I guess I was busy trying to look elegant lying on the sunbed at an awkward angle so as to keep my limbs in the shade, as I don’t remember seeing him approach. Or maybe my husband had hissed to me
‘keep your head down, hawker approaching…’ and I’d shut my eyes, pretending to be asleep behind my sunglasses.
Either way, initially, I felt his shadow rather than saw him, so jumped when he touched my hand.
We were chilling on the private beach of a swanky hotel, feeling posher and much, much, more glamourous than we actually are. We knew he must be a regular, because the security guard had let him on to the hotel’s patch of white sand where the fancy thatched sun shades stood in a uniform row.
‘Hello!’ he grinned, revealing his sparse, though pearly white, teeth. ‘Where you come from?’
Propping myself up I could see he was one of the locals. A blue check dhoti was coiled around his hips, exposing his skinny knock-kneed legs. On his top half he wore what had once been a smart short-sleeved white shirt with a grey business like stripe.
He took my pale small hand in his rough dark one and shook it vigorously, but then, strangely didn’t let go, just held it loosely in his, stroking it from time to time with his other hand, while he addressed my husband, asking him about England, and how long we were staying in India, our names, and that sort of thing.
During our holiday, Ali became a regular visitor to our sunbeds. He was a fisherman, who went out in his tiny boat early in the morning, and joined what seemed like a thousand others for night fishing. We could see the lights of their boats bobbing on the waves, looking like stars that had fallen from the sky. It wasn’t lost on us that they were out making a hard earned living, and catching their next meals, while we ate enormous and elaborate dishes in the fancy restaurant.
During the day, Ali wandered the shore talking to tourists, and occasionally throwing a line out from the rocks to catch the odd fish. He showed us how to dig in the sand to find crabs, no bigger than the nail on my little finger, to use as bait. Amazed us with the dexterity of his big fingers tying the poor things on to the fishing line, and amazed us more by catching a fish within a couple of minutes of slinging the line out. He was chuffed at our reaction and was more than happy to pose proudly for a photograph.
He had surprisingly good English, but his sentences tended to be shaped in a back to front yoda-like way.
‘go on a trip, you want to?
Yes, he was of course, trying to make a few rupees out of us, which we didn’t mind at all, it was understandable. To the locals (and probably other guests) we must have pots of money to be able to stay in such a place. They didn’t know that we’d saved for a couple of years for our special treat, and were still on a very tight budget. Nonetheless, we were certainly better off than Ali, so we booked the trip through him knowing he’d get a cut of the, what in hindsight, must’ve been meagre profits. He assured us we wouldn’t be disappointed, and we truly weren’t. We were treated like royalty and had a wonderful time.
Each time we bumped in to Ali he held my hand and stroked it. I found it a little disconcerting at the time, yet I can still feel his gentleness, and the warmth of character that his touch conveyed. Though he asked us to bring some old clothes for him and his family ‘next time’ I doubt we’ll return again soon, but thinking back to our couple of weeks in the sun, I’ll always think of that cheery chap, who brightened our days with his smile.