‘Looking for Sharma’ by Julie Kearney (Australia)

When the boulders appear on the horizon glowing pinkly above a fringe of coconut trees, I see they’re the same as ever, still heaped into fantastic mountains as if thrown down to earth by some playful giant. I can’t take my eyes off them. Somewhere on the other side of those rocks is Hampi and also, perhaps, Sharma. The improbable shapes of the boulders shimmer in the afternoon light like a mirage, and like a mirage they get no closer. Thiru, our driver, is lost.

The boulders begin to drift sideways, sliding away to the left. This is too much! Wedged in the back seat between Prue and Frank I try to catch Thiru’s eye in the rear-vision mirror.

“Thiru! Hampi’s back there, I know it is.” The peremptory tone of my voice hangs in the air-conditioned air of the Toyota.

No-one says anything, not even Richard in the passenger seat whose mediating skills have already been needed once or twice on this trip. Thiru, of course, ignores me but after a while he pulls over beside a man herding goats. We listen to the rapid-fire exchange of words, Thiru’s in Tamil, the goat-herder’s in rural Kannada dialect. Their only hope of communication is through the lingua franca of gestures and the one word repeated: Hampi. But like other exchanges we’ve witnessed so far, this one is successful and a few hours later we’re crunching up a palm-tree lined driveway towards our hotel.

The manager comes out to greet us, all smiles. He’s very good-looking and says his name is Narasinga. What does your name mean? I ask and he tells me, Lord of Lions. He bears us away for welcoming drinks and we’re so glad to be out of the car and so pleased by Narasinga’s warm welcome that no-one remembers to thank Thiru. He’s probably being fed in the kitchen, I think later as we sit in a pretty pavilion enjoying our cool drinks. But it’s only a passing thought because I can hear something I haven’t heard for a very long time and it’s coming from behind that clump of palm trees on the far side of the pavilion. The sound of rushing water. The Tungabhadra. The holy river.

“Thank God we’re here,” says Prue, sipping her papaya and lime juice under the slowly revolving fan.”‘I couldn’t take any more of those potholes.”

“How’s your back bearing up?” Richard asks her, though without much interest. It’s been a long day and he’s preoccupied, as we all are, by the sight of waiters padding back and forth on graceful feet, busy setting up an impressive array of dishes on a buffet table.

“I’ll feel better if I can get a massage,” she yawns. “Excuse me Narasinga, what’s this?” Narasinga has just come over to our table and set down two little bowls.

“Ma’am, you are having refreshment before dinner, wild honey from forest. Gathered only at new moon.”

“Is that right?”’ asks Frank. “That’s the best time for it, is it?”

“Yes sir. Very good honey sir. You will like.”

And we do like, we discover. Never before have any of us tasted such delicious honey or such delicate melting curds, and Richard asks Narasinga if guests are allowed to go on honey hunts.

“Full moon is tomorrow,’ laughs the Lord of Lions, “so not possible. But tomorrow we are giving you special moonrise viewing party.”

We beam at him. “That sounds great,” Richard grins. “Better than hunting for honey in a dark forest, eh?”

“Don’t be silly Richard,” says Prue. “They wouldn’t collect it at night.” We nod wisely because Prue is always right in practical matters. “We had some honey in Toulouse last year,’ she goes on, “that was quite unusual. Remember Richard, how nice it was?”

That’s the trouble with travelling with friends. You have to listen to them rabbiting on about other countries at the drop of a hat. I don’t like it because I feel it dilutes the experience of India. This is my third trip to the sub-continent and Prue’s first so I want her to find it as wonderful as I do. Hampi especially, because Hampi is one of my favourite places. Though we aren’t actually there yet. The hotel we’ve chosen, high end of course because Richard and Prue wouldn’t dream of staying anywhere else, is several miles from the village, tucked away among boulders on the banks of the Tungabhadra. A far cry from the fleapit Frank I stayed in the last time we were here. That one was dirty and noisy but lively enough, close to the Bazaar which was where we met Sharma. Dear Sharma, I think affectionately. I wonder if he’s still alive. I doubt it somehow, not with that terrible cough he had, though he was fit enough to lead Frank and me a merry dance on his ‘little nature walk.’ We walked all day and into the night and nearly got drowned in the Tungabhadra, and it was so dark, not full moon like now…

“Aren’t you eating?” Frank is standing beside my chair looking down at me and I see that Prue and Richard are over to the buffet table. I get up a little stiffly and join them.

Next morning after breakfast and more of the honey and curds and many other delicious things, the four of us sit out on the wide stone verandah of our secluded cottage, enjoying the views of the Tungabgadra. It coils its way through a surreal landscape of boulders that morph into all kinds of animals as we watch. Earlier, at dawn, their elephantine shapes were suffused in a pale, hallucinatory light like some nineteenth century Romantic painting, but now monkeys scamper across their blue-grey flanks and fishermen in reed-woven coracles glide past on water made pastel-coloured and silken in the morning light.

“Better get on to Thiru,” says Richard, pulling out his mobile and keying it. “Oh! Did they? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Okay. Well all right, see you later then,” he says, raising his eyebrows at us. He clicks off the phone and says, “Seems Thiru’s been sent across the river to stay in Hampi. He’s not too pleased either. Says he’s staying in the car-park which is full of badmash men.”

We look at each other. We know Thiru sleeps in the car, we’ve got used to this disquieting fact, but so far he’s been allowed to park it in the compound of whatever hotel we happen to be staying at. I have a fair idea that to our very conventional driver, badmash means anyone slightly out of the ordinary. But I can’t be sure and he will be there for three days.

“Good! I could do with a break from him,” I say after a pause, and catch a quick exchange of glances between Prue and Richard. I know they disapprove of my inability to get on with Thiru, but I can’t help it. Everything he does seems to rub me up the wrong way.

“If Thiru’s on the other side of the river how will we get to Hampi?” asks Prue, practical as ever.

“He says the hotel will take us down to the ferry,” Richard says. “Standard procedure apparently. I’ll ring them now.”

A few hours later and we’re sitting crammed between back-packers in a tiny ferry-boat put-putting across the eddying channels of the Tungabhadra. The river swells out widely here, almost a harbour. It’s a beautiful sight but it doesn’t stop me from feeling confused. Nothing is as I remember it. Last time we were here Frank and I crossed the river from Hampi, now we’re headed towards it. Last time we were in a coracle with Sharma, now we’re in a motorized dinghy whose young and carefree passengers are the age I was then. I don’t recognize the approaching flight of stone steps either. Sharma brought us back to Hampi on foot, wading in the dark through flooding waters and if the ghat was there I certainly didn’t see it. Listening to the chug of the engine and the chatter of the backpackers, I feel keyed up, half expecting, half hoping that Sharma will magically materialise when we reach the other side.

Plenty of people come up to us after we climb the steps but none of them is Sharma. We escape the clutches of the postcard and ganja sellers, then fall prey to the hypnotising eyes of three magnificently robed magicians. They treat us and a small crowd of amused locals to a not very convincing display of stone-swallowing followed by a rather more convincing attempt to relieve us of the contents of our wallets. But after that we’re left alone by the laid-back locals, free to wander where we please. Prue and I enjoy an hour of pleasurable plunder in the bazaar and when we’re laden up with soapstone elephants, ankle bells and sandalwood fans – all precious pieces of India – we go in search of the men. There they are, waiting outside the Virupaksha Temple. How drab they look among the brilliantly coloured saris and queenly cows.

There’s plenty to see and do inside the huge temple complex. Prue and I get blessed by Laxmi the temple elephant – a strangely uplifting experience – and then drift off separately to explore. Remembering Pamppa Sarower, the holy lake of Sharma days, I bend my head to enter a small dark room dedicated to the water goddess Pamppa and get decorated by the priest with a splodge of red tikka paste between my eyes. Then I wander out and am drawn to the ancient columns on the raised stone dais of a large pavilion. What is it about these worn old pillars of India? They always tug at my heart and I want to throw my arms around them and hug them. Though of course I don’t because people might think it a bit odd.

Sure enough my wretched feet are giving me trouble again so I sit on the dais steps to rest and enjoy the passing scene. A beggar is coming towards me over the hot flagstones, moving slowly on all fours. He’s horribly deformed, his head and body hanging down as he drags himself along on stick-like limbs. He reaches the spot where I sit and raises his head. I’m shocked because I’m staring into the beautiful face of a young man. His looks back at me with sombre, knowing eyes.

What do I know? I think, a little shaken, giving him more rupees than I’d intended. What do I know about anything in this country?

After the man moves off, I watch the monkeys at their work as they forage among the bananas and flowers at the base of shrine.

“Ah, there you are,” says Richard, appearing with the others from behind a column as if they are characters in a play. “We’re off to find Thiru.”

Do we have to? I think.

“He’ll be waiting to see if we need him today,” he continues as though reading my thoughts.

So we walk up Hampi Bazaar to the car-park and immediately spot Thiru, a lonely figure among the hubbub of people, cars, cows and food-stalls. Immaculately dressed as always, he’s standing beside our hire car looking sulky and displeased. But he cheers up when we come up to him and starts pointing at my face and giggling. “Ah Ma’am, so funny. Tikka is running down your nose.” I’m annoyed (by Thiru’s remark I mean, not the tikka) but I try not to let him see it. He knows though, I can tell. I peer in the side mirror of the car and discover he’s not joking. Red dye has trickled down my nose and for an infinitesimal split second I believe I’ve been stabbed.

I don’t know why I can’t take to Thiru, I think morosely, scrubbing at my nose while he talks with the others. He’s a small, self-contained man with a ready laugh – usually at other people’s expense – but that’s not enough to explain why he gets my back up. Could it be it’s because he’s not Sharma? Last time Frank and I were here Sharma was our guide; now Thiru has taken over his role, but with none of his charm. As far as I’m concerned, Thiru is Sharma’s opposite and a sad reminder of his absence. After a while we say goodbye and saunter off to enjoy ourselves again. I glance back and see Thiru. He is watching us go, a small man in a very white shirt standing guard over our car (which also happens to contain his possessions) impeccably groomed in the clothes that he resuscitates daily from where they are squashed under the back seat.

It’s a sight to induce guilt, and it does.

But not for long because Frank has the good idea of asking about Sharma in the Bazaar bookshop. So Richard and Prue wander off to do more shopping while we make ourselves known to the owner. Mr Angudi is a middle-aged man with that scholarly type of South Indian face that you see in pictures of R.K. Narayan on the back-covers of his books. This seems a good omen given that one of Narayan’s novels, The Guide, was Sharma’s great inspiration in life, and so it turns out to be. Mr Angudi says he not only knows Sharma but knows where he is.

“Oh Frank, he’s still alive.” We’re both happy about this news but not so pleased at the next because Mr Angudi tells us that Sharma is now living in Bangalore.

“And you say he was your friend?” he asks gravely.

“Yes, a special friend.”

“A strange man, Mr Sharma. Did you know him well?”

“Just two days,” Frank says.

“He was, I mean he is, an unorthodox Brahmin,” I say. “Is that what you mean?”

“No no. Nothing at all. His wife of course has left him.”

“Yes,” we nod. We know all about that. She ran off with an Irishman.

“And his daughter is married and living in Maharasthra. But his son is still here. If you come back later I will have his telephone number for you.”

There doesn’t seem much point in tracking down some child grown into a man whom we’ve never met, or even much use in doing so, given the vagaries of India’s telephone system, but at least we might get an address to write to when we get back to Australia. We can see Richard and Prue waiting outside so we say our goodbyes, nodding respectfully over prayerful hands.

Namaste. Namaste.

Now that we’ve dispensed with Thiru’s services for the day, the plan is to see Vittala Temple and then have lunch at The Mango Tree by the river because Prue is keen to go there. We walk up the long length of Hampi Bazaar that once was the grand thoroughfare of the Vijayanagar kings. Their ruined emporia line its sides but are squatter homes now, patched with white-plastered mud and faded lengths of cloth. At the end of these buildings, on the edge of a lunar landscape, we discover a pitilessly high staircase chiselled out of equally pitiless dark granite. Away at the top of the stairs, tiny stick figures of backpackers and would-be guides lounge or move about as if on a stage-set.

“Good God! We’re not going up there are we?”

Neither Frank nor I can remember these formidable steps and no-one wants to climb them so we follow a path that leads down to the river. But this proves hard going too because it’s made out of great tilting slabs of the same granite interspersed with enormous boulders. We have reached a place that is empty of people – only looming hot boulders with occasional glimpses of river – and my feet are giving me serious trouble. Prue and Richard have gone on ahead owing to my slowness.

“I’ll sit here,” I gasp to Frank, plonking myself down under the first available tree. “I can’t go any further. Sorry love.” With difficulty I hold back tears. It’s all a bit much, finding that Sharma is not here, and now this.

“Have some water,” says Frank. “You look like a beetroot.”

“Oh Frank, to think this is the same walk we went on with Sharma. And only just begun. God! I wish Thiru was here. He could drive me back.”

“He couldn’t get the car through all these rocks.”

Frank is always a master of the obvious. I say nothing, lost in a vision of Thiru descending through the air in a flying chariot like god Krishna to carry me back to the hotel. I can’t see how else I’ll get there.

“You’ll be all right, just rest up a while. You don’t mind if I go on do you?” I shake my head. “Are you sure? Okay, I won’t be long then. I’ll have a look at Lotus Mahal again while I’m at it.” And he’s gone in a flash, disappearing over an impossible hill of boulders.

It’s nice here under the trees, I realise when I’m alone. Nice looking down at the river which I hadn’t even noticed was there. I can see the old river pavilion where Frank and Sharma and I once stopped at the beginning of our long walk, so after a while I get up and hobble down the embankment.

It’s cool inside, so cool and pleasant among the damp stone columns and the sound of rushing water makes it feel even cooler. I prop my back against one of the lovely old pillars and dangle my legs in the river. Heaven! Such heaven. No longer do I care about Sharma, or anything else for that matter, just the coolness of the clear green water flowing over my swollen feet and the rippling reflections of waves chasing each other across the low stone ceiling. Beautiful Tungabhadra, let me stay here forever, I want nothing more. And I mean it, so much so that when Frank appears suddenly among the dappled columns and watery light, I’m not at all grateful.

“What are you doing here?”

“I came back. I’ve got an auto-rickshaw waiting if you want to come. When I saw Vittala temple I knew you’d love it so I got a rickshaw and came back for you.”

My knight in shining armour!

“I don’t want to come,” I say. “Let’s stay here. It’s lovely here. Do you remember this place?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe.”

“It was lovely then too.”

“Why don’t you come? Vittala’s great, just your cup of tea, a bit like Ranakpur in the pillar department, only not white. It’s honey-coloured.”

I watch the green water coiling and spawning endless bubbles from my toes. “I don’t think I can,” I say, “not even with an auto-rickshaw.”

“Come on. There’s a road from the temple so you can catch another rickshaw back to Hampi. Or Thiru will fetch you. Anyway, you have to come. Prue’s starting to agitate about The Mango Tree.”

“Is she?” I ask innocently.

“I don’t know why she wants to eat all the time.”

“It is lunchtime,” I remind him.

“I can go all day without food.” He’s tapping his archaeological guidebook against his thigh and I think how lucky I am to be travelling with Prue because that way I get to have lunch more often and get blessed by temple elephants and go shopping. That sort of thing never happened last time. Frank doesn’t approve of such frivolous behaviour but now I have Prue as an ally I can do more of the things I like.

“And I haven’t even seen Lotus Mahal yet.” The guide-book taps a faster beat.

I move my feet idly in the green torrent and see they have become two glimmering fishes trying to swim upstream. “I don’t care if I don’t see them again,” I say. And I don’t. I’m tired of change, tired of seeing everything become different – everything except this river pavilion, that is – like a dream changing shape before my eyes.

Up on the bank under the trees the waiting driver is enjoying an ice-cream from a Kwality Icecream cart. Nearer, on the same water that flows over my fish feet, a coracle goes by, moving quite fast in the current, carrying a boatman and two backpackers. It’s a vision from another time, a time when Frank and I climbed into a reed-woven bowl and sailed away with a guide called Sharma, a small man we can’t forget. But in a way he’s still here, in the persistence of memory, an after-image in the light that streams off the water and makes the coracle dance.

The coracle bobs weightlessly on the shimmering water, its reclining passengers gesturing and pointing their cameras. The boatman kneels, plying his paddle to avoid the currents that surge round the boulders. How difficult that must be for him I think, when he’s coming upstream. We watch the little boat until it disappears round a bend in the river. Then Frank stretches out a hand and I let him pull me up.

Glossary:

badmash – a bad character, worthless person

ghat – series of steps leading down to a body of water

namaste – Greeting with spiritual significance, meaning I bow to you

tikka – mark made on forehead by Hindu Indians

About the Author

Julie Kearney is an Australian writer of fiction, memoir and art criticism (not necessarily in that order), and has been published in literary journals and various anthologies. She is a regular reviewer for a literary website and has won prizes for her short stories. She is currently working on her first novel, a fictional autobiography of her great-grandmother titled The Horse Lover’s Wife. Julie is also an artist whose work is held in a number of public collections including ten regional State galleries, the Portland Museum in Oregon, the University of Hawaii and the Print Council of Australia’s Archival Collection.

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