April 27th – A culture clash

We both had sore heads this morning- a sure sign that we had made the most of Varkala and its pleasures. The difficulty of dragging ourselves away from Varkala was finally overcome that afternoon after witnessing the beach fill up with more westerners than we had seen yesterday and suddenly feeling that it was time to move on. The beautiful synthesis of Indian tranquillity and western pleasures was finally dispelled by the cringe-inducing outburst that a bikini-clad American girl unleashed later that afternoon; one Indian man’s act of pretending to text into his phone whilst filming her with it became too un-subtle to ignore and she snapped, striding up to her tormenter in her New World boldness and screaming in his face, “What the fuck is your problem, huh?! Go…away!! GO!”

Of course, it had the desired effect of making the said Indian guy slink of very quietly. It also made very clear the reason why many of the Indian men and boys seemed to be aimlessly strolling around the beach fully clothed whilst texting on their phones, if anyone had been so curious as to ask themselves. I, for one, had enjoyed being back on a beach amongst western women and their skimpy western outfits and I’d only been away from the UK for a month. I wonder how it must be for an unmarried Indian guy who’d never yet been closer to a pair of breasts than a Hindi-dubbed Bond girl.

We continued further up the coast by bus to Kollam, a fairly workaday-looking city that had a pleasing bustle to it in the late-afternoon. As the various saree-merchants, tailoring stores and sweet-snack shops rattled down their shutters for the night and the shoppers thinned out, we noticed more and more of the same house-sized, colourful characters that had been daubed on the side of buildings everywhere. What these bold, simple icons meant, we had no idea- it may well have meant a million different things for all our knowledge of the script could tell us. It seemed wall-space was available for rent to the highest bidder, so that various businesses would have their advertisements daubed in varying degrees of neatness and presentation; business slogan in the local script and the address and phone number beneath in English. Similarly, there would be scrawled messages on the wall here and there. Unlike graffiti in the west that tended to be for the enjoyment of the writer or as a reliable medium of offence and vandalism, the scrawling on the walls appeared more to be messages that were intended to be read. Initials of lovers was far and away the most popular, followed by what appeared to be political slogans of the multitude of parties and groups that found support in this part of the world, not least the good old hammer and sickle- Kerala had a short but colourful relationship with Communism.

The scruffy, no-nonsense feel of Kollam could be felt by night as well as in the day. Walking through the city after dinner, we saw almost no-one on roads that were devoid of any vehicles- a rare situation in India. Around us and down each side of the streets was a solid, unbroken wall of pulled-down shutters beneath sombre buildings lit only by the orange streetlights. The same tangle of power lines wrapped around the air above our heads and weaved down the streets. Beneath our feet, something on the unlit floor seemed to shift in periodic flurries of activity as we took each step. A hand-held torch shone downwards disturbed a wide arc of the scattering cockroaches that had emerged from their hiding places to bask everywhere in the darkness. It was an eerie walk home.

***

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