Brian King was a handsome man. He was usually to be found at the Osmania University of Hyderabad, where he read History and English at the Masters level. He was well regarded by his teachers and his peers, and all for good reason. He was always in clean pressed clothes, spoke and wrote English exquisitely, and was a good conversationalist.
“You should hear Brian speak” people would murmur.
“He recites Shakespeare like Shakespeare himself”, they said with little laughs.
His indifference to the jaunty wave of his forelock added to his indisputable charm. And of course, when Brian smiled, you smiled back. But above all, Brian was brilliant.
Not unexpectedly, he was the joy and pride of his widowed mother and his many aunts and uncles who spent most of their time in prayer, family politics and legal battles.
“You are too good for this place, my raja, my king”, was his mother’s daily refrain, as she circled his head with her hands and then cracked her knuckles against her temples, to ward off the evil eye.
“Go to England, that’s the place for you. They will value you there. Your father used to always say that. What is there for you in this country?”, she said disparaging the newly independent but ravaged nation. “Look what they did to your father, God rest his soul,” she said.
His aunts chimed in repeating his mother’s words.
“Go to England,” they said. “All our problems will come to an end”.
His uncles nodded sagely.
Brian, the oldest of four, looked at them, smiled briefly and returned to his volume of John Mill. Though he said nothing, he felt the weight and validity of their expectations. His father’s death had doubtless been an irreparable loss. By the time the grieving family woke up to the steady theft of family wealth that had been going on, very little money and property were left. Worse, it was his father’s acquaintances who whipped off the cream as soon as the coffin was nailed shut, and then quietly disappeared.
“The better of your father’s friends could have helped us out, but they hardly acknowledge us”, said his mother bitterly. “As long as your father was alive, they were always buzzing around, but now, they’ve forgotten their way to our house!”
And the many cases Brian’s family had filed against friends turned encroachers and land grabbers dragged on for years on end, as lawsuits tend to.
Through all of this Brian hoped that he stood a chance of going to England, of getting a scholarship, or a patron of some sort. It had long been his dream to read everything that he could lay his hands on, to write prose and poetry that was as beautiful as what he read, as much as it had been to go to England. He pondered his way through Proust, laughed while reading Shaw, was haunted by the Romantics and Yeats and was awed by Eliot. When he read RK Narayan, he was delighted to find part of his own world suddenly appear on paper. He admired Narayan’s wit, compassion and humour, his facility with prose, his brilliant story-telling. He read Raja Rao, Tagore and Basheer and was intoxicated by the words, the worlds, the images, the situations.
He began writing. Not the short skits derived from the greats that he and his many younger siblings used to perform before his father and the rest of the family, but poems, prose tracts, fragments of a novel. And he was justified in thinking that perhaps his family was actually right, that he had the quality of mind to succeed at this venture.
With each passing day he grew more convinced that his mother was right. And with that, a space for a new desire opened up within him. At first it was just the size of a small nut, and like a nut, was firm and manageable, something he could get hold of with his fingers and mould. And there it lay in his pocket, where he fingered it every now and then, as if checking for its size and shape. When it spread, grew larger, a little more amorphous, he depressed it, flattened it, squeezed it between his fingers into a small marble sized nugget that could lie within his grasp. And there it lay, regularly giving way to the growing weight of itself, spreading into a soft hungry mass that swallowed the crumbs of want and need, the shards of undocumented brilliance that lay within him. It was only when Brian grasped it that it congealed again into a solid knob. And at the heart of this nugget was England, locus of all things wonderful, the heart of desire itself. Notwithstanding textual evidence to the contrary, orderly landscapes, delicate flowers and tinkling cutlery, hearty laughter, poignant prose and undying wellbeing were the sum and substance of England. The name itself filled the mouth, resounded in the air and left a silence in its wake.
This elegant England had also planted that tiny seed of shame and self-doubt, which, like a termite, would quietly eat away at the heart of many things both within and outside him and the country, for years to come. Like so many of his generation, like his friends and his teachers, he was simultaneously proud and ashamed of the newly independent India. The mellifluous beauty of the word ‘India’ was marred by the dirty patchwork rags she presented herself in, her lost voice, and no amount of history or reading could erase that canker which remained as a soft self-deprecating murmur in the head and the heart.
As the days passed, Brian’s accomplishments increased along with his desire to see himself as part of the places, climates and conversations that he had read about, to find his name nestling comfortably among the authors that he read day after day.
He shared his desire with his friends Salim Ansari and Ian Thomas.
“Oho Brian, it’s child’s play for you.”, Salim said laughingly.
“No, no, these are all pipe dreams Salim bhai. I’ve no idea how to go about this.” Brian said seriously.
“Arre! Don’t worry, we’ll manage”, and there the matter appeared to have ended.
But several days later, Salim said, “I hear that the University has put up some notices about opportunities to go to England.”
“Let’s check them tomorrow”, said Ian, and they strolled down to Sunrise Café where they usually spent the evening chatting over cups of sweet milky tea. The café was dimly lit, smoky and noisy. “Three teas and the usual” Salim said in Urdu and they went across to a vacant table and sat down waiting for the tea and Osmania biscuits that would come. While sitting there Ian and Salim together chalked out some plans, and Brian – half-listening, half-imagining – agreed to all of them. As the evening wore on their wishes for the future took on an exceptional solidity as they got more and more detailed. At a certain point in the evening, Salim and Ian were already in England visiting a now-celebrated Brian. They chattered laughingly about their travels through Europe till a natural pause in their conversation returned them to their surroundings. They became thoughtful and a little despondent.
“Brian bhai, don’t forget about us when you go to England” said Ian striving to regain the earlier mood.
“Arre, what are you talking about? It will always be as it is now.” And they continued sitting there chatting, till it grew dark. On their way back home, they ordered their favourite paans from their usual paan shop to free them of the smell of cigarettes.
“Ma, I’m home”, Brian said, framed by the doorway. He sat down to his meal after washing up. The table had been set for him, and his plate had the usual spoon and fork beside it. Brian insisted on eating with cutlery even when there was a bony meat curry; the challenges of eating meat and fish on the bone having been surmounted long back. He ate well and cleanly, angling his fork and spoon at the end of the meal. After his dinner he picked up his plate and washed it, listening to the habitual protests that these actions brought forth and returning them with his habitual response, “No, just let me do it”. Once he was done washing up, he sat down to read.
In the background he could hear the sound of the evening prayer led by his mother and her widowed sister-in-law. When the Novena to the Infant Jesus began, he stirred slightly, distracted for a moment by the hypnotic chant and his clear memory of the litany that would follow. Uncertain about whether he was agnostic or atheistical, he now stayed away from family prayers. Every now and then, he acceded to his mother’s pleas to attend Mass, and despite himself, found the ceremonial aspects quite riveting and evocative. He would normally stand at the door of the church or sit in the back row thinking about the nature of religion or some other matter, taking care not to alarm or distract the worshippers around him.
Now as the litany of the blessed Virgin Mary ended, he returned to his reading and read till midnight and then dozed off by and by.
The next morning, after class, Brian, Salim and Ian went down to the Department office to check the Notice Boards.
“If Brian can’t get a scholarship, then who can? And if Salim bhai can’t find one then no one can”, said Ian with his usual good humour and hiccupy laugh.
The Notice Board was a bit of a disappointment. There were opportunities, even a possible tuition waiver but no living allowance.
“Stingy chaps”, said Salim. “Let’s try talking to Professor Muthuswamy, he may have some suggestions”.
But the head of the English department looked too morose to be approached right away. Maybe he had tangled with the vice chancellor again. Muthuswamy’s run-ins with the VC were an impressive matter of record now. He had once insisted that all official communications to him be bilingual, and stuck to his guns through the furore that followed. Maybe he had appended a fresh clause, an additional language, perhaps, Salim speculated. They all laughed.
“We’ll talk to him later, Brian. Now, let’s go and find Reddy. He may be able to help with the money we need”.
Reddy knew practically everybody. And if he didn’t know somebody you expected him to know, he made it his business to get to know them. There he was on the parapet, cigarette in hand. He looked happy to see them and greeted them cheerily. Yes, he did know someone who had plenty of money and had helped out when he thought that the cause was worthy.
“My mother’s cousin’s son needed some help getting into a good school and he helped immediately. He even found a good residential school in Nagpur, and the boy is even receiving training in martial arts and lathi wielding. Let me talk to him about our Brian; I’m sure he’ll be willing to help him”.
“Who is this good Samaritan?” asked Ian
“Oh, he’s is one T M Rao. Very rich and very devout. My mother always says that its best to catch him after his prayers. Although he has just surfaced from a different world then, his mind is still razor-sharp and down to earth. It’s inspiring to watch him when he’s in form, I tell you. But let me talk to him first.”
While Reddy went about his inquiries, they went to Professor Muthuswamy.
Professor Muthuswamy had little to offer by way of options, but wrote a glowing reference for Brian. “If you need anything more, let me know”, he said, handing over the embossed and stamped sheet of typewritten commendation.
“Thank you very much, sir. I will begin applying now.”
The next day they went to Ian’s house instead of their usual visit to the café. His father had just returned from his office at the railways where he worked, and offered them tea and tie biscuits.
“So, how’s college these days boys? Studying hard or hardly?”, he said half serious, carefully picking up the pastry flakes that drifted down to his lap. “Better study hard. Soon all of you will be looking for jobs, and those are not easy to find unless you decide to work at Ansari’s shop”, he said referring to Salim’s father’s garment store. “That may be the best thing, since you have been together since childhood. I can imagine it already,” he said laughing, “one measuring, the other cutting and the third folding the cloth. What do you say Ian, my boy?”.
“Stop it dad”, said Ian irritably. “we’re not going to work there. All of us will find good jobs, and Brian is going to England.”
“No, I’m not!” exclaimed Brian as Mr Thomas’ eyebrows shot up. “I’m trying to.”
“Go, my boy. This place is not fit for you. You’re an Englishman through and through. Some shades lighter and you could pass for one!”
They all smiled.
The next day, they pooled in what money they had, got hold of a couple of application forms and filled them in. In both application forms, Brian asked for a tuition waiver and a living allowance. And then the three of them waited.
As expected, Brian got a call for an interview. On the appointed day, he went for an interview which left him both pleased and bewildered. He was interviewed by six men, three of whom were English, ruddy and discomfited by the heat. The other three, Indian, stiff and yet slightly obsequious in the presence of the British, were capricious with Brian. Nevertheless, he spoke at length and with erudition on matters that he was asked to discuss, though he couldn’t quite understand how they managed to commend him and put him in his place all at once. As the interview proceeded, they seemed pleased and yet dissatisfied, unnecessarily brusque, interruptive, occasionally complimentary, reluctant to smile and stingy with their own thoughts. They exchanged meaningful glances at incongruous moments. One of the Englishmen had the disconcerting habit of saying “Is that so?”, ever so often. Brian found himself disarmed, uncertain, smiling more than usual, and somewhat cajolingly. Forty-five minutes later, he left with a headache and an uncommon feeling of listlessness. For the first time in his life he wasn’t quite sure of himself.
“Not to worry, the bastards are always like this. They try and keep you off balance to see if you will sink or float”, Ian said and drew on his cigarette thoughtfully. “Anyway, Reddy is our back up man. Let’s remind him again today.”
They did, and life went on for Brian and his friends. But it had acquired a different quality for Brian. It seemed to have slowed down, intensified and condensed into a thick bitter-sweet brew that could be sipped only in minute quantities that would glaze the tongue and slowly dissipate, filling every part of his mouth with its complexity. His mind was shadowed by a possible and looming future. The knob in his pocket kept up its steady waxing and waning, occasionally becoming a little burry, grazing his fingers, reminding him of promises and disappointments that waited. At times like this, Brian would close his eyes and savour the bitter-sweet brew of the moment, sigh deeply and return to his books.
But it turned out that Ian was right. Brian was offered a seat to read at Oxford, but only a tuition waiver. He would have to raise travel and living costs himself.
Salim was irritated. “Let me get hold of Reddy again. This money business is so tiresome and honest to God, those who deserve the money, never have it!”
Reddy, when asked, said that he had visited T M sir’s house many times, but each time he was told that the man was in Nagpur attending some important meetings.
“He has some political leanings I think, and and his friends are a bit intense. They’re always passionately discussing what to do about the country, how to strengthen their party and bring change. And bhai, they are so particular about everything. My mother says that Rao will not allow even the smell of an onion in his house. What will he say about our breath, Salim? We’re always eating raw onions with our chicken”, said Reddy laughing loudly.
Salim looked at Reddy thoughtfully, smiled thinly, and told him to pipe down and avoid irrelevancies.
A few days later, Reddy came rushing up to them. “Brian bhai, T M sir has finally returned from his trip to Nagpur and has agreed to meet you.”
“What did you tell him about me?”
“Nothing much, just that you are the most brilliant and accomplished man that I know!” he teased.
Brian smiled and placed his hand on Reddy’s shoulder. “Thank you, Reddy! This means a lot to me.”
“I know, I know my friend. Just go and introduce yourself as my friend from the University who wants to go to England. You tell him the details; I hardly got a minute with him. Go at about seven tomorrow morning, he’s normally done with his bath and morning prayers by then. He’ll be expecting you.”
That evening the three of them were excited and chatty as they walked down to Sunrise Café. Both Ian and Salim were full of advice. Brian listened to all of it intently and then while chewing his paan on the way home, decided that he would tell his mother about Rao only after meeting. That evening, he listened a little more carefully to the Novena that followed the rosary before he left for his room.
The next morning, he was at T M Rao’s house by a quarter to seven with a notepad in which he had carefully placed professor Muthuswamy’s testimonial. He waited patiently till five past seven and then knocked gently on the door. A couple of minutes later, T M came out. He was dressed in a white dhoti and a slightly soiled sacred thread. He had the belly that most contented middle-aged men have. He looked at Brian blankly. Brian joined his hands in greeting.
“I’m Reddy’s friend from the University”, said Brian by way of introduction.
“Oh yes, yes”, said T M returning the namaste. “Babu has told me a lot about you”, he said referring to Reddy as Babu. “He says you’re a brilliant man and want to go abroad to study and to teach them our ways too. Very good, very good. Tell me what can I do for you?”
He invited Brian to sit on one of the metal folding chairs that had been resting on the front wall of the house, and shouted “tea for two” into his house.
As Brian began explaining what he wanted to do with his life, his situation, T M considered him very closely, nodding every now and then, asking the occasional question.
The tea came quickly in shiny brass glasses, and they both paused to sip their tea. It was delicious and filled him with contentment and the hope for another glassful.
Suddenly, T M asked him, “what does your father do?”
“He’s no more”, said Brian.
“Oho”, he said commiserating. “What did he do?”
“He was a doctor.”
“Oh, I see. A highly educated man! That explains your accent. You speak English very well. Yes, you are a very fine young man indeed”.
“So, you have got admission into Oxford? Excellent, excellent, we could certainly use a man like you there. I’m sure my friends will be pleased to help”, he said half to himself. “Why don’t you leave your name and address with me.”
Brian took out a piece of paper, wrote down his name and address and handed it to Rao along with the testimonial that professor Muthuswamy had given him.
T M looked down at the paper and while he was reading, he slowly began to wind his sacred thread around his ear.
“Brian King, eh? Okay, okay. You may leave now”, he said abruptly, and walked past Brian into the front yard. “Yes, yes, you may go now!”
“Shall I come again?” asked Brian.
“No need, no need”, said Rao. “We’ll see. Send Babu to meet me.”
Brian was confused, not entirely sure of what had happened. Perhaps, T M had urgent business to attend to. Reddy had told him that Rao was always busy. Smiling and folding his hands in farewell, he turned and walked toward the gate, feeling generally pleased with the way things had gone. He revisited the meeting again and again and felt happy with the way it had gone, and perplexed by the end of it. But it seemed that Rao and his friends would help. He would have liked greater certainty, but well, Reddy would find out.
It was only when he was halfway down the long approach road that he remembered that he had left the testimonial with T M. He walked back quickly. As he approached, he heard sounds of chanting interspersed with shouts. Brian stopped short at the gate. T M was sitting at the garden tap pouring water on himself, chanting, and expostulating to his wife who stood on the porch with their tea glasses in hand.
“Wash the place out with soap. No, don’t take his glass inside, foolish woman. Leave it there, don’t touch it! Where is Raju? Tell him to come and clean the place out properly. Oof! What’s to be said about that idiot Babu? He has no sense at all! Sending this chap here! Brian King indeed! I’ll show him who the king is! His fathers have left the place, and now he is looking to me to foster him! Bloody half-caste”. He spat into a puddle that was forming around the bucket.
Both the piece of paper on which Brian had written his name, and the testimonial lay crumpled beside the bucket.
Brian’s face burned. It was as if he had just fallen hard. He stood there, hand on the gate, immobilized for what seemed like endless minutes. He wasn’t sure he had understood what was happening.
Then T M turned and saw him and spat once again.
Brian let his hand drop off the gate, turned and left. Eyes smarting, he walked away as quickly as he could, stopping abruptly only when the yellowed buildings of the University came into view. He knew that Salim, Ian and Reddy would be waiting. He pushed his trembling hands into his pockets. As he stood there motionless, staring at the building unseeingly, mind racing, he realized that the nugget of desire had crumbled.