The Mountain Shadow
The Source of all things, the luminescence, has more forms than heaven’s stars, sure. And one good thought is all it takes to make it shine. But a single mistake can burn down a forest in your heart, hiding all the stars, in all the skies. And while a mistake’s still burning, ruined love or lost faith can make you think you’re done, and you can’t go on. But it’s not true. It’s never true. No matter what you do, no matter where you’re lost, the luminescence never leaves you. Any good thing that dies inside can rise again, if you want it hard enough. The heart doesn’t know how to quit, because it doesn’t know how to lie. You lift your eyes from the page, fall into the smile of a perfect stranger, and the searching starts all over again. It’s not what it was. It’s always different. It’s always something else. But the new forest that grows back in a scarred heart is sometimes wilder and stronger than it was before the fire. And if you stay there, in that shine within yourself, that new place for the light, forgiving everything and never giving up, sooner or later you’ll always find yourself right back there where love and beauty made the world: at the beginning. The beginning. The beginning.
‘Hey, Lin, what a beginning to my day!’ Vikram shouted from somewhere in the dark, humid room. ‘How did you find me? When did you get back?’
‘Just now,’ I answered, standing at the wide French doors that opened onto the street-front veranda of the room. ‘One of the boys told me you were here. Come out for a minute.’
‘No, no, come on in, man!’ Vikram laughed. ‘Meet the guys!’
I hesitated. My eyes, bright with sky, couldn’t see more than lumps of shadow in the dark room. All I could see clearly were two swords of sunlight, stabbing through closed shutters, piercing swirling clouds scented by aromatic hashish and the burnt vanilla of brown heroin.
Remembering that day, the drug-smell and the shadows and the burning light cutting across the room, I’ve asked myself if it was intuition that held me there at the threshold, and stopped me from going in. I’ve asked myself how different my life might’ve been if I’d turned and walked away.
The choices we make are branches in the tree of possibility. For three monsoons after that day, Vikram and the strangers in that room were new branches in a forest we shared for a while: an urban woodland of love, death and resurrection.
What I remember clearly, from that flinch of hesitation, that moment I didn’t think was important at all at the time, is that when Vikram stepped from the darkness and grabbed my arm, dragging me inside, I shivered at the touch of his sweating hand.
A huge bed, extending three metres from the left-hand wall, dominated the big rectangular room. There was a man, or a dead body, it seemed, dressed in silver pyjamas and stretched out on the bed, with both hands folded across his chest.
His chest, so far as I could tell, didn’t rise or fall. Two men, one on the left of the still figure, one on the right, sat on the bed and prepared chillum pipes.
On the wall above, directly over the head of the dead or deeply sleeping man, was a huge painting of Zoroaster, the prophet of the Parsi faith.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw three large chairs, separated by two heavy antique chests of drawers set against the far wall opposite the veranda, with a man sitting in each of them.
There was a very large, expensive Persian carpet on the floor, and various photographs of figures wearing traditional Parsi dress. To my right, opposite the bed, a hi-fi system rested on a marble-topped dresser. Two ceiling fans rotated just slowly enough not to irritate the clouds of smoke in the room.
Vikram led me past the bed to meet the man sitting in the first of the three chairs. He was a foreigner, like myself, but taller: his long body and even longer legs sprawled in the chair as if he was floating in a bath. I guessed him to be about thirty-five years old.
‘This is Concannon,’ Vikram said, urging me forward. ‘He’s in the IRA.’
The hand that shook mine was warm and dry and very strong.
‘Fock the IRA!’ he said, pronouncing the first word in the accent of Northern Ireland. ‘I’m an Ulster man, UVF, but I can’t expect a heathen cunt like Vikram to understand that, can I?’
I liked the confident gleam in his eye. I didn’t like the confident words in his mouth. I withdrew my hand, nodding to him.
‘Don’t listen to him,’ Vikram said. ‘He talks a lot of weird shit, but he knows how to party like no foreigner I ever met, let me tell you.’
He pulled me toward the second man in the row of chairs. Just as I approached him, the young man puffed alight a hashish chillum, lit by the man from the third chair. As the flame from the matches was sucked into the pipe, a sudden burst of fire leaped from the bowl of the chillum and flared above the young man’s head.
‘Bom shankar!’ Vikram shouted, reaching out for the pipe. ‘Lin, this is Naveen Adair. He’s a private detective. Honest to God. And Naveen, this is Lin, the guy I’ve been telling you about. He’s a doctor, in the slum.’
The young man stood to shake my hand.
‘You know,’ he said with a wry smile, ‘I’m not much of a detective, yet.’
‘That’s okay,’ I smiled back at him. ‘I’m not much of a doctor, period.’
The third man, who’d lit the chillum, took a puff and offered me the pipe. I smiled it away, and he passed it instead to one of the men on the bed.
‘I’m Vinson,’ he said, with a handshake like a big, happy puppy. ‘Stuart Vinson. I’ve heard, like, a lot about you, man.’
‘Every cunt has heard about Lin,’ Concannon said, accepting a pipe from one of the men on the bed. ‘Vikram goes on and on about you, like a fuckin’ groupie. Lin this, Lin that, and Lin the other fuckin’ thing. Tell me, have you sucked his cock yet, Vikram? Was he any good, or is it all talk?’
‘Jesus, Concannon!’ Vinson said.
‘What?’ Concannon asked, eyes wide. ‘What? I’m only askin’ the man a question. India’s still a free country, isn’t it? At least, the parts where they speak English.’
‘Don’t mind him,’ Vinson said to me, shrugging an apology. ‘He can’t help it. He has, like, Asshole Tourette’s or something.’
Stuart Vinson, an American, had a strong physique, wide, clear features and a thick shock of wind-strewn blonde hair, which gave him the look of a sea adventurer, a solo yachtsman. In fact, he was a drug dealer, and a pretty successful one. I’d heard about him, just as he’d heard about me.
‘This is Jamal,’ Vikram said, ignoring Vinson and Concannon and introducing me to the man sitting on the left of the bed. ‘He imports it, rubs it, rolls it and smokes it. He’s a One Man Show.’
‘One Man Show,’ Jamal repeated.
He was thin, chameleon-eyed, and covered in religious amulets. I started counting them, hypnotised by holiness, and got to five major faiths before my eyes strayed into his smile.
‘One Man Show,’ I said.
‘One Man Show,’ he repeated.
‘One Man Show,’ I said.
‘One Man Show,’ he repeated.
I would’ve said it again, but Vikram stopped me.
‘This is Billy Bhasu,’ Vikram said, gesturing toward the small, very slight, cream-skinned man sitting on the other side of the still figure. Billy Bhasu put his palms together in a greeting, and continued to clean one of the chillums.
‘Billy Bhasu is a bringer,’ Vikram announced. ‘He’ll bring whatever you want. Anything at all, from a girl to an ice cream. Test him. It’s true. Ask him to fetch you an ice cream. He’ll bring it, right now. Ask him!’
‘I don’t want –’
‘Billy, go get Lin an ice cream!’
‘At once,’ Billy replied, putting the chillum aside.
‘No, Billy,’ I said, raising a palm. ‘I don’t want an ice cream.’
‘But you love ice cream,’ Vikram observed.
‘Not enough to send somebody for it, Vikram. Settle down, man.’
‘If he’s gonna bring somethin’,’ Concannon called from the shadows, ‘my vote’s for the ice cream and the girl. Two girls. And he should fuckin’ get on with it.’
‘You hear that, Billy?’ Vikram urged.
He stepped closer to Billy, and began to drag him from the bed for the ice cream, but a voice, deep and resonant, came from the prone figure on the bed, and Vikram froze as if he was facing a gun.
‘Vikram,’ the voice said. ‘You’re killing my high, man.’
‘Oh, shit! Oh, shit! Oh, shit! Sorry, Dennis,’ Vikram stuttered. ‘I was just introducing Lin around, to all the guys, and –’
‘Lin,’ the figure on the bed said, opening his eyes to stare at me.
They were surprisingly light, grey-coloured eyes, with a velvet radiance.
‘My name’s Dennis. I’m glad to meet you. Make yourself at home. Mi casa, es su casa.’
I stepped forward, shook the limp bird’s wing that Dennis raised for me, and stepped back again to the foot of the bed. Dennis followed me with his eyes. His mouth settled into a gentle smile of benediction.
‘Wow!’ Vinson said softly, coming to stand beside me. ‘Dennis, man! Good to see you back! Like, how was it on the other side?’
‘Quiet,’ Dennis intoned, still smiling at me. ‘Very quiet. Until a few moments ago.’
Concannon and Naveen Adair, the young detective, joined us. Everyone was staring at Dennis.
‘This is a big honour, Lin,’ Vikram said. ‘Dennis is looking at you.’
There was a little silence. Concannon broke it.
‘That’s nice, that is!’ he growled, through a toothy smile. ‘I sit here for six fuckin’ months, share my wit and wisdom, smokin’ your dope and drinkin’ your whiskey, and you only open your eyes twice. Lin walks in the door and you’re staring at him like he was on fuckin’ fire. What am I, Dennis, a total cunt?’
‘Like, totally, man,’ Vinson said quietly.
Concannon laughed hard. Dennis winced.
‘Concannon,’ he whispered, ‘I love you like a friendly ghost, but you’re killing my high.’
‘Sorry, Dennis lad,’ Concannon grinned.
‘Lin,’ Dennis murmured, his head and body perfectly still, ‘please don’t think me rude. I’ll have to rest now. It was a pleasure to meet you.’
He turned his head one degree toward Vikram.
‘Vikram,’ he murmured, in that sonorous, rumbling basso. ‘Please keep it down. You’re killing my high, man. I’d appreciate it if you’d stop.’
‘Of course, Dennis. Sorry.’
‘Billy Bhasu?’ Dennis said softly.
‘Fuck the ice cream.’
‘Fuck the ice cream, Dennis?’
‘Fuck the ice cream. Nobody gets ice cream. Not today.’
‘Are we clear on the ice cream?’
‘Fuck the ice cream, Dennis.’
‘I don’t want to hear the words ice cream for at least three months.’
‘Good. Now, Jamal, please make me another chillum. A big, strong one. A gigantic one. A legendary one. It would be an act of compassion, not far from a miracle. Goodbye, all and everyone, here and there.’
Dennis folded his hands across his chest, closed his eyes and settled into his resting state: death-like rigidity at five breaths a minute.
No-one moved or spoke. Jamal, lip-lock urgent, prepared a legendary chillum. The room stared at Dennis. I seized Vikram by the shirt.
‘Come on, we’re outta here,’ I said, pulling Vikram with me out of the room. ‘Goodbye, all and everyone, here and there.’
‘Hey, wait for me!’ Naveen called after us, rushing out through the French doors.
Back on the street, fresh air stirred Vikram and Naveen awake. Their steps quickened, matching mine.
The breeze driven through a shaded corridor of three-storey buildings and leafy plane trees brought with it the strong, working scent of the fishing fleet at nearby Sassoon Dock.
Pools of sunlight spilled through gaps between the trees. As I passed from shade to light, splashing into each new pool of white heat, I felt the sun flooding into me and then draining away with the shadow tide, beneath the trees.
The sky was haze-blue: glass washed up from the sea. Crows rode on the rooftops of buses to cooler parts of the city. The cries of handcart pullers were confident and fierce.
It was the kind of clear Bombay day that makes Bombay people, Mumbaikars, sing out loud, and as I passed a man walking in the opposite direction, I noticed that we were both humming the same Hindi love song.
‘That’s funny,’ Naveen remarked. ‘You were both on the same song, man.’
I smiled, and was about to sing a few more lines, as we do on blue glass Bombay days, when Vikram cut across us with a question.
‘So, how did it go? Did you get it?’
One of the reasons why I don’t go to Goa very often is that every time I go to Goa, someone asks me to do something down there. When I’d told Vikram, three weeks earlier, that I had a mission in Goa, he’d asked me to do something for him.
He’d left one of his mother’s wedding jewels with a loan shark, as collateral for a cash loan. It was a necklace inset with small rubies. Vikram repaid the debt, but the shark refused to return the necklace. He told him to collect it in Goa, in person. Knowing that the shark respected the Sanjay Company mafia gang I worked for, Vikram asked me to visit him.
I’d done it, and I’d retrieved the necklace, but Vikram had overestimated the loan shark’s respect for the mafia Company. He kept me waiting for a week of wasted time, ducking out of one meeting after another, leaving offensive messages about me and the Sanjay Company until finally agreeing to hand the necklace over.
By then, it was too late. He was a shark, and the mafia Company he’d insulted was a shark boat. I called in four local guys who worked for the Sanjay Company. We beat the gangsters that stood between him and us until they ran.
We confronted the shark. He handed over the necklace. Then one of the local guys beat him, in a fair fight, and kept on beating him, in an unfair fight, until the wider point about respect was made.
‘Well?’ Vikram asked. ‘Did you get it, or not?’
‘Here,’ I said, taking the necklace from my jacket pocket and handing it to Vikram.
‘Wow! You got it! I knew I could count on you. Did Danny give you any trouble?’
‘Scratch that source of loans from your list, Vikram.’
‘Thik,’ he said. Okay.
He poured the jewelled necklace from its blue silk pouch. The rubies, fired with sunlight, bled into his cupped palms.
‘Listen, I’m . . . I’m gonna take this home to my Mom. Right now. Can I give you guys a lift in my cab?’
‘You’re going the other way,’ I said, as Vikram flagged down a passing cab. ‘I’m gonna walk back to my bike, at Leopold’s.’
‘If you don’t mind,’ Naveen asked softly, ‘I’d like to walk some of the way with you.’
‘Suit yourself,’ I replied, watching Vikram put the silk pouch inside his shirt for safekeeping.
He was about to step into the taxi but I stopped him, leaning in close to speak quietly.
‘What are you doing?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You can’t lie to me about drugs, Vik.’
‘What lying?’ he protested. ‘Shit, I just had a few little puffs of brown sugar, that’s all. So what? It’s Concannon’s stuff, anyway. He paid for it. I –’
‘Take it easy.’
‘I always take it easy. You know me.’
‘Some people can snap out of a habit, Vikram. Concannon might be one of them. You’re not one of them. You know that.’
He smiled, and for a few seconds the old Vikram was there: the Vikram who would’ve gone to Goa for the necklace without any help from me, or anyone else; the Vikram who wouldn’t have left a piece of his mother’s wedding jewellery with a loan shark in the first place.
The smile folded from his eyes as he got into the taxi. I watched him away, worried for the danger in what he was: an optimist, ruined by love.
I started walking again, and Naveen fell in beside me.
‘He talks about that girl, the English girl, a lot,’ Naveen said.
‘It’s one of those things that should’ve worked out, but rarely do.’
‘He talks about you a lot, too,’ Naveen said.
‘He talks too much.’
‘He talks about Karla and Didier and Lisa. But mostly he talks about you.’
‘He talks too much.’
‘He told me you escaped from prison,’ he said. ‘And that you’re on the run.’
I stopped walking.
‘Now you’re talking too much. What is this, an epidemic?’
‘No, let me explain. You helped a friend of mine, Aslan . . . ’
‘A friend of mine –’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘It was near Ballard Pier one night, late, a couple of weeks ago. You helped him out of a tight spot.’
A young man, running toward me through Ballard Estate after midnight, the wide street a merchant’s bluff of locked buildings on both sides, no escape when the others came, and the young man stopping, streetlights throwing tree shadows on the road, the young man standing to fight them alone, and then not alone.
‘What about it?’
‘He died. Three days ago. I’ve been trying to find you, but you were in Goa. I’m taking my chance to tell you now.’
‘Tell me what?’
He flinched. I was hard-faced on him, because he’d talked about the prison break, and I wanted him to get to the point.
‘He was my friend, in college,’ he said evenly. ‘He liked roaming, at night, in dangerous places. Like I do. Like you do, or else you wouldn’t have been there, to help him out that night. I thought, maybe, you’d like to know.’
‘Are you kidding?’
We were standing in thin shade. We were inches apart, while the churn of the causeway wound around us.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You put prison escape on the table, just so you can bring me the sad tidings of Aslan’s demise? Is that what you’re telling me? Are you nuts, or are you really that nice?’
‘I guess,’ he said, hurt and getting angry, ‘I’m really that nice. Too nice to think you’d take what I’m saying for anything but what it is. I regret that I troubled you. It’s the last thing I would want to do. I apologise. I’ll take my leave.’
I stopped him.
‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Wait.’
Everything about him was right: the honest stare, the confident stance, and the light in his smile. Instinct chooses her own children. My instincts liked the kid, the young man standing in front of me looking so brave and hurt. Everything about him was right, and you don’t see that often.
‘Okay, my fault,’ I said, raising a hand.
‘No problem,’ he replied, relaxing again.
‘So, let’s go back to Vikram telling you about a prison break. See, that’s the kind of information that might raise Interpol’s interest, and always raises my interest. You see that, right?’
It wasn’t a question, and he knew it.
‘You’re a detective.’
‘Fuck detectives, too. This is the kind of information about a friend that you don’t hide from a friend, when you come to know it. Didn’t anybody ever teach you that? I grew up on these streets, right here, and I know that.’
‘But we’re not friends.’
‘Not yet,’ Naveen smiled.
I looked at him for a while.
‘You like walking?’
‘I like walking and talking,’ he said, falling into step with me in the serpent lines of people traffic.
‘Fuck Interpol,’ he said again, after a while.
‘You really do like talking, don’t you?’
‘Okay, so tell me three very short walking stories.’
‘Sure. Fine. Walking story number one?’
‘You know,’ Naveen laughed, dodging a woman carrying a huge bundle of scrap papers on her head, ‘that was my first time there, too. Other than what you saw with your own eyes, I can only tell you what I’ve heard.’
‘So heard me.’
‘His parents died. Hit him pretty hard, they say. They were loaded. They had the patent for something, and it was worth a lot. Sixty million, to Dennis.’
‘That’s not a sixty-million-dollar room back there.’
‘His money’s in trust,’ he replied, ‘while he’s in his trance.’
‘While he’s lying down, you mean?’
‘It’s more than lying down. Dennis is in a state of Samadhi when he sleeps. His heartbeat and his breathing slow down until they approach zero. Quite often, he’s technically dead.’
‘You’re fuckin’ with me, detective.’
‘No,’ he laughed. ‘Several doctors have signed death certificates in the last year, but Dennis always woke up again. Jamal, the One Man Show, has a collection of them.’
‘Okay, so Dennis is occasionally technically dead. That must be tough on his priest, and his accountant.’
‘While he’s in his trance, Dennis’s estate is managed in trust, leaving him enough to buy the apartment we just visited, and maintain himself in a manner suitable to the parameters of his trance states.’
‘Did you hear all this, or detective it?’
‘Bit of both.’
‘Well,’ I said, pausing a while to let a car reverse in front of us. ‘Whatever his gig, I can truly say I never saw anyone lie down better in my life.’
‘No contest,’ Naveen grinned.
We both thought about it for a while.
‘Second story?’ Naveen asked.
‘Concannon,’ I said, moving on.
‘He boxes at my gym. I don’t know a lot about him, but I can tell you two things.’
‘He has a mean left hook that bangs a gong, but it leaves him dipping if it misses.’
‘Every time. He jabs with the left, punches with the right, and always brings the left hook straight over the top of it, leaving himself wide open if he doesn’t connect. But he’s quick, and he doesn’t miss often. He’s pretty good.’
‘Second, I can say he’s the only guy I met who got me through the door to see Dennis. Dennis loves him. He stayed awake longer for him than anybody else. I heard that he wants to legally adopt Concannon. It’s difficult, because Concannon is older than Dennis, and I don’t know if there’s a legal precedent for an Indian adopting a white man.’
‘What do you mean, he got you through the door?’
‘There’s thousands of people who’d like to have an audience with Dennis, while he’s in his trance. They believe that while he’s temporarily dead, he can communicate with the permanently dead. Almost nobody can get in.’
‘Unless you walk up, and knock on the door.’
‘You don’t get it. Nobody would dare to walk up and knock on the door, while Dennis is in his trance.’
‘Nobody, that is, until you did.’
‘We already covered Dennis,’ I said, pausing to let a four-man handcart pass. ‘Back to Concannon.’
‘Like I said, he boxes at my gym. He’s a street fighter. I don’t know much about him. He seems like a party guy. He loves a party.’
‘He’s got a mouth on him. You don’t keep a mouth like that to his age without having something to back it up.’
‘Are you saying I should watch him?’
‘Only the wrong side of him.’
‘And the third story?’ he asked.
I left the road where we’d been walking, and straddled the hand-width footpath for a few steps.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked, following me.
‘I’m going to get a juice.’
‘It’s a hot day. What’s the matter with you?’
‘Oh, nothing. Cool. I love juice.’
Thirty-nine degrees in Bombay, chilled watermelon juice, fans too close to your head turned up to three: bliss.
‘So . . . what’s with the private detective thing? Is that for real?’
‘Yeah. It started by accident, kind of, but I’ve been doing it for almost a year now.’
‘What kind of accident turns someone into a detective?’
‘I was doing a law degree,’ he smiled. ‘Got most of the way there. In my final year, I was researching a paper on private detectives, and how they impact the court system. Pretty soon, the only thing that interested me was the detective part of it, and I dropped out, to give it a shot.’
‘How’s it working out?’
‘Divorce is healthier than the stock exchange, and way more predictable. I did a few divorce cases, but I stopped. I was with another guy. He was teaching me the ropes. He’s been scoping divorce for thirty-five years, and still loves it. I didn’t. It was always unique for the married men, having the affairs. It was always the same sad movie for me.’
‘And since you left the lush pastures of divorce?’
‘I’ve found two missing pets, a missing husband, and a missing casserole dish so far,’ he said. ‘It seems that all of my clients, God bless them, are people too lazy or polite to do it for themselves.’
‘But you like it, the detective thing. You get a rush, right?’
‘You know, I think at this end of the story you get the truth. As a lawyer you’re only ever allowed a version of the truth. This is the real thing, even if it’s just a stolen heirloom casserole dish. It’s the real story, before everybody lies about it.’
‘Are you gonna stick with it?’
‘I don’t know,’ he smiled, looking away again. ‘Depends on how good I am, I guess.’
‘Or how bad you are.’
‘Or how bad I am.’
‘We’re already on story number three,’ I said. ‘Naveen Adair, Indian–Irish private detective.’
He laughed, white teeth foaming in the wake of it, but the wave faded quickly.
‘Not much to it, really.’
‘Naveen Adair,’ I pronounced. ‘Which part kicked you in the arse more, the Indian part, or the Irish part?’
‘Too Anglo for the Indians,’ he laughed, ‘and too Indian for the Anglos. My father . . . ’
Jagged peaks and lost valleys, for too many of us, are the lands called father. Climbing one of those peaks beside him, I waited until he crested the conversation again.
‘We lived on the footpath, after he abandoned my Mother. We were on the street, until I was five, but I don’t really remember it much.’
He raised his gaze to the street, eyes floating on the tide of colour and emotion, moving back and forth.
‘He had tuberculosis,’ the young detective said. ‘He made a will, naming my Mother, and it turned out that he’d made a lot of money, somehow, so we were suddenly rich, and . . . ’
He looked at me as if he’d told me too much.
The fan, only inches from my head, was giving me an ice-cream headache. I gestured to the waiter, and asked him to turn it down a notch.
‘You’re cold?’ he scoffed, his hand on the switch. ‘Let me show you cold.’
He turned the fan to blizzard five. I felt my cheeks beginning to freeze. We paid the bill and left, hearing his goodbye.
‘Table two, free again!’
‘I love that place,’ Naveen said as we left.
‘Yeah. Great juice, nasty waiters. Perfect.’
‘You and I might get along, detective. We might just get along.’
The past, beloved enemy, has bad timing. Those Bombay days come back to me so vividly and suddenly that sometimes I’m shaken from the hour I’m in, and lost to the task. A smile, a song, and I’m back there, sleeping sunny mornings away, riding a motorcycle on a mountain road, or tied and beaten and begging Fate for an even break. And I love every minute of it, every minute of friend or foe, of flight and forgiveness: every minute of life. But the past has a way of taking you to the right place at the wrong time, and that can be a storm inside.
I should be bitter, I guess, after some of the things I’ve done, and had done to me. People tell me I should be bitter. A con once said, You’d be a top bloke, if you just had a little spite in you. But I was born without it, and I’ve never known spite or bitterness. I got angry and I got desperate and did bad things too often, until I stopped, but I never hated anyone, or consciously wished anyone harm, not even men who tortured me. And while a small measure of bitterness might’ve protected me from time to time, as it sometimes does, I’ve learned that sweet memories don’t walk through cynical doors. And I love my memories, even when they have bad timing: remembered minutes of sunlight staking out patches on tree-lined Bombay streets, of fearless girls flashing through traffic on scooters, of handcart pullers straining under the load but smiling, and those first memories of a young Indian-Irish detective named Naveen Adair.
We walked on the road silently for a while, passing between cars and streams of people, swaying back and forth between the bicycles and handcarts in the dance of the street.
In the wide doorway of the Fire Brigade building, a group of men in heavy navy-blue uniforms chatted and laughed. Inside the firehouse there were two large fire trucks, shimmering sunlight from every polished red or chrome surface.
An extravagantly decorated Hanuman shrine was fixed to one wall, and beside it a sign said:
IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT,
GET OUT OF THE BURNING BUILDING.
Further along, we entered the shopping district, spilling out from the Colaba market. Glass merchants, picture framers, timber and hardware stores, electrical goods, and plumbers’ supplies gradually gave way to clothing, jewellery and food stores.
At the wide entrance to the market itself we had to stop, as several heavy trucks made their way out into the maul of traffic on the main road.
‘Listen,’ he said as we waited. ‘You were right, about Vikram talking too much. But it ends with me. I’ll never talk about it to anyone else but you. Never. And if you ever need me, hey, man, I’m there. That’s all I’m trying to say. For Aslan, and what you did that night, if you don’t want it to be for you.’
It wasn’t the first time that I looked out from the red exile my life had become, into eyes alight with fires, burning on cliff-tops of the word escape. In my fugitive years, I sometimes found fast friendship in the song of rebellion: in the loyalty others pledged to my escape from the system, as much as to me.
They wanted me to stay free, in part, because they wanted someone to escape and stay free. I smiled at Naveen. It wasn’t the first or last time I went with the river inside.
‘How do you do,’ I said, offering my hand. ‘I’m Lin. I’m not a doctor in the slum.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ Naveen replied, shaking my hand. ‘I’m Naveen, and thank you. It’s always good to know who’s not the doctor.’
‘And who’s not the police,’ I added. ‘How about a drink?’
‘Don’t mind if we do,’ he replied graciously.
Just at that moment I had the sense of someone standing too close to my back. I turned hard.
‘Hang about!’ Gemini George protested. ‘Easy does it with the shirt, mate. That’s fifty per cent of my wardrobe, I’ll have you know!’
I could feel the bones of his thin body against my knuckles as I released my grip.
‘Sorry, man,’ I said, straightening the front of his shirt. ‘Creepin’ up on people like that. Should know better, Gemini. It’ll end in tears one day.’
‘My fault, mate,’ Gemini George apologised, looking around nervously. ‘Got a bit of a problem like, y’know?’
I put my hand in my pocket, but Gemini stopped me.
‘Not that sort of problem, mate. Well, to be honest, that is a problem, but it’s such a constant problem, you know, bein’ broke, that it’s become more of a meta-cultural statement, sort of a grim but compelling penury soundtrack, know what I mean?’
‘No, man,’ I said, handing him some money. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘Can you wait? I’ll just get Scorpio.’
Gemini looked left and right.
I nodded and he ducked away past a nearby stall that offered small marble figures of gods for sale.
‘Mind if I hang with you?’ Naveen asked.
‘No problem,’ I said. ‘No secrets are safe with Gemini and Scorpio, especially their own. They could have their own radio station. I’d listen, if they did.’
Moments later Gemini reappeared, dragging the reluctant Scorpio with him.
The Zodiac Georges, one George from south London and the other from Canada, were inseparable street guys. They were mildly addicted to seven drugs, and completely addicted to one another. They slept in a relatively comfortable warehouse doorway, and made a living running errands, sourcing drugs for foreign customers, and occasionally selling information to gangsters.
They bickered and fought from the first yawn to the last stumble into sleep, but they loved each other, and were so constant in their friendship that everyone who knew them loved the Zodiac Georges for it: Gemini George from London, and Scorpio George from Canada.
‘Sorry, Lin,’ Scorpio mumbled, when Gemini dragged him close. ‘I was under cover, like. It’s this trouble with the CIA. You must’ve heard about it.’
‘The CIA? Can’t say I have. But I’ve been in Goa. What’s up?’
‘There’s this geezer,’ Gemini cut in, while his taller friend nodded quickly. ‘Snow-white hair, but not an old guy, with a dark blue suit and tie, a businessman type –’
‘Or the CIA,’ Scorpio cut in, leaning close to whisper.
‘For Chrissakes, Scorpio!’ Gemini spluttered. ‘What the fuck would the CIA want with the likes of us?’
‘They have these machines that can read our minds,’ Scorpio whispered, ‘even through walls.’
‘If they can read our minds, there’s no point whisperin’, is there?’ Gemini demanded.
‘Maybe they already programmed us to whisper, while they read our minds.’
‘If they read your mind, they’ll run screamin’ through the streets, you fuckin’ twat. It’s a wonder I don’t run screamin’ through the streets n’all, innit?’
There was no reliable map of the sidetracks the Zodiac Georges took when argument meandered, and no time limit. I usually liked it, but not always.
‘Tell me about the white-haired guy in the suit.’
‘We don’t know who he is, Lin,’ Gemini said, returning to the moment. ‘But he’s been askin’ about Scorpio at Leopold’s and other places for the last two days.’
‘It’s the CIA,’ Scorpio repeated, his eyes looking for somewhere to hide.
Gemini looked at me, his face crying why-was-I-born. He tried to be patient. He took a breath. It didn’t work.
‘If it’s the CIA, and they can read our minds,’ he shouted at Scorpio through clenched teeth, ‘they’d hardly be goin’ round askin’ questions about us, would they? They’d just walk right up, tap us on the shoulder and say Hey! We just read your mind, old son, with our mind-reading machine, and we didn’t have to ask questions about you, or follow you around, because we have mind-reading machines that read people’s minds, because we’re the fucking CIA, wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t they?’
‘Well . . . ’
‘Was he asking after you by name?’ Naveen asked, his young face serious. ‘And is he asking after both of you, or just Scorpio?’
Both men looked at Naveen.
‘This is Naveen Adair,’ I said. ‘He’s a private detective.’
There was a pause.
‘Fuckin’ hell,’ Gemini muttered. ‘Not very private, is it, goin’ round announcin’ it, right here in the fruit and vegetable market? That’s more like a public detective, innit?’
‘You didn’t answer my questions,’ he said.
There was another pause.
‘What . . . kind of detective is he?’ Scorpio asked suspiciously.
‘He’s a detective,’ I said. ‘It’s like a priest, you pay once. Answer the questions, Scorpio.’
‘You know,’ Scorpio said, looking at Naveen thoughtfully, ‘come to think of it, the guy has only been asking after me, not Gemini.’
‘Where’s he staying?’ Naveen asked.
‘We don’t know yet,’ Gemini said. ‘We didn’t take it seriously, at first. But now, it’s been two days. It’s startin’ to get a bit spooky for Scorpio, and he’s spooked enough, know what I mean? One of the street boys has been followin’ the white-haired geezer today, and we should know where he’s stayin’ pretty soon.’
‘If you want, I’ll look into it,’ Naveen said softly.
Gemini and Scorpio looked at me. I shrugged.
‘Yeah,’ Scorpio agreed quickly. ‘Hell, yeah. Please try to find out who this guy is, if you can.’
‘We’ve gotta get to the bottom of this,’ Gemini added fervently. ‘Scorpio’s got me so aggravated, I woke up with me hands around me own neck, this mornin’. It’s come to a pretty pass, when a man strangles himself in his own sleep.’
‘What should we do now?’ Scorpio asked.
‘Stay out of sight, as much as possible,’ Naveen said. ‘Let Lin know, if you find out where the guy’s staying. Or leave a message for me at the Natraj building, on Merewether. Naveen Adair.’
There was a little silence while the Zodiac Georges looked at one another, then at Naveen, then back at me.
‘Sounds like a plan,’ I said, shaking hands with Gemini.
The money I’d given him was enough for at least two of their favourite drugs, a few soft days in a rough hotel, clean clothes from their frequently unpaid laundry man, and a diet of the Bengali desserts they loved.
They wriggled into the camouflage of the crowded street, Scorpio stooping to put his head beside the Londoner’s as they walked.
‘What do you make of it?’ I asked Naveen.
‘I’m smelling lawyer,’ he replied carefully. ‘I’ll see what pops up from the toaster. I can’t guarantee a result. I’m an amateur, remember.’
‘An amateur is anyone who hasn’t learned how not to do it,’ I said.
‘Not bad. Is that a quote?’
‘Who said it?’
‘A woman I know. What’s it to you?’
‘Can I meet her?’
‘What is it with you and meeting hard-to-meet people?’
‘It was Karla, wasn’t it? An amateur is anyone who hasn’t learned how not to do it. Nice.’
I stopped, standing close to him.
‘Let’s make a deal,’ I said. ‘You don’t mention Karla again, to me.’
‘That’s not a deal,’ he said, smiling easily.
‘Glad you understand. We were not minding if we do have a drink, remember?’
We walked into Leopold’s beer-and-curry-scented cave. It was late afternoon, the lull before the storm of tourists, drug dealers, black marketers, racketeers, actors, students, gangsters, and good girls with an eye for bad boys squalled in through the wide arches to shout, eat, drink and chance their souls on the wet roulette of Leopold’s thirty restaurant tables.
It was Didier’s favourite time in the bar, nudging out second place, which was every other hour that the bar was open, and I found him sitting alone at his regular table, set against the back wall, with a clear view of all three entrances.
He was reading a newspaper, holding the pages at arm’s length.
‘Holy shit, Didier! A newspaper! You should warn people about a shock like that.’
I turned to the waiter, uneponymously named Sweetie, who was loitering with intent, his pink nametag loitering sideways on his jacket.
‘What’s the matter with you, Sweetie? You should’ve put a sign outside, or something.’
‘Fuck you very much,’ Sweetie replied, shifting a match from one side of his mouth to the other with his tongue.
Didier tossed the newspaper aside, and hugged me.
‘You wear the sun well,’ he said.
He held me for a moment, examining me with forensic thoroughness.
‘You look like the stand-out. That is the expression? Not the star actor, but the one who takes all the punishment.’
‘The expression is stand-in, but I’ll take stand-out. Say hello to another stand-out, Naveen Adair.’
‘Ah, the detective!’ Didier said, shaking hands warmly, and running a professional eye over Naveen’s tall, athletic frame. ‘I’ve heard all about you, from my journalist friend, Kavita Singh.’
‘She covered you, too,’ Naveen replied with a smile. ‘And may I say, it’s an honour to meet the man behind all the stories.’
‘I did not expect a young man of such impeccable manners,’ Didier responded quickly, gesturing toward the chairs, and signalling to Sweetie. ‘What will you have? Beers? Sweetie! Three very chilled beers, please!’
‘Fuck you very much,’ Sweetie mumbled, his end-of-shift slippers dragging to the kitchen.
‘He’s a repellent brute,’ Didier said, watching Sweetie leave. ‘But I feel myself strangely drawn to the effortlessness of his misery.’
We were three men at the table, but we all sat in a line with our backs to the wall, facing across the scatter of tables to the wide arches, open to the street. Didier let his eyes rove around the restaurant: a castaway, scanning the horizon.
‘Well,’ he said, inclining his head toward me. ‘The adventure in Goa?’
I took a small package of letters wrapped in blue ribbons from my pocket, and handed it across. Didier took the bundle and cradled it in his palms for a moment, as if it were an injured bird.
‘Did you . . . did you have to beat him for them?’ he asked me, still staring at the letters.
‘Oh,’ he sighed, looking up quickly.
‘Should I have?’
‘No, of course, not,’ Didier explained, sniffing back a tear. ‘Didier could not pay for such a thing.’
‘You didn’t pay me at all.’
‘Technically, in paying nothing, I am still paying. Am I right, Naveen?’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Naveen replied. ‘So, of course, I agree with everything.’
‘It’s just,’ Didier sniffed, looking at the letters, ‘I rather thought he might have put up some little fight, perhaps, to keep my love letters. Some . . . some show of lingering affection.’
I recalled the look of simian hatred on the face of Gustavo, Didier’s ex-lover, as he screamed curses on Didier’s genitals, and hurled the little bundle of letters into a rubbish pit below the back window of his bungalow.
I had to pierce his ear with my thumbnail to make him climb into the pit, retrieve the letters, wipe them clean and hand them to me.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Affection has moved on.’
‘Well, thank you, Lin,’ Didier sighed, putting the letters in his lap as the beers arrived. ‘I would have gone down there myself to get the letters, but for that little matter of the outstanding arrest warrant in my name, in Goa.’
‘You’ve gotta keep track of these warrants, Didier,’ I said. ‘I can’t keep up. You could paper a room with my fake yellow slips. It’s wearing me out, clearing you of all charges.’
‘But there are only four outstanding arrest warrants in all of India, Lin.’
‘At one time, it was nine. I think it must be that I am becoming . . . reformed,’ Didier puffed, curling his lips at the distasteful word.
‘A slander,’ Naveen observed.
‘Why, thank you. You . . . are a very agreeable young man. Do you like guns?’
‘I’m not good with relationships,’ Naveen answered, finishing his beer and standing. ‘I can only bond with the gun in my hand.’
‘I can help you with that,’ Didier laughed.
‘I’ll bet you can,’ Naveen laughed back. ‘Lin, that guy in the suit, the one following the Zodiac Georges, I’ll look into it, and get back to you here.’
‘Be careful. We don’t know what this is, yet.’
‘It’s cool,’ he smiled, all fearless, immortal youth. ‘I’ll take my leave. Didier, it has been a pleasure and an honour. Goodbye.’
We watched him out into the early evening haze. Didier’s brows edged together.
‘What?’ I asked him.
‘Nothing!’ he protested.
‘I said nothing!’
‘I know, but I also know that look.’
‘What look?’ he demanded, as if I’d accused him of stealing my drink.
Didier Levy was in his mid-forties. The first powder snow of winter wove spirals through his dark, curly hair. Soft, brilliantly blue irises hovered in the anemone patchwork of red veins filling the whites of his eyes, making him seem young and dissolute in the same smile: the mischievous boy still hiding inside the ruining man.
He drank any kind of alcohol, at any time of the day or night, dressed like a dandy, long after other dandies melted in the heat, smoked tailor-made joints from a bespoke cigarette case, was a professional at most crimes, the master of a few, and was openly gay, in a city where that was still an oxymoron.
I’d known him for five years, through struggles against enemies, within and without. He was brave: the kind of man who’ll face a gun with you and never run, no matter what the fall.
He was authentic. He expressed the uniqueness when what we are, is what we’re free to become. I’d known him through lost loves, alarming lust, and kneeling epiphanies, his and mine. And I’d spent enough of those long, lonely wolf nights with him to love him.
‘That look,’ I repeated. ‘The look that says you know something that everybody else should know. The look that says I told you so, before you tell me anything at all. So tell me, before you told me so.’
Didier’s outraged expression crumbled in smiles, and fell into a laugh.
‘It is more of a told me so,’ he said. ‘I like that boy very much. More than I expected to. And more than I should, because this Naveen Adair, he has a reputation.’
‘If reputations were votes, we’d be presidents of somewhere.’
‘True,’ he replied. ‘But this boy’s reputation carries a warning. A word to the wise, isn’t that the expression?’
‘It is, but I’ve always wondered why the wise need a word.’
‘It is said that he is very, very good with his fists. He was a boxing champion at his university. He could have been the champion of India. His fists are deadly weapons. And as I have heard, he is very quick, too quick perhaps, to provoke into using them.’
‘You’re no slouch in the provoking department, Didier. And it doesn’t take a stick through the bars to get me going.’
‘Many men have already fallen to their knees before that young life. It is not a good thing, in a man so young, to see so much submission. There is a lot of blood behind that charming young smile.’
‘There’s a lot of blood behind your charming smile, my friend.’
‘Thank you,’ he nodded, accepting the compliment with a little toss of the greying curls. ‘I’m simply saying that from what I have heard, I would very much prefer to shoot that handsome young fellow than to fight him.’
‘Then it’s a lucky thing you carry a gun.’
‘I’m . . . if you’ll excuse the lapse . . . being serious, Lin, and you know how much contempt I have for serious things.’
‘I’ll keep it in mind. Promise. I’d better go.’
‘You’re leaving me here to drink alone, and you’re going home to her?’ Didier mocked. ‘You think she’s waiting for you, after almost three weeks in Goa? What makes you think she hasn’t left you for some greener pastures, as the English say, with such charming provincialism.’
‘I love you, too, brother,’ I said, shaking his hand.
I walked out into the breathing street, turning once to see him holding up the little bundle of love letters I’d retrieved for him, and waving goodbye.
It stopped me. I felt, as I too often did, that I was abandoning him. It was foolish, I knew: Didier was arguably the most self-sufficient contrabandist in the city. He was one of the last independent gangsters, owing nothing, not even fear, to the mafia Companies, cops and street gangs that controlled his illegal world.
But there are some people, some loves, that worry every goodbye, and leaving them is like leaving the country of your birth.
Didier, my old friend, Naveen, my new friend, and Bombay, my Island City, for so long as she’d have me: each of us dangerous, in our different ways.
The man I was, when I arrived in Bombay years before, was a stranger in a new jungle. The man I became looked out at strangers, from the cover of the jungle street. I was at home. I knew my way around. And I was harder, maybe, because something inside me was missing: something that should’ve been there, next to my heart.
I escaped from prison, Didier escaped from persecution, Naveen escaped from the street, and the southern city escaped from the sea, hurled into its island existence by working men and women, one stone at a time.
I waved goodbye, and Didier smiled, touching the love letters to his forehead. I smiled back, and it was okay: okay to leave him.
No smile would work, no goodbye would pray, no kindness would save, if the truth inside us wasn’t beautiful. And the true heart of us, our human kind, is that we’re connected, at our best, by purities of love found in no other creature.
It was a short ride from Leopold’s to my apartment. I left the busy tourist causeway, crossed the road past the Colaba police station, and cruised on to the corner known to every taxi driver in Bombay as Electric House.
A right turn down the leafy street beside the police station gave me a view into a corner of the cellblock. I’d spent time in those cells.
My rebel eyes found the high, barred windows as I rode by slowly. A little cascade, memories, the stink of open latrines, the mass of men fighting for a slightly cleaner place near the gate bullied through my mind.
At the next corner I turned through the gate that gave access to the courtyard of the Beaumont Villa building, and parked my bike. Nodding to the watchman, I took the stairs three at a time to the third-floor apartment.
I entered, ringing the bell a few times. I walked through the living room to the kitchen, dropping my bag and keys on the table as I passed. Not finding her there or in the bedroom, I moved back into the living room.
‘Hi, honey,’ I called out, in an American accent. ‘I’m home.’
Her laugh rippled from behind the swirling curtains on the terrace. When I shoved the curtains aside I found her kneeling, with her hands in the earth of a garden about the size of an open suitcase. A little flock of pigeons crowded around her, pecking for crumbs, and pestering one another fussily.
‘You go to all the trouble of making a garden out here, girl,’ I said, ‘and then you let the birds walk all over it.’
‘You don’t get it,’ Lisa replied, turning aquamarine eyes on me. ‘I made the garden to bring the birds. It’s the birds I wanted in the first place.’
‘You’re my flock of birds,’ I said, when she stood to kiss me.
‘Oh, great,’ she mocked. ‘The writer’s home again.’
‘And so damn pleased to see you,’ I smiled, beginning to drag her with me toward the bedroom.
‘My hands are dirty!’ she protested.
‘I hope so.’
‘No, really,’ she laughed, breaking away. ‘We’ve gotta take a shower –’
‘I hope so.’
‘You’ve gotta take a shower,’ she persisted, circling away from me, ‘and change your clothes, right away.’
‘Clothes?’ I mocked back at her. ‘We don’t need no stinking clothes.’
‘Yes, we do. We’re going out.’
‘Lisa, I just got back. Two weeks.’
‘Nearly three weeks,’ she corrected me. ‘And there’ll be plenty of time to say hello, before we say goodnight. I promise.’
‘Hello is sounding a lot like goodbye.’
‘Hello is always the first part of goodbye. Go get wet.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘You’ll love it.’
‘That means I’m gonna hate it, aren’t I?’
‘An art gallery.’
‘Fuck you,’ she laughed. ‘These guys are good. They’re on the edge, Lin. They’re real-deal artists. You’re gonna love them. And it’s a really important show. And if we don’t hurry, we’ll be late. And I’m so glad you got back in time.’
‘Come on, Lin,’ she laughed. ‘Without art, what is there?’
‘Sex,’ I replied. ‘And food. And more sex.’
‘There’ll be plenty of food at the gallery,’ she said, shoving me toward the shower. ‘And just think how grateful your little flock of birds will be when you come home from the art gallery that she really, really, really wants you to take her to, and that we’ll miss, if you don’t hit the shower right now!’
I was pulling my shirt off over my head in the stall. She turned on the shower behind me. Water crashed onto my back and my jeans.
‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘These are my best jeans!’
‘And you’ve been in them for weeks,’ she called back from the kitchen. ‘Second-best jeans tonight, please.’
‘And I’ve still got your present,’ I shouted. ‘Right here, in the pocket of these jeans you just got soaking wet!’
She was at the door.
‘You got me a present?’ she asked.
‘Good. Very sweet. Let’s look at it later.’
She slipped out of sight again.
‘Yeah,’ I called back. ‘Let’s do that. After all that fun at the gallery.’
As I finished the shower, I heard her humming, a song from a Hindi movie. By chance, or by the synchronicities that curl within the spiral chambers of love, it was the same song that I’d been singing on the street, walking with Vikram and Naveen only hours before.
And later, as we gathered our things for the ride, we hummed and sang the song together.
Bombay traffic is a system designed by acrobats for small elephants. Twenty minutes of motorcycle fun got us to Cumballa Hill, a money belt district hitched to the hips of South Bombay’s most prestigious mountain.
I pulled my motorcycle into a parking area opposite the fashionably controversial Backbeat Gallery, at the commencement of fashionably orthodox Carmichael Road. Expensive imported cars and expensive local personalities drew up outside the gallery.
Lisa led us inside, working her way through the densely packed crowd. The long room held perhaps twice the safety limit of one hundred and fifty persons, a number that was conspicuously displayed on a fire-safety sign near the entrance.
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the burning building.
She found one of her friends at last, and pulled me into an anatomically close introduction.
‘This is Rosanna,’ Lisa said, squeezed in beside a short girl who wore a large, ornate gold crucifix, with the nailed feet of the Saviour nestled between her breasts. ‘This is Lin. He just got back from Goa.’
‘We meet at last,’ Rosanna said, her chest pressing against mine as she raised a hand to run it through her short, spiked hair.
Her accent was American, but with Indian vowels.
‘What took you to Goa?’
‘Love letters and rubies,’ I said.
Rosanna glanced quickly at Lisa.
‘Don’t look at me,’ Lisa sighed, shrugging her shoulders.
‘You are so fucking weird, man!’ Rosanna cried out, in a voice like a parrot’s panic warning. ‘Come with me! You’ve got to meet Taj. Weird is his favourite thing, yaar.’
Wriggling her way through the crowd, Rosanna took us to meet a tall, handsome young man with shoulder-length hair that was sleek with perfumed oil. He was standing in front of a large stone sculpture, some three metres tall, of a wild man-creature.
The plaque beside the sculpture pronounced its name: ENKIDU. The artist greeted Lisa with a kiss on the cheek, and then offered his hand to me.
‘Taj,’ he said, giving me a smile of open curiosity. ‘You must be Lin. Lisa’s told me a lot about you.’
I shook his hand, allowed my eyes to search his for a moment, and then shifted my gaze to the huge sculpture behind him. He turned his head slightly, following my eyes.
‘What do you think?’
‘I like him,’ I said. ‘If the ceiling in my apartment was a little higher, and the floor a little stronger, I’d buy him.’
‘Thanks,’ he laughed.
He reached upwards to put a hand on the chest of the stone warrior.
‘I really don’t know what he is. I just had a compulsion to see him, standing in front of me. It’s not any more complicated than that. No metaphor or psychology or anything.’
‘Goethe said that all things are metaphors.’
‘That’s pretty good,’ he said, laughing again, the soft bark-brown eyes swimming with light. ‘Can I quote that? I might print it out, and put it beside my friend here. It might help me to sell him.’
‘Of course. Writers never really die, until people stop quoting them.’
‘That’s quite enough for this corner,’ Rosanna interrupted, seizing my arm. ‘Now, come see some of my work.’
She guided Lisa and me through the smoking, drinking, laughing, shouting crowd to the wall opposite the tall sculpture. Spanning half the long wall at eye level was a series of plaster reliefs. The panels had been painted to mimic a classical bronze finish, and told a story in consecutive panels.
‘It’s about the Sapna killings,’ Rosanna explained, shouting into my ear. ‘You remember? A couple of years ago? This crazy guy was telling servants to rise up against their rich masters, and kill them. You remember? It was in all the papers.’
I remembered the Sapna killings. And I knew the truth of the story better than Rosanna did, and better than most in the Island City of Bombay. I walked slowly from panel to panel, examining the long tableaux depicting figures from the public story of Sapna.
I felt light-headed and off balance. They were stories of men I’d known: men who’d killed, and died, and had finally become tiny figures fixed in an artist’s frieze.
Lisa pulled on my sleeve.
‘What is it, Lisa?’
‘Let’s go to the green room!’ she shouted.
We followed Rosanna through a leafy hedge of kisses and outstretched arms as she hooted and screeched her way to the back of the gallery. She tapped on the door with a little rhythmic signal.
When the door opened she pushed us through into a dark room illuminated by red motorcycle lights strung on heavy cables.
The room held about twenty people, sitting on chairs, couches and the floor. It was much quieter there. The girl who approached me, offering a joint, spoke in a throaty whisper that ran a hand through my short hair.
‘You wanna get fucked up?’ she asked rhetorically, offering the joint in her supernaturally long fingers.
‘You’re too late,’ Lisa cut in quickly, taking the joint. ‘Fate beat you to it, Anush.’
She puffed the joint and passed it back to the girl.
‘This is Anushka,’ Lisa said.
As we shook hands, Anushka’s long fingers closed all the way around my palm.
‘Anushka’s a performance artist,’ Lisa said.
‘You don’t say,’ I did say.
Anushka leaned in close to kiss me softly on the neck, the fingers of one hand cupping the back of my head.
‘Tell me when to stop,’ she whispered.
As she kissed my neck, I slowly turned my head until my eyes met Lisa’s.
‘You know, Lisa, you were right. I do like your friends. And I am having fun at the gallery, even though I thought I wouldn’t.’
‘Okay,’ Lisa said, pulling Anushka away. ‘Show’s over.’
‘Encore!’ I tried.
‘No encores,’ Lisa said, bringing me to sit on the floor beside a man in his thirties.
His head was shaved to a bright polish, and he wore a burnt-orange kurta pyjama set.
‘This is Rish. He mounted the exhibition, and he’s exhibiting work as well. Rish, this is Lin.’
‘Hey, man,’ Rish said, shaking hands. ‘How do you like the show?’
‘The performance art is outstanding,’ I replied, looking around to see Anushka leaning in to bite an unresisting victim.
Lisa slapped me hard on the arm.
‘I’m kidding. It’s all good. And you got a big crowd. Congratulations.’
‘Hope they’re in a buying mood,’ Lisa said, thinking out loud.
‘If they’re not, Anushka could convince them.’
Lisa slapped me on the arm again.
‘Or you could always get Lisa to slap them.’
‘We were lucky,’ Rish smiled, offering me the joint.
‘No thanks. Never when I’ve got a passenger. Lucky how?’
‘It almost didn’t happen. Did you see the big Ram painting? The orange one?’
The large, mainly orange-coloured painting was hanging next to the stone sculpture of Enkidu. I hadn’t immediately realised that the striking central figure was a representation of the Hindu God.
‘The moral police from the lunatic religious right,’ Rish said, ‘the Spear of Karma, they call themselves, they heard about the painting and tried to shut us down. We got in touch with Taj’s dad. He’s a top lawyer, and connected to the Chief Minister. He got a court order, allowing us to put the show on.’
‘Who painted it?’
‘I did,’ Rish said. ‘Why?’
‘What made you want to paint it in the first place?’
‘Are you saying that there are things I shouldn’t paint?’
‘I’m asking you why you chose to do it.’
‘For the freedom of art,’ Rish said.
‘Viva la revolution,’ Anushka purred, sitting down beside Rish and leaning into his lap.
‘Whose freedom?’ I asked. ‘Yours, or theirs?’
‘Spear of Karma?’ Rosanna sneered. ‘Crazy fascist fuckers, all of them. They’re nothing. Just a fringe group. Nobody listens to them.’
‘The fringe usually works its way to the centre that ignores or insults it.’
‘What?’ Rosanna spluttered.
‘That’s true, Lin,’ Rish agreed, ‘and they’ve done some violent stuff. No doubt. But they’re mainly in the regional centres and the villages. Beating up priests, and burning down a church here and there, that’s their thing. They’ll never get a big following in Bombay.’
‘Vicious fucking fanatics!’ a bearded young man wearing a pink shirt spat out viciously. ‘They’re the stupidest people in the world!’
‘I don’t think you can say that,’ I said softly.
‘I just did!’ the young man shot back. ‘So fuck you. I just said it. So I can say it.’
‘Okay. I meant that you can’t say it with any validity. Sure, you can say it. You can say that the moon is a Diwali decoration, but it wouldn’t have any validity. It’s simply not valid to say that all the people who oppose you are stupid.’
‘Then what are they?’ Rish asked.
‘I think you probably know them and their way of thinking better than I do.’
‘No, really, make your point, please.’
‘Okay, I think they’re devout. And not just devout, but fervently devout. I think they’re in love with God, infatuated with God, actually, and when their God is depicted without faith, it’s felt as an insult to the faith inside themselves.’
‘So, you’re saying I shouldn’t have been allowed to put on this show?’ Rish pressed.
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ the bearded youth asked no-one.
‘Please,’ Rish continued. ‘Tell me what you did say.’
‘I stand for your right to create and present art, but I think that rights come with responsibilities, and that we, as artists, have a responsibility not to cause feelings of hurt and injury in the name of art. In the name of truth, maybe. In the name of justice and freedom. But not in the name of art.’
‘We stand on tall shoulders, when we express ourselves as artists, and we have to stay true to the best in the artists who came before us. It’s a duty.’
‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ the bearded youth asked the string of red motorcycle lights.
‘So, if those people are offended, it’s my fault?’ Rish asked softly and earnestly.
I was beginning to like him.
‘I repeat,’ the bearded youth demanded, ‘who the fuck is this guy?’
I already didn’t like the bearded youth.
‘I’m the guy who’s gonna rearrange your grammar,’ I said quietly, ‘if you address me in the third person again.’
‘He’s a writer,’ Anushka yawned. ‘They argue, because –’
‘Because they can,’ Lisa interjected, tugging at my arm to lift me to my feet. ‘C’mon, Lin. Time to dance.’
Loud music thumped from heavy floor-mounted speakers.
‘I love this song!’ Anushka growled, jumping up and pulling Rish to his feet. ‘Dance with me, Rish!’
I held Lisa for a moment, and kissed her neck.
‘Go ahead,’ I smiled. ‘Dance your brains out. I’m gonna take another look at the exhibition. I’ll meet you outside.’
Lisa kissed me and joined the dancing crowd. I moved through the dancers, resisting the tidal roll of the music.
In the gallery room I stood before the bronze plaster reliefs that purported to tell the story of the Sapna killings. I tried to decide whether it was the artist’s nightmare, or mine.
I lost it all. I lost the custody of my daughter. I sleepwalked into heroin addiction and armed robbery. When I was caught, I was sentenced to serve ten years at hard labour, in a maximum-security prison.
I could tell you I was beaten during the first two and a half years of that sentence. I could give you half a dozen other sane reasons for escaping from an insane prison, but the truth of it’s simply that one day, freedom was more important to me than my life. And I refused, that day, to be caged. Not today. Not any more. I escaped, and became a wanted man.
The fugitive life took me from Australia, through New Zealand, to India. Six months in a remote village in Maharashtra gave me the language of farmers. Eighteen months in a city slum gave me the language of the street.
I went to prison again, in Bombay, as you do sometimes, when you’re on the run. The man who paid my freedom-ransom to the authorities was a mafia boss, Khaderbhai. He had a use for me. He had a use for everyone. And when I worked for him, no cop persecuted me in Bombay, and no prison offered hospitality.
Counterfeiting passports, smuggling, black market gold, illegal currency trading, protection rackets, gang wars, Afghanistan, vendettas: one way or another, the mafia life filled the months and years. And none of it mattered much to me, because the bridge to the past, to my family and friends, to my name and my nation and whatever I’d been before Bombay was gone, like the dead men prowling through Rosanna’s bronze-coloured frieze.
I left the gallery, made my way through the thinning crowd, and went outside to sit on my motorcycle. I was across the street from the entrance.
A crowd of people had gathered on the footpath, near my bike. Most of them were local people from servants’ quarters in the surrounding streets. They’d gathered in the cool nightfall to admire the fine cars and elegantly dressed guests entering and leaving the exhibition.
I heard people speaking in Marathi and Hindi. They commented on the cars and jewellery and dresses with genuine admiration and pleasure. No voice spoke with jealousy or resentment. They were poor people, living the hard, fear-streaked life crushed into the little word poor, but they admired the jewels and silks of the rich guests with joyful, unenvious innocence.
When a well-known industrialist and his movie-star wife emerged from the gallery, a little chorus of admiring sighs rose from the group. She wore a bejewelled yellow and white sari. I turned my head to look at the people, smiling and murmuring their appreciation, as if the woman were one of their own neighbours, and I noticed three men standing apart from the group.
Their stone-silent stares were grim. Malevolence rippled outward from their dark, staring eyes: waves so intense that it seemed I could feel them settle on my skin, like misted rain.
And then, as if they sensed my awareness of them, they turned as one and stared directly into my eyes, with clear, unreasoning hatred. We held the stare, while the happy crowd cooed and murmured their pleasure, while limousines drew up in front of us, and cameras flashed.
I thought of Lisa, still inside the gallery. The men stared, willing darkness at me. My hands moved slowly toward the two knives fixed in canvas scabbards in the small of my back.
‘Hey!’ Rosanna said, slapping me on the shoulder.
Reflex sent my hand whipping around to grab her wrist, while the other hand shoved her backwards a step.
‘Whoa! Take it easy!’ she said, her eyes wide with surprise.
‘I’m sorry.’ I frowned, releasing her wrist.
I turned quickly to search for the hate-filled eyes. The three men were gone.
‘Are you okay?’ Rosanna asked.
‘Sure,’ I said, turning to face her again. ‘Sure. Sorry. Is it about done in there?’
‘Just about,’ she said. ‘When the big stars leave, the lights go out. Lisa says you’re not a Goa fan. Why not? I’m from there, you know.’
‘So, what have you got against Goa?’
‘Nothing. It’s just that every time I go there, somebody asks me to pick up their dirty laundry.’
‘That’s not my Goa,’ she countered.
It wasn’t defensive. It was simply a statement of fact.
‘Maybe not,’ I smiled. ‘And Goa’s a big place. I only know a couple of beaches and towns.’
She was studying my face.
‘What did you say it was?’ she asked. ‘Rubies and what?’
‘Rubies and love letters.’
‘But you weren’t in Goa just for that, were you?’
‘Sure,’ I lied.
‘If I said you were down there for black market business, would I be close to the mark?’
I’d gone to Goa to collect ten handguns. I’d dropped them off with my mafia contact in Bombay, before searching for Vikram to return the necklace. Black market business was close to the mark.
‘Look, Rosanna –’
‘Has it occurred to you that you’re the problem here? People like you, who come to India and bring trouble we don’t need?’
‘There was a lotta trouble here before I came, and there’ll be plenty left when I’m gone.’
‘We’re talking about you, not India.’
She was right: the two knives pressing against the small of my back made the point.
‘You’re right,’ I conceded.
‘Yeah. I’m trouble, alright. And so are you, at the moment, if you don’t mind me saying it.’
‘Lisa doesn’t need trouble from you,’ she said, frowning hard.
‘No,’ I said evenly. ‘Nobody needs trouble.’
She studied my face a little longer, her brown eyes searching for something wide enough or deep enough to give the conversation a context. Finally she laughed, and looked away, running a ringed hand through her spiked hair.
‘How many days does the show run?’ I asked.
‘We’re supposed to have another week of this,’ she remarked, looking at the last guests leaving the exhibition. ‘If the crazies don’t close us down, that is.’
‘If I were you, I’d pay for some security. I’d put a couple of big, sharp guys on the door. Moonlight a few guys from one of the five-star hotels. They’re pretty good, some of those guys, and the ones who aren’t still look good enough.’
‘You know something about the show?’
‘Not really. I saw some men out here before. Seriously unhappy men. I think they’re seriously unhappy with your show.’
‘I hate those fucking fanatics!’ she hissed.
‘I think it’s mutual.’
I glanced toward the gallery to see Lisa kissing Rish and Taj goodbye.
I swung a leg over the bike, and kick-started the engine. It growled to life, settling into a low, bubbling throb. Lisa came to hug Rosanna, and took her place on the back of my bike.
‘Phir milenge,’ I said. Until we meet again.
‘Not if I see you first.’
We rode down the long slope to the sea, but when we stopped at a traffic signal, a black van pulled up beside us, and I turned to see the men with the hateful stares. They were arguing among themselves.
I let them pull away when the signal changed. There were political stickers and religious symbols on the rear window of the van. I turned off the main road at the first corner.
We rode through back streets for a while, and I worried for the changes I was seeing. Rosanna’s faux-bronze panels told a brutal Bombay story, but less brutal than the truth, and less brutal than the politics of faith. The violence of the past was just sand in the swash of a new wave, breaking on the Island City’s shores. Political thugs travelled by the truckload, brandishing clubs, and mafia gangs of twenty or thirty men had grown to hundreds of fighters. We are what we fear, and many of us in the city feared reckless days of reckoning.
Riding slowly, we made our way back to the sweeping curve
of Marine Drive, following the necklace of reflections on the gentle waters of the bay. That first glimmer of starry sea started us talking again, and we were still talking when I pulled the bike into the driveway of our apartment building, past the salute of the watchman, and into the covered parking bay.
‘You go up,’ I said to Lisa. ‘I’m gonna wipe down the bike.’
‘Now. I’ll be right up.’
When I heard Lisa’s footsteps on the marble stairs I turned to the watchman, nodded to him, and pointed after her. Understanding that I wanted him to follow her, he set off quickly, taking the stairs two at a time.
I heard her open the apartment door, and say her goodnight to the watchman. I slipped quickly out through a side gate to the footpath. Moving quietly, I made my way along the line of the leafy hedge bordering the apartment building’s ground-floor car park.
As I’d turned to enter the parking area of the building, I’d seen a huddled figure draw backwards into the shadows of the tall hedge. Someone was hiding there.
I drew a knife and came up quietly to the spot near the gate where I’d seen the figure. A man stepped out in front of me, his back turned, and began to move toward the car park.
It was Scorpio George.
‘Lin!’ I heard him whisper. ‘Are you still there, Lin?’
‘What the hell are you doin’, Scorpio?’ I asked from behind him, and he jumped.
‘Oh, Lin! You scared the crap outta me!’
I frowned at him, wanting an explanation.
The peace pact that had held since the last big mafia gang war in South Bombay was failing. Young men who hadn’t fought the war, or negotiated the truce, were attacking one another in violation of rules that had been written in better men’s blood. There’d been attacks by rival gangs in our area. I was vigilant, on guard all the time, and angry at myself for coming so close to hurting a friend.
‘I’ve told you guys about creepin’ up on people,’ I said.
‘See . . . I’m sorry . . . ’ he began nervously, looking left and right. ‘It’s . . . it’s . . . ’
Distress had a hand on his chest, and he couldn’t lift it to speak. I looked for a place to talk with him.
I couldn’t step into the car park with Scorpio. He was a street guy, sleeping in a doorway, and his presence in the compound, if observed by a resident of the building, would lead to complaints. I had no fear of those complaints, but I knew that they’d cost the watchman his job.
Taking Scorpio by the arm, I led the tall, thin Canadian across the street to a collapsed wall of crumbled stones, deep in shadow. Sitting with him in the darkness, I lit a joint and passed it to him.
‘What’s up, Scorp?’
‘It’s this guy,’ he began, puffing deeply on the joint. ‘This guy with the dark suit. The CIA guy. It’s creeping me out, man! I can’t work the street. I can’t talk to tourists. It’s like I see him everywhere, in my mind, asking questions about me. Did your guy, that Naveen detective guy, did he find out anything?’
I shook my head.
‘One of the boys tailed him out to Bandra, but the kid ran out of taxi money, and lost him. I haven’t heard anything back from your guy, Naveen. I thought you might’ve heard something.’
‘No. Nothing yet.’
‘I’m scared, Lin,’ Scorpio George said, shuddering the fear along his spine. ‘All the street boys have tested him. Nothin’. He doesn’t buy drugs, doesn’t drink, not even beer. No girls.’
‘We’ll work it out, Scorp. Don’t worry.’
‘It’s weird,’ Scorpio frowned. ‘I’m really going outta my mind, y’know?’
I tugged a fold of hundred-rupee notes from my pocket, and gave it to him. Scorpio took it in a faltering hand, but then slipped it into a pocket concealed inside his shirt.
‘Thanks, Lin,’ he said, looking up quickly to meet my eyes. ‘I was waiting here to ask you to help me, because I haven’t been on the street. The watchman told me you were still out. But then I saw you were with Lisa, and I couldn’t let her see me. I didn’t want to ask for money in front of her. She has a high opinion of me.’
‘We all need money sometimes. And Lisa always has a high opinion of you, whether you need money or not.’
He had tears in his eyes. I didn’t want to see them.
‘Listen, you and Gemini,’ I said, leading him across the street again, ‘you guys lay up some supplies, buy some shit, and take a room at the Frantic. Stay there for a couple of days. We’ll find out who this guy is, and we’ll deal with it, okay?’
‘Okay,’ he said, shaking my hand with the tremble in his. ‘You think the Frantic’s pretty safe, yeah?’
‘The Frantic hotel is the only one that’ll take you and your lifestyle, Scorp.’
‘Oh . . . yeah . . . ’
‘This mystery man won’t get past the desk there. Not in a suit. Keep your heads down, and you’ll be safe at the Frantic until we figure this out.’
He walked away, stooping his tall frame beneath the loose fronds of the hedge. I watched him do the street guy’s night walk: slowly, nonchalantly in the pools of street light – Honest Joe, nothing to hide – then scurrying faster in the shadowed sections of the street.
I slipped a twenty-rupee note to the watchman, standing beside me, and climbed the marble stairs to the apartment. Lisa stood in the bathroom doorway while I showered, and I told her about Scorpio George’s white-haired stalker.
‘But who is this guy?’ she asked as I stepped out of the shower. ‘What does he want with the Zodiacs?’
‘I dunno. Naveen Adair, the guy I told you about before? He smells lawyer. He might be right. He’s a smart kid. One way or another, we’ll find out who this guy is.’
Dried off again, I flopped down on the bed beside Lisa, my head resting on the satin breeze of her breast. From that position I looked down along the length of her naked body to her feet.
‘Rosanna likes you,’ she said, shifting the direction of the conversation with an elegant gesture to the left with both feet.
‘I doubt it.’
‘Why? What happened with her?’
‘Nothing . . . happened.’
‘Something happened when you were talking to her outside. What did you say?’
‘We just . . . talked about Goa.’
‘Oh, no,’ she sighed. ‘She’s nuts about Goa.’
‘So I discovered.’
‘But she does like you. No matter what you said about Goa.’
‘I . . . don’t think so.’
‘Oh, yeah. She certainly dislikes you, too, at the same time. But she definitely likes you.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘She was angry enough to hit you, when I came out.’
‘She was? I thought we reached a good place.’
‘She was ready to hit you, so she likes you a lot.’
‘Ah . . . how does that work?’
‘She was angry enough to hit you, and she doesn’t even know you, see?’
I didn’t, but that wasn’t unusual: Lisa had her own way of incommunicating.
‘It’s all so clear now.’
‘Was she doing her body language thing,’ she asked, ‘when she was talking to you?’
‘What body language thing?’
‘She fakes a sore back, and starts rolling her hips in a circle. Did she do that?’
‘Yeah, because it’s pretty sexy, and she did it for me, and not for you.’
‘There’s a logic rolling its hips in there somewhere, I’m sure, but I’m gonna let it roll past. I did manage to read Anushka’s body language, however.’
‘A bear could read her body language,’ Lisa cut in quickly, giving me a slap on the arm.
‘Where did you say she’s performing?’ I laughed.
‘I didn’t,’ she slapped.
A seashell bracelet jangled on her wrist. It was the present I’d brought for her from Goa. She played the music of the shells, twisting her wrist for a while, and then silenced them in the clutch of her free hand.
‘Did you have a shitty time tonight? Should I be sorry I made you go, when you just got back from your trip?’
‘Not at all. I really did like your friends, and it was about time I met them. I liked Rosanna, too. She has good fire.’
‘I’m so glad. She’s not just a partner. She’s become close. Do you find her attractive?’
‘It’s okay,’ she said, playing with the bedcover. ‘I find her attractive, too.’
‘She’s clever, dedicated, brave, creative, enthusiastic, and easy to get along with. She’s really great.’
I stared along the soft coastline of Lisa’s long, slender legs.
‘What are we talking about, again?’
‘You think she’s hot,’ she said.
‘It’s okay. I think she’s hot, too.’
She took my hand, and moved it between her legs.
‘How tired are you?’ she asked.
I looked down at her toes, bent backwards in a fan-shaped arch.
‘Nobody’s ever that tired.’
It was good. It was always good. We shared a loving kindness that was a kind of loving. And maybe because we both knew that it would end some day, some way, we let our bodies say things that our hearts couldn’t.
I went to the kitchen to fetch a cold drink of water, and brought a glass back for her, putting it on the table on her side of the bed.
For a while I looked at her, beautiful, healthy, strong, curled into herself like a sleeping cat. I tried to imagine what the vision of love she was clinging to might look like, and how different it was from my own.
I lay down beside her and gathered my body into the contours of her dream. Her toes closed reflexively over mine in her sleep. And more honest than my mind, my sleeping body bent at the knees, pressed against the closed door of her curved back, and beat on it with the fist of my heart, begging to be loved.
Riding a motorcycle is velocity as poetry. The fine balance
between elegant agility and fatal fall is a kind of truth, and like all truth, it carries a heartbeat with it into the sky. Eternal moments in the saddle escape the stuttering flow of time, and space, and purpose. Coursing on those wheels, on that river of air, in that flight of freed spirit there’s no attachment, no fear, no joy, no hatred, no love, and no malice: the nearest thing, for some violent men, for this violent man, to a state of grace.
I arrived at the passport factory used by the Sanjay Company in a good mood. I’d taken the slow way to work that morning, and the ride had cleared my mind, leaving me with a placid smile I could feel in my whole body.
The factory was the main centre where we changed and created false passports. As the principal forger and counterfeiter of passports and other identification documents for the Sanjay Company, I spent at least some hours of most days at the factory.
I opened the door, and my motorcycle-smile froze. There was a young stranger in front of me. He put out his hand in greeting.
‘Lin!’ he said, shaking my hand as if he was pumping water from a village well. ‘My name’s Farzad. Come on in!’
I took off my sunglasses, accepted his invitation to my office, and found that a second desk had been lodged in a corner of the large room. The desk was piled high with papers and drawings.
‘They put me here . . . about two weeks ago,’ Farzad said, nodding toward his desk. ‘I hope you don’t mind.’
‘Depends on what?’
‘On who the hell you are, and what the hell you’re doin’ in my office.’
‘Oh,’ he laughed, relaxing enough to take a seat at the new desk. ‘That’s easy. I’m your new assistant. Count on it!’
‘I didn’t ask for a new assistant. I liked the old assistant.’
‘But I thought you didn’t have an assistant?’
His hands flapped in his lap like fish flung on the shore. I stepped across the room to look through the long windows into the factory below. I noticed that changes had taken place there as well.
‘What the hell?’
I walked down the wooden steps leading to the factory floor, and headed toward the new desks and light boxes. Farzad followed me, speaking quickly.
‘They decided to expand the false document section to include education stuff. I thought you knew.’
‘What education stuff?’
‘Diplomas, degrees, certificates of competency and the like. That’s why they brought me in.’
He stopped suddenly, watching me as I picked up a document from one of the new desks. It was a Master’s Degree in Engineering, purporting to be issued by a prestigious university in Bengal.
It bore the name of a young man I knew: the son of a mafia enforcer from the fishing fleet area, who was as slow-witted as he was avaricious, and who was, by any reckoning, the greediest kid-gangster in Sassoon Dock.
‘They . . . brought me in . . . ’ Farzad concluded falteringly, ‘b-b-because I have an MBA. I mean, a real one. Count on it.’
‘There goes the neighbourhood. Doesn’t anybody study philosophy any more?’
‘My dad does,’ he said. ‘He’s a Steiner-Utilitarian.’
‘Please, whoever you are, I haven’t had a chai yet.’
Moving to a second table, I picked up another false qualification document. It was a Bachelor of Medicine in Dental Surgery. Reading my features, Farzad spoke again.
‘You know, it’s okay. None of these fake degrees will ever be used in India. They’re all for people who want jobs in foreign countries.’
‘Oh,’ I said, not smiling, ‘that makes it okay, then.’
‘Exactly!’ He grinned happily. ‘Shall I send for tea?’
When the chai arrived, in short, crack-veined glasses, we sipped and talked long enough for me to like him.
Farzad was from the small, brilliant and influential Parsi community. He was twenty-three years old, unmarried, and lived with his parents and extended family in a large house not far from the Bombay slum where I’d once lived.
After two postgraduate years in the United States, he started work at a futures trading firm in Boston. Within the first year, he’d become entangled in a complex Ponzi scheme, run by the head of his firm.
Although he’d played no direct part in his employer’s criminal intrigue, Farzad’s name appeared in transfers of funds to secret bank accounts. When it seemed that he might be arrested, he’d returned to India, using the fortuitous if unhappy excuse that he had to visit the sick bed of his dying uncle.
I’d known the uncle, Keki, very well. He’d been a wise counsellor to Khaderbhai, the South Bombay don, and had a place on the mafia Council. In his last hours, the Parsi counsellor had asked the new head of the mafia Company, Sanjay Kumar, to protect young Farzad, his nephew, whom he regarded as a son.
Sanjay took Farzad in, telling him that he’d be safe from prosecution in the United States, if he remained in Bombay, and worked for the mafia Company. While I’d been in Goa, Sanjay had put him to work in my false passport factory.
‘There’s so many people moving out of India now,’ Farzad said, sipping his second chai. ‘And regulations will lighten up. You’ll see. Count on it.’
‘Restrictions and laws, they’ll all change, they’ll all get looser and easier. People will be leaving India, people will be coming back to India, starting businesses here and in foreign countries, moving money around all over the place. And all of those people, one way or another, they’re all going to need or want some paperwork that gives them a better chance in America, or London, or Stockholm, or Sydney, you know?’
‘It’s a big market, huh?’
‘It’s a huge market. Huge. We only set this up two weeks ago, and we’re already working two full shifts to meet our commitments.’
‘Two shifts, huh?’
‘Flat out, baba.’
‘And . . . when one of our clients, who buys his engineering degree instead of studying for it, is called upon to build a bridge, say, that won’t fall down and kill a couple hundred people?’
‘No tension, baba,’ he replied. ‘In most countries, the fake degree only gets you in the door. After that, you have to do more study to meet the local standards, and get accreditation. And you know our Indian people. If you let them in the door, they’ll buy the house, and then the house next door, and then in no time they’ll own the street, and start renting houses to the people who used to own them. It’s the way we are. Count on it, yaar.’
Farzad was a gentle, open-faced young man. Relaxed with me at last and unafraid, his soft brown eyes stared from a place of unruffled serenity, deep within his sanguine opinion of the world.
His round, full lips parted slightly on the permanent quiver of a smile. His skin was very fair: fairer than my tanned face beneath my short blonde hair. His Western-chic jeans and silk designer shirt gave him the look of a visitor, a tourist, rather than someone whose family had lived in Bombay for three hundred years.
His face was unmarked, his skin showing no scar or scratch or faded bruise. It occurred to me, as I listened to his genial chatter, that it was likely he’d never been in a fight, or even closed his fist in anger.
I envied him. When I allowed myself to look into the half-collapsed tunnel of the past, it seemed that I’d been fighting all my life.
My kid brother and I were the only Catholic boys in our tough, working-class neighbourhood. Some of our tough, working-class neighbours waited patiently for the arrival of our school bus every evening, and fought us all the way home; day after day.
And it never stopped. A trip to the shopping centre was like crossing a Green Line into enemy territory. Local militias, or street gangs, attacked outsiders with the viciousness that the poor only ever visit on the poor. Learning karate and joining the local boxing club were the life-skills classes in my neighbourhood.
Every kid who had the heart to fight learned a martial art, and every week gave him several opportunities to practise what he learned. The accident and emergency department of the local hospital was filled, on Friday and Saturday nights, with young men who were having stitches put into cuts on their mouths and eyes, or having their broken noses repaired for the third time.
I was one of them. My medical file at the local hospital was heavier than a volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies. And that was before prison.
Listening to Farzad’s happy, dreaming talk of the car he was saving to buy, and the girl he wanted to ask out, I could feel the pressure of the two long knives I always carried at my back. In the secret drawer of a cabinet in my apartment there were two handguns and two hundred rounds of ammunition. If Farzad didn’t have a weapon, and the willingness to use it, he was in the wrong business. If he didn’t know how to fight, and what it feels like to lose a fight, he was in the wrong business.
‘You’re lining up with the Sanjay Company,’ I said. ‘Don’t plan too far ahead.’
‘Two years,’ Farzad said, cupping his hands in front of him as though he was holding the chunk of time and its promises. ‘Two years of this work, and then I’ll take all the money I’ve saved, and open a small business of my own. A consultancy, for people trying to get a Green Card in the US, and whatnot. It’s the coming thing! Count on it.’
‘Just keep your head down,’ I advised, hoping that Fate or the Company would give him the years he wanted.
‘Oh, sure, I always –’
The phone on my desk rang, cutting him off.
‘Aren’t you going to answer it?’ Farzad asked, after a few rings.
‘I don’t like telephones.’
The telephone was still ringing.
‘Well, why do you have one?’
‘I don’t. The office does. If it agitates you so much, you answer it.’
He lifted the receiver.
‘Good morning, Farzad speaking,’ he said, then held the phone away from his ear.
Gurgling sounds, like mud complaining or big dogs eating something, rumbled from the phone. Farzad stared at it in horror.
‘It’s for me,’ I said, and he let the phone fall into my hand.
‘Salaam aleikum, Nazeer.’
It was a voice I could feel through the floor.
‘Salaam aleikum, Nazeer.’
‘Wa aleikum salaam. You come!’ Nazeer commanded. ‘You come now!’
‘Whatever happened to How are you, Linbaba?’
‘You come!’ Nazeer insisted.
His voice was a growling thing dragging a body on a gravel driveway. I loved it.
‘Okay, okay. Keep your scowl on. I’m on my way.’
I put down the phone, collected my wallet and the keys to my bike, and walked to the door.
‘We’ll talk more, later on,’ I said, turning to look at my new assistant. ‘But for now, I think this is gonna work out okay, between you and me. Watch the store while I’m gone, thik?’
The word, pronounced teek, brought a wide smile to the young, unblemished face.
‘Bilkul thik!’ he replied. Absolutely okay!
I left the office, forgetting the young MBA making false degrees, and pushed the bike to speed on Marine Drive, sweeping up onto the narrow cutting beside the Metro flyover.
At the Parsi Fire Temple corner I saw my friend Abdullah riding with two others across the intersection in front of me. They were headed for the narrow streets of the commerce district.
Waiting for a break in the almost constant flow of vehicles, and checking to see that the traffic cop on duty was busy accepting a bribe from someone else, I cut the red light and set off in pursuit of my friend.
As a member of the Sanjay Company, I’d pledged my life to defend others in the gang: the band of brothers in arms. Abdullah was more than that. The tall, long-haired Iranian was my first and closest friend in the Company. My commitment to him was beyond the duty of the pledge.
There’s a deep connection between gangsters, faith and death. All of the men in the Sanjay Company felt that their souls were in the hands of a personal God, and they were all devout enough to pray before and after a murder. Abdullah, no less than the others, was a man of faith, although he never showed mercy.
For my part, I still searched for something more than the verses, vows and veneration I’d found in the books of believers. And while I doubted everything in myself, Abdullah was always and ever certain: as confident in his invincibility as the strongest eagle, soaring above his head in the hovering Bombay sky.
We were different men, with different ways to love, and different instincts for the fight. But friendship is faith, too, especially for those of us who don’t believe in much else. And the simple truth was that my heart always rose, always soared in the little sky inside, whenever I saw him.
I followed him in the flow of traffic, waiting for the chance to pull in beside him. His straight back and relaxed command of the bike were characteristics I’d come to admire. Some men and women ride a horse as if they’re born to it, and something of the same instinct applies to riding a motorcycle.
The two men riding with Abdullah, Fardeen and Hussein, were good riders who’d been on bikes since they were infants, riding on the tanks of their fathers’ bikes, through the same traffic on the same streets, but they never achieved the same riverine facility as our Iranian friend, and never looked as cool.
Just as I sensed a gap opening beside his bike, and pulled forward to match his pace, he turned his head to look at me. A smile edged serious shadows from his face, and he pulled over to the kerb, followed by Fardeen and Hussein.
I stopped close to him, and we hugged, still sitting on our bikes.
‘Salaam aleikum,’ he greeted me warmly.
‘Wa aleikum salaam wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh.’ And unto you be Peace, and Allah’s mercy, and His blessings.
Fardeen and Hussein reached out to shake hands.
‘You are going to the meeting, I heard,’ Abdullah said.
‘Yeah. I got the call from Nazeer. I thought you’d be there.’
‘I am indeed going there,’ he declared.
‘Well, you’re taking the long way,’ I laughed, because he was heading in the wrong direction.
‘I have a job to do first. It will not take long. Come with us. It is not far from here, and I believe that you do not know this place, and these people.’
‘Okay,’ I agreed. ‘Where are we going?’
‘To see the Cycle Killers,’ he said. ‘On a matter of Company business.’
I’d never visited the den of the Cycle Killers. I didn’t know much about them. But like every street guy in Bombay, I knew the names of their top two killers, and I knew that they outnumbered the four of us by six or seven to one.
Abdullah kicked his bike to life, waiting for us to kick-start our own bikes, and then led the way out into the brawl of traffic, his back straight, and his head high and proud.