You go to Agra for the Taj. Paris, for that tower, what's its name? Kenya, for safaris. Ladakh, for scenery. So what do you go to Thalassery and nearby Mahe for? Why would you go to these places?
Been mulling it over, because a genial sort who gave me brotta (oooh, brotta!) and spicy chicken curry for lunch one day at the Royal French Cafe in Mahe asked me.
Having been there, I have a slew of reasons, really. Here are some. The little STD place in Thalassery where I stop to make a call doubles as a watch showroom. It has several watches on display in the window. Very nice looking watches, too. Even though I remember the better judgement of my wife, who thinks I have altogether too many watches, I am tempted, so I take a closer look. Good thing I do, because every single watch is hands-free. Now I don't mean hands-free like those thingies that attach to cellphones, and I don't mean digital watches. I mean every single watch on display is missing its hour and minute hands. They look brand new, in cases and everything, but they have no hands.
Oh yeah, I want one of those. What's the time, honey? Time for whatever you want, dumpling.
Speaking of dumplings ... Down the road from the watch shop is Thalassery's heavily advertised "Barbiq'n" restaurant. According to the large beautifully produced signs all round the establishment, also all around town, also on the leaflets you can find lying in various places, "Barbiq'n" can offer you your choice of: "Broast, Barbiq, Tandoori, Grild, Kabsa, Hamoose, Porotta, Chappathi, Biryani, Goribsa and Filafil."
I'm spoiled for choice, I swear. I have a feeling one of these must be a dumpling, I have no idea which. But I also think that left to myself, I'll give "Goribsa" a miss, thank you. Possibly "Broast" as well.
The bus to Mahe leaves from the bus-stand just around the corner from this Hamoose and Goribsa joint. The conductor waves me on to it as if I'm a long lost friend - and given how many buses go to Mahe, and the need to attract every possible passenger who will pay a fare, perhaps I am like a long lost friend.
The bus drops me on one side of a bridge. I look across the river Mayyazhi and why do I know that's Mahe on the other side? I mean, I know, but what's the REAL giveaway? A cornucopia of signs. Signs that say "Corner Wines" and "Adarsh Wines" and "Indo-French Open Bar" and "Galaxy Bar" and "Casino Bar." And there's one place that dispenses with the need for names and cuts to the quick. "Bar", it says, simply.
Mahe is part of Pondicherry, and liquor is cheaper in Pondicherry, and like when you enter the other Pondicherry enclaves, there's liquor for sale on the border. Goooood Morniiing Mahe!
Besides, there's this other geographical oddity Mahe represents: it is a tiny enclave, firmly surrounded by Kerala, Malayalam speaking too -- really, it should be part of Kerala. Yet it is part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry, on the other side of the peninsula. And Pondicherry itself should really be part of Tamil Nadu, which it is surrounded by. So it's while I'm musing about these territorial peculiarities that I stroll onto Mahe's Beach Road. For some reason, there are plenty of painted slogans and messages. "Happy New Year 2003" and the like are prominent. Then there's this one in an unmistakable large white font: "BJP PIG PARTY". I look carefully to see whether that's really a "B". Nope, it's not "Big", it's very definitely "Pig." Who's getting their political ire out on Mahe's roads?
Beach Road is also lined with fishermen's homes, and ends in a little temple. Some kind of festival the day I wander through, because loud music blares from speakers inside the temple. And all along the road, beautifully shaped palm ornaments -- like "V"s hanging from a little pole -- are strung up.
A magical sight.
I stop a passing young man and ask, pointing to the ornaments, "what are these? He replies, "Ooru?" and then in English, "House?" He's asking me my "house", or in fact, where I come from. "Bombay", I say, then point to the ornaments and ask again, "What are these?" He looks puzzled, and says in English "Houses".
I give up. I walk on.
Stop at another STD place. This one has a sign that says "Mavely Institute of Calligraphy: Le Bon Handwriting, Improvement Training Programme." Nothing inside except the phone and a young woman. I want to ask her if she will improve my handwriting. Then I decide my writing cannot be improved in any circumstance, and certainly not during a phone call in Mahe. So I make my call and leave.
Back in Thalassery, I find myself watching an energetic football game. The players are doing the old shirts and skins thing that I remember from the days when I played basketball energetically. (As opposed to now, when I don't play it at all). This is how I come to know that the most energetic and skilful player, in two teams' worth of swift footballers, is a man whose belly resembles a beer keg. Gives me hope for when I next step on a playing field and lug my belly about.
He doesn't score, but he directs his team like a master, pointing here and there, placing pinpoint passes exactly where he points (though sometimes not, just to keep the shirts guessing). He also runs like crazy, often seeming to be all over the field. I don't stay long enough to know the final score, but in the time I'm there, the skins score twice. Almost as if he were conducting an orchestra en route to a splendid finale. Over on the other side of the field, some others play hockey that seems almost lackadaisical in comparison to the high-energy beer keg performance.
And at one end of the field, there's a basketball game on. I watch one sequence where a guy grabs a rebound at his end, dribbles up-court refusing to pass to any of his open teammates, finds his way right under the other basket with players all around, then makes a smart pass ... straight off the court into the bushes. Now that guy could have used the concert-master with the belly.
But I digress. This field is actually, and almost famously, the spot where cricket was first played in India -- yes sir, and that's Thalassery's claim to fame. The low building on the edge of the football game indicates as much: "Municipal Stadium. 200 years of Cricket Celebration. 31/3/2002."
Though there's no cricket on today, there's a strip in the centre of the ground that's reverently enclosed in blue plastic mesh strung up on poles. That's the pitch, though it sports the somewhat rundown air the rest of the field does.
Just outside, in a sadly overgrown and padlocked little patch of garden, is a magnificent black statue. Dr Hermann Gundert (1814-1898), hand placed on a lectern, looks sternly out and away from the ground that must have existed when he lived in this town. Maybe that stern look is an indication that he had no time for frivolities like cricket. This is the man, after all, who put together the first Malayalam dictionary. From behind him, I hear a shout of triumph. Someone's scored again. A spot-on pass from the concert-master, once again?
No doubt. I'm off to get me a beer.