29 MARCH 1963, Page 17


By VEH MEHTA D AM woke with a heavy head, as though he IA had not slept at all. He stood for a long time under a hot shower; in India there was no pressure to water, but in America the water burst out of the pipes, humming and ringing.

Yes, he thought, he would do it this very night. After all, he had slept with Indian women. It was just a difference in the colour of the skin, that was all And from the way the faculty members talked at the refectory, the Empress of Silence had to be safe; he had passed the bar- restaurant a number of times, and from the out- side it always did look very dark.

He dried himself with a big beach towel, first his thick, black hair, then his narrow, round 'shoulders, and finally, with swift rotary motions, his back.

Earlier. that afternoon, Ram had returned as usual from teaching Physics at Columbia to his second-floor flat on Central Park West; for a little bit more money he could have had a better- lit apartment a little higher up, but Ram, while quite vain about that sort of thing, had decided to conserve a little money. He had dropped his shoes and socks in the foyer, and mixing him- self a tumbler of whisky and soda from his new green drink cabinet, and putting the glass on the night table which was beside his pillow, had stretched out on his bed. Teaching a section in America was far more tiring than lecturing to a hall full of students at Delhi University. It was not only that there everyone knew that at twenty-three he was the youngest and most Promising theoretical physicist in the country, but somehow it was just easier to lecture to a class sprinkled with shy, demure girls in saris who, when listening to his jokes, sat on the edge of their seats, giggled easily, looked reverential after an especially good lecture.

Once or twice he had started, thinking he heard the first bell of his extra-loud telephone bell ring; he'd especially had an extra-loud telephone installed so that he wouldn't miss a call if he were taking a shower or was out in the hall waiting for the lift. But, as always, it was a false alarm. He was certain Angelica, who sat in the corner seat of the front row of his Columbia class—she had lovely green eyes and a very delicate nose—was interested in him. In fact, he

knew by heart the addresses and telephone num- bers

of Angelica and two other girls who in- evitably appeared in all his classes. Often he had dialled their numbers, but hung up just short of the first ring. After all, he was a teacher, a Professor.

Propping himself up on the bed, he had drunk

some whisky and, as he had so many times before, dialled 411. `Good afternoon. This is information.' He felt sure that with the operator's fresh voice went Angelica's green eyes and delicate nose. 'Operator, may I please have the number of Mr. Gerald W. Thompson.' He was the chair- man of Ram's department, and had such a nice wife; she had helped him to buy all his 'contem- porary' furniture at B. Altman and Co. Inc.

`Gerald W. Thompson?' the operator asked.

`Yes, Gerald W. Thompson,' he echoed. Actu- ally. Ram knew the number. He also knew that the number was unlisted, but he liked talking to the operators. That was the reason why he had asked for Gerald W. Thompson's number every day for the last four months, indeed from the very first week he had arrived in New York. The miraculous thing was that he never got the same operator twice. Surely if he had they would have recognised his thin, soft, foreign voice, and said, 'I told you, Sir, the number is unlisted.' But they never did. He didn't know where exactly the magnificent information service was situated, but he pictured it somewhere in the vast expanse of the midwest, occupying a space of hundreds of acres, with blonde, tall and well-filled girls, dressed in orange, pink, and red, waiting to receive callers, plugs in hand. To his mathematical mind, nothing seemed easier than imagining a mechan- ism whereby calls from all over the country went to one enormous central exchange. If only each city had its own exchange, if only the central exchange were located in New York. Per- haps it was. He must make discreet inquiries.

`Sorry, Sir'—sbe was speaking to him—`Mr. Thompson does have a telephone, but he does not wish his number listed. He has asked that the number be unlisted.' Reluctantly he had put down the receiver, and finally slept in fits and starts.

Now, after drying himself thoroughly, he put en his best raw silk shirt and the trousers of his best suit which his mother had especially ordered from Made-to-Measure English Tailors in Delhi. He decided against the waistcoat—it would make him look too old and remote— and he began debating about a sweater; his mother had loaded him with a collection of hand-knitted sweaters. There was a blue one with cables, a red one with snakes, and a grey one with sleeves. Lie slipped on, along with his coat, the red sweater, fuller than the others and even, perhaps, a little flashy.

He walked around the block of the Empress of Silence several times, glancing at the menus of all the restaurants, letting his lips form the various items—'Spaghetti Bolognese,' Won Ton Soup'—and then he sprinted into the dark portal of the iniquitous Empress of Silence. He ex- pected, well he didn't know what he expected. In Munich, where he had broken his journey to America for a day, one of his fellow-passengers on the plane, a tall, overpowering Sikh, J. J. Singh, had lured him to a street with places just like the Empress of Silence. Of this street he only remem- bered countless German women, almost naked and twice his size, with big thighs and big chests, sitting lion-like on thick wooden tables, their feet swinging in time to the music. Actually, he had been quite attracted to them, but their ex- traordinary feet had frightened him away. The endless row of feet had appeared as frightening

to him as the thunder of marching armies.

• When Ram's eyes were adjusted to the dark- ness of the Empress of Silence, he surveyed the restaurant from his corner table. There were no rows of feet, only young and old people, boys and girls. He wouldn't have minded even his mother seeing him at the Empress of Silence. Mother, he thought, putting a forkful of shrimp curry into his mouth, he must write to her that night; he felt wary again. In his first few letters he had told her all there was to tell. He had told her about New York buildings, the Columbia campus; he had described meticulously the head of the private foundation which had made his visit possible, and the head's wife, Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and the Altman purchases, the long sofa and the coffee table, even his telephone, the wallpaper in his bedroom. For the last three months he had had nothing new to tell her, but his mother nagged him for more news, in letter after letter.

With coffee arrived the 'boss' of the restaurant- bar; Ram had seen him in the mirror, shaking hands with several of the customers.

`Are you from India?' the boss asked. His accent '.vas good, his smile narrow and aristo- cratic. He didn't look any more like a hustler than Ram himself.

`Yes,' said Ram, and added in a rushed tumble of words, 'I am in the Columbia Directory of Faculty, and I am certainly locking forward'— according to the refectory gossip, these were the Arabian passwords—`to meeting your friend.' 1 hen, nonchalantly, the boss and he exchanged addresses.

At home, adjusting his tie and his silk hand- kerchief in his breast pocket in front of the mirror, he focused on the friend, but she became confused among the trample of elephantine feet, the telephone voices, and the green eyes of Angelica. Trying to keep the picture of Angelica in his mind, he experimented with various com- binations of lights in his Living room, seeing his apartment as she would see it. The lamp next to the sofa threw the light upward and was too glaring, the small Chinese lamp on his green cabinet was too dim, the overhead light was dreadful. The Chinese lamp was the best of the three, but if they started undressing on the sofa it would be too far away. He decided in favour of keeping the lamp beside the sofa burning and, sitting down beside it, he waited. The wait was unbearable. He rang up 411 a couple of times, and then an idea struck him. In the foyer of his apartment there was an intercom system; if he held down the top button with his forefinger he could eavesdrop on the lobby below, and the friend's voice talking to the doorman when she arrived. He held the recalcitrant button down forcefully, but in half an hour of intercom waiting all he heard was once or twice the sound of high heels and someone whistling.

Indeed, she arrived on his doorstep suddenly, like an angel, unheralded; her face reminded him of a basket of fresh strawberries, her eyes were green, and her complexion white as fresh strawberries—just like buttermilk, he thought. The scarf around her hair was supernaturally just like the silk handkerchief in his breast pocket.

`Do you like cats?' she asked, daintily sitting down on the sofa beside him, in a beautifully- modulated voice.

`No, I am a dog-lover; he said in a breath.

`That's the way it should be,' she said, her words coming like gentle raindrops. 'Women should like cats, men should like dogs,' How poetic, he thought, how true. `Do you have a dog?' He shook his head. could get you a dog very cheaply. Would you like that?' How kind she was.

'What would you like to drink?' he said, in another single breath, 'I don't drink,' she said, 'except some diluted stuff when I am at the Empress of Silence. Then I try to raise the tab for the boss.' Tab,' he pondered, what a wonderful word. What could it mean? There was a mystery about her.

`How long have you been in this—career?' he stuttered, even though he was certain that this was her first evening.

`I became a professional girl when I was sixteen,' she said, with her face full on him. She didn't look a day over seventeen; in fact she looked younger, much younger.

`I don't know much about this sort of thing,' he said. 'I've never done it—I mean, about money, and . . . can I get you a drink?'

`Don't be embarrassed,' she said. 'I'll have tomato juice if you want me to drink.' He brought her an iced glass of tomato juice and handed it to her tenderly, affectionately. She took a sip and put it down on the coffee table. 'Shall we talk for a while and then come to an arrangement later?' That was so feminine; women of his colour would have bargained, as in a bazaar. They were coarse, but she was refined.

The boss said I could stay here for two hours,' she added, `so there is no hurry.'

There was an uncomfortable silence; he couldn't think of anything to say.

`You teach at Columbia?' He nodded. There was another silence. 'Would you like to know how I became a professional girl?' He came a little closer to her, 'Well,' she said, putting her hand on his knee, light as a feather, 'I was a model in Los Angeles.' A girl from Hollywood! 'Mind you, I had a very good career ahead of me.' He was sure he had seen her picture somewhere. 'A girl friend told me there were opportunities in New York, but when I first got here it was so lonely. . . .' How he agreed with her, this city of glary lights and steely buildings and hard tines, and this poor girl coming from three thousand miles. True, he had come ten thousand miles, but she was a girl.

'I modelled in New York,' she was saying, `but modelling is hard work. Mind you, it's difficult for a girl to make her way in the city.'

'Very difficult,' he chanted after her, tears coming to the back of his eyes.

`You might think I became a professional'— how nice the words sounded on her—`for money, but I don't give a flit about money. It's only that money gives you freedom—it's useful.'

`Yes, yes,' he said, with intuitive understanding. 'I mean, girls like me need money, and I tell you nineteen out of twenty girls would like to do exactly what I do, but they don't have the nerve.' He had no doubt that she was the most courageous woman he had ever met.

'You have a lot of nerve too. Take the Duke Hotel. There must be hundreds of men lying up there with nothing to do, but they don't have the nerve, they don't have the know-how. You do.' From the moment she walked in, he had known she was intuitive.

'Like the Duke men, these other girls don't have the know-how, neither. I figure a man who can pay fifty to a thousand dollars—those are the rates—must be okay. Of course it takes a lot of nerve to go and meet strangers each time.' It was a cruel world which compelled these girls to meet strange men unescorted. The more she talked the more comfortable he became. He really understood her, and she really understood him.

`Would you like to talk some more?' she said, 'or shall we make the arrangements now. But'— she answered her own questions—'l see you aren't ready yet.' He leaned back on the sofa and just a little bit toward her also. Their shoulders touched. She went on talking and he, searching in his mind for an appropriate description of her voice and words, was already composing a letter about her to his mother—not, of course, about how they met, but about, what a good friend she was to him.

`Her voice,' he was writing in his mind, 'is like a waterfall. Her words are sheer' (he would underline the word sheer) 'music.' Instantly he was picturing her in his home in India. Yes, she would certainly fit into the family; she was beautiful, courageous, and pliable. He was sure she was pliable. She had already learned to live away from home, that was important. The trouble with American and English girls which other Indians brought back home as their wives was that they were forever talking about their 'home.' They packed their bags at the first contact with adversity, but by her own admission she was one out of twenty. His mathematical mind raced ahead, looking at the number one out of twenty from all angles. tone billion out of twenty bil- lion?'—no, that was unrealistic. 'Twenty million out of four hundred million—India's popula- tion?' That was too many, twenty million was a large number, but then it only covered one of her virtues. Her other virtues were far rarer, he was sure.

'The sun shone brilliantly, sending,a shimmer, etc. etc. etc. etc., and the meadows were all —um—etc. etc. etc. etc. . . 'I started working as a professional,' she was saying, 'in A Bit of Borneo on East Sixty-third Street'—just like India!—`but the place was busted.'

'What do you mean?' he asked, becoming bold.

`Boy,' she said, 'the amount of payola and kick- back. You may buy out the wise guys, you trlaY even buy out the precinct, but that doesn't pre- vent the coppers'—he heard 'conquerors'—`from downtown from grabbing you, in election time specially. A Broadway or a Harlem girl, she's taken in two or three times a season, us girls are taken in only once in a blue moon. Say You and I are sitting here as cosy as a couple of ducks, and one of those conquerors breaks in----' `You don't have anything to worry about,' he said, 'I would protect you.'

`Listen, listen,' she said, with mounting excitement in her voice,' suppose one of those conquerors walks in, and, better yet, you and 1 are in bed together, and sat also a hundred-dollar bill is lying on this table. Even after the conqueror has seen the bill, he can't pin anything on me—I could be your be- loved, and the money for the groceries. But the conqueror takes me in just to build up a little pressure. And then they start lighting a fire under you too. The conquerors say they'll tell Columbia. Now everybody in Columbia is making out like you are, but you are not to know. So you may take a little panic. "What will the chairman say?" you think.' She knew the chairman? 'But the chairman is human, ain't he? So if the man's a cad and a coward'—Rant was sure he was neither—'he spills the beans. a girl takes that chance, and she might be clamped up for a bit. But most men, you know, are honourable and gallant. They either don't turn up in court when they're asked to, or they plead the fifth amendment. That's the honourable thing to do, you know.'

`Exactly, exactly,' Ram said. He didn't really understand what she was saying, but his mind was already at work on conquerors and beans and season and beloved and an honourable and gallant man, and swimming before his eyes were acres and acres of cornfields in Punjab, ripe for eating, and his dear friend was in the field, and the Genghis Khan himself with troops as thick as ants, but he, Ram, was fighting all of them single- handed, with his honour and gallantry in the balance.

`But these bust-ups only come once in a blue moon,' she was saying. He immediately switched off the glaring light beside him and, by pulling the string to his hand, raised the blinds. Moon- light streamed in. What premonition, what tact she had !

'I am not'--her lovely blonde head was now gently resting on his shoulder—'one of those B-girls.' Bees began buzzing about his ears. He had always loved honey. 'I mean, if you are a B-girl, there are first these introductions—and the host always plays favourites—then you have to drink a couple of hours with the customer to raise the tab, and then finally when you are out in the street with him, he's half high. This way is much better isn't it, honey? Now the boss could have called a hundred different girls, but he chose me.' A hundred different girls. What good luck. He wondered if she was Aries, like him. But the boss called me,' she repeated.

'I like skinny men,' she said, running her hand along his thin neck. 'You don't have an ounce of fat on you.' Tears of exquisite sadness and exquisite happiness rolled down his large cheeks.

'Have you ever thought of marriage?' he asked. She didn't draw back.

You see,' she said, '1 have a four-and-a-half- month-old baby. Now there are lots of nice guys Who get interested in me, but then I ask myself, "Will they be a good father to my baby?" And ninety-nine-and-forty-four-one-hundredths per cent. of the time, the answer is no.' Ram's mathematical mind considered his chances. He was one—Indian—out of a million in New York. He was so sure he would be a good father.

'Is it a girl?' he asked.

'How did you know?' she said, 'How did you ever know? You Indians kill me.'

With watery eyes, he started telling her how his father had died when he was three, how his mother had seen him through boarding schools and universities, how he owed everything to her, and how much he loved her. He hadn't talked this way to anyone since he'd come to America, and his friend was such a good listener. When he had finished, she Said, 'Hey, shall we make the arrangements now? What is it going to be, once or twice? It's fifty dollars a throw.' He didn't know if he had divined her meaning, but if it meant a hundred dollars for her and that baby, then it certainly was going to be twice. He gravely, ceremoniously, pressed five twenty- dollar bills 'info her beautifully-lined hand— exactly the way he had pressed, two years before, his first month's salary into his mother's hand. For him, it was not a transaction of money, but of feeling, and its significance was not lost on Rani.

Carelessly depositing the money into her purse, she turned to him. 'Will you prOmise me some- thing?' she said • He nodded.

'Would you get me a Buddha hat? I'll pay you for it. I've asked so many friends, and they've all promised—the rats—but none of them has Come through with my Buddha hat.'

will, I will,' Ram said eagerly, and then added, puzzled, 'But what is a Buddha hat?'

Don't you know those tall hats Eastern dancers wear?—they come to a point at the top.' She swept her hands around and over his head, making them into the shape of a cone. 'Johnny, he Was really a very good guy, told me that these dancers in the East are very possessive about them, and it takes a great deal of know-how to lift one. Could you get it for me?'

He said he would. 'Will you call me every week?' she said. 'I don't know whether I can afford it,' he said.

'Yes, you can afford it, we'll go for fifty next ttn-Le: she said 'Or if you can't afford it next Week, call roe the week after that, but do it before Thanksgiving. I'm going to Pittsburgh then for a few days. Would you like to unzip me, honey?'

With shaking fingers, his eyes averted, he un- Zipped her dress. He stole a glance at her winged shoulder blades before she turned round, pushing her skirt aboye her thighs, and started undoing her stockings,

0 VED IsilEHTA, 1963