06.10.09 7:08 AM ET
An Excerpt from Between the Assassinations
After a lunch of prawn curry and rice at the Bunder, you may want to visit the Lighthouse Hill and its vicinity. The famous lighthouse, built by the Portuguese and renovated by the British, is no longer in use. An old guard in a blue uniform sits at the foot of the lighthouse. If visitors are poorly dressed, or speak to him in Tulu or Kannada, he will say, "Can't you see it's closed?" If visitors are well dressed or speak English, he will say, "Welcome." He will take them into the lighthouse and up the spiral staircase to the top, which affords a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea. In recent years, the City Corporation has begun running a reading room inside the lighthouse; the collection includes Father Basil d'Essa, S.J.'s A Short History of Kittur. The Deshpremi Hemachandra Rao Park around the lighthouse is named in honor of the freedom fighter who hung a Congress tricolor from the lighthouse during British rule.
It happens at least twice a year. The prisoner, handcuffs on his wrists, is striding toward the Lighthouse Hill police station with his head held high and a look of insolent boredom on his face, while, following him, almost scampering to catch up, are the two policemen holding a chain attached to the handcuffs. The odd part is that the man in handcuffs seems to be dragging along the policemen, like a fellow taking two monkeys out for a walk.
In the past nine years, the man known as "Xerox" Ramakrishna has been arrested twenty-one times on the granite pavement in front of Deshpremi Hemachandra Rao Park for the sale, at discounted rates, of illegally photocopied or printed books to the students of St. Alfonso's College. A policeman comes in the morning, when Ramakrishna is sitting with his books spread out on a blue bedsheet; he places his lathi on the books and says, "Let's go, Xerox."
The bookseller turns to his eleven-year-old daughter, Ritu, who sells books with him, and says, "Go home and be a good girl, dear." Then he holds his hands out for the cuffs.
In jail, Xerox is unchained and put in a cell. Holding on to the bars, he regales the policemen with ingratiating stories. He may tell them a smutty tale about some college girl whom he saw that morning wearing blue jeans in the American style, or a new swear word in Tulu he has heard on the bus while going to Salt Market Village, or perhaps, if they are in the mood for longer entertainment, he will narrate to them, as he has done so many times before, the story of what his father did for a living all his life -- taking the crap out of the houses of rich landlords, the traditional occupation of people of his caste. All day long, his old man would hang around the back wall of the landlord's house, waiting for the smell of human shit; as soon as he smelled that smell, he came up to the house and waited, with bent knees, like a wicketkeeper waits for the ball. (Xerox bent his knees and showed how.) Then, as soon as he heard the thud of the boom-box being shut, he had to pull out the chamber pot through a hole in the wall, empty it into the rosebushes, wipe it clean with his loincloth, and insert it back before the next person came to use the toilet. That was the job he did his whole life, can you believe it!
The jailors will laugh.
They bring Xerox samosas wrapped in paper; they offer him chai. They consider him a decent fellow. They let him out at midday; he bows low to them and says, "Thank you." Then Miguel D'Souza, the lawyer for the publishers and booksellers on Umbrella Street, will call the station and yell, "Have you let him off again? Doesn't the law of the land mean anything to you?" The inspector of the station, Ramesh, keeps the receiver at a distance from his ear and reads the newspaper, looking at the Bombay stock market quotes. That is all Ramesh really wants to do in life: read the stock market quotes.
By late afternoon, Xerox is back at it. Photocopied or cheaply printed copies of Karl Marx, Mein Kampf, published books, and films and albums are arranged on the blue cloth spread out on the pavement on Lighthouse Hill, and little Ritu sits stiff backed, with her long unbroken nose and faint moustache, watching as the customers pick up the books and flip through them.
"Put that back in place," she will say, when a customer has rejected a book. "Put it back exactly where you picked it up from."
" Accounting for Entrance Exams?" one customer shouts at Xerox. " Advanced Obstetrics?" cries another.
" The Joy of Sex?"
" Mein Kampf?"
"What's your best price?" a young man asks, flipping through the book.
"Oh, you're raping me! It's too much."
The young man walks away, turns around, comes back, and says, "What's your final best price? I have no time to waste."
"Seventy-two rupees. Take it or leave it. I've got other customers."
The books are photocopied, or sometimes printed, at an old printing press in Salt Market Village. Xerox loves being around the machinery. He strokes the photocopier; he adores the machine, the way it flashes like lightning as it works, the way it whirs and hums. He cannot read English, but he knows that English words have power, and that English books have an aura. He looks at the image of Adolf Hitler from the cover of Mein Kampf, and he feels his power. He looks at the face of Khalil Gibran, poetic and mysterious, and he feels the mystery and poetry. He looks at the face of Lee Iacocca, relaxed with his hands behind his head, and he feels relaxed. That's why he once told Inspector Ramesh, "I have no wish to make any trouble for you or for the publishers, sir; I just love books: I love making them, holding them, and selling them. My father took out shit for a living, sir; he couldn't even read or write. He'd be so proud if he could see that I make my living from books."
Only one time has Xerox really been in trouble with the police. That was when someone called the station and said that Xerox was selling copies of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in violation of the laws of the Republic of India. This time when he was brought to the station in handcuffs there were no courtesies, no cups of chai. Ramesh slapped him.
"Don't you know the book is banned, you son of a bald woman? You think you are going to start a riot among the Muslims? And get me and every other policeman here transferred to Salt Market Village?"
"Forgive me," Xerox begged. "I had no idea that this was a banned book, really...I'm just the son of a man who took out shit, sir. He waited all day long for the boom-box to make a noise. I know my place, sir. I wouldn't dream of challenging you. It was just a mistake, sir. Forgive me, sir."
D'Souza, the booksellers' lawyer, a small man with black oily hair and a neat moustache, heard what had happened and came to the station. He looked at the banned book—a massive paperback with an image of an angel on the front—and shook his head in disbelief.
"That fucking untouchable's son, thinking he's going to photocopy The Satanic Verses. What balls."
He sat at the inspector's desk and shouted at him, "I told you this would happen if you didn't punish him! You're responsible for all this."
Ramesh glared at Xerox, who was lying penitently on a bed, as he had been ordered to do.
"I don't think anyone saw him selling it. Things will be fine."
To calm the lawyer down, Ramesh asked a constable to go fetch a bottle of Old Monk rum. The two of them talked for a while. Ramesh read passages from out of the book and said, "I don't get what the fuss is all about, really."
"Muslims," D'Souza said, shaking his head. "Violent people. Violent."
The bottle of Old Monk arrived. They drank it in half an hour, and the constable went to fetch another. In his cell, Xerox lay perfectly still, looking at the ceiling. The policeman and the lawyer went on drinking. D'Souza told Ramesh his frustrations, and the inspector told the lawyer his frustrations. One had wanted to be a pilot, soaring in the clouds and chasing stewardesses, and the other—he had never wanted anything but to dabble in the stock market. That was all.
At midnight, Ramesh asked the lawyer, "Do you want to know a secret?" Stealthily, he walked the lawyer to the cell and showed him the secret. One of the bars of the cell could be removed. The policeman removed it, and swung it, and then put it back in place.
"That's how the evidence is hidden," he said. "Not that that kind of thing happens often at this station, mind you—but that's how it is done, when it is done."
The lawyer giggled. He loosened the bar, slung it over his shoulder, and said, "Don't I look like Hanuman now?"
"Just like on TV," the policeman said.
The lawyer asked that the cell door be opened, and it was. The two of them saw the sleeping prisoner lying on his cot, an arm over his face to keep out the jabbing light of the naked bulb above him. A sliver of naked skin was exposed beneath his cheap polyester shirt; a creeper of thick black hair, which looked to his two onlookers like an outgrowth from his groin, was just visible.
"That fucking son of an untouchable. See him snoring."
"His father took out the shit—and this fellow thinks he's going to dump shit on us!"
"Selling The Satanic Verses. He'll sell it under my nose, will he?"
"These people think they own India now. Don't they? They want all the jobs, and all the university degrees, and all the..."
Ramesh pulled down the snoring man's trousers; he lifted the bar high up, while the lawyer said, "Do it like Hanuman does on TV!" Xerox woke up screaming. Ramesh handed the bar to D'Souza. The policeman and the lawyer took turns: they smashed the bar against Xerox's legs just at the knee joint, like the monkey god did on TV, and then they smashed the bar against Xerox's legs just below the knee joint, like the monkey god did on TV, and then they smashed it into Xerox's legs just above the knee joint, and then, laughing and kissing each other, the two staggered out, shouting for someone to lock the station up behind them.
Periodically through the night, when he woke up, Xerox resumed his screaming.
In the morning, Ramesh came back, was told by a constable about Xerox, and said, "Shit, it wasn't a dream, then." He ordered the constables to take the man in the cell to the Havelock Henry District Hospital, and asked for a copy of the morning paper so he could check the stock market prices.
The next week, Xerox arrived, noisily, because he was on crutches, at the police station, with his daughter behind him.
"You can break my legs, but I can't stop selling books. I'm destined to do this, sir," he said. He grinned. Ramesh grinned too, but he avoided the man's eyes.
"I'm going up the hill, sir," Xerox said, lifting up one of his crutches. "I'm going to sell the book."
Ramesh and the other cops gathered around Xerox and his daughter and begged. Xerox wanted them to phone D'Souza, which they did. The lawyer came with his wig, along with two assistants, also in black gowns and wigs. When he heard why the policemen had summoned him, D'Souza burst into laughter.
"This fellow is just teasing you," he told Ramesh. "He can't possibly go up the hill with his legs like that."
D'Souza pointed a finger at the middle part of Xerox's body. "And if you do try to sell it, mind—it won't be just your legs that we break next time."
A constable laughed.
Xerox looked at Ramesh with his usual ingratiating smile. He bent low with folded palms and said, "So be it."
D'Souza sat down to drink Old Monk rum with the policemen, and they settled into another game of cards. Ramesh said he had lost money on the market the past week; the lawyer sucked at his teeth and shook his head, and said that in a big city like Bombay everyone was a cheat or a liar or a thug.
Xerox turned around on his crutches and walked out of the station. His daughter came behind him. They headed for the Lighthouse Hill. The climb took two hours and a half, and they stopped six times for Xerox to drink tea, or a glass of sugarcane juice. Then his daughter spread out the blue sheet in front of Deshpremi Hemachandra Rao Park, and Xerox lowered himself. He sat on the sheet, stuck his legs out slowly, and put a large paperback down next to him. His daughter sat down too, keeping watch over the book, her back stiff and upright. The book was banned throughout the Republic of India and it was the only thing that Xerox intended to sell that day: The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie.
From BETWEEN THE ASSASSINATIONS by Aravind Adiga. Copyright © 2008 by Aravind Adiga. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.
Aravind Adiga is the bestselling author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.