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Flying back to Kerala


The morning flight from Kuwait has got me into Trivandrum at 6a.m., very cool. A little Hindi gets the taxi fare down to a sane level and the old Ambassador has crabbed its way, lurching and leering like closing time, trackrod ends and steering box totally shot.

So now I’m strolling down the hill by the lighthouse, fending off early morning touts, looking forward to seeing my old friend. I choose the beach route as the sand is just firm where the warm Indian Ocean tide caresses what is perhaps her favourite bay. It’s unusually cloudy for December, change in the air? And as I hit the beach I see the first. The whole contour of the shoreline has changed,  with my sandy playground scored by a marked step, although happily, not as excessive as that in June, monsoon time, when at high tide the voracious waves attempt to mill away the western walls of Kashmiri handicraft shops. In fifteen years I have not seen this…a global warning?

At this time of day the beach is quiet, either punctuated with the odd aspiring western yogi, often quite beautiful, or for parentheses, a runner. The chai shops are getting ready for breakfast business, their proprietors blessing paraffin fired hobs and the small float in the till drawer with the sandal smoke from a sheaf of joss sticks, and lastly ,a prayer to Ganesh , who sits replete amongst a postered pantheon of Hindu deities. I expect to see the Lamani gypsies, a human collage of mirrored patchwork and entangled jewelry, setting up their awned pitches in the sand. If there is a chink in the procession of beach side shops and cafes, or an area of littered waste ground, they will be sure to exploit it.

This time I see none. It’s very sad. Against the lush green palms and in the oh so bright Kerala sun, they are the colour of Kovalam, having made their annual pilgrimage here from the harsh lands of Gadag in Karnataka some six hundred miles to the north. I plod on around the bay, my desert boots seeming totally incompatible with sand this day, and finally turn up into Flamingo restaurant, my regular eyrie. From here I watch beautiful people, muse at freaks, smoke cheap Panama, and wash down the whole experience with a continuous stream of strong milk coffee. When inspired, and it does happen, I swim the bay, half a mile, just to prove I am not over the hill yet!

I dump my gear..I have learned to travel light…one small rucksack taken from the girls, having emptied it’s contents of loosely assimilated school books and well thumbed posters of Pete Andre and Tupac Shaker, lastly and importantly, my crash helmet.

Sibi, our waiter friend of three years, is still asleep on a table outback. He works probably eighteen hours a day and is saving to go to Palghat College for an economics degree. Keralites have an enviable work ethic but conflicting family obligations. No sooner is money saved for the academic bash but another sister needs marrying off and his rupees prioritized. Oh India!

He wakes puffy and bleary eyed, greeting me affectionately with a big hug. This is a first. Ordinarily with Indians I have always noticed a polite and respectful distance. Over coffee I learn that the gypsies have been banned from the beach. They are blessed with very bright, beautiful and streetwise kids. Impish daughters, preteen, parade their wares and exchange amusing multilingual conversation and broad smiles in the hope of selling  overpriced and impractical textiles or at least the freebee of a coke or banana milkshake. One is compelled to think that in its children, India has an untapped and unexploited resource. Unfortunately exploitation of a western kind has arrived in the form of the package tourist, a meagre breed at his best, and a more sinister member of that herd, sadly a Brit, has been caught with two gypsy girls in his room. All the girls have now been exiled by the authorities back to the dust of Gadag!

I do learn that my friend of fourteen years, Samba, is still here. On my last trip he was, when not euphoric on excellent grass, toying with selling his property which has always been my base. It comprises a simple brick built bungalow but with the sensible inclusion of village architectural ways, a boarded ceiling and palm thatch roof. The rooms are as cool as its owner, set in a walled sandy compound, regularly swept with a rush besom by his aging mother, a devout worshipper of Kali and a true matriarch. I cannot name the flowering shrubs which hug the walls for shade, but last year entangled within a principal bush, the delight of a pair of weaver birds, there flowered for the first time a tiger orchid, five or six petals like curled esso tails. Samba had said this was a good omen and as usual we had smiled.

Samba is the most likeable of men, warm, open hearted, highly conversational whether stoned or otherwise, and incredibly lazy. He has never really worked and how he has survived to date has always held my curiosity. He loves beauty, particularly in foreign women, who, through the years he has successfully seduced. When asked about his conquests one time, and counting, he was horrified to discover that China had as yet not known his pleasure.

So, tired after a twelve hour flight and its attendant hassle, I gather up my gear and thread my way through the walled pathways, nocturnal piscines, past rows of tailor’s shops, good grief a barber…that’s a new one, cheap rooms, smiles from massage ladies of the Ayurvedic kind and a namaskarum from the little general store I patronise. It is no more than a hole in the wall but they stock all my simple needs. Panama or beedies, shampoo sachets at two rupees or chocolate for those more munchy occasions , are sold with such warmth and gratitude for what must be such insignificant profit. If I have no money to hand, which is the norm in my tattered cut off jeans, a tab is run up. I love these people, I love their trust.
I am nearly there, a vanguard for my wife and the girls who arrive from Sri Lanka tomorrow. I am really looking forward to Samba’s welcoming grin and his annual confirmation of my continued youth and health. At this time of day he is usually to be seen squatting on top of his gate pillar, dhoti worn short style, deftly rolling the first of many beedi based reefers, and holding court with the locals as they stroll about their business. He is not there. In fact the gate is missing and as I near I see the boundary wall collapsed and broken, the garden strewn with litter and the palm thatch tattered and embrittled from the abuse of June’s monsoon. I am sad to accept that for once Samba’s euphoric apathy has met more than its match in the prospect of becoming a rupee millionaire. The family home has at last been sold.

This is thoroughly depressing and with little discrimination or bargaining I land myself in a hundred rupe room and sleep off the jet lag.

The following morning, and I am at least refreshed but with a lingering sadness at recent discoveries and the fact that this place, my bastion of laissez faire and innocence could be changing, I stroll in to the nearest chai shop for breakfast. At least the Indian crows haven’t changed as they dive bomb the tables for scraps of fallen chapati and brown bread. There’s a thought, Samba for a while had made quite a killing with a primitive bread oven in his back garden, fuelled by charcoal and the bread dough placed in old milk powder tins. The brown, yeasty, mealy product was cylindrical and, save for one end, crustless. I wondered whether the new baker could ever have Samba’s charisma. Aimlessly I flip through the menu, incredulous at this year’s laser printed version, scanning for malayali translational error and quirkiness.

…Lemon Tea Rs.5..Ginger Tea Rs.5.. Hot Coffee Rs.8.. Irish Coffee, deleted with ‘no possible’ and I’m thinking Irish peace. An interesting array of ‘Sandinitches (one word) are on offer and lastly a selection ‘from the cuckoo’s nest’….par for the course here! either because what you expect is not what you get or there is a fair chance of a crow stealing your purees if you relax your guard and lean back in your chair.

I hear the strains of Tracy Chapman coming from a distant chai shop inland through the palm trees. That’s a comforting sound of the old Kovalam, and Sibi runs in announcing that my wife and the girls have safely arrived. Now with a spring in my step I head back to Flamingo to be warmly greeted by broad white smiles and island brown faces, my wife of seven years, Sujeewa, and her sisters, Priyanka and Sudarga, the girls.

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