Abriani’s Six

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BY Atul Sabharwal

Dedicated to Kishore

Illustrations by Sudeep Chaudhuri

THE CITY bobbled up and down the water.

Or it so seemed to him from the belly of the ferry. They were floating in rough waters. Dark clouds hung like a frilly black satin curtain over the city. When the thunder rumbled, his thoughts went to Godino, the drummer. With that thought came a smile.

“What good are smiling lips without a cigarette dangling between them,” he had always said. He tapped his worn-out jacket’s pocket and fished the packet out. It was ten years old. It had been to prison with him. Before they threw him behind bars, they had taken away his clothing and belongings. The warden had entered the articles in a register and put the owner’s name right next to it.

Jimmy Gonsalves.

As he lit the cigarette, he remembered putting a signature with shaky hands right above where the warden had pencilled his name.

His hands did not shake now. Through the smoke that he blew, he looked at the city once again. The dark clouds. The rumble. He had always been a sucker for right moods. And it was the right mood.

“On the radio they’ve been saying to stay away from the sea. They’ve predicted a storm will hit the shores,” the fisherman, who owned the ferry, had told him before pulling him aboard.

“A storm?” he had said, lifting the weight of his eyebrows. But, in fact, ‘perfect’ was the word he thought as he set his feet on the boat.

He set his feet off the boat now at the Gateway of India and engaged the dark skies with his eyes. “Perfect,” he thought once again as his fingers flicked the cigarette aside.

THE AMBER of streetlights had spilled on the wet, cobbled streets and sidewalks of Colaba like watercolour. Occasionally, the red and green of traffic lights would blend into it.

He had walked this street for the first time when he ran away from his house in Goa. To his father, who had directed music programmes in church all his life, the idea of sending Jimmy to Bombay to play saxophone in a jazz band was blasphemous. Father had even thrown his John Coltrane and Charlie Parker collection out of the house.

He still remembered the anger with which he had gathered the records from the ground and shoved them in a suitcase. He had tossed some clothes in too. Then he swung his bag over his shoulder and walked away. To irk his father further, he remembered, he had whistled Blue Train. Even the sun was setting. The sucker for moods had remembered that too. That he had walked into the sunset.

Goa was behind him. Ahead lay Bombay.

Now, when he opened the door, memories and cobwebs alike were sticking to the house. There was dust too. He had opened this door after ten years. There was nothing else to expect. He felt an urge to clean the house but there was no time for that. “Maybe later,” he told himself.

He found himself smiling once again at the thought. Once again, he pulled the packet of Wills Strand out of his jacket and opened it. Just three smokes left. His lips pulled one out. His hands struck the match and lit it. He told himself that he had to buy a fresh pack when he went out. He tossed the packet aside along with the jacket.

His feet roamed on the floor. His eyes roamed around the wall. There was a picture of her. And it took his breath away. He almost gasped.

Shirley Myers.

“Doll” is what he used to call her. His fingers touched the photoframe.

In that black-and-white moment, she stood frozen behind the microphone. Her mouth open to render some crescendo. Her hands clutching the microphone as if not the voice from her mouth but blood from her veins was flowing into it.

She must have been singing some Connie Francis number, he thought. Yes, she loved Connie Francis. And he loved her. Doted on her. In Venice Restaurant, at Radio Club, in Bombay Swinging Club, people used to talk about them. They showed up in hordes to see them perform. Together they were a thing, Jimmy and Shirley. She sang. He played his saxophone. Godino used to accompany them on drums. And Castro was on bass.

“Castro,” escaped as a whisper from his mouth. He averted his eyes from her picture as his thoughts were diverted to Castro and the pool of blood in which he had seen his body.

“Castro, you dumb fool.”

His averted eyes fell on a photo of himself. He saw the photo and his own reflection in the glass of the photoframe at the same time. The two men seemed different persons to his eyes. The man in the picture. And the man in the reflection.

In the photo, his hand that held the sax, rests on his knee. The other hand dangles from his arm’s end with the elbow thrown on the chair’s back. There is a smile on his lips and a cigarette, of course, dangles between them. His head held back in arrogance and contentment.

He remembered someone had clicked this picture backstage just after his performance. The sweat on his forehead was shining. “The days of our sweat and blood,” Castro used to say.

To be the man in the picture once again, he could give anything. But he was not left with anything.

He peeled the shirt off his shoulders and stepped into the shower.

With his hair combed back, he put the comb aside and pulled the cupboard open. He spent some time in selecting the jacket, the shirt and the trouser. When he put them on, he realised that the jacket and the shirt hung shabbily over his body. The trouser had become loose by a few inches. In prison, he had lost weight.

He pulled the belt a few holes tighter and that crumpled the trouser’s crisp waist a bit. But this was not the time to worry about that. He pulled an empty and dusty leather suitcase down from the cupboard. He tossed a handful of records into it. His recordings. His performances. He zipped the suitcase and put on the shoes he had polished before combing his hair.

He left the polish container and the brush neatly arranged on the rack and before heading out of the door he picked one last thing.

His saxophone case.

WHEN BOMBELLI’s front door opened, workers and attendants were running around to get the restaurant ready for the evening. The manager, Leslie Godino, was supervising his staff as per his routine. Behind him, on the stage, musicians were fine-tuning their instruments. In a couple of hours, young men and women of Bombay’s upper crust would start filling in. “But there was still time,” Godino thought as he turned.

The open door had thrust a gust of stormy wind into the restaurant. It toppled a few glasses on the tables. The tissue papers that were decoratively arranged in those glasses had exploded into the space. The workers ran around to catch whatever they could.

Godino looked up squinting. A curse almost ready to drop off the edge of his lips. But he clung to it as he saw the face of the man who came riding on the storm.

“Jimmy.”

“Leslie,” he said with a smile. He was still standing at the door. His loose clothes shabbily hanging over him and wet with drizzle. His hands held the suitcase and the saxophone case. His lips held a cigarette. Leslie walked to him, happiness and disbelief covering his face alike and tears oozing from his eyes.

“When did you come out?”

“Today. You were the only one who visited me in prison in all these years. I had to come and see you.”

Godino pulled him in and sat him down.

“What will you drink, Jimmy?” Godino asked, taking the chair opposite him.

“Nothing. Can you ask one of your boys to get me a pack of Strands?” he tossed his pack on the table. “I just got one last smoke left in it.”

“They discontinued the brand, Jim.”

“Why?”

“You remember the advertisement, a lonely man smoking the cigarette?”

“Yes. And the poster used to say, ‘You are never alone with a Strand.’”

Godino nodded, “The public associated smoking Strand cigarettes with being lonely and were put off. The brand flopped. And the company in London stopped making it.”

“What the hell! That advertisement was the reason I got hooked on to them in the first place.”

“I am telling the truth, Jimmy. I get a lot of crowd here from advertisement firms. They told me.” Godino tossed his cigarette pack on the table. A Gaylord Fine Filter pack, “Here, smoke mine.”

He averted his eyes from her picture as his thoughts were diverted to Castro and the pool of blood he was soaked in

“Forget it,” he said and gently pushed the pack back with his fingers, “I lost the urge.” He put his last Strand back in his jacket pocket and looked around the place.

“I’m happy for you, Les. You made something. How’s the joint doing?”

Godino lit his Gaylord. “The joint’s doing fine, Jim. But I am not.”

Godino nodded when his eyes met Jimmy’s. “Earlier I would stand outside Eros and live jazz music would pour in from all corners. At Venice in Astoria, at Berry’s, at Napoli’s — there were bands everywhere. Everywhere Jim. The days of our sweat and blood are gone.”

“Godino, you bastard,” he thought. He hated Godino for quoting Castro and stubbed his cigarette out. With a put-on smile, he looked at Godino and said, “The days are sure gone. But where have the boys gone? What are they up to?”

“Well Chic, you remember young Chic. He works in films. Plays for people who have only code names like RD or LP. Xavier is back in Goa. He has opened a club there. Cedric passed away last year. What do you plan to do?”

“Hunh?” The question almost caught him offguard.

“Now that you are out, you must be having something in mind for yourself.”

“I brought these,” he tapped the cases. “I want to sell these off. When you visited me last, you had mentioned that you know someone who pays well.”

“I remember Jimmy I had mentioned,” Godino leaned forward, “but even the saxophone?”

“I need money, Leslie.”

“I can lend you some. And it won’t even be a debt. You can play here with the band.”

“Les,” he said and that stopped Godino. “Please Les. Address.”

Godino nodded, “Mutton Street. Chor Bazaar. Ask for Salim’s shop.”

“Thanks.”

He stood up. And Godino stood up with him. There was one more thing he wanted to ask Godino but he stood up first because he did not want Godino to think much of it. He wanted to make it seem like an afterthought.

“Any idea where I can find Abriani?” he asked as he picked cases from the floor.

Every muscle that had formed Godino’s facial expression froze in that moment. His attempt at fooling Godino had not been successful.

“Don’t go around doing anything stupid, Jimmy.” Godino said with fury.

Jimmy almost laughed, “Les, I am penniless. An out-of-prison musician. Abriani is a big shot. He owns nightclubs and recording studios. He is friends with Mirza Mastaan. What can I possibly think of doing to Abriani?”

“All I’m saying is that you’d be dumb to have any such thoughts. I know you must be angry. He killed Castro and framed you for his murder.”

“Forget it,” he cut Godino short. “I just asked. If you don’t want to say, it’s okay.” He held the cases firm in his hand and turned towards the door.

“If you change your mind about it,” Godino said and Jimmy turned, “I still have an opening for a sax player. Maybe then we can play together once again. You on sax. And me on drums.”

He looked at the stage that was now empty. Musicians had gone backstage to get dressed. “You still play?”

Godino smiled and shook his head softly, “No Jim. It was long time back,” he dropped his cigarette and crushed it, “when I lost the urge.”

He said nothing. But Godino did, “Abriani goes to his club every night around nine.”

BEHIND THE mosque minarets, the sky looked like a mix of inky blue, grey and purple. Chor Bazaar lay somewhere between Bhendi Bazaar and Mohammed Ali Road. He had trouble finding it. Even 10 years ago, he rarely ventured here. Had it not been for Shirley’s love for biryani, he would probably have never ventured to the north of Crawford Market where Bombay became a hub of mosques, Muslim eateries and dockworkers’ settlements. To the east was Mazgaon Dock. It was from this part of the world that Mastaan had risen to popularity all over Bombay. For a moment, he wondered if people living in these crammed multistorey shelters had heard his songs.

He knew they had not. They had not even cared like he had not cared about them. His was the music and songs for Bombay’s upper crust. Just 10 miles away from where he played live every night, people had not heard him. They had heard him in Hong Kong, in London, in the United States, he had played on Radio Ceylon for Hamid Sayani’s show, but in this Muslim conglomerate of Bhendi Bazaar and Mohammed Ali Road, he was a stranger. How could a man like Mastaan be so enterprising as to make a name all over Bombay, he asked himself. He had even seen Mastaan attend some live jazz performances at Venice Restaurant. Unlike him, Mastaan probably was not a frog in a well.

Abriani offered them an opportunity to cut a record and he had become the band’s friend. Too close too fast

And neither was Abriani.

He hopped across the water puddles on Mutton Street to reach Salim’s shop. His shop housed second- hand microphones, gramophones, analog record players and records of all kinds. 78 rpms too. He rested his cases on the counter in front of Salim and said that Godino had sent him.

Salim stood up with interest. He noticed that Salim was a wiry, young and tall man, sporting a pencil moustache. He opened the leather case in which he had put his records.

“I am here to sell these.”

Salim handled the sleeve between his fingers and slid the record gently out of the cover. Then, taking care not to touch anywhere on the surface of records, he inspected it under the light for scratches. Salim’s manners impressed Jimmy. His work was in the right hands.

“It’s in a good condition,” Salim said putting the record back into the sleeve.

“They all are. I have got about 20 of them.”

“I can offer you five rupees for each.”

Five rupees. For a moment he thought he heard wrong. Then he wondered if Salim valued what he had brought. But the way Salim had touched and looked at the record, only an aficionado could have done that. So was it just a bargain tactic? This, after all, was a market and Salim was a businessman. But for him, there was no time for silly heckling.

“Five per piece is too less.”

“I know you’d be better off selling them by weight to a scrap dealer. But that’s the best I can offer.”

He swallowed. Then he pointed at the name on the cover. Salim followed his finger.

“You see that name there. Jimmy Gonsalves,” he looked at Salim. “That’s me.”

Salim looked at him in silence. He wondered whether it made any difference to Salim.

“I can sign all these covers. Maybe that will add some value.”

“I know who you are.”

“You do?”

Salim nodded. “I saw you play with Duke Ellington’s sidekicks at Venice Restaurant. I was in college when he toured Bombay.”

“Yeah those guys loved to hang around at Venice,” he said lamely, with only one thing on his mind, “How much?”

Salim looked at him, “Listen. It breaks my heart each time one of you walks in to dispose off his recordings. I do this because I love it. But there’s not much money in it for me and my father thinks I am an idiot. College kids, young men and women, they don’t buy records anymore. They buy this.” From his drawer Salim took out a tiny thing that had two holes.

“What’s this?” He asked.

“They call it cassette.” Salim tossed it disinterestedly back into the drawer, “Once in a while I get a collector or a snob who wanders in looking for records. Seven rupees a piece. Take it or leave it.”

“I take it,” he answered. A lot had changed in 10 years. Strand cigarettes had gone. Records were dying. He could barely recognise cars on the streets.

Salim took the leather case and stepped aside to count the money while he contemplatively tapped his fingers on the saxophone case.

“Would you be interested in something like…” his fingers snapped the locks and opened the case.

Salim looked up from the notes in his hands. “It’s a saxophone.”

“It’s Cat Anderson’s saxophone. He gave it to me when he came on tour with Duke. The man you just called a ‘sidekick’. He was jamming with me one night. He was too happy. Or probably too drunk. His name’s engraved here. See.”

Salim slowly walked up and peeped at the engraving. For a moment, he didn’t say anything.

“There’s nothing I can offer for it. It’s priceless,” Salim swallowed.

“I don’t need money in return. It’s something else I want. If you can get me that, this sax is yours.”

IN A neighbourhood where Mastaan rose from a coolie to a high-profile smuggler, it was not difficult to find a gun-seller. Nor was it a blind chance when he told Salim that he will give him the saxophone if Salim could help him find a gun-seller. In a neighbourhood like this, people know people. That’s how these places are structured. That’s how places like these became fortresses of men like Mastaan because someone called him uncle or someone looked up to him like an elder brother.

The piece was not fancy. It had been smuggled in from somewhere in Uttar Pradesh where it was made locally. It could hold six rounds, which the seller was willing to throw in the package. The seller wanted two thousand rupees for it.

Salim agreed to pay the money after a month. Till then the gun-seller would hold on to the saxophone for Salim. Once the word was given the goods exchanged hands.

While he checked the gun, Salim gently pulled the saxophone out. The gun-seller took it from him, making a face and told Salim that his father rightly took him for an idiot. The gun-seller then made the mistake and playfully raised the mouthpiece of the sax to his lips.

In that moment he cocked the gun and pointed it at the seller’s head.

“You motherf…” the gun-seller jumped.

“That sax has had the fortune of not playing a single false note in its entire life. You blow it and I’ll blow your head off.”

The seller froze. Salim froze too. He knew he had scared them and he realised it was a stupid move. An impulsive one. A sentimental one. But now that he made it, he decided to stick to it although it would mean that the deal might fall.

Five rupees. For a moment he thought he heard wrong. Then he wondered if Salim valued what he had brought

“I mean it.” He was dead serious.

“Just… just don’t play.” Salim reached forward. The gun-seller gestured him to stop.

“Maybe I can’t play music from this. But can you play music from that?” Asked the gun-seller.

He was quiet. His hand held the gun firm.

“All the six notes. Can you?” The gun-seller asked again.

“Why don’t you play that and find out?” He kept his voice even.

The gun-seller smiled and held the sax out, “Put it back in the case, Salim. Bring my money in one month.”

The first shot of whisky that he downed was a quick stiff. It stung his eyes and burnt his throat. He was still feeling nervy and it was not the right thing to feel. He wanted to be at ease. He set the glass down and signalled the waiter for a repeat. The lights went down. There was activity on the stage.

Spanish guitar faded in first. Then the piano. The waiter brought his drink and left. He took the first sip and tasted her voice in his ears. There she was on the stage.

Shirley Myers. “Bésame, bésame mucho,” Shirley poured whisky whisper from the cask of her throat.

Shirley and her love for Connie Francis. He knew she would sing this one just like Connie Francis used to, both in Spanish and English. Shirley had learnt the Spanish lyrics verbatim without understanding a word.

“Como si fuera esta noche la última vez.” Shirley sang.

He knew the meaning of that line. He knew it from Dean Martin’s English version of the song.

“As if tonight was the last time,” he remembered and smiled. In that moment, he desperately controlled his urge to put the cigarette in his mouth. To distract himself he set his eyes about, taking the place in. Abriani had tastefully named it ‘The Other Room’. The man had a taste, he admitted. It was like yesterday when they had first met

His friend Anibal Castro had introduced him to Jack Abriani. Back then, Abriani was coming up as a name in live jazz recordings. Musicians came from London, Hong Kong and the United States to record in his studio. The studios were funded by Mastaan to give a legitimate cover to his gold-smuggling income.

Abriani offered them an opportunity to cut a record and he became the band’s friend. Too close too fast. But then Abriani did not do anything slow, be it driving cars, chasing women, making money, making friends or disposing enemies. Abriani belonged to the speed creed. And Shirley fell in love with his fervor for speed. Abriani was going to take her places. Places that he could never take her. Places he had no interest in.

He remembered his first fight with Shirley when he found out about their affair. She had been twotiming him with Abriani. He had dragged Abriani out of the studio, into the back alley and hammered him with fists. It was an impulsive move. A sentimental move. But by then it was too late.

His ‘doll’ had become Abriani’s moll.

Now she sang on the stage and below it was the table reserved for Abriani. It was still empty. Godino had said nine. Abriani normally walked in with Mastaan and his boys, but tonight Mastaan wouldn’t be there. Salim had told him that ‘Mastaan-bhai’ was preparing to contest an election and to project a clean image, he was going to Mecca for ‘haj’.

He wondered whether Mastaan would also prefix ‘Haji’ to his name just like other Muslims who go for the pilgrimage.

Just then Abriani walked in. Mastaan’s muscle men flanked him. His eyes followed them as they walked to their table.

He saw Abriani and Shirley exchange looks. Exchange smiles. Express love. It must have been a secret and silent exchange like this when they had planned to kill Castro and frame him for the murder. Later, the lawyers and cops who were on Mastaan’s payroll made sure that he stayed out of Abriani’s way for life-term.

He stiffened. And to loosen himself up, he downed the remaining whisky in one gulp. On stage Shirley would end the song in a moment. But it would continue to play in his head long after she had finished it.

He liked that being the sucker for moods that he was.

He set his glass down and picked the gun up.

Standing from his table he walked towards Abriani. There were only three men with him. He knew they would be armed and they would return fire after the first shot rang out from his gun. He could shoot them first. But he had no bullets for them. That was not what he wanted.

He was going to fix Abriani with all six.

Fuera esta noche la última vez. Tonight was the last time.

He fired the first shot and lodged it in Abriani’s arm. He did not hear the screams even though he saw people running out. The muscle men turned around and fired at him. He took one in stomach. But he held his arm out and fired another shot. Abriani ducked behind the table, crawling on the floor frantically to find an escape route.

He went after him and fired another shot. It pierced Abriani’s gut. He felt a sensation in his back. Must be bullets, he figured. They were firing at him from behind. But all he could hear was Besame, Besame Mucho (Kiss me, give me many kisses). He fired the next one and Abriani got hit in the leg. Abriani collapsed right there behind the table.

He kicked the table aside. Two bullets more left. His shirt and jacket were soaked in his own blood. For a moment, he worried that the last cigarette would get wet. Then he walked up to Abriani and fired the last two bullets. He didn’t even see where they lodged finally. His eyes were on the stage, looking for Shirley. But the stage was empty. She had run away when the first bullet rang, along with the others. Shirley, she deserted Abriani just like she had deserted him. There’d be other Abrianis for her.

He turned towards the armed men. They looked at him and saw no point in wasting any more bullets. Abriani was dead. He would die soon. They quietly left the room.

He pulled a chair close with his foot. Resting his hands on it, he finally sat down. The hand that was holding the empty gun rested on his knee. With the other, he pulled his Strand pack out and hooked the last cigarette in his mouth. Lighting it, he tossed the pack aside and threw his elbow on the chair’s back. He let his hand dangle at the end of his arm.

Sweat shone on his forehead.

“The days of our sweat and blood, Castro,” he mumbled.

He heard distant sirens. Cops. They’d be followed by forensics. And reporters. That meant cameras. He smiled and held his head back in pride, in contentment and as the bullet holes oozed life out of his body he felt what he had been longing to feel.

Alive.


 

Atul Sabharwal

Sabharwal was educated to become a chartered accountant. His career in feature film writing includes Darna Mana Hai followed by Phir Milenge and My Wife’s Murder. He recently wrote and directed the television series Powder (2010) produced by Yashraj Films.

 

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