A cloud of electric light enveloped the buildings like incense. Noise: a high keening pitch that was not traffic and not people talking but something else, something Masterji could not identify. A huge sign — ‘LG’ — stood behind the main bulk of towers; beyond it, he recognized the white glow from the Haji Ali shrine. To his left was dark ocean.
‘Breach Candy’, Masterji reached for it with his finger. ‘This used to be the dividing line between Malabar Hill and Worli Island. During high tide the water came in through there. The British called it the Great Breach of Bombay. I have seen it in old maps.’ ‘Masterji knows everything. About the sun and moon, the history of Bombay, so much useful information.’ Ajwani turned and whispered to Shanmugham, who leaned down towards the short broker and listened.
His hands on the balustrade of the terrace, Masterji looked at the towers under construction in the dark. He thought of the shining knife on the desk. Each building seemed to be illuminated by its price in rupees per square foot, glowing like a halo around it. By its brightness he located the richest building in the vista.
‘Why have you come before us?’ the towers asked. Each glowing thing in the vista before him seemed like the secret of someone’s heart: one of them out there represented his own. An honest man? He had fooled his Society, the Pintos, even himself, but here on the open terrace he was stripped of all his lies. He had come here, frightened by the boycott, not oblivious to the possibilities of money, ready to betray the Pintos. Ready to betray the memories of his dead wife and dead daughter that were in the walls and paint and nails of Vishram Society.
‘Construction,’ Shanmugham said, coming close to Masterji. ‘Do you know how many cranes there are below us right now? The work continues all night. Dozens of buildings are coming up around us. And when all the work is finished… my God. This part of the city is going to be like New York. You must have been there, sir, to New York?’ He shook his head.
‘You can now,’ Ajwani smiled. ‘A holiday.’ ‘No.’ Masterji leaned forward. ‘Oh, no, I won’t go. I won’t go anywhere. I won’t leave Vishram Society ever again.’ He saw Shanmugham turning to Ajwani, who rolled his eyes. ‘Masterji…’ the builder’s assistant came close. ‘Masterji, May I talk to you, man to man?’ Masterji smelled something bad from the man’s mouth… ‘There’s a term we use in the business. A sweetener. Another thousand rupees per square foot? We don’t reward teachers enough in this country.’ He understood now. It was the smell of his own cowardice, blown back at him from this creature’s mouth.
‘And what was that redevelopment project you were telling me about, Ajwani… where the old couple refused to take the offer, and then one day… Did they fall down the stairs? Or were they pushed, or… old people should take care. It’s a dangerous world. Terrorism. ‘Mafia. Criminals in charge.’ ‘Oh, yes. That old couple in Sion you were talking about, they were pushed. For sure.’
In the light of the towers Shanmugham’s thought seemed to crystallize into giant letters in front of Masterji: ‘This is how I will flatter the old man, and very subtly, bully him. I will show him the kingdoms of the earth and give him a hint of the instruments of torture.’ So they had shown him all the kingdoms of Bombay and told him: ‘Take your pick.’ And he knew now what he wanted. Nothing.
Masterji could see black water crashing into the ocean wall that was meant to keep it out, rolling back and crashing again. Once before, when Purnima had been threatened by her brothers, he had been weak. Not wanting trouble at his Society, he had again been weak.
‘And Masterji — the Pintos want you to agree. For their sake you must say yes.’ ‘Don’t you speak about the Pintos.’ ‘Your friend Mr Pinto is not the man you think he is, Masterji. Until two weeks ago he used to drink Royal Stag whisky. The other morning, a used Blenders Pride quarter-bottle carton turns up in his rubbish. He has started paying fifteen rupees more for a bottle of whisky. Why? Because he loves money more than he loves his wife’s blindness.’
So he is examining our rubbish, Masterji thought. But a man’s rubbish is not the truth about him, is it? ‘You don’t know a thing about Mr Pin…. Mr Pint… Mr Pint…’ Masterji felt the floor slipping beneath his feet: ‘It is starting again.’ He heard his blood sugar chuckling. His left knee swelled up in pain; his eyes dimmed. ‘Masterji,’ Ajwani reached for him. ‘Masterji, what is the matter?’ ‘Nothing,’ he shook off Ajwani’s hand. ‘Nothing’. ‘Just stay calm, Masterji. And breathe deeply. It will…’
Look down, a voice said. Look at me, Masterji turned to his left and saw the swirls in the ocean, the foam that was hitting the wall along the shore of Bombay. The foam thickened. The ocean rammed into the wall of Breach Candy like a bull. Look at me, Masterji. The bull came in again and rammed into the wall of the city and back he went to gather his strength. Look at me. The oceans were full of glucose.
‘What are you saying, Masterji?’ Ajwani asked. He looked at Shanmugham with a grin. Shanmugham remembered the sign on the mansion that he saw every morning on his drive up Malabar Hill. ‘This place is dilapidated, dangerous, and unfit for human beings to be around.’ The Municipality should hang the same sign on old men like this. He tried to touch Masterji, who took a step back and glared at him: ‘Did you bring me here to coerce me?’
Said in English, the force of what word, coerce, weakened both Ajwani and Shanmugham. The aroma of batter-fried food blew on to the terrace. Giri was walking towards the men with a silver tray full of just-fried pakoras sitting on paper stained with fresh grease. ‘Hot, hot, hot, hot.’ ‘Please offer the pakoras to Mr Murthy from Vishram Society,’ Shamugham said. ‘He’s a teacher.’
‘Hot, hot, hot, hot…’ Giri brought the tray over to the distinguished visitor. The old man’s left hand slapped at the tray; it slipped in and out of Giri’s hands, then crashed to the floor. Shanmugham and Ajwani moved their feet to dodge the rolling pakoras. Giri stared with an open mouth. When the three of them looked up, they realized they were alone on the terrace.