copyright by Morgan McFinn
Chink Chink . . . Ching Ching
s any good farmer knows, it is necessary to rotate the crops every so often in order to preserve the fertility of the soil. The same principal applies to that bit of soil beneath the skull, and so it is that I feel compelled to periodically uproot myself from the Garden of Samui.
Or would it be more accurate to say that I am uprooting Samui from the garden of my mind?
Ah, these profound convolutions are so discombobulating . . . well, for me, anyway.
Maybe I need more mental peat moss.
Nevertheless, I’ve replanted myself in India, India in me, and so, here I am for a while.
Let’s see what crops up….
Mamallapuram was originally established as a seaport by the emperor Mahendra Varman of the Pallava dynasty during the seventh century—and should not be confused with a small, family-owned Italian restaurant on the South Side of Chicago by the name of Mama La Pasta. However, both places do serve fresh fish.
Mamallapuram is a little village located along the Bay of Bengal, just south of Madras, and is renowned for its temples and monuments hewn out of solid rock. Hewn is a word I copied from a guidebook, but chiseled, cut, carved, and sculpted all mean pretty much the same thing. Basically, what’s involved is banging—and Indians are the most relentless bangers I have ever observed.
An Indian with a hammer in his hand is an Indian with a purpose, and they can be damn clever. They don’t need sophisticated automatic machinery or even calipers and micrometers. Just give them a hammer and chisel, a block of wood or stone, and then leave them alone for a while . . . say maybe a hundred years or so. Sooner or later there will be a temple, a monument, a statue, or—on short notice—a beautiful pendant to hang around your neck.
Train stations in India seem to be the training grounds for apprentice bangers, which may be one reason they are called train stations. This is where many Indians learn how to wield a hammer without the bother of having to create anything other than noise. They are given a hammer, they find a stretch of rail that isn’t occupied by a boxcar or a beggar, and they simply start banging away.
Over time, some of these novices become frustrated by the frequency with which the hammerheads keep snapping off the shaft, so they place rocks on the rail and aim at them instead. You can actually make money in India by breaking rocks—approximately one dollar a day….
Unfortunately, once in a while, an aspiring sculptor will become so engrossed in this preliminary hewing process, that he will fail to notice an oncoming mail train from Bombay, or wherever, and end up with his hand around the hammer while the rest of him is writhing in agony several meters away.
At that point, the wound is cauterized and the fellow trades in his hammer for a tin cup.
"Beggars can make some good money," said Kumar.
"More than stone breakers?" I asked.
"Oh yes. A clever beggar can make more money than most of these rock sculptors in Mamallapuram."
"Then why be a rock sculptor?"
"Because beggars are crippled and rock sculptors aren't."
That made sense to me.
Kumar is the day manager of the Mamale Bhavan Lodge in downtown Mamallapuram. I had checked in there late one afternoon, and following a shower and a short nap, I inquired as to where I could purchase a bottle of scotch. Kumar directed me to a shop across the street and recommended McDowell's scotch.
Acquiring the scotch was no problem, but the liquor store didn’t sell soda.
"No soda here, sir. Up the street. Cool Bar sell soda."
So I walked up the street to the Cool Bar and asked for two cold sodas. Neither of the sodas I was given was cold. One was warm and the other was not quite so warm.
"You have any cold sodas?" I asked.
"Only have one cold soda, sir. The rest are warm."
"Well, these are both warm."
"No, sir. One of them is cold."
"No, this isn't cold."
"Well, it's cool, sir. The rest are warm."
"I’d like two cold sodas."
"Just a moment sir. I go to my friend's shop. One moment please."
Off he went around the corner and I stood there reminding myself that I was in India.
"Here you are, sir. One more cold soda."
"This isn't cold either."
"Well, it's not warm either, too."
The fellow had a point there. "You're right," I agreed. "It's cool, isn't it?"
"Jolly good, sir."
"I suppose that's why this place is called a cool bar and not a cold bar."
"No cold bars in Mamallapuram, sir."
When he put the two bottles in a plastic bag, the bag broke. The bottles fell to the floor and shattered.
"Very sorry, sir. Very sorry. One moment please."
He ran around the corner again and came back empty handed.
"No more cool sodas, sir. So sorry."
I snapped the cap off the bottle of scotch, took a swig, and offered some to the shopkeeper.
"Very kind of you, sir, but no thank you."
"Two bottles of soda, please."
"Very good, sir"
He then proceeded to remove several rolls of toilet paper out of their plastic sheathing and put two bottles of soda inside.
"This is strong plastic, sir. It won't break."
"Anything else, sir?"
"No, just the soda."
"How about some toilet paper?”
"See you later, pal."
As a rule, Indians are very courteous people, so even though it can be absolutely maddening to deal with them, you still feel obliged to maintain a civil degree of equanimity. I believe that they genuinely want to please. I also believe it’s a very good idea, while traveling around India, that one should never be more than ten minutes away from the nearest bottle of scotch.
After dinner I went to the lobby and asked Kumar if he would like to join me for a drink. He said his shift ended shortly and invited me over to his house.
The Kumar residence was a basic rectangular, one-story, two-bedroom house made of stone. Of course, nearly everything in Mamallapuram is made of stone. Kumar shared the place with the hotel bellhop and two waiters from the restaurant. We drank something called Bagpiper whiskey mixed with water—warm water.
"You got anything cold in this town?" I asked.
"Well," said Kumar, "the stones get cold at night, and the women are cold most of the time."
Written across the back label on the bottle of whiskey was, LIQUOR RUINS COUNTRY, FAMILY, AND LIFE.
The bellhop said that without liquor—country, family, and life would be awfully damn intolerable. The rest of them agreed and we passed the bottle around.
They asked me if I liked movies and I said sure, some of them. Those fellows seemed to know most of the top American films and actors going back fifty years. We talked about Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, and—surprisingly—Bob Hope. They all liked Bob Hope, but said they’d rather meet Bo Derek.
"What do you guys do for sex around this place?" I asked
"We drink whiskey and go to movies," said Dennis, one of the waiters.
"That's what you do for sex?"
"Well, it's not exactly like having sex, but it's as close as we can get without having trouble.
"Marriage is trouble?"
"You married?" asked Dennis.
"Once. Long time ago."
"Too much trouble."
"Exactly. Better to go to the movies."
"And drink whiskey," said Kumar.
"Here's to country, family, and life," said the bellhop.
Next day it rained. Still, the stonemasons kept banging away.
I went down to the lobby around noon. Kumar had the bellhop fetch me a pot of tea and an old copy of Asiaweek magazine. One of the stories was about the Miss World beauty pageant held in Hyderabad several years ago. According to the magazine, there was a lot of opposition to this event.
"Crazy feminists," said Kumar. "Indian films are full of sexy-looking women, but these protesters didn't want the outside world to think India would stoop to staging a beauty contest with girls in bathing suits. It's so hypocritical."
I said I thought the Miss World pageant could be a good showcase for India. It could highlight the country's culture and history—sort of promote the place for international tourism.
"Could do," Kumar said. "But a small group of people got nothing better to do than make a stink about it."
"Says here, a few of these people threatened to set fire to themselves if the government didn't step in and stop the pageant."
"Crazy, huh? Oh well, this is India. Very crazy place. What you doing here anyway? Just traveling around?"
“Traveling around, visa runs . . .”
"Must be nice to move from country to country like that. You rich?"
"What do you do?"
"You're a writer. Most beggars make more money than the only two writers I know."
I spent the afternoon sitting in a chair outside my room on the second-floor terrace doing absolutely nothing. I heard the chink chink of chisels against granite.
It continued to rain on and off. Every time it stopped raining, a young man would dry off the hotel taxi. It usually took about twenty minutes for him to do this, and shortly thereafter it would start raining again. He must have dried off that taxi seven or eight times during the afternoon. That was his job, I figured. It rains, taxi gets wet, it stops raining, you dry off the damn taxi.
Later, I asked Kumar what the fellow did in the dry season.
"In the dry season," said Kumar, "he wipes the dust off the taxi. He prefers the rainy season."
I was rather envying the fellow for the fact that he, at least, had some purpose—menial as it may have been—while I was spoiled into a state of exasperating idleness. I wondered if he spent his time during downpours daydreaming about being a relatively well-to-do laggard such as my sorry self.
Sustenance is no longer a struggle for me. Food, clothing, and shelter are no further away than the back pocket of my trousers. In fact, if I put the money in my shirt pocket, I’d have no reason at all to get up off my ass.
Next day I said goodbye to Kumar and the bellhop and Dennis and the other waiter who never said much.
"You ever get tired of the constant banging of the stonemasons?" I asked Kumar.
"You mean the ching, ching, ching?"
"I thought it was more like chink, chink, chink."
"Ching, ching . . . chink, chink . . . no, I'm used to it. Like the birds singing. Like maybe you get used to the rat-tat-tat of the typewriter when you're working."
I told him I didn’t use a typewriter.
“What do you write with, a pen?”
“Yeah, a ballpoint Bic.”
“Well, that’s kind of like a chisel, isn’t it?”
“Kind of, I suppose.”
“A stone cutter chisels granite or marble to make a statue.”
“What do you chisel to make a story?”
“Of what I perceive in the world around me.”
“And the world within you?”
“Yes, there too. Maybe more so.”
“In your heart?”
“I’ve plenty of rocks in my head, as well.”
“Ching, ching, my friend.”
“Chink, chink, pal.”