Varkala Shivagiri Station drowsed in late afternoon heat. Two women carrying baskets made their way down the tracks, languidly picking up litter. Passengers sat in pools of shade, beneath the fans on the platform canopy, waiting, dozing. Late March on the Malabar Coast and the heat slows life to a crawl. A column of ants made their way round the stone plinth upon which I sat, and as I leaned over to observe them more closely a bead of sweat ran off my forehead, trickled over my glasses and landed on the platform in their midst. Keralan men slopped along in their ankle-length lungis, ocassionally reaching down to readjust, wafting the skirts in both hands to catch the breeze like people perpetually preparing to curtsey, then folding them up and retying to above-the-knee height. One could measure the external temperature, it was said, by the length of the lungis: the higher the mercury, the higher their skirts. It was 37 degrees in the shade and we were entering miniskirt territory.
They seemed like a people whose lives were utterly determined by the sultry climate. Their features varied: thin, willowy women, often beautiful, with swaying hips and slim ankles; the men paunchy and thickset with leguminous noses and pendulous lower lips, inevitably sporting blunt military moustaches. They were the colour of tree bark; walnut, mahogany. They bathed often, sluicing water over themselves five times a day, wandered around with toothbrushes in their mouths in the mornings, turning the brushing of teeth into an activity that could take quarter of an hour or more – perhaps as a legacy of the tradition of chewing the end of neem twig into bristles and scrubbing away with it – and ate enormous meals of rice with half a dozen chutneys and sambars off plates of banana leaves with evident lip-smacking enjoyment: spicy sauces of twigs and spices, vast masala dosas, rice flour appams and idlis, coconut chutneys.
They were Christian by religion, communist by politics – psychedelic hammer and sickles decorated the white walls around vividly-coloured houses, and flyers exhorted passers-by to vote: “Shiny Matthew” peered out from a rubicund moustache and spectacles arrangement like a police artist’s impression, next to one of a good-girl, butter-wouldn’t-melt, extensive-shoe-collection type of lady with a centre parting and high-beam smile. Keralans were great drinkers despite a recently enforced prohibition which meant that beer was served in teapots and menus coyly referred to “G and Tonic” or “R and Coke”. The language was a tongue-twisting sputtering burble of palindromes that went in giant circles, where even the name of it could be read either way, back to front: Malayalam. The impossibility of its pronounciation to outsiders meant that many places had two names: Trivandrum, where I was bound for, was properly known as Tiravanathapuram. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu the hillstation of Ooty, which the British had called Ootacamund, was Udhaganamandalam. If in doubt, stick in a few extra syllables.
A man came to join me on the stone plinth that radiated heat like an Aga. He was short and stocky, square-headed and with a stubby, bristling moustache, reminding me somehow of a Tongan rugby player. He stuck his legs out and inspected his toes morosely, readjusted his lungi to knee-height, and then turned to me and introduced himself as Mr Naushad, a seller of books. “That is to say, I am a bookseller by profession, but a numismatist by hobby. I collect coins, currencies, and such and such.”
“And do you have a favourite author, Mr Naushad?”
“I am particularly fond of the works of Mr Tom Clancy, the American gentleman. Sadly he passed two months ago.”
“He passed? You mean he’s dead?”
“Alas yes, Mr Tom Clancy passed on recently.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I must admit I haven’t read anything by him.”
Mr Naushad frowned at his toes. He was mentally preparing a sentence, I could see.
“He was a chronicler of the zeitgeist. That is the right word? Zeitgeist?”
He smiled, reassured. “Yes, American intelligence, thriller page-turner. CIA political writing. What is your opinion of this Donald Trump?”
“I think he’s a very dangerous man who appeals to the lowest common denominator by playing to their fears.”
Mr Naushad giggled and patted me on the shoulder. “Yes, very true. Lowest common denominator. Well put indeed. We are having a frank and candid conversation about American political events, are we not? I can say this? Frank and candid?”
“Absolutely. You know that ‘full and frank exchange of views’ is a British euphemism for a political disagreement?”
He was so delighted by this that he reached out and shook my hand repeatedly, then abruptly kissed it.
“Um, Mr Naushad, that is very friendly. In our English custom perhaps a little too friendly. I mean, we’ve only just met.”
He laughed unabashed. “But I am so delighted to make your acquaintance, and discuss these matters frankly and candidly.”
“Well quite. Tell me, are you married, Mr Naushad?”
“Yes gentleman, I am married now twenty-two years, and my daughter is twenty-one years old. I am having two grandchildren. So I am a grandfather!”
“That’s a relief to hear. You must be very proud.”
“Very proud. Family is everything.”
This surreal conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a train. As it rolled in to the station people began leaping out of the doorways, adjusting their skirts and flip-flopping across the tracks. I said goodbye to Mr Naushad (“Do not forget me,” he said; “Never,” I assured him) and made my way towards a carriage, hoisting myself up the steps and onto the 5.15pm to Trivandrum. Thiruvanathapuram.
We rattled at a steady 30 mph through coconut groves and past waterways lined with palm trees. On the bench opposite was an elderly man in a white dhoti who had an enormous paunch decorated with a fine silver fuzz of hair. He gazed lovingly at it for a while and occasionally murmured what sounded like prayers or a low snatch of song under his breath. As we jolted along he decided to put on his shirt, but struggled with getting his arm into the sleeve. The man next to him obligingly held it out for him, but it wouldn’t go – he had it backwards. A young guy on the bench next to me leaned forward to assist, turning the sleeve the right way round. Together the occupants of the compartment helped the old man get dressed, and he looked on, smiling mildly, as if utterly remote from proceedings: Oh, is that my arm? This button goes which way? It seemed as if he was operating on a completely different level of consciousness. I was too.
I’d arrived in Kerala two weeks’ earlier, and the cold I had been trying to shake off in Delhi immediately flourished in the greenhouse heat, multiplying with a vengeance. I sneezed my way miserably round the old colonial streets of Fort Cochin, sucking ayurvedic cough sweets. The famed Chinese Fishing Nets that dominate every tourist brochure photo of Kochi were strewn with rubbish; I realised that all the promotional photos had been taken from the same angle to avoid both the litter and the oil storage tanks and cranes of Ernakulam just across the water. A zigzagging cobblestone path led along the shorefront, lined with stalls selling the inevitable baggy harem pants and tripped out T-shirts. I stumbled across a delightful cafe called Teapot and began to drop in regularly for a medicinal masala chai. At the guesthouse – three spotlessly clean rooms in a coconut grove, with a lounge dominated by a huge shrine with Jesus lit by a neon tube – I met Lee and Tanya from Suffolk, and we spent time exploring Kochi together, checking out vegetarian restaurants and enjoying some enlightened conversation; it was a pleasure to meet them again later further south. The guesthouse was booked up for the rest of the week, but the lanes around were full of similar homestays, and I soon found another. Like a sick cat I holed myself up there for the best part of a week, coughing away endlessly.
One night I met two other visitors who turned out to be a Croatian policeman studying for a PhD in Philosophy and his partner who worked with traditional embroidery. They offered me black tea with lemon out of tall glasses and a course of antibiotics; she actually messaged her mother, who was a doctor in Croatia, to ask whether they were suitable for someone as clearly unwell as I. The good lady responded almost immediately, advising on dosage. A course of three should clear everything up, she said. The root canal abcess which had tormented me since London, and which had decimated my immune system to the extent that I picked up every little bug going around, was long overdue to be cured. “It’s not every day that I accept drugs from a Croatian cop,” I admitted, reaching for the pills, “but I think I will just this once.”
After a few days I felt well enough to travel, but still horribly weak. The heat sapped energy. The next town down the coast was Alleppey, and in retrospect it wasn’t the best choice. The town itself was solely given over to selling houseboat cruises on the Backwaters – the network of coconut-palm laced waterways just inland from the coast. The beachfront hostel I had found in a guidebook was a fair distance from the town, in a neighbourhood that was devoid of any facilities whatsoever – there were two small shops selling essentials, and an Indian Coffee House restaurant about a 15 minute walk along the beachfront – tired masala dosas and “veg cutlet” served by tired waiters in tired uniforms. Worse, the hostel, inexplicably, given its location, didn’t do lunch. Dinner was all delivered by a takeaway company and could take an hour or more to arrive. Had I been in better shape I would’ve moved on at once, but I was utterly debilitated. I bought bread, jam and bananas from the small shop, and went in search of peanut butter in Alleppey itself; I hadn’t had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches since the Anglo- American school in Bulgaria back in the 1970s, but for some reason now I craved them. I spent most of my time sitting looking at the sea, coughing, sucking down water as hungry-looking crows cawed in the trees overhead and periodically swooped on tables recenty abandoned by diners. Mangy dogs curled up beneath the tables, attracting flies. I couldn’t write, couldn’t walk, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t smoke (undoubtedly a good thing) – only cough. This is how people die, I thought melodramatically to myself one night: clutching their sides, dropped to their knees, curled up in a damp bed full of sand on a sweltering night, hacking away with the whine of mosquitoes in their ears, on a tropical beach a hell of a long way from anywhere.
It became unendurable. I clearly wasn’t getting better. Standing on the only part of the beach that had a mobile phone signal I Googled doctors in Alleppey, and up came Dr Shiyas Mohammed, respiratory specialist. I wrote down the address in English on a napkin and the owner translated it into Malayalam. Finding a rickshaw in the lane I presented the driver with the napkin. “You can find this?” He waggled his head, we agreed a price, I climbed in and off we went. Quarter of an hour later we pulled up at a clinic offering X-rays and ultrasounds, and I took my place on a seat in a roomful of pregnant women. After a time a lady in a headscarf came out from behind the counter and asked if she could help.
“I’m looking for Dr Shiyas Mohammed – the respiratory specialist.”
“But he is not here. He used to have a room next door, but last year he moved.”
“Do you happen to know where he went?”
“I can find out. Please wait here.” She went off.
I sat and coughed discretely at all the pregnant women, then decided I’d better go and stand outside in the oven-like glare. Soon the headscarfed lady came back with a phone clamped to her ear. She noted down an address on a pad, tore it off and gave it to me. “I have ordered a rickshaw to take you to Dr Mohammed. It will be 30 rupees. Here it is now.”
“I’m extremely grateful to you.”
“It is a pleasure. I hope you feel better.” Off she went.
The rickshaw dropped me at a large house in the suburbs. Uncertainly I pushed open the gate, patted a beagle who trotted up and woofed at me softly, and made my way across the courtyard to the house. On a bench a young man was asleep in the shade. I knocked on the door and the young man opened an eye and sat up.
“Um, sorry to trouble you. I’m looking for Dr Mohammed.”
He smiled sleepily. “I am Dr Mohammed. How can I help you?”
“You’re the doctor? OK. Well it’s this cough.” I demonstrated it for far longer than I intended.
“Yes, that is bad. Any fever?” He placed a hand on my brow, which was dripping.
“It’s quite hard to tell in this heat.”
He listened to my breathing for a while with a stethoscope, then popped it out of his ears. “I am thinking you are having a viral respiratory infection.” He pulled out a pad and began to write a long list. “Are you on any medication now?”
“Well, I’ve just taken these Croatian antibiotics.”
He peered at the empty packet. “I am not familiar…” He pulled out his phone and Googled the name. Up came a list of brand names, he waggled his head and said: “I will give you some more. These in the morning, this one at lunch, these in the evening. And syrup.” He rummaged around in some crates in the corner and returned with a bottle of linctus.
I went through the list and it consisted of nine pills a day. “Well that seems comprehensive. How much do I owe you for the consultation?”
He waggled his head again. “Call it two hundred.” Two pounds.
All I can say is, Dr Shiyas Mohammed knew his stuff. That very evening I began to feel better, and within three days I was almost back to normal. Nevertheless I duly popped pills with every meal for the next week like a proper invalid. They came in small brown paper bags which were themselves wrapped in a page of newspaper. Looking at the page one day I realised it was all pictures of elderly Keralans, with a few lines of curling Malayalam script beneath each one. It was the Obituaries page.
By the time I got to Varkala I was on the mend. The first morning there I had woken at seven and ambled out into the golden light, the sun already intense. At the end of the garden the ground fell away, dropping perhaps 300 metres down to the beach. As I stood there bleary-eyed looking down at the enormous waves rolling in, I made out a small shape floating just offshore, a tiny speck of a figure. I realised it was a woman in a bikini. The vast, transparent glass-green rollers of the Arabian Sea billowed beneath her, lifting her, tilting her over the crest, then down into the trough until the next wave came and gently raised her again, breaking around her as they spilled up the sand. She slowly moved her arms and legs back and forth, then lay on her back and let the sea carry her. I spotted another figure a little further out – the small black shape of a head in the waves. Then another, and another. I realised that I could see perhaps a dozen or so people, bobbing up and down like seals, each lost in their own private world, floating in the immensity of sea.
Papa Nashini, the beach was known as in Malayalam. Sin destroyer. Hindus came on pilgrimages, to wash themselves in the waves, to cast the ashes of loved ones, to wipe away past misdeeds. And the tourists came too, locals and foreigners alike, wading into the shallows, knocked down by the force of the waves, getting up again only to be batted effortlessly over, lying down in the foam and the spume, giving themselves up to the sea. The rollers were hundreds of metres long, stretching down the beach, the water as warm as a bath, almost 30 degrees. Women in saris, college boys in skinny jeans and T-shirts, tourists in bikinis – everyone just walked into the sea and was carried by it, before being cast up again on the shore of the Malabar Coast, renewed, reborn.
This was the deep, deep south, way down in the tropics, just before the coastline of India stopped going south and turned eastwards, round to the southernmost point of Kanniyakumari – Cape Cormorin: south of Bangkok or Saigon on one side, on the same latitude as Cameroon or the Congo on the other. The days slowed to a crawl: breakfast at seven, a floppy-limbed amble along the clifftop to Coffee Temple for a cappuccino, and then by nine the pathway was a griddle and we were just ants moving along it. The shopkeepers hid in the shade of tarpaulins and squinted up at passers-by. “Come see my shop sir.” By ten you sought shelter again from the heat, retreating to a darkened room to lie naked under the fan. The heat unhinged me; leaving the room was like going into a sauna. It was 36 degrees with 80% humidity, and one felt perpetually wet. The faintest breath of a breeze off the sea was a relief. Clothes were redundant, and the towel became the garment of choice – thin South Indian towels round the waist that dried quickly. I couldn’t sleep in the heat – I woke every hour soaked in sweat – and even a sheet was too much cover.
Going into the bathroom one night I spotted an enormous cockroach the size of a rodent standing in the middle of the tiled floor, antennae waving. I flung an empty water bottle at it and it disappeared behind the sink. Subsequent forays into the bathroom became tentative exercises where I’d put on the light and nervously peer around the door jamb to see what was in there. Terrible things scuttled through my dreams in Burroughsian nightmares – ancient malarial terrors in the fever of the hot night. Lying again under the fan feeling the sweat trickling down my chest the shape of my dreams began to change: landscapes, mountain ranges and cities were destroyed, crumbled into dust, wiped away, abandoned. There was only a sheer blank expanse of red laterite cliff face, and the enormous ocean lapping at its base, living in the here and now, carried on the waves into an amnesiac expanse of blankness. Thoughts fragmented, plans fell apart, anxieties wilted; in this heat one could only endure, give oneself over to it completely, gently perspiring. My mind, ticking away for weeks, finally fell silent. Gone troppo.
One night in Darjeeling restaurant, a tier-seated wooden shack on the clifftop path which played an endless succession of 80s hits – Nik Kershaw, Duran Duran, Ultravox and so on – I found myself overhearing the guy sitting next to me as he quizzed the waiter about the menu. The accent was unmistakeable: “What kind of foosh do you have? Is it frish? How is the kingfish?” Koongfoosh. John was in his late 60s, and had the clipped sound of Southern Africa in his voice. He had a way of peering benevolently over his spectacles at things with an air of mild optimism, and buoyantly ambled along with a little spring in his step. We swapped a few stories about Africa, and he confided that his partner wanted to buy a caravan in the UK and park it by the seaside somewhere on the south coast of England; he, on the other hand, thought that was terribly boring, fancied going to India, and did. “But this heat! I don’t know how much longer I can take it.” He was reassured to hear that my daily routine – breakfast, shower, nap – was the same as his own. “We’re all poleaxed by it,” I told him. “Just got to soak it up and not fight it.” He’d had an interesting life, working as a rigger in Canada in the 60s, Saudi in the 70s, Bombay in the 80s… It turned out we were staying at the same hotel, so began to meet up for meals on the clifftop. It was one of those unlikely friendships one strikes up on the road, and a pleasure to meet him – validation, somehow, that we are never quite as alone as we can sometimes feel.
Varkala’s North Cliff was essentially a line of such restaurants interspersed with small shacks selling the kind of ethnic clothing that marked out a certain type of traveller: baggy harem pants, Om T-shirts and various other rather hippyish items. But given that just about everyone had arrived from chillier climes, the clothes we had all brought with us felt wrong in the wet heat; the Fruit of the Loom T-shirts I’d fished out of a bargain bucket in Rome were fine for the Eternal City in late summer, but far too heavy for Kerala in March. John had a similar problem, and purchased a couple of short-sleeved kurta tops in lightweight cotton khadi. I began to notice other tourists wearing the same. Slowly we all adopted a similar look – slightly psychedelic, a little bit ethnic, the kind of thing that might have delayed us at Customs briefly in an airport as they fetched the drug dog. Goa chic, I dubbed it.
I’d seen a floral Hawaiian shirt on a rail a few days earlier – the kind decorated with tropical fruit in knockout colours – and one evening at Clafouti restaurant I spotted a guy standing outside wearing a similar one. I took him for a Scandinavian, or Dutch, perhaps – tall, tanned, blond hair and with round horn-rimmed spectacles. It turned out Richard was English, in his mid-50s, and was a doctor – he’d just come from Lesbos where he’d been working with the refugees as a volunteer. He joined us for drinks and told extraordinary stories – the time he’d gone to Nigeria and ended up dating a princess who was starting a political party; or spotting a group of young guys who seemed familiar on a flight to New York and getting invited to a party with them, only to find that they were a chart-topping hip-hop band. He was having two silk suits made up by a local tailor in Varkala, one in purple and one in iridescent beetle green (“For festivals, you know…”) and had made a slight error of judgement in the ordering by misplacing the decimal point in the conversion to rupees: at 30,000rs each it might have been cheaper to get them done in Jermyn Street. We had a fascinating conversation about the pioneering work being done by Dr David Nutt, the former goverment “drugs czar” who had been fired for suggesting that cannabis was actually quite a benevolent drug compared to alcohol, on the use of mild doses of Ecstasy to treat victims of PTSD. He was, without doubt, a very interesting character. Then it occured to me, as I recounted a story about driving along the south shore of Lake Kariba and stopping for the night, walking up a hill to smoke and look at the sunset and then realising that I was in the middle of a herd of elephants, who were rumbling to each other and tearing branches off trees with great splintering crashes… and then creeping back down the hill again as they all fell silent and allowed me to pass through their ranks – that all three of us were quite interesting characters really, and that it was only in improbable places like Varkala that we seemed to find each other.