As my life takes another turn, of which more soon, I’m attempting to type up the handwritten diary which I started in 1971 and posting it all, largely unedited, on a separate blog, Jakartass Travels. This is the most recent episode to be put in my archives.
Kovalum Beach, Kerala, South India
Tuesday 24th September 1985
Kovalum is organised. Although, as is my wont, I am here at the very start of its season, it is possible to imagine life here at, for example and in particular, Xmas. The many small lodges, whether set on the beach or further back in the coconut groves, will be fully occupied at prices some four or five times higher than now. There will probably be queues for the similarly scattered restaurants. At present, there are but three or four attracting trade. Others are open but empty.
The ambiance created by the proprietors is all important. Here and at the Moon Restaurant, which is in the same ownership, care has been taken to ensure my comfort. I was discovered wandering the path at a very early hour on Saturday morning, backpack building up a sweat and so very tired having detrained at Trivandrum at 5.30am, I could well have allowed my awareness to slip. Particularly, as it happens, as my willing, smiling and helpful companions were/are the local Keralan beach bums.
In the event my almost ‘enforced’ taking of this room – cheaper if you take it for one week than one day … yeak ok – has turned out fine. There’s no attached bathroom, but that doesn’t bother me, not with the view imperfectly described and in the shelter of the coconut palms. For sleep, there is the deep steady metronome of the surf breaking and being belched up and down the rocks and beach, a soothing sound.
For now, as I write, there is my Walkman with fresh batteries to allow me to switch off the extra daytime sounds of pineapple, papaya, banana, coconut and peanut vendors who persuasively pouting flirt with their fruit, eyes flashing upwards to the baskets so decorously balanced on their heads. then there’s the cawing of crows – but why is there not a single sea bird? No gulls, gannets or cormorants, or whatever one may expect in near tropical zones.
Kovalum is still a fishing area, albeit with the added detritus of the tourism which has given the villagers a daytime living: renting property and selling fruit. The beach bums have different techniques for gathering rupees.
The first came to my window as I was unpacking and getting ready for a non-spicy breakfast. Would I lend him 100 rupees so the manager could pay the electricity bill? It was such an outrageous and implausible story that I was able to rout him with a Maigret-type interrogation. There was no need for a hysterical show, as with Inspector Clouseau or my usual performance.
Then came Srikumar who attached himself with an almost appealing style of spoken English. Yes sir, that is right, thanks. My sentiments would be repeated back to me subtly. Slightly altered words or phrasing, a simple restructuring and I would be hearing a flattering subservience which stopped just short of sycophancy. As I said, appealing.
Over a joint of Keralan grass – specially produced for we ‘hippy’ travellers who frequently need to switch off and rediscover something of our own culture and consequently our roots – I mentioned that I like fried fish. Yes sir, fish is good, thanks. It is a long time since I’ve tasted fresh fish, indeed, any fish. Yes sir, I cook fish for you tomorrow. I have big tuna – yum my favourite – Yes sir, that is right, thanks.
Can I give him ten rupees now to buy cooking oil? By this time, having examined his home shared with aging parents, I was ready to believe his expressions of poverty. Home was a tent-like structure made out of woven palm fronds which measured barely 5ft by 5ft, The ground was bare, still rock strewn, sloping and damned uncomfortable, with few visible household possessions. Advice flowed through my lips. Yes sir, that is right, thanks.
A young lad, 9th grade, was also there for the meal the next night. I was the only one who ate the fish, which had been cooked first in coconut milk with some ginger and chilli. This had then been fried in ghee (clarified butter). and was absolutely delicious. The cold chapattis and boiled potatoes were atypical stodge.
My appetite here is tremendous, from arising to asleeping it’s a non-stop nibble. However, before I ploughed through the lot, I became aware that no-one else was eating fish, or potato, or even chapatti. Srikumar and the young lad were eating rice and fish curry. Outside, for there was no more room inside the shelter, mother and father were scratching around heating heavens knows what in a pot balanced over a small fire of palm fronds and driftwood.
So, after the appropriate politeness – Delicious, I really can’t eat another thing – the spoils were shared out with Srikumar adopting, without being too obvious, the self-sacrificing demeanour of having the smallest share.
I could have had a better meal for my 20 rupees at the Moon Restaurant, to where I soon retired for a coffee and pineapple pancake. But then I wouldn’t have seen how the other half live.
Them? Oh, they’re beach bums.