Around mid-morning next day Cyrus’s car drove in. She ran downstairs to be enveloped in his bear hug, and they sat by the garden wall under the shade of the cassia’s blossoming branches. It was unusual for Cyrus to arrive unannounced in the middle of a working day. Abdul came out, was given a friendly punch in the midriff and told to provide coffee.
Cyrus owned the art gallery he had inherited from his father and it was Batlivala senior who, in the explosion of energies after independence, had given his controversial opinion: “Art is what kicks where it hurts” and had championed breakaway art. He had bought and exhibited Nikhil’s early work and they had become fast friends. Cyrus, not just his father’s son, had become a discerning discoverer in his own right and was entitled to some smugness on that account, but he refused to take himself seriously or to be serious about anything. In Cyrus-fashion he called his art-spotting his poor substitute for not being able to paint. As a schoolboy, he had been driven by a desperation to draw. His drawing master and Papa Batlivala had done their darndest to make an artist of him, but, alas, Cyrus baba had been a hopeless case.
Abdul brought coffee and requested Cyrus to call him Morari Lal. Rehana had to explain why.
“I know the place he would have been sent to,” said Cyrus, “I’ve been there. Housing they call it, but it’s tenements crammed together, with rooms no bigger than holes in the wall.
“I went there to find a boy. His name is Hanif. I came across a painting of his quite by chance and I had to find him. He works in a scullery in an eating place nearby. Will he have to spend the rest of his life living in that rathole, washing dirty degchis and plates for a living? That boy is an artist. He must paint. I’ve got to get him out of there. It’s not going to be easy now that he’s been listed and already removed to that ghetto.”
The Batlivalas were a wealthy family, and like his father, Cyrus helped and nurtured young and needy artists. To dilute the distressing situation he had described, she said lightly, “Why haven’t you been listed, Cyrus? You’re an outsider.”
He wagged an admonishing finger at her. “You’re forgetting history, Rehana. Outsiders were the noisy conquering kind. We smart fellows slipped in quietly much earlier and since we’re a dwindling handful we don’t count. Actually, who’s even heard of us? Let me tell you about my grandpa who was a penniless nobody in London when the First World War started and being the loyal chap he was, he lined up to be recruited to fight for King and empire. When his turn came and he had given his name, the recruiting sergeant at the desk bawled out, ‘What’s your religion?’ and grandpa said, ‘Parsee.’
“‘You mean RC?’
“Grandpa repeated ‘Parsee’.
“The sergeant turned to the uniformed minion standing by his desk, ‘What in bleeding Hades is that?’ to be told, ‘Ee’s one of them blokes wot worships the sun.’ But to get to the point, dear girl, Nikhil’s anniversary is coming up, that is, of his first exhibition with us, and think we should exhibit what we have of his works again along with the other progressives.”
She gave her enthusiastic approval and said she would be along to help in any way she could”
Cyrus rang a few days later. ‘About the boy, made an appointment with the DCT. There are so many initials floating around, you may not know this stands for Director of Cultural Transformation. He’s also in charge of racial purity so the ghetto comes under him. I went to see him yesterday in that new glass-fronted high-rise and I was taken straight through past the front room where hordes were waiting to see him, to his office at the back. It looks out on a spreading lawn with a sprinkler watering the greenest grass and the reddest roses you ever saw. His office was all peace and light. Like a painting by Vermeer, I swear. A bowl of purple pansies on his desk. Pictures of their heroes on the wall behind him.
“And he couldn’t have been more gracious. He gave me cardamom tea and said he’s sensitive to aromas, cardamom and other spices, but above all to the seasonal perfumes of his garden. He had inherited his sensitivity. From your father? I asked him. From the ages, he said with a smile. The inheritance of skills is the crowning glory of caste. It fine-tunes each skill to its finest, which is why he can tell one flower’s scent from another with his eyes closed, even one rose from another, a yellow from a pink or a white.
“Well, after that he said he had heard of my good father and knew of my own devotion to art. He wanted to know what he could do for me. When I told him he assured me my concern for this person, whoever he was, was truly praiseworthy and so typical of my community which cared for its own with such well-known compassion and now for this person who was not of my community. But this person whoever he was, was well settled in the housing estate set up for his community, so there was no need to worry on that score. It was a complete arrangement with its own market and shops where they had their own tailors, butchers, barbers and others of their own community to serve their community. People like to be among their own kind, and moving them out of the city had been a safety measure for their own good, with feeling running so high against them.
“‘We cannot forget the pain of invasions, Mr Batlivala, the Turks, Mongols, Mughals, foreigners who interrupted our Hindu history. You may say we are now engaged in wiping out that painful memory and returning our nation by all possible means to its racial and religious purity. Is that not plain justice? That is the cultural transformation we are bringing about.’
“‘Notwithstanding all that, Mr Batlivala, I would have done my best to grant your request, only now the matter of a separate estate for his community has passed into law so with deep regret my hands are tied.’
“Then, Rehana, he got up and walked with me to the door and out to the verandah and pointed with pride to the red rose beds and in case I hadn’t noticed them, the blush-pink beauties rambling up the garden wall. ‘Other than this matter if there is anything else I can do…’ So we said Bharat Mata ki Jai to each other and I came away.”
“Well then,” she said resignedly, “there’s nothing to be done.”
“I’ve already done what had to be done. I abducted the boy. Went there, put him and his mother and their belongings into my car and drove off. There was nobody around.”
She might have guessed Cyrus would find his own way out of an intractable problem but she had not been prepared for law-breaking. Ignoring her alarm he said, “Hanif is safe with me for the moment but I’ll have to find him and his mother a place somewhere soon where he can earn as well as be able to paint. His mother is a tailor and has her sewing machine with her so she will be able to carry on her tailoring.”
“But Cyrus –”
“No buts, Rehana, think ahead,” and he rang off.
Excerpted with permission from When The Moon Shines By Day, Nayantara Sahgal, Speaking Tiger.