Putney Brahman — Anish Rohan Shah
I remember Joshua as square and hulking with unusually thick forearms. He’s slimmer now and yet still owns the space around him, as if he is carrying a kind of phantom mass that shrouds his loose suit jacket.
He beckons to me from the stone ramparts overlooking the river. We’re in a Putney beer garden strewn with woven chairs, picnic tables, and electric heaters attached to parasols. The place is empty aside from a bored couple and a tired, ponytailed barmaid periodically flicking cigarette ash over the parapet. The water is green-brown and agitated, and the cooling spring air has drawn out the rowers who heave comically with each stroke.
I walk over to Joshua’s table, wrap my jacket over a rattan chair and sit down. “Good to see you,” I say. It really is good to see him.
We had been old school friends and it was Joshua who suggested going for a drink after a chance meeting on the underground. Both of us had been late for something, and so Joshua found me on Instagram. He even honoured his commitment to meet six months later when the pubs re-opened.
In conversation, we both acknowledge how remote and undiscoverable the beer garden is. Then we commence a well-rehearsed lament to the missed opportunities, dashed dreams, and lost livelihoods from the past year. The sheer ubiquity of the virus has removed the possibility for nuanced comment. We know everything we’ve been told and we know that neither of us has anything valuable to add.
It turns out we’ve both managed to keep our jobs. Joshua works in sales for a software company and I’m an in-house insurance solicitor. We’re both turning thirty in the winter.
I had struggled to remember why we were friends at all, aside from the intense shared experience of single-sex education. Our Headmaster had once said that our particular class were like rough rocks in a cement grinder; rocks that would smoothen once they had smashed and collided against each other. The haughty would become humble and the cowardly would become strong — apparently. Looking at Joshua’s Brylcreemed blonde hair and neatly shaven, orange-flecked beard, I suppose we could be described as smooth rocks.
I start explaining how the prospect of an empty Cricket ground makes me feel, but Joshua seems distracted. He pauses, then looks out across the water.
“The other day I was thinking,” he says, “well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually…in the last few weeks, I’ve read more about race than I have my entire life.”
Here comes the past, or rather, here comes the present. Specifically, the last few weeks of rage on the streets. I wonder whether this is something I want to discuss. I barely remember my old friend and would prefer to stick to the mundane.
“Just curious about what you thought about it all,” Joshua says. “How do you feel about the protests?”
“I’m not Black and so I’m not sure if I’m qualified to feel anything,” I say.
Joshua laughs. “Qualified to feel? You don’t need qualifications to feel something.”
“True, but like I said, I’m not Black…”
“…You’re kind of Black-ish, though.” Joshua throws his head back and laughs once again. It’s a big, totalising laugh that he puts his whole phantom weight behind.
I’m Indian…not Black-ish. Indians are not known for their enlightened views on Black people, so there was some guilt there. I knew that I was subject to a different model of prejudice. I knew, for instance, that I was more likely to be trusted behind a counter, or in an office, but far less likely to be fetishized by white women in a night club. I realised then, to my shame, that I would probably have preferred the latter treatment.
I reply to my old school friend a with glib answer. “I think what happened just scratches the surface—don’t get me wrong—I don’t agree with the looting but that much pent-up anger is bound to simmer over at some point. The fact that we’ve all been locked up in our homes hasn’t helped either.”
Joshua nods his head in agreement. Hopefully, this will be the end of the subject, but he looks unusually pensive. Unusual because Joshua’s face doesn’t lend itself to deep thinking. He has a round face with blue eyes and despite being in shape, his jowls carry persistent puppy fat that’s likely to be unkind to him in a decade or so. It’s a face that works well on a salesman; warm, helpful, congenial.
In the beer garden, the couple on a date have been replaced by a table of puff-chested lads; a small crowd of suited men and women are smoking and pontificating about The Virus.
“You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole thing,” Joshua says. “It makes me think of all of the times I’ve been racist in the past.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Well, you know, the things I said to you.”
“School was a long time ago,” I say. “We were all idiots back then; anyway, I reckon boys shouldn’t be allowed to study in single-sex schools. If we had girls around maybe we wouldn’t have all acted so stupid.”
“I’m sure women are no different,” Joshua says. “They just behave better because they’re not allowed to get away with as much. In any case, what I did to you was completely unjustified and, like I said, I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently.”
The drinks arrive, ordered at a social distance via smartphone. I have ordered a pint of lager and Joshua has ordered a whiskey and coke.
“An unusual choice for you,” I remark, although come to think of it, I have no idea what Joshua usually drinks. I assume beer, due to vague, fragmentary impressions of Joshua in Rugby kit and the verisimilitude that all Rugby players drink beer.
“I’m trying to cut back on the heavy stuff,” Joshua pats his stomach. “Need to watch the old belly. Anyway, what I wanted to say was that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being a little racist shit. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and a lot of growing too. When I was younger, I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted. I was wrong, so I’m sorry.”
Joshua raises his glass to signal some sort of conciliatory cheers. I start to raise my glass, but instead I’m back in my parent’s loft conversion. I smell the varnish of the newly fitted floors; and feel the horizontal sunlight from the dormer windows on my twelve-year-old face.
Oh fuck, I remember now.
It’s a quiet autumn, and I’m up in the loft with Joshua, also twelve, and another boy whose name and face have been extirpated by time.
I feel immense pride at the new space my parents have miraculously carved out of the house. Pride at the projector my Dad has installed and at the catalogue of old James Bond DVDs that go all the way back to the boring and slow ones from the sixties. These are some all-time classics he would assure me.
At this past juncture in my life, James Bond featured heavily, particularly during our ritual Saturday movie nights. Dad was a Consultant Oncologist, and rarely around, yet made himself available every Saturday for James Bond. Occasionally my grandfather would join us up in the loft too. He had recently moved over from an Indian community in Kenya and took an active interest in anything we did that was ‘western.’ But he found the plots confusing and quietly disapproved of 007’s predilections for violence and casual sex.
My mother was another welcome addition to our film night. As a GP by profession, she had only slightly more available time than my father. Roger Moore was her favourite as he was the funniest and the one most aware of the absurdity of it all. Mum could only focus on the film in the moments when she wasn’t preoccupied with my brother, Ravi, who would try to hide by crawling under the eaves or burying himself in the brightly-coloured, embroidered cushions.
The five of us would sit together on a cushion pile watching Sean Connery, or Roger Moore, or Pierce Brosnan casually murdering henchmen and bedding beautiful women. I remember the excitable and nervous joy of having everyone up there at once. They were all like running sand to me, or volatile sheep that could escape at any moment. Leaving the sacred place required a decent excuse. Aimless trips to the kitchen, or even excessive bathroom visits, were closely monitored and called out.
Naturally, I thought I could recreate these moments with my school friends. They, at least, wouldn’t complain about the half-naked bond girls.
I lead Joshua and the other boy – whose face is lost to time, up the narrow stairs and through the single door into the loft. The slanted roof, overhead recessive lights, and fresh coat of white paint, make the place feel a bit like some kind of modernist chapel. The boys are enthusiastic. The cushions invite WWE wrestling and the privacy means board games, comics, and even porn if we could get our hands on it. The enthusiasm they show when I reveal the projector quickly dissipates when I present the old Bond movie collection.
“These films are like, a hundred years old, we should have gone to my house. Only the new Bond films are any good.” Joshua says.
“You probably can’t even see any boobs in these either,” says the Faceless Boy.
“These are really good though…you’ll see.” I place Dr. No, the very first Bond film, into the DVD player figuring it’s only natural that we start at the beginning. A white dot blinks from left to right, before panning out into the famous gun barrel sequence. Bond walks into shot before swivelling, and shooting. Blood pours down the screen. The brass section fills the room and I notice my friends are only slightly intrigued. A series of cascading technicolour dots appear. I can’t remember this happening the first time I watched the film; I also can’t remember the title sequence going on for quite this long.
“This is shit,” Joshua announces. “We should have started with the newer ones. You only like these because you fancy Bond.”
I’m infuriated. Partly at the insult to the films that were integral to the sacred hearth that they were polluting; and partly at being called gay. Being gay was even more of a cardinal sin at my single-sex school, where half of the boys were, in fact, slowly coming to terms with the ‘batty’ feelings they were experiencing themselves.
“These are good films, you fat shit. You’ve got no taste,” I say.
“I’ve got no taste? You taste of curry, you wanker.” Joshua replies.
The other boy guffaws. I can make out the teeth of the Faceless Boy—oversized and protruding. Presumably, he would grow into them. For now, they were frozen in memory. A floating row of white incisors.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t smell of curry, at least, I’m pretty sure I don’t. How can anyone be sure of what they smell like to other people? I can’t argue back, because the insult is completely out of context. It’s not related to James Bond, it’s not related to anything I have said so far, it’s not an insult about what I’m wearing, or a choice I’ve made, it’s something I simply can’t parry.
Instead, I lurch at Joshua. I’m not sure what I can do to him as I’ve never punched another boy, and as my hands leave my side, my indecision over whether to push or punch him results in a rather pathetic slap to the chest.
Joshua, much broader, grabs me by the shoulders, trips me over, and holds my face down on the wooden panels. There is no one else at home, thankfully, and I pray that no one comes up and discovers the scene. Once my parents see the space tainted that will be the end of our Saturday film nights.
Joshua, puts on a mock Indian accent. It sounds like no Indian accent I have ever heard. More welsh than Indian. He instructs the Faceless Boy to take each of the cushions and throw them out of the windows. Once the cushions are on the front porch, they take the James Bond DVDs and throw them out too. I don’t say anything, trying to escape would be even more embarrassing.
The faceless boy throws them like Frisbees, some dash against the window frame and land back into the room. Some of the discs pop out of the cases and slide along the floor.
“This place isn’t so classy now without the pillows, is it?” Joshua says.
I don’t reply and to my horror I feel my lip tremble.
“We were only messing around you stupid Indian, don’t take it so seriously.”
Joshua takes some of the discs and puts them back into the cases. He then leaves unceremoniously with the Faceless Boy.
I tidy the loft then walk down into the front garden and pick up the mud-caked cushions. After wiping away the soil with a wet sponge from the kitchen, I carry them upstairs. I try to gather the strewn DVDs, but some are missing or broken. I later tell my father that I had given them away to my friends. He tells me that I do not understand the value of things.
“You little shit.” I’m back in the beer garden and evening has begun to claim the river. The white arches of the bridge are turning pink and a sad dim light issues from the ornamented Victorian lamplights that decorate the road along it.
“I can’t believe I had forgotten about that. How the fuck did we stay friends?”
“Not sure,” says Joshua, “I think we just started hanging out again and pretending nothing had happened. I didn’t apologise back then, but I’m here to apologise now.”
I think, once again of dragging my parents’ soiled cushions up the stairs. Some feeling should scream out to me from the past, but I can’t hear it. Just the impression of the matter-of-fact way I rearranged the room back to order. I remember the physical feeling of shame, the slow, contracting muscles in my upper back.
“The thing is,” Joshua continues, “I believe in diversity, I really do. I complain when they don’t have enough Black people in our presentations. I’ve sort of, formed this kind of identity at work —and it’s my true identity—of being someone who cares for the welfare of others. When we arranged to meet, the memory of what happened came flooding back and I swear to you I couldn’t sleep! It was horrible. I thought what if I make it to C-level and people find out what I did.”
“Are you more concerned about people thinking you are a racist or actually being one?” I’m being obtuse. Maybe this will help me remember how I felt.
“But I’m not a racist, I swear, I just don’t know what I was thinking back then. It makes me sick to the stomach.”
I hold the silence for a bit, revelling in my temporary power and break it with: “You were very young, and so was I,”
“But isn’t it weird that thoughts and words like that could have passed through my mind. What kind of person does that make me? I’m just so fucking ashamed. During the protests I was posting all sorts of things about race. I even suggested setting up some kind of scheme that reserves an interview for someone from an ethnic minority. Then I remembered what I did and thought I have no right to talk about this stuff. What if people think I’m a hypocrite?”
“It’s okay,” I say, “and you sound a little bit insane to be honest. I don’t think many people care as much about your social media posts as you do.”
It’s a bit darker now. Joshua decides he doesn’t care as much about his belly and orders a beer, spilling some on the table and wetting his sleeves every time he drinks. He becomes more animated, gesticulating absurdly with each anecdote. He talks of Sales Directors being fired for sleeping with interns, about office pranks, and the many large clients that he has ensnared.
He expresses an outpouring of love for my parents. “They’re doctors, weren’t they? I remember you would always call them up whenever any of us lot had any health problems. That was really good of you. Your mum was such an amazing cook too.”
The man seems to archive everything. How had this rugby playing lummox become so engaged with the world? Engaged and interested in his own moral trajectory?
We talk of girlfriends. Joshua has started seeing Emily, an HR representative from his company. He’s enthusiastic about her and apparently felt his cells re-arrange when they first met.
I ask Joshua if his new partner is responsible for the recent audit he is taking of his life. Joshua says that it is wrong to expect a woman to change him, but accepts that she could be the reason behind his drive to become a better person.
He talks of his hopes for the future, his ambitions, and how he fully expects me to attend his wedding—if he ever proposes. I notice a handsome and wholly innocent face emerging under Joshua’s wide jowls and puppy fat and feel an unexpected tenderness for this person.
I don’t think we could be close friends, not because of our past, but because something is off with the rhythm. Words flounder and seem to get half-trapped in our mouths. There will probably be other small misunderstandings that get in the way too.
After one more drink we part ways. Joshua extends his arms for a drunken hug but instead, remembering the virus, we touch elbows and head home. I turn around and watch Joshua’s shoulders twist very slightly as he walks, and observe his busy face jut out and scan the road ahead. Some people seem to glide through life.
I live with my parents in Barnes, the same house with the loft conversion—now barely in use. It is in the neighbouring area, just across the border that separates Wandsworth and Richmond. London is full of these shifting, invisible borders; drawn and redrawn by men in old-style hats and coats.
The evening is stunning and the beer has made me feel heavy. I see the tower of St. Mary’s Church, where, in the seventeenth century, the New Model Army discussed the provisions of a new English constitution. Suffrage for all men, including the poor, and equality under the eyes of the law. It occurs to me that England’s rules, for better or for worse, have always been based on series of discussions and gentlemen’s agreements. People talking, debating, and overpowering each other. To the south, the supposed birthplace of Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal and chief advisor to King Henry VIII, the man who changed the country’s religion.
I take the route along the river. My office brogues sink in the gravel and my laptop satchel presses my neck. To my left, a conserved wetland area for birds, and to my right, the unspeakably gorgeous sky.
I think less about the specific actions of Joshua and the Faceless Boy, but more about my sad, delicately put together twelve-year-old body dragging pillows up the stairs of my house.
As I enter my home, I see my grandfather sitting in a cubbyhole under the stairs. The space had been converted into a miniature shrine to Vishnu and his consort, Lakshmi. As the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi is granted more rites and prayers than the other gods. A Diwa was lit for exams, a chant was sung for job interviews.
Grandfather nods and smiles, before resuming his prayers. When I was a child, he had taught me about the Ātman – The Self. He taught me that there was an intransigent god-spirit that lay deep within us. Under the ego, under our tastes and feelings, under our squabbles, intellect, and dream-life, there was an observer looking out. This observer – this Ātman – never changed, and was the same substance as the Ātman in everyone else.
To me, it was the most beautiful idea in the world. If I could just re-connect with my own Ātman, then after I die, I could become one with some universal supreme consciousness—the Brahman, and I would be joined to everyone and everything. I thought of my Ātman as a piece of Plasticine ready to be pressed into a divine super blob, where I could mesh with everyone else and we would experience some kind of eternal, blissful mutual orgasm.
But it was just an idea. And wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. No one had attempted to look for the Ātman. No one had stood over a cadaver with a dissecting knife and pried upon the human skull, furrowed through the cerebrospinal fluid and tough jelly, to look for an Ātman.
Under the scans, the Ātman wasn’t there. Just synapses forming and snapping away and reforming. Signatures and stunning electric light displays.
Anish Rohan Shah studied English Literature at the University of Southampton. After writing privately for a few years, he recently summoned the courage to start sharing his work. He currently lives in South-West London.