The two trees grew tightly together in a quiet courtyard in the presentable quarter of Cochin, an enclave reserved for tourists along with the tuk-tuk drivers and hawkers that symbiotically stalked them. All living things age quickly in the thick moist Keralan air, but even so the height of the two trunks was so great that the modern colonnade with its boutiques and café bars must have been built around them. Whitewashed walls and a polished marble causeway surrounded a small pebbled rectangle in which the trees now stood, but the architecture offered no clues at all as to where in the world the beholder might be.
The jackfruit was by far the slimmer of the two, its greenish mottled bark stretching bare four metres or more upwards before dividing and subdividing into a weave of slim branches which in turn held a clutch of thick, strong leaves, each the size of a man’s hand, camouflage green in colour and waxy as if they had been individually varnished in a backstreet workshop.
But the mango had the girth of a Pehlwani wrestler. Its dark brown, reptilian bark was split in places, offering a glimpse of yellowish wood beneath, while meaty branches surged up through the tangle of jackfruit leaves – or perhaps the jackfruit had simply grown around them. In any case, from the first balcony upwards the two trees were enmeshed as in a desperate lovers’ clench. So tight was the embrace that from the corner table at which I sat alone, it was not possible to make out the smoky grey sky.
My wife was now browsing the rails of richly-coloured scarves and tunics in one of the glass boxes that enclosed the courtyard, leaving only three people within it. I nursed my iced watermelon and ginger, idly glancing from phone to camera and then to the slow scene beyond. With two weeks of cycling in my legs I didn’t feel like joining the viscous tourist throng that lapped along the Cochin alleyways and around their identical boutiques.
A few tables away and slightly to my left sat a businessman, or so I assumed him to be. About forty years of age and smartly dressed in white cotton trousers and shirt, he sat drinking tea poured from a white china pot. His legs were crossed in the self-assured pose of one used to giving orders. Western business people need to give the appearance of doing something even when they are not, but this man simply stared into his own thoughts, moving only once to light a cigarette from a pack that lay beside his cup and then resting his hand back on the table, the cigarette hovering over the table edge so that the ash occasionally fluttered down onto the marble. I didn’t see him draw on his cigarette after that first inhalation.
He certainly paid no attention to the third person in the tableau – a local woman probably past forty but otherwise of indeterminate age, silently progressing her impossible task. She wore a black top and long dark blue skirt: a widow, then, or so it first seemed to eyes which had become used to the bright colours of immaculate saris in even the poorest areas of the country. And then I momentarily recalled the Hindu funeral pyre just thirty or forty metres from the road as we passed on our way out of Tamil Nadu and towards the Western Ghats. No sombre attire there: the mourners were clad in white formal wear like that of the businessman, but with orange and yellow garlands around their necks that bobbed gently as the men returned homewards through the blood-red petals that had tumbled from the hearse and the shroud.
Then again, perhaps the woman was a Christian in Catholic Kerala, and perhaps the priesthood encouraged this joyless garb.
A gust of wind, unfelt in the courtyard below, shook loose a handful of the yellowing, pointed mango leaves from their perches high above and sent them spinning down onto the shiny grey pebbles. This, it became apparent, was the woman’s job – to sweep these leaves away lest the guests of the juice bar or the coffee house or the trinket boutiques should feel in any way inconvenienced. To assist her in this task she had thee things: a switch broom made of straight twigs, a black plastic bag, and a hairnet, in case any of her greying hairs should impertinently fall onto, say, a table.
She was not tall, but nonetheless she was obliged to bend to her task since the ineffectual switch of twigs would not otherwise have reached the ground. Methodically she worked, sweeping the leaves (all mango, no jackfruit) into a small pile before gathering the sack in one hand and using the broom as a scoop to shovel them in. A grass rake or yard broom would have been far better suited to the task, but evidently no such implement was available, or perhaps the cost could not be justified. And then again, perhaps a more efficient approach to the task would have left the woman with nothing at all to do.
In any case, almost invisibly she worked her way around the small courtyard, taking special care not to disturb the man in white from his reverie, his own special version of doing something. Or nothing? The two were perhaps indistinguishable.
The man’s phone rang – a new age guitar version of the familiar Nokia tone. After the shortest of conversations he stubbed out his most recent unsmoked cigarette, gathered his possessions in a single economical movement and was gone.
The woman kept on sweeping. Gathering the banknotes from the man’s table was clearly not her job, and neither was returning the used crockery to the kitchen. For a while, the only sound in this anonymous oasis of cool was the faint brushed rhythm of the broom twigs urging the leaves into their small conical piles. Another light gust stirred the uppermost branches of the mango; a few dozen more leaves were dislodged and fluttered down to be trapped amid the rich green jackfruit web or to settle on the bare shingle below.
The woman briefly looked up and allowed the balls of her hands to settle on her hips for a brief moment of rest. Then she returned to her starting point, and resumed her work in the shade of the jackfruit and the mango.
Trevor’s life is a short attention span. He grew up by the sea and has since 1983 sought enlightenment at one of Guildford’s top universities. Careers have encompassed translation, journalism (in Stockholm, London and Canberra), communications directing (at Cadbury, Tesco and Sainsbury’s), consultancy (in Europe and the Middle East) and writing (in general). Interests include songwriting, cricket, and the futility of self-definition. Trevor lives in Woking with his wife Anne and, increasingly, his two large sons.
Featured photo © Trevor Datson