Mind over Matter by Murzban F Shroff

When Ramesh Malpani, racing magnate, film financier, takeover tycoon, and a lover of all things unattainable, gave up the back-seat of his Mercedes and hoisted himself into the driver's seat, taking care to adopt the stoical expression of a hireling and the starched white uniform and cap that went with it, no one was surprised at his departure from normalcy. Not his friends at the racecourse, nor the scriptwriters and directors who came begging to him for breaks, nor his family members who had long back given up trying to fathom his mercurial mind, least of all his chauffeur, who, under the new arrangement, found himself transferred to the back seat of the Mercedes, fitted in a Versace suit, a Burlington tie, and Bally shoes, holding a business magazine that made no sense to him.


'Overstressed!' exclaimed Jan Pastakia, executive secretary of the Greater Mumbai Racing Club, who, just that morning, driving to the club entrance, had been witness to the new arrangement. Jan said this sympathetically, digging her bony white teeth into a copious club sandwich, cleverly avoiding contact with her artfully painted lips.

'Genes,' whispered Johnny Maligham, part of the same circle of billionaire punters. Johnny chose to be frugal in his opinion, for the fact that he expended most of his fury in the Bombay High Court, where he was known to be something of a genius, bringing judges and peers into his web of verbal intrigue, his thrust and parry of shrewd God-given logic. Johnny's declaration implied that he'd stumbled upon the history of the Malpani family and he knew something about Ramesh which the others didn't. But his tone was such that he was not to be questioned; he was not to be asked to elaborate. Johnny could afford such airs. He charged twenty-five-thousand rupees per hour to deliver his addresses in court, to set his verbal traps, delicately, insidiously, invariably at great profit to himself and his clients. In fact, Johnny never looked you in the eye. To do so, in his view, was to admit to an equality he did not believe in.


'Renunciation,' beamed Subramanium Swami, master of Kalyug-Yoga and fiery-eyed protagonist of the Say-no-to-life's-pleasures school of thought, the austere part of this august gathering. Although not a punter, the Swamiji liked to spend time at the turf in the evenings. He liked the open air, the breeze, the various shades of green that sprang around the racing track. He liked watching groups of elderly men and women walking briskly and chatting animatedly, and young boys and girls jogging in long, vigorous strides, sweat dripping from their toned, heated bodies. And he particularly enjoyed the cheese pakodas and the mint tea that the club served as part of its evening menu. The Swamiji was in a particularly expansive mood that day, for one of his long-standing disciples, Sushilkumar Maldaar, had expressed a desire to open an ashram for him in Darien, Connecticut. There'd be a trust to manage the ashram and to take care of the Swamiji's expenses when he visited the U.S. No more would Swamiji have to lean on the hospitality of prosperous Indians; no more would he have to settle himself into the pop-art bedrooms of their teenage daughters, who looked upon him – he suspected – as a freak who'd cheat them out of their homes. Sushilkumar said they'd have to wait for clearances from the Indian government before transferring the funds, the formalities could be long and tedious, but he could short-circuit them if he had the Swamiji's blessings, his sanction to grease palms and spread a little wealth around. 'The mind removes all barriers for the spiritual man,' Swamiji had said to Sushilkumar, smiling. 'And God expresses himself in many ways, mostly through man.' Sushilkumar had bowed gracefully, deferentially. He understood the status Swamiji was conferring on him.


'Communism! It's a sign that it's here to stay,' said Purobit Roy, Chief Executive of Kolkata Carats, his big black Bengali eyes gleaming with utopian fervour as he contemplated the ludicrous swap-act of Ramesh Malpani. But withering glances from the rest of the gathering told him that such loose thoughts about Mumbai's affluent weren't to be entertained in this circle. What did a man have if not his self-esteem, his awareness of a superior hierarchy among God's people, and the communists were not known to support this kind of realism. Purobit Roy better understand that. He better belong. Otherwise, there was a provision that a guest was allowed just thrice a month to the clubhouse. That rule could be used to keep him out of the circle. Purobit smiled and said 'just joking!' and he drummed away nervously on the hand rest of the large straw armchair.


'Misunderstood,' sighed the wistful-eyed Lulu Aranha from deep inside her spinster-soft heart. No one bothered to ask her how misunderstood, thereby snuffing out the chances of a three hundred and fiftieth recital on how only she, with her intuitive charm, could fathom the quirky motivations of the rich and the famous. After all, she had grown up with them, played with them, dirtied her hands in the sand of their sprawling seaside bungalows in Juhu, then curled up in a hammock, the sound of the waves gurgling in her ears. This was when Juhu was not yet developed as a suburb. There were no boutiques, no rickshaws, no pubs, no spas. It was holiday country, meant for people with old money, or for film directors wanting to shoot a love scene, a chase.


These were more or less the responses at the Greater Mumbai Racing Club, a place where nothing surprised, really, a place immunised by its very location to shocks and upsets, to earthquakes of providence that saw winners lose by a distance and losers romp home uncontested. The real shocks of Ramesh Malpani's quixotic act were felt by employees of Malpani Enterprises, the simple-minded clerks, accountants, and executives, who watched with growing unease their boss's mental deterioration. Of course, there had been signs of this decay.


Once a week, Bossman Malpani would make them sit on ledges outside their office windows, so they'd see how uncertain the future was, how transitory, and they'd realise why their salaries were delayed and why their bonuses were withdrawn unexpectedly. Business was like that, he would say grimly, pointing to projects that had failed to take off.


And only a month ago he had made them take a meditation course in office, over the weekend, where they were asked to concentrate on the untapped powers of the human mind. All through the day, the employees had to deny themselves food, water, and the call of nature. Bossman Malpani felt they'd bring this resolve to their work. It would give them the will to work beyond office hours, to sit through meetings that could stretch endlessly. Not surprisingly, his employees had chosen to meditate, instead, on various ways they could dispense with him. But such sweet thoughts could flourish only in dreams, not in reality, although they did get inviting when the employees were stuck with a bill for the course: five thousand rupees for learning about self-control.


At the turn of the year, Bossman Malpani threw a party. He invited all his employees and their spouses to a lavish dinner, where a feast of Indian and Chinese food was unfurled. Just before the guests could dig in, Bossman Malpani put on a video-taped speech of his vision for the new year, a four-hour-fifty-minute address that made them feel trapped and tortured at first, then sleepy and surly, and which earned them the ire of their spouses, who were not used to eating dinner in the wee hours of morning. Needless to say Bossman Malpani disappeared after the video was switched on. He was seen later in the Bombay Times, eating, drinking, and carousing at parties elsewhere. He grinned at them from Page 3, a dark, fat man with an oversized belly, narrow legs. The cost for the dinner was deducted from the salaries of the employees, the reason being that it was a shared vision with shared responsibility and that any employee who failed to see it likewise was free to resign without his dues and retirement benefits.


With a series of loony acts to his credit, Malpani's latest caper brought forth exclamations of the 'final flip,' considering that all employees were now asked to take orders from the smiling, suit-clad Arangatal Kayasthami, the naïve-eyed Malayali chauffeur, who attributed his changed destiny to Lord Thirunghatam, the Lord of Delicious Irony, in whose name he had performed a three-day puja while on leave to his village in Kerala.


The puja, it appeared, had worked brilliantly. Bossman Malpani had started eating out of Arangatal's hand. So much so, that the bossman did not merely trade places with Arangatal; he also traded clothes, duties, office, manners of speech, accents, airs, bank books, and credit cards. The boss jumped to attention when he saw Arangatal; he publicly held open the door for him; carried out boxes of clothes, shoes, and sweetmeats, which Arangatal bought on a new unchecked credit allowance; and he waited patiently, outside restaurants, while Arangatal dined with his wife, the voluptuous, erumpent Mrs. Malpani, eyeing, in between mouthfuls, her sloping mountainous breasts, her corpulent lips, the diamonds on her fingers, the fleshy folds of her neck.


Arangatal was convinced that Lord Thirunghatam had given him the power to hypnotise and control whomsoever he wanted. Therefore, he never took seriously the men who came up to him at a traffic signal, who pointed their pistols at him, who sneered and said this is what he got for not listening to their advice, and who shot him through his Versace suit, once, twice, thrice.


And as Arangatal's body slumped forward in the back seat and his blood flowed onto the padded leather upholstery of the Mercedes, Ramesh Malpani, looking through the mirror and pretending to incredulous, tremulous shock, did a quick mental calculation on the replacement cost for the upholstery. The back seat, the carpet, and a little compensation for Arangatal's family, who, he thought, would have to be told about the hazards of driving in Mumbai: the jams, the potholes, the constant pitting of wills that led to a snapping of nerves and to unfortunate accidents like these. But that apart, he inferred, it would be a lot less taxing than the whopping amount he would have had to pay had he taken the extortionists' call seriously, had he paid up without using his mind, endangering his reputation as the master of uncompromising wealth. To own is to preserve: that was his foremost duty. So, Arangatal's body had been shipped back to Kerala, by train, and the cost for the exercise was deducted from his provident fund dues.


'Mind,' said Subramanium Swami, to the same ponderous circle of billionaires. 'Is that phenomenon of nature as close to nature as nature itself. It sweeps like an irreverent force, to heal or to destroy, like wind, water, and fire. It is attracted unfailingly to matter, to all that the senses can see, smell, and savour. In this age of Kalyug, it is to be seen if the mind can be used to control matter or whether matter will consume the mind eventually.'

The rest of the gathering fell silent. To them it was obvious: Ramesh Malpani had lived using his mind, and Arangatal had died by it, by filling it with all sorts of high ideas about himself. And so, what was common between these two was a love for matter, a love for the good things in life, which must be desired, owned, pursued, and fought for. The question was what was more important: mind or matter? And were they mutually exclusive, as some holy books would have us believe? Or were they in cahoots, companionable twins, as per some inexplicable law of nature? Or were they like husband and wife, locked in a churlish marriage, each testing the other's capacity for endurance? Or were they simply nature's conspiracy to keep us perishable when our time came? Fallible within ourselves, dispensable within our milieu.


None in the circle were sure of closing in on the answers. Not Jan Pastakia who, when placed in charge of the club repairs, claimed a slice-of-the-reconstruction-pie from the contractor. Not Johnny M, who seeking ways to harmonise his brilliance with his bank account, contemplated settlements between warring parties at some advantage to himself. Not Purobit Roy, who launching a new line of jewellery in the sparkle-thirsty Mumbai market, had settled on a grade of diamonds the Belgian market would find offensive. Nor Lulu Aranha, who saw her mature, wrinkle-free body as a weapon to seduce rich, successful captains of industry, proving herself mistress of their minds.


Not even Subramanium Swami was sure if he had the answer, for his own mind, disciplined as it were by satvic food and the rigours of celibacy, seemed to be drifting, to verdant Connecticut, to the lush, rolling woods of Darien. It might be the right time to go to the US, he thought, to offer solutions, solace, advice. There was a life bigger than money, outside of money - but to acquire that space, to own it, you had to spend liberally.

And so they all searched for the answers, and they grappled with the burdens of their own life – mind versus matter – how much to absorb, how much to throw out – to each their own limits of indulgence; call it survival, at the best of times, or call it being practical. And yet every Sunday the horses would thunder in and the same crowd that would applaud the jockey for his wins would jeer him for losing. It did not matter whether he had lost by an inch or by a yard or by a hair's breath. They would hiss vengeance at him, wreak a thousand curses on his head – Bastard, you have eaten our money; you are building a house at our expense; you'd sell your own mother if you could, you thief! – and the jockey's wiry little body would cringe with shame and his helmet would sit heavy on his head and his shoulders would stoop and his legs would quiver alongside the warm, trembling animal he led in. But the next race the picture would be different: the landscape would change. Where there were humans, there was always hope of acceptance. And the only one constant in all this would be Bossman Malpani, he in his box, suited, booted, an actress or two at his elbow, a cigar in his hand, binoculars raised, and smiling, his sights firmly on the winner.




First appeared in Washington Square Review.



Murzban F Shroff is a Bombay-born writer. His fiction has appeared in over thirty journals in the U.S. and UK. He is a recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award and has three Pushcart Prize nominations. His debut collection, Breathless in Bombay (St. Martin's Press, NY, 2008, Picador India, 2008), was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the best first book category. He may be reached at 'murzbanshroff@yahoo.com' and 'facebook'.