Volume 27, Number 2

An Encounter in Kochi

Michael Royce

Fishing nets fluttered on a light breeze whispering off the Lakshadweep Sea. Four men operated a complicated system of counterweights to dip for choora, the rich tuna they sold along the waterfront. Traders from the court of Kublai Khan had introduced these devices to the Malabar Coast seven hundred years ago, and they’d been used by the locals ever since to catch fish. Tourists watched the ballet of men lower and lift the cantilevered structure.

At Kochi’s old Parade Ground farther west but still near the sea, barefoot boys whooped and drove the soccer ball downfield. A young girl, no more than four, stood across the street in front of an abandoned building. She wore a dirty blue dress attached to her thin frame by two remaining buttons. Her outfit had perhaps never been cleaned, and she’d not been bathed for a long time. Behind her, an old woman squatted on the earthen floor over a small fire, a man urinated in a corner, and two little boys crouched in silence against a wall.

It was still early morning as Katie and her husband Harold strolled on the seawall, absorbing the sights and smells. They pondered rolling loops of Malayalam, the local language, splashed across billboards, and their noses tickled from hints of pepper, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon drifting from the market stalls. He worked as a technology consultant for Apple and had just finished a business trip to Bangalore before picking her up at the Kochi International Airport the day before. Usually for their vacations they took a cruise or stayed at an everything-included beach resort, which was Harold’s preference and, he had thought, hers.

Katie had taught in a downtown Milwaukee school for 25 years where 80 percent of the students qualified for free lunches and most of the younger children received preschool and after-school care. She understood Harold was caught in the frantic pace of his own work and didn’t realize her need to escape the rut into which their daily life had descended. He’d been surprised when she insisted on a “real adventure” for the ten-day vacation, which he suggested they tack onto his next business trip. She surrounded herself with guidebooks on the living room floor. "Discover Kochi, a major port in southwest India," she read aloud. "A stew of civilizations will dazzle you.”

On the Internet, she located the Sirimali, a guest house built in the 18th century for a Dutch sea captain in the old part of town. “How romantic.” She left unspoken her hope to recharge their flagging marriage. Once they had talked about everything and shared stories of their daily lives. Now only new technology excited Harold.

Pausing in their walk before a table showcasing plump crepes, Harold asked, “What are those, Katie?” 

She shrugged, but the vendor guessed their exchange. “Masala dosa.

Katie looked more closely, admiring the fermented rice-flour pancakes wrapped around potato, lentils, cashew nuts, rice and onions spiced with mustard seeds, cumin, turmeric, ginger, garlic and cilantro. She motioned for a dosa. A small slice of potato dripped from the rolled savory and stained her silk blouse. She grimaced, and then, with a shake of her black hair, giggled. “Exploration has its costs.”

“Need to dry-clean that,” Harold clucked. At the A-class international hotels where he stayed for work, he always chose continental breakfasts—tea, buttered toast with jam and either granola or fruit. He had no intention of eating street food. 

Katie licked her fingers and brushed off the remaining curry before steering Harold into a part of the city not covered by their guides. They walked east along cobbled streets until, turning a corner, they collided with a parade to honor Shiva, a major Hindu deity. Dark-headed young men wearing white lungis tucked at their waists and drooping over ankles led the march with synchronized drumming. Curved sticks struck in unison, and the crowd swayed forward three steps, paused, moved back half a pace, and then surged ahead again. Katie gyrated slightly, responding to the hypnotism of the beat, but without comprehending the ancient rhythm throbbing between creation and destruction.

Four elephants marched at the center of the parade, decorated from tusk to forehead with bright gold-painted baubles and garlands of flowers hanging from their necks. Mahouts perched behind their ears to guide them. She stared at the animals' rear legs, great pillars holding up building-sized bodies. “Oh, they’re shackled.” Enthusiasm for the spectacle drained from her.

Harold covered his mouth against the dust kicked up by the beasts. Strange and poorly-clad celebrants danced after the elephants. He pulled Katie away from the crowd. 

They moved on, passing old factories that manufactured rope out of coconut fiber. After several turns, they departed the neighborhood of rich merchants and entered smaller lanes where squatters, who had fled the countryside seeking opportunity they did not find, had thrown up shacks of scavenged wood and metal. Gray canals stagnated beside the homes. A rainbow of bottles and faded food wrappers lodged unmoving on the lifeless surface of the water.

Katie was downcast. “No one should live like this.”

Harold had the guidebook open, remaining focused on discovering a way back to the tourist areas. He’d hoped the “stew” she promised would comprise glittering Raj palaces and alien sights glimpsed through taxi windows, not intermingling with sweaty workers, housewives and school children pursuing their daily routines. His work world in India was a bubble of gleaming high-rise buildings and new economic zones, untouched by local culture; he was entirely okay with that.

Jet lag caught up with Katie. They strolled back to the Sirimali, ate a light dinner and went to bed early. The ceiling fan stroked air toward the teak floor but provided little relief from heat building at the end of the rainy season. Neither of them slept well.

Nevertheless, Katie’s feet hit the rug next to their bed first. “Think of the Dutch merchants who built this home and the people who lived here over the last three centuries.”

But Harold had little interest in people long dead. He wondered how he’d allowed himself to be talked into such exotic lodging and wished he’d insisted on a place with proper air conditioning.

* * *

They joined other guests seated family-style around a dark mahogany table for breakfast. Katie sampled each of the dishes. “What lovely colors and fragrances.” Harold said his stomach was queasy, and he kept to tea and toast. After eating, they decided to visit Mattancherry Palace, a sight highlighted in their Fodor’s Guide to the Treasures of Kochi.

They browsed portraits and statues down long paint-chipped halls, pausing longer at the murals where a cheery Lord Krishna, Hindu god of love, used his six hands and two feet to bring fulfillment to eight aroused milkmaids. "Knew how to please a gal,” Katie remarked to Harold. He grimaced and steered them outside.

They wore hats and good walking shoes but had forgotten to bring water and wilted under the glare of the sun suspended above them. At a nearby booth, they paused to drink Golden Eagle beer served in plain teapots because of restrictive liquor laws. Harold burped uncomfortably and left his half-finished cup on the counter. “Not feeling so good,” he said and waved down a taxi.

On the return trip to the Sirimali, Katie retreated into her thoughts. How long since they last made love? Sex in paintings and movies still seemed to interest Harold, but after 26 years of marriage, he rarely rolled over to caress her at night or giggled when she spooned with him in the early morning.

She suggested they stop at a pharmacy where Harold purchased MiraLAX. Then, in what sounded to her like an afterthought, he asked, “Do you sell enemas?” These, the pharmacist informed them, could only be obtained at a hospital. They returned to their room, and he slumped on the bed.

“Here, this should relax your tummy.” Katie placed a glass of tea beside him. Harold said he had no desire for dinner and stayed in their room. She snooped around the streets and alleys, sampling street food and savoring new experiences.

He dozed and finally fell into a restless sleep, longing for the comfort of a modern hotel and the organization of his work life.

* * *

The next day, Harold woke tired, with his stomach still aching. From the hotel staff, Katie obtained the number of the Gautham Hospital, open 24 hours a day, and Harold called their pharmacy. “Hello, this is Mr. Lawton.” He employed his most professional telephone diction. “I wish to purchase an enema packet.”

“Yes, sir, we are having enemas.” From where she sat, close by him, she could hear the cheery voice on the other end of the line.

“Um... do they come in sterilized packaging?”

“Oh yes, they are very modern.”

“They’ve got them,” Harold told Katie.

They stepped outside the guest house to search for transportation. He looked for a taxi, but the only available transportation was an auto-rickshaw, its gaily-painted sheet metal body resting on three wheels. The auto-wallah stood next to his vehicle waiting for customers.

“Hello, do you know Gautham Hospital?” Harold asked.

“Yes, sir, I am knowing where it is,” said a slight man with receding black hair.

His response expressed a certainty absent from the more common head bobble. A movement which might indicate “Yes,” but carried so many other rich and, to a foreigner, obscure implications. It might convey, for instance: I don’t know, but I am sure such a place exists because you ask for it, and I will drive you around aimlessly until we happen upon the hospital or I am fortunate enough to find someone who has actual and specific knowledge about its location.

Katie loved the “bobble,” its mystery and grace.

Harold hated the ambiguity of this gesture and was pleased with the driver’s direct response. Before committing, he asked, “How much to drive, wait while we pick up medicine and return?”

“Whatever you are thinking is right, Mister?” His eyes revealed nothing. Rickshaw drivers employed this gambit, Harold had been told, before insisting on a price two or three times the normal fare at the end of the journey. A surcharge on foreigners he accepted, but he didn’t want to be taken for a fool.

“How many kilometers to the hospital?” His hands fluttered in a questioning gesture. “Without knowing, I can’t determine what’s fair.”

“Four and a half.” The driver avoided mention of money entirely. On the other hand, he seemed familiar with the route.

“I think 50 rupees would be enough for there and back.” Harold’s opener amounted to $1 and Katie felt herself wanting no part of this conversation.

“No, sir, I could only be driving you one way for 50. For both, I must have 100.” Raised black eyebrows and a saddened look conveyed an unspoken message, as though he would take the foreigner for such a wretched sum if he was unable to pay more, but to do so would be an act of exceptional charity.

Guilt, Harold accepted with resignation, would percolate throughout the trip until a substantial tip was extorted at the end. “Okay, 75 rupees. That’s fair.” He struggled to discover the normal rate for tourists, offended by the idea of being taken advantage of, despite the sputtering of his gastrointestinal tract.

Why did Harold haggle with such determination? Katie wondered. He negotiated over 50 cents, which made no sense given his need and the obvious poverty of the driver.

A small tremor of uncertainty entered Harold’s voice. Sensing weakened resolution, the driver shrugged to confirm even 100 rupees was not enough. Harold flushed, and perspiration dampened his ecru linen shirt. “All right, I’ll pay 100, but you must wait while I pick up medicine.”

The driver jumped in front to steer the two-stroke engine like a motorcycle. The rickshaw groaned and tilted as the tourist pressed between metal bars and squeezed into the bench in the back, lowering with care to a neatly patched cushion. His wife crowded in next to him, but a father, mother, two children and a goat recently fit into the same spot without problem.

How big men from the West are, the driver thought. Wealth buys them height and weight. The vehicle lurched into traffic around a bicyclist and slipped into the flow before an oncoming bus. In a cloud of dust and acrid exhaust, the driver accelerated toward the first corner and asked, “How much are you paying for your hotel room?” 

Harold had never confronted this question before and was uncertain where this thread of conversation might lead. His stomach clenched with the sudden motion and discomfort at the probing questioning critical, he feared, of his values.

“Why do you tourists always bargain with rickshaw drivers? The hotels charge you 5,000 rupees for one night and you say nothing, simply pay.”

Harold considered the one hundred bucks per night he paid at the Sirimali a good deal; they’d demand more than twice that at the Koder House or another luxury hotel. “I also try with hotels, but such negotiation doesn’t work unless I stay a week or more,” He answered with what he considered solid business logic.

Katie watched the back of the driver’s head and saw him stiffen. Harold doesn’t comprehend; he’s not talking about how the market works

This man has not heard me, thought the driver. It’s easier, of course, to bargain with a chauffeur than an invisible person of wealth who owns a hotel, but is that right?” Should the world impose payment of a pittance on those living by their own sweat while rich men charge as much as they can extract, adding to the mountains of gold on which they already sit?

In the silence, Harold searched for a neutral topic. “What’s your name?”

“I am Joseph,” he said.

“Is that your real name or what you use for tourists?” Harold asked.

How little these foreigners know. “I am Joseph,” he repeated. His name identified him as a Christian, a minority among the dominant Hindu population of Kerala. “And your good names are?”

“Harold. My wife is Katie.”

“How many children are you having?”

“Three,” Harold answered. “The eldest a girl, our middle a son, and the youngest also a daughter.” 

Katie added, “They’re all grown now.”

“I, too, have girl, boy, girl,” Joseph responded.

“What work are you doing?” Joseph asked Harold. Katie realized he must assume the wife of a rich American would not hold a job.

“I advise technology businesses on how to run more efficiently.”

“Hmph.” Joseph expelled his breath in a cynical burst. People who tell others what to do make a lot of money.

“Do you own this rickshaw?” Harold asked as they shot through a transient opening between a car travelling in front of them and a blue delivery van approaching fast.

Katie listened and wondered if her husband really noticed others. The driver was neat and clean, but his shirt was a worn knock-off, and he wore flimsy sandals. Surely the rich of India do not dress like that or drive foreigners around for pocket change.

“No, a big man is owning this one and ten more. I must pay him 150 rupees for one day.”

Katie calculated the hours needed before Joseph earned anything. If he was fortunate, he might take home $2 to $3 per day. To think about supporting a family of five on such a wage exhausted her.

She changed subjects. “Are your children in school?”

“Yes.” Joseph straightened. “All three study Malayalam, English and Hindi.” The rickshaw darted right and left avoiding rival vehicles. “I pray my two daughters will work at a call center and my son may become a bellhop at a fancy hotel. I myself only attended school through the fifth year.”

“Where did you learn to speak English so well?” From the start of their ride, Katie had admired his language ability.

“I am learning from driving foreigners.”

Without books, his gaining command of English over the years must have progressed slowly. She turned toward Harold, who held his stomach and groaned.

“What medicine is Mister requiring?” Joseph’s right eyebrow arched, its blackness interrupted midway by a scar.

“I… uh… am having stomach problems.”

“Diarrhea. Very bad.”

“Um, actually, it’s the other way.”

“What way?”

“Well.…” He gave up. “I’m constipated.” The contents of his belly had hardened to concrete and pressed down and out with excruciating force.

“Oh, yes, that also is not good. Perhaps you have not been drinking enough water?”

“Not sure,” Harold said. Joseph’s suggestion sounded like a home remedy for people who could not afford medical attention. And he was becoming worried the problem might be greater than clogged intestines.

Their horn blared at pedestrians fanned across the street as they careened between vehicles bearing down from all sides. Potholes pitted the road like a disease. The stench of cow droppings, rotting garbage and clarified butter from a nearby Ayurvedic herbal medicine clinic assaulted Katie’s nose. Despite a nominal nod to driving on the left side, Indian motorists appeared to consider every square foot of the roadway too valuable to leave unused. She tensed before each vehicle they overtook.

Without anything to eat or drink for five hours, Joseph desired a speedy end to this journey so he could purchase a small glass of chai from his friend’s cart. The sweetness of the sugar and milk would bring him energy, and the tea and spices alertness.

At the hospital, Harold asked Katie to wait in the rickshaw and made his way toward the pharmacy window to remind them of his recent call about purchasing an enema. There was general acknowledgement he had indeed inquired. “Yes, sir, we are waiting for you. You have already been seeing a doctor?”

“No.” Harold sensed complication but provided a detailed description of symptoms, hoping a dense thicket of words might distract them. His eloquence made him sound knowledgeable he believed, perhaps an American medical expert who should be accorded reciprocal respect.

The attendants were polite, but firm. He was not going to receive an enema without consultation. “You can be seeing the doctor here shortly.” In this part of their exchange, he learned it was not merely an issue of consulting, but the procedure must be performed in the hospital by medical personnel.

“When I called, I understood I could buy the enema to administer myself.” Harold stuttered.

They remained resolute. “No doctor, no enema.”

“Okay,” he capitulated, resigned to public catharsis instead of the quiet dignity of self-help. “First, I must inform my wife.” Smiles all around. This seemed reasonable to everyone, and he had no intention of expiring with some contraption up his bum without at least one friendly witness. He returned to the rickshaw, grabbed Katie’s hand and explained the situation.

“You’re gray." She stroked his arm. Turning to address Joseph, she held up a thick book she’d brought in her purse. “We’ll probably be a long time, and there’s no need for you to wait.”

“Here’s the 100 rupees for the round trip,” Harold handed Joseph a crisp note. He would only need 50 more rupees, Harold calculated, to pay the owner of the rickshaw and start his profit for the day. He was pleased with his generosity and grinned through clenched teeth. How well the math worked out. How easily he’d understood the figures.

With the slightest of smiles, Joseph returned a crumpled 50 rupee bill in change. “I have only driven you one way.”

Harold stared at the torn and dirty note, unlike the crisp bills the ATM spat out for him, and offered it a second time. “I agreed to 100, Joseph.” Again, Joseph refused. Harold shook his head in confusion and slowly moved to shake Joseph’s hand.

The American did not understand, Joseph decided. He did not seek charity. Foreigners should pay more than locals, that is true, but he did not expect more than the normal tourist rate. “Respect your dignity,” he always told his children. “You may be required to bow to authority, but never believe yourself to be less worthy.”

At the pharmacy, Harold made his purchase. He was led past several Indian patients waiting their turn to be examined by the doctor. Yes, thought Joseph, who had dismounted and followed them inside, a white foreigner is too important to delay while the poor of Kochi must be patient in their misery.

How humiliating to be treated as second-class in your own country. Katie winced and wondered if Harold had even noticed.

With a backward glance, Harold watched Katie escorted to another area. Joseph accompanied her. As he was ushered into a small, sparsely furnished examining room with a narrow cot covered by a coarse blanket, he wondered why Joseph had stayed.

* * *

A nurse directed Harold to lie down, and he handed her the enema package. He wondered what would happen next until a more senior nurse in a crisply-starched uniform and peaked hat separated the privacy curtain and felt his tight, bloated stomach. “You tourists, you travel around on your bottoms and don’t drink enough water. You need at least four to six liters a day. Also, eat many small bananas.” She raised her fingers to demonstrate the three-inch type hanging at market stalls everywhere. “And vegetables.” With a start, he realized Joseph had been right about the cause of his problems—it wasn’t food poisoning or a brewing cancer; it was dehydration.

Motionless in anticipation of the next directive, Harold picked out the word “enema” from soft, lilting voices speaking Malayalam. Clearly, the whole hospital staff knew why he lay there. He reddened.

An older woman, the doctor, entered in a shimmering green sari and repeated the scolding on how to avoid blockage. Over her shoulder, he observed three younger nurses examining a gallon-sized plastic bucket filled with a pink, soapy solution. He prayed the mixture came from the sanitized packages he’d bought; but he no longer was in charge, in truth had never been, and was reduced to wavering hope for a favorable outcome.

As Harold complied with directions to roll over, a nurse carried a neat stack of toilet paper to the adjoining tiled room, big enough only for a hole in the ground with two foot rests on either side. Her act was a concession to the tender sensibilities of an American visitor, unprepared for the absence of any kind of paper in public facilities. Harold glanced in horror at the floor, the aperture between corrugated ceramic foot stops he was to use, and the coarse paper he’d been provided.

* * *

During Harold’s treatment, Katie and Joseph waited for 45 minutes in a smallish concrete room with walls stained by humidity and benches lining each side. When she’d entered, she sat on the same side as several locals, who she suspected were also relatives of patients, but she positioned herself at one end of the bench five feet from the nearest person. Joseph, who followed her, sat next to the others with what Katie saw, to her regret, was a big space between them. She was grateful Joseph had stayed with her and recognized his kindness. Turning and leaning toward him, she asked in a low voice, “Do you hope ever to own your own rickshaw?” 

Joseph looked into Katie’s eyes and saw interest and concern. “No, I work so my children may have a better life. To become rich is not my destiny.”

Destiny, thought Katie, what an un-American idea. Yet the students she taught back home were mired in their fates, too. Class and race were perhaps not destiny, as Joseph understood it, but were they so different? She smiled at him. “You are a good father.”

The seriousness of Joseph’s face lightened. “That is what I can do.” And it is enough, he thought. A man may be poor and yet good. Although a Christian, he was imbued with the fatalism of Dharma, the guiding ethic of Hinduism.

* * *

Katie and Joseph stood when Harold shuffled out, still looking shaky and subdued from his experience. He spoke to Joseph. “That was good of you to stay, but we could have found another rickshaw or taxi.”

“I did not think it proper your wife remain alone,” Joseph said, “and I worried about you, Mister Harold. Stomach problems are difficult.” While listening, Katie noted the dark shadows under Joseph’s eyes and realized he was not her own age as she had thought, but much younger, closer to thirty.

Back at the Sirimali, Harold fished for his wallet. He offered Joseph the same soiled 50 rupee note he’d previously returned and an additional new 100 rupee bill.

Joseph’s eyebrows lifted as he accepted the additional 50 rupees, but returned the 100 rupee note. “I want nothing more than what is customary. Driving is my job for which I am paid. I waited because it was the right thing.”

Harold reoffered the 100 rupees. “Yes, but I must pay for your time.”

“Not for what one man should do for another.” Not everything can be bought and sold. Why does this American not listen?

Harold reached to shake Joseph’s hand again, unsure why he wouldn’t accept the bonus he’d earned for his extra service.

Katie stood back from them both. She made a slight bow to Joseph and pressed her hands together in prayer. Namaste. She bowed in reverence to that divine spark, latent within us all, which flared in his eyes.

After shaking Harold’s hand, Joseph inclined his head toward Katie in silent recognition.

With Katie’s help, Harold negotiated into the hotel and up to their room. He unfolded onto the starched linen of the bed and smiled up at her. His eyes closed, and he retreated into the comfort of his world.

Left alone, Katie lowered herself into an overstuffed chair positioned before the window. Harold tried to be fair and was sometimes even generous, but he was unable to see others as they were rather than as he assumed them to be. She sank lower and tears pooled at her eyelids. This, she realized, might be their last trip together.