An Interesting Encounter in Alappuzha
|January 6, 2012||Filed under India|
The gentleman from our resort strode on ahead, wheeling the baggage trolley along behind him, whilst we dilly-dallied in the dark.
Old wooden canoes creaked atop the black water that shimmered like oil, whilst their owners relaxed inside small homes along the riverbank, exhausted from another day’s fishing.
We ate a simple meal at our resort, then escaped outside again to the water’s edge, though the lack of light kept the backwaters a secret from us still.
Morning gave rise to giggling school children and squirming babies held by their mothers, traveling by canoe to school, or the market.
The backwaters’ mysterious image conjured in my mind was replaced by it’s practicality, a necessary waterway connecting various villages to each other, and the main town that the British had re-named, Alleppey.
Alappuzha had a much better sound, a quirkiness implied by the jumble of letters that made it much more fun to say than the well-rounded Alleppey.
We set off on foot to explore our new home for the next few days, unconscious of our imbedded preference for dry land.
Not long had we escaped the confines of the resort, before a voice from behind us, increasing in volume in proportion to its proximity, garnered my attention, as quick feet padded the hot sealed road.
I believed she was asking for money, and though reluctant to give to beggars, my western sensibilities and embarrassment prevented me from ignoring her.
Surely, saying no with a smile was better than just walking away.
What was she saying? A coin from my country? Oh, that’s a good one, pretend to be a collector, ingenious.
I played along as she caught her breath, her walk had increased to a jog as she tried to catch us before we passed along the road and out of her life forever.
She took my hand, her eyes darting, speaking quickly as she tried to reclaim her breath.
She wasn’t a beggar after all, but a woman with her own home that we had just passed on our way to town.
I assured her I had left all of my Australian coins at home, and was sorry I couldn’t give her what she was so obviously eager for.
Meanwhile, a gentleman dressed in a cream collared shirt and brown trousers, like many men Indian seemed to wear, stopped by and began talking to my boyfriend.
By this stage, I was beckoning him to follow Sina and I (yes we had become acquainted) back to her home for tea.
I felt ashamed of the mis-guided judgement I had made of her, and besides, I always felt honoured to be invited to the home of a local person in a foreign land.
My boyfriend usually felt the same way, which is why I was somewhat annoyed by his insistence that we continue on to town.
“No,” I replied, “we’ll just go for tea and then go into town”. I was already on my way, following behind Sina.
“I really think we should get going,” he replied, “maybe we can come back later.”
Not like him to balk at an opportunity for cultural exchange, I thought, though he was always full of surprises, and probably hungry for lunch.
I had already agreed though, so he gave his bicycle-riding friend an apologetic look (that I can only imagine), and followed after me who was following Sina.
He caught up to me, and revealed that the gentleman had stopped him as we were talking to Susan. He wanted to warn us, and told us to stay away from her, alluding to her being mentally unstable.
“Well why didn’t you say something?!” I reacted, receiving an exasperated sigh in return.
Okay. He tried.
“What if she poisons our tea?” he whispered as we entered the front gate of Sina’s house.
Now it’s just like my boyfriend to implant worse-case scenarios in my mind, before laughing them of like a big joke.
“Don’t say that!” I chastised him, very much fearing the possibility.
He of course, laughed and shook his head, saying something about me never listening to him, though I can’t quite recall his words.
We entered the side door of the rather large home, and were greeted by a small sitting room comprising a larger veranda-style space that encapsulated the internal rooms.
A fan above us spun too slowly to separate the sticky air.
Characteristically, boyfriend started to sweat, breathing deeply, trying in vain to acclimatize.
Susan gestured for us to sit down, not too far from the door we entered by, which I took as a good sign that she wasn’t going to murder us.
Though I was still on alert…
She dumped a large glass jar on my lap, filled with shiny coins from foreign lands. At last, some credibility! She was in fact a collector, not someone with an original idea for luring unsuspecting tourists to their death with poisoned tea.
I wondered what that man had said was wrong with her, and why he had told us to stay away? I mean, she was a little scatty, but spoke excellent English, and displayed a sincere desire for our company.
Tyrhone made conversation, whilst gingerly sipping his piping hot tea, reminiscing about his childhood penchant for stamp collecting, a nice conversational segway to avoid uncomfortable silence.
It’s funny that we believed that if we just kept talking, she wouldn’t kill us.
If we were going out, at least it was politely.
Another heavy glass jar, dumped in his lap, containing a seemingly impressive collection. He rifled through a few of the stamps, naming the countries of origin as though his love of post marks lived on.
Conversation moved on to the family photos adorning the yellow-painted walls, black and white, austere looking faces gazing out blankly from behind dull, fingerprinted glass.
Sina’s eyes became dark, as she spoke of her son that died, as a child it seemed.
We offered our condolences with equally austere expressions and could not bring ourselves to ask about other children.
She spoke briefly of her husband, who did not like this and did not like that, “probably stamps or coins, or foreigners in his sitting room drinking his tea”, I thought.
A mattress lay on the floor next to our chairs, messy with sheets. A strange place to sleep, but maybe this was in fact the cooler of the rooms in Sina’s house.
Large and somewhat grand by appearance, though certainly not luxurious, the house was probably quite something in its day, just as Sina may have been quite a woman, with her many interests and collections, before tragedy struck and took her child.
I was suddenly glad to be drinking her tea, and experiencing her world, and felt ashamed I had suspected her a murderess. I wondered what incident had rendered her the town’s crazy woman, what moment of grief-induced hysteria, or strange behaviour had led to such severe branding.
I couldn’t imagine there would be much awareness of mental health issues, or treatment thereof, in a town like Alappuzha.
But it was not a story I would ever hear.
We allowed ourselves to be led outside to consider Sina’s garden beds, admiring her variety of plants, flowers, and herbs.
And another proud collection showing – this time coloured fish contained in a slimy pond, protected by netting. It was obvious how much she valued these things, her coins, stamps, plants and fish.
She hadn’t given up despite an empty house, owned by a husband who does not like this and does not like that, retaining enough enthusiasm to chase a pair of tourists down the street for collection showings and tea. Though our visit was regimented and rehearsed, like a formal tour of her self-made museum, we played our roles well, and with that we all received something.
For Sina, the company of polite strangers she may never see again, and for us, though we did not know it, the last home we would be invited to during our time in India.
It felt good to be outside. Though was still humid, the shade of the trees in Sina’s garden provided some relief from the searing midday sun.
I can’t remember if Sina asked us to take her photo (though we did anyway), but she did ask me to send coins from my country to her at the address I scrawled on a Bank of Baroda receipt, and that we please “come again tomorrow”.
But I didn’t, and we didn’t return.
Maybe someday we will visit her again, or maybe I will in fact send those coins I promised, to jostle alongside their currency cousins from far-away lands, in a heavy glass jar thrust on some tourist’s lap.
Regardless, my memory of our visit remains as one of the most vivid of our time in Kerala, and I feel very blessed to have drank tea and perused collections with the crazy woman of Alappuzha. Even if her husband would not have liked it.