Near the train station, Tirunelveli, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs
January 27, at Seawind on Kappil Beach Kerala
Tourist signs declaiming it to be “God’s Country” notwithstanding, sunny Kerala has its perils: riptides, falling coconuts, “tuskers” in the streets, multiple varieties of cobras and other poisonous snakes, thumb-sized cockroaches, tuk-tuk and bus drivers and a long list of venomous spiders, some of which jump and one whose bite, according to an Internet naturalist with no academic credentials listed, causes a victim to “bleed from every orifice” within minutes of being bitten. It’s prudent to look under the bed and shake out the covers before settling in for the night.
I’ve become most familiar with the ants. The ones in my house come in several sizes and colors. The most interesting ones are brown and small: the size of the tiny top and bottom crosshatches on my MacBook’s cursor.
As I write on a sunny January afternoon, a thin stream is moving across the opposite wall, from the window ledge southwest to the baseboard, then due west. It’s a tiny brown ant main highway–mostly four-lane north and south but bubbling out, this being India, to six or eight lanes at times.
A couple of nights ago, having just finished Heart of Darkness and being at loose ends, I could find only a done-in moth at the end of the highway, already stripped of color but being moved for its remaining calories into the ants’ cupboard, so I put a peanut on the window ledge. How long would it take the ants to find it? And what would they do with it?
It took just a minute. One ant left the highway and circled the nut, then another. In a few minutes perhaps 10 or 12 were on it or circling, though the traffic on the highway didn’t slacken. I had expected more. More action, quicker.
I broke a section of a namkeen-spiced Cheetos Puff onto the sill: a bright yellow target made with Real Cheez. That caused a stir. The entire highway veered immediately toward the Puff and the ants covered it. Meanwhile, the select, small crew continued its desultory work on the peanut.
I lost interest and went to bed. In the morning, I remembered. The peanut was gone, but the piece of Cheetos remained. More exactly, something Cheetos-shaped and Cheetos-sized remained, but it was pale. The ants had taken the color and presumably all within that was edible, leaving a husk behind and confirming what mothers have always said: “Cheetos aren’t food!”
But what are they? What is that husk, that inert piece of dry fluff that even these ants won’t eat?
It’s puzzling. They are voracious. Before I learned, I lost a Snickers bar to them. I put it incautiously on the table, and they bored a pinhole through the wrapper in minutes. When I pulled it open, expecting a chocolate treat, I found the bar swarming with chocolate-faced ants.
I bought a new jar of Mellow Peanut Butter, an excellent spread from Trivandrum. The ants got into it before I opened it, beneath the metal cap and through the foil seal inside. I was barely in time. Only eight or ten were actually swimming in the surface oil. I made them leave.
Alerted to the menace, I put a package of unopened crackers in a safe place—an eight-inch wooden spike protruding inexplicably but conveniently from the bedroom wall six feet above my bed. I dropped the unopened crackers in a plastic bag and hung the bag from the spike, making sure it didn’t touch the wall. That fooled them for nearly a full day, yesterday and this morning, but I glanced that way an hour ago and saw a thin trail of the little ants descending from the ceiling, and I could see them on the spike. I looked inside the bag. Thousands. They had eaten through the outer foil packaging of the crackers and then through the inner plastic wrap. I fed the crackers to the pye dog lying in the yard, who ignored the ants.
Though I’ve sprayed (a pleasant-smelling formula called Good Knight), at times I admire my little companions. They are as dedicated as their human bretheren in insurance companies and media conglomerates. They are an incentive to brush up crumbs, and they let nothing go to waste. I found a small triton sea shell the other day washed up, the dead animal inside, and put it by my porch. The ants built a hill over it and stripped out the animal within hours.
They are occasionally a nuisance, as when they eat a Snickers or find crumbs near a bare foot, for though they’re tiny, they bite. I think they must ambush the spiders and moths I see being borne off as in an old safari movie, and I think without exaggeration that if a suspected non-lemming were cheneyed by NSA thugs and strapped to a table, the ants in this house alone would leave nothing but shiny bones behind in a day or two.
I am likely breathing too much the air of India, but as I pondered the hollow Puff on my window sill I was reminded of our Real Cheez capital and the bipedal feeder-ants there—dealers with buffed nails and good creases and fraternity grins. They leave us as window-dressing the inert dry fluff of official Washington.
And we eat it.
Just across the backwater in front of my house, the one house that comprises the Oasis Resort nestles or lurks, depending on the moon, in a grove of thin trees on Kappil Beach. I have seen lanterns and occasional shadowy figures there, but the place is usually empty.
The bar is a wooden table set crookedly under a tree. It is the kind of place you pass without slowing on a back road in south Georgia.
Yesterday afternoon as I walked by, the Oasis owner stepped out of the trees and invited me in to see the place.
I learned later from a neighbor that he is Showkas, a fisherman, and has a checkered reputation locally, though he may have reformed a bit as he’s gotten older. “A robber,” my neighbor said, sniffing in disapproval like a Dickensian housekeeper, “of coconuts. His son and daughter are the same.”
A family of coconut thieves? But they thump when they fall. Maybe that’s why he was unsuccessful. And the kids learned nothing?
It wasn’t clear what other faults had burdened him or how he has patched them. He built the house himself, I was told, on land he doesn’t own and the authorities, if they ever stir themselves, may evict him. He has no money for bribes.
In person, he was genial, a white-haired burly man of about 60, balding, shirtless, wearing only a dhoti, the short wrap-around skirt worn here by workers and by men at leisure. “From where you are?” he said, gesturing me to a bench. It is the first and often the only question Indians ask of foreigners.
He wanted me to spread the word in Varkala that he has a room for rent. Cheap. In a “natural” setting, he said, though he didn’t explain why he figured I’d act as his shill.
He was disjointed in his presentation. He fiddled with his dhoti and his eyes returned often to my still-damp bathing suit. I kept my knees demurely together, calculating as I listened that I could throw him in the backwater if it came to that.
He has no electricity. All l could see inside his rental room was a tangle of damp-looking bedding.
Showkas pointed out that the grounds were neatly swept and as though on cue a village woman emerged from behind the toilet whisking with her short broom at the ground. The toilet empties as do most toilets in Kerala into the backwater. He said he would provide meals and bottled water and “everything” else a customer could want.
The house was open toward the sea and back toward the backwater and may have the best location of any resort along the coast.
Beach-side entrance, Oasis Beach Resort and Restaurant
“Safe?” I asked him.
It might be adventurous, I thought, if fishermen and village boys gather there for a late drink. I have seen empty gin and whiskey bottles close to the entrance, tidily pitched from the resort grounds. Pistachio nut shells. A single flip-flop. A discarded scooter tire.
“Very safe,” Showkas said, patting his legs and fiddling again with his dhoti. He added: “A woman by herself, alone. Safe.” He grinned.
Some young and not so young Western women use Indian resorts as Saudi Arabian men use Bangkok. They hook up with the shop boys or hangers on, the 20-year-olds with motorcycles who sit with them in the restaurants discussing the finer points of Indian culture and drumming their fingers impatiently. It’s not a secret. Showkas, reasonably enough, may think he would do as well as the boys.
Back on the Cliff in Varkala, the thin man at the super market with books saw me passing and rushed out with his hand outstretched.
I haven’t bought much from him, a package of cookies or two, maybe a paperback, but I have tried to be friendly, and it was paying off: he wanted to talk.
His hand stopped short of a handshake, and I found myself holding a bundle of his soft fingers between my thumb and fingers the way one holds a still-smouldering marshmallow.
I don’t know if he was just blabbering or had read something in the paper or was making a diagnosis. He spoke very fast, one of those Indians who believes his speech improves with the accelerator to the floor. I caught a few words: “Sun very hot, very.” He laughed immoderately and made a gesture of angry dismissal at the sun, hanging high in the blue above the orange wing of a swooping hang glider, as though to banish it from in front of his store. He pointed at his arm, shaking his head vehemently, and then at my left arm, indecently tanned. “Sun bad,” I heard him say, and he turned abruptly and disappeared inside.
I was reminded of the Oasis when the seven-foot man with Stephen King glasses lurched in front of me on Cliff Walk and thrust a pamphlet into my midriff. “Full body massage,” he said. “You want?”
The cliff has several allegedly Ayurvedic massage salons, and the barkers out front are often young women dressed in a white medical smock.
The tall man’s pamphlet cover featured a photo of an attractive Western woman lying prone, eyes closed, with an unexplained vertical line that looked like an immense hypodermic being thrust into her forehead.
A caption in single quotes highlighted the Ayurvedic principle from an unknown source: ‘A sound mind dwells in a sound body,’ and it was followed by a crooked paste-on advertising the local doctor, who is a B.A.M.S.M.D (AM), M.R.H.S.
I had been thinking of a full body massage. It sounds relaxing. The price varies according to the barker and the time of day and the gullibility of the passer-by, but at 60 rupees a dollar, it’s cheap. I must have looked as though I’d just gotten off the bus from Backwaterville. “Six hundred,” said the tall man, his eyes through his thick lenses the size of golf balls.
I made a sound.
“Five hundred,” he said at once. “Full hour.”
The doctor, of course, is not to be seen. The massages are given by the people handing out the pamphlets. I would be treated to a number of procedures, it seemed, including the foot pressure approach “giving attention to the vital parts.” The pamphlet shows a middle-aged man in a dhoti standing like a gladiator with his foot on the small of a man’s back.
Or a head message. “It gives,” I quote exactly, “Mental relaxation, coolness of mind, improves. Blood circulation, promotes hair growth, prevents hair fall and premature graying.”
Another picture explained the hypodermic assault shown in the poorly cropped cover photo. It was not a needle but a“dripping of medicated oil horizontally over the forehead as a continuous stream from a fixed height along with a gentle massage on the forehead,” to relieve stress or insomnia or “mental tension.”
The “medicinal powder massage” is a magic treatment for: “obesity, oedema of body, reduce body fat.” It is “a type of treatment in which herbal powder is made to massage in the opposite direction of hair follicles, so as to make this skin smooth.”
“Three hundred tops,” I said, starting negotiations, “and who gives the massage, a man or a woman?”
“I call,” he said, and pushed a button on his cell phone. “Five hundred OK,” he said with an air of having made a deep concession.
“Man or woman?” Nearby was an attractive young woman in one of the medical smocks,” more appealing as a skin smoother than Stephen King.
“Man man, woman woman,” he said.
I told him I preferred a woman. He frowned and blinked.
“I call,” he said. He turned away from me and talked rapidly into his phone, then pocketed it and leaned close.
“Come tonight,” he said softly. “When dark.”
I needed a new crown.
The temporary crown over the implant post had worn out and popped off in Ann Arbor in October, where a dentist I’ve come to think of as Dr. Doofus glued it back on for nearly $400 and then again for $74, when her first gluing was insufficiently sticky.
I was attracted by the price here of $200, and the Montreal couple in the next room at bizarro Mektoub resort had determined this Varkala man was reliable. They had researched up and down the coast for an Indian dentist to replace two of the woman’s failing bridges – work that involved 14 teeth and much shaping and welding. “He has recommendations from Westerners, even Americans,” the man said.
Dr. S’s office is across from the Bata shop in downtown Varkala, next to a fruit vendor. His sign features an extracted tooth smiling from a red circle that could be a pool of blood and a peeling slogan: “We care your smile.”
S’s “dental spa” (his card has grimacing Halloween lips in lurid color around clenched teeth) is up a flight of unwashed stairs on Temple Street.
At the top of the stairs, shoes and sandals are left for hygienic reasons at the door, but the inside made clear shoes weren’t the problem. It was in miniature the 3 a.m. Greyhound bus station in Fort Wayne, Indiana a half century ago minus the wino on the floor by the Coke machine. The foul cushions on the benches were decoratively striped. Across, by the reception counter, were four battered folding chairs, each with a grease blotch above where countless anxious heads had leaned on the off-white wall.
I was encouraged that I had found the place, even if it looked like a place for a drug buy. I hadn’t been able to find the sign from my scooter in the carnival blaze of sign-crazy India and had gone too far along Temple Street.
I asked a passing man in creased trousers and a long-sleeved shirt with a tie, the sign here of a respectable place holder. “I show you,” he said. He waited patiently while I locked up in front of a peppers vendor then took me by the hand into and out of the path of an onrushing bus, its horn blaring, through a maze of tuk-tuk rickshaws swirling hornet-like, housewives and servant runners from the hive of businesses on the street to the office and then up the stairs to the door itself. “You must be removing shoes,” he said, pointing to the pile at the door.
He was a sweet man, and I was encouraged because I had asked him what he thought of Dr. S. as we marched unscathed though traffic.
“The best,” he said.
My Canadian neighbors had been persuaded by the endorsements but I remembered as I stepped barefoot onto the grimy office floor that I hadn’t asked exactly where they’d seen those endorsements, which might be as reliable as the endorsements I’d read from happy travelers of a hotel in Bangalore which turned out to have a rap nightclub on the floor below.
Come to think of it, I didn’t know anything about the Canadians except that he had studied at an ashram. Were they good judges of dentists? Did Canadian dentists have clean floors?
Why was the door with the TOILET sign darkened with smudges?
However, I am cheap, and this was simple dentistry which shouldn’t even lead to blood. Pop off the old, take an impression, cement on the new…
S. was an Indian hipster, down to the blue jeans and the carefully oiled Frankie Avalon hair. He donned gloves, pushed me back firmly in the chair, tapped the questionable crown, and said, “Yes, yes.”
The crown would be zirconia – the latest thing. He made a starting offer.
I’m careful with my health. I did the math. Not even 50% of a bad Ann Arbor gluing, so if it fell out, I wasn’t out much.
And his equipment looked clean. True, the assistant was one of the receptionists, and she had come in from the desk and was wielding the spit-sucker without gloves, but everything was going in her direction, not from her to me. And yes there was no soap in the muddy bathroom, but surely the office had soap somewhere? What the hell. When I joined the Army I signed up to be a paratrooper. Geronimo!
Next step: X-rays.
That was down the street, the assistant said. He had been leaning in silence against the wall, apparently a patient in pain.
“Just there behind,” he said, pointing vaguely north. “See sign ‘BAR’? Yes? There behind.”
The next morning I went for the pictures and pretended confusion as they pointed at my feet. The place looked too dirty for bare feet. “No, no,” I said. “My teeth.” I pointed and handed over the sheet of paper with S’s instructions.
“Twenty minutes,” the man behind the counter said. “Sit there.”
There was an odd odor, maybe of burned hair. I went outside.
A young woman came immediately and led me forcefully into a room with an X-ray table. “No, No. Stand,” she said and roughly turned me around. She found the tooth and made me hold a small tab behind it with my forefinger while she pushed the button.
Then I went to the machine that circles your head and bit on a tiny piece of plastic intended to keep me in position. I clenched and waited while the rotors warmed up, humming like a ceiling fan. It took so long my teeth began chattering from the strain, but it made no difference. I left with a negative that cost 580 rupees.
I scootered back down the street for my appointment. “No, no,” said the receptionist, counting through a stack of rupees. She fluttered her hands as at a bug. “No electricity until five o’clock. You come then.”
I don’t think so, I said, rolling my eyes like Dennis Hopper. That’s too late. That could put me on the streets in Varkala at twilight time and it’s hard enough at noon on a scooter to dodge the tuk-tuks and pedestrians and trucks all plunging without a glance left or right into the dodgem-car street. I don’t want to drive a scooter here after dark unless I’m bleeding heavily already.
Friday I went back. The electricity was on and the unwashed hygienist was there with her hose.
This was the plan, Dr. S. said, pulling my X-ray negative from its brown envelope and holding it up toward the ceiling fluorescent for a moment. He would give me two crowns. My implant with the temporary crown at number 5 rested in porous bone and should be bridged for extra support to the solid implant at number 4.
“But isn’t that crown good?” I said. “Number four?”
“Yes,” he said. It was fine, but it would have to be reshaped to help number five.
At least 20,000, maybe 21,000, he said, holding my mouth open with two gloved fingers.
No, I told him. Just one.
He may be exactly right about the bone. He wears his blue jeans well, and he does have those endorsements. I was focusing on the superficial. After all, I had a Vermont implant fail because of too-porous bone for number 13, though the surgeon who removed its wobbly remains wondered aloud how it had ever been inserted at such an insupportable angle.
I have concluded that finding a competent dentist anywhere requires some false starts, some What the hell! sessions with licensed professionals who sat always in the back and missed Friday classes to get an early start on whatever dental students do on weekends. And as I waited I read in India Dentist a complaint from a senior dental surgeon that competence was a worry here, too. India dental schools had lost all credibility and standards had plummeted since they separated for turf reasons from universities. Now, he wrote angrily, the students simply “vomited back” on exams what their instructors had force-fed them the previous day. They had no understanding of the medical aspects of dentistry.
S. shrugged at my decision. OK.
He picked up his drill, humming to himself. One it must be. One, two, double my fee. Two, one, out it may come…
Wait! The cost?
“Ten thousand ,” he said. “Cash.”
He drew a diagram. Make it 11,000, he said, with this shield to “prevent corrosion.” He drew a crown with a short skirt. He may well have drawn the extracted tooth on his street sign.
OK. And add the undercoating, I said. I wanted the best.
That was the time to leap from the chair and negotiate. I could have gotten him down to 8 or 9, even with the skirt, but I didn’t. I was getting oddly restive, partly because the receptionist-assistant seemed to be falling asleep on her feet, though her hose was on and sucking air.
His job now, he said briskly, was to “shorten” my temporary crown and then take impressions. My tooth would be ready in seven days.
But I was going to Sri Lanka maybe, I said, maybe sooner than that.
Four days, he said, and pushed me back in the chair, opened my mouth, and as quickly as a knifefighter jabbed me in the upper gum with a needle. No sweet talk from him.
Then he buffed the temporary crown for 15 minutes, and the assistant seemed to do her job skillfully. I gagged just once when she thrust the suction device in too far.
I understood only belatedly what he’d done. It worried me a bit. I had never heard of the technique. He had shortened my temporary crown by half, shaping the plastic into a base for the new crown.
“But the temporary came off twice,” I said, “in October. It has a hole in it. If you glue the new one to it, won’t the new one just pull it off?”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Come Wednesday. It is not a problem.”
Twenty-four hours later, his work was smooth to my tongue, but my lower lip was a bit numb. I think I’ll do without a shot Wednesday, I told myself. Just pop off the old and glue in the new, please. Why would my lip be numb? What was in that needle? Why did he give me a shot, anyway? The implant is nerveless…
But isn’t all life a mystery?
Wednesday was Christmas. I climbed the stairs at 3:30. Dr. S. was waiting, wearing the same shirt as for my first appointment. No assistant was needed this time. The new crown fit perfectly. He puffed air on the temporary, squirted glue in the new crown and pushed it into place.
“How does it feel?”
“A little high,” I think.
He inserted a strip of carbon paper. ‘Bite!”
He examined the tooth. No, the bite was perfect. He held out a wad of cotton. “Bite on this for half hour please.”
He held out his hand for the rupees.
In the outer office, the receptionist handed me a 10-year guarantee for the crown. “Zirconia,” she said.
Outside, the scooter wouldn’t start. “Damn that Rafi!” I said clumsily, talking past the cotton, but that’s another story.
Two days later, the crown feels pretty good—maybe a little high at the back—though my tongue detects extra cement that oozed out during the insertion and initially I had to pull off cotton there from the wad.
Yesterday I ate a Snickers bar and chewed on that side, and my crown on a crown didn’t move a smidgeon.
I wrote to someone the other day, as I sat by this placid seaside on Odayam Beach at Varkala–fishermen dragging in their nets and arguing with each other, Western tourists walking by, the air rushing in warm through the palms, “air you can kiss,” Kerouac said when he first reached California in 1947–that the days are an endless caress.
Sunset at Fisherman’s Art Cafe, Varkala
I was content in the sweet wind and thud of long swells collapsing in celebratory foam, the fresh oranges at every market stall and long hands of tiny bananas, and I’ve made friendly acquaintance with Wahoub Budeen, whom I think of as the stout man in the little market booth south of the bizarrely named Fisherman’s Art Cafe—fishermen don’t go there, there is no art, and the people who run it, all from Darjeeling, lean on their hands most of every day, waiting for just one customer.
Budeen insists with a big hello that I buy biscuits, or oranges, or anything. Whatever the price he gives, I wave my arms and argue it should be five less, or sometimes, to his great amusement, I change direction and go from 40 to 50, having just gotten him down to 40.
Wahoub Budeen at his market on the Odayam Beach Road, Varkala
And just beyond him on the dirt track, the poor, sad, rarely visited Karnatakan sellers of cloth — one man, two women, two small children who should be in school. One of the woman sells fruit; the other tries to sell their faded cotton cloth; the man sits grinning at me but says nothing. The fruit woman usually has a papaya or two, a pineapple, maybe a melon and three or four oranges or bananas for sale. I’ve not seen another customer stop there. She is hopeful when she sees me.
I bought from her a few days ago then walked on to Wahoub Budeen’s stall. He has many kilos of bananas for sale. No, I didn’t need any, I said, and showed him the three or four bananas I’d bought for 10 rupees.
I’d paid too much, he said. He’d charge half that.
Yeah, I said. I know, but… I tipped my head toward the sad people.
He stopped laughing. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Yes.” And he reached out and touched me on the shoulder.
Then he threw back his head again and laughed his big laugh. I needed biscuits, he said; oranges!
The days are regular. It gets light after six and and 12 hours later it’s dark. The mornings are beautiful and easy and then it heats up toward noon and after, with the hot sun coming straight down, and that’s when the water feels best, cool and soft-handed.
There are irritants. This is weird tourist India after all, where no one works very hard and the restaurant workers have no acquaintance with soap and garbage burning and unburned makes ditches bright and public ways all papery and discard littered.
Mostly, though, because as a visitor you have a few bucks and time to stretch and nothing much to do but luxuriate, unlike the natives, and slowly turn the pages of an Inspector Morse mystery, it is perfect — Dorothy Lamour walking off the black and white screen to lead you by the hand out of your familiar blaring world to a place of fantasy much like this.
Here is relief from collapsing institutions and corporate misanthropy, the political and cultural rot of my birth world. The Indian papers have not heard of fantasy football, and our public haters, slick-haired shouters, have no reach beyond our borders.
Perhaps it’s deserved indolence after decades in harness, I tell myself, but old habits are deeply ingrained and it came to me a week ago that I understood for the first time that ugly old story of Adam and Eve. Given this, the garden, by a nagging, small-minded creator, they got bored.
To the sickly, dour church they are poster-children of dejection and inadequacy, slinking away, cast out, rather than walking boldly into uncertainty, but I understood their drumming fingers.
I must move soon, even knowing I will look back.