Frankie Fey

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 52


The bus was new, clean, and for those seated, comfortable. The driver took no risks and didn't speed, so they managed to avoid the numberless carts, motorbikes, bicycles, other cars and pedestrians that appeared to pay little heed to road rules. Frankie enjoyed looking at the land, towns and people of the green foothills of the Western Ghats and was surprised at how quickly two hours passed. Suddenly they were in Nagercoil, about twenty kilometres east of Kanyakumari. After a twenty-minute stop they left Tamil Nadu, rounded the end of the Western Ghats and entered the wet tropical paradise of Kerala. Sadly, the road ran inland so he missed the magnificent coastline of palms, forests, fishing villages, towns, farms and plantations. An hour later they entered the green suburbs of Trivandrum, as he was relieved to discover most people called the capital, and minutes later arrived at one of the most spectacular and modern bus stations imaginable, a fourteen storey giant half circle of white and black concrete.

For a city of a million, the capital of Kerala seemed calm, relaxed and spacious, stretching along the coast for kilometres of picture postcard tropical paradise beaches lined by dense bands of palms that came right down to the water.

After finding a small hotel and eating a late lunch at a kiosk, Frankie wandered around the commercial part of the city, which was as charmingly impromptu and deceptively messy as all the other cities he'd visited, with low-rise flat-roofed apartment blocks in pastel shades, multi storeyed commercial premises slathered in colourful and unsubtle advertising hoardings, and everywhere trees. Trees lining roads. Great clumps and rows of giant coconut palms. Large spreading leafy tropical trees shading squares and parks. Very, very attractive.

And of course temples. Without realising it Frankie had become enamoured of the powerfully solid, decorated pillars, porticoes and carvings of Hindu temple exteriors and their multi-storied gopurams guarding the entrance. According to a helpful devotee in a white lungi, entry through the gopuram symbolises liberation from the bondage of matter and the world of contradictions. Then as you proceed through the decorated, light filled, brilliantly coloured temple with its polished floors and titanic masculine architecture into the dark and undecorated Garbhagrahamm or central sanctum in which the image of the god is displayed, an air of deep mystery envelops even the most rational mind.

Looking indistinguishable from many young Indian men, Frankie was never prevented from unobtrusively following and imitating others. Most of the male devotees wore only a white lungi, beads and sandals. All had beautiful dark gold skin so it should have been sexy, but wasn't because most men over twenty-five had soft fat bellies. The priests especially were a severe disappointment. Having dedicated their lives to the service of their god, one would expect a modicum of self-restraint, but they were the least fit and the fattest of all.

Approaching a pleasant and not overweight young man in a white lungi outside a temple, Frankie asked the reason for the lack of clothes.

'It is for health,' he explained politely. 'The dome of the Vimanam directly above the Garbhagrahamm attracts cosmic rays and directs them straight down into the Garbhagrahamm which is very dark. Since cosmic rays cannot stay in dark areas, they are immediately emitted out of the Garbhagrahamm lodging in the naked torsos of the worshipping devotees. This makes those people the healthiest in the land.'

As for why the Garbhagrahamm has only one door, he explained that the Sanskrit word garbha means womb, and a womb has only one entrance and is dark, so the sanctum, which can be compared to the womb with it's function of giving birth to good, healthy living, is also dark with one entrance. The entire temple represents the body of the god. Frankie thanked him effusively, and continued to be delighted by the crowds milling in the vast courtyards, sitting or strolling around the temple ponds and gardens, eating, socialising, talking and relaxing as well as praying.

He'd even begun to consider the omnipresent beggars around temple entrances to be as essential to the whole process as the priests, by providing a way to demonstrate generosity.

A few streets away, a sterile pink and white mosque standing in isolated, vacant splendour, suffered in comparison with the social activity and friendly, unpretentious ambience of Sri Padmanabha Swami Temple.

And compared to Hindu architecture, the old British Colonial buildings, often in magnificent formal gardens, lacked artistry, fantasy and a welcoming atmosphere. They never caused him to laugh in delight as did the small colourful pavilions set among trees and gardens of the Sree Durga Bhagwati Temple.

Not being a night person he ate at dusk, walked for a bit to aid digestion, then slept his usual full eight hours, waking early to walk a couple of kilometres to the modernistic International Airport to make sure he wouldn't get lost and miss his flight two days later. On the edge of the parking area a bicycle hire place gave him the idea of exploring further than he could on foot, so he hired one with upright handlebars so he could see where he was going, bought a map from the same man, and pedalled away happily, visiting the zoo and natural history museum with its gardens and amazing topiary hedges shaped like elephants. Then on to a research centre. Then a deep quarry filled with water, followed by the suburbs around lake Akkulam on which a slim brown man in a blue and white lungi was punting himself across the placid water in an old wooden canoe, exactly like the photo in his school text book. Giant coconut palms grew right to the water's edge. The understorey was filled with luxurious growth. Above floated a turquoise sky. Reflections in the lake were barely disturbed by the passing canoe. And then the mosquitoes found him, proving that nothing can ever be perfect.

The following day he set off early and rode south beyond his small tourist map, along an unpleasantly busy highway because lagoons and rivers and canals prevented a continuous coastal road. It was worth the hassle when he turned off at Kovalam and followed charming tree-lined roads to the coast and a string of magical bays formed by a succession of low rocky promontories enclosing perfect crescents of ochre coloured sand fringed by millions of coconut palms. Grove Bay, Kovalam Beach, Lighthouse Bay ending with the Vizinjam pleasure port and a superb beach that, like all the others, was a deep crescent of sand lapped by low breakers rolling in from an almost flat Arabian Sea.

Some beaches seemed secluded despite houses and shops behind the palm trees. Some had car parks, five storied hotels with restaurants and promenades gazing over the sea. All had fishing boats looking like very robust versions of Venetian gondolas that had been dragged up onto the sand. Some of the boats had thatched shelters to keep the sun off the catch and the catchers while out on the water. At one bay half a dozen sleek speedboats took people for rides, destroying the peace. As for humans, there were many hundreds of men, children and women dressed as if to go shopping. Wandering up and down the sand or standing up to their knees in water. A few lay on wooden day beds under colourful umbrellas provided by the hotels. No one was swimming.

At Lighthouse Beach two young men were sitting in the shallow water, but not swimming. The buildings lining the foreshore were unpretentious. No hotels. He didn't bother stopping at the next beach where a raised concrete promenade had been built along it's entire length preventing easy access to the sand, probably to protect the continuous line of four and five storeyed hotels and other modern holiday apartments with their colourful awnings, from rising seas and the tempests that sometimes raged along the coast. Today the sea was transparent turquoise as smooth as glass.

After the pleasure port at Vizhinjam, where he bought himself a bottle of lemonade, he continued on to the beach, which was popular being so close to the business centre. Further along, however, it was almost deserted. A group of leanly powerful men in faded old lungis sat beside their boats repairing nets, coiling ropes and chatting. Three small groups of fully dressed locals were paddling in the sea, absorbed in their own activities. Frankie secured his bike, put his sandals in his satchel and approached the fishermen who pointedly ignored him so he kept on walking towards a tanned, middle-aged European couple sitting in the shade of a lone fishing boat close to the water; she in a black, one-piece swimsuit, he all but naked in a tiny red backless pouch. He was lean; she was solid.

They looked up, smiled, and the elderly man said politely with no obvious surprise at being approached, 'Good morning. How can I help you?'

'By explaining how you get away with wearing only a sexy little pouch,' Frankie laughed.

'Oh! How amusing. I suppose it's because we're English, not Indians. Thanks for saying I'm sexy.'

'He said the pouch was sexy, Clarence,' his wife interjected sharply, 'not you.'


'You didn't seem surprised when I approached,' Frankie said to divert the slight unpleasantness.

'I thought you were a local because you're dressed like one.'

'That's thanks to a fellow who stole my bag.'

'How galling,' he commiserated. 'Did you lose much?'

'Only clothes.'

'We weren't surprised you came over,' the woman interrupted, smiling a little too much, 'because we teach English and are often approached by locals needing assistance with the language.'

'Is teaching lucrative?'

'Oh… we don't charge.' She seemed almost shocked at the idea. 'We felt so guilty when we arrived a couple of years ago, you know, ex-colonials and all that, living in a pleasant modern house when so many around us barely have the essentials, that we wanted to contribute something to the local area to show we mean well.'

Frankie managed not to smile at the hint of noblesse oblige. 'That is laudable.'

'Thank you. It's enabled us to make a few friends with the locals who almost certainly think of us as the eccentric Englishers who have no modesty on the beach and actually swim as well as paddle. By the way, I'm Clarence.' He offered his hand, which Frankie took and shook, amused at the unnecessarily firm grip.

'And I'm Violet,' his wife announced with a handshake quite as determinedly butch as her husband's.

'And I'm Frankie.'

'Are you staying in India long?'

'I'm leaving tomorrow.'

'Why? Are you disappointed?' Violet asked as if excited at the idea.

'Not at all. I'm in love with the place, although I don't think I could live here; I'm not keen on crowds. But the few Indians I've had more than a desultory chat with have been very pleasant.'

'Apart from the fellow who stole your things.'

'I never met him, of course, and he was probably poor and there was nothing valuable in the bag. In fact I was pleased at the excuse to buy the sort of clothes Indian men wear; I live in fear of looking like a tourist or acting like one.'

'How do they act?'

'I've seen several being very rude and impatient in trains, shops and restaurants, behaving as if the locals are inferior.'

'Rest assured the locals don't feel inferior,' Clarence laughed, 'quite the opposite. I sometimes think they feel sorry for us, as if we're refugees—which in a way we are.'

Frankie smiled politely.

'But surely you're not travelling alone?' Violet asked as if it would be the depths of stupidity.

'Yes. I see more and meet more people if I'm alone.'

'But of course you young people are in constant contact with parents and friends with your smart phones, so it isn't really the same as being alone.'

''Nope,' Frankie laughed. 'I don't have a phone and haven't contacted my parents for nearly a month – they have no idea where I am. It would seem like cheating to be tethered to a phone so I could be contacted whenever someone feels like it.'

'Well,' Clarence said in a voice tinged with envy. ' I think that is very splendid. Don't you agree, violet?'

'Yes, Clarence, Very.' She turned her smile on Frankie. 'Please excuse me, dear, but I have to make a phone call.' She took her phone just out of earshot.

'Why did you come to live here, Clarence?' Frankie asked.

'Because in England we'd only be able to afford a semi-detached house in a dull suburb of a dull city with freezing wet winters and overcrowded transport, urban violence, strikes and…' He stopped and shrugged. 'Here we can afford a pleasant house near a beach, a maid, restaurants and all the comforts we could only dream about in England.'

'A maid?' Frankie frowned.

'I know. It's so colonial and at first we resisted, then discovered the locals resented us for depriving a girl of employment, so we have one, overpay her, treat her like a daughter, and she is wonderful. It's a way of giving back; like our language classes.'

'I do apologise for that,' Violet said returning with a satisfied smile.

'Not at all. So… it seems you like living here?'

'Definitely. There are lots of things we can't do, but we didn't do them before either. We've always been a bit reclusive, preferring our own company.'

'I love the temples, do you?'

'We're both rabid secularists.'

'So am I, but the temples are wondrous works of art, so powerful and colourful!' Frankie's excitement was not transmitted to his hosts, who gazed at each other in bored disbelief. Oblivious to their lack of interest, he carried on extolling the temple's virtues until suddenly becoming embarrassingly aware of the glazed eyes of his listeners. 'Oh I say, I do apologise,' he said contritely. 'I tend to go on a bit when I'm excited.'

Clarence was smiling broadly. 'No need to apologise, Frankie. Such passion and eloquence is commendable in the young.'

'And to prove how much we enjoy your company, I insist you come to lunch with us,' Violet added. When Frankie hesitated, she said, 'Oh please don't tell me you've already eaten? Come anyway and have a drink.'

'No, I haven't eaten, and I'd love to come—as long as I'm not putting you out?'

'I wouldn't have asked you if you were.'

'Then I accept.'

'Excellent, because an Indian friend will be joining us any minute for a swim and lunch, so it will make an even number. Four is always better than three, don't you think?'

Frankie didn't, but was interested to see their house and meet their friend, so accepted with a smile.

'While we wait for him, why don't you go for a swim? We'll just laze about in the shallows. There are no dangerous undercurrents, so you can go out as far as you like.'

'I'd love to, but…'

'Ah, your satchel and clothes. You can trust us, but it's up to you.' Clarence looked quizzically at Frankie, who decided it was stupid to distrust people who seemed so genuine, so he laughed and stripped off his shirt, then stopped.

'Ah, I forgot. I'm in India. It's too hot and sticky to wear underpants and as these are the shorts I'll be wearing tomorrow on the plane I don't want to get them wet.'

'We're concealed behind this boat, and there's hardly anyone on the beach, so if you're quick no one will notice. Come on don't be shy.'

'I'm not shy, I just don't want to offend anyone. What about your friend?'

'I assure you, you won't offend Inesh! Off you go.'

Frankie stripped, put his shirt and trousers carefully in the satchel, placed it on the hull of the boat, then hurled himself from concealment into the shallows before swimming out about a hundred metres, where he floated on his back for some time then treaded water and gazed back at the land. The water was cool, clear and not very salty. The coastline looked even more romantic from the water, and he suddenly wished he'd not been in such a hurry to leave. He waved to Clarence who waved back. At that moment a dark man in a white lungi marched across the beach. He shook Violet and Clarence's hands, exchanged greetings, then all three entered the water and began bobbing up and down in the low breakers a few metres off shore.

That must be Inesh, Frankie thought. He looks tough and sexy. He swam lazily back to join them.

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