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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
*

   When the impossible happened, and his father, out of the blue, offered him an English education, to get me out of the way, he thought, otherwise why, it's obvious, but don't look a gift horse andsoforth, his mother Nasreen Chamchawala refused to cry, and volunteered, instead, the benefit of her advice. ‘Don't go dirty like those English,’ she warned him. ‘They wipe their bee tee ems with paper only. Also, they get into each other's dirty bathwater.’ These vile slanders proved to Salahuddin that his mother was doing her damnedest to prevent him from leaving, and in spite of their mutual love he replied, ‘It is inconceivable, Ammi, what you say. England is a great civilization, what are you talking, bunk.’
   She smiled her little nervy smile and did not argue. And, later, stood dry-eyed beneath the triumphal arch of a gateway and would not go to Santacruz airport to see him off. Her only child. She heaped garlands around his neck until he grew dizzy with the cloying perfumes of mother-love.
   Nasreen Chamchawala was the slightest, most fragile of women, her bones like tinkas, like minute slivers of wood. To make up for her physical insignificance she took at an early age to dressing with a certain outrageous, excessive verve. Her sari-patterns were dazzling, even garish: lemon silk adorned with huge brocade diamonds, dizzy black-and-white Op Art swirls, gigantic lipstick kisses on a bright white ground. People forgave her her lurid taste because she wore the blinding garments with such innocence; because the voice emanating from that textile cacophony was so tiny and hesitant and proper. And because of her soirees.
   Each Friday of her married life, Nasreen would fill the halls of the Chamchawala residence, those usually tenebrous chambers like great hollow burial vaults, with bright light and brittle friends. When Salahuddin was a little boy he had insisted on playing doorman, and would greet the jewelled and lacquered guests with great gravity, permitting them to pat him on the head and call him cuteso and chweetie-pie. On Fridays the house was full of noise; there were musicians, singers, dancers, the latest Western hits as heard on Radio Ceylon, raucous puppet-shows in which painted clay rajahs rode puppet-stallions, decapitating enemy marionettes with imprecations and wooden swords. During the rest of the week, however, Nasreen would stalk the house warily, a pigeon of a woman walking on tiptoed feet through the gloom, as if she were afraid to disturb the shadowed silence; and her son, walking in her footsteps, also learned to lighten his footfall lest he rouse whatever goblin or afreet might be lying in wait.
   But: Nasreen Chamchawala's caution failed to save her life. The horror seized and murdered her when she believed herself most safe, clad in a sari covered in cheap newspaper photos and headlines, bathed in chandelier-light, surrounded by her friends.


*

   By then five and a half years had passed since young Salahuddin, garlanded and warned, boarded a Douglas DC-8 and journeyed into the west. Ahead of him, England; beside him, his father, Changez Chamchawala; below him, home and beauty. Like Nasreen, the future Saladin had never found it easy to cry.
   On that first aeroplane he read science fiction tales of interplanetary migration: Asimov's Foundation, Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. He imagined the DC-8 was the mother ship, bearing the Chosen, the Elect of God and man, across unthinkable distances, travelling for generations, breeding eugenically, that their seed might one day take root somewhere in a brave new world beneath a yellow sun. He corrected himself: not the mother but the father ship, because there he was, after all, the great man, Abbu, Dad. Thirteen-year-old Salahuddin, setting aside recent doubts and grievances, entered once again his childish adoration of his father, because he had, had, had worshipped him, he was a great father until you started growing a mind of your own, and then to argue with him was called a betrayal of his love, but never mind that now, I accuse him of becoming my supreme being, so that what happened was like a loss of faith... yes, the father ship, an aircraft was not a flying womb but a metal phallus, and the passengers were spermatozoa waiting to be spilt.
   Five and a half hours of time zones; turn your watch upside down in Bombay and you see the time in London. My father, Chamcha would think, years later, in the midst of his bitterness. I accuse him of inverting Time.
   How far did they fly? Five and a half thousand as the crow. Or: from Indianness to Englishness, an immeasurable distance. Or, not very far at all, because they rose from one great city, fell to another. The distance between cities is always small; a villager, travelling a hundred miles to town, traverses emptier, darker, more terrifying space.
   What Changez Chamchawala did when the aeroplane took off: trying not to let his son see him doing it, he crossed two pairs of fingers on each hand, and rotated both his thumbs.

   And when they were installed in a hotel within a few feet of the ancient location of the Tyburn tree, Changez said to his son: ‘Take. This belongs to you.’ And held out, at arm's length, a black billfold about whose identity there could be no mistake. ‘You are a man now. Take.’
   The return of the confiscated wallet, complete with all its currency, proved to be one of Changez Chamchawala's little traps. Salahuddin had been deceived by these all his life. Whenever his father wanted to punish him, he would offer him a present, a bar of imported chocolate or a tin of Kraft cheese, and would then grab him when he came to get it. ‘Donkey,’ Changez scorned his infant son. ‘Always, always, the carrot leads you to my stick.’
   Salahuddin in London took the proffered wallet, accepting the gift of manhood; whereupon his father said: ‘Now that you are a man, it is for you to look after your old father while we are in London town. You pay all the bills.’
   January, 1961. A year you could turn upside down and it would still, unlike your watch, tell the same time. It was winter; but when Salahuddin Chamchawala began to shiver in his hotel room, it was because he was scared halfway out of his wits; his crock of gold had turned, suddenly, into a sorcerer's curse.
   Those two weeks in London before he went to his boarding school turned into a nightmare of cash-tills and calculations, because Changez had meant exactly what he said and never put his hand into his own pocket once. Salahuddin had to buy his own clothes, such as a double-breasted blue serge mackintosh and seven blue-and-white striped Van Heusen shirts with detachable semi-stiff collars which Changez made him wear every day, to get used to the studs, and Salahuddin felt as if a blunt knife were being pushed in just beneath his newly broken Adam's-apple; and he had to make sure there would be enough for the hotel room, and everything, so that he was too nervous to ask his father if they could go to a movie, not even one, not even The Pure Hell of St Trinians, or to eat out, not a single Chinese meal, and in later years he would remember nothing of his first fortnight in his beloved Ellowen Deeowen except pounds shillings pence, like the disciple of the philosopher-king Chanakya who asked the great man what he meant by saying one could live in the world and also not live in it, and who was told to carry a brim-full pitcher of water through a holiday crowd without spilling a drop, on pain of death, so that when he returned he was unable to describe the day's festivities, having been like a blind man, seeing only the jug on his head.
   Changez Chamchawala became very still in those days, seeming not to care if he ate or drank or did any damn thing, he was happy sitting in the hotel room watching television, especially when the Flintstones were on, because, he told his son, that Wilma bibi reminded him of Nasreen. Salahuddin tried to prove he was a man by fasting right along with his father, trying to outlast him, but he never managed it, and when the pangs got too strong he went out of the hotel to the cheap joint nearby where you could buy take-away roast chickens that hung greasily in the window, turning slowly on their spits. When he brought the chicken into the hotel lobby he became embarrassed, not wanting the staff to see, so he stuffed it inside double-breasted serge and went up in the lift reeking of spit-roast, his mackintosh bulging, his face turning red. Chicken-breasted beneath the gaze of dowagers and liftwallahs he felt the birth of that implacable rage which would burn within him, undiminished, for over a quarter of a century; which would boil away his childhood father-worship and make him a secular man, who would do his best, thereafter, to live without a god of any type; which would fuel, perhaps, his determination to become the thing his father was-not-could-never-be, that is, a goodandproper Englishman. Yes, an English, even if his mother had been right all along, even if there was only paper in the toilets and tepid, used water full of mud and soap to step into after taking exercise, even if it meant a lifetime spent amongst winter-naked trees whose fingers clutched despairingly at the few, pale hours of watery, filtered light. On winter nights he, who had never slept beneath more than a sheet, lay beneath mountains of wool and felt like a figure in an ancient myth, condemned by the gods to have a boulder pressing down upon his chest; but never mind, he would be English, even if his classmates giggled at his voice and excluded him from their secrets, because these exclusions only increased his determination, and that was when he began to act, to find masks that these fellows would recognize, paleface masks, clown-masks, until he fooled them into thinking he was okay, he was people-like-us. He fooled them the way a sensitive human being can persuade gorillas to accept him into their family, to fondle and caress and stuff bananas in his mouth.
   (After he had settled up the last bill, and the wallet he had once found at a rainbow's end was empty, his father said to him: ‘See now. You pay your way. I've made a man of you.’ But what man? That's what fathers never know. Not in advance; not until it's too late.)
   One day soon after he started at the school he came down to breakfast to find a kipper on his plate. He sat there staring at it, not knowing where to begin. Then he cut into it, and got a mouthful of tiny bones. And after extracting them all, another mouthful, more bones. His fellow-pupils watched him suffer in silence; not one of them said, here, let me show you, you eat it in this way. It took him ninety minutes to eat the fish and he was not permitted to rise from the table until it was done. By that time he was shaking, and if he had been able to cry he would have done so. Then the thought occurred to him that he had been taught an important lesson. England was a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones, and nobody would ever tell him how to eat it. He discovered that he was a bloody-minded person. ‘I'll show them all,’ he swore. ‘You see if I don't.’ The eaten kipper was his first victory, the first step in his conquest of England.
   William the Conqueror, it is said, began by eating a mouthful of English sand.
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Poruke Odustao od brojanja
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*

   Five years later he was back home after leaving school, waiting until the English university term began, and his transmutation into a Vilayeti was well advanced. ‘See how well he complains,’ Nasreen teased him in front of his father. ‘About everything he has such big-big criticisms, the fans are fixed too loosely to the roof and will fall to slice our heads off in our sleep, he says, and the food is too fattening, why we don't cook some things without frying, he wants to know, the top-floor balconies are unsafe and the paint is peeled, why can't we take pride in our surroundings, isn't it, and the garden is overgrown, we are just junglee people, he thinks so, and look how coarse our movies are, now he doesn't enjoy, and so much disease you can't even drink water from the tap, my god, he really got an education, husband, our little Sallu, England-returned, and talking so fine and all.’
   They were walking on the lawn in the evening, watching the sun dive into the sea, wandering in the shade of those great spreading trees, some snaky some bearded, which Salahuddin (who now called himself Saladin after the fashion of the English school, but would remain Chamchawala for a while yet, until a theatrical agent shortened his name for commercial reasons) had begun to be able to name, jackfruit, banyan, jacaranda, flame of the forest, plane. Small chhooi-mooi touch-me-not plants grew at the foot of the tree of his own life, the walnut-tree that Changez had planted with his own hands on the day of the coming of the son. Father and son at the birth-tree were both awkward, unable to respond properly to Nasreen's gentle fun. Saladin had been seized by the melancholy notion that the garden had been a better place before he knew its names, that something had been lost which he would never be able to regain. And Changez Chamchawala found that he could no longer look his son in the eye, because the bitterness he saw came close to freezing his heart. When he spoke, turning roughly away from the eighteen-year-old walnut in which, at times during their long separations, he had imagined his only son's soul to reside, the words came out incorrectly and made him sound like the rigid, cold figure he had hoped he would never become, and feared he could not avoid.
   ‘Tell your son,’ Changez boomed at Nasreen, ‘that if he went abroad to learn contempt for his own kind, then his own kind can feel nothing but scorn for him. What is he? A fauntleroy, a grand panjandrum? Is this my fate: to lose a son and find a freak?’
   ‘Whatever I am, father dear,’ Saladin told the older man, ‘I owe it all to you.’
   It was their last family chat. All that summer feelings continued to run high, for all Nasreen's attempts at mediation, you must apologize to your father, darling, poor man is suffering like the devil but his pride won't let him hug you. Even the ayah Kasturba and the old bearer Vallabh, her husband, attempted to mediate but neither father nor son would bend. ‘Same material is the problem,’ Kasturba told Nasreen. ‘Daddy and sonny, same material, same to same.’
   When the war with Pakistan began that September Nasreen decided, with a kind of defiance, that she would not cancel her Friday parties, ‘to show that Hindus-Muslims can love as well as hate,’ she pointed out. Changez saw a look in her eyes and did not attempt to argue, but set the servants to putting blackout curtains over all the windows instead. That night, for the last time, Saladin Chamchawala played his old role of doorman, dressed up in an English dinner-jacket, and when the guests came – the same old guests, dusted with the grey powders of age but otherwise the same – they bestowed upon him the same old pats and kisses, the nostalgic benedictions of his youth. ‘Look how grown,’ they were saying. ‘Just a darling, what to say.’ They were all trying to hide their fear of the war, danger of air-raids, the radio said, and when they ruffled Saladin's hair their hands were a little too shaky, or alternatively a little too rough.
   Late that evening the sirens sang and the guests ran for cover, hiding under beds, in cupboards, anywhere. Nasreen Chamchawala found herself alone by a food-laden table, and attempted to reassure the company by standing there in her newsprint sari, munching a piece offish as if nothing were the matter. So it was that when she started choking on the fishbone of her death there was nobody to help her, they were all crouching in corners with their eyes shut; even Saladin, conqueror of kippers, Saladin of the England-returned upper lip, had lost his nerve. Nasreen Chamchawala fell, twitched, gasped, died, and when the all-clear sounded the guests emerged sheepishly to find their hostess extinct in the middle of the dining-room, stolen away by the exterminating angel, khali-pili khalaas, as Bombay-talk has it, finished off for no reason, gone for good.


*

   Less than a year after the death of Nasreen Chamchawala from her inability to triumph over fishbones in the manner of her foreign-educated son, Changez married again without a word of warning to anyone. Saladin in his English college received a letter from his father commanding him, in the irritatingly orotund and obsolescent phraseology that Changez always used in correspondence, to be happy. ‘Rejoice,’ the letter said, ‘for what is lost is reborn.’ The explanation for this somewhat cryptic sentence came lower down in the aerogramme, and when Saladin learned that his new stepmother was also called Nasreen, something went wrong in his head, and he wrote his father a letter full of cruelty and anger, whose violence was of the type that exists only between fathers and sons, and which differs from that between daughters and mothers in that there lurks behind it the possibility of actual, jaw-breaking fisticuffs. Changez wrote back by return of post; a brief letter, four lines of archaic abuse, cad rotter bounder scoundrel varlet whoreson rogue. ‘Kindly consider all family connections irreparably sundered,’ it concluded. ‘Consequences your responsibility.’
   After a year of silence, Saladin received a further communication, a letter of forgiveness that was in all particulars harder to take than the earlier, excommunicatory thunderbolt. ‘When you become a father, O my son,’ Changez Chamchawala confided, ‘then shall you know those moments – ah! Too sweet! – when, for love, one dandles the bonny babe upon one's knee; whereupon, without warning or provocation, the blessed creature – may I be frank? – it wets one. Perhaps for a moment one feels the gorge rising, a tide of anger swells within the blood but then it dies away, as quickly as it came. For do we not, as adults, understand that the little one is not to blame? He knows not what he does.’
   Deeply offended at being compared to a urinating baby, Saladin maintained what he hoped was a dignified silence. By the time of his graduation he had acquired a British passport, because he had arrived in the country just before the laws tightened up, so he was able to inform Changez in a brief note that he intended to settle down in London and look for work as an actor. Changez Chamchawala's reply came by express mail. ‘Might as well be a confounded gigolo. It's my belief some devil has got into you and turned your wits. You who have been given so much: do you not feel you owe anything to anyone? To your country? To the memory of your dear mother? To your own mind? Will you spend your life jiggling and preening under bright lights, kissing blonde women under the gaze of strangers who have paid to watch your shame? You are no son of mine, but a ghoul, a hoosh, a demon up from hell. An actor! Answer me this: what am I to tell my friends?’
   And beneath a signature, the pathetic, petulant postscript. ‘Now that you have your own bad djinni, do not think you will inherit the magic lamp.’
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*

   After that, Changez Chamchawala wrote to his son at irregular intervals, and in every letter he returned to the theme of demons and possession: ‘A man untrue to himself becomes a two-legged lie, and such beasts are Shaitan's best work,’ he wrote, and also, in more sentimental vein: ‘I have your soul kept safe, my son, here in this walnut-tree. The devil has only your body. When you are free of him, return and claim your immortal spirit. It flourishes in the garden.’
   The handwriting in these letters altered over the years, changing from the florid confidence that had made it instantly identifiable and becoming narrower, undecorated, purified. Eventually the letters stopped, but Saladin heard from other sources that his father's preoccupation with the supernatural had continued to deepen, until finally he had become a recluse, perhaps in order to escape this world in which demons could steal his own son's body, a world unsafe for a man of true religious faith.
   His father's transformation disconcerted Saladin, even at such a great distance. His parents had been Muslims in the lackadaisical, light manner of Bombayites; Changez Chamchawala had seemed far more godlike to his infant son than any Allah. That this father, this profane deity (albeit now discredited), had dropped to his knees in his old age and started bowing towards Mecca was hard for his godless son to accept.
   ‘I blame that witch,’ he told himself, falling for rhetorical purposes into the same language of spells and goblins that his father had commenced to employ. ‘That Nasreen Two. Is it I who have been the subject of devilment, am I the one possessed? It's not my handwriting that changed.’
   The letters didn't come any more. Years passed; and then Saladin Chamcha, actor, self-made man, returned to Bombay with the Prospero Players, to interpret the role of the Indian doctor in The Millionairess by George Bernard Shaw. On stage, he tailored his voice to the requirements of the part, but those long-suppressed locutions, those discarded vowels and consonants, began to leak out of his mouth out of the theatre as well. His voice was betraying him; and he discovered his component parts to be capable of other treasons, too.


*

   A man who sets out to make himself up is taking on the Creator's role, according to one way of seeing things; he's unnatural, a blasphemer, an abomination of abominations. From another angle, you could see pathos in him, heroism in his struggle, in his willingness to risk: not all mutants survive. Or, consider him sociopolitically: most migrants learn, and can become disguises. Our own false descriptions to counter the falsehoods invented about us, concealing for reasons of security our secret selves.
   A man who invents himself needs someone to believe in him, to prove he's managed it. Playing God again, you could say. Or you could come down a few notches, and think of Tinkerbell; fairies don't exist if children don't clap their hands. Or you might simply say: it's just like being a man.
   Not only the need to be believed in, but to believe in another. You've got it: Love.
   Saladin Chamcha met Pamela Lovelace five and a half days before the end of the 1960s, when women still wore bandannas in their hair. She stood at the centre of a room full of Trotskyist actresses and fixed him with eyes so bright, so bright. He monopolized her all evening and she never stopped smiling and she left with another man. He went home to dream of her eyes and smile, the slenderness of her, her skin. He pursued her for two years. England yields her treasures with reluctance. He was astonished by his own perseverance, and understood that she had become the custodian of his destiny, that if she did not relent then his entire attempt at metamorphosis would fail. ‘Let me,’ he begged her, wrestling politely on her white rug that left him, at his midnight bus stops, covered in guilty fluff. ‘Believe me. I'm the one.’
   One night, out of the blue, she let him, she said she believed. He married her before she could change her mind, but never learned to read her thoughts. When she was unhappy she would lock herself in the bedroom until she felt better. ‘It's none of your business,’ she told him. ‘I don't want anybody to see me when I'm like that.’ He used to call her a clam. ‘Open up,’ he hammered on all the locked doors of their lives together, basement first, then maisonette, then mansion. ‘I love you, let me in.’ He needed her so badly, to reassure himself of his own existence, that he never comprehended the desperation in her dazzling, permanent smile, the terror in the brightness with which she faced the world, or the reasons why she hid when she couldn't manage to beam. Only when it was too late did she tell him that her parents had committed suicide together when she had just begun to menstruate, over their heads in gambling debts, leaving her with the aristocratic bellow of a voice that marked her out as a golden girl, a woman to envy, whereas in fact she was abandoned, lost, her parents couldn't even be bothered to wait and watch her grow up, that's how much she was loved, so of course she had no confidence at all, and every moment she spent in the world was full of panic, so she smiled and smiled and maybe once a week she locked the door and shook and felt like a husk, like an empty peanut-shell, a monkey without a nut.
   They never managed to have children; she blamed herself. After ten years Saladin discovered that there was something the matter with some of his own chromosomes, two sticks too long, or too short, he couldn't remember. His genetic inheritance; apparently he was lucky to exist, lucky not to be some sort of deformed freak. Was it his mother or his father from whom? The doctors couldn't say; he blamed, it's easy to guess which one, after all, it wouldn't do to think badly of the dead.
   They hadn't been getting along lately.
   He told himself that afterwards, but not during.
   Afterwards, he told himself, we were on the rocks, maybe it was the missing babies, maybe we just grew away from each other, maybe this, maybe that.
   During, he looked away from all the strain, all the scratchiness, all the fights that never got going, he closed his eyes and waited until her smile came back. He allowed himself to believe in that smile, that brilliant counterfeit of joy.
   He tried to invent a happy future for them, to make it come true by making it up and then believing in it. On his way to India he was thinking how lucky he was to have her, I'm lucky yes I am don't argue I'm the luckiest bastard in the world. And: how wonderful it was to have before him the stretching, shady avenue of years, the prospect of growing old in the presence of her gentleness.
   He had worked so hard and come so close to convincing himself of the truth of these paltry fictions that when he went to bed with Zeeny Vakil within forty-eight hours of arriving in Bombay, the first thing he did, even before they made love, was to faint, to pass out cold, because the messages reaching his brain were in such serious disagreement with one another, as if his right eye saw the world moving to the left while his left eye saw it sliding to the right.
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*

   Zeeny was the first Indian woman he had ever made love to. She barged into his dressing-room after the first night of The Millionairess, with her operatic arms and her gravel voice, as if it hadn't been years. Years. ‘Yaar, what a disappointment, I swear, I sat through the whole thing just to hear you singing ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ like Peter Sellers or what, I thought, let's find out if the guy learned to hit a note, you remember when you did Elvis impersonations with your squash racket, darling, too hilarious, completely cracked. But what is this? Song is not in drama. The hell. Listen, can you escape from all these palefaces and come out with us wogs? Maybe you forgot what that is like.’ He remembered her as a stick-figure of a teenager in a lopsided Quant hairstyle and an equal-but-oppositely lopsided smile. A rash, bad girl. Once for the hell of it she walked into a notorious adda, a dive, on Falkland Road, and sat there smoking a cigarette and drinking Coke until the pimps who ran the joint threatened to cut her face, no freelances permitted. She stared them down, finished her cigarette, left. Fearless. Maybe crazy. Now in her middle thirties she was a qualified doctor with a consultancy at Breach Candy Hospital, who worked with the city's homeless, who had gone to Bhopal the moment the news broke of the invisible American cloud that ate people's eyes and lungs. She was an art critic whose book on the confining myth of authenticity, that folkloristic straitjacket which she sought to replace by an ethic of historically validated eclecticism, for was not the entire national culture based on the principle of borrowing whatever clothes seemed to fit, Aryan, Mughal, British, take-the-best-and-leave-the-rest? – had created a predictable stink, especially because of its title. She had called it The Only Good Indian. ‘Meaning, is a dead,’ she told Chamcha when she gave him a copy. ‘Why should there be a good, right way of being a wog? That's Hindu fundamentalism. Actually, we're all bad Indians. Some worse than others.’
   She had come into the fullness of her beauty, long hair left loose, and she was no stick-figure these days. Five hours after she entered his dressing-room they were in bed, and he passed out. When he awoke she explained ‘I slipped you a mickey finn.’ He never worked out whether or not she had been telling the truth.
   Zeenat Vakil made Saladin her project. ‘The reclamation of,’ she explained. ‘Mister, we're going to get you back.’ At times he thought she intended to achieve this by eating him alive. She made love like a cannibal and he was her long pork. ‘Did you know,’ he asked her, ‘of the well-established connection between vegetarianism and the man-eating impulse?’ Zeeny, lunching on his naked thigh, shook her head. ‘In certain extreme cases,’ he went on, ‘too much vegetable consumption can release into the system biochemicals that induce cannibal fantasies.’ She looked up and smiled her slanting smile. Zeeny, the beautiful vampire. ‘Come off it,’ she said. ‘We are a nation of vegetarians, and ours is a peaceful, mystical culture, everybody knows.’
   He, for his part, was required to handle with care. The first time he touched her breasts she spouted hot astounding tears the colour and consistency of buffalo milk. She had watched her mother die like a bird being carved for dinner, first the left breast then the right, and still the cancer had spread. Her fear of repeating her mother's death placed her chest off limits. Fearless Zeeny's secret terror. She had never had a child but her eyes wept milk.
   After their first lovemaking she started right in on him, the tears forgotten now. ‘You know what you are, I'll tell you. A deserter is what, more English than, your Angrez accent wrapped around you like a flag, and don't think it's so perfect, it slips, baba, like a false moustache.’
   ‘There's something strange going on,’ he wanted to say, ‘my voice,’ but he didn't know how to put it, and held his tongue.
   ‘People like you,’ she snorted, kissing his shoulder. ‘You come back after so long and think godknowswhat of yourselves. Well, baby, we got a lower opinion of you.’ Her smile was brighter than Pamela's. ‘I see,’ he said to her, ‘Zeeny, you didn't lose your Binaca smile.’
   Binaca. Where had that come from, the long forgotten toothpaste advertisement? And the vowel sounds, distinctly unreliable. Watch out, Chamcha, look out for your shadow. That black fellow creeping up behind.
   On the second night she arrived at the theatre with two friends in tow, a young Marxist film-maker called George Miranda, a shambling whale of a man with rolled-up kurta sleeves, a flapping waistcoat bearing ancient stains, and a surprisingly military moustache with waxed points; and Bhupen Gandhi, poet and journalist, who had gone prematurely grey but whose face was baby-innocent until he unleashed his sly, giggling laugh. ‘Come on, Salad baba,’ Zeeny announced. ‘We're going to show you the town.’ She turned to her companions. ‘These Asians from foreign got no shame,’ she declared. ‘Saladin, like a bloody lettuce, I ask you.’
   ‘There was a TV reporter here some days back,’ George Miranda said. ‘Pink hair. She said her name was Kerleeda. I couldn't work it out.’
   ‘Listen, George is too unworldly,’ Zeeny interrupted, ‘He doesn't know what freaks you guys turn into. That Miss Singh, outrageous. I told her, the name's Khalida, dearie, rhymes with Dalda, that's a cooking medium. But she couldn't say it. Her own name. Take me to your kerleader. You types got no culture. Just wogs now. Ain't it the truth?’ she added, suddenly gay and round-eyed, afraid she'd gone too far. ‘Stop bullying him, Zeenat,’ Bhupen Gandhi said in his quiet voice. And George, awkwardly, mumbled: ‘No offence, man. Joke-shoke.’
   Chamcha decided to grin and then fight back. ‘Zeeny,’ he said, ‘the earth is full of Indians, you know that, we get everywhere, we become tinkers in Australia and our heads end up in Idi Amin's fridge. Columbus was right, maybe; the world's made up of Indies, East, West, North. Damn it, you should be proud of us, our enterprise, the way we push against frontiers. Only thing is, we're not Indian like you. You better get used to us. What was the name of that book you wrote?’
   ‘Listen,’ Zeeny put her arm. through his. ‘Listen to my Salad. Suddenly he wants to be Indian after spending his life trying to turn white. All is not lost, you see. Something in there still alive.’ And Chamcha felt himself flushing, felt the confusion mounting. India; it jumbled things up.
   ‘For Pete's sake,’ she added, knifing him with a kiss. ‘Chamcha. I mean, fuck it. You name yourself Mister Toady and you expect us not to laugh.’

   In Zeeny's beaten-up Hindustan, a car built for a servant culture, the back seat better upholstered than the front, he felt the night closing in on him like a crowd. India, measuring him against her forgotten immensity, her sheer presence, the old despised disorder. An Amazonic hijra got up like an Indian Wonder Woman, complete with silver trident, held up the traffic with one imperious arm, sauntered in front of them. Chamcha stared into herhis glaring eyes. Gibreel Farishta, the movie star who had unaccountably vanished from view, rotted on the hoardings. Rubble, litter, noise. Cigarette advertisements smoking past: scissors – for the man of action, satisfaction. And, more improbably: panama – part of THE GREAT INDIAN SCENE.
   ‘Where are we going?’ The night had acquired the quality of green neon strip-lighting. Zeeny parked the car. ‘You're lost,’ she accused him. ‘What do you know about Bombay? Your own city, only it never was. To you, it's a dream of childhood. Growing up on Scandal Point is like living on the moon. No bustees there, no sirree, only servants’ quarters. Did Shiv Sena elements come there to make communal trouble? Were your neighbours starving in the textile strike? Did Datta Samant stage a rally in front of your bungalows? How old were you when you met a trade unionist? How old the first time you got on a local train instead of a car with driver? That wasn't Bombay, darling, excuse me. That was Wonderland, Peristan, Never-Never, Oz.’
   ‘And you?’ Saladin reminded her. ‘Where were you back then?’
   ‘Same place,’ she said fiercely. ‘With all the other bloody Munchkins.’
   Back streets. A Jain temple was being re-painted and all the saints were in plastic bags to protect them from the drips. A pavement magazine vendor displayed newspapers full of horror: a railway disaster. Bhupen Gandhi began to speak in his mild whisper. After the accident, he said, the surviving passengers swam to the shore (the train had plunged off a bridge) and were met by local villagers, who pushed them under the water until they drowned and then looted their bodies.
   ‘Shut your face,’ Zeeny shouted at him. ‘Why are you telling him such things? Already he thinks we're savages, a lower form.’
   A shop was selling sandalwood to burn in a nearby Krishna temple and sets of enamelled pink-and-white Krishna-eyes that saw everything. ‘Too damn much to see,’ Bhupen said. ‘That is fact of matter.’ In a crowded dhaba that George had started frequenting when he was making contact, for movie purposes, with the dadas or bosses who ran the city's flesh trade, dark rum was consumed at aluminium tables and George and Bhupen started, a little boozily, to quarrel. Zeeny drank Thums Up Cola and denounced her friends to Chamcha. ‘Drinking problems, both of them, broke as old pots, they both mistreat their wives, sit in dives, waste their stinking lives. No wonder I fell for you, sugar, when the local product is so low grade you get to like goods from foreign.’
   George had gone with Zeeny to Bhopal and was becoming noisy on the subject of the catastrophe, interpreting it ideologically. ‘What is Amrika for us?’ he demanded. ‘It's not a real place. Power in its purest form, disembodied, invisible. We can't see it but it screws us totally, no escape.’ He compared the Union Carbide company to the Trojan Horse. ‘We invited the bastards in.’ It was like the story of the forty thieves, he said. Hiding in their amphoras and waiting for the night. ‘We had no AH Baba, misfortunately,’ he cried. ‘Who did we have? Mr. Rajiv G.’
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   At this point Bhupen Gandhi stood up abruptly, unsteadily, and began, as though possessed, as though a spirit were upon him, to testify. ‘For me,’ he said, ‘the issue cannot be foreign intervention. We always forgive ourselves by blaming outsiders, America, Pakistan, any damn place. Excuse me, George, but for me it all goes back to Assam, we have to start with that.’ The massacre of the innocents. Photographs of children's corpses, arranged neatly in lines like soldiers on parade. They had been clubbed to death, pelted with stones, their necks cut in half by knives. Those neat ranks of death, Chamcha remembered. As if only horror could sting India into orderliness.
   Bhupen spoke for twenty-nine minutes without hesitations or pauses. ‘We are all guilty of Assam,’ he said. ‘Each person of us. Unless and until we face it, that the children's deaths were our fault, we cannot call ourselves a civilized people.’ He drank rum quickly as he spoke, and his voice got louder, and his body began to lean dangerously, but although the room fell silent nobody moved towards him, nobody tried to stop him talking, nobody called him a drunk. In the middle of a sentence, everyday blindings, or shootings, or corruptions, who do we think we, he sat down heavily and stared into his glass.
   Now a young man stood up in a far corner of the joint and argued back. Assam had to be understood politically, he cried, there were economic reasons, and yet another fellow came to his feet to reply, cash matters do not explain why a grown man clubs a little girl to death, and then another fellow said, if you think that, you have never been hungry, salah, how bloody romantic to suppose economics cannot make men into beasts. Chamcha clutched at his glass as the noise level rose, and the air seemed to thicken, gold teeth flashed in his face, shoulders rubbed against his, elbows nudged, the air was turning into soup, and in his chest the irregular palpitations had begun. George grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him out into the street. ‘You okay, man? You were turning green.’ Saladin nodded his thanks, gasped in lungfuls of the night, calmed down. ‘Rum and exhaustion,’ he said. ‘I have the peculiar habit of getting my nerves after the show. Quite often I get wobbly. Should have known,’ Zeeny was looking at him, and there was more in her eyes than sympathy. A glittering look, triumphant, hard. Something got through to you, her expression gloated. About bloody time.
   After you recover from typhoid, Chamcha reflected, you remain immune to the disease for ten years or so. But nothing is forever; eventually the antibodies vanish from your blood. He had to accept the fact that his blood no longer contained the immunizing agents that would have enabled him to suffer India's reality. Rum, heart palpitations, a sickness of the spirit. Time for bed.
   She wouldn't take him to her place. Always and only the hotel, with the gold-medallioned young Arabs strutting in the midnight corridors holding bottles of contraband whisky. He lay on the bed with his shoes on, his collar and tie loose, his right arm flung across his eyes; she, in the hotel's white bathrobe, bent over him and kissed his chin. I’ll tell you what happened to you tonight,’ she said. ‘You could say we cracked your shell.’
   He sat up, angry. ‘Well, this is what's inside,’ he blazed at her. ‘An Indian translated into English-medium. When I attempt Hindustani these days, people look polite. This is me.’ Caught in the aspic of his adopted language, he had begun to hear, in India's Babel, an ominous warning: don't come back again. When you have stepped through the looking-glass you step back at your peril. The mirror may cut you to shreds.
   ‘I was so proud of Bhupen tonight,’ Zeeny said, getting into bed. ‘In how many countries could you go into some bar and start up a debate like that? The passion, the seriousness, the respect. You keep your civilization, Toadji; I like this one plenty fine.’
   ‘Give up on me,’ he begged her. ‘I don't like people dropping in to sec me without warning, I have forgotten the rules of seven-tiles and kabaddi, I can't recite my prayers, I don't know what should happen at a nikah ceremony, and in this city where I grew up I get lost if I'm on my own. This isn't home. It makes me giddy because it feels like home and is not. It makes my heart tremble and my head spin.’
   ‘You're a stupid,’ she shouted at him. ‘A stupid. Change back! Damn fool! Of course you can.’ She was a vortex, a siren, tempting him back to his old self. But it was a dead self, a shadow, a ghost, and he would not become a phantom. There was a return ticket to London in his wallet, and he was going to use it.

   ‘You never married,’ he said when they both lay sleepless in the small hours. Zeeny snorted. ‘You've really been gone too long. Can't you see me? I'm a blackie.’ Arching her back and throwing off the sheet to show off her lavishness. When the bandit queen Phoolan Devi came out of the ravines to surrender and be photographed, the newspapers at once uncreated their own myth of her legendary beauty. She became plain, a common creature, unappetizing where she had been toothsome. Dark skin in north India. ‘I don't buy it,’ Saladin said. ‘You don't expect me to believe that.’
   She laughed. ‘Good, you're not a complete idiot yet. Who needs to marry? I had work to do.’
   And after a pause, she threw his question back at him. So, then. And you?
   Not only married, but rich. ‘So tell, na. How you live, you and the mame.’ In a five-storey mansion in Notting Hill. He had started feeling insecure there of late, because the most recent batch of burglars had taken not only the usual video and stereo but also the wolfhound guard dog. It was not possible, he had begun to feel, to live in a place where the criminal elements kidnapped the animals. Pamela told him it was an old local custom. In the Olden Days, she said (history, for Pamela, was divided into the Ancient Era, the Dark Ages, the Olden Days, the British Empire, the Modern Age and the Present), petnapping was good business. The poor would steal the canines of the rich, train them to forget their names, and sell them back to their grieving, helpless owners in shops on Portobello Road. Pamela's local history was always detailed and frequently unreliable. ‘But, my God,’ Zeeny Vakil said, ‘you must sell up pronto and move. I know those English, all the same, riff-raff and nawabs. You can't fight their bloody traditions.’
   My wife, Pamela Lovelace, frail as porcelain, graceful as gazelles, he remembered. I put down roots in the women I love. The banalities of infidelity. He put them away and talked about his work.
   When Zeeny Vakil found out how Saladin Chamcha made his money, she let fly a series of shrieks that made one of the medallioned Arabs knock at the door to make sure everything was all right. He saw a beautiful woman sitting up in bed with what looked like buffalo milk running down her face and dripping off the point of her chin, and, apologizing to Chamcha for the intrusion, he withdrew hastily, sorry, sport, hey, you're some lucky guy.
   ‘You poor potato,’ Zeeny gasped between peals of laughter. ‘Those Angrez bastards. They really screwed you up.’
   So now his work was funny. ‘I have a gift for accents,’ he said haughtily. ‘Why I shouldn't employ?’
   ‘“Why I should not employ?”’ she mimicked him, kicking her legs in the air. ‘Mister actor, your moustache just slipped again.’
   Oh my God.
   What's happening to me?
   What the devil?
   Help.
   Because he did have that gift, truly he did, he was the Man of a Thousand Voices and a Voice. If you wanted to know how your ketchup bottle should talk in its television commercial, if you were unsure as to the ideal voice for your packet of garlic-flavoured crisps, he was your very man. He made carpets speak in warehouse advertisements, he did celebrity impersonations, baked beans, frozen peas. On the radio he could convince an audience that he was Russian, Chinese, Sicilian, the President of the United States. Once, in a radio play for thirty-seven voices, he interpreted every single part under a variety of pseudonyms and nobody ever worked it out. With his female equivalent, Mimi Mamoulian, he ruled the airwaves of Britain. They had such a large slice of the voiceover racket that, as Mimi said, ‘People better not mention the Monopolies Commission around us, not even in fun.’ Her range was astonishing; she could do any age, anywhere in the world, any point on the vocal register, angelic Juliet to fiendish Mae West. ‘We should get married sometime, when you're free,’ Mimi once suggested to him. ‘You and me, we could be the United Nations.’
   ‘You're Jewish,’ he pointed out. ‘I was brought up to have views on Jews.’
   ‘So I'm Jewish,’ she shrugged. ‘You're the one who's circumcised. Nobody's perfect.’
   Mimi was tiny with tight dark curls and looked like a Michelin poster. In Bombay, Zeenat Vakil stretched and yawned and drove other women from his thoughts. ‘Too much,’ she laughed at him. ‘They pay you to imitate them, as long as they don't have to look at you. Your voice becomes famous but they hide your face. Got any ideas why? Warts on your nose, cross-eyes, what? Anything come to mind, baby? You goddamn lettuce brain, I swear.’
   It was true, he thought. Saladin and Mimi were legends of a sort, but crippled legends, dark stars. The gravitational field of their abilities drew work towards them, but they remained invisible, shedding bodies to put on voices. On the radio, Mimi could become the Botticelli Venus, she could be Olympia, Monroe, any damn woman she pleased. She didn't give a damn about the way she looked; she had become her voice, she was worth a mint, and three young women were hopelessly in love with her. Also, she bought property. ‘Neurotic behaviour,’ she would confess unashamedly. ‘Excessive need for rooting owing to upheavals of Armenian – Jewish history. Some desperation owing to advancing years and small polyps detected in the throat. Property is so soothing, I do recommend it.’ She owned a Norfolk vicarage, a farmhouse in Normandy, a Tuscan bell-tower, a sea-coast in Bohemia. ‘All haunted,’ she explained. ‘Clanks, howls, blood on the rugs, women in nighties, the works. Nobody gives up land without a fight.’
   Nobody except me, Chamcha thought, a melancholy clutching at him as he lay beside Zeenat Vakil. Maybe I'm a ghost already. But at least a ghost with an airline ticket, success, money, wife. A shade, but living in the tangible, material world. With assets. Yes, sir.
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   Zeeny stroked the hairs curling over his ears. ‘Sometimes, when you're quiet,’ she murmured, ‘when you aren't doing funny voices or acting grand, and when you forget people are watching, you look just like a blank. You know? An empty slate, nobody home. It makes me mad, sometimes, I want to slap you. To sting you back into life. But I also get sad about it. Such a fool, you, the big star whose face is the wrong colour for their colour T Vs, who has to travel to wogland with some two-bit company, playing the babu part on top of it, just to get into a play. They kick you around and still you stay, you love them, bloody slave mentality, I swear. Chamcha,’ she grabbed his shoulders and shook him, sitting astride him with her forbidden breasts a few inches from his face, ‘Salad baba, whatever you call yourself, for Pete's sake come home.’
   His big break, the one that could soon make money lose its meaning, had started small: children's television, a thing called The Aliens Show, by The Munsters out of Star Wars by way of Sesame Street. It was a situation comedy about a group of extraterrestrials ranging from cute to psycho, from animal to vegetable, and also mineral, because it featured an artistic space-rock that could quarry itself for its raw material, and then regenerate itself in time for the next week's episode; this rock was named Pygmalien, and owing to the stunted sense of humour of the show's producers there was also a coarse, belching creature like a puking cactus that came from a desert planet at the end of time: this was Matilda, the Australien, and there were the three grotesquely pneumatic, singing space sirens known as the Alien Korns, maybe because you could lie down among them, and there was a team of Venusian hip-hoppers and subway spray-painters and soul-brothers who called themselves the Alien Nation, and under a bed in the spaceship that was the programme's main location there lived Bugsy the giant dung-beetle from the Crab Nebula who had run away from his father, and in a fish-tank you could find Brains the super-intelligent giant abalone who liked eating Chinese, and then there was Ridley, the most terrifying of the regular cast, who looked like a Francis Bacon painting of a mouthful of teeth waving at the end of a sightless pod, and who had an obsession with the actress Sigourney Weaver. The stars of the show, its Kermit and Miss Piggy, were the very fashionable, slinkily attired, stunningly hairstyled duo, Maxim and Mamma Alien, who yearned to be – what else? – television personalities. They were played by Saladin Chamcha and Mimi Mamoulian, and they changed their voices along with their clothes, to say nothing of their hair, which could go from purple to vermilion between shots, which could stand diagonally three feet up from their heads or vanish altogether; or their features and limbs, because they were capable of changing all of them, switching legs, arms, noses, ears, eyes, and every switch conjured up a different accent from their legendary, protean gullets. What made the show a hit was its use of the latest computer-generated imagery. The backgrounds were all simulated: spaceship, other-world landscapes, intergalactic game-show studios; and the actors, too, were processed through machines, obliged to spend four hours every day being buried under the latest in prosthetic make-up which – once the video-computers had gone to work – made them look just like simulations, too. Maxim Alien, space playboy, and Mamma, undefeated galactic wrestling champion and universal all-comers pasta queen, were overnight sensations. Prime-time beckoned; America, Eurovision, the world.
   As The Aliens Show got bigger it began to attract political criticism. Conservatives attacked it for being too frightening, too sexually explicit (Ridley could become positively erect when he thought too hard about Miss Weaver), too weird. Radical commentators began to attack its stereotyping, its reinforcement of the idea of aliens-as-freaks, its lack of positive images. Chamcha came under pressure to quit the show; refused; became a target. ‘Trouble waiting when I go home,’ he told Zeeny. ‘The damn show isn't an allegory. It's an entertainment. It aims to please.’
   ‘To please whom?’ she wanted to know. ‘Besides, even now they only let you on the air after they cover your face with rubber and give you a red wig. Big deal deluxe, say I.’
   ‘The point is,’ she said when they awoke the next morning, ‘Salad darling, you really are good looking, no quesch. Skin like milk, England returned. Now that Gibreel has done a bunk, you could be next in line. I'm serious, yaar. They need a new face. Come home and you could be the next, bigger than Bachchan was, bigger than Farishta. Your face isn't as funny as theirs.’
   When he was young, he told her, each phase of his life, each self he tried on, had seemed reassuringly temporary. Its imperfections didn't matter, because he could easily replace one moment by the next, one Saladin by another. Now, however, change had begun to feel painful; the arteries of the possible had begun to harden. ‘It isn't easy to tell you this, but I'm married now, and not just to wife but life.’ The accent slippage again. ‘I really came to Bombay for one reason, and it wasn't the play. He's in his late seventies now, and I won't have many more chances. He hasn't been to the show; Muhammad must go to the mountain.’
   My father, Changez Chamchawala, owner of a magic lamp. ‘Changez Chamchawala, are you kidding, don't think you can leave me behind,’ she clapped her hands. ‘I want to check out the hair and toenails.’ His father, the famous recluse. Bombay was a culture of re-makes. Its architecture mimicked the skyscraper, its cinema endlessly re-invented The Magnificent Seven and Love Story, obliging all its heroes to save at least one village from murderous dacoits and all its heroines to die of leukaemia at least once in their careers, preferably at the start. Its millionaires, too, had taken to importing their lives. Changez's invisibility was an Indian dream of the crorepati penthoused wretch of Las Vegas; but a dream was not a photograph, after all, and Zeeny wanted to see with her own eyes. ‘He makes faces at people if he's in a bad mood,’ Saladin warned her. ‘Nobody believes it till it happens, but it's true. Such faces! Gargoyles. Also, he's a prude and he'll call you a tart and anyway I'll probably have a fight with him, it's on the cards.’
   What Saladin Chamcha had come to India for: forgiveness. That was his business in his old home town. But whether to give or to receive, he was not able to say.

   Bizarre aspects of the present circumstances of Mr. Changez Chamchawala: with his new wife, Nasreen the Second, he lived for five days every week in a high-walled compound nicknamed the Red Fort in the Pali Hill district beloved of movie stars; but every weekend he returned without his wife to the old house at Scandal Point, to spend his days of rest in the lost world of the past, in the company of the first, and dead, Nasreen. Furthermore: it was said that his second wife refused to set foot in the old place. ‘Or isn't allowed to,’ Zeeny hypothesized in the back of the black-glass-windowed Mercedes limousine which Changez had sent to collect his son. As Saladin finished filling in the background, Zeenat Vakil whistled appreciatively. ‘Crazee.’
   The Chamchawala fertilizer business, Changez's empire of dung, was to be investigated for tax fraud and import duty evasion by a Government commission, but Zeeny wasn't interested in that. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘I’il get to find out what you're really like.’
   Scandal Point unfurled before them. Saladin felt the past rush in like a tide, drowning him, filling his lungs with its revenant saltiness. I'm not myself today, he thought. The heart flutters. Life damages the living. None of us are ourselves. None of us are like this.
   These days there were steel gates, operated by remote control from within, sealing the crumbling triumphal arch. They opened with a slow whirring sound to admit Saladin into that place of lost time. When he saw the walnut-tree in which his father had claimed that his soul was kept, his hands began to shake. He hid behind the neutrality of facts. ‘In Kashmir,’ he told Zeeny, ‘your birth-tree is a financial investment of a sort. When a child comes of age, the grown walnut is comparable to a matured insurance policy; it's a valuable tree, it can be sold, to pay for weddings, or a start in life. The adult chops down his childhood to help his grown-up self. The unsentimentality is appealing, don't you think?’
   The car had stopp
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Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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  The car had stopped under the entrance porch. Zeeny fell silent as the two of them climbed the six stairs to the front door, where they were greeted by a composed and ancient bearer in white, brass-buttoned livery, whose shock of white hair Chamcha suddenly recognized, by translating it back into black, as the mane of that same Vallabh who had presided over the house as its major-domo in the Olden Days. ‘My God, Vallabhbhai,’ he managed, and embraced the old man. The servant smiled a difficult smile. ‘I grow so old, baba, I was thinking you would not recognize.’ He led them down the crystal-heavy corridors of the mansion and Saladin realized that the lack of change was excessive, and plainly deliberate. It was true, Vallabh explained to him, that when the Begum died Changez Sahib had sworn that the house would be her memorial. As a result nothing had changed since the day she died, paintings, furniture, soap-dishes, the red-glass figures of fighting bulls and china ballerinas from Dresden, all left in their exact positions, the same magazines on the same tables, the same crumpled balls of paper in the waste-baskets, as though the house had died, too, and been embalmed. ‘Mummified,’ Zeeny said, voicing the unspeakable as usual. ‘God, but it's spooky, no?’ It was at this point, while Vallabh the bearer was opening the double doors leading into the blue drawing-room, that Saladin Chamcha saw his mother's ghost.
   He let out a loud cry and Zeeny whirled on her heel. There,’ he pointed towards the far, darkened end of the hallway, ‘no question, that blasted newsprint sari, the big headlines, the one she wore the day she, she,’ but now Vallabh had begun to flap his arms like a weak, flightless bird, you see, baba, it was only Kasturba, you have not forgotten, my wife, only my wife. My ayah Kasturba with whom I played in rock-pools. Until I grew up and went without her and in a hollow a man with ivory glasses. ‘Please, baba, nothing to be cross, only when the Begum died Changez Sahib donated to my wife some few garments, you do not object? Your mother was a so-generous woman, when alive she always gave with an open hand.’ Chamcha, recovering his equilibrium, was feeling foolish. ‘For God's sake, Vallabh,’ he muttered. ‘For God's sake. Obviously I don't object.’ An old stiffness re-entered Vallabh; the right to free speech of the old retainer permitted him to reprove, ‘Excuse, baba, but you should not blaspheme.’
   ‘See how he's sweating,’ Zeeny stage-whispered. ‘He looks scared stiff.’ Kasturba entered the room, and although her reunion with Chamcha was warm enough there was still a wrongness in the air. Vallabh left to bring beer and Thums Up, and when Kasturba also excused herself, Zeeny at once said: ‘Something fishy. She walks like she owns the dump. The way she holds herself. And the old man was afraid. Those two are up to something, I bet.’ Chamcha tried to be reasonable. They stay here alone most of the time, probably sleep in the master bedroom and eat off the good plates, it must get to feeling like their place.’ But he was thinking how strikingly, in that old sari, his ayah Kasturba had come to resemble his mother.
   ‘Stayed away so long,’ his father's voice spoke behind him, ‘that now you can't tell a living ayah from your departed ma.’
   Saladin turned around to take in the melancholy sight of a father who had shrivelled like an old apple, but who insisted nevertheless on wearing the expensive Italian suits of his opulently fleshy years. Now that he had lost both Popeye-forearrns and Bluto-belly, he seemed to be roaming about inside his clothes like a man in search of something he had not quite managed to identify. He stood in the doorway looking at his son, his nose and lips curled, by the withering sorcery of the years, into a feeble simulacrum of his former ogre-face. Chamcha had barely begun to understand that his father was no longer capable of frightening anybody, that his spell had been broken and he was just an old geezer heading for the grave; while Zeeny had noted with some disappointment that Changez Chamchawala's hair was conservatively short, and since he was wearing highly polished Oxford lace-ups it didn't seem likely that the eleven-inch toenail story was true either; when the ayah Kasturba returned, smoking a cigarette, and strolled past the three of them, father son mistress, towards a blue velour-covered button-backed Chesterfield sofa, upon which she arranged her body as sensually as any movie starlet, even though she was a woman well advanced in years.
   No sooner had Kasturba completed her shocking entrance than Changez skipped past his son and planted himself beside the erstwhile ayah. Zeeny Vakil, her eyes sparkling with scandal-points of light, hissed at Chamcha: ‘Close your mouth, dear. It looks bad.’ And in the doorway, the bearer Vallabh, pushing a drinks trolley, watched unemotionally while his employer of many long years placed an arm around his uncomplaining wife.
   When the progenitor, the creator is revealed as satanic, the child will frequently grow prim. Chamcha heard himself inquire: ‘And my stepmother, father dear? She is keeping well?’
   The old man addressed Zeeny. ‘He is not such a goody with you, I hope so. Or what a sad time you must have.’ Then to his son in harsher tones. ‘You have an interest in my wife these days? But she has none in you. She won't meet you now. Why should she forgive? You are no son to her. Or, maybe, by now, to me.’
   I did not come to fight him. Look, the old goat. I mustn't fight. But this, this is intolerable. ‘In my mother's house,’ Chamcha cried melodramatically, losing his battle with himself. The state thinks your business is corrupt, and here is the corruption of your soul. Look what you've done to them. Vallabh and Kasturba. With your money. How much did it take? To poison their lives. You're a sick man.’ He stood before his father, blazing with righteous rage.
   Vallabh the bearer, unexpectedly, intervened. ‘Baba, with respect, excuse me but what do you know? You have left and gone and now you come to judge us.’ Saladin felt the floor giving way beneath his feet; he was staring into the inferno. ‘It is true he pays us,’ Vallabh went on. ‘For our work, and also for what you see. For this.’ Changez Chamchawala tightened his grip on the ayah's unresisting shoulders.
   ‘How much?’ Chamcha shouted. ‘Vallabh, how much did you two men decide upon? How much to prostitute your wife?’
   ‘What a fool,’ Kasturba said contemptuously. ‘England-educated and what-all, but still with a head full of hay. You come talking so big-big, in your mother's house etcetera, but maybe you didn't love her so much. But we loved her, we all. We three. And in this manner we may keep her spirit alive.’
   ‘It is pooja, you could say,’ came Vallabh's quiet voice. ‘An act of worship.’
   ‘And you,’ Changez Chamchawala spoke as softly as his servant, ‘you come here to this temple. With your unbelief. Mister, you've got a nerve.’
   And finally, the treason of Zeenat Vakil. ‘Come off it, Salad,’ she said, moving to sit on the arm of the Chesterfield next to the old man. ‘Why be such a sourpuss? You're no angel, baby, and these people seem to have worked things out okay.’
   Saladin's mouth opened and shut. Changez patted Zeeny on the knee. ‘He came to accuse, dear. He came to avenge his youth, but we have turned the tables and he is confused. Now we must let him have his chance, and you must referee. I will not be sentenced by him, but I will accept the worst from you.’
   The bastard. Old bastard. He wanted me off-balance, and here I am, knocked sideways. I won't speak, why should I, not like this, the humiliation. ‘There was,’ said Saladin Chamcha, ‘a wallet of pounds, and there was a roasted chicken.’

   Of what did the son accuse the father? Of everything: espionage on child-self, rainbow-pot-stealing, exile. Of turning him into what he might not have become. Of making-a-man of. Of what-will-I-tell-my-friends. Of irreparable sunderings and offensive forgiveness. Of succumbing to Allah-worship with new wife and also to blasphemous worship of late spouse. Above all, of magic-lampism, of being an open-sesamist. Everything had come easily to him, charm, women, wealth, power, position. Rub, poof, genie, wish, at once master, hey presto. He was a father who had promised, and then withheld, a magic lamp.
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   Changez, Zeeny, Vallabh, Kasturba remained motionless and silent until Saladin Chamcha came to a flushed, embarrassed halt. ‘Such violence of the spirit after so long,’ Changez said after a silence. ‘So sad. A quarter of a century and still the son begrudges the peccadilloes of the past. O my son. You must stop carrying me around like a parrot on your shoulder. What am I? Finished. I'm not your Old Man of the Sea. Face it, mister: I don't explain you any more.’
   Through a window Saladin Chamcha caught sight of a forty-year-old walnut-tree. ‘Cut it down,’ he said to his father. ‘Cut it, sell it, send me the cash.’
   Chamchawala rose to his feet, and extended his right hand. Zeeny, also rising, took it like a dancer accepting a bouquet; at once, Vallabh and Kasturba diminished into servants, as if a clock had silently chimed pumpkin-time. ‘Your book,’ he said to Zeeny, ‘I have something you'd like to see.’
   The two of them left the room; impotent Saladin, after a moment's floundering, stamped petulantly in their wake. ‘Sourpuss,’ Zeeny called gaily over her shoulder. ‘Come on, snap out of it, grow up.’
   The Chamchawala art collection, housed here at Scandal Point, included a large group of the legendary Hamza-nama cloths, members of that sixteenth-century sequence depicting scenes from the life of a hero who may or may not have been the same Hamza as the famous one, Muhammad's uncle whose liver was eaten by the Meccan woman Hind as he lay dead on the battlefield of Uhud. ‘I like these pictures,’ Changez Chamchawala told Zeeny, ‘because the hero is permitted to fail. See how often he has to be rescued from his troubles.’ The pictures also provided eloquent proof of Zeeny Vakil's thesis about the eclectic, hybridized nature of the Indian artistic tradition. The Mughals had brought artists from every part of India to work on the paintings; individual identity was submerged to create a many-headed, many-brushed Overartist who, literally, was Indian painting. One hand would draw the mosaic floors, a second the figures, a third would paint the Chinese-looking cloudy skies. On the backs of the cloths were the stories that accompanied the scenes. The pictures would be shown like a movie: held up while someone read out the hero's tale. In the Hamza-nama you could see the Persian miniature fusing with Kannada and Keralan painting styles, you could see Hindu and Muslim philosophy forming their characteristically late-Mughal synthesis.
   A giant was trapped in a pit and his human tormentors were spearing him in the forehead. A man sliced vertically from the top of his head to his groin still held his sword as he fell. Everywhere, bubbling spillages of blood. Saladin Chamcha took a grip on himself. ‘The savagery,’ he said loudly in his English voice. ‘The sheer barbaric love of pain.’
   Changez Chamchawala ignored his son, had eyes only for Zeeny; who gazed straight back into his own. ‘Ours is a government of philistines, young lady, don't you agree? I have offered this whole collection free gratis, did you know? Let them only house it properly, let them build a place. Condition of cloths is not A-I, you see... they won't do it. No interest. Meanwhile I get offers every month from Amrika. Offers of what-what size! You wouldn't believe. I don't sell. Our heritage, my dear, every day the U S A is taking it away. Ravi Varma paintings, Chandela bronzes, Jaisalmer lattices. We sell ourselves, isn't it? They drop their wallets on the ground and we kneel at their feet. Our Nandi bulls end up in some gazebo in Texas. But you know all this. You know India is a free country today.’ He stopped, but Zeeny waited; there was more to come. It came: ‘One day I will also take the dollars. Not for the money. For the pleasure of being a whore. Of becoming nothing. Less than nothing.’ And now, at last, the real storm, the words behind the words, less than nothing. ‘When I die,’ Changez Chamchawala said to Zeeny, ‘what will I be? A pair of emptied shoes. That is my fate, that he has made for me. This actor. This pretender. He has made himself into an imitator of non-existing men. I have nobody to follow me, to give what I have made. This is his revenge: he steals from me my posterity.’ He smiled, patted her hand, released her into the care of his son. ‘I have told her,’ he said to Saladin. ‘You are still carrying your take-away chicken. I have told her my complaint. Now she must judge. That was the arrangement.’
   Zeenat Vakil walked up to the old man in his outsize suit, put her hands on his cheeks, and kissed him on the lips.

   After Zeenat betrayed him in the house of his father's perversions, Saladin Chamcha refused to see her or answer the messages she left at the hotel desk. The Millionairess came to the end of its run; the tour was over. Time to go home. After the closing-night party Chamcha headed for bed. In the elevator a young and clearly honeymooning couple were listening to music on headphones. The young man murmured to his wife: ‘Listen, tell me. Do I still seem a stranger to you sometimes?’ The girl, smiling fondly, shook her head, can't hear, removed the headphones. He repeated, gravely: ‘A stranger, to you, don't I still sometimes seem?’ She, with unfaltering smile, laid her cheek for an instant on his high scrawny shoulder. ‘Yes, once or twice,’ she said, and put the headphones on again. He did the same, seeming fully satisfied by her answer. Their bodies took on, once again, the rhythms of the playback music. Chamcha got out of the lift. Zeeny was sitting on the floor with her back against his door. Inside the room, she poured herself a large whisky and soda. ‘Behaving like a baby,’ she said. ‘You should be ashamed.’
   That afternoon he had received a package from his father. Inside it was a small piece of wood and a large number of notes, not rupees but sterling pounds: the ashes, so to speak, of a walnut-tree. He was full of inchoate feeling and because Zeenat had turned up she became the target. ‘You think I love you?’ he said, speaking with deliberate viciousness. ‘You think I'll stay with you? I'm a married man.’
   ‘I didn't want you to stay for me,’ she said. ‘For some reason, I wanted it for you.’
   A few days earlier, he had been to see an Indian dramatization of a story by Sartre on the subject of shame. In the original, a husband suspects his wife of infidelity and sets a trap to catch her out. He pretends to leave on a business trip, but returns a few hours later to spy on her. He is kneeling to look through the keyhole of their front door. Then he feels a presence behind him, turns without rising, and there she is, looking down at him with revulsion and disgust. This tableau, he kneeling, she looking down, is the Sartrean archetype. But in the Indian version the kneeling husband felt no presence behind him; was surprised by the wife; stood to face her on equal terms; blustered and shouted; until she wept, he embraced her, and they were reconciled.
   ‘You say I should be ashamed,’ Chamcha said bitterly to Zeenat. ‘You, who are without shame. As a matter of fact, this may be a national characteristic. I begin to suspect that Indians lack the necessary moral refinement for a true sense of tragedy, and therefore cannot really understand the idea of shame.’
   Zeenat Vakil finished her whisky. ‘Okay, you don't have to say any more.’ She held up her hands. ‘I surrender. I'm going. Mr Saladin Chamcha. I thought you were still alive, only just, but still breathing, but I was wrong. Turns out you were dead all the time.’
   And one more thing before going milk-eyed through the door. ‘Don't let people get too close to you, Mr. Saladin. Let people through your defences and the bastards go and knife you in the heart.’

   After that there had been nothing to stay for. The aeroplane lifted and banked over the city. Somewhere below him, his father was dressing up a servant as his dead wife. The new traffic scheme had jammed the city centre solid. Politicians were trying to build careers by going on padyatras, pilgrimages on foot across the country. There were graffiti that read: Advice to politicos. Only step to take: padyatra to hell. Or, sometimes: to Assam.
   Actors were getting mixed up in politics: MGR, N.T. Rama Rao, Bachchan. Durga Khote complained that an actors’ association was a ‘red front’. Saladin Chamcha, on Flight 420, closed his eyes; and felt, with deep relief, the tell-tale stuffings and settlings in his throat which indicated that his voice had begun of its own accord to revert to its reliable, English self.
   The first disturbing thing that happened to Mr Chamcha on that flight was that he recognized, among his fellow-passengers, the woman of his dreams.
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   The dream-woman had been shorter and less graceful than the real one, but the instant Chamcha saw her walking calmly up and down the aisles of Bostan he remembered the nightmare. After Zeenat Vakil's departure he had fallen into a troubled sleep, and the premonition had come to him: the vision of a woman bomber with an almost inaudibly soft, Canadian-accented voice whose depth and melody made it sound like an ocean heard from a long way away. The dream-woman had been so loaded down with explosives that she was not so much the bomber as the bomb; the woman walking the aisles held a baby that seemed to be sleeping noiselessly, a baby so skilfully swaddled and held so close to the breast that Chamcha could not see so much as a lock of new-born hair. Under the influence of the remembered dream he conceived the notion that the baby was in fact a bundle of dynamite sticks, or some sort of ticking device, and he was on the verge of crying out when he came to his senses and admonished himself severely. This was precisely the type of superstitious flummery he was leaving behind. He was a neat man in a buttoned suit heading for London and an ordered, contented life. He was a member of the real world.
   He travelled alone, shunning the company of the other members of the Prospero Players troupe, who had scattered around the economy class cabin wearing Fancy-a-Donald T-shirts and trying to wiggle their necks in the manner of natyam dancers and looking absurd in Benarsi saris and drinking too much cheap airline champagne and importuning the scorn-laden stewardesses who, being Indian, understood that actors were cheap-type persons; and behaving, in short, with normal thespian impropriety. The woman holding the baby had a way of looking through the paleface players, of turning them into wisps of smoke, heat-mirages, ghosts. For a man like Saladin Chamcha the debasing of Englishness by the English was a thing too painful to contemplate. He turned to his newspaper in which a Bombay ‘rail roko’ demonstration was being broken up by police lathi-charges. The newspaper's reporter suffered a broken arm; his camera, too, was smashed. The police had issued a ‘note’. Neither the reporter nor any other person was assaulted intentionally. Chamcha drifted into airline sleep. The city of lost histories, felled trees and unintentional assaults faded from his thoughts. When he opened his eyes a little later he had his second surprise of that macabre journey. A man was passing him on the way to the toilet. He was bearded and wore cheap tinted spectacles, but Chamcha recognized him anyway: here, travelling incognito in the economy class of Flight A1-420, was the vanished superstar, the living legend, Gibreel Farishta himself.
   ‘Sleep okay?’ He realized the question was addressed to him, and turned away from the apparition of the great movie actor to stare at the equally extraordinary sight sitting next to him, an improbable American in baseball cap, metal-rim spectacles and a neon-green bush-shirt across which there writhed the intertwined and luminous golden forms of a pair of Chinese dragons. Chamcha had edited this entity out of his field of vision in an attempt to wrap himself in a cocoon of privacy, but privacy was no longer possible.
   ‘Eugene Dumsday at your service,’ the dragon man stuck out a huge red hand. ‘At yours, and at that of the Christian guard.’
   Sleep-fuddled Chamcha shook his head. ‘You are a military man?’
   ‘Ha! Ha! Yes, sir, you could say. A humble foot soldier, sir, in the army of Guard Almighty.’ Oh, almighty guard, why didn't you say. ‘I am a man of science, sir, and it has been my mission, my mission and let me add my privilege, to visit your great nation to do battle with the most pernicious devilment ever got folks’ brains by the balls.’
   ‘I don't follow.’
   Dumsday lowered his voice. I'm talking monkey-crap here, sir. Darwinism. The evolutionary heresy of Mr. Charles Darwin.’ His tones made it plain that the name of anguished, God-ridden Darwin was as distasteful as that of any other forktail fiend, Beelzebub, Asmodeus or Lucifer himself. ‘I have been warning your fellow-men,’ Dumsday confided, ‘against Mr Darwin and his works. With the assistance of my personal fifty-seven-slide presentation. I spoke most recently, sir, at the World Understanding Day banquet of the Rotary Club, Cochin, Kerala. I spoke of my own country, of its young people. I see them lost, sir. The young people of America: I see them in their despair, turning to narcotics, even, for I'm a plain-speaking man, to pre-marital sexual relations. And I said this then and I say it now to you. If I believed my great-granddaddy was a chimpanzee, why, I'd be pretty depressed myself.’
   Gibreel Farishta was seated across the way, staring out of the window. The inflight movie was starting up, and the aircraft lights were being dimmed. The woman with the baby was still on her feet, walking up and down, perhaps to keep the baby quiet. ‘How did it go down?’ Chamcha asked, sensing that some contribution from him was being required.
   A hesitancy came over his neighbour. ‘I believe there was a glitch in the sound system,’ he said finally. ‘That would be my best guess. I can't see how those good people would've set to talking amongst themselves if they hadn't've thought I was through.’
   Chamcha felt a little abashed. He had been thinking that in a country of fervent believers the notion that science was the enemy of God would have an easy appeal; but the boredom of the Rotarians of Cochin had shown him up. In the flickering light of the inflight movie, Dumsday continued, in his voice of an innocent ox, to tell stories against himself without the faintest indication of knowing what he was doing. He had been accosted, at the end of a cruise around the magnificent natural harbour of Cochin, to which Vasco da Gama had come in search of spices and so set in motion the whole ambiguous history of east-and-west, by an urchin full of pssts and hey-mister-okays. ‘Hi there, yes! You want hashish, sahib? Hey, mistcramerica. Yes, unclesam, you want opium, best quality, top price? Okay, you want cocaine?’
   Saladin began, helplessly, to giggle. The incident struck him as Darwin's revenge: if Dumsday held poor, Victorian, starchy Charles responsible for American drug culture, how delicious that he should himself be seen, across the globe, as representing the very ethic he battled so fervently against. Dumsday fixed him with a look of pained reproof. It was a hard fate to be an American abroad, and not to suspect why you were so disliked.
   After the involuntary giggle had escaped Saladin's lips, Dumsday sank into a sullen, injured drowse, leaving Chamcha to his own thoughts. Should the inflight movie be thought of as a particularly vile, random mutation of the form, one that would eventually be extinguished by natural selection, or were they the future of the cinema? A future of screwball caper movies eternally starring Shelley Long and Chevy Chase was too hideous to contemplate; it was a vision of Hell... Chamcha was drifting back into sleep when the cabin lights came on; the movie stopped; and the illusion of the cinema was replaced by one of watching the television news, as four armed, shouting figures came running down the aisles.
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*

   The passengers were held on the hijacked aircraft for one hundred and eleven days, marooned on a shimmering runway around which there crashed the great sand-waves of the desert, because once the four hijackers, three men one woman, had forced the pilot to land nobody could make up their minds what to do with them. They had come down not at an international airport but at the absurd folly of a jumbo-sized landing strip which had been built for the pleasure of the local sheikh at his favourite desert oasis, to which there now also led a six-lane highway very popular among single young men and women, who would cruise along its vast emptiness in slow cars ogling one another through the windows... once 420 had landed here, however, the highway was full of armoured cars, troop transports, limousines waving flags. And while diplomats haggled over the airliner's fate, to storm or not to storm, while they tried to decide whether to concede or to stand firm at the expense of other people's lives, a great stillness settled around the airliner and it wasn't long before the mirages began.
   In the beginning there had been a constant flow of event, the hijacking quartet full of electricity, jumpy, trigger-happy. These are the worst moments, Chamcha thought while children screamed and fear spread like a stain, here's where we could all go west. Then they were in control, three men one woman, all tall, none of them masked, all handsome, they were actors, too, they were stars now, shootingstars or falling, and they had their own stage-names. Dara Singh Buta Singh Man Singh. The woman was Tavleen. The woman in the dream had been anonymous, as if Chamcha's sleeping fancy had no time for pseudonyms; but, like her, Tavleen spoke with a Canadian accent, smooth-edged, with those give-away rounded O's. After the plane landed at the oasis of Al-Zamzam it became plain to the passengers, who were observing their captors with the obsessive attention paid to a cobra by a transfixed mongoose, that there was something posturing in the beauty of the three men, some amateurish love of risk and death in them that made them appear frequently at the open doors of the airplane and flaunt their bodies at the professional snipers who must have been hiding amid the palm-trees of the oasis. The woman held herself aloof from such silliness and seemed to be restraining herself from scolding her three colleagues. She seemed insensible to her own beauty, which made her the most dangerous of the four. It struck Saladin Chamcha that the young men were too squeamish, too narcissistic, to want blood on their hands. They would find it difficult to kill; they were here to be on television. But Tavleen was here on business. He kept his eyes on her. The men do not know, he thought. They want to behave the way they have seen hijackers behaving in the movies and on TV; they are reality aping a crude image of itself, they are worms swallowing their tails. But she, the woman, knows... while Dara, Buta, Man Singh strutted and pranced, she became quiet, her eyes turned inwards, and she scared the passengers stiff.
   What did they want? Nothing new. An independent homeland, religious freedom, release of political detainees, justice, ransom money, a safe-conduct to a country of their choice. Many of the passengers came to sympathize with them, even though they were under constant threat of execution. If you live in the twentieth century you do not find it hard to see yourself in those, more desperate than yourself, who seek to shape it to their will.
   After they landed the hijackers released all but fifty of the passengers, having decided that fifty was the largest number they could comfortably supervise. Women, children, Sikhs were all released. It turned out that Saladin Chamcha was the only member of Prospero Players who was not given his freedom; he found himself succumbing to the perverse logic of the situation, and instead of feeling upset at having been retained he was glad to have seen the back of his badly behaved colleagues; good riddance to bad rubbish, he thought.
   The creationist scientist Eugene Dumsday was unable to bear the realization that the hijackers did not intend to release him. He rose to his feet, swaying at his great height like a skyscraper in a hurricane, and began shouting hysterical incoherences. A stream of dribble ran out of the corner of his mouth; he licked at it feverishly with his tongue. Now just hold hard here, busters, now goddamn it enough is ENOUGH, whaddya wheredya get the idea you can and so forth, in the grip of his waking nightmare he drivelled on and on until one of the four, obviously it was the woman, came up, swung her rifle butt and broke his flapping jaw. And worse: because slobbering Dumsday had been licking his lips as his jaw slammed shut, the tip of his tongue sheared off and landed in Saladin Chamcha's lap; followed in quick time by its former owner. Eugene Dumsday fell tongueless and insensate into the actor's arms.
   Eugene Dumsday gained his freedom by losing his tongue; the persuader succeeded in persuading his captors by surrendering his instrument of persuasion. They didn't want to look after a wounded man, risk of gangrene and so on, and so he joined the exodus from the plane. In those first wild hours Saladin Chamcha's mind kept throwing up questions of detail, are those automatic rifles or sub-machine guns, how did they smuggle all that metal on board, in which parts of the body is it possible to be shot and still survive, how scared they must be, the four of them, how full of their own deaths... once Dumsday had gone, he had expected to sit alone, but a man came and sat in the creationist's old seat, saying you don't mind, yaar, in such circs a guy needs company. It was the movie star, Gibreel.
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