Tuesday, 28 September 2010

A short story from Fort Cochin

I've got my Kashmiri scarf pressed close to my nose and mouth. The dust and fumes are really getting to my already inflamed throat. Our driver is beeping his horn at every vehicle that we pass as we weave through the crowded street. This is a palatial rickshaw as rickshaws go. There is a fine woven pattern on the roof, the plastic seat coverings are all intact an clean and a plastic stature of Shiva in a hollow above the drivers head is flashing alternately blue and pink. The driver clearly takes care of his vehicle if not his life on the road.

The headlights and the interior lighting of the rickshaw is operated by two household switches that you might encounter in an Indian hotel. Of course in the hotel the switches would be in amongst a bank of other switches which control all manner of things in the room in no particular order. Every time you want to turn on the fan you cycle through the bathroom light, the bedroom light, the bedside light, the TV (if you are lucky), the overall power, the plug switch and the other plug switch before you get the air moving again. Each time you change hotel you need to learn again. This electrical system mirrors Indian life; inefficient and complicated.

From behind our rickshaw comes a louder, more unusual and more insistent horn than all the others. It's very close behind. "Must be a very important person behind us darling with some pressing business" I note sarcastically. We are overtaking a stick thin man on an ancient bicycle, a scooter and another rickshaw as the "important vehicle", a local bus, decides that this would be a good time to pass us. His loud unusual horn is somehow able to avoid us crashing into the oncoming traffic through will alone.

We are returning from the beach which we departed before sunset to avoid the crowds. The sky to my right however has turned into a magnificent spectacle heavy with rich colours. Indigo, violet, blue, pink, orange and red. Silhouettes of palm trees cut upwards into the palette of the sky, adding to the drama of the sun's final act of the day. My gaze has been alternating between this natural wonder and the continual near miss interplay of the road and so when we reach the ferry port I haven't noticed the sky over the mainland to the east. Indeed it's only after handing over a bunch of ragged Rupee notes that I feel the wind swirling around us. There is a storm coming.

The small rust bucket car ferry is just leaving port. We have missed this round. There is a wedge of around thirty scooters and cars penned in by ropes waiting to board the next and a crowd of people hanging round clutching tickets. I go to the ticket booth but the man has just left. He'll be back for the next ferry so I take up position in the light coming from his booth. At least I'll be the first to get a ticket. I look east again, now more interested in this view. I can see the large shipbuilding cranes of the mainland gripped by thick, angry cloud. It's pitch black over the water but in the distance the murk is back lit suddenly by lightning and a distant rumble travels across the bay. It's as if the east is angry at the attention the sun has been getting and is about to exact its awful revenge.

The wind is whipping around us and we start to huddle under the small roof that juts out from the booth. I look towards the peninsula where we are headed hoping another boat would appear. Nothing. Then back to the mainland and now the cranes are gone, obscured by rain. A minute later the boats moored in the harbour are lost too. A sharp crack of thunder.

People are all around me now peering past me from the dark into the unmanned brightly lit office. I look back to the peninsula. Nothing. To the mainland; no sea, no boats, no cranes, no mainland. Fat spots of rain spot the ground and we huddle closer to the wall. Lightning illuminates the whole scene and thunder shakes the ground. "It's ok you can't be struck by lightning on a boat even if it's metal" I lie to reassure. No need for panic now. The rain is falling in solid sheets and I am already soaked through. But then a glorious sight. The boat is back,  full with waterlogged passengers, scooters and cars.

The ticket master arrives back into his hut and despite my commanding position I am third to buy a ticket. Brown hands push past me, round me from all sides clutching ten rupee notes. For a moment I am like a many armed Hindu god.

The rain is now as heavy as I can ever remember seeing and thunder and lightning clash overhead with ferocious power. I feel very small under the angry, vengeful sky. Before the ferry is empty of its cargo of vehicles and people, the onshore crowd are pushing themselves on. Two ticket inspectors try in vain to hold the throng back but the crowd surges forward, sharp elbows from underneath Sari's and pressure from behind sweeps us forward nearly crushing an old woman in front. I manage to stuff the now sodden paper tickets into the inspector's hand just before we are spat onto the deck like the contents of a tin can of food emptied onto a plate.

Rain pounds and electricity threatens to rip the sky apart but the ferry departs. We cross the tidal gap of swirling water clutching each other soaked to the skin. Finally we are home again.

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