Friday, November 03, 2006


By the time I arrived back from Belgium to start my final year at Hull in 1992, Jyoti Sharma had already ensconced himself as a tenant in my five bedroom terrace house on Brooklyn Street, near Cottingham Road, by the University of Hull. Dad had sorted out tenants for the year via the accommodation office. The ceiling of the living room had collapsed the week before he moved in (thanks to a leaking shower), and Jyoti had shown his worth by deftly assisting in the repair arrangements.

He was a little plump yet quite tall for an Indian man (a shiver over six foot), with a mane of jet black shiny hair and a beard. He put on a convincingly distinguished air, with an Etonian-in-the-1930’s style accent and an erect mien. He always wore neatly pressed trousers, and often sported a ruby red v-neck jumper with shirt and tie underneath. He exuded good breeding, cricket and the most altitudinous of castes – the archetypal post-colonial young fogey.

I asked him about his research interests (he was doing a PhD in politics at the University). He gave me an eloquently vague excursus in grave tones on his relationship to Foucault, which didn’t quite make sense. Then he started to bitch about his supervisor, Professor Noel Sullivan, in the department. He gave a withering account of Professor Sullivan’s weaknesses and peccadillos, both intellectual and personal, and explained the ten reasons why they were no longer on speaking terms. I inwardly smiled at the pleasure of having a Brahmin raconteur under my roof, all the way up in East Yorkshire.

In the manner in which a new subject crops up, and suddenly you see it everywhere in the world and wonder how you managed not to notice it before, Jyoti became an omnipresent feature of my life. I’d read the local paper, and his picture was there, offering an array of evening classes in various aspects of Indian culture to the citizens of Hull. Each morning, there would be a vibrating noise from below (his room was directly below ours) – Jyoti would be practising his voice in a low ululating fashion – a rapid cycle of three notes at varying pitches.

He explained that there were various schools of Indian classical music, which one he was allied to and so on. He made it seem as if it were a matter of life and death to belong to the right music school, as if a universe of difference set each school apart. His face would turn dark with foreboding as the conversation meandered to India more generally. He told me he’d once witnessed a riot in Boroda, looking down on the scene from a balcony. Later that day, he walked to a place where the riot had been, and seen a young woman’s head, half blown apart by an axe, with ants crawling around the brain matter.

He would cook elaborate meals for himself, taking up all the rings on the cooker and as well as occupying the oven. Thanks to Jyoti, I acquired a taste for patra – a sort of spinachy oniony dog-foody mush you bought in a tin from Asian shops. He also explained the ancient secret of Indian cuisine – the pungent spice asafoetida. He kept his in a tiny plastic phial, using the tiniest amounts in a meal. He gravely permitted me to smell it. As I took in my first whiff, he said with mock seriousness, “it is smell’s like ladies underwear after a sweaty day, doesn’t it?” and burst out laughing. The smell of asafoetida is quite unforgettable – a thousand years of smelly socks compacted into a few square millimetres of space. I can no longer think of asafoetida, without also thinking of Jyoti, and the undertone of something slightly rotten, beneath the taste of the sweeter Indian spices.

Jyoti would often tell florid stories which left you wondering how much was true and how much a work of his imagination. He casually remarked that he’d just come back from London (he’d been away for a few days), and that Robin Oakley, then the top BBC political correspondent, had begged him to join the Beeb. He mentioned that he often went down to Cambridge, specially invited by Quentin Skinner – a leading political scientist – to join in his seminars. The way he uttered the word Quentin, one would assume that they were deep and loyal friends. Various Indian men would come round to the house, most often in late middle age wearing Nehru shirts. They would sit talking until late. At times like this, I was more convinced that Jyoti was genuine.

Meanwhile, Jyoti was an ardent user of the house phone. His conversations were impossible to follow, as most of the time he spoke in a rapid up-and-down Hindi, only adding the odd English phrase for emphasis at the end of a sentence. As the weeks of his tenancy past, friends would grumble that they could no longer get through as the phone was always engaged. The other tenants got used to getting up early or very late to using the phone, whenever it was outside of Jyoti’s peak periods.

After nearly three months, a letter came from a research institute in Delhi. Jyoti had been offered a position. It took him minutes to make his decision. That very day, tea chests had been procured (I’d never seen a tea chest before), and his book collection was packed and dispatched. Within days, Jyoti was a refined memory.

And then came the phone bill. There was not a continent that Jyoti had not explored via the portal of our hallway phone. I’d never seen a bill with so many countries per page: Japan, India (of course, every day), Israel, America, Australia. Jyoti’s address book had a global reach. The bill was £932, for three months, in 1992! I’d anticipated a heavy sum, so had demanded that he leave money behind. He left £150, with an authoritative assurance that it would ‘more than cover it’. With the Kingston Communications paper in hand, I was understandably both livid and worried – I didn’t have the money to pay the bill. I found the number for the Delhi institute and called him up, hoping to get the balance wired over. Someone answered the phone and said they would go and fetch him. Minutes of agonisingly expensive billing space later, and Jyoti came on the line, crackly and distant. I raved at him for a minute, before he gave me the ‘sorry old boy’ act. The next bill showed that that call alone had cost twelve pounds.

A week or so later, I found out from my girlfriend’s parents (her father was a former lecturer and part of the academic network in Hull) that Jyoti owed people across the whole town hundreds of pounds each. It turned out that Jyoti Sharma was that rarest of beings: a Brahmin confidence trickster, without a rupee to his name. As I said, I think of Jyoti Sharma today and I think of the smell of asafoetida. Jyoti Sharma: a strange ululating voice from the basement of my memories.


Akin 3:05 pm  

Methinks, his lawyers would be speaking to your lawyers very soon.

Shango 5:18 pm  

Great story, pal, great story.

The easiest cons to pull off for those so inclined are those that begin with assumptions based on appearance: look distinquished, so are distinguished then take 'em for all they got!

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