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Man in the Mask

Man_in_white_maskMy name is Joey Nudd with two d’s: the final d is like a buffer protecting the inner core of ‘Nud’. Well my name is not really Joey Nudd but that is what I choose to be called. It’s complicated being me, and having the history I have. My mother called me Moses. I can’t be called Moses. Not here in Inglish Raj lan’: only Caribbean folk are called Moses. And another point is that Moses was such a loser. He did all the hard work getting his peeps out of Egypt, he was a spit away from taking the promised land and he commits minor infraction the big G gives the job over to this unheard of geezer. Nah, here in Inglish Raj I prefer to be Joey Nudd. It gives me space to breathe and think. I look weird as the proverbial fuck, but at least my name sounds Anglo, straight and non-minority. One less headache.

I wanna tell you a story about a man I met wearing a mask. He wasn’t skiing or doing some radical political stuff. He just wore a mask all the time in public. I discovered later that he also wore the mask in private. He might have worn it in the shower or when he went to bed. I never got the chance to ask; or rather I was never rude enough to pry into the details of how his masked life worked.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to give you the background to the first meeting with the man with the mask. In order to do that I’ll have to, reluctant as I am, tell you all about my background.

My grandmother and grandfather – I have no idea on which side – lived in Goa. They were Christians and got their daily bread through fishing. Granddad had a share of a boat. There was a big storm and the boat got damaged. The small boat cooperative borrowed money against the value of the small damaged boat with a clucky engine, hoping to pay it off with extra fish they would catch. Despite taking the bare minimum of the fish for themselves, the debt payments could not be met on time and the repaired boat was taken away from them. That sucked. The grandparents were desperate. An uncle –who turned out to be a shady motherfucker – said he had a job for them in Mumbai: he said they could both work in a shop. The shop turned out to be a small cart on wooden wheels from which they were expected to sell areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves with lime. In other words, they became paanwalas. The uncle told them in blunt terms that they were to fend for themselves and that he would find them near Jijamata Udyan Zoo at Byculla railway station to collect his monthly share of the profits. Like so many in India, my grandparents slept rough. They were shorn of the Christian community they came from, surrounded by Muslim and Hindu destitute people like themselves who bore them no goodwill because they had a different religion, were outsiders and thus not much better than dalits. My grandparents worked hard but couldn’t even make it up the economic ladder to the slums. And to think me, Joey Nudd, blood of homeless paanwalas from Mumbai could sit in a pub in the East End and tell you this tale. That, my friend, is the randomness of life or maybe the divine justice of karma.

Grandma and granddad had tried for a long time to have a baby. And eventually their prayers were answered. My mother was born on a pavement outside the zoo. It was bad timing, but a blessing from God is still a blessing no matter when and where it happens. They named my mother Sophia. They had seen a picture of this church in Turkey on some tacky Indian calendar and they thought it the most Jesus thing they had ever seen. Such a transcendental emotion of love for the big J was worthy to be my mother’s name as she was no less loved than the main man.

With another mouth to feed and the pantomime villain uncle to pay, grandma and granddad decided to do the one and only illegal thing of their brief lives. They fled the city with the paanwala cart. They got lifts with truck drivers to Delhi. They knew nobody in Delhi. The place was just as hostile as Mumbai but at least they had secured 100% of their paan business.

How do I feel about paan? Spitting red juice, rotting teeth, sidewalks covered in slimy red as if a recent killing had occurred. I hate it. It’s not much of a buzz either. One of the many dirty habits like smoking that the poor and the bored do to make their lives seem a little better. Inglish folk watch Eastenders and moan about fair play. That’s kind of like their paan high. My mother Sophia never touched the stuff.

Things seemed to be going well for the family unit when granddad was hit by a white taxi speeding down the road that joins Connaught Place and New Delhi train station. He pushed the paanwala cart and his family out the way and got thumped onto the bonnet. The Sikh driver got out threw down a few hundred rupees and sped off with his VIP passenger. Such is the Indian system that grandma could get no more justice than those few rupees in the dusty road. She went to the police and had even memorized the number plate of the Ambassador car, but Sergeant-ji could or would do nothing to collar the Sikh and the VIP.

Grandma didn’t survive much longer than granddad. She developed a coughing sickness and started spitting the red of blood not of betel. She could afford a few Ayurveda and Chinese powders but the disease increased its virulence until she succumbed to her fate and left my mother just 5 years old to fend for herself.

My mother displayed the vitality and ingenuity of the young. She sold paan, she got herself cleaning jobs in cafes in Pahar Ganj and she taught herself English. She was a beautiful child and the Auntie-jis of the tourist area near the station took it upon themselves to save the young Sophia from the mobsters looking for the freshest prostitutes. They also saved her from the mutilation handed out by the beggar masters who press gang children into the horrific business of using disfigurement and disability to rouse brief moments of generosity.

I know these same Aunties – not real Aunties – in Pahar Ganj and I often go to see them, bringing calendars, umbrellas, DVD players and other stuff from Ingland Raj for them. They see my mother in me and remember the small girl, Sophia who led the Oliver Twist life until she was rescued by Daniel John-ji.

My mother was 18. She had already been raped by a rich boy who had given her a few hundred rupees for her maiden head. Just as with granddad and the murderous taxi driver the compensation was non-negotiable: the likelihood of judicial proceedings as likely as Moses parting the Red Sea. The Aunties felt it was their fault for letting her sleep outside so they found a corner in a kitchen for her to lie down her weary head at the end of a day’s toil.

Anyway, my mother was 18. She was beautiful if not pure. She sold paan on the busy backpacker street of Pahar Ganj. She also spoke some English as well as Hindi and the local village dialect from Goa. Daniel John was a firm believer in the Big JC, young himself, doing the Middle Class kid thing of travelling the world before settling down into work, mortgage and bland food. He was quirky and adventurous and decided to try some paan. My mother grabbed her opportunity – she spoke English and flashed him a smile.

DJ came every day for a week to buy paan from my mother and chat. They soon discovered that they were both people of the Nazarene prophet. It freed Sophia from the binds of caste and made it easier for her to cross the line between desi and videsi, between Indian and outsider.

My mother kind of ruined my childhood by telling me all this when I was far too young to have to know about car accidents, rape and seduction. My mother had a heart of a saint – would never steal or hurt another soul – but in DJ she saw her chance; after all, her religion had the built-in mechanism of sin first and do penance later. She flirted and acted coy and gave DJ just enough encouragement to keep him interested in the chase. She submitted to his advances in his cheap hotel room in Pahar Ganj, but only after she had wrung from him a promise of marriage and a new life in England.

It wasn’t straight forward. Sophia didn’t have any legal identity; Daniel’s parents were shocked and were keen to sweep their son’s foolishness under the carpet. While the aunties were thrilled for Sophia and her one chance to escape the fate of her parents – life and death in obscurity and a grinding poverty – the other Indians treated her as something more objectionable than an untouchable.

Daniel spent weeks doing the circuit of embassies and Indian officialdom. He was helped by Sophia’s understanding of the judicious use of baksheesh. It took a month and a lot of Daniel-ji’s money to finally get the application together for my mum to come to England. Back in those days such things were possible without having to pass some daft quiz on British life. Back then the white man in the Inglan Raj was doing all right for himself and didn’t need to vent on foreign immigrants.

To cut this story short, they got out of India together and set up home here in London, Hackney. I was born and Daniel-ji became daddy-ji. He is a good man and I will always love him for saving my mum, and saving me from being born on betel red splattered pavement with a near zero chance in life.

I bitch about my life. I fit in and I don’t fit in. I am two radically different cultures that seem to only to be reconciled in my DNA, in curries, in cricket and in the belief that it is only bureaucracy that holds back chaos from breaking down the door. I go to India a lot. I have more friends in Pahar Ganj than in London. My home feels more alien to me than the land that my mother escaped. Anyway in a nut shell that is me. But this tale is not about me. It’s about the man in the mask.

Pahar-GanjHe came into one of the cafes on the backpacker strip. He was wearing clean khaki shorts, a black T-shirt and a black woolen mask. There were holes for his eyes and mouth. From what little I could see, I gathered that he was a white man. Auntie Aashi shooed me away from the fan seat and called for the new customer to take the most comfortable seat in the dirty café. The masked man and I were the only customers.

At first I pretended to watch the TV quietly playing Bollywood song clips. The masked man braved the first communication:

“Why don’t you join me, friend? I can buy you a lassi or whatever.”

“You’re not some molester, are you?”

The man laughed. “You’re funny. You sound English. I’m English too.”

I moved over to his table and I ordered a drink. He got another chai. He told me to call him ‘K’ or perhaps that was ‘Kay’. Who the fuck knows? We sat there for an hour and told each other stuff about our lives. This all probably sounds strange to you the reader, but that was what strangers, travellers often did in India. The country is like an ocean, formless in its seething burden of humanity. Every now and again an individual would appear before you like a wave, with shape and identity and for a moment a connection would be made, only for the person to fall back into the undifferentiated bulk of the human ocean. That is one of the reasons I like India. It’s random and picturesque. London seems all concrete and purpose; things slotted into an order. Not an ocean.

Kay had been travelling in India for 5 months. He’d been all over: Bombay, Nagpur, Madras, Manali, Varanasi, Calcutta, Puri, Pushkar and so on. He had seen more of the country than me. He had done it all alone. He gave me the impression that despite his friendliness that he felt more comfortable doing things by himself. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor. He made the occasional comment about the difficulties of travelling with a mask: how some hotels refused him a room. He didn’t at that point explain to me what was going on with the mask thing.

I for my part told Kay some of the details I’ve already mentioned about my family history. I told him what I did in London and how I frequently quit one shitty job after another to come back to India just to hang out, get stoned and maybe see the occasional temple, fort or museum. Neither of us was going to put all our cards on the table, but we made a connection. He could see in me something of the outsider that he no doubt thought he was.

Eventually, he said he had to go. I suggested we meet later and have a chillum or something. Kay paused for a moment as if weighing something up in his mask hidden mind.

“Why not? Here’s my hotel. It’s just off Connaught Place. It’s well posh. They even have a bar. I’ll meet you in the lobby at say seven. OK?” He handed me a card that he took from his tattered nylon wallet.

When he left Auntie Aashi came over and squeezed her huge behind into a seat next to me, and started up a flurry of questions in Hindi about the masked man. For some reason she had got it into her head that he was some type of weird sadhu or holy man, and she wanted to know what wisdom he had imparted to me. Despite my denials of his sacred nature, Auntie Aashi couldn’t put aside her reverent curiosity for the masked man. It both fascinates and infuriates me that Indians will often see the divine hand in the most mundane things – just as the British will see profanity in the things that should be sacred. For some reason the British will start to talk about the Queen’s vagina and find it hilarious. Not that the Queen’s vagina is sacred or anything.

At seven I got out of an auto-rickshaw outside Kay’s hotel. I wasn’t expecting it to quite as big and five star as it turned out to be. No wonder the rickshaw-walla bargained hard. The lobby was all shining marble and endless mezzanine. The heat and dust of outside was replaced by perfect air-con. Rich Indians and tourists milled around the many lounge areas looking born to the manor. I knew Kay would be in an obscure corner, and I was right. His body language even from a distance made him look like a fugitive hiding from the authorities.

After making eye contact he got up out of hiding and boldly walked across the wide lobby towards the elevators. Eyes looked up from papers and conversations to watch the masked man traverse the marbled floor. With the smallest nod of the head he indicated that I should follow him.

When we got to his room on the fifth floor he seemed to breathe again. He ordered a bottle of scotch along with ice and mineral water over the phone and he again seemed to clam up until the waiter had left the tray in the room and departed.

We smoked chillums and drank the whisky and it seemed to do Kay some good. He relaxed and he revealed more about himself.

“I guess I have some type of psychological problem. Maybe it’s even metaphysical.”

Oh shit, I thought, he was going to go off on an Indian pseudo-religious tangent. But he didn’t.

“Thank you for not asking me about the mask. As I reward for your good manners, Joey, I will try to explain myself. Of course I have to take the mask off at airports and the like. When I do, I feel paralysed. It’s as if I’ve become nobody. I get giddy with this sense that I’m losing my ‘me-ness’. I’ve been like this since I was 16 years old. I have no idea why it started. It must be rooted in some episode from my past. I’ve tried therapy, hypnosis and even re-birthing breathing exercises but the truth about my phobia, or whatever it is, hasn’t come out into the light.

“I don’t like wearing this mask. It gets stifling hot, especially here in India.”

“Why are you in India?”

“I’m not sure really. Heathrow with no mask and the long flight was hell for me. At one point I had a panic attack and locked myself in the toilet for 30 minutes. Only the fear of getting into trouble made me leave the toilet. I eventually got some relief by wearing an eye mask and wrapping a scarf around my mouth and neck.

“Anyway, why India? Well I thought this is a country with a cultural identity, indeed many identities. It’s the birthplace of religions, yoga, meditation, and that sort of thing. So I’ve been travelling around the country hoping to find something that will help me regain my confidence in showing my face, in revealing my identity. I’ve been to see fakirs, sadhus and Ayurveda specialists. Most types of Indian mumbo jumbo I’ve tried. Even that Amma woman in her pink palace down in Kerala. It took a lot of persuasion to let me get the hug with my mask on. I got nothing but body odour from her.

Amma-Guru“I just feel me when my face is hidden. It is hard to say any more about it. India has been a failure in terms of curing me, but nevertheless, it’s one hell of a country. I’d like to come back when I’m cured and see the place without my mask.”

That was Kay’s big confession. We were both pretty far gone by the time he had made his speech. I was strangely moved by his tale. His eyes peering through the whisky wet mask held mine and spoke of a profound loneliness. I had no advice or trite encouragement to give him. Instead we hugged; probably more sincerely than Amma guru did.

As I left his room we shook hands. I thought he was going to take his mask off, but he didn’t. He just said, “I think we will meet again.”

About three years later we did indeed meet again. This time back in London. I had made very little progress in my life: still reeling from cultural dislocation. I had moved out of home and only saw my parents a couple of times a month. I had a job at a post office, sorting out the mail. That was an odd experience as I thought Anglos held things like British Mail in high esteem. Rather they seemed keen on willfully throwing boxes around in the hope of breaking things, and occasionally they would open letters that had the unmistakable feel of coins inside. I just kept my head down and made sure I was not guilty by association.

After one late shift that ended at 11am I was walking through the city, just getting lost in the crowds, trying to wind down before going back to my damp flat and cold bed. I just wanted to finish a year’s work and then I would go back to India and do nothing.

“Hey, stop. Stop, Joey.” I was walking past a pub with a beer garden cordoned off from the street by a low wall of hanging baskets full of flowers – daffodils and the like. It was one of those brass and plush red sofa places with a hundred year history that cost a hundred pound to get drunk in. Full of suited yah yah city types. As I looked around one of those types was rushing towards me. I stood my ground. I had no real class hatred, I just felt detached from the Anglo caste system. I was born of untouchables and I would remain a new species of trans-continental untouchable until I was hit by a white taxi or a disease of old age. I didn’t care much which one it was going to be. The man caught up with me.

“Joey, it’s me: the man in the mask. Only now I’m cured of the mask business. I say, why not stop and have a drink?”

We sat at a table and a waitress appeared. Kay ordered scotch and water for us. Like the old times. Kay was incredibly handsome. A firm jaw line, immaculately shaved, an expensive haircut with just the right amount of fashionable up sticking tufts. I remembered his deep brown eyes. They seemed lighter and less limpid now. No longer forlorn, his eyes seemed shallow and less revealing. His face had a strong symmetry to it. He could have been a model or a gay porn star. Instead the suit and the milieu told me he was probably just a city whiz. Some buyer and seller of toxic numbers, an Anglo magician that pulled cash out of a hat.

Joey talked with confidence, too much confidence. He told me how grateful he was to have met me in Delhi and how that meeting had somehow started him on the road to recovery. I listened politely. I was happy for Kay that he was better, but I was acting. I was revolted by the man in fronted of me. He was so full of himself. There was no interest in me, what I had done, my plans. He talked only about himself, his fiancée, his job, and just how wonderful his life was.

At one point he pulled out his smart phone and barked at someone, no doubt a junior as I sat in the weak London sun sipping my expensive scotch and water.

“You know, Joey. I was lost back then. Trying to find my past and fill in the puzzle. I just gave up in the end, let that sensitive me go. Got on with my life. You should do the same. Get ahead, Joey. Let go of your precious identity. I say, have to take a leak, back in a mo.”

As soon as he vanished inside the pub I got up and walked off. What a wanker!