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TWILIGHT AT THE APOLLO

A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS IN COLABA

Dog was never really in Mumbai. He spent too long in Colaba instead, stumbling eventually on the Hotel Apollo, a business hotel slap-bang in the middle of the circus. Things got a lot easier after that. Dog never had to go far to find Mumbai. Mumbai found him.   

*

‘Austraya-a-a-a!’

Sunny is in his late forties, a short man, nothing but a false smile and a pair of Elvis Presley sunglasses molded like the tail fins of a Cadillac. All I can see is me reflected in his eye. His fat fingers are heavy with gold. Those rings can’t be very precious. He sleeps on a mat in the street.

‘You come ba-a-ack!’

We’ve had quite a long term relationship, Sunny and I – but then, he knows everyone. First cab off of a busy rank the second I hit town, he sold drugs from a taxi stand just across the road. He’s a rogue. Rogues are fine, provided you don’t give them your money.

‘Yeah, Sunny – I’m back.’

We talked when he was bored. It was off-season – nothing else to do.

‘I’m going to Hong Kong next week,’ he said cheerfully.

‘Holiday?’

‘Just three days – then back.’

He smiled and lowered his voice.

‘Two hundred grams – brown sugar.’

According to the Urban Dictionary, ‘brown sugar’ is an attractive black woman – or heroin. I shudder to think how much two hundred grams of either is worth.

‘Gawd, don’t tell me about it. I don’t wanna know.’

He shrugged.

‘Don’t people get shot for that?’

‘No problem,’ he laughed, ‘I do it all the time.’

*

Sunshine sat on a big, bad bike at the epicenter of two thumping nightclubs, three hotels and half a dozen low-life bars, all connected by an invisible network of mobile phones, young and fearless, glowing in the reflection of his shiny striped shirt. It looked like something John Travolta had discarded on the set of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ but was the height of fashion for lowlife Mumbai.

‘Wow, that’s a great bike.’

He preened.

‘It’s not his!’ a mate shouted and laughed, ‘he’s just posing!’

The mate was dressed in an identical iridescent striped shirt. Perhaps they were twins; between them they sold every drug you could think of and some I never knew existed – these lads pimped, pawned and provided anything on two or four legs. There was an engaging criminality about both of them; I knew they would slit my throat in an instant – they were Sunny’s boys.

Their territory extended half-a-block on either side; one worked the stretch of road from here to the corner of Tulloch Road, the other the hotel stretch down to Shivaji Marg – old man Sunny worked the prime location on the Causeway, outside Cafe Mondial.

‘This could be my bike,’ Sunshine said, slowly caressing somebody else’s handlebars, ‘if you’d give me some business…’

I could see that drugs weren’t Sunshine’s only stock in trade.

*

A portly British expatriate wove uncertainly down the Marg. He was drunk, on a bicycle and a mission. I watched from my window as he lurched to a stop, consulted briefly with Sunny then ducked into the shadows. Cocaine, I’d imagine; he looked like a merchant banker. A second later they were back. Evidently there was a stoush going on; the Brit handed over money – but, judging by the shouting, not enough.

They remonstrated; to and fro, to and fro. Sunny waved his mobile phone.

‘Don’t screw with me,’ he was saying, ‘I’ll call in my mates!’

‘Pffft!’ said the expat and gave him the finger. Sunny cut to the chase and dialled. Within seconds the drunk was surrounded. I saw two shiny striped shirts in the crowd. This was a moment to pay, not bray. Of course, the expatriate brayed. That’s what expats always do. He argued and protested, took the higher moral tone; when all that failed he shouted and shoved. He was truly the most stupid man in the world.

He vanished under a hail of blows, none particularly lethal. Brit swiftly paid for his pleasure in blood and rupees. No matter – in ten minutes, with a line up each nostril, he’ll feel no pain.

A police car cruised slowly along the street. Sunny’s gang scattered leaving the expat spattered, slowly heading horizontal. The cops were patrolling for the weekly baksheesh; one broken Brit was of no importance – he shouldn’t be there in the first place. They curled their lip and drove away.

The expat staggered to his feet. Someone had stolen his bike.

‘You fock-k-ka-a-a-as! I hate your country!’ he exploded, ‘I hate your people!’

Everybody laughed. They’d taken his money, his pride and his bicycle – all in all, a good night’s work.

*

‘Give me the money!’

He was chasing her around a parked car at midnight, drunk as a pickled onion, howling Hindi abuse. She shouted back, enraging him even more, careful to keep the car between her and him.

‘It’s my money!’ she screamed back.

Round and round the car.

‘I’ll kill you!’

‘You can’t catch me!’

‘Give me the money!’

Round and round the car. A crowd gathered. Soon there were fifty people watching, idly fascinated by the drama of the day.

‘I’ll kill you! I’ll cut you up into little pieces and grill you over the fire!’

‘Kill me! I’d sooner be dead than live with you!’

‘You bitch!’

‘Your dick is one inch long!’

‘Yargh-h-h-h!’

Incensed, he began to clamber over the bonnet of the Toyota. An angry man ran in.

‘Get off the car!’

‘Who the hell are you?’

‘It’s MY car!’

Punches were thrown. Security ran in to protect the owner. Everybody shouted and moved back to give the warring parties room to kill each other, rather hoping they would. The whore staggered through the growing crowd, wailing like a banshee as her attacker was attacked. He was under a pile of security guards being pummeled.

Wa-a-agh-h-h-h! Make them stop!’ she screeched at a guard.

He wiggled his head and smiled. She had the solution in her hand.

So she gave him the money.

Everything is business in Colaba.

*

‘There’s something in your ear,’ the finger said.

I swipe away at the offending lobe.

‘It’s still there.’

I can’t remember anything about him – just a finger waving at my ear. I try again.

‘Still there,’ said the finger, ‘let me get it out.’

I was confused. He’s poking about in my ear with something soft. It takes me a second to work out what is going on. I pull back.

‘What are you doing?’

I spot the filthy cotton bud. You don’t need a description.

‘Argh-h-h-h! Go away! Rack off!’ He did.

Later I thought I’d been mean. Here’s a man who has picked up a used cotton bud from the gutter and was trying to make a career out of it. That’s enterprise and invention. I had to admire that.

*

Vro-o-o-om-m-m-m…

Here comes Skate. No legs, half a girl on a skateboard, strong arms, strong heart, big smile. I see her out of my window all the time.

Vro-o-o-om-m-m-m…

She’s twenty, draped in half a sari, a moving flurry skating deftly down the road. We met last night. I was sucking on Sweet Lime at a drug den that masquerades as a juice shop on the Causeway. Skateboard whizzed by, wheeled around and stopped in front of me.

‘Oh, don’t give me a hard time, honey,’ I moaned gently, ‘you know me. I’m just having a break.’

‘No problem,’ she chirped. She was having a break, too. Skate was beautiful. She had Rajasthani eyes.

‘How’s your business?’

‘Quite good, really.’

I felt very tall and had to sit down. Luckily the drug dealer had chairs. We chatted about the tourists and the terrorists, the rich men and the poor, as if life on a skateboard was the most normal thing in the world – which, of course, to her it was.

‘You know I’m going to give you money, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ Skate said.

‘How do you know that?’

‘Because I’ve got no legs.’

*

‘Hello Uncle.’

It’s Carlotta, the fighting whore; she’s young, works this block with the casual flair of a catwalk model. Today she’s a floating vision in grubby pink with a sparkling border of gold. She’s a panther and a pussycat, rapacious and warm, full of lust, syphilis and laughter. Things will get better for Carlotta when darkness falls.

‘Remember me?’

‘Of course I do. I see you every day.’

She smiled. Carlotta had a filthy twinkle in her eye. It matched her sari.

She was in the right business, grubby but gorgeous, a tribal wench with a fok-k-k-me stare. I’d seen her two nights ago in a fist-fight with one of the competition. Magnificent. She could swear like a sailor’s navvy, kick like a colt and deliver a left hook that had me gasping.

‘How is your business?’

‘No good,’ she said and pulled a face. She was a little drunk. ‘My boss – always money, give me ma-a-anee,’ she said.

‘Who is your boss?’

She pointed at a man in a white Nehru hat.

*

See that kid? That’s Sausage. They’re all called Sausage. It’s easier that way. This particular Sausage is like an assassin rat if you don’t know her. She’s the only little girl I ever wanted to kill.

Sausage is a street urchin. Her job is to follow tourists around till they explode. She is a very persistent Sausage. I met her on my first visit to Mumbai, a cute, grubby little girl who ‘stuck to me like glue, who couldn’t be diverted, sweet-talked, cajoled, bullied, threatened, in any way made to stop…’

I was being nice – she’s a monster.

Luckily my murderous impulses were tempered, only just, by my last remaining shred of sanity. Now Sausage and I were the best of friends; she saw me every day. I wasn’t a target. I was a neighbor. She had no idea I’d wanted to kill her – she didn’t remember me at all.

‘Hello, Sausage! How are you today? Where’s your mummy?

She pointed to a pile of rags on the corner. Sitting naked in the gutter beside her drunken mother was a tiny child. Looking after the baby was a six year-old boy.  This was Little Sausage, her brother. I’d seen him just last night, flying through the air. He looked over and waved.

*

Little Sausage hung suspended in space, a very surprised look on his face. I think the large German tourist who had launched him there was just as surprised as he was.

Hans was eight foot tall, built like a Panzer division and much stronger than he thought. The kid probably weighed as much as three packets of tea.

Hans met Little Sausage and rapidly reached the point of no return. Tagging along beside Hans annoying the hell out of him, the child was the final straw that broke his big Teutonic back. Hans lost it for an unwise second, grabbed the kid by the scruff of his neck and flung him into mid-air – where he has been hanging, politely waiting for me to finish, while I filled in the background.

He’s about shoulder height to the German, sailing in a graceful arc across that brawny chest. His eyes are wide; arms spread wider, a rag doll en route to the tip. Car horns Blah-h-h-h! Beep! Ching, ching! Vro-o-o-o-orrrr. Little Sausage hits the ground, tumbles over into the roadway. He’s surprised, a bit shaken but not wounded. He bounces up.

Hans continues down the sidewalk. He looks shocked at what he’s done, kinda red, kinda puffy. He doesn’t look back. He’ll be really ashamed of himself in a hundred yards, once the adrenalin wears off. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t cracked in India.

No matter. No harm done. Not to the kid, anyway.

Little Sausage sees me. Before he’s even dusted himself off that little hand is waving.

‘Mah-h-h-n-e-e-e-e…’

I give him one of my celebrated Dogster looks of death. One of these can freeze an urchin to a block of stone. Little Sausage knows not to tangle with the Big Cabana. In a flash he’s gone, dancing gaily though the traffic.

*

An elderly man with carnivorous eyes stood nearby, rather elegantly draped in a grey kurta. Perched on top of his wrinkled head was a pure white Nehru hat.

‘He’s the boss of the beggars.’

The man was a genius.

Faced with the growing fact that there were now more tourists in Colaba than low-life to live off them, this man had a brilliantly simple idea – he would import more beggars. He made the long trip home and made his Bihar village a proposition for a new local industry – they should grow beggars and export them to Bombay.

It would be a syndicate, a co-operative scheme; six months in the big city, pool the proceeds, guaranteed food and lodging, a weekly stipend and the profit as a bonus once they came home.  Everybody was an earner. He needed cute kids and filthy babies, women who could be pleading mothers by day and whores by night and he needed a couple of old women to keep them in order. The men were of no use to him, there was more than enough dumb testosterone in Colaba – they stayed back on the farm.

Bihar was in the beggar business.

‘He brings them in, two teams each season, fifty people a team,’ Bongo said, ‘there’s another group down that end of town…’

His émigrés thrived – conditions on the street in Mumbai were much better than life in their village at home. That they lived in chaos seemed not to disturb them; that they created chaos seemed not to disturb them; that their combined efforts drove tourists crazy seems not to have occurred at all.  Indeed, they loved their work. They hit town like roadies at a rock-concert, sweeping the stadium clean of rivals, maintaining their territory with professional ferocity.

The Beggars of Bihar grew into a phenomenon. They went out and did their duty every day without fail, reducing visitors to gibbering rage for a business – all because of the man in the white Nehru hat.

‘Now he owns three hotels and a block of apartments,’ Bongo whispered.

Like I said, he was a genius. He’d discovered a job that even a baby could perform. All anyone had to do was be born, be dirty and sit on the street.

*

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