The International Writers Magazine: Zach - Chapter Two
Zach Runs from a Great Man
Michael Chacko Daniels
For days, Zach consoled himself: The Rajah and I have nuth-thing in common. Why would a man of his standing like my stories? A week later, at the Anglo-Indian bakery, he found a common bond.
Over a cup of southern-style tea and chocolate rum cake at the bakery, Mr. YRS said, “Zacharia, my friend, you are one smart, Latin-knowing Bombay boy; you know what ‘vernacular’ refers to?”
The teashop was next to the American Bicycle Express Repair Works, which hugged a gigantic, gnarled banyan tree. On the other side was the Modern India Paan-Beedi-Cigarette Shop, no taller than a seated man. Zach, who’d never chewed a paan or smoked a beedi, was familiar with these landmarks, passing them every evening on his way to the bus stop that was further down at a quiet corner just before commerce thinned out and bungalows, rich with trees and flowers of every hue, took over India’s Garden City. Here lay our one and only Boiled Bean Town.
For Zach, more enticing than paans and beedis, was the aroma of fresh baking. He could seldom resist the spell of a teashop with croissants and macaroons. His taste-buds-driven-mind relished each sip of the tea—brewed with generous doses of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, milk, and sugar—and each bite of the flourless cherry chocolate cake, minus the liqueur.
The squat Rajah opened cake-lined lips and expelled into Zach’s silence, “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Shades of gray highlighted the Rajah’s close-cropped head. “The man who first called me the ‘Rajah of Vernacular News’ was using the language of a slave born in the master’s house,” he said, plump cheeks ballooning in disdain.
Zach reminded himself, I am in the presence. I am having tea with the Rajah of etcetera, etcetera.
With each explosion of breath, the Rajah’s laughter grew louder. His breasts joggled.
And Zach thought of Mother’s warning about opportunistic flies, diving flies, and squatting flies in search of body cavities.
But he held his eyes to a warm and accepting look, while thinking, Either the joke’s too good for the Rajah to let go—the joke on His Jolliness, or, most likely, once His Eminence starts laughing, he can’t stop. What can I say to get him to stop? All that shaking is unnerving me. The man might have a heart attack. Just like Father. Should I distract him with an editorial comment? Go historical? Anyway, I should say nothing witty. Nothing too smart.
Zach said, finally, “Typical word for colonial times—vernacular. And for the British: to consider their colony as their house, Indians their slaves.”
His eminence laughed louder. “Worse! Worse, I tell you, for us to hold on to the British word two decades after independence.” His right index finger made dots in the air. “Our enslavement continues. They call me the Rajah of Vernacular News. Ha! Ha! Ha! Rajah! I like Rajah. But why can’t they just say, ‘The Rajah of Kannada News?’ Much, much better. Kannada is my language, not a vernacular. Ha! Ha! Ha! But India is stuck with the word. The loot of the past. We don’t like to give anything up. Ha! Ha! Ha! Just like me. Possessive. Ha! Ha! Ha! And I am stuck with the Rajah of—. Ha! Ha! Ha!” He wiped the cake off his lips with his fingers and palm and then ran them down vertically against his tongue. “As I am with the remnants of the Raj—Flourless Cherry Chocolate Cake. And, of course, my favorite—Eggless Tea Cakes.”
The Rajah laughed until tears ran down his round cheeks.
One moment Zach was watching the older man, and struggling to erase the man’s emotions from his mind, and yet, he found himself swept up in a swirl of infectious laughter along with customers at surrounding tables. People in Boiled Bean Town loved a laughing man. They certainly loved the Rajah. What was not to love?
Zach stood before the large office desk of the news editor of The People’s News. The Rajah laughed, shoulders shaking. “Navilannu nodi kembuta gari kedarisaitu,” he said in his let’s-have-some-tea mode. “In parade-ground, colonial English that would come out as, ‘Observing the peacock, the rooster spreads his wings.’”
Zach didn’t have the faintest idea what the Rajah meant, or who was the peacock and who the rooster. And he wasn’t about to ask; his tongue felt like it was pushing a large stone. All he could manage was a mumbled “Good day,” while he struggled to extract the stories from his safari jacket.
They had fluffed up larger than what the flap of the pocket could accommodate. They had a life of their own and that life didn’t want to be exposed to the older man’s mockery.
As Zach stood there, completely at a loss what to say next, the Rajah scraped back his heavy, wooden chair with a sudden movement. The polished, ancient floorboards groaned.
Zach felt like the horse that had lost its calming goat. Here among his tribe of highborn scribes and wordmongers, the Rajah wore a different mien from the one who’d swallowed cake and tea at the Anglo-Indian bakery.
He tossed Kannada proverbs at Zach one after the other with quick-fire English translations.
The Brahmin was ascendant.
The Rajah quoted Sartre.
He’s afraid of pollution, thought Zach, paying little attention to the older man’s words. From me, the outcaste Christian, whose sins from past lives could leap across the large desk and ruin the man’s path to nirvana, and his twice-born status brought down to naught.
“Michel Foucault knows what he’s talking about,” the Rajah said.
Naught? Yes, yes, naught, as prescribed in all relevant shastras, ruminated Zach. The peacock’s afraid of the rooster he invited in! He’s gone for some ritually defined safe distance, a distance now irreversibly marked out in my mind. Of course, this is just as the Rajah intended. No installation of cages or barbed wire, both unthinkable in 1966 in the New India still marching on the late Nehru’s secular path. At least not in this office of journalistic rectitude. Forget stories; elbow out of the invisible Brahminical cordon sanitaire.
The Rajah clapped. “As does Allen Ginsberg. A man after my own heart. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
What? Stop! He likes Allen Ginsberg? I got it all wrong! All wrong, Zach told himself. I got to look at the Rajah from a different angle: there are no external signs of inherited fixations; he’s well-known as a lover of laughter, as is Allen Ginsberg. Any objective person can see that, easily enough. Also, he’s nothing, if not a worldly man. Wise, oh, so wise, to the ways of a vide, vild vorld and so attuned to it. Absolutely no chance of regression. No, no, no, thought Zach; no possibility of a religious factor tainting the mundane actions of this man whose mouth opens so easily for laughter and food, to roll on his tongue, sweetly-sweetly, the words of European existentialists and American beatniks as if they are, now and forever, his brothers in arms, if not in blood.
The Rajah’s “Ha! Ha! Ha!” broke into Zach’s musings.
Did he sense my thoughts and did they amuse him? Zach wondered in silence.
“Please, please, Zacharia Zacharia, give your feet a rest; no formalities here, have a seat, have an idli,” he said.
Zach gave himself: a cipher score for his suspicions of prejudice and hypocrisy ruling the Rajah’s behavior. True, thought Zach, the man is a Brahmin. But, hadn’t this older man already come closer to him than any Brahmin would? Hadn’t he wrapped a meaty arm around his shoulder when introducing him to the Anglo-Indian bakery man, and patted him frequently thereafter.
The older man chuckled.
Zach stiffened, almost certain that the Rajah was a mindreader; he wanted to flee, again.
“How is your training with Mr. UNK on The Daily going, Zacharia, my young friend?”
Zach thought, Is he fishing? Does he want me to gossip? Ahh! That’s it. When the Rajah moved his chair back, he was only preparing ample room for me to spray spit and venom against Mr. UNK. No need to have troubled himself. I’m not going to talk to him about Mr. UNK. No, no, never. I’m no spy. Not at all.
The gleaming eyes of the Rajah of News were now fixed on him.
More Kannada proverbs.
Zach thought, He senses my distress; the good man’s dissuading me from leaving without giving him an opportunity to convince me to stay.
He lowered his shoulders, inhaled. Be more receptive, he told himself.
With a wizard’s practised flourish, the Rajah unflapped one side of his wraparound white mundu, released dark-brown hairless legs from their diaphanous restraints, and raised both feet.
Zach stared at this unreadable exposition.
Was this laughing-man about to do a clown turn and offer a namaskaram, a salutation—with his feet?
Chappal-free toes gripped the teak desk. Pungent sandalwood-scented sweat filled the air.
Zach tried his best to keep his eyes wide and accepting.
The Rajah leaned back. Both man and chair rose to a higher plane. He now looked down at his young visitor.
Zach straightened in his chair, leveled with the Rajah’s eyes, and tried to keep his composure.
Nobody of the Rajah’s accomplishments would adopt this posture out of anything but habit, Zach told himself. It’s only a lazy-boat posture, royal yoga on a chair. Oh God! Am I a chamcha—sucking up to him? Giving him a pass on his toes gripping the desk? No, no, no. Not a chamcha. If truth be told, that bit with the toes is an action I can’t stomach—it shows how low I am in his estimation. Lesser than a fly. A cockroach? I’ll give him no pass. Although he is a man of the world, he can put me down, do a not done to me. But, reflexively only, you understand? Not intentionally. No, no, not in this sophisticated south Indian town that has risen above waves of Muslims, Christians, Europeans, and various Hindu sects coming as friend or foe.
Toes holding firm, the Rajah teeter-danced the chair; his mundu undulated, baring loose, white, handspun shorts and flab-girded knees.
Not an innocent about soft-flesh encouragement by man or woman to talk tittle-tattle about a person not present, Zach thought: The cured-in-printer’s-ink man is out on a fishing expedition. Not to discover Mr. UNK’s flaws, mind you, but for the scoop on me, Zach, the novice—Have I come to this respected family of newspapers, innocent words concealing a knife or a poison pen? The Rajah could easily fool me into saying something I shouldn’t, couldn’t he? I slant often enough to bitter melon as I do to honey. Is this what he has been working towards for a while?
A memory of Mr. UNK provided Zach a moment’s respite from the Rajah’s probing eyes. He heard himself say in a sonorous tone—he could hear the Catholic Bishop of Bombay in his voice, “If a saint of sub-editors exists, he’d be Mr. UNK.”
The Rajah’s thick lips unpressed. A pomegranate-red tongue moistened them. “A Saint!” he said and grunted softly. A big smile broadened his face. Betel-nut-stained teeth glimmered with gold, as if rewarding Zach’s words.
Fool me? thought Zach. What was I thinking? The Rajah? No, not him.
Still, he wanted to ask the Rajah why, after inviting him upstairs, he was so focussed on the good Mr. UNK. But, what would the stories say? Zach touched his pocket again. Don’t do anything stupid, he heard them say to him. Don’t spoil our big chance. Why would the Rajah stoop to have fun at the expense of a nobody? Give him some time and see. No chamcha-muska-polish.No Monkeynut Masala. No country-hooch.
No reason at all for the Rajah to stoop, Zach responded to the stories.
You see? said the stories.
But, just in case, Zach matched the Rajah, smile for smile. A moment later, he wondered, Am I smiling feebly? Will a smile do the trick?
Stop! No need to take off shoes, or perform the Rajah’s trick with toes, Zach reminded himself.
“Saint?” the older man inquired.
More teetering, more soft flesh exposure.
“Hmm! Very apt!” The Rajah struck a dot in the air with thumb and index finger. “We can use a saint or two in our profession. Why stop there? In fact, every profession in India could. Finish up ‘Gandhi’s impossible revolution.’”
His smile fanned out into a hearty laugh.
Hands gripping the armrests of his chair, Zach prayed to St. Jude, Please hold the Rajah’s chair in the palm of your hands, save him from a spinal injury . . . at least until he reads my short stories.
The toes held on, glued to the desk.
The way the Rajah had with his toes—nothing like it. Here were the makings of a story about toes. What a pay-off! Not only would he interest the Rajah in the short stories, the man would enter into one. Zach would humor him.
Laughter roared out of Zach.
The Rajah belly-laughed, “Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha! HA!”
Their eyes locked, bellies pumped, lips and cheeks flared.
Finally, wiping the tears from his eyes, Zach said, “Mr. UNK’s such a good editor. I marvel at how he reduces long dispatches in broken English from the rural districts to—”
“Those dispatches: the work of stringers,” the Rajah explained.
Zach’s eyes flickered. This old man thought of him as a dummy whom he had to educate.
The Rajah fluttered two fingers through the air. “They are writing in their second or third language.”
Zach nodded softly, smiled, and bent his head rightward. “Art and wizardry at play at the tip of Mr. UNK’s Number 2 pencil,” he said.
The Rajah laughed; he appeared to be genuinely delighted.
Zach’s head hurt from the nodding. Watching the man rock back-and-forth, he thought, Next, this Rajah, will expect me to be equally adulatory about him. A shameless man; he’s twice my age, yet he keeps tilting his chair in a way that even a younger brother would be ashamed of.
Zach’s laughter contracted into a giggle, then, shut off. A sour taste filled his mouth. His tongue tightened.
He said, “Yet, Mr. UNK confounds me—”
The Rajah cut in, “Aaahh! I knew we’d get to the truth, finally.”
The rascal was expecting it, thought Zach.
“Good as he is,” Zach fired away, ready for the heat of question and answer, “why does Mr. UNK appear so well-satisfied as the deputy chief sub-editor of the mofussil news desk covering outlying districts? Why not glamorous Boiled Bean Town? Why not national or international news? Is it lack of ambition?”
Again, the Rajah did his thing with toes, desk, and chair, but now laughter-free. He waved a plump palm, signaling several forceful negatives.
To Zach, that felt like the older man’s fingers had made contact—on his cheek.
“You haven’t known Mr. UNK very long,” the Rajah said.
Zach missed the chair-jockey’s laughter. “Half a year?” he inquired, forgetting his inherited politeness and violating all of the Rajah’s expectations. His eyebrows rose; he couldn’t help it. “Not enough?”
The Rajah pushed at the rear tip of his stubby editing tool, which projected like a truncated missile between right ear and close-cropped head; he caught it as it dislodged.
Armed, his fingers whipped a deletion mark in the air between them.
Blood pounded at Zach’s temples at this symbolic casting out. He forced a smile, focusing on the tea and cake the Rajah had treated him to at the Anglo-Indian bakery and his friendly-friendly manner to him.
“Not yet in America,” the Rajah said, “and already in the grip of its hurry-scurry, its graceless, jumble-grumble pace? Please be so kind as to wait till you get there.”
Zach gave him the slightest of eye-flickers. “America? No, no, not the United States!” He added the smallest of headshakes. “I’ve applied to colleges in Canada! Land of the Mounties.”
The Rajah’s error disappointed him; now he knew the Rajah of Vernacular News hadn’t really listened to him at the bakery.
The older man ignored Zach’s correction with his thick-lips. “A third of his years; you are but a stripling in Mr. UNK’s eyes.”
Some part of Zach’s brain was hungry to hear that loud laugh again.
He fooled me, didn’t he? Zach thought. Got the upper hand. Hooked me with his laughter. And now he’s lecturing me. My short stories are not going to get a boost from a man such as him.
“But your saint,” the Rajah continued, “will certainly forgive you your knocking about in search for grace, as we all forgive the American bull in a china shop.” He erased the deletion mark he’d made in the space between them; a happy gurgle followed.
Aahh! Zach thought; not yet a time for the Rajah to forego his amusement and mine. But, what about the snapping of his diaphanous mundu?
What of that? No big deal. Put it down to South India’s heat and humidity. Not his own. But why is the Kannada-language luminary periodically friendlier than a puppy dog toward me, a mere unpaid-trainee? Isn’t that something to worry about?
Way, way back, the Rajah leaned his wooden chair.
Zach felt he was on the edge of crashing. His stomach turned. Was it the effect on him of the older man’s words? The exposure of soft flesh? His balancing act, not unlike what he was famous for doing in print? Or, all three?
The older man returned the chair to full floor contact, the office to humdrum newspaperdom.
Zach’s lungs relaxed; he exhaled.
The Rajah reaffirmed, “Yes. Not long at all.”
“Six months, I’ve been told, is a lifetime.” Zach offered it as received wisdom so he wouldn’t sound like an upstart, a term Father loved to use to describe anyone younger than him who presumed to have an opinion of his own and dared to make it known.
“Not even ten times six months would suffice for judging a man like Mr. UNK.” The Rajah of Kannada News leaned forward, nostrils flared like a pug dog’s. “Two decades of knowing him—could I say, I know him? I started off as his trainee, not unlike you, except I was a paid employee.” A pause. “Has he raised your hackles dispensing hoary wisdom? Does he treat you as if you’re a raw youth from Bombay?”
“No, not that.” Zach gripped the chair so he wouldn’t flash his palms at him. The Rajah would think it improper because he hadn’t known him long enough. “I’ve adjusted to every second person I meet in this city wanting to instruct me on all matters—because I grew up in a latitude north of here.”
“That will happen. Wait and see how much of that will happen and how high your hackles will rise when you hit America, probably scrape the sky,” the Rajah said, and then he rumble-rambled at a pace Zach could barely keep up with, “This is Benda Kaluru . . . Bangalore . . . British tongue . . . one of India’s Brahmin-fashioned, word-oriented state capitals. Where else in the world can the written word bring down governments?” He paused. His index finger spiralled upward. “Has Mr. UNK told you where his soul doesn’t reside?”
The last question took Zach by surprise and all he could say was, “Where . . . his soul doesn’t . . . reside? No. No.” The Rajah of Vernacular News was playing with him, a cat with a cockroach.
“Aahh! Know now what I mean? Maybe in thirty years.”
Where his soul doesn’t reside?
No, not that, Zach wanted to shout. My pilgrimage to this south Indian town is for nuth-thing like that. Nuth-thing like that. No, no. Not at all. You understand?
© Michael Chako Daniels April 2011
To find out more contact the author - email@example.com
2014: Michael has now published a collection of his short stories - several of which first appeared in Hackwriters - you can read more about his collection here:
Return to Chapter One here