- Published: 3 March 2020
- ISBN: 9781760890070
- Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $32.99
Sweetness and Light
India. Although it could just as easily be Thailand, or Cambodia, or Colombia. The town belongs to tourists now; the sultans are just a memory, so too the long-forgotten empires that rose and fell with indifferent tides. Once it belonged to Portugal, remembered only by the Catholic church that watches over the gentle curve of the bay. It had a different name then; now it’s called Shanti by the travellers who pass through it, named after the Shanti Bar that abuts the beach.
That bar itself is staffed by Indians, and built of bamboo and straw in the Thai style, while its food – butter chicken, chips and vindaloo – belongs to the British palate. The stereo belongs to a solitary, decade-old Jack Johnson CD that starts again from the top after the final melancholy note of the closing track fades. The charming lamps that hang from the exposed beams of the roof and cast their shadows on revellers at night are from Kerala, while the playful afternoon zephyr that blows in from the sea to shake them is Arabian.
The same breeze whips past the dozen crumbling colonial buildings that scatter the hillside, coaxing ripples out of the puddles in the muddy tracks that wend between them. The wind rises up to the whitewash facade of the church, where it stirs the heavy brass bell that hangs inside the tower into a single, booming ring, which echoes through the empty streets of the town. It’s the west coast of India, but could be anywhere, which is why Connor, waiting in the shade of the bell tower for the bus to come in, is here.
For most of the Portuguese occupation, what is now Shanti Beach was a fishing village, one picturesque enough that some middle-class colonists built bleached-stone holiday homes here – they are all guesthouses now. The grand church was built centuries before by a retired slaver as an act of penitence and is maintained, more or less, by the one priest who lives there. Apart from these buildings, much of the town is composed of rickety plasterboard shacks built along dirt tracks – roads that were once pony trails but over the years evolved into thoroughfares, and one street paved in cobblestones. This runs alongside the foreshore and serves as the high street, lined with stalls selling street food and religious kitsch to the trickle of tourists who come through each summer.
It isn’t easy to reach Shanti Beach. The only way in is by a rutted dirt road off the highway, littered with the rusting skeletons of hired scooters that caught a pothole and now lie mangled in the ditches alongside. Only a few tourist buses detour here, and they’re infrequent – delayed by a matter of hours or days. Their arrival time depends on a convergence of rain, natural disasters, traffic accidents, the level of floodwater on the road and the sobriety of the driver.
Connor is alone on the hill. Most people in Shanti have the sense to stay indoors or nap under the shade of a tree in the noonday heat. The drivers stretch out in the back of their auto-rickshaws, the waiters put the chairs up and curl up under the tables, but Connor has never been able to nap. Especially in this heat. The clammy, choking fever heralds the monsoon; it embraces you like a drunk, arriving too soon, lingering long into the night.
He waits out the worst at the top of the hill, where there’s a little respite from the baking humidity, reading his book and watching the waves, smoking, lighting the new cigarette off the last. Hours pass. He imagines his competition passing time; can see the men in their homes eating lunch with their families, fish curry mopped up with fluffy white pão, nothing wasted. The icons on the wall: Ganesha, Shiva, St Francis. A TV is on somewhere, and the noise of a mid-afternoon movie carries through the heat on otherwise deserted streets.
In the late afternoon, as clouds gather over the ocean, he sees from the stirring town that the bus is due any minute. The owners of the guesthouses are the first to emerge sleepily from their lobbies, followed by the touts from the fancier hotels and resorts, up and down the coast, who come zipping in on shiny new motorcycles, their best rooms fallow in the off-season. They all trickle uphill, to where Connor is already waiting, tributaries running to the deluge; everyone with a stake in the ecosystem of the tourist money that comes in on the bus.
It’s low season, and they need this one – a sleeper coach from Mumbai that should hold a couple dozen sleep-deprived, underfed, disoriented tourists. By the time it announces itself with the roar of an ancient gearbox fighting its way uphill in second gear, everyone is gathered to greet it.
Almost nobody who works these beaches is from around here; blow-ins and entrepreneurs who headed west from poorer states to make hay on these tourist beaches. Most of the touts waiting for the bus ignore Connor as a rule. They aren’t hostile to him, the strange Australian working their patch, but neither do they ever welcome him.
Except for Baba. Baba with his affection for foreigners, his affectations – linen suits, and Cuban boots with lifts in the heels that must be impossibly uncomfortable in this weather, and entirely unnecessary, since he already towers over everybody on the beach. Baba with his fingers in a million pies; Baba with his grip on commerce on these beaches. Baba, eternal pain in Connor’s arse.
Many people have epiphanies while meditating on this beach, but none have the crystalline sharpness of Baba’s inspiration when he first saw Shanti, one winter afternoon with the sea mist coming in.
Generations of travellers had loved Shanti as a sleepy, drugaddled backwater, but in the wild banks of windswept garbage, the broken-down and unloved villas, the murky water, Baba saw a glittering future.
Far to the south are the wetlands of Kerala, and to the north, Russian tourists busting the seams of Morjim Beach get closer all the time. In a few years Russian money will start flooding through Shanti, needing to be washed, and Baba will be waiting.
Not long after arriving in town he’d started investing in the village. A little at a time he’d bought up the bar and restaurant, the cafe, a couple of guesthouses, a yoga school. And the dive boat, which Connor works for him.
Nearly everyone in town works for Baba in one way or another – the drug dealers, the rickshaw drivers who ferry guests to his fancier guesthouse up the coast, the fishermen who supply his restaurant. Even the group of bright-eyed, hunger-panged children who live on the streets. Most residents hate them, consider them vermin to be chased off with insults and rocks, but not Baba. He is forever sending them off on errands; to fetch him cigarettes, or paan, and then waving away the change, sometimes hundreds of rupees, for the child to keep. He has a soft spot for the feral kids – had been one himself, wild and vicious until he’d fought his way up in the world.
A swarm races to meet the bus now, and Baba heads them off. He takes out his bankroll, hands out a little cash, shoos them away. Connor nods at Baba, who beams back, full blast.
On the other side of the hill the bus gives up on second, shifts down to first, and then finally crests the rise and rolls down towards the waiting touts, an idol of Ganesha tied to the bull bar with a plastic garland. The bus rumbles to a halt, then shuts down with a whine from the hydraulics and a whoosh as the door opens and the climate-controlled interior opens up to the heat. A puff of condensation spills out of the footwell to die on the baking hilltop – a hopeful little mist that evaporates before the first sandal touches the ground.
The travellers shuffle out, blinking into the haze and fumbling for sunglasses, making noises of meek disapproval as the driver climbs to the luggage rack on top of the coach and starts pitching the bags onto the dusty road. Connor can see them weighing whether or not to kick up a fuss before deciding against it and shrugging on their backpacks, bracing as the touts surround them, shouting offers of hotels, meals, beers, drugs – the gull cry of the rickshaw drivers rising above it all, ‘Taxi! Taxi!’
Connor hangs back, waiting.
It’s a disappointing bus. Less than half full, which isn’t bad for this backwater village, especially in the off-season, when there is little reason to visit, but this is an underwhelming crop of travellers. None of them is what he needs: women, alone, not too young.
There are the usual half-dozen backpackers with tans, underarm hair peeking out from threadbare singlets, ratty dreadlocks and out-of-date Lonely Planet guides lifted from hostel shelves. They’ll stay for a week, maybe, and keep the bar busy, but that’s all. No good to him.
Connor notes a Middle Eastern couple, unbearably attractive; tattooed and lean from long and shrewd travel. He stares after the girl forlornly. She would have been out of his reach, even if she were travelling alone.
There’s a couple of hippy kids with boots, flared cargo pants and tiny backpacks. They will mope around town for a couple of days, then disappear north in a rickshaw in search of parties. Minutes after their arrival, an affable drug dealer is already leading them away to his home and a mini-fridge full of opium and MDMA. He has an adorable four-year-old son he deploys to get tourists to trust him. The child runs ahead, his teeth shining, as the hippies follow, flanking the dealer, who puts a proprietary arm around each of their shoulders. He controls an unspoken monopoly on the drug trade in Shanti Beach, mild as it is. Like everyone here, he works for Baba.
One by one the tourists that emerge from the bus pair off with the touts who work for Baba and trudge after them into town, or climb onto the back of scooters or into the cheerful green-and-yellow auto rickshaws sent up the coast by the fancier hotels. Baba’s eyes fall on Connor and he feels it, behind Baba’s mirrored aviators, the pity. Baba comes over, fishes through his linen trousers for a pack of cigarettes, and offers one to Connor.
Connor puts the cigarette to his lips, articulates a frown around it, shakes his head.
‘What about that one? EPL at three o’clock.’ Baba nods at a tall, gaunt woman, early forties, with a severe silver bob and breezy resortwear, stepping off the bus and looking around warily. ‘She’s perfect.’
EPL is a term Baba has coined, and is inordinately proud of. It is a catch-all term for the westerners, mainly women of a certain age, who have an epiphany after reading Eat Pray Love and decide to leave their grey lives in the hopes of finding a better one in India and catching a UTI from Javier Bardem. Across the entire ecosystem of Shanti Beach, they are the most coveted catch – they come pre-loaded with disposable income and the yen to spend it unwisely.
Connor holds up a palm. ‘Give it a minute.’
Sure enough, seconds later her friend – late forties, short and bossy-looking – alights and starts angrily haggling with an auto driver.
Connor shrugs, and Baba pats his shoulder sympathetically.
‘Do not worry. Things will pick up. I will bet you a beer.’
Connor is beginning to despair; little talent turns up at this time of year. These months between the perfect, bright days that ring in the new year and the arrival of the rains, Shanti is sweaty and vile, the surf murky and petulant. Lying on the beach is intolerable, and for visitors there’s little to do aside from lying on the beach.
Connor’s mood is souring when he spots her, the secondto-last to get off the bus. She is thirty-five or thereabouts, fine-featured, breasts so high and delicate they would disappear in his palm; delightful and consequential as a dandelion on the breeze. He moves a little closer, takes in the ghost of a sunburn across her nose, her flowing ankle-length gown – the clothes all wrong, the wrong fabric, the wrong cut, chosen for panicked modesty rather than comfort. Connor’s eyes trail the length of the dress as the breeze fidgets with it, sketching a map of her body, then stills as his eyes come to her feet, wrapped, gloriously, in Birkenstocks.
While she waits for the driver to retrieve her backpack from the rack on top of the bus, she rebuffs the touts. ‘No!’ she says loudly and firmly as they offer her meals, narcotics, taxis, hotels, taxis to hotels. ‘No thank you!’
He is thrilled to hear it. Only the most greenhorn and rattled of travellers bothers being polite. Those who have found their bearings walk on as if wearing blinkers, brushing the men aside like ants at a picnic. The way this woman talks to them, half amused, half unnerved, tells him that she hasn’t been in India long, but long enough to suit him just fine. He reads all this in a heartbeat and Baba, watching Connor, reads it in his face.
‘You owe me a beer,’ says Baba. ‘I’ll be back to collect. Good luck.’