The most excellent thing about the beach is that you are allowedâ€”required, evenâ€”to have no greater ambition than to exist as a sunning mammal, and to attend to the needs of that body. You must regulate your physical state, and thatâ€™s about it. Too hot, swim. Too wet, dry. Too relaxed, sleep. Too hungry, eat.
Between me and the Arabian Ocean stands a tall, lithe boy with travel-hip hairâ€”the urban tribal look seemingly required of the European and abroadâ€”who takes pictures of a girl. She is as skinny as a minnow. His earlobes are distended with those plugs so popular in NYCâ€™s East Village in the early 1990s, which look likeâ€”and how rebellious is this?â€”Oreos.
Then they swim, their bodies shifting with the surf and the current. Underwater, some parts of them are linked. I still havenâ€™t ventured into the water yet. The waters here at Varkalaâ€™s Papanasham Beach are reputed to be some of the most dangerous in Kerala, and I have no one to cling to.
Varkala is pretty much literally as far away from Kashmir as you can get and still be in India. It’s dreamy. Even the stray dogs are happy here. But it’s strange to see this much of my skin, and the ocean intimidates me.
So I wait on my rusty-armed chaise longue for courage to arrive. Back in Jersey we call it a beach chair. I lounge under the scant shade provided by a parasolâ€”umbrella in Jerseyâ€”that has no more sun-blocking density than the tapestry it looks like. I baste myself with 30+ sunblock, an anti-roast beast. How do people lie in the sun all day like crocodiles, leathering away? Here in Varkala, it’s the white peopleâ€”from Israel, Australia, France, the UKâ€”trying to get brown that do so. The naturally brown people wisely stick to shade and saris.
I buy a mango from a fruit hawker, who plies her wares on back and forth along the beach all day long. After lickety-split peeling it, pink-yellow shreds falling from her finger-sized knife, she hands me the sweet bulb and settles into the sand under the shade of the umbrella. She sighs existentially. Her hair is wrapped like a movie gypsy. I donâ€™t mind her sitting hereâ€”what sort of jerk do you have to be to begrudge someone shade?â€”but I am unsure of the etiquette. Are we supposed to chat under this umbrella? I donâ€™t want to. I want to read my novel. Can I politely ignore her?
I try, mango in one hand, book in the other.
â€œYou are married?â€
It’s almost always the first question I am asked in India. It’s the basic unit of currency that I am supposed to carry as a 30-something woman. Forget rupees, where’s the ring? I show her the evidence.
â€œHusband is here?â€
I start to tell her that no, he isnâ€™t here, heâ€™s thousands of miles away in a place where itâ€™s too early in the year to swim, and that as one of the most astoundingly alabaster Caucasians to ever roam the earth he doesnâ€™t even like the beach and therefore is not here even in spirit, that he would be wincing in the sun, actually, miserable, wondering how long his husbandly duty required him to linger and suffer, while I, annoyingly, obtusely, would badger him to â€œenjoyâ€ it.
But before I can reply, she says, â€œSwimming, ah, swimming,â€ and waves her hand at the ocean. She seems so satisfied with her own answer that I figure I shouldnâ€™t correct her. Phantom Husband dives through the surf.
Another beach hawker lowers herself down into the shaded sand on the other side of my rusty beach chair. I seem to have attracted them all. This is a good thing about Varkala. Unlike at Kerala beaches like Kovalam, the hawkers arenâ€™t many or persistent. Varkala is a mellow place for the west coast beaches of India, particularly in comparison to established (and for me, beyond undesirable) party scenes at places like Goa, further north.
Plus, itâ€™s the end of the season; the sticky heat already has the locals complaining.
The second hawkerâ€”her specialty is hot tea, and I understand not at all drinking hot tea on a hot beachâ€”nods and smiles, and then makes small talk in a loud voice with the other hawker.
Over my chair, the two loudly chatter on and on in Malayalam, the local language, like two bitter aunts bitching about this drunk husband and that no-good nephew and that iffy niece, just you wait, sheâ€™s only 12 but sheâ€™s going to grow up to be a slut, believe you me, sheâ€™s got That Look.
I try hand gestures and simple words. â€œYou here, and you here. Talk over me. No good. Switch. Talk to each other. Sit here and here. Not over me. Okay?â€ I am making swooping gestures with my hands that must be incomprehensible.
They smile and nod. The tea seller says, “Husband?â€
I show the ring.
They continue their conversation. Now Iâ€™m the one existentially sighing. I spent 300 rupees on this shade, which I donâ€™t mind sharing with people, per se, but talking people is another issue. Those people, the ones with breath and words and independent mobilityâ€”well, theyâ€™re not my type.
I cannot concentrate on the book, so I scan the beach. Itâ€™s not white, itâ€™s not black, itâ€™s sand colored, as is proper, in my book. It’s the hue that clothing catalogues and crayon makers rely on you knowing. (Letâ€™s ignore for a moment the ignorance of the latter when it came to â€œfleshâ€ colored crayons.) The surf bangs and crashes around, but not terribly so; the photographer and his subject are playing in it like seals. I should go in soon.
The lifeguards have the supremely chill vibe of lifeguards everywhere, an aura that perhaps comes from contemplating the immensity of the ocean all day or perhaps comes from having a mental capacity that dolphins laugh at. Either way, their repose never quite convinces me theyâ€™re ready to swim to the rescue at the first sign of flailing limbs.
The first hawker slowly gets to her feet. She surveys the beach. â€œGoodbye,â€ she says to both us, determinedly heading to two brown white girls who seem to be melting into the sand. “Helloooo!” she calls. They lift their heads.
Without her conversational companion, the tea seller drops into silence. The book is resting face down on my stomach. I flip it over try to find the paragraph where I left off.
The tea seller stays. Itâ€™s a good a time as any to swim, I think; sheâ€™ll watch my bag, at least until she leaves.
â€œI swim now,â€ I say, pointing at the ocean, where the young couple are kicking through the foam, shaking their heads from side to side to dislodge the water from their ears.
She smiles and nods. I smile and nod back. You canâ€™t imagine how far this one-two will get you around the world.
It would be nice to aim for Phantom Husband, a figment of comfort, but where I swim to instead is a wave-crashing area completely indistinct from the rest of the shore except that it is exactly far away from all the other swimmers in the same measure. The water is only barely cool enough to be refreshing. The sand is soft and crabless. I can see the bottom and then canâ€™t as the shore quickly drops.
The current takes me far down shore, but gently, like an exquisitely gifted salesman. Before I know it, I’m behind the wheel, so to speak. I duck under the relentless waves and laugh a lot.
Back by the rusty chair and umbrella, the tea seller looks towards the opposite end of the beach. Next to her, my bag is a reassuringly there black lump. Behind her, the red cliffs rise to the boardwalk, the way up marked by prehistoric-looking ferns, a staircase, empty water bottles, and at least one mongoose. If Steve were here, he’d be drawing on index cards at one of the boardwalk bars atop the cliff, drinking icy Kingfisher beer, periodically checking to make sure I hadn’t, you know, drowned. He trusts me, but he’s also convinced I don’t look before I cross the street, so god knows what danger I could get into in an Arabian Ocean current. Eventually I’d dry off and meet him. He would show me what he’d drawn, and I would tell him what I saw.
I float, my ears underwater.