Mister Order Cancel Man
It was January ’94 and Spud had been in India for two weeks. The idea, his idea, was that he would fly ahead and ‘lay some groundwork’ – so that when I arrived, all our goods would be under production. Something told me it wouldn’t work out that way, but I had decided to give Spud one last chance at buying. After all Spud had done for me – rescuing me from a lonely market stall and making me one of the biggest wholesalers in the UK – I figured he deserved that much.
I had just settled into the Oberoi in Delhi, and was watching some ‘best-dressed cow in Madras’ competition on TV, when Spud suddenly burst into my room.
‘It’s all done, mate!’ he proclaimed. ‘You’ve only got about two hours’ work in Pushkar, and then you can have a holiday!’
Then he flung a load of orders and a bundle of mixed currency at me, and ran off to catch his plane back to England.
The first rumblings I had that things had gone wrong – that Spud’s first attempt at solo buying in India had gone awry – came three days later, when I arrived in Jaipur. Gordhan wasn’t very happy with Spud, who had accused him of ‘running a circus, with Sharma and Rakesh as the chief clowns’. This was because Spud had ordered 2000 metres of block-print material made, and after two weeks Sharma and Rakesh had produced just 24 metres – all of it in the wrong print.
‘So much for “only two hours’ work and then you can have a holiday!”’ I sighed to myself. It would take me two hours just to calm Gordhan down and to cancel Spud’s order.
The trend continued in Pushkar, where Spud had dropped several more bombshells. I spent the whole of my first day there cancelling orders. The only order I didn’t cancel, even though I wanted to, were the 2000 Dennis the Menace T-shirts from Mendu, which had been made already and which Spud had ordered in just one size – his own. ‘How many people you know in size like Spud?’ I asked and Mendu said, ‘not one possible!’
I had no choice but to cancel Spud’s orders. Spud hadn’t left clear instructions, so the clothes hadn’t been made well. The worst offender by far were the short dungarees he’d dreamt up in some Delhi toilet. Satish had attempted a sample, but when he tried it on some hippy chick in the market, it looked like a pair of tie-dye incontinence pants. By the end of the day, I had cancelled all evidence of Spud’s ‘buying’ trip and had resigned myself to starting again from scratch.
But the nightmare was not over yet. As I flicked through the last of Spud’s orders, I was horrified to see the name of Isaak Mohammed. Yes, for some indefinable reason, Spud had resumed negotiations with the worst tailor in town. He had given him a large order too – for 500 tie-and-dye smocks.
So I charged down to Isaak’s shop to see how this particular order was progressing. Well, it wasn’t progressing at all, because Isaak wasn’t there.
‘He’s in hiding,’ called down Susie.
‘In hiding from what?’
‘From you. He heard you were coming into town and he shut his shop.’
I climbed the stairs to the rooftop hovel that Susie now called home. It lay directly over Isaak’s quarters.
‘Okay,’ I said tiredly. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Oh, you haven’t heard. You better sit down.’ Susie balanced baby Om Prakash with one arm, and handed me a cup of cardamom tea with the other.
‘It’s Spud, isn’t it?’
‘How did you guess? You remember how cross he was last trip, when Isaak didn’t make your goods on time?’
Yes, I certainly did remember that. We had got so fed up of waiting on Isaak that we had given him a new name – Mister Shanti, or Mister Ultra-Slow. He had been so wazzed out on bhang lassis that it had taken him three days to cut one piece of material in half.
‘Well, Spud wanted someone to make him 500 chiffon smocks, and nobody but Isaak would do it. They were so transparent that even I – who am open to pretty much anything – wouldn’t try one on.’
‘So he asked Isaak to make a sample, and Isaak cocked up. Spud found him downstairs tranced out on another bhang lassi. This time, and everyone in town is talking about it, Spud grabbed hold of Isaak, marched him out to the desert and began force-feeding him mutton curry.’
‘He did what?’
‘And this during the holy feast of Ramadan, when Isaak was supposed to be fasting. I don’t know what’s happened to Spud – someone said he’s on drugs? – but he was well on his way to inviting an international fatwa.’
As Susie went off for a while, to welcome Raju back from work, I sat back to think. I recognised this little scenario from somewhere, now where was it? No, it wasn’t Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, though I could well imagine Spud dancing around the annoyingly sleepy little Muslim with a lit match and a can of petrol. And no, it wasn’t any number of hostage movies Spud and I had watched together on Indian video buses.
At last, light dawned. It was in fact a conversation both of us had been privy too our last trip in Jaipur. A conversation with Girish, in which we learnt that nobody stole from the Jaipur Agarwals and got away with it. Earlier that day, some cleaner had stolen £1000 from Gordhan’s house, along with a solid gold necklace. A few hours later, Girish had caught him. And he hadn’t taken him to the police station. Oh no, he had driven him to an empty building, stripped him naked, stood on his feet with hobnail boots, warmed up a pair of sugar tongs to white heat, and then branded him about the body until he gave back the loot. Then (and this could only happen in India) he had given the thief 500 rupees to go away and never come back again.
‘Did Spud offer Isaak money, by any chance?’ I asked on Susie’s return.
‘How did you know?’ she said, surprised. ‘Yes, he waited until Isaak’s master tailor had miraculously come up with a sample – it only took twenty minutes! – and then he gave him 500 rupees to go away and never talk to him again.’
‘But that doesn’t apply to me. Why is Isaak hiding from me?’
‘Everyone’s hiding from you! Haven’t you noticed? They all think Spud is crazy, and that if they get stuff wrong, you’re going to tell him and he’s going to come back and torture them!’
Well, that explained a lot. Cancelling Spud’s orders had been easy – placing new ones had proved impossible.
The favourite excuse I was getting was that it was the marriage season and all the tailors were on holiday. Though the best excuse of all came from Mendu who, when I asked him to make 500 block-print shirts, said, ‘So sorry, tailor is dead.’ When I asked him where his other six tailors were and why they were not working, he replied, ‘Oh, they go to funeral!’
The only person I could find to work for me, rather inevitably, was Satish Agarwal.
Satish I found squashed deep inside his hole-in-the-wall grotto – like a big fat spider waiting for his prey. I tried to lure him out, but he wasn’t having it. He was hiding, very sensibly, from the intense heat.
‘Come inside,’ he crooned softly, ‘enjoy ice-cold mango Frooti drink!’
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘but please no business. First we talk friendship.’
‘Friendship is good,’ muttered Satish indulgently. ‘We can talk money after, why not?’
Satish, I knew already, was an Agarwal – just like Gordhan in Jaipur – and it was his self-proclaimed ‘duty’ to make money. What I did not know, and what served to explain Satish’s apparent greed, was that the Agarwals were a business caste and the more money he made, the more people looked up to them. I couldn’t understand this at all. In my country, I told Satish, flaunting one’s wealth was regarded as bad taste. Only people like Spud actually enjoyed flaunting it – carrying a grand around in his pockets, for example, just for show. But Satish wasn’t showy. As the eldest brother of three, he explained, he had a large extended family to support and he didn’t make money for its own sake. He made it for all of them.
Satish must have been a striking man in his youth, I thought. Even now, aged 34, he looked exactly like Omar Sharif. He had the same moist-brown eyes, the same aquiline nose, the same seductive smile, even the same moustache and dimpled chin. The only thing that wasn’t the same was the three stones of excess weight he carried around. He’d lost it once and tourists started asking for his autograph.
Everyone has their Achilles heel, however, and in Satish’s case it was his lazy left eye. The right one gleamed with warm sincerity and bonhomie. It said, ‘I am your friend and servant, you can trust me with your life.’ The left one, by contrast, was a narrow slit with the restless ball wandering to and fro instead of looking straight ahead. This one said, ‘I am a devious bastard who is about to cheat you – I hope you don’t notice.’ Satish’s left eye was unfortunate, because it put off every other wholesaler from dealing with him. Nick found him ‘creepy’ and George, who had a thing about evil eyes anyway, wrote him off as an ‘asswipe’.
Once you got past the eye, however, Satish was about the friendliest person imaginable. He was so friendly indeed that he scared people away and I had to sit him down one day and make him relax. ‘You have too much mental tension,’ I told him. ‘Let customer come to you, not you to them!’
Satish took my advice to heart, and not long after he was the teacher and I his willing disciple. He would stand in the entrance of his shop in Pushkar market, arms akimbo, and flash his teeth at passing lady tourists. If any of them came close enough, he would give them a present. A shawl perhaps, or a scarf. Satish knew, since he was old enough to rub two rupees together, that his profit rose in direct proportion to the number of presents he gave his customers. And his psychology, which I quickly adopted myself, was spot-on. Once he had hooked them with a present, they felt duty-bound to buy something from him. First they bought something cheap, just to return the favour. Then, when he gave them another present, they bought something expensive. And so it went on, until they had one armful of presents which had cost them nothing, and another armful of purchases which had probably cost them double what they would’ve paid anywhere else. So Satish had lots of profit, they had lots of presents, and everybody was happy.
Over one more frozen Frooti, I asked Satish how he had first come to Pushkar. ‘That is a long story, Joey!’ he said, chucking a friendly arm around me. ‘How much time you have?’
I pointed out at the empty street, with all the shops closed for siesta, and said, ‘A lot.’
Satish’s father, I learnt, had travelled here for the Camel Fair one winter (when Satish was just ten) and had decided to open a blanket shop. There were hordes of pilgrims flooding in for the fair, all of them wanting something to sit on during the day and to wrap themselves up in at night (when the desert went very cold) so woollen blankets were very much in demand. The family already had a successful jewellery business in Mathura to the north, but Satish’s dad was having problems with his partner and wanted to try something new. So he had uprooted the whole family and brought them 360 kilometres west to Pushkar. It was a shrewd move, but not without complications. The main complication was that they were extremely unwelcome. The young Satish liked Pushkar, but quickly realised that Pushkar people didn’t like him. He was an outsider – a migrant pariah who was certain to take food out of their mouths by setting up a competing business. They wouldn’t even walk in his shadow.
‘I don’t like the local people situation,’ confided Satish. ‘Too much blub-blub-blub, and no friendship making. I like business for customer relation, not for money only!’
Satish had left school at 14 to help his father with the cloth business. But then, just two years later, the father had died, leaving Satish in charge of the whole family. He had two younger brothers, Sanjay and Vimal, but they had been too young to work and it had been up to him, and him alone, to keep things going.
‘Now my name in Pushkar is very popular,’ said Satish. ‘But first five years is hard – I work alone and nobody want to be my friend.’
Satish then told me of his two brothers, who were also Agarwal. They weren’t as fat as him, he said jokily, because they worked more and had less money. In fact, because they were younger and had less responsibility than him, they couldn’t make any money for themselves at all. They could only help him to make money, and this they were pleased to do. They were happy to serve him because Satish would soon be choosing their wives. And the richer they helped Satish become, the more well-born and attractive these wives would be. In the meantime, all the money they made for Satish went into the family pot. It was his money but it also belonged to the family and gave them the same prestige as him. Just as importantly, it secured all their futures.
The youngest brother, Sanjay, grinned a lot. He was without doubt the handsomest of the three and he knew it. He had the dark swarthy features of a Rajput chieftain and the slim dangerous grace of a panther on the prowl. Western ladies swooned over him and he usually courted two or three at the same time. They loved his shock of shiny black hair, his large doe-like eyes, and his flashing pearly-white teeth. They particularly liked his wide roguish grin which, if he could have bottled it, would have made him a fortune. Satish encouraged Sanjay’s grin because it sold a whole lot of clothing and made him a fortune instead. Unknown to Sanjay – and here I was sworn to strict secrecy – Satish had no intention of marrying him off for a long time. It wouldn’t be good for business.
Vimal, the middle brother, was the holy one. He was the holy one because he was a bit simple and therefore close to God. Vimal spent half his day doing puja (prayers) for the family and the other half working out. Just as Satish collected money, and Sanjay foreign girlfriends, Vimal collected muscles – and of course, through puja, good karma for the Agarwals.
Vimal made me nervous. Vimal made everyone nervous. Not just because he was a large frisky puppy-dog, but because he was dangerously affectionate. The first time I’d met Vimal, I reminded Satish, I had been in the shop, checking jackets, and Vimal had suddenly sprung forth to pummel my hand and comment on my progress. ‘I know your mind!’ he had beamed happily. ‘I know what you are thinking!’
But he had caught me on a bad day and I’d snapped back, ‘Okay, if you know my mind so well, I’ll go home and you can check these jackets!’
Vimal had paused a moment, trying to decide if I was serious or not, and then he had leapt over to give me such a crushing bear-hug that my lungs nearly imploded. ‘Ha, ha, ha!’ he’d boomed happily. ‘You are good joking man, that is good!’
If Vimal ever wanted to read my mind again, I informed Satish, he could go right ahead.
I was just leaving Satish’s shop when Laloo, Mister Bullshit, suddenly appeared – on a brand-new motorbike.
‘I was just thinking of you,’ I exclaimed, ‘and there you are!’
‘Yus,’ quipped the gum-chewing money-changer. ‘I am GOD!’
‘On a Suzuki.’
‘Yus. I am MODERN God!’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I go to bugger border!’
‘Bugger border? Oh, you mean the Baga border between India and Pakistan? Well, I’ll be seeing you...’
‘Hey,’ he called after me. ‘You are not a strange person!’
‘You are not like a strange, you know?’
‘Oh, riiiiight...you mean “Don’t be a stranger?”’
‘Correct!’ giggled Lalit. ‘Don’t be a strange-like!’
Walking back up the market, I ran into George. I found him in the middle of a heated debate with Mendu about the price of cotton dresses. As the shouting match reached a crescendo, Mendu’s face twisted into a grotesque leer and he played his ace card. ‘Where is my watch?’ he screamed, and George, who had quite forgotten he’d promised Mendu a watch from Pittsburgh, was forced to back down and accept the hiked prices.
Interrupted by some passing beggar child, George then delved into his pockets and came up with what he termed ‘a mysterious potpourri of international currency’. A whole handful of it in fact – nickels, roubles, dimes, dinars, shekels, pence and pfennigs – collected down umpteen years of travel. He gave the child a choice: all this useless change or a pack of chewing gum. Wisely, the kid took the gum.
‘That made her day,’ I said.
‘Yeah well,’ sniffed George, ‘You can be poor in India and still be happy, you know? Even on a stick of gum. You gotta think about that.’
Later on, we found ourselves sat among a Druidic circle of new-age travellers at the Sunset Cafe – listening to some long-haired dude singing 42 verses of 'American Pie’. He was really getting into it too, almost sobbing with the emotion of it, and the only thing which averted his total collapse into hysteria was when George grabbed his guitar and launched into his favourite song – ‘All I want is one more fuck!’ The magic circle instantly disintegrated.
‘Well, that went well,’ I commented. ‘Who were those guys anyway?’
‘Freaks, man,’ shrugged George. ‘Pushkar’s full of kids who missed the ’60s and want to go back there. They smoke dope, they wear tie-dye, and they wobble their heads to eastern mantras or to Bob Marley. They’re kinda sad, you know?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘I would’ve loved to have been a hippy in India 20 years ago – hanging out on beaches in Goa, drifting north to Manali in the hot months, and hanging out again in Pushkar in the spring, living on bananas and brown rice.’
‘You, as a hippy?’ snorted George. ‘I don’t think so, man!’
‘Well for one thing, you like eggs and chips and fried breakfasts – no brown rice for you. For another, you don’t look the part. You’re a geek, Joe.’
‘Yeah, an endearing, absent-minded college kind of a dude. Be grateful – a geek’s better than an asshole and a whole lot better than an asswipe!’
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I think.’
A few days later, Tim, my young UK helper, turned up in Pushkar. His first words were: ‘Be gentle with me – I’ve just had two weeks with Spud, putting on another show, and I’m shot to pieces!’
Tim was a tall, lanky red-head with a pony-tail and a wide freckly smile. Of all the staff Spud had hired down the years, he was the only one who had any knowledge of India. That’s why he was here to help me out. He was also the only one whom I could personally trust, and who shared my growing unease over Spud’s deteriorating state of mind. But when I cautiously asked how things were going back home, all Tim said was, ‘You don’t want to know.’ That told me two things – things weren’t going well, and Tim was afraid of losing his job by saying why.
With the Full Moon approaching, everyone – Ram and Eri, Susie and Raju, George, Tim and I – congregated to plan the annual camel trek. Even Nick and Anna were present; they had just dashed up from Madras on a night train. The trek itself was insane. Ten people dancing around a bonfire in the middle of the desert, singing Rajasthani folk songs they never quite learnt the words to. The only people not dancing were Guy and Trudi, a Belgian couple with no sense of humour at all. Later on, the dancing continued around the bathing ghats overlooking Pushkar lake, with everyone wearing funny pointy hats and trying to scare each other with their respective shadows. After three or four bhang lassis apiece, that wasn’t difficult.
On the way home, Susie taught me the Hindi word for duck. ‘It’s butak,’ she grinned. ‘And I only know this because Raju ran up to me in the street today, shouting, “Jyoti! Come quick! There are forty buttocks in the lake!’
More seriously, she still – after no less than five Hindi wedding ceremonies – had no UK work visa for Raju. Their ‘marriage’ wasn’t recognised in England, and she was at her wits’ end. ‘Don’t tell anyone,’ she confided to me, ‘but there’s another baby on the way...’
Back in the market the next day, I tried to collect Spud’s tie-and-dye smocks from Isaak, but he hadn’t even started them.
‘I forget your order,’ he mumbled sleepily. ‘Do not worry, one man, he is coming.’ Sure enough, one man did come, but he didn’t do anything so I stopped the order. Isaak promptly gave me a new name – Mister Order Cancel Man – and sank into a major sulk.
‘Well, that’s it.’ I told Tim. ‘Time to go home. Time to confront Spud with the news that I’m returning empty-handed and won’t be letting him go buying again.’
‘Rather you than me,’ replied Tim. ‘And I’d hold back with that second piece of news if I were you.’
But I was defiant. Spud had had his last chance and he had blown it. Not only had he ruined both our reputations in India, but the title of ‘Mister Order Cancel Man’ stuck in my craw. I hadn’t deserved it, it belonged to Spud. And all those cancelled orders, plus his insane assault on Isaak, meant that no-one (bar Satish) would make any more clothing for us.
Back home in England, I found Spud sitting behind a new director’s desk, sniffing trails of coke off of its shiny veneer.
‘I’m chasing an outline of my van!’ he giggled insanely. ‘I’m down to the last wheel!’
I rattled off my carefully rehearsed speech of complaint, but Spud wasn’t listening. He was off in some kind of private world where he was a little Napoleon and everyone else was his lackey troops.
‘Who do you think you are?’ he told me with a mad cackle. ‘Without me, you’re nothing!’
I eyed him doubtfully and left the room.
The final straw, when it came, was brutal.
Shortly after my return, I went out in the van and took a record £12,000 in a single week.
Not to be outdone, Spud went out the following week and also came back with £12,000. It was such a coincidence that I decided to investigate. And what I found out, after much questioning, shocked me to the core. Judging competition to be more important than partnership, Spud had sold the entire contents of his van to another wholesaler – and for a lot less than it had cost to buy them.
‘Half that stuff was mine!’ I raged. ‘And you sold it at a loss?’
‘No, I didn’t,’ smirked Spud. ‘You’re just being paranoid!’
‘Oh yeah? Then why is your van empty?’
‘I’m having it cleaned.’
‘And the contents?’
‘None of your business. I’ve been asking around, and you’re the one who’s been giving people big discounts. I always wondered how you sold more than me, and now I know. You’ve been undercutting me for years!’
‘So this is payback?’
‘Call it a lesson,’ said Spud stonily. ‘Nobody fucks with me and gets away with it!’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But you’ve cut your own throat in the process. That van had over fifty grand’s worth of stuff in it!’
‘So what?’ shrugged Spud. ‘A lesson is a lesson.’
I went very quiet inside. ‘This is the end of the road,’ I said. ‘You’ve just lost yourself a partner!’
‘Yeah right,’ mocked Spud. ‘You leave, and you’re good as dead!’
‘Is that a threat?’
‘Call it what you want to. But you’re not going anywhere.’
I turned on my heels and strode out of Spud’s house. I would have stridden out of Spud’s life too, but I couldn’t. The company chequebook was still in Spud’s hands. And with all our money tied up in stock, it would be months before Spud could afford to buy me out.
So I did the only thing I could do. I went back to work with Spud – for Spud in effect – until two things happened that turned my life around and forced a final separation.
First, I learnt my mother was sick.
Second, I met Madge.