RED SHIFT (VII) — The Circle in the Square

November 14, 2009

Varkala, Kerala

November 14, 2009

The muezzin’s chant wakes me at 5 am. It is still dark outside except
for the occasional lightning bloom over the Arabian Sea. The early
morning rumbles with ominous portents. First a ferocious dogfight down
the lane with anguished howls from the injured, then an argument
between man and a woman close by, the first public display of such
emotion I have witnessed. I lie back on my pillow to read with my
nightlight, trying not to disturb T who is sleeping peacefully beside
me. But peace is not the order of this morning. An enormous swarm of
screaming blackbirds begins wildly swirling the palms in the walled
garden just to our south, reminding me of a Hitchcock movie with it’s
eerie freneticism.

Had I not been over-concerned with an infection that had developed
next to my left ear last night I might have paid more attention to the
shouting I thought I heard in the distance. But infections in this
environment get first attention. Then the shouting increased in
volume. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I ran for the door, gently
pried it open to avoid waking Tuck, and popped out onto the balcony.
Just as I feared, way out beyond the surf line I could see through the
palm fronds two heads bobbing on the waves. The shouting was much
louder and as I slid up and down the perimeter of the balcony to
improve my sightline, I soon spotted a large group of agitated men
moving excitedly along the headland. They appeared to be pulling on a
long rope reaching into the surf, apparently a lifeline to the
drowning men. I rushed back into the room, told Tuck, who was now
awake and abluting, that I was dashing to the shore to see what was up.

Hurrying down the red mud lane between the high masonry walls that are
so much a feature of India, I rounded the end, wobbled over the four
board bridge that spans the ditch where yet another wall is being
built and sprinted back south toward the shore, now hidden by the
shrimp hatchery. As I came round the corner, the scene began to come
into focus, but far from the pattern I was expecting. Instead of a
heroic rescue at sea, I found — 35 villagers hauling in a purse seine.

As I was soon to see first hand, it was filled with a heavy load of
small silvery fish And one skate. After their two hours of shouting,
heaving on the ropes and chanting the Malayalam equivalent of
“Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,” I had hoped for more. Maybe a shark or
at least a sailfish. But no, just sardines.

This did not dampen the enthusiasm of the villagers, though. There
was much smiling, some self-important shouting of directions, and the
occasional departure from shore of some brave soul who swims out through the frightening waves to straighten the lines or beat the waters to scare the fish back into
the net.

As the huge seine nears the shore the fishermen skillfully close its mouth.
The two teams of pullers accomplish this by dancing in a tightly
arranged choreography around the intervening palms. Shortly two women
arrive carrying large metal tubs on their heads. The first load of
shimmery fish makes its way hand over hand up the shore. Then several
motorcycles roar in with huge plastic milk crates tied to the back.
Clearly the whole village works together on this. I can see how an
elected communist government works here. These people do everything
communally. Not much different than what they had before, I imagine.

A group of men are scooping up a large pile of fish that has dropped
into the sand, shoveling them back onto a tarp where the main treasure
trove lies. Tuck and I assume that everyone shares equally in the
catch including the boatmen at sea and those who transport the catch
to market.

A young Czech woman joins us to snap some photos from our prime
vantage point. Her apparently non-English-speaking boyfriend stands
mutely apart As we are talking I notice one of the scoopers
surreptitiously slip a handful of fish into his pocket. He avoids my
eyes when he notices me noticing. I quickly shift my attention back
to the Czech woman.

This is her second trip to India. The first took three months. “What
brought you back,” I ask. “Well,” she said, “there were things that I
didn’t understand on my first trip that I wanted to understand.”. She
is two weeks into her four week return trip now. I am expecting an
insight into fate, acceptance and the durability of the soul.

“Like what,” I inquire.

“Well, the first time I didn’t understand why I don’t find Indian men
attractive. Now I understand. It is because their faces are round, not

I am stunned into silence. This took 14 weeks of travel to unwind? I
sneak a peak at Tuck, who is atypically mute. I have to avert my eyes
before we both catch the giggles.

Still, I give her the benefit of the doubt. I often regret my
impromptu utterances when put on the spot. She probably just didn’t
feel like discussing her spiritual velocity with two fish voyeurs.

Probably we would have made a better impression with Beatrice, the
Austrian woman who introduced herself to us yesterday as
“fisherwoman.” Another reply that left us nearly speechless.

“But isn’t Austria completely landlocked?” T asked.

Even though she avowed that she had raised young fish in a kibbutz in
Israel, I had to doubt her bona fides when she demurred our invitation
to view the shrimp hatchery in front of our hotel.

The fish are now separated into small and smaller, the fishermen are
smiling and Tuck and I are retreating toward breakfast. Always
friendly, Tuck stops to talk to an older man in a lunghi whom we have
seen working on the construction project day after day. In that warm Indian
way he wants to share the joy of the morning with us. We exchange
pleasantries and names, shake hands and amble on our way.

As we leave the shore probably for the last time I think, “His face
looks oval to me.”

1 comment

  1. Comment by David Drazen

    David Drazen November 17, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    I’m loving the blog postings from both Bradfords. I mainly keep up with the site via RSS, so I haven’t had a chance to comment. Sounds like it has been an amazing experience for the both of you. Thanks for sharing!

    • Dave

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