India: Kerala #7: Scumbag, Old Guy and Reservoir Dogs

On January 28th we jumped on a jetty and headed over to Fort Kochi in search of Rafi and a game of soccer. We had called Rafi, the guy we'd met on the beach about 10 days earlier, that morning, but his dad had said he was out, so we headed over to the "parade ground" (sports field) in the hope of finding him and, if not him, at least a game of soccer. We arrived to not only find the depressing sight of a bloody cricket game once again taking up a perfectly good soccer field (what'd we expect, really?), but also the awful spectacle of a couple of foreigners (who turned out to be Aussies of course) joining in and encouraging the young local guys in their sad and depressing waste of life. Just as I was about to turn and leave - cursing cricket all the way - I noticed a couple of guys off to the side kicking a soccer ball around. I went straight over and joined them and over the next half hour or so many others started showing up as well. It turns out they play there every evening from around 5:30. Not on the soccer field, which is of course reserved for cricket, but over on the side of the field.

We ended up playing a game that lasted about 90 minutes and which didn't end until it became too dark to see. We played 8-a-side. A really great, fun game, with my team eventually pulling off a 6-4 win. Playing with these guys would become a big part of my life in Kochi from this day on, right up until we left in late-April. I'd usually play 5 or 6 days a week, between 1.5 and 2 hours a day. Great fun and great exercise. By the time we left I was in amazing shape.

However, although I may have run and played hard every day, I was still a wimp in the eyes of these guys for the simple reason that I wore shoes. Most of these guys played barefoot - as they had since childhood - on a field littered with often-quite-sharp stones, bottle caps and other garbage as well. Oh and cricket players too. Cricket basically takes up as much of any given area as a ball can physically travel (it's just like a virus!), which was why we'd have to not only make our way through the other team's defense and the occasional passing bicycle, but bloody cricket outfielders standing right in the middle of our field - and game - as well. So it obviously wasn't just their feet, these guys were tough inside too, as they would have had to be living this way their whole lives, as soccer players simply don't get any respect in India. India: land of monotonous, take-up-the-whole-damn-field (never mind the whole bloody day!) cricket.

Son, no big fan of playing soccer (though she loves to watch it) wandered off to explore the backstreets and alleyways of Fort Kochi. While walking she met a group of school teachers and principals playing her favorite sport, badminton, and they asked her to join them. They played there at that school 5 days a week and invited her to come join them anytime. An offer she simply couldn't refuse.

And so Son had her badminton and I had, after a 4 month break, the return of The World Soccer Tour. And life was good indeed.

Oh, and what about Rafi? Well, halfway through that first day's game he, having received our message from his dad, showed up, but said he was too tired to play. He told us he'd be back the next day to play, but was only there to watch this time. We never saw him again. I guess that after having lived in Dubai for years he probably had soft delicate feet and therefore knew that the rocks, bottle caps and occasional pieces of broken glass would actually hurt his feet. But he also knew that he simply couldn't wear shoes and be seen as some sort of wimpy pathetic Canadian. So he avoided that field like the plague. That's my guess anyway. On the other hand, maybe he just got called back to Dubai early for work.

Fort Kochi, by the way, is so nice. Old colonial buildings; ancient alleyways; green; quiet and peaceful, with few cars. Very laid-back. Quite different from over in Ernakulam where we were staying. So why didn't we move? No need. We could easily and cheaply take the ferry/jetty over each day, a ride that was always enjoyable. Plus we had a great hotel at a much more reasonable price than we'd ever find over in Fort Kochi. And, besides, our friend Ram was over on the Ernakulam side. So we got the best of both worlds: Rum Rock 'n' Ram in Ernakulam and peaceful, relaxing beauty, nice walks and daily sports over in Fort Kochi. A full and complete life indeed.

The next day I was back out on the soccer field burning off a few more pounds... and lots more skin from the bottom of my feet as the previous day's blisters burst and peeled away. It was another great game, this time with 10 or 11 guys per side. We tied it up 3-3 just as it got too dark to see. Good fun and really nice people.

Of all the people we met there at soccer the most interesting and friendly was a 40-year old man named Zakariya, a government worker for customs down at the port who could speak English quite well. We talked with him for about 15 to 20 minutes before the game that second day. He belongs to a very small sect of Islam called the Ahmadiya Muslims, a group which has suffered severe persecution in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. He told us about their beliefs and how they follow the founder of their sect, Mirza Khulam Ahmed. He also told us that there are only about 100 of them in all of Kochi. They are persecuted because they don't believe Mohammed was the last prophet. Because of this belief the majority community of Muslims - Sunnis - accuse them of not really being Muslims at all. I'd recently been reading in the paper about their persecution in Bangladesh, so it was interesting to actually meet someone from the community. Especially such a nice guy like Zakariya.

After returning on the 7:45 jetty and taking a shower back at the hotel we went over to see Ram at the theater at around 9:30. He'd called us and told us to drop by after our showers. It was Thursday, so that could only mean one thing of course: The Thursday Night Party Club was meeting once again. And, sure enough, it was party night, but not with the Elite Hotel party crowd we'd had so much fun with the previous 2 Thursdays. Instead tonight we were partying at Ram's cinema cafe, as we had a couple of nights earlier.

We arrived at the cafe to find that Jibu - the greatest Bollywood-style disco dancer from the group of 10 great Bollywood-style dancers 2 nights earlier - had made us Kerala-style chicken curry for dinner. Definitely not something from the cafe's very limited menu; he had obviously prepared this especially for us. He was studying at a cooking school each morning before work and had clearly studied well because this was damn good food. Then, just as we were starting to enjoy the meal, Ram came out with very strong (always very strong!) rum and cokes for me, Son and himself. Yes, a brand new Thursday Night Party Club. That was the end of his bottle so Son and I bought a new one from the bar around the corner. Another great CD mix of Ram's was turned up REALLY loud and the fun rolled on. Until 11:30 that is.

That's when we said goodnight to everyone and left the cafe and theater with Ram. We walked Ram out to his car on the main street in front of the theater and just as we were about to say goodnight to him we noticed 3 guys wrestling on the sidewalk about 20 meters away. At first we thought they were drunken friends playing around. Then it started to look like 2 guys picking on one guy. Then it seemed to be 2 younger guys robbing one older 50-something year old man of a plastic bag full of his belongings. Ram said matter-of-factly that they were probably stealing from the older guy, but he didn't seem to want to get involved. The older guy was now trying to get his bag back and they were pushing him away. Ram, who is quite big by Indian standards, yelled at them to give him back his bag. They simply ignored him. Old Guy made another attempt to get his bag back as the other 2 started to walk away. His dhoti had now fallen off and as he pulled on his bag one of the younger guys kicked him right in the chest and sent him flying backwards against the wall. That's when I totally lost it.

Now I don't believe in fighting and being a macho dickhead and I haven't been in a fight since I was in elementary school (and those were just silly wrestling-in-the-dirt playground scuffles). However, not believing in fighting didn't mean I believed in standing around watching this sick bullshit. I bet those assholes would never have been able to guess just how reluctant I am to use violence when they saw me come charging at them at full speed shouting "Come here you motherfucker! I'll fucking kill you! You don't fucking kick old men in the chest you stupid piece of shit!" as I chased after the scumbag who had kicked Old Guy and who was still holding on to the stolen plastic bag. He was running for his life with me right behind him and Son running behind me screaming "Mike stop! Don't!" like I was one mean, dangerous motherfucker and she really didn't want me killing someone... again. In reality, of course, she didn't want me getting killed, but Scumbag didn't know that and he was running for dear life, clinging to to the plastic bag all the way.

I don't know exactly what I would've done if I'd have caught him, especially if he had had a knife or something. I just felt like I wanted to grab him and throw him up against a car and scream in his face: "What's your fucking problem man?!!" a la Dennis Hopper in "Blue Velvet". But he was scared... and fast... and gone.

The nice thing is that I had support. Others must have been watching too and they jumped into action once I did. I, being out in front, didn't see any of this. Like a greyhound chasing a rabbit I saw nothing but my prey: Scumbag. Afterwards Son told me how Ram had chased the other guy and how a couple of guys came tearing across the street to help in the chase, as did one or two rickshaw drivers. After I gave up the chase I turned around to find myself part of a big group of guys walking back together. I fancied we looked like Kerala's very own version of Reservoir Dogs. But I sure the hell wasn't Mr. Pink! Obviously I was Mr. (Shiny Shiny) White (Guy).

It was actually a good thing that we didn't catch Scumbag. India has a big problem with mob justice and if I'd caught him I just might have found myself in the bizarre situation of having to fight off the others to PROTECT Scumbag from being lynched. I sure didn't want to be the instigator of some vigilante murder. Not over a kick to Old Guy's chest and a stolen plastic bag.

As we Reservoir Dogs were walking back (in slow motion, of course) Old Guy was putting his dhoti back on and it was a bit moving when he turned to me and put his hands together and lowered his head slightly in a gesture of thanks. We asked if he was ok, which he seemed to be, but he was a bit drunk and totally silent. He'd probably come out of the bar just up the street. Ram asked us if we now thought badly of India and I explained that we have our fair share of violent assholes and thieves in Canada too, as do all countries. Old Guy then silently gave us another hands-held-together gesture of thanks and headed on his way... without his plastic bag, which I had failed to recover for him. We then said goodnight to Ram and headed back to our hotel, a couple of hundred meters down the street. Another interesting night in Kerala.

Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Sunday, July 11th, 2004