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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
  Once, conjurers card-tricksters puppeteers and mesmerists marched triumphantly beside a conquering army; but all that is forgotten now, and Russian guns are trained on the inhabitants of the ghetto. What chance do Communist wizards have against socialist rifles? They, we, are running now, every which way, Parvati and I are separated as the soldiers charge, I lose sight of Picture Singh, there are rifle-butts beating pounding, I see one of the contortionist triplets fall beneath the fury of the guns, people are being pulled by the hair towards the waiting yawning vans; and I, too, am running, too late, looking over my shoulder, stumbling on Dalda-cans empty crates and the abandoned sacks of the terrified illusionists, and over my shoulder through the murky night of the Emergency I see that all of this has been a smoke-screen, a side-issue, because hurtling through the confusion of the riot comes a mythical figure, an incarnation of destiny and destruction: Major Shiva has joined the fray, and he is looking only for me. Behind me, as I run, come the pumping knees of my doom…
   … The picture of a hovel comes into my mind: my son! And not only my son: a silver spittoon, inlaid with lapis lazuli! Somewhere in the confusion of the ghetto a child has been left alone… somewhere a talisman, guarded for so long, has been abandoned. The Friday Mosque watches impassively as I swerve duck run between the tilting shacks, my feet leading me towards flap-eared son and spittoon… but what chance did I have against those knees? The knees of the war hero are coming closer closer as I flee, the joints of my nemesis thundering towards me, and he leaps, the legs of the war hero fly through the air, closing like jaws around my neck, knees squeezing the breath out of my throat, I am falling twisting but the knees hold tight, and now a voice-the voice of treachery betrayal hate!-is saying, as knees rest on my chest and pin me down in the thick dust of the slum: 'So, little rich boy: we meet again. Salaam.' I spluttered; Shiva smiled.
   O shiny buttons on a traitor's uniform! Winking blinking like silver… why did he do it? Why did he, who had once led anarchistic apaches through the slums of Bombay, become the warlord of tyranny? Why did midnight's child betray the children of midnight, and take me to my fate? For love of violence, and the legitimizing glitter of buttons on uniforms? For the sake of his ancient antipathy towards me? Or-I find this most plausible-in exchange for immunity from the penalties imposed on the rest of us… yes, that must be it; O birthright-denying war hero! O mess-of-pottage-corrupted rival… But no, I must stop all this, and tell the story as simply as possible: while troops chased arrested dragged magicians from their ghetto, Major Shiva concentrated on me. I, too, was pulled roughly towards a van; while bulldozers moved forwards into the slum, a door was slammed shut… in the darkness I screamed, 'But my son!-And Parvati, where is she, my Laylah?-Picture Singh! Save me, Pictureji!'-But there were bulldozers now, and nobody heard me yelling.
   Parvati-the-witch, by marrying me, fell victim to the curse of violent death that hangs over all my people… I do not know whether Shiva, having locked me in a blind dark van, went in search of her, or whether he left her to the bulldozers… because now the machines of destruction were in their element, and the little hovels of the shanty-town were slipping sliding crazily beneath the force of the irresistible creatures, huts snapping like twigs, the little paper parcels of the puppeteers and the magic baskets of the illusionists were being crushed into a pulp; the city was being beautified, and if there were a few deaths, if a girl with eyes like saucers and a pout of grief upon her lips fell beneath the advancing juggernauts, well, what of it, an eyesore was being removed from the face of the ancient capital… and rumour has it that, during the death-throes of the ghetto of the magicians, a bearded giant wreathed in snakes (but this may be an exaggeration) ran-full-tilt!-through the wreckage, ran wildly before the advancing bulldozers, clutching in his hand the handle of an irreparably-shattered umbrella, searching searching, as though his life depended on the search.
   By the end of that day, the slum which clustered in the shadow of the Friday Mosque had vanished from the face of the earth; but not all the magicians were captured; not all of them were carted off to the barbed-wire camp called Khichripur, hotch-potch-town, on the far side of the Jamuna River; they never caught Picture Singh, and it is said that the day after the bulldozing of the magicians' ghetto, a new slum was reported in the heart of the city, hard by the New Delhi railway station. Bulldozers were rushed to the scene of the reported hovels; they found nothing. After that the existence of the moving slum of the escaped illusionists became a fact known to all the inhabitants of the city, but the wreckers never found it. It was reported at Mehrauli; but when vasectomists and troops went there, they found the Qutb Minar unbesmirched by the hovels of poverty.. Informers said it had appeared in the gardens of the Jantar Mantar, Jai Singh's Mughal observatory; but the machines of destruction, rushing to the scene, found only parrots and sun-dials. Only after the end of the Emergency did the moving slum come to a standstill; but that must wait for later, because it is time to talk, at long last, and without losing control, about my captivity in the Widows' Hostel in Benares.
   Once Resham Bibi had wailed, 'Ai-o-ai-o!'-and she was right: I brought destruction down upon the ghetto of my saviours; Major Shiva, acting no doubt upon the explicit instructions of the Widow, came to the colony to seize me; while the Widow's son arranged for his civic-beautification and vasectomy programmes to carry out a diversionary manoeuvre. Yes, of course it was all planned that way; and (if I may say so) most efficiently. What was achieved during the riot of the magicians: no less a feat than the unnoticed capture of the one person on earth who held the key to the location of every single one of the children of midnight-for had I not, night after night, tuned in to each and every one of them? Did I not carry, for all time, their names addresses faces in my mind? I will answer that question: I did. And I was captured.
   Yes, of course it was all planned that way. Parvati-the-witch had told me all about my rival; is it likely that she would not have mentioned me to him? I will answer that question, too: it is not likely at all. So our war hero knew where, in the capital, lurked the one person his masters wanted most (not even my uncle Mustapha knew where I went after I left him; but Shiva knew!)-and, once he had turned traitor, bribed, I have no doubt, by everything from promises of preferment to guarantees of personal safety, it was easy for him to deliver me into the hands of his mistress, the Madam, the Widow with the particoloured hair.
   Shiva and Saleem, victor and victim; understand our rivalry, and you will gain an understanding of the age in which you live. (The reverse of this statement is also true.)
   I lost something else that day, besides my freedom: bulldozers swallowed a silver spittoon. Deprived of the last object connecting me to my more tangible, historically-verifiable past, I was taken to Benares to face the consequences of my inner, midnight-given life.

   Yes, that was where it happened, in the palace of the widows on the shores of the Ganges in the oldest living city in the world, the city which was already old when the Buddha was young, Kasi Benares Varanasi, City of Divine Light, home of the Prophetic Book, the horoscope of horoscopes, in which every life, past present future, is already recorded. The goddess Ganga streamed down to earth through Shiva's hair… Benares, the shrine to Shiva-the-god, was where I was brought by hero-Shiva to face my fate. In the home of horoscopes, I reached the moment prophesied in a rooftop room by Ramram Seth: 'soldiers will try him… tyrants will fry him!' the fortune-teller had chanted; well, there was no formal trial-Shiva-knees wrapped around my neck, and that was that-but I did smell, one winter's day, the odours of something frying in an iron skillet…
   Follow the river, past Scindia-ghat on which young gymnasts in white loincloths perform one-armed push-ups, past Manikarnika-ghat, the place of funerals, at which holy fire can be purchased from the keepers of the flame, past floating carcasses of dogs and cows-unfortunates for whom no fire was bought, past Brahmins under straw umbrellas at Dasashwamedh-ghat, dressed in saffron, dispensing blessings… and now it becomes audible, a strange sound, like the baying of distant hounds… follow follow follow the sound, and it takes shape, you understand that it is a mighty, ceaseless wailing, emanating from the blinded windows of a riverside palace: the Widows' Hostel! Once upon a time, it was a maharajah's residence; but India today is a modern country, and such places have been expropriated by the State. The palace is a home for bereaved women now; they, understanding that their true lives ended with the death of their husbands, but no longer permitted to seek the release of sati, come to the holy city to pass their worthless days in heartfelt ululations. In the palace of the widows lives a tribe of women whose chests are irremediably bruised by the power of their continual pummellings, whose hair it torn beyond repair, and whose voices are shredded by the constant, keening expressions of their grief. It is a vast building, a labyrinth of tiny rooms on the upper storeys giving way to the great halls of lamentation below; and yes, that was where it happened, the Widow sucked me into the private heart of her terrible empire, I was locked away in a tiny upper room and the bereaved women brought me prison food. But I also had other visitors: the war hero invited two of his colleagues along, for purposes of conversation. In other words: I was encouraged to talk. By an ill-matched duo, one fat, one thin, whom I named Abbott-and-Costello because they never succeeded in making me laugh.
   Here I record a merciful blank in my memory. Nothing can induce me to remember the conversational techniques of that humourless, uniformed pair; there is no chutney or pickle capable of unlocking the doors behind which I have locked those days! No, I have forgotten, I cannot will not say how they made me spill the beans-but I cannot escape the shameful heart of the matter, which is that despite absence-of-jokes and the generally unsympathetic manner of my two-headed inquisitor, I did most certainly talk. And more than talk: under the influence of their unnamable-forgotten-pressures, I became loquacious in the extreme. What poured, blubbering, from my lips (and will not do so now): names addresses physical descriptions. Yes, I told them everything, I named all five hundred and seventy-eight (because Parvati, they informed me courteously, was dead, and Shiva gone over to the enemy, and the five-hundred-and-eighty-first was doing the talking…)-forced into treachery by the treason of another, I betrayed the children of midnight. I, the Founder of the Conference, presided over its end, while Abbott-and-Costello, unsmilingly, interjected from time to time: 'Aha! Very good! Didn't know about her!' or, 'You are being most co-operative; this fellow is a new one on us!'
   Such things happen. Statistics may set my arrest in context; although there is considerable disagreement about the number of 'political' prisoners taken during the Emergency, either thirty thousand or a quarter of a million persons certainly lost their freedom. The Widow said: 'It is only a small percentage of the population of India.' All sorts of things happen during an Emergency: trains run on time, black-money hoarders are frightened into paying taxes, even the weather is brought to heel, and bumper harvests are reaped; there is, I repeat, a white part as well as a black. But in the black part, I sat bar-fettered in a tiny room, on a straw palliasse which was the only article of furniture I was permitted, sharing my daily bowl of rice with cockroaches and ants. And as for the children of midnight-that fearsome conspiracy which had to be broken at all costs-that gang of cut-throat desperadoes before whom an astrology-ridden Prime Minister trembled in terror-the grotesque aberrational monsters of independence, for whom a modern nation-state could have neither time nor compassion-twenty-nine years old now, give or take a month or two, they were brought to the Widows' Hostel, between April and December they were rounded up, and their whispers began to fill the walls. The walls of my cell (paper-thin, peeling-plastered, bare) began to whisper, into one bad ear and one good ear, the consequences of my shameful confessions. A cucumber-nosed prisoner, festooned with iron rods and rings which made various natural functions impossible-walking, using the tin chamber-pot, squatting, sleeping-lay huddled against peeling plaster and whispered to a wail.
   It was the end; Saleem gave way to his grief. All my life, and through the greater part of these reminiscences, I have tried to keep my sorrows under lock and key, to prevent them from staining my sentences with their salty, maudlin fluidities; but no more. I was given no reason (until the Widow's Hand…) for my incarceration: but who, of all the thirty thousand or quarter of a million, was told why or wherefore? Who needed to be told? In the walls, I heard the muted voices of the midnight children: needing no further footnotes, I blubbered over peeling plaster.
   What Saleem whispered to the wall between April and December 1976:
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
   … Dear Children. How can I say this? What is there to say? My guilt my shame. Although excuses are possible: I wasn't to blame about Shiva. And all manner of folk are being locked up, so why not us? And guilt is a complex matter, for are we not all, each of us in some sense responsible for-do we not get the leaders we deserve? But no such excuses are offered. I did it, I. Dear children: and my Parvati is dead. And my Jamila, vanished. And everyone. Vanishing seems to be yet another of those characteristics which recur throughout my history: Nadir Khan vanished from an underworld, leaving a note behind; Aadam Aziz vanished, too, before my grandmother got up to feed the geese; and where is Mary Pereira? I, in a basket, disappeared; but Laylah or Parvati went phutt without the assistance of spells. And now here we are, disappeared-off-the-face-of-the-earth. The curse of vanishment, dear children, has evidently leaked into you. No, as to the question of guilt, I refuse absolutely to take the larger view; we are too close to what-is-happening, perspective is impossible, later perhaps analysts will say why and wherefore, will adduce underlying economic trends and political developments, but right now we're too close to the cinema-screen, the picture is breaking up into dots, only subjective judgments are possible. Subjectively, then, I hang my head in shame. Dear children: forgive. No, I do not expect you to forgive.
   Politics, children: at the best of times a bad dirty business. We should have avoided it, I should never have dreamed of purpose, I am coming to the conclusion that privacy, the small individual lives of men, are preferable to all this inflated macrocosmic activity. But too late. Can't be helped. What can't be cured must be endured.
   Good question, children: what must be endured? Why are we being amassed here like this, one by one, why are rods and rings hanging from our necks? And stranger confinements (if a whispering wall is to be believed): who-has-the-gift-of-levitation has been tied by the ankles to rings set in the floor, and a werewolf is obliged to wear a muzzle; who-can-escape-through-mirrors must drink water through a hole in a lidded can, so that he cannot vanish through the reflective surface of the drink; and she-whose-looks-can-kill has her head in a sack, and the bewitching beauties of Baud are likewise bag-headed. One of us can eat metal; his head is jammed in a brace, unlocked only at mealtimes… what is being prepared for us? Something bad, children. I don't know what as yet, but it's coming. Children: we, too, must prepare.
   Pass it on: some of us have escaped. I sniff absences through the walls. Good news, children! They cannot get us all. Soumitra, the time-traveller, for instance-O youthful folly! O stupid we, to disbelieve him so!-is not here; wandering, perhaps, in some happier time of his life, he has eluded search-parties for ever. No, do not envy him; although I, too, long on occasion to escape backwards, perhaps to the time when I, the apple of the universal eye, made a triumphant tour as a baby of the palaces of William Mcthwold-O insidious nostalgia for times of greater possibility, before history, like a street behind the General Post Office in Delhi, narrowed down to this final full point!-but we are here now; such retrospection saps the spirit; rejoice, simply, that some of us are free!
   And some of us are dead. They told me about my Parvati. Across whose features, to the last, there fell the crumbling ghost-face of. No, we are no longer five hundred and eighty-one. Shivering in the December cold, how many of us sit walled-in and waiting? I ask my nose; it replies, four hundred and twenty, the number of trickery and fraud. Four hundred and twenty, imprisoned by widows; and there is one more, who struts booted around the Hostel-I smell his stink approaching receding, the spoor of treachery!-Major Shiva, war hero, Shiva-of-the-knees, supervises our captivity. Will they be content with four hundred and twenty? Children: I don't know how long they'll wait.
   … No, you're making fun of me, stop, do not joke. Why whence how-on-earth this good nature, this bonhomie in your passed-on whisperings? No, you must condemn me, out of hand and without appeal-do not torture me with your cheery greetings as one-by-one you are locked in cells; what kind of time or place is this for salaams, namaskars, how-you-beens?-Children, don't you understand, they could do anything to us, anything-no, how can you say that, what do you mean with your what-could-they-do? Let me tell you, my friends, steel rods are painful when applied to the ankles; rifle-butts leave bruises on foreheads. What could they do? Live electric wires up your anuses, children; and that's not the only possibility, there is also hanging-by-the feet, and a candle-ah, the sweet romantic glow of candlelight!-is less than comfortable when applied, lit, to the skin! Stop it now, cease all this friendship, aren't you afraid! Don't you want to kick stamp trample me to smithereens? Why these constant whispered reminiscences, this nostalgia for old quarrels, for the war of ideas and things, why are you taunting me with your calmness, your normality, your powers of rising-above-the-crisis? Frankly, I'm puzzled, children: how can you, aged twenty-nine, sit whispering flirtatiously to each other in your cells? Goddamnit, this is not a social reunion!
   Children, children, I'm sorry. I admit openly I have not been myself of late. I have been a buddha, and a basketed ghost, and a would-be-saviour of the nation… Saieem has been rushing down blind alleys, has had considerable problems with reality, ever since a spittoon fell like a piece-of-the-… pity me: I've even lost my spittoon. But I'mgoing wrong again, I wasn't intending to ask for pity, I was going to say that perhaps I see-it was I, not you, who failed to understand what is happening. Incredible, children: we, who could not talk for five minutes without disagreeing: we, who as children quarrelled fought divided distrusted broke apart, are suddenly together, united, as one! O wondrous irony: the Widow, by bringing us here, to break us, has in fact brought us together! O self-fulfilling paranoia of tyrants… because what can they do to us, now that we're all on the same side, no language-rivalries, no religious prejudices: after all, we are twenty-nine now, I should not be calling you children… ! Yes, here is optimism, like a disease: one day she'll have to let us out and then, and then, wait and see, maybe we should form, I don't know, a new political party, yes, the Midnight Party, what chance do politics have against people who can multiply fishes and turn base metals into gold? Children, something is being born here, in this dark time of our captivity; let Widows do their worst; unity is invincibility! Children: we've won!

   Too painful. Optimism, growing like a rose in a dung-heap: it hurts me to recall it. Enough: I forget the rest.-No!-No, very well, I remember… What is worse than rods bar-fetters candles-against-the-skin? What beats nail-tearing and starvation? I reveal the Widow's finest, most delicate joke: instead of torturing us, she gave us hope. Which meant she had something-no, more than something: the finest thing of all!-to take away. And now, very soon now, I shall have to describe how she cut it off.
   Ectomy (from, I suppose, the Greek): a cutting out. To which medical science adds a number of prefixes: appendectomy tonsillectomy mastectomy tubectomy vasectomy testectomy hysterectomy. Saieem would like to donate one further item, free gratis and for nothing, to this catalogue of excisions; it is, however, a term which properly belongs to history, although medical science is, was involved:
   Sperectomy: the draining-out of hope.

   On New Year's Day, I had a visitor. Creak of door, rustle of expensive chiffon. The pattern: green and black. Her glasses, green, her shoes were black as black… In newspaper articles this woman has been called 'a gorgeous girl with big, rolling hips… she had run a jewellery boutique before she took up social work… during the Emergency she was, semi-ofncially, in charge of sterilization'. But I have my own name for her: she was the Widow's Hand. Which one by one and children mmff and tearing tearing little balls go… greenly-blackly, she sailed into my cell. Children: it begins. Prepare, children. United we stand. Let Widow's Hand do Widow's work but after, after… think of then. Now does not bear thinking about… and she, sweetly, reasonably, 'Basically, you see, it is all a question of God.'
   (Are you listening, children? Pass it on.)
   'The people of India,' the Widow's Hand explained, 'worship our Lady like a god. Indians are only capable of worshipping one God.'
   But I was brought up in Bombay, where Shiva Vishnu Ganesh Ahuramazda Allah and countless others had their flocks… 'What about the pantheon,' I argued, 'the three hundred and thirty million gods of Hinduism alone? And Islam, and Bodhisattvas…?' And now the answer: 'Oh yes! My God, millions of gods, you are right! But all manifestations of the same om. You are Muslim: you know what is om ? Very well. For the masses, our Lady is a manifestation of the om.'
   There are four hundred and twenty of us; a mere 0.00007 per cent of the six-hundred-million strong population of India. Statistically insignificant; even if we were considered as a percentage of the arrested thirty (or two hundred and fifty) thousand, we formed a mere 1.4 (or 0.168) per cent! But what I learned from the Widow's Hand is that those who would be gods fear no one so much as other potential deities; and that, that and that only, is why we, the magical children of midnight, were hated feared destroyed by the Widow, who was not only Prime Minister of India but also aspired to be Devi, the Mother-goddess in her most terrible-aspect, possessor of the shakti of the gods, a multi-limbed divinity with a centre-parting and schizophrenic hair… And that was how I learned my meaning in the crumbling palace of the bruised-breasted women.
   Who am I? Who were we? We were are shall be the gods you never had. But also something else; and to explain that, I must tell the difficult part at last.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
   All in a rush, then, because otherwise it will never come out, I tell you that on New Year's Day, 1977, I was told by a gorgeous girl with rolling hips that yes, they would be satisfied with four hundred and twenty, they had verified one hundred and thirty-nine dead, only a handful had escaped, so now it would begin, snip snip, there would be anaesthetic and count-to-ten, the numbers marching one two three, and I, whispering to the wall, Let them let them, while we live and stay together who can stand against us?… And who led us, one-by-one, to the chamber in the cellar where, because we are not savages, sir, air-conditioning units had been installed, and a table with a hanging lamp, and doctors nurses green and black, their robes were green their eyes were black… who, with knobbly irresistible knees, escorted me to the chamber of my undoing? But you know, you can guess, there is only one war hero in this story, unable to argue with the venom of his knees I walked wherever he ordered… and then I was there, and a gorgeous girl with big rolling hips saying, 'After all, you can't complain, you won't deny that you once made assertions of Prophethood?', because they knew everything, Padma, everything everything, they put me down on the table and the mask coming down over my face and count-to-ten and numbers pounding seven eight nine…
   Ten.
   And 'Good God he's still conscious, be a good fellow, go on to twenty…'
   … Eighteen nineteen twen

   They were good doctors: they left nothing to chance. Not for us the simple vas-and tubectomies performed on the teeming nasses; because there was a chance, just a chance that such operations could be reversed… ectomies were performed, but irreversibly: testicles were removed from sacs, and wombs vanished for ever.
   Test-and hysterectomized, the children of midnight were denied the possibility of reproducing themselves… but that was only a side-effect, because they were truly extraordinary doctors, and they drained us of more than that: hope, too, was excised, and I don't know how it was done, because the numbers had marched over me, I was out for the count, and all I can tell you is that at the end of eighteen days on which the stupefying operations were carried out at a mean rate of 23.33 per day, we were not only missing little balls and inner sacs, but other things as well: in this respect, I came off better than most, because drainage-above had robbed me of my midnight-given telepathy, I had nothing to lose, the sensitivity of a nose cannot be drained away… but as for the rest of them, for all those who had come to the palace of the wailing widows with their magical gifts intact, the awakening from anaesthesia was cruel indeed, and whispering through the wall came the tale of their undoing, the tormented cry of children who had lost their magic: she had cut it out of us, gorgeously with wide rolling hips she had devised the operation of our annihilation, and now we were nothing, who were we, a mere 0.00007 per cent, now fishes could not be multiplied nor base metals transmuted; gone forever, the possibilities of flight and lycanthropy and the originally-one-thousand-and-one marvellous promises of a numinous midnight.
   Drainage below: it was not a reversible operation.
   Who were we? Broken promises; made to be broken.
   And now I must tell you about the smell.
   Yes, you must have all of it: however overblown, however Bombay-talkie-melodramatic, you must let it sink in, you must see! What Saleem smelled in the evening of January 18th, 1977: something frying in an iron skillet, soft unspeakable somethings spiced with turmeric coriander cumin and fenugreek… the pungent inescapable fumes of what-had-been-excised, cooking over a low, slow fire.
   When four-hundred-and-twenty suffered ectomies, an avenging Goddess ensured that certain ectomized parts were curried with onions and green chillies, and fed to the pie-dogs of Benares. (There were four hundred and twenty-one ectomies performed: because one of us, whom we called Narada or Markandaya, had the ability of changing sex; he, or she, had to be operated on twice.)

   No, I can't prove it, not any of it. Evidence went up in smoke: some was fed to pie-dogs; and later, on March 20th, files were burned by a mother with particoloured hair and her beloved son.
   But Padma knows what I can no longer do; Padma, who once, in her anger, cried out: 'But what use you, my God, as a lover?' That part, at least, can be verified: in the hovel of Picture Singh, I cursed myself with the lie of impotence; I cannot say I was not warned, because he told me: 'Anything could happen, captain.' It did.
   Sometimes I feel a thousand years old: or (because I cannot, even now, abandon form), to be exact, a thousand and one.

   The Widow's Hand had rolling hips and once owned a jewellery boutique. I began among jewels: in Kashmir, in 1915, there were rubies and diamonds. My great-grandparents ran a gemstone store. Form-once again, recurrence and shape!-no escape from it.
   In the walls, the hopeless whispers of the stunned four-hundred-and-nineteen; while the four-hundred-and-twentieth gives vent-just once; one moment of ranting is permissible-to the following petulant question… at the top of my voice, I shriek: 'What about him? Major Shiva, the traitor? Don't you care about him?' And the reply, from gorgeous-with-big-rolling-hips: 'The Major has undergone voluntary vasectomy.'
   And now, in his sightless cell, Saleem begins to laugh, wholeheartedly, without stinting: no, I was not laughing cruelly at my arch-rival, nor was I cynically translating the word 'voluntary' into another word; no, I was remembering stories told me by Parvati or Laylah, the legendary tales of the war hero's philandering, of the legions of bastards swelling in the unectomied bellies of great ladies and whores; I laughed because Shiva, destroyer of the midnight children, had also fulfilled the other role lurking in his name, the function of Shiva-lingam, of Shiva-the-procreator, so that at this very moment, in the boudoirs and hovels of the nation, a new generation of children, begotten by midnight's darkest child, was being raised towards the future. Every Widow manages to forget something important.

   Late in March 1977, I was unexpectedly released from the palace of the howling widows, and stood blinking like an owl in the sunlight, not knowing how what why. Afterwards, when I had remembered how to ask questions, I discovered that on January 18th (the very day of the end of snip-snip, and of substances fried in an iron skillet: what further proof would you like that we, the four hundred and twenty, were what the Widow feared most of all?) the Prime Minister had, to the astonishment of all, called a general election. (But now that you know about us, you may find it easier to understand her over-confidence.) But on that day, I knew nothing about her crushing defeat, nor about burning files; it was only later that I learned how the tattered hopes of the nation had been placed in the custody of an ancient dotard who ate pistachios and cashews and daily took a glass of 'his own water'. Urine-drinkers had come to power. The Janata Party, with one of its leaders trapped in a kidney-machine, did not seem to me (when I heard about it) to represent a new dawn; but maybe I'd managed to cure myself of the optimism virus at last-maybe others, with the disease still in their blood, felt otherwise. At any rate, I've had-I had had, on that March day-enough, more than enough of politics.
   Four hundred and twenty stood blinking in the sunlight and tumult of the gullies of Benares; four hundred and twenty looked at one another and saw in each other's eyes the memory of their gelding, and then, unable to bear the sight, mumbled farewells and dispersed, for the last time, into the healing privacy of the crowds.
   What of Shiva? Major Shiva was placed under military detention by the new regime; but he did not remain there long, because he was permitted to receive one visit: Roshanara Shetty bribed coquetted wormed her way into his cell, the same Roshanara who had poured poison into his ears at Mahalaxmi Racecourse and who had since been driven crazy by a bastard son who refused to speak and did nothing he did not wish to do. The steel magnate's wife drew from her handbag the enormous German pistol owned by her husband, and shot the war hero through the heart. Death, as they say, was instantaneous.
   The Major died without knowing that once, in a saffron-and-green nursing home amid the mythological chaos of an unforgettable midnight, a tiny distraught woman had changed baby-tags and denied him his birth-right, which was that hillock-top world cocooned in money and starched white clothes and things things things-a world he would dearly have loved to possess.
   And Saleem? No longer connected to history, drained above-and-below, I made my way back to the capital, conscious that an age, which had begun on that long-ago midnight, had come to a sort of end. How I travelled: I waited beyond the platform at Benares or Varanaji station with nothing but a platform-ticket in my hand, and leaped on to the step of a first-class compartment as the mail-train pulled out heading west. And now, at last, I knew how it felt to clutch on for dead life, while particles of soot dust ash gritted in your eyes, and you were obliged to bang on the door and yell, 'Ohe, maharaj! Open up! Let me in, great sir, maharaj!' While inside, a voice uttered familiar words 'On' no account is anyone to open. Just fare-dodgers, that's all.'
   In Delhi: Saleem asks questions. Have you seen where? Do you know if the magicians? Are you acquainted with Picture Singh? A postman with the memory of snake-charmers fading in his eyes points north. And, later, a black-tongued paan-wallah sends me back the way I came. Then, at last, the trail ceases meandering; street-entertainers put me on the scent. A Dilli-dekho man with a peepshow machine, a mongoose-and-cobra trainer wearing a paper hat like a child's sailboat, a girl in a cinema box-office who retains her nostalgia for her childhood as a sorcerer's apprentice… like fishermen, they point with fingers. West west west, until at last Saleem arrives at the Shadipur bus depot on the western outskirts of the city. Hungry thirsty enfeebled sick, skipping weakly out of the paths of buses roaring in and out of the depot-gaily-painted buses, bearing inscriptions on their bonnets such as God Willing! and other mottoes, for instance Thank God! on their backsides-he comes to a huddle of ragged tents clustered under a concrete railway bridge, and sees, in the shadow of concrete, a snake-charming giant breaking into an enormous rotten-toothed smile, and, in his arms, wearing a tee-shirt decorated with pink guitars, a small boy of some twenty-one months, whose ears are the ears of elephants, whose eyes are wide as saucers and whose face is as serious as the grave.
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Abracadabra

   To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva's death. My first out-and-out lie-although my presentation of the Emergency in the guise of a six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight was perhaps excessively romantic, and certainly contradicted by the available meteorological data. Still and all, whatever anyone may think, lying doesn't come easily to Saleem, and I'm hanging my head in shame as I confess… Why, then, this single barefaced lie? (Because, in actuality, I've no idea where my changeling-rival went after the Widows' Hostel; he could be in hell or the brothel down the road and I wouldn't know the difference.) Padma, try and understand: I'm still terrified of him. There is unfinished business between us, and I spend my days quivering at the thought that the war hero might somehow have discovered the secret of his birth-was he ever shown a file bearing three tell-tale initials?-and that, roused to wrath by the irrecoverable loss of his past, he might come looking for me to exact a stifling revenge… is that how it will end, with the life being crushed out of me by a pair of superhuman, merciless knees?
   That's why I fibbed, anyway; for the first time, I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer, to the illusion that since the past exists only in one's memories and the words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred. My present fear put a gun into Roshanara Shetty's hand; with the ghost of Commander Sabarmati looking over my shoulder, I enabled her to bribe coquette worm her way into his cell… in short, the memory of one of my earliest crimes created the (fictitious) circumstances of my last.
   End of confession: and now I'm getting perilously close to the end of my reminiscences. It's night; Padma is in position; on the wall above my head, a lizard has just gobbled up a fly; the festering heat of August, which is enough to pickle one's brains, bubbles merrily between my ears; and five minutes ago the last local train yellow-and-browned its way south to Churchgate Station, so that I did not hear what Padma said with a shyness cloaking a determination as powerful as oil. I had to ask her to repeat herself, and the muscles of disbelief began to nictate in her calves. I must at once record that our dung-lotus has proposed marriage, 'so that I can look after you without going to shame in the eyes of the world.'
   Just as I feared! But it's out in the open now, and Padma (I can tell) will not take no for an answer. I have been protesting like a blushing virgin: 'So unexpected!-and what about ectomy, and what was fed to pie-dogs: don't you mind?-and Padma, Padma, there is still what-chews-on-bones, it will turn you into a widow!-and just think one moment, there is the curse of violent death, think of Parvati-are you sure, are you sure you're sure… ?' But Padma, her jaw set in the concrete of a majestically unshakeable resolve, replied: 'You listen to me, mister-but me no buts! Never mind all that fancy talk any more. There is the future to think of.' The honeymoon is to be in Kashmir.
   In the burning heat of Padma's determination, I am assailed by the demented notion that it might be possible, after all, that she may be capable of altering the ending of my story by the phenomenal force of her will, that cracks-and death itself-might yield to the power of her unquenchable solicitude… 'There is the future to think of,' she warned me-and maybe (I permit myself to think for the first time since I began this narrative)-maybe there is! An infinity of new endings clusters around my head, buzzing like heat-insects… 'Let us be married, mister,' she proposed, and moths of excitement stirred in my guts, as if she had spoken some cabbalistic formula, some awesome abracadabra, and released me from my fate-but reality is nagging at me. Love does not conquer all, except in the Bombay talkies; rip tear crunch will not be defeated by a mere ceremony; and optimism is a disease.
   'On your birthday, how about?' she is suggesting. 'At thirty-one, a man is a man, and is supposed to have a wife.'
   How am I to tell her? How can I say, there are other plans for that day, I am have always been in the grip of a form-crazy destiny which enjoys wreaking its havoc on numinous days… in short, how am I to tell her about death? I cannot; instead, meekly and with every appearance of gratitude, I accept her proposal. I am, this evening, a man newly affianced; let no one think harshly of me for permitting myself-and my betrothed lotus-this last, vain, inconsequential pleasure.
   Padma, by proposing a marriage, revealed her willingness to dismiss everything I've told her about my past as just so much 'fancy talk'; and when I returned to find Picture Singh beaming in the shadow of a railway bridge, it rapidly became clear that the magicians, too, were losing their memories. Somewhere in the many moves of the peripatetic slum, they had mislaid their powers of retention, so that now they had become incapable of judgment, having forgotten everything to which they could compare anything that happened. Even the Emergency was rapidly being consigned to the oblivion of the past, and the magicians concentrated upon the present with the monomania of snails. Nor did they notice that they had changed; they had forgotten that they had ever been otherwise, Communism had seeped out of them and been gulped down by the thirsty, lizard-quick earth; they were beginning to forget their skills in the confusion of hunger, disease, thirst and police harassment which constituted (as usual) the present. To me, however, this change in my old companions seemed nothing short of obscene. Saleem had come through amnesia and been shown the extent of its immorality; in his mind, the past grew daily more vivid while the present (from which knives had disconnected him for ever) seemed colourless, confused, a thing of no consequence; I, who could remember every hair on the heads of jailers and surgeons, was deeply shocked by the magicians' unwillingness to look behind them. 'People are like cats,' I told my son, 'you can't teach them anything.' He looked suitably grave, but held his tongue.
   My son Aadam Sinai had, when I rediscovered the phantom colony of the illusionists, lost all traces of the tuberculosis which had afflicted his earliest days. I, naturally, was certain that the disease had vanished with the fall of the Widow; Picture Singh, however, told me that credit for the cure must be given to a certain washerwoman, Durga by name, who had wet-nursed him through his sickness, giving him the daily benefit of her inexhaustibly colossal breasts. 'That Durga, captain,' the old snake-charmer said, his voice betraying the fact that, in his old age, he had fallen victim to the dhoban's serpentine charms, 'What a woman!'
   She was a woman whose biceps bulged; whose preternatural breasts unleashed a torrent of milk capable of nourishing regiments; and who, it was rumoured darkly (although I suspect the rumour of being started by herself) had two wombs. She was as full of gossip and tittle-tattle as she was of milk: every day a dozen new stories gushed from her lips. She possessed the boundless energy common to all practitioners of her trade; as she thrashed the life out of shirts and saris on her stone, she seemed to grow in power, as if she were sucking the vigour out of the clothes, which ended up fiat, buttonless and beaten to death. She was a monster who forgot each day the moment it ended. It was with the greatest reluctance that I agreed to make her acquaintance; it is with the greatest reluctance that I admit her into these pages. Her name, even before I met her, had the smell of new things; she represented novelty, beginnings, the advent of new stories events complexities, and I was no longer interested in anything new. However, once Pictureji informed me that he intended to marry her, I had no option; I shall deal with her, however, as briefly as accuracy permits.
   Briefly, then: Durga the washerwoman was a succubus! A bloodsucker lizard in human form! And her effect on Picture Singh was comparable only to her power over her stone-smashed shirts: in a word, she flattened him. Having once met her, I understood why Picture Singh looked old and forlorn; deprived now of the umbrella of harmony beneath which men and women would gather for advice and shade, he seemed to be shrinking daily; the possibility of his becoming a second Hummingbird was vanishing before my very eyes. Durga, however, flourished: her gossip grew more scatological, her voice louder and more raucous, until at last she reminded me of Reverend Mother in her later years, when she expanded and my grandfather shrank. This nostalgic echo of my grandparents was the only thing of interest to me in the personality of the hoydenish washerwoman.
   But there is no denying the bounty of her mammary glands: Aadam, at twenty-one months, was still suckling contentedly at her nipples. At first I thought of insisting that he be weaned, but then remembered that my son did exactly and only what he wished, and decided not to press the point. (And, as it transpired, I was right not to do so.) As for her supposed double womb, I had no desire to know the truth or otherwise of the story, and made no inquiries.
   I mention Durga the dhoban chiefly because it was she who, one evening when we were eating a meal composed of twenty-seven grains of rice apiece, first foretold my death. I, exasperated by her constant stream of news and chit-chat, had exclaimed, 'Durga Bibi, nobody is interested in your stories!' To which she, unperturbed, 'Saleem Baba, I have been good with you because Pictureji says you must be in many pieces after your arrest; but, to speak frankly, you do not appear to be concerned with anything except lounging about nowadays. You should understand that when a man loses interest in new matters, he is opening the door for the Black Angel.'
   And although Picture Singh said, mildly, 'Come now, capteena, don't be rough on the boy,' the arrow of Durga the dhoban found its mark.
   In the exhaustion of my drained return, I felt the emptiness of the days coating me in a thick gelatinous film; and although Durga offered, the next morning, and perhaps in a spirit of genuine remorse for her harsh words, to restore my strength by letting me suckle her left breast while my son pulled on the right, 'and afterwards maybe you'll start thinking straight again', intimations of mortality began to occupy most of my thoughts; and then I discovered the mirror of humility at the Shadipur bus depot, and became convinced of my approaching demise.
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   It was an angled mirror above the entrance to the bus garage; I, wandering aimlessly in the forecourt of the depot, found my attention caught by its winking reflections of the sun. I realized that I had not seen myself in a mirror for months, perhaps years, and walked across to stand beneath it. Looking upwards into the mirror, I saw myself transformed into a big-headed, top-heavy dwarf; in the humblingly foreshortened reflection of myself I saw that the hair on my head was now as grey as rainclouds; the dwarf in the mirror, with his lined face and tired eyes, reminded me vividly of my grandfather Aadam Aziz on the day he told us about seeing God. In those days the afflictions cured by Parvati-the-witch had all (in the aftermath of drainage) returned to plague me; nine-fingered, horn-templed, monk's-tonsured, stain-faced, bow-legged, cucumber-nosed, castrated, and now prematurely aged, I saw in the mirror of humility a human being to whom history could do no more, a grotesque creature who had been released from the pre-ordained destiny which had battered him until he was half-senseless; with one good ear and one bad ear I heard the soft footfalls of the Black Angel of death.
   The young-old face of the dwarf in the mirror wore an expression of profound relief.

   I'm becoming gloomy; let's change the subject… Exactly twenty-four hours before a paan-wallah's taunt provoked Picture Singh into travelling to Bombay, my son Aadam Sinai made the decision which permitted us to accompany the snake-charmer on his journey: overnight, without any warning, and to the consternation of his washerwoman wet-nurse, who was obliged to decant her remaining milk into five-litre vanaspati drums, flat-eared Aadam weaned himself, soundlessly refusing the nipple and demanding (without words) a diet of solid foods: pulped rice overboiled lentils biscuits. It was as though he had decided to permit me to reach my private, and now-very-near, finishing line.
   Mute autocracy of a less-than-two-year-old infant: Aadam did not tell us when he was hungry or sleepy or anxious to perform his natural functions. He expected us to know. The perpetual attention he required may be one of the reasons why I managed, in spite of all indications to the contrary, to stay alive… incapable of anything else in those days after my release from captivity, I concentrated on watching my son. 'I tell you, captain, it's lucky you came back,' Picture Singh joked, 'otherwise this one would have turned us all into ayahs.' I understood once again that Aadam was a member of a second generation of magical children who would grow up far tougher than the first, not looking for their fate in prophecy or the stars, but forging it in the implacable furnaces of their wills. Looking into the eyes of the child who was simultaneously not-my-son and also more my heir than any child of my flesh could have been, I found in his empty, limpid pupils a second mirror of humility, which showed me that, from now on, mine would be as peripheral a role as that of any redundant oldster: the traditional function, perhaps, of reminiscer, of teller-of-tales… I wondered if all over the country the bastard sons of Shiva were exerting similar tyrannies upon hapless adults, and envisaged for the second time that tribe of fearsomely potent kiddies, growing waiting listening, rehearsing the moment when the world would become their plaything. (How these children may, in the future, be identified: their bimbis stick out instead of in.)
   But it's time to get things moving: a taunt, a. last railway-train heading south south south, a final battle… on the day following the weaning of Aadam, Saleem accompanied Picture Singh to Connaught Place, to assist him in his snake-charming. Durga the dhoban agreed to take my son with her to the dhobi-ghat: Aadam spent the day observing how power was thrashed out of the clothes of the well-to-do and absorbed by the succubus-woman. On that fateful day, when the warm weather was returning to the city like a swarm of bees, I was consumed by nostalgia for my bulldozed silver spittoon. Picture Singh had provided me with a spittoon-surrogate, an empty Dalda Vanaspati can, but although I used this to entertain my son with my expertise in the gentle art of spittoon-hittery, sending long jets of betel-juice across the grimy air of the magicians' colony, I was not consoled. A question: why such grief over a mere receptacle of juices? My reply is that you should never underestimate a spittoon. Elegant in the salon of the Rani of Cooch Naheen, it permitted intellectuals to practise the art-forms of the masses; gleaming in a cellar, it transformed Nadir Khan's underworld into a second Taj Mahal; gathering dust in an old tin trunk, it was nevertheless present throughout my history, covertly assimilating incidents in washing-chests, ghost-visions, freeze-unfreeze, drainage, exiles; falling from the sky like a piece of the moon, it perpetrated a transformation. O talismanic spittoon! O beauteous lost receptacle of memories as well as spittle-juice! What sensitive person could fail to sympathize with me in my nostalgic agony at its loss?
   … Beside me at the back of a bus bulging with humanity, Picture Singh sat with snake-baskets coiled innocently on his lap. As we rattled and banged through that city which was also filled with the resurgent ghosts of earlier, mythological Delhis, the Most Charming Man In The World wore an air of faded despondency, as if a battle in a distant darkroom were already over… until my return, nobody had understood that Pictureji's real and unvoiced fear was that he was growing old, that his powers were dimming, that he would soon be adrift and incompetent in a world he did not understand: like me, Picture Singh clung to the presence of Baby Aadam as if the child were a torch in a long dark tunnel. 'A fine child, captain,' he told me, 'a child of dignity: you hardly notice his ears.'
   That day, however, my son was not with us.
   New Delhi smells assailed me in Connaught Place-the biscuity perfume of the J. B. Mangharam advertisement, the mournful chalki-ness of crumbling plaster; and there was also the tragic spoor of the auto-rickshaw drivers, starved into fatalism by rising petrol costs; and green-grass-smells from the circular park in the middle of the whirling traffic, mingled with the fragrance of con-men persuading foreigners to change money on the black market in shadowy archways, From the India Coffee House, under whose marquees could be heard the endless babbling of gossips, there came the less pleasant aroma of new stories beginning: intrigues marriages quarrels, whose smells were all mixed up with those of tea and chili-pakoras. What I smelled in Connaught Place: the begging nearby presence of a scar-faced girl who had once been Sundari-the-too-beautiful; and loss-of-memory, and turning-towards-the-future, and nothing-really-changes… turning away from these olfactory intimations, I concentrated on the all-pervasive and simpler odours of (human) urine and animal dung.
   Underneath the colonnade of Block F in Connaught Place, next to a pavement bookstall, a paan-wallah had his little niche. He sat cross-legged behind a green glass counter like a minor deity of the place: I admit him into these last pages because, although he gave off the aromas of poverty, he was, in fact, a person of substance, the owner of a Lincoln Continental motor-car, which he parked out of sight in Connaught Circus, and which he had paid for by the fortunes he earned through his sales of contraband imported cigarettes and transistor radios; for two weeks each year he went to jail for a holiday, and the rest of the time paid several policemen a handsome salary. In jail he was treated like a king, but behind his green glass counter he looked inoffensive, ordinary, so that it was not easy (without the benefit of a nose as sensitive as Saleem's) to tell that this was a man who knew everything about everything, a man whose infinite network of contacts made him privy to secret knowledge… to me he provided an additional and not unpleasant echo of a similar character I had known in Karachi during the time of my Lambretta voyages; I was so busy inhaling the familiar perfumes of nostalgia that, when he spoke, he took me by surprise.
   We had set up our act next to his niche; while Pictureji busied himself polishing flutes and donning an enormous saffron turban, I performed the function of barker. 'Roll up roll up-once in a life-time an opportunity such as this-ladees, ladahs, come see come see come see! Who is here? No common bhangi; no street-sleeping fraud; this, citizens, ladies and gents, is the Most Charming Man In The World! Yes, come see come see: his photo has been taken by Eastman-Kodak Limited! Come close and have no fear-picture singh is here!'… And other such garbage; but then the paan-wallah spoke:
   'I know of a better act. This fellow is not number-one; oh, no, certainly not. In Bombay there is a better man.'
   That was how Picture Singh learned of the existence of his rival; and why, abandoning all plans of giving a performance, he marched over to the blandly smiling paan-wallah, reaching into his depths for his old voice of command, and said, 'You will tell me the truth about this faker, captain, or I will send your teeth down your gullet until they bite up your stomach.' And the paan-wallah, unafraid, aware of the three lurking policemen who would move in swiftly to protect their salaries if the need arose, whispered to us the secrets of his omniscience, telling us who when where, until Picture Singh said in a voice whose firmness concealed his fear: 'I will go and show this Bombay fellow who is best. In one world, captains, there is no room for two Most Charming Men.'
 
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  The vendor of betel-nut delicacies, shrugging delicately, expectorated at our feet.

   Like a magic spell, the taunts of a paan-wallah opened the door through which Saleem returned to the city of his birth, the abode of his deepest nostalgia. Yes, it was an open-sesame, and when we returned to the ragged tents beneath the railway bridge, Picture Singh scrabbled in the earth and dug up the knotted handkerchief of his security, the dirt-discoloured cloth in which he had hoarded pennies for his old age; and when Durga the washerwoman refused to accompany him, saying, 'What do you think, Pictureji, I am a crorepati rich woman that I can take holidays and what-all?', he turned to me with something very like supplication in his eyes and asked me to accompany him, so that he did not have to go into his worst battle, the test of his old age, without a friend… yes, and Aadam heard it too, with his flapping ears he heard the rhythm of the magic, I saw his eyes light up as I accepted, and then we were in a third-class railway carriage heading south south south, and in the quinquesyl-labic monotony of the wheels I heard the secret word: abracadabra abracadabra abracadabra sang the wheels as they bore us back-to-Bom.
   Yes, I had left the colony of the magicians behind me for ever, I was heading abracadabra abracadabra into the heart of a nostalgia which would keep me alive long enough to write these pages (and to create a corresponding number of pickles); Aadam and Saleem and Picture Singh squeezed into a third-class carriage, taking with us a number of baskets tied up with string, baskets which alarmed the jam-packed humanity in the carriage by hissing continually, so that the crowds pushed back back back, away from the menace of the snakes, and allowed us a measure of comfort and space; while the wheels sang their abracadabras to Aadam's flapping ears.
   As we travelled to Bombay, the pessimism of Picture Singh expanded until it seemed that it had become a physical entity which merely looked like the old snake-charmer. At Mathura an American youth with pustular chin and a head shaved bald as an egg got into our carriage amid the cacophony of hawkers selling earthen animals and cups of chaloo-chai; he was fanning himself with a peacock-feather fan, and the bad luck of peacock feathers depressed Picture Singh beyond imagining. While the infinite flatness of the Indo-Gangetic plain unfolded outside the window, sending the hot insanity of the afternoon loo-wind to torment us, the shaven American lectured to occupants of the carriage on the intricacies of Hinduism and began to teach them mantras while extending a walnut begging bowl; Picture Singh was blind to this remarkable spectacle and also deaf to the abracadabra of the wheels. 'It is no good, captain,' he confided mournfully, 'This Bombay fellow will be young and strong, and I am doomed to be only the second most charming man from now on.' By the time we reached Kotah Station, the odours of misfortune exuded by the peacock-feather fan had possessed Pictureji utterly, had eroded him so alarmingly that although everyone in the carriage was getting out on the side farthest from the platform to urinate against the side of the train, he showed no sign of needing to go. By Ratlam Junction, while my excitement was mounting, he had fallen into a trance which was not sleep but the rising paralysis of the pessimism. 'At this rate,' I thought, 'he won't even be able to challenge this rival.' Baroda passed: no change. At Surat, the old John Company depot, I realized I'd have to do something soon, because abracadabra was bringing us closer to Bombay Central by the minute, and so at last I picked up Picture Singh's old wooden flute, and by playing it with such terrible ineptitude that all the snakes writhed in agony and petrified the American youth into silence, by producing a noise so hellish that nobody noticed the passing of Bassein Road, Kurla, Mahim, I overcame the miasma of the peacock-feathers; at last Picture Singh shook himself out of his despondency with a faint grin and said, 'Better you stop, captain, and let me play that thing; otherwise some people are sure to die of pain.'
   Serpents subsided in their baskets; and then the wheels stopped singing, and we were there:
   Bombay! I hugged Aadam fiercely, and was unable to resist uttering an ancient cry: 'Back-to-Bom!' I cheered, to the bewilderment of the American youth, who had never heard this mantra: and again, and again, and again: 'Back! Back-to-Bom!'
   By bus down Bellasis Road, towards the Tardeo roundabout, we travelled past Parsees with sunken eyes, past bicycle-repair shops and Irani cafes; and then Hornby Vellard was on our right-where promenaders watched as Sherri the mongrel bitch was left to spill her guts! Where cardboard effigies of wrestlers still towered above the entrances to Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium!-and we were rattling and 'banging past traffic-cops with sun-umbrellas, past Mahalaxmi temple-and then Warden Road! The Breach Candy Swimming Baths! And there, look, the shops… but the names had changed: where was Reader's Paradise with its stacks of Superman comics? Where, the Band Box Laundry and Bombelli's, with their One Yard Of Chocolates? And, my God, look, atop a two-storey hillock where once the palaces of William Methwold stood wreathed in bougainvillaea and stared proudly out to sea… look at it, a great pink monster of a building, the roseate skyscraper obelisk of the Narlikar women, standing over and obliterating the circus-ring of childhood… yes, it was my Bombay, but also not-mine, because we reached Kemp's Corner to find the hoardings of Air-India's little rajah and of the Kolynos Kid gone, gone for good, and Thomas Kemp and Co. itself had vanished into thin air… flyovers crisscrossed where, once upon a time, medicines were dispensed and a pixie in a chlorophyll cap beamed down upon the traffic. Elegiacally, I murmured under my breath: 'Keep Teeth Kleen and Keep Teeth Brite! Keep Teeth Kolynos Super White!' But despite my incantation, the past failed to reappear; we rattled on down Gibbs Road and dismounted near Chowpatty Beach.
   Chowpatty, at least, was much the same: a dirty strip of sand aswarm with pickpockets, and strollers, and vendors of hot-channa-channa-hot, of kulfi and bhel-puri and chutter-mutter; but further down Marine Drive I saw what tetrapods had achieved. On land reclaimed by the Narlikar consortium from the sea, vast monsters soared upwards to the sky, bearing strange alien names: oberoi-sheraton screamed at me from afar. And where was the neon Jeep sign?… 'Come on, Pictureji,' I said at length, hugging Aadam to my chest, 'Let's go where we're going and be done with it; the city has been changed.'

   What can I say about the Midnite-Confidential Club? That its location is underground, secret (although known to omniscient paan-wallahs); its door, unmarked; its clientele, the cream of Bombay society. What else? Ah, yes: managed by one Anand 'Andy' Shroff, businessman-playboy, who is to be found on most days tanning himself at the Sun 'n' Sand Hotel on Juhu Beach, amid film-stars and disenfranchised princesses. I ask you: an Indian, sun-bathing? But apparently it's quite normal, the international rules of playboydom must be obeyed to the letter, including, I suppose, the one stipulating daily worshipping of the sun.
   How innocent I am (and I used to think that Sonny, forcep-dented, was the simple one!)-I never suspected that places like the Midnite-Confidential existed! But of course they do; and clutching flutes and snake-baskets, the three of us knocked on its doors.
   Movements visible through a small iron eye-level grille: a low mellifluous female voice asked us to state our business. Picture Singh announced: 'I am the Most Charming Man In The World. You are employing here one other snake-charmer as cabaret; I will challenge him and prove my superiority. For this I do not ask to be paid. It is, capteena, a question of honour.'
   It was evening; Mr Anand 'Andy' Shroff was, by good fortune, on the premises. And, to cut a long story short, Picture Singh's challenge was accepted, and we entered that place whose name had already unnerved me somewhat, because it contained the word midnight, and because its initials had once concealed my own, secret world: M.C.C., which stands for Metro Cub Club, once also stood for the Midnight Children's Conference, and had now been usurped by the secret nightspot. In a word: I felt invaded.
   Twin problems of the city's sophisticated, cosmopolitan youth: how to consume alcohol in a dry state; and how to romance girls in the best Western tradition, by taking them out to paint the town red, while at the same time preserving total secrecy, to avoid the very Oriental shame of a scandal? The Midnite-Confidential was Mr Shroff's solution to the agonizing difficulties of the city's gilded youth. In that underground of licentiousness, he had created a world of Stygian darkness, black as hell; in the secrecy of midnight darkness, the city's lovers met, drank imported liquor, and romanced; cocooned in the isolating, artificial night, they canoodled with impunity. Hell is other people's fantasies: every saga requires at least one descent into Jahannum, and I followed Picture Singh into the inky negritude of the Club, holding an infant son in my arms.
   We were led down a lush black carpet-midnight-black, black as lies, crow-black, anger-black, the black of 'hai-yo, black man!'; in short, a dark rug-by a female attendant of ravishing sexual charms, who wore her sari erotically low on her hips, with a jasmine in her navel; but as we descended into the darkness, she turned towards us with a reassuring smile, and I saw that her eyes were closed; unearthly luminous eyes had been painted on her lids. I could not help but ask, 'Why…' To which she, simply: 'I am blind; and besides, nobody who comes here wants to be seen. Here you are in a world without faces or names; here people have no memories, families or past; here is for now, for nothing except right now.'
   And the darkness engulfed us; she guided us through that nightmare pit in which light was kept in shackles and bar-fetters, that place outside time, that negation of history… 'Sit here,' she said, 'The other snake-man will come soon. When it is time, one light will shine on you; then begin your contest.'
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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  We sat there for-what? minutes, hours, weeks?-and there were the glowing eyes of blind women leading invisible guests to their seats; and gradually, in the dark, I became aware of being surrounded by soft, amorous susurrations, like the couplings of velvet mice; I heard the chink of glasses held by twined arms, and gentle brushings of lips; with one good ear and one bad ear, I heard the sound of illicit sexuality filling the midnight air… but no, I did not want to know what was happening; although my nose was able to smell, in the susurrating silence of the Club, all manner of new stories and beginnings, of exotic and forbidden loves, and little invisible contretemps and who-was-going-too-jar, in fact all sorts of juicy tit-bits, I chose to ignore them all, because this was a new world in which I had no place. My son, Aadam, however, sat beside me with ears burning with fascination; his eyes shone in the darkness as he listened, and memorized, and learned… and then there was light.
   A single shaft of light spilled into a pool on the floor of the Midnight-Confidential Club. From the shadows beyond the fringe of the illuminated area, Aadam and I saw Picture Singh sitting stiffly, cross-legged, next to a handsome Brylcreemed youth; each of them was surrounded by musical instruments and the closed baskets of their art. A loudspeaker announced the beginning of that legendary contest for the tide of Most Charming Man In The World; but who was listening? Did anyone even pay attention, or were they too busy with lips tongues hands? This was the name of Pictureji's opponent: the Maharaja of Cooch Naheen.
   (I don't know: it's easy to assume a tide. But perhaps, perhaps he really was the grandson of that old Rani who had once, long ago, been a friend of Doctor Aziz; perhaps the heir to the supporter-of-the-Hummingbird was pitted, ironically, against the man who might have been the second Mian Abdullah! It's always possible; many maharajas have been poor since the Widow revoked their civil-list salaries.)
   How long, in that sunless cavern, did they struggle? Months, years, centuries? I cannot say: I watched, mesmerized, as they strove to outdo one another, charming every kind of snake imaginable, asking for rare varieties to be sent from the Bombay snake-farm (where once Doctor Schaapsteker…); and the Maharaja matched Picture Singh snake for snake, succeeding even in charming constrictors, which only Pictureji had previously managed to do. In that infernal Club whose darkness was another aspect of its proprietor's obsession with the colour black (under whose influence he tanned his skin darker darker every day at the Sun 'n' Sand), the two virtuosi goaded snakes into impossible feats, making them tie themselves in knots, or bows, or persuading them to drink water from wine-glasses, and to jump through fiery hoops… defying fatigue, hunger and age, Picture Singh was putting on the show of his life (but was anyone looking? Anyone at all?)-and at last it became clear that the younger man was tiring first; his snakes ceased to dance in time to his flute; and finally, through a piece of sleight-of-hand so fast that I did not see what happened, Picture Singh managed to knot a king cobra around the Maharaja's neck.
   What Picture said: 'Give me best, captain, or I'll tell it to bite.'
   That was the end of the contest. The humiliated princeling left the Club and was later reported to have shot himself in a taxi. And on the floor of his last great battle, Picture Singh collapsed like a falling banyan tree… blind attendants (to one of whom I entrusted Aadam) helped me carry him from the field.
   But the Midnight-Confidential had one trick left up its sleeve. Once a night-just to add a little spice-a roving spotlight searched out one of the illicit couples, and revealed them to the hidden eyes of their fellows: a touch of luminary Russian roulette which, no doubt, made life more thrilling for the city's young cosmopolitans… and who was the chosen victim that night? Who, horn-templed stain-faced cucumber-nosed, was drowned in scandalous light? Who, made as blind as female attendants by the voyeurism of light-bulbs, almost dropped the legs of his unconscious friend?
   Saleem returned to the city of his birth to stand illuminated in a cellar while Bombayites tittered at him from the dark.

   Quickly now, because we have come to the end of incidents, I record that, in a back room in which light was permitted, Picture Singh recovered from his fainting fit; and while Aadam slept soundly, one of the blind waitresses brought us a congratulatory, reviving meal. On the thali of victory: samosas, pakoras, rice, dal, puris; and green chutney. Yes, a little aluminium bowl of chutney, green, my God, green as grasshoppers… and before long a puri was in my hand; and chutney was on the puri; and then I had tasted it, and almost imitated the fainting act of Picture Singh, because it carried me back to a day when I emerged nine-fingered from a hospital and went into exile at the home of Hanif Aziz, and was given the best chutney in the world… the taste of the chutney was more than just an echo of that long-ago taste-it was the old taste itself, the very same, with the power of bringing back the past as if it had never been away… in frenzy of excitement, I grabbed the blind waitress by the arm; scarcely able to contain myself, I blurted out: 'The chutney! Who made it?' I must have shouted, because Picture, 'Quiet, captain, you'll wake the boy… and what's the matter? You look like you saw your worst enemy's ghost!' And the blind waitress, a little coldly: 'You don't like the chutney?' I had to hold back an almighty bellow. 'I like it,' I said in a voice caged in bars of steel, 'I like it-now will you tell me where it's from?' And she, alarmed, anxious to get away: 'It's Braganza Pickle; best in Bombay, everyone knows.'
   I made her bring me the jar; and there, on the label, was the address: of a building with a winking, saffron-and-green neon goddess over the gate, a factory watched over by neon Mumbadevi, while local trains went yellow-and-browning past: Braganza Pickles (Private) Ltd, in the sprawling north of the town.
   Once again an abracadabra, an open-sesame: words printed on a chutney-jar, opening the last door of my life… I was seized by an irresistible determination to track down the maker of that impossible chutney of memory, and said, 'Pictureji, I must go…'
   I do not know the end of the story of Picture Singh; he refused to accompany me on my quest, and I saw in his eyes that the efforts of his struggle had broken something inside him, that his victory was, in fact, a defeat; but whether he is still in Bombay (perhaps working for Mr Shroff), or back with his washer-woman; whether he is still alive or not, I am not able to say… 'How can I leave you?' I asked, desperately, but he replied, 'Don't be a fool, captain; you have something you must do, then there is nothing to do but do it. Go, go, what do I want with you? Like old Resham told you: go, go quickly, go!'
   Taking Aadam with me, I went.

   Journey's end: from the underworld of the blind waitresses, I walked north north north, holding my son in my arms; and came at last to where flies are gobbled by lizards, and vats bubble, and strong-armed women tell bawdy jokes; to this world of sharp-lipped overseers with conical breasts, and the all-pervasive clank of pickle-jars from the bottling-plant… and who, at the end of my road, planted herself in front of me, arms akimbo, hair glistening with perspiration on the forearms? Who, direct as ever, demanded, 'You, mister: what you want?'
   'Me!' Padma is yelling, excited and a little embarrassed by the memory. 'Of course, who else? Me me me!'
   'Good afternoon, Begum,' I said. (Padma interjects: 'O you-always so polite and all!') 'Good afternoon; may I speak to the manager?'
   O grim, defensive, obstinate Padma! 'Not possible, Manager Begum is busy. You must make appointment, come back later, so please go away just now.'
   Listen: I would have stayed, persuaded, bullied, even used force to get past my Padma's arms; but there was a cry from the catwalk-this catwalk, Padma, outside the offices!-the catwalk from which someone whom I have not been willing to name until now was looking down, across gigantic pickle-vats and simmering chutneys-someone rushing down clattering metal steps, shrieking at the top of her voice:
   'O my God, O my God, O Jesus sweet Jesus, baba, my son, look who's come here, arre baba, don't you see me, look how thin you got, come, come, let me kiss you, let me give you cake!'
   Just as I had guessed, the Manager Begum of Braganza Pickles (Private) Ltd, who called herself Mrs Braganza, was of course my erstwhile ayah, the criminal of midnight, Miss Mary Pereira, the only mother I had left in the world.

   Midnight, or thereabouts. A man carrying a folded (and intact) black umbrella walks towards my window from the direction of the railway tracks, stops, squats, shits. Then sees me silhouetted against light and, instead of taking offence at my voyeurism, calls: 'Watch this!' and proceeds to extrude the longest turd I have ever seen. 'Fifteen inches!' he calls, 'How long can you make yours?' Once, when I was more energetic, I would have wanted to tell his life-story; the hour, and his possession of an umbrella, would have been all the connections I needed to begin the process of weaving him into my life, and I have no doubt that I'd have finished by proving his indispensability to anyone who wishes to understand my life and benighted times; but now I'm disconnected, unplugged, with only epitaphs left to write. So, waving at the champion defecator, I call back: 'Seven on a good day,' and forget him.
   Tomorrow. Or the day after. The cracks will be waiting for August 15th. There is still a little time: I'll finish tomorrow.

   Today I gave myself the day off and visited Mary. A long hot dusty bus-ride through streets beginning to bubble with the excitement of the coming Independence Day, although I can smell other, more tarnished perfumes: disillusion, venality, cynicism… the nearly-thirty-one-year-old myth of freedom is no longer what it was. New myths are needed; but that's none of my business.
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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
   Mary Pereira, who now calls herself Mrs Braganza, lives with her sister Alice, now Mrs Fernandas, in an apartment in the pink obelisk of the Narlikar women on the two-storey hillock where once, in a demolished palace, she slept on a servant's mat. Her bedroom occupies more or less the same cube of air in which a fisherman's pointing finger led a pair of boyish eyes out towards the horizon; in a teak rocking-chair, Mary rocks my son, singing 'Red Sails In The Sunset'. Red dhow-sails spread against the distant sky.
   A pleasant enough day, on which old days are recalled. The day when I realized that an old cactus-bed had survived the revolution of the Narlikar women, and borrowing a spade from the mail, dug up a long-buried world: a tin globe containing yellowed ant-eaten jumbo-size baby-snap, credited to Kalidas Gupta, and a Prime Minister's letter. And days further off: for the dozenth time we chatter about the change in Mary Pereira's fortunes. How she owed it all to her dear Alice. Whose poor Mr Fernandes died of colour-blindness, having become confused, in his old Ford Prefect, at one of the city's then-few traffic lights. How Alice visited her in Goa with the news that her employers, the fearsome and enterprising Narlikar women, were willing to put some of their tetrapod-money into a pickle firm. 'I told them, nobody makes achar-chutney like our Mary,' Alice had said, with perfect accuracy, 'because she puts her feelings inside them.' So Alice turned out to be a good girl in the end. And baba, what do you think, how could I believe the whole world would want to eat my poor pickles, even in England they eat. And now, just think, I sit here where your dear house used to be, while God-knows what-all has happened to you, living like a beggar so long, what a world, baapu-re!
   And bitter-sweet lamentations: O, your poor mummy-daddy! That fine madam, dead! And the poor man, never knowing who loved him or how to love! And even the Monkey… but I interrupt, no, not dead: no, not true, not dead. Secretly, in a nunnery, eating bread.
   Mary, who has stolen the name of poor Queen Catharine who gave these islands to the British, taught me the secrets of the pickling process. (Finishing an education which began in this very air-space when I stood in a kitchen as she stirred guilt into green chutney.) Now she sits at home, retired in her white-haired old-age, once more happy as an ayah with a baby to raise. 'Now you finished your writing-writing, baba, you should take more time for your son.' But Mary, I did it for him. And she, switching the subject, because her mind makes all sorts of flea-jumps these days: 'O baba, baba, look at you, how old you got already!'
   Rich Mary, who never-dreamed she would be rich, is still unable to sleep on beds. But drinks sixteen Coca-Colas a day, unworried about teeth, which have all fallen out anyway. A flea-jump: 'Why you getting married so sudden sudden?' Because Padma wants. No, she is not in trouble, how could she, in my condition? 'Okay, baba, I only asked.'
   And the day would have wound down peacefully, a twilight day near the end of time, except that now, at last, at the age of three years, one month and two weeks. Aadam Sinai uttered a sound.
   'Ab…' Arre, O my God, listen, baba, the boy is saying something! And Aadam, very carefully: 'Abba…' Father. He is calling me father. But no, he has not finished, there is strain on his face, and finally my son, who will have to be a magician to cope with the world I'm leaving him, completes his awesome first word: '…cadabba.'
   Abracadabra! But nothing happens, we do not turn into toads, angels do not fly in through the window: the lad is just flexing his muscles. I shall not see his miracles…. Amid Mary's celebrations of Aadam's achievement, I go back to Padma, and the factory; my son's enigmatic first incursion into language has left a worrying fragrance in my nostrils.
   Abracadabra: not an Indian word at all, a cabbalistic formula derived from the name of the supreme god of the Basilidan gnostics, containing the number 365, the number of the days of the year, and of the heavens, and of the spirits emanating from the god Abraxas. 'Who,' I am wondering, not for the first time, 'does the boy imagine he is?'

   My special blends: I've been saving them up. Symbolic value of the pickling process: all the six hundred million eggs which gave birth to the population of India could fit inside a single, standard-sized pickle-jar; six hundred million spermatozoa could be lifted on a single spoon. Every pickle-jar (you will forgive me if I become florid for a moment) contains, therefore, the most exalted of possibilities: the feasibility of the chutnification of history; the grand hope of the pickling of time! I, however, have pickled chapters. Tonight, by screwing the lid firmly on to ajar bearing the legend Special Formula No. 30; 'Abracadabra', I reach the end of my long-winded autobiography; in words and pickles, I have immortalized my memories, although distortions are inevitable in both methods. We must live, I'm afraid, with the shadows of imperfection.
   These days, I manage the factory for Mary. Alice-'Mrs Fernandes'-controls the finances; my responsibility is for the creative aspects of our work. (Of course I have forgiven Mary her crime; I need mothers as well as fathers, and a mother is beyond blame.) Amid the wholly-female workforce of Braganza Pickles, beneath the saffron-and-green winking of neon Mumbadevi, I choose mangoes tomatoes limes from the women who come at dawn with baskets on their heads. Mary, with her ancient hatred of 'the mens', admits no males except myself into her new, comfortable universe… myself, and of course my son. Alice, I suspect, still has her little liaisons; and Padma fell for me from the first, seeing in me an outlet for her vast reservoir of pent-up solicitude; I cannot answer for the rest of them, but the formidable competence of the Narlikar females is reflected, on this factory floor, in the strong-armed dedication of the vat-stirrers.
   What is required for chutnification? Raw materials, obviously-fruit, vegetables, fish, vinegar, spkes. Daily visits from Koli women with their saris hitched up between their legs. Cucumbers aubergines mint. But also: eyes, blue as ice, which are undeceived by the superficial blandishments of fruit-which can see corruption beneath citrus-skin; fingers which, with featheriest touch, can probe the secret inconstant hearts of green tomatoes: and above all a nose capable of discerning the hidden languages of what-must-be-pickled, its humours and messages and emotions… at Braganza Pickles, I supervise the production of Mary's legendary recipes; but there are also my special blends, in which, thanks to the powers of my drained nasal passages, I am able to include memories, dreams, ideas, so that once they enter mass-production all who consume them will know what pepperpots achieved in Pakistan, or how it felt to be in the Sundarbans… believe don't believe but it's true. Thirty jars stand upon a shelf, waiting to be unleashed upon the amnesiac nation.
   (And beside them, one jar stands empty.)
   The process of revision should be constant and endless; don't think I'm satisfied with what I've done! Among my unhappinesses: an overly-harsh taste from those jars containing memories of my father, a certain ambiguity in the love-flavour of 'Jamila Singer' (Special Formula No. 22), which might lead the unperceptive to conclude that I've invented the whole story of the baby-swap to justify an incestuous love; vague implausibilides in the jar labelled 'Accident in a Washing-chest'-the pickle raises questions which are not fully answered, such as: Why did Saleem need an accident to acquire his powers? Most of the other children didn't… Or again, in 'All-India Radio' and others, a discordant note in the orchestrated flavours: would Mary's confession have come as a shock to a true telepath? Sometimes, in the pickles' version of history, Saleem appears to have known too little; at other times, too much… yes, I should revise and revise, improve and improve; but there is neither the time nor the energy. I am obliged to offer no more than this stubborn sentence: It happened that way because that's how it happened.
   There is also the matter of the spice bases. The intricacies of turmeric and cumin, the subtlety of fenugreek, when to use large (and when small) cardamoms; the myriad possible effects of garlic, garam masala, stick cinnamon, coriander, ginger… not to mention the flavourful contributions of the occasional speck of dirt. (Saleem is no longer obsessed with purity.) In the spice bases, I reconcile myself to the inevitable distortions of the pickling process. To pickle is to give immortality, after all: fish, vegetables, fruit hang embalmed in spice-and-vinegar; a certain alteration, a slight intensification of taste, is a small matter, surely? The art is to change the flavour in degree, but not in kind; and above all (in my thirty jars and ajar) to give it shape and 'form-that is to say, meaning. (I have mentioned my fear of absurdity.)
   One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth… that they are, despite everything, acts of love.

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   One empty jar… how to end? Happily, with Mary in her teak rocking-chair and a son who has begun to speak? Amid recipes, and thirty jars with chapter-headings for names? In melancholy, drowning in memories of Jamila and Parvati and even of Evie Burns? Or with the magic children… but then, should I be glad that some escaped, or end in the tragedy of the disintegrating effects of drainage? (Because in drainage lie the origins of the cracks: my hapless, pulverized body, drained above and below, began to crack because it was dried out. Parched, it yielded at last to the effects of a lifetime's battering. And now there is rip tear crunch, and a stench issuing through the fissures, which must be the smell of death. Control: I must retain control as long as possible.)
   Or with questions: now that I can, I swear, see the cracks on the backs of my hands, cracks along my hairline and between my toes, why do I not bleed? Am I already so emptied desiccated pickled? Am I already the mummy of myself?
   Or dreams: because last night the ghost of Reverend Mother appeared to me, staring down through the hole in a perforated cloud, waiting for my death so that she could weep a monsoon for forty days… and I, floating outside my body, looked down on the foreshortened image of my self, and saw a grey-haired dwarf who once, in a mirror, looked relieved.

   No, that won't do, I shall have to write the future as I have written the past, to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet. But the future cannot be preserved in a jar; one jar must remain empty… What cannot be pickled, because it has not taken place, is that I shall reach my birthday, thirty-one today, and no doubt a marriage will take place, and Padma will have henna-tracery on her palms and soles, and also a new name, perhaps Naseem in honour of Reverend Mother's watching ghost, and outside the window there will be fireworks and crowds, because it will be Independence Day and the many-headed multitudes will be in the streets, and Kashmir will be waiting. I will have train-tickets in my pocket, there will be a taxi-cab driven by a country boy who once dreamed, at the Pioneer Cafe, of film-stardom, we will drive south south south into the.heart of the tumultuous crowds, who will be throwing balloons of paint at each other, at the wound-up windows of the cab, as if it were the day of the paint-festival of Holi; and along Hornby Vellard, where a dog was left to die, the crowd, the dense crowd, the crowd without boundaries, growing until it fills the world, will make progress impossible, we will abandon our taxi-cab and the dreams of its driver, on our feet in the thronging crowd, and yes, I will be separated from Padma, my dung-lotus extending an arm towards me across the turbulent sea, until she drowns in the crowd and I am alone in the vastness of the numbers, the numbers marching one two three, I am being buffeted right and left while rip tear crunch reaches its climax, and my body is screaming, it cannot take this kind of treatment any more, but now I see familiar faces in the crowd, they are all here, my grandfather Aadam and his wife Naseem, and Alia and Mustapha and Hanif and Emerald, and Arnina who was Mumtaz, and Nadir who became Qasim, and Pia and Zafar who wet his bed and also General Zulfikar, they throng around me pushing shoving crushing, and the cracks are widening, pieces of my body are falling off, there is Jamila who has left her nunnery to be present on this last day, night is falling has fallen, there is a countdown ticktocking to midnight, fireworks and stars, the cardboard cut-outs of wrestlers, and I see that I shall never reach Kashmir, like Jehangir the Mughal Emperor I shall die with Kashmir on my lips, unable to see the valley of delights to which men go to enjoy life or to end it, or both; because now I see other figures in the crowd, the terrifying figure of a war-hero with lethal knees, who has found out how I cheated him of his birth-right, he is pushing towards me through the crowd which is now wholly composed of familiar faces, there is Rashid the rickshaw boy arm-in-arm with the Rani of Cooch Naheen, and Ayooba Shaheed Farooq with Mutasim the Handsome, and from another direction, the direction of Haji Ali's island tomb, I see a mythological apparition approaching, the Black Angel, except that as it nears me its face is green its eyes are black, a centre-parting in its hair, on the left green and on the right black, its eyes the eyes of Widows; Shiva and the Angel are closing closing, I hear lies being spoken in the night, anything you want to be you kin be, the greatest lie of all, cracking now, fission of Saleem, I am the bomb in Bombay, watch me explode, bones splitting breaking beneath the awful pressure of the crowd, bag of bones falling down down down, just as once at Jallianwala, but Dyer seems not to be present today, no Mercurochrome, only a broken creature spilling pieces of itself into the street, because I have been so-many too-many persons, life unlike syntax allows one more than three, and at last somewhere the striking of a clock, twelve chimes, release.
   Yes, they will trample me underfoot, the numbers marching one two three, four hundred million five hundred six, reducing me to specks of voiceless dust, just as, all in good time, they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first generation, until a thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died, because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.
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