Bombay. Mumbai. A place with no name, or maybe one too many. Janus faced, a bit schizoid, all of which seems about right. As good a somewhere to start as any, especially when there is no map and the guide himself is in the dark.
The polite thing would be to let him orientate himself awhile; allow for the light, and the density, and the sound to infuse his spirit, embolden him. For he does need fortifying – even the quickest of glances will tell you that. Hanging around half-known in someone else’s account has become something of a signature trait over the years. And it’s weakened him, the shadow originally learned in doorways – stairwells, to be precise – now a pall over what used to be so bold.
Brando, thinned out, subdued, but whispering through the shroud. The hair, like the sanity, upriver with something older.
Stick around for long enough near Lower Parel, or Dadar, and more often than not he’ll appear late afternoon, clearly unconvinced by the mission – ‘guiding’ other giris , the bolder ones who’ve ventured beyond the comforts of Colaba and its ‘gateway-to-experience’ backpacker colony – but with the traipse of a man who is only there as he doesn’t really have anywhere better to be.
The thing to look out for, the dead giveaway, is that air of furtiveness, the hallmark of the fugitive; except in his case there is no sordid past; just a litany of low-level disappointments which in another man might have been the making of him. Look carefully, and you’ll see that it’s more than the eyes with their flatlined glaze, it’s the slump under the stylised kurta that marks him out, sets him apart from the other flatliners. For them, village to city was always going to be chaos and funk; a new life as a crazy, hurtling fairground ride, beastly and brawling, but not short of wonder too. Their cards were dealt long ago, with an unpaid doctor’s bill, or an unresolved dispute over cattle or land. Bloodlines smuggled in with all the dust and intrigue, and the city by the sea in some ways a step up.
His descent though has been further and somehow more unforgiveable.
Even the pocket-maar looks at him with a special kind of contempt. He is not from the country, which means he lives this way by choice. And that is something else he shares with very few. Yet another reason, he might say, to stay half-cloaked in a murk of his own making.
But it was true, he wasn’t from here, and it wasn’t just the light, and the density, and the noise, which hung off him like a giri placard. Another giveaway in how even the sweat would trace different contours on his back, stiffer nowadays but at one time gym-sprung. Not sinewy though in the much tougher local way, keened by years of shortage. Lithe, raw boned, all stretch and miracle in vest and dhoti, the weight of the city borne on deceptively narrow shoulders. In his case, though, and again, unlike almost every other flatliner here, there was still some trace of the dumb-bells, the system-rigour, in the way he rolled his shoulders. Behind the garb, a gym rat giri. The kurta no kind of disguise at all. For all the decorative tics and filmi stubble, there was always just something very foreign about that body. No use pretending he didn’t move to Lata, or Asha, as though he wasn’t really hearing Curtis, or Sylvia, the custom roll far better suited to a black elsewhere than this toasted brown here and now.
So it wasn’t really about the light or the clamour.
It had never just been about that.
If he was being honest, he’d tell you it went back to his early days on that estate, in that school, learning, if not to ‘pass’, then at any rate to be invisible. Some kind of an apprenticeship. And now this other half-life. As though all he’d really done in the interim was to pack the unease into a suitcase and bring it with him, economy class.
Of course today there’s a high chance he’d be viewed as an ‘unreliable witness’, what with the disappearance of the estate and its rebirth as a ‘village’. Even he’d be hard pressed to believe such things happened on the same patch which now hosted executive parking bays and the full panoply of ‘gated’ comforts. Yet in another way, on one of those rare days of clarity, when the navigational prowess and a certain way with the giris that had originally earned him the local nickname, ‘the guide’, had not been dulled by the humidity and whatever hungers it brought, he might have said that what this really meant was that he too had made the journey from a village to the city, and so he too was entitled to his tilt at the fairground attractions.
Even on these days, though, it only stays good for a while. Aap-ka naam? Mera naam muddled in with the stubble and a memory. Honey for the bees, then when they’re good and close, a web of homespun, something earlier leaking into the throat, a pipeline to asphalt and tremor.
Homespun laughs too, born of a shared lie of home. Though a lie’s all that’s required.
No one’s come here looking for the truth. That takes place far away, in the village, the real India, under clouds of hemp and the protective supervision of fellow travellers. Everyone knows that, don’t they? And then he wonders whether he’s thinking aloud, knowing full well that he’s no madman. So when he finally says, That’s right, how’s it going? Or at especially playful moments, the fake JA option, ‘Wha’a’g’wan?’ which rarely fails to find its mark, there’s nothing random about his manner. He sizes up the way the girls are drawn in, despite all the advice of their guidebooks, the imploring voices of friends and family, all that wholesome, Home Counties’ wisdom. Then he notices the boys who these girls are with, sees them, as if for the first time, and it triggers some kind of muscle memory.
All is new and foreign to these boys, especially the sense of actually having to bargain. They manage well enough though. They always do, much to his displeasure; the right kind of currency to fall back on even when the sweat and the frustration are threatening another kind of disclosure. But after a bit, he also finds himself plagued by the heat, the smell and the density. He’s not happy about this, the shared afflictions narrowing the gap between him and the giris.
He can tell that the other flatliners know too, alerted by lifetimes dedicated to examining the subtle shift, the point at which someone changes from traveller to customer, or in his case from ‘here’ to that other place. And as simply as that, with a rogue trail of sweat and some muttered choothias which are fooling no one, he’s there again. Everything from the sounds of a nearby metal workshop to those of the hawkers suddenly ganging up on him like more familiar foes. Elsewhere.
He recalls little snippets – ‘You’re going home in a London ambulance’ – and it’s suddenly quite funny. And it’s because the shroud has lifted that for a moment at least he remembers how bold he once was. Back in the village.
Polyester/cotton, patterned, top button done up long before Pendletons and low-riders and the Mongolian mystique of those other desert born faces.
Not a style from the telly, or any mag.
Just hard up, immigrant instinct and some vague desire not to be a burden.
Turmeric cords, jumble sale chic, and on a good day, plimsoles.
As far as he could tell, trainers were for the black and white kids who seemed untroubled mouthing off at their parents when they came to collect them after school. When the air turned bright blue, as it nearly always did at these moments, he’d look down, and more often than not the perp would be wearing trainers. It never made sense to him how so many of them also managed to get the free school lunches. Then again, in that place, a lot of things didn’t really make sense.
In the heat a strange fish-eye lens of that time, where the snippets, like the frayed polaroids, were usually somewhere between mustard and scary.
And always, but always, late afternoon.
When he turns to look at the fresh faced, healthy, gap year fugitives, already perspiring from the local heat, what he really sees belongs at the other end of the pipeline, streaming effluent into an afterthought.
Shermans, sta-prest, blakeys, morphing into fresh kappa, cardin and farahs.
No expense spared though even boxfresh can’t dispel the reek of the tanneries, or the swivel-eyed wisdom of the docks. And it’s all there scrambling the messages from one end of the pipeline to the other, so that one moment it’s fine arts and the next it’s ‘fuck art, let’s dance’. And yes to Terry and Lynval, Neville and the rest, but the skins and their blakeys are clicking all the way down the pipeline like it’s the foot tunnel to the Isle of Dogs. And now he’s sweating too, and this makes the travellers imagine that they’re all on the same journey, subject to the same irritants, and that’s when they make their first real error, the one he’s been waiting for them to make; the one so many before them have also made. They decide to relax and trust him.
That’s right, mate, we’re on the same journey. Trust me.
The look on that herbert’s face when the guide tucked himself into a foetal ball and then just rolled down the freshly tarmac-ed ramp with the abandon only really available to the truly petrified. As though the fear had frozen all his logic too.
All summer the asphalt had bubbled with a heat worthy of Dadar. So now, despite his best efforts, the shirt was still smudged with some loose flecks of tarmac, and they would have to be explained away later at home, and that would be a headache. But for this moment at least, any amount of trouble was worth it for the euphoria he felt on his triumphant ascent back to the summit, and the suicidal gauntlet thrown down before his chief tormentor.
Just hours earlier the whole class had made the sound of cracking whips when he’d walked in for the morning register.
All so predictable – ‘Roots’ had aired on consecutive nights as a ‘miniseries’ over the bank holiday, and he might have known that little Bradley and Lisa, and Spenser and Debbie, would have been watching too. He was struck by their total lack of inhibition. There seemed to be precious little embarrassment at the kind of treatment meted out to poor old Kunta Kinte. And they’d carried on making the whip noises right up until he challenged Paul Martin, their unofficial leader, to an after-school dare. The prize (and forfeit), of course, would be decided by the winner, but for now at least there was still the conclusive roll to complete.
Nobody moved, and for once nobody said anything either. Not Paul, nor either of his little helpers. Not a peep, either, from any of the girls, though a hint of impatience in the way one of them stood there with hands firmly planted on hips. Taking that as his cue, he let the moment gestate, let another few seconds pass, before repeating, this time with greater insistence.
It didn’t take long for the impatience to spread to the rest of the group, as he had hoped it would. Bradley was the first to break ranks.
‘Go on, Paul. Don’t let the Paki show you up.’
Then the others followed suit. Yeah, go on, Paul. Go on, son. (‘Son’!? The neck on these. All of eleven years old and already carrying on like they were little chiefs. Then again, according to the class grapevine – his mate who’d overheard a dinner lady – a couple of them had apparently been fucking away from school, so what did he know?)
He thought he spied something unfamiliar in Paul’s eyes as they took in the tarmac ramp, perhaps played around with the same permutations he had deliberately not allowed himself time to be scared by: of oncoming, but hidden, traffic approaching from around the blind corner; of a stray teacher wandering around and, at a push, of the old bill. (The previous week had seen a full-scale invasion of the neighbouring school and the estate had been crawling with police ever since.) He could tell that Paul was overthinking it, and the thought pleased him in its whirlwind embrace of road safety pleas and the green cross code. He thought about the watermelon smash on those cautionary videos they were made to watch in class after that kid in the year above had been knocked down. And he knew that similar thoughts would be passing through Paul’s head as he prepared to meet the dare.
It was a side approach to the school, which in its infinite wisdom had been sited right next to a dual carriageway. For that reason there was always a chance that a car might be approaching, but because of something to do with angles, which his maths teacher had once explained to the class, it was impossible to see until the car had actually turned the corner, and by then, of course, it would be too late. That’s why the dare involved rolling all the way to the end, as far as the corner. And no chickening out en route as that would be a forfeit.
He’d already decided during lunchtime that he was going to go first.
No point prolonging the agony – the more time he had to think about it, the less chance of him actually going through with it, and then there’d be hell to pay. So almost before anyone had had a chance to undermine his confidence, he was hurtling to the finish line, eyes tightly shut, intoning something between a hum, a moan, and an om. And then he was there, and miraculously no car had turned up to flatten him like a pancake. He still couldn’t imagine what a car crash victim actually looked like, but other than the watermelons the closest he could get was something like Tom from the cartoons where the mouse was always getting the better of the cat and often leaving him flattened and in the shape of a frying pan with little birds twittering above his sore head.
It was the best feeling as he walked back up the ramp. Even better than the one he got most lunchtimes when pushing his arms out really hard to the side against the indented gate posts on one side of the playground. If he did it long enough, to the point where he thought he was going to pass out, and all the blood had rushed to his head, then when he staggered away his arms would briefly remain locked in the adjacent position, and it was as though he was levitating with little Kidbrooke wings.
But this felt far more powerful. His body felt lighter now than it had for some time, and even the air suddenly tasted good.
The school was more or less empty, though he knew the caretaker would be doing his rounds. His other main fear had been if Mr K, his maths teacher, had caught them during the dare. Not because he was a big man who seemed to be the one teacher the kids were wary of, but because he wore a turban. Without needing it explained to him, he knew that these few yards of starched cloth somehow meant that they were connected, that his actions would bring shame upon more than just himself, and that word would rapidly get back to mum, and then, once again, there’d be hell to pay. Maybe even some kind of pancake face.
As for his adversary, even under the blond crop, and the normally dull eyes, something was flickering, and when the guide looked more closely, he recognised the falter between fear and indecision.
The effects of the tizer and crisps and chocolate which the group had lifted from the local shop as an a la carte alternative to the canteen gruel, were beginning to show. The group’s mood, already restless, rapidly morphed into something more unpleasant; a default cruelty which came as easily to these kids as petty theft.
Paul Martin may have been top dog at lunchtime, but now he was just another whimpering mutt in the crosshairs. And seeing this, the guide held his tongue, knowing that all he had to do was let nature run its course.
Eventually, after the encouragement of his fickle entourage had turned to goading about the size, and presence, of his balls, Paul Martin made as if to crouch down into the foetal position. By now, it was obvious to everyone that he was nervous. There was little breeze on hand to disperse the smell of his accumulating fear. At which point something else got said about his harris.
And then he was off, but unlike the guide, rolling very slowly. It’s hard to say whether he heard the car or the shouting. But by that point it was too late.
Everyone else had scattered once they’d heard the booming sounds of Mr K’s voice. But in the confusion, our guide managed to snuck behind a grass verge leading up to the ramp.
Also alerted by the sounds of shouting, the Ford Cortina had slammed on its brakes; only just managed to stop a couple of feet in front of the shivering ball. Its driver sat trembling, too, but otherwise still, hands gripping the steering wheel. And suddenly it was so quiet that our guide could even hear his own breaths quicken as they counted the scene change.
One, two, three, ‘You!’
Four, five, six, ‘Up!’
Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, ‘Now!’
Mr K was trying to help the ball-shape to its feet, though it was clear that there were other complications. The big Sikh had a handkerchief pressed to his nose as the shape painfully attempted to revert back to its familiar, class bully form. But even from a distance, the guide could tell that something had changed; some small shift had occurred in the cosmic balance. Unusually for him, the class bully was moving very gingerly, as if each step was a counting marker of his growing shame.
And although this all happened so long ago that it could almost be another life, our guide still swears, on those rare occasions he steps out of the late afternoon shadows, that as the maths teacher and the class bully drew closer to the verge, even through the grass he could make out the faintest traces of a grin on the big Sikh’s face.