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May 20, 2024

School Penna

By Barry Kirwan

The mid-afternoon Indian sun bore down on her, but it wasn't the only thing drilling into her head. She slumped on her threadbare wicker chair on the ageing river-boat's sundeck, sweating with an inevitability one grew accustomed to in India. The ferry chugged down the polluted waterway, as yet another bead of sweat trickled down her back.

The upper deck sprawled with student back-packers, twenty-somethings putting brave, slightly-smudged faces on what they would describe in a month's time back in a pub in England as the holiday of a lifetime. But they were chatting about 'back home' already, about their jobs, their lives, television programmes they missed. She didn't know why they were here. She laid her head back against the battered wooden railing, hoping the sun's heat would block out the noise.

India: its richness defied description. But she doubted they grasped it. Listening to them talk, they saw the landscape and its peoples through Western eyes and values, unenlightened by the Lonely Planet guidebooks they all carried, which they used instead to find cheap food and accommodation, skipping the boring stuff about the history and culture of the people. A conversation snippet intruded on her thoughts.

"Oh, really brilliant last night. That curry was SO hot, I was sweating into it. Needed four lassi's to cool down afterwards!"

At least he hadn't continued the story to its physiological conclusion. She wished they spoke another language, one she didn't understand. In a way they did.

She was grateful that most were quiet, plugged into their smart-phones, keeping out the world they had apparently come to experience first hand, simply to say they'd been. India was in vogue, a cool place to visit.

But if there is one thing India is not, it is cool. It is hot, dazzling, bewildering, frenetic, chaotic, spicy, and like combinations of spices, unpredictable. That's why she loved it, why she'd come back. But she'd been thankful to escape the big cities -- the bustle of polluted Mumbai, and the cacophonous dustbowl that was New Delhi -- out into the countryside she considered to be real India.

The heat made her drowsy, though it was too hot to actually sleep. The boat pootled along so slowly that there was not even the respite of a motion-induced breeze. She relaxed, no longer caring about the sweat-crease forming on the back of her Panama hat, and gazed across to the riverbank. Three children ran along the bank. What were they shouting? Ah, yes: "School penna, school penna!"

They wanted pens, as the rural schools rarely had anything for them to write with, if indeed they had a school to go to. More likely, this was one of the few English phrases they knew. They wanted to attract attention, to make contact with an ephemeral world that eluded them, teased them with its wealth and strangely-dressed people. We export envy, she thought, though these particular kids were too young to be envious. She waved, smiling. The guidebooks said not to give them pens, as it encouraged begging. But they didn't tell you what to do instead.

You can't just observe India, she thought, and remain untouched by it. India invades you. As you sweat outwardly, India seeps in. Even with all the poverty, the heat, the mosquitoes, and the daily challenges of getting anything done, it gets into your veins, so that years later, having sworn you'd never return, you find yourself back again. Her second trip. It wouldn't be her last.

The wooden vessel drifted past the Chinese fishing nets, held up by large booms of bamboo. They hung like skeletons of sagging balloons, ready to be dipped into the river, to scoop out thousands of unsuspecting fish basking in the water-cooled sunlight. The backpackers stirred. Out of those dusty rucksacks, and despite the daily attempts to find a meal for less than a euro, came the latest digital cameras and I-phones. A clatter of tiny clicks issued forth like out-of-harmony crickets, the occasional embarrassing whirr from a non-digital student. No longer even eyes to the lens -- the tech-travellers held their imaging machines at arm's length, squinting at small screens which showed the perfect image they would appreciate later. And even if the pictures weren't perfect, Photoshop could make them so. The digital wonder, capturing experience in coloured pixels, distancing people from reality.

They'd download the photos as soon as they found an internet café, sending images to friends stuck in rainy England, sharing or bragging. Why did people need to stay in touch so much these days? How could you get away from it all when you could contact anyone, anywhere, so easily? She watched them put their gadgets away, and slump back into their stupor, retreating once again from the world they'd come to see. She hung her head. It felt heavy.

One wiry student, a fuzz of bleached dreadlocks atop a freckled face, became agitated. "Hey, where is it? Has anyone seen my I-phone?" He whirled around, inspecting the floor littered with bodies and rucksacks, while clutching his own at his waist. His sunburned arm groped inside the largest compartment. One of his buddies propped himself up on his elbows.

"You had it earlier, remember? You took pictures of the bridge as we left."

Panic spread across his face. He switched to another compartment, ramming his hand to the bottom, rummaging around, making it look as if there was a wild animal trying to escape its canvas confines. He glanced at an Indian boy dressed in white sitting at the top of the stairs, then back to his friend. "I fell asleep," he whispered. "The tea boy ... did he, you know, could he ...?" But then his manic search ceased, and a smile broke across his unshaven face. "Ah. Found it!" He fished it out, switched it on, gazed at it like it was gold. His friend lay back down, tilting his cowboy hat to shield his face from the blistering sun.

She turned her head to the Indian boy, wondering if he had heard, if he had understood the calumny against him, and what it said of these tourists.

As the students settled down again, she sat up, taking in the entourage beneath the brim of her Panama. They were shoddy, unwashed, hair all over the place. In contrast, the locals remained miraculously clean, their tunics and saris spotless, yet with no running water, no washing machine other than a river, instead only the Indian washer-women or 'dhobi-wallahs' and a flat stick. She'd seen them working that morning at 5am outside her riverside hotel, after being woken by their relentless beating of clothes. She'd like to wash a few clothes right now, beat the dirt out of them.

The Indian boy and his father, or uncle, watched over their passengers. The tourists were too concerned about their holidays, sheltering under the unassailable assumption that any Indians would trade their lives with Westerners at a moment's notice, to ever wonder what the locals must think of them. She'd like to know, really. But of course she couldn't, no more than she could become a Hindu without being born one.

But the heat was getting to her. She turned her wrist to see the time. The trip was supposed to be three hours long. Four had wafted by already. She had to meet Robert later in Cochin for the midnight trip back to Delhi, then home. He'd had some business to do there first, and so had missed out on the two-day safari to the Periyar Tiger Reserve. He'd tried to make her take a phone with her. But she'd been angry he'd prioritised work yet again, even during their annual holiday.

"For goodness sake, Gloria, this is India -- a million and one things can go wrong. What if you're delayed, or the boat breaks down, or --"

"I can look after myself. I was fine when I was here alone last time, remember?"

He held it out to her. "Look, take it, leave it switched off if you like, just --"

She folded her arms. "No. It stays with you or I drop it in the river. You decide."

She'd felt proud of herself, a small battle won by a housewife who used to have a real job, a real life. But glancing at her watch again, her smile faded. No one else seemed to think it was worth complaining about. She'd been lucky to catch this boat, the last one that day, having left the reserve later than planned, one last safari to try and see tigers. She'd seen none, of course. She fantasised that the Chinese wanted karmic revenge for the Indians stealing their fishing net idea, so they offered small but irresistible sums to poachers to supply tiger parts for their various 'natural remedies.' She knew that unless the Indians took a hard line with poachers, as they finally had done in Africa, then the tiger population would simply be eradicated. But perhaps the Indians had the right perspective, the right balance. After all, the poachers had families to feed. It was easy for a Westerner to bemoan the situation, but do nothing to remove its underlying causes. But it was too hot to think straight; she felt like she was in a sauna.

She took another sip of bottled water. A plastic bottle. Shouldn't use plastic in India. Pigs can't eat plastic, so the plastic collects in the streets. Sometimes the locals bury it, but in any case it remains, slowly building up. But the alternative, using purification tablets and then having to boil the water three times was difficult when on the move, and each time she'd tried it she'd ended up with severe stomach problems. It was the choice between being environmentally hostile with plastic, or succumbing to diarrhoea or even dysentery. She sighed and glugged a few sips of water into her mouth, letting it sit there a few seconds before swallowing. It tasted clean.

A few people stirred, a card game ended, some young Indian men started shouting to each other in Hindi below-deck. The terminus approached, amounting to a uniformed, moustached man with a tiny flag standing on a ramshackle jetty, yelling crisp and unnecessary commands to the vessel's captain. She decided to wait and let the throng go first.

The boat bumped to a halt, and the backpackers filed off in surprising organisation, against a backdrop of sari'd women squatting and washing clothes further down the bank. It amused her that most often she saw women working: in the fields, or by the river. Whenever she saw men in the countryside, they were usually in roadside cafés. What did they talk about, she wondered?

Last one off, she picked up her non-backpack luggage, two equally-weighted shoulder bags, and stepped cautiously down the narrow gangplank towards the village of Anjali, from where she would make her way by bus to Kottayam, and then by train to Cochin.

Her sandaled feet sank a little into terra squishy, the muddied bank that would be baked dry in an hour, as the backpackers piled onto an 'India Explorer Adventure Tours' bus, which promptly headed off, thick black smoke billowing behind it. She started walking.

"Taxi, Miss?" came a voice behind her.

She turned her head only, so the bags did not sway. A yellow and black tuk-tuk sidled up to her, fumes spluttering from the exhaust of its two-stroke engine. The driver's teeth gleamed in an infectious smile a seasoned traveller had to resist returning.

"Taxi, Miss?"

Where was the bus stop, the one for the local bus to Kottayam? She was sure her guide in Periyar had said a hundred yards. The road only went in one direction, towards the village, so she continued trudging up the dirt track.

"Miss, you take taxi? Bus gone. You take taxi?"

He surged ahead a little, then veered the tuk-tuk round so he ended up right next to her. She didn't deviate, her eyes fixed on the village, but the afternoon sun kept sneaking beneath her Panama's brim. She brushed aside a nagging thought that a backpack would after all be more sensible in this situation, and gripped her bags tighter.

There were no tourists around, and the few signs she saw were in Hindi. Her shoulders began to ache, and needless to say she was sweating like a certain animal that can't eat plastic. She didn't want to put the bags down, in case he took that as a sign. She avoided looking at him, but could feel him grinning; it was a game, one she wasn't winning.

For the next five minutes the driver would sometimes move off, then approach her again, as if he were a different driver, but always with the same "Taxi, Miss?" She kept thinking of the similar tactics of tuk-tuk drivers and mosquitoes, and wondered who had learned the trick from whom. Sweat ran down her arms into her palms, making her grip on the bags unsure. Frustration rose from her chest up into her throat. It was so bloody hot walking right into the afternoon sun.

People stared at her as she arrived in the village. Three other tuk-tuks circled some way off, vulture-like. She guessed they would let him have first shot. Free enterprise in India always looked chaotic, but was subtly organised. However, her arms and shoulders and legs were suing for divorce. She levered the straps off her shoulders and plonked the bags down into the dusty ground.

As soon as she did, he was there in an instant, ready to leap out of the tuk-tuk. A small group of people gathered around, a sea of faces, women in dazzling saris of vermillion or amber, men dressed in blinding white, a few with turbans. She wiped her forehead on her sleeve.

"Does anyone here speak English?" she ventured, her hands accompanying her plea as if she were Italian.

"Taxi, Miss, you want taxi?"

They continued to gaze at her, not unkindly, but she understood how a tiger must feel in a zoo -- or maybe a monkey. She looked at her watch. She was never going to make the train at this rate. Dammit, she should have brought the phone!

"Taxi, Miss, you take taxi!"

Gritting her teeth, she whirled, facing him, aware she wasn't a pretty sight. But she knew she must be firm. She felt like someone in of those television series where mature women trained dogs, as she faced him squarely and shouted: "NO!"

His head jerked back slightly, but only for a moment before he recovered.

"Miss, you take taxi, bus gone! Where you want go?"

Her eyes rolled, and she inadvertently looked straight into the sun, and winced. She ran her right hand over her face. She couldn't think straight. The cloud of faces drew closer. She wanted to move back, but was worried about the bags. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she breathed heavily. She felt unclean, she wanted a shower, a breeze, anything. She wished Robert was there.

"Miss, you --"

But she didn't hear the rest. She flared and wheeled on him, her hands balled into fists raised in the air. She shouted at him.

"MISS ... DON'T ... WANT ... FUCKING ... TAXI!" Anger boiled inside her, and she went with the flow, stepping towards him as the crowd edged back. "NO FUCKING TAXI, UNDERSTAND? MISS WAIT FOR BUS, YOU FUCK OFF NOW, RIGHT?"

Her legs trembled beneath her. She lowered her fists, her knuckles white. He backed off, staring at her wide-eyed. He glanced at the crowd, then he got back in his tuk-tuk, looked down sideways, and switched off the engine. The other tuk-tuks stopped. Everyone, and everything, stopped. This whole small world, India in miniature, stared at her. She stood, frozen, shaking, locked in her stance. From his expression she had gotten through to him, but too much. Her anger, a moment ago her willing accomplice, departed, leaving her alone to face the responsibility of what she had done. Surrounded by hushed locals, she had nowhere she dared look but down at her muddy canvas shoes.

She felt the gentle touch of a woman's hand on her shoulder. Gloria's eyes began to mist. She hunched over, fragile, ready to crumple into the dust surrounding her. But the crowd parted and she heard soft, measured footsteps. A pair of sandaled feet came into view. A clear voice spoke to her in lilting English.

"Miss, please calm yourself. You are tired and you are too hot. The last bus has gone until tomorrow. You must either stay with someone in the village, or take a taxi to Kottayam, where there are proper lodging facilities."

Her head still bowed, she inhaled deeply to recover. She glanced sideways without moving her head towards the smouldering tuk-tuk driver. A red and black tuk-tuk drove towards them, its driver beaming, but at some unseen local signal from the man in front of her, the smile transfigured into a polite shrug, and he deftly turned his vehicle around, heading back towards the shade of a tree.

No one spoke for some time. The hand on her shoulder squeezed, and she stole a look towards the large woman it belonged to. She saw not understanding, but acceptance, an unassuming and unquestioning tolerance the West had lost long ago, traded-in for arrogance. She smiled weakly at the woman, and then, with an effort, raised her head and faced the bald man who stood in front of her with unwavering sandalwood eyes, a vermilion dot in the centre of his forehead. Before she could say anything, and without taking his eyes from her, his arm pointed to the tuk-tuk.

"Your taxi, miss."

Of course. This wasn't just about her, though she guessed she would be the subject of much discussion later. This was about saving face, all of them, including hers, but more importantly the tuk-tuk driver's, someone's son in this village. There was only one way out. She nodded, and immediately, with pickpocket speed, two young boys whisked her bags inside the vehicle. She looked over to the driver. He stared forward through his windshield and started the motor, gunning the engine. The woman next to her gently eased off Gloria's disfigured Panama, handed it to her, and arranged a thin white scarf on her head and shoulders. It felt cool. Gloria began to fumble in her pockets for some money, but the woman shook her head.

The tuk-tuk hummed. Time to go. Gloria smiled and made a short bow to the woman, and then to the man, and walked over to the tuk-tuk. Climbing in, she was immediately grateful for the shade. She met her driver's eyes briefly in the rear-view mirror.

"Kottayam train station, please."

He revved the engine, and they pulled away.

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, leaning her head back against the thin plastic upholstery, letting the breeze dry off her sweat. She opened her eyes as she heard young kids running beside them, laughing, shouting something in Hindi. Probably something about a crazy English woman. She waved, wishing she had some pens to give them. Next time, she would bring pens. Lots of them.

Article © Barry Kirwan. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-10-10
1 Reader Comments
Lydia Manx
07:52:54 AM
I liked the cool calm woman at first viewing India in her own state of denial. Well crafted and made me long for a dip in an icy pool to escape the heat.
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