Every tourist town feels the same, and Fort Kochi, for all the blue of the sea and the old colonial buildings, is one of them: friendly insincerity.
Its cost — think of it as a cost of such commerce — was made plain a couple of days ago as I walked north from Bishop Joseph Kureethara Road past old St. Francis Church, built in 1516 by the Portugese to honor St. Antony (who has a small chapel just across the road from my rooms at Lotus Home Stay).
A little girl was working at a catch-all stand (T-shirts; puppets) outside the church with her father. Twenty stout Polish tourists, brightly dressed in shorts and sports shirts, cameras dangling, had just passed in and out. She was a cute girl in bright clothes, a tourist photo cliche, but when I asked with a gesture if I could take a picture of her, she scrunched her face. Her father knew better. He snapped at her to get with the game, and at once her face reshaped itself into happy greeter.
Much of this is street commerce, New York, 1910.
At the open air Food Court with its five tables and unwashed table cloths, the young waiter agreed happily on Monday that my breakfast would be ready in 10 minutes, and I walked on down to the beach to watch the ferries and see the ice-cream carts arrive at the beginning of their long day.
I went back to the restaurant. A half hour later, my food came. I had a book, but I was annoyed, and the waiter, Raja, a thin kid of 17 or 18 or so in a filthy red shirt, seemed at once frightened, though I said nothing.
He’s likable. That evening, as the dark descended at about 6, he passed me by the playing field on his old bike and stopped to say hello, as friendly as ever.
“Your day is done?” I said.
No. No. He made a face like the little girl’s. He worked 24 hours for the old man, and he got paid only if customers came. Otherwise, nothing. No, he wasn’t ever finished.
What would he be doing in five years?
“I must escape,” he said. “A good job.” He repeated. “I must escape.”
“Sir, You will do me this one favor, please.” Ten rickshaw drivers, with nearly identical language, hand on heart. “You will allow me to take you to emporium close by, just to look, not to buy, sir, please, so I get a point for a petrol card for each person I bring and more if you buy, please. sir….”
But commerce is lost oddly. Up by the beach is a series of open-air restaurants. I walked there Tuesday at about 10 looking for breakfast, having abandoned the laggardly Food Court. The menu at restaurant number 2 looked good, and I pulled out a chair. No, said the waiter, gesturing me away as though I were a fly. We’re not open. I went to number three, which had several workers sitting near the money table. They shooed me away, too. Later, they said, and pointed back to the first restaurant.
Come in, come in said the waiter there. Fine, I said. I’m hungry, but could I wash up?
Maybe the restaurants are all owned by one individual, who profits, he thinks, by opening only one place for restaurant breakfast morning?
No, the waiter answered. No wash up.
Wash up is usually a euphemism here for “I need a toilet!”
“Toilet,” I said.
Come with him, he gestured, a skinny boy with a thin beard and apparently wearing Raja’s filthy shirt. He led me to the intersection, and we turned south for a block, then east and went in through a passage-way by another idle restaurant. The toilet was there. Unlighted. Not a place to linger. No water; no soap.
I came out.
“Eat now?” he said.
We had walked so far we were closer now to another restaurant I’d found, the upstairs Loafers Corner, clean, with a series of old black and white family photographs on the wall and an excellent masala dosa and good “filter” coffee.
“No,” I told my toilet guide.
He grinned. “Maybe later, then. Remember me.”
We don’t need much, it’s becoming clear. Shelter. A bit of food.
I’m living well beyond that in Lotus Home Stay in a quiet neighborhood for $12.69 a day: a clean room with a ceiling fan and balcony overlooking the chapel. It has a neatly painted and unmouldy bathroom with a bidet hose rather than toilet paper, and a French hotelier who narrates her business-owning adventure in Fort Kochi over French press coffee I now make myself on the shaded back porch. I have shelter, money enough for food, and I can stay clean (and my clothes, either sending them out or, more quickly, washing them in a bucket with Tide I found in a small packet for 10 rupees).
For comparison, a bar of soap is 30 rupees; a kilo of oranges 40 or 50; a cup of filter coffee downtown, for rich tourists only, 50.
I took a cab the day before yesterday to the old synagogue in “Jew Town,” built in the early 14th century, clean and solid, like St. Francis, small, candles burning. My driver (30 rupees for a 10 minute ride) was Barack Obama Hussain.
From where you are? he asked, and grinned broadly when I answered, “USA.” (“United States” isn’t understood.)
He gave me a big thumbs up.
“Black man in White House,” he said. “Good! You like?”
“I did,” I said.
Yesterday, I took another rickshaw to the Jain temple, to watch a priest call the pigeons and feed them. Maybe 200 came, fluttering as pigeons do. The priest, wearing a gauze mask to avoid killing flying insects, scattered rice and chanted, and the pigeons landed on his outstretched arms.
A lady temple functionary seized me as I entered the Jain compound and guided me to a room full of murky paintings, which she described rapidly and incomprehensibly. Fine, I said, but I want to see the holy feeding of the birds. I started to leave.
She blocked me. Money, she said. A contribution. I must give a contribution for her lecture.
I pulled out 15 rupees or so in change and handed the coins to her.
Her lip curled, and she shook her head. “No,” she said. “One hundred rupee. One hundred.” She handed back my change.
I took it and went to watch the pigeons.
Barack Obama was there, waiting across the alley with other drivers. He gave me a thumbs-up hello as I left. He had told me about the pigeons, and I was glad to see him. “Sir,” he said. “You will do me this one small favor…”
The hands are always out, but mostly, here, it’s quiet and the shills, unlike our home-grown MBAs , aren’t entirely rapacious. The intensity does increase as you move up the food chain, or down. Even the security guards at the expensive hotels are haughty, though their faces melt into gladness if you walk in the door; the ritzy managers are from Dickens. On the other end, I guess, in Ooty last week, high in the Nilgiri mountains, a drunken laborer on a country road tried to threaten money from me with his mattock.
I was in a bad mood that day and came close to laying him out with my walking stick. He backed off, muttering self-righteously in a tone which seemed much like that found in the fine print of a credit card deal. (An old man nearby, who had watched the encounter, said, “He say very bad things to you.”)
I walked home last night ahead of the heavy rain that came later, feeling lucky. The night air smelled good, Indian couples shared the street with me, the fruit stands and grocery stalls were busy, and I had money enough (10 rupees) for a little package of not-bad Bourbon (chocolate) cookies. The streets here are civilized. Even the teenage boys, laughing with each other, leaning against their scooter, flipping a cricket ball into the air, are friendly.
India is jarring me back from my middle-class reverie to the larger world and suggests in its multitude, in the generally humane encounters Indians have publicly with each other, that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously.
It’s not easy to show the nuances of our own culture, to know the frightening expectations, frustrations, meanness and kindness, to understand the horrors of ambition.
Here, it’s impossible. I don’t know who these people are, or how their dearest myths frame their growing up. They are opaque to me.