A professor of computer science at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, Kamal Lodaya was an editor of the children’s science magazine Jantar Mantar in the 1990’s. Kamal occasionally writes stories for English and Gujarati magazines.
I first saw him at breakfast, I remember, but only in the non-specific way one sees other residents at a hotel. Someone sitting at a table and eating his food. I thnk he stood out a shade darker in the row of faces at the tables. Any way, I can’t claim I registered him as anything more than a blur in my consciousness. I was busy worrying about where the nearest filling station was. The day’s travel was uncertain and might turn out to be long. I decided to ask the proprietress, went around looking for her and finally discovered her laughing with some old fogy in a corner of the dining room. Armed with directions, I paid and took off.
Something went wrong that morning. A vague unease swept over me as I drove through the countryside under the gently rising autumn sun. I could not quite place why.
“You must find this country rather boring,” he told me that afternoon, as we swept through the flat scape. “No ups and downs, roads moving inn straight lines, all of them excellently paved, with several lanes for a traffic which does not exist. Quite a change from what you must be used to.”
I remembered then my inarticulate thoughts of the morning. It is extraordinary how, sometimes, some one who does not know you at all can succeed in saying out your innermost feelings. Does it require a similarity in chemistry, or is it pure chance? How can a stranger know the way you feel about something like roads?
We got together on the ferry. I saw him leaning over the rail watching the water go by. I stepped out from my car and sauntered along the deck feeling the breeze. I located him in my memory and wondered if I should indicate recognition. He looked at me but did not say anything. I knew that he had recognized me by the way his brow clouded over and then cleared.
Was it that that did the chemistry: the refusal to take advantage of an opportunity? Or am I just appending fancy names to the simple fact of my boredom? For it is true that I was so damned bored that I thought I would be glad of any company.
“I guess I expected much more variety,” I commented. But he did not understand that. I tried telling him how I had spent the past week in the North and thoroughly enjoyed it. “Amsterdam was fascinating …”
“Yes, a lovely city, …” he interjected, then stopped as I continued. “… And the small towns and villages that I have seen and stayed at have all been charming. It is just as I imagined it from my tourist guide book.”
We discussed guide books for a while. I recommended mine. I was quite pleased the way Holland matched the expectations it had built up. I told him how I wanted to see some of the South and had begun this morning.
“But here, you just have” – I spread out the palm of my non-driving hand to try to express some of my disappointment – “flat fields! Even the rivers are quite placid for my taste.”
“One does get bored of a country after a time, doesn’t one,” he murmured. I glanced out of the corner of my eye, but he didn’t seem to be sarcastic. It is so difficult to tell with a foreigner.
“Your country must be more interesting,” I said politely. Adding, as he shrugged his shoulders, “I am positive it will have more variety than this.”
“Well, it is the largeness that lends more variety … travelling a few hundred kilometres is equally boring.” He added with a laugh, “You don’t have time to get bored driving: you’re too busy watching the road … our roads are awful. Is this your car?”
“And why do you like wandering around Holland in a rented car? Is it something you have been looking forward to very much?”
Memories of that stupid bloody job swept over me. Always attentive, always servile, always bored. All the time thinking how to get myself out of aspirins and analgesics and antibiotics. And Boucher strutting round, sitting on his fat arse giving orders, making passes. The lure of all those KLM ads on TV had always been there.
But I quickly recalled myself to my senses. One does not tell these things to a guy one hardly knows. I decided to stick to cliches. That way one does not hurt any feelings and gives little away.
“Is not this a nice way of seeing a country, by driving around it? To really get to see the people and not just the places.”
He still looked puzzled and I tried to remember something which could make him understand. I remembered the village with wooden shoes. “…And there they wear wooden shoes still. You can only find such unspoilt things by accident.”
He muttered something that sounded like “wooden shoes and metalled roads.”
I wondered a bit about him, as I had done since I met him on the ferry.
“You do not seem very happy with Holland,” I probed.
“Oh, I didn’t say that,” he exclaimed. Then, changing the subject quickly, “How long were you in the hotel?”
“Just the night.”
“Ah, me too.”
I remembered the interest in those jet-black eyes as I came up near him and leant on the rail.
“Hello,” I had said, conventionally.
“You were at the hotel,” he smiled at me. I nodded. His smile was a sort of quizzical twitch of the lips which creased
up his whole face into a gesture of warmth for a split second and then vanished again into bleakness. Even now I have to admit there was something innocent about his smile. It is as a child might smile, pleased at its own knowledge.
He seemed to know my country very well, although he had never been there. He knew which lake my town was on, solething my countrymen have to take themselves back to their school geography to remember. I was impressed. His English was very good and the accent very proper like they have in the BBC broadcasts. He knew some French, again with a correct accent – much better, at least, than most Englishmen.
He knew about cars, and I asked him which car he had. He was horrorstruck. “A car! I am a student and my parents are not rich.”
“Have you done a lot of driving then?”
“No, I have never learnt driving. I just observe people driving.”
“Do people give you lifts?” That was one for the road.
“Rarely,” he reparteed, “and beautiful women – never.” And the smile flashed out at me. We laughed.
He knew how to read maps. Combining that with driving is something I am not successful at. From the moment he saw me fumbling with the object, he took it from me and read out directions. And he didn’t make the mistake of failing to warn me in advance. His pronunciations of Dutch names always seemed more plausible than mine. Oh, he was a smart guy all right.
We lost ourselves only once. I was feeling like a burst of speed and took the car into a small country road winding through trees. “I’m sure this is wrong,” he said, looking at the map, upset, as if he was to blame.
“How does it matter?” I reassured him. “This is far more pleasant than the highway. Let us see where we get to.”
We travelled through a small cobbled town with one of those little churches. The road ended at a big car park.
“There’s a food joint. We can at least have some lunch.” He was beginning to look a bit more cheerful now.
We locked the car and started walking to the snack bar. I saw a hillock to my left and suggested we climb up there.
“Anything to get rid of flatness,” he said slyly. “After lunch?” he asked, rubbing his hands as we stepped into the cafe.
The food was not great, but I did not care. He seemed more unhappy. Sitting on the bench later, he kept grumbling
about the Western world’s tendencies to be satisfied with sandwiches.
“It is not good to eat too much,” I said.
He laughed then, with that snort that made me think of a horse.
“What is so funny?” I asked, annoyed.
“Nothing,” he said, but kept on chuckling. I punched him in the ribs. He choked, then started talking.
“The amount of food that is eaten here. The amount of food that is wasted. I feel ashamed of myself the way I eat here. It would be inconceivable for you to eat a meal without meat. We think it’s a luxury to have meat now and then…”
He saw my face changing and stopped himself. “But let me not lecture about these things.” I saw him hunt around for a different topic of conversation. “When do you think shall we reach the delta?”
That was another thing that impressed me. So few people seem to have the capability to realize when they are being boring.
On the ferry, he had told me about this exhibition some place down south in the Rhine delta. It did not sound very fascinating, but I was bored and thought I could do with the company, and I offered to drive him there.
“Won’t it be too much trouble for you?” he had asked, and I convinced him and myself it would not be.
We climbed the hillock after lunch. A breeze sprang up around us, growing stronger as we neared the top. The tang of sea became evident and, as we stepped over the last ledge, we saw the sand slowly sloping downwards onto a white beach lapped by the waves. “Oo la la,” I said softly. I have always been fond of the sea.
“Come,” he took my hand. There was a thrill in his voice. We charged down the slope to the water, the strong wind blossoming our clothes into balloons.
Although the car park had looked pretty full, there was almost no one on the beach. Where would people go to in this place? To the little church?
We sat there talking with a comfortable ease. He sat sipping at the beer can he had got from the cafe. I wished I had got one. I hoped he would offer me some, but he did not. He put his arm around me as we walked on the beach talking of European social structures.
He seemed to find strange the ‘European’ notion of privacy. Apparently, in his country, you might find out that what you thought was a private conversation with someone may not really be considered private. Your correspond might cheerfully narrate it to someone you thought had no right to know.
“Because once you have confidence in the discretion of the person you talk to, you should respect his right to divulge it.”
The other thing which I could not make sense of was that it is perfectly normal for people to walk into each others’ houses any time during the day or night.
“Would not you think of leaving a couple living together alone?”
“Ah, we don’t have so many divorces.”
I failed to see any connection.
“So a couple – as you call it,” he sounded as though he was touching a scorpion, “they stay together for life. They have enough time to themselves.”
I could not quite justify the logic. But that started us off on relationships. “Talking like this to a woman is simply not possible,” he explained. “The woman would never take my conversation as lightly as you can do. She would wonder what the hell I was leading up to.”
Why did not I wonder what the hell he was leading up to? At that moment, I was thinking of how much better this was than driving around this flatland all alone. I had a nebulous idea of preserving the moment. I dived into my handbag and pulled out my little camera.
That is all I have left now. He is taller than me. His complexion he described as wheatish – and laughed at my look of bewilderment. Sitting on the bench, this unknown young man whom I shall never meet again smiles up at me as he lights his cigarette.
As we walked back to the car park I asked someone to take a picture of us. He took a couple of shots, handed back the camera looked quizzically at me and asked, “How did he manage to pick you up?”
I flushed and turned. His lips had drawn back from the smile to show a hint of teeth. His face was devoid of colour. I managed to look away quickly.
“Let’s go,” he said. The sweat glistened on his face.
There were clouds brewing as we drove on. I was feeling uneasy as we reached the exhibition. It was in a godforsaken place miles from anywhere, reached by a small side road ploughing through acres of marsh land. I tried talking as I drove, but he replied in monosyllables, or worse, cut me off. I decided I would drop him at the delta and move on.
“How keen are you on this exhibition?” he asked, his hand on my shoulder.
I was wary, “Not very.”
“What do you say if we forget about it then?”
Why had this man given me all the bullshit about the exhibition then? I made sure my eyebrows rose.
“But this was what you had planned out for the day.”
“That is what I thought in the morning,” he admitted. “But I am not feeling up to it now.”
I had liked to believe that I had taken the decision to let this guy hang around me. It was disconcerting to see the tables turned.
“You must be thinking what a fool I am, making you drive around like this. But honestly, I didn’t think of this until now. It’s going to be no fun going around the delta if is starts raining. Why don’t we turn around and head for some decent town where we can have a drink and dinner?”
I did not know what to say, there were too many thoughts in my mind.
“I really apologize,” he said, taking my hands in his, “you don’t mind if I come with you, do you?”
I stammered a reply, staring hard at the whiteness of my hand in his.
“Where do you intend to stay?”
I could have bitten off my tongue. The cruel smile flitted over his face.
“I don’t know. There must be a hotel somewhere. You don’t mind my piling onto you like this?”
Every word sounded sincere, but every event was capable of a more calculative interpretation. I wished, then, that he was not a foreigner. If our cultures were the same, I could have read the situation correctly.
As we drove back, the flirtatious conversations of the afternoon had turned into a stilted, harsh silence in the failing light. He seemed to sense my coldness and withdrew further into his shell. I wondered if this was a ploy.
The storm faded away as fast as it had appeared and an evening sun shone out from behind the clouds. I drove up an approach leading up to a long dyke. Below the embankment nestled a pretty little town.
“This looks like a decent place,” he said immediately. Had he noticed the glow on my face? “There should be a hotel somewhere.”
“Okay,” I said helplessly.
It took a while to find a hotel, but there was a nice one reached by a narrow driveway bounded on one side by the
sea. He looked almost cheerful now. Then he said what I had been dreading.
“I think I will also stay here. I can take a bus tomorrow.”
He must have noticed my anxiety.
“Shall I move off, then? Do you feel you have had enough of me?” He laughed that laugh of his, innocent, frank. How does one answer these questions?
“I would be happy to have some company.”
He murmured self-deprecatingly, “Maybe you’ll find someone more interesting to talk to in the hotel.”
“What nonsense,” I summoned my reserves of self-righteousness. “I could never have imagined someone from your country would be so interesting to talk to.”
“Ah, someone from my country.” He showed his teeth again.
The hotel proprietress was a busy little woman, sizing us up, showing us rooms, quoting rates, taking us to the restaurant. Here eyes darted to each of us in sharp succession.
“Two single rooms,” I said quickly. Too quickly. His teeth came out again, the lips curled upwards and the mouth exploded into a laugh – the snort of a horse. There was irony in that face and something else I could not fathom.
I knew then that I had to do what I did. I immediately offered to pay for a night and made out the sum from my purse. He also checked in and we went to the car. He took out his bag. I asked the woman about a filling station.
“Shall I come?” he asked solicitously.
“No,” I said shortly, “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
I stepped on the gas. I had to get to a town with a hotel before it got too late. It was raining and the tail-lights of cars glistened in front of me, heading towards the North.