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.

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