Gotham Mamik's writings have appeared in various literary journals. His short story, "A Word Unlike", has been awarded a prize at the Writer's Village 2014 contest in the UK. He is currently seeking publication for his first novel length manuscript, an excerpt from which has been selected for the Kriti Literary Festival at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He resides in New York.
Neil is enough of an astute listener to separate these details from the lecture of his frugal boss. Mr. White usually curses unpaid invoices. It is Neil’s job to grasp these bits of information and retain his employment.
Neil arrives in the company sedan at Heathrow just after the flight lands. It is December and the morning is like any other in it, devoid of warmth. Particularly deadly this year, with the wave of storms: 39 died and 2000 were evacuated in Wales alone. Neil recalls numbers, not reasons.
Thankfully, this is still London; crowds override nature.
He circles the airport, rounds before the conspicuous pick-up reveals himself outside the exit. He refuses to park on the curb. He’ll fall asleep, get a ticket. He has too many tickets already.
‘He’ll be dressed like a monk. You know, like the ones from Tibet, but with hair on his face and head,’ Mr. White had described earlier. ‘Address him as Swami.’
Neil spots him in an instant. ‘Swami,’ he waves rolling down his window. The saffron robed sage smiles.
Neil gets out and helps him with his bag, a battered, heavy trunk, excessive for a 48 hour visit. Neil loads the luggage in the boot while the Swami hangs onto a jute-spun shoulder bag slung over his shoulder. It reminds Neil of an attractive punk girl from school whose name he cannot remember. She carried books in a similar bag, books that Neil and no other pupil was required to, or cared, to read.
Neil turns up the heat in the car. The Swami’s arms are bare. But his face is uncomplaining.
‘Did you have a good flight? … Freezing this time of the year … I hope you’re not too tired for the long drive?’ Inquiries and small talk are returned with a smile. Nothing more.
During the drive, one of the biggest songs of the year Nothing Compares 2 U plays twice on the radio. Neil has an urge to ascertain if the Swami knows the Sinéad O’Connor hit is actually a cover of Prince’s original. He refrains from asking this and other stupid questions the rest of the way.
Thankfully, there are no more protests against the soon-to-be-abolished Community Charge tax and they arrive at the assigned Knightsbridge hotel well within time, even though it is a weekday.
‘Checking in, sir?’ the valet signals the porter mechanically to remove luggage.
‘No,’ Neil says. ‘Just park it.’
Mr. White, the owner of a travel agency, has implemented the cost saving itinerary for his client, a prestigious college about two hours drive north.
‘He’d want to stay at least a day in London,’ the department head had mused while discussing the budget for hosting the Swami.
‘Nonsense,’ Mr. White had said. ‘You have him for two days. Keep him there and get all you can out of him. He’s come to lecture your students, not stare at Big Ben.’
And so it was decided: a hearty breakfast at a luxury hotel in the center of town cost much less than a night’s stay there and left as good an impression. After that, Neil would continue to drive the Swami up North, where he would be greeted by the College administration and hosted in a guest room on campus. The Swami, a man of enlightenment not economics despite charging a hefty sum for the scheduled lecture, wouldn’t notice anyway.
‘Saving makes more than making,’ Mr. White had educated Neil.
They enter the dining room. The maître d’ doesn’t flinch at the Swami’s appearance: a wrap-around saffron fabric that doesn’t seem to end or begin anywhere, ash-coloured beard hanging like inverted Christmas tree, open hair falling even lower. This tan sage, who could pass as a performer or spectator at Glastonbury, is certainly unique, but one weird is the same as another: the hotel is filled with robed Sheikhs and privileged Africans flaunting exotic flora on apparel that is as free flowing as the tablecloths.
While the Swami glides effortlessly, Neil walks with a modest hunch, reflective of incomes. They are seated by the window.
‘Any dietary restrictions, sir?’ a practiced waiter asks the Swami.
Again, only a smile is offered.
‘Would you like to try the Salmon toast prepared specially by our visiting chef?’ the waiter presses on. ‘Or perhaps something lighter?’
The Swami studies the menu judiciously.
‘Give us a moment…’ Neil stops short of calling the waiter ‘mate’. The Swami is obviously used to fancy hotels. Neil is the one who doesn’t belong.
Between the flowing Roman fountain in the courtyard outside and the ignored till afternoon tea grand piano in a corner, the room is chirping with morning conversation. Only a table occupied by a comfortably overdressed octogenarian English couple is silent – just like Neil and the Swami.
The old husband and wife are at ease. Neil is not.
‘Would you like me to order for you?’ Neil asks politely. He knows for certain the Swami is a respected scholar, Mr. White’s numbers remind: ‘He’s going to address 600 students for 52 minutes. At 160 words a minute, that’s 8320 words. One needs energy. Feed the man well Neil. Whatever he wants.’
Neil orders the full English breakfast for himself and the Swami, sunny side up.
‘How do you like England so far?’ Neil realizes this is another stupid question. Besides the airport, the Swami has only been inside the Japanese car and now this international hotel.
Still, the Swami nods in the positive, graciously.
‘You’re supposed to be addressing only the department of Religious Studies, but I’ve been told nearly the entire college may turn out to hear you speak,’ Neil says.
No reaction. Neil thinks of more things to say while a waiter fills their glasses with fresh orange juice.
‘I wanted to study philosophy but it wasn’t a practical option,’ Neil shares.
The Swami prefers not to comment. Instead, he takes small sips of the juice.
Come on, Neil demands of himself. He has never traveled out of the country but has grown up in Birmingham, amidst ethnic factions. He has had the rare fortune of open-minded, blue-collar parents, who encouraged his curiosity toward those different than himself. The Mr. Khans and Mrs. Guptas, the Azims and Rahuls, all described as British, even if it was misguided: ‘We’ve been jumpin’ around in other folks’ homes for too long. lad,’ Neil’s mother had once told him. ‘It’s only fair to let them curry up our place a bit now.’
The Swami still has his bag on him, straps hanging from the shoulder, like a halter dress.
Even though Neil has never seen the world, he knows it is changing. Margaret Thatcher has just been ousted. More are celebrating than crying. It’s unreasonable to blame a single person for everything, but that’s how it’s always been: the populace looks into the mirror for scars and only see one face.
Neil finds it odd that the Swami, a devout Hindu, has spoken about the importance of other religions to wide acclaim. Maybe that is the secret: perspective. One needs to be removed from the Bible to understand it. Neil’s parents, despite their anomalous take on immigration, were still working class, believers. And so throughout his youth, he had to attend Sunday mass. But in less time, Neil has accumulated more parking tickets than the divine knowledge he retained.
Their breakfasts are served on astonishingly large plates, with supplements of exhaustively-packaged miniature jams and butter along with shades and shapes of bread to ensure a hearty meal or loss of appetite. The Swami stares at the offering, possibly displeased with the sanctimonious display. Neil sheepishly butters a toast. The Swami grimaces and then inspecting a sausage with his hand, devours it in one bite. They begin to eat.
While a confined economic recession looms above, a dirt-filled path extends down below: tunnel workers from the UK and France finally meet 40 meters beneath the English Channel seabed, establishing the first land connection with Europe. Alongside, the British Government continues to foster an outsider, the author Salman Rushdie, facing a fatwa, a death sentence for blasphemy against his own religion. Maybe the Swami is smart to confine to speaking on others’ faiths. Neil’s namesake, Neil Kinnock, Labour party MP and also future fellow collector of speeding tickets, has forebodingly called in for a single European currency, which eventually won’t grip Britain.
Neil, recently employed as assistant manager at White Tours & Travels and set on being satisfied with middle-class ambitions, has timidly known about all this while phasing through headlines on slow Friday’s at the office. But now, sitting opposite a bona fide new-age guru from the former colony, a yearning to understand awakens within him.
Neil lifts his eyes from the buttered toast to ask about these and other pressing matters, buttheSwami is busy observing a table of bankers in pink shirts. With loosened ties and ruffled hair, they are not starting the day but ending the night. Still celebrating a very profitable deal. They are speaking loudly, food falls from their open mouths onto their crocodile skin polished shoes. With the devaluation of the Pound, they are one of the few pale ethnics in the vicinity. Neil winces in apology. The wise old man must think we’re all like that, devoid of humility, arses.
But the Swami only smiles and coyly points at something on their table. Neil leans forward. What does the Swami want him to notice? The bread basket, grapefruit, flower arrangement, the newspaper taking another jab at ex-Madam Prime Minister? That one bloke’s rotting teeth. He can’t tell.
The Swami continues pointing eagerly like a child conducting a guessing game, and even mimics one of the banker’s actions with the object of interest. Eventually, Neil gets it, and is at first astonished, but recalls his boss’s words: ‘Whatever he wants!’
After the Swami’s third pint of beer, the dried foam has supplanted around his beard, aging him into Santa Claus. His eyes squint like Confucius, and in this juxtaposition of legends, he looks even wiser now.
Or seems so to Neil, who himself is inundated with Guinness, just a few sips behind the Swami. The plates of breakfast have been polished off, save for the fried tomatoes in Swami’s. Neil makes a mental note to inform the hosting college’s kitchen later but forgets it with another swig.
They are both smiling at each other now. Guests, even the quiet old English couple, are eyeing the pair and the empty beer glasses on their table. But the duo doesn’t care to notice anyone.
‘I’m probably going to get fired for this,’ Neil says.
The Swami hiccups in sympathy.
‘I never went to University,’ Neil confesses, the way a boy tells a girl he has cheated on her.
The Swami continues to smile and frowns only to dislodge a bread crumb between his teeth with a finger.
Neil is in awe of the man. The friend, the parent, the mentor he never had, completely non-judgmental.
One time, Neil sat behind the punk girl in class. She pulled out a book from her bag and showed it to her friend, ‘Norwegian Wood. Haruki Murakami. I loved it. Y’know, he’s Japanese but dislikes it and says he loves American literature and is influenced by it. And just because of that, he winds up writing true Japanese literature. Amazing, eh?’ The disinterested friend stopped being the punk girl’s friend a while later.
The straps of the jute bag have slipped off the Swami’s relaxed shoulders. Neil can’t stop thinking about the punk girl while inspecting him.
This little, big-bearded man from India has inexplicably taught Neil about England and his place in this perplexing island. And he hasn’t even said a word. This unkempt, rooted scholar, who charges the equivalent of Neil’s monthly salary for an hour of his time, has just dispensed what will become the most remembered experience of Neil’s adult life, pro bono. The wise old soul maintains the serene shape of his lips, leaving Neil to wonder what profound knowing the man must possess.
Neil never approached the punk girl. Never had the courage to ask her out. He cannot even recall her name. Now to make amends, and confident with the effects of Irish stout, he is ready. I LOVE YOU. he wants to tell the Swami.
But before the words leave his lips, the maître d’ appears, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Walker? There’s a phone call for you at the reception. Sounds urgent.’
‘Be right back guvna,’ Neil tells the Swami and staggers off, self-conscious, careful to walk straight. The respectful staff members avert their gaze.
It’s Mr. White. Furious. ‘Why the hell didn’t you pick up the Swami?’
‘Bu…b…but I did Mr. White. We’re at the hotel, right now! He hasn’t said a word, though I’m sure he’s very pleased so far.’
‘You arse! I just got off the phone with him. He’s still at the airport. You must have picked up some bum immigrant instead. Does he even speak English?’
Neil begins to shake himself sound. Many things remain unclear, but in those instances of realizing silence as lies, he remembers the punk girl’s name… and smiles contently, just like the fake Swami.