The Mountain Shadow, Page 1Gregory David Roberts
for the Goddess
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!’
br /> ‘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.’