They say South Pier will collapse any day now. It’s a few centuries old, one of two moldering black structures that mark the beach close to my parents’ home. My mother grew up in this town, Calicut, and can remember catching crabs under that pier with my grandfather. Too small to be cooked, the crabs would be fed to her chickens. The chickens didn’t make it to the table either–they were raised as pets. So the crabs got the short end of that stick, but their dead weren’t talking. The translucent hordes kept coming, and the chickens eventually died of old age. Those were the pier’s glory days, days when dhows laced winter horizons, their holds full of dates and attar and the like. Today’s Arab traders prefer air travel, though, and the pier lies abandoned. The sea seems determined to reclaim that part of the beach, and there’s little doubt that it will succeed. No one seems to care, though people talk about it all the time: There is too much putrefying history here, all of it eons old, for South Pier’s wheezing black posts to make a strong case for survival.
I’m told you get the best view of the pier from the parapet that runs the length of the beach. I haven’t tested that claim myself–the wall, you see, is overrun at all times by “Eve teasers,” idlers intent on harassing female strollers. The precise nature of these men’s attentions varies: My neighbor claims that one Lothario grabbed at her breast, and I keep hearing stories about exposed penises. I have no nipple pinchings or penis sightings to report, but am careful to stay with my friends if I’m in the area. One remains vulnerable to comments, however, and of these there are several. The wallfolk are vocal, as are fishermen returning from market, their catch sold, bikes loaded with empty boxes tracking slime. I barely understand their patois, and incomprehension inures me somewhat. What I do understand I sometimes find incredibly funny, actually (the humor is lost in the translation, so you’ll have to take my word for it)–but to laugh is to invite trouble.
Had no option this morning, though. Walking with my friends on an overpass close to the beach, I stopped to look at an abutting wall thick with movie posters. South India’s film establishments, while no match for Bollywood’s, are prolific, and they are known for three kinds of films: artsy-fartsy parallel cinema, hugely successful commercial soap, and softcore sleaze. I’m not sure where Miss Madras, one of the movies being advertised on the wall, would fall–but the poster would suggest the last category. It showed an improbably buxom woman supine, her lips pursed, legs spread, knees bent, feet crossed at the ankles, the words “Miss Madras” strung between her thighs in a pungent pink. Picture it. There was a man somewhere in the shot, I believe–but I wasn’t looking. Nor were these two fishermen who roared up on a motorbike, then stopped abruptly by the wall. They stared at the woman for a few minutes, saying nothing, oblivious of the three of us watching them from above. Then one of them gathered up the free end of his lungi (the saronglike garment favored by men here), spat into it, and rubbed fiercely at the woman’s crotch. The entire crotch promptly disappeared. No less good-humored for her loss, she continued to smile wetly. The men left as abruptly as they had arrived. No words exchanged but enough said.