BINU HELPED RUN a boat for tourists along the backwaters of Kerala. He wasn’t anyone special like the pilot or the owner, just a sort of waiter to the passengers. Whenever anyone wanted a Coke or a snack, Binu would dash down the stairs from the deck to the empty lounge below and fumble around in the fridge till he’d got the right item, and then dash back up, take payment, and sit down till the next thirsty person waved him over. The boss would wander up to the deck now and again to check that the passengers were all right and then disappear again to the cabin, where he would spend most of the journey chatting with the pilot, his brother. The whole journey from Alappuzha to Kollam usually took about eight hours, with a stop halfway for lunch at a village on the banks of one of the lakes that the backwaters ran into and then out of along the way. There were periods when there was nothing for Binu to do and so he would loll around on the deck with the passengers, who were contemplating the water and the coconut groves and the life of the people who live all along these strange and magical banks. In the heat of the afternoon the passengers gathered under the shade of the canopy that covered the front end of the deck, while the boat sailed along at a steady rate, not too fast, not too slow. The world was quiet, save for the chugging of the engine, the churning of the water behind the stern by the propeller, and the voices of children hailing us from the banks.
As I was alone and didn’t want to read and wasn’t interested in the card games that some of the others were playing to pass the time, I settled down cross-legged by the safety railing, gazed down at the cleaving water, and dreamily studied the birds that would follow the boat for mile after mile, their shrill cries carried away by the rushing air and dissolving in the glinting water and sunlight through which we were moving. The birds – lapwings or wagtails or some other small species unknown to me – would eventually fall behind and I could see them following the boat for a short time longer, getting more distant, until they would curve away and be gone. A few minutes later they would be replaced by others, like guardian angels appearing from nowhere and passing us on safely to the next stage of our journey. It was while I was in this dreamy mood that Binu, who was leaning over the railing a few feet from me, asked me where I came from.
‘England,’ I told him. ‘London.’
‘England very nice place. I read about it in books. Very nice place,’ he said.
‘So is Kerala.’
‘Yes, but Kerala very hard life,’ he responded, which, as I watched the coconut fronds swaying in the breeze and listened to the ringing of bells from the church that suddenly came into view as we rounded a bend and entered a vast, serene lake, seemed the opposite of the truth. But of course, I thought, he is right – I am a tourist and he has to make a living in his paradise. He shook my hand, asked my name and age, and gave me his.
‘What is your job, Mr Morris?’ he asked, using my surname, despite my protests, as he always would in the years to come. I told him I had recently finished my medical studies and would soon begin my work as a junior doctor. In short, I had a future, a guaranteed good income, and so on. I could sense that he was ruminating on the prospects life had already laid out for me.
Was I married? Did I have my own house? Were my parents alive? And the thousand other questions one is asked as a stranger in India. No, no, no, I answered to most of them, but of course he knew, and I knew, that one day it would be yes, yes, yes.
Inevitably it came, as I expected, I had heard its like so many times: ‘I am a poor man. If I only had a house then I would be able to marry. But without money what can I do? No money, no house, no marriage,’ he painted his situation in its all its starkness. As ever, I wasn’t sure if I was being told the truth.
He stopped at that, not asking for anything out loud, but the few minutes’ silence that followed spoke eloquently enough. It was a plea. I said nothing. We both watched a small brown bird that had broken away from the flock that was following the boat. It was flying on a level with us, a few yards from the side of the boat. The engine chugged and laughter came from the direction of the card players. The bird kept falling back and then struggling to come into line once more, flapping its wings with all its might. But it always fell behind again, the struggle becoming harder each time. At last, it fell away with a shrill cry of farewell, finally overcome by the impossibility of competing with the relentless turning of the boat’s engine. As it fell away, I said, against my better judgement and almost as a joke – but I knew as I spoke that it couldn’t be a joke – that if one day I was in a position – although it would be years before this would be the case – that, yes, certainly, I would help him.
He had been waiting cat-like for these very words. ‘Ah, Mr Morris, you are a kind man – a good man! I like English people. I like English people more than Indian people. Indian people are no good.’ He spat into the water. ‘No good at all.’
‘But it might not be possible –’ I tried to get out before he started getting ideas. He was expecting some such thing and immediately pounced: ‘You are not like my so-called friend Benny. He was no good. He promised but then nothing at all.’
‘Benny?’ I asked.
Benny, he explained, was an Israeli hippie Binu had befriended the previous year. Benny had also promised help, but Benny had not delivered.
‘He didn’t answer my letters,’ said Binu. ‘Yet he had promised. And how can I now marry? She already waited a long time. She tired of waiting. She twenty-two now. Many men want to marry her and she say no to them all. But she can’t say no forever, Mr Morris.’
‘No, of course not,’ I sighed and watched the water rushing by. I was trapped.
Binu bounced lightly on the railing and then said quietly, as if uttering a secret: ‘Many men desire her. But she marry only me. Only me.’
He took a pencil from his shirt pocket and tore a page from his receipt pad. He scribbled down an address where I could contact him. Care of his parents, I noticed. He then handed the pad and pencil to me. As I wrote out the address of the hospital where I would be based I was tempted to lie, but he was looking me in the face and I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
‘I thought that in India it was the custom for the bride to move in with her husband’s family – into the house of his parents?’ I asked.
‘They no allow, my father and mother. No, no, she too beautiful. They never allow. Never.’
Binu offered no more reason than this as he took his pad and pencil back and studied my address. The beautiful girl who many, many men wanted to marry remained a mystery to me. We were silent a while and then the boat began to slow down and swing into the side of the lake. An old woman was standing on the wooden landing platform smiling and beckoning us to our pre-arranged lunch in the village behind her.
‘You write to me for sure, Mr Morris? You promise now?’ Binu said.
‘Yes. I promise.’
The tension that I hadn’t up until then noticed in his face and body suddenly melted away. He swung back from the railing with a smile, crouched, and then propelled himself into a superb back-flip.
‘After dinner I get you a drink, Mr Morris – on the house!’ he called back to me as he ran off to help the passengers disembark.
On my return to England several months later I quickly settled into work and India soon became a thing of the past, a kaleidoscope of memories lighting up the rare moments when I had time to think about anything but becoming a good doctor. All my thoughts were taken up with this aim, so much so that I hardly noticed the grottiness of the life I was living, constantly tired, living alone in a small flat that was nothing more than a place to sleep. It was after a few months of this preoccupied life that I received a letter from India, care of the hospital where I was being trained. The two stamps showed a tea plantation and the great stupa at Sanchi. I was immediately taken back to the plantation I’d visited, when I’d stood on the top of a hill with a group of tourists and watched the tea pickers, all women, crouching over the rows and rows of tea plants that covered the entire slope down to the stream far below. The sound of their voices and their laughter, as they chatted, sang and spat betel onto the earth that was their life, flooded over me once again and came as a kind of release. The memory of the hard life of the plantation and the peace of the Buddhist ruins, which I’d spent a morning exploring, made me weary of everything I was doing here in my present life. I turned over the envelope. The name on the back was Indian; I didn’t recognise it at all. How many people had I swapped addresses with during my six months’ trip? Dozens of students, waiters, passengers in second-class carriages on interminable train journeys, not to mention my fellow travellers from all over the world, none of whom I expected to see again. The name sparked no recognition. I opened the letter and read:
Dear handsome Mr Morris,
How are you? Do you remember me? Im Binu. We met on the boat between Aleppey and Kollam. I hope you are very well and your family. Excuse me but the delay of sending you a letter. Because I had a small accident. So I was late to write to you. You must have wondered why I was so late in writing. I am well now.
How was the rest of your journey and back to England. I hope everything OK. I am very glad to meet you. Im still remembered the time we spent together on the boat and the talks we had. It was so great. I never forget you. But now Im so sad. When can I see you next time. Im thirsty to see you soon. Here the monsoon is very bad. Season is ended. Now Im staying at home with my mother without any job. I dont know what to do. I wish to do something. Please give me some advice. Im expecting your response. Please dont forget me. I am always remember you.
Give my great regards to your family. Wish you all the best by the grace of god
I hope your job go well. I hope everything fine. Remember our talk on the boat.
Of course, the man on the boat along the Kerala backwaters. I remembered the trip well – how could I forget it? – but only now thought of Binu and the little chat we’d had. I had, it was true, promised him that if I could help him I would send some money. I recalled that he wanted to get married but hadn’t the money to buy a house, and that his fiancée had already waited a long time. His story was ordinary enough to be true, probably, though I had resisted making any promises, I now remembered, till I saw the bird that was struggling to keep up with the boat fall away. I seemed to hear again the shrill cry receding forlornly across the water as the bird lost us and we left it further and further behind. I had felt sorry for Binu at that moment and made my promise. Thank God, I now thought, he seems to have forgotten all about it. He mentions only that we talked, but not money and not his fiancée. But why all the flattery? I put down the letter and vaguely thought that I might write back, but then I realised that of course I wouldn’t.
Five weeks later I received another letter from India.
My dear handsome Mr Morris
I hope you are well. Did you get my letter? I wrote you a few weeks ago. It is very bad here. I have a girlfriend in here. I would like marriage with she. You know she was waiting me last 6 years. Now she is 23 age old. But I can not do the marriage now. Because I have not house. But she cannot wait yet more for me. So many proposal come for she from outside. But she dont like it she said me. She don’t like saying no and she don’t like saying yes. But how can she wait forever? I can not do the marriage. She must do something. I can not live without she. But I think how can I marriage without house. Where are we staying after the marriage? I dont know what to do. Please give me some advice. Remember we had talk on the boat. Im always remember you. Im expecting for your response.
To make things worse Binu had cut a picture of Jesus out of a magazine and pasted it onto the back of the letter. I studied the picture: Jesus was stretching out his hand to raise up a leper. His exposed heart was dripping blood onto his otherwise spotless white robes. Fresh gashes in his palms showed where the nails had been driven in. The eyes of the leper shone with hope.
There could be no doubt – Binu had taken every word seriously. But what could he do? He didn’t even know for sure that I’d received his letters. I could be working and living elsewhere, I reasoned. It’s just chance that he’s managed to trace me at all. I might even have lied about my whereabouts. I wouldn’t be the first, after all. But then the letters would no doubt be returned to him. He’s hardly going to come and get me, though, I thought. The truth was I felt guilty.
I wrote back and thanked him for his letters. Kerala was a beautiful place, I told him, and had left me with many happy memories, not least those relating to my trip on the backwaters. It had been good talking to him. I was working hard but was as poor as a church mouse, as I exaggeratedly expressed it.
A month later I received another letter from India:
My dear handsome Mr Morris
How can you be as poor as a church mouse? You have been all over my country and I have been nowhere. The mouse in your church must have many coins in his pocket if he is as poor as you. It costs 31500 rupees to fly to India from London. How can a man who has 31500 rupees to get on a plane be a poor man? How can a poor man go from south to north and north to south and see everywhere that another poor man cannot see in his own country. Please explain. I am thirsty for your reply. I do not understand what it means to be a poor man in your country.
Sincerely your friend Binu
This time I ignored the letter. After all, I didn’t own a house and I wasn’t married myself. Things weren’t all that easy for me. I was determined not to think about Binu and his attempts at emotional blackmail.
It was about a year and half after this last communication and just after my own wedding – she had nothing to do with medicine, thank God, but was a teacher of English to secondary school pupils – that I found myself thinking about Binu again. I wondered if he’d sorted things out and finally got his house and his bride. It was true that I’d managed to put some cash aside lately. I was going places, as they say, in my career. I was also madly happy. What of it, it’s only money, I thought. In the long run, which after all was from now till death, I would hardly miss the relatively small sum that would suffice for someone in Binu’s position. I did a quick mental calculation, trying to remember what I could about the price of property in India. Certainly it would be a big help to him, if he still needed it. Before I could change my mind I wrote him a letter asking about his circumstances. One Benny was enough for him, I figured.
Binu replied to my letter by return of post. I was his saviour. I would always be the handsome Mr Morris. He knew all along that I would never forget him. His fiancée had believed in him and waited. He understood quite nicely that it had been not an easy time for me after India. I mustn’t tire myself out. My wife must be as beautiful as the goddess Mohini, as mysterious as the sinking sun, as lucky as Ganesha the elephant-god, and a hundred other things. Which was all true, as Catherine, my wife, told me after I had shown her the letter. She scolded me for not sending the money earlier, for being so cold-hearted, for not understanding how much Binu and his fiancée must love each other.
‘You’re a beast,’ she told me, ‘and must send the money immediately. I like this Binu. Perhaps I should have met him first.’
I sent the money order according to Binu’s instructions, which he had not forgotten to include in his letter.
After a time I received news of the house he had bought in a village near Trivandrum and an invitation to his wedding. It was impossible for us to attend but we certainly hoped to see them one day, eventually, who knew when? The next letter contained a photograph of Binu and his wife, Radha, standing in front of their little concrete house, rather like a shed, I thought, though with pretty red roof tiles, which looked out onto the narrow, pot-holed and dusty road that served as the main street of their village. At the sight of the couple holding hands and the immeasurable happiness that looked out at me, I trembled at the thought that I had nearly not sent the money. Binu told me that he continued to do seasonal work, looking for work as a waiter or a boathand wherever he could get it, that there were more tourists than ever and things were good, that he would attempt to get something more permanent. What’s more, Radha was already expecting a baby.
Catherine examined the photograph: ‘Um, she is beautiful. I can see why he went so mad. You said that his parents wouldn’t take her in?’
‘Yes. Why do you ask?’
‘And that she had many admirers?’
‘What are you implying?’
‘Didn’t Binu mention a problem with the dowry?’
‘Well, he said she has no parents.’
‘Or more likely, she doesn’t know who her parents are.’
‘Catherine, what exactly are you trying to say?’
She laughed. ‘Oh, you’re so naïve! Look at her. Work it out for yourself. But she is beautiful, very beautiful indeed, there’s no doubting that!’
I took the photograph back from her and studied it again. Certainly, Radha had the poise and delicacy, energy and sensuousness of the dancing girls I’d seen carved onto every Hindu temple. No respectable Indian, a respectable Indian, an accountant, once told me, would allow his daughter to be a dancing girl, though without bothering to elaborate his meaning. But then, I thought at the time, the cosmic dance that the temple girls celebrate and that finds expression through them transcends mere respectability – and money too. Radha was what she was. Music seemed to flow through her mute still gestures and play about her lips and eyes. I could see now that Binu was right – many men must have desired her.
For a couple of years we exchanged Christmas greetings with Binu and Radha. Binu was now the father of a boy and a girl; I was forging ahead in my career. As always he invited us over to India, even if we didn’t wish to stay at his house – he hadn’t, he confessed, much room. And as usual, I promised that one day we would certainly visit them, but not just yet.
As these things go and after a decent period of time had gone by, I wasn’t surprised that the letters from India dried up. I too forgot or didn’t have time to write. After all, when all’s said and done, we didn’t have much in common. What’s more, I became the father of a daughter, Sophie. Her birth made me once again think of Binu and his family: his eldest must be about six now and, I supposed, he must have had some more. I wrote to him at the old address, not forgetting to enclose a couple of photographs, and in time received this reply:
My dear handsome Mr Morris
God has blessed you. The girl is very like an angel in the pictures in my book. She will bring light to your house. Your wife she will have many more. A son will be yours, and he will also be a handsome Mr Morris. One day he also will meet another Binu on a boat on backwaters. I have four children now two boys and two girls. They are beautiful like leopards and deer. Everybody happy but no good luck with jobs. I had bad accident with leg on boat and not walk properly. But God has looked out for me and everything OK again in the end Im sure. I never forget you Mr Morris always. I always remember you.
your friend Binu
Binu wrote again at Christmas and again at Easter. Still he had had no luck with work and his leg had not mended properly. In his latest letter I was surprised that there was no mention of his wife and children. Then again, apart from his money problems and the injury to his leg, there was nothing particularly disconcerting in his tone or in the style of his handwriting. His work had paid its way up till now, though how long it would be before he could get suitable employment, I didn’t know. I knew from the medical details he had given me that his leg would never fully recover. I remembered how he had back-flipped from the railing of the boat. He would never be able to do it again.
We exchanged letters one more time, the following Christmas. There was still no luck with work but this time his wife, whom of course I had never met, scrawled a few words for me, my wife and my rapidly growing daughter, who, as it turned out, against all of Binu’s expectations, remained an only child.
Mr Morris, I love you, wrote Radha, I give happy Crismas to you and your family. Binu tell me how hansome and nice man you are. I look at your picture many often times. I think you a very hansome man.
I could almost hear the muffled giggles behind the clumsy childish letters and the underlined ‘very’ as she pushed the pen across the paper. These were the only words I was ever to see or hear from the mysterious wife of Binu. Mysterious to me, that is, for Catherine said she was a mystery only to men. And of course men were fools, she added with a laugh.
And that was it. No more letters, either way. A relationship across vast distances with someone you have met only once will always peter out in the end, no matter how warm the feelings on both sides. That was my excuse, anyway.
When Sophie was twelve and I was due to start working at a new hospital in a different part of the country – I was now a highly-respected and sought-after cardiologist – I decided that I had had enough.
‘Let’s ditch all this for a while, I’ve had enough,’ I told Catherine, late one night when I was slightly drunk. ‘I want to delay my new job by a couple of months. Sophie has a few weeks’ holiday before she starts her new school. It won’t harm her if she misses a couple more. You don’t have a new job yet. So let’s bugger off somewhere!’
Catherine looked at me: her conventional husband approaching his mid-life crisis, who would inevitably sink back into the life he would only ever pretend to escape.
‘All right,’ she said. ‘Let’s go and see Binu and his – his demimondaine.’
‘Binu? We haven’t heard from him for years. But India – yes, let’s go to India.’
Sophie had been listening at the door and almost fell into the room. ‘Yes, yes, let’s bugger off to India!’ she cried in excitement.
We stared at her open-mouthed.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean to swear.’
We made the arrangements. This time, though, we would do it in the grand style, not backpacking and sleeping with cockroaches, bedbugs and even the occasional rat, as I had done when younger.
Binu. Of course, I must write to Binu.
My dear Binu,
It’s me, Mr Morris. You haven’t forgotten about me, I hope. At last, at last, we are coming to India. We will be flying to Bombay on 30th November and staying for two months. We should be in Kerala some time in mid January, after driving down through Goa and Karnataka and taking in my old hill stations in Tamil Nadu. We will be flying out from Trivandrum on 31st January, which gives us plenty of time to catch up on what life has brought us both. I have no doubt that we’ll all have a wonderful day on the backwaters. Give all my love to your wife and children. Please write back as soon as you can and we’ll settle on a plan to meet up. Catherine and Sophie can’t wait to meet you all.
Your not-so-handsome-anymore Mr Morris
This was a few weeks before we set off. On the day of our flight there had still been no reply from Binu. Perhaps it’s all too much in the past, I thought. I had no doubt that he was living in the same house – I was sure he would always inform me if he moved. Perhaps, after all, it was for the best, although my wife and daughter were disappointed.
We’d had our injections, packed our bags, given the cat up to the safe keeping of my parents-in-law, checked the house one last time, and were now waiting for the taxi to arrive to take us to the airport. There was a creak at the front door and the letterbox snapped back. I knew straight away when I saw the airmail letter lying on the mat that it was, just in time, from Binu. I tore it open on the spot and read the following:
My dear handsome Mr Morris
How could I ever forget you and how could you not always be handsome. I hope you get my letter before coming to India. Theres been much of a mixup but I got finally your letter. It took the post office a long time to find where I live now. I write as soon as I got your letter. You must from now on write to me at this address The Snake-House, Kerala Zoo, Trivandrum, India or I will not get your letters. I can be found here at any time. It is a job for ever. My leg is still bad. I look forward to greeting you and your beautiful wife and daughter. There is big trouble here.
The taxi came, I slipped the letter into my pocket, our bags were loaded into the boot. Three hours later we were on the plane to Bombay.
There had been no mention of the house, the children, or Binu’s wife. And there was trouble.
‘The Snake-House?’ Catherine asked on the plane. ‘He looks after snakes?’
‘I think he must be the keeper of snakes at the zoo. It’s a responsible job and doesn’t require great mobility, so it’ll suit him, I guess.’
‘And his wife and children?’
‘Who knows?’ I replied.
India was wonderful – and difficult, as always. We hired a car and driver for most of the journeys, but of course couldn’t resist the occasional ride on a train. My wife and daughter were shocked, entranced and finally fell in love with the ruins and temples and forests and mosques and holy lakes and seas and mountains and dense crowds and markets and elephants and holy cows and blaring music and myriad tongues and food and hospitality and beggars and dirt and aspirations and resignations and sadhus and children asking endless questions and eyes following your every move and early morning mists and the twilight in the moments after the sun has sunk like a giant flaming orange into the Arabian Sea.
At last we arrived in Kerala. We spent three days in Cochin and then got a taxi to Aleppey, where we boarded the boat, just as I had done so a decade and half before. After the trip along the backwaters we planned to spend a couple of days by the sea and then – but it hardly seemed real to me – go to the Snake-House at the Trivandrum Zoo to see my old friend Binu.
It was like re-entering a long-forgotten dream. The boat sailed along, not too slow, not too fast. The backwaters seemed endless, river running into lake and lake into river, the wind hissing as it rustled the fronds of the coconut palms which stretched all the way to the horizon and beyond. Children trailed us along the banks shouting for pens, and women with their saris rolled up above their knees waved as they scrubbed clothes at the water’s edge. The clanging bells of temples and tolling bells of churches glided across the water, which then vibrated and glinted like a cymbal coming to rest. The light and the breezes and the spaces and the smooth glistening water danced around us. And of course the birds, the birds, how could I forgot the birds? – they followed us for miles and then fell away with their shrill cries of farewell. But then there were more, always more, as tenacious and faithful as the guardian angels of old.
Catherine was entranced by the experience. She beckoned the boathand over. The boy had been running up and down all afternoon, fetching drinks and snacks for the tourists. She thanked him for looking after us and slipped some notes into his hand, winking at me. Sophie asked if we really had to go home. Yes, we have to go home, I told her. Unfortunately, we will always have to go home.
Here we were in Trivandrum at last, much later than I had told Binu in my letter. We had to fly back to London tomorrow. The zoo and botanical gardens, which I hadn’t bothered with on my first trip, were pleasantly tidy and peaceful. There weren’t many animals there at all, but these were well looked after and enjoyed plenty of space. Sophie pulled a face at a monkey, and the monkey pulled a face at Sophie. In the peacock enclosure, a magnificent specimen unfurled its tail feathers and a hundred eyes, black pupils surrounded by green and gold irises, stared at us for a minute, till the peacock furled its feathers and once again enclosed the mystery within itself. We took a lazy stroll across the lawns, admiring the flower beds, smiling at groups of students stretched out on the grass and eating their lunch, stopping to watch a young boy tugging at his kite, which had become entangled in the branches of a huge old banyan tree (Sophie wanted to help, but I hurried her on), until at last we came to the Snake-House, as the gaudy painted sign informed us. From the outside it was an ornate, secretive-looking pavilion constructed out of wood and without windows.
We circled the Snake-House twice before we found the door, which was closed and painted in the same shade of green as the rest of the building. I pushed the door open and stepped inside into the soft vaporous light let in through a skylight high above, which had not been visible from the outside. The snake cages, about thirty in all, were arranged in a circle around a central space, which I could just about see into through the mesh at the front and back of the cages. I couldn’t see Binu, just a couple of men, tourists from the north of India, who were laughing as they peered into one of the cages. I stepped closer. Someone was standing in the shadowy circle behind the cages and poking a stick through a little hatch at the back of this cage. A cobra with a butterfly pattern on its hooded head was hissing and repeatedly hurling itself at the stick. The poking stopped and the cobra swayed and bounced lightly on its own tensed, coiled body, its tongue darting in and out. One of the men said, ‘He’s a fine beast. Poke him again, man.’ Once again the cobra hurled itself at the stick and the men laughed. The man who’d spoken took out some coins, placed the coins on the ledge just in front of the cage, and said to the man with the stick, ‘Here it is. I leave it here, man.’ The visitors then went out of the door we had come through. The man with the stick closed the hatch and then saw me through the haze of the double mesh.
‘Mr Morris!’ he exclaimed after a few seconds of silence. ‘My dear handsome Mr Morris!’ He emerged through a door from the space behind the cages, limping badly, open-mouthed. There were tears in his eyes.
‘My handsome Mr Morris. You’ve come at last. You see what has happened to your friend Binu.’
I stared at the thin bent man with grey hair and leg as stiff as a peg.
I stepped forward and clasped my arms around him: ‘Binu, Binu. What has –?’ I stopped myself and caught a whiff of the alcohol on his breath.
‘What has become of me? You see what has become of Binu. I am an old man now. But you are the same, Mr Morris. Nothing has changed. Only a little fatter maybe. And your beautiful wife and daughter?’ he asked, turning to my wife and daughter who were standing quietly a few feet away.
I introduced my family. With hands pressed together, Indian-style, they warmly bowed to the wasted little man they’d heard so much about over such a long time. Binu wept again.
‘I never forget you Mr Morris and I so glad you happy,’ he said.
‘But where are you living, Binu?’ I asked.
Binu glanced across the concrete floor towards a corner where a mat and a tattered blanket were neatly rolled up next to a few pans and plates and a dark bottle of something. He bit his top lip and said, ‘I live here now, Mr Morris. This is my home.’
‘But where are your wife and children? What happened to your house?’ I asked.
‘Wife and children flown away, Mr Morris. House is gone. She found another Binu. He a rich man. He took her away to Bombay. This Binu no more able to look after her. She still a beautiful woman, Mr Morris. She waited seven years for me, seven years she stayed with me, seven years now since I saw her. I gave her all the money from the house.’
‘But your children – where are they?’
‘They must do what they can, Mr Morris. Who wants a drunken keeper of snakes for father? What can I do for them now?’
I didn’t know what to say.
Binu broke the embarrassed silence: ‘I happy, very happy for you, my handsome Mr Morris, but I sad, very sad for me.’
My daughter had wandered off and was now crouching to examine several small cages piled on top of one another near Binu’s belongings. ‘Daddy, look, look!’ she cried excitedly. We went over. Each of the cages contained four or five well-fed guinea-pigs. ‘Oh sweet little things!’ said my wife. ‘Are they your pets?’ Binu hesitated and said, edgily, ‘No. Not my pets, in truth.’ With that he opened one of the cages and took up an especially fat guinea-pig by the scruff of its neck. He stroked the animal till it was calm and then went through the door to the space behind the snake cages. My eyes had adjusted to the gentle diffused light and I could now make out the names of the species, in English and Malayalam, on the signs above the cages. An impressive variety: all the poisoners and constrictors you could hope to see in one place, and of course those kings of snakes, the pythons.
We could hear the hatch at the back of the python cage nearest us rattling as Binu opened it. The python began to lift its sleepy head from the cold pillow of its own massive, hungry, and now uncoiling body. Binu quickly thrust the guinea-pig through the hatch and then slammed it shut. He watched us through the mesh – his friend the handsome Mr Morris, as he would no doubt always think of me, and his equally handsome wife and daughter – watched us and smiled the saddest smile I’ve ever seen.
NOV 2020 Andreas Smith MONK
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4 thoughts on “The Snake House”
You capture the backwaters of Kerala delightfully, and conjure the conversations with locals vividly. I recall the “One pen!” cries from the riverbank, and the birds too. Very evocative indeed. The disparate situations of the protagonists mirrors India still, & shows how the fallen so often sadly fall again. I didn’t promise the man who wanted me to buy him a small house, but you reminded me of it. Lovely story, beautifully written, thank you.
Thanks Joe, we were pleased to publish this story and have been wondering if the many satisfactions of reading it has somehow to do with it being set in that forgotten world before the internet, before the rhythms of the world sped up… that deliciously slow Kerala boat would now be full of people taking selfies, posting on social media, interrupting the pure experience of the human mind so beautifully captured here… I find, personally, that increasingly there’s something about literature, stories and fiction pre social media and pre internet – something that strikes me as almost metaphysical in their unfolding, their slowness, and magic, perhaps the rhythms of the past (our human past). Maybe we should take all computers and phone away from authors and writers as a social experiment. Would literature and fiction improve? Or maybe that’s got nothing to do with it… maybe we at MONK are just nostalgic…
Beautiful story. It brought back vivid memories of a trip I have done myself. The beauty and the peace – coupled with the guilt of being a such a privileged traveller amongst the brutal proverty.
Absolutely magnificent! Melville (Bartleby, the Scrivener) and Gogol (The Overcoat) amalgamated into one modern and exquisite narrative. The mastery of the modern (postmodernist) story telling relies heavily on author’s ability to preserve sense of fresh harmony in a situation when all plots, sequences of events, characters, and psychological archetypes are explored and exploited to exhaustion by the generations of great artists.
Thirty some years ago Umberto Eco suggested half-jokingly a solution: “I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”
Unfortunately, such an approach in our time would look even more tasteless and mincing at the best: as if one tries to boast their erudition which is always to the detriment of the narrative’s heartedness.
Andreas Smith has found an unhackneyed key-note: that of an impassive, rhythmically monotone, but sincere story telling which culminates in a shocking coda when the readers are unable to find any scapegoat (a must for a modern cathartic fiction).
In the end we see a totally ruined little man (an Indian incarnation of the titular councilor Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin), and we have literally NOONE to put the blame on for his misfortunes! Binu’s beautiful dakini wife? His bosses ashipboard? British doctor? Snakes?!
No, no and no! The readers take farewell of the story with a magic aesthesis of having met Lachesis, the drawer of lots! A writer capable of such deep mythological penetrations is a great pleasure for readers and a lucky discovery for editors. Thank you, Andreas and Monk!