My first real conversation in English happened on a clay road that ran from the town square to my school through acres of coconut groves. A few yards from the school, the clay road widened and turned into asphalt and, a few twists and turns later, ended on the beach. It was not the shortest route to the school, neither the nicest. But I always took the clay road to avoid my schoolmates and walked almost always alone. But that morning I found a white man walking a few feet behind me, using a box-shaped camera to take pictures of almost everything he passed. When his strides fell with mine, a conversation started which would last for a mile or so.
His name was Tim, and he was from Brighton, a place I had never heard of before. He was a tall old man who used to work for the postal department. Since his retirement, Tim spent every second summer in Varkala, a town that was not even an infinitesimal dot on the Indian map. It flattered and surprised me that someone crossed continents to be here in this little town which, apart from the beach, had nothing to offer to an outsider.
Tim spoke the way my English tutor did, slowly and loudly, using his fingers liberally so that it would be easier for me to understand his words, and he was kind enough to tell me that I spoke decent English for a 12-year-old. I crimsoned, because I knew I was struggling to express myself in a language I had never spoken in before. As we were coming out of a shaded estate, Tim paused to open his rucksack and bring out a bottle of sunscreen. He applied the lotion on his hands and face with the same care and concentration with which my mother applied almond oil on my sisters every night, and then he passed the bottle to me. Having lived under the tropical sun all my life, wearing sunscreen on a cloudy morning was a laughable idea, but a tempting one too. And I painted myself with the peach-scented lotion while the white man watched me with a kind smile.
Tim said he hailed from a seaside city, but the beach in Brighton was not even half good. No rugged cliffs to perch on, no coconut groves to roam through, and definitely not the same kind of cobalt the sea that fringed my hometown sported round the year. He was surprised that I had not been to the beach as many times as he, someone who lived in another continent, had. He invited me to the house he rented on the cliff that overlooked the sea. It was easy to find the house; it had purple walls. Purple walls, he laughed. Your townsfolk have a strong sense of colours, he said, even your sea has. At the school gate, he stood me against a pillar and took a picture, and promised to give me a copy when we met on the cliff the next week. Then we went our separate ways.
A faint scent of peach floated around the classroom all day, and occasionally I heard the distant roar of the sea drifting in through the line of trees. As I was banned from visiting the beach unescorted, I didn’t go to the house with purple walls the next week to claim my photograph. And the next time I went to the beach, probably a year later, I climbed the stairs cut into the side of the cliff to check on my first English friend and his temporary home. It was easy to find the house, but it looked like it had been abandoned for a while.
Standing on the rim of the cliff and looking at the sea below, I still wondered why Tim took three long flights to be here. In the years that followed I started to frequent the cliff, and every time I walked past the house with purple walls, I thought of my mile-long walk with Tim and his love for this small town. I kept looking for him, on the cliff and the beach below, in the restaurants that had started to crop up along the cliff path; I even went to the beach once when I heard of an elderly foreigner who had gone swimming in the sea on a moonlit night and his body was washed up on the beach the next morning. It was not Tim.
Ironically, it was only when I left the town to escape the boredom it imposed did I begin to see it in a different light. Hopping from one bustling Indian city to another, I saw what Tim had seen, what had driven him to the lazy little town.
The cliff with the ragged edge, the blue sea below, the paths that meandered through coconut groves, the streams with curative properties that tricked down the cliff, and the flicker of lanterns that shone in catamarans as they brought in the catch of the day late in the evening. The town I had thought barren, boring and blunt transformed into a place beautiful and benevolent.
Tim may have never returned. But he never left my mind. When I started writing a book set in the little town of Varkala, he promptly resurfaced. Not just once, but twice. In The Blind Lady’s Descendants, Tim runs into a boy on a dirt track similar to the one we had walked together. And decades later, he chances upon the same boy, now a disillusioned young man eking out a living by helping tourists, on the beach. While writing about his comeback, I believed life would imitate art and we would meet again. But I have long lost hope.
I have relocated to another city, and my visits to the hometown have dried up. A month ago, I walked down the cliff path with a friend who was visiting from France. I wanted to point out the house with purple walls to her. But it had vanished. In its place stood a German bakery. We went in and sat looking at the sun dipping down the frill of the cliff. When it became too dark to see the sea below, I thought of Tim, and wondered if my photograph, along with several other pictures he had taken that day, was hanging on a wall in his Brighton home.