All is not as you think
It’s morning, and I enjoy the last of the previous evening’s cool on the front verandah of Aloysius’s house. A squirrel positions herself upside down on the trunk of an almond tree and gnaws a hardened fruit so heartily that fragments of shell drop onto the ground like stones. Little black-and-white Indian robins bustle in the shrubs that wear a new layer of red dust from the blocks of laterite rock that has been delivered and cut in the front yard.
The sounds of nature dance with the sounds of village. One moment a jungle crow caws from a coconut tree, the next a palm broom sweeps a walk in brisk, wispy strokes. A neighbour’s worker begins another day of hacking away at the momentous stump of a banyen tree, and a bicycle vendor squeezes a bulb horn as he pedals to announce the arrival of whatever is inside the blue-tarped crate tied to his rear rack.
He stops in front of the house opposite ours and I watch their transaction carefully. Still too shy to stop the cyclist to ask what he’s selling myself (is it bread? fruit? fish?), I’ve taken to watching my Hindu neighbour.
Young, with a couple of girls that she’d carefully positioned on their father’s motorscooter and packed off (the little one in front of him, sitting on the tank; the older one behind, backpack bulging), today she reaches into the crate and pulls out a loaf of bread. Fresh-baked bread! Bicycle + blue tarp = baked goods, I note to myself. In a similar expercise half an hour later, I learn that bicycle + orange crate = seafood. I feel stupid but proud of my baby steps.
A third bicycle arrives, but it’s not selling anything. This one stops in front of our gate and is, in fact, not a bicycle but a hand-powered cycle. He is one of the work crew that is taking the red rock and building a rear verandah wall. They’re also digging a huge hole in the side yard for a new, larger water tank.
He looks healthy and wears a clean shirt, but his legs are shriveled and dangle from the bench seat of his cycle. He can’t walk, but unlike the disfigured beggars I saw along the walkway to Haj Ali Dargah temple in Mumbai (Aloysius tells me able-bodied helpers drop off the beggars to the walkway in the morning, and collect them their earnings at the end of the day), he has a sturdy cycle to transport him.
A metal gate separates our house from the lane, and the area inside the gate is unnavigable to the two or three workers who have been showing up for work on their motorscooters and bicycles. They must park their rides outside the gate and step over the broken rock shards to reach the yard.
This fellow must also park his hand cycle outside the gate.
Yesterday I caught a glimpse of him pulling himself along the rocky ground by his hands, his legs trailing behind. His arms were strong (which I imagined was why he was hired to swing a pickaxe at the rock for seven hours). Our eyes met as he skuttled himself past the car parked in the drive.
“Hello,” I said.
“Good morning,” he grinned. I wasn’t surprised by his grin, I was surprised by his English. Most labourers don’t speak English, and Aloysius’s neighbours must learn Hindi or Konkani to order to communicate with them.
Today, I quickly wonder if he needs help getting through our gate when a mobile phone rings, and he reaches inside his pocket to retrieve it. His tone is authoritative, the way I heard our neighbour Marie speak to her stump-choppers a few mornings ago.
Later, I asked Aloysius’s about the worker over morning tea and newly purchased crusty bread.
“Oh, the cripple,” he responds. I wince a little. “Yes,” he continues, “He’s the top contractor – the boss. You saw his cycle?” I nod. “That’s how he visits the sites. He pops off the cycle and he can really move – did you see him?” I nod again.
Halfway through my second week here in Goa, it seems each day I see something that I think I understand, but I don’t. Like many visitors I see only the obvious and am ignorant of the subtext. A lifetime of cliches about India have built up in my North American mind and – if I’m not careful – will spill out and render me oblivious and ignorant. I wonder how I’ll manage without Aloysius here to explain, then am suddenly grateful for the legions of distant relatives and nearby neighbours he’s made a point of introducing me to.
He hasn’t introduced me to the Hindu lady across the road yet. I’ll have to do that on my own, perhaps one morning over the orange fish cycle.