Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Shantaram, Page 3

Gregory David Roberts

  ‘Smoking, drinking, dancing, music, sexy business, no problem here,’ Prabaker assured us, grinning happily and looking up momentarily from his task. ‘Everything is allow no problem here. Except the fighting. Fighting is not good manners at India Guest House.’

  ‘You see? No problem.’

  ‘And dying,’ Prabaker added, with a thoughtful wag of his round head. ‘Mr. Anand is not liking it, if the people are dying here.’

  ‘Say what? What is he talking about dying?’

  ‘Is he fuckin’ serious? Who the fuck is dyin’ here? Jesus!’

  ‘No problem dying, baba,’ Prabaker soothed, offering the distraught Canadians his neatly rolled joint. The taller man took it, and puffed it alight. ‘Not many people are dying here in India Guest House, and mostly only junkies, you know, with the skinny faces. For you no problem, with your so beautiful big fat bodies.’

  His smile was disarmingly charming as he brought the joint to me. When I returned it to him, he puffed at it with obvious pleasure, and passed it to the Canadians once more.

  ‘Is good charras, yes?’

  ‘It’s real good,’ the taller man said. His smile was warm and generous—the big, open-hearted smile that the long years since then have taught me to associate with Canada and Canadians.

  ‘I’ll take it,’ I said. Prabaker passed it to me, and I broke the ten-gram lump into two pieces, throwing one half to one of my roommates. ‘Here. Something for the train ride to Poona tomorrow.’

  ‘Thanks, man,’ he answered, showing the piece to his friend. ‘Say, you’re all right. Crazy, but all right.’

  I pulled a bottle of whisky from my pack and cracked the seal. It was another ritual, another promise to a friend in New Zealand, a girl who’d asked me to have a drink and think of her if I managed to smuggle myself safely into India with my false passport. The little rituals—the smoke and the drink of whisky—were important to me. I was sure that I’d lost those friends, just as I’d lost my family, and every friend I’d ever known, when I’d escaped from prison. I was sure, somehow, that I would never see them again. I was alone in the world, with no hope of return, and my whole life was held in memories, talismans, and pledges of love.

  I was about to take a sip from the bottle, but an impulse made me offer it to Prabaker first.

  ‘Thank you too much, Mr. Lindsay’ he gushed, his eyes wide with delight. He tipped his head backward and poured a measure of whisky into his mouth, without touching the bottle to his lips. ‘Is very best, first number, Johnnie Walker. Oh, yes.’

  ‘Have some more, if you like.’

  ‘Just a teeny pieces, thank you so.’ He drank again, glugging the liquor down in throat-bulging gulps. He paused, licking his lips, then tipped the bottle back a third time. ‘Sorry, aaah, very sorry. Is so good this whisky, it is making a bad manners on me.’

  ‘Listen, if you like it that much, you can keep the bottle. I’ve got another one. I bought them duty free on the plane.’

  ‘Oh, thank you …’ he answered, but his smile crumpled into a stricken expression.

  ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you want it?’

  ‘Yes, yes, Mr. Lindsay, very yes. But if I knew this was my whisky and not yours, I would not have been so generous with my good self in the drinking it up.’

  The young Canadians laughed.

  ‘I tell you what, Prabaker. I’ll give you the full bottle, to keep, and we’ll all share the open one. How’s that? And here’s the two hundred rupees for the smoke.’

  The smile shone anew, and he swapped the open bottle for the full one, cradling it in his folded arms tenderly.

  ‘But Mr. Lindsay, you are making a mistake. I say that this very best charras is one hundred rupees, not two.’


  ‘Oh, yes. One hundred rupees only,’ he declared, passing one of the notes back to me dismissively.

  ‘Okay. Listen, I’m hungry, Prabaker. I didn’t eat on the plane. Do you think you could show me to a good, clean restaurant?’

  ‘Very certainly, Mr. Lindsay sir! I know such excellent restaurants, with such a wonder of foods, you will be making yourself sick to your stomach with happiness.’

  ‘You talked me into it,’ I said, standing and gathering up my passport and money. ‘You guys coming?’

  ‘What, out there? You gotta be kidding.’

  ‘Yeah, maybe later. Like, much later. But we’ll watch your stuff here, and wait for you to come back.’

  ‘Okay, suit yourselves. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’

  Prabaker bowed and fawned, and politely took his leave. I joined him, but just as I was about to close the door, the tall young man spoke.

  ‘Listen … take it easy on the street, huh? I mean, you don’t know what it’s like here. You can’t trust no-one. This ain’t the village. The Indians in the city are … well, just be careful, is all. Okay?’

  At the reception desk, Anand put my passport, travel cheques, and the bulk of my cash in his safe, giving me a detailed receipt, and I stepped down to the street with the words of the young Canadian’s warning wheeling and turning in my mind like gulls above a spawning tide.

  Prabaker had taken us to the hotel along a wide, tree-lined, and relatively empty avenue that followed a curve of the bay from the tall, stone arch of the Gateway of India Monument. The street at the front of the building was crammed with people and vehicles, however, and the sound of voices, car horns, and commerce was like a storm of rain on wood and metal roofs.

  Hundreds of people walked there, or stood in talking groups. Shops, restaurants, and hotels filled the street side by side along its entire length. Every shop or restaurant featured a smaller sub-shop attached to the front of it. Two or three attendants, seated on folding stools, manned each of those small encroachments on the footpath. There were Africans, Arabs, Europeans, and Indians. Languages and music changed with every step, and every restaurant spilled a different scent into the boiling air.

  Men with bullock wagons and handcarts wound their way through heavy traffic to deliver watermelons and sacks of rice, soft drinks and racks of clothes, cigarettes and blocks of ice. Money was everywhere: it was a centre for the black-market trade in currencies, Prabaker told me, and thick blocks of bank notes were being counted and changing hands openly. There were beggars and jugglers and acrobats, snake charmers and musicians and astrologers, palmists and pimps and pushers. And the street was filthy. Trash tumbled from the windows above without warning, and garbage was heaped in piles on the pavement or the roadway, where fat, fearless rats slithered to feast.

  Most prominent on the street, to my eyes, were the many crippled and diseased beggars. Every kind of illness, disability, and hardship paraded there, stood at the doorways of restaurants and shops, or approached people on the street with professionally plaintive cries. Like the first sight of the slums from the windows of the bus, that glimpse of the suffering street brought a hot shame to my healthy face. But as Prabaker led me on through the roistering crowd, he drew my attention to other images of those beggars that softened the awful caricature presented by the performance of their piteousness. One group of beggars sat in a doorway, playing cards, some blind men and their friends enjoyed a meal of fish and rice, and laughing children took turns to ride with a legless man on his little trolley.

  Prabaker was stealing sideways glances at my face as we walked.

  ‘How are you liking our Bombay?’

  ‘I love it,’ I answered, and it was true. To my eyes, the city was beautiful. It was wild and exciting. Buildings that were British Raj-romantic stood side to side with modern, mirrored business towers. The haphazard slouch of neglected tenements crumbled into lavish displays of market vegetables and silks. I heard music from every shop and passing taxi. The colours were vibrant. The fragrances were dizzyingly delicious. And there were more smiles in the eyes on those crowded streets than in any other place I’d ever known.

  Above all else, Bombay was free—exhilaratingly free.
I saw that liberated, unconstrained spirit wherever I looked, and I found myself responding to it with the whole of my heart. Even the flare of shame I’d felt when I first saw the slums and the street beggars dissolved in the understanding that they were free, those men and women. No-one drove the beggars from the streets. No-one banished the slum-dwellers. Painful as their lives were, they were free to live them in the same gardens and avenues as the rich and powerful. They were free. The city was free. I loved it.

  Yet I was a little unnerved by the density of purposes, the carnival of needs and greeds, the sheer intensity of the pleading and the scheming on the street. I spoke none of the languages I heard. I knew nothing of the cultures there, clothed in robes and saris and turbans. It was as if I’d found myself in a performance of some extravagant, complex drama, and I didn’t have a script. But I smiled, and smiling was easy, no matter how strange and disorienting the street seemed to be. I was a fugitive. I was a wanted man, a hunted man, with a price on my head. And I was still one step ahead of them. I was free. Every day, when you’re on the run, is the whole of your life. Every free minute is a short story with a happy ending.

  And I was glad of Prabaker’s company. I noticed that he was well known on the street, that he was greeted frequently and with considerable warmth by a wide range of people.

  ‘You must be hungry, Mr. Lindsay,’ Prabaker observed. ‘You are a happy fellow, don’t mind I’m saying it, and happy always has it the good appetites.’

  ‘Well, I’m hungry enough, all right. Where is this place we’re going to, anyway? If I’d known it would take this long to get to the restaurant, I would’ve brought a cut lunch with me.’

  ‘Just a little bit not much too very far,’ he replied cheerfully.

  ‘Okay …’

  ‘Oh, yes! I will take you to the best restaurant, and with the finest Maharashtra foods. You will enjoy, no problem. All the Bombay guides like me eat their foods there. This place is so good, they only have to pay the police half of usual baksheesh money. So good they are.’

  ‘Okay …’

  ‘Oh, yes! But first, let me get it Indian cigarette for you, and for me also. Here, we stop now.’

  He led me to a street stall that was no more than a folding card table, with a dozen brands of cigarettes arranged in a cardboard box. On the table there was a large brass tray, carrying several small silver dishes. The dishes contained shredded coconut, spices, and an assortment of unidentifiable pastes. A bucket beside the card table was filled with spear-shaped leaves, floating in water. The cigarette seller was drying the leaves, smearing them with various pastes, filling them with ground dates, coconut, betel, and spices, and rolling them into small packages. The many customers crowded around his stall purchased the leaves as fast as his dexterous hands could fill them.

  Prabaker pressed close to the man, waiting for a chance to make his order. Craning my neck to watch him through the thicket of customers, I moved closer toward the edge of the footpath. As I took a step down onto the road, I heard an urgent shout.

  ‘Look out!’

  Two hands grasped my arm at the elbow and jerked me back, just as a huge, fast-moving, double-decker bus swept past. The bus would’ve killed me if those hands hadn’t halted me in my stride, and I swung round to face my saviour. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She was slender, with black, shoulder-length hair, and pale skin. Although she wasn’t tall, her square shoulders and straight-backed posture, with both feet planted firmly apart, gave her a quietly determined physical presence. She was wearing silk pants, bound tightly at the ankles, black low-heeled shoes, a loose cotton shirt, and a large, long silk shawl. She wore the shawl backwards, with the double-mane of the liquid fabric twirling and fluttering at her back. All her clothes were in different shades of green.

  The clue to everything a man should love and fear in her was there, right from the start, in the ironic smile that primed and swelled the archery of her full lips. There was pride in that smile, and confidence in the set of her fine nose. Without understanding why, I knew beyond question that a lot of people would mistake her pride for arrogance, and confuse her confidence with impassivity. I didn’t make that mistake. My eyes were lost, swimming, floating free in the shimmering lagoon of her steady, even stare. Her eyes were large and spectacularly green. It was the green that trees are, in vivid dreams. It was the green that the sea would be, if the sea were perfect.

  Her hand was still resting in the curve of my arm, near the elbow. The touch was exactly what the touch of a lover’s hand should be: familiar, yet exciting as a whispered promise. I felt an almost irresistible urge to take her hand and place it flat against my chest, near my heart. Maybe I should’ve done it. I know now that she would’ve laughed, if I’d done it, and she would’ve liked me for it. But strangers that we were then, we stood for five long seconds and held the stare, while all the parallel worlds, all the parallel lives that might’ve been, and never would be, whirled around us. Then she spoke.

  ‘That was close. You’re lucky.’

  ‘Yes,’ I smiled. ‘I am.’

  Her hand slowly left my arm. It was an easy, relaxed gesture, but I felt the detachment from her as sharply as if I’d been roughly woken from a deep and happy dream. I leaned toward her, looking behind her to the left and then to the right.

  ‘What is it?’ she asked.

  ‘I’m looking for your wings. You are my guardian angel, aren’t you?’

  ‘I’m afraid not,’ she replied, her cheeks dimpling with a wry smile. ‘There’s too much of the devil in me for that.’

  ‘Just how much devil,’ I grinned, ‘are we talking about here?’

  Some people were standing in a group, on the far side of the stall. One of them—a handsome, athletic man in his mid-twenties—stepped to the road and called to her. ‘Karla! Come on, yaar!

  She turned and waved to him, then held out her hand to shake mine with a grip that was firm, but emotionally indeterminable. Her smile was just as ambiguous. She might’ve liked me, or she might’ve just been happy to say goodbye.

  ‘You still haven’t answered my question,’ I said, as her hand slipped from mine.

  ‘How much devil have I got in me?’ she answered me, the half-smile teasing her lips. ‘That’s a very personal question. Come to think of it, that might just be the most personal question anyone ever asked me. But, hey, if you come to Leopold’s, some time, you could find out.’

  Her friends had moved to our side of the little stand, and she left me to join them. They were all Indians, all young, and dressed in the clean, fashionably western clothes of the middle class. They laughed often and leaned against one another familiarly, but no-one touched Karla. She seemed to project an aura that was attractive and inviolable at the same time. I moved closer, pretending to be intrigued by the cigarette seller’s work with his leaves and pastes. I listened as she spoke to them, but I couldn’t understand the language. Her voice, in that language and in that conversation, was surprisingly deep and sonorous; the hairs on my arms tingled in response to the sound of it. And I suppose that, too, should’ve been a warning. The voice, Afghan matchmakers say, is more than half of love. But I didn’t know that then, and my heart rushed in, where even matchmakers might’ve feared to tread.

  ‘See, Mr. Lindsay, I bought it just two cigarettes for us,’ Prabaker said, rejoining me and offering one of the cigarettes with a flourish. ‘This is India, country of the poor fellows. No need for buying whole packet of cigarettes here. Just one cigarette, you can buy only. And no need for buying it any matches.’

  He leaned forward and took up a length of smouldering hemp rope that was hanging from a hook on the telegraph pole, next to the cigarette stall. Prabaker blew the ash from the end of it, exposing a little orange ember of fire, which he used to puff his cigarette alight.

  ‘What is he making? What are they chewing in those leaves?’

  ‘Is called paan. A most very excellent taste and chewing it is. Everyone in Bomb
ay is chewing and spitting, chewing and more spitting, no problem, day and night also. Very good for health it is, plenty of chewing and full spitting. You want to try it? I will get it for you some.’

  I nodded and let him make the order, not so much for the new experience of the paan as for the excuse it offered to stand there longer, and look at Karla. She was so relaxed and at home, so much a part of the street and its inscrutable lore. What I found bewildering, all around me, seemed to be mundane for her. I was reminded of the foreigner in the slum—the man I’d seen from the window of the bus. Like him, she seemed calm and content in Bombay. She seemed to belong. I envied her the warmth and acceptance she drew from those around her.

  But more than that, my eyes were drawn to her perfect loveliness. I looked at her, a stranger, and every other breath strained to force its way from my chest. A clamp like a tightening fist seized my heart. A voice in my blood said yes, yes, yes … The ancient Sanskrit legends speak of a destined love, a karmic connection between souls that are fated to meet and collide and enrapture one another. The legends say that the loved one is instantly recognised because she’s loved in every gesture, every expression of thought, every movement, every sound, and every mood that prays in her eyes. The legends say that we know her by her wings—the wings that only we can see—and because wanting her kills every other desire of love.

  The same legends also carry warnings that such fated love may, sometimes, be the possession and the obsession of one, and only one, of the two souls twinned by destiny. But wisdom, in one sense, is the opposite of love. Love survives in us precisely because it isn’t wise.

  Ah, you look that girl,’ Prabaker observed, returning with the paan and following the direction of my gaze. ‘You think she is beautiful, na? Her name is Karla.’

  ‘You know her?’

  ‘Oh, yes! Karla is everybody knows,’ he replied, in a stage whisper so loud that I feared she might hear. ‘You want to meet her?’