Before Dimple came to be called Zeenat, she worked part-time for Rashid and disappeared every evening to the hijra’s brothel. I smoked at her station even if other pipes were free, and we talked the way smokers talk, horizontally, with long pauses, our words so soft they sounded like the incomprehensible phrases spoken by small children. I asked the usual foolish questions. Is it better to be a man or a woman? Dimple said: For conversation, better to be a woman, for everything else, for sex, better to be a man. Then I asked if she was a man or a woman and she nodded as if it was the first time she’d been asked. She was about twenty-five then and she had a habit in those days of shaking the hair into her eyes and smiling for no reason at all, a sweet smile as I remember, with no hint there of the changes that would overtake her.
She said: Woman and man are words other people use, not me. I’m not sure what I am. Some days I’m neither, or I’m nothing. On other days I feel I’m both. But men and women are so different, how can one person be both? Isn’t that what you’re thinking? Well I’m both and I’ve learned some things, to my cost, the kind of thing you’re better off not knowing if you mean to live in the world. For example I know something about love and how lovers want to consume and be consumed and disappear into each other. I know how they yearn to make two equal one and I know it can never be. What else? Women are more evolved biologically and emotionally, that’s well known and it’s obvious. But they confuse sex and the spirit; they don’t separate. Men, as you know, always separate: they separate their human and dog natures. And then she said, I’d like to tell you more about it, about the family resemblance between men and dogs, because I have plenty to say, as you may have guessed, but what would be the point? There’s little chance you’d understand, after all you’re a man.
Watching, writing: At a brothel in Mumbai in 1974. Nik Wheeler/Sygma/Corbis
She’d learned English by conversing with customers and she was teaching herself to read. She knew enough of the alphabet to recognize some of the words in the newspapers and film magazines that came her way, or the paperback novels forgotten by customers at the khana, or the print on detergent packets and toothpaste tubes. Bengali gave her books sometimes, usually history, but also philosophy, geography, and illustrated biographies with titles like Great Thinkers of the Twentieth Century and One Hundred Great Men of the World. He found the books in the raddi shops around Shuklaji Street, which was a centre of the trade in used paper, rags, toys, junk of all kinds. He gave her books and she read in secret, because she didn’t like to be seen reading. She read the way an illiterate person reads. She liked to look at the covers and trace the title with a finger, and if she was able to make sense of a line or a word, it gave her a thrill.
I was stretched out, the khana empty in the dead hour of the afternoon, when Dimple asked what kind of book I was reading. It’s not a book, I said, it’s a magazine and this is a story about an Indian painter who lives in London.
‘Time. What a big name for a small book. Is your painter famous?’
‘Here, no, in England, yes. He’s a school dropout. No, I have it wrong: he was expelled for making pornographic murals in the boys’ toilet. He put himself through art school and won a scholarship to Oxford. The genteel British expected him to be some kind of Hindu scholar mystic. Instead, it says here, he paints Christ with more authority than British painters.’
‘“Newton Pinter Xavier’s art is Catholic guilt exploded to devastating effect. He doesn’t paint as much as eviscerate and disembowel. His altered Christs are more powerful than Bacon’s because they come at us with no frame of reference, or none that we are able to recognize in a terrestrial context. They are adrift of history. As for geography, they remain firmly outside the purview of the British isles, and, I suspect, that of the Indian subcontinent. They drip sex, heresy and indiscriminate readings from the psychopathology of everyday life, they.”’
‘Enough, stop, it’s too much. Let me see the pictures.’
The editors had thought to include several reproductions of Xavier’s paintings. There was a gory Christ figure wrapped in thorns the size of railroad ties, the figure appearing puny and abused against a backdrop of blood splatter. There was a selfportrait. And there were two pitiless nudes, soft white bodies spreadeagled on stainless steel, dead skin puckered in the harsh fluorescent light. Dimple was silent as she looked at the pictures.
Then she handed the magazine back, squinting at me as if she couldn’t see. She said, He’s too angry to think. He’s so angry he’s homicidal. He wants to make everything ugly. He wants to kill the world. She said, How can you trust a man like that? How can you agree with him when he says that people are sick and deserve to die?
After a while, she asked if I would read something else and she reached under her pallet and produced a textbook wrapped with brown paper in the schoolboy way, The New Combined Textbook for Non-Christians: History & Moral Science Examination Syllabus. Under the title was the author’s name: S.T. Pande, Professor of History, University of Baroda. She held the book out to me and turned to a page she’d marked and I read a few lines.
Jeet Thayil, the author of Narcopolis. Divya Babu/Mint
‘“The founder of Christianity was the eponymous Christ, Jesus, whose personality, manic and magnetic in equal proportions, served a radical agenda that sought to overthrow the world’s hierarchical social orders. His radicalism, which manifested itself most prominently in the guise of mystic uttering, can best be encapsulated by the following indirect quote: ‘Be not content with this state of things.’ He was possessed of a sharp tongue that aimed its barbs at priests, the rich, politicians, usurers, Jews, Gentiles, foes and friends. Some say his special gift was indiscriminate truth telling. Others say it was his curse. He was born of Mary, virgin wife and mother, who was blessed with a lovely pear-shaped face and whose devotees address her in the following manner: Hail Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen!
‘“Jesus was, among other things, an unlicensed medical practitioner who could cure the sick with nothing more than a single touch of his right index finger. Whether this ability was of divine provenance or simply a matter of being adept in the use of herbs and plants is open to conjecture. What cannot be disputed is the miraculous effect he had on the sick and the dying. This is why diseased people became Christians, and the poor too; in other words, the lowest of the low converted to Christianity because they found in it a balm to counteract the casteridden ways of the world.”’
Was this Professor Pande’s style, I wondered, to write as if he’d spent days and nights with Jesus and Mary, taking notes, accumulating the privileged information he was now sharing with us, his lucky readers? I told Dimple that the Professor, if that is what he was, seemed to me an unreliable source, though he was entertaining enough. I said there was nothing wrong with being unreliable. Who wasn’t? What, in any case, was the point in being reliable, like a dog or automobile or armchair? I said it was fine with me, as long as he didn’t call himself a historian and moral scientist. Dimple wasn’t interested. She was a story addict, the kind of reader—if she had been able to read—who hated to get to the end of a book. So I held Professor Pande’s book open on my chest and I continued.
‘“Jesus was crucified in a very cruel way, but he died smilingly. His happy face had a great effect on his disciples and so did the miracles he performed. In fact, he was a consummate performer: no matter what the circumstances he managed several performances a week. He once fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish only.”’
Dimple said, ‘Five loaves of bread and two fish, which means with half a dozen fish he could have fed all the poor of Bombay, no, no, of course not, just the poor of Shuklaji Street. Even so, he should have been born in India.’
Excerpted from Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil, published by Faber and Faber, exclusively represented by Penguin India, 304 pages, Rs.499. Narcopolis will be released on 5 December.
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