A Cafe in Humpi

The start of a story im writing, the first setting in Humpi (India)

A cafe in Humpi, India, delighted me with a range of hot chocolates and French breads, which being the perfect remedy for a cold morning of India’s winter. Like many others around me it was situated on a rooftop with the kitchen being the same one the family owners would use to cook their own meals, and from my vantage point the river ran from the red boulder mountains into temples which seemed to sprout like plants on rocks between its rushing water. Naked children played on the edge and I could recognise local schools being led by their guardians to its water. My daughter was somewhere down there, she was so much younger than me that I had lately been unable to keep up with her early starts down to the river, there she would bathe as a westerner would, ignoring all the glares from the other Indian women who wore full saris and men who wore just underpants and who open mouthed looked as she played with the children who didn’t care in the least. Humpi is a holy place, even still after you look beneath the tourist presence and the increase of souvenir shops that have sprung up just about everywhere. Temples outline the towns edges like an invisible snake curled around itself, the bigger ones have paths that lead up to them while others, smaller ones, take time to reach and the paths are all but covered by grasses and are known only to the locals.

I have just recently bought land here, the house I will build will be on stilts as the river will overflow during the monsoon season and it is just pure luck that a hill covers where I plan to build it. It was my daughter who convinced me to get it, like she convinced me to go to India to accompany her on her self-discover mission. I have been married twice and only have one child which I hold to dearly, telling that here brings about a huge frown accompanied by stories of the five to ten children that each family claims to have possession of, its fine by me I’m not sure how many times one can truly split their love and still mean it. So you can understand what a fright it came to me when she introduced a young Caucasian man to me wearing merely a loin cloth and looking as if he’d been fished out of the river which later I found out she had. Being an academic at heart my curiosity took hold of me immediately and I overtly demanded he tell the story of how he came to be in such a place, clearly he was no tourist, and how he came to be in such a state. The boy whose appearance was of a slim nature was white as a sheet, dark hair ran down his face where it hadn’t been dried from the water, it was clear that my daughter had run him straight to me without so much as a thought to his own comfort. What began as my curious wish transformed into something that I will relate to you below and which has made me question all that I have learned on the discourse of god. My daughter began talking before anyone in our group could utter a word and it was much later in the discussion that I find that he could even speak English;

As usual I was walking along the river where I found a small beach up stream, I loved going to this one as its sand is tinted black from maybe silicon in the water and earth, I stopped and children playing on the other bank. I undressed and waved to them, of course they waved back, children in India always wave and with that I jumped into the water and shivered from the pleasure of the cold water run up my spine. An Indian couple started slapping their washing up stream and I could hear it even underwater. I began swimming out and straight away the current caught me and seized me to go down. I planned this as the rock temple I wanted to swim to, was down water where it was impossible to reach by swimming across. Half skirting over rocks I made it to the banks and flung myself onto the rocks before the current pushed me even further down. River stones of quartz lay in piles on the rock surface, where hundreds of years of water have made them smooth, I skimmed one casually, a skill that I take much pride in doing and take every opportunity available to me to practise or show off. The island temple’s roof is no longer there so merely four pillars stand to show proof that something was once there. I climbed onto the rocky bank and saw him passed out on the stones, I began to shake him and call out but he merely opened his eyes and mumbled something. Eventually seeing it was no use I carried him onto the water and found a shallow route to the shore were the rocks made a kind of underwater bridge for us to cross. Several children, always curious, followed us from the bank up the vat stairs, some even coming underneath to take the weight. He was awake however still too weak to walk and he waved them off like flies that were bothering him, they all laughed and ran off chanting something in Hindi.

Now that I had heard my daughters tale I turned to the young man, concern mixed with amusement at the thought of those children seeing such a sight emerge from the river itself on their morning baths.

“What is your name?”

He didn’t answer, just looked at the breads and banana pancake I had ordered, the restaurant owners looked out from the kitchen clearly disapproving of this half naked man. I of course gestured with my hand towards the plate, to show I was not fussed with him taking any, but now his interest had gone as he was looking out to the sky and a swooping hark which was merely a dot on the mountain horizon.

“ Malak.”

It was an interesting response and I searched his face for signs of jest, but no his expression kept the same as it had done since we had met, satisfied he had answered me he turned his head again back to the hawk in the distance.

“You know Malak is an old Persian name, I forget what it means now...” I began hoping to draw him into conversation on any topic, my love of old language coming out, yet still unimpressed he looked out.

My Daughter chimed in.

“How come your not sunburnt, you must of been there several hours if you passed out because of sun-stroke but your skin isn’t at all.” At least this caught his attention because he looked at her, probably the first he did have a proper look at her, his face showed signs of concentration before again he turned away back to his hawk saying,

“Me and the sun have an agreement.”

“An agreement?”

“It doesn’t burn me and I promise not to snuff it out” He glared up and the day brightened up suddenly as if defying him.

“I need to borrow some clothes, my old ones are gone.”

I was delighted to oblige, anything that would indebt this find to me.

“However on the condition that you join my daughter and myself tonight for dinner, I believe Cafe de Sol is holding a special tonight...”

My sentence cut off as he smiled and indicated that he had no money with upturned hands.

“Our treat of course.” My daughter quickly added for me.

And with that our new friend went off on his own with a pair of my English trousers and a navy blue long sleeved shirt. I half doubted whether we would meet again, yet when the time came there he was wearing my fine shirt and trousers, he brushed past the owner who was at the time running to fetch a laminated menu and sat down at our table, his wet hair now dry was slicked to the side, being long enough to give himself an arty look, which my daughter approved of, as could be seen with her smile as she jumped up to hug him asking him if he was ok and oh what temples he had visited that day, and wasn’t it a beautiful warm night. He told us promptly that he was there to fulfil the promise and that he would not be dinning, he had other arrangements to dine elsewhere.

“Then there is no point of us staying here, I want to see you eat to know whether you every do anything normal.”

“You would not enjoy this food, the Indians through work with the blandest of ingredients have learnt to make something that the sea would reject and steam from”

My daughter’s eyes widened, as she loved the local food, something which these cafes reserved from the public to their own occasions.

 “In that case we have to go, and plus it wouldn’t be polite to eat while you looked on.”

He smiled and nodded to follow him. We were led on a track along a beautifully paved footpath along the river, old women selling bananas stopped us occasionally reminding us about the monkeys we could feed up ahead. Our group turned off to the side and into a side path covered thickly by tall grass and finally onto a banana plantation, all was black, only the tops of the palms could be seen silhouetted against a red glaze left by the sun. Malak began to hum something and it was like a beacon to follow when even the gaze left us. We reached the edge of the plantation and walked and walked in blackness, the road turning into rocky puddles and sandbanks and I could recognise we were near the river again by the humming of water in the distance. Again giant boulders got in our way and ledges that you had to climb down, getting on in age I found myself panting from the exertion of it all until the sound of the river smashing itself on rocks drowned out any other to be heard. At last we came to a boulder twice the size of any of us and on the other side a small skinny palm leaf shack leaned against it, Malak reached for the door and picked the whole thing up beckoning for us to enter. Inside a man bearing the same qualities as the shack he had probably built welcomed us in with an open smile.

 

He and Malak conversed in a language for a while until the man smiled and turned to us gesturing out a seat on the mat. A small fire burnt with a kettle boiling away, the entire atmosphere was warm and bright.

“This man lives here in this house while his wife and children stay at his mothers, he earning a living from guiding tourists around the river.” The man nodded; through I’m sure he could not understand a thing Malak was saying. He pointed at my watch, a graduation present from several lecturers and gave me thumbs up, smiling. A small box was pulled out of a crevice in the ground and opened it to show a similar watch, whether it was real or a knock off I will never know but it was nice to see we could relate at least to the look of it. The Old man began to talk though we could not understand.

“He says there are many water caves in the river...” Malak translated.

“And if you not careful you can be swept away by them into underwater tunnels, he says he is guardian of river.” At that both laughed loudly. 

“It appears both of you will have to spend the night here, I don’t plan to come back tonight and as you will never find your way back in the dark I suppose you have no choice.”

My Daughter as I knew she would be looked excited and started judging the ground, I guessed for its ability to be used as a mattress.

“I don’t know if my back can take this floor.” I began

“This old man is over sixty, you should not complain.” Malak ended for me, and so palm mats were brought out behind a crevice and we all began to drift off. Right as I was about to go I felt a hand on my shoulder to find that Malak was looking down at me.

“I would like to speak to you outside.” I nodded and we both wobbled out, my back felt calm from such a hard surface. Precariously we walked out and towards the sound of rushing water outside.

“I have judged you, and I would like to share something from my past, I know the first time we met didn’t think much of it, however there is something I’m about to undertake and your advice would be interesting to me.”

“Yes anything you wish to say or ask.” Finally, I thought, he was opening up. The mystery behind his sudden appearance into the lives of myself and my Daughter seemed to be about to be revealed to me.

“It is a long story and you may not receive sleep tonight of account of it, however I feel that is it something you will not regret.”

“Begin” And we sat down, the sound of the rushing river not only metres away from us.

 

“The furthest I can remember back is to...     

  

 

  

The End

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