Mr Zachariah, genial proprietor of the Royal French Cafe, wanted to know why I had come to Mahe, once-French enclave in Kerala. (Well, actually it's part of Pondicherry, but never mind). "There's nothing to see here. I don't know why tourists come here from all over the world! Only 85 liquor shops, that's all!"
I thought of saying, maybe the liquor is why they come, the liquor. Instead, I remembered how genial he had been and thought better of that smart-aleck answer. So I parried with: "They come because of the French heritage." Mr Zachariah waved his hands in disgust. "There's nothing French here now," he said.
Maybe, but in Mahe I wonder, must you go to a place because there are reasons?
Mr Zachariah went on: "But there is one place in Mahe you should see. The Boat House." He yanked out a flyer in Malayalam for mobile phones and began drawing a map on the back. "See, you go past the church, then past two petrol pumps" -- and here he wrote "IBP" and "IOC" on the map -- "to the end of the road. Then you turn right and" -- and here the line he is drawing turns inexplicably into dots -- "walk along. You'll suddenly see a LOT OF ROCKS" -- here his voice actually rises in friendly emphasis -- "and that's the Boat House."
With instructions like that, how could I not go? Past the church, past the two petrol pumps ... and I wonder fleetingly whether I should start hopping. This is where, after all, Mr Z's solid line has turned to dots.
But I walk. Past Beebi Home, and Shad Villa, and White House. Past Skei Ice Cream ... no, wait a minute, icecream sounds tempting just about now, so I backtrack. Still not hopping, but with a definite briskness to my gait.
I ask the young lady in Skei for an icecream. "Mango?" she says. I say fine. She flounces off and opens the tops of several large freezers in succession, looking perfunctorily inside each time. Just when I think she's going to turn and tell me they are out of the mango thingie, she flounces back to the first one she opened, opens it again and nonchalantly pulls out a "Mango Duble" for me.
Now I don't know Malayalam. But in three different other languages, I ask her, "How much?" I figure that since she understood my initial request for the icecream, she's bound to understand this. Only, she answers: "Rehmat".
Again in three languages, I tell her I'm not interested in her name; then I use my fingers to mime money. Rehmat smiles sheepishly, nods and holds up ten fingers.
Then I inadvertently repay the favour. She rattles off something, and I think, she thought I wanted to know her name, maybe she's asking mine. So I say, "Dilip." She shakes her head and says, "Sthanam, sthanam!" (Or what sounds like that). I say, "Bombay."
And I figure it's time to leave, before the other lady in the store also announces her name.
The Boat House, finally, with its LOT OF ROCKS -- a quiet riverside spot, hardly anyone around, trees and the gently flowing River Mayyazhi in front of me. I sit down to finish my Mango Duble. An old man paddles past in a canoe that's barely bigger than him. I call out to him in Tamil, can you give me a ride? He rocks with laughter, enough that the canoe rocks too, alarmingly, and says, "Ayyo-yo! Mudiyathu!" (Approximately: "No way!")
And I think: There you are, Mr Zachariah. I'm sitting here and I know why I came to Mahe and it has nothing to do with booze shops. Thank you for your map.