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
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
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
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
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
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:
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