“We’ll keep the boat here until the south-west monsoon breaks, then head over to Malaysia sometime around October,” we said in May 2010, when Jamie and I arrived at Kochi International Marina.
But we grew roots, and here we are, in March 2013, waving goodbye to a line of dear friends as we depart for the Maldives. There is Alex, manager of the hotel, and with him are under-managers, waiters, reception staff and Bernard the go-to man. They have come to invite us to a grand departure lunch, but in true Indian style have left it too late: high tide has arrived and we must leave. Hey ho, what might have irritated in the early days is just the usual cock-up now and makes us all laugh. Standing apart from this be-suited group, looking dishevelled in old trousers and loose shirt, is the marina supervisor, gentle Manny. Yesterday, he and Shiju gave us a plastic bag containing two gifts: a wooden articulated Kathakali god, and a replica nettipattam (worn by elephants along their foreheads during Keralan elephant festivals). Both presents will find a space on Esper‘s crowded walls.
Last night, Jose, the marina manager, joined us for drinks on the pontoon, bringing with him a box of chocolate doughnuts “for the crossing”. An ex-naval Commander in the Indian navy, he knows the way to a sailor’s heart. He had joined our final evening on the dock with Bryan, Maureen, Gladwin, Sivia, and baby, Aaron. Bryan and Maureen, two Brits who have embraced Keralan life and made Cochin their home for the past decade, keep their yacht, Suryani, opposite us. In his 70s, Bryan is a workaholic, helping to build boats and set up marine engineering projects in the area. Maureen, who won’t set foot on a boat unless it is tied to a dock, raised her eyebrows every time Bryan mentioned accompanying us to the Maldives.
“It’ll never happen. He’s drunk,” she said. “He’ll forget all about it in the morning.” I laughed, knowing she was right. Her gruff manner belies a sensitive and kind heart.
Gladwin — Bryan and Maureen’s driver — handed in his notice after only one day. “Just like all of ’em,” said Maureen, “they never stay.”
But Gladwin was bored with sitting in the car for hours waiting for something to do, and told them he needed to find work that would stretch him. Rising to the challenge, Bryan suggested Gladwin become his assistant. Having soaked up everything Bryan threw at him, he is now a partner in the business. Last year we all attended Aaron’s Christening (Kerala’s Christian population is the highest in India) and afterwards went to Sivia’s parents’ house for a party. Out came the beer and spirits, and we were arranged round the room in the best chairs. After the family had sung and clapped along to some hymns, they encouraged us to sing to them. The others looked desperate, and the only faintly religious tune that sprang into my head (apart from “All Things Bright and Beautiful) was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. So we four inebriated Brits belted out England’s rugby anthem at the tops of our voices (sans gestures) to a room full of startled people. We received a round of applause, but weren’t asked to sing again. Thank the Lord.
Jamie has been teaching the eternally upbeat Gladwin to swim since last year, a skill he is required to possess if he hopes to gain a skipper’s licence to pilot boats in Kerala’s backwaters. Initially wary of the water, Gladwin can now manage a powerful front crawl, his only problem being stamina. Last week he took his written, oral and practical exams, and we were given bulletins from an increasingly excited Bryan as the long day wore on.
“He’s just got 100% in manoeuvring the boat!”
“It’s looking good, he came top in the written tests!”
“The swimming didn’t go so well, the others were all like fish, but Gladwin struggled to finish. I had to look away because I couldn’t bear the look of disappointment on his face.”
Finally, the call came through. “He’s PASSED, there’ll be a few beers tonight!” Jamie and I cheered in the back seat of Nazar’s autorickshaw, and Nazar joined in with whoops of joy.
This morning, Nazar brought his whole family to the marina to say goodbye. He has been our constant companion since we arrived in Cochin, taking us on endless shopping trips, keeping us topped up with beer and wine, coming out to the beach at Kuzhipilly with us, and finding parts and services for all our boaty needs. We have eaten in his tiny home on many occasions: fish curry and spicy vegetable dishes cooked by his wife, Sakina, and mother, Beema. Initially the meals were stilted affairs, with Jamie and me eating our food while they hovered around topping up our water and heaping more rice on our plates. Later, when we had become honourable brother and sister, Nazar ate with us while the rest of the family crowded into the tiny room to join in the meandering conversation.
While we travelled round India, or went back to the UK to see our families, Nazar stayed on Esper to keep Millie, our cat, company. Pets are not the norm in Kerala, and cats are scarce, often emaciated and feral, so when our glossy, well-fed moggy turned up she created a mini buzz of excitement: two TV programmes and several newspapers ran stories on her relationship with Nazar. They love each other; she sleeps on his tummy and he catches her a fish a day.
Nisni, Nazar’s eldest daughter, was married at seventeen, and we were lucky enough to go to the wedding. By eighteen she had her first child. Nazar’s eldest son, Nisam, is also about to be married, “a love match, just like my Mummy and Daddy,” he told us. Tasni, the youngest daughter, was a shy fourteen year old girl when I first met her, but she has blossomed into a beautiful and confident young woman. She is clever, like all Nazar’s children, and has been given scholarships to go on to higher education.
“But I will have to marry soon,” she told me.
In Fort Cochin’s cramped Muslim community, young women wear scarves to hide their hair, do not go out alone, and get married in their teens. They do not go on to higher education. But, contrary to what the news media might tell you, times are changing in India, and women are slowly becoming empowered across all religions and castes. Nazar is ambivalent about Tasni’s education, proud that she has done so well, but worried that she will be left on the shelf. Sakina is less tolerant of the new ways and says she must marry. Tasni accepts that she will do what her parents expect of her, but she hopes they will find her an enlightened husband like Nisni’s.
“My wife will stay at home,” said Nisam.
“Then make sure you don’t marry anyone like your brother!” I said. After a slight pause (had I gone too far?) we all fell about laughing.
Earlier today, the family handed over gifts of watermelon, papaya, tapioca crisps and lunghis (a kind of sarong worn by men and women in southern India). We invited them all on board to sit in the shade and sip lemonade before we left. Shyness and embarrassment gave way to incredulity and inquisitiveness as the women went below to see our saloon, cabin and galley. In many respects our boat is like their home: a small, utilitarian place which occasionally leaks when the monsoon is at full swing. We held hands and kissed goodbye.
“My Daddy had wet eyes when you sailed away,” Nisam wrote to us later.
Bryan hasn’t made it to the marina, “too hungover” said Maureen. But she and our sweet Gladwin are here; we all hug.
In the past few weeks, as we prepared to sail for the first time in three years, life has been fractious and emotional aboard Esper. We have argued over insignificant things. Most days one of us has muttered,“we can always stay in India; we don’t have to leave…”.
But it is time to go. We must disentangle ourselves from the gentle grip of our friends and this beautiful country.
Jamie puts the engine in gear and we cast off our lines. The waving arms and open faces gradually turn to specks; we wipe our eyes and turn towards the open sea. As we pass the iconic Chinese fishing nets, with Fort Cochin to the south and lush Vypeen Island to the north, dolphins swim alongside. It’s a beautiful day, and in the distance the sky meets the sea in shades of blue.