With so many dusty Kingfisher beer advertisements painted on the walls of Varkala town, it was odd that none of the shops sold beer. It was Christmas Eve and V and I had spent the last hour wandering around this small town in search of supplies. We had already purchased abundant chilli tapioca chips and plenty of cashews, but nothing remotely approaching a tipple. Was this actually a dry town, with no booze at all? If so, then the countless advertisements must be one hell of a prick-tease.
The town itself was wonderfully chaotic; the usual mess of cars, buses, trucks, rickshaws, people and animals dancing. It even hosted a vehicle graveyard at its heart, where derelict autos sat rusting and sprouting grass.
What it didn’t seem to have was a booze shop. We finished a circuit of town, confident that we had checked every general store. Most didn’t even have fridges, though we would have settled for something warm if necessary. Not because we are desperate alcoholics, but it was, after all, Christmas Eve, and we had just arrived in Kerala from Singapore the night before. This was a time for celebration.
Kerala, on the south west coast of India, has a large Christian population and Christmas is a popular holiday. Driving in the taxi from Thiruvananthapuram to Varkala Beach at midnight the night previous, we had passed a number of small churches, many hung with colourful, illuminated stars. These stars, with light-holes patterned like snowflakes, were strung between trees and hung from houses and shopfronts; a pretty adornment in the roadside dark.
Our arrival had seemed inauspicious – being overcharged by the taxi driver and then arriving to find a very disappointing room at palatial prices. It had taken some getting as well – with V diligently phoning everyone in two guidebooks from Changi before finally making a hit at just under 100 dollars – almost unheard of for India. The room itself was in no way superior to those for which I’d paid ten dollars in the past, and we fell into a glum mood – the product of a long and tiring day as much as anything else. My first moonlit glimpse of the Arabian Sea, however, standing atop the cliff at the back of the property, offered welcome relief and the hope that things would turn out well. The long reflection of the moon was a bridge between continents; pointing the way to the Arabian Peninsula; the salty warmth it radiated was evocative of the ancient spice trade, and the Roman historian in me saw their fleets snaking down the coast.
The following morning we set off early for the beach. We had reserved a nicer room with a view over the phone, but were concerned about the cost and decided to check with other hotels closer to the main beach. At the back of the hotel was a lumpy, well-watered lawn with scattered palms, leading to the rocky cliffs. Here, a stone-cut staircase zig-zagged down to long stretch of sand curving down the coast. To the south the view was lost in the hazy headland, while to the north, past the hotels, the red cliffs dwindled into a forest of tilting palms. It was an unfamiliar and exotic landscape.
The beach was largely empty – just a couple of tourists doing yoga and an Indian runner, sprinting with light feet along the sand. Until this point I had been half asleep, yet, as the runner approached me I felt a sudden surge of opportunity, whipped off the lens cap and started firing. As he passed and receded down the beach, my excitement rapidly grew. How delicious it was to be back in India, where almost everything is worth photographing.
The beach just below our hotel was connected to the main beach by a narrow strip of rocky sand that took some negotiating. Dodging the incoming waves proved a pleasant game and, when I reached the other side, having been liberally splashed, I was in a great mood of expectation. Here a number of rituals were taking place. Men in white cloth were making offerings to the sea – turning their backs and throwing in flowers and rice. A priest sat on a carpeted mound of sand, surrounded by onlookers and with an elderly couple kneeling before him. There were fishermen too –some repairing nets, others out riding long, narrow, tapered punts, and some giving rides to tourists. It was not crowded, but it was lively. The morning sunshine was warm, without being too fierce. It was difficult not to photograph everything.
This was where the road from Varkala town hit the beach. The town proper was a few kilometres away and, at the end of the road, which spilled into a natural cut between the cliffs, there was a collection of small shops.
An open-decked two-storey restaurant built of palm trees sat right on the beach front before the trodden dunes. We walked behind this and followed the path that led up along the cliffs. Soon we were on the main tourist drag – a narrow road lined with hotels and shops, mostly selling souvenirs, clothing and the like, snaking along the front of the cliffs.
V and I walked slowly, admiring the elevated views of the beach and ocean. We wandered into all the hotels, asking about rooms. There were many to choose from, with a variety of accommodation ranging from bamboo huts to more permanent and luxurious structures. It took us roughly an hour to reach the end of the strip, where the hotels dwindled into nothing. In the distance, amidst a forest of palms, the twin spires of a temple rose from the fronds.
We weighed up our options and made a tentative reservation at the place we thought most reasonable. Everyone was charging ridiculous prices at Christmas, which put things more into perspective, and we were still tossing up the idea of taking the room we had reserved already from the airport, which we hadn’t actually seen yet. Needing breakfast and some time to think, we sat down at one of the tourist cafés for coffee and banana pancakes.
When we returned to our hotel and asked to see the room we had reserved, we were instantly inclined to take it. That we apologised and politely told the guy no, then, ten minutes later, changed our minds and apologetically said we would take the room, says something about the state of mind we were in – somewhat disoriented and indecisive. Once we checked in, we never looked back. It was a wonderfully light and clean, with cool tiles, a large white-sheeted bed, ceiling fan and balcony. The upper storey of a standalone structure, we also had access to the open roof. Now all we needed was a swim, some local grass for me, and then a trip to town to acquire alcohol. This was Christmas after all.
So it was that two hours later we found ourselves wandering through Varkala town in search of booze. We were on the brink of quitting, having already doubled back for a second look. Standing on the road that led back to the beach, looking to flag an auto-rickshaw, V caught a glimpse of some frantic activity down a narrow side street.
“What’s going on up there?”
“I don’t know, but it looks busy.”
We could see a truck parked at the end of the lane, and through the narrow space beside it, a queue of men was visible. A moment later a man emerged from the lane, carrying a plastic bag. From the bag came the clink of bottles and, like a pair of desperados, we were over the road in a flash.
As we walked up the rocky lane, past a couple of women begging with their children, the sounds of excited activity grew. We rounded the truck and came upon a most remarkable scene; a crowd of eager men, lined up before a wire-meshed shop front, waving pieces of flimsy paper. Here, so the battered old sign read, was the Kerala State Beverage Corporation, and from behind the thick wire grill, men were handing over bottle after bottle of alcohol. From the back of the truck, a couple of wiry workers were unloading crates full of booze and passing them into the store.
The men in the queue were mostly old, with worn and leathery faces; many with white hair and beards in contrast to their deeply dark skin. They had an almost desperate, unsettling eagerness in their faces – the eyes of addicts. They were patient, but determined, standing so close in the queue that they pressed against each other. V and I stood back and watched, too timid and uncertain as to how this all worked. What was truly extraordinary was how they were paying for the booze. None of the men were handing over money – all of them had some kind of paper permit – a ration card perhaps? My limited knowledge of Kerala included the fact that it was the only state in the world to have democratically elected a communist government. Was there still a communist government in Kerala? Was this some kind of regular allocation or allowance? Had they been paid in booze for something? Had they purchased the permits or received them in exchange for something else? Was this related to the Christmas holiday or a regular occurrence?
I was hopelessly ignorant, but the scene was suggestive of so many things. We stood and watched for five minutes, quietly fascinated. My thoughts soon turned to the social implications of this scene. Was alcoholism a problem in Kerala? What percentage of these men’s wages were going on the alcohol? Could they really afford it? What were the moral implications? Domestic violence, abuse, neglect? Or was this just the rare chance for these hardworking men to relax and let go in a challenging life? Unlike the men selling the alcohol, none of these people looked wealthy; their worn features and lean bodies spoke of a life of physical toil.
V and I stood dumbstruck – not wanting to plunge into the mayhem until we knew exactly what was going on. There were a couple of other westerners hanging about, who seemed to know what they were doing. Seeing us standing there so indecisively, a Dutch woman soon approached us. “You can go to the front, you know” she said. “If you are paying in cash it’s okay. Just go to the counter, this side.”
Still we hesitated. What did we want, anyway? On the wall was a list of prices – all stupidly cheap. For six large Kingfishers and a bottle of rum it would set us back eight Australian dollars. The cost was immaterial and it was really a question of how much we were likely to drink over the next two days. After another minute or two spent watching the weathered faces, the quiet desperation, the tired old counter and the men unloading the truck, we finally drummed up the courage to approach the counter, feeling guilty that our money let us jump the queue.
A moment later we were crouched in the lane, stuffing bottles into our bags. Still pondering the many possibilities of what we had witnessed, I went and gave some money to the begging women, a small gesture to ease my conscience. As we sped back to the beach in an auto-rickshaw, talking keenly about all this, our thoughts began to shift back to self-indulgence. It’s Christmas, for god’s sake, we reminded ourselves for the umpteenth time.
Christmas itself proved a splendid day; a lot of swimming, a lot of friendly exchanges with locals and other tourists, a lot of drinking, smoking and eating. The cliff-top strip was buzzing with travellers, both local and foreign, and down on the beach, many Indian families were letting go and enjoying themselves. It was lovely to see Indian people in a festive mood and to see the way they interacted with both the foreigners and the beach itself. Most of the women remained completely clothed, while the men happily stripped down to briefs and plunged into the water. Many of the men were drunk, walking arm in arm and offering endless cheery greetings as they passed.
Despite the clear, almost shocking contrast between European women sunbathing topless or lounging in bikinis, and the very properly dressed Indian women, there seemed no displeasure between the two groups – no sense of outrage or offense. Perhaps it is the nature of Varkala Beach, which seems well-used to western exhibitionism, or perhaps it was the sense of liberation that comes with a public holiday, but either way, there was harmony right along the beach.
That evening, having watched a snake-charmer and a blind woman with a heartrendingly beautiful voice singing Bollywood songs on the beach, we decided to try the palm-built restaurant. Sitting upstairs at the front, we could see and hear the constant plash of the waves stroking the beach. Downstairs, the restaurant displayed its daily catch – a collection dominated by a magnificent king fish. It was this that we ordered – the kingfish masala, along with another fish curry. We had come to Kerala in search of hot, sour fish curries, but never could we have expected anything to taste as good as this. It was a veritable foodgasm – large, succulent, tender chunks of kingfish, cooked to perfection in a mind-blowing masala. Never in my life have I made so many exclamatory remarks about the quality of a dish, and despite several equally knock-out fish curries we were to eat in the coming weeks, we always came back to this one. When the meal was done and we sat back stuffed and drunk, feeling the salty warmth roll in off the Arabian Sea, it was hard not to feel that this was the best bloody Christmas ever.