Your name sir?’
‘I am Kumar. Your hair very good – very nice.’
‘Thank you Kumar’.
‘Very handsome man’.
‘I am stone carver. I carve stone for famous Buddha temple in Exeter.’
‘I had no idea there was a Buddhist temple in Exeter.’
‘It new one! You want see my stones? First we go temple – you don’t pay – I don’t do for money, but I see you are nice guy. I know special way. Come. Come….’
And so it began.
My ego up, my guard down, and I’d enlisted Andrew and I on another south Asian magical mystery tour. This time, chasing the young stonemason, at rocking speed, around the seventh century rock temples of Mamallupuram.
We staggered precariously along ancient steps, ingeniously cut from a titanic piece of granite, recklessly attempting to keep up with the young Kumar, who was practically Simian. We learnt later that this acrobatic detour was in order to circumvent the normal gated entrance, thus avoiding the need to purchase a ticket.
An artful piece of dodgery from our new found mate – though we both suspected the relationship may get rockier as the daytime heat began to rocket.
‘How the fuck do we get rid of him now?’ Andrew asked me far too loudly.
‘Oh just chill out a bit – we’re getting a free tour, and free entry’ I countered. Knowing deep down that we’d be paying for both of those benefits at some point.
I knew Andrew thought the same. But Kumar was roguishly charming, if alarmingly pungent, and he certainly knew his way around the ancient temples of the ‘Pallava’ kingdom.
It was easy to see why UNESCO had labelled the place a ‘World Heritage Site’. The stone carvings absolutely rocked.
Along with the mad dogs it was, of course, just The Englishmen that struggled unnecessarily through the blistering midday heat. Our whistle stop tour may have been unplanned, but the location was so atmospheric, a veritable concert of rock, that we both continued on, allowing Kumar to lead the way.
The mischievous Gods and Goddesses danced out of the rock face, revealing the face of a society which had partied hard for over six hundred years.
And neither of us had ever heard of them.
Of course, the real Pallava occurred when we finished with the final meditation temple, and were lead conveniently through a gate directly into a small shack, in order to meditate on Kumar’s wares. His stonewares to be precise!
Suddenly the tour guide became the salesman, and we were both made to sit through an uneasy psychic energy session, as Kumar theatrically discovered our healing stones.
And then introduced them to us!
Each at a starting price more worthy of ‘The Star Of India’!
Immediately, we were transported back to the dodgy jewellery dealer we’d met in the suburbs of Jaipur, where we’d come across another absolute gem of a scam! These invariably Kashmiri Shopkeepers are sly, smart and deftly apt at the art of deceit. But they always possess a ‘tell’ – a giveaway – and Kumar’s came with his dreadful impression of an Indian mystic. He threw himself onto his own bed of nails as he launched into a dreadful mix of Derren Brown and Noel Coward’s ‘Madame Arcati’!
Hanging himself with his own ropey trick!
The drama in his performance was nearly as exaggerated as his prices. Perhaps these blyth spirits think all Westerners completely off their rockers. We may give that impression!
But Kumar soon realised Andrew and I were not quite stoned enough to invest in his.
Then, as Andrew, playing bad cop, audibly hissed that we couldn’t afford the stoneware, and that I wouldn’t be able to eat for the remainder of our stay if we purchased the five items that had inexplicably found their way into our basket, Kumar tried to carve out one last deal.
‘This Ganesh. Good for good friend who is now without husband’.
We knew the trick. Kumar had obviously picked up on something we’d said earlier. The ploy was cheap but still impressive. Unlike the Ganesh we were practically sledgehammered into buying.
As Kumar realised ‘The Lola Boys’ were not the diamond mine he’d hoped for, his mood darkened. The glittering smile became a leering snarl and he barked in throaty Tamil to a colleague who was bashing away in the workshop next door. The workman, who looked straight out of the Stone Age, burst through the shop doorway, with a Neanderthal grunt and a wave of his heavy tool.
The one that cut the rock!
‘He not happy’ Kumar said firmly. The treacle having now dripped away from his voice.
‘Why he not happy?’ Asked Andrew, equally as authoritative, yet in an Indian accent.
‘Because he make this. Not happy with price’.
There was something mildly threatening in Kumar’s tone. Not least because we were surrounded by a weighty array of potential stone weaponry. Fred and Barney had disappeared and the whole drama had grown much darker – more ‘Game Of Stones’!
We’d definitely left ‘Bedrock’!
We stood in the dark for what seemed an age!
I was having visions of the billiard room in Cluedo. Professor Kumar had clubbed Andrew to death with the lead carving. It was time to stop this little game!
I stood. Sighed dramatically, and piped up that I was in need of air and beer. Not necessarily in that order! That I had grown weary of the unexpected auction this jaunt had now become. And perhaps we would be forced to leave the rockery empty handed after all.
Kumar wasn’t the only actor in the room!
I then tried to appear as nonchalant as possible as I trembled past the giant with the ferocious chisel.
‘Ok’ said Kumar. ‘Ok’. He then instructed Boris Karloff to pack the elephant we’d agreed on earlier.
‘Thank you’, I said, as icily as a good pint of lager, ‘we’d love to buy more. But as you heard Andrew say, we shan’t be able to eat if we do’!
Kumar stared at me stonily.
I was caught for an agonising moment between a rock and a hard face.
Andrew grabbed the packet from Boris and we legged it.
Before we knew it he had led us into an entirely unfamiliar part of town and we stood sweating, legs leaden, attempting to get our bearings.
‘I knew this wasn’t the bloody way’ I gasped.
‘I just wanted to get away from him. That selling! Jesus!’, Andrew complained. ‘I was losing it!’
I had to agree. The hard sell was akin to being whacked across the head several times with a large lump of marble. These salesmen sculpt such a convoluted life story, that before one realises, one is lost in their retail maze, as they attempt to chisel away at one’s sanity. Mining skilfully until they strike a precious seam in one’s wallet!
It was both wondrous and enlightening to clamber amongst the boulders into an entirely different strata of history – one we were both entirely igneous of !!!
But sadly our relationship with the pushy Kashmiri Kumar ended somewhat, on the rocks.
Sting! Stoned! Stung!
What a pallava!
That evening we were both laid out motionless on our beds, after too many hours spent negotiating the debilitating heat.
It was our last night in India, and we had mixed emotions.
Feeling burnt in every way possible, her beauty and her beasts managing to sear themselves onto our collective consciousness.
The sweet stuff here clings to the imagination like the gooey Indian confectionary, found on every street corner, sticks to the teeth. One cannot simply brush it away. India’s beauty is both ephemeral and eternal.
And the indisputable ugliness? Well that just seems to disappear after a while. Down the pan quicker than a dodgy biryani!
I’m almost certain we shall be back to sample her wares once again. She is too much of a good saleswoman to give up on us completely, and her shelves too well stacked to resist.
Her people are infuriatingly charming. The geography sometimes unfortunately alarming, and the holy spirit, which undoubtedly resides here, utterly disarming.
Love ‘Mother India’ or loathe her, she won’t be ignored.
She certainly won’t go quietly!
As we pack our rucksacks ready for the long hike back to reality, I can hear her already whispering to me on the tropical breeze. Her hot breath invading my senses.
‘Namaste’ she purrs into the black panther night.