The Tourist – by Aravind Jayan

by TBLM

The line outside the lunch hall was far too long- out of the weather worn tarpaulin it went, curving at oblique points of chatter and conversation, scattering into a thicket of small and smaller children, and finally into a throng of ladies all clad in starched shades of gold, green or red; men were scant, the few around the marriage hall could be seen walking about nestling half empty bottles of aquafina or nippled bottles of pale warm milk. The others having left their wives in charge, or having been told they were once in charge and not just now, had gone out for a beedi and a bajji. My brother, the groom, was at the farthest corner of the hall, away from his familiar and now forever to be estranged company, in the custody of his unfamiliar bride and his chirpy in-laws. He sat there with unwashed hand, the sambar and desert crusting his dry palms, his banana leaf folded to show his expired lunch and his head tilted in conversation. I walked towards him, half intending to draw him out but seeing as it is that I could end up being drawn in instead, turned back. Here were the vultures feeding on my brother’s resignation, my dear younger brother whose biggest achievement, whose most celebrated award was finding love- having someone else find his love for him. Here they sat, the horde, their heads tilted forward, their hands bent like preying insects, slurping the vibrant concoction of fluids from their banana leaves. Here they sat chatting about how beautiful or ugly his wife was, how fat she was, how thin she was, how obnoxious she was when she said that or this last night or the night before. I looked back at my brother- his belly had already started to protrude forcing him into a vulgar life of marrie biscuits and sweaty armpits. Or had they always been round and half ejected? Thrown forward but held back by the last few ropes of childhood insubordination? Perhaps, yes his belly had always been distended but held back by the precise measurements of a long last sigh.

I had half a mind to draw him out, call him and tell him the many things I wanted to review. Tell him that this was a sham for one thing, tell him the dowry was shit, tell him his bride was a solution of talcum powder and sweat, tell him about the- did he even know what sex was? I looked at him and saw him smiling at his wife, then at his in-laws who were muttering something in apparent mirth. The fat, round words of Malayalam scripture came out lazy and yellow, ugly and un-poetic.

“Oh, Jagathesh! Congrats” Someone bumped into me. She was slender with two front teeth that seemed borrowed and exiled from her mouth. I did not recognize her. “Your brother’s wife is absolutely stunning eh? Good girl, Leela is. I have known her family for ages. Very respectable. We were a little surprised to see your younger brother married before you. But you will be next. I know some excellent prospects. I will talk to your mother about them.”

If she were so compelled to wield the Viceroy’s words, why did she have to do so in little spurts? I walked away with a smile. This was the third time I had been cornered with the same question. Why did I not precede my brother in affairs of marriage? Why did I so scandalously shoot out of my mother vagina first when clearly my younger brother was to get married before me?

The corner tables were now being emptied and new guests were being ushered in. More babies cried, their mothers sang; even where no babies imploded, thick ladies erupted in song. Old men coughed at the rising dust. Young men sniggered at jiggling breasts. I needed to exile myself from the commotion and so I pushed against the incoming crowd and wade my way through. The afternoon was hot and my shirt stuck to my body. There was a tea store nearby and I decided walk towards it. Upon reaching it, I found it crowded with too many men- thick, short, thin, tall- all clad in the white mundu of a happy marriage. “Jagathesh!” a short man, hips like a women beckoned. “Evening, what program? Rum? whisky? “He waved at the smoke around him, coughing politely. Once again I smiled and turning to the shopkeeper said “Oru Kings, Hard”. I lit it there, ignored what the thick hipped man said about cancer and walked swiftly forward.

The whole street seemed cluttered with white tempos and similar, swaying, celebratory men. I saw a few dressed in grey coats and silver ties- men who would introduce themselves as recent ‘galf returns’. Every now and then a family would leave or arrive in a scooter kicking up clouds of dust. The white glowing tip and my own puff of smoke kept my gait sane. I hadn’t smoked since college, and I didn’t smoke much then, especially not vulgar, rugged, ‘hards’. Now the smoke felt voluminous and perfect- its dense respiration synchronous to mine. I didn’t stop walking for quite some time; the afternoon sun burned through the smoke and covered my forehead in beads of thick sweat. Wanting away from all the wedding commotion, I exited the side street and walked towards the main one. Trivandrum had nothing to show for a capital save for a few cancerous lumps, short and stunted. The traffic lights changed at a leisurely pace, a few children crossed my path carrying large bags, chattering away on their way to a Sunday tuition center. Yellow pamphlets advertising the holistic cure for piles were swishing along the dusty road getting caught in the slugging traffic or being trapped under shop shutters. Horns rang out in an isolated fashion bouncing back and forth along the thick fat air of the sleeping city. Even the temples were closed and the deities jailed to a midsummer treat of jaggery and sour milk. The left side had few open shops; the Bata store was open but barely stirring- the withering stalk of a thin blue guard kept watch upon his plastic chair; the bigger jewellery store advertised a season sale on all bridal collections; the women in advertisements jumped from poster to poster- the shoe store to the jewellery store to the one for churidars to the little board for call center operatives- they all seemed content in their plastic world. Did I deserve the same plastic treatment?

My brother married off, and now it would soon be me. The same old city, the same weather, the same faces and same charade.

Past the dingy watch repair shop, there rose a somewhat larger enterprise, a shopping mart which had been inaugurated only a few days back. Confetti and balloons hung by the door and a few cars lay hot by the entrance. I walked in looking somewhat distracted, looking for further distraction and was startled when the guard frisked me and ran his little machine past me. His palms and the blast of cool air froze my sweat in an uncomfortable tide between my skin and my shirt.

There was white light across its magnanimous aisles- of glowing cereal boxes and packaged dosa mixture, of school bags wrapped in fresh plastic and bubble bath solutions that advertised no tears- the best of all promises. Inside, the people were scarce; the modern bazaar lay in a lull awaiting the evening crowd- the evolved form of my brother’s current engagement. I walked past the initial few shelves fingering a tight packet of this or that.

“Too big, go for the one that’s smaller. They are always handy and much easier to carry while you’re walking around.” The voice was anglicized and come from beyond the station for A4 sheets and sharpeners.

“That covers the first four. What’s next?”

“Another bag, medium size” said another similar intonation.

I peaked around the corner to see two slender, English men in three fourths and loose shirts, a big bag at hand, following cursively through a stack of things that did not fit well in a shopping mall of this décor and purpose. The nearest shelf showcased batteries of different sizes; then just beside that was a shelf for canned food, then ropes, flashlights, backpacks, a few pairs of shoes and even a raft pinned to the wall- in its most monumental moment, a shockingly absurd sight- even if only for display. There was also a section for travel guides which the foreign men seemed to browsing through now.
Behind the erupting scene was a poster for Kerala Tourism- all those places that they said were so near at hand and yet I had never seen- the gushing streams, the calm backwaters, the spiced fish, the jolly fishermen and their happy nets, the kathakali dancers at the peak of their celebrated high, the majestic houseboats sticking out of a pale blue, the soft sickle sun pressed across a pink sky. Where had all this been? And where had I been?

The men spread a large fold-in map across the floor and were running their fingers across several routes, checking their phones and crossing the dates. A salesman walked across the floor, he looked at them proudly and then back at me as if to ask me to keep my distance. One of them glanced at the time and I did too. It was a quarter past three; soon I’d have return to the commotion, the real bazaar.

I must have walked further into the aisle and past the stationeries; before I knew it I was closely following their fingers across the expanse green of southern India. One them looked up, smiled and sensing my local air asked: Do you know when the next bus to Cochin is? Do they ply past 8?

The next bus to Cochin? I had been there once on my niece’s wedding- a family trip to a closed auditorium and back. And that was all. Was that all? All I knew about a place so close? Why did I not know more?

I looked dumbfounded; they must have taken my silence as ignorance of the English language for they simply gave me a curt smile, looked at each other and back at the map. I muttered something that was meant to be inaudible and crossing them walked towards the shelf of guidebooks.

‘Traveling a God’s Country- Volume One’

I clutched another volume and then another and I thought I felt a grin cross my face-

“Jagatesh!” my cousin’s voice came from the opposite aisle. “We were just looking for you. I came to get a few sachets of ORS. Leela’s mother is not feeling too well. What a stroke of luck to have found you too!”

“I was just- I needed some fresh air” I told him, keeping the guides back.

“Whats that?” he laughed, “Planning to run away on your brothers wedding?” he sniggered “C’mon now, we are getting late”

I dropped all claims to the books, turned towards the counter and followed him.

“You know what? Take those guides” he said making a sharp pause.

I looked at him, clearly puzzled.

“Honeymoon for your brother.” He snorted, smiled, his teeth crested with the orange stain of sambar and a third round of desert. “And who knows, soon it will be yours too eh, Jagatesh eh?”

Walking behind him, I quietly pocketed a fresh pack of Kings. Hard.

***