The man at the next table must have been in his fifties, but he had the boyish affability of inherited wealth, that stroke of good fortune which so often resembles a blow to the head. Never in his life had he worked. He often enjoyed a few cold beers in the morning, followed by more throughout the day.
His dining companion was a German lady in her early forties. She was somewhat gaunt and, even after a day at the seaside and even this late in the evening, her posture was perfectly upright. The two of them, both tourists, had obviously just met that day. The way the man leaned toward her, beer in hand, suggested he assumed they would be spending the night together.
The lady seemed to like him well enough. Anyway she was trying. Perhaps she was convincing herself he was a charming rake. She knew she was no great beauty either.
The German lady’s glasses didn’t suit her. I guessed that a recent bout of dysentery, acquired in some Indian backpacking hotel, had removed the agreeable curves from her face and figure. I suspected she was the pragmatic sort of woman who, because she exacts total honesty from herself and sees that she is no classic beauty, proceeds from there to the grave error of assuming she possesses no beauty at all.
If I were a genuinely spiritual person, I would not listen to strangers’ conversations. If I did happen to overhear something, I would not comment on it or criticize it in my mind. These are pointless activities which serve only to strengthen the ego.
I did not only listen, I did not just criticize – I sought an intervention. I wanted to stand behind this man’s drunken head with a sign that read, Sister, seriously, you are WAY too good for him.
Alas, I’d recently given up rescuing people. The withdrawal symptoms from this habit were horrendous. Look at me now: I was craving the salvation of a random European tourist. I feared I might soon start smoking cigars.
The man spoke of his years of travel, his drinking buddies, his early and more recent boats. A cockroach hurried across the floor. The German woman flinched. The man assured her that there were no cockroaches where he was living.
He admitted that he did have a problem with ants. “Sugar and protein. That’s what ants like. Going to bed with a sandwich? That’s a serious mistake.”
He was still reasonably good-looking. He would always be rich. Intelligence simply wasn’t something he’d ever had a use for.
“No sandwiches in bed! The other thing is semen. Ants love semen.”
Now, if I’d been this man’s friend, the thing to do would have been to jump up, upset the table, knock over the lantern, and set fire to the tablecloth. It was conceivable that, in the commotion, the German woman might have managed to forget what he had just said.
Even that providential disaster would probably not have saved him. Almost certainly not. Anyway I was not his friend.
I turned in my chair and pretended to admire the lights of the fishing boats in the distance. The light was on in the German woman’s mind: it was as harsh and unforgiving a fluorescent as what is found in a bus station toilet.
The man hadn’t noticed anything. Beneath his own dim light he continued to appeal. He talked about his brother, who had just gotten married for the first time at the age of 50. “The bride’s 23! And my bro’s not handsome either. Used to be a junky. Only got one leg.”
Life was difficult even for the rich, I reminded myself. I ought to be more sympathetic. Instead I only felt happy for the German lady, who had gained, with the help of tiny fortuitous insects, the opportunity to reconsider before committing herself to acts which very likely would have further hampered her already ailing self-esteem.
How tortuous it was, the practice of self-restraint! I would have liked to send a cold glass of champagne to her table, along with a note that read: Congratulations on dodging the ants.
(Varkala, India, 10.07.12)