Sometimes a place speaks to you so loudly you have no choice but listen.
It’s August, start of monsoon season in South India when the rains come and the tourists stay away. The strip along the cliffs of Varkala feels a bit like a ghost town. Many guesthouses and businesses are closed and there is a heart wrenching desperation in the way shop owners plead with passerbys to consider their wares.
We arrive with no set accommodation, only a plan to walk the path hugging the contours of the cliffs until a place and price catches our eye. No more than ten steps later we are stopped by a man dressed in a patterned dress shirt and traditional white loincloth known as a dhoti. He fiddles with the long ends of the cloth, tucking and re-tucking them into his waistband until it is the desired length.
“You looking for a guesthouse?” he asks, no doubt tipped off by the 60 L packs strapped to our backs.
We were, of course, but our defenses were up and we had been conditioned to approach every tout with a healthy amount of skepticism. “Take a look only. Looking is free,” he continues, sealing the offer with my favourite Indian gesture, the reassuring head wiggle. I peer down the narrow lane to receive my free look. Painted bright turquoise with an orange trim, his guesthouse stood out like the eye-catching sarees that dot the street. “Sure, why not,” I agree, shooting my partner an apologetic look for breaking so easily.
We follow him up a small flight of stairs to the second floor. The room was modest but clean. A large ceiling fan worked overtime to keep the room at an inhabitable temperature and the bathroom was tiled an unfortunate shade of bubblegum pink. The real selling point was the tiny walk out balcony with its two wicker chairs facing a million dollar view of the sea. I breathed in the sea salt and imagined letting the ocean sing us to sleep. “We’ll take it,” I said.
The waves of Varkala crash relentlessly into the rocks, creating a thick froth that reminds me of good chai tea when it is poured from dizzying heights. They are the angriest and most confused waves I have ever seen, sometimes rolling in straight to shore and other times crisscrossing into each other to create a monster wall of water. It was the waves of Varkala that played the leading character in this tiny oceanside town, that is, until we meet Adithya.
The landlord’s twelve-year old son and namesake to the guesthouse is standing in the narrow lane dressed in a perfectly pressed pair of royal blue trousers, matching dress shirt and clunky black oxfords. His front teeth look like two white Chiclets, sticking out slightly when he smiles.
We ask Adithya about school, his favourite subject and weekend activities. His big, brown eyes light up as he talks to us about science, football and his badminton team (he is the Captain, after all). When we ask his mother about the sign advertising bicycles for hire, it is Adithya who interjects with his best salesman voice, “Ah yes, come this way!” leading us along the side of the guesthouse. The mountain bike is twice his size and covered nearly top to bottom in same red earth of the nearby cliffs. Adithya proudly tells us that this is his bike for rent, and that it works perfectly (minus the broken break). “For you, twenty rupees for one hour!” he offers, imitating his father’s disarming head wiggle but with a much cheekier smile.
The next time we meet Adithya, we are saying our goodbyes. It is evening and we are venturing out once more for some spicy Kerala-style seafood and Kingfisher beer at one of the nearby restaurants overlooking the cliffs. I ask Adithya what he did at school that day. “Football,” he replies. We all laugh and tease him, “No studying, Adithya? What else do you practice at school?”
“I play the violin,” he responds enthusiastically, “would you like to hear?”
Once again we are following a bouncing Adithya around the side of the guesthouse, but this time he beckons us into his room. A large bed takes up most of the space, and from under it he produces a worn, black case.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Adithya begins to play us his scales, pausing after each one as we applaud. For the finale he treats us to a squeaky rendition of India’s National anthem. His mother sings along quietly, almost whispering the words while swaying to the music to the time of the waves crashing on the cliffs outside.
Sometimes a place speaks to you so loudly you have no choice but listen – and sometimes, when you do, it can be music to your ears.