunately, no such records exist; and, for my part, I shall not reveal-or
else, in appearing to reveal, shall falsify-their names and even their
locations; because, although such evidence would provide absolute proof
of my claims, still the children of midnight deserve, now, after everything, to
be left alone; perhaps to forget; but I hope (against hope) to remember…
Parvati-the-witch was born in Old Delhi in a slum which clustered
around the steps of the Friday mosque. No ordinary slum, this, although the
huts built out of old packing cases and pieces of corrugated tin and shreds
of jute sacking which stood higgledy-piggledy in the shadow of the mosque
looked no different from any other shanty-town… because this was the
ghetto of the magicians, yes, the very same place which had once
spawned a Hummingbird whom knives had pierced and pie-dogs had failed
to save… the conjurers' slum, to which the greatest fakirs and
prestidigitators and illusionists in the land continually flocked, to seek their
fortune in the capital city. They found tin huts, and police harassment, and
rats… Parvati's father had once been the greatest conjurer in Oudh; she
had grown up amid ventriloquists who could make stones tell jokes and
contortionists who could swallow their own legs and fire-eaters who
exhaled flames from their arseholes and tragic clowns who could extract
glass tears from the corners of their eyes; she had stood mildly amid
gasping crowds while her father drove spikes through her neck; and all the
time she had guarded her own secret, which was greater than any of the
illusionist flummeries surrounding her; because to Parvati-the-witch, born a
mere seven seconds after midnight on August 15th, had been given the
powers of the true adept, the illuminatus, the genuine gifts of conjuration
and sorcery, the art which required no artifice.
So among the midnight children were infants with powers of
transmutation, flight, prophecy and wizardry… but two of us were born on
the stroke of midnight. Saleem and Shiva, Shiva and Saleem, nose and
knees and knees and nose… to Shiva, the hour had given the gifts of war
(of Rama, who could draw the undrawable.bow; of Arjuna and Bhima; the
ancient prowess of Kurus and Pandavas united, unstoppably, in him!)…
and to me, the greatest talent of all-the ability to look into the hearts and
minds of men.
But it is Kali-Yuga; the children of the hour of darkness were born, I'm
afraid, in the midst of the age of darkness; so that although we found it
easy to be brilliant, we were always confused about being good.
There; now I've said it. That is who I was-who we were.
Padma is looking as if her mother had died-her face, with its
opening-shutting mouth, is the face of a beached pomfret. 'O baba!' she
says at last. 'O baba! You are sick; what have you said?'
No, that would be too easy. I refuse to take refuge in illness. Don't
make the mistake of dismissing what I've unveiled as mere delirium; or
even as the insanely exaggerated fantasies of a lonely, ugly child. I have
stated before that I am not speaking metaphorically; what I have just written
(and read aloud to stunned Padma) is nothing less than the literal,
by-the-hairs-of-my-mother's-head truth.
Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it less real.
A thousand and one children were born; there were a thousand and one
possibilities which had never been present in one place at one time before;
and there were a thousand and one dead ends. Midnight's children can be
made to represent many things, according to your point of view: they can
be seen as the last throw of everything antiquated and retrogressive in our
myth-ridden nation, whose defeat was entirely desirable in the context of a
modernizing, twentieth-century economy; or as the true hope of freedom,
which is now forever extinguished; but what they must not become is the
bizarre creation of a rambling, diseased mind. No: illness is neither here
nor there.
'All right, all right, baba,' Padma attempts to placate me. 'Why become
so cross? Rest now, rest some while, that is all I am asking.'
Certainly it was a hallucinatory time in the days leading up to my tenth
birthday; but the hallucinations were not in my head. My father, Ahmed
Sinai, driven by the traitorous death of Dr Narlikar and by the increasingly
powerful effect of djinns-and-tonics, had taken flight into a dream-world of
disturbing unreality; and the most insidious aspect of his slow decline was
that, for a very long time, people mistook it for the very opposite of what it
was… Here is Sonny's mother, Nussie-the-duck, telling Amina one evening
in our garden: 'What great days for you all, Amina sister, now that your
Ahmed is in his prime! Such a fine man, and so much he is prospering for
his family's sake!' She says it loud enough for him to hear; and although he
pretends to be telling the gardener what to do about the ailing
bougainvillaea, although he assumes an expression of humble
self-deprecation, it's utterly unconvincing, because his bloated body has
begun, without his knowing it, to puff up and strut about. Even
Purushottam, the dejected sadhu under the garden tap, looks
My fading father… for almost ten years he had always been in a good
mood at the breakfast table, before he shaved his chin; but as his facial
hairs whitened along with his fading skin, this fixed point of happiness
ceased to be a certainty; and the day came when he lost his temper at
breakfast for the first time. That was the day on which taxes were raised
and tax thresholds simultaneously lowered; my father flung down the Times
of India with a violent gesture and glared around him with the red eyes I
knew he only wore in his tempers. 'It's like going to the bathroom!' he
exploded, cryptically; egg toast tea shuddered in the blast of his wrath. 'You
raise your shirt and lower your trousers! Wife, this government is going to
the bathroom all over us!' And my mother, blushing pink through the black,
'Janum, the children, please,' but he had stomped off, leaving me with a
clear understanding of what people meant when they said the country was
going to pot.
In the following weeks my father's morning chin continued to fade, and
something more than the peace of the breakfast table was lost: he began to
forget what sort of man he'd been in the old days before Narlikar's treason.
The rituals of our home life began to decay. He began to stay away from
the breakfast table, so that Amina could not wheedle money out of him; but,
to compensate, he became careless with his cash, and his discarded
clothes were full of rupee notes and coins, so that by picking his pockets
she could make ends meet. But a more depressing indication of his
withdrawal from family life was that he rarely told us bedtime stories any
more, and when he did we didn't enjoy them, because they had become
ill-imagined and unconvincing. Their subject-matter was still the same,
princes goblins flying horses and adventures in magic lands, but in his
perfunctory voice we could hear the creaks and groans of a rustling,
decayed imagination.
My father had succumbed to abstraction. It seems that Narlikar's death
and the end of his tetrapod dream had shown Ahmed Sinai the unreliable
nature of human relationships; he had decided to divest himself of all such
ties. He took to rising before dawn and locking himself with his current
Fernanda or Flory in his downstairs office, outside whose windows the two
evergreen trees he planted to commemorate my birth and the Monkey's
had already grown tall enough to keep out most of the daylight when it
arrived. Since we hardly ever dared disturb him, my father entered a deep
solitude, a condition so unusual in our overcrowded country as to border on
abnormality; he began to refuse food from our kitchen and to live on cheap
rubbish brought daily by his girl in a tiffin-carrier, lukewarm parathas and
soggy vegetable samosas and bottles of fizzy drinks. A strange perfume
wafted out from under his office door; Amina took it for the odour of stale air
and second-rate food; but it's my belief that an old scent had returned in a
stronger form, the old aroma of failure which had hung about him from the
earliest days.
He sold off the many tenements or chawls which he'd bought cheaply
on his arrival in Bombay, and on which our family's fortunes had been
based. Freeing himself from all business connections with human
beings-even his anonymous tenants in Kurla and Worli, in Matunga and
Mazagaon and Mahim-he liquefied his assets, and entered the rarefied and
abstract air of financial speculation. Locked in his office, in those days, his
one contact with the outside world (apart from his poor Fernandas) was his
telephone. He spent his day deep in conference with this instrument, as it
put his money into such-andsuch shares or soandso stocks, as it invested
in government bonds or bear market equities, selling long or short as he
commanded… and invariably getting the best price of the day. In a streak
of good fortune comparable only to my mother's success on the horses all
those years previously, my father and his telephone took the stock
exchange by storm, a feat made more remarkable by Ahmed Sinai's
constantly-worsening drinking habits. Djinn-sodden, he nevertheless
managed to ride high on the abstract undulations of the money market,
reacting to its emotional, unpredictable shifts and changes the way a lover
does to his beloved's slightest whim… he could sense when a share would
rise, when the peak would come; and he always got out before the fall. This
was how his plunge into the abstract solitude of his telephonic days was
disguised, how his financial coups obscured his steady divorce from reality;
but under cover of his growing riches, his condition was getting steadily
Eventually the last of his calico-skirted secretaries quit, being unable to
tolerate life in an atmosphere so thin and abstract as to make breathing
difficult; and now my father sent for Mary Pereira and coaxed her with,
'We're friends, Mary, aren't we, you and I?', to which the poor woman
replied, 'Yes, sahib, I know; you will look after me when I'm old,' and
promised to find him a replacement. The next day she brought him her
sister, Alice Pereira, who had worked for all kinds of bosses and had an
almost infinite tolerance of men. Alice and Mary had long since made up
their quarrel over Joe D'Costa; the younger woman was often upstairs with
us at the end of the day, bringing her qualities of sparkle and sauciness into
the somewhat oppressive air of our home. I was fond of her, and it was
through her that we learned of my father's greatest excesses, whose
victims were a budgerigar and a mongrel dog.
By July Ahmed Sinai had entered an almost permanent state of
intoxication; one day, Alice reported, he had suddenly gone off for a drive,
making her fear for his life, and returned somehow or other with a shrouded
bird-cage in which, he said, was his new acquisition, a bulbul or Indian
nightingale. 'For God knows how long,' Alice confided, 'he tells me all about
bulbuls; all fairy stories of its singing and what-all; how this Calipha was
captivated by its song, how the singing could make longer the beauty of the
night; God knows what the poor man was babbling, quoting Persian and
Arabic, I couldn't make top or bottom of it. But then he took off the cover,
and in the cage is nothing but a talking budgie, some crook in Chor Bazaar
must have painted the feathers! Now how could I tell the poor man, him so
excited with his bird and all, sitting there calling out, 'Sing, little bulbul!
Sing!'… and it's so funny, just before it died from the paint it just repeated
his line back at him, straight out like that-not squawky like a bird, you know,
but in his own self-same voice: Sing! Little bulbul, sing!'
But there was worse on the way. A few days later I was sitting with
Alice on the servants' spiral iron staircase when she said, 'Baba, I don't
know what got into your daddy now. All day sitting down there cursing
curses at the dog!'
The mongrel bitch we named Sherri had strolled up to the two-storey
hillock earlier that year and simply adopted us, not knowing that life was a
dangerous business for animals on Methwold's Estate; and in his cups
Ahmed Sinai made her the guinea-pig for his experiments with the family
This was that same fictional curse which he'd dreamed up to impress
William Methwold, but now in the liquescent chambers of his mind the
djinns persuaded him that it was no fiction, that he'd just forgotten the
words; so he spent long hours in his insanely solitary office experimenting
with formulae… 'Such things he is cursing the poor creature with!' Alice
said, 'I wonder she don't drop down dead straight off!'
But Sherri just sat there in a corner and grinned stupidly back at him,
refusing to turn purple or break out in boils, until one evening he erupted
from his office and ordered Amina to drive us all to Hornby Vellard. Sherri
came too. We promenaded, wearing puzzled expressions, up and down the
Vellard, and then he said, 'Get in the car, all of you.' Only he wouldn't let
Sherri in… as the Rover accelerated away with my father at the wheel she
began to chase after us, while the Monkey yelled Daddydaddy and Amina
pleaded Janumplease and I sat in mute horror, we had to drive for miles,
almost all the way to Santa Cruz airport, before he had his revenge on the
bitch for refusing to succumb to his sorceries… she burst an artery as she
ran and died spouting blood from her mouth and her behind, under the
gaze of a hungry cow.
The Brass Monkey (who didn't even like dogs) cried for a week; my
mother became worried about dehydration and made her drink gallons of
water, pouring it into her as if she were a lawn, Mary said; but I liked the
new puppy my father bought me for my tenth birthday, out of some flicker
of guilt perhaps: her name was the Baroness Simki von der Heiden, and
she had a pedigree chock-full of champion Alsatians, although in time my
mother discovered that that was as false as the mock-bulbul, as imaginary
as my father's forgotten curse and Mughal ancestry; and after six months
she died of venereal disease. We had no pets after that.
My father was not the only one to approach my tenth birthday with his
head lost in the clouds of his private dreams; because here is Mary Pereira,
indulging in her fondness for making chutneys, kasaundies and pickles of
all descriptions, and despite the cheery presence of her sister Alice there is
something haunted in her face.
'Hullo, Mary!' Padma-who seems to have developed a soft spot for my
criminal ayah-greets her return to centre-stage. 'So what's eating her?'
This, Padma: plagued by her nightmares of assaults by Joseph
D'Costa, Mary was finding it harder and harder to get sleep. Knowing what
dreams had in store for her, she forced herself to stay awake; dark rings
appeared under her eyes, which were covered in a thin, filmy glaze; and
gradually the blurriness of her perceptions merged waking and dreaming
into something very like each other… a dangerous condition to get into,
Padma. Not only does your work suffer but things start escaping from your
dreams.. .Joseph D'Costa had, in fact, managed to cross the blurred
frontier, and now appeared in Buckingham Villa not as a nightmare, but as
a full-fledged ghost. Visible (at this time) only to Mary Pereira, he began
haunting her in all the rooms of our home, which, to her horror and shame,
he treated as casually as if it were his own. She saw him in the
drawing-room amongst cut-glass vases and Dresden figurines and the
rotating shadows of ceiling fans, lounging in soft armchairs with his long
raggedy legs sprawling over the arms; his eyes were filled up with
egg-whites and there were holes in his feet where the snake had bitten
him. Once she saw him in Amina Begum's bed in the afternoon, lying down
cool as cucumber right next to my sleeping mother, and she burst out,
'Hey, you! Go on out from there! What do you think, you're some sort of
lord?'-but she only succeeded in awaking my puzzled mother. Joseph's
ghost plagued Mary wordlessly; and the worst of it was that she found
herself growing accustomed to him, she found forgotten sensations of
fondness nudging at her insides, and although she told herself it was a
crazy thing to do she began to be filled with a kind of nostalgic love for the
spirit of the dead hospital porter.
But the love was not returned; Joseph's egg-white eyes remained
expressionless; his lips remained set in an accusing, sardonic grin; and at
last she realized that this new manifestation was no different from her old
dream-Joseph (although it never assaulted her), and that if she was ever to
be free of him she would have to do the unthinkable thing and confess her
crime to the world. But she didn't confess, which was probably my
fault-because Mary loved me like her own unconceived and inconceivable
son, and to make her confession would have hurt me badly, so for my sake
she suffered the ghost of her conscience and stood haunted in the kitchen
(my father had sacked the cook one djinn-soaked evening) cooking our
dinner and becoming, accidentally, the embodiment of the opening line of
my Latin textbook, Ora Maritima: 'By the side of the sea, the ayah cooked
the meal.' Ora maritima, ancilla cenam parat. Look into the eyes of a
cooking ayah, and you will see more than textbooks ever know.
On my tenth birthday, many chickens were coming home to roost. On
my tenth birthday, it was clear that the freak weather-storms, floods,
hailstones from a cloudless sky-which had succeeded the intolerable heat
of 1956, had managed to wreck the second Five Year Plan. The
government had been forced-although the elections were just around the
corner-to announce to the world that it could accept no more development
loans unless the lenders were willing to wait indefinitely for repayment. (But
let me not overstate the case: although the production of finished steel
reached only 2.4 million tons by the Plan's end in 1961, and although,
during those five years, the number of landless and unemployed masses
actually increased, so that it was greater than it had ever been under the
British Raj, there were also substantial gains. The production of iron ore
was almost doubled; power capacity did double; coal production leaped
from thirty-eight million to fifty-four million tons. Five billion yards of cotton
textiles were produced each year. Also large numbers of bicycles, machine
tools, diesel engines, power pumps and ceiling fans. But I can't help ending
on a downbeat: illiteracy survived unscathed; the population continued to
On my tenth birthday, we were visited by my uncle Hanif, who made
himself excessively unpopular at Methwold's Estate by booming cheerily,
'Elections coming! Watch out for the Communists!'
On my tenth birthday, when my uncle Hanif made his gaffe, my mother
(who had begun disappearing on mysterious 'shopping trips') dramatically
and unaccountably blushed.
On my tenth birthday, I was given an Alsatian puppy with a false
pedigree who would shortly die of syphilis.
On my tenth birthday, everyone at Methwold's Estate tried hard to be
cheerful, but beneath this thin veneer everyone was possessed by the
same thought: 'Ten years, my God! Where have they gone? What have we
On my tenth birthday, old man Ibrahim announced his support for the
Maha Gujarat Parishad; as far as possession of the city of Bombay was
concerned, he nailed his colours to the losing side.
On my tenth birthday, my suspicions aroused by a blush, I spied on my
mother's thoughts; and what I saw there led to my beginning to follow her,
to my becoming a private eye as daring as Bombay's legendary Dom
Minto, and to important discoveries at and in the vicinity of the Pioneer
On my tenth birthday, I had a party, which was attended by my family,
which had forgotten how to be gay, by classmates from the Cathedral
School, who had been sent by their parents, and by a number of mildly
bored girl swimmers from the Breach Candy Pools, who permitted the
Brass Monkey to fool around with them and pinch their bulging
musculatures; as for adults, there were Mary and Alice Pereira, and the
Ibrahims and Homi Catrack and Uncle
Hanif and Pia Aunty, and Lila Sabarmati to whom the eyes of every
schoolboy (and also Homi Catrack) remained firmly glued, to the
considerable irritation of Pia. But the only member of the hilltop gang to
attend was loyal Sonny Ibrahim, who had defied an embargo placed upon
the festivities by an embittered Evie Burns. He gave me a message: 'Evie
says to tell you you're out of the gang.'
On my tenth birthday, Evie, Eyeslice, Hairoil and even Cyrus-the-great
stormed my private hiding-place; they occupied the clock-tower, and
deprived me of its shelter.
On my tenth birthday, Sonny looked upset, and the Brass Monkey
detached herself from her swimmers and became utterly furious with Evie
Burns. Til teach her,' she told me. 'Don't you worry, big brother; I'll show
that one, all right.'
On my tenth birthday, abandoned by one set of children, I learned that
five hundred and eighty-one others were celebrating their birthdays, too;
which was how I understood the secret of my original hour of birth; and,
having been expelled from one gang, I decided to form my own, a gang
which was spread over the length and breadth of the country, and whose
headquarters were behind my eyebrows.
And on my tenth birthday, I stole the initials of the Metro Cub
Club-which were also the initials of the touring English cricket team-and
gave them to the new Midnight Children's Conference, my very own M.C.C.
That's how it was when I was ten: nothing but trouble outside my head,
nothing but miracles inside it.
At the Pioneer Cafe
No colours except green and black the walls are green the sky is black
(there is no roof) the stars are green the Widow is green but her hair is
black as black. The Widow sits on a high high chair the chair is green the
seat is black the Widow's hair has a centre-parting it is green on the left
and on the right black. High as the sky the chair is green the seat is black
the Widow's arm is long as death its skin is green the fingernails are long
and sharp and black. Between the walls the children green the walls are
green the Widow's arm comes snaking down the snake is green the
children scream the fingernails are black they scratch the Widow's arm is
hunting see the children run and scream the Widow's hand curls round
them green and black. Now one by one the children mmff are stifled quiet
the Widow's hand is lifting one by one the children green their blood is
black unloosed by cutting fingernails it splashes black on walls (of green)
as one by one the curling hand lifts children high as sky the sky is black
there are no stars the Widow laughs her tongue is green but her teeth are
black. And children torn in two in Widow hands which rolling rolling halves
of children roll them into little balls the balls are green the night is black.
And little balls fly into night between the walls the children shriek as one by
one the Widow's hand. And in a corner the Monkey and I (the walls are
green the shadows black) cowering crawling wide high walls green fading
into black there is no roof and Widow's hand comes onebyone the children
scream and mmff and little balls and hand and scream and mmff and
splashing stains of black. Now only she and I and no more screams the
Widow's hand comes hunting hunting the skin is green the nails are black
towards the corner hunting hunting while we shrink closer into the corner
our skin is green our fear is black and now the Hand comes reaching
reaching and she my sister pushes me out out of the corner while she stays
cowering staring the hand the nails are curling scream and mmff and
splash of black and up into the high as sky and laughing Widow tearing I
am rolling into little balls the balls are green and out into the night the night
is black…
The fever broke today. For two days (I'm told) Padma has been sitting
up all night, placing cold wet flannels on my forehead, holding me through
my shivers and dreams of Widow's hands; for two days she has been
blaming herself for her potion of unknown herbs. 'But,' I reassure her, 'this
time, it wasn't anything to do with that.' I recognize this fever; it's come up
from inside me and from nowhere else; like a bad stink, it's oozed through
my cracks. I caught exactly such a fever on my tenth birthday, and spent
two days in bed; now, as my memories return to leak out of me, this old
fever has come back, too. 'Don't worry,' I say, 'I caught these germs almost
twenty-one years ago.'
We are not alone. It is morning at the pickle-factory; they have brought
my son to see me. Someone (never mind who) stands beside Padma at my
bedside, holding him in her arms. 'Baba, thank God you are better, you
don't know what you were talking in your sickness.' Someone speaks
anxiously, trying to force her way into my story ahead of time; but it won't
work… someone, who founded this pickle-factory and its ancillary bottling
works, who has been looking after my impenetrable child, just as once…
wait on! She nearly wormed it out of me then, but fortunately I've still got
my wits about me, fever or no fever! Someone will just have to step back
and remain cloaked in anonymity until it's her turn; and that won't be until
the very end. I turn my eyes away from her to look at Padma. 'Do not think,'
I admonish her, 'that because I had a fever, the things I told you were not
completely true. Everything happened just as I described.'
'O God, you and your stories,' she cries, 'all day, all night-you have
made yourself sick! Stop some time, na, what will it hurt?' I set my lips
obstinately; and now she, with a sudden change of mood: 'So, tell me now,
mister: is there anything you want7'
'Green chutney,' I request, 'Bright green-green as grasshoppers.' And
someone who cannot be named remembers and tells Padma (speaking in
the soft voice which is only used at sickbeds and funerals), 'I know what he
… Why, at this crucial instant, when all manner of things were . waiting
to be described-when the Pioneer Cafe was so close, and the rivalry of
knees and nose-did I introduce a mere condiment into the conversation?
(Why do I waste time, in this account, on a humble preserve, when I could
be describing the elections of 1957-when all India is waiting, twenty-one
years ago, to vote?) Because I sniffed the air; and scented, behind the
solicitous expressions of my visitors, a sharp whiff of danger. I intended to
defend myself; but I required the assistance of chutney…
I have not shown you the factory in daylight until now. This is what has
remained undescribed: through green-tinged glass windows, my room
looks out on to an iron catwalk and then down to the cooking-floor, where
copper vats bubble and seethe, where strong-armed women stand atop
wooden steps, working long-handled ladles through the knife-tang of pickle
fumes; while (looking the other way, through a green-tinged window on the
world) railway tracks shine dully in morning sun, bridged over at regular
intervals by the messy gantries of the electrification system. In daylight, our
saffron-and-green neon goddess does not dance above the factory doors;
we switch her off to save power. But electric trains are using power:
yellow-and-brown local trains clatter south towards Churchgate Station
from Dadar and Borivli, from Kurla and Bassein Road. Human flies hang in
thick white-trousered dusters from the trains; I do not deny that, within the
factory walls, you may also see some flies. But there are also
compensating lizards, hanging stilly upside-down on the ceiling, their jowls
reminiscent of the Kathiawar peninsula… sounds, too, have been waiting to
be heard: bubbling of vats, loud singing, coarse imprecations, bawdy
humour of fuzz-armed women; the sharp-nosed, thin-lipped admonitions of
overseers; the all-pervasive clank of pickle-jars from the adjacent
bottling-works; and rush of trains, and the buzzing (infrequent, but
inevitable) of flies… while grasshopper-green chutney is being extracted
from its vat, to be brought on a wiped-clean plate with saffron and green
stripes around the rim, along with another plate piled high with snacks from
the local Irani shop; while what-has-now-been-shown goes on as usual,
and what-can-now-be-heard fills the air (to say nothing of what can be
smelled), I, alone in bed in my office realize with a start of alarm that
outings are being suggested.
'… When you are stronger,' someone who cannot be named is saying,
'a day at Elephanta, why not, a nice ride in a motor-launch, and all those
caves with so-beautiful carvings; or Juhu Beach, for swimming and
coconut-milk and camel-races; or Aarey Milk Colony, even!…' And Padma:
'Fresh air, yes, and the little one will like to be with his father.' And
someone, patting my son on his head: 'There, of course, we will all go. Nice
picnic; nice day out. Baba, it will do you good…'
As chutney arrives, bearer-borne, in my room, I hasten to put a stop to
these suggestions. 'No,' I refuse. 'I have work to do.' And I see a look pass
between Padma and someone; and I see that I've been right to be
suspicious. Because I've been tricked by offers of picnics once before!
Once before, false smiles and offers of Aarey Milk Colony have fooled me
into going out of doors and into a motor car; and then before I knew it there
were hands seizing me, there were hospital corridors and doctors and
nurses holding me in place while over my nose a mask poured anaesthetic
over me and a voice said, Count now, count to ten… I know what they are
planning. 'Listen,' I tell them, 'I don't need doctors.'
And Padma, 'Doctors? Who is talking about…' But she is fooling
nobody; and with a little smile I say, 'Here: everybody: take some chutney. I
must tell you some important things.'
And while chutney-the same chutney which, back in 1957, my ayah
Mary Pereira had made so perfectly; the grasshopper-green chutney which
is forever associated with those days-carried them back into the world of
my past, while chutney mellowed them and made them receptive, I spoke
to them, gently, persuasively, and by a mixture of condiment and oratory
kept myself out of the hands of the pernicious green-medicine men. I said:
'My son will understand. As much as for any living being, I'm telling my
story for him, so that afterwards, when I've lost my struggle against cracks,
he will know. Morality, judgment, character… it all starts with memory…
and I am keeping carbons.'
Green chutney on chilli-pakoras, disappearing down someone's gullet;
grasshopper-green on tepid chapatis, vanishing behind Padma's lips. I see
them begin to weaken, and press on. 'I told you the truth,' I say yet again,
'Memory's truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects,
eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in
the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent
version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else's
version more than his own.'
Yes: I said 'sane'. I knew what they were thinking: 'Plenty of children
invent imaginary friends; but one thousand and one! That's just crazy!' The
midnight children shook even Padma's faith in my narrative; but I brought
her round, and now there's no more talk of outings.
How I persuaded them: by talking about my son, who needed to know
my story; by shedding light on the workings of memory; and by other
devices, some naively honest, others wily as foxes. 'Even Muhammad,' I
said, 'at first believed himself insane: do you think the notion never crossed
my mind? But the Prophet had his Khadija, his Abu-Bakr, to reassure him
of the genuineness of his Calling; nobody betrayed him into the hands of
asylum-doctors.' By now, the green chutney was filling them with thoughts
of years ago; I saw guilt appear on their faces, and shame. 'What is truth?' I
waxed rhetorical, 'What is sanity? Did Jesus rise up from the grave? Do
Hindus not accept-Padma-that the world is a kind of dream; that Brahma
dreamed, is dreaming the universe; that we only see dimly through that
dream-web, which is Maya. Maya,' I adopted a haughty, lecturing tone,
'may be defined as all that is illusory; as trickery, artifice and deceit.
Apparitions, phantasms, mirages, sleight-of-hand, the seeming form of
things: all these are parts of Maya. If I say that certain things took place
which you, lost in Brahma's dream, find hard to believe, then which of us is
right? Have some more chutney,' I added graciously, taking a generous
helping myself. 'It tastes very good.'
Padma began to cry. 'I never said I didn't believe, she wept. 'Of
course, every man must tell his story in his own true way; but…'
'But,' I interrupted conclusively, 'you also-don't you-want to know what
happens? About the hands that danced without touching, and the knees?
And later, the curious baton of Commander Sabarmati, and of course the
Widow? And the Children-what became of them?'
And Padma nodded. So much for doctors and asylums; I have been
left to write. (Alone, except for Padma at my feet.) Chutney and oratory,
theology and curiosity: these are the things that saved me. And one
more-call it education, or class-origins; Mary Pereira would have called it
my 'brought-up'. By my show of erudition and by the purity of my accents, I
shamed them into feeling unworthy of judging me; not a very noble deed,
but when the ambulance is waiting round the corner, all's fair. (It was: I
smelled it.) Still-I've had a valuable warning. It's a dangerous business to
try and impose one's view of things on others.
Padma: if you're a little uncertain of my reliability, well, a little
uncertainty is no bad thing. Cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women, too.
Meanwhile, I am ten years old, and working out how to hide in the boot
of my mother's car.
That was the month when Purushottam the sadhu (whom I had never
told about my inner life) finally despaired of his stationary existence and
contracted the suicidal hiccups which assailed him for an entire year,
frequently lifting him bodily several inches off the ground so that his
water-balded head cracked alarmingly against the garden tap, and finally
killed him, so that one evening at the cocktail hour he toppled sideways
with his legs still locked in the lotus position, leaving my mother's verrucas
without any hope of salvation; when I would often stand in the garden of
Buckingham Villa in the evenings, watching the Sputniks cross the sky, and
feeling as simultaneously exalted and isolated as little Laika, the first and
still the only dog to be shot into space (the Baroness Simki von der Heiden,
shortly to contract syphilis, sat beside me following the bright pinprick of
Sputnik II with her Alsatian eyes-it was a time of great canine interest in the
space race); when Evie Burns and her gang occupied my clocktower, and
washing-chests had been both forbidden and outgrown, so that for the sake
of secrecy and sanity I was obliged to limit my visits to the midnight children
to our private, silent hour-I communed with them every midnight, and only
at midnight, during that hour which is reserved for miracles, which is
somehow outside time; and when-to get to the point-I resolved to prove,
with the evidence of my own eyes, the terrible thing I had glimpsed sitting in
the front of my mother's thoughts. Ever since I lay hidden in a
washing-chest and heard two scandalous syllables, I had been suspecting
my mother of secrets; my incursions into her thought processes confirmed
my suspicions; so it was with a hard glint in my eye, and a steely
determination, that I visited Sonny Ibrahim one afternoon after school, with
the intention of enlisting his help.
I found Sonny in his room, surrounded by posters of Spanish bullfights,
morosely playing Indoor Cricket by himself. When he saw me he cried
unhappily, 'Hey man I'm damn sorry about Evie man she won't listen to
anyone man what the hell'd you do to her anyway?'… But I held up a
dignified hand, commanding and being accorded silence.
'No time for that now, man,' I said. 'The thing is, I need to know how to
open locks without keys.'
A true fact about Sonny Ibrahim: despite all his bullfighting dreams, his
genius lay in the realm of mechanical things. For some time now, he had
taken on the job of maintaining all the bikes on Methwold's Estate in return
for gifts of comic-books and a free supply of fizzy drinks. Even Evelyn Lilith
Burns gave her beloved Indiabike into his care. All machines, it seemed,
were won over by the innocent delight with which he caressed their moving
parts; no contraption could resist his ministrations. To put it another way:
Sonny Ibrahim had become (out of a spirit of pure inquiry) an expert at
picking locks.
Now offered a chance of demonstrating his loyalty to me, his eyes
brightened. 'Jus' show me the lock, man! Lead me to the thing!'
When we were sure we were unobserved, we crept along the driveway
between Buckingham Villa and Sonny's Sans Souci; we stood behind my
family's old Rover; and I pointed at the boot. 'That's the one,' I stated. 'I
need to be able to open it from the outside, and the inside also.'
Sonny's eyes widened. 'Hey, what're you up to, man? You running
away from home secretly and all?'
Finger to lips, I adopted a mysterious expression. 'Can't explain,
Sonny,' I said solemnly, 'Top-drawer classified information.'
'Wow, man,' Sonny said, and showed me in thirty seconds how to
open the boot with the aid of a strip of thin pink plastic. 'Take it, man,' said
Sonny Ibrahim, 'You need it more than me.'
Once upon a time there was a mother who, in order to become a
mother, had agreed to change her name; who set herself the task of falling
in love with her husband bit-by-bit, but who could never manage to love
one part, the part, curiously enough, which made possible her motherhood;
whose feet were hobbled by verrucas and whose shoulders were stooped
beneath the accumulating guilts of the world; whose husband's unlovable
organ failed to recover from the effects of a freeze; and who, like her
husband, finally succumbed to the mysteries of telephones, spending long
minutes listening to the words of wrong-number callers… shortly after my
tenth birthday (when I had recovered from the fever which has recently
returned to plague me after an interval of nearly twenty-one years), Amina
Sinai resumed her recent practice of leaving suddenly, and always
immediately after a wrong number, on urgent shopping trips. But now,
hidden in the boot of the Rover, there travelled with her a stowaway, who
lay hidden and protected by stolen cushions, clutching a thin strip of pink
plastic in his hand.
O, the suffering one undergoes in the name of righteousness! The
bruising and the bumps! The breathing-in of rubbery boot-air through jolted
teeth! And constantly, the fear of discovery… 'Suppose she really does go
shopping? Will the boot suddenly fly open? Will live chickens be flung in,
feet tied together, wings clipped, fluttery pecky birds invading my
hidey-hole? Will she see, my God, I'll have to be silent for a week!' My
knees drawn in beneath my chin-which was protected-against knee-bumps
by an old faded cushion-I voyaged into the unknown in the vehicle of
maternal perfidy. My mother was a cautious driver; she went slowly, and
turned corners with care; but afterwards I was bruised black and blue and
Mary Pereira berated me soundly for getting into fights: 'Arre God what a
thing it's a wonder they didn't smash you to pieces completely my God
what will you grow up into you bad black boy you haddi-phaelwan you
skin-and-bone wrestler!'
To take my mind off the jolting darkness I entered, with extreme
caution, that part of my mother's mind which was in charge of driving
operations, and as a result was able to follow our route. (And, also, to
discern in my mother's habitually tidy mind an alarming degree of disorder.
I was already beginning, in those days, to classify people by their degree of
internal tidiness, and to discover that I preferred the messier type, whose
thoughts, spilling constantly into one another so that anticipatory images of
food interfered with the serious business of earning a living and sexual
fantasies were superimposed upon their political musings, bore a closer
relationship to my own pell-mell tumble of a brain, in which everything ran
into everything else and the white dot of consciousness jumped about like a
wild flea from one thing to the next… Amina Sinai, whose assiduous
ordering-instincts had provided her with a brain of almost abnormal
neatness, was a curious recruit to the ranks of confusion.)
We headed north, past Breach Candy Hospital and Mahalaxmi
Temple, north along Horaby Vellard past Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium and
Haji Ali's island tomb, north off what had once been (before the dream of
the first William Methwold became a reality) the island of Bombay. We were
heading towards the anonymous mass of tenements and fishing-villages
and textile-plants and film-studios that the city became in these northern
zones (not far from here! Not at all far from where I sit within view of local
trains!)… an area which was, in those days, utterly unknown to me; I
rapidly became disoriented and was then obliged to admit to myself that I
was lost. At last, down an unprepossessing side-street full of
drainpipe-sleepers and bicycle-repair shops and tattered men and boys, we
stopped. Clusters of children assailed my mother as she descended; she,
who could never shoo away a fly, handed out small coins, thus enlarging
the crowd enormously. Eventually, she struggled away from them and
headed down the street; there was a boy pleading, 'Gib the car poliss,
Begum? Number one A-class poliss, Begum? I watch car until you come,
Begum? I very fine watchman, ask anyone!'… In some panic, I listened in
for her reply. How could I get out of this boot under the eyes of a
guardian-urchin? There was the embarrassment of it; and besides, my
emergence would have created a sensation in the street… my mother said,
'No.' She was disappearing down the street; the would-be polisher and
watchman gave up eventually; there was a moment when all eyes turned to
watch the passing of a second car, just in case it, too, stopped to disgorge
a lady who gave away coins as if they were nuts; and in that instant (I had
been looking through several pairs of eyes to help me choose my moment)
I performed my trick with the pink plastic and was out in the street beside a
closed car-boot in a flash. Setting my lips grimly, and ignoring all
outstretched palms, I set off in the direction my mother had taken, a
pocket-sized sleuth with the nose of a bloodhound and a loud drum
pounding in the place where my heart should have been… and arrived, a
few minutes later, at the Pioneer Cafe.
Dirty glass in the window; dirty glasses on the tables-the Pioneer Cafe
was not much when compared to the Gaylords and Kwalitys of the city's
more glamorous parts; a real rutputty joint, with painted boards proclaiming
lovely lassi and funtabulous falooda and bhel-puribombay fashion, with filmi
playback music blaring out from a cheap radio by the cash-till, a long
narrow greeny room lit by flickering neon, a forbidding world in which
broken-toothed men sat at reccine-covered tables with crumpled cards and
expressionless eyes. But for all its grimy decrepitude, the Pioneer Cafe was
a repository of many dreams. Early each morning, it would be full of the
best-looking ne'er-do-wells in the city, all the goondas and taxi-drivers and
petty smugglers and racecourse tipsters who had once, long ago, arrived in
the city dreaming of film stardom, of grotesquely vulgar homes and black
money payments; because every morning at six, the major studios would
send minor functionaries to the Pioneer Cafe to rope in extras for the day's
shooting. For half an hour each morning, when D. W. Rama Studios and
Filmistan Talkies and R К Films were taking their pick, the Pioneer was the
focus of all the city's ambitions and hopes; then the studio scouts left,
accompanied by the day's lucky ones, and the Cafe emptied into its
habitual, neon-lit torpor. Around lunchtime, a different set of dreams walked
into the Cafe, to spend the afternoon hunched over cards and Lovely Lassi
and rough bins-different men with different hopes: I didn't know it then, but
the afternoon Pioneer was a notorious Communist Party hangout.
It was afternoon; I saw my mother enter the Pioneer Cafe; not daring
to follow her, I stayed in the street, pressing my nose against a
spider-webbed corner of the grubby window-pane; ignoring the curious
glances I got-because my whites, although boot-stained, were nevertheless
starched; my hair, although boot-rumpled, was well-oiled; my shoes,
scuffed as they were, were still the plimsolls of a prosperous child-I
followed her with my eyes as she went hesitantly and verruca-hobbled past
rickety tables and hard-eyed men; I saw my mother sit down at a shadowed
table at the far end of the narrow cavern; and then I saw the man who rose
to greet her.
The skin on his face hung in folds which revealed that he had once
been overweight; his teeth were stained with paan. He wore a clean white
kurta with Lucknow-work around the buttonholes. He had long hair,
poetically long, hanging lankly over his ears; but the top of his head was
bald and shiny. Forbidden syllables echoed in my ears: Na. Dir. Nadir. I
realized that I wished desperately that I'd never resolved to come.
Once upon a time there was an underground husband who fled,
leaving loving messages of divorce; a poet whose verses didn't even
rhyme, whose life was saved by pie-dogs. After a lost decade he emerged
from goodness-knows-where, his skin hanging loose in memory of his
erstwhile plumpness; and, like his once-upon-a-time wife, he had acquired
a new name… Nadir Khan was now Qasim Khan, official candidate of the
official Communist Party of India. Lal Qasim. Qasim the Red. Nothing is
without meaning: not without reason are blushes red. My uncle Hanif said,
'Watch out for the Communists!' and my mother turned scarlet; politics and
emotions were united in her cheeks… through the dirty, square, glassy
cinema-screen of the Pioneer Gate's window, I watched Amina Sinai and
the no-longer-Nadir play out their love scene; they performed with the
ineptitude of genuine amateurs.
On the reccine-topped table, a packet of cigarettes: State Express
555. Numbers, too, have significance: 420, the name given to frauds; 1001,
the number of night, of magic, of alternative realities-a number beloved of
poets and detested by politicians, for whom all alternative versions of the
world are threats; and 555, which for years I believed to be the most
sinister of numbers, the cipher of the Devil, the Great Beast, Shaitan
himself! (Cyrus-the-great told me so, and I didn't contemplate the possibility
of his being wrong. But he was: the true daemonic number is not 555, but
666: yet, in my mind, a dark aura hangs around the three fives to this
day.)… But I am getting carried away. Suffice to say that Nadir-Qasim's
preferred brand was the aforesaid State Express; that the figure five was
repeated three times on the packet; and that its manufacturers were W.D.
& H.O. Wills. Unable to look into my mother's face, I concentrated on the
cigarette-packet, cutting from two-shot of lovers to this extreme close-up of
But now hands enter the frame-first the hands of Nadir-Qasim, their
poetic softness somewhat callused these days; hands flickering like
candle-flames, creeping forward across reccine, then jerking back; next a
woman's hands, black as jet, inching forwards like elegant spiders; hands
lifting up, off reccine tabletop, hands hovering above three fives, beginning
the strangest of dances, rising, falling, circling one another, weaving in and
out between each other, hands longing for touch, hands outstretching
tensing quivering demanding to be-but always at last jerking back,
fingertips avoiding fingertips, because what I'm watching here on my dirty
glass cinema-screen is, after ail, an Indian movie, in which physical contact
is forbidden lest it corrupt the watching flower of Indian youth; and there are
feet beneath the table and faces above it, feet advancing towards feet,
faces tumbling softly towards faces, but jerking away all of a sudden in a
cruel censor's cut… two strangers, each bearing a screen-name which is
not the name of their birth, act out their half-unwanted roles. I left the movie
before the end, to slip back into the boot of the unpolished unwatched
Rover, wishing I hadn't gone to see it, unable to resist wanting to watch it
all over again.
What I saw at the very end: my mother's hands raising a half-empty
glass of Lovely Lassi; my mother's lips pressing gently, nostalgically
against the mottled glass; my mother's hands handing the glass to her
Nadir-Qasim; who also applied, to the opposite side of the glass, his own,
poetic mouth. So it was that life imitated bad art, and my uncle Hanif's
sister brought the eroticism of the indirect kiss into the green neon
dinginess of the Pioneer Cafe.
To sum up: in the high summer of 1957, at the peak of an election
campaign, Amina Sinai blushed inexplicably at a chance mention of the
Communist Party of India. Her son-in whose turbulent thoughts there was
still room for one more obsession, because a ten-year-old brain can
accommodate any number of fixations-followed her into the north of the
city, and spied on a pain-filled scene of impotent love. (Now that Ahmed
Sinai was frozen up, Nadir-Qasim didn't even have a sexual disadvantage;
torn between a husband who locked himself in an office and cursed
mongrels, and an ex-husband who had once, lovingly, played games of
hit-the-spittoon, Amina Sinai was reduced to glass-kissery and
Questions: did I ever, after that time, employ the services of pink
plastic? Did I return to the cafe of extras and Marxists? Did I confront my
mother with the heinous nature of her offence-because what mother has
any business to-never mind about what once-upon-a-time-in full view of her
only son, how could she how could she how could she? Answers: I did not;
I did not; I did not.
What I did: when she went on 'shopping trips', I lodged myself in her
thoughts. No-longer anxious to gain the evidence of my own eyes, I rode in
my mother's head, up to the north of the city; in this unlikely incognito, I sat
in the Pioneer Cafe and heard conversations about the electoral prospects
of Qasim the Red; disembodied but wholly present, I trailed my mother as
she accompanied Qasim on his rounds, up and down the tenements of the
district (were they the same chawls which my father had recently sold,
abandoning his tenants to their fate?), as she helped him to get water-taps
fixed and pestered landlords to initiate repairs and disinfections. Amina
Sinai moved amongst the destitute on behalf of the Communist Party-a fact
which never failed to leave her amazed. Perhaps she did it because of the
growing impoverishment of her own life; but at the age of ten I wasn't
disposed to be sympathetic; and in my own way, I began to dream dreams
of revenge.
The legendary Caliph, Haroun al-Rashid, is said to have enjoyed
moving incognito amongst the people of Baghdad; I, Saleem Sinai, have
also travelled in secret through the byways of my city, but I can't say I had
much fun.
Matter of fact descriptions of the outre and bizarre, and their reverse,
namely heightened, stylized versions of the everyday-these techniques,
which are also attitudes of mind, I have lifted-or perhaps absorbed-from the
most formidable of the midnight children, my rival, my fellow-changeling,
the supposed son of Wee Willie Winkie: Shiva-of-the-knees. They were
techniques which, in his case, were applied entirely without conscious
thought, and their effect was to create a picture of the world of startling
uniformity, in which one could mention casually, in passing as it were, the
dreadful murders of prostitutes which began to fill the gutter-press in those
days (while the bodies filled the gutters), while lingering passionately on the
intricate details of a particular hand of cards. Death, and defeat at rummy
were all of a piece to Shiva; hence his terrifying, nonchalant violence, which
in the end… but to begin with beginnings:
Although, admittedly, it's my own fault, I'm bound to say that if you
think of me purely as a radio, you'll only be grasping half the truth. Thought
is as often pictorial or purely emblematic as verbal; and anyway, in order to
communicate with, and understand, my colleagues in the Midnight
Children's Conference, it was necessary for me quickly to advance beyond
the verbal stage. Arriving in their infinitely various minds, I was obliged to
get beneath the surface veneer of front-of-mind thoughts in
incomprehensible tongues, with the obvious (and previously demonstrated)
effect that they became aware of my presence. Remembering the dramatic
effect such an awareness had had on Evie Burns, I went to some pains to
alleviate the shock of my entry. In all cases, my standard first transmission
was an image of my face, smiling in what I trusted was a soothing, friendly,
confident and leader-like fashion, and of a hand stretched out in friendship.
There were, however, teething troubles.
It took me a little while to realize that my picture of myself was heavily
distorted by my own self-consciousness about my appearance; so that the
portrait I sent across the thought-waves of the nation, grinning like a
Cheshire cat, was about as hideous as a portrait could be, featuring a
wondrously enlarged nose, a completely non-existent chin and giant stains
on each temple. It's no wonder that I was often greeted by yelps of mental
alarm. I, too, was often similarly frightened by the self-images of my
ten-year-old fellows. When we discovered what was happening, I
encouraged the membership of the Conference, one by one, to go and look
into a mirror, or a patch of still water; and then we did manage to find out
what we really looked like. The only problems were that our Keralan
member (who could, you remember, travel through mirrors) accidentally
ended up emerging through a restaurant mirror in the smarter part of New
Delhi, and had to make a hurried retreat; while the blue-eyed member for
Kashmir fell into a lake and accidentally changed sex, entering as a girl and
emerging as a beautiful boy.
When I first introduced myself to Shiva, I saw in his mind the certifying
image of a short, rat-faced youth with filed-down teeth and two of the
biggest knees the world has ever seen.
Faced with a picture of such grotesque proportions, I allowed the smile
on my own beaming image to wither a little; my outstretched hand began to
falter and twitch. And Shiva, feeling my presence, reacted at first with utter
rage; great boiling waves of anger scalded the inside of my head; but then,
'Hey-look-I know you! You're the rich kid from Methwold's Estate, isn't it?'
And I, equally astonished, 'Winkle's son-the one who blinded Eyeslice!' His
self-image puffed up with pride. 'Yah, yaar, that's me. Nobody messes with
me, man!' Recognition reduced me to banalities: 'So! How's your father,
anyway? He doesn't come round…' And he, with what felt very like relief:
'Him, man? My father's dead.'
A momentary pause; then puzzlement-no anger now-and Shiva,
'Lissen, yaar, this is damn good-how you doin' it?' I launched into my
standard explanation, but after a few instants he interrupted, 'So! Lissen,
my father said I got born at exactly midnight also-so don't you see, that
makes us joint bosses of this gang of yours! Midnight is best, agreed?
So-those other kids gotta do like we tell them!' There rose before my eyes
the image of a second, and more potent, Evelyn Lilith Burns… dismissing
this unkind notion, I explained, 'That wasn't exactly my idea for the
Conference; I had in mind something more like a, you know, sort of loose
federation of equals, all points of view given free expression…' Something
resembling a violent snort echoed around the walls of my head. 'That, man,
that's only rubbish. What we ever goin' to do with a gang like that? Gangs
gotta have gang bosses. You take me-' (the puff of pride again) 'I been
running a gang up here in Matunga for two years now. Since I was eight.
Older kids and all. What d'you think of that?' And I, without meaning to,
'What's it do, your gang-does it have rules and all?' Shiva-laughter in my
ears… 'Yah, little rich boy: one rule. Everybody does what I say or I
squeeze the shit outa them with my knees!' Desperately, I continued to try
and win Shiva round to my point of view: 'The thing is, we must be here for
a purpose, don't you think? I mean, there has to be a reason, you must
agree? So what I thought, we should try and work out what it is, and then,
you know, sort of dedicate our lives to…' 'Rich kid,' Shiva yelled, 'you don't
know one damn thing! What purpose, man? What thing in the whole
sister-sleeping world got reason, yara? For what reason you're rich and I'm
poor? Where's the reason in starving, man? God knows how many millions
of damn fools living in this country, man, and you think there's a purpose!
Man, I'll tell you-you got to get what you can, do what you can with it, and
then you got to die. That's reason, rich boy. Everything else is only
mother-sleeping wind!'
And now I, in my midnight bed, begin to shake… 'But history,' I say,
'and the Prime Minister wrote me a letter… and don't you even believe in…
who knows what we might…' He, my alter ego, Shiva, butted in: 'Lissen,
little boy-you're so full of crazy stuff, I can see I'm going to have to take this
thing over. You tell that to all these other freak kids!'
Nose and knees and knees and nose… the rivalry that began that
night would never be ended, until two knives slashed, downdown-down…
whether the spirits of Mian Abdullah, whom knives killed years before, had
leaked into me, imbuing me with the notion of loose federalism and making
me vulnerable to knives, I cannot say; but at that point I found a measure of
courage and told Shiva, 'You can't run the Conference; without me, they
won't even be able to listen to you!'
And he, confirming the declaration of war: 'Rich kid, they'll want to
know about me; you just try and stop me!'
'Yes,' I told him, I'll try.'
Shiva, the god of destruction, who is also most potent of deities; Shiva,
greatest of dancers; who rides on a bull; whom no force can resist… the
boy Shiva, he told us, had to fight for survival from his earliest days. And
when his father had, about a year previously, completely lost his singing
voice, Shiva had had to defend himself against Wee Willie Winkie's
parental zeal. 'He blindfolded me, man! He wrapped a rag around my eyes
an' took me to the roof of the chawl, man! You know what was in his hand?
A sister-sleeping hammer, man! A hammer! Bastard was going to smash
my legs up, man-it happens, you know, rich boy, they do it to kids so they
can always earn money begging-you get more if you're all broken up, man!
So I'm pushed over till I'm lying down on the roof, man; and then-' And then
hammer swinging down towards knees larger and knobblier than any
policeman's, an easy target, but now the knees went into action, faster than
lightning the knees parted-felt the breath of the down-rushing hammer and
spread wide apart; and then hammer plunging between knees, still held in
his father's hand; and then, the knees rushing together like fists. The
hammer, clattering harmlessly on concrete. The wrist of Wee Willie Winkie,
clamped between the knees of his blindfolded son. Hoarse breaths
escaping from the lips of the anguished father. And still the knees, closing
ininin, tighter and tighter, until there is a snap. 'Broke his goddamn wrist,
man! That showed him-damn fine, no? I swear!'
Shiva and I were born under Capricorn rising; the constellation left me
alone, but it gave Shiva its gift. Capricorn, as any astrologer will tell you, is
the heavenly body with power over the knees.
On election day, 1957, the All-India Congress was badly shocked.
Although it won the election, twelve million votes made the Communists the
largest single opposition party; and in Bombay, despite the efforts of Boss
Patil, large numbers of electors failed to place their crosses against the
Congress symbol of sacred-cow-and-suckling-calf, preferring the less
emotive pictograms of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti and Maha Gujarat
Parishad. When the Communist peril was discussed on our hillock, my
mother continued to blush; and we resigned ourselves to the partition of the
state of Bombay.
One member of the Midnight Children's Conference played a minor
role in the elections. Winkle's supposed son Shiva was recruited by-well,
perhaps I will not name the party; but only one party had really large sums
to spend-and on polling day, he and his gang, who called themselves
Cowboys, were to be seen standing outside a polling station in the north of
the city, some holding long stout sucks, others juggling with stones, still
others picking their teeth with knives, all of them encouraging the electorate
to use its vote with wisdom and care… and after the polls closed, were
seals broken on ballot-boxes? Did ballot-stuffing occur? At any rate, when
the votes were counted, it was discovered that Qasim the Red had
narrowly failed to win the seat; and my rival's paymasters were well
… But now Padma says, mildly, 'What date was it?' And, without
thinking, I answer: 'Some time in the spring.' And then it occurs to me that I
have made another error-that the election of 1957 took place before, and
not after, my tenth birthday; but although I have racked my brains, my
memory refuses, stubbornly, to alter the sequence of events. This is
worrying. I don't know what's gone wrong.
She says, trying uselessly to console me: 'What are you so long for in
your face? Everybody forgets some small things, all the time!'
But if small things go, will large things be close behind?
Alpha and Omega
There was turmoil in Bombay in the months after the election; there is
turmoil in my thoughts as I recall those days. My error has upset me badly;
so now, to regain my equilibrium, I shall place myself firmly on the familiar
ground of Methwold's Estate; leaving the history of the Midnight Children's
Conference to one side, and the pain of the Pioneer Cafe to another, I shall
tell you about the fall of Evie Burns.
I have titled this episode somewhat oddly. 'Alpha and Omega' stares
back at me from the page, demanding to be explained-a curious heading
for what will be my story's half-way point, one that reeks of beginnings and
ends, when you could say it should be more concerned with middles; but,
unrepentantly, I have no intention of changing it, although there are many
alternative titles, for instance 'From Monkey to Rhesus', or 'Finger Redux',
or-in a more allusive style-'The Gander', a reference, obviously, to the
mythical bird, the hamsa or parahamsa, symbol of the ability to live in two
worlds, the physical and the spiritual, the world of land-and-water and the
world of air, of flight. But 'Alpha and Omega' it is; 'Alpha and Omega' it
remains. Because there are beginnings here, and all manner of ends; but
you'll soon see what I mean.
Padma clicks her tongue in exasperation. 'You're talking funny again,'
she criticizes, 'Are you going to tell about Evie or not?'
… After the general election, the Central Government continued to
shilly-shally about the future of Bombay. The State was to be partitioned;
then not to be partitioned; then partition reared its head again. And as for
the city itself-it was to be the capital of Maharashtra; or of both Maharashtra
and Gujarat; or an independent state of its own… while the government
tried to work out what on earth to do, the city's inhabitants decided to
encourage it to be quick. Riots proliferated (and you could still hear the old
battle-song of the Mahrattas-How are you? I am well! I'll take a stick and
thrash you to hell!-rising above the fray); and to make things worse, the
weather joined in the melee. There was a severe drought; roads cracked; in
the villages, peasants were being forced to kill their cows; and on
Christmas Day (of whose significance no boy who attended a mission
school and was attended upon by a Catholic ayah could fail to be aware)
there was a series of loud explosions at the Wal-keshwar Reservoir and the
main fresh-water pipes which were the city's lifelines began to blow
fountains into the air like giant steel whales. The newspapers were full of
talk of saboteurs; speculation over the criminals' identities and political
affiliation jostled for space against reports of the continuing wave of
whore-murders. (I was particularly interested to learn that the murderer had
his own curious 'signature'. The corpses of the ladies of the night were all
strangled to death; there were bruises on their necks, bruises too large to
be thumbprints, but wholly consistent with the marks which would be left by
a pair of giant, preternaturally powerful knees.)
But I digress. What, Padma's frown demands, does all this have to do
with Evelyn Lilith Burns? Instantly, leaping to attention, as it were, I provide
the answer: in the days after the destruction of the city's fresh-water supply,
the stray cats of Bombay began to congregate in those areas of the city
where water was still relatively plentiful; that is to say, the better-off areas,
in which each house owned its own overhead or underground water-tank.
And, as a result, the two-storey hillock of Methwold's Estate was invaded
by an army of thirsting felines; cats swarming all over the circus-ring, cats
climbing bougainvillaea creepers and leaping into sitting-rooms, cats
knocking over flower-vases to drink the plant-stale water, cats bivouacked
in bathrooms, slurping liquid out of water-closets, cats rampant in the
kitchens of the palaces of William Methwold. The Estate's servants were
vanquished in their attempts to repel the great cat invasion; the ladies of
the Estate were reduced to helpless exclamations of horror. Hard dry
worms of cat-excrement were everywhere; gardens were ruined by sheer
feline force of numbers: and at night sleep became an impossibility as the
army found voice, and sang its thirst at the moon. (The Baroness Simki von
der Heiden refused to fight the cats; she was already showing signs of the
disease which would shortly lead to her extermination.)
Nussie Ibrahim rang my mother to announce, 'Amina sister, it is the
end of the world.'
She was wrong; because on the third day after the great cat invasion,
Evelyn Lilith Burns visited each Estate household in turn, carrying her
Daisy air-gun casually in one hand, and offered, in return for bounty money,
to end the plague of pussies double-quick.
All that day, Methwold's Estate echoed with the sounds of Evie's
air-gun and the agonized wauls of the cats, as Evie stalked the entire army
one by one and made herself rich. But (as history so often demonstrates)
the moment of one's greatest triumph also contains the seeds of one's final
downfall; and so it proved, because Evie's persecution of the cats was,' as
far as the Brass Monkey was concerned, absolutely the last straw.
'Brother,' the Monkey told me grimly, 'I told you I'd get that girl; now,
right now, the time has come.'
Unanswerable questions: was it true that my sister had acquired the
languages of cats as well as birds? Was it her fondness for feline life which
pushed her over the brink?… by the time of the great cat invasion, the
Monkey's hair had faded into brown; she had broken her habit of burning
shoes; but still, and for whatever reason, there was a fierceness in her
which none of the rest of us ever possessed; and she went down into the
circus-ring and yelled at the top of her voice: 'Evie! Evie Burns! You come
out here, this minute, wherever you are!'
Surrounded by fleeing cats, the Monkey awaited Evelyn Burns. I went
out on to the first-floor verandah to watch; from their verandahs, Sonny and
Eyeslice and Hairoil and Cyrus were watching too. We saw Evie Burns
appear from the direction of the Versailles Villa kitchens; she was blowing
the smoke away from the barrel of her gun.
'You Indians c'n thank your stars you got me around,' Evie declared,
'or you'd just've got eaten by these cats!'
We saw Evie fall silent as she saw the thing sitting tensely in the
Monkey's eyes; and then like a blur the Monkey descended on Evie and a
battle began which lasted for what seemed like several hours (but it can
only have been a few minutes). Shrouded in the dust of the circus-ring they
rolled kicked scratched bit, small tufts of hair flew out of the dust-cloud and
there were elbows and feet in dirtied white socks and knees and fragments
of frock flying out of the cloud; grown-ups came running, servants couldn't
pull them apart, and in the end Homi Catrack's gardener turned his hose on
them to separate them… the Brass Monkey stood up a little crookedly and
shook the sodden hem of her dress, ignoring the cries of retribution
proceeding from the lips of Amina Sinai and Mary Pereira; because there in
the hose-wet dirt of the circus-ring lay Evie Burns, her tooth-braces broken,
her hair matted with dust and spittle, her spirit and her dominion over us
broken for once and for all.
A few weeks later her father sent her home for good, 'To get a decent
education away from these savages,' he was heard to remark; I only heard
from her once, six months later, when right out of the blue she wrote me
the letter which informed me that she had knifed an old lady who had
objected to her assault on a cat. 'I gave it to her all right,' Evie wrote, 'Tell
your sister she just got lucky.' I salute that unknown old woman: she paid
the Monkey's bill.
More interesting than Evie's last message is a thought which occurs to
me now, as I look back down the tunnel of time. Holding before my eyes
the image of Monkey and Evie rolling in the dirt, I seem to discern the
driving force behind their battle to the death, a motive far deeper than the
mere persecution of cats: they were fighting over me. Evie and my sister
(who were, in many ways, not at all dissimilar) kicked and scratched,
ostensibly over the fate of a few thirsty strays; but perhaps Evie's kicks
were aimed at me, perhaps they were the violence of her anger at my
invasion of her head; and then maybe the strength of the Monkey was the
strength of sibling-loyalty, and her act of war was actually an act of love.
Blood, then, was spilled in the circus-ring. Another rejected title for
these pages-you may as well know-was 'Thicker Than Water'. In those
days of water shortages, something thicker than water ran down the face of
Evie Burns; the loyalties of blood motivated the Brass Monkey; and in the
streets of the city, rioters spilled each other's blood. There were bloody
murders, and perhaps it is not appropriate to end this sanguinary catalogue
by mentioning, once again, the rushes of blood to my mother's cheeks.
Twelve million votes were coloured red that year, and red is the colour of
blood. More blood will flow soon: the types of blood, A and O, Alpha and
Omega-and another, a third possibility-must be kept in mind. Also other
factors: zygosity, and Kell antibodies, and that most mysterious of
sanguinary attributes, known as rhesus, which is also a type of monkey.
Everything has shape, if you look for it. There is no escape from form.
But before blood has its day, I shall take wing (like the parahamsa
gander who can soar out of one element into another) and return, briefly, to
the affairs of my inner world; because although the fall of Evie Burns ended
my ostracism by the hilltop children, still I found it difficult to forgive; and for
a time, holding myself solitary and aloof, I immersed myself in the events
inside my head, in the early history of the association of the midnight
To be honest: I didn't like Shiva. I disliked the roughness of his tongue,
the crudity of his ideas; and I was beginning to suspect him of a string of
terrible crimes-although I found it impossible to find any evidence in his
thoughts, because he, alone of the children of midnight, could close off
from me any part of his thoughts he chose to keep to himself-which, in
itself, increased my growing dislike and suspicion of the rat-faced fellow.
However, I was nothing if not fair; and it would not have been fair to have
kept him apart from the other members of the Conference.
I should explain that as my mental facility increased, I found that it was
possible not only to pick up the children's transmissions; not only to
broadcast my own messages; but also (since I seem to be stuck with this
radio metaphor) to act as a sort of national network, so that by opening my
transformed mind to all the children I could turn it into a kind of forum in
which they could talk to one another, through me. So, in the early days of
1958, the five hundred and eighty-one children would assemble, for one
hour, between midnight and one a.m., in the lok sabha or parliament of my
We were as motley, as raucous, as undisciplined as any bunch of five
hundred and eighty-one ten year olds; and on top of our natural
exuberance, there was the excitement of our discovery of each other. After
one hour of top-volume yelling jabbering arguing giggling, I would fall
exhausted into a sleep too deep for nightmares, and still wake up with a
headache; but I didn't mind. Awake I was obliged to face the multiple
miseries of maternal perfidy and paternal decline, of the fickleness of
friendship and the varied tyrannies of school; asleep, I was at the centre of
the most exciting world any child had ever discovered. Despite Shiva, it
was nicer to be asleep.
Shiva's conviction that he (or he-and-I) was the natural leader of our
group by dint of his (and my) birth on the stroke of midnight had, I was
bound to admit, one strong argument in its favour. It seemed to me then-it
seems to me now-that the midnight miracle had indeed been remarkably
hierarchical in nature, that the children's abilities declined dramatically on
the basis of the distance of their time of birth from midnight; but even this
'Whatdoyoumeanhowcanyousaythat,' they chorused, the boy from the Gir
forest whose face was absolutely blank and featureless (except for eyes
noseholes spaceformouth) and could take on any features he chose, and
Harilal who could run at the speed of the wind, and God knows how many
others… 'Who says it's better to do one thing or another?' And, 'Can you
fly? I can fly!' And, 'Yah, and me, can you turn one fish into fifty?' And,
'Today I went to visit tomorrow. You can do that? Well then-'… in the face
of such a storm of protest, even Shiva changed his tune; but he was 'to find
a new one, which would be much more dangerous-dangerous for the
Children, and for me.
Because I had found that I was not immune to the lure of leadership.
Who found the Children, anyway? Who formed the Conference? Who gave
them their meeting-place? Was I not the joint-eldest, and should I not
receive the respect and obeisances merited by my senior-ity? And didn't
the one who provided the club-house run the club?… To which Shiva,
'Forget all that, man. That club-shub stuff is only for you rich boys!' But-for
a time-he was overruled. Parvati-the-witch, the conjurer's daughter from
Delhi, took my part (just as, years later, she would save my life), and
announced, 'No, listen now, every, body: without Saleem we are nowhere,
we can't talk or anything, he is right. Let him be the chief!' And I, 'No, never
mind chief, just think of me as a… a big brother, maybe. Yes; we're a
family, of a kind. I'm just the oldest, me.' To which Shiva replied, scornful,
but unable to argue: 'Okay, big brother: so now tell us what we do?'
At this point I introduced the Conference to the notions which plagued
me all this time: the notions of purpose, and meaning. 'We must think,' I
said, 'what we are for.'
I record, faithfully, the views of a typical selection of the Conference
members (excepting the circus-freaks, and the ones who, like Sundari the
beggar-girl with the knife-scars, had lost their powers, and tended to remain
silent in our debates, like poor relations at a feast): among the philosophies
and aims suggested were collectivism-'We should all get together and live
somewhere, no? What would we need from anyone else?'-and
individualism-'You say we; but we together are unimportant; what matters
is that each of us has a gift to use for his or her own good'-filial
duty-'However we can help our father-mother, that is what it is for us to
do'-and infant revolution-'Now at last we must show all kids that it is
possible to get rid of parents!'-capitalism-'Just mink what businesses we
could do! How rich, Allah, we could be!'-and altruism-'Our country needs
gifted people; we must ask the government how it wishes to use our
skills'-science-'We must allow ourselves to be studied*-and religion-'Let us
declare ourselves to the world, so that all may glory in God'-courage-'We
should invade Pakistan!'-and cowardice-'O heavens, we must stay secret,
just mink what they will do to us, stone us for witches or what-all!'; there
were declarations of women's rights and pleas for the improvement of the
lot of untouchables; landless children dreamed of land and tribals from the
hills, of Jeeps; and there were, also, fantasies of power. 'They can't stop
us, man! We can bewitch, and fly, and read minds, and turn them into
frogs, and make gold and fishes, and they will fall in love with us, and we
can vanish through mirrors and change our sex… how will they be able to
I won't deny I was disappointed. I shouldn't have been; there was
nothing unusual about the children except for their gifts; their heads were
full of all the usual things, fathers mothers money food land possessions
fame power God. Nowhere, in the thoughts .of the Conference, could I find
anything as new as ourselves… but then I was on the wrong track, too; I
could not see any more clearly than anyone else; and even when Soumitra
the time-traveller said, 'I'm telling you-all this is pointless-they'll finish us
before we start!' we all ignored him; with the optimism of youth-which is a
more virulent form of the same disease that once infected my grandfather
Aadam Aziz-we refused to look on the dark side, and not a single one of us
suggested that the purpose of Midnight's Children might be annihilation;
that we would have no meaning until we were destroyed.
For the sake of their privacy, I am refusing to distinguish the voices
from one another; and for other reasons. For one thing, my narrative could
not cope with five hundred and eighty-one fully-rounded personalities; for
another, the children, despite their won-drously discrete and varied gifts,
remained, to my mind, a sort of many-headed monster, speaking in the
myriad tongues of Babel; they were the very essence of multiplicity, and I
see no point in dividing them now. (But there were exceptions. In particular,
there was Shiva; and there was Parvati-the-witch.)
… Destiny, historical role, numen: these were mouthfuls too large for
ten-year-old gullets. Even, perhaps, for mine; despite the ever-present
admonitions of the fisherman's pointing finger and the Prime Minister's
letter, I was constantly distracted from my sniff-given marvels by the tiny
occurrences of everyday life, by feeling hungry or sleepy, by monkeying
around with the Monkey, or going to the cinema to see Cobra Woman or
Vera Cruz, by my growing longing for long trousers and by the inexplicable
below-the-belt heat engendered by the approaching School Social at which
we, the boys of the Cathedral and John Connon Boys' High School, would
be permitted to dance the box-step and the Mexican Hat Dance with the
girls from our sister institution-such as Masha Miovic the champion
breast-stroker ('Нее hee,' said Glandy Keith Colaco) and Elizabeth Purkiss
and Janey Jackson-European girls, my God, with loose skirts and kissing
ways!-in short, my attention was continually seized by the painful,
engrossing torture of growing up.
Even a symbolic gander must come down, at last, to earth; so it isn't
nearly enough for me now (as it was not then) to confine my story to its
miraculous aspects; I must return (as I used to return) to the quotidian; I
must permit blood to spill.
The first mutilation of Saleem Sinai, which was rapidly followed by the
second, took place one Wednesday early in 1958-the Wednesday of the
much-anticipated Social-under the auspices of the Anglo-Scottish
Education Society. That is, it happened at school.
Saleem's assailant: handsome, frenetic, with a barbarian's shaggy
moustache: I present the leaping, hair-tearing figure of Mr Emil Zagallo,
who taught us geography and gymnastics, and who, that morning,
unintentionally precipitated the crisis of my life. Zagallo claimed to be
Peruvian, and was fond of calling us jungle-Indians, bead-lovers; he hung a
print of a stern, sweaty soldier in a pointy tin hat and metal pantaloons
above his blackboard and had a way of stabbing a finger at it in times of
stress and shouting, 'You see heem, you savages? Thees man eez
civilization! You show heem respect: he's got a sword!' And he'd swish his
cane through the stonewalled air. We called him Pagal-Zagal, crazy
Zagallo, because for all his talk of llamas and conquistadores and the
Pacific Ocean we knew, with the absolute certainty of rumour, that he'd
been born in a Mazagaon tenement and his Goanese mother had been
abandoned by a decamped shipping agent; so he was not only an 'Anglo'
but probably a bastard as well. Knowing this, we understood why Zagallo
affected his Latin accent, and also why he was always in a fury, why he
beat his fists against the stone walk of the classroom; but the knowledge
didn't stop us being afraid. And this Wednesday morning, we knew we
were in for trouble, because Optional Cathedral had been cancelled.
The Wednesday morning double period was Zagallo's geography
class; but only idiots and boys with bigoted parents attended it, because it
was also the time when we could choose to troop off to St Thomas's
Cathedral in crocodile formation, a long line of boys of every conceivable
religious denomination, escaping from school into the bosom of the
Christians' considerately optional God. It drove Zagallo wild, but he was
helpless; today, however, there was a dark glint in his eye, because the
Croaker (that is to say, Mr Crusoe the headmaster) had announced at
morning Assembly that Cathedral was cancelled. In a bare, scraped voice
emerging from his face of an anaesthetized frog, he sentenced us to
double geography and Pagal-Zagal, taking us all by surprise, because we
hadn't realized that God was permitted to exercise an option, too. Glumly
we trooped into Zagallo's lair; one of the poor idiots whose parents never
allowed them to go to Cathedral whispered viciously into my ear, 'You jus'
wait: hell really get you guys today.'
Padma: he really did.
Seated gloomily in class: Glandy Keith Colaco, Fat Perce Fishwala,
Jimmy Kapadia the scholarship boy whose father was a taxi-driver, Hairoil
Sabarmati, Sonny Ibrahim, Cyrus-the-great and I. Others, too, but there's
no time now, because with eyes narrowing in delight, crazy Zagallo is
calling us to order.
'Human geography,' Zagallo announces. 'Thees ees what? Kapadia?'
'Please sir don't know sir.' Hands fly into the air-five belong to
church-banned idiots, the sixth inevitably to Cyrus-the-great. But Zagallo is
out for blood today: the godly are going to suffer. 'Feelth from the jongle,'
he buffets Jimmy Kapadia, then begins to twist an ear casually, 'Stay in
class sometimes and find out!'
'Ow ow ow yes sir sorry sir…' Six hands are waving but Jimmy's ear is
in danger of coming off. Heroism gets the better of me… 'Sir please stop sir
he has a heart condition sir!' Which is true; but the truth is dangerous,
because now Zagallo is rounding on me: 'So, a leetle arguer, ees eet?' And
I am being led by my hair to the front of the class. Under the relieved eyes
of my fellow-pupils-thank God it's him not us-I writhe in agony beneath
imprisoned tufts.
'So answer the question. You know what ees human geography?'
Pain fills my head, obliterating all notions of telepathic cheatery: 'Aiee
sir no sir ouch!'
… And now it is possible to observe a joke descending on Zagallo, a
joke pulling his face apart into the simulacrum of a smile; it is possible to
watch his hand darting forward, thumb-and-forefinger extended; to note
how thumb-and-forefinger close around the tip of my nose and pull
downwards… where the nose leads, the head must follow, and finally the
nose is hanging down and my eyes are obliged to stare damply at Zagallo's
sandalled feet with their dirty toehails while Zagallo unleashes his wit.
'See, boys-you see what we have here? Regard, please, the heedeous
face of thees primitive creature. It reminds you of?'
And the eager responses: 'Sir the devil sir.' 'Please sir one cousin of
mine!' 'No sir a vegetable sir I don't know which.' Until Zagallo, shouting
above the tumult, 'Silence! Sons of baboons! Thees object here'-a tug on
my nose-'thees is human geography!'
'How sir where sir what sir?'
Zagallo is laughing now. 'You don't see?' he guffaws. 'In the face of
thees ugly ape you don't see the whole map of India?'
'Yes sir no sir you show us sir!'
'See here-the Deccan peninsula hanging down!' Again ouchmy-nose.
'Sir sir if that's the map of India what are the stains sir?' It is Glandy
Keith Colaco feeling bold. Sniggers, titters from my fellows. And Zagallo,
taking the question in his stride: 'These stains,' he cries, 'are Pakistan!
Thees birthmark on the right ear is the East Wing; and thees horrible
stained left cheek, the West! Remember, stupid boys: Pakistan ees a stain
on the face of India!'
'Ho ho,' the class laughs, 'Absolute master joke, sir!'
But now my nose has had enough; staging its own, unprompted revolt
against the grasping thumb-and-forefinger, it unleashes a weapon of its
own… a large blob of shining goo emerges from the left nostril, to plop into
Mr Zagallo's palm. Fat Perce Fishwala yells, 'Lookit that, sir! The drip from
his nose, sir! Is that supposed to be Ceylon?'
His palm smeared with goo, Zagallo loses his jokey mood. 'Animal,' he
curses me, 'You see what you do?' Zagallo's hand releases my nose;
returns to hair. Nasal refuse is wiped into my neatly-parted locks. And now,
once again, my hair is seized; once again, the hand is pulling… but
upwards now, and my head has jerked upright, my feet are moving on to
tiptoe, and Zagallo, 'What are you? Tell me what you are!'
'Sir an animal sir!'
The hand pulls harder higher. 'Again.' Standing on my toenails now, I
yelp: 'Aiee sir an animal an animal please sir aiee!'
And still harder and still higher… 'Once more!' But suddenly it ends;
my feet are flat on the ground again; and the class has fallen into a deathly
'Sir,' Sonny Ibrahim is saying, 'you pulled his hair out, sir.'
And now the cacophony: 'Look sir, blood.' 'He's bleeding sir.1 'Please
sir shall I take him to the nurse?'
Mr Zagallo stood like a statue with a clump of my hair in his fist. While
I-too shocked to feel any pain-felt the patch on my head where Mr Zagallo
had created a monkish tonsure, a circle where hair would never grow
again, and realized that the curse of my birth, which connected me to my
country, had managed to find yet one more unexpected expression of itself.
Two days later, Croaker Crusoe announced that, unfortunately, Mr
Emil Zagallo was leaving the staff for personal reasons; but I knew what the
reasons were. My uprooted hairs had stuck to his hands, like bloodstains
that wouldn't wash out, and nobody wants a teacher with hair on Ids palms,
'The first sign of madness,' as Glandy Keith was fond of saying, 'and the
second sign is looking for them.'
Zagallo's legacy: a monk's tonsure; and, worse than that, a whole set
of new taunts, which my classmates flung at me while we waited for school
buses to take us home to get dressed for the Social: 'Snot-nose is a
bal-die!' and, 'Sniffer's got a map-face!' When Cyrus arrived in the
bus-queue, I tried to turn the crowd against him, by attempting to set up a
chant of'Cyrus-the-great, Born on a plate, In nineteen hundred and
forty-eight,' but nobody took up the offer.
So we come to the events of the Cathedral School Social. At which
bullies became instruments of destiny, and fingers were transmuted into
fountains, and Masha Miovic, the legendary breast-stroker, fell into a dead
faint… I arrived at the Social with the nurse's bandage still on my head. I
was late, because it hadn't been easy to persuade my mother to let me
come; so by the time I stepped into the Assembly Hall, beneath streamers
and balloons and the professionally suspicious gazes of bony female
chaperones, all the best girls were already box-stepping and
Mexican-Hatting with absurdly smug partners. Naturally, the prefects had
the pick of the ladies; I watched them with passionate envy, Guzder and
Joshi and Stevenson and Rushdie and Talyarkhan and Tayabali and
Jussawalla and Wagle and King; I tried butting in on them during
excuse-mes but when they saw my bandage and my cucumber of a nose
and the stains on my face they just laughed and turned their backs…
hatred burgeoning in my bosom, I ate potato chips and drank Bubble-Up
and Vimto and told myself, 'Those jerks; if they knew who I was they'd get
out of my way pretty damn quick!' But still the fear of revealing my true
nature was stronger than my somewhat abstract desire for the whirling
European girls.
'Hey, Saleem, isn't it? Hey, man, what happened to you?' I was
dragged out of my bitter, solitary reverie (even Sonny had someone to
dance with; but then, he had his forcep-hollows, and he didn't wear
underpants-there were reasons for his attractiveness) by a voice behind my
left shoulder, a low, throaty voice, full of promises-but also of menace. A
girl's voice. I turned with a sort of jump and found myself staring at a vision
with golden hair and a prominent and famous chest… my God, she was
fourteen years old, why was she talking to me?… 'My name is Masha
Miovic,' the vision said, 'I've met your sister.'
Of course! The Monkey's heroines, the swimmers from Walsingham
School, would certainly know the Schools champion breast-stroker!… 'I
know…' I stuttered, 'I know your name.'
'And I know yours,' she straightened my tie, 'so that's fair.' Over her
shoulder, I saw Glandy Keith and Fat Perce watching us in drooling
paroxysms of envy. I straightened my back and pushed out my shoulders.
Masha Miovic asked again about my bandage. 'It's nothing,' I said in what I
hoped was a deep voice, 'A sporting accident.' And then, working feverishly
to hold my voice steady, 'Would you like to… to dance?'
'Okay,' said Masha Miovic, 'But don't try any smooching.'
Saleem takes the floor with Masha Miovic, swearing not to smooch.
Saleem and Masha, doing the Mexican Hat; Masha and Saleem,
box-stepping with the best of them! I allow my face to adopt a superior
expression; you see, you don't have to be a prefect to get a girl!… The
dance ended; and, still on top of my wave of elation, I said, 'Would you care
for a stroll, you know, in the quad?'
Masha Miovic smiling privately. 'Well, yah, just for a sec; but hands off,
Hands off, Saleem swears. Saleem and Masha, taking the air… man,
this is fine. This is the life. Goodbye Evie, hello breast-stroke… Glandy
Keith Colaco and Fat Perce Fishwala step out of the shadows of the
quadrangle. They are giggling: 'Нее hee.' Masha Miovic looks puzzled as
they block our path. 'Hoo hoo,' Fat Perce says, 'Masha, hoo hoo. Some
date you got there.' And I, 'Shut up, you.' Whereupon Glandy Keith, 'You
wanna know how he got his war-wound, Mashy?' And Fat Perce, 'Нее hoo
ha.' Masha says, 'Don't be crude; he got it in a sporting accident!' Fat Perce
and Glandy Keith are almost falling over with mirth; then Fishwala reveals
all. 'Zagallo pulled his hair out in class!' Нее hoo. And Keith, 'Snotnose is a
bal-die!' And both together, 'Sniffer's got a map-face!' There is puzzlement
on Masha Miovic's face. And something more, some budding spirit of
sexual mischief… 'Saleem, they're being so rude about you!'
'Yes,' I say, 'ignore them.' I try to edge her away. But she goes on,
'You aren't going to let them get away with it?' There are beads of
excitement on her upper lip; her tongue is in the corner of her mouth; the
eyes of Masha Miovic say, What are you? A man or a mouse?… and under
the spell of the champion breast-stroker, something else floats into my
head: the image of two irresistible knees; and now I am rushing at Colaco
and Fishwala; while they are distracted by giggles, my knee drives into
Glandy's groin; before he's dropped, a similar genuflection has laid Fat
Perce low. I turn to my mistress; she applauds, softly. 'Hey man, pretty
But now my moment has passed; and Fat Perce is picking himself up,
and Glandy Keith is already moving towards me… abandoning all pretence
of manhood, I turn and run. And the two bullies are after me and behind
them comes Masha Miovic calling, 'Where are you running, little hero?' But
there's no time for her now, mustn't let them get me, into the nearest
classroom and try and shut the door, but Fat Perce's foot is in the way and
now the two of them are inside too and I dash at the door, I grab it with my
right hand, trying to force it open, get out if you can, they are pushing the
door shut, but I'm pulling with the strength of my fear, I have it open a few
inches, my hand curls around it, and now Fat Perce slams all his weight
against the door and it shuts too fast for me to get my hand out of the way
and it's shut. A thud. And outside, Masha
Miovic arrives and looks down at the floor; and sees the top third of my
middle finger lying there like a lump of well-chewed bubble-gum. This was
the point at which she fainted.
No pain. Everything very far away. Fat Perce and Glandy Keith fleeing,
to get help or to hide. I look at my hand out of pure curiosity. My finger has
become a fountain: red liquid spurts out to the rhythm of my heart-beat.
Never knew a finger held so much blood. Pretty. Now here's nurse, don't
worry, nurse. Only a scratch. Your parents are being phoned; Mr Crusoe is
getting his car keys. Nurse is putting a great wad of cotton-wool over the
stump. Filling up like red candyfloss. And now Crusoe. Get in the car,
Saleem, your mother is going straight to the hospital. Yes sir. And the bit,
has anybody got the bit? Yes headmaster here it is. Thank you nurse.
Probably no use but you never know. Hold this while I drive, Saleem… and
holding up my severed finger-dp in my unmutilated left hand, I am driven to
the Breach Candy Hospital through the echoing streets of night.
At the hospital: white walls stretchers everyone talking at once. Words
pour around me like fountains. 'O God preserve us, my little
piece-of-the-moon, what have they done to you?' To which old Crusoe,
'Heh heh. Mrs Sinai. Accidents will happen. Boys will be.' But my mother,
enraged, 'What kind of school? Mr Caruso? I'm here with my son's finger in
pieces and you tell me. Not good enough. No, sir.' And now, while Crusoe,
'Actually the name's-like Robinson, you know-heh heh,' the doctor is
approaching and a question is being asked, whose answer will change the
'Mrs Sinai, your blood group, please? The boy has lost blood. A
transfusion may be necessary.' And Amina: 'I am A; but my husband, O.'
And now she is crying, breaking down, and still the doctor, 'Ah; in that case,
are you aware of your son's…' But she, the doctor's daughter, must admit
she cannot answer the question: Alpha or Omega? 'Well in that case a very
quick test; but on the subject of rhesus?' My mother, through her tears:
'Both my husband and I, rhesus positive.' And the doctor, 'Well, good, that
at least.'
But when I am on the operating table-'Just sit there, son, I'll give you a
local anaesthetic, no, madam, he's in shock, total anaesthesia would be
impossible, all right son, just hold your finger up and still, help him nurse,
and it'll be over in a jiffy'-while the surgeon is sewing up the stump and
performing the miracle of transplanting the roots of the nail, all of a sudden
there's a fluster in the background, a million miles away, and 'Have you got
a second Mrs Sinai' and I can't hear properly… words float across the
in-finite distance… Mrs Sinai, you are sure? О and A? A and O? And
rhesus negative, both of you? Heterozygous or homozygous? No, there
must be some mistake, how can he be… I'm sorry, absolutely clear…
positive… and neither A nor… excuse me, Madam, but is he your… not
adopted or… The hospital nurse interposes herself between me and
miles-away chatter, but it's no good, because now my mother is shrieking,
'But of course you must believe me, doctor; my God, of course he is our
Neither A nor O. And the rhesus factor: impossibly negative. And
zygosity offers no clues. And present in the blood, rare Kell antibodies. And
my mother, crying, crying-crying, crying… 'I don't understand. A doctor's
daughter, and I don't understand.'
Have Alpha and Omega unmasked me? Is rhesus pointing its
unanswerable finger? And will Mary Pereira be obliged to… I wake up in a
cool, white, Venetian-blinded room with All-India Radio for company. Tony
Brent is singing: 'Red Sails In The Sunset'.
Ahmed Sinai, his face ravaged by whisky and now by something
worse, stands beside the Venetian blind. Amina, speaking in whispers.
Again, snatches across the million miles of distance. Janumplease.
Ibegyou. No, what are you saying. Of course it was. Of course you are the.
How could you think I would. Who could it have. О God don't just stand and
look. I swear Iswearonmymother'shead. Now shh he is…
A new song from Tony Brent, whose repertoire today is uncannily
similar to Wee Willie Winkie's: 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?'
hangs in the air, floating on radio waves. My father advances on my bed,
towers over me, I've never seen him look like this before. 'Abba…' And he,
'I should have known. Just look, where am I in that face. That nose, I
should have…' He turns on his heel and leaves the room; my mother
follows him, too distraught to whisper now: 'No, janum, I won't let you
believe such things about me! I'll kill myself! I'll,' and the door swings shut
behind them. There is a noise outside: like a clap. Or a slap. Most of what
matters in your life takes place in your absence.
Tony Brent begins crooning his latest hit into my good ear: and
assures me, melodiously, that 'The Clouds Will Soon Roll By'.
… And now I, Saleem Sinai, intend briefly to endow my self-then with
the benefits of hindsight; destroying the unities and conventions of fine
writing, I make him cognizant of what was to come, purely so that he can
be permitted to think the following thoughts: 'O eternal opposition of inside
and outside! Because a human being, inside himself, is anything but a
whole, anything but homogeneous; all kinds of everywhichthing are
jumbled up inside him, and he is one person one minute and another the
next. The body, on the other hand, is homogeneous as anything.
Indivisible, a one-piece suit, a sacred temple, if you will. It is important to
preserve this wholeness. But the loss of my finger (which was conceivably
foretold by the pointing digit of Raleigh's fisherman), not to mention the
removal of certain hairs from my head, has undone all that. Thus we enter
into a state of affairs which is nothing short of revolutionary; and its effect
on history is bound to be pretty damn startling. Uncork the body, and God
knows what you permit to come tumbling out. Suddenly you are forever
other than you were; and the world becomes such that parents can cease
to be parents, and love can turn to hate. And these, mark you, are only the
effects on private life. The consequences for the sphere of public action, as
will be shown, are-were-will be no less profound.'
Finally, withdrawing my gift of foreknowledge, I leave you with the
image of a ten-year-old boy with a bandaged finger, sitting in a hospital
bed, musing about blood and noises-like-claps and the expression on his
father's face; zooming out slowly into long-shot, I allow the sound-track
music to drown my words, because Tony Brent is reaching the end of his
medley, and his finale, too, is the same as Winkie's: 'Good Night, Ladies' is
the name of the song. Merrily it rolls along, rolls along, rolls along…
The Kolynos Kid
From ayah to Widow, I've been the sort of person to whom things have
been done; but Saleem Sinai, perennial victim, persists in seeing himself as
protagonist. Despite Mary's crime; setting aside typhoid and snake-venom;
dismissing two accidents, in washing-chest and circus-ring (when Sonny
Ibrahim, master lock-breaker, permitted my budding horns of temples to
invade his forcep-hollows, and through this combination unlocked the door
to the midnight children); disregarding the effects of Evie's push and my
mother's infidelity; in spite of losing my hair to the bitter violence of Emil
Zagallo and my finger to the lip-licking goads of Masha Miovic; setting my
face against all indications to the contrary, I shall now amplify, in the
manner and with the proper solemnity of a man of science, my claim to a
place at the centre of things.
'… Your life, which will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own,' the Prime
Minister wrote, obliging me scientifically to face the question: In what
sense? How, in what terms, may the career of a single . individual be said
to impinge on the fate of a nation? I must answer in adverbs and hyphens: I
was linked to history both literally and metaphorically, both actively and
passively, in what our (admirably modern) scientists might term 'modes of
connection' composed of dualistically-combined configurations' of the two
pairs of opposed adverbs given above. This is why hyphens are necessary:
ac'tively-literally, passively-metaphorically, actively-metaphorically and
pas-sively-literally, I was inextricably entwined with my world.
Sensing Padma's unscientific bewilderment, I revert to the
inexactitudes of common speech: By the combination of'active' and 'literal' I
mean, of course, all actions of mine which directly-literally-affected, or
altered the course of, seminal historical events, for instance the manner in
which I provided the language marchers with their battle-cry. The union of
'passive' and 'metaphorical' encompasses all socio-political trends and
events which, merely by existing, affected me metaphorically-for example,
by reading between the lines of the episode entitled 'The Fisherman's
Pointing Finger', you will perceive the unavoidable connection between the
infant state's attempts at rushing towards full-sized adulthood and my own
early, explosive efforts at growth… Next, 'passive' and 'literal', when
hyphenated, cover all moments at which national events had a direct
bearing upon the lives of myself and my family-under this heading you
should file the freezing of my father's assets, and also the explosion at
Walkeshwar Reservoir, which unleased the great cat invasion. And finally
there is the 'mode' of the 'active-metaphorical', which groups together those
occasions on which things done by or to me were mirrored in the
macrocosm of public affairs, and my private existence was shown to be
symbolically at one with history. The mutilation of my middle finger was a
case in point, because when I was detached from my fingertip and blood
(neither Alpha nor Omega) rushed out in fountains, a similar thing
happened to history, and all sorts of everywhichthing began pouring out all
over us; but because history operates on a grander scale than any
individual, it took a good deal longer to stitch it back together and mop up
the mess.
'Passive-metaphorical', 'passive-literal', 'active-metaphorical': the
Midnight Children's Conference was all three; but it never became what I
most wanted it to be; we never operated in the first, most significant of the
'modes of connection'. The 'active-literal' passed us by.
Transformation without end: nine-fingered Saleem has been brought to
the doorway of the Breach Candy Hospital by a squat blonde nurse whose
face is frozen into a smile of terrifying insincerity. He is blinking in the hot
glare of the outside world, trying to focus on two swimming shadow-shapes
coming towards him out of the sun; 'See?' the nurse coos, 'See who's come
to get you, then?' And Saleem realizes that something terrible has gone
wrong with the world, because his mother and father, who should have
come to collect him, have apparently been transformed en route into his
ayah Mary Pereira and his Uncle Hanif.
Hanif Aziz boomed like the horns of ships in the harbour and smelted
like an old tobacco factory. I loved him dearly, for his laughter, his
unshaven chin, his air of having been put together rather loosely, his lack of
co-ordination which made his every movement fraught with risk. (When he
visited Buckingham Villa my mother hid the cut-glass vases.) Adults never
trusted him to behave with proper decorum ('Watch out for the
Communists!' he bellowed, and they blushed), which was a bond between
himself and all children-other people's children, since he and Pia were
childless. Uncle Hanif who would one day, without warning, take a walk off
the roof of his home.
… He wallops me in the back, toppling me forwards into Mary's arms.
'Hey, little wrestler! You look fine!' But Mary, hastily, 'But so thin, Jesus!
They haven't been feeding you properly? You want cornflour pudding?
Banana mashed with milk? Did they give you chips?'… while Saleem is
looking round at this new world in which everything seems to be going too
fast; his voice, when it comes, sounds high-pitched, as though somebody
had speeded it up: 'Amma-Abba?' he asks. The Monkey?' And Hanif
booms, 'Yes, tickety-boo! The boy is really ship-shape! Come on phaelwan:
a ride in my Packard, okay?' And talking at the same time is Mary Pereira,
'Chocolate cake,' she is promising, 'laddoos, pista-ki-lauz, meat samosas,
kulfi. So thin you got, baba, the wind will blow you away.' The Packard is
driving away; it is failing to turn off Warden Road, up the two-storey hillock;
and Saleem, 'Hanif mamu, where are we…' No time to get it out; Hanif
roars, 'Your Pia aunty is waiting! My God, you see if we don't have a
number one good time!' His voice drops conspiratorially: 'Lots,' he says
darkly, 'of fun.' And Mary: 'Arre baba yes! Such steak! And green
chutney!'… 'Not the dark one,' I say, captured at last; relief appears on the
cheeks of my captors. 'No no no,' Mary babbles, 'light green, baba. Just like
you like.' And, 'Pale green!' Hanif is bellowing, 'My God, green like
All too fast… we are at Kemp's Corner now, cars rushing around like
bullets… but one thing is unchanged. On Ids billboard, the Kolynos Kid is
grinning, the eternal pixie grin of the boy in the green chlorophyll cap, the
lunatic grin of the timeless Kid, who endlessly squeezes an inexhaustible
tube of toothpaste on to a bright green brush: Keep Teeth Kleen And Keep
Teeth Brite, Keep Teeth Kolynos Super White!… and you may wish to think
of me, too, as an involuntary Kolynos Kid, squeezing crises and
transformations out of a bottomless tube, extruding time on to my
metaphorical toothbrush; clean, white time with green chlorophyll in the
This, then, was the beginning of my first exile. (There will be a second,
and a third.) I bore it uncomplainingly. I had guessed, of course, that there
was one question I must never ask; that I had been loaned out, like a
comic-book from the Scandal Point Second Hand Library, for some
indefinite period; and that when my parents wanted me back, they would
send for me. When, or even if: because I blamed myself not a little for my
banishment. Had I not inflicted upon myself one more deformity to add to
bandylegs cucumbernose horn-temples staincheeks? Was it not possible
that my mutilated finger had been (as my announcement of my voices had
nearly been), for my long-suffering parents, the last straw? That I was no
longer a good business risk, no longer worth the investment of their love
and protection?… I decided to reward my uncle and aunt for their kindness
in taking in so wretched a creature as myself, to play the model nephew
and await events. There were times when I wished that the Monkey would
come and see me, or even call me on the phone; but dwelling on such
matters only punctured the balloon of my equanimity, so I did my best to
put them out of my mind. Besides, living with Hanif and Pia Aziz turned out
to be exactly what my uncle had promised: lots of fun.
They made all the fuss of me that children expect, and accept
graciously, from childless adults. Their flat overlooking Marine Drive wasn't
large, but there was a balcony from which I could drop monkey-nut shells
on to the heads of passing pedestrians; there was no spare bedroom, but I
was offered a deliciously soft white sofa with green stripes (an early proof
of my transformation into the Kolynos Kid); ayah Mary, who had apparently
followed me into exile, slept on the floor by my side. By day, she filled my
stomach with the promised cakes and sweetmeats (paid for, I now believe,
by my mother); I should have grown immensely fat, except that I had begun
once again to grow in other directions, and at the end of the year of
accelerated history (when I was only eleven and a half) I had actually
attained my full adult height, as if someone had grasped me by the folds of
my puppy-fat and squeezed them harder than any toothpaste-tube, so that
inches shot out of me under the pressure. Saved from obesity by the
Kolynos effect, I basked in my uncle and aunt's delight at having a child
around the house. When I spilt 7-Up on the carpet or sneezed into my
dinner, the worst my uncle would say was 'Hai-yo! Black man!' in his
booming steamship's voice, spoiling the effect by grinning hugely.
Meanwhile, my aunty Pia was becoming the next in the long series of
women who have bewitched and finally undone me good and proper.
(I should mention that, while I stayed in the Marine Drive apartment,
my testicles, forsaking the protection of pelvic bone, decided prematurely
and without warning to drop into their little sacs. This event, too, played its
part in what followed.)
My mumani-my aunty-the divine Pia Aziz: to live with her was to exist
in the hot sticky heart of a Bombay talkie. In those days, my uncle's career
in the cinema had entered a dizzy decline, and, for such is the way of the
world, Pia's star had gone into decline along with his. In her presence,
however, thoughts of failure were impossible. Deprived of film roles, Pia
had turned her life into a feature picture, in which I was cast in an
increasing number of bit-parts. I was the Faithful Body-Servant: Pia in
petticoats, soft hips rounding towards my desperately-averted eyes,
giggling while her eyes, bright with antimony, flashed imperiously-'Come
on, boy, what are you shy for, holds these pleats in my sari while I fold.' I
was her Trusted Confidant, too. While my uncle sat on chlorophyll-striped
sofa pounding out scripts which nobody would ever film, I listened to the
nostalgic soliloquy of my aunt, trying to keep my eyes away from two
impossible orbs, spherical as melons, golden as mangoes: I refer, you will
have guessed, to the adorable breasts of Pia mumani. While she, sitting on
her bed, one arm flung across her brow, declaimed: 'Boy, you know, I am
great actress; I have interpreted several major roles! But look, what fate will
do! Once, boy, goodness knows who would beg absolutely to come to this
flat; once the reporters of Filmfare and Screen Goddess would pay
black-money to get inside! Yes, and dancing, and I was well-known at
Venice restaurant-all of those great jazzmen came to sit at my feet, yes,
even that Braz. Boy, after Lovers of Kashmir, who was a bigger star? Not
Poppy; not Vyjayantimala; not one person!' And I, nodding emphatically,
no-naturally-nobody, while her wondrous skin-wrapped melons heaved
and… With a dramatic cry, she went on: 'But even then, in the time of our
world-beating fame, every picture a golden jubilee movie, this uncle of
yours wants to live in a two-room flat like a clerk! So I make no fuss; I am
not like some of your cheap-type actresses; I live simply and ask for no
Cadillacs or air-conditioners or Dunlopillo beds from England; no swimming
pools shaped like bikinis like that Roxy Vishwanatham's! Here, like a wife of
the masses, I have stayed; here, now, I am rotting! Rotting, absolutely. But
I know this: my face is my fortune; after that, what riches do I need?' And I,
anxiously agreeing: 'Mumani, none; none at all.' She shrieked wildly; even
my slap-deafened ear was penetrated. 'Yes, of course, you also want me to
be poor! All the world wants Pia to be in rags! Even that one, your uncle,
writing his boring-boring scripts! О my God, I tell him, put in dances, or
exotic locations! Make your villains villainous, why not, make heroes like
men! But he says, no, all that is rubbish, he sees that now-although once
he was not so proud! Now he must write about ordinary people and social
problems! And I say, yes, Hanif, do that, that is good; but put in a little
comedy routine, a little dance for your Pia to do, and tragedy and drama
also; that is what the Public is wanting!' Her eyes were brimming with tears.
'So you know what he is writing now? About…' she looked as if her heart
would break '… the Ordinary Life of a Pickle Factory!'
'Shh, mumani, shh,' I beg, 'Hanif mamu will hear!'
'Let him hear!' she stormed, weeping copiously now; 'Let his mother
hear also, in Agra; they will make me die for shame!'
Reverend Mother had never liked her actress daughter-in-law. I
overheard her once telling my mother: 'To marry an actress,
whatsits-name, my son has made his bed in the gutter, soon,
whatsitsname, she will be making him drink alcohol and also eat some pig.'
Eventually, she accepted the inevitability of the match with bad grace; but
she took to writing improving epistles to Pia. 'Listen, daughter,' she wrote,
'don't do this actressy thing. Why to do such shameless behaviour? Work,
yes, you girls have modern ideas, but to dance naked on the screen! When
for a small sum only you could acquire the concession on a good petrol
pump. From my own pocket I would get it for you in two minutes. Sit in an
office, hire attendants; that is proper work.' None of us ever knew whence
Reverend Mother acquired her dream of petrol pumps, which would be the
growing obsession of her old age; but she bombarded Pia with it, to the
actress's disgust.
'Why that woman doesn't ask me to be shorthand typist?' Pia wailed to
Hanif and Mary and me at breakfast. 'Why not taxi-driver, or handloom
weaver? I tell you, this pumpery-shumpery makes me wild.'
My uncle quivered (for once in his life) on the edge of anger. 'There is
a child present,' he said, 'and she is your mother; show her respect.'
'Respect she can have,' Pia flounced from the room, 'but she wants
gas'… And my most-treasured bit-part of all was played out when during
Pia and Hanif's regular card-games with friends, I was promoted to occupy
the sacred place of the son she never had. (Child of an unknown union, I
have had more mothers than most mothers have children; giving birth to
parents has been one of my stranger talents-a form of reverse fertility
beyond the control of contraception, and even of the Widow herself.) In the
company of visitors, Pia Aziz would cry: 'Look, friends, here's my own
crown prince! The jewel in my ring! The pearl in my necklace!' And she
would draw me towards her, cradling my head so that my nose was pushed
down against her chest and nestled wonderfully between the soft pillows of
her indescribable… unable to cope with such delights, I pulled my head
away. But I was her slave; and I know now why she permitted herself such
familiarity with me. Prematurely testicled, growing rapidly, I nevertheless
wore (fraudulently) the badge of sexual innocence: Saleem Sinai, during
his sojourn at his uncle's home, was still in shorts. Bare knees proved my
childishness to Pia; deceived by ankle-socks, she held my face against her
breasts while her sitar-perfect voice whispered in my good ear: 'Child, child,
don't fear; your clouds will soon roll by.'
For my uncle, as well as my histrionic aunt, I acted out (with growing
polish) the part of the surrogate son. Hanif Aziz was to be found during the
day on the striped sofa, pencil and exercise book in hand, writing his pickle
epic. He wore his usual lungi wound loosely around his waist and fastened
with an enormous safety-pin; his legs protruded hairily from its folds. His
fingernails bore the stains of a lifetime of Gold Flakes; his toenails seemed
similarly discoloured. I imagined him smoking cigarettes with his toes.
Highly impressed by the vision, I asked him if he could, in fact, perform this
feat; and without a word, he inserted Gold Flake between big toe and its
sidekick and wound himself into bizarre contortions. I clapped wildly, but he
seemed to be in some pain for the rest of the day.
I ministered to his needs as a good son should, emptying ashtrays,
sharpening pencils, bringing water to drink; while he, who after his fabulist
beginnings had remembered that he was his father's son and dedicated
himself against everything which smacked of the unreal, scribbled out his
ill-fated screenplay.
'Sonny Jim,' he informed me, 'this damn country has been dreaming
for five thousand years. It's about time it started waking up.' Hanif was fond
of railing against princes and demons, gods and heroes, against, in fact,
the entire iconography of the Bombay film; in the temple of illusions, he had
become the high priest of reality; while I, conscious of my miraculous
nature, which involved me beyond all mitigation in the (Hanif-despised)
myth-life of India, bit my lip and didn't know where to look.
Hanif Aziz, the only realistic writer working in the Bombay film industry,
was writing the story of a pickle-factory created, run and worked in entirely
by women. There were long scenes describing the formation of a trade
union; there were detailed descriptions of the pickling process. He would
quiz Mary Pereira about recipes; they would discuss, for hours, the perfect
blend of lemon, lime and garam masala. It is ironic that this arch-disciple of
naturalism should have been so skilful (if unconscious) a prophet of his
own family's fortunes; in the indirect kisses of the Lovers of Kashmir he
foretold my mother and her Nadir-Qasim's meetings at the Pioneer Cafe;
and in his unfilmed chutney scenario, too, there lurked a prophecy of
deadly accuracy.
He besieged Homi Catrack with scripts. Catrack produced none of
them; they sat in the small Marine Drive apartment, covering every
available surface, so that you had to pick them off the toilet seat before you
could lift it; but Catrack (out of charity? Or for another, soon-to-be-revealed
reason?) paid my uncle a studio salary. That was how they survived, Hanif
and Pia, on the largess of the man who would, in time, become the second
human being to be murdered by mushrooming Saleem.
Homi Catrack begged him, 'Maybe just one love scene?' And Pia,
'What do you think, village people are going to give their rupees to see
women pickling Alfonsos?' But Hanif, obdurately: 'This is a film about work,
not kissing. And nobody pickles Alfonsos. You must use mangoes with
bigger stones.'
The ghost of Joe D'Costa did not, so far as I know, follow Mary Pereira
into exile; however, his absence only served to increase her anxiety. She
began, in these Marine Drive days, to fear that he would become visible to
others besides herself, and reveal, during her absence, the awful secrets of
what happened at Dr Narlikar's Nursing Home on Independence night. So
each morning she left the apartment in a state of jelly-like worry, arriving at
Buckingham Villa in near-collapse; only when she found that Joe had
remained both invisible and silent did she relax. But after she returned to
Marine Drive, laden with samosas and cakes and chutneys, her anxiety
began to mount once again… but за I had resolved (having troubles
enough of my Own) to keep out of all heads except the Children's, I did not
understand why.
Panic attracts panic; on her journeys, sitting in jam-packed buses (the
trams had just been discontinued), Mary heard all sorts of rumours and
tittle-tattle, which she relayed to me as matters of absolute fact. According
to Mary, the country was in the grip of a sort of supernatural invasion. 'Yes,
baba, they say in Kurukshetra an old Sikh woman woke up in her hut and
saw the old-time war of the Kurus and Pandavas happening right outside! It
was in the papers and all, she pointed to the place where she saw the
chariots of Arjun and Kama, and there were truly wheel-marks in the mud!
Baap-re-baap, such so-bad things: at Gwalior they have seen the ghost of
the Rani of Jhansi; rakshasas have been seen many-headed like Ravana,
doing things to women and pulling down trees with one finger. I am good
Christian woman, baba; but it gives me fright when they tell that the tomb of
Lord Jesus is found in Kashmir. On the tombstones are carved two pierced
feet and a local fisherwoman has sworn she saw them bleeding-real blood,
God save us!-on Good Friday… what is happening, baba, why these old
things can't stay dead and not plague honest folk?' And I, wide-eyed,
listening; and although my uncle Hanif roared with laughter, I remain,
today, half-convinced that in that time of accelerated events and diseased
hours the past of India rose up to confound her present; the new-born,
secular state was being given an awesome reminder of its fabulous
antiquity, in which democracy and votes for women were irrelevant… so
that people were seized by atavistic longings, and forgetting the new myth
of freedom reverted to their old ways, their old regionalist loyalties and
prejudices, and the body politic began to crack. As I said: lop off just one
ringer-tip and you never know what fountains of confusion you will unleash.
'And cows, baba, have been vanishing into thin air; poof! and in the
villages, the peasants must starve.'
It was at this time that I, too, was possessed by a strange demon; but
in order that you may understand me properly, I must begin my account of
the episode on an innocent evening, when Hanif and Pia Aziz had a group
of friends round for cards.
My aunty was prone to exaggerate; because although Filmfare and
Screen Goddess were absent, my uncle's house was a popular place. On
card-evenings, it would burst at the seams with jazzmen gossiping about
quarrels and reviews in American magazines, and singers who carried
throat-sprays in their handbags, and members of the Uday Shankar
dance-troupe, which was trying to form a new style of dance by fusing
Western ballet with bharatanatyam; there were musicians who had been
signed up to perform in the All-India Radio music festival, the Sangeet
Sammelan; there were painters who argued violently amongst each other.
The air was thick with political, and other, chatter. 'As a matter of fact, I am
the only artist in India who paints with a genuine sense of ideological
commitment!'-'O, it's too bad about Ferdy, he'll never get another band after
this'-'Menon? Don't talk to me about Krishna. I knew him when he had
principles. I, myself, have never abandoned…''… One, Hanif yaar, why we
don't see Lal Qasim here these days?' And my uncle, looking anxiously
towards me: 'Shh… what Qasim? I don't know any person by that name.'
… And mingling with the hubbub in the apartment, there was the
evening colour and noise of Marine Drive: promenaders with dogs, buying
chambeli and channa from hawkers; the cries of beggars and bhcl-puri
vendors; and the lights coming on in a great arcing necklace, round and up
to Malabar Hill… I stood on the balcony with Mary Pereira, turning my bad
ear to her whispered rumours, the city at my back and the crowding,
chatting card-schools before my eyes. And one day, amongst the
card-players, I recognized the sunken-eyed, ascetic form of Mr Homi
Catrack. Who greeted me with embarrassed heartiness: 'Hi there, young
chap! Doing fine? Of course, of course you are!'
My uncle Hanif played rummy dedicatedly; but he was in the thrall of a
curious obsession-namely, that he was determined never to lay down a
hand until he completed a thirteen-card sequence in hearts. Always hearts;
all the hearts, and nothing but the hearts would do. In his quest for this
unattainable perfection, my uncle would discard perfectly good
threes-of-a-kind, and whole sequences of spades clubs diamonds, to the
raucous amusement of his friends. I heard the renowned shehnai-player
Ustad Changez Khan (who dyed his hair, so mat on hot evenings the tops
of his ears were discoloured by running black fluid) tell my uncle: 'Come on,
mister; leave this heart business, and just play like the rest of us fellows.'
My uncle confronted temptation; then boomed above the din, 'No, dammit,
go to the devil and leave me to my game!' He played cards like a fool; but I,
who had never seen such singleness of purpose, felt like clapping.
One of the regulars at Hanif Aziz's legendary card-evenings was a
Times of India staff photographer, who was full of sharp tales and
scurrilous stories. My uncle introduced me to him: 'Here's the fellow who
put you on the front page, Saleem. Here is Kalidas Gupta. A terrible
photographer; a really badmaash type. Don't talk to him too long; he'll make
your head spin with scandal!' Kalidas had a head of silver hair and a nose
like an eagle. I thought he was wonderful. 'Do you really know scandals?' I
asked him; but all he said was, 'Son, if I told, they would make your ears
burn.' But he never found out that the evil genius, the eminence grise
behind the greatest scandal the city had ever known was none other than
Saleem Snotnose… I mustn't race ahead. The affair of the curious baton of
Commander Sabarmati must be recounted in its proper place. Effects must
not (despite the tergiversatory nature of time in 1958) be permitted to
precede causes.
I was alone on the balcony. Mary Pereira was in the kitchen helping
Pia to prepare sandwiches and cheese-pakoras; Hanif Aziz was immersed
in his search for the thirteen hearts; and now Mr Homi Catrack came out to
stand beside me. 'Breath of fresh air,' he said. 'Yes, sir,' I replied. 'So,' he
exhaled deeply. 'So, so. Life is treating you good? Excellent little fellow. Let
me shake you by the hand.' Ten-year-old hand is swallowed up by film
magnate's fist (the left hand; the mutilated right hand hangs innocently by
my side)… and now a shock. Left palm feels paper being thrust into
it-sinister paper, inserted by dexterous fist! Catrack's grip tightens; his voice
becomes low, but also cobra-like, sibilant; inaudible in the room with the
green-striped sofa, his words penetrate my one good ear: 'Give this to your
aunty. Secretly secretly. Can do? And keep mum; or I'll send the police to
cut your tongue out.' And now, loud and cheery. 'Good! Glad to see you in
such high spirits!' Homi Catrack is patting me on the head; and moving
back to his game.
Threatened by policemen, I have remained silent for two decades; but
no longer. Now, everything has to come out.
The card-school broke up early: 'The boy has to sleep,' Pia was
whispering, 'Tomorrow he goes to school again.' I found no opportunity of
being alone with my aunt; I was tucked up on my sofa with the note still
clutched in my left fist. Mary was asleep on the floor… I decided to feign a
nightmare. (Deviousness did not come unnaturally to me.) Unfortunately,
however, I was so tired that I fell asleep; and, in the event, there was no
need to pretend: because I dreamed the murder of my classmate Jimmy
… We are playing football in the main stairwell at school, on red tiles,
slipping sliding. A black cross set in the blood-red tiles. Mr Crusoe at the
head of the stairs: 'Mustn't slide down the banisters boys that cross is
where one boy fell.'Jimmy plays football on the cross. 'The cross is lies,'
Jimmy says, 'They tell you lies to spoil your fun.' His mother calls up on the
telephone. 'Don't play Jimmy your bad heart.' The bell. The telephone,
replaced, and now the bell… Ink-pellets stain the classroom air. Fat Perce
and Glandy Keith have fun. Jimmy wants a pencil, prods me in the ribs.
'Hey man, you got a pencil, give. Two ticks, man.' I give. Zagallo enters.
Zagallo's hand is up for silence: look at my hair growing on his palm!
Zagallo in pointy tin-soldier hat… I must have my pencil back. Stretching
out my finger giving Jimmy a poke. 'Sir, please look sir, Jimmy fell!' 'Sir I
saw sir Snotnose poked!' 'Snotnose shot Kapadia, sir!' 'Don't play Jimmy
your bad heart!' 'You be quiet,' Zagallo cries, 'Jongle feelth, shut up.'
Jimmy in a bundle on the floor. 'Sir sir please sir will they put up a
cross?' He borrowed a pencil, I poked, he fell. His father is a taxi-driver.
Now the taxi drives into class; a dhobi-bundle is put on the back seat, out
goes Jimmy. Ding, a bell. Jimmy's father puts down the taxi flag. Jimmy's
father looks at me: 'Snotnose, you'll have to pay the fare.' 'But please sir
haven't got the money sir.' Arid Zagallo: 'We'll put it on your bill.' See my
hair on Zagallo's hand. Flames are pouring from Zagallo's eyes. 'Five
hundred meelion, what's one death?' Jimmy is dead; five hundred million
still alive. I start counting: one two three. Numbers march over Jimmy's
grave. One million two million three million four. Who cares if anyone,
anyone dies. One hundred million and one two three. Numbers march
through the classroom now. Crushing pounding two hundred million three
four five. Five hundred million still alive. And only one of me…
… In the dark of the night, I awoke from the dream of Jimmy Kapadia's
death which became the dream of annihilation-by-numbers, yelling howling
screaming, but still with the paper in my fist; and a door flew open, to reveal
my uncle Hanif and aunt Pia. Mary Pereira tried to comfort me, but Pia was
imperious, she was a divine swirl of petticoats and dupatta, she cradled me
in her arms: 'Never mind! My diamond, never mind now!' And Uncle Hanif,
sleepily: 'Hey, phaelwan! It's okay now; come on, you come with us; bring
the boy, Pia!' And now I'm safely in Pia's arms; 'Just for tonight, my pearl,
you can sleep with us!'-and there I am, nestling between aunt and uncle,
huddling against my mumani's perfumed curves.
Imagine, if you can, my sudden joy; imagine with what speed the
nightmare fled from my thoughts, as I nestled against my extraordinary
aunt's petticoats! As she re-arranged herself, to get comfortable, and one
golden melon caressed my cheek! As Pia's hand sought out mine and
grasped it firmly… now I discharged my duty. When my aunt's hand
wrapped itself around mine, paper passed from palm to palm. I felt her
stiffen, silently; then, although I snuggled up closer closer closer, she was
lost to me; she was reading in the dark, and the stiffness of her body was
increasing; and then suddenly I knew that I had been tricked, that Catrack
was my enemy; and only the threat of policemen prevented me from telling
my uncle.
(At school, the next day, I was told of Jimmy Kapadia's tragic death,
suddenly at home, of a heart seizure. Is it possible to kill a human being by
dreaming his death? My mother always said so; and, in that case, Jimmy
Kapadia was my first murder victim. Homi Catrack was to be the next.)
When I returned from my first day back at school, having basked in the
unusual sheepishness of Fat Perce and Glandy Keith ('Lissen, yaar, how
did we know your finger was in the… hey, man, we got free tickets for a
picture tomorrow, you want to come?') and my equally unexpected
popularity ('No more Zagallo! Solid, man! You really lost your hair for
something good!'), aunty Pia was out. I sat quietly with uncle Hanif while, in
the kitchen, Mary Pereira prepared dinner. It was a peaceful little family
scene; but the peace was shattered, abruptly, by the crash of a slamming
door. Hanif dropped his pencil as Pia, having slammed the front door, flung
open the living-room door with equal force. Then he boomed cheerfully,
'So, wife: what's the drama?' … But Pia was not to be defused. 'Scribble,'
she said, her hand slicing air, 'Allah, don't stop for me! So much talent, a
person cannot go to the pot in this house without finding your genius. Are
you happy, husband? We are making much money? God is good to you?'
Still Hanif remained cheerful. 'Come Pia, our little guest is here. Sit, have
tea…' Actress Pia froze in an attitude of disbelief. 'O God! Such a family I
have come to! My life is in ruins, and you offer tea; your mother offers
petrol! All is madness…' And uncle Hanif, frowning now: 'Pia, the boy…'A
shriek. 'Ahaaa! The boy-but the boy has suffered; he is suffering now; he
knows what it is to lose, to feel forlorn! I, too, have been abandoned: I am
great actress, and here I sit surrounded by tales of bicycle-postmen and
donkey-cart drivers! What do you know of a woman's grief? Sit, sit, let
some fat rich Parsee film-producer give you charity, never mind that your
wife wears paste jewels and no new saris for two years; a woman's back is
broad, but, beloved husband, you have made my days into deserts! Go,
ignore me now, just leave me in peace to jump from the window! I will go
into the bedroom now,' she concluded, 'and if you hear no more from me it
is because my heart is broken and I am dead.' More doors slammed: it was
a terrific exit.
Uncle Hanif broke a pencil, absent-mindedly, into two halves. He
shook his head wonderingly: 'What's got into her?' But I knew. I, bearer of
secrets, threatened by policemen, I knew and bit my lip. Because, trapped
as I was in the crisis of the marriage of my uncle and aunt, I had broken my
recently-made rule and entered Pia's head; I had seen her visit to Homi
Catrack and knew that, for years now, she had been his fancy-woman; I
had heard him telling her that he had tired of her charms, and there was
somebody else now; and I, who would have hated him enough just for
seducing my beloved aunt, found myself hating him twice as passionately
for doing her the dishonour of discarding her.
'Go to her,' my uncle was saying, 'Maybe you can cheer her up.'
The boy Saleem moves through repeatedly-slammed doors to the
sanctum of his tragic aunt; and enters, to find her loveliest of bodies
splayed out in wondrous abandon across the marital bed-where, only last
night, bodies nestled against bodies-where paper passed from hand .to
hand… a hand flutters at her heart; her chest heaves; and the boy Saleem
stammers, 'Aunt, О aunt, I'm sorry.'
A banshee-wail from the bed. Tragedienne's arms, flying outwards
towards me. 'Hai! Hai, hai! Ai-hai-hai!' Needing no further invitation, I fly
towards those arms; I fling myself between them, to lie atop my mourning
aunt. The arms close around me, tightertighter, nails digging through my
school-white shirt, but I don't care!-Because something has started
twitching below my S-buckled belt. Aunty Pia thrashes about beneath me in
her despair and I thrash with her, remembering to keep my right hand clear
of the action. I hold it stiffly out above the fray. One-handed, I begin to
caress her, not knowing what I'm doing, I'm only ten years old and still in
shorts, but I'm crying because she's crying, and the room is full of the
noise-and on the bed as two bodies thrash, two bodies begin to acquire a
kind of rhythm, unnameable unthinkable, hips pushing up towards me,
while she yells, 'О! О God, О God, O!' And maybe I am yelling too, I can't
say, something is taking over from grief here, while my uncle snaps pencils
on a striped sofa, something getting stronger, as she writhes and twists
beneath me, and at last in the grip of a strength greater than my strength I
am bringing down my right hand, I have forgotten my finger, and when it
touches her breast, wound presses against skin…
'Yaaaouuuu!' I scream with the pain; and my aunt, snapping out of the
macabre spell of those few moments, pushes me off her and delivers a
resounding wallop to my face. Fortunately, it is the left cheek; there is no
danger of damage to my remaining good ear. 'Badmaash!' my aunty
screams, 'A family of maniacs and perverts, woeis me, what woman ever
suffered so badly?'
There is a cough in the doorway. I am standing up now, shivering with
pain. Pia is standing, too, her hair dripping off her head like tears. Mary
Pereira is in the doorway, coughing, scarlet confusion all over her skin,
holding a brown paper parcel in her hands.
'See, baba, what I have forgotten,' she finally manages to say, 'You
are a big man now: look, your mother has sent you two pairs of nice, white
long trousers.'
After I got so indiscreetly carried away while trying to cheer up my
aunt, it became difficult foi me to remain in the apartment on Marine Drive.
Long intense telephone calls were made regularly during the next few days;
Hanif persuading someone, while Pia gesticulated, that perhaps now, after
five weeks… and one evening after I got back from school, my mother
picked me up in our old Rover, and my first exile came to an end.
Neither during our drive home, nor at any other time, was I given any
explanation for my exile. I decided, therefore, that I would not make it my
business to ask. I was wearing long pants now; I was, therefore, a man,
and must bear my troubles accordingly. I told my mother: 'The finger is not
so bad. Hanif mamu has taught me to hold the pen differently, so I can
write okay.' She seemed to be concentrating very hard on the road. 'It was
a nice holiday,' I added, politely. 'Thank you for sending me.'
'O child,' she burst out, 'with your face like the sun coming out, what
can I tell you? Be good with your father; he is not happy these days.' I said
I would try to be good; she seemed to lose control of the wheel and we
passed dangerously near a bus. 'What a world,' she said after a time,
'Terrible things happen and you don't know how.'
'I know,' I agreed, 'Ayah has been telling me.' My mother looked at me
fearfully, then glared at Mary in the back seat. 'You black woman,' she
cried, 'what have you been saying?' I explained about Mary's stories of
miraculous events, but the dire rumours seemed to calm my mother down.
'What do you know,' she sighed, 'You are only a child.'
What do I know, Amma? I know about the Pioneer Cafe! Suddenly, as
we drove home, I was filled once again with my recent lust for revenge
upon my perfidious mother, a lust which had faded in the brilliant glare of
my exile, but which now returned and was united with my new-born
loathing of Homi Catrack. This two-headed lust was the demon which
possessed me, and drove me into doing the worst thing I ever did…
'Everything will be all right,' my mother was saying, 'You just wait and see.'
Yes, mother.
It occurs to me that I have said nothing, in this entire piece, about the
Midnight Children's Conference; but then, to tell the truth, they didn't seem
very important to me in those days. I had other things on my mind.
Commander Sabarmati's baton
A few months later, when Mary Pereira finally confessed her crime,
and revealed the secrets of her eleven-year-long haunting by the ghost of
Joseph D'Costa, we learned that, after her return from exile, she was badly
shocked by the condition into which the ghost had fallen in her absence. It
had begun to decay, so that now bits of it were missing: an ear, several
toes on each foot, most of its teeth; and there was a hole in its
stomach-larger than an egg. Distressed by this crumbling spectre, she
asked it (when she was sure nobody else was within earshot): 'O God, Joe,
what you been doing to yourself?' He replied that the responsibility of her
crime had been placed squarely on his shoulders until she confessed, and
it was playing hell with his system. From that moment it became inevitable
that she would confess; but each time she looked at me she found herself
prevented from doing so. Still, it was only a matter of time.
In the meanwhile, and utterly ignorant of how close I was to being
exposed as a fraud, I was attempting to come to terms with a Methwold's
Estate in which, too, a number of transformations had occurred. In the first
place, my father seemed to want nothing more to do with me, an attitude of
mind which I found hurtful but (considering my mutilated body) entirely
understandable. In the second place, there was the remarkable change in
the fortunes of the Brass Monkey. 'My position in this household,' I was
obliged to admit to myself, 'has been usurped.' Because now it was the
Monkey whom my father admitted into the abstract sanctum of his office,
the Monkey whom he smothered in his squashy belly, and who was obliged
to bear the burdens of his dreams about the future. I even heard Mary
Pereira singing to the Monkey the little ditty which had been my
theme-song all my days: 'Anything you want to be,' Mary sang, 'you can be;
You can be just what-all you want!' Even my mother seemed to have
caught the mood; and now it was my sister who always got the biggest
helping of chips at the dinner-table, and the extra nargisi kofta, and the
choicest pasanda. While I-whenever anyone in the house chanced to look
at me-was conscious of a deepening furrow between their eyebrows, and
an atmosphere of confusion and distrust. But how could I complain? The
Monkey had tolerated my special position for years. With the possible
exception of the time I fell out of a tree in our garden after she nudged me
(which could have been an accident, after all), she had accepted my
primacy with excellent grace and even loyalty. Now it was my turn;
long-trousered, I was required to be adult about my demotion. 'This
growing up,' I told myself, 'is harder than I expected.'
The Monkey, it must be said, was no less astonished than I at her
elevation to the role of favoured child. She did her best to fall from grace,
but it seemed she could do no wrong. These were the days of her flirtation
with Christianity, which was partly due to the influence of her European
school-friends and partly to the rosary-fingering presence of Mary Pereira
(who, unable to go to church because of her fear of the confessional, would
regale us instead with Bible stories); mostly, however, I believe it was an
attempt by the Monkey to regain her old, comfortable position in the family
doghouse (and, speaking of dogs, the Baroness Simki had been put to
sleep during my absence, lulled by promiscuity).
My sister spoke highly of gentle Jesus meek and mild; my mother
smiled vaguely and patted her on the head. She went around the house
humming hymns; my mother took up the tunes and sang along. She
requested a nun's outfit to replace her favourite nurse's dress; it was given
to her. She threaded chick-peas on a string and used them as a rosary,
muttering Hail-Mary-full-of-grace, and my parents praised her skill with her
hands. Tormented by her failure to be punished, she mounted to extremes
of religious fervour, reciting the Our Father morning and night, fasting in the
weeks of Lent instead of during Ramzan, revealing an unsuspected streak
of fanaticism which would, later, begin to dominate her personality; and still,
it appeared, she was tolerated. Finally she discussed the matter with me.
'Well, brother,' she said, 'looks like from now on I'll just have to be the good
guy, and you can have all the fun.'
She was probably right; my parents' apparent loss of interest in me
should have given me a greater measure of freedom; but I was
mesmerized by the transformations which were taking place in every
aspect of my life, and fun, in such circumstances, seemed hard to have.
I was altering physically; too early, soft fuzz was appearing on my chin,
and my voice swooped, out of control, up and down the vocal register. I
had a strong sense of absurdity: my lengthening limbs were making me
clumsy, and I must have cut a clownish figure, as I outgrew shirts and
trousers and stuck gawkily and too far out of the ends of my clothes. I felt
somehow conspired against, by these garments which flapped comically
around my ankles and wrists; and even when I turned inwards to my secret
Children, I found change, and didn't like it.
Conference-which finally fell apart on the day the Chinese armies came
down over the Himalayas to humiliate the Indian fauj-was already well
under way. When novelty wears off, boredom, and then dissension, must
inevitably ensue. Or (to put it another way) when a finger is mutilated, and
fountains of blood flow out, all manner of vilenesses become possible…
whether or not the cracks in the Conference were the (active-metaphorical)
result of my finger-loss, they were certainly widening. Up in Kashmir,
Narada-Markandaya was falling into the solipsistic dreams of the true
narcissist, concerned only with the erotic pleasures of constant sexual
alterations; while Soumitra the time-traveller, wounded by our refusal to
listen to his descriptions of a future in which (he said) the country would be
governed by a urine-drinking dotard who refused to die, and people would
forget everything they had ever learned, and Pakistan would split like an
amoeba, and the prime ministers of each half would be assassinated by
their successors, both of whom-he swore despite our disbelief-would be
called by the same name… wounded Soumitra became a regular absentee
from our nightly meetings, disappearing for long periods into the spidery
labyrinths of Time. And the sisters from Baud were content with their ability
to bewitch fools young and old. 'What can this Conference help?' they
inquired. 'We already have too many lovers.' And our alchemist member
was busying himself in a laboratory built for him by his father (to whom he
had revealed his secret); pre-occupied with the Philosopher's Stone, he
had very little time for us. We had lost him to the lure of gold.
And there were other factors at work as well. Children, however
magical, are not immune to their parents; and as the prejudices and
world-views of adults began to take over their minds, I found children from
Maharashtra loathing Gujaratis, and fair-skinned northerners reviling
Dravidian 'blackies'; there were religious rivalries; and class entered our
councils. The rich children turned up their noses at being in such lowly
company; Brahmins began to feel uneasy at permitting even their thoughts
to touch the thoughts of untouchables; while, among the low-born, the
pressures of poverty and Communism were becoming evident… and, on
top of all this, there were clashes of personality, and the hundred squalling
rows which are unavoidable in a parliament composed entirely of
half-grown brats.
In this way the Midnight Children's Conference fulfilled the prophecy of
the Prime Minister and became, in truth, a mirror of the nation; the
passive-literal mode was at work, although I railed against it, with
increasing desperation, and finally with growing resignation… 'Brothers,
sisters!' I broadcast, with a mental voice as uncontrollable as its physical
counterpart, 'Do not let this happen! Do not permit the endless duality of
masses-and-classes, capital-and-labour, them-and-us to come between us!
We,' I cried passionately, 'must be a third principle, we must be the force
which drives between the horns of the dilemma; for only by being other, by
being new, can we fulfil the promise of our birth!' I had supporters, and
none greater than Parvati-the-witch; but I felt them slipping away from me,
each distracted by his or her own life… just as, in truth, I was being
distracted by mine. It was as though our glorious congress was turning out
to be more than another of the toys of childhood, as though long trousers
were destroying what midnight had created… 'We must decide on a
programme,' I pleaded, 'our own Five Year Plan, why not?' But I could hear,
behind my anxious broadcast, the amused laughter of my greatest rival;
and there was SMva in all our heads, saying scornfully, 'No, little rich boy;
there is no third principle; there is only money-and-poverty, and
have-and-lack, and right-and-left; there is only me-against-the-world! The
world is not ideas, rich boy; the world is no place for dreamers or their
dreams; the world, little Snotnose, is things. Things and their makers rule
the world; look at Birla, and Tata, and all the powerful: they make things.
For things, the country is run. Not for people. For things, America and
Russia send aid; but five hundred million stay hungry. When you have
things, then there is time to dream; when you don't, you fight.' The
Children, listening fascinatedly as we fought… or perhaps not, perhaps
even our dialogue failed to hold their interest. And now I: 'But people are
not tilings; if we come together, if we love each other, if we show that this,
children-sticking-together-through-thick-and-thin, can be that third way…'
But Shiva, snorting: 'Little rich boy, that's all just wind. All that
importance-of-the-individual. All that possibility-of-human-ity. Today, what
people are is just another kind of thing.' And I, Saleem, crumbling: 'But…
free will… hope… the great soul, otherwise known as mahatma, of
mankind… and what of poetry, and art, and…' Whereupon SMva seized his
victory: 'You see? I knew you'd turn out to be like that. Mushy, like
overcooked rice. Sentimental as a grandmother. Go, who wants your
rubbish? We all have lives to live. Hell's bells, cucumber-nose, I'm fed up
with your Conference. It's got nothing to do with one single thing.'
You ask: there are ten-year-olds? I reply: Yes, but. You say: did
ten-year-olds, or even almost-elevens, discuss the role of the individual in
society? And the rivalry of capital and labour? Were the internal stresses of
agrarian and industrialized zones made explicit? And conflicts in
socio-cultural heritages? Did children of less than four thousand days
discuss identity, and the inherent conflicts of capitalism? Having got
through fewer than one hundred thousand hours, did they contrast Gandhi
and Marxlenin, power and impotence? Was collectivity opposed to
singularity? Was God killed by children? Even allowing for the truth of the
supposed miracles, can we now believe that urchins spoke like old men
with beards?
I say: maybe not in these words; maybe not in words at all, but in the
purer language of thought; but yes, certainly, this is what was at the bottom
of it all; because children are the vessels into which adults pour their
poison, and it was the poison of grown-ups which did for us. Poison, and
after a gap of many years, a Widow with a knife.
In short: after my return to Buckingham Villa, even the salt of the
midnight children lost its savour; there were nights, now, when I did not
even bother to set up my nationwide network; and the demon lurking inside
me (it had two heads) was free to get on with its devilment. (I never knew
about Shiva's guilt or innocence of whore-murders; but such was the
influence of Kali-Yuga that I, the good guy and natural victim, was certainly
responsible for two deaths. First came Jimmy Kapadia; and second was
Homi Catrack.)
If there is a third principle, its name is childhood. But it dies; or rather, it
is murdered.
We all had our troubles in those, days. Homi Catrack had his idiot
Toxy, and the Ibrahims had other worries: Sonny's father Ismail, after years
of bribing judges and juries, was in danger of being investigated by the Bar
Commission; and Sonny's uncle Ishaq, who ran the second-rate Embassy
Hotel near Flora Fountain, was reputedly deep in debt to local gangsters,
and worried constantly about being 'bumped off' (in those days,
assassinations were becoming as quotidian as the heat)… so perhaps it
isn't surprising that we had all forgotten about the existence of Professor
Schaapsteker. (Indians grow larger and more powerful as they age; but
Schaapsteker was a European, and his kind unfortunately fade away with
the years, and,often completely disappear.)
But now, driven, perhaps, by my demon, my feet led me upstairs to the
top floor of Buckingham Villa, where I found a mad old man, incredibly tiny
and shrunken, whose narrow tongue darted constantly in and out between
his lips-flicking, licking: the former searcher after antivenenes, assassin of
horses, Sharpsticker sahib, now ninety-two and no longer of his
eponymous Institute, but retired into a dark top-floor apartment filled with
tropical vegetation and serpents pickled in brine. Age, failing to draw his
teeth and poison-sacs, had turned him instead into the incarnation of
snakehood; like other Europeans who stay too long, the ancient insanities
of India had pickled his brains, so that he had come to believe the
superstitions of the Institute orderlies, according to whom he was the last of
a line which began when a king cobra mated with a woman who gave birth
to a human (but serpentine) child… it seems that all my life I've only had to
turn a corner to tumble into yet another new and fabulously transmogrified
world. Climb a ladder (or even a staircase) and you find a snake awaiting
The curtains were always drawn; in Schaapsteker's rooms, the sun
neither rose nor set, and no clocks ticked. Was it the demon, or our mutual
sense of isolation which drew us together?… Because, in those days of the
Monkey's ascendancy and the Conference's decline, I began to ascend the
stairs whenever possible, and listen to the ravings of the crazy, sibilant old
His first greeting to me, when I stumbled into his unlocked lair, was:
'So, child-you have recovered from the typhoid.' The sentence stirred time
like a sluggish dust-cloud and rejoined me to my one-year-old self; I
remembered the story of how Schaapsteker had saved my life with
snake-poison. And afterwards, for several weeks, I sat at his feet, and he
revealed to me the cobra which lay coiled within myself.
Who listed, for my benefit, the occult powers of snakes? (Their
shadows kill cows; if they enter a man's dreams, his wife conceives; if they
are killed, the murderer's family is denied male issue for twenty
generations.) And who described to me-with the aid of books and stuffed
corpses-the cobra's constant foes? 'Study your enemies, child,' he hissed,
'or they will surely kill you.'… At Schaapsteker's feet, I studied the
mongoose and the boar, the dagger-billed adjutant bird and the barasinha
deer, which crushes snakes' heads under its feet; and the Egyptian
ichneumon, and ibis; the four-feet-high secretary bird, fearless and
hook-beaked, whose appearance and name made me think suspicious
thoughts about my father's Alice Pereira; and the jackal buzzard, the stink
cat, the honey ratel from the hills; the road runner, the peccary, and the
formidable cangamba bird. Schaapsteker, from the depths of his senility,
instructed me in life. 'Be wise, child. Imitate the action of the snake. Be
secret; strike from the cover of a bush.'
Once he said: 'You must think of me as another father. Did I not give
you your life when it was lost?' With this statement he proved that he was
as much under my spell as I under his; he had accepted that he, too, was
one of that endless series of parents to whom I alone had the power of
giving birth. And although, after a time, I found the air in his chambers too
oppressive, and left him once more to the isolation from which he would
never again be disturbed, he had shown me how to proceed. Consumed by
the two-headed demon of revenge, I used my telepathic powers (for the
first time) as a weapon; and in this way I discovered the details of the
relationship between Homi Catrack and Lila Sabarmati. Lila and Pia were
always rivals in beauty; it was the wife of the heir-apparent to the title of
Admiral of the Fleet who had become the film magnate's new
fancy-woman. While Commander Sabarmati was at sea on manoeuvres,
Lila and Homi were performing certain manoeuvres of their own; while the
lion of the seas awaited' the death of the then-Admiral, Homi and Lila, too,
were making an appointment with the Reaper. (With my help.)
'Be secret,' said Sharpsticker sahib; secretly, I spied on my enemy
Homi, and on the promiscuous mother of Eyeslice and Hairoil (who were
very full of themselves of late, ever since, in fact, the papers announced
that Commander Sabarmati's promotion was a mere formality. Only a
matter of time…). 'Loose woman,' the demon within me whispered silently,
'Perpetrator of the worst of maternal perfidies! We shall turn you into an
awful example; through you we shall demonstrate the fate which awaits the
lascivious. О unobservant adulteress! Did you not see what sleeping
around did to the illustrious Baroness Simki von der Heiden?-who was, not
to put too fine a point upon it, a bitch, just like yourself.'
My view of Lila Sabarmati has mellowed with age; after all, she and I
had one thing in common-her nose, like mine, possessed tremendous
powers. Hers, however, was a purely worldly magic: a wrinkle of nasal skin
could charm the steeliest of Admirals; a tiny flare of the nostrils ignited
strange fires in the hearts of film magnates. I am a little regretful about
betraying that nose; it was a little like stabbing a cousin in the back.
What I discovered: every Sunday morning at ten a.m., Lila Sabarmati
drove Eyeslice and Hairoil to the Metro cinema for the weekly meetings of
the Metro Cub Club. (She volunteered to take the rest of us, too; Sonny
and Cyrus, the Monkey and I piled into her Indian-made Hindustan car.)
And while we drove towards Lana Turner or Robert Taylor or Sandra Dee,
Mr Homi Catrack was also preparing himself for a weekly rendezvous.
While Lila's Hindustan puttered along beside railway-lines, Homi was
knotting a cream silk scarf around his throat; while she halted at red lights,
he donned a Technicolored bush-coat; when she was ushering us into the
darkness of the auditorium, he was putting on gold-rimmed sunglasses;
and when she left us to watch our film, he, too, was abandoning a child.
Toxy Catrack never failed to react to his departures by wailing kicking
thrashing-of-legs; she knew what was going on, and not even Bi-Appah
could restrain her.
Once upon a time there were Radha and Krishna, and Rama and Sita,
and Laila and Majnu; also (because we are not unaffected by the West)
Romeo and Juliet, and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The world is
full of love stories, and all lovers are in a sense the avatars of their
predecessors. When Lila drove her Hindustan to an address off Colaba
Causeway, she was Juliet coming out on to her balcony; when
cream-scarfed, gold-shaded Homi sped off to meet her (in the same
Studebaker in which my mother had once been rushed to Dr Narlikar's
Nursing Home), he was Leander swimming the Hellespont towards Hero's
burning candle. As for my part in the business-I will not give it a name.
I confess: what I did was no act of heroism. I did not battle Homi on
horseback, with fiery eyes and flaming sword; instead, imitating the action
of the snake, I began to cut pieces out of newspapers. From GOAN
LIBERATION COMMITTEE LAUNCHES satyagraha campaign I extracted
the letters 'com'; speaker OF E-PAK ASSEMBLY DECLARED MANIAC
gave me my second syllable, 'man'. I found 'der' concealed in nehru
considers RESIGNATION AT CONGRESS ASSEMBLY; into my second
word now, I excised 'sab' from riots, mass arrests in red-run kerala:
and got 'arm' from chinese armed forces' border activities spurn bandung
principles. To complete the name, I snipped the letters 'ati' from dulles
foreign policy is inconsistent, erratic, p.m. avers. Cutting up history to suit
my nefarious purposes, I seized on why indira gandhi is congress president
now and kept the 'why'; but I refused to be tied exclusively to politics, and
turned to advertising for the 'does YOUR' in DOES YOUR CHEWING GUM
LOSE ITS FLAVOUR? BUT p.k. keeps its savour! A sporting
human-interest story, mohun bagan centre-forward takes wife, gave me its
last word, and 'go то' I took from the tragic masses go то abul kalam azad's
funeral. Now I was obliged to find my words in little pieces once again:
death on south col: sherpa plunges provided me with a much-needed 'col',
but 'aba' was hard to find, turning up at last in a cinema advertisement:
FAST!… Those were the days when Sheikh Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir,
was campaigning for a plebiscite in his state to determine its future; his
courage gave me the syllable 'cause', because it led to this headline:
abdullah 'incitement' cause of his re-arrest-govt spokesman. Then, too,
Acharya Vinobha Bhave, who had spent ten years persuading landowners
to donate plots to the poor in his bhoodan campaign, announced that
donations had passed the million-acre mark, and launched two new
campaigns, asking for the donations of whole villages ('gramdan') and of
individual lives ('jivandan'). When J. P. Narayan announced the dedication
of his life to Bhave's work, the headline narayan walks in bhave's way gave
me my much-sought 'way'. I had nearly finished now; plucking an 'on' from
pakistan on course for political chaos: faction strife bedevils public affairs,
and a 'sunday' from the masthead of the Sunday Blitz, I found myself just
one word short. Events in East Pakistan provided me with my finale.
PERIOD DECLARED gave me 'MOURNING', from which, deftly and
deliberately, I excised the letter 'u'. I needed a terminal question-mark, and
found it at the end of the perennial query of those strange days: after
nehru, who?
In the secrecy of a bathroom, I glued my completed note-my first
attempt at rearranging history-on to a sheet of paper; snake-like, I inserted
the document in my pocket, like poison in a sac. Subtly, I arranged to
spend an evening with Eyeslice and Hairoil. We played a game: 'Murder in
the Dark'… During a game of murder, I slipped inside Commander
Sabarmati's almirah and inserted my lethal missive into the inside pocket of
his spare uniform. At that moment (no point hiding it) I felt the delight of the
snake who hits its target, and feels its fangs pierce its victim's heel…
commander SABARMATI (my note read)
No, I am no longer proud of what I did; but remember that my demon
of revenge had two heads. By unmasking the perfidy of Lila Sabarmati, I
hoped also to administer a salutary shock to my own mother. Two birds
with one stone; there were to be two punished women, one impaled on
each fang of my forked snake's tongue. It is not untrue to say that what
came to be known as the Sabarmati affair had its real beginnings at a dingy
cafe in the north of the city, when a stowaway watched a ballet of circling
I was secret; I struck from the cover of a bush. What drove me? Hands
at the Pioneer Cafe; wrong-number telephone calls; notes slipped to me on
balconies, and passed under cover of bedsheets; my mother's hypocrisy
and Pia's inconsolable grief: 'Hai! Ai-hai! Ai-hai-hai!'… Mine was a slow
poison; but three weeks later, it had its effect.
It emerged, afterwards, that after receiving my anonymous note
Commander Sabarmati had engaged the services of the illustrious Dom
Minto, Bombay's best-known private detective. (Minto, old and almost lame,
had lowered his rates by then.) He waited until he received Minto's report.
And then:
That Sunday morning, six children sat in a row at the Metro Cub Club,
watching Francis The Talking Mule And The Haunted House. You see, I
had my alibi; I was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Like Sin, the
crescent moon, I acted from a distance upon the tides of the world … while
a mule talked on a screen, Commander Sabarmati visited the naval
arsenal. He signed out a good, long-nosed revolver; also ammunition. He
held, in his left hand, a piece of paper on which an address had been
written in a private detective's tidy hand; in his right hand, he grasped the
un-holstered gun. By taxi, the Commander arrived at Colaba Causeway.
He paid off the cab, walked gun-in-hand down a narrow gully past
shirt-stalls and toyshops, and ascended the staircase of an apartment block
set back from the gully at the rear of a concrete courtyard. He rang the
doorbell of apartment 18c; it was heard in 18b by an Anglo-Indian teacher
giving private Latin tuition. When Commander Sabarmati's wife Lila
answered the door, he shot her twice in the stomach at point-blank range.
She fell backwards; he marched past her, and found Mr Homi Catrack
rising from the toilet, his bottom unwiped, pulling frantically at his trousers.
Commander Vinoo Sabarmati shot him once in the genitals, once in the
heart and once through the right eye. The gun was not silenced; but when it
had finished speaking, there was an enormous silence in the apartment. Mr
Catrack sat down on the toilet after he was shot and seemed to be smiling.
Commander Sabarmati walked out of the apartment block with the
smoking gun in his hand (he was seen, through the crack of a door, by a
terrified Latin tutor); he strolled along Colaba Causeway until he saw a
traffic policeman on his little podium. Commander Sabarmati told the
policeman, 'I have only now killed my wife and her lover with this gun; I
surrender myself into your…' But he had been waving the gun under the
policeman's nose; the officer was so scared that he dropped his
traffic-conducting baton and fled. Commander Sabar-mati, left alone on the
policeman's pedestal amid the sudden confusion of the traffic, began to
direct the cars, using the smoking gun as a baton. This is how he was
found by the posse of twelve policemen who arrived ten minutes later, who
sprang courageously upon him and seized him hand and foot, and who
removed from him the unusual baton with which, for ten minutes, he had
expertly conducted the traffic.
A newspaper said of the Sabarmati affair: 'It is a theatre in which India
will discover who she was, what she is, and what she might become.'… But
Commander Sabarmati was only a puppet; I was the puppet-master, and
the nation performed my play-only I hadn't meant it! I didn't think he'd… I
only wanted to… a scandal, yes, a scare, a lesson to all unfaithful wives
and mothers, but not that, never, no.
Aghast at the result of my actions, I rode the turbulent thought-waves
of the city… at the Parsee General Hospital, a doctor said, 'Begum
Sabarmati will live; but she will have to watch what she eats.'… But Homi
Catrack was dead… And who was engaged as the lawyer for the
defence?-Who said, 'I will defend him free gratis and for nothing'?-Who,
once the victor of the Freeze Case, was now the Commander's champion?
Sonny Ibrahim said, 'My father will get him off if anyone can.'
Commander Sabarmati was the most popular murderer in the history
of Indian jurisprudence. Husbands acclaimed his punishment of an errant
wife; faithful women felt justified in their fidelity. Inside Lila's own sons, I
found these thoughts: 'We knew she was like that. We knew a Navy man
wouldn't stand for it.' A columnist in the Illustrated Weekly of India, writing a
pen-portrait to go alongside the 'Personality of the Week' full-colour
caricature of the Commander, said: 'In the Sabarmati Case, the noble
sentiments of the Ramayana combine with the cheap melodrama of the
Bombay talkie; but as for the chief protagonist, all agree on his
upstandingness; and he is undeniably an attractive chap.'
My revenge on my mother and Homi Catrack had precipitated a
national crisis… because Naval regulations decreed that no man who had
been in a civil jail could aspire to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet. So
Admirals, and city politicians, and of course Ismail Ibrahim, demanded:
'Commander Sabarmati must stay in a Navy jail. He is innocent until proven
guilty. His career must not be ruined if it can possibly be avoided.' And the
authorities: 'Yes.' And Commander Sabarmati, safe in the Navy's own
lock-up, discovered the penalties of fame-deluged with telegrams of
support, he awaited trial; flowers filled his cell, and although he asked to be
placed on an ascetic's diet of rice and water, well-wishers inundated him
with tiffin-carriers filled with birianis and pista-ki-lauz and other rich foods.
And, jumping the queue in the Criminal Court, the case began in
double-quick time… The prosecution said, 'The charge is murder in the first
Stern-jawed, strong-eyed, Commander Sabarmati replied: 'Not guilty.'
My mother said, 'O my God, the poor man, so sad, isn't it?' I said, 'But
an unfaithful wife is a terrible thing, Amma…' and she turned away her
The prosecution said, 'Here is an open and shut case. Here is motive,
opportunity, confession, corpse and premeditation: the gun signed out, the
children sent to the cinema, the detective's report. What else to say? The
state rests.'
And public opinion: 'Such a good man, Allah!'
Ismail Ibrahim said: 'This is a case of attempted suicide.'
To which, public opinion: '?????????'
Ismail Ibrahim expounded: 'When the Commander received Dom
Minto's report, he wanted to see for himself if it was true; and if so, to kill
himself. He signed out the gun; it was for himself. He went to the Colaba
address in a spirit of despair only; not as killer, but as dead man! But
there-seeing his wife there, jury members!-seeing her half-clothed with her
shameless lover!-jury members, this good man, this great man saw red.
Red, absolutely, and while seeing red he did his deeds. Thus there is no
premeditation, and so no murder in the first degree. Killing yes, but not
cold-blooded. Jury members, you must find him not guilty as charged.'
And buzzing around the city was, 'No, too much… Ismail Ibrahim has
gone too far this time… but, but… he has got a jury composed mostly of
women… and not rich ones… therefore doubly susceptible, to the
Commander's charm and the lawyer's wallet… who knows? Who can tell?'
The jury said, 'Not guilty.'
My mother cried, 'Oh wonderful!… But, but: is it justice?' And thejudge,
answering her: 'Using the powers vested in me, I reverse this absurd
verdict. Guilty as charged.'
O, the wild furor of those days! When Naval dignitaries and bishops
and other politicians demanded, 'Sabarmati must stay in the Navy jail
pending High Court appeal. The bigotry of one judge must not ruin this
great man!' And police authorities, capitulating, 'Very well.' The Sabarmati
Case goes rushing upwards, hurtling towards High Court hearing at
unprecedented speed… and the Commander tells his lawyer, 'I feel as
though destiny is no longer in my control; as though something has taken
over… let us call it Fate.'
I say: 'Call it Saleem, or Snotnose, or Sniffer, or Stainface; call it
The High Court verdict: 'Guilty as charged.' The press headlines:
sabarmati for civil jail at last? Ismail Ibrahim's statement: 'We are going all
the way! To the Supreme Court!' And now, the bombshell. A
pronouncement from the State Chief Minister himself: 'It is a heavy thing to
make an exception to the law; but in view of Commander Sabarmati's
service to his country, I am permitting him to remain in Naval confinement
pending the Supreme Court decision.'
And more press headlines, stinging as mosquitoes: state government
When I realized that the press had turned against the Commander, I knew
he was done for.
The Supreme Court verdict: 'Guilty.'
Ismail Ibrahim said: 'Pardon! We appeal for pardon to the President of
And now great matters are to be weighed in Rashtrapati
Bhavan-behind the gates of President House, a man must decide if any
man can be set above the law; whether the assassination of a wife's
fancy-man should be set aside for the sake of a Naval career; and still
higher things-is India to give her approval to the rule of law, or to the
ancient principle of the overriding primacy of heroes? If Rama himself were
alive, would we send him to prison for slaying the abductor of Sita? Great
matters; my vengeful irruption into the history of my age was certainly no
trivial affair.
The President of India said, 'I shall not pardon this man.'
Nussie Ibrahim (whose husband had lost his biggest case) wailed,
'Hai! Ai-hai!' And repeated an earlier observation: 'Amina sister, that good
man going to prison-I tell you, it is the end of the world!'
A confession, trembling just beyond my lips: 'It was all my doing,
Amma; I wanted to teach you a lesson. Amma, do not go to see other men,
with Lucknow-work on their shirt; enough, my mother, of teacup-kissery! I
am in long trousers now, and may speak to you as a man.' But it never
spilled out of me; there was no need, because I heard my mother
answering a wrong-number telephone call-and with a strange, subdued
voice, speak into the mouthpiece as follows: 'No; nobody by that name
here; please believe what I am telling you, and never call me again.'
Yes, I had taught my mother a lesson; and after the Sabarmati affair
she never saw her Nadir-Qasim in the flesh, never again, not as long as
she lived; but, deprived of him, she fell victim to the fate of all women in our
family, namely the curse of growing old before her time; she began to
shrink, and her hobble became more pronounced, and there was the
emptiness of age in her eyes.
My revenge brought in its wake a number of unlooked-for
developments; perhaps the most dramatic of these was the appearance in
the gardens of Methwold's Estate of curious flowers, made out of wood and
tin, and hand-painted with bright red lettering… the fatal signboards erected
in all the gardens except our own, evidence that my powers exceeded even
my own understanding, and that, having once been exiled from my
two-storey hillock, I had now managed to send everyone else away
Signboards in the gardens of Versailles Villa, Escorial Villa and Sans
Souci; signboards nodding to each other in the sea-breeze of the cocktail
hour. On each signboard could be discerned the same seven letters, all
bright red, all twelve inches high: for sale. That was the signboards'
message. for sale-Versailles Villa, its owner dead on a toilet seat; the sale
was handled by the ferocious nurse Bi-Appah on behalf of poor idiot Toxy;
once the sale was complete, nurse and nursed vanished forever, and
Bi-Appah held, on her lap, a bulging suitcase filled with banknotes… I don't
know what happened to Toxy, but considering the avarice of her nurse, I'm
sure it was nothing good… for sale, the Sabarmati apartment in Escorial
Villa; Lila Sabarmati was denied custody of her children and faded out of
our lives, while Eyeslice and Hairoil packed their bags and departed into
the care of the Indian Navy, which had placed itself in loco parentis until
their father completed his thirty years in jail… for sale, too, the Ibrahims'
Sans Souci, because Ishaq Ibrahim's Embassy Hotel had been burned
down by gangsters on the day of Commander Sabarmati's final defeat, as
though the criminal classes of the city were punishing the lawyer's family
for his failure; and then Ismail Ibrahim was suspended from practice, owing
to certain proofs of professional misconduct (to quote the Bombay Bar
Commission's report); financially 'embarrassed', the Ibrahims also passed
out of our lives; and, finally forsale, the apartment of Cyrus Dubash and his
mother, because during the hue and cry of the Sabarmati affair, and almost
entirely unnoticed, the nuclear physicist had died his orange-pip-choking
death, thus unleashing upon Cyrus the religious fanaticism of his mother
and setting in motion the wheels of the period of revelations which will be
the subject of my next little piece.
The signboards nodded in the gardens, which were losing their
memories of goldfish and cocktail-hours and invading cats; and who took
them down? Who were the heirs of the heirs of William Methwold?… They
came swarming out of what had once been the residence of Dr Narlikar:
fat-bellied and grossly competent women, grown fatter and more
competent than ever on their tetrapod-given wealth (because those were
the years of the great land reclamations) . The Narlikar women-from the
Navy they bought Commander Sabarmati's flat, and from the departing Mrs
Dubash her Cyrus's home; they paid Bi-Appah in used banknotes, and the
Ibrahims' creditors were appeased by Narlikar cash.
My father, alone of all the residents, refused to sell; they offered him
vast sums, but he shook his head. They explained their dream-a dream of
razing the buildings to the ground and erecting on the two-storey hillock a
mansion which would soar thirty stories into the skies, a triumphant pink
obelisk, a signpost of their future; Ahmed Sinai, lost in abstractions, would
have none of it. They told him, 'When you're surrounded by rubble you'll
have to sell for a song'; he (remembering their tetrapodal perfidy) was
Nussie-the-duck said, as she left, 'I told you so, Amina sister-the end!
The end of the world!' This time she was right and wrong; after August
1958, the world continued to spin; but the world of my childhood had,
indeed, come to an end.
Padma-did you have, when you were little, a world of your own? A tin
orb, on which were imprinted the continents and oceans and polar ice?
Two cheap metal hemispheres, clamped together by a plastic stand? No, of
course not; but I did. It was a world full of labels: Atlantic Ocean and
Amazon and Tropic of Capricorn. And, at the North Pole, it bore the legend:
made as england. By the August of the nodding signboards and the
rapaciousness of the Narlikar women, this tin world had lost its stand; I
found Scotch Tape and stuck the earth together at the Equator, and then,
my urge for play overcoming my respect, began to use it as a football. In
the aftermath of the Sabarmati affair, when the air was filled with the
repentance of my mother and the private tragedies of Methwold's heirs, I
clanked my tin sphere around the Estate, secure in the knowledge that the
world was still in one piece (although held together by adhesive tape) and
also at my feet… until, on the day of Nussie-the-duck's last eschatological
lament-on the day Sonny Ibrahim ceased to be Sonny-next-door-my sister
the Brass Monkey descended on me in an inexplicable rage, yelling, 'O
God, stop your kicking, brother; you don't feel even a little bad today?' And
jumping high in the air, she landed with both feet on the North Pole, and
crushed the world into the dust of our driveway under her furious heels.
It seems the departure of Sonny Ibrahim, her reviled adorer, whom she
had stripped naked in the middle of the road, had affected the Brass
Monkey, after all, despite her lifelong denial of the possibility of love.
От Hare Khusro Hare Khusrovand От
Know, О unbleivers, that in the dark Midnights of celestial space in a
time before Time lay the sphere of Blessed khusrovand!!! Even modern
scientists now affirm that for generations they have lied to conceal from the
People whose right it is to know of the Unquestionabel true existance of
this holy home of truth!!! Leading Intellectuals the World Over, also in
America, speak of the anti-religious conspiracy of reds, jews, etc., to hide
these vital news! The Veil lifts now. Blessed lord khusro comes with
Irrefutable Proofs. Read and believe!
Know that in true-existing Khusrovand lived Saints whose Spiritual
Purity-Advancement was such that they had, through meditation &c.,
gained powers for the good of all, powers Beyond Imagining! They saw
through steel, and could BEND GIRDERS with TEETH!!!
For 1st Time, such powers may be used
In Your Service! LORD KHUSRO is here!
Hear of the Fall of Khusrovand: how the red devil Bhimutha (black be
his name) unleashed a fearsome Hail of Meteorites (which has been well
chronicled by world observatories, but not Explained)… so horrible a rain of
stone, that Fair Khusrovand was ruined & its Saints destroyd.
But noble Juraell and beauteous Khalila were wise. sacrificing
themselves in an ecstasy of Kundalini Art, they saved the soul of their
unborn son lord khusro. Entering True Oneness in a Supreme Yogic
Trance (whose powers are now accepted in whole world!) they transformed
their Noble Spirits into a Flashing Beam of kundalini life force energy light,
of which today's wellknown laser is a common imitation & Copy. Along this
beam, Soul of unborn Khusro flew, traversing the bottomless deeps of
Celestial Space-Eternity, until by our luck! it came to our own Duniya
(World) & lodged in Womb of a humble Parsee matron of Good Family.
So the Child was born & was of true Goodness & Unparalleled brain
(giving the lie to that lie, that we are all Born Equal! Is a Crook the equal of
Saint? of course not!!) But for some Time his true nature lay Hidden, until
while portraying and Earth-Saint in a drama production (of which leading
critics have said, The Purity of His Performance Defied The Blief), he came
awake & knew who he was. Now has he taken up his True Name,
lord khusro khusrovani
& is Set Forth humbly with Ash on his Ascetic's Brow to heal Disease
and End Droughts & fight the Legions of Bhimutha wherever they may
Come. For be afraid! Bhimutha's rain of stone will come to us also! Do not
heed lies of politicos poets Reds &cetera. put your trust in Only True Lord
& send Donations to POBox 555, Head Post Office, Bombay-1.
blessings! beauty!! truth!!! 0m Hare Khusro Hare Khusrovand От
Cyrus-the-great had a nuclear physicist for a father and, for a mother,
a religious fanatic whose faith had gone sour inside her as a result of so
many years of being suppressed by the domineering rationality of her
Dubash; and when Cyrus's father choked on an orange from which his
mother had forgotten to remove the pips, Mrs Dubash applied herself to the
task of erasing her late husband from the personality of her son-of
remaking Cyrus in her own strange image, Cyrus-the-great, Ватт a plate, In
nineteen hundred and forty-eight-Cyrus the school prodigy-Cyrus as Saint
Joan in Shaw's play-all these Cyruses, to whom we had grown
accustomed, with whom we had grown up, now disappeared; in their place
there emerged the overblown, almost bovinely placid figure of Lord Khusro
Khusrovand. At the age often, Cyrus vanished from the Cathedral School
and the meteoric rise of India's richest guru began. (There are as many
versions of India as Indians; and, when set beside Cyrus's India, my own
version seems almost mundane.)
Why did he let it happen? Why did posters cover the city, and
advertisements fill the newspapers, without a peep out of the child
genius?… Because Cyrus (although he used to lecture us, not
un-mischievously, on the Parts of a Wooman's Body) was simply the most
malleable of boys, and would not have dreamed of crossing his mother. For
his mother, he put on a sort of brocade skirt and a turban; for the sake of
filial duty, he permitted millions of devotees to kiss his little finger. In the
name of maternal love, he truly became Lord Khusro, the most successful
holy child in history; in no time at all he was being hailed by crowds half a
million strong, and credited with miracles; American guitarists came to sit at
his feet, and they all brought their cheque-books along. Lord Khusrovand
acquired accountants, and tax havens, and a luxury liner called the
Khusrovand Starship, and an aircraft-Lord Khusro's Astral Plane. And
somewhere inside the faintly-smiling, benediction-scattering boy… in a
place which was forever hidden by his mother's frighteningly efficient
shadow (she had, after all, lived in the same house as the Narlikar women;
how well did she know them? How much of their awesome competence
leaked into her?), there lurked the ghost of a boy who had been my friend.
'That Lord Khusro?' Padma asks, amazed. 'You mean that same
mahaguru who drowned at sea last year?' Yes, Padma; he could not walk
on water; and very few people who have come into contact with me have
been vouchsafed a natural death… let me confess that I was somewhat
resentful of Cyrus's apotheosis. 'It should have been me,' I even thought, 'I
am the magic child; not only my primacy at home, but even my true
innermost nature, has now been purloined.'
Padma: I never became a 'mahaguru'; millions have never seated
themselves at my feet; and it was my own fault, because one day, many
years ago, I had gone to hear Cyrus's lecture on the Parts of a Wooman's
'What?' Padma shakes her head, puzzled. 'What's this now?'
The nuclear physicist Dubash possessed a beautiful marble
statuette-a female nude-and with the help of this figurine, his son would
give expert lectures on female anatomy to an audience of sniggering boys.
Not free; Cyrus-the-great charged a fee. In exchange for anatomy, he
demanded comic-books-and I, in all innocence, gave him a copy of that
most precious of Superman comics, the one containing the frame-story,
about the explosion of the planet Krypton and the rocket-ship in which
Jor-El his father despatched him through space, to land on earth and be
adopted by the good, mild Kents… did nobody else see it? In all those
years, did no person understand that what Mrs Dubash had done was to
rework and reinvent the most potent of all modern myths-the legend of the
coming of the superman? I saw the hoardings trumpeting the coming of
Lord Khusro Khusrovand Bhagwan; and found myself obliged, yet again, to
accept responsibility for the events of my turbulent, fabulous world.
How I admire the leg-muscles of my solicitous Padma! There she
squats, a few feet from my table, her sari hitched up in
fisherwoman-fashion. Calf-muscles show no sign of strain; thigh-muscles,
rippling through sari-folds, display their commendable stamina. Strong
enough to squat forever, simultaneously defying gravity and cramp, my
Padma listens unhurriedly to my lengthy tale; О mighty pickle-woman!
What reassuring solidity, how comforting an air of permanence, in her
biceps and triceps… for my admiration extends also to her arms, which
could wrestle mine down in a trice, and from which, when they enfold me
nightly in futile embraces, there is no escape. Past our crisis now, we exist
in perfect harmony: I recount, she is recounted to; she ministers, and I
accept her ministrations with grace. I am, in fact, entirely content with the
uncomplaining thews of Padma Mangroli, who is, unaccountably, more
interested in me than my tales.
Why I have chosen to expound on Padma's musculature: these days,
it's to those muscles, much as to anything or-one (for instance, my son,
who hasn't even learned to read as yet), that I'm telling my story. Because I
am rushing ahead at breakneck speed; errors are possible, and
overstatements, and jarring alterations in tone; I'm racing the cracks, but I
remain conscious that errors have already been made, and that, as my
decay accelerates (my writing speed is having trouble keeping up), the risk
of unreliability grows… in this condition, I am learning to use Padma's
muscles as my guides. When she's bored, I can detect in her fibres the
ripples of uninterest; when she's unconvinced, there is a tic which gets
going in her cheek. The dance of her musculature helps to keep me on the
rails; because in autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened
is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his
audience to believe… Padma, having accepted the story of
Cyrus-the-great, gives me the courage to speed on, into the worst time of
my eleven-year-old life (there is, was, worse to come)-into the
August-and-September when revelations flowed faster than blood.
Nodding signboards had scarcely been taken down when the
demolition crews of the Narlikar women moved in; Buckingham Villa was
enveloped in the tumultuous dust of the dying palaces of William Methwold.
Concealed by dust from Warden Road below, we were nevertheless still
vulnerable to telephones; and it was the telephone which informed us, in
the tremulous voice of my aunt Pia, of the suicide of my beloved uncle
Hanif. Deprived of the income he had received from Homi Catrack, my
uncle had taken his booming voice and his obsessions with hearts and
reality up to the roof of his Marine Drive apartment block; he had stepped
out into the evening sea-breeze, frightening the beggars so much (when he
fell) that they gave up pretending to be blind and ran away yelling… in
death as in life, Hanif Aziz espoused the cause of truth and put illusion to
flight. He was nearly thirty-four years old. Murder breeds death; by killing
Homi Catrack, I had killed my uncle, too. It was my fault; and the dying
wasn't over yet.
The family gathered at Buckingham Villa: from Agra, Aadam Aziz and
Reverend Mother; from Delhi, my uncle Mustapha, the Civil Servant who
had polished the art of agreeing with his superiors to the point at which they
had stopped hearing him, which is why he never got promoted; and his
half-Irani wife Sonia and their children who had been so thoroughly beaten
into insignificance that I can't even remember how many of them there
were; and from Pakistan, bitter Alia, and even General Zulfikar and my aunt
Emerald, who brought twenty-seven pieces of luggage and two servants,
and never stopped looking at their watches and inquiring about the date.
Their son Zafar also came. And, to complete the circle, my mother brought
Pia to stay in our house, 'at least for the forty-day mourning period, my
For forty days, we were besieged by the dust; dust creeping under the
wet towels we placed around all the windows, dust slyly following in each
mourning arrival, dust filtering through the very walls to hang like a
shapeless wraith in the air,' dust deadening the sounds of formal ululation
and also the deadly sniping of grieving kinsfolk; the remnants of Methwold's
Estate settled on my grandmother and goaded her towards a great fury;
they irritated the pinched nostrils of Punchinello-faced General Zulfikar and
forced him to sneeze on to his chin. In the ghost-haze of the dust it
sometimes seemed we could discern the shapes of the past, the mirage of
Lila Sabarmati's pulverized pianola or the prison bars at the window of
Toxy Catrack's cell; Dubash's nude statuette danced in dust-form through
our chambers, and Sonny Ibrahim's bullfight-posters visited us as clouds.
The Narlikar women had moved away while bulldozers did their work; we
were alone inside the dust-storm, which gave us all the appearance of
neglected furniture, as if we were chairs and tables which had been
abandoned for decades without covering-sheets; we looked like the ghosts
of ourselves. We were a dynasty born out of a nose, the aquiline monster
on the face of Aadam Aziz, and the dust, entering our nostrils in our time of
grief, broke down our reserve, eroded the barriers which permit families to
survive; in the dust storm of the dying palaces things were said and seen
and done from which none of us ever recovered.
It was started by Reverend Mother, perhaps because the years had
filled her out until she resembled the Sankara Acharya mountain in her
native Srinagar, so that she presented the dust with the largest surface
area to attack. Rumbling up from her mountainous body came a noise like
an avalanche, which, when it turned into words, became a fierce attack on
aunt Pia, the bereaved widow. We had all noticed that my mumani was
behaving unusually. There was an unspoken feeling that an actress of her
standing should have risen to the challenge of widowhood in high style; we
had unconsciously been eager to see her grieving, looking forward to
watching an accomplished tragedienne orchestrate her own calamity,
anticipating a forty-day raga in which bravura and gentleness, howling pain
and soft despond would all be blended in the exact proportions of art; but
Pia remained still, dry-eyed, and anticlimactically composed. Amina Sinai
and Emerald Zulfikar wept and rent their hair, trying to spark off Pia's
talents; but finally, when it seemed nothing would move Pia, Reverend
Mother lost patience. The dust entered her disappointed fury and increased
its bitterness. 'That woman, whatsitsname,' Reverend Mother rumbled,
didn't I tell you about her? My son, Allah, he could have been anything, but
no, whatsitsname, she must make him ruin his life; he must jump off a roof,
whatsitsname, to be free of her.'
It was said; could not be unsaid. Pia sat like stone; my insides shook
like cornflour pudding. Reverend Mother went grimly on; she swore an oath
upon the hairs of her dead son's head. 'Until that woman shows my son's
memory some respect, whatsitsname, until she takes out a wife's true
tears, no food will pass my lips. It is shame and scandal, whatsitsname,
how she sits with antimony instead of tears in her eyes!' The house
resounded with this echo of her old wars with Aadam Aziz. And until the
twentieth day of the forty, we were all afraid that my grandmother would die
of starvation and the forty days would have to start all over again. She lay
dustily on her bed; we waited and feared.
I broke the stalemate between grandmother and aunt; so at least I can
legitimately claim to have saved one life. On the twentieth day, I sought out
Pia Aziz who sat in her ground-floor room like a blind woman; as an excuse
for my visit, I apologized clumsily for my indiscretions in the Marine Drive
apartment. Pia spoke, after a distant silence: 'Always melodrama,' she said,
flatly, 'In his family members, in his work. He died for his hate of
melodrama; it is why I would not cry.' At the time I did not understand; now
I'm sure that Pia Aziz was exactly right. Deprived of a livelihood by
spurning the cheap-thrill style of the Bombay cinema, my uncle strolled off
the edge of a roof; melodrama inspired (and perhaps tainted) his final dive
to earth. Pia's refusal to weep was in honour of his memory… but the effort
of admitting it breached the walls of her self-control. Dust made her
sneeze; the sneeze brought tears to her eyes; and now the tears would not
stop, and we all witnessed our hoped-for performance after all, because
once they fell they fell like Flora Fountain, and she was unable to resist her
own talent; she shaped the flood like the performer she was, introducing
dominant themes and subsidiary motifs, beating her astonishing breasts in
a manner genuinely painful to observe, now squeezing, now pummelling…
she tore her garments and her hair. It was an exaltation of tears, and it
persuaded Reverend Mother to eat. Dal and pistachio-nuts poured into my
grandmother while salt water flooded from my aunt. Now Naseem Aziz
descended upon Pia, embracing her, turning the solo into a duet, mingling
the music of reconciliation with the unbearably beautiful tunes of grief. Our
palms itched with inexpressible applause. And the best was still to come,
because Pia, the artiste, brought her epic efforts to a superlative close.
Laying her head in her mother-in-law's lap, she said in a voice filled with
submission and emptiness, 'Ma, let your unworthy daughter listen to you at
last; tell me what to do, I will do.' And Reverend Mother, tearfully:
'Daughter, your father Aziz and I will go to Rawalpindi soon; in our old age
we will live near our youngest daughter, our Emerald. You will also come,
and a petrol pump will be purchased.' And so it was that Reverend Mother's
dream began to come true, and Pia Aziz agreed to relinquish the world of
films for that of fuel. My uncle Hanif, I thought, would probably have
The dust affected us all during those forty days; it made Ahmed Sinai
churlish and raucous, so that he refused to sit in the company of his in-laws
and made Alice Pereira relay messages to the mourners, messages which
he also yelled out from his office: 'Keep the racket down! I am working in
the middle of this hullabaloo!' It made General Zulfikar and Emerald look
constantly at calendars and airline timetables, while their son Zafar began
to boast to the Brass Monkey that he was getting his father to arrange a
marriage between them. 'You should think you're lucky,' this cocky cousin
told my sister, 'My father is a big man in Pakistan.' But although Zafar had
inherited his father's looks, the dust had clogged up the Monkey's spirits,
and she didn't have the heart to fight him. Meanwhile my aunt Alia spread
her ancient, dusty disappointment through the air and my most absurd
relatives, the family of my uncle Mustapha, sat sullenly in corners and were
forgotten, as usual; Mustapha Aziz's moustache, proudly waxed and
upturned at the tips when he arrived, had long since sagged under the
depressive influence of the dust.
And then, on the twenty-second day of the mourning period, my
grandfather, Aadam Aziz, saw God.
He was sixty-eight that year-still a decade older than the century. But
sixteen years without optimism had taken a heavy toll; his eyes were still
blue, but his back was bent. Shuffling around Buckingham Villa in
embroidered skull-cap and full-length chugha-coat-coated, too, in a thin film
of dust-he munched aimlessly on raw carrots and sent thin streaks of spittle
down the grizzled white contours of his chin. And as he declined, Reverend
Mother grew larger and stronger; she, who had once wailed pitifully at the
sight of Mercurochrome, now appeared to thrive on his weakness, as
though their marriage had been one of those mythical unions in which
succubi appear to men as innocent damsels, and, after luring them into the
matrimonial bed, regain their true, awful aspect and begin to swallow their
souls… my grandmother, in those days, had acquired a moustache almost
as luxuriant as the dustily-sagging hair on the upper lip of her one surviving
son. She sat cross-legged on her bed, smearing her lip with a mysterious
fluid which set hard around the hairs and was then ripped off by a sharp,
violent hand; but the remedy only served to exacerbate the ailment.
'He has become like a child again, whatsitsname,' Reverend Mother
told my grandfather's children, 'and Hanif has finished him off,' She warned
us that he had begun to see things. 'He talks to people who are not there,'
she whispered loudly while he wandered through the room sucking his
teeth, 'How he calls out, whatsitsname! In the middle of the night!' And she
mimicked him: 'Ho, Tai? Is it you?' She told us children about the boatman,
and the Hummingbird, and the Rani of Cooch Naheen. 'Poor man has lived
too long, whatsitsname; no father should see his son die first.'… And
Amina, listening, shook her head in sympathy, not knowing that Aadam
Aziz would leave her this legacy-that she, too, in her last days, would be
visited by things which had no business to return.
We could not use the ceiling-fans for the dust; perspiration ran down
the face of my stricken grandfather and left streaks of mud on his cheeks.
Sometimes he would grab anyone who was near him and speak with utter
lucidity: 'These Nehrus will not be happy until they have made themselves
hereditary kings!' Or, dribbling into the face of a squirming General Zulfikar:
'Ah, unhappy Pakistan! How ill-served by her rulers!' But at other times he
seemed to imagine himself in a gemstone store, and muttered,'… Yes:
there were emeralds and rubies…' The Monkey whispered to me, 'Is
grandpa going to die?'
What leaked into me from Aadam Aziz: a certain vulnerability to
women, but also its cause, the hole at the centre of himself caused by his
(which is also my) failure to believe or disbelieve in God. And something
else as well-something which, at the age of eleven, I saw before anyone
else noticed. My grandfather had begun to crack.
'In the head?' Padma asks, 'You mean in the upper storey?'
The boatman Tai said:' The ice is always waiting, Aadam baba,just
under the water's skin.' I saw the cracks in his eyes-a delicate tracery of
colourless lines against the blue; I saw a network of fissures spreading
beneath his leathery skin; and I answered the Monkey's question: 'I think
he is.' Before the end of the forty-day mourning period, my grandfather's
skin had begun to split and flake and peel; he could hardly open his mouth
to eat because of the cuts in the corners of his lips; and his teeth began to
drop like Flitted flies. But a crack-death can be slow; and it was a long time
before we knew about the other cracks, about the disease which was
nibbling at his bones, so that finally his skeleton disintegrated into powder
inside the weatherbeaten sack of his skin.
Padma is looking suddenly panicky. 'What are you saying? You,
mister: are you telling that you also… what nameless thing can eat up any
man's bones? Is it…'
No time to pause now; no time for sympathy or panic; I have already
gone further than I should. Retreating a little in time, I must mention that
something also leaked into Aadam Aziz from me; because on the
twenty-third day of the mourning period, he asked the entire family to
assemble in the same room of glass vases (no need to hide them from my
uncle now) and cushions and immobilized fans, the same room in which I
had announced visions of my own… Reverend Mother had said, 'He has
become like a child again'; like a child, my grandfather announced that,
three weeks after he had heard of the death of a son whom he had
believed to be alive and well, he had seen with his own eyes the God in
whose death he had tried all his life to believe. And, like a child, he was not
believed. Except by one person… 'Yes, listen,' my grandfather said, his
voice a weak imitation of his old booming tones, 'Yes, Rani? You are here?
And Abdullah? Come, sit, Nadir, this is news-where is Ahmed? Alia will
want him here… God, my children; God, whom I fought all my life. Oskar?
Ilse?-No, of course. I know they are dead. You think I'm old, maybe foolish;
but I have seen God.' And the story, slowly, despite rambles and
diversions, comes inching out: at midnight, my grandfather awoke in his
darkened room. Someone eke present-someone who was not his wife.
Reverend Mother, snoring in her bed. But someone. Someone with shining
dust on him, lit by the setting moon. And Aadam Aziz, 'Ho, Tai? Is it y6u?'
And Reverend Mother, mumbling in her sleep, 'O, sleep, hiusband, forget
this…' But the someone, the something, cries in a loud startling (and
startled?) voice, 'Jesus Christ Almighty!' (Amid the cut-glass vases, my
grandfather laughs apologetically heh-heh, for mentioning the infidel
name.) 'Jesus Christ Almighty!' and my grandfather looking, and seeing,
yes, there are holes in hands, perforations in the feet as there once were in
a… But he is rubbing his eyes, shaking his head, saying: 'Who? What
name? What did you say?' And the apparition, startling-startled, 'God! God!'
And, after a pause, 'I didn't think you could see me.'
'But I saw Him,' my grandfather says beneath motionless fans. 'Yes, Г
can't deny it, I surely did.'… And the apparition: 'You're the one whose son
died'; and my grandfather, with a pain in his chest: 'Why? Why did that
happen?' To which the creature, made visible only by dust: 'God has his
reasons, old man; life's like that, right?'
Reverend Mother dismissed us all. 'Old man doesn't know what he
means, whatsitsname. Such a thing, that grey hairs should make a man
blaspheme!' But Mary Pereira left with her face pale as bedsheets; Mary
knew whom Aadam Aziz had seen-who, decayed by his responsibility for
her crime, had holes in hands and feet; whose heel had been penetrated
by a snake; who died in a nearby clocktower, and had been mistaken for
I may as well finish my grandfather's story here and now; I've gone this
far, and the opportunity may not present itself later on… somewhere in the
depths of my grandfather's senility, which inevitably reminded me of the
craziness of Professor Schaapsteker upstairs, the bitter idea took root that
God, by his off-hand attitude to Hanif's suicide, had proved his own
culpability in the affair; Aadam grabbed General Zulfikar by his military
lapels and whispered to him: 'Because I never believed, he stole my son!'
And Zulfikar: 'No, no, Doctor Sahib, you must not trouble yourself so…' But
Aadam Aziz never forgot his vision; although the details of the particular
deity he had seen grew blurred in his mind, leaving behind only a
passionate, drooling desire for revenge (which lust is also common to us
both)… at the end of the forty-day mourning period, he would refuse to go
to Pakistan (as Reverend Mother had planned) because that was a country
built especially for God; and in the remaining years of his life he often
disgraced himself by stumbling into mosques and temples with his old
man's stick, mouthing imprecations and lashing out at any worshipper or
holy man within range. In Agra, he was tolerated for the sake of the man he
had once been; the old ones at the Cornwallis Road paan-shop played
hit-the-spittoon and reminisced with compassion about the Doctor Sahib's
past. Reverend Mother was obliged to yield to him for this reason if for no
other-the iconoclasm of his dotage would have created a scandal in a
country where he was not known.
Behind his foolishness and his rages, the cracks continued to spread;
the disease munched steadily on his bones, while hatred ate the rest of him
away. He did not die, however, until 1964. It happened like this: on
Wednesday, December 25th, 1963-on Christmas Day!-Reverend Mother
awoke to find her husband gone. Coming out into the courtyard of her
home, amid hissing geese and the pale shadows of the dawn, she called
for a servant; and was told that the Doctor Sahib had gone by rickshaw to
the railway station. By the time she reached the station, the train had gone;
and in this way my grandfather, following some unknown impulse, began
his last journey, so that he could end his story where it (and mine) began,
in a city surrounded by mountains and set upon a lake.
The valley lay hidden in an eggshell of ice; the mountains had closed
in, to snarl like angry jaws around the city on the lake… winter in Srinagar;
winter in Kashmir. On Friday, December 27th, a man answering to my
grandfather's description was seen, chugha-coated, drooling, in the vicinity
of the Hazratbal Mosque. At four forty-five on Saturday morning, Haji
Muhammad Khalil Ghanai noticed the theft, from the Mosque's inner
sanctum, of the valley's most treasured relic: the holy hair of the Prophet
Did he? Didn't he? If it was him, why did he not enter the Mosque, stick
in hand, to belabour the faithful as he had become accustomed to doing? If
not him, then why? There were rumours of a Central Government plot to
'demoralize the Kashmir! Muslims', by stealing their sacred hair; and
counter-rumours about Pakistani agents provocateurs, who supposedly
stole the relic to foment unrest… did they? Or not? Was this bizarre
incident truly political, or was it the penultimate attempt at revenge upon
God by a father who had lost his son? For ten days, no food was cooked in
any Muslim home; there were riots and burnings of cars; but my
grandfather was above politics now, and is not known to have joined in any
processions. He was a man with a single mission; and what is known is
that on January 1st, 1964 (a Wednesday, just one week after his departure
from Agra), he set his face towards the hill which Muslims erroneously
called the Takht-e-Sulaiman, Solomon's seat, atop which stood a radio
mast, but also the black blister of the temple of the acharya Sankara.
Ignoring the distress of the city, my grandfather climbed; while the cracking
sickness within him gnawed patiently through his bones. He was not
Doctor Aadam Aziz (Heidelberg-returned) died five days before the
government announced that its massive search for the single hair of the
Prophet's head had been successful. When the State's holiest saints
assembled to authenticate the hair, my grandfather was unable to tell them
the truth. (If they were wrong… but I can't answer the questions I've asked.)
Arrested for the crime-and later released on grounds of ill-health-was one
Abdul Rahim Bande; but perhaps my grandfather, had he lived, could have
shed a stranger light on the affair… at midday on January ist, Aadam Aziz
arrived outside the temple of Sankara Acharya. He was seen to raise his
walking-stick; inside the temple, women performing the rite of puja at the
Shiva-lingam shrank back-as women had once shrunk from the wrath of
another, tetrapod-obsessed doctor; and then the cracks claimed him, and
his legs gave way beneath him as the bones disintegrated, and the effect of
his fall was to shatter the rest of his skeleton beyond all hope of repair. He
was identified by the papers in the pocket of his chugha-coat: a photograph
of his son, and a half-completed (and fortunately, correctly addressed)
letter to his wife. The body, too fragile to be transported, was buried in the
valley of his birth.
I am watching Padma; her muscles have begun to twitch
distractedly.'Consider this,' I say. 'Is what happend to my grandfather so
very strange? Compare it with the mere fact of the holy fuss over the theft
of a hair; because every last detail of that is true, and by comparison, an
old man's death is surely perfectly normal.' Padma relaxes; her muscles
give me the go-ahead. Because I've spent too long on Aadam Aziz;
perhaps I'm afraid of what must be told next; but the revelation will not be
One last fact: after the death of my grandfather, Prime Minister
Jawaharlal Nehru fell ill and never recovered his health. This fatal sickness
finally killed him on May 27th, 1964.
If I hadn't wanted to be a hero, Mr Zagallo would never have pulled out
my hair. If my hair had remained intact, Glandy Keith and Fat Perce
wouldn't have taunted me; Masha Miovic wouldn't have goaded me into
losing my finger. And from my finger flowed blood which was
neither-Alpha-nor-Omega, and sent me into exile; and in exile I was filled
with the lust for revenge which led to the murder of Homi Catrack; and if
Homi hadn't died, perhaps my uncle would not have strolled off a roof into
the sea-breezes; and then my grandfather would not have gone to Kashmir
and been broken by the effort of climbing the Sankara Acharya hill. And my
grandfather was the founder of my family, and my fate was linked by my
birthday to that of the nation, and the father of the nation was Nehru.
Nehru's death; can I avoid the conclusion that that, too, was all my fault?
But now we're back in 1958; because on the thirty-seventh day of the
mourning period, the truth, which had been creeping up on Mary
Pereira-and therefore on me-for over eleven years, finally came out into the
open; truth, in the shape of an old, old man, whose stench of Hell
penetrated even my clogged-up nostrils, and whose body lacked fingers
and toes and was littered with boils and holes, walked up our two-storey
hillock and appeared through the dust-cloud to be seen by Mary Pereira,
who was cleaning the chick-blinds on the verandah.
Here, then, was Mary's nightmare come true; here, visible through the
pall of dust, was the ghost of Joe D'Costa, walking towards the ground-floor
office of Ahmed Sinai! As if it hadn't been enough to show himself to
Aadam Aziz… 'Arre, Joseph,' Mary screamed, dropping her duster, 'you go
away now! Don't come here now! Don't be bothering the sahibs with your
troubles! О God, Joseph, go, go na, you will kill me today!' But the ghost
walked on down the driveway.
Mary Pereira, abandoning chick-blinds, leaving them hanging askew,
rushes into the heart of the house to throw herself at the feet of my
mother-small fat hands joined in supplication-'Begum Sahiba! Begum
Sahiba, forgive me!' And my mother astounded: 'What is this, Mary? What
has got your goat?' But Mary is beyond dialogue, she is weeping
uncontrollably, crying 'O God my hour has come, my darling Madam, only
let me go peacefully, do not put me in the jailkhana!' And also, 'Eleven
years, my Madam, see if I haven't loved you all, О Madam, and that boy
with his face like the moon; but now I am killed, I am no-good woman, I
shall burn in hell! Funtoosh!' cried Mary, and again, 'It's finished; funloosh!'
Still I did not guess what was coming; not even when Mary threw
herself upon me (I was taller than her now; her tears wet my neck): 'O
baba, baba; today you, must learn a thing, such a thing I have done; but
come now…' and the little woman drew herself up with immense dignity, '…
I will tell you all before that Joseph does. Begum, children, all you other
great sirs and madams, come now to sahib's office, and I will tell.'
Public announcements have punctuated my life; Amina in a Delhi
gully, and Mary in a sunless office… with my whole family trooping
amazedly behind us, I went downstairs with Mary Pereira, who would not
let go of my hand.
What was in the room with Ahmed Sinai? What had given my father a
face from which djinns and money had been chased away and replaced by
a look of utter desolation? What sat huddled up in the corner of the room,
filling the air with a sulphurous stench? What, shaped like a man, lacked
fingers and toes, whose face seemed to bubble like the hot springs of New
Zealand (which I'd seen in the Wonder Book of Wonders)?… No time to
explain, because Mary Pereira has begun to talk, gabbling out a secret
which has been hidden for over eleven years, pulling us all out of the
dream-world she invented when she changed name-tags, forcing us into
the horror of the truth. And all the time she held on to me; like a mother
protecting her child, she shielded me from my family. (Who were learning…
as I was… that they were not…)
… It was just after midnight and in the streets there were fireworks and
crowds, the many-headed monster roaring, I did it for my Joseph, sahib,
but please don't send me to jail, look the boy is a good boy, sahib, I am a
poor woman, sahib, one mistake, one minute in so many years, not
jailkhana sahib, I will go, eleven years I gave but I will go now, sahib, only
this is a good boy, sahib, you must not send him, sahib, after eleven years
he is your son… O, you boy with your face like the sun coming out, О
Saleem my piece-of-the-moon, you must know that your father was Winkie
and your mother is also dead…
Mary Pereira ran out of the room.
Ahmed Sinai said, in a voice as faraway as a bird: 'That, in the corner,
is my old servant Musa, who tried to rob me once.'
(Can any narrative stand so much so soon? I glance towards Padma;
she appears to be stunned, like a fish.)
Once upon a time there was a servant who robbed my father; who
swore he was innocent; who called down upon himself the curse of leprosy
if he should prove a liar; and who was proved to be lying. He had left in
disgrace; but I told you then he was a time-bomb, and he had returned to
explode. Musa had, indeed, contracted leprosy; and had returned across
the silence of the years to beg for my father's forgiveness, so that he could
be released from his self-inflicted curse.
… Someone was called God who was not God; someone else was
taken for a ghost, and was not a ghost; and a third person discovered that
although his name was Saleem Sinai, he was not his parents' son…
'I forgive you,' Ahmed Sinai said to the leper. After that day, he was
cured of one of his obsessions; he never tried again to discover his own
(and wholly imaginary) family curse.
'I couldn't tell it any other way,' I say to Padma. Too painful; I had to
just blurt it out, all crazy-sounding, just like that.'
'O, mister,' Padma blubbers helplessly, 'O, mister, mister!'
'Come on now,' I say, 'It's an old story.'
But her tears aren't for me; for the moment, she's forgotten about
what-chews-at-bones-beneath-the-skin; she's crying over Mary Pereira, of
whom, as I've said, she had become excessively fond.
'What happened to her?' she says with red eyes. 'That Mary?'
I am seized by an irrational anger. I shout: 'You ask her!'
Ask her how she went home to the city of Panjim in Goa, how she told
her ancient mother the story of her shame! Ask how her mother went wild
with the scandal (appropriately enough: it was a time for old folk to lose
their wits)! Ask: did daughter and old mother go into the streets to seek
forgiveness? Was that not the one time in each ten years when the
mummified corpse of St Francis Xavier (as holy a relic as the Prophet's
hair) is taken from its vault in the Cathedral of Bom Jesus and carried
around the town? Did Mary and old distraught Mrs Pereira find themselves
pressing up against the catafalque; was the old lady beside herself with
grief for her daughter's crime? Did old Mrs Pereira, shouting, 'Hai! Ai-hai!
Ai-hai-hai!', clamber up on to the bier to kiss the foot of the Holy One?
Amidst uncountable crowds, did Mrs Pereira enter a holy frenzy? Ask! Did
she or didn't she, in the clutches of her wild spirit, place her lips around the
big toe on St Francis's left foot? Ask for yourself: did Mary's mother bite the
toe right off?
'How?' Padma wails, unnerved by my wrath. 'How, ask?'
… And is this also true: were the papers making it up when they wrote
that the old lady had been miraculously punished; when they quoted
Church sources and eye-witnesses, who described how the old woman
was turned into solid stone? No? Ask her if it's true that the Church sent a
stone-statue figure of an old woman around the towns and the villages of
Goa, to show what happened to those who misbehave with 'the saints?
'Ask: was this statue not seen in several villages simultaneously-and does
that prove fraud, or a further miracle? 'You know I can't ask anyone,'
Padma howls… but I, feeling my fury subside, am making no more
revelations tonight.
Baldly, then: Mary Pereira left us, and went to her mother in Goa. But
Alice Pereira stayed; Alice remained in Ahmed Sinai's office, and typed,
and fetched snacks and fizzy drinks.
As for me-at the end of the mourning period for my uncle Hanif, I
entered my second exile.
Movements performed by pepperpots
I was obliged to come to the conclusion that Shiva, my rival, my
changeling brother, could no longer be admitted into the forum of my mind;
for reasons which were, I admit, ignoble. I was afraid he would discover
what I was sure I could not conceal from him-the secrets of our birth. Shiva,
for whom the world was things, for whom history could only be explained as
the continuing struggle of oneself-against-the-crowd, would certainly insist
on claiming his birthright; and, aghast at the very notion of my knock-kneed
antagonist replacing me in the blue room of my childhood while I, perforce,
walked morosely off the two-storey hillock to enter the northern slums;
refusing to accept that the prophecy of Ramram Seth had been intended
for Winkie's boy, that it was to Shiva that Prime Ministers had written, and
for Shiva that fishermen pointed out to sea… placing, in short, a far higher
value on my eleven-year-old sonship than on mere blood, I resolved that
my destructive, violent alter ego should never again enter the increasingly
fractious councils of the Midnight Children's Conference; that I would guard
my secret-which had once been Mary's-with my very life.
There were nights, at this time, when I avoided convening the
Conference at all-not because of the unsatisfactory turn it had taken, but
simply because I knew it would take time, and cool blood, to erect a barrier
around my new knowledge which could deny it to the Children; eventually, I
was confident, I would manage this… but I was afraid of Shiva. Most
ferocious and powerful of the Children, he would penetrate where others
could not go… At any rate, I avoided my fellow-Children; and then suddenly
it was too late, because, having exiled Shiva, I found myself hurled into an
exile from which I was incapable of contacting my more-than-five-hundred
colleagues: I was flung across the Partition-created frontier into Pakistan.
Late in September 1958, the mourning period for my uncle Hanif Aziz
came to an end; and, miraculously, the dust-cloud which had enveloped us
was settled by a merciful shower of rain. When we had bathed and put on
newly-washed clothes and switched on the ceiling-fans, we emerged from
bathrooms filled, briefly, with the illusory optimism of freshly-soaped
cleanliness; to discover a dusty, unwashed Ahmed Sinai, whisky-bottle in
his hand, his eyes rimmed with blood, swaying upstairs from his office in
the manic grip of djinns. He had been wrestling, in his private world of
abstraction, with the unthinkable realities which Mary's revelations had
unleashed; and owing to some cockeyed functioning of the alcohol, had
been seized by an indescribable rage which he directed, neither at Mary's
departed back, not at the changeling in his midst, but at my mother-at, I
should say, Amina Sinai. Perhaps because he knew he should beg her
forgiveness, and would not, Ahmed ranted at her for hours within the
shocked hearing of her family; I will not repeat the names he called her, nor
the vile courses of action he recommended she should take with her life.
But in the end it was Reverend Mother who intervened.
'Once before, my daughter,' she said, ignoring Ahmed's continuing
ravings, 'your father and I, whatsitsname, said there was no shame in
leaving an inadequate husband. Now I say again: you have, whatsitsname,
a man of unspeakable vileness. Go from him; go today, and take your
children, whatsitsname, away from these oaths which he spews from his
lips like an animal, whatsitsname, of the gutter. Take your children, I say,
whatsitsname-both your children,' she said, clutching me to her bosom.
Once Reverend Mother had legitimized me, there was no one to oppose
her; it seems to me now, across the years, that even my cursing father was
affected by her support of the eleven-year-old snotnosed child.
Reverend Mother fixed everything; my mother was like putty-like
potter's clay!-in her omnipotent hands. At that time, my grandmother (I must
continue to call her that) still believed that she and Aadam Aziz would
shortly be emigrating to Pakistan; so she instructed my aunt Emerald to
take us all with her-Amina, the Monkey, myself, even my aunty Pia-and
await her coming. 'Sisters must care for sisters, whatsitsname,' Reverend
Mother said, 'in times of trouble.' My aunt Emerald looked highly
displeased; but both she and General Zulfikar acquiesced. And, since my
father was in a lunatic temper which made us fear for our safety, and the
Zulfikars had already booked themselves on a ship which was to sail that
night, I left my lifelong home that very day, leaving Ahmed Sinai alone with
Alice Pereira; because when my mother left her second husband, all the
other servants walked out, too.
In Pakistan, my second period of hurtling growth came to an end. And,
in Pakistan, I discovered that somehow the existence of a frontier 'jammed'
my thought-transmissions to the more-than-five-hundred; so that, exiled
once more from my home, I was also exiled from the gift which was my
truest birthright: the gift of the midnight children.
We lay anchored off the Rann of Kutch on a heat-soaked afternoon.
Heat buzzed in my bad left ear; but I chose to remain on deck, watching as
small, vaguely ominous rowing boats and fishermen's dhows ran a ferry
service between our ship and the Rann, transporting objects veiled in
canvas back and forth, back and forth. Below decks, the adults were
playing housie-housie; I had no idea where the Monkey was. It was the first
time I had ever been on a real ship (occasional visits to American warships
in Bombay harbour didn't count, being merely tourism; and there was
always the embarrassment of being in the company of dozens of
highly-pregnant ladies, who always came on these tour parties in the hope
that they would enter labour and give birth to children who qualified, by
virtue of their seaborne birth, for American citizenship). I stared through the
heat-haze at the Rann. The Rann of Kutch… I'd always thought it a magical
name, and half-feared-half-longed to visit the place, that chameleon area
which was land for half the year and sea for the other half, and on which, it
was said, the receding ocean would abandon all manner of fabulous debris,
such as treasure-chests, white ghostly jellyfish, and even the occasional
gasping, freak-legendary figure of a merman. Gazing for the first time upon
this amphibian terrain, this bog of nightmare, I should have felt excited; but
the heat and recent events were weighing me down; my upper lip was still
childishly wet with nose-goo, but I felt oppressed by a feeling of having
moved directly from an overlong and dribbling childhood into a premature
(though still leaky) old age. My voice had deepened; I had been forced to
start shaving, and my face was spotted with blood where the razor had
sliced off the heads of pimples… The ship's purser passed me and said,
'Better get below, son. It's the hottest time just now.' I asked about the
ferrying boats. 'Just supplies,' he said and moved away, leaving me to
contemplate a future in which there was little to look forward to except the
grudging hospitality of General Zulfikar, the self-satisfied preening of my
aunt Emerald, who would no doubt enjoy showing off her worldly success
and status to her unhappy sister and bereaved sister-in-law, and the
muscle-headed cockiness of their son Zafar… 'Pakistan,' I said aloud,
'What a complete dump!' And we hadn't even arrived… I looked at the
boats; they seemed to be swimming through a dizzying haze. The deck
seemed to be swaying violently as well, although there was virtually no
wind; and although I tried to grab the rails, the boards were too quick for
me: they rushed up and hit me on the nose.
That was how I came to Pakistan, with a mild attack of sunstroke to
add to the emptiness of my hands and the knowledge of my birth; and what
was the name of the boat? What two sister-ships still plied between
Bombay and Karachi in those days before politics ended their journeys?
Our boat was the S.S. Sabarmati; its sister, which passed us just before we
reached the Karachi harbour, was the Sarasvati. We steamed into exile
aboard the Commander's namesake-ship, proving once again that there
was no escape from recurrence.
We reached Rawalpindi by hot, dusty train. (The General and Emerald
travelled in Air-Conditioned; they bought the rest of us ordinary first-class
tickets.) But it was cool when we reached 'Pindi and I set foot, for the first
time, in a northern city… I remember it as a low, anonymous town; army
barracks, fruit-shops, a sports goods industry; tall military men in the
streets; Jeeps; furniture carvers; polo. A town in which it was possible to be
very, very cold. And in a new and expensive housing development, a vast
house surrounded by a high wall which was topped by barbed wire and
patrolled by sentries: General Zulfikar's home. There was a bath next to the
double bed in which the General slept; there was a house catch-phrase:
'Let's get organized!'; the servants wore green military jerseys and berets;
in the evenings the odours of bhang and charas floated up from their
quarters. The furniture was expensive and surprisingly beautiful; Emerald
could not be faulted on her taste. It was a dull, lifeless house, for all its
military airs; even the goldfish in the tank set in the dining-room wall
seemed to bubble listlessly; perhaps its most interesting inhabitant was not
even human. You will permit me, for a moment, to describe the General's
dog Bonzo. Excuse me: the General's old beagle bitch.
This goitred creature of papery antiquity had been supremely indolent
and useless all her life; but while I was still recovering from sunstroke she
created the first furore of our stay-a sort of trailer for the 'revolution of the
pepperpots'. General Zulfikar had taken her one day to a military
training-camp, where he was to watch a team of mine-detectors at work in
a specially-prepared minefield. (The General was anxious to mine the
entire Indo-Pak border. 'Let's get organized!' he would exclaim. 'Let's give
those Hindus something to worry! We'll blow their invaders into so many
pieces, there'll be no damn thing left to reincarnate.' He was not, however,
overly concerned about the frontiers of East Pakistan, being of the view
that 'those damn blackies can look after themselves'.)… And now Bonzo
slipped her leash, and somehow evading the frantically clutching hands of
young jawans, waddled out into the minefield.
Blind panic. Mine-detecting soldiers picking their way in frenzied
slow-motion through the blasting zone. General Zulfikar and other Army
brass diving for shelter behind their grandstand, awaiting the explosion…
But there was none; and when the flower of the Pakistan Army peeped out
from inside dustbins or behind benches, it saw Bonzo picking her way
daintily through the field of the lethal seeds, nose to ground,
Bonzo-the-insouciant, quite at her ease. General Zulfikar flung his peaked
cap in the air. 'Damn marvellous!' he cried in the thin voice which squeezed
between his nose and chin, 'The old lady can smell the mines!' Bonzo was
drafted forthwith into the armed forces as a four-legged mine-detector with
the courtesy rank of sergeant-major.
I mention Bonzo's achievement because it gave the General a stick
with which to beat us. We Sinais-and Pia Aziz-were helpless,
non-productive members of the Zulfikar household, and the General did not
wish us to forget it: 'Even a damn hundred-year-old beagle bitch can earn
her damn living,' he was heard to mutter, 'but my house is full of people
who can't get organized into one damn thing.' But before the end of
October he would be grateful for (at least) my presence… and the
transformation of the Monkey was not far away.
We went to school with cousin Zafar, who seemed less anxious to
marry my sister now that we were children of a broken home; but his worst
deed came one weekend when we were taken to the General's mountain
cottage in Nathia Gali, beyond Murree. I was in a state of high excitement
(my illness had just been declared cured): mountains! The possibility of
panthers! Cold, biting air!-so that I thought nothing of it when the General
asked me if I'd mind sharing a bed with Zafar, and didn't even guess when
they spread the rubber sheet over the mattress… I awoke in the small
hours in a large rancid pool of lukewarm liquid and began to yell blue
murder. The General appeared at our bedside and began to thrash the
living daylights out of his son. 'You're a big man now! Damn it to hell! Still,
and still you do it! Get yourself organized! Good for nothing! Who behaves
in this damn way? Cowards, that's who! Damn me if I'll have a coward for a
son…' The enuresis of my cousin Zafar continued, however, to be the
shame of his family; despite thrashings, the liquid ran down his leg; and
one day it happened when he was awake. But that was after certain
movements had, with my assistance, been performed by pepperpots,
proving to me that although the telepathic air-waves were jammed in this
country, the modes of connection still seemed to function; active-literally as
well as metaphorically, I helped change the fate of the Land of the Pure.
The Brass Monkey and I were helpless observers, in those days, of my
wilting mother. She, who had always been assiduous in the heat, had
begun to wither in the northern cold. Deprived of two husbands, she was
also deprived (in her own eyes) of meaning; and there was also a
relationship to rebuild, between mother and son. She held me tightly one
night and said, 'Love, my child, is a thing that every mother learns; it is not
born with a baby, but made; and for eleven years, I have learned to love
you as my son.' But there was a distance behind her gentleness, as though
she were trying to persuade herself… a distance, too, in the Monkey's
midnight whispers of, 'Hey, brother, why don't we go and pour water over
Zafar-they'll only think he's wet his bed?'-and it was my sense of this gap
which showed me that, despite their use of son and brother, their
imaginations were working hard to assimilate Mary's confession; not
knowing then that they would be unable to succeed in their re-imaginings of
brother and son, I remained terrified of Shiva; and was accordingly driven
even deeper into the illusory heart of my desire to prove myself worthy of
their kinship. Despite Reverend Mother's recognition of me, I was never at
my ease until, on a more-than-three-years-distant verandah, my father
said, 'Come, son; come here and let me love you.' Perhaps that is why I
behaved as I did on the night of October yth, 1958.
… An eleven-year-old boy, Padma, knew very little about the internal
affairs of Pakistan; but he could see, on that October day, that an unusual
dinner-party was being planned. Saleem at eleven knew nothing about the
Constitution of 1956 and its gradual erosion; but his eyes were keen
enough to spot the Army security officers, the military police, who arrived
that afternoon to lurk secretly behind every garden bush. Faction strife and
the multiple incompetences of Mr Ghulam Mohammed were a mystery to
him; but it was clear that his aunt Emerald was putting on her finest jewels.
The farce of four-prime-ministers-in-two-years had never made him giggle;
but he could sense, in the air of drama hanging over the General's house,
that something like a final curtain was approaching. Ignorant of the
emergence of the Republican party, he was nevertheless curious about the
guest-list for the Zulfikar party; although he was in a country where names
meant nothing-who was Chaudhuri Muhammad Ali? Or Suhrawardy? Or
Chundrigar, or Noon?-the anonymity of the dinner-guests, which was
carefully preserved by his uncle and aunt, was a puzzling thing. Even
though he had once cut Pakistani headlines out of newspapers-furniture
hurling slays deputye-pak speaker-he had no idea why, at six p.m., a long
line of black limousines came through the sentried walls of-the Zulfikar
Estate; why flags waved on their bonnets; why their occupants refused to
smile; or why Emerald and Pia and my mother stood behind General
Zulfikar with expressions on their faces which would have seemed more
appropriate at a funeral than a social gathering. Who what was dying? Who
why were the limousine arrivals?-I had no idea; but I was on my toes
behind my mother, staring at the smoked-glass windows of the enigmatic
Car-doors opened; equerries, adjutants, leaped out of vehicles and
opened rear doors, saluted stiffly; a small muscle began to tic in my aunt
Emerald's cheek. And then, who descended from the flag-waving motors?
What names should be put to the fabulous array of moustaches,
swagger-sticks, gimlet-eyes, medals and shoulder-pips which emerged?
Saleem knew neither names nor serial numbers; ranks, however, could be
discerned. Gongs and pips, proudly worn on chests and shoulders,
announced the arrival of very top brass indeed. And out of the last car
came a tall man with an astonishingly round head, round as a tin globe
although unmarked by lines of longitude and latitude; planet-headed, he
was not labelled like the orb which the Monkey had once squashed; not
made as england (although certainly Sandhurst-trained) he moved through
saluting gongs-and-pips; arrived at my aunt Emerald; and added his own
salute to the rest.
'Mr Commander-in-Chief,' my aunt said, 'be welcome in our home.'
'Emerald, Emerald,' came from the mouth set in the earth-shaped
head-the mouth positioned immediately beneath a neat moustache, 'Why
such formality, such takalluf?' Whereupon she embraced him with, 'Well
then, Ayub, you're looking wonderful.'
He was a General then, though Field-Marshalship was not far away…
we followed him into the house; we watched him drink (water) and laugh
(loudly); at dinner we watched him again?saw how he ate like a peasant,
so that his moustache became stained with gravy… 'Listen, Em,' he said,
'Always such preparations when I come! But I'm only a simple soldier; dal
and rice from your kitchens would be a feast for me.'
'A soldier, sir,' my aunt replied, 'but simple-never! Not once!'
Long trousers qualified me to sit at table, next to cousin Zafar,
surrounded by gongs-and-pips; tender years, however, placed us both
under an obligation to be silent. (General Zulfikar told' me in a military hiss,
'One peep out of you and you're off to the guardhouse. If you want to stay,
stay mum. Got it?' Staying mum, Zafar and I were free to look and listen.
But Zafar, unlike me, was not trying to prove himself worthy of his name…)
What did eleven-year-olds hear at dinner? What did they understand
by jocund military references to 'that Suhrawardy, who always opposed the
Pakistan Idea'-or to Noon, 'who should have been called Sunset, what?'
And through discussions of election-rigging and black-money, what
undercurrent of danger permeated their skins, making the downy hairs on
their arms stand on end? And when the Commander-in-Chief quoted the
Quran, how much of its meaning was understood by eleven-year-old ears?
'It is written,' said the round-headed man, and the gongs-and-pips fell
silent, 'Aad and Thamoud we also destroyed. Satan had made their foul
deeds seem fair to them, keen-sighted though they were.'
It was as though a cue had been given; a wave of my aunt's hands
dismissed the servants. She rose to go herself; my mother and Pia went
with her. Zafar and I, too, rose from our seats; but he, he himself, called
down the length of the sumptuous table: 'The little men should stay. It is
their future, after all.' The little men, frightened but also proud, sat and
stayed mum, following orders.
Just men now. A change in the roundhead's face; something darker,
something mottled and desperate has occupied it… 'Twelve months ago,'
he says, 'I spoke to all of you. Give the politicians one year-is that not what
I said?' Heads nod; murmurs of assent. 'Gentlemen, we have given them a
year; the situation has become intolerable, and I am not prepared to
tolerate it any longer!' Gongs-and-pips assume stern, statesmanlike
expressions. Jaws are set, eyes gaze keenly into the future. 'Tonight,
therefore,'-yes! I was there! A few yards from him!-General Ayub and I,
myself and old Ayub Khan!-'I am assuming control of the State.'
How do eleven-year-olds react to the announcement of a coup?
Hearing the words, '… national finances in frightening disarray… corruption
and impurity are everywhere…' do their jaws stiffen, too? Do their eyes
focus on brighter tomorrows? Eleven-year-olds listen as a General cries,
'The Constitution is hereby abrogated! Central and Provincial legislatures
are dissolved! Political parties are forthwith abolished!'-how do you think
they feel?
When General Ayub Khan said, 'Martial Law is now imposed,' both
cousin Zafar and I understood that his voice-that voice filled with power and
decision and the rich timbre of my aunt's finest cooking-was speaking a
thing for which we knew only one word: treason. I'm proud to say I kept my
head; but Zafar lost control of a more embarrassing organ. Moisture
stained his trouser-fronts; the yellow moisture of fear trickled down his leg
to stain Persian carpets; gongs-and-pips smelled something, and turned
upon him with looks of infinite distaste; and then (worst of all) came
General Zulfikar had just begun saying, 'If you permit, sir, I shall map
out tonight's procedures,' when his son wet his pants. In cold fury my uncle
hurled his son from the room; 'Pimp! Woman!' followed Zafar out of the
dining-chamber, in his father's thin sharp voice; 'Coward! Homosexual!
Hindu!' leaped from Punchinello-face to chase his son up the stairs…
Zulnkar's eyes settled on me. There was a plea in them. Save the honour
of the family. Redeem me from the incontinence of my son. 'You, boy!' my
uncle said, 'You want to come up here and help me?'
Of course, I nodded. Proving my manhood, my fitness for sonship, I
assisted my uncle as he made the revolution. And in so doing, in earning
his gratitude, in stilling the sniggers of the assembled gongs-and-pips, I
created a new father for myself; General Zulfikar became the latest in the
line of men who have been willing to call me 'sonny', or 'sonny Jim', or even
simply 'my son'.
How we made the revolution: General Zulfikar described troop
movements; I moved pepperpots symbolically while he spoke. In the
clutches of the active-metaphorical mode of connection, I shifted
salt-cellars and bowls of chutney: This mustard-jar is Company A
occupying Head Post Office; there are two pepperpots surrounding a
serving-spoon, which means Company В has seized the airport. With the
fate of the nation in my hands, I shifted condiments and cutlery, capturing
empty biriani-dishes with water-glasses, stationing saltcellars, on guard,
around water-jugs. And when General Zulfikar stopped talking, the march
of the table-service also came to an end. Ayub Khan seemed to settle
down in his chair; was the wink he gave me just my imagination?-at any
rate, the Commander-in-Chief said, 'Very good, Zulfikar; good show.'
In the movements performed by pepperpots etcetera, one
table-ornament remained uncaptured: a cream-jug in solid silver, which, in
our table-top coup, represented the Head of State, President Iskander
Mirza; for three weeks, Mirza remained President.
An eleven-year-old boy cannot judge whether a President is truly
corrupt, even if gongs-and-pips say he is; it is not for eleven-year-olds to
say whether Mirza's association with the feeble Republican Party should
have disqualified him from high office under the new regime. Saleem Sinai
made no political judgments; but when, inevitably at midnight, on
November 1st, my uncle shook me awake and whispered, 'Come on,
sonny, it's time you got a taste of the real thing!', I leaped out of bed
smartly; I dressed and went out into the night, proudly aware that my uncle
had preferred my company to that of his own son.
Midnight. Rawalpindi speeding past us at seventy m.p.h. Motorcycles
in front of us beside us behind us. 'Where are we going Zulfy-uncle?' Wait
and see. Black smoked-windowed limousine pausing at darkened house.
Sentries guard the door with crossed rifles; which part, to let us through. I
am marching at my uncle's side, in step, through half-lit corridors; until we
burst into a dark room with a shaft of moonlight spotlighting a four-poster
bed. A mosquito net hangs over the bed like a shroud.
There is a man waking up, startled, what the hell is going… But
General Zulfikar has a long-barrelled revolver; the tip of the gun is forced
mmff between the man's parted teeth. 'Shut up,' my uncle says,
superfluously. 'Come with us.' Naked overweight man stumbling from his
bed. His eyes, asking: Are you going to shoot me? Sweat rolls down ample
belly, catching moonlight, dribbling on to his soo-soo; but it is bitterly cold;
he is not perspiring from the heat. He looks like a white Laughing Buddha;
but not laughing. Shivering. My uncle's pistol is extracted from his mouth.
'Turn. Quick march!'… And gun-barrel pushed between the cheeks of an
overfed rump. The man cries, 'For God's sake be careful; that thing has the
safety off!' Jawans giggle as naked flesh emerges into moonlight, is pushed
into black limousine… That night, I sat with a naked man as my uncle drove
him to a military airfield; I stood and watched as the waiting aircraft taxied,
accelerated, flew. What began, active-metaphorically, with pepperpots,
ended then; not only did I overthrow a government-I also consigned a
president to exile.
Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all
human. Violence, corruption, poverty, generals, chaos, greed and
pepperpots… I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight
were more varied than I-even I-had dreamed.
'Really truly?' Padma asks. 'You were truly there?' Really truly. 'They
say that Ayub was a good man before he became bad,' Padma says; it is a
question. But Saleem, at eleven, made no such judgments. The movement
of pepperpots does not necessitate moral choices. What Saleem was
concerned with: not public upheaval, but personal rehabilitation. You see
the paradox-my most crucial foray into history up to that moment was
inspired by the most parochial of motives. Anyway, it was not 'my'
country-or not then. Not my country, although I stayed in it-as refugee, not
citizen; entered on my mother's Indian passport, I would have come in for a
good deal of suspicion, maybe even deported or arrested as a spy, had it
not been for my tender years and the power of my guardian with the
Punch-like features-for four long years.
Four years of nothing.
Except growing into a teenager. Except watching my mother as she
fell apart. Except observing the Monkey, who was a crucial year younger
than me, fall under the insidious spell of that God-ridden country; the
Monkey, once so rebellious and wild, adopting expressions of demureness
and submission which must, at first, have seemed false even to her; the
Monkey, learning how to cook and keep house, how to buy spices in the
market; the Monkey, making the final break with the legacy of her
grandfather, by learning prayers in Arabic and saying them at all prescribed
times; the Monkey, revealing the streak of puritan fanaticism which she had
hinted at when she asked for a nun's outfit; she, who spurned all offers of
worldly love, was seduced by the love of that God who had been named
after a carved idol in a pagan shrine built around a giant meteorite: Al-Lah,
in the Qa'aba, the shrine of the great Black Stone.
But nothing else.
Four years away from the midnight children; four years without Warden
Road and Breach Candy and Scandal Point and the lures of One Yard of
Chocolates; away from the Cathedral School and the equestrian statue of
Sivaji and melon-sellers at the Gateway of India: away from Divali and
Ganesh Chaturthi and Coconut Day; four years of separation from a father
who sat alone in a house he would not sell; alone, except for Professor
Schaapsteker, who stayed in his apartment and shunned the company of
Can nothing really happen for four years? Obviously, not quite. My
cousin Zafar, who had never been forgiven by his father for wetting his
pants in the presence of history, was given to understand that he would be
joining the Army as soon as he was of age. 'I want to see you prove you're
not a woman,' his father told him.
And Bonzo died; General Zulfikar shed manly tears.
And Mary's confession faded until, because nobody spoke of it, it
came to feel like a bad dream; to everyone except'me.
And (without any assistance from me) relations between India and
Pakistan grew worse; entirely without my help, India conquered Goa-'the
Portuguese pimple on the face of Mother India'; I sat on the sidelines and
played no part in the acquisition of large-scale U.S. aid for Pakistan, nor
was I to blame for Sino-India border skirmishes in the Aksai Chin region of
Ladakh; the Indian census of 1961 revealed a literacy level of 23.7 per
cent, but I was not entered in its records. The untouchable problem
remained acute; I did nothing to alleviate it; and in the elections of 1962,
the All-India Congress won 361 out of 494 seats in the Lok Sabha, and
over 61 per cent of all State Assembly seats. Not even in this could my
unseen hand be said to have moved; except, perhaps, metaphorically: the
status quo was preserved in India; in my life, nothing changed either.
Then, on September 1st, 1962, we celebrated the Monkey's fourteenth
birthday. By this time (and despite my uncle's continued fondness for me)
we were well-established as social inferiors, the hapless poor relations of
the great Zulfikars; so the party was a skimpy affair. The Monkey, however,
gave every appearance of enjoying herself. 'It's my duty, brother,' she told
me. I could hardly believe my ears… but perhaps my sister had an intuition
of her fate; perhaps she knew the transformation which lay in store for her;
why should I assume that I alone have had the powers of secret
Perhaps, then, she guessed that when the hired musicians began to
play (shehnai and vina were present; sarangi and sarod had their turns;
tabla and sitar performed their virtuosic cross-examinations) , Emerald
Zulfikar would descend on her with callous elegance, demanding, 'Come
on, Jamila, don't sit there like a melon, sing us a song like any good girl
And that with this sentence my emerald-icy aunt would have begun,
quite unwittingly, my sister's transformation from monkey into singer;
because although she protested with the sullen clumsiness of
fourteen-year-olds, she was hauled unceremoniously on to the musicians'
dais by my organizing aunt; and although she looked as if she wished the
floor would open up beneath her feet, she clasped her hands together;
seeing no escape, the Monkey began to sing.
I have not, I think, been good at describing emotions-believing my
audience to be capable of joining in; of imagining for themselves what I
have been unable to re-imagine, so that my story becomes yours as well…
but when my sister began to sing, I was certainly assailed by an emotion of
such force that I was unable to understand it until, much later, it was
explained to me by the oldest whore in the world. Because, with her first
note, the Brass Monkey sloughed off her nick-name; she, who had talked to
birds (just as, long ago in a mountain valley, her great-grandfather used to
do), must have learned from songbirds the arts of song. With one good ear
and one bad ear, I listened to her faultless voice, which at fourteen was the
voice of a grown woman, filled with the purity of wings and the pain of exile
and the flying of eagles and the lovelessness of life and the melody of
bulbuls and the glorious omnipresence of God; a voice which was
afterwards compared to that of Muhammed's muezzin Bilal, issuing from
the lips of a somewhat scrawny girl.
What I did not understand must wait to be told; let me record here that
my sister earned her name at her fourteenth birthday party, and was known
after that as Jamila Singer; and that I knew, as I listened to 'My Red
Dupatta Of Muslin' and 'Shahbaz Qalandar', that the process which had
begun during my first exile was nearing completion in my second; that, from
now on, Jamila was the child who mattered, and that I must take second
place to her talent for ever.
Jamila sang-I, humbly, bowed my head. But before she could enter
fully into her kingdom, something else had to happen: I had to be properly
finished off.
Drainage and the desert
What-chews-on-bones refuses to pause… it's only a matter of time.
This is what keeps me going: I hold on to Padma. Padma is what
matters-Padma-muscles, Padma's hairy forearms, Padma my own pure
lotus… who, embarrassed, commands: 'Enough. Start. Start now.'
Yes, it must start with the cable. Telepathy set me apart;
telecommunications dragged me down…
Amina Sinai was cutting verrucas out of her feet when the telegram
arrived… once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from
the date: my mother, right ankle on left knee, was scooping corn-tissue out
of the sole of her foot with a sharp-ended nail file on September 9th, 1962.
And the time? The time matters, too. Well, then: in the afternoon. No, it's
important to be more… At the stroke of three o'clock, which, even in the
north, is the hottest time of day, a bearer brought her an envelope on a
silver dish. A few seconds later, far away in New Delhi, Defence Minister
Krishna Menon (acting on his own initiative, during Nehru's absence at the
Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference) took the momentous decision
to use force if necessary against the Chinese army on the Himalayan
frontier. The Chinese must be ejected from the Thag La ridge,' Mr Menon
said while my mother tore open a telegram. 'No weakness will be shown.'
But this decision was a mere trifle when set beside the implications of my
mother's cable; because while the eviction operation, code-named leghorn,
was doomed to fail, and eventually to turn India into that most macabre of
theatres, the Theatre of War, the cable was to plunge me secretly but
surely towards the crisis which would end with my final eviction from my
own inner world. While the Indian XXXIII Corps were acting on instructions
passed from Menon to General Thapar, I, too, had been placed in great
danger; as if unseen forces had decided that I had also overstepped the
boundaries of what I was permitted to do or know or be; as though history
had decided to put me firmly in my place. I was left entirely without a say in
the matter; my mother read the telegram, burst into tears and said,
'Children, we're going home!'… after which, as I began by saying in another
context, it was only a matter of time.
What the telegram said: please come quick sinaisahib suffered
'Of course, go at once, my darling,' my aunt Emerald told her sister,
'But what, my God, can be this heartboot?'
It is possible, even probable, that I am only the first historian to write
the story of my undeniably exceptional life-and-times. Those who follow in
my footsteps will, however, inevitably come to this present work, this
source-book, this Hadith or Purana or Grundrisse, for guidance and
inspiration. I say to these future exegetes: when you come to examine the
events which followed on from the 'heartboot cable', remember that at the
very eye of the hurricane which was unleashed upon me-the sword, to
switch metaphors, with which the coup de grace was applied-there lay a
single unifying force. I refer to telecommunications.
Telegrams, and after telegrams, telephones, were my undoing;
generously, however, I shall accuse nobody of conspiracy; although it
would be easy to believe that the controllers of communication had
resolved to regain their monopoly of the nation's air-waves…. I must return
(Padma is frowning) to the banal chain of cause-and-effect: we arrived at
Santa Cruz airport, by Dakota, on September 16th; but to explain the
telegram, I must go further back in time.
If Alice Pereira had once sinned, by stealing Joseph D'Costa from her
sister Mary, she had in these latter years gone a long way towards attaining
redemption; because for four years she had been Ahmed Sinai's only
human companion. Isolated on the dusty hillock which had once been
Methwold's Estate, she had borne enormous demands on her
accommodating good nature. He would make her sit with him until midnight
while he drank djinns and ranted about the injustices of his life; he
remembered, after years of forgetfulness, his old dream of translating and
re-ordering the Quran, and blamed his family for emasculating him so that
he didn't have the energy to begin such a task; in addition, because she
was there, his anger often directed itself at her, taking the form of long
tirades filled with gutter-oaths and the useless curses he had devised in the
days of his deepest abstraction. She attempted to be understanding: he
was a lonely man; his once-infallible relationship with the telephone had
been destroyed by the economic vagaries of the times; his touch in
financial matters had begun to desert him… he fell prey, too, to strange
fears. When the Chinese road in the Aksai Chin region was discovered, he
became convinced that the yellow hordes would be arriving at Methwold's
Estate in a matter of days; and it was Alice who comforted him with ice-cold
Coca-Cola, saying, 'No good worrying. Those Chinkies are too little to beat
our jawans. Better you drink your Coke; nothing is going to change.'
In the end he wore her out; she stayed with him, finally, only because
she demanded and received large pay increases, and sent much of the
money to Goa, for the support of her sister Mary; but on September 1st,
she, too, succumbed to the blandishments of the telephone.
By then, she spent as much time on the instrument as her employer,
particularly when the Narlikar women called up. The formidable Narlikars
were, at that time, besieging my father, telephoning him twice a day,
coaxing and persuading him to sell, reminding him that his position was
hopeless, flapping around his head like vultures around a burning
godown… on September 1st, like a long-ago vulture, they flung down an
arm which slapped him in the face, because they bribed Alice Pereira away
from him. Unable to stand him any more, she cried, 'Answer your own
telephone! I'm off.'
That night, Ahmed Sinai's heart began to bulge. Overfull of hate
resentment self-pity grief, it became swollen like a balloon, it beat too hard,
skipped beats, and finally felled him like an ox; at the Breach Candy
Hospital the doctors discovered that my father's heart had actually changed
shape-a new swelling had pushed lumpily out of the lower left ventricle. It
had, to use Alice's word, 'booted'.
Alice found him the next day, when, by chance, she returned to collect
a forgotten umbrella; like a good secretary, she enlisted the power of
telecommunications, telephoning an ambulance and tele-gramming us.
Owing to censorship of the mails between India and Pakistan, the
'heartboot cable' took a full week to reach Amina Sinai.'Back-to-Bom!' I
yelled happily, alarming airport coolies. 'Back-to-Born!' I cheered, despite
everything, until the newly-sober Jamila said, 'Oh, Saleem, honestly, shoo!'
Alice Pereira met us at the airport (a telegram had alerted her); and then
we were in a real Bombay black-and-yellow taxi, and I was wallowing in the
sounds of hot-channa-hot hawkers, the throng of camels bicycles and
people people people, thinking how Mumbadevi's city made Rawalpindi
look like a village, rediscovering especially the colours, the forgotten
vividness of gulmohr and bougainvillaea, the livid green of the waters of the
Mahalaxmi Temple 'tank', the stark black-and-white of the traffic
policemen's sun umbrellas and the blue-and-yellowness of their uniforms;
but most of all the blue blue blue of the sea… only the grey of my father's
stricken face distracted me from the rainbow riot of the city, and made me
sober up.
Alice Pereira left us at the hospital and went off to work for the Narlikar
women; and now a remarkable thing happened. My mother Amina Sinai,
jerked out of lethargy and depression and guilt-fogs and verruca-pain by
the sight of my father, seemed miraculously to regain her youth; with all her
old gifts of assiduity restored, she set about the rehabilitation of Ahmed,
driven by an unstoppable will. She brought him home to the first-floor
bedroom in which she had nursed him through the freeze; she sat with him
day and night, pouring her strength into his body. And her love had its
reward, because not only did Ahmed Sinai make a recovery so complete as
to astound Breach Candy's European doctors, but also an altogether more
wonderful change occurred, which was that, as Ahmed came to himself
under Amina's care, he returned not to the self which had practised curses
and wrestled djinns, but to the self he might always have been, filled with
contrition and forgiveness and laughter and generosity and the finest
miracle of all, which was love. Ahmed Sinai had, at long last, fallen in love
with my mother.
And I was the sacrificial lamb with which they anointed their love.
They had even begun to sleep together again; and although my
sister-with a flash of her old Monkey-self-said, 'In the same bed, Allah,
Mi-Mi, how dirty!', I was happy for them; and even, briefly, happier for
myself, because I was back in the land of the Midnight Children's
Conference. While newspaper headlines marched towards war, I renewed
my acquaintance with my miraculous fellows, not knowing how many
endings were in store for me.
On October 9th-indian army poised for all-out effort-I felt able to
convene the Conference (time and my own efforts had erected the
necessary barrier around Mary's secret). Back into my head they came; it
was a happy night, a night for burying old disagreements, for making our
own all-out effort at reunion. We repeated, over and over again, our joy at
being back together; ignoring the deeper truth-that we were like all families,
that family reunions are more delightful in prospect than in reality, and that
the time comes when all families must go their separate ways. On October
15th-unprovoked attack on iNDIA-the questionsI'd been dreading and trying
not to provoke began: Why is Shiva not here? And: Why have you closed
off part of your mind?
On October 20th, the Indian forces were defeated-thrashed-by the
Chinese at Thag La ridge. An official Peking statement announced: In
self-defence, Chinese frontier guards were compelled to strike back
resolutely. But when, that same night, the children of midnight launched a
concerted assault on me, I had no defence. They attacked on a broad front
and from every direction, accusing me of secrecy, prevarication,
high-handedness, egotism; my mind, no longer a parliament chamber,
became the battleground on which they annihilated me. No longer 'big
brother Saleem', I listened helplessly while they tore me apart; because,
despite all their sound-and-fury, I could not unblock what I had sealed
away; I could not bring myself to tell them Mary's secret. Even
Parvati-the-witch, for so long my fondest supporter, lost patience with me at
last. 'O, Saleem,' she said, 'God knows what that Pakistan has done to you;
but you are badly changed.'
Once, long ago, the death of Mian Abdullah had destroyed another
Conference, which had been held together purely by the strength of his will;
now, as the midnight children lost faith in me, they also lost their belief in
the thing I had made for them. Between October 20th and November 2Oth,
I continued to convene-to attempt to convene-our nightly sessions; but they
fled from me, not one by one, but in tens and twenties; each night, less of
them were willing to tune in; each week, over a hundred of them retreated
into private life. In the high Himalayas, Gurkhas and Rajputs fled in disarray
from the Chinese army; and in the upper reaches of my mind, another army
was also destroyed by things-bickerings, prejudices, boredom,
selfishness-which I had believed too small, too petty to have touched them.
(But optimism, like a lingering disease, refused to vanish; I continued
to believe-I continue now-that what-we-had-in-common would finally have
outweighed what-drove-us-apart. No: I will not accept the ultimate
responsibility for the end of the Children's Conference; because what
destroyed all possibility of renewal was the love of Ahmed and Amina
… And Shiva? Shiva, whom I cold-bloodedly denied his birthright?
Never once, in that last month, did I send my thoughts in search of him; but
his existence, somewhere in the world, nagged away at the corners of my
mind. Shiva-the-destroyer, Shiva Knoc-knees… he became, for me, first a
stabbing twinge of guilt; then an obsession; and finally, as the memory of
his actuality grew dull, he became a sort of principle; he came to represent,
simultaneous-love-and-hate-of-Things in the world; so that even now, when
I hear of drowned bodies floating like balloons on the Hooghly and
exploding when nudged by passing boats; or trains set on fire, or politicians
killed, or riots in Orissa or Punjab, it seems to me that the hand of Shiva
lies heavily over all these things, dooming us to flounder endlessly amid
murder rape greed war-that Shiva, in short, has made us who we are. (He,
too, was born on the stroke of midnight; he, like me, was connected to
history. The modes of connection-if I'm right in thinking they applied to
me-enabled him, too, to affect the passage of the days.)
I'm talking as if I never saw him again; which isn't true. But that, of
course, must get into the queue like everything else; I'm not strong enough
to tell that tale just now.
The disease of optimism, in those days, once again attained epidemic
proportions; I, meanwhile, was afflicted by an inflammation of the sinuses.
Curiously triggered off by the defeat of Thag La ridge, public optimism
about the war grew as fat (and as dangerous) as an overfilled balloon; my
long-suffering nasal passages, however, which had been overfilled all their
days, finally gave up the struggle against congestion. While
parliamentarians poured out speeches about 'Chinese aggression' and 'the
blood of our martyred jawans', my eyes began to stream with tears; while
the nation puffed itself up, convincing itself that the annihilation of the little
yellow men was at hand, my sinuses, too, puffed up and distorted a face
which was already so startling that Ayub Khan himself had stared at it in
open amazement. In the clutches of the optimism disease, students burned
Mao Tse-Tung and Chou En-Lai in effigy; with optimism-fever on their
brows, mobs attacked Chinese shoemakers, curio dealers and
restaurateurs. Burning with optimism, the Government even interned Indian
citizens of Chinese descent-now 'enemy aliens'-in camps in Rajasthan.
Birla Industries donated a miniature rifle range to the nation; schoolgirls
began to go on military parade. But I, Saleem, felt as if I was about to die of
asphyxiation. The air, thickened by optimism, refused to enter my lungs.
Ahmed and Amina Sinai were amongst the worst victims of the
renewed disease of optimism; having already contracted it through the
medium of their new-born love, they entered into the public enthusiasm
with a will. When Morarji Desai, the urine-drinking Finance Minister,
launched his 'Ornaments for Armaments' appeal, my mother handed over
gold bangles and emerald ear-rings; when Morarji floated an issue of
defence bonds, Ahmed Sinai bought them in bushels. War, it seemed, had
brought a new dawn to India; in the Times of India, a cartoon captioned
'War with China' showed Nehru looking at graphs labelled 'Emotional
Integration', 'Industrial Peace' and 'People's Faith in Government' and
crying, 'We never had it so good!' Adrift in the sea of optimism, we-the
nation, my parents, I-floated blindly towards the reefs.
As a people, we are obsessed with correspondences. Similarities
between this and that, between apparently unconnected things, make us
clap our hands delightedly when we find them out. It is a sort of national
longing for form-or perhaps simply an expression of our deep belief that
forms lie hidden within reality; that meaning reveals itself only in flashes.
Hence our vulnerability to omens… when the Indian flag was first raised,
for instance, a rainbow appeared above that Delhi field, a rainbow of
saffron and green; and we felt blessed. Born amidst correspondence, I
have found it continuing to hound me… while Indians headed blindly
towards a military debacle, I, too, was nearing (and entirely without
knowing it) a catastrophe of my own.
Times of India cartoons spoke of 'Emotional Integration'; in
Buckingham Villa, last remnant of Methwold's Estate, emotions had never
been so integrated. Ahmed and Amina spent their days like just-courting
youngsters; and while the Peking People's Daily complained, 'The Nehru
Government has finally shed its cloak of non-alignment', neither my sister
nor I were complaining, because for the first time in years we did not have
to pretend we were non-aligned in the war between our parents; what war
had done for India, the cessation of hostilities had achieved on our
two-storey hillock. Ahmed Sinai had even given up his nightly battle with
the djinns.
By November 1st-indians attack under cover of artillery-my nasal
passages were in a state of acute crisis. Although my mother subjected me
to daily torture by Vick's Inhaler and steaming bowls of Vick's ointment
dissolved in water, which, blanket over head, I was obliged to try and
inhale, my sinuses refused to respond to treatment. This was the day on
which my father held out his arms to me and said, 'Come, son-come here
and let me love you.' In a frenzy of happiness (maybe the optimism disease
had got to me, after all) I allowed myself to be smothered in his squashy
belly; but when he let me go, nose-goo had stained his bush-shirt. I think
that's what finally doomed me; because that afternoon, my mother went on
to the attack. Pretending to me that she was telephoning a friend, she
made a certain telephone call. While Indians attacked under cover of
artillery, Amina Sinai planned my downfall, protected by a lie.
Before I describe my entry into the desert of my later years, however, I
must admit the possibility that I have grievously wronged my parents.
Never once, to my knowledge, never once in all the time since Mary
Pereira's revelations, did they set out to look for the true son of their blood;
and I have, at several points in this narrative, ascribed this failure to a
certain lack of imagination-I have said, more or less, that I remained their
son because they could not imagine me out of the role. And there are
worse interpretations possible, too-such as their reluctance to accept into
their bosom an-urchin who had spent eleven years in the gutter; but I wish
to suggest a nobler motive: maybe, despite everything, despite
cucumber-nose stainface chinlessness horn-temples bandy-legs finger-loss
monk's-tonsure and my (admittedly unknown to them) bad left ear, despite
even the midnight baby-swap of Mary Pereira… maybe, I say, in spite of all
these provocations, my parents loved me. I withdrew from them into my
secret world; fearing their hatred, I did not admit the possibility that their
love was stronger than ugliness, stronger even then blood. It is certainly
likely that what a telephone call arranged, what finally took place on
November 21st, 1962, was done for the highest of reasons; that my parents
ruined me for love.
The day of November 20th was a terrible day; the night was a terrible
night… six days earlier, on Nehru's seventy-third birthday, the great
confrontation with the Chinese forces had begun; the Indian army-jawans
swing into action!-had attacked the Chinese at Walong. News of the
disaster of Walong, and the rout of General Kaul and four battalions,
reached Nehru on Saturday 18th; on Monday 20th, it flooded through radio
and press and arrived at Methwold's Estate. ultimate panic in new delhi!
indian forces in tatters! That day-the last day of my old life-I sat huddled
with my sister and parents around our Telefunken radiogram, while
telecommunications struck the fear of God and China into our hearts. And
my father now said a fateful thing: 'Wife,' he intoned gravely, while Jamila
and I shook with fear, 'Begum Sahiba, this country is finished. Bankrupt.
Funtoosh.' The evening paper proclaimed the end of the optimism disease:
public morale drains away. And after that end, there were others to come;
other things would also drain away.
I went to bed with my head full of Chinese faces guns tanks… but at
midnight, my head was empty and quiet, because the midnight Conference
had drained away as well; the only one of the magic children who was
willing to talk to me was Parvati-the-witch, and we, dejected utterly by what
Nussie-the-duck would have called 'the end of the world', were unable to do
more than simply commune in silence.
And other, more mundane drainages: a crack appeared in the mighty
Bhakra Nangal Hydro-Electric Dam, and the great reservoir behind it
flooded through the fissure… and the Narlikar women's reclamation
consortium, impervious to optimism or defeat or anything except the lure of
wealth, continued to draw land out of the depths of the seas… but the final
evacuation, the one which truly gives this episode its title, took place the
next morning, just when I had relaxed and thought that something, after all,
might turn out all right… because in the morning we heard the improbably
joyous news that the Chinese had suddenly, without needing to, stopped
advancing; having gained control of the Himalayan heights, they were
apparently content; ceasefire! the newspapers screamed, and my mother
almost fainted in relief. (There was talk that General Kaul had been taken
prisoner; the President of India, Dr Radhakrishan, commented,
'Unfortunately, this report is completely untrue.')
Despite streaming eyes and puffed-up sinuses, I was happy; despite
even the end of the Children's Conference, I was basking in the new glow
of happiness which permeated Buckingham Villa; so when my mother
suggested, 'Let's go and celebrate! A picnic, children, you'd like that?' I
naturally agreed with alacrity. It was the morning of November 21st; we
helped make sandwiches and parathas; we stopped at a fizzy-drinks shop
and loaded ice in a tin tub and Cokes in a crate into the boot of our Rover;
parents in the front, children in the back, we set off. Jamila Singer sang for
us as we drove.
Through inflamed sinuses, I asked: 'Where are we going? Juhu?
Elephanta? Marve? Where?' And my mother, smiling awkwardly: 'Surprise;
wait and see.' Through streets filled with relieved, rejoicing crowds we
drove… 'This is the wrong way,' I exclaimed; 'This isn't the way to a
beach?' My parents both spoke at once, reassuringly, brightly: 'Just one
stop first, and then we're off; promise.'
Telegrams recalled me; radiograms frightened me; but it was a
telephone which booked the date time place of my undoing… and my
parents lied to me.
… We halted in front of an unfamiliar building in Carnac Road.
Exterior: crumbling. All its windows: blind. 'You coming with me, son?'
Ahmed Sinai got out of the car; I, happy to be accompanying my father on
his business, walked jauntily beside him. A brass plate on the doorway: Ear
Nose Throat Clinic. And I, suddenly alarmed: 'What's this, Abba? Why have
we come…' And my father's hand, tightening on my shoulder-and then a
man in a white coat-and nurses-and 'Ah yes Mr. Sinai so this is young
Saleem-right on time-fine, fine'; while I, 'Abba, no-what about the picnic-';
but doctors are steering me along now, my father is dropping back, the
man in the coat calls to him, 'Shan't be long-damn good news about the
war, no?' And the nurse, 'Please accompany me for dressing and
Tricked! Tricked, Padma! I told you: once, picnics tricked me; and then
there was a hospital and a room with a hard bed and bright hanging lamps
and me crying, 'No no no,' and the nurse, 'Don't be stupid now, you're
almost a grown man, lie down,' and I, remembering how nasal passages
had started everything in my head, how nasal fluid had been sniffed
upupup into somewhere-that-nosefluid-shouldn't-go, how .the connection
had been made which released my voices, was kicking yelling so that they
had to hold me down, 'Honestly,' the nurse said, 'such a baby, I never saw.'
And so what began in a washing-chest ended on an operating table,
because I was held down hand-and-foot and a man saying 'You won't feel
a thing, easier than having your tonsils out, get those sinuses fixed in no
time, complete clear-out,' and me 'No please no,' but the voice continued,
'I'll put this mask on you now, just count to ten.'
Count. The numbers marching one two three.
Hiss of released gas. The numbers crushing me four five six.
Faces swimming in fog. And still the tumultuous numbers, I was crying,
I think, the numbers pounding seven eight nine.
'Good God, the boy's still conscious. Extraordinary. We'd better try
another-can you hear me? Saleem, isn't it? Good chap, just give me
another ten!' Can't catch me. Multitudes have teemed inside my head. The
master of the numbers, me. Here they go again 'leven twelve.
But they'll never let up until… thirteen fourteen fifteen… O God O God
the fog dizzy and falling back back back, sixteen, beyond war and
pepperpots, back back, seventeen eighteen nineteen.
There was a washing-chest and a boy who sniffed too hard. His
mother undressed and revealed a Black Mango. Voices came, which were
not the voices of Archangels. A hand, deafening the left ear. And what grew
best in the heat: fantasy, irrationality, lust. There was a clocktower refuge,
and cheatery-in-class. And love in Bombay caused a bicycle-accident;
horn-temples entered forcep-hollows, and five hundred and eighty-one
children visited my head. Midnight's children: who may have been the
embodiment of the hope of freedom, who may also have been
freaks-who-ought-to-be-finished-off. Parvati-the-witch, most loyal of all, and
Shiva, who became a principle of life. There was a question of purpose,
and the debate between ideas and things. There were knees and nose and
nose and knees.
Quarrels, began, and the adult world infiltrated the children's; there
was selfishness and snobbishness and hate. And the impossibility of a third
principle; the fear of coming-to-nothing-after-all began to grow. And what
nobody said: that the purpose of the five hundred and eighty-one lay in
their destruction; that they had come, in order to come to nothing.
Prophecies were ignored when they spoke to this effect.
And revelations, and the closing of a mind; and exile, and
four-years-after return; suspicions growing, dissension breeding,
departures in twenties and tens. And, at the end, just one voice left; but
optimism lingered-what-we-had-in-common retained the possibility of
overpowering what-forced-us-apart.
Silence outside me. A dark room (blinds down). Can't see anything
(nothing there to see).
Silence inside me. A connection broken (for ever). Can't hear anything
(nothing there to hear).
Silence, like a desert. And a clear, free nose (nasal passages full of
air). Air, like a vandal, invading my private places.
Drained. I have been drained. The parahamsa, grounded.
(For good.)
O, spell it out, spell it out: the operation whose ostensible purpose was
the draining of my inflamed sinuses and the once-and-for-all clearing of my
nasal passages had the effect of breaking whatever connection had been
made in a washing-chest; of depriving me of nose-given telepathy; of
banishing me from the possibility of midnight children.
Our names contain our fates; living as we do in a place where names
have not acquired the meaninglessness of the West, and are still more than
mere sounds, we are also the victims of our titles. Sinai contains Ibn Sina,
master magician, Sufi adept; and also Sin the moon, the ancient god of
Hadhramaut, with his own mode of connection, his powers of
action-at-a-distance upon the tides of the world. But Sin is also the letter S,
as sinuous as a snake; serpents lie coiled within the name. And there is
also the accident of transliteration-Sinai, when in Roman script, though not
in Nastaliq, is also the name of the place-of-revelation, of put-off-thy-shoes,
of commandments and golden calves; but when all that is said and done;
when Ibn Sina is forgotten and the moon has set; when snakes lie hidden
and revelations end, it is the name of the desert-of barrenness, infertility,
dust; the name of the end.
In Arabia-Arabia Deserta-at the time of the prophet Muhammad, other
prophets also preached: Maslama of the tribe of the Banu Hanifa in the
Yamama, the very heart of Arabia; and Hanzala ibn Safwan; and Khalid ibn
Sinan. Maslama's God was ar-Rahman, 'the Merciful'; today Muslims pray
to Allah, ar-Rahman. Khalid ibn Sinan was sent to the tribe of 'Abs; for a
time, he was followed, but then he was lost. Prophets are not always false
simply because they are overtaken, and swallowed up, by history. Men of
worth have always roamed the desert.
'Wife,' Ahmed Sinai said, 'this country is finished.' After ceasefire and
drainage, these words returned to haunt him; and Amina began to
persuade him to emigrate to Pakistan, where her surviving sisters already
were, and to which her mother would go after her father's death. 'A fresh
start,' she suggested, 'Janum, it would be lovely. What is left for us on this
God-forsaken hill?'
So in the end Buckingham Villa was delivered into the clutches of the
Narlikar women, after all; and over fifteen years late, my family moved to
Pakistan, the Land of the Pure. Ahmed Sinai left very little behind; there are
ways of transmitting money with the help of multi-national companies, and
my father knew those ways. And I, although sad to leave the city of my
birth, was not unhappy about moving away from the city in which Shiva
lurked somewhere like a carefully-concealed land-mine.
We left Bombay, finally, in February 1963; and on the day of our
departure I took an old tin globe down to the garden and buried it amongst
the cacti. Inside it: a Prime Minister's-letter, and a jumbo-sized front-page
baby-snap, captioned 'Midnight's Child'… They may not be holy relics-I do
not presume to compare the trivial memorabilia of my life with the Hazratbal
hair of the Prophet, or the body of St Francis Xavier in the Cathedral of
Bom Jesus-but they are all that has survived of my past: a squashed tin
globe, a mildewed letter, a photograph. Nothing else, not even a silver
spittoon. Apart from a Monkey-crushed planet, the only records are sealed
in the closed books of heaven, Sidjeen and Illiyun, the Books of Evil and
Good; at any rate, that's the story.
… Only when we were aboard S.S. Sabarmati, and anchored off the
Rann of Kutch, did I remember old Schaapsteker; and wondered, suddenly,
if anyone had told him we were going. I didn't dare to ask, for fear that the
answer might be no; so as I thought of the demolition crew getting to work,
and pictured the machines of destruction smashing into my father's office
and my own blue room, pulling down the servants' spiral iron staircase and
the kitchen in which Mary Pereira had stirred her fears into chutneys and
pickles, massacring the verandah where my mother had sat with the child
in her belly like a stone, I ako had an image of a mighty, swinging ball
crashing into the domain of Sharpsticker sahib, and of the old crazy man
himself, pale wasted flick-tongued, being exposed there on top of a
crumbling house, amid falling towers and red-tiled roof, old Schaapsteker
shrivelling ageing dying in the sunlight which he hadn't seen for so many
years. But perhaps I'm dramatizing; I may have got all this from an old film
called Lost Horizon, in which beautiful women shrivelled and died when
they departed from Shangri-La.
For every snake, there is a ladder; for every ladder, a snake. We
arrived in Karachi on February 9th-and within months, my sister Jamila had
been launched on the career which would earn her the names of
'Pakistan's Angel' and 'Bulbul-of-the-Faith'; we had left Bombay, but we
gained reflected glory. And one more thing: although I had been
drained-although no voices spoke in my head, and never would again-there
was one compensation: namely that, for the first time in my life, I was
discovering the astonishing delights of possessing a sense of smell.
Jamila Singer
It turned out to be a sense so acute as to be capable of distinguishing
the glutinous reek of hypocrisy behind the welcoming smile with which my
spinster aunt Alia greeted us at the Karachi docks. Irremediably embittered
by my father's years-ago defection into the arms of her sister, my
headmistress aunt had acquired the heavy-footed corpulence of undimmed
jealousy; the thick dark hairs of her resentment sprouted through most of
the pores of her skin. And perhaps she succeeded in deceiving my parents
and Jamila with her spreading arms, her waddling run towards us, her cry
of 'Ahmed bhai, at last! But better late than never!', her spider-like-and
inevitably accepted-offers of hospitality; but I, who had spent much of my
babyhood in the bitter mittens and soured pom-pom hats of her envy, who
had been unknowingly infected with failure by the innocent-looking
baby-things into which she had knitted her hatred, and who, moreover,
could clearly remember what it was like to be possessed by revenge-lust, I,
Saleem-the-drained, could smell the vengeful odours leaking out of her
glands. I was, however, powerless to protest; we were swept into the
Datsun of her vengeance and driven away down Bunder Road to her house
at Guru Mandir-like flies, only more foolish, because we celebrated our
… But what a sense of smell it was! Most of us are conditioned, from
the cradle onwards, into recognizing the narrowest possible spectrum of
fragrances; I, however, had been incapable of smelling a thing all my life,
and was accordingly ignorant of all olfactory taboos. As a result, I had a
tendency not to feign innocence when someone broke wind-which landed
me in a certain amount of parental trouble; more important, however, was
my nasal freedom to inhale a very great deal more than the scents of
purely physical origin with which the rest of the human race has chosen to
be content. So, from the earliest days of my Pakistani adolescence, I began
to learn the secret aromas of the world, the heady but quick-fading perfume
of new love, and also the deeper, longer-lasting pungency of hate. (It was
not long after my arrival in the 'Land of the Pure' that I discovered within
myself the ultimate impurity of sister-love; and the slow burning fires of my
aunt filled my nostrils from the start.) A nose will give you knowledge, but
not power-over-events; my invasion of Pakistan, armed (if that's the right
word) only with a new manifestation of my nasal inheritance, gave me the
powers of sniffing-out-the-truth, of smelling-what-was-in-the-air, of following
trails; but not the only power an invader needs-the strength to conquer my
I won't deny it: I never forgave Karachi for not being Bombay. Set
between the desert and bleakly saline creeks whose shores were littered
with stunted mangroves, my new city seemed to possess an ugliness which
eclipsed even my own; having grown too fast-its population had quadrupled
since 1947-it had acquired the misshapen lumpiness of a gigantic dwarf.
On my sixteenth birthday, I was given a Lambretta motor-scooter; riding the
city streets on my windowless vehicle, I breathed in the fatalistic
hopelessness of the slum dwellers and the smug defensiveness of the rich;
I was sucked along the smell-trails of dispossession and also fanaticism,
lured down a long underworld corridor at whose end was the door to Tai
Bibi, the oldest whore in the world… but I'm running away with myself. At
the heart of my Karachi was Alia Aziz's house, a large old building on
Clayton Road (she must have wandered in it for years like a ghost with
nobody to haunt), a place of shadows and yellowed paint, across which
there fell, every afternoon, the long accusing shadow of the minaret of the
local mosque. Even when, years later in the magicians' ghetto, I lived in
another mosque's shade, a shade which was, at least for a time, a
protective, unmenacing penumbra, I never lost my Karachi-born view of
mosque-shadows, in which, it seemed to me, I could sniff the narrow,
clutching, accusative odour of my aunt. Who bided her time; but whose
vengeance, when it came, was crushing.
It was, in those days, a city of mirages; hewn from the desert, it had
not wholly succeeded in destroying the desert's power. Oases shone in the
tarmac of Elphinstone Street, caravanserais were glimpsed shimmering
amongst the hovels around the black bridge, the Kala Pul. In the rainless
city (whose only common factor with the city of my birth was that it, too, had
started life as a fishing village), the hidden desert retained its ancient
powers of apparition-mongering, with the result that Karachiites had only
the slipperiest of grasps on reality, and were therefore willing to turn to their
leaders for advice on what was real and what was not. Beset by illusionary
sand-dunes and the ghosts of ancient kings, and also by the knowledge
that the name of the faith upon which the city stood meant 'submission', my
new fellow-citizens exuded the flat boiled odours of acquiescence, which
were depressing to a nose which had smelt-at the very last, and however
briefly-the highly-spiced nonconformity of Bombay.
Soon after our arrival-and, perhaps, oppressed by the
mosque-shadowed air of the Clayton Road house-my father resolved to
build us a new home. He bought a. plot of land in the smartest of the
'societies', the new housing development zones; and on my sixteenth
birthday, Saleem acquired more than a Lambretta-I learned the occult
powers of umbilical cords.
What, pickled in brine, sat for sixteen years in my father's almirah,
awaiting just such a day? What, floating like a water-snake in an old
pickle-jar, accompanied us on our sea-journey and ended up buried in
hard, barren Karachi-earth? What had once nourished life in a womb-what
now infused earth with miraculous life, and gave birth to a split-level,
American-style modern bungalow?… Eschewing these cryptic questions, I
explain that, on my sixteenth birthday, my family (including Alia aunty)
assembled on our plot of Korangi Road earth; watched by the eyes of a
team of labourers and the beard of a mullah, Ahmed handed Saleem a
pickaxe; I drove it inaugurally into the ground. 'A new beginning,' Amina
said, 'Inshallah, we shall all be new people now.' Spurred on by her noble
and unattainable desire, a workman rapidly enlarged my hole; and now a
pickle-jar was produced. Brine was discarded on the thirsty ground; and
what-was-left-inside received the mullah's blessings. After which, an
umbilical cord-was it mine? Or Shiva's?-was implanted in the earth; and at
once, a house began to grow. There were sweetmeats and soft drinks; the
mullah, displaying remarkable hunger, consumed thirty-nine laddoos; and
Ahmed Sinai did not once complain of the expense. The spirit of the buried
cord inspired the workmen; but although the foundations were dug very
deep, they would not prevent the house from falling down before we ever
lived in it.
What I surmised about umbilical cords: although they possessed the
power of growing houses, some were evidently better at the job than
others. The city of Karachi proved my point; clearly constructed on top of
entirely unsuitable cords, it was full of deformed houses, the stunted
hunchback children of deficient lifelines, houses growing mysteriously blind,
with no visible windows, houses which looked like radios or air-conditioners
or jail-cells, crazy top-heavy edifices which fell over with monotonous
regularity, like drunks; a wild proliferation of mad houses, whose
inadequacies as living quarters were exceeded only by their quite
exceptional ugliness. The city obscured the desert; but either the cords, or
the infertility of the soil, made it grow into something grotesque.
Capable of smelling sadness and joy, of sniffing out intelligence and
stupidity with my eyes closed, I arrived at Karachi, and
adolescence-understanding, of course, that the subcontinent's new nations
and I had all left childhood behind; that growing pains and strange awkward
alterations of voice were in store for us all. Drainage censored my inner life;
my sense of connection remained undrained.
Saleem invaded Pakistan armed only with a hypersensitive nose; but,
worst of all, he invaded from the wrong direction! All successful conquests
of that part of the world have begun in the north; all conquerors have come
by land. Sailing ignorantly against the winds of history, I reached Karachi
from the south-east, and by sea. What followed should not, I suppose, have
surprised me.
With hindsight, the advantages of sweeping down from the north are
self-evident. From the north came the Umayyad generals, Hajjaj bin Yusuf
and Muhammad bin Qasim; also the Ismailis. (Honeymoon Lodge, where it
is said Aly Khan sojourned with Rita Hayworth, overlooked our plot of
umbilicized earth; rumour has it that the film-star created much scandal by
wandering in the grounds dressed in a series of fabulous, gauzy,
Hollywood negligees.) O ineluctable superiority of northernness! From
which direction did Mahmud of Ghazni descend upon these Indus plains,
bringing with him a language boasting no fewer than three forms of the
letter S? The inescapable answer: se, sin and swad were northern
intruders. And Muhammad bin Sam Ghuri, who overthrew the Ghaznavids
and established the Delhi Caliphate? Sam Ghuri's son, too, moved
southwards on his progress.
And Tughlaq, and the Mughal Emperors… but I've made my point. It
remains only to add that ideas, as well as armies, swept south south south
from the northern heights: the legend of Sikandar But-Shikan, the
Iconoclast of Kashmir, who at the end of the fourteenth century destroyed
every Hindu temple in the Valley (establishing a precedent for my
grandfather), travelled down from the hills to the river-plains; and five
hundred years later the mujahideen movement of Syed Ahmad Barilwi
followed the well-trodden trail. Barilwi's ideas: self-denial, hatred-of-Hindus,
holy war… philosophies as well as kings (to cut this short) came from the
opposite direction to me.
Saleem's parents said, 'We must all become new people'; in the land
of the pure, purity became our ideal. But Saleem was forever tainted with
Bombayness, his head was full of all sorts of religions apart from Allah's
(like India's first Muslims, the mercantile Moplas of Malabar, I had lived in a
country whose population of deities rivalled the numbers of its people, so
that, in unconscious revolt against the claustrophobic throng of deities, my
family had espoused the ethics of business, not faith); and his body was to
show a marked preference for the impure. Mopla-like, I was doomed to be
a misfit; but, in the end, purity found me out, and even I, Saleem, was
cleansed of my misdeeds.
After my sixteenth birthday, I studied history at my aunt Alia's college;
but not even learning could make me feel a part of this country devoid of
midnight children, in which my fellow-students took out processions to
demand a stricter, more Islamic society-proving that they had contrived to
become the antitheses of students everywhere else on earth, by
demanding more-rules-not-less. My parents, however, were determined to
put down roots; although Ayub Khan and Bhutto were forging an alliance
with China (which had so recently been our enemy), Ahmed and Amina
would listen to no criticisms of their new home; and my father bought a
towel factory.
There was a new brilliance about my parents in those days; Amina had
lost her guilt-fog, her verrucas seemed not to be playing up any more; while
Ahmed, although still whitened, had felt the freeze of his loins thawing
under the heat of his newfound love for his wife. On some mornings, Amina
had toothmarks on her neck; she giggled uncontrollably at times, like a
schoolgirl. 'You two, honestly,' her sister Alia said, 'Like honeymooners or I
don't know what.' But I could smell what was hidden behind Alia's teeth;
what stayed inside when the friendly words came out… Ahmed Sinai
named his towels after his wife: Amina Brand.
'Who are these multi-multis? These Dawoods, Saigols, Haroons?' he
cried gaily, dismissing the richest families in the land. 'Who are Valikas or
Zulfikars? I could eat them ten at a time. You wait!', he promised, 'In two
years the whole world will be wiping itself on an Amina Brand cloth. The
finest terry-cloth! The most modern machines! We shall make the whole
world clean and dry; Dawoods and Zulfikars will beg to know my secret;
and I will say, yes, the towels are high-quality; but the secret is not in the
manufacturing; it was love that conquered all.' (I discerned, in my father's
speech, the lingering effects of the optimism virus.)
Did Amina Brand conquer the world in the name of cleanliness (which
is next to…)? Did Valikas and Saigols come to ask Ahmed Sinai, 'God,
we're stumped, yaar, how'd you do it?' Did high-quality terry-cloth, in
patterns devised by Ahmed himself-a little gaudy, but never mind, they
were born of love-wipe away the moist-ness of Pakistanis and
export-markets alike? Did Russians Englishmen Americans wrap
themselves in my mother's immortalized name?… The story of Amina
Brand must wait awhile; because the career of Jamila Singer is about to
take off; the mosque-shadowed house on Clayton Road has been visited
by Uncle Puffs.
His real name was Major (Retired) Alauddin Latif; he had heard about
my sister's voice from 'my darn good friend General Zulfikar; use to be with
him in the Border Patrol Force back in '47.' He turned up at Alia Aziz's
house shortly after Jamila's fifteenth birthday, beaming and bouncing,
revealing a mouth filled with solid gold teeth. 'I'm a simple fellow,' he
explained, 'like our illustrious President. I keep my cash where it's safe.'
Like our illustrious President, the Major's head was perfectly spherical;
unlike Ayub Khan, Latif had left the Army and entered show-business.
'Pakistan's absolute number-one impresario, old man,' he told my father.
'Nothing to it but organization; old Army habit, dies darn hard.' Major Latif
had a proposition: he wanted to hear Jamila sing, 'And if she's two per cent
as good as I'm told, my good sir, I'll make her famous! Oh, yes, overnight,
certainly! Contacts: that's all it takes; contacts and organization; and yours
truly Major (Retired) Latif has the lot. Alauddin Latif,' he stressed, flashing
goldly at Ahmed Sinai, 'Know the story? I just rub my jolly old lamp and out
pops the genie bringing fame and fortune. Your girl will be in darn good
hands. Dam good.'
It is fortunate for Jamila Singer's legion of fans that Ahmed Sinai was a
man in love with his wife; mellowed by his own happiness, he failed to eject
Major Latif on the spot. I also believe today that my parents had already
come to the conclusion that their daughter's gift was too extraordinary to
keep to themselves; the sublime magic of her angel's voice had begun to
teach them the inevitable imperatives of talent. But Ahmed and Amina had
one concern. 'Our daughter,' Ahmed said-he was always the more
old-fashioned of the two beneath the surface-'is from a good family; but you
want to put her on a stage in front of God knows how many strange men…
?' The Major looked affronted. 'Sir,' he said stiffly, 'you think I am not a man
of sensibility? Got daughters myself, old man. Seven, thank God. Set up a
little travel agency business for them; strictly over the telephone, though.
Wouldn't dream of sitting them in an office-window. It's the biggest
telephonic travel agency in the place, actually. We send train-drivers to
England, matter of fact; bus-wallahs, too. My point,' he added hastily, 'is
that your daughter would be given as much respect as mine. More,
actually; she's going to be a star!'
Major Latif's daughters-Sana and Rafia and five other-afias-were
dubbed, collectively, 'the Puffias' by the remaining Monkey in my sister;
their father was nicknamed first Tather-Puffia' and then Uncle-a courtesy
title-Puffs. He was as good as his word; in six months Jamila Singer was to
have hit records, an army of admirers, everything; and all, as I'll explain in a
moment, without revealing her face.
Uncle Puffs became a fixture in our lives; he visited the Clayton Road
house most evenings, at what I used to think of as the cocktail hour, to sip
pomegranate juice and ask Jamila to sing a little something. She, who was
growing into the sweetest-natured of girls, always obliged… afterwards he
would clear his throat as if something had got stuck in it and begin to joke
heartily with me about getting married. Twenty-four-carat grins blinded me
as he, 'Time you took a wife, young man. Take my advice: pick a girl with
good brains and bad teeth; you'll have got a friend and a safe-deposit box
rolled into one!' Uncle Puffs' daughters, he claimed, all conformed to the
above description… I, embarrassed, smelling out that he was only
half-joking, would cry, 'O, Uncle Puffs!' He knew his nick-name; quite liked
it, even. Slapping my thigh, he cried, 'Playing hard to get, eh? Darn right.
O.K., my boy: you pick one of my girls, and I guarantee to have all her teeth
pulled out; by the time you marry her she'll have a million-buck smile for a
dowry!' Whereupon my mother usually contrived to change the subject; she
wasn't keen on Uncle Puffs' idea, no matter how pricey the dentures… on
that first night, as so often afterwards, Jamila sang to Major Alauddin Latif.
Her voice wafted out through the window and silenced the traffic; the birds
stopped chattering and, at the hamburger shop across the street, the radio
was switched off; the street was full of stationary people, and my sister's
voice washed over them… when she finished, we noticed that Uncle Puffs
was crying.
'A jewel,' he said, honking into a handkerchief, 'Sir and Madam, your
daughter is a jewel. I am humbled, absolutely. Darn humbled. She has
proved to me that a golden voice is preferable even to golden teeth.'
And when Jamila Singer's fame had reached the point at which she
could no longer avoid giving a public concert, it was Uncle Puffs who
started the rumour that she had been involved in a terrible, disfiguring
car-crash; it was Major (Retired) Latif who devised her famous,
all-concealing, white silk chadar, the curtain or veil, heavily embroidered in
gold brocade-work and religious calligraphy, behind which she sat
demurely whenever she performed in public. The chadar of Jamila Singer
was held up by two tireless, muscular figures, also (but more simply) veiled
from head to foot-the official story was that they were her female
attendants, but their sex was impossible to determine through their burqas;
and at its very centre, the Major had cut a hole. Diameter: three inches.
Circumference: embroidered in finest gold thread. That was how the history
of our family once again became the fate of a nation, because when Jamila
sang with her lips pressed against the brocaded aperture, Pakistan fell in
love with a fifteen-year-old girl whom it only ever glimpsed through a
gold-and-white perforated sheet.
The accident rumour set the final seal on her popularity; her concerts
packed out the Bambino theatre in Karachi and filled the Shalimar-bagh in
Lahore; her records constantly topped the sales charts. And as she
became public property, 'Pakistan's Angel', 'The Voice of the Nation', the
'Bulbul-e-Din' or nightingale-of-the-faith, and began to receive one
thousand and one firm proposals of marriage a week; as she became the
whole country's favourite daughter and grew into an existence which
threatened to overwhelm her place in our own family, so she fell prey to the
twin viruses of fame, the first of which made her the victim of her own
public image, because the accident-rumour obliged her to wear a
gold-and-white burqa at all times, even in my aunt Alia's school, which she
continued to attend; while the second virus subjected her to the
exaggerations and simplifications of self which are the unavoidable
side-effects of stardom, so that the blind and blinding devoutness and the
right-or-wrong nationalism which had already begun to emerge in her now
began to dominate her personality, to the exclusion of almost everything
else. Publicity imprisoned her inside a gilded tent; and, being the new
daughter-of-the-nation, her character began to owe more to the most
strident aspects of the national persona than to the child-world of her
Monkey years.
Jamila Singer's voice was on Voice-Of-Pakistan Radio constantly, so
that in the villages of West and East Wings she came to seem like a
superhuman being, incapable of being fatigued, an angel who sang to her
people through all the days and nights; while Ahmed Sinai, whose few
remaining qualms about his daughter's career had been more than allayed
by her enormous earnings (although he had once been a Delhi man, he
was by now a true Bombay Muslim at heart, placing cash matters above
most other things), became fond of telling my sister: 'You see, daughter:
decency, purity, art and good business sense can be one and the same
things; your old father has been wise enough to work that out.' Jamila
smiled sweetly and agreed… she was growing out of scrawny tomboy
youth into a slender, slant-eyed, golden-skinned beauty whose hair was
nearly long enough to sit on; even her nose looked good. 'In my daughter,'
Ahmed Sinai told Uncle Puffs proudly, 'it is my side of the family's noble
features which have prevailed.' Uncle Puffs cast a quizzical, awkward
glance at me and cleared his throat. 'Darn fine-looking girl, sir,' he told my
father, 'Top-hole, by gum.'
The thunder of applause was never far from my sister's ears; at her
first, now-legendary Bambino recital (we sat in seats provided by Uncle
Puffs-'Best darn seats in the house!'-beside his seven Puffias, all veiled…
Uncle Puffs dug me in the ribs, 'Hey, boy-choose! Take your pick!
Remember: the dowry!' and I blushed and stared hard at the stage), the
cries of 'Wah! Wah!' were sometimes louder than Jamila's voice; and after
the show we found Jamila back-stage drowning in a sea of flowers, so that
we had to fight our way through the blossoming camphor garden of the
nation's love, to find that she was almost fainting, not from fatigue, but from
the overpoweringly sweet perfume of adoration with which the blooms had
filled the room. I, too, felt my head beginning to swim; until Uncle Puffs
began to hurl flowers in great bushels from an open window-they were
gathered by a crowd of fans-while he cried, 'Flowers arc fine, darn it, but
even a national heroine needs air!'
There was applause, too, on the evening Jamila Singer (and family)
was invited to President House to sing for the commander of pepper-pots.
Ignoring reports in foreign magazines about embezzled money and Swiss
bank accounts, we scrubbed ourselves until we shone; a family in the towel
business is obliged to be spotlessly clean. Uncle Puffs gave his gold teeth
an extra-careful polish; and in a large hall dominated by garlanded portraits
of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, the Quaid-i-Azam, and
of his assassinated friend and successor Liaquat Ali, a perforated sheet
was held up and my sister sang. Jamila's voice fell silent at last; the voice
of gold braid succeeded her brocade-bordered song. 'Jamila daughter,' we
heard, 'your voice will be a sword for purity; it will be a weapon with which
we shall cleanse men's souls.' President Ayub was, by his own admission,
a simple soldier; he instilled in my sister the simple, soldierly virtues of
faith-in-leaders and trust-in-God; and she, 'The President's will is the voice
of my heart.' Through the hole in a perforated sheet, Jamila Singer
dedicated herself to patriotism; and the diwan-i-khas, the hall of this private
audience, rang with applause, polite now, not the wild wah-wahing of the
Bambino crowd, but the regimented approbation of braided gongs-and-pips
and the delighted clapping of weepy parents. 'I say!' Uncle Puffs whispered,
'Darn fine, eh?'
What I could smell, Jamila could sing. Truth beauty happiness pain:
each had its separate fragrance, and could be distinguished by my nose;
each, in Jamila's performances, could find its ideal voice. My nose, her
voice: they were exactly complementary gifts; but they were growing apart.
While Jamila sang patriotic songs, my nose seemed to prefer to linger on
the uglier smells which invaded it: the bitterness of Aunt Alia, the hard
unchanging sunk of my fellow-students' closed minds; so that while she
rose into the clouds, I fell into the gutter.
Looking back, however, I think I was already in love with her, long
before I was told… is there proof of Saleem's unspeakable sister-love?
There is. Jamila Singer had one passion in common with the vanished
Brass Monkey; she loved bread. Chapatis, parathas, tandoori nans? Yes,
but. Well then: was yeast preferred? It was; my sister-despite
patriotism-hankered constantly after leavened bread. And, in all Karachi,
what was the only source of quality, yeasty loaves? Not a baker's; the best
bread in the city was handed out through a hatch in an otherwise blind wall,
every Thursday morning, by the sisters of the hidden order of Santa
Ignacia. Each week, on my Lambretta scooter, I brought my sister the
warm fresh loaves of nuns. Despite long snaking queues; making light of
the overspiced, hot, dung-laden odour of the narrow streets around the
nunnery; ignoring all other calls upon my time, I fetched the bread. Criticism
was entirely absent from my heart; never once did I ask my sister whether
this last relic of her old flirtation with Christianity might not look rather bad in
her new role of Bulbul of the Faith…
Is it possible to trace the origins of unnatural love? Did Saleem, who
had yearned after a place in the centre of history, become besotted with
what he saw in his sister of his own hopes for life? Did much-mutilated
no-longer-Snotnose, as broken a member of the Midnight Children's
Conference as the knife-scarred beggar-girl Sundari, fall in love with the
new wholeness of his sibling? Once the Mubarak, the Blessed One, did I
adore in my sister the fulfilment of my most private dreams?… I shall say
only that I was unaware of what had happened to me until, with a scooter
between my sixteen-year-old thighs, I began to follow the spoors of whores.
While Alia smouldered; during the early days of Amina Brand towels;
amid the apotheosis of Jamila Singer; when a split-level house, rising by
command of an umbilical cord, was still far from complete; in the time of the
late-flowering love of my parents; surrounded by the somehow barren
certitudes of the land of the pure, Saleem Sinai came to terms with himself.
I will not say he was not sad; refusing to censor my past, I admit he was as
sullen, often as uncooperative, certainly as spotty as most boys of his age.
His dreams, denied the children of midnight, became filled with nostalgia to
the point of nausea, so that he often woke up gagging with the heavy musk
of regret overpowering his senses; there were nightmares of numbers
marching one two three, and of a tightening, throttling pair of prehensile
knees… but there was a new gift, and a Lambretta scooter, and (though
still unconscious) a humble, submissive love of his sister… jerking my
narrator's eyes away from the described past, I insist that Saleem,
then-as-now, succeeded in turning his attention towards the
as-yet-undescribed future. Escaping, whenever possible, from a residence
in which the acrid fumes of his aunt's envy made life unbearable, and also
from a college filled with other equally dislikeable smells, I mounted my
motorized steed and explored the olfactory avenues of my new city. And
after we heard of my grandfather's death in Kashmir, I became even more
determined to drown the past in the thick, bubbling scent-stew of the
present… O dizzying early days before categorization! Formlessly, before I
began to shape them, the fragrances poured into me: the mournful
decaying fumes of animal faeces in the gardens of the Frere Road
museum, the pustular body odours of young men in loose pajamas holding
hands in Sadar evenings, the knife-sharpness of expectorated betel-nut
and the bitter-sweet commingling of betel and opium: 'rocket paans' were
sniffed out in the hawker-crowded alleys between Elphin-stone Street and
Victoria Road. Camel-smells, car-smells, the gnat-like irritation of
motor-rickshaw fumes, the aroma of contraband cigarettes and
'black-money', the competitive effluvia of the city's bus-drivers and the
simple sweat of their sardine-crowded passengers. (One bus-driver, in
those days, was so incensed at being overtaken by his rival from another
company-the nauseating odour of defeat poured from his glands-that he
took his bus round to his opponent's house at night, hooted until the poor
fellow emerged, and ran him down beneath wheels reeking, like my aunt, of
revenge.) Mosques poured over me the itr of devotion; I could smell the
orotund emissions of power sent out by flag-waving Army motors; in the
very hoardings of the cinemas I could discern the cheap tawdry perfumes
of imported spaghetti Westerns and the most violent martial-arts films ever
made. I was, for a time, like a drugged person, my head reeling beneath
the complexities of smell; but then my overpowering desire for form
asserted itself, and I survived.
Indo-Pakistani relations deteriorated; the borders were closed, so that
we could not go to Agra to mourn my grandfather; Reverend Mother's
emigration to Pakistan was also somewhat delayed. In the meantime,
Saleem was working towards a general theory of smell: classification
procedures had begun. I saw this scientific approach as my own, personal
obeisance to the spirit of my grandfather… to begin with, I perfected my
skill at distinguishing, until I could tell apart the infinite varieties of betel-nut
and (with my eyes shut) the twelve different available brands of fizzy drink.
(Long before the American commentator Herbert Feldman came to Karachi
to deplore the existence of a dozen aerated waters in a city which had only
three suppliers of bottled milk, I could sit blindfolded and tell Pakola from
Hoffman's Mission, Citra Cola from Fanta. Feldman saw these drinks as a
manifestation of capitalist imperialism; I, sniffing out which was Canada Dry
and which 7-Up, unerringly separating Pepsi from Coke, was more
interested in passing their subtle olfactory test. Double Kola and Kola Kola,
Perri Cola and Bubble Up were blindly indentified and named.) Only when I
was sure of my mastery of physical scents did I move on to those other
aromas which only I could smell: the perfumes of emotions and all the
thousand and one drives which make us human: love and death, greed and
humility, have and have-not were labelled and placed in neat
compartments of my mind.
Early attempts at ordering: I tried to classify smells by colour-boiling
underwear and the printer's ink of the Daily Jang shared a quality of
blueness, while old teak and fresh farts were both dark brown. Motor-cars
and graveyards I jointly classified as grey… there was, too,
classification-by-weight: flyweight smells (paper), bantam odours
(soap-fresh bodies, grass), welterweights (perspiration, queen-of-the-night);
shahi-korma and bicycle-oil were light-heavy-weight in my system, while
anger, patchouli, treachery and dung were among the heavyweight stinks
of the earth. And I had a geometric system also: the roundness of joy and
the angularity of ambition; I had elliptical smells, and also ovals and
squares… a lexicographer of the nose, I travelled Bunder Road and the
P.E.C.H.S.; a lepidopterist, I snared whins like butterflies in the net of my
nasal hairs. O wondrous voyages before the birth of philosophy!… Because
soon I understood that my work must, if it was to have any value, acquire a
moral dimension; that the only important divisions were the infinitely subtle
gradations of good and evil smells. Having realized the crucial nature of
morality, having sniffed out that smells could be sacred or profane, I
invented, in the isolation of my scooter-trips, the science of nasal ethics.
Sacred: purdah-veils, halal meat, muezzin's towers, prayer-mats;
profane: Western records, pig-meat, alcohol. I understood now why
mullahs (sacred) refused to enter aeroplanes (profane) on the night before
Id-ul-Fitr, not even willing to enter vehicles whose secret odour was the
antithesis of godliness in order to make sure of seeing the new moon. I
learned the olfactory incompatibility of Islam and socialism, and the
inalienable opposition existing between the after-shave of Sind Club
members and the poverty-reek of the street-sleeping beggars at the Club
gates… more and more, however, I became convinced of an ugly
truth-namely that the sacred, or good, held little interest for me, even when
such aromas surrounded my sister as she sang; while the pungency of the
gutter seemed to possess a fatally irresistible attraction. Besides, I was
sixteen; things were stirring beneath my belt, behind my duck-white pants;
and no city which locks women away is ever short of whores. While Jamila
sang of holiness and love-of-country, I explored profanity and lust. (I had
money to burn; my father had become generous as well as loving.)
At the eternally unfinished Jinnah Mausoleum I picked up the women
of the street. Other youths came here to seduce American girls away,
taking them off to hotel rooms or swimming pools; I preferred to retain my
independence and pay. And eventually I nosed out the whore of whores,
whose gifts were a mirror for my own. Her name was Tai Bibi, and she
claimed to be five hundred and twelve.
But her smell! The richest spoor he, Saleem, had ever sniffed; he felt
bewitched by something in it, some air of historic majesty… he found
himself saying to the toothless creature: 'I don't care about your age; the
smell's the thing.'
('My God,' Padma interrupts, 'Such a thing-how could you?') Though
she never hinted at any connection with a Kashmiri boatman, her name
exerted the strongest of pulls; although she may have been humouring
Saleem when she said, 'Boy, I am five hundred and twelve,' his sense of
history was nevertheless aroused. Think of me what you like; I spent one
hot, humid afternoon in a tenement-room containing a flea-ridden mattress
and a naked lightbulb and the oldest whore in the world.
What finally made Tai Bibi irresistible? What gift of control did she
possess which put other whores to shame? What maddened the
newly-sensitized nostrils of our Saleem? Padma: my ancient prostitute
possessed a mastery over her glands so total that she could alter her
bodily odours to match those of anyone on earth. Eccrines and apoc-rines
obeyed the instructions of her antiquated will; and although she said, 'Don't
expect me to do it standing up; you couldn't pay enough for that,' her gifts
of perfume were more than he could bear. (… 'Chhi-chhi,' Padma covers
her ears, 'My God, such a dirty-filthy man, I never knew!'…)
So there he was, this peculiar hideous youth, with an old hag who
said, 'I won't stand up; my corns,' and then noticed that the mention of
corns seemed to arouse him; whispering the secret of her
eccrine-and-apocrine facility, she asked if he'd like her to imitate anyone's
smells, he could describe and she could try, and by trial-and-error they
could… and at first he jerked away, No no no, but she coaxed him in her
voice like crumpled paper, until because he was alone, out of the world and
out of all time, alone with this impossible mythological old harridan, he
began to describe odours with all the perspicacity of his miraculous nose,
and Tai Bibi began to imitate his descriptions, leaving him aghast as by
trial-and-error she succeeded in reproducing the body odours of his mother
his aunts, oho you like that do you little sahibzada, go on, stick your nose
as close as you like, you're a funny fellow for sure… until suddenly, by
accident, yes, I swear I didn't make her do it, suddenly during trial-and-error
the most unspeakable fragrance on earth wafts out of the cracked wrinkled
leather-ancient body, and now he can't hide what she sees, oho, little
sahibzada, what have I hit on now, you don't have to tell who she is but this
one is the one for sure.
And Saleem, 'Shut up shut up-' But Tai Bibi with the relent-lessness of
her cackling antiquity presses on, 'Oho yes, certainly, your lady-love, little
sahibzada-who? Your cousin, maybe? Your sister…' Saleem's hand is
tightening into a fist; the right hand, despite mutilated finger, contemplates
violence… and now Tai Bibi, 'My God yes! Your sister! Go on, hit me, you
can't hide what's sitting there in the middle of your forehead!…' And
Saleem gathering up his clothes struggling into trousers Shut up old hag
While she Yes go, go, but if you don't pay me I'll, I'll, you see what I don't
do, and now rupees flying across the room floating down around
five-hundred-and-twelve-year-old courtesan, Take take only shut your
hideous face, while she Careful my princeling you're not so handsome
yourself, dressed now and rushing from the tenement, Lambretta scooter
waiting but urchins have urinated on the seat, he is driving away as fast as
he can go, but the truth is going with him, and now Tai Bibi leaning out of a
window shouts, 'Hey, bhaenchud! Hey, little sister-sleeper, where you
running? What's true is true is true…!'
You may legitimately ask: Did it happen in just this… And surely she
couldn't have been five hundred and… but I swore to confess everything,
and I insist that I learned the unspeakable secret of my love for Jamila
Singer from the mouth and scent-glands of that most exceptional of
'Our Mrs Braganza is right,' Padma is scolding me, 'She says there is
nothing but dirt in the heads of the mens.' I ignore her; Mrs Braganza, and
her sister Mrs Fernandes, will be dealt with in due course; for the moment,
the latter must be content with the factory accounts while the former looks
after my son. And while I, to recapture the rapt attention of my revolted
Padma Bibi, recount a fairy-tale.
Once upon a time, in the far northern princedom of Kif, there lived a
prince who had two beautiful daughters, a son of equally remarkable good
looks, a brand-new Rolls-Royce motor car, and excellent political contacts.
This prince, or Nawab, believed passionately in progress, which was why
he had arranged the engagement of his elder daughter to the son of the
prosperous and well-known General Zulfikar; for his younger daughter he
had high hopes of a match with the son of the President himself. As for his
motor-car, the first ever seen in his mountain-ringed valley, he loved it
almost as much as his children; it grieved him that his subjects, who had
become used to using the roads of Kif for purposes of social intercourse,
quarrels and games of hit-the-spittoon, refused to get out of its way. He
issued a proclamation explaining that the car represented the future, and
must be allowed to pass; the people ignored the notice, although it was
pasted to shop-fronts and walls and even, it is said, to the sides of cows.
The second notice was more peremptory, ordering the citizenry to clear the
highways when they heard the horn of the car; the Kifis, however,
continued to smoke and spit and argue in the streets. The third notice,
which was adorned with a gory drawing, said that the car would henceforth
run down anybody who failed to obey its horn. The Kifis added new, more
scandalous pictures to the one on the poster; and then the Nawab, who
was a good man but not one of infinite patience, actually did as he
threatened. When the famous singer Jamila arrived with her family and
impresario to sing at her cousin's engagement ceremony, the car drove her
without trouble from border to palace; and the Nawab said proudly, 'No
trouble; the car is respected now. Progress has occurred.'
The Nawab's son Mutasim, who had travelled abroad and wore his
hair in something called a 'beetle-cut', was a source of worry to his father;
because although he was so good-looking that, whenever he travelled
around Kif, girls with silver nose-jewellery fainted in the heat of his beauty,
he seemed to take no interest in such matters, being content with his
polo-ponies and the guitar on which he picked out strange Western songs.
He wore bush-shirts on which musical notation and foreign street-signs
jostled against the half-clad bodies of pink-skinned girls. But when Jamila
Singer, concealed within a gold-brocaded burqa, arrived at the palace,
Mutasim the Handsome-who owing to his foreign travels had never heard
the rumours of her disfigurement-became obsessed with the idea of seeing
her face; he fell head-over-heels with the glimpses of her demure eyes he
saw through her perforated sheet.
In those days, the President of Pakistan had decreed an election; it
was to take place on the day after the engagement ceremony, under a form
of suffrage called Basic Democracy. The hundred million people of
Pakistan had been divided up into a hundred and twenty thousand
approximately equal parts, and each part was represented by one Basic
Democrat. The electoral college of one hundred and twenty thousand
'B.D.s' were to elect the President. In Kif, the 420 Basic Democrats
included mullahs, road-sweepers, the Nawab's chauffeur, numerous men
who sharecropped hashish on the Nawab's estate, and other loyal citizens;
the Nawab had invited all of these to his daughter's hennaing ceremony.
He had, however, also been obliged to invite two real badmashes, the
returning officers of the Combined Opposition Party. These badmashes
quarrelled constantly amongst themselves, but the Nawab was courteous
and welcoming. 'Tonight you are my honoured friends,' he told them, 'and
tomorrow is another day.' The badmashes ate and drank as if they had
never seen food before, but everybody-even Mutasim the Handsome,
whose patience was shorter than his father's-was told to treat them well.
The Combined Opposition Party, you will not be surprised to hear, was
a collection of rogues and scoundrels of the first water, united only in their
determination to unseat the President and return to the bad old days in
which civilians, and not soldiers, lined their pockets from the public
exchequer; but for some reason they had acquired a formidable leader.
This was Mistress Fatima Jinriah, the sister of the founder of the nation, a
woman of such desiccated antiquity that the Nawab suspected she had
died long ago and been stuffed by a master taxidermist-a notion supported
by his son, who had seen a movie called El Cid in which a dead man led an
army into battle… but there she was nevertheless, goaded into
electioneering by the President's failure to complete the marbling of her
brother's mausoleum; a terrible foe, above slander and suspicion. It was
even said that her opposition to the President had shaken the people's faith
in him-was he not, after all, the reincarnation of the great Islamic heroes of
yesteryear? Of Muhammad bin Sam Ghuri, of Iltutmish and the Mughals?
Even in Kif itself, the Nawab had noticed C.O.P. stickers appearing in
curious places; someone had even had the cheek to affix one to the boot of
the Rolls. 'Bad days,' the Nawab told his son. Mutasim replied, 'That's what
elections get you-latrine cleaners and cheap tailors must vote to elect a
But today was a day for happiness; in the zenana chambers, women
were patterning the Nawab's daughter's hands and feet with delicate
traceries of henna; soon General Zulfikar and his son Zafar would arrive.
The rulers of Kif put the election out of their heads, refusing to think of the
crumbling figure of Fatima Jinnah, the mader-i-millat or mother of the nation
who had so callously chosen to confuse her children's choosing.
In the quarters of Jamila Singer's party, too, happiness reigned
supreme. Her father, a towel-manufacturer who could not seem to
relinquish the soft hand of his wife, cried, 'You see? Whose daughter is
performing here? Is it a Haroon girl? A Valika woman? Is it a Dawood of
Saigol wench? Like hell!'… But his son Saleem, an unfortunate fellow with
a face like a cartoon, seemed to be gripped by some deep malaise,
perhaps overwhelmed by his presence at the scene of great historical
events; he glanced towards his gifted sister with something in his eyes
which looked like shame.
That afternoon, Mutasim the Handsome took Jamila's brother Saleem
to one side and tried hard to make friends; he showed Saleem the
peacocks imported from Rajasthan before Partition and the Nawab's
precious collection of books of spells, from which he extracted such
talismans and incantations as would help him rule with sagacity; and while
Mutasim (who was not the most intelligent or cautious of youths) was
escorting Saleem around the polo-field, he confessed that he had written
out a love-charm on a piece of parchment, in the hope of pressing it against
the hand of the famous Jamila Singer and making her fall in love. At this
point Saleem acquired the air of a bad-tempered dog and tried to turn
away; but Mutasim now begged to know what Jamila Singer really looked
like. Saleem, however, kept his silence; until Mutasim, in the grip of a wild
obsession, asked to be brought close enough to Jamila to press his charm
against her hand. Now Saleem, whose sly look did not register on
love-struck Mutasim, said, 'Give me the parchment'; and Mutasim, who,
though expert in the geography of European cities, was innocent in things
magical, yielded his charm to Saleem, thinking it would still work on his
behalf, even if applied by another.
Evening approached at the palace; the convoy of cars bringing
General and Begum Zulfikar, their son Zafar, and friends, approached, too.
But now the wind changed, and began to blow from the north: a cold wind,
and also an intoxicating one, because in the north of Kif were the best
hashish fields in the land, and at this time of year the female plants were
ripe and in heat. The air was filled with the perfume of the heady lust of the
plants, and all who breathed it became doped to some extent. The vacuous
beatitude of the plants affected the drivers in the convoy, which only
reached the palace by great good fortune, having overturned a number of
street-side barber-stalls and invaded at least one tea-shop, leaving the Kifis
wondering whether the new horseless carriages, having stolen the streets,
were now going to capture their homes as well.
The wind from the north entered the enormous and highly sensitive
nose of Saleem, Jamila's brother, and made him so drowsy that he fell
asleep in his room; so that he missed the events of an evening during
which, he afterwards learned, the hashashin wind had transformed the
behaviour of the guests at the engagement ceremony, making them giggle
convulsively and gaze provocatively at one another through heavy-lidded
eyes; braided Generals sat splay-legged on gilded chairs and dreamed of
Paradise. The mehndi ceremony took place amid a sleepy contentment so
profound that nobody noticed when the bridegroom relaxed so completely
that he wet his pants; and even the quarrelling badmashes from the C.O.P.
linked arms and sang a folk-song. And when Mutasim the Handsome,
possessed by the lustiness of hashish-plants, attempted to plunge behind
the great gold-and-silken sheet with its single hole, Major Alauddin Latif
restrained him with beatific good humour, preventing him from seeing
Jamila Singer's face without even bloodying his nose. The evening ended
when all the guests fell asleep at their tables; but Jamila Singer was
escorted to her rooms by a sleepily, beaming Latif.
At midnight, Saleem awoke to find that he still clutched the magical
parchment of Mutasim the Handsome in his right hand; and since the wind
from the north was still blowing gently through his room, he made up his
mind to creep, in chappals and dressing-gown, through the darkened
passages of the lovely palace, past all the accumulated debris of a
decaying world, rusting suits of armour and ancient tapestries which
provided centuries of food for the palace's one billion moths, giant
mahaseer trout swimming in glass seas, and a profusion of hunting
trophies including a tarnished golden teetar-bird on a teak plinth which
commemorated the day on which an earlier Nawab, in the company of Lord
Curzon and party, had shot III, III teetars in a single day; he crept past the
statues of dead birds into the zenana chambers where the women of the
palace slept, and then, sniffing the air, he selected one door, turned the
handle and went inside.
There was a giant bed with a floating mosquito-net caught in a stream
of colourless light from the maddening, midnight moon; Saleem moved
towards it, and then stopped, because he had seen, at the window, the
figure of a man trying to climb into the room. Mutasim the Handsome, made
shameless by his infatuation and the hashashin wind, had resolved to look
at Jamila's face, no matter what the cost .. .And Saleem, invisible in the
shadows of the room cried out: 'Hands up! Or I shoot!' Saleem was bluffing;
but Mutasim, whose hands were on the window sill, supporting his full
weight, did not know that, and was placed in a quandary: to hang on and
be shot, or let go and fall? He attempted to argue back, 'You shouldn't be
here yourself,' he said, 'I'll tell Amina Begum.' He had recognized the voice
of his oppressor; but Saleem pointed out the weakness of his position, and
Mutasim, pleading, 'Okay, only don't fire,' was permitted to descend the
way he'd come. After that day, Mutasim persuaded his father to make a
formal proposal of marriage to Jamila's parents; but she, who had been
born and raised without love, retained her old hatred of all who claimed to
love her, and turned him down. He left Kif and came to Karachi, but she
would not entertain his importunate proposals; and eventually he joined the
Army and became a martyr in the war of 1965.
The tragedy of Mutasim the Handsome, however, is only a subplot in
our story; because now Saleem and his sister were alone, and she
awakened by the exchange between the two youths, asked, 'Saleem?
What is happening?'
Saleem approached his sister's bed; his hand sought hers; and
parchment was pressed against skin. Only now did Saleem, his tongue
loosened by the moon and the lust-drenched breeze, abandon all notions
of purity and confess his own love to his open-mouthed sister.
There was a silence; then she cried, 'Oh, no, how can you-', but the
magic of the parchment was doing battle with the strength of her hatred of
love; so although her body grew stiff and jerky as a wrestler's, she listened
to him explaining that there was no sin, he had worked it all out, and after
all, they were not truly brother and sister; the blood in his veins was not the
blood in hers; in the breeze of that insane night he attempted to undo all
the knots which not even Mary Pereira's confession had succeeded in
untying; but even as he spoke he could hear his words sounding hollow,
and realized that although what he was saying was the literal truth, there
were other truths which had become more important because they had
been sanctified by time; and although there was no need for shame or
horror, he saw both emotions on her forehead, he smelt them on her skin,
and, what was worse, he could feel and smell them in and upon himself.
So, in the end, not even the magic parchment of Mutasim the Handsome
was powerful enough to bring Saleem Sinai and Jamila Singer together; he
left her room with bowed head, followed by her deer-startled eyes; and in
time the effects of the spell faded altogether, and she took a dreadful
revenge. As he left the room the corridors of the palace were suddenly
filled with the shriek of a newly-affianced princess, who had awoken from a
dream of her wedding-night in which her marital bed had suddenly and
unaccountably become awash in rancid yellow liquid; afterwards, she made
inquiries, and when she learned the prophetic truth of her dream, resolved
never to reach puberty while Zafar was alive, so that she could stay in her
palatial bedroom and avoid the foul-smelling horror of his weakness.
The next morning, the two badmashes of the Combined Opposition
Party awoke to find themselves back in their own beds; but when they had
dressed, they opened the door of their chamber to find two of the biggest
soldiers in Pakistan outside it, standing peacefully with crossed rifles,
barring the exit. The badmashes shouted and wheedled, but the soldiers
stayed in position until the polls were closed; then they quietly disappeared.
The badmashes sought out the Nawab, finding him in his exceptional
rose-garden; they waved their arms and raised their voices;
travesty-of-justice was mentioned, and electoral-jiggery-pokery; also
chicanery; but the Nawab showed them thirteen new varieties of Kin rose,
autocratic-tyranny-until he smiled gently, gently, and said, 'My friends,
yesterday my daughter was betrothed to Zafar Zulfikar; soon, I hope, my
other girl will wed our President's own dear son. Think, then-what
dishonour for me, what scandal on my name, if even one vote were cast in
Kif against my future relative! Friends, I am a man to whom honour is of
concern; so stay in my house, eat, drink; only do not ask for what I cannot
And we all lived happily… at any rate, even without the traditional
last-sentence fiction of fairy-tales, my story does indeed end in fantasy;
because when Basic Democrats had done their duty, the
newspapers-Jang, Dawn, Pakistan Times-announced a crushing victory for
the President's Muslim League over the Mader-i-Millat's Combined
Opposition Party; thus proving to me that I have been only the humblest of
jugglers-with-facts; and that, in a country where the truth is what it is
instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist, so that everything
becomes possible except what we are told is the case; and maybe this was
the difference between my Indian childhood and Pakistani
adolescence-that in the first I was beset by an infinity of alternative realities,
while in the second I was adrift, disorientated, amid an equally infinite
number of falsenesses, unrealities and lies.
A little bird whispers in my ear: 'Be fair! Nobody, no country, has a
monopoly of untruth.' I accept the criticism; I know, I know. And, years later,
the Widow knew. And Jamila: for whom what-had-been-sanctified-as-truth
(by Time, by habit, by a grandmother's pronouncement, by lack of
imagination, by a father's acquiescence) proved more believable than what
she knew to be so.
How Saleem achieved purity
What is waiting to be told: the return of ticktock. But now time is
counting down to an end, not a birth; there is, too, a weariness to be
mentioned, a general fatigue so profound that the end, when it comes, will
be the only solution, because human beings, like nations and fictional
characters, can simply run out of steam, and then there's nothing for it but
to finish with them.
How a piece fell out of the moon, and Saleem achieved purity… the
clock is ticking now; and because all countdowns require a zero, let me
state that the end came on September 22nd, 1965; and that the precise
instant of the arrival-at-zero was, inevitably, the stroke of midnight.
Although the old grandfather clock in my aunt Alia's house, which kept
accurate time but always chimed two minutes late, never had a chance to
My grandmother Naseem Aziz arrived in Pakistan in mid-1964, leaving
behind an India in which Nehru's death had precipitated a bitter power
struggle. Morarji Desai, the Finance Minister, and Jagjivan Ram, most
powerful of the untouchables, united in their determination to prevent the
establishment of a Nehru dynasty; so Indira Gandhi was denied the
leadership. The new Prime Minister was Lal Bahadur Shastri, another
member of that generation of politicians who seemed to have been pickled
in immortality; in the case of Shastri, however, this was only maya, illusion.
Nehru and Shastri have both fully proved their mortality; but there are still
plenty of the others left, clutching Time in their mummified fingers and
refusing to let it move… in Pakistan, however, the clocks ticked and locked.
Reverend Mother did not overtly approve of my sister's career; it
smacked too much of film-stardom. 'My family, whatsitsname,' she sighed
to Pia mumani, 'is even less controllable than the price of gas.' Secretly,
however, she may have been impressed, because she respected power
and position and Jamila was now so exalted as to be welcome in the most
powerful and best-placed houses in the land… my grandmother settled in
Rawalpindi; however, with a strange show of independence, she chose not
to live in the house of General Zulfikar. She and my aunt Pia moved into a
modest bungalow in the old part of town; and by pooling their savings,
purchased a concession on the long-dreamed-of petrol pump.
Naseem never mentioned Aadam Aziz, nor would she grieve over him;
it was almost as though she were relieved that my querulous grandfather,
who had in his youth despised the Pakistan movement, and who in all
probability blamed the Muslim League for the death of his friend Mian
Abdullah, had by dying permitted her to go alone into the Land of the Pure.
Setting her face against the past, Reverend Mother concentrated on
gasoline and oil. The pump was on a prime site, near the
Rawalpindi-Lahore grand trunk road-it did very well. Pia and Naseem took
it in turns to spend the day in the manager's glass booth while attendants
filled up cars and Army trucks. They proved a magical combination. Pia
attracted customers with the beacon of a beauty which obstinately refused
to fade; while Reverend Mother, who had been transformed by bereave,
ment into a woman who was more interested in other people's lives than
her own, took to inviting the pump's customers into her glass booth for cups
of pink Kashmiri tea; they would accept with some trepidation, but when
they realized that the old lady did not propose to bore them with endless
reminiscences, they relaxed, loosened collars and tongues, and Reverend
Mother was able to bathe in the blessed oblivion of other people's lives.
The pump rapidly became famous in those parts, drivers began to go out of
their way to use it-often on two consecutive days, so that they could both
feast their eyes on my divine aunt and tell their woes to my eternally patient
grandmother, who had developed the absorbent properties of a sponge,
and always waited until her guests had completely finished before
squeezing out of her own lips a few drops of simple, firm advice-while their
cars were filled up with petrol and polished by pump-attendants, my
grandmother would re-charge and polish their lives. She sat in her glass
confessional and solved the problems of the world; her own family,
however, seemed to have lost importance in her eyes.
Moustachioed, matriarchal, proud: Naseem Aziz had found her own
way of coping with tragedy; but in finding it had become the first victim of
that spirit of detached fatigue which made the end the only possible
solution. (Tick, tock.)… However, on the face of it, she appeared to have
not the slightest intention of following her husband into the camphor garden
reserved for the righteous; she seemed to have more in common with the
methuselah leaders of her abandoned India. She grew, with alarming
rapidity, wider and wider; until builders were summoned to expand her
glassed-in booth. 'Make it big big,' she instructed them, with a rare flash of
humour, 'Maybe I'll still be here after a century, whatsitsname, and Allah
knows how big I'll have become; I don't want to be troubling you every
ten-twelve years.'
Pia Aziz, however, was not content with 'pumpery-shumpery'. She
began a series of liaisons with colonels cricketers polo-players diplomats,
which were easy to conceal from a Reverend Mother who had lost interest
in the doings of everyone except strangers; but which were otherwise the
talk of what was, after all, a small town. My aunt Emerald took Pia to task;
she replied: 'You want me to be forever howling and pulling hair? I'm still
young; young folk should gad a little.' Emerald, thin-lipped: 'But be a little
respectable… the family name…' At which Pia tossed her head. 'You be
respectable, sister,' she said, 'Me, I'll be alive.'
But it seems to me that there was something hollow in Pia's
self-assertion; that she, too, felt her personality draining away with the
years; that her feverish romancing was a last desperate attempt to behave
'in character'-in the way a woman like her was supposed to do. Her heart
wasn't in it; somewhere inside, she, too, was waiting for an end… In my
family, we have always been vulnerable to things which fall from the skies,
ever since Ahmed Sinai was slapped by a vulture-dropped hand; and bolts
from the blue were only a year away.
After the news of my grandfather's death and the arrival of Reverend
Mother in Pakistan, I began to dream repeatedly of Kashmir; although I had
never walked in Shalimar-bagh, I did so at night; I floated in shikaras and
climbed Sankara Acharya's hill as my grandfather had; I saw lotus-roots
and mountains like angry jaws. This, too, may be seen as an aspect of the
detachment which came to afflict us all (except Jamila, who had God and
country to keep her going)-a reminder of my family's separateness from
both India and Pakistan. In Rawalpindi, my grandmother drank pink
Kashmiri tea; in Karachi, her grandson was washed by the waters of a lake
he had never seen. It would not be long before the dream of Kashmir
spilled over into the minds of the rest of the population of Pakistan;
connection-to-history refused to abandon me, and I found my dream
becoming, in 1965, the common property of the nation, and a factor of
prime importance in the coming end, when all manner of things fell from the
skies, and I was purified at last.
Saleem could sink no lower: I could smell, on myself, the cess-pit stink
of my iniquities. I had come to the Land of the Pure, and sought the
company of whores-when I should have been forging a new, upright life for
myself, I gave birth, instead, to an unspeakable (and also unrequited) love.
Possessed by the beginnings of the great fatalism which was to overwhelm
me, I rode the city streets on my Lambretta; Jamila and I avoided each,
other as much as possible, unable, for the first time in our lives, to say a
word to one another.
Purity-that highest of ideals!-that angelic virtue for which Pakistan was
named, and which dripped from every note of my sister's songs!-seemed
very far away; how could I have known that history-which has the power of
pardoning sinners-was at that moment counting down towards a moment in
which it would manage, at one stroke, to cleanse me from head to foot?
In the meantime, other forces were spending themselves; Alia Aziz
had begun to wreak her awful spinster's revenge.
Guru Mandir days: paan-smells, cooking-smells, the languorous odour
of the shadow of the minaret, the mosque's long pointing finger: while my
aunt Alia's hatred of the man who had abandoned her and of the sister who
had married him grew into a tangible, visible thing, it sat on her living-room
rug like a great gecko, reeking of vomit; but it seemed I was the only one to
smell it, because Alia's skill at dissimulation had grown as rapidly as the
hairiness of her chin and her adeptness with the plasters with which, each
evening, she ripped her beard out by the roots.
My aunt Alia's contribution to the fate of nations-through her school
and college-must not be minimized. Having allowed her old-maid
frustrations to leak into the curricula, the bricks and also the students at her
twin educational establishments, she had raised a tribe of children and
young adults who felt themselves possessed by an ancient vengefulness,
without fully knowing why. O omnipresent aridity of maiden aunts! It soured
the paintwork of her home; her furniture was made lumpy by the harsh
stuffing of bitterness; old-maid repressions were sewn into curtain-seams.
As once long ago into baby things of. Bitterness, issuing through the
fissures of the earth.
What my aunt Alia took pleasure in: cooking. What she had, during the
lonely madness of the years, raised to the level of an art-form: the
impregnation of food with emotions. To whom she remained second in her
achievements in this field: my old ayah, Mary Pereira. By whom, today,
both old cooks have been outdone: Saleem Sinai, pickler-in-chief at the
Braganza pickle works… nevertheless, while we lived in her Guru Mandir
mansion, she fed us the birianis of dissension and the nargisi koftas of
discord; and little by little, even the harmonies of my parents' autumnal love
went out of tune.
But good things must also be said about my aunt. In politics, she
spoke out vociferously against government-by-military-say-so; if she had
not had a General for a brother-in-law, her school and college might well
have been taken out of her hands. Let me not show her entirely through the
dark glass of my private despondency: she had given lecture-tours in the
Soviet Union and America. Also, her food tasted good. (Despite its hidden
But the air and the food in that mosque-shadowed house began to
take its toll… Saleem, under the doubly dislocating influence of his awful
love and Alia's food, began to blush like a beetroot whenever his sister
appeared in his thoughts; while Jamila, unconsciously seized by a longing
for fresh air and food unseasoned by dark emotions, began to spend less
and less time there, travelling instead up and down the country (but never
to the East Wing) to give her concerts. On those increasingly rare
occasions when brother and sister found themselves in the same room
they would jump, startled, half an inch off the floor, and then, landing, stare
furiously at the spot over which they had leaped, as if it had suddenly
become as hot as a bread-oven. At other times, too, they indulged in
behaviour whose meaning would have been transparently obvious, were it
not for the fact that each occupant of the house had other things on his or
her mind: Jamila, for instance, took to keeping on her gold-and-white
travelling veil indoors until she was sure her brother was out, even if she
was dizzy with heat; while Saleem-who continued, slave-fashion, to fetch
leavened bread from the nunnery of Santa Ignacia-avoided handing her the
loaves himself; on occasion he asked his poisonous aunt to act as
intermediary. Alia looked at him with amusement and asked, 'What's wrong
with you, boy-you haven't got an infectious disease?' Saleem blushed
furiously, fearing that his aunt had guessed about his encounters with paid
women; and maybe she had, but she was after bigger fish.
… He also developed a penchant for lapsing into long broody silences,
which he interrupted by bursting out suddenly with a meaningless word:
'No!' or, 'But!' or even more arcane exclamations, such as 'Bang!' or
'Whaam!' Nonsense words amidst clouded silences: as if Saleem were
conducting some inner dialogue of such intensity that fragments of it, or its
pain, boiled up from time to time past the surface of his lips. This inner
discord was undoubtedly worsened by the curries of disquiet which we
were obliged to eat; and at the end, when Amina was reduced to talking to
invisible washing-chests and Ahmed, in the desolation of his stroke, was
capable of little more than dribbles and giggles, while I glowered silently in
my own private withdrawal, my aunt must have been well-pleased with the
effectiveness of her revenge upon the Sinai clan; unless she, too, was
drained by the fulfilment of her long-nurtured ambition; in which case she,
too, had run out of possibilities, and there were hollow overtones in her
footsteps as she stalked through the insane asylum of her home with her
chin covered in hair-plasters, while her niece jumped over suddenly-hot
patches of floor and her nephew yelled 'Yaa!' out of nowhere and her
erstwhile suitor sent spittle down his chin and Amina greeted the resurgent
ghosts of her past: 'So it's you again; well, why not? Nothing ever seems to
go away.'
Tick, tock… In January 1965, my mother Amina Sinai discovered that
she was pregnant again, after a gap of seventeen years. When she was
sure, she told her good news to her big sister Alia, giving my aunt the
opportunity of perfecting her revenge. What Alia said to my mother is not
known; what she stirred into her cooking must remain a matter for
conjecture; but the effect on Amina was devastating. She was plagued by
dreams of a monster child with a cauliflower instead of a brain; she was
beset by phantoms of Ramram Seth, and the old prophecy of a child with
two heads began to drive her wild all over again. My mother was forty-two
years old; and the fears (both natural and Alia-induced) of bearing a child at
such an age tarnished the brilliant aura which had hung around her ever
since she nursed her husband into his loving autumn; under the influence
of the kormas of my aunt's vengeance-spiced with forebodings as well as
cardamoms-my mother became afraid of her child. As the months passed,
her forty-two years began to take a terrible toll; the weight of her four
decades grew daily, crushing her beneath her age. In her second month,
her hair went white. By the third, her face had shrivelled like a rotting
mango. In her fourth month she was already an old woman, lined and thick,
plagued by verrucas once again, with the inevitability of hair sprouting all
over her face; she seemed shrouded once more in a fog of shame, as
though the baby were a scandal in a lady of her evident antiquity. As the
child of those confused days grew within her, the contrast between its
youth and her age increased; it was at this point that she collapsed into an
old cane chair and received visits from the spectres of her past. The
disintegration of my mother was appalling in its suddenness; Ahmed Sinai,
observing helplessly, found himself, all of a sudden, unnerved, adrift,
Even now, I find it hard to write about those days of the end of
possibility, when my father found his towel factory crumbling in his hands.
The effects of Alia's culinary witchcraft (which operated both through his
stomach, when he ate, and his eyes, when he saw his wife) were now all
too apparent in him: he became slack at factory management, and irritable
with his work-force.
To sum up the ruination of Amina Brand Towels: Ahmed Sinai began
treating his workers as peremptorily as once, in Bombay, he had
mis-treated servants, and sought to inculcate, in master weavers and
assistant packers alike, the eternal verities of the master-servant
relationship. As a result his work-force walked out on him in droves,
explaining, for instance, 'I am not your latrine-cleaner, sahib; I am qualified
Grade One weaver,' and in general refusing to show proper gratitude for
his beneficence in having employed them. In the grip of the befuddling
wrath of my aunt's packed lunches, he let them all go, and hired a bunch of
ill-favoured slackers who pilfered cotton spools and machine parts but were
willing to bow and scrape whenever required to do so; and the percentage
of defective towels rocketed alarmingly, contracts were not fulfilled,
re-orders shrank alarmingly. Ahmed Sinai began bringing home
mountains-Himalayas!-of reject towelling, because the factory warehouse
was full to overflowing of the sub-standard product of his mismanagement;
he took to drink again, and by the summer of that year the house in Guru
Mandir was awash in the old obscenities of his battle against the djinns,
and we had to squeeze sideways past the Everests and Nanga-Parbats of
badly-made terrycloth which lined the passages and hall.
We had delivered ourselves into the lap of my fat aunt's
long-simmered wrath; with the single exception of Jamila, who was least
affected owing to her long absences, we all ended up with our geese well
and truly cooked. It was a painful and bewildering time, in which the love of
my parents disintegrated under the joint weight of their new baby and of my
aunt's age-old grievances; and gradually the confusion and ruin seeped out
through the windows of the house and took over the hearts and minds of
the nation, so that war, when it came, was wrapped in the same fuddled
haze of unreality in which we had begun to live.
My father was heading steadily towards his stroke; but before the
bomb went off in his brain, another fuse was lit: in April 1965, we heard
about the peculiar incidents in the Rann of Kutch.
While we thrashed like flies in the webs of my aunt's revenge, the mill
of history continued to grind. President Ayub's reputation was in decline:
rumours of malpractice in the 1964 election buzzed about, refusing to be
swatted. There was, too, the matter of the President's son: Gauhar Ayub,
whose enigmatic Gandhara Industries made him a 'multi-multi' overnight. O
endless sequence of nefarious sons-of-the-great! Gauhar, with his bullyings
and ran tings; and later, in India, Sanjay Gandhi and his Maruti Car
Company and his Congress Youth; and most recently of all, Kami Lal
Desai… the sons of the great unmake their parents. But I, too, have a son;
Aadam Sinai, flying in the face of precedent, will reverse the trend. Sons
can be better than their fathers, as well as worse… in April 1965, however,
the air buzzed with the fallibility of sons. And whose son was it who scaled
the walls of President House on April 1st-what unknown father spawned
the foul-smelling fellow who ran up to the President and fired a pistol at his
stomach? Some fathers remain mercifully unknown to history; at any rate,
the assassin failed, because his gun miraculously jammed. Somebody's
son was taken away by police to have his teeth pulled out one by one, to
have his nails set on fire; burning cigarette-ends were no doubt pressed
against the tip of his penis, so it would probably not be much consolation
for that nameless, would-be assassin to know that he had simply been
carried away by a tide of history in which sons (high and low) were
frequently observed to behave exceptionally badly. (No: I do not exempt
Divorce between news and reality: newspapers quoted foreign
peasants (unreported) cursed the so-called 'green revolution', claiming that
most of the newly-drilled water-wells had been useless, poisoned, and in
the wrong places anyway; while editorials praised the probity of the nation's
leadership, rumours, thick as flies, mentioned Swiss bank accounts and the
new American motor-cars of the President's son. The Karachi Dawn spoke
CORNER?-but, in the Rann of Kutch, yet another inadequate son was
discovering a different story.
In the cities, mirages and lies; to the north, in the high mountains, the
Chinese were building roads and planning nuclear blasts; but it is time to
revert from the general to the particular; or, to be more exact, to the
General's son, my cousin, the enuretic Zafar Zulfikar. Who became,
between April and July, the archetype of all the many disappointing sons in
the land; history, working through him, was also pointing its finger at
Gauhar, at future-Sanjay and Kanti-Lal-to-come; and, naturally, at me.
So-cousin Zafar. With whom I had much in common at that time… my
heart was full of forbidden love; his trousers, despite all his efforts, filled
continually with something rather more tangible, but equally forbidden. I
dreamed of mythical lovers, both happy and star-crossed-Shah Jehan and
Mumtaz Mahal, but also Montague-and-Capulet; he dreamed of his Kifi
fiancee, whose failure to arrive at puberty even after her sixteenth birthday
must have made her seem, in his thoughts, a fantasy of an unattainable
future… in April 1965, Zafar was sent on manoeuvres to the
Pakistan-controlled zone of the Rann of Kutch.
Cruelty of the continent towards the loose-bladdered: Zafar, although a
Lieutenant, was the laughing-stock of the Abbottabad military base. There
was a story that he had been instructed to wear a rubber undergarment like
a balloon around his genitals, so that the glorious uniform of the Pak Army
should not be desecrated; mere jawans, when he passed, would make a
blowing movement of their cheeks, as if they were puffing up the balloon.
(All this became public later, in the statement he made, in floods of tears,
after his arrest for murder.) It is possible that Zafar's assignment to the
Rann of Kutch was thought up by a tactful superior, who was only trying to
get him out of the firing-line of Abbottabad humour… Incontinence doomed
Zafar Zulfikar to a crime as heinous as my own. I loved my sister; while
he… but let me tell the story the right way up.
Ever since Partition, the Rann had been 'disputed territory.'; although,
in practice, neither side had much heart for the dispute. On the hillocks
along the 23rd parallel, the unofficial frontier, the Pakistan Government had
built a string of border posts, each with its lonely garrison of six men and
one beacon-light. Several of these posts were occupied on April 9th, 1965,
by troops of the Indian Army; a Pakistani force, including my cousin Zafar,
which had been in the area on manoeuvres, engaged in an eighty-two-day
struggle for the frontier. The war in the Rann lasted until July 1st. That
much is fact; but everything else lies concealed beneath the doubly hazy
air of unreality and make-believe which affected all goings-on in those
days, and especially all events in the phantasmagoric Rann… so that the
story I am going to tell, which is substantially that told by my cousin Zafar,
is as likely to be true as anything; as anything, that is to say, except what
we were officially told.
… As the young Pakistani soldiers entered the marshy terrain of the
Rann, a cold clammy perspiration broke out on their foreheads, and they
were unnerved by the greeny sea-bed quality of the light; they recounted
stories which frightened them even more, legends of terrible things which
happened in this amphibious zone, of demonic sea-beasts with glowing
eyes, of fish-women who lay with their fishy heads underwater, breathing,
while their perfectly-formed and naked human lower halves lay on the
shore, tempting the unwary into fatal sexual acts, because it is well known
that nobody may love a fish-woman and live… so that by the time they
reached the border posts and went to war, they were a scared rabble of
seventeen-year-old boys, and would certainly have been annihilated,
except that the opposing Indians had been subjected to the green air of the
Rann even longer than they; so in that sorcerers' world a crazy war was
fought in which each side thought it saw apparitions of devils fighting
alongside its foes; but in the end the Indian forces yielded; many of them
collapsed in floods of tears and wept, Thank God, it's over; they told about
the great blubbery things which slithered around the border posts at night,
and the floating-in-air spirits of drowned men with seaweed wreaths and
seashells in their navels. What the surrendering Indian soldiers said, within
my cousin's hearing: 'Anyway, these border posts were unmanned; we just
saw them empty and came inside.'
The mystery of the deserted border posts did not, at first, seem like a
puzzle to the young Pakistani soldiers who were required to occupy them
until new border guards were sent; my cousin Lieutenant Zafar found his
bladder and bowels voiding themselves with hysterical frequency for the
seven nights he spent occupying one of the posts with only five jawans for
company. During nights filled with the shrieks of witches and the nameless
slithery shufflings of the dark, the six youngsters were reduced to so abject
a state that nobody laughed at my cousin any more, they were all too busy
wetting their own pants. One of the jawans whispered in terror during the
ghostly evil of their last-but-one night: 'Listen, boys, if I had to sit here for a
living, I'd bloody well run away, too!'
In a state of utter jelly-like breakdown the soldiers sweated in the
Rann; and then on the last night their worst fears came true, they saw an
army of ghosts coming out of the darkness towards them; they were in the
border post nearest the sea-shore, and in the greeny moonlight they could
see the sails of ghost-ships, of phantom dhows; and the ghost-army
approached, relentlessly, despite the screams of the soldiers, spectres
bearing moss-covered chests and strange shrouded litters piled high with
unseen things; and when the ghost-army came in through the door, my
cousin Zafar fell at their feet and began to gibber horribly.
The first phantom to enter the outpost had several missing teeth and a
curved knife stuck in his belt; when he saw the soldiers in the hut his eyes
blazed with a vermilion fury. 'God's pity!' the ghost chieftain said, 'What are
you mother-sleepers here for? Didn't you all get properly paid off?'
Not ghosts; smugglers. The six young soldiers found themselves in
absurd postures of abject terror, and although they tried to redeem
themselves, their shame was engulfingly complete… and now we come to
it. In whose name were the smugglers operating? Whose name fell from
the lips of the smuggler-chief, and made my cousin's eyes open in horror?
Whose fortune, built originally on the miseries of fleeing Hindu families in
1947, was now augmented by these spring-and-summer smugglers'
convoys through the unguarded Rann and thence into the cities of
Pakistan? Which Punch-faced General, with a voice as thin as a
razor-blade, commanded the phantom troops?… But I shall concentrate on
facts. In July 1965, my cousin Zafar returned on leave to his father's house
in Rawalpindi; and one morning he began to walk slowly towards his
father's bedroom, bearing on his shoulders not only the memory of a
thousand childhood humiliations and blows; not only the shame of his
lifelong enuresis; but also the knowledge that his own father had been
responsible for what-happened-at-the-Rann, when Zafar Zulfikar was
reduced to gibbering on a floor. My cousin found his father in his bedside
bath, and slit his' throat with a long, curved smuggler's knife.
Hidden behind newspaper reports-dastardly indian invasion repelled
by our gallant boys-the truth about General Zulfikar became a ghostly,
uncertain thing; the paying-off of border guards became, in the papers,
innocent soldiers massacred by indian fauj; and who would spread the
story of my uncle's vast smuggling activities? What General, what politician
did not possess the transistor radios of my uncle's illegality, the
air-conditioning units and the imported watches of his sins? General
Zulfikar died; cousin Zafar went to prison and was spared marriage to a Kifi
princess who obstinately refused to menstruate precisely in order to be
spared marriage to him; and the incidents in the Rann of Kutch became the
tinder, so to speak, of the larger fire that broke out in August, the fire of the
end, in which Saleem finally, and in spite of himself, achieved his elusive
As for my aunt Emerald: she was given permission to emigrate; she
had made preparations to do so, intending to leave for Suffolk in England,
where she was to stay with her husband's old commanding officer,
Brigadier Dodson, who had begun, in his dotage, to spend his time in the
company of equally old India hands, watching old films of the Delhi Durbar
and the arrival of George V at the Gateway of India… she was looking
forward to the empty oblivion of nostalgia and the English winter when the
war came and settled all our problems.
On the first day of the 'false peace' which would last a mere
thirty-seven days, the stroke hit Ahmed Sinai. It left him paralysed all the
way down his left side, and restored him to the dribbles and giggles of his
infancy; he, too, mouthed nonsense-words, showing a marked preference
for the naughty childhood names of excreta. Giggling 'Caeca!' and
'Soo-soo!' my father came to the end of his chequered career, having once
more, and for the last time, lost his way, and also his battle with the djinns.
He sat, stunned and cackling, amid the faulty towels of his life; amid faulty
towels, my mother, crushed beneath the weight of her monstrous
pregnancy, inclined her head gravely as she was visited by Lila
Sabarmati's pianola, or the ghost of her brother Hanif, or a pair of hands
which danced, moths-around-a-flame, around and around her own…
Commander Sabarmati came to see her with his curious baton in his hand,
and Nussie-the-duck whispered, 'The end, Amina sister! The end of the
world!' in my mother's withering ear… and now, having fought my way
through the diseased reality of my Pakistan years, having struggled to
make a little sense out of what seemed (through the mist of my aunt Alia's
revenge) like a terrible, occult series of reprisals for tearing up our Bombay
roots, I have reached the point at which I must tell you about ends.
Let me state this quite unequivocally: it is my firm conviction that the
hidden purpose of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 was nothing more nor
less than the elimination of my benighted family from the face of the earth.
In order to understand the recent history of our times, it is only necessary to
examine the bombing-pattern of that war with an analytical, unprejudiced
Even ends have beginnings; everything must be told in sequence. (I
have Padma, after all, squashing all my attempts to put the cart before the
bullock.) By August 8th, 1965, my family history had got itself into a
condition from which what-.was-achieved-by-bombing-patterns provided a
merciful relief. No: let me use the important word: if we were to be purified,
something on the scale of what followed was probably necessary.
Alia Aziz, sated with her terrible revenge; my aunt Emerald, widowed
and awaiting exile; the hollow lasciviousness of my aunt Pia and the
glass-boothed withdrawal of my grandmother Naseem Aziz; my cousin
Zafar, with his eternally pre-pubertal princess and his future of wetting
mattresses in jail-cells; the retreat into childishness of my father and the
haunted, accelerated ageing of pregnant Amina Sinai… all these terrible
conditions were to be cured as a result of the adoption, by the Government,
of my dream of visiting Kashmir. In the meantime, the flinty refusals of my
sister to countenance my love had driven me into a deeply fatalistic frame
of mind; in the grip of my new carelessness about my future I told Uncle
Puffs that I was willing to marry any one of the Puffias he chose for me. (By
doing so, I doomed them all; everyone who attempts to forge ties with our
household ends up by sharing our fate.)
I am trying to stop being mystifying. Important to concentrate on good
hard facts. But which facts? One week before my eighteenth birthday, on
August 8th, did Pakistani troops in civilian clothing cross the cease-fire line
in Kashmir and infiltrate the Indian sector, or did they not? In Delhi, Prime
Minister Shastri announced 'massive infiltration… to subvert the state'; but
here is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's Foreign Minister, with his riposte: 'We
categorically deny any involvement in the rising against tyranny by the
indigenous people of Kashmir.'
If it happened, what were the motives? Again, a rash of possible
explanations: the continuing anger which had been stirred up by the Rann
of Kutch; the desire to settle, once-and-for-all, the old issue of
who-should-possess-the-Perfect-Valley?… Or one which didn't get into the
papers: the pressures of internal political troubles in Pakistan-Ayub's
government was tottering, and a war works wonders at such times. This
reason or that or the other? To simplify matters, I present two of my own:
the war happened because I dreamed Kashmir into the fantasies of our
rulers; furthermore, I remained impure, and the war was to separate me
from my sins.
Jehad, Padma! Holy war!
But who attacked? Who defended? On my eighteenth birthday, reality
took another terrible beating. From the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi,
an Indian prime minister (not the same one who wrote me a long-ago letter)
sent me this birthday greeting: 'We promise that force will be met with
force, and aggression against us will never be allowed to succeed!' While
jeeps with loud-hailers saluted me in Guru Mandir, reassuring me: 'The
Indian aggressors will be utterly overthrown! We are a race of warriors!
One Pathan; one Punjabi Muslim is worth ten of those babus-in-arms!'
Jamila Singer was called north, to serenade our worth-ten jawans. A
servant paints blackout on the windows; at night, my father, in the stupidity
of his second childhood, opens the windows and turns on the lights. Bricks
and stones fly through the apertures: my eighteenth-birthday presents. And
still events grow more and more confused: on August soth, did Indian
troops cross the cease-fire line near Uri to 'chase out the Pakistan
raiders'-or to initiate an attack? When, on September 1st, our
ten-times-better soldiers crossed the line at Chhamb, were they aggressors
or were they not?
Some certainties: that the voice of Jamila Singer sang Pakistani troops
to their deaths; and that muezzins from their minarets-yes, even on Clayton
Road-promised us that anyone who died in battle went straight to the
camphor garden. The mujahid philosophy of Syed Ahmad Barilwi ruled the
air; we were invited to make sacrifices 'as never before'.
And on the radio, what destruction, what mayhem! In the first five days
of the war Voice of Pakistan announced the destruction of more aircraft
than India had ever possessed; in eight days, All-India Radio massacred
the Pakistan Army down to, and considerably beyond, the last man. Utterly
distracted by the double insanity of the war and my private life, I began to
think desperate thoughts… Great sacrifices: for instance, at the battle for
Lahore?-On September 6th, Indian troops crossed the Wagah border, thus
hugely broadening the front of the war, which was no longer limited to
Kashmir; and did great sacrifices take place, or not? Was it true that the
city was virtually defenceless, because the Pak Army and Air Force were
ail in the Kashmir sector? Voice of Pakistan said: O memorable day! O
unarguable lesson in the fatality of delay! The Indians, confident of
capturing the city, stopped for breakfast. All-India Radio announced the fall
of Lahore; meanwhile, a private aircraft spotted the breakfasting invaders.
While the B.B.C. picked up the A.I.R. story, the Lahore militia was
mobilized. Hear the Voice of Pakistan!-old men, young boys, irate
grandmothers fought the Indian Army; bridge by bridge they battled, with
any available weapons! Lame men loaded their pockets with grenades,
pulled out the pins, flung themselves beneath advancing Indian tanks;
toothless old ladies disembowelled Indian babus with pitchforks! Down to
the last man and child, they died: but they saved the city, holding off the
Indians until air support arrived! Martyrs, Padma! Heroes, bound for the
perfumed garden! Where the men would be given four beauteous houris,
untouched by man or djinn; and the women, four equally virile males!
Which of your Lord's blessings would you deny? What a thing this holy war
is, in which with one supreme sacrifice men may atone for all their evils! No
wonder Lahore was defended; what did the Indians have to look forward
to? Only re-incarnation-as cockroaches, maybe, or scorpions, or
green-medicine-wallahs-there's really no comparison.
But did it or didn't it? Was that how it happened? Or was All-India
Radio-great tank battle, huge Pak losses, 450 tanks destroyed-telling the
Nothing was real; nothing certain. Uncle Puffs came to visit the
Clayton Road house, and there were no teeth in his mouth. (During India's
China war, when our loyalties were different, my mother had given gold
bangles and jewelled ear-rings to the 'Ornaments for Armaments'
campaign; but what was that when set against the sacrifice of an entire
mouthful of gold?) 'The nation,' he said indistinctly through his untoothed
gums, 'must not, darn it, be short of funds on account of one man's
vanity!'-But did he or didn't he? Were teeth truly sacrificed in the name of
holy war, or were they sitting in a cupboard at home? 'I'm afraid,' Uncle
Puffs said gummily, 'you'll have to wait for that special dowry I
promised.'-Nationalism or meanness? Was his baring of gums a supreme
proof of his patriotism, or a slimy ruse to avoid filling a Puffna-mouth with
And were there parachutists or were there not? '…have been dropped
on every major city,' Voice of Pakistan announced. 'All able-bodied persons
are to stay up with weapons; shoot on sight after dusk curfew.' But in India,
'Despite Pakistani air-raid provocation,' the radio claimed, 'we have not
responded!' Who to believe? Did Pakistani fighter-bombers truly make that
'daring raid' which caught one-third of the Indian Air Force helplessly
grounded on tarmac? Did they didn't they? And those night-dances in the
sky, Pakistani Mirages and Mysteres against India's less romantically-titled
MiGs: did Islamic mirages and mysteries do battle with Hindu invaders, or
was it all some kind of astonishing illusion? Did bombs fall? Were
explosions true? Could even a death be said to be the case?
And Saleem? What did he do in the war?
This: waiting to be drafted, I went in search of friendly, obliterating,
sleep-giving, Paradise-bringing bombs.
The terrible fatalism which had overcome me of late had taken on an
even more terrible form; drowning in the disintegration of family, of both
countries to which I had belonged, of everything which can sanely be called
real, lost in the sorrow of my filthy unrequited love, I sought out the oblivion
of-I'm making it sound too noble; no orotund phrases must be used. Baldly,
then: I rode the night-streets of the city, looking for death.
Who died in the holy war? Who, while I in bright white kurta and
pajamas went Lambretta-borne into the curfewed streets, found what I was
looking for? Who, martyred by war, went straight to a perfumed garden?
Study the bombing pattern; learn the secrets of rifle-shots.
On the night of September 22nd, air-raids took place over every
Pakistani city. (Although All-India Radio…) Aircraft, real or fictional,
dropped actual or mythical bombs. It is, accordingly, either a matter of fact
or a figment of a diseased imagination that of the only three bombs to hit
Rawalpindi and explode, the first landed on the bungalow in which my
grandmother Naseem Aziz and my aunty Pia were hiding under a table; the
second tore a wing off the city jail, and spared my cousin Zafar a life of
captivity; the third destroyed a large darkling mansion surrounded by a
sentried wall; sentries were at their posts, but could not prevent Emerald
Zolfikar from being carried off to a more distant place than Suffolk. She was
being visited, that night, by the Nawab of Kif and his mulishly unmaturing
daughter; who was also spared the necessity of becoming an adult woman.
In Karachi, three bombs were also enough. The Indian planes, reluctant to
come down low, bombed from a great height; the vast majority of their
missiles fell harmlessly into the sea. One bomb, however, annihilated Major
(Retired) Alauddin Latif and all his seven Puffias, thus releasing me from
my promise for ever; and there were two last bombs. Meanwhile, at the
front, Mutasim the Handsome emerged from his tent to go to the toilet; a
noise like a mosquito whizzed (or did not whiz) towards him, and he died
with a full bladder under the impact of a sniper's bullet.
And still I must tell you about two-last-bombs.
Who survived? Jamila Singer, whom bombs were unable to find; in
India, the family of my uncle Mustapha, with whom bombs could not be
bothered; but my father's forgotten distant relative Zohra and her husband
had moved to Amritsar, and a bomb sought them out as well.
And two-more-bombs demand to be told.
… While I, unaware of the intimate connection between the war and
myself, went foolishly in search of bombs; after the curfew-hour I rode, but
vigilante bullets failed to find their target… and sheets of flame rose from a
Rawalpindi bungalow, perforated sheets at whose centre hung a
mysterious dark hole, which grew into the smoke-image of an old wide
woman with moles on her cheeks… and one by one the war eliminated my
drained, hopeless family from the earth.
But now the countdown was at an end.
And at last I turned my Lambretta homewards, so that I was at the
Guru Mandir roundabout with the roar of aircraft overhead, mirages and
mysteries, while my father in the idiocy of his stroke was switching on lights
and opening windows even though a Civil Defence official had just visited
them to make sure the blackout was complete; and when Amina Sinai was
saying to the wraith of an old white washing-chest, 'Go away now-I've seen
enough of you,' I was scooting past Civil Defence jeeps from which angry
fists saluted me; and before bricks and stones could extinguish the lights in
my aunt Alia's house, the whining came, and I should have known there
was no need to go looking elsewhere for death, but I was still in the street
in the midnight shadow of the mosque when it came, plummeting towards
the illuminated windows of my father's idiocy, death whining like pie-dogs,
transforming itself into falling masonry and sheets of flame and a wave of
force so great that it sent me spinning off my Lambretta, while within the
house of my aunt's great bitterness my father mother aunt and unborn
brother or sister who was only a week away from starting life, all of them all
of them all squashed flatter than rice-pancakes, the house crashing in on
their heads like a waffle-iron, while over on Korangi Road a last bomb,
meant for the oil-refinery, landed instead on a split-level American-style
residence which an umbilical cord had not quite managed to complete; but
at Guru Mandir many stories were coming to an end, the story of Amina
and her long-ago underworld husband and her assiduity and public
announcement and her son-who-was-not-her-son and her luck with horses
and verrucas and dancing hands in the pioneer Cafe and last defeat by her
sister, and of Ahmed who always lost his way and had a lower lip which
stuck out and a squashy belly and went white in a freeze and succumbed
to abstraction and burst dogs open in the street and fell in love too late and
died because of his vulnerability of what-falls-out-of-the-sky; flatter than
pancakes now, and around them the house exploding collapsing, an instant
of destruction of such vehemence that things which had been buried deep
in forgotten tin trunks flew upward into the air while other things people
memories were buried under rubble beyond hope of salvation; the fingers
of the explosion reaching down down to the bottom of an almirah and
unlocking a green tin trunk, the clutching hand of the explosion flinging
trunk-contents into air, and now something which has hidden unseen for
many years is circling in the night like a whirligig piece of the moon,
something catching the light of the moon and falling now falling as I pick
myself up dizzily after the blast, something twisting turning somersaulting
down, silver as moonlight, a wondrously worked silver spittoon inlaid with
lapis lazuli, the past plummeting towards me like a vulture-dropped hand to
become what-purifies-and-sets-me-free, because now as I look up there is
a feeling at the back of my head and after that there is only a tiny but
infinite moment of utter clarity while I tumble forwards to prostrate myself
before my parents' funeral pyre, a minuscule but endless instant of
knowing, before I am stripped of past present memory time shame and
love, a fleeting, but also timeless explosion in which I bow my head yes I
acquiesce yes in the necessity of the blow, and then I am empty and free,
because all the Saleems go pouring out of me, from the baby who
appeared in jumbo-sized frontpage baby-snaps to the eighteen-year-old
with his filthy dirty love, pouring out goes shame and guilt and
determined-to-find-a-historical-role and growing-too-fast, I am free of
Snotnose and Stainface and Baldy and Sniffer and Mapface and
washing-chests and Evie Burns and language marches, liberated from
Kolynos Kid and the breasts of Pia mumani and Alpha-and-Omega,
absolved of the multiple murders of Homi Catrack and Hanif and Aadam
Aziz and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, I have shaken off
five-hundred-year-old whores and confessions of love at dead of night, free
now, beyond caring, crashing on to tarmac, restored to innocence and
purity by a tumbling piece of the moon, wiped clean as a wooden
writing-chest, brained (just as prophesied) by my mother's silver spittoon.
On the morning of September 23rd, the United Nations announced the
end of hostilities between India and Pakistan. India had occupied less than
500 square miles of Pakistani soil; Pakistan had conquered just 340 square
miles of its Kashmiri dream. It was said that the ceasefire came because
both sides had run out of ammunition, more or less simultaneously; thus
the exigencies of international diplomacy, and the politically-motivated
manipulations of arms suppliers, prevented the wholesale annihilation of
my family. Some of us survived, because nobody sold our would-be
assassins the bombs bullets aircraft necessary for the completion of our
destruction. Six years later, however, there was another war.
Book Three
The Buddha
Obviously enough (because otherwise I should have to introduce at
this point some fantastic explanation of my continued presence in this
'mortal coil'), you may number me amongst those whom the war of '65
failed to obliterate. Spittoon-brained, Saleem suffered a merely partial
erasure, and was only wiped clean whilst others, less fortunate, were wiped
out; unconscious in the night-shadow of a mosque, I was saved by the
exhaustion of ammunition dumps.
Tears-which, in the absence of the Kashmir! cold, have absolutely no
chance of hardening into diamonds-slide down the bosomy contours of
Padma's cheeks. 'O, mister, this war tamasha, kills the best and leaves the
rest!' Looking as though hordes of snails have recently crawled down from
her reddened eyes, leaving their glutinous shiny trails upon her face,
Padma mourns my bomb-flattened clan. I remain dry-eyed as usual,
graciously refusing to rise to the unintentional insult implied by Padma's
lachrymose exclamation.
'Mourn for the living,' I rebuke her gently, 'The dead have their
camphor gardens.' Grieve for Saleem! Who, barred from celestial lawns by
the continued beating of his heart, awoke once again amid the clammy
metallic fragrances of a hospital ward; for whom there were no houris,
untouched by man or djinn, to provide the promised consolations of
eternity-I was lucky to receive the grudging, bedpan-clattering ministrations
of a bulky male nurse who, while bandaging my head, muttered sourly that,
war or no war, the doctor sahibs liked going to their beach shacks on
Sundays. 'Better you'd stayed knocked out one more day,' he mouthed,
before moving further down the ward to spread more good cheer.
Grieve for Saleem-who, orphaned and purified, deprived of the
hundred daily pin-pricks of family life, which alone could deflate the great
ballooning fantasy of history and bring it down to a more manageably
human scale, had been pulled up by his roots to be flung unceremoniously
across the years, fated to plunge memoryless into an adulthood whose
every aspect grew daily more grotesque.
Fresh snail-tracks on Padma's cheeks. Obliged to attempt some sort of
'There, there', I resort to movie-trailers. (How I loved them at the old Metro
Cub Club! O smacking of lips at the sight of the title next attraction,
superimposed on undulating blue velvet! O anticipatory salivation before
screens trumpeting coming soon!-Because the promise of exotic futures
has always seemed, to my mind, the perfect antidote to the
disappointments of the present.) 'Stop, stop,' I exhort my mournfully
squatting audience, I'm not finished yet! There is to be electrocution and a
rain-forest; a pyramid of heads on a field impregnated by leaky
marrowbones; narrow escapes are coming, and a minaret that screamed!
Padma, there is still plenty worth telling: my further trials, in the basket of
invisibility and in the shadow of another mosque; wait for the premonitions
of Resham Bibi and the pout of Parvati-the-witch! Fatherhood and treason
also, and of course that unavoidable Widow, who added to my history of
drainage-above the final ignominy of voiding-below… in short, there are still
next-attractions and coming-soons galore; a chapter ends when one's
parents die, but a new kind of chapter also begins.'
Somewhat consoled by my offers of novelty, my Padma sniffs; wipes
away mollusc-slime, dries eyes; breathes in deeply… and, for the
spittoon-brained fellow we last met in his hospital bed, approximately five
years pass before my dung-lotus exhales.
(While Padma, to calm herself, holds her breath, I permit myself to
insert a Bombay-talkie-style close-up-a calendar ruffled by a breeze, its
pages flying off in rapid succession to denote the passing of the years; I
superimpose turbulent long-shots of street riots, medium shots of burning
buses and blazing English-language libraries owned by the British Council
and the United States Information Service; through the accelerated
flickering of the calendar we glimpse the fall of Ayub Khan, the assumption
of the presidency by General Yahya, the promise of elections… but now
Padma's lips are parting, and there is no time to linger-on the
angrily-opposed images of Mr Z. A. Bhutto and Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman;
exhaled air begins to issue invisibly from her mouth, and the dream-faces
of the leaders of the Pakistan People's Party and the Awami League
shimmer and fade out; the gusting of her emptying lungs paradoxically stills
the breeze blowing the pages of my calendar, which conies to rest upon a
date late in 1970, before the election which split the country in two, before
the war of West Wing against East Wing, P.P.P. against Awami League,
Bhutto against Mujib… before the election of 1970, and far away from the
public stage, three young soldiers are arriving at a mysterious camp in the
Murree Hills.)
Padma has regained her self-control. 'Okay, okay,' she expostulates,
waving an arm in dismissal of her tears, 'Why you're waiting? Begin,' the
lotus instructs me loftily, 'Begin all over again.'
The camp in (he hills will be found on no maps; it is too far from the
Murree road for the barking of its dogs to be heard, even by the
sharpest-eared of motorists. Its wire perimeter fence is heavily
camouflaged; the gate bears neither symbol nor name. Yet it does, did,
exist; though its existence has been hotly denied-at the fall of Dacca, for
instance, when Pakistan's vanquished Tiger Niazi was quizzed on this
subject by his old chum, India's victorious General Sam Manekshaw, the
Tiger scoffed: 'Canine Unit for Tracking and Intelligence Activities? Never
heard of it; you've been misled, old boy. Damn ridiculous idea, if you don't
mind my saying.' Despite what the Tiger said to Sam, I insist: the camp was
there all right…
…'Shape up!' Brigadier Iskandar is yelling at his newest recruits,
Ayooba Baloch, Farooq Rashid and Shaheed Dar. 'You're a cutia unit now!'
Slapping swagger-stick against thigh, he turns on his heels and leaves
them standing on the parade-ground, simultaneously fried by mountain sun
and frozen by mountain air. Chests out, shoulders back, rigid with
obedience, the three youths hear the giggling voice of the Brigadier's
batman, Lala Moin: So you're the poor suckers who get the man-dog!'
In their bunks that night: 'Tracking and intelligence!' whispers Ayooba
Baloch, proudly. 'Spies, man! O.S.S. 117 types! Just let us at those
Hindus-see what we don't do! Ka-dang! Ka-pow! What weaklings, yara,
those Hindus! Vegetarians all! Vegetables,' Ayooba hisses, 'always lose to
meat.' He is built like a tank. His crew-cut begins just above his eyebrows.
And Farooq, 'You think there'll be war?' Ayooba snorts. 'What else?
How not a war? Hasn't Bhutto sahib promised every peasant one acre of
land? So where it'll come from? For so much soil, we must conquer Punjab
and Bengal! Just wait only; after the election, when People's Party has
won-then Ka-pow! Ka-blooey!'
Farooq is troubled: 'Those Indians have Sikh troops, man. With
so-long beards and hair, in the heat it pricks like crazy and they all go mad
and fight like hell…!'
Ayooba gurgles with amusement. 'Vegetarians, I swear, yaar… how
are they going to beat beefy types like us?' But Farooq is long and stringy.
Shaheed Dar whispers, 'But what did he mean: man-dog?'… Morning.
In a hut with a blackboard, Brigadier Iskandar polishes knuckles on lapels
while one Sgt-Mjr Najmuddin briefs new recruits. Question-and-answer
format; Najmuddin provides both queries and replies. No interruptions are
to be tolerated. While above the blackboard the garlanded portraits of
President Yahya and Mutasim the Martyr stare sternly down. And through
the (closed) windows, the persistent barking of dogs… Najmuddin's
inquiries and responses are also barked. What are you here for?-Training.
In what field?-Pursuit-and-capture. How will you work?-In canine units of
three persons and one dog. What unusual features?-Absence of officer
personnel, necessity of taking own decisions, concomitant requirement for
high Islamic sense of self-discipline and responsibility. Purpose of
elements?-Sneaky, well-disguised, could-be-anyone. Known intentions of
same?-To be abhorred: destruction of family life, murder of God,
expropriation of landowners, abolition of film-censorship. To what
ends?-Annihilation of the State, anarchy, foreign domination. Accentuating
causes of concern?-Forthcoming elections; and subsequently, civilian rule.
(Political prisoners have been are being freed. All types of hooligans are
abroad.) Precise duties of units?-To obey unquestioningly; to seek
unflaggingly; to arrest remorselessly. Mode of procedure?-Covert; efficient;
quick. Legal basis of such detentions?-Defence of Pakistan Rules,
permitting the pick-up of undesirables, who may be held incommunicado
for a period of six months. Footnote: a renewable period of six months. Any
questions?-No. Good. You are cutia Unit 22. She-dog badges will be sewn
to lapels. The acronym cutia, of course, means bitch.
And the man-dog?
Cross-legged, blue-eyed, staring into space, he sits beneath a tree.
Bodhi trees do not grow at this altitude; he makes do with a chinar. His
nose: bulbous, cucumbery, tip blue with cold. And on his head a monk's
tonsure where once Mr Zagallo's hand. And a mutilated finger whose
missing segment fell at Masha Miovic's feet after Glandy Keith had
slammed. And stains on his face like a map… 'Ekkkhh-thoo!' (He spits.)
His teeth are stained; betel-juice reddens his gums. A red stream of
expectorated paan-fluid leaves his lips, to hit, with commendable accuracy,
a beautifully-wrought silver spittoon, which sits before him on the ground.
Ayooba Shaheed Farooq are staring in amazement. 'Don't try to get it away
from him,' Sgt-Mjr Najmuddin indicates the spittoon, 'It sends him wild.'
Ayooba begins, 'Sir sir I thought you said three persons and a-', but
Najmuddin barks, 'No questions! Obedience without queries! This is your
tracker; that's that. Dismiss.'
At that time, Ayooba and Farooq were sixteen and a half years old.
Shaheed (who had lied about his age) was perhaps a year younger.
Because they were so young, and had not had time to acquire the type of
memories which give men a firm hold on reality, such as memories of love
or famine, the boy soldiers were highly susceptible to the influence of
legends and gossip. Within twenty-four hours, in the course of mess-hall
conversations with other cutia units, the man-dog had been fully
mythologized… 'From a really important family, man!'-'The idiot child, they
put him in the Army to make a man of him!'-'Had a war accident in '65,
yaar, can't won't remember a thing about it!'-'Listen, I heard he was the
brother of-'No, man, that's crazy, she is good, you know, so simple and
holy, how would she leave her brother?'-'Anyway he refuses to talk about
it.'-'I heard one terrible thing, she hated him, man, that's why she!'-'No
memory, not interested in people, lives like a dog!'-'But the tracking
business is true all right! You see that nose on him?'-'Yah, man, he can
follow any trail on earth!'-'Through water, baba, across rocks! Such a
tracker, you never saw!'-'And he can't feel a thing! That's right! Numb, I
swear; head-to-foot numb! You touch him, he wouldn't know-only by smell
he knows you're there!'-'Must be the war wound!'-'But that spittoon, man,
who knows? Carries it everywhere like a love-token!'-'I tell you, I'm glad it's
you three; he gives me the creeps, yaar, it's those blue eyes.'-'You know
how they found out about his nose? He just wandered into a minefield,
man, I swear, just picked his way through, like he could smell the damn
mines!'-'O, no, man, what are you talking, that's an old story, that was that
first dog in the whole cutia operation, that Bonzo, man, don't mix us
up!'-Hey, you Ayooba, you better watch your step, they say V.I.P.s are
keeping their eyes on him!'-'Yah, like I told you, Jamila Singer…»-'O, keep
your mouth shut, we all heard enough of your fairy-tales!'
Once Ayooba, Farooq and Shaheed had become reconciled to their
strange, impassive tracker (it was after the incident at the latrines), they
gave him the nickname of buddha, 'old man'; not just because he must
have been seven years their senior, and had actually taken part in the
six-years-ago war of '65, when the three boy soldiers weren't even in long
pants, but because there hung around him an air of great antiquity. The
buddha was old before his time.
O fortunate ambiguity of transliteration! The Urdu word 'buddha',
meaning old man, is pronounced with the Ds hard and plosive. But there is
he-who-achieved-enlightenment-under-the-bodhi-tree… Once upon a time,
a prince, unable to bear the suffering of the world, became capable of
not-living-in-the-world as well as living in it; he was present, but also
absent; his body was in one place, but his spirit was elsewhere. In ancient
India, Gautama the Buddha sat enlightened under a tree at Gaya; in the
deer park at Sarnath he taught others to abstract themselves from worldly
sorrows and achieve inner peace; and centuries later, Saleem the buddha
sat under a different tree, unable to remember grief, numb as ice, wiped
clean as a slate… With some embarrassment, I am forced to admit that
amnesia is the kind of gimmick regularly used by our lurid film-makers.
Bowing my head slightly, I accept that my life has taken on, yet again, the
tone of a Bombay talkie; but after all, leaving to one side the vexed issue of
reincarnation, there is only a finite number of methods of achieving rebirth.
So, apologizing for the melodrama, I must doggedly insist that I, he, had
begun again; that after years of yearning for importance, he (or I) had been
cleansed of the whole business; that after my vengeful abandonment by
Jamila Singer, who wormed me into the Army to get me out her sight, I (or
he) accepted the fate which was my repayment for love, and sat
uncomplaining under a chinar tree; that, emptied of history, the buddha
learned the arts of submission, and did only what was required of him. To
sum up: I became a citizen of Pakistan.
It was arguably inevitable that, during the months of training, the
buddha should begin to irritate Ayooba Baloch. Perhaps it was because he
chose to live apart from the soldiers, in a straw-lined ascetic's stall at the far
end of the kennel-barracks; or because he was so often to be found sitting
cross-legged under his tree, silver spittoon clutched in hand, with
unfocused eyes and a foolish smile on his lips-as if he were actually happy
that he'd lost his brains! What's more, Ayooba, the apostle of meat, may
have found his tracker insufficiently virile. 'Like a brinjal, man,' I permit
Ayooba to complain, 'I swear-a vegetable!'
(We may also, taking the wider view, assert that irritation was in the air
at the year's turn. Were not even General Yahya and Mr Bhutto getting hot
and bothered about the petulant insistence of Sheikh Mujib on his right to
form the new government? The wretched Bengali's Awami League had
won 160 out of a possible 162 East Wing seats; Mr Bhutto's P.P.P. had
merely taken 81 Western constituencies. Yes, an irritating election. It is
easy to imagine how irked Yahya and Bhutto, West Wingers both, must
have been! And when even the mighty wax peevish, how is one to blame
the small man? The irritation of Ayooba Baloch, let us conclude, placed him
in excellent, Dot to say exalted company.)
On training manoeuvres, when Ayooba Shaheed Farooq scrambled
after the buddha as he followed the faintest of trails across bush rocks
streams, the three boys were obliged to admit his skill; but still Ayooba,
tank-like, demanded: 'Don't you remember really? Nothing? Allah, you don't
feel bad? Somewhere you've maybe got mother father sister,' but the
buddha interrupted him gently: 'Don't try and fill my head with that history. I
am who I am, that's all there is.' His accent was so pure, 'Really classy
Lucknow-type Urdu, wah-wah!' Farooq said admiringly, that Ayooba
Baloch, who spoke coarsely, like a tribesman, fell silent; and the three boys
began to believe the rumours even more fervently. They were unwillingly
fascinated by this man with his nose like a cucumber and his head which
rejected memories families histories, which contained absolutely nothing
except smells… 'like a bad egg that somebody sucked dry,' Ayooba
muttered to his companions, and then, returning to his central theme,
added, 'Allah, even his nose looks like a vegetable.'
Their uneasiness lingered. Did they sense, in the buddha's numbed
blankness, a trace of 'undesirability'?-For was not his rejection of
past-and-family just the type of subversive behaviour they were dedicated
to 'rooting out'? The camp's officers, however, were deaf to Ayooba's
requests of 'Sir sir can't we just have a real dog sir?'… so that Farooq, a
born follower who had already adopted Ayooba as his leader and hero,
cried, 'What to do? With that guy's family contacts, some high-ups must've
told the Brigadier to put up with him, that's all.'
And (although none of the trio would have been able to express the
idea) I suggest that at the deep foundations of their unease lay the fear of
schizophrenia, of splitting, that was buried like an umbilical cord in every
Pakistani heart. In those days, the country's East and West Wings were
separated by the unbridgeable land-mass of India; but past and present,
too, are divided by an unbridgeable gulf. Religion was the glue of Pakistan,
holding the halves together; just as consciousness, the awareness of
oneself as a homogeneous entity in time, a blend of past and present, is
the glue of personality, holding together our then and our now. Enough
philosophizing: what I am saying is that by abandoning consciousness,
seceding from history, the buddha was setting the worst of examples-and
the example was followed by no less a personage than Sheikh Mujib, when
he led the East Wing into secession and declared it independent as
'Bangladesh'! Yes, Ayooba Shaheed Farooq were right to feel
ill-at-ease-because even in those depths of my withdrawal from
responsibility, I remained responsible, through the workings of the
metaphorical modes of connection, for the belligerent events of 1971.
But I must go back to my new companions, so that I can relate the
incident at the latrines: there was Ayooba, tank-like, who led the unit, and
Farooq, who followed contentedly. The third youth, however, was a
gloomier, more private type, and as such closest to my heart. On his
fifteenth birthday Shaheed Dar had lied about his age and enlisted. That
day, his Punjabi sharecropper father had taken Shaheed into a field and
wept all over his new uniform. Old Dar told his son the meaning of his
name, which was 'martyr', and expressed the hope that he would prove
worthy of it, and perhaps become the first of their family members to enter
the perfumed garden, leaving behind this pitiful world in which a father
could not hope to pay his debts and also feed his nineteen children. The
overwhelming power of names, and the resulting approach of martyrdom,
had begun to prey heavily on Shaheed's mind; in his dreams, he began to
see his death, which took the form of a bright pomegranate, and floated in
mid-air behind him, following him everywhere, biding its time. The
disturbing and somewhat unheroic vision of pomegranate death made
Shaheed an inward, unsmiling fellow.
Inwardly, unsmilingly, Shaheed observed various cutia units being sent
away from the camp, into action; and became convinced that his time, and
the time of the pomegranate, was very near. From departures of
three-men-and-a-dog units in camouflaged jeeps, he deduced a growing
political crisis; it was February, and the irritations of the exalted were
becoming daily more marked. Ayooba-the-tank, however, retained a local
point of view. His irritation was also mounting, but its object was the
Ayooba had become infatuated with the only female in the camp, a
skinny latrine cleaner who couldn't have been over fourteen and whose
nipples were only just beginning to push against her tattered shirt: a low
type, certainly, but she was all that there was, and for a latrine cleaner she
had very nice teeth and a pleasant line in saucy over-the-shoulder
glances… Ayooba began to follow her around, and that was how he spied
her going into the buddha's straw-lined stall, and that was why he leaned a
bicycle against the building and stood on the seat, and that was why he fell
off, because he didn't like what he saw. Afterwards he spoke to the latrine
girl, grabbing her roughly by the arm: 'Why do it with that crazy-why, when
I, Ayooba, am, could be-?' and she replied that she liked the man-dog, he's
funny, says he can't feel anything, he rubs his hosepipe inside me but can't
even feel, but it's nice, and he tells that he likes my smell. The frankness of
the urchin girl, the honesty of latrine cleaners, made Ayooba sick; he told
her she had a soul composed of pig-droppings, and a tongue caked with
excrement also; and in the throes of his jealousy he devised the prank of
the jump-leads, the trick of the electrified urinal. The location appealed to
him; it had a certain poetic justice.
'Can't feel, huh?' Ayooba sneered to Farooq and Shaheed, 'Just wait
on: I'll make him jump for sure.'
On February loth (when Vahya, Bhutto and Mujib were refusing to
engage in high-level talks), the buddha felt the call of nature. A somewhat
concerned Shaheed and a gleeful Farooq loitered by the latrines; while
Ayooba, who had used jump-leads to attach the metal footplates of the
urinals to the battery of a jeep, stood out of sight behind the latrine hut,
beside the jeep, whose motor was running. The buddha appeared, with his
eyes as dilated as a charas-chewer's and his gait of
walking-through-a-cloud, and as he floated into the latrine Farooq called
out, 'Ohe! Ayooba, yara!' and began to giggle. The childsoldiers awaited
the howl of mortified anguish which would be the sign that their vacuous
tracker had begun to piss, allowing electricity to mount the golden stream
and sting him in his numb and urchin-rubbing hosepipe.
But no shriek came; Farooq, feeling confused and cheated, began to
frown; and as time went by Shaheed grew nervous and yelled over to
Ayooba Baloch, 'You Ayooba! What you doing, man?' To which
Ayooba-the-tank, 'What d'you think, yaar, I turned on the juice five minutes
ago!'… And now Shaheed ran-full tilt!-into the latrine, to find the buddha
urinating away with an expression of foggy pleasure, emptying a bladder
which must have been filling up for a fortnight, while the current passed up
into him through his nether cucumber, apparently unnoticed, so that he was
filling up with electrkity and there was a blue crackle playing around the end
of his gargantuan nose; and Shaheed who didn't have the courage to touch
this impossible being who could absorb electricity through his hosepipe
screamed, 'Disconnect, man, or he'll fry like an onion here!' The buddha
emerged from the latrine, unconcerned, buttoning himself with his right
hand while the left hand held his silver spittoon; and the three child-soldiers
understood that it was really true, Allah, numb as ice, anaesthetized
against feelings as well as memories… For a week after the incident, the
buddha could not be touched without giving an electric shock, and not even
the latrine girl could visit him in his stall.
Curiously, after the jump-lead business, Ayooba Baloch stopped
resenting the buddha, and even began to treat him with respect; the canine
unit was forged by that bizarre moment into a real team, and was ready to
venture forth against the evildoers of the earth.
Ayooba-the-tank failed to give the buddha a shock; but where the
small man fails, the mighty triumph. (When Yahya and Bhutto decided to
make Sheikh Mujib jump, there were no mistakes.)
On March 15th, 1971, twenty units of the CUTIa agency assembled in
a hut with a blackboard. The garlanded features of the President gazed
down upon sixty-one men and nineteen dogs; Yahya Khan had just offered
Mujib the olive branch of immediate talks with himself and Bhutto, to
resolve all irritations; but his portrait maintained an impeccable poker-face,
giving no clue to his true, shocking intentions… while Brigadier Iskandar
rubbed knuckles on lapels, Sgt-Mjr Najmuddin issued orders: sixty-one
men and nineteen dogs were instructed to shed their uniforms. A
tumultuous rustling in the hut: obeying without query, nineteen individuals
remove identifying collars from canine necks. The dogs, excellently trained,
cock eyebrows but refrain from giving voice; and the buddha, dutifully,
begins to undress. Five dozen fellow humans follow his lead; five dozen
stand to attention in a trice, shivering in the cold, beside neat piles of
military berets pants shoes shirts and green pullovers with leather patches
at the elbows. Sixty-one men, naked except for imperfect underwear, are
issued (by Lala Moin the batman) with Army-approved mufti. Najmuddin
barks a command; and then there they all are, some in lungis and kurtas,
some in Pathan turbans. There are men in cheap rayon pants and men in
striped clerks' shirts. The buddha is in dhoti and kameez; he is comfortable,
but around him are soldiers squirming in ill-fitting plain-clothes. This is,
however, a military operation; no voice, human or canine, is raised in
On March 15th, after obeying sartorial instructions, twenty cutia units
were flown to Dacca, via Ceylon; among them were Shaheed Dar, Farooq
Rashid, Ayooba Baloch and their buddha. Also flying to the East Wing by
this circuitous route were sixty thousand of the West Wing's toughest
troops: sixty thousand, like sixty-one, were all in mufti. The General Officer
Commanding (in a nattily blue double-breasted suit) was Tikka Khan; the
officer responsible for Dacca, for its taming and eventual surrender, was
called Tiger Niazi. He wore bush-shirt, slacks and a jaunty little trilby on his
Via Ceylon we flew, sixty thousand and sixty-one innocent airline
passengers, avoiding overflying India, and thus losing our chance of
watching, from twenty thousand feet, the celebrations of Indira Gandhi's
New Congress Party, which had won a landslide victory-350 out of a
possible 515 seats in the Lok Sabha-in another recent election.
Indira-ignorant, unable to see her campaign slogan, garibi hatao, Get Rid of
Poverty, blazoned on walls and banners across the great diamond of India,
we landed in Dacca in the early spring, and were driven in
specially-requisitioned civilian buses to a military camp. On this last stage
of our journey, however, we were unable to avoid hearing a snatch of song,
issuing from some unseen gramophone. The song was called 'Amar Sonar
Bangla' ('Our Golden Bengal', author: R. Tagore) and ran, in part: 'During
spring the fragrance of your mango-groves maddens my heart with delight.'
However, none of us could understand Bengali, so we were protected
against the insidious subversion of the lyric, although our feet did
inadvertently tap (it must be admitted) to the tune.
At first, Ayooba Shaheed Farooq and the buddha were not told the
name of the city to which they had come. Ayooba, envisaging the
destruction of vegetarians, whispered: 'Didn't I tell you? Now we'll show
them! Spy stuff, man! Plain clothes and all! Up and at 'em, Number 22 Unit!
Ka-bang! Ka-dang! Ka-pow!'
But we were not in India; vegetarians were not our targets; and after
days of cooling our heels, uniforms were issued to us once again. This
second transfiguration took place on March 25th.
On March 25th, Yahya and Bhutto abruptly broke off their talks with
Mujib and returned to the West Wing. Night fell; Brigadier Iskandar,
followed by Najmuddin and Lala Moin, who was staggering under the
weight of sixty-one uniforms and nineteen dog-collars, burst into the cutia
barracks. Now Najmuddin: 'Snap to it! Actions not words! One-two
double-quick time!' Airline passengers donned uniforms and took up arms;
while Brigadier Iskandar at last announced the purpose of our trip. 'That
Mujib,' he revealed, 'We'll give him what-for all right. We'll make him jump
for sure!'
(It was on March 25th, after the breakdown of the talks with Bhutto and
Yahya, that Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman proclaimed the state of Bangladesh.)
cutia units emerged from barracks, piled into waiting jeeps; while, over the
loudspeakers of the military base, the recorded voice of Jamila Singer was
raised in patriotic hymns. (And Ayooba, nudging the buddha: 'Listen, come
on, don't you recognize-think, man, isn't that your own dear-Allah, this type
is good for nothing but sniffing!')
At midnight-could it, after all, have been at any other time?-sixty
passengers-who-had-flown-as-civilians now pressed the starter buttons of
tanks. Ayooba Shaheed Farooq and the buddha, however, were personally
selected to accompany Brigadier Iskandar on the greatest adventure of the
night. Yes, Padma: when Mujib was arrested, it was I who sniffed him out.
(They had provided me with one of his old shirts; it's easy when you've got
the smell.)
Padma is almost beside herself with anguish. 'But mister, you didn't,
can't have, how would you do such a thing… ?' Padma: I did. I have sworn
to tell everything; to conceal no shred of the truth. (But there are
snail-tracks on her face, and she must have an explanation.)
So-believe me, don't believe, but this is what it was like!-I must
reiterate that everything ended, everything began again, when a spittoon hit
me on the back of the head. Saleem, with his desperation for meaning, for
worthy purpose, for genius-like-a-shawl, had gone; would not return until a
jungle snake-for the moment, anyway, there is was only the buddha; who
recognizes no singing voice as his relative; who remembers neither fathers
nor mothers; for whom midnight holds no importance; who, some time after
a cleansing accident, awoke in a military hospital bed, and accepted the
Army as his lot; who submits to the life in which he finds himself, and does
his duty; who follows orders; who lives both in-the-world and
not-in-the-world; who bows his head; who can track man or beast through
streets or down rivers; who neither knows nor cares how, under whose
auspices, as a favour to whom, at whose vengeful instigation he was put
into uniform; who is, in short, no more and no less than the accredited
tracker of cutia Unit 22.
But how convenient this amnesia is, how much it excuses! So permit
me to criticize myself: the philosophy of acceptance to which the buddha
adhered had consequences no more and no less unfortunate than his
previous lust-for-centrality; and here, in Dacca, those consequences were
being revealed.
'No, not true,' my Padma wails; the same denials have been made
about most of what befell that night.
Midnight, March 25th, 1971: past the University, which was being
shelled, the buddha led troops to Sheikh Mujib's lair. Students and lecturers
came running out of hostels; they were greeted by bullets, and
Mercurochrome stained the lawns. Sheikh Mujib, however, was not shot;
manacled, manhandled, he was led by Ayooba Baloch to a waiting van. (As
once before, after the revolution of the pepperpots… but Mujib was not
naked; he had on a pair of green-and-yellow striped pajamas.) And while
we drove through city streets, Shaheed looked out of windows and saw
things that weren't-couldn't-have-been true: soldiers entering women's
hostels without knocking; women, dragged into the street, were also
entered, and again nobody troubled' to knock. And newspaper offices,
burning with the dirty yellowblack smoke of cheap gutter newsprint, and the
offices of trade unions, smashed to the ground, and roadside ditches filling
up with people who were not merely asleep-bare chests were seen, and
the hollow pimples of bullet-holes. Ayooba Shaheed Farooq watched in
silence through moving windows as our boys, our soldiers-for-Allah, our
worth-ten-babus jawans held Pakistan together by turning flamethrowers
machine-guns hand-grenades on the city slums. By the time we brought
Sheikh Mujib to the airport, where Ayooba stuck a pistol into his rump and
pushed him on to an aircraft which flew him into West Wing captivity, the
buddha had closed his eyes. ('Don't fill my head with all this history,' he had
once told Ayooba-the-tank, 'I am what I am and that's all there is.')
And Brigadier Iskandar, rallying his troops: 'Even now there are
subversive elements to be rooted out.'
When thought becomes excessively painful, action is the finest
remedy… dog-soldiers strain at the leash, and then, released, leap joyously
to their work. O wolfhound chases of undesirables! O prolific seizings of
professors and poets! O unfortunate shot-while-resisting arrests of Awami
Leaguers and fashion correspondents! Dogs of war cry havoc in the city;
but although tracker-dogs are tireless, soldiers are weaker: Farooq
Shaheed Ayooba take turns at vomiting as their nostrils are assailed by the
stench of burning slums. The buddha, in whose nose the stench spawns
images of searing vividness, continues merely to do his job. Nose them out:
leave the rest to the soldier-boys. cutia units stalk the smouldering wreck of
the city. No undesirable is safe tonight; no hiding-place impregnable.
Bloodhounds track the fleeing enemies of national unity; wolfhounds, not to
be outdone, sink fierce teeth into their prey.
one-thousand-and-one?-did our own Number 22 Unit make that night? How
many intellectual lily-livered Daccans hid behind women's saris and had to
be yanked into the streets? How often did Brigadier Iskandar-'Smell this!
That's the stink of subversion!'-unleash the war-hounds of unity? There are
things which took place on the night of March 25th which must remain
permanently in a state of confusion.
Futility of statistics: during 1971, ten million refugees fled across the
borders of East Pakistan-Bangladesh into India-but ten million (like all
numbers larger than one thousand and one) refuses to be understood.
Comparisons do not help: 'the biggest migration in the history of the human
race'-meaningless. Bigger than Exodus, larger than the Partition crowds,
the many-headed monster poured into India. On the border, Indian soldiers
trained the guerrillas known as Mukti Bahini; in Dacca, Tiger Niazi ruled the
And Ayooba Shaheed Farooq? Our boys in green? How did they take
to battling against fellow meat-eaters? Did they mutiny? Were
officers-Iskandar, Najmuddin, even Lala Moin-riddled with nauseated
bullets? They were not. Innocence had been lost; but despite a new
grimness about the eyes, despite the irrevocable loss of certainty, despite
the eroding of moral absolutes, the unit went on with its work. The buddha
was not the only one who did as he was told… while somewhere high
above the struggle, the voice of Jamila Singer fought anonymous voices
singing the lyrics of R. Tagore: 'My life passes in the shady village homes
filled with rice from your fields; they madden my heart with delight.'
Their hearts maddened, but not with delight, Ayooba and company
followed orders; the buddha followed scent-trails. Into the heart of the city,
which has turned violent maddened bloodsoaked as the West Wing
soldiers react badly to their knowledge-of-wrongdoing, goes Number 22
Unit; through the blackened streets, the buddha concentrates on the
ground, sniffing out trails, ignoring the ground-level chaos of
cigarette-packs cow-dung fallen-bicycles abandoned-shoes; and then on
other assignments, out into the countryside, where entire villages are being
burned owing to their collective responsibility for harbouring Mukti Bahini,
the buddha and three boys track down minor Awami League officials and
well-known Communist types. Past migrating villagers with bundled
possessions on their heads; past torn-up railway tracks and burnt-out trees;
and always, as though some invisible force were directing their footsteps,
drawing them into a darker heart of madness, their missions send them
south south south, always nearer to the sea, to the mouths of the Ganges
and the sea.
And at last-who were they following then? Did names matter any
more?-they were given a quarry whose skills must have been the
equal-and-opposite of the buddha's own, otherwise why did it take so long
pursue-relentlessly-arrest-remorselessly, they are in the midst of a mission
without an end, pursuing a foe who endlessly eludes them, but they cannot
report back to base empty-handed, and on they go, south south south,
drawn by the eternally-receding scent-trail; and perhaps by something
more: because, in my life, fate has never been unwilling to lend a hand.
They have commandeered a boat, because the buddha said the trail
led down the river; hungry unslept exhausted in a universe of abandoned
rice-paddies, they row after their unseen prey; down the great brown river
they go, until the war is too far away to remember, but still the scent leads
them on. The river here has a familiar name: Padma. But the name is a
local deception; in reality the river is still Her, the mother-water, goddess
Ganga streaming down to earth through Shiva's hair. The buddha has not
spoken for days; he just points, there, that way, and on they go, south
south south to the sea.
A nameless morning. Ayooba Shaheed Farooq awaking in the boat of
their absurd pursuit, moored by the bank of Padma-Ganga-to find him
gone. 'Allah-Allah,' Farooq yelps, 'Grab your ears and pray for pity, he's
brought us to this drowned place and run off, it's all your fault, you Ayooba,
that trick with the jump-leads and this is his revenge!'… The sun, climbing.
Strange alien birds in the sky. Hunger and fear like mice in their bellies: and
whatif, whatif the Mukti Bahini… parents are invoked. Shaheed has
dreamed his pomegranate dream. Despair, lapping at the edges of the
boat. And in the distance, near the horizon, an impossible endless huge
green wall, stretching right and left to the ends of the earth! Unspoken fear:
how can it be, how can what we are seeing be true, who builds walls
across the world?… And then Ayooba, 'Look-look, Allah!' Because coming
towards them across the rice-paddies is a bizarre slow-motion chase: first
the buddha with that cucumber-nose, you could spot it a mile off, and
following him, splashing through paddies, a gesticulating peasant with a
scythe, Father Time enraged, while running along a dyke a woman with her
sari caught up between her legs, hair loose, voice pleading screaming,
while the scythed avenger stumbles through drowned rice, covered from
head to foot in water and mud. Ayooba roars with nervous relief: 'The old
billy-goat! Couldn't keep his hands off the local women! Come on, buddha,
don't let him catch you, he'll slice off both your cucumbers!' And Farooq,
'But then what? If the buddha is sliced, what then?' And now
Ayooba-the-tank is pulling a pistol out of its holster. Ayooba aiming: both
hands held out in front, trying not to shake, Ayooba squeezing: a scythe
curves up into the air. And slowly slowly the arms of a peasant rise up as
though in prayer; knees kneel in paddy-water; a face plunges below the
water-level to touch its forehead to the earth. On the dyke a woman wailing.
And Ayooba tells the buddha: 'Next time I'll shoot you instead.'
Ayooba-the-tank shaking like a leaf. And Time lies dead in a rice-paddy.
But there is still the meaningless chase, the enemy who will never be
seen, and the buddha, 'Go that way,' and the four of them row on, south
south south, they have murdered the hours and forgotten the date, they no
longer know if they are chasing after or running from, but whichever it is
that pushes them is bringing them closer closer to the impossible green
wall, 'That way,' the buddha insists, and then they are inside it, the jungle
which is so thick that history has hardly ever found the way in. The
Sundarbans: it swallows them up.
In the Sundarbans
I'll own up: there was no last, elusive quarry, driving us south south
south. To all my readers, I should like to make this naked-breasted
admission: while Ayooba Shaheed Farooq were unable to distinguish
between chasing-after and running-from, the buddha knew what he was
doing. Although I'm well aware that I am providing any future commentators
or venom-quilled critics (to whom I say: twice before, I've been subjected to
snake-poison; on both occasions, I proved stronger than venenes) with yet
more ammunition-through admission-of-guilt, revelation-of-moral-turpitude,
proof-of-coward-ice-I'm-bound to say that he, the buddha, finally incapable
of continuing in the submissive performance of his duty, took to his heels
and fled. Infected by the soul-chewing maggots of pessimism futility shame,
he deserted, into the historyless anonymity of rain-forests, dragging three
children in his wake. What I hope to immortalize in pickles as well as
words: that condition of the spirit in which the consequences of acceptance
could not be denied, in which an overdose of reality gave birth to a miasmic
longing for flight into the safety of dreams… But the jungle, like all refuges,
was entirely other-was both less and more-than he had expected.
'I am glad,' my Padma says, 'I am happy you ran away.' But I insist: not
I. He. He, the buddha. Who, until the snake, would remain not-Saleem;
who, in spite of running-from, was still separated from his past; although he
clutched, in his limpet fist, a certain silver spittoon.
The jungle closed behind them like a tomb, and after hours of
increasingly weary but also frenzied rowing through incomprehensibly
labyrinthine salt-water channels overtowered by the cathedral-arching
trees, Ayooba Shaheed Farooq were hopelessly lost; they turned time and
again to the buddha, who pointed, 'That way', and then, 'Down there', but
although they rowed feverishly, ignoring fatigue, it seems as if the
possibility of ever leaving this place receded before them like the lantern of
a ghost; until at length they rounded on their supposedly infallible tracker,
and perhaps saw some small light of shame or relief glowing in his
habitually milky-blue eyes; and now Farooq whispered in the sepulchral
greenness of the forest: 'You don't know. You're just saying anything.' The
buddha remained silent, but in his silence they read their fate, and now that
he was convinced that the jungle had swallowed them the way a toad gulps
down a mosquito, now that he was sure he would never see the sun again,
Ayooba Baloch, Ayooba-the-tank himself, broke down utterly and wept like
a monsoon. The incongruous spectacle of this huge figure with a crew-cut
blubbering like a baby served to detach Farooq and Shaheed from their
senses; so that Farooq almost upset the boat by attacking the buddha, who
mildly bore all the fist-blows which rained down on his chest shoulders
arms, until Shaheed pulled Farooq down for the sake of safety. Ayooba
Baloch cried without stopping for three entire hours or days or weeks, until
the rain began and made his tears unnecessary; and Shaheed Dar heard
himself saying, 'Now look what you started, man, with your crying,' proving
that they were already beginning to succumb to the logic of the jungle, and
that was only the start of it, because as the mystery of evening
compounded the unreality of the trees, the Sundarbans began to grow in
the rain.
At first they were so busy baling out their boat that they did not notice;
also, the water-level was rising, which may have confused them; but in the
last light there could be no doubt that the jungle was gaining in size, power
and ferocity; the huge stilt-roots of vast ancient mangrove trees could be
seen snaking about thirstily in the dusk, sucking in the rain and becoming
thicker than elephants' trunks, while the mangroves themselves were
getting so tall that, as Shaheed Dar said afterwards, the birds at the top
must have been able to sing to God. The leaves in the heights of the great
nipa palms began to spread like immense green cupped hands, swelling in
the nocturnal downpour until the entire forest seemed to be thatched; and
then the nipa-fruits began to fall, they were larger than any coconuts on
earth and gathered speed alarmingly as they fell from dizzying heights to
explode like bombs in the water. Rainwater was filling their boat; they had
only their soft green caps and an old ghee tin to bale with; and as night fell
and the nipa-fruits bombed them from the air, Shaheed Dar said, 'Nothing
else to do-we must land,' although his thoughts were full of his
pomegranate-dream and it crossed his mind that this might be where it
came true, even if the fruits were different here.
While Ayooba sat in a red-eyed funk and Farooq seemed destroyed by
his hero's disintegration; while the buddha remained silent and bowed his
head, Shaheed alone remained capable of thought, because although he
was drenched and worn out and the night-jungle screeched around him, his
head became partly clear whenever he thought about the pomegranate of
his death; so it was Shaheed who ordered us, them, to row our, their,
sinking boat to shore.
A nipa-fruit missed the boat by an inch and a half, creating such
turbulence in the water that they capsized; they struggled ashore in the
dark holding guns oilskins ghee-tin above their heads, pulled the boat up
after themselves, and past caring about bombarding nipa palms and
snaking mangroves, fell into their sodden craft and slept. When they
awoke, soaking-shivering in spite of the heat, the rain had become a heavy
drizzle. They found their bodies covered in three-inch-long leeches which
were almost entirely colourless owing to the absence of direct sunlight, but
which had now turned bright red because they were full of blood, and
which, one by one, exploded on the bodies of the four human beings, being
too greedy to stop sucking when they were full. Blood trickled down legs
and on to the forest floor; the jungle sucked it in, and knew what they were
When the falling nipa-fruits smashed on the jungle floor, they, too,
exuded a liquid the colour of blood, a red milk which was immediately
covered in a million insects, including giant flies as transparent as the
leeches. The flies, too, reddened as they filled up with the milk of the fruit…
all through the night, it seemed, the Sundarbans had continued to grow.
Tallest of all were the sundri trees which had given their name to the jungle;
trees high enough to block out even the faintest hope of sun. The four of
us, them, climbed out of the boat; and only when they set foot on a hard
bare soil crawling with pale pink scorpions and a seething mass of
dun-coloured earthworms did they remember their hunger and thirst.
Rainwater poured off leaves all around them, and they turned their mouths
up to the roof of the jungle and drank; but perhaps because the water came
to them by way of sundri leaves and mangrove branches and nipa fronds, it
acquired on its journey something of the insanity of the jungle, so that as
they drank they fell deeper and deeper into the thraldom of that livid green
world where the birds had voices like creaking wood and all the snakes
were blind. In the turbid, miasmic state of mind which the jungle induced,
they prepared their first meal, a combination of nipa-fruits and mashed
earthworms, which inflicted on them all a diarrhoea so violent that they
forced themselves to examine the excrement in case their intestines had
fallen out in the mess.
Farooq said, 'We're going to die.' But Shaheed was possessed by a
powerful lust for survival; because, having recovered from the doubts of the
night, he had become convinced that this was not how he was supposed to
Lost in the rain-forest, and aware that the lessening of the monsoon
was only a temporary respite, Shaheed decided that there was little point in
attempting to find a way out when, at any moment, the returning monsoon
might sink their inadequate craft; under his instructions, a shelter was
constructed from oilskins and palm fronds; Shaheed said, 'As long as we
stick to fruit, we can survive.' They bad all long ago forgotten the purpose
of their journey; the chase, which had begun far away in the real world,
acquired in the altered light of the Sundarbans a quality of absurd fantasy
which enabled them to dismiss it once and for all.
So it was that Ayooba Shaheed Farooq and the buddha surrendered
themselves to the terrible phantasms of the dream-forest. The days
passed, dissolving into each other under the force of the returning rain, and
despite chills fevers diarrhoea they stayed alive, improving their shelter by
pulling down the lower branches of sundris and mangroves, drinking the
red milk of nipa-fruits, acquiring the skills of survival, such as the power of
strangling snakes and throwing sharpened sticks so accurately that they
speared multicoloured birds through their gizzards. But one night Ayooba
awoke in the dark to find the translucent figure of a peasant with a
bullet-hole in his heart and a scythe in his hand staring mournfully down at
him, and as he struggled to get out of the boat (which they had pulled in,
under the cover of their primitive shelter) the peasant leaked a colourless
fluid which flowed out of the hole in his heart and on to Ayooba's gun arm.
The next morning Ayooba's right arm refused to move; it hung rigidly by his
side as if it had been set in plaster. Although Farooq Rashid offered help
and sympathy, it was no use; the arm was held immovably in the invisible
fluid of the ghost.
After this first apparition, they fell into a state of mind in which they
would have believed the forest capable of anything; each night it sent them
new punishments, the accusing eyes of the wives of men they had tracked
down and seized, the screaming and monkey-gibbering of children left
fatherless by their work… and in this first time, the time of punishment,
even the impassive buddha with his citified voice was obliged to confess
that he, too, had taken to waking up at night to find the forest closing in
upon him like a vice, so that he felt unable to breathe.
When it had punished them enough-when they were all trembling
shadows of the people they had once been-the jungle permitted them the
double-edged luxury of nostalgia. One night Ayooba, who was regressing
towards infancy faster than any of them, and had begun to suck his one
moveable thumb, saw his mother looking down at him, offering him the
delicate rice-based sweets of her love; but at the same moment as he
reached out for the laddoos, she scurried away, and he saw her climb a
giant sundri-tree to sit swinging from a high branch by her tail: a white
wraithlike monkey with the face of his mother visited Ayooba night after
night, so that after a time he was obliged to remember more about her than
her sweets: how she had liked to sit among the boxes of her dowry, as
though she, too, were simply some sort of thing, simply one of the gifts her
father gave to her husband; in the heart of the Sundarbans, Ayooba Baloch
understood his mother for the first time, and stopped sucking his thumb.
Farooq Rashid, too, was given a vision. At dusk one day he thought he saw
his brother running wildly through the forest, and became convinced that
his father had died. He remembered a forgotten day when his peasant
father had told him and his fleet-footed brother that the local landlord, who
lent money at 300 per cent, had agreed to buy his soul in return for the
latest loan. 'When I die,' old Rashid told Farooq's brother, 'you must open
your mouth and my spirit will fly inside it; then run run run, because the
zamindar will be after you!' Farooq, who had also started regressing
alarmingly, found in the knowledge of his father's death and the flight of his
brother the strength to give up the childish habits which the jungle had at
first re-created in him; he stopped crying when he was hungry and asking
Why. Shaheed Dar, too, was visited by a monkey with the face of an
ancestor; but all he saw was a father who had instructed him to earn his
name. This, however, also helped to restore in him the sense of
responsibility which the just-following-orders requirements of war had
sapped; so it seemed that the magical jungle, having tormented them with
their misdeeds, was leading them by the hand towards a new adulthood.
And flitting through the night-forest went the wraiths of their hopes; these,
however, they were unable to see clearly, or to grasp.
The buddha, however, was not granted nostalgia at first. He had taken
to sitting cross-legged under a sundri-tree; his eyes and mind seemed
empty, and at night, he no longer awoke. But finally the forest found a way
through to him; one afternoon, when rain pounded down on the trees and
boiled off them as steam, Ayooba Shaheed Farooq saw the buddha sitting
under his tree while a blind, translucent serpent bit, and poured venom into,
his heel. Shaheed Dar crushed the serpent's head with a stick; the buddha,
who was head-to-foot numb, seemed not to have noticed. His eyes were
closed. After this, the boy soldiers waited for the man-dog to die; but I was
stronger than the snake-poison. For two days he became as rigid as a tree,
and his eyes crossed, so that he saw the world in mirror-image, with the
right side on the left; at last he relaxed, and the look of milky abstraction
was no longer in his eyes. I was rejoined to the past, jolted into unity by
snake-poison, and it began to pour out through the buddha's lips. As his
eyes returned to normal, his words flowed so freely that they seemed to be
an aspect of the monsoon. The child-soldiers listened, spellbound, to the
stories issuing from his mouth, beginning with a birth at midnight, and
continuing unstoppably, because he was reclaiming everything, all of it, all
lost histories, all the myriad complex processes that go to make a man.
Open-mouthed, unable to tear themselves away, the child-soldiers drank
his life like leaf-tainted water, as he spoke of bed-wetting cousins,
revolutionary pepperpots, the perfect voice of a sister… Ayooba Shaheed
Farooq would have (once upon a time) given anything to know that those
rumours had been true; but in the Sundarbans, they didn't even cry out.
And rushing on: to late-flowering love, and Jamila in a bedroom in a
shaft of light. Now Shaheed did murmur, 'So that's why, when he
confessed, after that she couldn't stand to be near…' But the buddha
continues, and it becomes apparent that he is struggling to recall
something particular, something which refuses to return, which obstinately
eludes him, so that he gets to the end without finding it, and remains
frowning and unsatisfied even after he has recounted a holy war, and
revealed what fell from the sky.
There was a silence; and then Farooq Rashid said, 'So much, yaar,
inside one person; so many bad things, no wonder he kept his mouth shut!'
You see, Padma: I have told this story before. But what refused to
return? What, despite the liberating venene of a colourless serpent, failed
to emerge from my lips? Padma: the buddha had forgotten his name. (To
be precise: his first name.)
And still it went on raining. The water-level was rising daily, until it
became clear that they would have to move deeper into the jungle, in
search of higher ground. The rain was too heavy for the boat to be of use;
so, still following Shaheed's instructions, Ayooba Farooq and the buddha
pulled it far away from the encroaching bank, tied mooring-rope around
sundri-trunk, and covered their craft with leaves; after which, having no
option, they moved ever further into the dense uncertainty of the jungle.
Now, once again, the Sundarbans changed its nature; once again
Ayooba Shaheed Farooq found their ears filled with the lamentations of
families from whose bosom they had torn what once, centuries ago, they
had termed 'undesirable elements'; they rushed wildly forward into the
jungle to escape from the accusing, pain-filled voices of their victims; and at
night the ghostly monkeys gathered in the trees and sang the words of 'Our
Golden Bengal': '… O Mother, I am poor, but what little I have, I lay at thy
feet. And it maddens my heart with delight.' Unable to escape from the
unbearable torture of the unceasing voices, incapable of bearing for a
moment longer the burden of shame, which was now greatly increased by
their jungle-learned sense of responsibility, the three boy-soldiers were
moved, at last, to take desperate measures. Shaheed Dar stooped down
and pkked up two handfuls of rain-heavy jungle mud; in the throes of that
awful hallucination, he thrust the treacherous mud of the rain-forest into his
ears. And after him, Ayooba Baloch and Farooq Rashid stopped their ears
also with mud. Only the buddha left his ears (one good, one already bad)
unstopped; as though he alone were willing to bear the retribution of the
jungle, as though he were bowing his head before the inevitability of his
guilt… The mud of the dream-forest, which no doubt also contained the
concealed translucency of jungle-insects and the devilry of bright orange
bird-droppings, infected the ears of the three boy-soldiers and made them
all as deaf as posts; so that although they were spared the singsong
accusations of the jungle, they were now obliged to converse in a
rudimentary form of sign-language. They seemed, however, to prefer their
diseased deafness to the unpalatable secrets which the sundri-leaves had
whispered in their ears.
At last, the voices stopped, though by now only the buddha (with his
one good ear) could hear them; at last, when the four wanderers were near
the point of panic, the jungle brought them through a curtain of tree-beards
and showed them a sight so lovely that it brought lumps to their throats.
Even the buddha seemed to tighten his grip on his spittoon. With one good
ear between the four of them, they advanced into a glade filled with the
gentle melodies of songbirds, in whose centre stood a monumental Hindu
temple, carved in forgotten centuries out of a single immense crag of rock;
its walls danced with friezes of men and women, who were depicted
coupling in postures of unsurpassable athleticism and sometimes, of highly
comic absurdity. The quartet moved towards this miracle with disbelieving
steps. Inside, they found, at long last, some respite from the endless
monsoon, and also the towering statue of a black dancing goddess, whom
the boy-soldiers from Pakistan could not name; but the buddha knew she
was Kali, fecund and awful, with the remnants of gold paint on her teeth.
The four travellers lay down at her feet and fell into a rain-free sleep which
ended at what could have been midnight, when they awoke simultaneously
to find themselves being smiled upon by four young girls of a beauty which
was beyond speech. Shaheed, who recalled the four houris awaiting him in
the camphor garden, thought at first that he had died in the night; but the
houris looked real enough, and their saris, under which they wore nothing
at all, were torn and stained by the jungle. Now as eight eyes stared into
eight, saris were unwound and placed, neatly folded, on the ground; after
which the naked and identical daughters of the forest came to them, eight
arms were twined with eight, eight legs were linked with eight legs more;
below the statue of multi-limbed Kali, the travellers abandoned themselves
to caresses which felt real enough, to kisses and love-bites which were soft
and painful, to scratches which left marks, and they realized that this this
this was what they had needed, what they had longed for without knowing
it, that having passed through the childish regressions and childlike sorrows
of their earliest jungle-days, having survived the onset of memory and
responsibility and the greater pains of renewed accusations, they were
leaving infancy behind for ever, and then forgetting reasons and
implications and deafness, forgetting everything, they gave themselves to
the four identical beauties without a single thought in their heads.
After that night, they were unable to tear themselves away from the
temple, except to forage for food, and every night the soft women of their
most contented dreams returned in silence, never speaking, always neat
and tidy with their saris, and invariably bringing the lost quartet to an
incredible united peak of delight. None of them knew how long this period
lasted, because in the Sundarbans time followed unknown laws, but at last
the day came when they looked at each other and realized they were
becoming transparent, that it was possible to see through their bodies, not
clearly as yet, but cloudily, like staring through mango-juice. In their alarm
they understood that this was the last and worst of the jungle's tricks, that
by giving them their heart's desire it was fooling them into using up their
dreams, so that as their dream-life seeped out of them they became as
hollow and translucent as glass. The buddha saw now that the
colourlessness of insects and leeches and snakes might have more to do
with the depredations worked on their insectly, leechy, snakish
imaginations than with the absence of sunlight… awakened as if for the first
time by the shock of translucency, they looked at the temple with new eyes,
seeing the great gaping cracks in the solid rock, realizing that vast
segments could come detached and crash down upon them at any
moment; and then, in a murky corner of the abandoned shrine, they saw
the remnants of what might have been four small fires-ancient ashes,
scorch-marks on stone-or perhaps four funeral pyres; and in the centre of
each of the four, a small, blackened, fire-eaten heap of uncrushed bones.
How the buddha left the Sundarbans: the forest of illusions unleashed
upon them, as they fled from temple towards boat, its last and most
terrifying trick; they had barely reached the boat when it came towards
them, at first a rumble in the far distance, then a roar which could penetrate
even mud-deafened ears, they had untied the boat and leapt wildly into it
when the wave came, and now they were at the mercy of the waters, which
could have crushed them effortlessly against sundri or mangrove or nipa,
but instead the tidal wave bore them down turbulent brown channels as the
forest of their torment blurred past them like a great green wall, it seemed
as if the jungle, having tired of its playthings, were ejecting them
unceremoniously from its territory; waterborne, impelled forwards and still
forwards by the unimaginable power of the wave, they bobbed pitifully
amongst fallen branches and the sloughed-off skins of water-snakes, until
finally they were hurled from the boat as the ebbing wave broke it against a
tree-stump, they were left sitting in a drowned rice-paddy as the wave
receded, in water up to their waists, but alive, borne out of the heart of the
jungle of dreams, into which I had fled in the hope of peace and found both
less and more, and back once more in the world of armies and dates.
When they emerged from the jungle, it was October 1971. And I am
bound to admit (but, in my opinion, the fact only reinforces my wonder at
the time-shifting sorcery of the forest) that there was no tidal wave recorded
that month, although, over a year previously, floods had indeed devastated
the region.
In the aftermath of the Sundarbans, my old life was waiting to reclaim
me. I should have known: no escape from past acquaintance. What you
were is forever who you are.
For seven months during the course of the year 1971, three soldiers
and their tracker vanished off the face of the war. In October, however,
when the rains ended and the guerrilla units of the Mukti Bahini began
terrorizing Pakistani military outposts; when Mukti Bahini snipers picked off
soldiers and petty officials alike, our quartet emerged from invisibility and,
having little option, attempted to rejoin the main body of the occupying
West Wing forces. Later, when questioned, the buddha would always
explain his disappearance with the help of a garbled story about being lost
in a jungle amid trees whose roots grabbed at you like snakes. It was
perhaps fortunate for him that he was never formally interrogated by
officers in the army of which he was a member. Ayooba Baloch, Farooq
Rashid and Shaheed Dar were not subjected to such interrogations, either;
but in their case this was because they failed to stay alive long enough for
any questions to be asked.
… In an entirely deserted village of thatched huts with dung-plastered
mud walls-in an abandoned community from which even the chickens had
fled-Ayooba Shaheed Farooq bemoaned their fate. Rendered deaf by the
poisonous mud of the rain-forest, a disability which had begun to upset
them a good deal now that the taunting voices of the jungle were no longer
hanging in the air, they wailed their several wails, all talking at once, none
hearing the other; the buddha, however, was obliged to listen to them all: to
Ayooba, who stood facing a corner inside a naked room, his hair enmeshed
in a spider's web, crying 'My ears my ears, like bees buzzing inside,' to
Farooq who, petulantly, shouted, 'Whose fault, anyway?-Who, with his
nose that could sniff out any bloody thing?-Who said That way, and that
way?-And who, who will believe?-About jungles and temples and
transparent serpents?-What a story, Allah, buddha, we should shoot you
here-and-now!' While Shaheed, softly, 'I'm hungry.' Out once more in the
real world, they were forgetting the lessons of the jungle, and Ayooba, 'My
arm! Allah, man, my withered arm! The ghost, leaking fluid…!' And
Shaheed, 'Deserters, they'll say-empty-handed, no prisoner, after so-many
months!-Allah, a court-martial, maybe, what do you think, buddha?' And
Farooq, 'You bastard, see what you made us do! O God, too much, our
uniforms! See, our uniforms, buddha-rags-and-tatters like a beggar-boy's!
Think of what the Brigadier-and that Najmuddin-on my mother's head I
swear I didn't-I'm not a coward! Not!' And Shaheed, who is killing ants and
licking them off his palm, 'How to rejoin, anyway? Who knows where they
are or if? And haven't we seen and heard how Mukti Bahini-thai! thai! they
shoot from their hiding-holes, and you're dead! Dead, like an ant!' But
Farooq is also talking, 'And not just the uniforms, man, the hair! Is this
military hair-cut? This, so-long, falling over ears like worms? This woman's
hair? Allah, they'll kill us dead-up against the wall and thai! thai!-you see if
they don't!' But now Ayooba-the-tank is calming down; Ayooba holding his
face in his hand; Ayooba saying softly to himself, 'O man, O man. I came to
fight those damn vegetarian Hindus, man. And here is something too
different, man. Something too bad.'
It is somewhere in November; they have been making their way slowly,
north north north, past fluttering newspapers in curious curlicued script,
through empty fields and abandoned settlements, occasionally passing a
crone with a bundle on a stick over her shoulder, or a group of
eight-year-olds with shifty starvation in their eyes and the threat of knives in
their pockets, hearing how the Mukti Bahini are moving invisibly through the
smoking land, how bullets come buzzing like bees-from-nowhere… and
now a breaking-point has been reached, and Farooq, 'If it wasn't for you,
buddha-Allah, you freak with your blue eyes of a foreigner, O God, yaar,
how you stink!'
We all stink: Shaheed, who is crushing (with tatter-booted heel) a
scorpion on the dirty floor of the abandoned hut; Farooq, searching
absurdly for a knife with which to cut his hair; Ayooba, leaning his head
against a corner of the hut while a spider walks along the crown; and the
buddha, too: the buddha, who stinks to heaven, clutches in his right hand a
tarnished silver spittoon, and is trying to recall his name. And can summon
up only nicknames: Snotnose, Stainface, Baidy, Sniffer, Piece-of-the-Moon.
… He sat cross-legged amid the wailing storm of his companions' fear,
forcing himself to remember; but no, it would not come. And at last the
buddha, hurling spittoon against earthen floor, exclaimed to stone-deaf
ears: 'It's not-not-fair!'
In the midst of the rubble of war, I discovered fair-and-unfair.
Unfairness smelled like onions; the sharpness of its perfume brought tears
to my eyes. Seized by the bitter aroma of injustice, I remembered how
Jamila Singer had leaned over a hospital bed-whose? What name?-how
military gongs-and-pips were also present-how my sister-no, not my sister!
how she-how she had said, 'Brother, I have to go away, to sing in service of
the country; the Army will look after you now-for me, they will look after you
so, so well.' She was veiled; behind white-and-gold brocade I smelled her
traitress's smile; through soft veiling fabric she planted on my brow the kiss
of her revenge; and then she, who always wrought a dreadful revenge
upon those who loved her best, left me to the tender mercies of
pips-and-gongs… and after Jamila's treachery I remembered the long-ago
ostracism I suffered at the hands of Evie Burns; and exiles, and
picnic-tricks; and all the vast mountain of unreasonable occurrences
plaguing my life; and now, I lamented cucumber-nose, stain-face, bandy
legs, horn-temples, monk's tonsure, finger-loss, one-bad-ear, and the
numbing, braining spittoon; I wept copiously now, but still my name eluded
me, and I repeated-'Not fair; not fair, not fair!' And, surprisingly,
Ayooba-the-tank moved away from his corner; Ayooba, perhaps recalling
his own breakdown in the Sundarbans, squatted down in front of me and
wrapped his one good arm around my neck. I accepted his comfortings; I
cried into his shirt; but then there was a bee, buzzing towards us; while he
squatted, with his back to the glassless window of the hut, something came
whining through the overheated air; while he said, 'Hey, buddha-come on,
buddha-hey, hey!' and while other bees, the bees of deafness, buzzed in
his ears, something stung him in the neck. He made a popping noise deep
in his throat and fell forwards on top of me. The sniper's bullet which killed
Ayooba Baloch would, but for his presence, have speared me through the
head. In dying, he saved my life.
Forgetting past humiliations; putting aside fair-and-unfair, and
what-can't-be-cured-must-be-endured, I crawled out from under the corpse
of Ayooba-the-tank, while Farooq, 'O God O God O!' and Shaheed, 'Allah, I
don't even know if my gun will-' And Farooq, again, 'O God O! O God, who
knows where the bastard is-!' But Shaheed, like soldiers in films, is flat
against the wall beside the window. In these positions: I on the floor,
Farooq crouched in a corner, Shaheed pressed against dung-plaster: we
waited, helplessly, to see what would transpire.
There was no second shot; perhaps the sniper, not knowing the size of
the force hidden inside the mud-walled hut, had simply shot and run. The
three of us remained inside the hut for a night and a day, until the body of
Ayooba Baloch began to demand attention. Before we left, we found
pickaxes, and buried him… And afterwards, when the Indian Army did
come, there was no Ayooba Baloch to greet them with his theories of the
superiority of meat over vegetables; no Ayooba went into action, yelling,
'Ka-dang! Ka-blam! Ka-pow!!'
Perhaps it was just as well.
… And sometime in December the three of us, riding on stolen
bicycles, arrived at a field from which the city of Dacca could be seen
against the horizon; a field in which grew crops so strange, with
so-nauseous an aroma, that we found ourselves incapable of remaining on
our bicycles. Dismounting before we fell off, we entered the terrible field.
There was a scavenging peasant moving about, whistling as he
worked, with an outsize gunny sack on his back. The whitened knuckles of
the hand which gripped the sack revealed his determined frame of mind;
the whistling, which was piercing but tuneful, showed that he was keeping
his spirits up. The whistle echoed around the field, bouncing off fallen
helmets, resounding hollowly from the barrels of mud-blocked rifles, sinking
without trace into the fallen boots of the strange, strange crops, whose
smell, like the smell of unfairness, was capable of bringing tears to the
buddha's eyes. The crops were dead, having been hit by some unknown
blight… and most of them, but not all, wore the uniforms of the West
Pakistani Army. Apart from the whistling, the only noises to be heard were
the sounds of objects dropping into the peasant's treasure-sack: leather
belts, watches, gold tooth-fillings, spectacle frames, tiffin-carriers, water
flasks, boots. The peasant saw them and came running towards them,
smiling ingratiatingly, talking rapidly in a wheedling voice that only the
buddha was obliged to hear. Farooq and Shaheed stared glassily at the
field while the peasant began his explanations.
'Plenty shooting! Thaii! Ttiaiii!' He made a pistol with his right hand. He
was speaking bad, stilted Hindi. 'Ho sirs! India has come, my sirs! Ho yes!
Ho yes.'-And all over the field, the crops were leaking nourishing
bone-marrow into the soil while he, 'No shoot I, my sirs. Ho no. I have
news-ho, such news! India comes! Jessore is fall, my sirs; in one-four days,
Dacca, also, yes-no?' The buddha listened; the buddha's eyes looked
beyond the peasant to the field. 'Such a things, my sir! India! They have
one mighty soldier fellow, he can kill six persons at one time, break necks
khrikk-khrikk between his knees, my sirs? Knees-is right words?' He tapped
his own. 'I see, my sirs. With these eyes, ho yes! He fights with not guns,
not swords. With knees, and six necks go khrikk-khrikk. Ho God.' Shaheed
was vomiting in the field. Farooq Rashid had wandered to the far edge and
stood staring into a copse of mango trees. 'In one-two weeks is over the
war, my sirs! Everybody come back. Just now all gone, but I not, my sirs.
Soldiers came looking for Bahini and killed many many, also my son. Ho
yes, sirs, ho yes indeed.' The buddha's eyes had become clouded and dull.
In the distance he could hear the crump of heavy artillery. Columns of
smoke trailed up into the colourless December sky. The strange crops lay
still, unruffled by the breeze… 'I stay, my sirs. Here I know names of birds
and plants. Ho yes. I am Deshmukh by name; vendor of notions by trade. I
sell many so-fine thing. You want? Medicine for constipation, damn good,
ho yes. I have. Watch you want, glowing in the dark? I also have. And book
ho yes, and joke trick, truly. I was famous in Dacca before. Ho yes, most
truly. No shoot.'
The vendor of notions chattered on, offering for sale item after item,
such as a magical belt which would enable the wearer to speak Hindi-'I am
wearing now, my sir, speak damn good, yes no? Many India soldier are
buy, they talk so-many different tongues, the belt is godsend from
God!'-and then he noticed what the buddha held in his hand. 'Ho sir!
Absolute master thing! Is silver? Is precious stone? You give; I give radio,
camera, almost working order, my sir! Is a damn good deals, my friend. For
one spittoon only, is damn fine. Ho yes. Ho yes, my sir, life must go on;
trade must go on, my sir, not true?'
'Tell me more,' the buddha said, 'about the soldier with the knees.'
But now, once again, a bee buzzes; in the distance, at the far end of
the field, somebody drops to his knees; somebody's forehead touches the
ground as if in prayer; and in the field, one of the crops, which had been
alive enough to shoot, also becomes very still. Shaheed Dar is shouting a
'Farooq! Farooq, man!'
But Farooq refuses to reply.
Afterwards, when the buddha reminisced about the war to his uncle
Mustapha, he recounted how he had stumbled across the field of leaking
bonemarrow towards his fallen companion; and how, long before he
reached Farooq's praying corpse, he was brought up short by the field's
greatest secret.
There was a small pyramid in the middle of the field. Ants were
crawling over it, but it was not an anthill. The pyramid had six feet and three
heads and, in between, a jumbled area composed of bits of torso, scraps of
uniforms, lengths of intestine and glimpses of shattered bones. The
pyramid was still alive. One of its three heads had a blind left eye, the
legacy of a childhood argument. Another had hair that was thickly plastered
down with hair oil. The third head was the oddest: it had deep hollows
where the temples should have been, hollows that could have been made
by a gynaecologist's forceps which had held it too tightly at birth… it was
this third head which spoke to the buddha:
'Hullo, man,' it said, 'What the hell are you here for?'
Shaheed Dar saw the pyramid of enemy soldiers apparently
conversing with the buddha; Shaheed, suddenly seized by an irrational
energy, flung himself upon me and pushed me to the ground, with, 'Who
are you?-Spy? Traitor? What?-Why do they know who you-?' While
Deshmukh, the vendor of notions, flapped pitifully around us, 'Ho sirs!
Enough fighting has been already. Be normal now, my sirs. I beg. Ho God.'
Even if Shaheed had been able to hear me, I could not then have told
him what I later became convinced was the truth: that the purpose of that
entire war had been to re-unite me with an old life, to bring me back
together with my old friends. Sam Manekshaw was marching on Dacca, to
meet his old friend the Tiger; and the modes of connection lingered on,
because on the field of leaking bone-marrow I heard about the exploits of
knees, and was greeted by a dying pyramid of heads: and in Dacca I was
to meet Parvati-the-witch.
When Shaheed calmed down and got off me, the pyramid was no
longer capable of speech. Later that afternoon, we resumed our journey
towards the capital. Deshmukh, the vendor of notions, called cheerfully
after us: 'Ho sirs! Ho my poor sirs! Who knows when a man will die? Who,
my sirs, knows why?'
Sam and the Tiger
Sometimes, mountains must move before old comrades can be
reunited. On December 15th, 1971, in the capital of the newly liberated
state of Bangladesh, Tiger Niazi surrendered to his old chum Sam
Manekshaw; while I, in my turn, surrendered to the embraces of a girl with
eyes like saucers, a pony-tail like a long shiny black rope, and lips which
had not at that time acquired what was to become their characteristic pout.
These reunions were not achieved easily; and as a gesture of respect for
all who made them possible, I shall pause briefly in my narrative to set out
the whys and the wherefores.
Let me, then, be perfectly explicit: if Yahya Khan and Z. A. Bhutto had
not colluded in the matter of the coup of March 25th, I would not have been
flown to Dacca in civilian dress; nor, in all likelihood, would General Tiger
Niazi have been in the city that December. To continue: the Indian
intervention in the Bangladesh dispute was also the result of the interaction
of great forces. Perhaps, if ten million had not walked across the frontiers
into India, obliging the Delhi Government to spend $200,000,000 a month
on refugee camps-the entire war of 1965, whose secret purpose had been
the annihilation of my family, had cost them only $70,000,000!-Indian
soldiers, led by General Sam, would never have crossed the frontiers in the
opposite direction. But India came for other reasons, too: as I was to learn
from the Communist magicians who lived in the shadow of the Delhi Friday
Mosque, the Delhi sarkar had been highly concerned by the declining
influence of Mujib's Awami League, and the growing popularity of the
revolutionary Mukti Bahini; Sam and the Tiger met in Dacca to prevent the
Bahini from gaining power. So if it were not for the Mukti Bahini,
Parvati-the-witch might never have accompanied the Indian troops on their
campaign of 'liberation'… But even that is not a full explanation. A third
reason for Indian intervention was the fear that the disturbances in
Bangladesh would, if they were not quickly curtailed, spread across the
frontiers into West Bengal; so Sam and the Tiger, and also Parvati and I,
owe our meeting at least in part to the more turbulent elements in West
Bengali politics: the Tiger's defeat was only the beginning of a campaign
against the Left in Calcutta and its environs.
At any rate, India came; and for the speed of her coming-because in a
mere three weeks Pakistan had lost half her navy, a third of her army, a
quarter of her air force, and finally, after the Tiger surrendered, more than
half her population-thanks must be given to the Mukti Bahini once more;
because, perhaps naively, failing to understand that the Indian advance
was as much a tactical manoeuvre against them as a battle against the
occupying West Wing forces, the Bahini advised General Manekshaw on
Pakistani troop movements, on the Tiger's strengths and weaknesses;
thanks, too, to Mr Chou En-Lai, who refused (despite Bhutto's entreaties) to
give Pakistan any material aid in the war. Denied Chinese arms, Pakistan
fought with American guns, American tanks and aircraft; the President of
the United States, alone in the entire world, was resolved to 'tilt' towards
Pakistan. While Henry A. Kissinger argued the cause of Yahya Khan, the
same Yahya was secretly arranging the President's famous state visit to
China… there were, therefore, great forces working against my reunion
with Parvati and Sam's with the Tiger; but despite the tilting President, it
was all over in three short weeks.
On the night of December 14th, Shaheed Dar and the buddha circled
the fringes of the invested city of Dacca; but the buddha's nose (you will not
have forgotten) was capable of sniffing out more than most. Following his
nose, which could smell safety and danger, they found a way through the
Indian lines, and entered the city under cover of night. While they moved
stealthily through streets in which nobody except a few starving beggars
could be seen, the Tiger was swearing to fight to the last man; but the next
day, he surrendered instead. What is not known: whether the last man was
grateful to be spared or peeved at missing his chance of entering the
camphor garden.
And so I returned to that city in which, in those last hours before
reunions, Shaheed and I saw many things which were not true, which were
not possible, because our boys would not could not have behaved so
badly; we saw men in spectacles with heads like eggs being shot in
side-streets, we saw the intelligentsia of the city being massacred by the
hundred, but it was not true because it could not have been true, the Tiger
was a decent chap, after all, and our jawans were worth ten babus, we
moved through the impossible hallucination of the night, hiding in doorways
while fires blossomed like flowers, reminding me of the way the Brass
Monkey used to set fire to shoes to attract a little attention, there were slit
throats being buried in unmarked graves, and Shaheed began his, 'No,
buddha-what a thing, Allah, you can't believe your eyes-no, not true, how
can it-buddha, tell, what's got into my eyes?' And at last the buddha spoke,
knowing Shaheed could not hear: 'O, Shaheeda,' he said, revealing the
depths of his fastidiousness, 'a person must sometimes choose what he
will see and what he will not; look away, look away from there now.' But
Shaheed was staring at a maidan in which lady doctors were being
bayoneted before they were raped, and raped again before they were shot.
Above them and behind them, the cool white minaret of a mosque stared
blindly down upon the scene.
As though talking to himself, the buddha said, 'It is time to think about
saving our skins; God knows why we came back.' The buddha entered the
doorway of a deserted house, a broken, peeling shell of an edifice which
had once housed a tea-shop, a bicycle-repair shop, a whorehouse and a
tiny landing on which a notary public must once have sat, because there
was the low desk on which he had left behind a pair of half-rimmed
spectacles, there were the abandoned seals and stamps which had once
enabled him to be more than an old nobody-stamps and seals which had
made him an arbiter of what was true and what was not. The notary public
was absent, so I could not ask him to verify what was happening, I could
not give a deposition under oath; but lying on the mat behind his desk was
a loose flowing garment like a djellabah, and without waiting any longer I
removed my uniform, including the she-dog badge of the cutia units, and
became anonymous, a deserter, in a city whose language I could not
Shaheed Dar, however, remained in the street; in the first light of
what-had-not-been-done; and then the grenade came. I, the buddha, was
still inside the empty house; but Shaheed was unprotected by walls.
Who can say why how who; but the grenade was certainly thrown. In
that last instant of his un-bisected life, Shaheed was suddenly seized by an
irresistible urge to look up… afterwards, in the muezzin's roost, he told the
buddha, 'So strange, Allah-the pomegranate-in my head, just like that,
bigger an' brighter than ever before-you know, buddha, like a
light-bulb-Allah, what could I do, I looked!'-And yes, it was there, hanging
above his head, the grenade of his dreams, hanging just above his head,
falling falling, exploding at waist-level, blowing his legs away to some other
part of the city.
When I reached him, Shaheed was conscious, despite bisection, and
pointed up, 'Take me up there, buddha, I want to I want,' so I carried what
was now only half a boy (and therefore reasonably light) up narrow spiral
stairs to the heights of that cool white minaret, where Shaheed babbled of
light-bulbs while red ants and black ants fought over a dead cockroach,
battling away along the trowel-furrows in the crudely-laid concrete floor.
Down below, amid charred houses, broken glass and smoke-haze, antlike
people were emerging, preparing for peace; the ants, however, ignored the
antlike, and fought on. And the buddha: he stood still, gazing milkily down
and around, . having placed himself between the top half of Shaheed and
eyrie's one piece of furniture, a low table on which stood a gramophone
connected to a loudspeaker. The buddha, protecting his halved companion
from the disillusioning sight of this mechanized muezzin, whose call to
prayer would always be scratched in the same places, extracted from the
folds of his shapeless robe a glinting object: and turned his milky gaze
upon the silver spittoon. Lost in contemplation, he was taken by surprise
when the screams began; and looked up to see an abandoned cockroach.
(Blood had been seeping along trowel-furrows; ants, following this dark
viscous trail, had arrived at the source of the leakage, and Shaheed
expressed his fury at becoming the victim of not one, but two wars.)
Coming to the rescue, feet dancing on ants, the buddha bumped his
elbow against a switch; the loudspeaker system was activated, and
afterwards people would never forget how a mosque had screamed out the
terrible agony of war.
After a few moments, silence. Shaheed's head slumped forward. And
the buddha, fearing discovery, put away his spittoon and descended into
the city as the Indian Army arrived; leaving Shaheed, who no longer
minded, to assist at the peacemaking banquet of the ants, I went into the
early morning streets to welcome General Sam.
In the minaret, I had gazed milkily at my spittoon; but the buddha's
mind had not been empty. It contained three words, which Shaheed's top
half had also kept repeating, until the ants: the same three which once,
reeking of onions, had made me weep on the shoulder of Ayooba
Baloch-until the bee, buzzing… 'It's not fair,' the buddha thought, and then,
like a child, over and over, 'It's not fair,' and again, and again.
Shaheed, fulfilling his father's dearest wish, had finally earned his
name; but the buddha could still not remember his own.
How the buddha regained his name: Once, long ago, on another
independence day, the world had been saffron and green. This morning,
the colours were green, red and gold. And in the cities, cries of 'Jai Bangla!'
And voices of women singing 'Our Golden Bengal', maddening their hearts
with delight… in the centre of the city, on the podium of his defeat, General
Tiger Niazi awaited General Manekshaw. (Biographical details: Sam was a
Parsee. He came from Bombay. Bombayites were in for happy times that
day.) And amid green and red and gold, the buddha in his shapeless
anonymous garment was jostled by crowds; and then India came. India,
with Sam at her head.
Was it General Sam's idea? Or even Indira's?-Eschewing these
fruitless questions, I record only that the Indian advance into Dacca was
much more than a mere military parade; as befits a triumph, it was
garlanded with side-shows. A special I.A.F. troop transport had flown to
Dacca, carrying a hundred and one of the finest entertainers and conjurers
India could provide. From the famous magicians' ghetto in Delhi they came,
many of them dressed for the occasion in the evocative uniforms of the
Indian fauj, so that many Daccans got the idea that the Indians' victory had
been inevitable from the start because even their uniformed jawans were
sorcerers of the highest order. The conjurers and other artistes marched
beside the troops, entertaining the crowds; there were acrobats forming
human pyramids on moving carts drawn by white bullocks; there were
extraordinary female contortionists who could swallow their legs up to their
knees; there were jugglers who operated outside the laws of gravity, so that
they could draw oohs and aahs from the delighted crowd as they juggled
with toy grenades, keeping four hundred and twenty in the air at a time;
there were card-tricksters who could pull the queen of chiriyas (the
monarch of birds, the empress of clubs) out of women's ears; there was the
great dancer Anarkali, whose name meant 'pomegranate-bud', doing leaps
twists pirouettes on a donkey-cart while a giant piece of silver
nose-jewellery jingled on her right nostril; there was Master Vikram the
sitarist, whose sitar was capable of responding to, and exaggerating, the
faintest emotions in the hearts of his audience, so that once (it was said) he
had played before an audience so bad-tempered, and had so greatly
enhanced their foul humour, that if his tabla-player hadn't made him stop
his raga in mid-stream the power of his music would have had them all
knifing each other and smashing up the auditorium… today, Master
Vikram's music raised the celebratory goodwill of the people to fever-pitch;
it maddened, let us say, their hearts with delight.
And there was Picture Singh himself, a seven-foot giant who weighed
two hundred and forty pounds and was known as the Most Charming Man
In The World because of his unsurpassable skills as a snake-charmer. Not
even the legendary Tubriwallahs of Bengal could exceed his talents; he
strode through the happily shrieking crowds, twined from head to foot with
deadly cobras, mambas and kraits, all with their poison-sacs intact…
Picture Singh, who would be the last in the line of men who have been
willing to become my fathers… and immediately behind him came
Parvati-the-witch entertained the crowds with the help of a large wicker
basket with a lid; happy volunteers entered the basket, and Parvati made
them disappear so completely that they could not return until she wished
them to; Parvati, to whom midnight had given the true gifts of sorcery, had
placed them at the service of her humble illusionist's trade; so that she was
asked, 'But how do you pull it off?'
And, 'Come on, pretty missy, tell the trick, why not?'-Parvati, smiling
beaming rolling her magic basket, came towards me with the liberating
The Indian Army marched into town, its heroes following the
magicians; among them, I learned afterwards, was that colossus of the war,
the rat-faced Major with the lethal knees… but now there were still more
illusionists, because the surviving prestidigitators of the city came out of
hiding and began a wonderful contest, seeking to outdo anything and
everything the visiting magicians had to offer, and the pain of the city was
washed and soothed in the great glad outpouring of their magic. Then
Parvati-the-witch saw me, and gave me back my name.
'Saleem! O my god Saleem, you Saleem Sinai, is it you Saleem?'
The buddha jerks, puppet-fashion. Crowd-eyes staring. Parvati
pushing towards him. 'Listen, it must be you!' She is gripping his elbow.
Saucer eyes searching milky blue. 'My God, that nose, I'm not being rude,
but of course! Look, it's me, Parvati! O Saleem, don't be stupid now, come
on come on…!'
'That's it,' the buddha says. 'Saleem: that was it.'
'O God, too much excitement!' she cries. 'Arre baap, Saleem, you
remember-the Children, yaar, O this is too good! So why are you looking so
serious when I feel like to hug you to pieces? So many years I only saw
you inside here,' she taps her forehead, 'and now you're here with a face
like a fish. Hey, Saleem! Come on, say one hullo at least.'
On December 15th, 1971, Tiger Niazi surrendered to Sam
Manek-shaw; the Tiger and ninety-three thousand Pakistani troops became
prisoners of war. I, meanwhile, became the willing captive of the Indian
magicians, because Parvati dragged me into the procession with, 'Now that
I've found you I'm not letting you go.'
That night, Sam and the Tiger drank chota pegs and reminisced about
the old days in the British Army. 'I say, Tiger,' Sam Manekshaw said, 'You
behaved jolly decently by surrendering.' And the Tiger, 'Sam, you fought
one hell of a war.' A tiny cloud passes across the face of General Sam,
'Listen, old sport: one hears such damn awful lies. Slaughters, old boy,
mass graves, special units called cutia or some damn thing, developed for
purposes of rooting out opposition… no truth in it, I suppose?' And the
Tiger, 'Canine Unit for Tracking and Intelligence Activities? Never heard of
it. Must've been misled, old man. Some damn bad intelligence-wallahs on
both sides. No, ridiculous, damn ridiculous, if you don't mind me saying.'
'Thought as much,' says General Sam, 'I say, bloody fine to see you, Tiger,
you old devil!' And the Tiger, 'Been years, eh, Sam? Too damn long.'
… While old friends sang 'Auld Lang Syne' in officers' messes, I made
my escape from Bangladesh, from my Pakistani years. 'I'll get you out,'
Parvati said, after I explained. 'You want it secret secret?'
I nodded. 'Secret secret.'
Elsewhere in the city, ninety-three thousand soldiers were preparing to
be carted off to P.O.W. camps; but Parvati-the-witch made me climb into a
wicker basket with a close-fitting lid. Sam Manekshaw was obliged to place
his old friend the Tiger under protective custody; but Parvati-the-witch
assured me, 'This way they'll never catch.'
Behind an army barracks where the magicians were awaiting their
transport back to Delhi, Picture Singh, the Most Charming Man In The
World, stood guard when, that evening, I climbed into the basket of
invisibility. We loitered casually, smoking bins, waiting until there were no
soldiers in sight, while Picture Singh told me about his name. Twenty years
ago, an Eastman-Kodak photographer had taken his portrait-which,
wreathed in smiles and snakes, afterwards appeared on half the Kodak
advertisements and in-store displays in India; ever since when the
snake-charmer had adopted his present cognomen. 'What do you think,
captain?' he bellowed amiably. 'A fine name, isn't it so? Captain, what to
do, I can't even remember what name I used to have, from before, the
name my mother-father gave me! Pretty stupid, hey, captain?' But Picture
Singh was not stupid; and there was much more to him than charm.
Suddenly his voice lost its casual, sleepy good-nature; he whispered, 'Now!
Now, captain, ek dum, double-quick time!' Parvati whipped lid away from
wicker; I dived head first into her cryptic basket. The lid, returning, blocked
out the day's last light.
Picture Singh whispered, 'Okay, captain-damn good!' And Parvati bent
down close to me; her lips must have been against the outside of the
basket. What Parvati-the-witch whispered through wickerwork:
'Hey, you Saleem: just to think! You and me, mister-midnight's
children, yaar! That's something, no?'
That's something… Saleem, shrouded in wickerwork darkness, was
reminded of years-ago midnights, of childhood wrestling bouts with purpose
and meaning; overwhelmed by nostalgia, I still did not understand what that
something was. Then Parvati whispered some other words, and, inside the
basket of invisibility, I, Saleem Sinai, complete with my loose anonymous
garment, vanished instantly into thin air.
'Vanished? How vanished, what vanished?' Padma's head jerks up;
Padma's eyes stare at me in bewilderment. I, shrugging, merely reiterate;
Vanished, just like that. Disappeared. Dematerialized. Like a djinn: poof,
like so.
'So,' Padma presses me, 'she really-truly was a witch?' Really-truly. I
was in the basket, but also not in the basket; Picture Singh lifted it
one-handed and tossed it into the back of the Army truck taking him and
Parvati and ninety-nine others to the aircraft waiting at the military airfield; I
was tossed with the basket, but also not tossed. Afterwards, Picture Singh
said, 'No, captain, I couldn't feel your weight'; nor could I feel any bump
thump bang. One hundred and one artistes had arrived, by I.A.F. troop
transport, from the capital of India; one hundred and two persons returned,
although one of them was both there and not there. Yes, magic spells can
occasionally succeed. But also fail: my father, Ahmed Sinai, never
succeeded in cursing Sherri, the mongrel bitch.
Without passport or permit, I returned, cloaked in invisibility, to the land
of my birth; believe, don't believe, but even a sceptic will have to provide
another explanation for my presence here. Did not the Caliph Haroun
al-Rashid (in an earlier set of fabulous tales) also wander, unseen invisible
anonymous, cloaked through the streets of Baghdad? What Haroun
achieved in Baghdad streets, Parvati-the-witch made possible for me, as
we flew through the air-lanes of the subcontinent. She did it; I was invisible;
bas. Enough.
Memories of invisibility: in the basket, I learned what it was like, will be
like, to be dead. I had acquired the characteristics of ghosts! Present, but
insubstantial; actual, but without being or weight… I discovered, in the
basket, how ghosts see the world. Dimly hazily faintly… it was around me,
but only just; I hung in a sphere of absence at whose fringes, like faint
reflections, could be seen the spectres of wickerwork. The dead die, and
are gradually forgotten; time does its healing, and they fade-but in Parvati's
basket I learned that the reverse is also true; that ghosts, too, begin to
forget; that the dead lose their memories of the living, and at last, when
they are detached from their lives, fade away-that dying, in short, continues
for a long time after death. Afterwards, Parvati said, 'I didn't want to tell
you-but nobody should be kept invisible that long-it was dangerous, but
what else was there to do?'
In the grip of Parvati's sorcery, I felt my hold on the world slip
away-and how easy, how peaceful not to never to return!-to float in this
cloudy nowhere, wafting further further further, like a seed-spore blown on
the breeze-in short, I was in mortal danger.
What I held on to in that ghostly time-and-space: a silver spittoon.
Which, transformed like myself by Parvati-whispered words, was
nevertheless a reminder of the outside… clutching finely-wrought silver,
which glittered even in that nameless dark, I survived. Despite head-to-toe
numbness, I was saved, perhaps, by the glints of my precious souvenir.
No-there was more to it than spittoons: for, as we all know by now, our
hero is greatly affected by being shut up in confined spaces.
Transformations spring upon him in the enclosed dark. As a mere embryo
in the secrecy of a womb (not his mother's), did he not grow into the
incarnation of the new myth of August 15th, the child of ticktock-did he not
emerge as the Mubarak, the Blessed Child? In a cramped wash-room,
were name-tags not switched around? Alone in a washing-chest with a
drawstring up one nostril, did he not glimpse a Black Mango and sniff too
hard, turning himself and his upper cucumber into a kind of supernatural
ham radio? Hemmed in by doctors, nurses and anaesthetic masks, did he
not succumb to numbers and, having suffered drainage-above, move into a
second phase, that of nasal philosopher and (later) tracker supreme?
Squashed, in a small abandoned hut, beneath the body of Ayooba Baloch,
did he not learn the meaning of fair-and-unfair? Well, then-trapped in the
occult peril of the basket of invisibility, I was saved, not only by the glints of
a spittoon, but also by another transformation: in the grip of that awful
disembodied loneliness, whose smell was the smell of graveyards, I
discovered anger.
Something was fading in Saleem and something was being born.
Fading: an old pride in baby-snaps and framed Nehru-letter; an old
determination to espouse, willingly, a prophesied historical role; and also a
willingness to make allowances, to understand how parents and strangers
might legitimately despise or exile him for his ugliness; mutilated fingers
and monks' tonsures no longer seemed like good enough excuses for the
way in which he, I, had been treated. The object of my wrath was, in fact,
everything which I had, until then, blindly accepted: my parents' desire that
I should repay their investment in me by becoming great;
genius-Iike-a-shawl; the modes of connection themselves inspired in me a
blind, lunging fury. Why me? Why, owing to accidents of birth prophecy
etcetera, must I be responsible for language riots and after-Nehru-who, for
pepperpot-revolutions and bombs which annihilated my family? Why should
I, Saleem Snotnose, Sniffer, Mapface, Piece-of-the-Moon, accept the
blame for what-was-not-done by Pakistani troops in Dacca?… Why, alone
of all the more-than-five-hundred-million, should I have to bear the burden
of history?
What my discovery of unfairness (smelling of onions) had begun, my
invisible rage completed. Wrath enabled me to survive the soft siren
temptations of invisibility; anger made me determined, after I was released
from vanishment in the shadow of a Friday Mosque, to 'begin, from that
moment forth, to choose my own, undestined future. And there, in the
silence of graveyard-reeking isolation, I heard the long-ago voice of the
virginal Mary Pereira, singing:
@@@Anything you want to be, you kin be,
You kin be just what-all you want.
Tonight, as I recall my rage, I remain perfectly calm; the Widow
drained anger out of me along with everything else. Remembering my
basket-born rebellion against inevitability, I even permit myself a wry,
understanding smile. 'Boys,' I mutter tolerantly across the years to
Saleem-at-twenty-four, 'will be boys.' In the Widows' Hostel, I was taught,
harshly, once-and-for-all, the lesson of No Escape; now, seated hunched
over paper in a pool of Anglepoised light, I no longer want to be anything
except what who I am. Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of
everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything
done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected
was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I've gone which
would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particulary
exceptional in this matter; each 'I', every one of the
now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for
the last time: to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world.
Although now, as the pouring-out of what-was-inside-me nears an end;
as cracks widen within-I can hear and feel the rip tear crunch-I begin to
grow thinner, translucent almost; there isn't much of me left, and soon there
will be nothing at all. Six hundred million specks of dust, and all
transparent, invisible as glass…
But then I was angry. Glandular hyper-activity in a wicker amphora:
eccrine and apocrine glands poured forth sweat and stink, as if I were
trying to shed my fate through my pores; and, in fairness to my wrath, I
must record that it claimed one instant achievement-that when I tumbled
out of the basket of invisibility into the shadow of the mosque, I had been
rescued by rebellion from the abstraction of numbness; as I bumped out on
to the dirt of the magicians' ghetto, silver spittoon in hand, I realized that I
had begun, once again, to feel.
Some afflictions, at least, are capable of being conquered.
The shadow of the Mosque
No shadow of a doubt: an acceleration is taking place. Rip crunch
crack-while road surfaces split in the awesome heat, I, too, am being
hurried towards disintegration. What-gnaws-on-bones (which, as I have
been regularly obliged to explain to the too many women around me, is far
beyond the powers of medicine men to discern, much less to cure) will not
be denied for long; and still so much remains to be told… Uncle Mustapha
is growing inside me, and the pout of Parvati-the-witch; a certain lock of
hero's hair is waiting in the wings; and also a labour of thirteen days, and
history as an analogue of a prime minister's hair-style; there is to be
treason, and fare-dodging, and the scent (wafting on breezes heavy with
the ululations of widows) of something frying in an iron skillet… so that I,
too, am forced to accelerate, to make a wild dash for the finishing line;
before memory cracks beyond hope of re-assembly, I must breast the tape.
(Although already, already there are fadings, and gaps; it will be necessary
to improvise on occasion.)
Twenty-six pickle-jars stand gravely on a shelf; twenty-six special
blends, each with its identifying label, neatly inscribed with familiar phrases:
'Movements Performed by Pepperpots', for instance, or 'Alpha and Omega',
or 'Commander Sabarmati's Baton'. Twenty-six rattle eloquently when local
trains go yellow-and-browning past; on my desk, five empty jars tinkle
urgently, reminding me of my uncompleted task. But now I cannot linger
over empty pickle-jars; the night is for words, and green chutney must wait
its turn.
… Padma is wistful: 'O, mister, how lovely Kashmir must be in August,
when here it is hot like a chilli!' I am obliged to reprove my
plump-yet-muscled companion, whose attention has been wandering; and
to observe that our Padma Bibi, long-suffering tolerant consoling, is
beginning to behave exactly like a traditional Indian wife. (And I, with my
distances and self-absorption, like a husband?) Of late, in spite of my stoic
fatalism about the spreading cracks, I have smelled, on Padma's breath,
the dream of an alternative (but impossible) future; ignoring the implacable
finalities of inner fissures, she has begun to exude the bitter-sweet
fragrance of hope-for-marriage. My dung-lotus, who remained impervious
for so long to the sneer-lipped barbs hurled by our workforce of
downy-forearmed women; who placed her cohabitation with me outside
and above all codes of social propriety, has seemingly succumbed to a
desire for legitimacy… in short, although she has not said a word on the
subject, she is waiting for me to make an honest woman of her. The
perfume of her sad hopefulness permeates her most innocently solicitous
remarks-even at this very moment, as she, 'Hey, mister, why not-finish your
writery and then take rest; go to Kashmir, sit quietly for some time-and
maybe you will take your Padma also, and she can look after…?' Behind
this burgeoning dream of a Kashmir! holiday (which was once also the
dream of Jehangir, the Mughal Emperor; of poor forgotten Ilse Lubin; and,
perhaps, of Christ himself), I nose out the presence of another dream; but
neither this nor that can be fulfilled. Because now the cracks, the cracks
and always the cracks are narrowing my future towards its single
inescapable fullpoint; and even Padma must take a back seat if I'm to finish
my tales.
Today, the papers are talking about the supposed political rebirth of
Mrs. Indira Gandhi; but when I returned to India, concealed in a wicker
basket, 'The Madam' was basking in the fullness of her glory. Today,
perhaps, we are already forgetting, sinking willingly into the insidious
clouds of amnesia; but I remember, and will set down, how I-how she-how
it happened that-no, I can't say it, I must tell it in the proper order, until
there is no option but to reveal… On December 16th, 1971, I tumbled out of
a basket into an India in which Mrs. Gandhi's New Congress Party held a
more-than-two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.
In the basket of invisibility, a sense of unfairness turned into anger;
and something else besides-transformed by rage, I had also been
overwhelmed by an agonizing feeling of sympathy for the country which
was not only my twin-in-birth but also joined to me (so to speak) at the hip,
so that what happened to either of us, happened to us both. If I, snot-nosed
stain-faced etcetera, had had a hard time of it, then so had she, my
subcontinental twin sister; and now that I had given myself the right to
choose a better future, I was resolved that the nation should share it, too. I
think that when I tumbled out into dust, shadow and amused cheers, I had
already decided to save the country.
(But there are cracks and gaps… had I, by then, begun to see that my
love for Jamila Singer had been, in a sense, a mistake? Had I already
understood how I had simply transferred on to her shoulders the adoration
which I now perceived to be a vaulting, all-encompassing love of country?
When was it that I realized that my truly-incestuous feelings were for my
true birth-sister, India herself, and not for that trollop of a crooner who had
so callously shed me, like a used snake-skin, and dropped me into the
metaphorical waste-basket of Army life? When when when?… Admitting
defeat, I am forced to record that I cannot remember for sure.)
… Saleem sat blinking in the dust in the shadow of the mosque. A
giant was standing over him, grinning hugely, asking, 'Achha, captain, have
a good trip?' And Parvati, with huge excited eyes, pouring water from a
lotah into his cracked, salty mouth… Feeling! The icy touch of water kept
cool in earthenware surahis, the cracked soreness of parched-raw lips,
silver-and-lapis clenched in a fist… 'I can feel!' Saleem cried to the
good-natured crowd.
It was the time of afternoon called the chaya, when the shadow of the
tall red-brick-and-marble Friday Mosque fell across the higgledy shacks of
the slum clustered at its feet, that slum whose ramshackle tin roofs created
such a swelter of heat that it was insupportable to be inside the fragile
shacks except during the chaya and at night… but now conjurers and
contortionists and jugglers and fakirs had gathered in the shade around the
solitary stand-pipe to greet the new arrival. 'I can feel!' I cried, and then
Picture Singh, 'Okay, captain-tell us, how it feels?-to be born again, falling
like baby out of Parvati's basket?' I could smell amazement on Picture
Singh; he was clearly astounded by Parvati's trick, but, like a true
professional, would not dream of asking her how she had achieved it. In
this way Parvati-the-witch, who had used her limitless powers to spirit me
to safety, escaped discovery; and also because, as I later discovered, the
ghetto of the magicians disbelieved, with the absolute certainty of
illusionists-by-trade, in the possibility of magic. So Picture Singh told me,
with amazement, 'I swear, captain-you were so light in there, like a
baby!'-But he never dreamed that my weightlessness had been anything
more than a trick.
'Listen, baby sahib,' Picture Singh was crying, 'What do you say,
baby-captain? Must I put you over my shoulder and make you belch?'-And
now Parvati, tolerantly: 'That one, baba, always making joke shoke.' She
was smiling radiantly at everyone in sight… but there followed an
inauspicious event. A woman's voice began to wail at the back of the
cluster of magicians: 'Ai-o-ai-o! Ai-o-o!' The crowd parted in surprise and an
old woman burst through it and rushed at Saleem; I was required to defend
myself against a brandished frying pan, until Picture Singh, alarmed, seized
her by pan-waving arm and bellowed, 'Hey, capteena, why so much noise?'
And the old woman, obstinately: 'Ai-o-ai-o!'
'Resham Bibi,' Parvati said, crossly, 'You got ants in your brain?' And
Picture Singh, 'We got a guest, capteena-what'll he do with your shouting?
Arre, be quiet, Resham, this captain is known to our Parvati personal! Don't
be coming crying in front of him!'
'Ai-o-ai-o! Bad luck is come! You go to foreign places and bring it here!
Disturbed visages of magicians stared from Resham Bibi to
me-because although they were a people who denied the supernatural,
they were artistes, and like all performers had an implicit faith in luck,
good-luck-and-bad-luck, luck… 'Yourself you said,' Resham Bibi wailed,
'this man is born twice, and not even from woman! Now comes desolation,
pestilence and death. I am old and so I know. Arre baba,' she turned
plaintively to face me, 'Have pity only; go now-go go quick!' There was a
murmur-'It is true, Resham Bibi knows the old stories'-but then Picture
Singh became angry. 'The captain is my honoured guest,' he said, 'He
stays in my hut as long as he wishes, for short or for long. What are you all
talking? This is no place for fables.'
Saleem Sinai's first sojourn at the magicians' ghetto lasted only a
matter of days; but during that short time, a number of things happened to
allay the fears which had been raised by ai-o-ai-o. The plain, unadorned
truth is that, in those days, the ghetto illusionists and other artistes began to
hit new peaks of achievement-jugglers managed to keep one thousand and
one balls in the air at a time, and a fakir's as-yet-untrained protegee
strayed on to a bed of hot coals, only to stroll across it unconcerned, as
though she had acquired her mentor's gifts by osmosis; I was told that the
rope-trick had been successfully performed. Also, the police failed to make
their monthly raid on the ghetto, which had not happened within living
memory; and the camp received a constant stream of visitors, the servants
of the rich, requesting the professional services of one or more of the
colony at this or that gala evening's entertainment… it seemed, in fact, as
though Resham Bibi had got things the wrong way round, and I rapidly
became very popular in the ghetto. I was dubbed Saleem Kismeti, Lucky
Saleem; Parvati was congratulated on having brought me to the slum. And
finally Picture Singh brought Resham Bibi to apologize.
'Pol'gize,' Resham said toothlessly and fled; Picture Singh added, 'It is
hard for the old ones; their brains go raw