Come, stand in the shade
NICHU'S real name was Nisar but he insisted on the nickname. "It means gift." He was the fourth rickshaw driver in the space of five minutes to approach me as I reached the end of the foreshore path at Fort Cochin. The mid-morning sun was beginning to sting, and the idea of a nonchalant stroll through town was losing its appeal. Nichu could sense it.
"Come, stand in the shade and I will explain," he said, a light hand on the shoulder. "It's hot and the cream is running down your face." He was young but the remark about sun cream spoke of experience. "See the sights, lunch, two hours, two hundred rupees." Four dollars.
Against such assuredness resistance was futile. He gestured to the rickshaw, "Come, see the Ferrari." The joke was made funnier by his business card, which was emblazoned with red capital letters, "FERRARY", and carried a thumbnail photo of an unsmiling, mustachioed Nisar, brackets Nichu.
"How old you think?", he said, returning my question.
"I am 25," he replied, as though apologising at my incorrect answer.
He was married, too, with a son, Sachu, 2, whose name was written in capital letters at the top of the windscreen alongside a little photo of another loved one, Argentine football great Lionel Messi.
The breeze shot through the cabin. The decision to hire Nichu had already paid off.
I had arrived the previous night shortly before midnight. The monsoon rain, due June 1, had come two weeks early. For the time being, though, it held off.
A few cars idled on the glazed road outside the terminal. I had braced for a crush of people, an arrival hall teeming with touts and families craning their heads to spot loved ones they had not seen for years.
There was nothing of the sort. The immigration officer was a dark middle-aged woman with a navy shawl elegantly draped across her torso. Unlike her colleague she had embellished her desk by covering it with old newspaper. It mattered little that I was standing alongside her, and not directly opposite, behind the counter. She calmly perused my passport and entered the visa number as I watched the screen declare "cleared!".
There was even less fuss at the carousel: my bag had been pulled off and placed neatly among a pile of others. I was craving contact so it was almost with pleasure that I approached a counter — it was unmarked — to retrieve the pocket knife that had been temporarily confiscated at the airport in Singapore. There were three people behind this little counter: two women and a man, each in a different uniform. The presentation of my confiscated-item docket stirred the team into life. After hours of whiling away the Friday night, there was work to do. There was a hurried exchange in Malayalam, a few side-to-side head wobbles, then one of the women, sari-clad and the least official-looking, picked up the telephone and pressed for help. The man, serious but keen to help in his short-sleeved shirt and red tie, explained the situation to the other woman. Around us, cleaning staff, elderly ladies with mahogany skin and severe faces, drifted about, splashing water here and there, dragging their giant blue elongated mops. A few metres away a team of repairmen peered into the shaft of the only escalator, which had broken down.
The sari woman's call had brought reinforcements. Another woman, in another uniform, appeared, clutching reams of perforated paper and a ledger, the spine of which had broken, leaving its dog-eared pages adroop. I waited in vain for a progress report, content instead to let the scene play out and distinguish the airport hierarchy. But the new woman soon left, her intervention evidently unrelated to the retrieval of the pocket knife. Nearby a man added to the tangle of abandoned wheelchairs in various states of disrepair languishing under the staircase parallel to the escalator.
Suddenly there was a huge bang, a thick metallic sound, followed by a great gulp, as though all the air had been sucked out of some sort of giant flask. Heads turned, the terminal fell silent, but it was nothing: one of the repairman had let slam the trapdoor over the escalator shaft. I went back to studying the pretty spotty-faced official and her heavily mascared eyes. By now the hall was all but empty. I was just about to inquire when the earlier woman reappeared with a large white envelope. She handed it the moustachioed man who opened it. Inside was a smaller white envelope and inside that was the knife. He held it up and I nodded to confirm it was mine. The team let out a collective sigh of relief. There had been one item to return and it had been a success.
I spotted my driver as soon as I turned into the arrivals hall. "You are just one passenger?," he said. "Ah, my sign says 'times two'; my boss, he has made mistake."
The sky was flashbulbing but where one expected thunder there was none.
"Thirty three kilometres to the Old Harbour Hotel," the driver said. With that, the rain returned in torrents and lashed the little car.
"French, comme ci comme ca, little bit of Italian, bit of Japanese, konichiwa, hajime mashite, Spanish, asta la vista, bit of Hindi, bit of Marathi ... Some day I will grow wings and travel the world."
Muslim, Nichu also had a smattering of Arabic. Next to Messi and Sachu were silver stickers bearing Koranic verses, which Nichu rattled off. "See, Arabic not so hard."
But the language he had mastered was tout's English: rapid bursts, usually humorous, often incoherent, occasionally philosophical. Family and job aside, Nichu's chief enthusiasm was bodybuilding, and for a hundred rupees a month — 2 dollars — he had access to a little gymnasium. It showed: he was slender and muscled, unlike any other man in the town.
"My wife she get jealous. She say, 'why you go to gym?'. She is worried other women will look at me."
With his good looks and chiseled physique, Nichu reminded me of Raju, the protagonist in RK Narayan's The Guide. I wondered whether Nichu, like Raju, would one day push his charm too far.
The talk turned to marriage. "How did you meet you wife?" I asked.
"She was working in perfume shop. One day I pass, then I pass another day, say a few little things."
A few little things: it was hard to pin him down, his speech had accelerated again and was becoming hard to follow.
"So, you asked her out for coffee or dinner or something?"
"I say, 'I like you, do you want to marry me?', she says, 'yes, sure', I tell my parents I have met this girl and ask if I can marry her; they ask a little about her then say okay."
Two months later they were married.
"About two hundred people. Lots of people, my friends and family, her family. I wear a white shirt, brown pants."
When I told him of the vogue for internet dating he was sceptical.
"You must meet and see," he said. "A computer cannot find love for you."
What about the matrimonial classifieds in Indian newspapers? Is it not the same thing?
"Ah," he said, waving away the comparison. "That is not the same. That has been with us for long time. That is a proper service."
It seemed we were talking at cross purposes. But the more I thought about his words in the days that followed, the more I realised we were simply describing variations on a universal way of finding love. We had come full circle. Today's internet profile was just an extension of the quaint matrimonial classified - the western scheme had bypassed the parents, leaving the relationships to arrange themselves.
Nichu went on: "You must trust your parents to find a match. They know you. They have given life to you. They will know if a girl is going to be good wife."
The logic jarred a little — Nichu had "chosen" his own bride — but parental intervention, when so emphatically championed, seemed to hold water.
Meet and see: with his choice of words Nichu had begun to draw for me a picture of the ritual "bride-seeing": the visit with one's parents to the house of the chosen bride; the reiteration of preferences; the examination of astrological compatibility; and the fleeting appearance of the bride-to-be herself, albeit as tea maid.
Suitable alliance sought for a Nair girl fair 31/158 unconsummated divorcee without encumbrance BTech well placed in a premier IT firm. Seeks settled professionally qualified boys. Parents pls respond ...
As Nichu weaved through the traffic, dodging trucks and scooters and pedestrians our relationship was changing.
I was admiring the mighty rain trees, introduced by the Portuguese hundreds of years ago and which now poured welcome shade over the town's crumbling stone facades, when Nichu piped up.
"I have a favour to ask."
The hustler's mask is slipping, I thought.
The proposal was long and again difficult to follow. I made him repeat it. The way I understood it, it was imperative that his itinerary include three specifically accredited places, which would allow him to accrue a certain number of commission points. The client, he insisted, was under no obligation to buy at these places.
At the first shop, I was led past the pietra dura elephants and the silk shawls, to the bowels of the shop: the carpet showroom. Within minutes, carpets aswirl, I was seated with a masala tea as the vendor rolled out several pieces, their colours changing with the play of the light.
"You have cat at home?" he asked.
His colleague handed him a thick metal comb that looked like barbers' clippers. He snatched the comb and, standing over the carpet like a sheep shearer, delivered three great slashes. "You see, not a scratch."
Nichu was leaning nonchalantly against the counter when I emerged. His first question pressuposed I had succumbed — and he was right. "You bargain?" he asked.
"Good. In India you must bargain. You get the carpet for a good price. How much you pay at home? Maybe three times? It's good price here. But you must bargain."
"Still, I spent a lot of money."
"You invested a lot of money," he said, correcting me. "You buy silk or silk and wool mix?"
"Silk and wool, I think."
"Good. Every day you will walk into your home after a hard day's work and walk on your carpet and it will massage your feet. That is an investment."
Back in the rickshaw, my carpet by now on its way to the other side of the world, I asked about a lungi - the cotton sarong worn by men. "That would suit you," Nichu said. "I know a shop, we'll go there."
The vendor pulled out a white lungi with yellow piping. "What about one with blue?" I asked. Nichu grabbed the yellowed edge and turned it over to reveal blue piping. "You see, Sunday and Monday!"
With a shirt and pantalon the total came to 1250 rupees. I had too little cash on me. "There is an ATM — we can come back," Nichu said.
On our way back, he stopped, again the gentle hand on the shoulder, the voice low, and said , "Now, you must bargain. 1250 is too much. You must only pay 1000. I want you to do that."
The vendor again wrote the price on his chalkboard. He had yielded 50 rupees — a dollar — and shaken his head at the idea of 1000. "There is no margin!"
I settled for 1200.
It was a while before Nichu spoke again. "I'm disappointed," he eventually cried over the din of the traffic. "I asked you to pay 1000. He was charging too much. You didn't bargain. I asked you to bargain."
They were the words, I felt, of a friend - one I had let down.
As much as I have disappointed you, you have disappointed me by insisting that I bargain. I held my tongue. Was this not a holiday, I thought, trying in vain to chase away the negative thoughts.
My thoughts drifted back to the carpet shop. My credit card had refused to work. The young vendor had tried to maintain his cool as the fear of an aborted sale gnawed.
The senior vendor was relaxed. "Now the hard part," he smiled as I came to pay.
Yet instead of allowing me to sign a receipt the machine had demanded a PIN.
"The machine won't let me bypass this stage," the senior vendor said.
We were invited to sit and have more tea while a desperate search was launched for more sympathetic validating machines. The talk between Nichu and I turned to credit.
"Do you use a bank?" I asked.
He smiled and shook his head.
"So, you prefer to keep your money at home?"
Again a smile. What he made in a day he and his family subsisted on for that day. "Fuel, food, rickshaw rent. I can only think about today. That is all."
The transaction was at last approved. Relief, smiles and handshakes. We went back outside to the rickshaw and the hot sun.
"You see!" Nichu said, cranking the engine into life, "don't worry! Chicken curry!"
Towards the end of the day we visited a bookshop. I looked at the shelves while Nichu flirted with the salesgirl.
"RK Narayan?" I asked.
The salesgirl showed me to another shelf: almost all of Narayan's books were there.
"Narayan is very funny," she said with a little giggle. "But I have not finished him yet, too busy chatting!"
"This is her shop," Nichu said. "She is a very rich woman."
The girl, who at 22 was too young to be the owner of such an impressive shop, laughed.
"He is a crazy man, but he is very funny."
She was wearing a bindi — a dot of vermillion daubed on the forehead. It was placed not between her eyebrows, as I had often seen, but at the beginning of her scalp. Why?
Nichu, overhearing the conversation, answered. "This beautiful one out of bounds my friend! You cannot have her!" he smiled, gesturing to the bindi. "You see, this means married woman."
Alliance wanted for unmarried Brahmin boy. Born in India and brought up in Indian tradition, fair with clean habits (non-smoker, pure vegetarian). Boy is handsome, Ails from respectable and affluent family business family. Expectations from Girl: can speak Tamil, Fair, Good looking, 4'12" to 5'3", non-drinker, non-smoker, vegetarian, homely girl, cultured family background, age group 22 to 27, not to work after marriage. Girl should be willing to relocate to USA. Non financial expectations from the boy side. Mysonmarriage@hotmail.com
Once we were back on the road, Nichu spoke again of the book vendor. His tone had changed. The voice was grave; the jokes stopped. "She is very pretty, but also quite smart girl," he said. "She is doing qualification; she will be a teacher. A good job for her, I think."
Nichu had vaguer ambitions.
"One day my name will be on this rickshaw," he had said in the morning. By the afternoon, when asked what he would have studied had he had the chance, he said, without hesitation, "literature".
On reflexion, this romantic streak corresponded to everything Nichu had said and done. The first stop that morning had been the town laundry: a series of stone cubicles, leased by rural people who travelled vast distances to wash, beat, wring, hang and iron the town's clothes and linen. Of all the sights — the spice market, the museum, the synagogue — the laundry affected Nichu the most. He was at home among this toil and graft: the old man sloshing in the grey soapy water, the unrelenting slap of a garment against stone, and, in an adjacent yard, the beaten fabric swaying on rows and rows of clothes lines.
Here the clothes and sheets were tucked between two thin ropes so they could be swiftly hung and pulled down. The simple ingenuity of it captivated Nichu. "When the monsoon comes, very easy to take the clothes down," he said, acting it out.
But what enthralled most was the final phase: the ironing. A sinewy man, cigarette welded to the bottom lip, stood over a smoking iron, filled with carbonised coconut shells. He lifted the lid and the smoke, thick and fragrant, billowed out. "This iron weighs 7kg," Nichu said. "That's very heavy. And it will stay hot for eight hours. That's a long time."
It came time to pay. Nichu had said two hours, two hundred rupees — four dollars. We had been together since midday. It was now five o'clock. I gave him five hundred rupees. "Is that enough?" As soon as I said that I knew the sum was insufficient. The heat and constant talk of bargaining had corrupted me: I was shortchanging the man who had helped me most. He waved the money away.
"We are friends now. You are a sweet man and I cannot take money from my friend." Nor could he be talked round.
"But can I ask another favour? Do you have coins from your country for my collection?"
Bodybuilding and coin collecting. I went to my room and fished out a few coins. A two dollar coin, a dollar and a twenty-cent piece — all struck in the past two years. I handed over the coins, describing in detail the native animals inscribed: a vain touch of solemnity to this meagre exchange.
Nichu cranked the engine lever for a final time, and with it came a final piece of advice. "Remember, my friend, you are in India now. Here you must bargain to get what you want."
The morning's talk of wishing to grow wings and travel the world was just that — talk. Nichu had shown me the sights, and through that came a greater understanding of his existence. Using the mobile phone given to him by an "American client", as he put it, he showed me photos of the tourists who had travelled in his rickshaw. These photos were enough; he could only imagine these other worlds through the fleeting exchanges in the back of his rickshaw. But, here, amid the dust, the broken roads and the decaying facades, the world had grown wings and come to him. ❦