The small, desolate beach of Mahe hadn’t come up to his expectations. He had been looking for a longer, secluded stretch of sand and palm trees, just like the one he had found earlier while on the way at Karwar. Mahe is a small town, lying almost hidden on the map, and Jimmy Ahuja wondered what secrets it beheld. Like a seasoned traveller, he decided to explore the coastline further.
Ahuja walked down the straight road that ran along the coast, dotted on either side by leafy palm trees and thatched village huts. The sun hadn’t reached its royal summit yet, and the sea air felt damp but cool. Feeling hungry, he looked around for a place to rest and eat before proceeding further, and soon spotted a hut with a counter full of eatables in the courtyard.
The place appeared slovenly, and the oily, refined eatables not appetising enough. They could however keep him satiated for a few hours. As he stepped in, a dark, well built woman clad in a sari made an appearance. When tongues differ, gestures and popular names take over language, and Ahuja didn’t find it difficult to get a plate of rice pudding and tea. He was concerned though of being overcharged, for this was an out-of-the-way eatery and as a city man he looked rich in a village.
The woman kept the dish on the table and disappeared. Her place was soon taken by a lean young man with a sturdy frame and thick moustache. He sported a good crop of black hair, and had an overly hardened face for his age. “The lady’s husband perhaps,” Ahuja thought and took a sip from the tea cup.
“Tourist?” the man asked, and flashed a big smile.
“Yes, from Bombay,” Ahuja nodded and smiled back.
“I, Prem,” he introduced himself, and took position on a small wooden stool.
“Nice place, Mahe,” Ahuja tried to strike a conversation. His positive gestures and expressions accompanied by the word “Mahe” sent the right message across. Prem didn’t speak English, and their talk relied heavily on such embedded clues and words whose meanings he could guess.
Prem’s friendly overtures made Ahuja feel relaxed. He soon found out that Prem’s brother ran the restaurant, while he helped with the daily affairs.
“Brandy…drink?” Prem inquired with the familiar thumb-to-mouth gesture. A friendly, open invitation from the host is self-binding on guests, and Ahuja could not turn it down. He quickly emptied his tea cup, kept a note on the counter, and followed Prem into the beach area next to the hut.
They had hardly taken a few steps when the traveller’s instinct prompted Ahuja. “Could this be a trap? Where is he taking me to?” He carried enough money to be killed and thrown on the secluded beach sands.
Prem took a turn on the grassy footpath and soon vanished in dense green foliage. Ahuja, squinting, hurried up behind him, and found Prem standing in the middle of a leafy enclosure.
“Wow! You made this!” he asked Prem, looking around with amazement. The enclosure took its support from long bamboo stems and padding of green palm leaves and foliage served as its walls and the roof.
Prem smiled in response and lowered himself near the bamboo stem that grew in the middle. Ahuja took a corner seat, reclining on the bushy growth that formed the ‘wall’. The hut could host a party for six, with refreshing sea breeze flowing in through the leafy walls. Looking up, one could see the clear blue sky through a dense, artistic pattern of leaves.
“Hundred,” Prem announced, his index finger making the number one, and quickly disappeared with the note produced.
“I am sure he will return. He can’t decamp with the money leaving me in his own backyard,” Ahuja convinced himself. “What a party this is going to be!” He recalled the dinner he had at a tony city steakhouse with the words “Howdy, Pardner!” printed large on the facing wall, and the outlines of three cowboys seated next to a fire. It wasn’t that ambiance here, but the spirits matched well. Prem’s friendly smile and the shady enclosure had cheered him enough.
Prem was back soon, carrying a bottle of premium brandy, mineral water, a plastic glass, and small packets of chips.
Ahuja was not a hard drinker. He drank on weekends only for entertainment, alone. Prem laid the chips on the ground and poured out a large peg. The first glass, brimming to the top, was ready, and Prem, like a good host, offered it to Ahuja.
A jolt suddenly shook Ahuja from inside, and his eyes widened. His traveller’s instincts were sounding a high decibel alarm. Wasn’t it plain? He was being led into a classic trap. Once he was drunk enough, he could be easily robbed off. Ahuja tried to maintain a straight face.
“You… first!” Ahuja said with a big grin. And no matter how much Prem showed the good host’s generosity, Ahuja returning the glass back to him. To his dismay though, Prem emptied the glass in one single gulp! He looked like a hard, habitual drinker.
If Prem was not to be affected as much by the drinking as Ahuja could be, it meant a weaker resistance from him in case Prem initiated an attack. The next glass was ready and it was now his turn.
Taking a few sips, Ahuja tried knowing more about Prem. “Marriage?” he asked. He could perhaps trust a family man.
Prem shook his head, and pointed a figure at him, inquiring the same. “Who is more lucrative to a robber, a rich single or a family man,” Ahuja thought for a moment before answering in the affirmative.
The second round commenced, and Prem finished with his part like he had done with the first. Ahuja took his portion and sipped slowly.
Prem had now begun a rambling discourse in his language on his thoughts about getting married, whose general import Ahuja could guess by his facial expressions and gestures, with the help of a few English words thrown in.
It was soon time for the third round, and Ahuja could feel the effects of brandy issuing forth. The green foliage appeared to dance around, and the leafy roof didn’t look as fixed as it did earlier. Prem sometimes appeared like a pencil sketch on a green background.
For a change, Prem slowed down and sipped slowly, looking down at the ground. He was now rambling out another story, this time about himself. Ahuja strained hard to read his gestures, smiling and nodding at intervals as if he understood everything perfectly well.
In the middle of his discourse, Prem stopped and abruptly inquired, “You…government job?” Ahuja shook his head.
Prem continued with his story, and after a brief pause made a gesture with his fist. Ahuja looked twice to confirm he had seen it well enough. Prem was stabbing in the air as if he held a knife. His face turned grim, and he grew silent. He then pointed out with three fingers.
“Three. For money.” He repeated the stabbing gesture, and smiled.
Stunned, Ahuja peered inside the glass and the amber brandy. He knew Prem was waiting to see his reaction. He thought for a while, and then, grinning like a good guest, clasped his fist and stabbed in the air. “Three!” he laughed aloud. Prem looked up, and then joined him, his eyes flared wide.
Ahuja gulped down his third glass at one shot, stretched his legs to get up, and trembled out, with Prem following him.
“More? Nice?” Prem inquired with his hardened face looking flushed.
“No, thank you, friend,” Ahuja turned around, and patted him on the shoulder. “The fourth wouldn’t be me,” he said with relief, and turned toward the beach, without looking back to check Prem’s reaction.