King Xavier sat alone in his quarters. Stone drunk, he sat on an upturned tin; turned upside down so the lid didn’t hurt his bottom. He smoked incessantly. It was a government holiday, and this government servant saw no better way to spend his time. It was eleven in the morning.
While sitting thus alone in his official quarters, one of his young disciples came to see him. The door was open; not seeing King Xavier on the verandah the disciple went into the house and found him on his throne.
“Xavier sir,’’ he said “where is John?’’
“Passed away,’’ replied King Xavier not paying much attention to the boy.
“Passed away,’’ the boy echoed King’s words in dismay.
“The bugger’s gone home, today being a holiday,” said Xavier sir.
“And when did you go to the Ditch,’’ the boy asked, referring to the arrack shop King Xavier frequented.
“About an hour back,’’ he replied.
“Why don’t you sit Jose boy,” King Xavier said to his disciple.
“There’s no place in this room, let’s sit on the verandah,’’ said the boy.
They sat facing each other on the verandah. The neighbour’s house was blocked from view by a cashew tree, which provided shade to Xavier sir’s verandah. It was a beautiful day. The sun was not too hot yet. Grass had sprouted here and there at will, on the hard red earth.
Across, was Ismail’s house. Another disciple of St. Xavier, as some others called him. Ismail was not to be seen anywhere. His house beautifully bounded by a bamboo fence; two gates, one leading to the house, the other larger one, leading to the garage. A beautiful garden with shady trees; here Ismail lived with his brothers and sisters.
“Where’s Ismail?’’ asked Jose.
“Oh forget the duffer,’’ said St. Xavier, “I’m happy you turned up instead of him. Let’s go to the national highway for a tea,’’ King Xavier said, getting up to go to the road behind his quarters, where tea, snacks and fruits were sold at small stalls.
“Last night, I came home with a woman. After I had my fill of her, I slept like a dog as I was drunk too. When I woke up in the morning, my child, you won’t believe it; a great tragedy took place.’’
“What happened?’’ Jose asked.
“She passed away.’’
Passed away?’’ the boy shouted, taken aback slightly.
“Yes, my beautiful quartz watch and seventy-five rupees I had in my pocket is all hers now. Boy, what an unbearable loss,” he complained bitterly. The boy, relieved that she had not passed away, said nothing.
“I learnt my lesson man.’’
While having tea, the boy picked up a conversation with the tea stall man with whom both were acquainted.
“The governor’s passing by in a few days and so we’ve been ordered by the police to clear the place. Anytime these big guns pass by we’re asked to clear out. It is really hard on the poor man,” said the stall owner.
King Xavier didn’t join in the conversation. He lit a beedi instead and watched the vehicle passing by. The boy bought himself a cigarette and lit it.
“Careful, your father might come this way now, the stall owner warned Jose.
“So, what should I do,” Jose snapped.
“You’ll offend the old man,” said the stall owner.
“Balls,” shot back Jose.
“Man, don’t you have any respect for elders, your father, that too,” countered the shop man.
“Paternity is a matter of belief and maternity is a matter of fact,” said the boy. Now King Xavier intervened.
“You fool,” he said, “why do you want to philosophise with tea shop folk, don’t you have any common sense.”
St. Xavier believed that philosophy was not to be discussed with the wrong person, always, under any circumstances. “Why throw your gems to the swine,” he’d say.
Soon, they walked back into the campus, under shady trees and onto clean roads lined with cashew trees. They both felt like going for a walk and so headed towards the university offices, which were closer to the Ditch also.
King Xavier was an officer working at the university. He didn’t like his job or the colleagues. They were all frustrated, mediocre and stagnating. Proud and confident of the security a government job provided, lazy and inefficient, looking for more and more sops they could wrest from the government. They were an abominable lot.
He was young, a post-graduate, full of energy and ambition, ready to innovate. Somehow he’d landed in this place. The only thing he looked forward to now, apart from the civil services exam he worked for, was a transfer to his home town. Till then, this is how he intended spending his time.
At law college, he was well known for his notoriety; drunkenness, absenteeism, thrashing teachers at arguments in the classroom; inside the hostel on the fourth floor, King Xavier strutted naked always. There were others too.
King Xavier liked shooting birds. He told Jose how they set out in the forests of Idukki for wild fowl and other meaty birds. “Babblers,” he said. “We’d shoot them, seven in a row. It makes good food.”
St Xavier burst into a song. Loudly, he sang a Christmas carol. As he finished the song he said, “How beautiful, how wonderful, the Englishman’s music. How glorious, majestic,” he poured forth adjectives.
“Now Xavier sir don’t start that. An anglophile can’t be objective,” said Jose.
“Pooh, Anglophile, what do I care for these terms of yours, they’re great. If the Englishman had not come here, God, I can’t imagine what our fate would be now. We owe it all to him,” argued King Xavier vehemently.
He was an all-time incorrigible, excruciating, anglophile and no one could do anything about it. He talked at length about the railways, political institutions, the English language and literature. His disciple’s loyalty was taxed, being subjected to this test of listening to the virtues of the British and what they supposedly did for the country. Jose was not interested in all this at this point in time, for it was hot already and King Xavier was getting carried away by his argument, which had now become a speech. He stood on a rock open to the full blaze of the sun.
“My child, don’t fool yourself. Those people were great,” he shouted, slapping his disciple on the back. “Let’s go to the Ditch,” he said at the end of his eulogy of the imperialists.
“I know you’re bored, but don’t worry, we’ll have great fun,” King Xavier consoled Jose.
The arrack shop stood in a lonely place and only the most seasoned drinkers would choose to go there. To get to it, one had to go down a long twisting path through the woods. Since the shop was outside the campus, one had to wriggle through the barbed wire fencing on the campus boundaries. The farther one descended, the further the path sloped till it finally reached the entrance of the shop. Steps were cut out into the rocky path. On one side of it, below the path were rocks with jagged edges and dense undergrowth. There was no danger of falling to either side but the danger of tumbling down the steps was real. Only veterans ventured to this place.
King Xavier and Jose waited for the bearer to get the stuff. There was a man lying on the floor after he’d had too much. Others were having their drinks without wasting time, gulping down the arrack, which smelt of turpentine, and shuffling out of the shop. A few more were coming in. King Xavier had boiled eggs cut in half with pepper and salt. There were nuts too. He spoke in whispers to his disciples. After sometime King Xavier’s disciple, who was feeling hungry said: “Let’s go back. What’s the time?”
“I’ve abolished time,” shouted King Xavier. Sensing the futility of trying to persuade him to go home, Jose decided to make the best of the situation. They were out and King Xavier climbed the steps going up the slope with the least difficulty. But he stopped here and there, making dramatic statements.
There was a cow resting in a shady spot. King Xavier rushed to it saying, “Beef, beef, my dear beef, you’re such a beautiful animal. Do you know how much I love you? What a lovely figure you have,” and he was on the cow hugging and kissing it and declaring his love for it. “You’re so peaceful, you mind your own business. Oh, what grace while you walk, but one day, baby, I’ll eat you; I’ll have you in me. I’m going to have you in me sooner or later.” He got up and looked at Jose.
“Jose, my boy, are you still a virgin?” Jose looked dismayed. Seeing his expression, King Xavier laughed. “Jesus, I’m not asking you to deflower yourself in a cow shed. You fall in love with all those stupid girls in your class. What do you get out of it? Why don’t you go for the real thing? So what if they’re not good looking. They’ll still be able to serve the purpose. Yes, they’ll slake our thirst. What more do you want? Fire and counter fire my young friend. Age is with you now. After a few years it’s going to be hard to coax your little fellow into an erection, believe me.”
It was past midday, the heat was too much. They walked to St. Xavier’s house. King Xavier smoked a cigarette now. His disciple was getting tired of him. As soon as they reached the house, King felt like drinking water, he was exhausted, he said. There was no water in the taps, and he had forgotten to store any. He leaned against a wall. His face brushed against the wall, tired. Suddenly he shouted, “Wall is white, water is white, so wall is water,” and slid down on the floor of the verandah. Jose got King Xavier water from the neighbour’s house.
“Soon this revelry of mine will come to an end,” King Xavier said sadly, “My parents have found me a bride. I’ll have to get married, me being the eldest in the family. Without my marriage, my younger sister cannot get married. I hate it, I feel sorry for the poor girl who is going to marry me. Her life is ruined.”
“Why don’t you refuse,” said Jose, his voice full of conviction. “It’s not as you think, my dear fellow. Hoh, if things were as simple as that. One after the other I see my dreams falling flat on the ground. How much better it would have been, if I was an uneducated labourer. Life’s better for them whatever other’s say. They’re healthier than us. Oh, to be a farm hand at Pala. What beauty in their lives. Hard work till the evening. From the fields to the toddy shop. Drink till you’re not steady and stagger home with a bottle of toddy, your lungi folded very high, your towel tied on your head. To walk drunk back home, to your hut, ringing all the way, through the fields, on the roads, having swigs from the open bottle and finally to see a lamp lit in your hut from a distance. You see a night bird, or a late crow on an electric line, halt where you are, and sing or talk to the crow. And to sing louder and get wilder as you near your house. Your wife on seeing you starts crying. “Shut up bitch, I’d say, this is not your father’s money I’m drunk on,” and advance menacingly towards her while the kids scurry to the nearest corner to hide behind boxes or whatever there is in the house.
“Bitch, come here,” and slap her on the face. Then you notice the hot pork and tapioca she’s cooked for you, sit down to eat and while you’re having your meal, roll a ball out of the tapioca, dip it in the gravy and shove it into her mouth. “Oh, see that smile through the tears, you little trickster. C’mon closer and talk to me. And the next moment the house is full of happiness. For that is life my friend. It’s just not for us, we’ve strayed a bit too far. What a loss.”
“The, grass is greener on the other side of the wall,” said Jose.
“May god shave you child, wherever and whenever he likes. Because you can’t decide what god should be doing for you. You’re still young boy, hope you’ll remain the same at my age,” said King Xavier.
Jose was at the end of his patience. He longed to go home or spend his time elsewhere. Sensing this mood St. Xavier said: Go on son, god will shave you. We’ll meet some other time.”