‘You’re fired,’ Mhatre emphasized, beaming. ‘Cashiered, had your chips. Dis-miss .’
‘Shut your face.’
Then the Babasaheb gave the orphan the greatest present of his life, informing him that a meeting had been arranged for him at the studios of the legendary film magnate Mr. D. W. Rama; an audition. ‘It is for appearance only,’ the Babasaheb said. ‘Rama is my good friend and we have discussed. A small part to begin, then it is up to you. Now get out of my sight and stop pulling such humble faces, it does not suit.’
‘Boy like you is too damn goodlooking to carry tiffins on his head all his life. Get gone now, go, be a homosexual movie actor. I fired you five minutes back.’
‘I have spoken. Thank your lucky stars.’
He became Gibreel Farishta, but for four years he did not become a star, serving his apprenticeship in a succession of minor knockabout comic parts. He remained calm, unhurried, as though he could see the future, and his apparent lack of ambition made him something of an outsider in that most self-seeking of industries. He was thought to be stupid or arrogant or both. And throughout the four wilderness years he failed to kiss a single woman on the mouth.
On-screen, he played the fall guy, the idiot who loves the beauty and can’t see that she wouldn’t go for him in a thousand years, the funny uncle, the poor relation, the village idiot, the servant, the incompetent crook, none of them the type of part that ever rates a love scene. Women kicked him, slapped him, teased him, laughed at him, but never, on celluloid, looked at him or sang to him or danced around him with cinematic love in their eyes. Off-screen, he lived alone in two empty rooms near the studios and tried to imagine what women looked like without clothes on. To get his mind off the subject of love and desire, he studied, becoming an omnivorous autodidact, devouring the metamorphic myths of Greece and Rome, the avatars of Jupiter, the boy who became a flower, the spider-woman, Circe, everything; and the theosophy of Annie Besant, and unified field theory, and the incident of the Satanic verses in the early career of the Prophet, and the politics of Muhammad’s harem after his return to Mecca in triumph; and the surrealism of the newspapers, in which butterflies could fly into young girls’ mouths, asking to be consumed, and children were born with no faces, and young boys dreamed in impossible detail of earlier incarnations, for instance in a golden fortress filled with precious stones. He filled himself up with God knows what, but he could not deny, in the small hours of his insomniac nights, that he was full of something that had never been used, that he did not know how to begin to use, that is, love. In his dreams he was tormented by women of unbearable sweetness and beauty, so he preferred to stay awake and force himself to rehearse some part of his general knowledge in order to blot out the tragic feeling of being endowed with a larger-than-usual capacity for love, without a single person on earth to offer it to.
His big break arrived with the coming of the theological movies. Once the formula of making films based on the puranas, and adding the usual mixture of songs, dances, funny uncles etc., had paid off, every god in the pantheon got his or her chance to be a star. When D. W. Rama scheduled a production based on the story of Ganesh, none of the leading box-office names of the time were willing to spend an entire movie concealed inside an elephant’s head. Gibreel jumped at the chance. That was his first hit, Ganpati Baba , and suddenly he was a superstar, but only with the trunk and ears on. After six movies playing the elephant-headed god he was permitted to remove the thick, pendulous, grey mask and put on, instead, a long, hairy tail, in order to play Hanuman the monkey king in a sequence of adventure movies that owed more to a certain cheap television series emanating from Hong Kong than it did to the Ramayana. This series proved so popular that monkey-tails became de rigueur for the city’s young bucks at the kind of parties frequented by convent girls known as ‘firecrackers’ because of their readiness to go off with a bang.
After Hanuman there was no stopping Gibreel, and his phenomenal success deepened his belief in a guardian angel. But it also led to a more regrettable development.
(I see that I must, after all, spill poor Rekha’s beans.)
Even before he replaced false head with fake tail he had become irresistibly attractive to women. The seductions of his fame had grown so great that several of these young ladies asked him if he would keep the Ganesh-mask on while they made love, but he refused out of respect for the dignity of the god. Owing to the innocence of his upbringing he could not at that time differentiate between quantity and quality and accordingly felt the need to make up for lost time. He had so many sexual partners that it was not uncommon for him to forget their names even before they had left his room. Not only did he become a philanderer of the worst type, but he also learned the arts of dissimulation, because a man who plays gods must be above reproach. So skilfully did he conceal his life of scandal and debauch that his old patron, Babasaheb Mhatre, lying on his deathbed a decade after he sent a young dabbawalla out into the world of illusion, black-money and lust, begged him to get married to prove he was a man. ‘God-sake, mister,’ the Babasaheb pleaded, ‘when I told you back then to go and be a homo I never thought you would take me seriously, there is a limit to respecting one’s elders, after all.’ Gibreel threw up his hands and swore that he was no such disgraceful thing, and that when the right girl came along he would of course undergo nuptials with a will. ‘What you waiting? Some goddess from heaven? Greta Garbo, Gracekali, who?’ cried the old man, coughing blood, but Gibreel left him with the enigma of a smile that allowed him to die without having his mind set entirely at rest.
The avalanche of sex in which Gibreel Farishta was trapped managed to bury his greatest talent so deep that it might easily have been lost forever, his talent, that is, for loving genuinely, deeply and without holding back, the rare and delicate gift which he had never been able to employ. By the time of his illness he had all but forgotten the anguish he used to experience owing to his longing for love, which had twisted and turned in him like a sorcerer’s knife. Now, at the end of each gymnastic night, he slept easily and long, as if he had never been plagued by dream-women, as if he had never hoped to lose his heart.
‘Your trouble,’ Rekha Merchant told him when she materialized out of the clouds, ‘is everybody always forgave you, God knows why, you always got let off, you got away with murder. Nobody ever held you responsible for what you did.’ He couldn’t argue. ‘God’s gift,’ she screamed at him, ‘God knows where you thought you were from, jumped-up type from the gutter, God knows what diseases you brought.’
But that was what women did, he thought in those days, they were the vessels into which he could pour himself, and when he moved on, they would understand that it was his nature, and forgive. And it was true that nobody blamed him for leaving, for his thousand and one pieces of thoughtlessness, how many abortions, Rekha demanded in the cloud-hole, how many broken hearts. In all those years he was the beneficiary of the infinite generosity of women, but he was its victim, too, because their forgiveness made possible the deepest and sweetest corruption of all, namely the idea that he was doing nothing wrong.