CHAPTER 2: Notes from the field - Part 1
After having the delicious fish curry meals, I retired to my room at the Paramount. I slept through the evening and woke up only the next morning when someone knocked on the door. I rolled over drowsily and unsteadily got on my feet. I hauled myself to the door, dragging the warm blanket behind me. I squinted partly because the sun was in my eyes and partly because I was still half asleep. An elderly male voice on the other side greeted me. “Good morning to you sir! How do you do on this fine, sunny day?”. The pleasantries had flattered me the previous day but now, in the middle of sleep, I didn’t appreciate them as much. “Fine..ish” I mumbled under my breath as I turned around and tugged myself and the blanket back to bed.
When I woke up an hour later, I found a glass of coffee sitting on the window sill with a piece of newspaper covering it. I sat up on my bed and stared at it, hoping it would come to me and save me the trouble of walking across the room. 5 minutes of fruitless staring later, I tossed the blanket aside and walked out into the hallway grabbing the coffee, now cold, on my way. I peeped over the railing to see if the old man was around so I could apologise to him for my behaviour but he wasn’t. From the adjacent room, its occupant walked out. I glanced over my shoulder to look at him. A debonair gentleman who looked at least a decade younger than his age in Gangamma’s register. Dressed in all whites, socks and white canvas shoes, he stepped out of his room with a smile on his face. I turned around and smiled back, adjusting my wrinkled shirt to salvage some form in front of the impeccably dressed person standing opposite me. He held out his hand and offered a hand shake. “Col. Arthur Pallimuthil” he said. “Peter Matthews” I said and shook his hand, a firm armyman handshake. “What brings you here Peter?” he asked as he let go of his grip on my hand. “I’m a photographer. I’m here to try to put Seemapuram on the tourist map!” I replied. He cringed ever so slightly. “Are you sure you want to do that injustice to this beautiful place?” It was a typically old-generation thought- one that I had encountered many times in the past and an argument to which I really had no answer. On many nights I’d stayed up wondering if by popularising little known pockets of beauty I was hurting them but when I went back to these places the locals come to me in dozens to tell me how they were better off with more facilities than before. And as long as they kept the dirty agents out, which they often did, it didn’t do too much damage to nature either. Nevertheless, I sheepishly grinned and gave no answer to the colonel. “What about you, sir? Here on vacation?” I asked him, in an effort to change the topic of conversation. “I work for the air force. They wanted some strategic inputs and I came in as an independent consultant.” he said. I was about to ask him why he wasn’t staying in Vothil when he said “They offered to put me up at the IAF guest house but I declined. At the end of the day, I’m no more a part of the services so it would be wrong to use their facilities for free”. I nodded in partial agreement. “But I think you’ve earned at least the right to use that guest house after all your years of service” I suggested. “I earned the right to hold my chin high, pump out my chest and say that I served this great nation and that’s all I care for” he said, pumping his chest out and holding his chin high. I stood in attention and saluted the soldier who returned the gesture. “Nice talking with you Peter. Jai Hind” he said and proceeded down the narrow stairs of the paramount. I drank the cold coffee in one gulp and went for a bath. I had 5 days to finish my work and I hadn’t even ventured out to scout for any potential spots.
It was 10 ‘o’ clock by the time I got ready to get out. Gangamma was at her table busy sorting rice from husk. I put on my hat, wore the camera around my neck, checked if I had the extra rolls of film and once I was sure I had everything, walked down the stairs after greeting Gangamma who acknowledged it with indifference. Instead of walking towards vothil like the previous day, I walked the other way hoping the road would take me to some place interesting. Korapuzha road ended rather abruptly on this side. There were a few trees where the road ended and a few hand carts behind them. There was a church on my left, Santa Cruz Basalica. The gates were locked but a little board hanging on it said “Mass timings: Mon-Sat : 11AM. Sun: 9AM”. I ventured closer to the trees at the end of the road and discovered that there was something beyond them. Holding my camera close to my body, I walked through the little forest. On the other side, was a roaring river after which the road I’d just come from was named-Korapuzha. There were a few benches a safe distance away from the water and a well laid pavement along the length of the river. I sauntered down the pavement for a short distance and sat on one of the benches under a tree which looked like the best vantage point for a picture. A young couple walked past me, umbrella in hand making small talk and giggling. They sat themselves on some rocks by the river and carried on their conversation. I looked through the viewfinder eyepiece of my camera to find a good frame to capture the sunrise the next day. Two girls sat on a nearby bench and looked at me, an alien in these parts, inquisitively. I pretended to be busier than I was, adjusting the focus and zoom unnecessarily. There was an island in the middle of the river that was full of trees and almost by design, a row of uneven stones leading to the island. The river was too turbulent to attempt a daring trek across it presently. The girls lost interest in my work soon and were now engaged in a discussion of their own. I picked up my stuff and strolled along the path looking for more interesting pastures to graze. The path led to a large sandy ground that had a big board in the middle. From a distance, I couldn’t read what it said but as I got closer I saw the word “Danger” in big bold red. I walked away obediently but saw a foreigner couple walking in that direction. Watching them walk on the sand and not get swallowed by the “dangerous land”, I walked into the ground too. I imagined walking through the sandy shores with Stella by my side, hand in hand even as she argued with me about the legality of our stroll. Which was when it suddenly dawned on me that I was supposed to call her! I turned around and made a dash for it. I ran towards korapuzha road and struggled through the little forest on to the main road. There was a tonga loaded with some sacks and about to set off. I pleaded with the tonga-walla who agreed to accommodate me. I squeezed into the back making sure my camera was safe. The tonga rattled along slowly, stopping from time to time waiting for the people on the road to move. What seemed like an eternity later, we finally reached the railway station. I disembarked from my god-sent ride, paid the driver and ran into the phone booth. I told the operator the number while simultaneously trying to catch my breath. After a few rings, Stella picked up the phone.
“Hello?” she said.
“AK it’s me! How are you?”
“I’m late already Peter. Call me later” she said bluntly.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I live all the way across town and it takes me an hour to walk to this phone booth.” I lied.
“Oh you poor thing” she said. I grinned, pleased that she’d fallen for it. “You liar. I’ve known you long enough to know when you lie. You forgot, didn’t you?” she then said.
“Sheesh. I didn’t! I just woke up late” I admitted.
“You’re not there on holiday, darling.” she said.
“I know. I know. I was tired. I’ll wake up early to shoot the sunrise tomorrow morning. There’s a beautiful river nearby.”
“Ok then. I’m leaving n..” she began when the line went dead.
“All the best….” I said knowing it hadn’t reached her over the phone. But it was the thought that counted, I consoled myself.
“Does this line ever last for more than a minute?” I asked the operator while paying him.
“It’s a miracle it lasts that long” he answered as he put the coins in a box.
I was put off by the entire episode and didn’t feel like getting back to work for the day. I sat on a stool outside the phone booth and closed my eyes, alternately cursing myself and wishing stella in my head. After a good half an hour of self-loathing, it occurred to me that I hadn’t had dinner the previous night or breakfast that morning. I looked up and found Appu’s was closed. I trodded along the road until I saw a little hole in the wall restaurant- one of the many little eateries in town. The door was quite low and I had to bend a bit to enter it. Inside, were six chairs and a few benches. There was also a glass cabinet, a trademark of small hotels, with a variety of fried food stuff on display which served as a menu by itself. I settled for my regular breakfast items, Idly, Sambhar and coffee- safe bets at any restaurant. By the time my stomach was satisfied, I’d eaten three plates of idli and a peculiar deep fried banana apart from 3 cups of coffee.
By 3 in the evening, I’d wandered aimlessly past the station and reached the middle of nowhere. I desperately needed water and I hadn’t carried any with me. There was a group of boys playing football nearby on a piece of parched land. It offered a beautiful scene with the lushing meadows on the hills behind providing a glorious backdrop. It was the first picture of my trip and I loved what I had started with. I clicked from a few different angles and then took a few closer shots. After getting a few shots I was happy with, I put the camera in my bag and rested it carefully on a patch of grass near a rock. I approached the boys and asked if I could join them. They were more than happy to have me and fought for a while about whose team I would join. Since I was considerably bigger than them, a final compromise involved one team trading 2 players to keep me. We played till dusk when the dimming light made it difficult to see the brownish ball. The boys led me to a stream of water nearby, something I’d never have found on my own, where we quenched our thirst with the pristinely clean water of the stream and then walked back towards the town.
When we reached south station road I noticed that Appu’s had opened again. I bid my new found friends goodbye and walked in to meet Rahim.
“How come this place was closed in the morning?” I asked him.
“Iyooo Sahib. I had to meet a few friends. I was supposed to be back by 9 but we started playing a game of Rummy and then another and then we didn’t stop till it was time for lunch.” he replied, slapping his forehead with his palm in regret. We laughed a little about how the game went and then I left but not before inviting myself to their next game. It was too early for dinner and it was too much work to come back to Appu’s for dinner later. My eating-pattern was clearly going to suffer if I didn’t find a place closer to the Paramount for food. I flagged down a passing Tonga and went back to the room. I saw the elderly man at the Bakery downstairs but he was rather busy so I walked straight up and crashed on my bed. I had 4 more days to finish my work and all I’d done so far was eat a bit, walk a little and slept a lot. Irrespective, I napped for an hour and woke up to go find some dinner. I got down to the bakery and looked at their display shelf. There was a whole assortment of puffs and samosas and, surprisingly, what looked like burgers. I asked the man at the counter for one of those. “Bun Samosa sir” he said, “2 annas”. As I took the bun samosa and turned around to leave, I got a mini-heart attack. The elderly man was standing quietly behind me all the while.
“Jesus Christ!” I exclaimed, accompanied by slightly heavy breathing.
“Good evening sir! How went your day?” he said, high spirits as ever.
“Just fine thank you.” I said, still reovering from the shock. “I never bothered asking you your good name, taatha (grandfather)” I said.
“Please call me anything but that” he said and laughed out loudly inducing a bout of coughing.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to offend you anna (brother)” I said trying to make ammends.
“I was only joking. What’s your favourite name? You can call me by that name” he said.
“Alright. How about George?” I asked.
“A good choice sir! George it is!” he replied enthusiastically.
I laughed and proceeded to the stairs when I remembered that I had to apologise to him. “George!” I called out. “I’m sorry I was rude in the morning!”
“No no! I apologise sir! I forgot that old commandment- ‘Thou shall not disturb a man who sleeps’.”
We laughed and I went to my room to eat the bun samosa.
I hadn’t yet explored Seemapuram in the evening. So after finishing my little snack, which was hardly filling, I picked up my camera and the flash attachment and went back on the streets. The roads were a lot emptier now and I could see all the shops in the market. The most colourful of these was a little doll shop. The dolls were dressed in clothes of multiple colours but dominated by red and usually accompanied with patterns of yelow, green and black. There were also puppets of many different kinds but in similar attire. It stood out to me because these were uncommon down south. I proceeded to the colourful shop which was illiuminated in part by the yellow street light and in part by the small kerosene lamp near the owner- a middle aged lady who didn’t look like she cared much for small talk.
“Where are these dolls from?” I asked with a smile.
“10 annas for one and 15 for two” she said with a straight face.
“Did you make these yourself?” I asked, trying to press the issue.
“12 for two. Take it or leave it” she said.
Exasperated, I decided to move on to a different shop. I was looking for stories, not souveniers.
“10 for two, sahib” she said.
“Well, Stella would like these” I thought to myself, “And 10 for two seems like a good offer”.
I picked two of my choice and paid the lady. “So where are these from?” I asked her in a last ditch attempt. She replied with silence.
I walked to the next shop, hoping to find a friendlier owner. As I moved away, I heard a voice from inside the doll shop say “mama, why didn’t you tell the poor man where you got the dolls?”
“Ssssh beti.” she said, putting her finger on her lips, instructing the person inside to shut up.
I tried peeping in inconspicuously but it was too dark to see. I had a look at the shops on one side of the doll shop and found a few selling spices and coffee powder but nothing interesting. I made my way to the other side of the doll shop, passing it on the way and looking with squinted eyes to see who was inside. The dull, flickering light of the kerosene lamp illuminated a slender figure hard at work inside the shop. I didn’t know what she was doing but before I could discern anything, my eyes met the spine-chilling eyes of the owner lady. I hurried past the shop but I was still trying to make a proper mental image of the person inside using the bits and pieces I’d gathered.
It was getting late and I went back to the bakery and settled for some puffs and bun samosas for dinner.
To be continued…