In a Free State

自由国度(In a Free State)6

They were just words, part of my mood, part of my wish for tears and relief. But Priya didn’t soften. He didn’t even look surprised. ‘Where will you go, Santosh?’

How could I answer his serious question?

‘Will it be different where you go?’

He had freed himself of me. I could no longer think of tears. I said, ‘Sahib, I have enemies.’

He giggled. ‘You are a joker, Santosh. How can a man like yourself have enemies? There would be no profit in it. I have enemies. It is part of your happiness and part of the equity of the world that you cannot have enemies. That’s why you can run-run-runaway.’ He smiled and made the running gesture with his extended palm.

So, at last, I told him my story. I told him about my old employer and my escape and the green suit. He made me feel I was telling him nothing he hadn’t already known. I told him about the hubshi woman. I was hoping for some rebuke. A rebuke would have meant that he was concerned for my honour, that I could lean on him, that rescue was possible.

But he said, ‘Santosh, you have no problems. Marry the hubshi. That will automatically make you a citizen. Then you will be a free man.’

It wasn’t what I was expecting. He was asking me to be alone for ever. I said, ‘Sahib, I have a wife and children in the hills at home.’

‘But this is your home, Santosh. Wife and children in the hills, that is very nice and that is always there. But that is over. You have to do what is best for you here. You are alone here. Hubshi-ubshi, nobody worries about that here, if that is your choice. This isn’t Bombay. Nobody looks at you when you walk down the street. Nobody cares what you do.’

He was right. I was a free man; I could do anything I wanted. I could, if it were possible for me to turn back, go to the apartment and beg my old employer for forgiveness. I could, if it were possible for me to become again what I once was, go to the police and say, ‘I am an illegal immigrant here. Please deport me to Bombay.’ I could run away, hang myself, surrender, confess, hide. It didn’t matter what I did, because I was alone. And I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was like the time when I felt my senses revive and I wanted to go out and enjoy and I found there was nothing to enjoy.

To be empty is not to be sad. To be empty is to be calm. It is to renounce. Priya said no more to me; he was always busy in the mornings. I left him and went up to my room. It was still a bare room, still like a room that in half an hour could be someone else’s. I had never thought of it as mine. I was frightened of its spotless painted walls and had been careful to keep them spotless. For just such a moment.

I tried to think of the particular moment in my life, the particular action, that had brought me to that room. Was it the moment with the hubshi woman, or was it when the American came to dinner and insulted my employer? Was it the moment of my escape, my sight of Priya in the gallery, or was it when I looked in the mirror and bought the green suit? Or was it much earlier, in that other life, in Bombay, in the hills? I could find no one moment; every moment seemed important. An endless chain of action had brought me to that room. It was frightening; it was burdensome. It was not a time for new decisions. It was time to call a halt.

I lay on the bed watching the ceiling, watching the sky. The door was pushed open. It was Priya.

‘My goodness, Santosh! How long have you been here? You have been so quiet I forgot about you.’

He looked about the room. He went into the bathroom and came out again.

‘Are you all right, Santosh?’

He sat on the edge of the bed and the longer he stayed the more I realized how glad I was to see him. There was this: when I tried to think of him rushing into the room I couldn’t place it in time; it seemed to have occurred only in my mind. He sat with me. Time became real again. I felt a great love for him. Soon I could have laughed at his agitation. And later, indeed, we laughed together.

I said, ‘Sahib, you must excuse me this morning. I want to go for a walk. I will come back about tea time.’

He looked hard at me, and we both knew I had spoken truly.

‘Yes, yes, Santosh. You go for a good long walk. Make yourself hungry with walking. You will feel much better.’

Walking, through streets that were now so simple to me, I thought how nice it would be if the people in Hindu costumes in the circle were real. Then I might have joined them. We would have taken to the road; at midday we would have halted in the shade of big trees; in the late afternoon the sinking sun would have turned the dust clouds to gold; and every evening at some village there would have been welcome, water, food, a fire in the night. But that was a dream of another life. I had watched the people in the circle long enough to know that they were of their city; that their television life awaited them; that their renunciation was not like mine. No television life awaited me. It didn’t matter. In this city I was alone and it didn’t matter what I did.

As magical as the circle with the fountain the apartment block had once been to me. Now I saw that it was plain, not very tall, and faced with small white tiles. A glass door; four tiled steps down; the desk to the right, letters and keys in the pigeonholes; a carpet to the left, upholstered chairs, a low table with paper flowers in the vase; the blue door of the swift, silent elevator. I saw the simplicity of all these things. I knew the floor I wanted. In the corridor, with its illuminated star-decorated ceiling, an imitation sky, the colours were blue, grey and gold. I knew the door I wanted. I knocked.

The hubshi woman opened. I saw the apartment where she worked. I had never seen it before and was expecting something like my old employer’s apartment, which was on the same floor. Instead, for the first time, I saw something arranged for a television life.

I thought she might have been angry. She looked only puzzled. I was grateful for that.

I said to her in English, ‘Will you marry me?’

And there, it was done.

‘It is for the best, Santosh,’ Priya said, giving me tea when I got back to the restaurant. ‘You will be a free man. A citizen. You will have the whole world before you.’

I was pleased that he was pleased.

*

So I am now a citizen, my presence is legal, and I live in Washington. I am still with Priya. We do not talk together as much as we did. The restaurant is one world, the parks and green streets of Washington are another, and every evening some of these streets take me to a third. Burnt-out brick houses, broken fences, overgrown gardens; in a levelled lot between the high brick walls of two houses, a sort of artistic children’s playground which the hubshi children never use; and then the dark house in which I now live.

Its smells are strange, everything in it is strange. But my strength in this house is that I am a stranger. I have closed my mind and heart to the English language, to newspapers and radio and television, to the pictures of hubshi runners and boxers and musicians on the wall. I do not want to understand or learn any more.

I am a simple man who decided to act and see for himself, and it is as though I have had several lives. I do not wish to add to these. Some afternoons I walk to the circle with the fountain. I see the dancers but they are separated from me as by glass. Once, when there were rumours of new burnings, someone scrawled in white paint on the pavement outside my house: Soul Brother. I understand the words; but I feel, brother to what or to whom? I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.

TELL ME WHO TO KILL

JUST LIKE MY BROTHER. He choose a bad morning to get married. Cold and wet, the little country parts between towns white rather than green, mist falling like rain, fields soaking, sometimes a cow standing up just like that. The little streams have a dirty milky colour and some of them are full of empty tins and other rubbish. Water everywhere, just like back home after a heavy sh
ower in the rainy season, only the sky is not showing in the places where the water collect, and the sun is not coming out to heat up everything and steam it dry fast.

The train hot inside, the windows running with water, people and their clothes smelling. My old suit is smelling too. It is too big for me now, but it is the only suit I have and it is from the time of money. Oh my God. Just little bits of country between the towns, and sometimes I see a house far away, by itself, and I think how nice it would be to be there, to be watching the rain and the train in the early morning. Then that pass, and it is town again, and town again, and then the whole place is like one big town, everything brown, everything of brick or iron or rusty galvanize, like a big wet rubbish dump. And my heart drop and my stomach feel small.

Frank is looking at me, watching my face. Frank in his nice tweed jacket and grey flannel trousers. Tall, thin, going a little bald. But happy. Happy to be with me, happy when people look at us and see that he is with me. He is a good man, he is my friend. But inside he is puffed up with pride. No one is nice to me like Frank, but he is so happy to make himself small, bringing his knees together as though he is carrying a little box of cakes on them. He don’t smile, but that is because he is so wise and happy. His old big shoes shining like a schoolteacher’s shoes, and you could see that he shine them himself every evening, like a man saying his prayers and feeling good. He don’t mean it, but he always make me feel sad and he always make me feel small, because I know I could never be as nice and neat as Frank and I could never be so wise and happy. But I know, oh God I know, I lose everybody else, and the only friend I have in the world is Frank.

A boy writing on the wet window with his finger and the letters melting down. The boy is with his mother and he is all right. He know where they are going when the train stop. It is a moment I don’t like at all, when the train stop and everybody scatter, when the ship dock and everybody take away their luggage. Everybody have their own luggage, and everybody’s luggage so different. Everybody is brisk then, and happy, no time for talk, because they can see where they are going. Since I come to this country that is something I can’t do. I can’t see where I am going. I can only wait to see what is going to turn up.

I am going to my brother’s wedding now. But I don’t know what bus we will take when we get to the station, or what other train, what street we will walk down, what gate we will go through, and what door we will open into what room.

*

My brother. I remember a day like this, but with heat. The sky set black night and day, the rain always coming, beating on the galvanize roof, the ground turn to mud below the house, in the yard the water frothing yellow with mud, the pará-grass in the field at the back bending down with wet, everything damp and sticky, bare skin itching.

The cart is under the house and the donkey is in the pen at the back. The pen is wet and dirty with mud and manure and fresh grass mixed up with old grass, and the donkey is standing up quiet with a sugarsack on his back to prevent him catching cold. In the kitchen shed my mother is cooking, and the smoke from the wet wood thick and smelling. Everything will taste of smoke, but on a day like this you can’t think of food. The mud and the heat and the smell make you want to throw up instead. My father is upstairs, in merino and drawers, rocking in the gallery, rubbing his hands on his arms. The smoke is not keeping away the mosquitoes up there, but mosquitoes don’t bite him. He is not thinking of anything too much; he is just looking out at the black sky and the sugarcane fields and rocking. And in one of the rooms inside, below the old galvanize roof, my brother is lying on the floor with the ague.

It is a bare room, and the bare cedar boards have nothing on them except nails and some clothes and a calendar. You build a house and you have nothing to put in it. And my pretty brother is trembling with the ague, lying on the floor on a floursack spread on a sugarsack, with another floursack for counterpane. You can see the sickness on his little face. The fever is on him but he is not sweating. He can’t understand what you say, and what he is saying is not making sense. He is saying that everything around him and inside him is heavy and smooth, very smooth.

It is as if he is going to die, and you think it is not right that someone so small and pretty should suffer so much, while someone like yourself should be so strong. He is so pretty. If he grow up he will be like a star-boy, like Errol Flim or Fairley Granger. The beauty in that room is like a wonder to me, and I can’t bear the thought of losing it. I can’t bear the thought of the bare room and the wet coming through the gaps in the boards and the black mud outside and the smell of the smoke and the mosquitoes and the night coming.

This is how I remember my brother, even afterwards, even when he grow up. Even after we sell the donkey-cart and start working the lorry and we pull down the old house and build a nice one, paint and everything. It is how I think of my brother, small and sick, suffering for me, and so pretty. I feel I could kill anyone who make him suffer. I don’t care about myself. I have no life.

I know that it was in 1954 or 1955, some ordinary year, that my brother was sick, and from the weather I can tell you the month is January or December. But in my mind it happen so long ago I can’t put a time to it. And just as I can’t put a time to it, so in my mind I can’t put a real place to it. I know where our house is and I know, oh my God, that if ever I go back I will get off the taxi at the junction and walk down the old Savannah Road. I know that road well; I know it in all sorts of weather. But what I see in my mind is in no place at all. Everything blot out except the rain and the night coming and the house and the mud and the field and the donkey and the smoke from the kitchen and my father in the gallery and my brother in the room on the floor.

And it is as though because you are frightened of something it is bound to come, as though because you are carrying danger with you danger is bound to come. And again it is like a dream. I see myself in this old English house, like something in Rebecca starring Laurence Oliver and Joan Fountain. It is an upstairs room with a lot of jalousies and fretwork. No weather. I am there with my brother, and we are strangers in the house. My brother is at college or school in England, pursuing his studies, and he is visiting this college friend and he is staying with the boy’s family. And then in a corridor, just outside a door, something happen. A quarrel, a friendly argument, a scuffle. They are only playing, but the knife go in the boy, easy, and he drop without making a noise. I just see his face surprised, I don’t see any blood, and I don’t want to stoop to look. I see my brother opening his mouth to scream, but no scream coming. Nothing making noise. I feel fright – the gallows for him, just like that, and it was only an accident, it isn’t true – and I know at that moment that the love and the danger I carry all my life burst. My life finish. It spoil, it spoil.

The worst part is still to come. We have to eat with the boy’s parents. They don’t know what happen. And both of us, my brother and me, we have to sit down and eat with them. And the body is in the house, in a chest, like in Rope with Fairley Granger. It is there at the beginning, it is there for ever, and everything else is only like a mockery. But we eat. My brother is trembling; he is not a good actor. The people we are eating with, I can’t see their faces, I don’t know what they look like.

They could be like any of the white people on this train. Like that woman with the boy writing on the wet window.

*

I can’t help anybody now. My life spoil. I would like the train never to stop. But look, the buildings are getting higher and closer together and now they are right beside the tracks and you can see rooms and washing and other things hanging up in kitchens behind the wet windows. London. I am glad Frank is with me. He will look after me when the train stop. He will take me to the wedding house, wherever it is. My brother is getting married. And inside me is like lead.

When the train stop we let the others rush, and I calm down. No rain when we go outside, and it even look as if the sun is going to break through. Frank say we have a lot of time and we decide to
walk a little. The streets dirty after the rain, the buildings black, old newspapers in the gutters. I follow Frank and he lead me to streets I know well. I wonder whether it is an accident or whether he know. He know everything.

And then I see the shop. Like a dirty box with a glass front. Now it is a jokes-shop, with little cards in the dusty window. Amuse your friends, frighten your friends. Card tricks, false false-teeth, solid glasses of Guinness, rubber spiders, itching powder, plastic dog-mess. It isn’t much, but you wouldn’t believe that once upon a time for a few months the place was mine.

‘This is the place,’ I tell Frank. ‘The mistake of my life. This is where all my money went. Two thousand pounds. It take me five years to save that. In five months it went there.’

Two thousand pounds. Pounds don’t sound like real money if you spend most of your life dealing in dollars and cents. But in ten years my father couldn’t make two thousand pounds. How a man could revive after that? You can say: I will do it again, I will work again and save again. You can say that, but you know that when your courage break, it break.

Frank put his arm around my shoulders to take me away from the shop window. The owner, the new owner, the man with the lease, look at us. A yellow little bald fellow with a soft little paunch, and everything in his window already look as if it is collecting dust. Frank stiffen a little, the old pride puffing him up, and he is acting for the bald fellow and anybody else who is watching us.

I say, ‘You white bitch.’

It is as though Frank love the obscene language. He get very tender and gentle, and because he is tender I start saying things I don’t really feel.

‘I am going to make a lot more money, Frank. I am going to make more money than you will ever make in your whole life, you white bitch. I will buy the tallest building here. I will buy the whole street.’

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