Snake eyes

HE INTRODUCED HIMSELF as a photographer when he'd pulled away from a group of men to tell her how good she looked. The comment wasn't sleazy – just a matter-of-fact statement he'd followed up by pointing out what he thought was working on her. She listened with interest – you could never tell whether you were looking like a complete pillock. After all, here she was, standing next to a large, brightly lit wooden elephant in an otherwise gloomy, dusty garden adjoining a former godown – one of the many vast, rubble-strewn storage yards in what was once the centre of international trade in Kerala's not-too-distant past. Trade in spices, trade in ideas.

She had considered these connections even before she'd decided to make the trip to India; over the years she'd pondered why a few small, incidental items stacked up in the supermarket had once been capable of leveraging entire flotillas to take risks against the weather, pirates and scurvy. It seemed almost incomprehensible that pepper had been so valuable it was known as black gold. She'd read about how important spices had been to preserving food, but these facts did little to explain what for centuries seemed to be a trade of passion. The very titles exuded lust: the spice trade, the spice route.

Her memories of high school history recalled that in 1498 Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut and discovered an alternate route to India. That discovery launched Portugal's monopoly over the most lucrative trade of the day. From this sleepy Indian backwater a re-understanding of the world had once emerged.

She understood the historical facts, but somehow the account seemed blind to a motivation that was as old as civilisation itself. It seemed obvious to her that the urge to take such enormous risks had to be associated with the understanding that the tedium of everyday endeavours – like eating – could be transformed into expanded dimensions of experience with just a dash of the right thing. Spices were more than additives, she thought. They were triggers – portals to greater intensity. The spice trade, in a way not dissimilar to the international drug trade, was driven by the urge for heightened experience, even though the price paid was often inordinately high.

Her thoughts looped in and back; it was similar to the hunger for ideas. After all, there wasn't much that determined the difference between one life and another, between the energy of one person and another. But the ideas made that difference. Ideas had the capacity to appear to transform a person, as if the materiality of their presence was seasoned in some ineffable way. As if the meat of their being was altered by the spices of ideas. She had travelled to Kerala in search of some of the latter.

SHE WANDERED INTO the garden where the last light was framed by tattered palm fronds. A tent had been erected in the middle of the garden – brightly lit with a red carpet and plastic chairs and the big elephant up front. The elephant looked florid and it occurred to her it might be an artwork – a funny one. Out of habit she reached out to touch the trunk and was warned off by a guard. She'd turned away and at that moment he'd approached her.

The introductory compliment had been followed by the usual 'where are you from?' questions and after that the conversation just kept on running. She noted he was neutrally dressed, with a biennale programme folded under an arm and an iPhone in one hand. Good clues – clues of interest – and they fell into step, wandering through rooms she'd not yet seen. He had bits and pieces of local knowledge with which he embroidered her understanding of some of the works, and it was fine for a while to have someone else to look at the art with.

All the time, however, part of her was wary and full of questions: what was really happening here? New city, no phone of her own, no one she knew in sight. How far would she let this drift?

IN THE WORLD of the senses she was happy enough to keep cruising. From the windows on the upper floor of the godown they watched the waters of Kerala surge against the rubble wall of the pier below. Closer in, islands of hyacinth netted bits of rubbish and flotsam; further out all kinds of vessels plied their paths across the wide expanse of water. In the distance the lights of container loaders winked. The scene felt like a piece of forever – the water, the grand old building, the gathering dusk, the work, always the rhythm of work as the harbour exuded its lure on trade, passengers and profit. She stood for a long time gazing out, with her back to the rooms full of art, and wondered whether this was all that mattered. With gentle contempt she admitted that Duchamp – that smug thin gruesome weasel – had been right. The world did wink back. All that it had needed was that trigger point where art set it all alight again.

Gradually they made their way down through the labyrinth of the dusty, lower floors, arriving at an immense dark hall strewn with geometric concrete forms. Using the thin light from his phone they picked their way across the room and out to the pier. From here the hyacinth shawl surged and ebbed against the pier like sleeping breath. Small huddles of people talked quietly, barely distinguishable in the darkness. She picked a path between them and turned back towards the old building. Across its façade an artist had traced in light the words from a poem full of love and longing. It was beautiful, as if the building was calling out to an old lover across the Arabian Sea.

Sometimes art could make things almost perfect. She took in only as much of the sense of the poem as she needed – 'my bones on your bones', it read. She remembered the same invitation in The Killers' anthem Bones, and thought about how, even though that phrase came up again and again throughout history, it always evoked the act of love and death in such a startling way. Images of skeletons making love. All that dust and rattle, all that clank and dryness: the foreverness of death and still the urge to make love. She thought of the phrase – to make love – and wondered about how the term seemed to conjure, to fabricate love into being. Hinting that love was something that had to be summoned then crafted into being. A bit like art, she mused. Perhaps.

She suddenly realised how far away she'd been, that she was standing with a stranger on the artificial shoreline of a passage of water she knew nothing about. She made a gesture that they should move on.

Outside, the narrow street was crowded with rickshaws and revellers. She suggested they move towards the parade ground and followed a stream of people weaving through the staccato traffic. They passed under the cover of the huge trees the locals referred to as 'rain trees'. Majestic and ancient, each branch was festooned with feathery ferns. Beneath the canopy, lights on carts lit up the faces of bhel puri vendors, coconut sellers and chai wallahs; beyond them, the edge of the water was rimmed by the silhouettes of elegant prows and the suspended lacery of Chinese fishing nets. China and Portugal. Buddhism and Hinduism and Christianity and Islam and Judaism. Kerala was a place that took in all comers. Someone had said that, 'During the blood-bath of Partition not a single stone had been thrown in the South.' This felt like a tolerant place to her, moving along with that human tide without thinking too much.

They arrived at the garishly illuminated parade ground distinguished by two objects: a geometric stage and the sprawling remains of a fallen tree. A crowd had assembled, but nothing much seemed to be happening.

Her companion's words came in a steady stream. She had ascertained he was married and had an eleven-year-old daughter. For a time they talked about daughters and, becoming aware of a sweetness in his voice when he spoke of his child, she decided to spare him some of the volatile excesses with which she was capable of lacing her own daughter-stories. It didn't seem like suitable entertainment. A kind of incomplete honesty had already settled into the conversation.

Sitting on a worn patch of parade ground grass, he began to talk of his Italian mistress – a writer who came to visit India, and him, on a regular basis. She had funded some of his trips to Milan.

'She must be very rich,' she remarked, noting with another dose of disingenuousness that this would be read as a kind of compliment. She asked about his wife, but there was little sense of character in his narrative for her; theirs had been an arranged marriage and she had a fiery temper. The talk had grown too personal and she felt like it might be veering into uncomfortable and uninteresting territory. She stood up and made a move to keep walking.

The streets led them towards clusters of shops and restaurants and when he suggested they seek out a bar, she agreed. Bars were rare enough in alcohol-restricted Kerala, and it took lots of questions and backtracking before they made their way up a staircase. He picked his way between the tables, spoke to a waiter and led her into a small adjoining room with no windows. The walls had been painted a smoky blue – the kind of faded ultramarine once favoured by Picasso. Small groups of men ordered liquor in twos. She'd declined a drink initially but when his double order of brandy arrived she made a hasty change of plans, grabbed one of his and threw it back. The talk continued.

Now and then he'd toss in a remark about how she looked or what she reminded him of; she'd become weary of remarks that were already turning into tired compliments, but the general run of things was tolerable. She ordered two brandies. The talk had ground down to tall tales and true. Things were getting better. It dawned on her that the only other occupied table in the room was surrounded by men. She was the only woman there. She ordered two more brandies.

He showed her some of his photographs on his iPhone. They were okay. Nothing special – predictably moody, smoky and chiaroscuro. Just like this bar, she thought. Then he turned and asked her whether she'd noticed he had only one eye. She was genuinely surprised. He'd been wearing glasses, and although the series of mise en scenes they'd been through had been dimly lit, she had failed to pick up what was a fairly substantial detail.

HE BEGAN HIS story describing how he had been the 'pet boy' of his primary school teacher when he was five. The woman had been like another mother and had taken a special interest in him, too. He described the jealousy of his classmates, and of his mother for the bond that existed between them. Every day his teacher would appoint him monitor and every morning he would place the collected homework books neatly on the corner of her desk.

One morning, she noticed one of the books was missing. She called him forward and asked him whose it was. He confessed it was his, and when she asked why, he'd taken the liberty of replying that he'd been having too much fun playing.

Immediately his teacher became enraged. She grabbed a ruler and began striking his wrist, holding him tightly by the other. He described the shock and pain, how his shouting and crying was loud long after she stopped. In her fury, his teacher broke the ruler into pieces and banished him from the room. He continued to cry but the teacher's rage was unabated – she demanded he come back inside. When he continued snivelling in a corner at the front of the room, her frustration peaked; she hurled a fragment of the broken ruler and it caught him in the eye, the sharp wood cut right through the cornea and lodged there. The little boy dropped to the floor, unconscious. His version of the rest of the tale had been gleaned from a range of sources – how he'd been rushed to hospital in Cochin, about the eventual loss of the eye and the long lingering months in hospital fighting a raging fever. The teacher had been dismissed.

A simple tale of horror and lifelong consequences; of innocence and broken trust; the sharpness of life's turns told with spare clarity. She hadn't been ready for this. She became aware she'd been staring at him slack-jawed, aghast, and rallied herself by peppering him with insultingly obvious buckshot. How did his parents react? How had he dealt with it? The puniness of the questions was made immediately apparent by his quiet affirmation: throughout his life he had continued to think of this woman with love.

By this stage she was leaning in very close, hanging on every wonderful word. Like a kidnapper turned confidante he whispered that, miraculously, he had managed to get in touch with this teacher after twenty-nine years and this Sunday – in four days' time – the now-elderly woman was taking the long, slow train trip to Cochin from Mumbai to see him. She reeled, threw back a brandy, gestured for two more and swooned. He showed her the image he had made to celebrate their reunion – a close-up of the tumescent white throat of a lily – with the words after twenty-nine years in script. And when the knee-jerk response of 'kitsch' entered her mind it was almost immediately enveloped by a thick fug of sentiment.

Caught between the details of the past and the possibilities of the future, she became slowly aware of her emerging role as a witness to this small adventure. She fought to concentrate, grappling for a hold against a total immersion in brandy, confidences, the smoky shapes of the tale. She re-surfaced in the blue room and noticed someone had closed the door. The room was now swimming with smoke. The adjoining group of men were passing a joint. When it came to her she dragged deeply and felt the familiar warmth rise up from her gut. She exhaled long and slow and thought about trust and forgiveness and the limitless capacities of the human spirit. Her companion passed the joint on and watched her intently. Her eyes welled with tears. This was what mattered. Emotion mattered and living in the world mattered – not the click-clack of tired rationalism.

'HAVE YOU EVER tried the small snake?' he asked.

The question staggered her. She leaned in closer to peer into his one eye, 'The small snake?'

Her companion produced a small, squat tube from his lap. 'It's from Nagaland,' he said, 'It's only tiny.' He held up the tube so she could see it more closely – a short bamboo length cut with a lid into which a small hole had been pierced.

'You shake it gently,' he said, 'and it bites you.'

'It bites you?'

'It bites you. It's angry.' He rolled the tube over and over between his palms – slowly, rhythmically. She watched, mesmerised.

'It doesn't hurt. But it lasts between a day – and sometimes nearly two. There's nothing like it. It's your body, you see. Completely natural. Coming to the defences of the venom. Such a small injection of venom. Such a wonderful surge. It's like nothing else you've ever felt.'

She had known about the whole mescal/peyote thing when she'd travelled through Mexico. And she she'd grown up in a place where the psychotropic lure of mushrooms had been a cure for boredom. But a snake bite? And all the way from Nagaland? She stared at the bamboo tube and thought about the small creature inside and wondered.

THE REST OF the night careened into experiences delivered in short, sharp stabs: they'd found their way back to the parade ground where the Tamil-British hip-hop artist MIA was performing. Hundreds of tiny, fluorescent plastic helicopters exploded into the sky above the mosh pit when the diminutive rapper drove home the familiar lyrics: 'live fast, die young, bad girls do it well', repeated like a call and response until the entire mass of assembled humanity moved as one.

Later on, as the night spun out towards the spill-over of event-bleed, other half-remembered lines from the singer's performance provided a rhythm for the seductive pull of self-punishment: 'My chain hits my chest when I'm bangin' on the dashboard; my chain hits my chest when I'm bangin' on the radio'. Her own experiences eclipsed into recalled sound bites. And in between these were snatches from MIA's controversial music video that featured images of drift stunt-driving amidst obvious tropes from an exoticised Arab world – men dressed in keffiyeh or military fatigues and glimpses of guns against the incongruity of the singer's uber-sexuality. She knew these tropes well: danger, sex, the unknown. Yet another smorgasbord of clichés.

She remembered all this much later that night, during blasts of short clarity when she was spinning along the road between Cochin and Alleppeyon the back of a shared motor tricycle. She could remember someone emptying bottle after bottle of drinking water over her head and his as they passed through rice paddies and across bridges spanning vast, flat marshlands, past temples and churches and mosques and synagogues. From time to time during that long ride she mustered enough presence of mind to recall that her original response to that video-clip had been critical: how at first the exoticisation of the Arab world, the forced sexuality, the ethical emptiness had riled her. But here, now, in the rush of the night air and in the gorgeousness and luxury of cool water spilling over her skin her propensity for criticism evaporated. For now, the spice of ideas and the narcotic pull of experience were charting her into waters that were as seductive and dangerous as they had been forever.

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