Near the train station, Tirunelveli, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs
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.”