I have spoken more with the Indian lady who lives next door to me in Goa in three months than I did with my neighbours in Ladbroke Grove in twenty or more years. This is all the more surprising given the fact that neither of us understand a word the other is saying, she speaks only Konkani & I regrettably only English ( and maybe French, but only when I’m plastered ).
We meet on a daily basis, as we are residents of adjoining semi-detached houses, ( Q why semi-detached rather than semi-attached? ) we meet on my front steps, when I am coming back to the house or leaving it. Inevitably she is in the midst of sweeping, or about to sweep, or taking a break from sweeping. Napoleon once described the English as a nation of shopkeepers, had he been in India I have no doubt that his description would have been of an Empire of broom wielders. The irony of this is that whilst people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time tidying their homes and the spaces around them that those beyond, no matter how beautiful or striking or magical ( and in India, believe me there are many ) regardless of where they may be, in spectacular nature, in historic sites or close to holy places, these are given no such special treatment, litter and rubbish, the detritus of humanity, the waste, quite literally is dumped in the most beautiful of places, beaches covered in crap, himalayan mountain streams swimming in plastic and scattered with broken glass, why a nation for whom the tidiness of personal space however humble it may is be is so paramount are in turn so unconcerned with the beauty outside their own personal space space amazes me. Anyway I am rambling off, yet again, getting back to my subject, the neighbour:
So each day inevitably I am hailed by my neighbour, she waves at me on my steps, comes over and talks, always rapidly, I listen intently, and gaze at her teeth, which are pan stained, she appears to be in her early sixties, she lives alone and sweeps a great deal.
When she pauses for breath I shrug my shoulders and repeat for the umpteenth time that I don’t understand what she is saying. This inevitably solicits a repeat of whatever she was saying in the first place, only louder. I thought it was only the British who when confronted with a foreigner who can’t speak the language assume that notching up the volume will enable comprehension. But this trait is alive and well in this backwater of India. She button-holes me on a regular basis, rattling away about God knows what, every once in a while I am assisted by gestures & signs, recently I was sitting on my front steps, the cleaners were in, three of them, young Indian Girls dispatched twice a week to clean, it takes three of them almost an hour to clean one small house, this is not, because I am a dirty swine I hasten to add, it’s just that cleaning is what they do between gossiping, and laughing & talking on their mobiles. I don’t begrudge them, to be honest it’s a boon to have them tidy. Anyway I am sitting on my steps to free up the house for the cleaners to get on with their gossip (and a little cleaning in the infrequent gaps ) when along comes my neighbour, she begins talking, about what I don’t know, the girls have left the contents of my waste paper bin and a couple of old beer bottles on the step, ready to take away with them. My neighbour talks more loudly, I shake my head, sorry I don’t understand……. She gestures to the step, still I don’t understand, she picks up an empty beer bottle and waves it at me, oh dear, she doesn’t approve I think, I shrug my shoulders, yes I like beer I say, she tips her thumb towards her mouth, making a gesture of drinking rubs her tummy in a circular fashion sways about like a drunk and smiles a toothy-pan grin then goes back to her endless sweeping.
In the afternoon I come home from the beach to take a shower and find a frog in my bathroom, I am not unduly surprised, before christmas a visitor heading to the bathroom shrieked when confronted by a rather large rat, the scene then descended into farce as I chased the little beast around the house from room to room trying to beat it to death with a large bamboo pole, needless to say it was nimbler than I and thankfully in retrospect escaped unscathed to the outside world and freedom. Anyway back to my frog in the bathroom, I caught it and released it into a leafy green patch of scrub up the road.
The following day after morning yoga I head back to the house I am greeted, as usual by my neighbour once again sweeping and talking excitedly, as always I have no idea what she is saying, we stand there she jabbering away, me uncomprehending, then another lady comes along, she speaks some English, she explains that my neighbour is thirsty, she has no water. I go into the house and fetch a chilled bottle of water from my fridge, the neighbour takes it from me, she doesn’t acknowledge me, but simply walks off.
I once again shrug my shoulders and head into the house. Going to the toilet for a pee I look down into the bowl and see staring back at me the same frog only a day before I deposited outside, back again. I need to pee but dont have the heart to douse the frog, I end up going in the garden. Then once again I remove the frog, as I hold it in my hands and carry it outside I think to myself, the insistent returning frog, is it a message? Is it nature telling me that maybe it’s time I had a little company, if so it’s not what I had in mind. I remember a phrase, sometimes a girl needs to kiss a lot of frogs before she finds a prince. Does this work for a man as well I wonder? The mad idea of kissing a frog, wouldn’t it be funny if a princess materialised, I come back to my senses and decide that I have spent too long in my own company, I need to get out more.
I go to the spot where I was talking to the neighbour yesterday, place the frog in the hedge under my window, then notice the water bottle I gave her yesterday, still full lying in the hedge. Then it dawned on me, She hadnt been disapproving of my beer drinking, what she actually meant was she was that she was rather fond of a tipple herself. She had wanted beer for her thirst not water. Mental note to self, get the neighbour some beer.
By evening I head off to a film show, basically just old movies on a projector, the joint is in a tent run by Nepalese guys, the hook, that you get to watch a movie and you buy food & drinks whilst you watch, there they make their money. I sit down to movie watch, half way though the story there is a power cut, the lights go off & we are plunged into darkness. But I’m not worried, power cuts last just a few minutes here and happen often, so we sit and wait, after quarter of an hour people start to drift off. Somebody then says that they once sat here for an hour and a half waiting for the power to come back on. After half an hour I decide to leave. I head home in darkness, irritated, bloody India, they can’t even sort out their electricity. I ride the couple of km’s back home, in the darkness, I realise how much I have taken the occasional street light or the light cast from homes & the infrequentent roadside houses & shops for granted. The darkness is consuming, and on top of it I am irritated, that I’ve missed the movie, that I can’t get on the net and speak to home.
Maybe it’s time I cleared out of this bloody country. After all what the hell am I doing here? I park up the scooter and walk up the steps to my house, fiddle with the lock by the light of my mobile. As I open the front doors I am hit by a blast of hot air, the house is sweltering, no electricity means no fan, no aircon. I sit there in the gloom and light a solitary candle, I can feel the beads of sweat collecting on my forehead. I sit there miserable, and repeat aloud with only myself to hear, bloody country.
I get up and decide to go to the sea, it will be cooler there, I walk down to the beach in the pitch black, it’s after eleven and the beach is unsurprisingly empty, the only sound the waves crashing on the sand, the greeks had a God Zephirus, his name was given to zephyr, a night wind cool and gentle that comes from the west, as I walk along the beach that wind blows in from the Arabian sea and I am happy. I look towards the palm trees I can hear the leaves rustling in the wind, as I look above them I see a blanket of stars across the inky black sky. The lack of man made light means that they stand out all the more, it is spectacular, had the electricity been working this would have passed me by entirely. I always detested the bullshit of life being about lessons but somehow I get it, to see light you need to know darkness. With the thought I recognise that in some way I may well have become one of those people that I once made fun of, or perhaps even loathed, the dreamers, the people that didn’t fit, the weird and the wacky, and you know what I’m happy with that.
Paradise is most commonly described as a perfect or beautiful place, an Eden or a Shangri-La kind of deal, there’s another definition to be found in the merriam-webster dictionary, which I rather like, it is slightly more sinister in nature – “ an intermediate place or state where souls await resurrection and final judgment”. Maybe paradise can be all of these things, it depends on what you wish to find there, be it judgement or resurrection, dissolution, or Eden. I like paradise and if I am to share it with wildlife and even darkness from time to time then that’s fine, so long as every once in a while I get to see the stars. But you know what I definitely need to get out more.