When I was at university, I took my first trip back to the Ghetto of the Magicians where I was born. It was May 1998 and many of my classmates were involved with the protests on one side or the other, but I couldn't seem to form a coherent story out of the test and therefore didn't have an opinion of my own. That has been my curse ever since the death of my poor, lamented father Saleem Sinai. I sit back, take in the world around me from all angles, and find it formless and meaningless.
Had it been my father who reported on my visit to the ghetto, it might have transformed into a mirror of the events of that moment in Indian history, sitting on the precipice of atomic annihilation. Wherever he went, places reshaped themselves in his image. He was unfazed because why should it be any different? People can get used to anything, especially miracles. There is nothing in the world as mundane as a miracle happening to you.
My father's writing reveals a confidence about life that I have never felt. There is no mealy-mouthed, Dickensian worrying about whether he is the hero of the story. Not only is he undoubtedly its hero, but his life dictated the whole epic sweep of Indian history in its first three decades. In my story metaphors are mundane and never represent anything more than themselves. My father's story is the story of India's birth as a nation. But I have now surpassed the age at which Saleem Sinai died. Next year, India will have been alive for twice as long as my father lived, and India's story has now been told many ways by the thousand and one storytellers born after midnight. My story is not about India. It is about something else.
Thought this might itself be a reflection of the India I live in. All over India people are writing of the new India. It has come alive with ambition and energy and democracy and is pushing aside the old, bad, inefficient socialist India of my father's generation. The new India is comfortable with its diversity. It has so many languages that the languages have a census just like the people. It has so many gods that nobody can keep track of who to worship. It doesn't have one midnight that kicked off everything for everyone. Anyone with a pen and paper is writing that India doesn't have a story, and they will sell it to you if you give them the chance.
Technically, it was no longer the ghetto where I was born. Hounded by the forces of slum demolition (and the national hero my father bitterly labeled 'the Widow'), the acrobats and fire-breathers and puppeteers had established a new home near the Shadipur Depot. It had been a safe territory on the edge of Delhi, far away from anything desired by those with power. They hadn't anticipated the way Delhi would grow, until the Shadipur Depot was deep in the heart of the city instead of squatting on its outskirts. Nobody had thought far enough ahead to ask what would happen when the land became valuable. They were too busy living lives of desperation and magic, dodging the regular slum clearances and dancing their tightrope dance with government officials and the public until a developer purchased the Kathputli colony's land in the ultimate sleight of hand and declared its imminent demolition. But that was many years after this first trip back.
I stood at what my guide informed me was the opening of the alley and felt my jaw, which I had expected would drop with awe, shape into something closer to a frown. It wasn't that it failed to live up to my expectations. Did it smell like a thousand things at once? It did. Was it louder than an airplane and more brightly colored than a rainbow? It was. Were there performers of every shape and size so tight chockablock you could barely move among them? There were. It was a failure of something deeper than expectations that thwarted my excitement. It was a failure of illusions.
I had thought, until I stood in the ghetto and barely dodged a teenaged boy on a bicycle whose rusted chain rattled loosely on its sprocket, that what had been missing from my life was the magic of the Magicians' Ghetto. Some part of me had foolishly believed that the missing snake of my personal game of snakes and ladders was buried in a charmer's pot, waiting to be lured out by the sweet melody of his pungi. That dream had been shattered by my common sense the instant I stepped into the ghetto. The collision was bracing, and even, after a moment, exhilarating. My frown turned into a smile as I placed a hundred rupee note in the hand of bald juggler and sat down on the dusty road to hear his story.
His name was Sandeep. He was a Hindu of about forty or fifty years with a perpetual cheshire smile. In response to my questions he told me that he did remember Pictureji and Parvati and Saleem from the old ghetto, but he could confirm none of the stories of wonders my father recorded in his book. In truth he wasn't very interested in answering questions about the past. He had a story of his own and he was determined to make sure I heard it. As he tossed colorful balls high in the air in dizzying patterns, he told me the whole thing. In those days I was young and impatient, and I didn't pay him sufficient attention. Now I am old and impatient, still waiting for the wisdom of years to be bestowed upon me. But here is my memory of Sandeep's story, nonetheless. It is not pickled in a jar, but if you prefer to think it is, that is swell by me.
He had been born into his trade. Not in the Old India sense of caste, nor in the New India sense of natural aptitude. I simply mean he was born in the ghetto to juggler parents and was juggling to entertain outsiders by the time he was three or four. For some reason this distracted me. I thought of the first line from Borges's story "The Lottery in Babylon," which I had just read in a blocky paperback edition translated into English. "Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment." Certainly that had been my experience so far, as it had been my father's, as it had been his father's. My India, if I could ever be bold enough to lay claim to it the way my father had, was an India of change and uncertainty, of sudden shifts in fortune. Of climbing ladders and sliding down snakes. I couldn't imagine Sandeep's life. Fifty years in one profession staggered me. Fifty years in one more or less continuous place, if the ever-shifting slum could be called one place. Teenaged life meaning constantly more of the same, instead of the furious morass of emotions and attitudes it had meant for me.
And somehow, as my mind drifted through these thoughts, unaware even of the dazzling display of manual dexterity in front of me, Sandeep was twenty two years old and ready to be married. And then something had happened that had taken him by surprise. It was a dream, and he spun its surreal details into the juggling performance as I was sure he had done thousands of times before. In the dream, Sandeep became Rama, legendary hero of the Ramayana, but at the same time he was still Sandeep the juggling prodigy. He was only stuck in the ghetto because he was dutifully serving his exile.
Demons attacked him, colorfully represented in this display by small toys appearing out of nowhere and mixing in with his regular balls, and he repelled them with his virtue and daring. Sandeep bounced the wooden demon toys against the colorful red and green and yellow balls in mid-air and the demons disappeared lickety split, somehow without disrupting the jolly flow of balls and scarves and knives. He had emerged from his dream as a hero.
The dream had altered him. Before, he had held no expectations for life. If his parents told him to marry the triple jointed girl, he would do it. He had never contemplated life outside of the ghetto. But now he knew that he was waiting for Sita. It was the disaster of destiny. That was his phrase, not mine, but it struck me deeply. I complimented him on it and he told me it had been given to him as a gift by a visiting Australian professor, as payment for his performance. I liked, too, the idea that words could be gifts. That thought, unlike the rest of the story, has stayed with me.
Sandeep's balls spun on, and his tale spun on, and though I was paying attention at the time, I can no longer relate the specific details of the many women he described in this part of the story. He got married, had a daughter, raised her until she was old enough and clever enough to flee the ghetto for London. His wife passed on. And still the balls kept airborn, impelled by the belief that his youthful dream had marked him as somebody special. He could do things others couldn't, endowed with special gifts by Vishnu himself. A fair trade, perhaps.
At some point I moved on, seeking others who might remember the disappearing basket and the half-man half-bloodhound who had been secreted away from the Pakistani army inside it. And that was how I had to put it, for I found that names meant nothing to the residents of the ghetto. When I asked one older woman if she remembered Saleem Sinai, she told me simply that she remembered many Saleems. But when I asked after the disappearing basket, I got quick smiles of recognition. They all admitted that was a good trick. Nobody had ever figured out how it worked. Even the younger puppeteers and jugglers knew the story, and they swore they had seen it with their own eyes even though I knew this was impossible. There was no denying it was a better story if they told it in first person, though. At the time, I was angry for their impudence. Now I realize that my mother's story was already lost to history, and there was never any chance of reclaiming it. The only stories that are real are the ones we tell ourselves.
When I pressed Sandeep again for stories about my mother, he angrily waved a hand in my face. I ducked my head to avoid his push and took the hint to back off. No tales of her pouty lips and saucery blue eyes for me. Parvati the Witch had truly disappeared, and I was left wondering what her trick was.