On this first morning I understood that by walking I had left one India and I was visiting another. In comparison to the taunting, bustling towns and cities, the coastal villages are silent places. Standing on a beach front village I am thinking – where is the strong Indian desire for the impact of modernity at any cost?
Here, on the coast it no longer seemed India’s priority.
Here, in the coastal villages between the palm trees, they carry on with the work of their forefathers. It is possible to admire this rotation of life from father to son, as I had with the boat builders.
The coastal villages are lucky, they have the expanding sea as a village green. It is all theirs.
The old fishermen with long white professor moustaches and old deep eyes set in sagging pits, help the younger, bulkier, quicker men fix broken nets, but they always glance at the old-time sea. They reminisce their stories together – because there are done and retired – but I can see romance and respect for the big bright blue sea they have passed on to their sons.
And it was in this village as I joined the old men gazing out to sea I was to have my first rest. I don’t know the name of the village, I am sure it has a name, and I don’t know how many kilometres I had walked. But the first chai, well what is there to say about the first chai? Immediately my feet were refreshed and when my feet no longer ache the afternoon walk becomes inviting once more.
I told the inquisitive fishermen I was from England. I asked the way to Vijayapati. It took some variations with the pronunciation until one of the ‘younger’ old men reeled backwards with amusement and understanding and corrected me. They all laughed with a crackle, some pointing along the beach, some pointing towards the road turning inland. I pointed to where the sand is chiselled by the horizon to a spike. Some waved their hands in front of me and shook their heads with a serious manner – no – no! Others nodded their heads in agreement and waved their hands forward towards the beach. I am not sure why old men disagreed with old men. Was there a river or a creek which would stop my passage and they disputed its depth?
During this commotion children gathered to see the stranger, giggled together and ran away.
One of the younger men showed off his English by talking gibberish. I talked back as if we were in conversation; the young man did not lose face. It was harmless and he shook my hand and would not let go. It was time to leave.
I am not sure which of the old men was right and who was wrong. Before the horizon I found and followed a foot path which turned inland. It was an enticing flat path, (the beach can become hard when the sands are at an angle) with purple flowers growing on the verge and with palm trees stretching far away. The path took me into quiet, clean villages with small churches at their centre. One priest telling me about his time in Birmingham. ‘Edgbaston, do you know Edgbaston sir?’
I said I did. ‘The rich man’s Birmingham.’
He nodded his agreement. ‘Oh yes sir, very rich.’ He was pleased. ‘I stayed two months. Oh yes sir, it was a very good time. 1991.’
‘To train as a priest?’ I asked as I walked about the minister’s small clean church.
‘Bible study, to study the bible.’ He nodded his head with a titch, looking up at me, for he was a short man of plump build in his middle years, with compassionate eyes; I saw they beheld discrimination. ‘Do you know what I mean?’
I said I did and he excused himself saying ‘I have a parishioner to meet sir. Christians. Please carry on looking. Goodbye.’ He left me in the church. I did not stay long.
Fortunately, the road was quiet. It was not on the map and only served the odd village along the seashore. A number of cars, bikes and rickshaws stopped to ask, ‘where you go?’ They were not convinced when I explained. They all replied – ‘yes, Vijayapati is on our way, jump in,’ – pleased to be helping a misplaced foreigner – and then I refused!
‘Why you walk?’ I know they were thinking I was a mad man. I wanted to say I am a pilgrim, because in India pilgrims walk together in their thousands to temples to celebrate at a festival to Rama or Parvati or Kali, dressed in saffron robes, ash-smeared, hair dyed, swinging smouldering lamps, charting and singing as one chorus, still managing to hold a corner of a God statue they cart kilometre after kilometre on their shoulder – the pain and the monotony an important part of the ritual.
I was doing none of these things. I was a westerner walking on my own who was not behind fast moving glass and steel. Oh, how strange their looks became. I did not try to explain anymore and carried on walking.