Just a Matter of Time – a glimpse of old Cochin (Kochi, India)

By Ian Cochrane, March 1, 2013

I’m in Melbourne, startled as the nurse draws the curtain behind me, the click of the rings on the rail loud in the quiet of the ward; the sweet smack of cough mixture wafts through the room. I turn away from Sally, my long-time neighbour having a tough time but recovering well. First it was her heart, then a fall; hence the hospital.

Hedley is the old-timer in the next bed. His eyes are half closed, his breathing laboured. He lay coughing as the nurse tucks in his sheets with a quick glance across the bed to Sally. The nurse’s look is sombre and Sally tugs at my shirt sleeve and whispers; nodding in Hedley’s direction. “Don’t worry; he’ll be glad of the company, and I have a magazine.” I turn and take a step closer to Hedley.

“Been to India young fella?” he asks softly. I detect a smidgin of sing-song Welsh, and answer yes – he’s been talking to Sally – I had lived there for a short time. Hedley slowly eyes me up and down, and adjusts the tubes taped to his arm.

16-Aug-1947 First News of Independence INDIAHedley was based down south; in Cannanore, Kerala. “Left in ’47,” he says. I try a quick calculation, and there’s a weak smile from Hedley. “Yes. That’s right. I’ll be 84 this year.”

“It was God’s Own Country in those days young fella; a tropical paradise. We drank whisky and played cricket; me with the best reverse sweep in the business. Renowned for my timing I was. Dropped down to Cochin for R and R sometimes; the beaches, the fishing and Portuguese food. And those Indian women; such beautiful smiles.”

Hedley looks down at his taped arm, but his thoughts are definitely somewhere else. “You know young fella, it’s funny the things you remember. I’ll tell you something about timing.” There’s a whimsical smile on Hedley’s weary face while he gathers his thoughts.

“Can you imagine it? I’m 17, and I’m in India of all places! I’m sitting by a bench stall under an umbrella in Cochin, minding my own business, drinking cold lime juice at 10 in the morning. Well, there’s a commotion not far away; I hear whistles and wait for the riot that doesn’t happen. I’m curious and enter the throng. And then I see him, with a bright scarlet turban and a wild moustache, standing in the dead centre of things.” Hedley’s gasping for breath now, and I wait.

“Now…our man, he’s an enterprising fella; not like those other lazy beggars lounging about the place.” Hedley thinks for a moment. “You know, it seems this went on every single day?” It’s more a statement than a question. “It began each morning with three short, sharp bursts on a small pea whistle he kept in the top pocket of his white kurta. Very clean sort of fella. They’d all come running from the fish markets and stalls.”

Hedley’s breath is wheezy, but he soldiers on. “In the ensuing bedlam, our man leans on his wooden crutch and juggles something squarish, small and brown; like those opera binoculars. A 3D stereoscope viewer thing, American I think, must have been from the `30s.”

“Now, our man had a filmstrip too; 14 grotty black and white pictures of the Taj Mahal. Would you believe it? He keeps that crowd at bay with a ferocious look while taking a coin from the first customer; a big wiry chap. God knows how our man juggles everything. The chap takes the viewer. Our man glares at the crowd, and they give the chap some space.”

“Our man leans on his crutch, his good hand free. He pulls something from his fakir cloth bag. It’s a small egg-timer; sands in the looking glass sort of thing. He tips it up. And what do you think happens?” After spending time in India I don’t even hazard a guess. Hedley continues. “He blows that whistle of course.”

“The chap’s time starts now and he lifts the viewer to his eyes with one hand, turns towards the morning sun and peers inside the eye pieces.” Hedley pauses for a breath. “All hell breaks loose in the jostling crowd. With his other hand, the chap presses a lever at the bottom. That pulls the strip of pictures through the viewer.”

Tru-Vue 3D Viewer, 1933

Tru-Vue 3D Viewer, 1933

“Our man does his best to keep the excited crowd off the chap and before long there’s another whistle. Our man takes the viewer from the chap, and the whole thing starts again.”  This is the brightest Hedley has looked during my entire visit.

“You know young fella, our man held the timer like this!” Hedley grasps an empty specimen bottle up to his eye. “Almost blind I think, poor old codger. He’d watch it like a hawk for 30 seconds, and then out would come that whistle.”

“Wonderful to see; checked him on this.” Hedley has an ancient timepiece on top of his bedside cabinet. He nods his head from side to side as if still in denial that it ever happened. “That man’s timing was absolutely faultless! One blow on that whistle, and the chap’s time was up!”

Sally is back home the next week, with me heading off for a while. I ask how she’s going, but can tell she’s doing well. There’s a film later today, and Majong tomorrow.

“Mind the animals? Why of course,” Sally answers without hesitation. She looks as bright as a pin, having just returned from coffee with her step-sister. “And Hedley?” I ask. Her frown says it all. “Not so good.” she mumbles.

14 Comments

  1. Janene says:

    Beautiful, poetic read. Sad but sweet. Very well done.

  2. nothingprofound says:

    Ian, another wonderful slice-of-life tale which subtly says much more than appears on the surface. Indeed, the title of the piece hints at its multi-layered ambiguities.

    • IanC says:

      I look forward to your comments NP.
      Yes, multi-layered stories…my preference certainly, @ the risk of complicating things.
      Cheers, ic

  3. Dennis Hodgson says:

    A most intriguing tale Ian, although I believe that I have detected an anachronism: I’ve been watching cricket since the early 1950s, and I don’t recall seeing a reverse sweep before the 1980s.

    • IanC says:

      Haha Dennis, I like your `intriguing’ description. Thanks! & I’m certainly impressed with your cricket knowledge.

      In the late Hedley’s defense, all I can say is that he may have been using the `reverse sweep’ to refer to some unorthodox stroke of his own making; or that there was some `embellishment in the telling. I prefer to think of Hedley as ahead of his time.

      Thanks very much for reading & leaving a comment. You are most welcome any time.
      Cheers, ic

  4. JerseyLil says:

    Ian, wonderful post. I immediately liked both Sally and Hedley and was completely enthralled with Hedley’s story. For a moment, I was right there among the crowd, watching the man with “a bright scarlet turban and a wild moustache” (wonderful imagery) captivate the audience with his viewer. I wanted my turn with that viewer! Amazing how precise the man’s timing was given his near blindness. Another thought I had was how special the moment was for Hedley that he could relay a colorful memory from his past to a “young fella” who had been to India and could relate. Thank you for masterfully recreating Hedley’s tale for us!

    • IanC says:

      Hedley! Yes, what a nice old guy.
      Interesting re: Sally. I’m so glad you warmed to her, with her smaller part in things.
      Cheers, ic

  5. Helena Fortissima says:

    I love thinking about how my beloved and I spent most of our lives, stumbling about through life on this planet, our paths seemingly diametrically opposed, and then, BOOM! Wonderful post, Ian. I really love your writing, and how you precisely capture a moment in time.

    • IanC says:

      Yes Kris,
      How does it go? Ah yes, `ships in the night’.
      Sometimes we just miss those people/moments completely.
      Maybe it really is about timing after-all.
      Cheers, ic

  6. umashankar says:

    Ian, you are excellent at teleporting the reader across the fabric of time and place. And I love the way you spin an atmosphere in but a few words. You are a past master of frugal sentences with deep undercurrents. One thinks of Hemingway.

  7. Gerard Hughes says:

    Bravo Ian… nicely written.
    For a moment I was there, in the midst of that crowd.

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