It has been two whole days since Padma stormed out of my life. For two days, her place at the vat of mango kasaundy has been taken by another, woman - also thick of waist, also hairy of forearm; but, in my eyes, no replacement at all! - while my own dung-lotus has vanished into I don't know where. A balance has been upset; I feel. cracks widening down the length of my body; because suddenly I am alone, without my necessary ear, and it isn't enough. I am seized by a sudden fist of anger: why should I be so unreasonably treated by my one disciple? Other men have recited stories before me; other men were not so impetuously abandoned. When Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, dictated his masterpiece to elephant-headed Ganesh, did the god walk out on him halfway? He certainly did not. (Note that, despite my Muslim background, I'm enough of a Bombayite to be well up in Hindu stories, and actually I'm very fond of the image of trunk-nosed, flap-eared Ganesh solemnly taking dictation!)
How to dispense with Padma? How give up her ignorance and superstition, necessary counterweights to my miracle-laden omniscience? How to do without her paradoxical earthiness of spirit, which keeps - kept? - my feet on the ground? I have become, it seems to me, the apex of an isosceles triangle, supported equally by twin deities, the wild god of memory and the lotus-goddess of the present ... but must I now become reconciled to the narrow one-dimensionality of a straight line?
I am, perhaps, hiding behind all these questions. Yes, perhaps that's right. I should speak plainly, without the cloak of a question-mark our Padma has gone, and I miss her. Yes, that's it.
But there is still work to be done: for instance:
In the summer of 1956, when most things in the world were still larger than myself, my sister the Brass Monkey developed the curious habit of setting fire to shoes. While Nasser sank ships at Suez, thus slowing down the movements of the world by obliging it to travel around the Cape of Good Hope, my sister was also trying to impede our progress. Obliged to fight for attention, possessed by her need to place herself at the centre of events, even of unpleasant ones (she was my sister, after all; but no prime minister wrote letters to her, no sadhus watched her from their places under garden taps; unprophesied, unphotographed, her life was a struggle from the start), she carried her war into the world of footwear, hoping, perhaps, that by burning our shoes she would make us stand still long enough to notice that she was there ... she made no attempt at concealing her crimes. When my father entered his room to find a pair of black Oxfords on fire, the Brass Monkey was standing over them, match in hand. His nostrils were assailed by the unprecedented odour of ignited boot-leather, mingled with Cherry Blossom boot-polish and a little Three-In-One oil ... 'Look, Abba!' the Monkey said charmingly, 'Look how pretty just the exact colour of my hair!'
Despite all precautions, the merry red flowers of my sister's obsession blossomed all over the Estate that summer, blooming in the sandals of Nussie-the-duck and the film-magnate footwear of Homi Catrack; hair-coloured flames licked at Mr Dubash's down-at-heel suedes and at Lila Sabarmati's stiletto heels. Despite the concealment of matches and the vigilance of servants, the Brass Monkey found her ways, undeterred by punishment and threats. For one year, on and off, Methwold's Estate was assailed by the fumes of incendiarized shoes; until her hair darkened into anonymous brown, and she seemed to lose interest in matches.
Amina Sinai, abhorring the idea of beating her children, temperamentally incapable of raising her voice, came close to her wits'end; and the Monkey was sentenced, for day after day, to silence. This was my mother's chosen disciplinary method: unable to strike us, she ordered us to seal our lips. Some echo, no doubt, of the great silence with which her own mother had tormented Aadam Aziz lingered in her ears - because silence, too, has an echo, hollower and longerlasting than the reverberations of any sound- and with an emphatic `Chup!' she would place a finger across her lips and command our tongues to be still. It was a punishment which never failed to cow me into submission; the Brass Monkey, however, was made of less pliant stuff. Soundlessly, behind lips clamped tight as her grandmother's, she plotted the incineration of leather-just as once, long ago, another monkey in another city had performed the act which made inevitable the burning of a leathercloth godown ...
She was as beautiful (if somewhat scrawny) as I was ugly; but she was from the first, mischievous as a whirlwind and noisy as a crowd. Count the windows and vases, broken accidentally-on-purpose; number, if you can, the meals that somehow flew off her treacherous dinner-plates, to stain valuable Persian rugs! Silence was, indeed; the worst punishment she could have been given; but she bore it cheerfully, standing innocently amid the ruins of broken chairs and shattered ornaments.
Mary Pereira said, `That one! That Monkey! Should have been born with four legs!' But Amina, in whose mind the memory of her narrow escape from giving birth to a two-headed son had obstinately refused to fade, cried, 'Mary! What are you saying? Don't even think such things!' ... Despite my mother's protestations, it was true that the Brass Monkey was as much animal as human; and, as all the servants and children on Methwold's Estate knew, she had the gift of talking to birds, and to cats. Dogs, too: but after she was bitten, at the age of six, by a supposedly rabid stray, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to Breach Candy Hospital, every afternoon for three weeks, to be given an injection in the stomach, it seems she either forgot their language or else refused to have any further dealings with them. From birds she learned how to sing; from cats she learned a form of dangerous independence. The Brass Monkey was never so furious as when anyone spoke to her in words of love; desperate for affection, deprived of it by my overpowering shadow, she had a tendency to turn upon anyone who gave her what she wanted, as if she were defending herself against the possibility of being tricked.
... Such as the time when Sonny Ibrahim plucked up his courage to tell her, `Hey, listen, Saleem's sister – you’re a solid type. I'm, um, you know, damn keen on you ...' And at once she marched across to where his father and mother were sipping lassi in the gardens of Sans Souci to say, `Nussie auntie, I don't know what your Sonny's been getting up to. Only just now I saw him and Cyrus behind a bush, doing such funny rubbing things with their soo-soos!' ...
The Brass Monkey had bad table manners; she trampled flowerbeds; she acquired the tag of problem-child; but she and I were close-as-close, in spite of framed letters from Delhi and sadhu-under-the-tap. From the beginning, I decided to treat her as an ally, not a competitor; and, as a result, she never once blamed me for my preeminence in our household; saying, `What's to blame? Is it your fault if they think you're so great?' (But when, years later, I made the same mistake as Sonny, she treated me just the same.)
And it was Monkey who, by answering a certain wrong-number telephone call, began the process of events which led to my accident in a white washing-chest made of slatted wood. Already, at the age of nearlynine, I knew this much: everybody was waiting for me. Midnight and baby-snaps, prophets and prime ministers had created around me a glowing and inescapable mist of expectancy ... in which my father pulled me into his squashy belly in the cool of the cocktail hour to say, `Great things! My son: what is not in store for you? Great deeds, a great life!' While I, wriggling between jutting lip and big toe, wetting his shirt with my eternally leaking nose-goo, turned scarlet and squealed, `Let me go, Abba! Everyone will see!' And he, embarrassing me beyond belief, bellowed, `Let them look! Let the whole world see how I love my son!' ... and my grandmother, visiting us one winter, gave me advice, too: `Just pull up your socks, whatsitsname, and you'll be better than anyone in the whole wide world!' ... Adrift in this haze of anticipation, I had already felt within myself the first movings of that shapeless animal which still, on these Padmaless nights, champs and scratches in my stomach: cursed by a multitude of hopes and nicknames (I had already acquired Sniffer and Snotnose), I became afraid that everyone was wrong -that my much-trumpeted existence might turn out to be utterly useless, void, and without the shred of a purpose. And it was to escape from this beast that I took to hiding myself, from an early age, in my mother's large white washing-chest; because although the creature was inside me, the comforting presence of enveloping soiled linen seemed inside lull it into sleep.
Outside the washing-chest, surrounded by people who seemed to possess a devastatingly clear sense of purpose, I buried myself in fairytales. Hatim Tai and Batman, Superman and Sinbad helped to get me through the nearlynine years. When I went shopping with Mary Pereira - overawed by her ability to tell a chicken's age by looking at its neck, by the sheer determination with which she stared dead pomfrets in the eyes - I became Aladdin, voyaging in a fabulous cave; watching servants dusting vases with a dedication as majestic as it was obscure, I imagined Ali Baba's forty thieves hiding in the dusted urns; in the garden, staring at Purushottam the sadhu being eroded by water, I turned into the genie of the-lamp, and thus avoided, for the most part, the terrible notion that I, alone in the universe, had no idea what I should be; or how I should behave. Purpose: it crept up behind me when I stood staring down from my window at European girls cavorting in the map-shaped pool beside the sea. `Where do you get it?' I yelped aloud; the Brass Monkey, Who shared my sky-blue room, jumped half-way out of her skin. I was then nearlyeight; she was almostseven. It was a very early age at which to be perplexed by meaning.
But servants are excluded from washing-chests; school buses, too, are absent. In my nearlyninth year I had begun to attend the Cathedral and John Connon Boys' High School on Outram Road in the old Fort district; washed and brushed every morning, I stood at the foot of our two-storey hillock; white-shorted, wearing a blue-striped elastic belt with a snake-buckle, satchel over my shoulder, my mighty cucumber of a nose dripping as usual; Eyeslice and Hairoil, Sonny Ibrahim and precocious Cyrus-the-great waited too. And on the bus, amid rattling seats and the nostalgic cracks of the window-panes, what certainties! What nearlynine-year-old certitudes about the future! A boast from Sonny: `I'm going to be a bullfighter; Spain! Chiquitas! Hey, toro,, toro!' His satchel held before him like the muleta of Manolete, he enacted his future while the bus rattled around Kemp's Corner, past Thomas Kemp and Co. (Chemists), beneath the Air-India rajah's poster (`See you later, alligator! I'm off to London on Air-India!') and the other hoarding, on which; throughout my childhood, the Kolynos Kid, a gleamtoothed pixie in a green, elfin, chlorophyll hat proclaimed the virtues of Kolynos Toothpaste: `Keep Teeth Kleen and Keep, Teeth Brite! Keep Teeth Kolynos Super White!' The kid on his hoarding, the children in the bus: one-dimensional, flattened by certitude, they knew what they were for. Here is Glandy Keith Colaco, a thyroid balloon of a child with hair already sprouting tuftily on his lip: `I'm going to run my father's cinemas; you bastards want to watch movies, you'll have to come an' beg me for seats!' ... And Fat Perce Fishwala, whose obesity is due to nothing but overeating; and who, along with Glandy Keith, occupies the privileged position of class bully: `Bah! That's nothing! I'll have diamonds and emeralds and moonstones! Pearls as big as my balls!' Fat Perce's father runs the city's other jewellery business; his great enemy is the son of Mr Fatbhoy, who, being small and intellectual, comes off badly in the war of the pearl-testicled children ... And Eyeslice, announcing his future as a 'rest cricketer, with a fine disregard for his one empty socket; and Hairoil, who is as slickeddown and neat as his brother is curly-topped and dishevelled, says, `What selfish bums you are! I shall follow my father into the Navy; I shall defend my country!' Whereupon he is pelted with rulers, compasses, inky pellets ... in the school bus, as it clattered past Chowpatty Beach, as it turned left off Marine Drive beside the apartment of my favourite uncle Hanif and headed past Victoria Terminus towards Flora Fountain, past Churchgate Station and Crawford Market; I held my peace; I was mild-mannered Clark Kent protecting my secret identity; but what on earth was that? `Hey, Snotnose!' Glandy Keith yelled, `Hey, whaddya suppose our Snifler'll grow up to be?'And the answering yell from Fat Perce Fishwala, `Pinocchio!' And the rest, joining in, sing a raucous chorus of `There are no strings on me!' ... while Cyrus-the-great sits quiet as genius and plans the future of the nation's leading nuclear research' establishment.
And, at home, there was the Brass Monkey with her shoe-burning; and my father, who had emerged from the depths of his collapse to fall, once more, into the folly of tetrapods ... `Where do you find it?' I pleaded at my window; the fisherman's finger pointed, misleadingly, out to sea.