WE WERE IN THE Sea Rock Café, Varkala, on the morning of Christmas Day. Jack was standing alongside the Jesus manger of the kind you see everywhere in Kerala. The Christian presence.
Jack was big without being especially tall, the build of someone raised on meat and grits and potatoes, lots of them. The heroic nose was in no wise compensated by the reticent whiskers of a goatee. If anything, it made the nose seem more hooked. But when Jack sat down and took off his baseball cap to reveal the shaven head, he became a bird of prey. Claire whispered: “The American Eagle has landed.”
Jack used his T-shirt to mop his head. He turned to us. “What about this heat? Back where my passport says is home, right now it’ll be twenty below.”
Here it was already 33 degrees. Above.
“I know which one I like.”
His voice was as in-your-face as everything else. Here was a man who considered conversation as something you had to win. What he said went, and he had the decibels to convince you. With my limited knowledge of the USA, I had him down as a New Yorker, maybe the Bronx.
“Shreenath, hey, where’s my food? Rub some sticks together and get that damn stove going.”
Turning back to us:
“Don’t worry, he knows when I’m busting him. He’s a great guy. Where you two from?”
We told him, and asked him the same question.
“Upstate New York. Syracuse?”
Not the Bronx, but not that far.
“I drive a cab.”
That I might have guessed.
“You staying in Varkala?”
No, we said, an hour down the coast, Kovalam.
“Kovalam. I pity you. Its reputation goes before it.” Then, spotting someone: “That young man I need to talk to.”
He pushed his chair back, scuffing up a quantity of sand, and barged out of the café to place his bulk in front of a slight figure dressed in cream cotton, walking down from the car park. A minute later, he was back. Our food arrived.
“Dhosas, I see,” said Jack. “A good choice, this place has the best in Kerala. That guy out there was my tabla teacher, Sebu. He’s worked with most of the greats. You know the tabla?”
Jack’s fingers started a rhythm on the table top, making the cutlery jump. It was unsustainable. After three bars, he’d lost it.
“I got some ways to go yet. This your first time in India?”
We said it was.
“I seen most of the world, not counting India, but little old Varkala’s where I’ve come to rest my weary bones.”
Claire asked, did he mean that he lived here permanently?
“That’s more like it, my man. Nectar. Smell this and dream on.”
Jack went to it. Silence was observed. He put his two fried eggs into the warm chapati, rolled the lot up, and, using fingers, introduced one end into his mouth. Egg yoke dribbled down his goatee and onto his shirt.
“The authentic way of eating.”
More silence until he finished. Then, leaning back in his chair: “Chapati, the food of life. Shreenath, you indolent son of Vishnu, make me two more. Not eggs this time. Butter and marmalade.”
A woman of astonishing beauty walked past.
“Would you look at that! Only way to subdue the testosterone is to become a Buddhist. Actually, the most beautiful women in the world aren’t in India. Bali. That’s where. I seen great lookers in Europe, South America, even some bits of Africa. There are awesome women in Thailand and Cambodia. But absolute tops is Bali.”
Jack let out an unapologetic belch.
“Better… Don’t be fooled though. In every other way Bali’s the armpit of the world. The corruption, the tourists, plane loads of red neck Australians. It’s got to be the ugliest of capitalism’s ugly faces. Not that I’m for communism. I’m not. It’s washed up. It’ll be totally wiped out in ten years, now the genie’s out the bottle. China’s version is a joke, Cuba can’t keep it going post-Castro, even North Korea won’t hold out, it’s on the verge of starvation.”
“If capitalism’s corrupt and communism finished, is there a third way?” Claire asked.
“This planet’s got to think small again. Turn the clock back. Form self-supporting communities. Abolish money, exchange goods and gifts. ‘Need Not Greed,’ put it over your door.”
Shreenath brought Jack his second lot of chapatis, and dishes of butter and marmalade.
“How long you two staying in Varkala?”
We said only a couple of hours.
“Pay your taxi off, stay the night. I know where you can get a room for a coin. Then you can eat like there’s no yesterday and come to my film show. Tonight I’m showing City of God.”
“There’s a cinema here?”
“I’m the cinema here. Twice a week I decide on a title and a little man in Trivandrum supplies the DVD. I show it on a wide screen TV in George’s Hotel. I want to get hold of the latest Bond. They say Daniel Craig’s the best JB since Connery.”
Another friend of Jack’s was passing, wheeling his bicycle.
“Hey, man. Done what I said, seen a shrink? Forget the priests. What do they know?”
The Indian smiled at Jack, said nothing, and continued wheeling his bike.
“I know everyone in Varkala. I’m going to stand for Mayor this year. Seriously.”
Claire asked what Jack’s family thought of this allegiance to India.
“I’m not married,” said Jack.
“Do you get lonely?”
“Well, I might, but in this country you’re not allowed to be alone. You got to fight them off. So, you staying?”
Expecting to shut the conversation down, Claire said something about getting to grips with the local wildlife. Jack had things to say.
“Look up there.” He was pointing at a Brahmini kite. “A Krishna eagle.”
Claire tried to correct him.
“Sorry, ma’am, Krishna eagle. He’s here every day.”
“OK, what about brain fever birds?” asked Claire.
“Brain fever birds?”
“Or maybe the odd golden oriole? You know, black and yellow, like the toot toot.”
Jack knew all about the toot toot. It’s one of the emblems of India. The three-wheeled rickshaw is powered by a waspish two-stroke engine. It’s light as a bird, nimble, and, to its occupants, potentially lethal. At anything over fifteen m.p.h., it’s as uncomfortable as hell, as well I knew. We’d made the mistake of taking one for a journey of a mere six miles, and my back was wrecked. I felt and looked like one of those English road signs depicting OAPs bent in half and leaning on sticks. The toot toot also happens to be black and yellow.
“I’ve got this idea to ship a bunch of them back to the US” said Jack. “My company’s cabs are the same colours. It’d be great publicity. The kids on campus’ll love ‘em.”
The toot toot in the land of the gas guzzler? I was dubious.
“Man, that’s all changing. You seen the Al Gore movie?”
“But your current President,” said Claire.
“Oh, Bush knows the real score. But his hands are tied. He’s been bankrolled by Texas oilmen, he can’t rock their boat. Anyway, he can soon dump it on gorgeous Hilary”
“If the Democrats are stupid enough to choose her.”
“Oh, they will. She’ll be president all right. She’ll do OK, too, I mean, for a woman.”
Claire couldn’t let that pass:
“At least she didn’t dodge any draft. Were you in Vietnam, Jack?”
“Lady, I almost been to Vietnam a hundred times” said Jack, lifting the lid of the coffee pot to see what life was left.
“You managed not to go then?”
Jack was travelling a different route: “You guys up for more coffee?”
I said, Indian fashion, “Why not.”
“Shreenath, more of this brew, and try to involve some damn coffee beans for a change.”
Then he fell silent. To fill the pregnant silence, I said how much I’d enjoyed being in the USA back in the ’70s, and how I’d travelled everywhere for one glorious month, on long distance trains and Greyhound buses.
“You get to old Mejico?”
I said yes, I got there, but that was about the extent of it.
“What did you think?”
I said I hadn’t been able to form an opinion one way or the other, as I didn’t get to see much. Montezuma wrought spectacular revenge on my guts after day three.
“The second worst place in the world after Bali is in Mexico. Cancun. It’s totally artificial. A town entirely created by computers. The soul of a robot. Really horrible.”
“Like Las Vegas?” Claire asked.
“Much worse. Shreenath, you unsanctified waste of temple space, you planting those beans or what?”
Outside, the relaxed pop-pop-pop-pop of a motorbike could be heard, getting slowly nearer, a sound not quite laid back enough to be a Harley Davison, but in that ball park. A sun blistered middle aged couple, probably British, grey pony tails and aviator shades, drifted past on a Royal Enfield 350cc Bullet, a design that had flourished and expired in the UK during the 1950s. They’re still made in India, like the Phillips and Hercules sit up and beg pushbikes. Built in Calcutta, probably, same as that vaguely disguised Morris Oxford of old, the white Ambassador taxi. India is a dreamland for time warp Westerners to do their time warp travelling.
“Why don’t you ship some Ambassadors back to Syracuse?” I suggested to Jack. “I mean, as well as the toot toots. Paint them black and yellow.”
Jack treated this as entirely a rhetorical question, though in fact my idea was reasonably serious. Instead he called out: “Hey hey, look who it is!”
A young Indian with the most melting brown eyes you could possibly imagine had walked in. Jack was up on his feet, arms already unfolded. The embrace that followed was non negotiable.
Jack started to grind some heavy hip jive into Kumar’s midriff. “Where you been, you chunk of chocolate?”
Shreenath arrived and put down three cups of coffee and a jug of hot milk.
“They may make the most disgusting coffee,” said Claire, “but they do know how to serve it.”
“Well, that certainly was a happy encounter,” said Claire.
“He’s something else. I’ve told some film people I know up in Mumbai about him. He’d be a knock out. In fact he’s an actual artist. He did those pictures over there”
On the far wall hung a few paintings, all executed in the same crude and garish style, and all featuring the same blond girl whose breasts stretched everything to the limit. Around the girl were several good looking, smiling young Indian men.
The artist came alongside.
“You like these?” he asked.
I sketched an inconclusive gesture.
“I show you more? Different ones? Please come.”
And he led us into a back room, where some ten more pictures were stacked against a wall.
They were no different. Variations on a forlorn theme of fantasy and repression.
“What do you think of them?” I murmured to Claire.
“Alma Tadema meets Bollywood. But his eyes!” Then: “What do you make of Jack?”
“A romantic anarchist with a healthy stash of dollars.”
“In a funny way I like him. Do you think he meant what I think he meant about Vietnam?”
“Ask him,” I suggested.
But once we were back in the big room, Jack was nowhere to be seen. We asked, we were told he’d left.
We settled up, collected our bags and stepped out into the Indian high noon. For an hour or more, we strolled around, along the cliff top, down to the beach, where an ice cream vendor was pushing his bike through the ungiving sand, tinkling a silver bell. Back on the cliff path, passing the Velvet Dawn Café, we heard Jack before we saw him. He emerged, in the company of an Indian aged about fifteen. Jack’s baseball cap was back on his head. Its extravagant peak, like a kind of protective awning, took a bit of attention away from the nose, but not much.
“Hi there again,” Jack beamed. “You two decided to stay in Varkala?” We said that no, really we had to make tracks.
“Come on, don’t be so damn Western.”
“No, we really do need to go”
“Nobody needs to go anywhere.”
“All the same, we should be heading back”.
“’You should be heading back.’ You Brits.”
Claire waited a moment, then jumped: “What did you mean earlier, about Vietnam?”
“Why do people still rattle on about Vietnam?”
“Well, ‘rattle on’ is a bit…”
“Vietnam wasn’t a story, it never was a story. Now maybe it’s a story, now they’re flipping out over the oil.”
Another pause. Claire’s intuition was that Jack would find all the words he needed never to answer her questions, not now, not in an hour, not tomorrow, not in ten years.
“Good bye, Jack. Good luck with the election.”
“Come back next year. I’ll be Mayor, I promise. The monarch of all I survey.”
Jack’s arm circled, thick as cannon. His hand came to rest on the head of the fifteen year old Indian.
“Here’s the only oil round these parts.”
The boy’s midnight hair was heavy with coconut.
“Here’s where I choose to hang my hat.”
NORMAN – WE LEARNT LATER that this was his name – was sitting alone, facing the gardens, a straw hat on his head. We’d arrived on the overnight charter from London to Trivandrum. The temperature was a lot higher than had been announced from the flight deck. The Palm Shore Hotel was the first drop of five on the courtesy coach’s itinerary. It stood at the crown of a long hill down to the beach where the other hotels were bunched. Ours was a tranquil place, nicely appointed, three stars, and an awning for the Ambassador taxis to park under, outside the double doors of the entrance. Inside, things were neat, featureless, and free of ostentation. Such guests as were in the lobby were middle aged and looked sensible. Their smiles in our direction were as thin as the chamomile tea four of them were sipping at a low table. No noise, and not a young child in sight. The rep explained that the Palm Shore, deliberately or not, did not meet the UK’s Health and Safety standards regarding stairs, railings and banisters. No youngsters, therefore, and no rowdiness. Claire said, “I wonder if Anita Brookner comes here?”
Half an hour later, taking fuller stock, I saw that Norman hadn’t budged. He was in the same wicker chair, his hat was still in place, he was still looking at the view which took in not just the terraced gardens but also the well screened swimming pool and, further off, the beach of over whose pure sand the deceptive breakers of the Arabian Sea spread themselves wide. Norman was wearing locally made clothes, run up no doubt by one of the twenty or so tailors who lined the road to the beach, each one with his own elderly Singer sewing machine placed usually in front of the shop. Norman’s trousers were of linen, his shirt of the lightest cotton. Its Nehru collar disclosed a chicken’s neck. A young waiter appeared and exchanged a few words with Norman, who promptly got up. He was not tall and his build was light. For some reason, he removed his hat and followed the waiter in the direction of the kitchens. His hair, what remained of it, was grey and close-cropped. I judged him to be in his early sixties, maybe a little less. He passed by and smiled. His walk was springy and delicate, his teeth bright, regular, but too prominent. Eye contact was fleeting. In fact, after this first encounter, I don’t think Norman’s eyes met mine more than twice.
What did happen, though, was that he became very talkative. He was a treasure trove of information. This was his sixth trip to South India. He’d been all over the State of Kerala. His favourite place was not this village, Kovalam, but another, further up the coast, called Varkala. November to January were his preferred months, when the temperature was not excessive. It was certainly better to be in the heat and dust and colours of India than fighting coughs and colds in Ireland. Norman wasn’t Irish, though, but a West Midlander who’d sold up his business and chosen to retire to County Monaghan. For the hotel staff, Norman was therefore Mr Island. They all knew Mr Island, and he knew them all, waiters, cooks, cleaners, gardeners, pool attendants. In his fluting voice, he referred to them collectively — The Boys. They knew the food he liked. He couldn’t stomach anything other than English, so his breakfast, waiting for him every day on his table, was muesli, fruit juice, a pot of tea, and two fried eggs, sunny side up. His sun lounger was ever ready, either by the pool, or in his favourite spot, near the rocks on the beach.
If Norman left the hotel precinct, it was to go halfway down the hill to Mr Biju’s. His tiny café — not quite the right word, not quite the right concept — was easy to miss, but Norman had nosed it out on his first trip a few years before. Mr Biju’s establishment was difficult of access. Down the slightest of alleyways, between a tailor’s and a Muslim travel agent, you found a flight of stairs which led up to an open area covered by a shaky roof of palm fronds. One end was fitted out with a table and two old wooden chairs. The other seemed to be a makeshift living area, perhaps Mr Biju’s quarters. Norman said that Mr Biju made the most wonderful chai, and would cook you anything you wanted, including the best English breakfast.
We climbed the stairs on our second morning, and ordered chai. Mr Biju served it in dubious cups. He was around forty five, and running to fat. His eyes shone a luminous smile. We sipped our chai, and mentioned Norman. “Mr Island! My friend!” Mr Biju sat himself down on an upturned crate. “I take him tonight to Film Festival in Trivandrum. On my motorbike”
Back at the hotel, Norman said, “So you’ve met Mr Biju. Isn’t he a lovely fellow? He’s so innocent. Did he tell you he’s a dancer? He would have gone into it professionally, he’s that good, only there was an arranged marriage, and now he’s got four kids. I love watching him dance. Can’t myself. I’ve got two left feet.”
One of the Boys was passing, and Norman got up to intercept him. “I’m being taken to the best tailor. Mr Saju.” Later that day, a thrilled Norman announced that he’d been measured for a silk dressing gown, in the style of his favourite one back in County Monaghan. It was in the most gorgeous green. Then he asked us if we’d like to go next evening to a beach party he was throwing for Mr Biju and the Boys. It would be just a few beers down by the rocks, maybe a drop of rum, and a bit of improvised music and dancing. He wanted to show his appreciation to everyone for all the help and attention they’d given him. Everybody had been so friendly, so beautifully mannered, nothing had been too much trouble. “They’re such lovely boys, they’ll do anything for you.” Norman was eager that we should see what he meant about Mr Biju’s dancing. It would be worth our while popping down, about eight o’clock. We didn’t have to stay long.
We braved the road next morning, and the shopkeepers’ artillery assault: “Hello, hello, yes please, you come inside, just have a look…maybe tomorrow?” One in particular persisted, a tailor, waving urgently at us in from where he sat at his sewing machine. “You friend of Mr Island?” It turned out to be Mr Saju. “ Tell him shirting is ready. Dressing gown not today. Please come in, I show you.” The shirt Norman had ordered was on a hanger, in prime position. Claire muttered that actually, it wasn’t too badly made, especially at two hundred rupees, or £2.35p. But the colour was impossible. An unreal green, garish as a parakeet, and probably luminous at night.” “My god,” I said, “I hope his dressing gown isn’t the same.” “You like shirting?” the tailor asked me. “I make you the same?”
I capitulated and agreed. “Same shirt, OK, but a different colour.”
“Come please tomorrow. It will be ready.”
I wore Mr Saju’s shirt to Norman’s beach party, which almost didn’t happen. We were ready at eight, sitting on our balconies, waiting for a sign. From the beach, invisible now in the deep night, came nothing save the sighing of waves. At eight thirty, when we were starting to think of alternative plans, Norman appeared. He smelt of duty free perfume. He was in loose cotton trousers, flip flops, and the green shirt. Now it was on him, and not hanging among the rolls of variegated material in Mr Saju’s shop, it looked even worse, quite terrible. But Norman was happy. “I’m very pleased with it. I’ll keep it for parties and such like back home.” Even in the Emerald Isle, though, this would be a green too far.
We followed Norman down to the beach and over to the rocks. Before we saw the Boys, we heard them — laughter, the liquid sounds of the Malayalam language, short bursts of high pitched singing. We arrived, there were handshakes for us, and more tactile greetings for Norman. Once our eyes had adjusted, we saw the naked torsos, small, shapely, glinting. “They look so innocent, so happy” said Norman. One of the Boys was behaving erratically, giggling as he headed off towards the water. “Very young, he’s drinking too much rum.” Another started to sing, banging out a rhythm on one thigh. The rest, except the one now in the sea, joined in. A complicated story of some sort unfolded, and about twenty bars in, Mr Biju decided it needed the benefit of his dance. He got to his feet, took up position, and waited for the thigh slapper to give him his cue. Then he was away. He splayed his short legs outwards, bent his knees a little, and assumed a semi squatting stance. For a troubling moment, I thought he was going to move his bowels. But in that position, he began to circle, arms raised, hands rotating, fingers expressively pointed in various directions. He stamped through a full 360 degrees. Then he loosened his muscles, straightened up, and began to move with fluidity and even some grace. He twisted and turned as the music became more urgent and more tuneless. In the next phase, Mr Biju swayed his hips and fluttered his arms as if he were assuming the role of the female partner, though the concept of a woman partnering the man was alien to this style of dancing. But in the darkness, what with his fleshy upper body and the hint of breasts, Mr Biju transcended strict gender division. The tempo got faster, the singer upped the ante, and must have been raising weals on his poor thigh. The rest of the Boys were now contributing rhythmic hand claps and shouts of encouragement – except for the rum drinker, who was prone on the sand, making sounds of no consequence.
The song and dance came to an end. Claire and I applauded politely. “How you like Mr Biju dance?” It was very good, we said, very interesting. Norman said nothing for a moment, then stood up and went to get a bottle of beer from the bag which had been semi hidden behind a rock. Kerala is notionally a dry State. Norman stood by the rocks, bottle in hand, facing away from us, looking into the impenetrable night. The Boys helped themselves to beers of their own, and sat down to drink and laugh. Mr Biju dropped his empty bottle onto the sand, and called to Norman. “Mr Island, now you dance for me and The Boys.”
Norman came out of his reverie and rejoined the party. “You know I can’t dance, you’ve seen.”
“Please, you do the Shivering Stick.”
“That’s what they say I look like,” said Norman to us. “I dare say they’re right.”
The thigh slapping started again, unaccompanied, just a rhythm. Norman took up his position. On what he judged to be the lead beat, he began simultaneously to move his hips and to flute some lines of a song which I eventually recognised. Cole Porter: “It’s the wrong time and the wrong place/Though your face is charming it’s the wrong face.” Too complex for him musically, Norman made a hash of it. He did keep going, though, jiggling his body above his feet, which didn’t move from their spot, but just ground further and further into the sand. Yes, it was the Shivering Stick. Mr Biju’s definition was poetically accurate.
The performance finished. While my applause and Claire’s lacked conviction, that of Mr Biju and The Boys was ecstatic. Their chatter and laughter filled the beach. Norman looked neither pleased nor embarrassed. Discomfited was the word. Then he decided that the festivities had run their course. The Boys gathered up the empties; one of them grabbed an arm of the rum drinker and yanked him to his risky feet. With a smart “Good night”, issued to no one in particular, Norman left the beach ahead of the rest of us.
We hardly saw him after that. Once or twice only, in the restaurant, where he took his place to eat his English food, wearing his straw hat. He left three days after the beach party, and returned to County Monaghan in time for Christmas with his wife and twin teenage daughters. We gleaned this later from the tour rep, who also told us that, despite having a family, Norman always travelled alone, weeks and months at a time. He’d been all over India, as well as Cambodia, China, Latin America, North Africa. His wife was called Margaret, and she preferred to stay in Ireland and do things with her local church.
We also found out that as well as the twin girls, Norman and Margaret had had a boy, who’d died seventeen years before, at the age of six. It was then that Norman had started to wander.
THE INDIAN SUN WAS doing its evening thing. The blood red saucer declined over a rice field where three cows stood, and a glistening buffalo moved occasionally, an egret riding on its back.
The surprise, for us at least, was the distant smear of brown, pulsing with life. Claire focused the binoculars, and realised that we were looking at two to three thousand farmyard ducks in a state of some excitement. They appeared to be expecting something or someone, and for good reason, because three men appeared and positioned themselves, one on either side of the long gaggle, and the third at the far end. A signal must have been given, or a tacit instruction understood, because the duck in pole position set off a waddle, a touch puffed up, left to right as we viewed. The rest fell in behind, and, corralled by the three herdsmen’s staves, began their forced march. Claire and I took turns with the binoculars, and after a minute or so we understood that the diminutive army was inching its way towards a fenced compound which you’d have thought far too small to accommodate such numbers. Progress was steady and noisy. The ducks kept up a running commentary. Bit by bit, they made it to the compound, and passed through the neck of its single entrance. The compound filled up surprisingly fast, the little waddlers appearing to know what was expected of them, and falling in obediently. For one fleeting moment, in this sweating paddy field on the Indian sub-continent, I saw a cartoon parody of Euopean death camps.
That’s when we met Sam and Noor Hani, these days of New Jersey. They’d arrived a little after us at the mooring station, in a houseboat a lot more capacious and luxurious than our own bargain basement affair. They too had stepped ashore in the hope of finding a decent walk to redress a slow day spent entirely in large armchairs placed on their forward deck, and punctuated by Masala tea and lime sodas. Their joints felt like concrete, they said. Sam and Noor were in the late sixties, at a guess. Noor, with her clear features and dark hair, seemed a lot less. Sam, though, looked as if he’d been around the block. For a smallish man, he was carrying a ridiculous amount of weight. Where he walked, his stomach led, and the rest of him followed as best it could. The advancing years had seen off most of his hair. What remained flew about every which way. Sam wore large square spectacles, thick-lensed and heavy framed. They needed a good clean, in contrast to his teeth, which surely were the handiwork of a Jersey orthodontist back in the States – or possibly of one out here, in Allepey or Cochin. \
But the most startling aspect of Sam’s appearance was his skin. It was in a dreadful state. While fifty percent of it was wholemeal brown, the other half was a lifeless white with a slight tinge of pink. It looked raw and very unhappy. Claire told me later that it was vitiligo, a complaint I’d not heard of. Oh yes, she said, there was a fair amount of it about in this part of the world. She’d even seen a major loss of pigmentation a few days earlier on the ears of an old elephant in a field outside Kollam, lifting an outsize log.
“Are you new to India?” asked Noor.
“Yes, our first time,” we replied.
“Quite something, isn’t it?”
“Indeed, quite something.”
The wet buffalo was catching the sun’s last fires. The egret continued on its back.
“Where are you from?” asked Noor.
We told her.
“We were in England once, in Crawley, close to Gatwick Airport.”
I said oh yes, I knew that area well. Had they been to Ashdown Forest or Sheffield Park, or maybe the Royal Pavilion in Brighton? They hadn’t.
The ducks were now penned in, the whole teeming lot, crowded but amazingly well disciplined, as though they knew their script by heart. Perhaps this parcel of land was home to them, their night time security. I know nothing of the mental make up of palmipeds, let alone of most human beings. Which I dropped into the conversation, causing Sam to explode with mirth.
“Neither do I, and I’m a trained psychologist!”
Somehow that didn’t square with the back story I’d made up for him, much too hastily.
“Why don’t you come onto our ship for some tea?” Noor suggested. ‘Ship’ was no exaggeration.
A member of the on board staff plumped up the cushions of our armchairs and took orders for tea. Even alcohol, if we were discreet, said Sam.
We settled back with our cups of black tea. Darkness had now fallen well and truly, and the low watt light bulbs of several houseboats cast shifting reflections onto the water. Evening meals were being prepared; Biryani, Bhindi Masala, Machi Yeh Kya, Navaratham Korma, depending presumably on how much the particular boat had cost to hire.
“You like your tea? Can I get you some more?” Noor was the perfect hostess. “Maybe a few biscuits?”
“Thank you, no. This is absolutely fine. So, you’re a psychologist.”
“I was going to be, but I never practiced. I did my BA in Gujarat. That’s where we’re from, Ahmedabad. I did my Masters in Bombay – can’t get used to saying Mumbai.”
“Perhaps you’d like to try some lime soda with ginger? It’s most refreshing in the evening.”
And it was. A revelation. The night was hot, still, and airless.
“I’ll go inside now. I can’t stand the mosquitoes. It was lovely to meet you.”
Noor retreated to her air-conditioned cabin.
“After 37 years in the USA, even our immune system can’t cope with blessed mosquitoes” said Sam.
Claire and I, of course, were covered in bites of all sorts. We’d ceased caring; the itching impinged only lightly on our consciousness, busy as we were with so much else. Anyway, Kerala supposedly was free from malaria.
“I was lucky to get recommended for research work at Berkeley” Sam continued. “You know of Berkeley?”
“Oh yes, one of the top universities in the States.”
“And in the world. I only stayed for one year, though.”
Sam was holding his spectacles up to the naked light bulb to see if there was any portion of the lenses that still let light through.
“My goodness, I need new glasses.”
In this poor light, the vitiligo on Sam’s dewlapped arm looked jaundiced and painful. Claire thought again of that poor elephant.
Noor came out of her cabin. “The A/C isn’t working,” she said. “It’s cooler out here.”
Sam called out something, perhaps in Hindi, perhaps in the local Malayalam, and a member of staff appeared instantly, and after more words, disappeared into Noor’s cabin.
“Do you have children?” asked Noor. We told her, and enquired about theirs.
“Four,” said Noor, “all daughters, I’m afraid.”
Sam said: “The two youngest were born in the US. One is doing a Masters in Economics at Emory, the other is taking Business Studies at NYU. They are pretty bright girls.”
“And the older two?”
“They are happily married,” said Noor. “They stay at home, look after their children.”
“They’re traditional girls,” Sam said. “Born in Gujarat. They didn’t mind that Noor and I were making this trip to India, but the youngest ones couldn’t figure it out at all. It’s not in their bones.”
There was the merest ripple of water, the quietest plash. At first we couldn’t discern the canoe slipping past. Then we picked out the silhouette of an old man using his paddle just enough to keep the glide smooth.
“Isn’t that something?” said Sam.
“Welcome to my country,” said Sam.
“Quite wonderful,” said Claire.
“Gets under the skin, doesn’t it? I haven’t seen this in nearly forty years, but it’s there, imprinted in me. It’s never forgotten.”
“Quite wonderful,” Claire repeated.
The crewman emerged from Noor’s cabin.
“I’m afraid the A/C is broken.”
“Never mind,” said Noor.
Along the mooring station, each houseboat had its kitchen door open, vertical oblongs of yellow light. The air was alive with cardamom, ginger, garlic, fennel. At intervals, cooks emerged in their lunghis or dhotis, to embark on extravagant hawking up of phlegm, followed by its discharge into the water.
“So why didn’t you stay on at Berkeley?” Claire asked Sam.
“You know, in India family is everything. My father had had cancer for a long time, and when I left it got a lot worse. After my first year in California, he was obliged to quit work altogether. I had three sisters, like the Chekhov play, all younger than me. My father received only three hundred rupees a month pension, which is quite ridiculous, and my mother had no marketable skills. So I had to come back. I found a clerical position in Ahmedabad, very menial, in a rubber tyre company.”
“And we got married,” said Noor. “And had our first two daughters.” We didn’t enquire whether it had been an arranged marriage.
“Our two Indian daughters — that’s how I think of them — they fully understand why we wanted to come back to visit.”
“Yes, you said. But not the other two.”
“Oh well, they did grant their permission on condition that we pay for them to join us here and have a free holiday in the final two weeks. “
“To see what the fuss is all about, they say.”
“How come you ended up in the States again?” I asked.
“My job in Ahmedabad didn’t pay well enough to keep the family going for long. There were nine mouths to feed now. ‘You’re the brains in the family’, my father said, ‘so go back to America and make us pots of money’.”
“And you did, my darling,” said Noor. “You were a good son.”
“Not quite a fortune, but enough.”
Independent of Sam’s tell tale belly, I guessed from the luxury of the houseboat and from Noor’s bling jewellery that they had prospered.
“I got a job in a food factory in Escanaba, Michigan, for a couple of years. Then I went over to the management side.”
“And he discovered he’d got a wonderful head for business,” Noor added.
“How can you go wrong?” said Sam. “People have got to eat.”
“Indian food?” asked Claire.
“Oh my goodness, you have never been to Escanaba! No, fish.”
One of the houseboat staff appeared to announce that dinner was ready to be served.
“We must leave you,” we said. “Ours will be on the table too.”
“It was really nice meeting you.”
“And you. Thanks so much for the tea, and the conversation.”
“A pleasure.” Sam held out his mottled hand to each of us in turn.
“Take good care,” said Noor.
We returned to our boat. When food was done, we lay flat on the deck listening to the crickets and watching the fireflies.
We rose early next morning after a bad night in the stifling cabin. We decided to walk to the paddy field to check if the guards had released the three thousand ducks yet. They had. The compound was deserted, a flat area of dust. We headed back, and saw that Sam and Noor’s boat was making its way out to the middle of the river. They were sitting at the breakfast table. Noor spotted us and stood up. Sam was busy with curry and rice cakes and rhoti bread. He looked up and waved an arm. Again, the vitiligo was startlingly clear, raw looking, even at that distance. We waved back.
“Can it ever be cured?” I asked Claire.
“No.” she said, “It’s like most skin things. You’ve just got to learn to live with it.”
We arrived back alongside our boat.
A crouching man with an improvised bow and arrow arrangement was scrutinising the water beneath the bows of our boat. Suddenly he tensed, and let out a soft, very high pitched whistle. He gave the surface of the water a single sharp smack with the flat of his hand, then stood up straight, took aim, and fired his arrow. It was attached to a length of fine thread, which he hauled in fast. A thrashing silver fish broke the surface. The man seized it and transferred it to a plastic bag, which already contained four of five fish, still twisting.
The man was no more than six or seven feet from where we stood watching. Not once did he look in our direction, let alone greet us. The studious intelligence of his face was emphasised by the heavy bifocal glasses which were jammed halfway down his nose. He stood for a few moments more, checking, then he moved on to the next houseboat, his gaze never straying from the water immediately below him. As we climbed aboard our boat, Claire asked if I’d noticed the state of his skin.
Martin Sorrell is a BBC radio playwright and Emeritus Professor of French at Exeter University, where he teaches an MA course on Literary Translation. He has published widely in the field of translation, including three volumes in the Oxford University Press World’s Classics series, and the first substantial anthology of modern French poetry by women. In June, his two new translations of Verlaine appeared in the Fortnightly Review. His most recent publication is Baudelaire: Paris Spleen. Two of his translations have won BCLA/John Dryden prizes, and one original play for the BBC, a Mental Health Media Award for Best Radio Drama. In November 2010 he will present a programme about Apollinaire’s war poetry.