The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Monday, 30 November 2015

Gandhi’s house

Manur didn’t mention his thesis anymore.  One day, he went back to India.  In Ahmedabad, with his mother – I was still dropping in – he was more relaxed.  But I could still annoy him. 

We were sitting on the sofa.  He knew I’d written a story.  I told him the BBC had accepted it.  He went stiff for three seconds – it was a long time – then jerked his head towards me as if I’d insulted him.  He told me that he wanted to write (remember his eye for detail?), but that being bilingual made it difficult.  As for my story, he missed the broadcast.  He said he was still in bed. 

There are more important things than words.  I needed clean water.  The stuff from the tap was poisoning me.  It was raining, so I took a bowl from the old girl’s kitchen, and put it on the roof, hoping it would fill overnight.  I think I asked first, or just did it while they watched.

It was an ordinary bowl, stainless steel, and shiny.  In India, things like this are beautiful.  You can buy them here in London, imported, but they lose something on the journey – not their shine; their context. 

We sat there, Manur and I, listening to the rain, thinking about his mother’s little bowl.  He was anxious.  He said it was acid rain.  Although he didn’t tell me, and she didn’t show it – not to me, at least – his mother was annoyed.  It wasn’t my bowl.  It was hers.  Judging from his face, the acid was too.  

Next morning, I retrieved the bowl.  It was full to the lip.  I could have used a much larger one.  He told me not to do it again.

When his mother was killed, Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister. I said it was the Gandhi name that got him elected.  I thought it was obvious.  I wasn’t trying to insult anyone, but Manur felt insulted. It didn’t reflect well on the country, or he thought it didn’t.     

My trip to the Mahatma’s ashram didn’t help.  Manur was concerned about my clothes.  I should wear something better.  I said I’d be a target for thieves.  He laughed incredulously.  The ashram is just out of town.  On the bus back, a bony young man picked my pocket.  I know he was bony because he jumped on top of me, from behind, as I was getting on the bus, and wrapped his arms around me.  Before we’d travelled very far, he dropped off, like a full leech, onto the dusty road, and disappeared.  A passenger said, “You’d better check your wallet.”

I was a target anyway.  Manur was incredulous again.  But he didn't laugh.  It didn’t reflect well on the country. 

He had a job producing TV commercials.  He was very excited, the way he’d been about his thesis.   His current project was a petrol advertisement for a local company.   He took me through it.  His catch phrase pleased him the most: Put a tiger in your tank.  He fell silent, smiled, and waited for my approval.  It was, of course, the Esso slogan from the 1960s.  I don’t remember saying anything.  I was probably speechless.  Another of my annoying silences.  Had no one noticed that he’d stolen the line?  Or, if they had, did no one care?

Still excited, still smiling.  Still observing, too. 

“The actresses are fascinating.  They never stop acting.” 

He paused, and wondered for a moment at the actresses who never stopped acting, actresses in general, and the ones he was working with now.  He remembered all their little tricks and charms, while, we both knew, I remembered nothing.  I wasn’t a TV producer, even one of low ability.  As he wondered, he gently shook his head.  I wondered something else: how many actresses were needed for a tank of petrol.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Silence and Pause in Pinter

Kay took us for a spin in her car.  I don’t remember where.  We talked about Australia for a while.  I was born there.  Kay had worked there, and knew my family.  Manur was in a chatty mood.  He even had a joke.

“Someone met an Australian, and asked him when he’d come.  The Australian answered, ‘I came today.’  The other chap said, ‘I asked you when you came, not why.’”

He gave his little smile.  He knew his own qualities inside out, his sense of humour, for example, even though, for the most part, he chose to conceal them.  Was I saying funny things?  Was I smiling now?  He thought I had no sense of humour.  At the same time, he’d impressed Kay.  Something had happened to her, anyway.  When he shared his little joke, which was decades old, she looked surprised, though she often did, gave one of her forced chuckles, and went on looking at the road.

“What’s your thesis about?” she asked, after the dip in conversation.  Manur’s thesis was on silence and pause in Pinter.  He had talked to me about it at the start, enthusiastically, as if the topic was original, and no one else had ever thought of it. 

“It’s fascinating,” he had told me, “how much meaning you can find in a single pause.”

I was almost interested.  It was the apparent keenness.  Kay, for her part, knew he was studying something.  She glanced across when she spoke to him, with polite expectation, briefly, I’m glad to say, since she was driving.  She must have thought her question was a good one.  It’s the sort of thing you say when you don’t know someone very well.  I can’t go wrong with this.  As far as a thesis goes, or any book for that matter, the author is rarely slow to talk about it.  Manur gave the title readily enough.  But no more.

She persisted.  She wanted to know, very politely, what he’d done so far.  He didn’t answer.  He was normally quite happy to talk about himself, with me, at least.  He was more reticent with others, but he’d been talking freely.  She looked confused.  What was the matter?  Was he being his old, shy self, or was he reluctant to tell her for some other reason?  Let’s be honest.  It was just another thesis which didn’t really matter, which Kay, or anyone else, didn’t really care about.  She wasn’t going to steal his ideas.  She just needed something to fill a silence. 

She asked him twice.  Still no answer.  If his thesis had once infected him, it wasn’t with  a lasting enthusiasm.  She couldn’t know the reason for his silence, and he wasn’t about to tell her.  He had done nothing.  I’m not sure how I knew.  He never told me.  It was simply obvious.  Not to Kay, however.  She was irritated when he kept quiet, and he was irritated when she kept asking.

Eyes on the road.

Even I, who lacked his funny bone, could appreciate the humour.  I smiled my little smile, at Manur’s discomfort, at Kay’s perplexity.  His thesis was meant to examine silence.  It was doing that already.  In its current form, it was the written equivalent of silence.  It was a masterpiece of absent sound.  But silence is something.  His thesis wasn’t anything at all, beyond a title.  Silence and Pause in Pinter.  No one made him do it, so he didn’t.  In Kay’s cramped car, one Sunday afternoon a long time ago, silence was something that we all examined in a highly original way.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Greek for masturbators

I went to see Manur in his room at the university.  Someone else was there, a Greek student who spoke English.  Eco’s The Name of the Rose had been published recently.  They both had opinions about it.  I didn’t say anything, except that I hadn’t read it.  Manur hadn't read it either.  The Greek boy was reading it in Greek. 

“Why not?” he turned to me, although I hadn’t queried him.  “It was written in Italian.”

We moved on to girls.  I say we.  Indian girls and Greek girls were summoned up, examined and debated in a general way, without insult, but not without sarcasm, by the other two.  It was a boys’ party game, but all the boys weren’t playing.  The Greek turned to me again. 

“What about Australian girls?”  Again, I said nothing.  To them, concerning girls, I must have known nothing.  To me, their ready chatter was just like purring.  I thought: These two masturbate.

Afterwards, we went for one of our strolls, Manur and I.  There were two Greek girls on a patch of empty ground.  You couldn’t miss them.  They had heavy mascara, black leather jackets and tight black jeans.  Their clothes looked bonded to them.  How did they get them off?  I’m just wondering now.  I didn’t think that at the time.

The girls had seen us too.  They were standing close together.  They turned their faces in a single movement, like a predator with two heads, and peered at us ironically.  When they saw we didn’t want them, one of them laughed, and the other said:Μαλάκας” (malákas).

The irony would work in every case: if we wanted them, and needed showing who was boss; or if, as happened here, we didn’t want them, and needed dumping before we even met; or for some other reason that only girls know.  Manur was delighted with the female interest – the fact that they’d laughed and said something.  The other fact, that they’d spoken about us, not to us, and laughed at us, not with us, didn’t seem to matter.  He laughed too, with wide eyes.  He’d never had a girlfriend – that was clear.  It was another thing he didn’t have to tell me.  His head followed them as they walked away.  All right, mine did too.  But we were thinking different things.  Perhaps the irony had fooled him.

A fine observer like Manur would also be observing me.  It was inevitable.  With his observation came a growing understanding of my faults.

“You don’t say anything,” he said.  He was tired of me, the little Australian.

The last time he came to see me, about a week later, Graeme was there too.  I’d invited them to dinner.  Another grinding, all-male affair.  I’d cooked a curry.  It was the wrong choice.  Manur disliked spicy food, and was honest enough to say so.  Graeme disliked it too, but he went further.  He questioned why it should exist.  Here was a vision of the future, a post-vindaloo world, one without me.

Manur asked Graeme what μαλάκας meant.  Graeme repeated the word like an expert, in language, I mean – he spoke Greek very well – then translated it with equal clarity: “Masturbator.”

When the meal was over, we stepped onto the road.  A couple of teenage girls were passing.  They lived at the end of the street.  They said hello to me, chanting my name the way Greek girls do, or used to do: “Γεια σου, Γραχαμ!”

Manur looked at them, then at me, and burst out laughing, incredulously.  The girls had walked on, but they must have heard.  And he’s dumping meI thought.  He looked at them again, before they turned the corner, and said, more softly, in his purring way, “Nice girls.”       

Friday, 6 November 2015

Waiting for the revolution

In Salonica, I didn’t have a lot of male friends.  There was Manur.  You may remember him.  He went to Kay’s party, and fingered the Greek teacher’s head.  Like my other acquaintances, the male ones, anyway, he annoyed me.  I annoyed them, too, of course, although we kept quiet about it, on the whole. 

Manur had come as a post-graduate.  He’d won a scholarship at the university.  Like Jade and Joy, he lived in the estia, or student hostel, but he couldn’t move in straightaway.  For a while, he rented a basement in town. 

“I cracked,” he told me.  “It was freezing cold.  I just cracked.”

Each time he said cracked, his head quivered slightly, at what he’d suffered, I suppose, as if the memory of it could still make him shiver.

I went to see him in his hole in the ground.  A workman came to fix something.  We’d just arrived in the country, and we didn’t understand much Greek. When the workman spoke, I stayed silent, but Manur nodded and agreed.   He said ‘Yes, yes’ a lot in Greek.  I think it was the first thing about him which annoyed me.  After a time, the workman stopped, and observed the two of us.  I must have looked less foreign than Manur.  He rebuked me for understanding less.  It was the second annoying thing.  For once, Manur stayed silent.  That didn’t endear him to me either. 

Manur was unassuming, when other people were around, not with me.  He had a little smile, and his brown eyes blinked softly.  I thought he was doing it consciously, the meekness bit.  Did he want people to underestimate him?  Whatever the reason, he did it very well, the ingénu abroad.  Jade was good at this herself, but even she was affected by Manur.  She called him ‘the little Indian’ when he wasn’t there.  She said it to dismiss him.  There was no affection. 

When we were alone, he liked to showcase his qualities, his powers of observation, in particular.  Once, we arranged to meet in town, on Aristotelous Square.  He arrived first.  While he was waiting, a young couple also met.  He told me what he’d learnt about them – how the girl had waited for the boy, how they greeted each other, how intimate they were – all with his little smile, like an expert on human nature. 

Manur often felt a sense of wonder.  A bus passed on Egnatía.  It had one number on the front, and another on the back.  He pointed it out.  I assume he noticed by chance.  It’s not something that you'd think to check.  I remember his tone of voice – incredulous, laughing at the folly of human kind, or the Greek kind.  At the same time, with regard to this general folly, he set himself apart from it.  That sharp eye of his – he didn’t turn it on himself.  It was another thing which didn’t endear him to me. 

We walked down to the harbour.  There was a ship in the distance, and I mentioned it.  I could tell what type it was, the colour, the direction it was facing, but Manur couldn’t see it.  He laughed again, the same, incredulous laugh.  He didn’t play tricks on people, or do irony.  He really thought I was making it up.  Maybe I deserved the scorn.  What was I doing pointing at a ship?  It sailed in somehow, across the conversation, or through a hole in it.

We passed the revolving restaurant.  It’s on top of a column, a long way off the ground.  Manur said – the moment is fixed in my brain – “I can’t see it moving,” and we stood there, looking up, like two children, waiting for the whole thing to turn.