Written by Jim Dee
They’d only just entered their hotel room when someone knocked at their door. No doubt a “welcome back” call from PP, Clive thought. Turned out to be their laundry —- consisting of only a few items, as they had little chance to dirty anything before heading out for the island. Both were nevertheless excited at the prospect of examining their clean clothes. Their travel books had described the wondrous world of the dhobi-wallahs: “You know, Maria, the book said that our clothes must have been routed through all sorts of channels, and now they bear secret identifying marks known only to the dhobis.” The clothes came back in perhaps the best shape they’d ever seen them. Clive’s tee-shirt, for example, had been painstakingly ironed, folded around a cardboard insert, and placed in a thin plastic baggie (as had another shirt and some jeans).
“Well, it cant be too secret of a marking method,” Maria said, “because someone’s written our room number on my shirt’s tag.”
With little or no dalliance, Clive and Maria decided to hit the town. Perhaps the island had instilled some confidence in them after all. Maria had studied the travel guides much more than had Clive. She decided that some exposure to traditional Kerala dancing would provide the best introduction to Kerala culture. Tonight’s destination: Director Devan’s Kathakali.
Mr. Devan’s home (just as most of the other nearby homes) occupied largely the entire space of perhaps a half-acre inside of a six-or-so-foot tall brick wall. Nearly all of the homes in this part of the world were, for varying reasons, walled in on three and three-quarters sides—with the remainder reserved for a gate. Gates varied in style and grandeur from basic sliding sheets of metal to hinged iron-bar types (with the iron-bar types, however, being the most grand).
When they arrived, the taxi driver offered to wait—for the entire hour and a half show—for them. In declining this offer (and to the disappointment of the cabbie), they effectively severed their Indian umbilical cords. Sometimes in life, therefore, even leaving a taxi is a rebirth.
At this moment, the evening began with the night sky flaring into a deep-bright orange, the birds seemed a bit more variated and tropical—scissoring through the shadows and branches of the neighborhood. Sari-clad women greeted the couple, accepted the admission charges, and escorted them up three stories through the home onto a rooftop patio. Clive and Maria applied Deet once again.
Several other tourists soon arrived, and each seemed to follow the same ritualistic application of repellent. Cumulatively, the group managed to drive any biting pests away for the duration of the evening-making for a rather pleasant rooftop experience. At that height, one sat only slightly over the palm canopy of the city, allowing one to question whether the old homes rested under, between, or was it perhaps among the trees. Whatever the perfect description, the architecture harmonized well with the landscape, almost as if the structures magically found house-sized lots in which to spring up snugly between existing trees. Of course, it could be that palms grow quickly.
A slightly raised stage backed by a silk curtain made up approximately one half of rooftop. Soon, one thin and one stocky man emerged from behind the curtain, assumed the lotus position on the stage floor, and began applying various colors to their faces. They used large leaves for palattes and thin wooden sticks for applicators. Each held a pocket-sized mirror as he worked, and neither seemed to take much notice of the dozen or so audience members.
When Devan finally came out, the two seemed to have applied many of the basic colors (one’s face was predominantly green, the other’s red and black) and the thin green man reclined to lay on his back. The red and balck man traced the curve of the green man’s jaw-lines on pieces of paper, then cut out two large fan-like shapes and glued one edge of each onto the green man’s face so that, facing the green man, his face appeared to widen dramatically into powerful jowls.
Devan spoke as the two men finished. A serene-looking man, dressed in white, he explained that Kathakali, meaning literally story play, celebrates the larger-than-life activities of the Gods. The wide jaws were simply an exaggeration of size, as was every aspect of the Kathakali costume. The wigs: black, matted, extra thick and long; the skirts: vivid, tassled. On each finger of one hand, each actor wore pointy metal extensions—not for weapons, but to exaggerate the intricate hand gestures required of the dance. “The black paint around their eyes,” he began, “is made from burned coconut oil.”
As Devan spoke, Clive considered how much more beautifully pronounced the word coconut was in this country. No one ever seemed to rush the word out as Americans do. Kerala seemed, after all, a relatively patient atmosphere: that is, its residents demonstrated great patience in tolerating the heat, in coping with poverty, in accommodating its tourists, etc. They seemed, as a whole, disciplined. Schools abounded in the territory, espousing auervedic techniques of medicine, massage, and yoga—all stressing patience in one way or another. But the Kerala natives seemed to relax as they said coconut, pronouncing each full “k” sound before each full long- “o” sound, as if in appreciation, reverence, even worship of the crop of their livlihood.
“The oil we can cook with . . . the fruit we can eat . . . we can drink its milk . . . the husks we can dry and make into coir . . . the leaves we weave into baskets . . . we do not waste the shell or even the wood . . . The name Kerala comes from two words: one la, meaning land. The other kera, meaning coconut. So we have Kera la: Land of coconut.” He continued to explain basic Hindu philosophy, and narrateed a short sequence using one of the dancers to demonstrate the importance Kathakali places on eye movements.
The dancer, for each demonstration, held his eyebrows as high as he could and forced his eyes wide as humanly posible. Upon mentioning one emotion, the dancer’s eyes traced wide rapid circles, upon another, the dancer’s eyes darted to extreme lefts and rights, still another emotion set the dancer’s eyes rolling into his head, finally resembling fast upward-spinning slot machine reels. Before the dance-proper began, Devan told the now-captive audience of the painstaking training involved in producing a Kathakali dancer. Several years of dance, eye and face muscle training, and massage were required. Finally, he mentioned the holy book: “I see all of you are clutching your bibles. That’s good.” He refered to the Lonely Planet travel guide, which at least one person from every group indeed had.
Looking back, both Clive and Maria agreed that Devan’s explanation of interpreting the dance and its stories fell into the the category of “perfectly acceptable and clear . . . at the time.” Further, both succinctly remembered experiencing a moment of bona fide understanding and, though short-lived in itself, the memory of having experienced it was permanent. Director Devan seemed driven, as though on a holy mission to educate. Perhaps the most intense part of understanding, when understanding concepts of a true character in life—that is, of someone driven—requires the presence of that person. After separating oneself from that person, one approximates, but never fully grasps, the point. In this case, the newly acquired knowledge of Hinduism, of dance, of Kerala, Clive and Maria later considered secondary; they considered the dance itself of primary importance—how, when it began in the high evening air, large birds swooped in and out of view, the gentle Arabian Sea breezes cooled them, and almost on cue, as the dance began accompanied by drum and cymbals, other nearby companies commenced their evening’s performances—and the night sky of Kerala, the land of coconuts, filled with the drums and bells of Kathakali.
“Of course,” Clive thought outloud as the two walked down the alley after the performance, “there is the theory that, in third-world nations like India with sizeable tourism industries, maybe such art is as much business as it is art —- a way for the people to tap into the foreign cash. With exchange rates and all, we seem to be walking around with a fortune in our pockets. Why not tap into some of that, eh?” He began moving his eyes around wildly at Maria. “You really think it’s for real —- or am I doing it right?”
As she walked, Maria leafed through a hand-out she’d picked up at Devan’s. One side bore a listing of quotes, from various tourists, in praise of the performance. The list included Gunter Grass (although spelled “G-u-n-t-h-e-r”), who summed up his comments with “I liked it very much.” Clive asked, “Didn’t he write a book called The Rat?”
“Well, if he flew to Bombay first, he probably did!”
Many taxis and auto-rickshaws scurried about the residential labyrinthe by this time—presumably because most of the local Kathakali dance performances had finished. Maria flagged down an auto-rickshaw (the couple’s first experience with one), inquired and enthusiastically approved of the rates, and the two hopped in and were swept away. Auto-rickshaws bring the traveler so much closer to the people and places, the couple thought: the air engulfs you, and you seem to brush only inches by people on the roadsides, gesturing to them, etc. Both concluded that, while loads of fun (and cheap), the auto-rickshaws must be responsible for much of the air pollution in the country. Emmissions standards seemed non-existent country-wide, mufflers weren’t to be found, and even the more remote areas contained a certain burnt smell.
The hotel staff welcomed the couple back and mentioned a free Kathakali performance happening near the pool. The performance had almost finished as Clive and Maria arrived. While the characters appeared more elaborate than those seen earlier in the evening (the wicked character seemed much wickeder) the westernized pool-side atmosphere detracted a bit from the authenticity. When the actors finished, the troup leader—a wealthy-looking old Indian man complete with a banana-colored collared shirt and, according to a tourist, “the largest pair of eyeglasses I’ve ever seen”—who had chanted and played the bells, brought his palms together and bowed in thanks to the applause.
That evening, a violent electrical storm blew over. Clive and Maria discussed the function of the storm for the international traveler: it seems to force one into at least slowing down, catching one’s breath. But sometimes, it forces one further into contemplation: Does this lightning seem different or something, foreign, perhaps? In any case, some perhaps ineffible quality of the storm intrigued both of them as they reclined onto their wicker cot. They’d had a taste of the local culture, which perhaps influenced their perceptions of the storm, and they joked about the onset of the monsoon season (still a couple months away). Maria found herself especially enjoying this, opening her eyes wide and loudly repeating, “Monsoon! Monsoon!”
The following morning, after the obligatory uttapam, toast, freshly made pineapple and orange juices, and a quick swim, Clive and Maria decided to arrange a tour of the Cochin area. The hotel’s sentry, a cheerful man in olive drab, combat boots, a black beret, and bright white gloves signaled for a taxi, and as luck would have it, they got George. George spkoe just enough English so that when Clive asked him where he lived, he replied, “Kerala is mostly Hindu.”
Just the same, George knew well the word “tour,” and so headed in the direction of St. Francis Church. The sheer numbers of seemingly stray animals amazed the couple. One notices stray dogs in the states, Clive thought, because the sight is relatively rare. Here, they’re everywhere—amid stray goats and of course, cows. Clive had sent a few cow postcards back to the states reading “Holy Cow!” His theory of the cow’s psychological effect on American tourists in India stemmed all the way back to [year]-the year in which Charlton Heston played Moses parting the Red Sea, delivering his peoples to the desert where rampant idolatry ultimately produced a golden statue of a calf.
However, in addition to a notable lack of frenzied cow worshippers, a sort of reverse irony overcame the two when George announced the first tour stop as St. Francis Church. The church purports to be the first European Church built in India—erected by a group of Franciscan friars who accompanied a Portugese expedition of 1500 A.D.
A devout crossword puzzler, Clive’s face brightened up considerably upon seeing a familiar name on the information plaque: that oft-used four-letter word which concludes “Vasco da _____.” “. . . Vasco da Gama . . . was laid to rest in 1524 A.D. until his remains were removed and taken to Portugul in 1538 A.D.”
The sign also, by the way, bore some amusing English usage (a quality of Indian signage Clive had already come to appreciate). Toward the bottom, it read, “Some of the Heraldic designs and armorial bearings on the tomb stones are of fine workmanship.”
The church itself was a testament to Kerala’s oven-like hot season. Clive pointed upward, saying, “Christians do need to be cooled.” A complex fanning system hung in mid-air above the pews, whose scaffold-like structure approximated a half dozen over-sized trapeze swings welded and knotted together, from which hung several long, thick straps to act as fan-blades. No one knew exactly when they had implemented the system, but one could do worse than guess around the turn of the 20th century. Operating it had required several laborers outside the building to pull ropes through small holes in the walls (thus gently rocking the entire system). The museum personnel did not mention by what mechanism the laborers were cooled.
The free tour culminated in an invitiation to make several donations. Maria put 100 rupees in the “For the Poor” box, and Clive contributed 50 rupees to the church maintenance fund. Back in the Taxi, Clive joked, “You don’t meet a lot of Vascos these days, do you?”
“Can’t say I’ve met any lately. George, where to now?”
A sign at the entrance read, “Dutch Cemetery, Built on 1724.” The absence of palm trees here struck Clive as odd. For the first time since landing in India, no coconut trees occupied his field of vision. Perhaps the Dutch had relandscaped a few hundred years ago, removing them. The trees lining the cemetery’s perimeter stretched tall, with thick, bare limbs, spreading out what greenery they had at their tops. They resembled certain shorter African trees, in which one might chance upon a family of Serengeti cheetas [check fact, and spelling] lounging about.
The walled-in cemetery housed perhaps 75 or 100 gravesights; large, above ground stone coffers, many half-sunk, their cement tops and sides blackened with age. Various foliage nearly camoflaged the entire place. No where did any entire grave escape the persistent vines and orchids; but there was a definite beauty to the place, where the general unkempt feeling reminded one of a forgotten patch of sea-bottom off some remote island. The grave tops domed like treasure chests, especially those of the children’s graves, whose more square than oblong appearance conjured images of pirates and gems. Other sights, presumably group-sites, emerged from underground with their dark openings, perhaps once doorways. Clive and Maria each stood close enough to some of these to see inside for perhaps a few feet, but even in the superlative brightness of the subcontinent, the grave openings seemed like organized containers for darkness: circles of blackness in an otherwise vivid environment.
A few locals wandered in through the main gate. They made small talk and explained-while laughing-that the cemetery was maintained by the Kerela government. Both wore pink button-down dress shirts and white shorts. “Where are you coming from?” they asked the couple.
“America,” Maria replied, but the two men showed no sign of recognition.
“United States . . .” Clive tried, still with little success-but then remembered the trick: “U-S-A!” he announced.
Both in unison: “Ahh, U-S-A!” (Language had its tricks. No one, for instance, knew what air conditioning was, but all recognized “A-C”; the general response to a thank you was simply “Welcome”; et cetera.)
All, including George, strolled out through the gates and down a gravel road which lead to a shore. The water spanned an area approximately as wide as a good-sized river, with another land-mass opposite. Clive had become quite disoriented as to any sense of direction. The sun—which always seemed to pound directly down—proved of little help here, and neither (arguably, not even George) could say whether the shore faced out to sea or not. But they weren’t far from open sea-that was to be sure. Except, the large crows replaced seagulls here. Years of washed-up driftwood lined the banks. All crows perching here seemed to face seaward, and Clive wondered if they’d taken to hunting fish.
Makeshift wooden docks supported several of the giant Chinese fishing nets (which Clive and Maria had read about in a hotel brochure). From a distance, they resemble lop-sided skeletons of massive tents. Closer in, one begins to formulate theories as to their operation: The giant arced X which holds the net is lowered into the water, and the long pole, supplying great leverage, raises the net once again. Something like that, Clive thought. However abandoned they appeared, closer inspection proved their upkeep. All ends of the nets remained securely fastened in place, and faded flags, seeming to signify ownership, hung from a few of the docks.
A row of open-market carts outlined a nearby area—mostly fruit wagons and soda stands, all beneath makeshift tarp tents. None of the perhaps two dozen people around stood directly in the sunlight, except to walk into the shade of another stall. The trees here, as in the cemetery, were noticeably not palms. “Those Dutch must have figured you get more shade from one of these than a palm tree.”
When the five of them stopped at a soda stand near the shore, Clive mentioned the crows once again, explaining his admiration, and the differences from common American pidgeons.
“In America,” Clive began, slyly wiping the rim of the Thums Up cola bottle, “there’s a woman I’ve seen who sat all day in the park feeding the pidgeons because she was sad. Suddenly, she came up with a new idea to improve her business, and that idea was so successful that she now feels she should thank the birds. So she feeds them 50 pounds of birdseed every day.”
The locals showed only mild surprise, mentioning the hindu philisophy on things of this nature: “This feeding of the birds . . .” one explained, looking around at everyone, “ . . . this is . . . what? . . .” Others around him searched for the precise English word. Finally, he offered his own solution to his fellow locals: “very good?” They all nodded, and he repeated the newfound philosophy to Clive and Maria: “This is very good.” Pleased with this philosophical assessment, he nodded and added, “That is what we would say to this.”
At that point, George mentioned it was time to resume the tour. Clive and Maria said goodbye to the strangers and left. Before reaching the taxi, the couple stopped at a man’s merchandise cart to survey his offerings. The man’s toothless grin evoked several feelings in Clive ranging from a certain sympathy to a realization of the man’s over-pricing, but also that the man did know Clive probably had, relatively, a lot of money handy, and what’s a few rupees anyway?—or so Clive thought, and finally decided to purchase something small.
In the taxi, Maria insisted 50 rupees was too much for a sketch of an elephant. George agreed, although not showing so much of an agreement as to possibly lower any frivolous gratuity which Clive might offer upon the tour’s completion.
Maria spotted an extremely large church, and asked George to stop. The soot-covered facade filled their entire view even from 50 or 60 yards back. As Maria approached, the church’s size seemed to engulf her, and she soon disappeared into one of the openings. From a distance, it seemed, like many other features of the town, abandoned; but closer inspection revealed dozens of people. Clive walked, as Maria had, through the dark vestibule, and into the main hall, into which the sun shone from the opposite site through windows set apart at the top of the church like God’s eyes. Every inch of the place was decorated. Dingy yellow and blue tiles lined every arch, cherubs hovered over each doorway. Vivid silk station-of-the-cross tapestries were nailed to the ceiling. Painted statues of the saints, sky-blue mosaics of omega symbols, red velvet curtains, crucifixes, all topped off with the last supper.
[Ed note: Snipping out a bunch of stuff from the end of this chapter, as it's mostly notes and fragments ... a synagogue, Montecherry palace, murals, cobras, elephants, open sewers, huge roaches, giant bats, lepers, buying pineapple juice in a restaurant....]
Written by Jim Dee
*** Chapter Three ***
That night, Clive’s sequential food-dream continued . . .
But the waiter, thinking himself clever, conspired with the cook to “teach this American a lesson.” They had spiced up Clive’s meal to a level beyond what even the most racy Indian would consider hot: —a sweat-inducing blend of cayenne, crushed tobascos, and probably a dash of something reserved for sacred ceremonies—perhaps for the last rites of great religious leaders before their bodies are set ablaze and sent floating down the Ganges . . . —a blend so terrible, wide-eyed employees began to gather quietly at the sky-blue curtain separating the kitchen from the dining room . . . —a mix so horrible, behind the quietness, one could almost perceive a faint ringing of giant Tibetan bowls . . . —a concoction so entirely feverish, hell beasts granted temporary repreival to all lost souls boiling in the tar pits. . . —an assemblage of such temperature, Aphrodite had summoned her own Eros that he may gather heat to further inflame his “treacherous gifts.”
When he placed the dish before Clive, time ran as if it were the moment the universe reaches its maximum entropy and all things begin again to converge. A fork formed from the cosmic dust of perhaps aeons, and the buzz of the sitar, the hum of conversation, the light cream weave of the tablecloth, the aromas rising, and finally, the dry, dry heat of cauliflower . . .
Maria, the zombie of Delta flight 107, could not sleep from excitement. They’d planned a three-day excursion into the Arabian Sea. By six a.m. breakfast arrived and, jarred awake, Clive discovered Uttapam, his next love. He would never be the same. Uttapam consists of a spongy pancake and an extremely spicy bowl of thick curried soup. Well worth the heartburn, though they’d forgotten to bring antacid tablets.
They’d remembered, however, the water purification tablets. Both eyed up the pot of masala tea they’d ordered. Clive recalled the voice of the Indian consular: You know, you have to boil water for a full 15 minutes to kill everything, like hepatitis. “On the other hand,” Clive said, “everyone does say that tea is safe. You think they boiled the water for 15 minutes?”
Maria answered by dropping a tablet into the pot. Both, upon tasting the tea, imagined how wonderful it would be without that distinctive iodine taste.
Clive concentrated on the uttapam. “It’s in the hotels best interest to keep the food on the spicy side,” Clive said. He fumbled at the tiny room refrigerator. “It helps out the mini-bar business. See? We’re out of Limca again.”
“Let’s get going,” Maria said. She’d arranged for the hotel staff to look after their bags for a few days. By eight o’clock, the couple paid roughly twice an average Indian’s annual salary for a three-day, two-night trip to the Laccadive Islands situated roughly 250 miles west into the Arabian Sea.
In no time, they joined a Hindi couple and a plane crew of three aboard Vayudoot’s old PF/657 propeller plane to Agatti Island. The lowest ranking of the three handed out taffy (to be chewed at takeoff to help ease the ear-pain of a quick pressure change) and cotton balls (for earplugs). All watched, cotton-eared, India’s coast shrink away until nothing but emerald and blue waters glistened a few thousand feet below. Occasionally, they’d pass over small atolls or sand bars. The pilot, presumably aware that he carried adventuresome vacationers, consistently tilted the plane to 45-degree angles for better viewing of these sights. Maria, as well as the other female on board, clung to her seat in somewhat of a panic. Clive believed he perceived a grin on the head pilot.
After landing on Agatti, which resembled a World-War-II south-pacific airbase, the two couples climbed out of the plane and stood around for quite some time on the landing strip. It wasn’t exactly LaGuardia, after all. In fact, the old propeller plane was the only one there. Barbed wire surrounded the landing strip and kept out what few natives lurked about. An armed guard warned the Hindi couple not to photograph the airplane or the landing strip. After a half hour of administrative proceedings, the four were escorted to the other side of the tiny island to meet their guide, Frederick.
“Welcome, welcome!” Frederick shouted, as though he were the Indian answer to Ricardo Mantalban.. A fit man, sharply dressed and well-groomed, he led the group to the first boat, which rowed out to the main boat, an old dirt-yellow fishing boat. From there, the couples had two hours to avoid heat-exhaustion as best they could. Clive and Maria sat along one side of the boat with their feet hanging off. Each time the boat swayed to their side, they leaned considerable weight on a thin railing in front of them; each time, their feet nearly skimmed the sea’s surface. The temperature was 96, Frederick had mentioned earlier, and rising. Clive donned a safari hat for shade—functional, but touristy. At that temperature, though, he wasn’t concerned with fashion.
Heat had always bothered him. Clive remembered, from his childhood, the first time he’d broken a sweat. Teatherball. Since then, he’d sweat almost continually every May through September. Since it was still March, he found himself thrust into a great oven, and his thinking slowed noticeably. Thus soaked, he watched open-mouthed the Arabian Sea’s light emerald surface rise and lower before him and, tasting his own salt, slowly pondered his logistics: five planes and two boats from home—nearly as far as one could get from civilization.
He kept pondering it and pondering it, until the thought, along with the boat’s continual drone, became a mantra. His other senses slowed and spread out, too. But, sooner or later, a voice began to break the trance. He heard someone talking -— words like: cawn-whey. It was Frederick. (Clive snapped out of it.) He’d quietly positioned himself next to Clive. He’d been there for God knows how long, and had finally begun to speak. He leaned on the rail and expressed sincere concern to Clive: “Conway Twitty. . .” he stated.
Five planes and two boats, Clive thought again. It simply couldn’t be that this Indian man just said “Conway Twitty.” Clive’s quickly repressed his first impulse to laugh maniacally—because, as absurd as the situation seemed to Clive, it was clear that Frederick had taken a desperate tone. It was one of those moments when all you can do is ask, “What?”
“Conway Twitty . . .” Frederick repeated. “This man is dead?” His new frozen facial expression, moustache somehow twisted and eyes bulging, begged an answer.
“I’m . . . I’m . . . sorry. I don’t know. He might be? Maria . . . is Conway Twitty alive?”
She actually sounded apologetic as she informed him: “No, I think he died.”
At that, Frederick looked out at the sea, perhaps in a moment of silence. He must have thought something like: From the sea we come, to the sea we return. When a moment had passed, still gazing out over the water, he asked “You are liking country music?”
Clive shrugged. “Listen, Frederick, aren’t you supposed to be listening to sitars and drums?”
“I like American music. Top forty is nice, but country and western . . . [he paused and motioned as if he were tasting something] . . . This music has meaning.” Suddenly he pointed far off and jumped up again: “Look, some tunas!” he called to everyone, and soon the hindi couple maneuvered to the same side of the deck. All gazed at the jumping tunas-which from this distance resembled dolphins. Frederick stared and smiled in amazement at what must be a usual sight for him. “With luck,” he said, “we’ll see some rays.” Mantas, he meant.
Every so often, winged fish would break from the shallow waters and glide lightning-fast only inches above the surface for perhaps fifty yards before diving under again. These heavy-looking gray creatures seemed to defy gravity with such lengthy flight durations, often bearing right or left while in flight, probably scanning for food. They reminded Maria of Escher drawings.
Barracudas broke the surface as well. Clive and Maria always heard them first, and then spotted them—a splashing, propeller-like sound, and then what appeared to be a light-green snakehead would race out in a straight line, leaving a small wake in its path where its tail had frantically worked to propel it.
When several others came near to view the fish, Clive briefly entertained the thought that so many people on one side of a boat could cause it to overturn. Of course, one could presumably wade to safety in these waters—that is, if it weren’t for the barracuda’s teeth, the tuna’s size, the flying fish’s haunting ash-gray color, and most of all-something he’d seen in a promotional brochure: Upon close inspection, it was a huge manta ray, but photographed from such an angle as to make it’s head and far wing appear as a giant and powerful—and utterly inescapable—mouth and jaw structure, which appeared to smile in an enticing manner. Not to mention the moray eel (also in the brochure)!
Maria, conversely, harbored no fear of the underwater world. She’d gladly hitch a ride on such a monstrous fish, stroke the gills of the reef’s tropical inhabitants, brush her bare legs on kelp or sea urchins.
Fortunately, the boat withstood such an imbalance of weight.
The newlywed Hindi couple introduced themselves as Siddharth and Archi. Archi still bore traditional bridal henna designs on her hands and feet, which she allowed Maria to inspect closely. The extravagant peacocks and paisley designs would stay for a month or so, she said.
“Ours is a love-marriage,” she said proudly, and hugged her husband round his waist.
“We were not arranged.” Both looked entirely wealthy—the husband living up to his princely name, the wife right from the fashion pages of Femina magazine. Clive and Siddharth began a financial conversation regarding reservation pricing for the island. Indians, it turned out, were charged much less than foreigners.
“It’s all the same, really,” Siddharth said.
“Relatively, I guess so,” Clive agreed.
Archi and Siddharth photographed everything: the boat, Clive, Maria, Clive and Maria, Frederick, the fish, etc. Several times on the trip, Clive or Maria offered to photograph the two together. For each photo, Archi would gaze into the eyes of her prince, passionately full of youth and love. (There’s was, after all, a love-marriage.)
Both wore shorts, unlike Clive and Maria who’d read that shorts may lead to shameful stares in some parts of the country. Siddharth even asked Clive, “Why are you wearing jeans? You must be very hot.”
“It’s not so bad,” Clive politely lied. “Besides, I burn easily. I already have a ton of sunscreen on my arms and face.” Either the travel guides erred, or Archi and Siddharth purposefully disregarded custom. Clive and Maria wore shorts several times after that.
An hour into the journey, the group encountered some evidence of civilization. Nearby islands loomed in the distance as they passed a number of large, iron, floating docks—each one maybe thirty feet square and covered with rust. Their rusty contrast to the bright waters begged explanation, although none was offered. Clive remarked to Maria, “It’d be a hell of a chore to get one of those out here.” Atop one, a single child sat with a fishing pole, his rowboat anchored below. Everyone aboard waved at the child, who returned the gesture with a puzzled smile.
When Bangaram came into view, everyone gathered anxiously at the front of the boat: two Americans, a young prince and his bride, and a crazy country-music loving Indian named Frederick. All felt the exhausting heat of the open-sea as well as a certain determination to remain up front until their arrival, as if denouncing some collective mirage of an island before them. The journey had lasted so long, Clive wondered if perhaps being so close to the equator stretched time a bit. Staring at the distant island, he considered the spin of the Earth: someone near the equator must travel further in a day than someone closer to an axis.
The elapsed time between first sighting Bangaram and actually arriving at its main lagoon seemed longer than that of the entire ride before it. At first, there seemed to be an inch-long slit of forest-green occupying a place directly ahead of them, as if someone giant artist had forgotten to cover this portion of the canvas where the white of sky blended with the white of sea—or, perhaps such a painting was finished and subsequently bumped into by another freshly-painted edge of green. This edge thickened as they neared, gained depth as they approached. When it occupied their entire view, they began to discern the patterns of trees. The lagoon had shifted colors into a lustrous sapphire, a bright slice of white beach became visible, and the sky appeared a washed-out hyacinth. Closer still, and the living-green thickness rose up, thinned out, and countless palm trunks connected the land to the treetops, resembling long legs in a congregation of exotic sea-birds. Soon the beach rose up somewhat, widened, and revealed the details of small huts and brown-green grasses.
The fishing boat cut its engine, and a beautiful quietness replaced the drone—not quiet merely out of comparison to the preceding trip, but an absolute quietness that amplified even the softest of island sounds: the rippling lagoon, the breath-like breeze through palm branches, and, internally, even one’s own thoughts.
A few of the natives rowed out to the big boat, and brought everyone and their luggage to the shore, where another small man in a button-down work-shirt and bright-blue sarong scurried down from treetop with four coconuts, hacked the tops off each, inserted straws, and greeted the four tourists. Maria was quite impressed, and had finished off two coconuts in the first half hour hour on land while waiting for the other staff to finish preparing the cottages.
Indian service, they found, surpassed that of any other nationality. They’d learned this first in America at the restaurants in New York City, where one can not finish a second sip from a water glass before it is promptly refilled.
They’d seen it at private gatherings in the homes of certain Indian friends in America. At one such affair, Clive remembered being offered a drink literally seconds after entering the party. And, not some ordinary drink like beer, wine, etc.—the bartender meant to extend a gesture of utter class, and panned the scotch section with a wave of his hand as if modeling it for an advertisement. “Whiskeesoda?” he suggested. Of course, not wanting to appear rude, and in spite of a dislike for scotch and somewhat of a language barrier, Clive accepted a tall drink on good faith.
Within fifteen minutes, the bartender noticed Clive’s mere sippage of the drink and demanded, “You are not liking this?”
“No, it’s fine, really . . .”
“No. You are not liking this. I get you something else.”
Clive had felt slightly embarrassed—”uh, maybe it was a bit strong for me”—and even more so after practically guzzling the replacement drink, a Screwdriver.
“Ahh, Screwdriver!” the Indian man had said. Communication had been established.
They’d seen it at their Cochin hotel, as well. They’d understood the principal of hospitality to have a certain grounding in economics—and not exclusively demonstrated by hotel staffs or other interaction with foreign tourists: the principle of baksheesh, for instance, which seemed to translate into a broad area lying between straight-out tipping and offering alms to the poor. Below the economic grounding, perhaps, lay a religious one. Thus, after certain fasting periods, and for certain holy days, Clive and Maria’s Indian friends offered the hospitality of celebratory gatherings.
Tapping the deepest essence of hospitality, however, is the essential phrase of communication in India: “No Problem.” Used by everyone, the words cannot be precisely described as simple idiom. In fact, the definition, or translation of the phrase is often relative. For instance, from the Indian perspective, it can mean as much as “What you are asking is not normal procedure, but I will do it for you anyway (and a tip would be nice).” From the tourist perspective, it serves a remedial function, translating into “You have perceived that I have a problem, but I assure you that there is none, and furthermore that I am okay.”
When the cottages were ready, Frederick passed out the room keys and informational brochures, and excused himself. The young laborer who’d climbed after the coconuts led both parties to the edge of the palm forest, where immaculate white-sand paths connected all points of interest on the island. Thick-leaved bright-green bushes lined the paths; rather like monstrous rhododendrons, but with softer branches, like young rubber trees.
The wooden cabanas, complete with dried palm branch roofs, faced the eastern shore from under the trees. Each had a deck and a large plastic pail of water for washing sand from one’s feet before entering. He dropped Clive and Maria off at theirs, and continued two down the row for Siddharth an Archi.
Several mongrel cats and various roosters roamed the grounds freely. The island itself boasted 128 acres, and promised no more than 30 inhabitants at any one time. There appeared to be at least one other family already present, judging from some drying swimsuits on a line they’d passed.
After literally a few minutes fooling with the cottage’s skeleton-key lock system, they settled in and Clive immediately purchased a few shirts and several pairs of swim trunk shorts bearing large red crabs over a slogan, Where the natives walk sideways. Returning to the cabin, Clive remarked to Maria that most things in India—like the skeleton key locks—happened sideways. “So what? . . . Sideways works too,” Maria said. Clive agreed in a not-bad-just-different manner, and began changing into the trunks.
He had developed a reasonably severe case of prickly heat on his back. Luckily, the small souvenir shop also carried a powder which looked soothing—basil and sandalwood scented talcum powder. It cooled him well, but he and Maria agreed to relax for a while. Their cabin’s most important feature—a three-speed ceiling fan—provided a strong breeze, which both found refreshing under such humid conditions. They slept dry and sheetless in the wooden room.
Frederick knocked by around five to announce dinner, and the three walked to the dinner-hut. Several saronged natives smiled behind the buffet line, which consisted of bread, fresh onions, a fish curry and a vegetable curry, and rice.
Archi and Siddharth were already eating, as were the other vacationing family: a mother and father, and a twelve or fourteen-year-old boy. All had rather ragged sand-blonde hair, and smiled at Clive and Maria. Clive heard them speaking German, which interested him.
Germans always interested Clive -— he’d studied their language for several years in the early eighties, and it’d come in handy a number of times. Once, while visiting George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon (on a ninety-degree day), he watched an elderly woman at the front of a line of perhaps 100 people step out of line and sit on a concrete bench. The bench was situated in such a way that only someone who’d waited in the entire line could access it—but no one did because the line eventually moved into the mansion. She sat for perhaps ten minutes, looking old, fragile, and confused, until a security guard asked her if she needed anything? Mein Tochter! Mein Tochter! she explained. Of course, thinking she’d meant “doctor,” the guard called in an emergency unit and several other guards. One woman addressed the crowd: We have a sick old woman at the front of the line. We think she’s not feeling well, but she doesn’t speak English. Is there anyone here who can translate German? Clive stood amid a mass silence—perhaps as quiet as Mount Vernon had been during the daytime since it opened for tourism—and finally volunteered. He spoke briefly with the German senior, and explained to the guard that tochter means daughter—she was simply waiting for her daughter. He wouldn’t have guessed he’d encounter many Germans in India, though.
Like the cabins, the dining hut had ceiling fans. While a dozen or so teak picnic tables filled the room, only four sat directly under a fan. At these four tables sat the staff, the Germans, the hindi couple, and Clive and Maria. They were happy they’d arrived last and been the ones to complete this certain symmetry.
As for the food, Clive wrote in his journal, it’s nothing to really write about. Mainly blandish curries. They’d gone against travel-book advice and sampled the fresh vegetables—on the supposition that they’d been washed with non-contaminated water—but promised to abstain once again when back on the mainland. The blended pineapple juice, which would have cost a fortune per glass in the states, cost only a dollar or so, and both indulged accordingly.
After dinner, Clive and Maria invited the hindi couple over to share a bottle of champagne they’d managed to lug all the way from the states. Presumably, many young Hindu women don’t drink alcoholic beverages—or perhaps aren’t allowed—but Archi was the first to accept their invitation. The four returned to the room by way of the lagoon, pausing to examine small shells and fragments of coral. “Take only photographs,” the brochure read, “leave only footprints.”
Clive threw a chunk of coral into the lagoon, saying, “I can’t believe I’m throwing coral into the Arabian Sea!”
The four toasted marriage and friendship. The hindi couple photographed everyone, and all made smalltalk in a relaxing atmosphere. Maria had brought along a vanilla-scented candle to burn, which added a certain magical ambience to the cabin. Outside, the palm-leaves made pointy silhouettes, and the sea was fading from view. Two of the brown and white spotted cats sat on the porch in hopes of any scraps the four would produce.
“I make boxes,” Siddharth announced. He described his own box-making plant in northern Kerala. All described their respective careers: boxmaker, boxmaker, food-critic, school teacher. The Indians explained the marked difficulty in constructing fruit boxes. Clive told them all about American food, and Maria described her students’ love of Madeline L’Engle’s fiction.
That evening, Clive and Maria walked out to the shore for a clear view of the stars—which turned out much clearer than the usual view from their home; the milky-way cloud was visible, as well as several dimmer stars usually blocked out by Washington, D.C.’s, air pollution. But they stood, remember, on the complete opposite side of the globe. They brought along two flashlights which they’d purchased in anticipation of seeing the ancient caves of Ajanta and Ellora later in the trip, and were walking near the water-line when they began to hear the hindi couple in the distance; Archi’s sounds carried on the night breeze through the dense strip of palm trunks separating the shore from the cabins. The bleating rhythm matched something in the Arabian sea. One could sense its surface waving like a sheet on the night air, the stirring sands tingling in its belly, and the instinctive sea turtles crawling ashore to deposit eggs. The sounds spread out along the strand, latched onto the tide, and retreated outward.
Clive and Maria walked the beach hand-in-hand, shone their lights on the white crabs running in and out of the water, and watched the soft-white beacon of a nearby atoll periodically light up and fade into the night.
Even 250 miles into the Arabian Sea, mosquitoes persisted. Clive always carried Deet after sunset, and both splashed on a few drops before returning to their cabin. Once inside, they acquainted themselves with their first mosquito coil in India. Frederick had explained how to operate the device: unwrap a blue chemical chip from its foil package, slip it between the plastic bars and the metal, plug the unit in, and voile. “A little Deet along the edges of the bed couldn’t hurt either,” Clive said. Under threat of Malaria, even Maria agreed, and both meticulously placed a drop or two every few inches along the bed’s perimeter. In a perfect world, they’d have lain above the top sheet, feet hanging off, perhaps even a leg touching the floor; but they stayed completely covered the entire night.
Clive dreamed of standing on a large rock in the middle of a lake. Below him, a coiled snake floated as if dead on the lake’s surface-but it’s head began to slowly rise; a flat, heart-shaped grey head rose slightly off the surface, turned sideways, revealing its thinness. It resembled a spade or devil’s tail, slightly inflated. Clive crouched, thinking he’d avoid any confrontation with the serpent, but the snake rose from the water in a triumphant metallic blue and orange. It’s scales glistened as it seized on the area directly between Clive’s right thumb and forefinger.
The following morning at breakfast, Clive had barely spoken the word snake to Archi & Siddharth when Archi enthusiastically asked, “Did it bite you on the hand?”
This astonished Clive. Maria too. “How’d you ever guess that?” Clive asked.
“Because that is a sign of good luck. It means you’ll be getting money soon.”
Clive, as a rule, didn’t astonish easily. He preferred to look upon the conversation in only two ways: First, simply as an amazing coincidence; second, there in fact must have existed a single event, which was witnessed by Archi and himself, and which coincidentally slipped into the unconscious minds of both. As to the latter, since they’d only been acquainted for less than a day, Clive decided that whatever the particular event was, it had been experienced probably as an an extremely peripherally overheard story (perhaps related by Frederick to one of the crew during the long boatride yesterday). Neither could recall such a story, however. Clive also considered that dreams of snakes biting hands may be commonplace, and Archi may have been a connoisseur of dreams.
Breakfast consisted of fried banana slices, toast and jam, and fresh sweetlime juice. Neither Clive nor Maria had ever tasted sweetlime juice—perfectly described as half-orange, half-lime. “Somewhat overwhelming citrus flavor,” Clive penned in his journal. “Surely an acquired liking. I found the second glass surpassed the first in taste.”
Afterward, they went in search of a raft for exploration. They found one near the Germans, who religiously frolicked by day. Clive thought, What does their enjoyment say about Germany? They’re having so much fun, it must be awful there. In any case, Hans, a plump and heavily bearded specimen, stood from his beach-lounger in greeting the two, and inhaled an unfiltered cigarette more deeply than either had ever seen. Sheer lung-capacity. It crossed Clive’s mind that heavy people look better when tanned. Hans’ leathery gut expanded and contracted as he spoke: “Over there (he pointed to a spot perhaps a quarter mile out), there are some good views of the reef.” With this, he sat once again. No smoke had returned from his lungs since the initial drag.
The raft, a crafty orchestration of thick pvc pipes and rope, satisfied Clive’s basic specs for buoyancy; he wanted something which would float forever, something you’d have to chain to the ocean floor to keep down. So, the two walked into the sea and climbed aboard. There is a certain brightness, they agreed, that one can only experience at sea. It was nearly noon. In another thirty yards in any direction, they could see exact boundaries separating sapphire from patches of crystalline sky-blue, every now and then, the sky-blue became the green of, perhaps, a boa, like the young barracudas.
When they reached the reef, the deep sapphire gave way to a pure blue, in tops of which rock formations could clearly be seen. Soon, coral formations completely surrounded them only a few feet below the surface. The bright rounded tops seemed alive, and deep in the formations crevices reached to secret places. The crevices sent a quiet wave of panic through Clive, who imagined himself hovering over nests of fierce eels, beds of poisoned tentacles, and razor-edge coral spikes. He politely refused Maria’s offer to anchor the raft and have a swim.
Later, before an afternoon nap, Clive considered exactly what it may be about certain natural things which terrified him.
Something in his upbringing? A native of, of all places, Missouri. An inland soul. No beaches there, except of course, Times Beach, the modern-day dioxin-filled ghost town. Basic fear: medical. Latest manifestation of this fear: mosquito-bite prevention.
Marine life? PBS specials: on the Man of War, on the Great Whites, on Crocodiles, etc. Stinging tentacles, eyes that roll into the head while biting, taking the prey under until it drowns. Basic fear: inextricability. Latest manifestation: middle of the reef. Fish have an unpredictable temperament, Clive thought—and the most alluring may be the most deadly. He pictured himself treading water over giant clams, etc.: Ocean currents, the slime of urchins, entanglement in kelp, the Sargasso.
Something deeper? Simple fear of death? He could not pin it down.
About an hour before sunset, they set off for the western side of the island. Thin dirt paths lead through the maze of palms. Perhaps one hundred yards in, they came to an amazingly still pond whose surface mirrored the surrounding forest with an uncanny clarity: the vibrant green of the young leaves, fire-yellow dying leaves, brown dead leaves, the tan color of the thick stems which support dozens of coconuts in each tree, the dark textured tree trunks, and the shaded undergrowth—all reflected . . . but with a few patches of white here and there; these were the migratory birds, which stood in the pond as though painted on, like single brush strokes. Frederick had mentioned them earlier at dinner. He said they came from Siberia: slender white birds, like cranes, perhaps two and a half feet tall; elegant birds, like ivory statues for mantles.
Trails darted off in several directions. Neither Clive nor Maria considered the peculiarity of the existence of trails on an island described as uninhabited, but they chose one pointing relatively westward. “We are the Lewis and Clark of the Arabian Sea,” Clive said.
The path eventually widened into a small gypsy camp of sorts—a circular dirt area containing two driftwood shacks, a ring of stones for a fire pit, and a clothesline. No sooner than Maria could say, “Someone lives here” did they see an utterly terrified woman crouching against the shanty. Her eyes contained immeasurable fear; both pupils entirely visible, the whites a stained ivory as if stone. She sat still, clutching a purple scarf to her chest.
Clive sensed her fear, and tried to calm the woman with a friendly waving gesture, a reassuring showing of the palms one might use to say: Don’t get up. Just passing through. We’re friendly. But only her eyes moved, following, as the couple carefully maneuvered their way around her fire pit and back onto the exiting trail. Clive attached a certain significance to this event: Clive considered her fear. He considered whether or not certain gestures translate accurately across such vastly different cultures—because it pained him to be unable to convince himself that he had not instilled terror in another human being, however unintentional. But Clive was afraid, too; afraid something sudden would happen, something perhaps desperate. In retrospect, he could not recall if he allowed his heels touch the dirt of her private circle. But the woman—she must have felt exposed; discovered, as though she were a chameleon—her face, the smooth washed out brown of driftwood; her hair, fibrous like a handful of coir; her eyes, non-camoflaged, the give-away.
Esthetically, the western shore far surpassed the lagoon side. No cabins, huts, or rafts spoiled the pristine nature of the place. However, near the shoreline, someone had apparently sawed the tops off several palm trees, leaving a strange-looking row of 4 foot high stumps. On each, a small mound of visible roots surrounded the base like a stringy bush of pubic hair around an appropriately large (and erect) phallus. Arriving at this comparison required little stretch of the imagination. Maria was the first to laugh audibly: “They look like penises,” she said.
“Maybe they put them there purposefully in an effort to set a certain mood?” Clive said.
Maria began walking into the sea, and Clive followed, deciding where to leave their room key, and finally stopping to hook it (with its large wooden handle) onto his necklace. Here, the beach gently sloped into the warm sea and soon leveled off. One could wade away from the island presumably for miles, chest-deep. In this instance, they ventured out perhaps 30 yards before Clive suggested stopping to watch the sunset, which had already cast a violet hue to the entire area.
“It’s like bathwater. What are you afraid of?” Maria asked.
“Simple, Maria. Big fish. Just scanning the area for skates, rays, you know.” He had planned further explanation, but began splashing wildly in front of him and backing away yelling, “Get it away! What the hell is that?! Get it away!”
“Clive!” she yelled and he kept splashing. “Clive! It’s only the key!,” she shouted, fully embarrassing him. The wooden handle attached to his necklace had been floating, unnoticed, directly at his chest since he entered the water.
Once he calmed down, he said, “I knew it was the key. Just joking.”
Maria splashed him, laughing. “You did not.”
“One time,” he said, “I was invited to this waterslide park with some friends. I’d never been to one before, you know, so I didn’t know what to expect. They gave you these mats to ride down on. The place was huge . . . See, no one told me to raise the mat up when you come to the big pool at the bottom. If you raise the mat up over the surface, you simply glide across. No problem. So I come storming into the landing pool at full speed and crash head-first into the water. I was so disoriented . . . splashing and in a full panic, when someone grabbed me and said `Hey, just stand up.’ Turned out I was in only three feet of water.”
The hot evening air promptly thickened into darkness, and the two realized they’d now have to walk all the way around the island to get back. They’d forgotten to bring the Deet—an obvious error, the fact of which perhaps enhanced the pain of each sting and bite felt during the thirty minute walk. Arrival at their cabana consisted, in retrospect, of an amusingly fast execution of several tasks: fumbling for the key, swatting away some flying pests, shooshing away the mongrel cat on the stoop, jumping into the room (quickly shutting the door), turning the fan on high, replacing the mosquito coil’s blue chemical tablet, grabbing the cortisone cream, applying it to several points on each of their bodies, applying Deet, and finally, exhaling and reclining in the ceiling fan’s breeze, drained of all energy, onto the cot.
At dinner, Siddharth and Archi invited Clive and Maria to the conference hut (which housed a television and videocassette recorder) for a viewing of the island’s promotional diving video. Siddharth surprised everyone by producing a fifth of gin, some club soda, and a few sweet-limes.
The video confirmed every fear Clive harbored concerning Moray eels—who seemed to be the only non-vibrantly colored reef inhabitants. The featured specimen’s ashen color reminded Clive, of course, of death. “Look at that damn thing!” he said, as if defending his position. The others laughed.
The video finished-up late; all yawned frequently. It took no more than a few conversational pleasantries, address exchanges, and friendly good-nights to bring the evening to a much-welcomed bedtime.
Strangely, Clive’s sequential food-dream continued this night . . .
They gather around; one waiter asks, smiling: I’m Indian, and this is too hot. How can you eat this food? But Clive’s meal seems to follow a rhythm, as do the sitar and tabla—a sure and triumphant raga. The chewing, the beats, the colors and flavors follow a predetermined pattern. Clive experiences the food by simply considering its heat. He seems undaunted by the extreme—though his brow beads up, his eyes begin to water—and he distantly does not waver. Raga is taken from the Sanskrit “color,” Clive considers. He draws his index and middle fingers, pressed together, across his forehead. Gold hues predominate. The cauliflower entering one’s mouth resembles a tree. A saffron painting of an eel hangs across the way. The sky-blue curtain separating the kitchen from the diningroom, whose surface bears moving clouds as if filmed in time lapse, reveals the sun’s rays occasionally—and when a hand enters through the clouds from behind, piercing through as if reaching from a sky . . .
[Ed Note: This immediate section remained unwritten, aside from a few notes. One was that this section would contain a lengthy meditation on heat and what, exactly, "hot" means, what it *is*. There would also be monks here in the dream sequence who come out (described with adjectives suggesting “hot”) and take him into the back room for some mythically hot / sacred / forbidden food. In still later sequences, there would be the possibility that Clive had foretold this in a past life, and that's why the monks are there now. As for the story, they would now leave the island and head back to the mainland.]