The Finn in Cochin
Olga Pavlinov Olenich
On the morning of a national stoppage, we made our way through the dead streets of Ernakulam to the quay, from which we hoped, somehow, to get across the choppy stretch of water that separated us from Fort Cochin. We were a party of five, having met my father’s double, his wife, and teenage daughter on a boat in the backwaters of Kerala. I had been struck by the uncanny resemblance between the man and my father, and we had struck up a friendship that was destined to outlast our trip to India.
Optimistic travelers, we could not entertain the idea that there wouldn’t be some way of getting to Cochin, or Kochi as it is now called. Confounding as India could be, there was always a way. So we thought we’d take our chances on the waterfront. It was a gray washed-out day in which the blurred horizon merged with the clouded water and everything seemed indeterminate. Vague outlines of ships in the distance hovered on the edge of being seen. We stood at the empty ferry terminal wondering what to do next. A few lone figures drifted in from the town. They did the rounds of the closed stalls and the shuttered ticket office, read the peeling timetables, looked wistfully across to the islands, and gravitated to our little group. Perhaps they felt that we would make things happen, or perhaps it’s just the natural way of lost souls to gather around some nucleus in the hope that something solid might form. At any rate, our cluster of hopefuls on the quay took on a more purposeful aspect with the arrival of a smart young woman in businesslike western dress.
She looked at her watch. “The ten o’clock ferry might be running, this is what I have heard,” she said in a clear voice that rang through the empty terminal like a bell.
Although ten o’clock had been and gone, we cheered up at the prospect of a might and began to chat amicably among ourselves, keeping an eye on the water for any sign of the ferry.
A lone battered boat came in out of the mist and took its position convulsively near a small line of similarly humble vessels moored in the scummy water adjacent to the ferry terminal. The noise of its sputtering engine took over where our conversations left off. We listened and watched as a youngish man in a dirty pair of mustard colored pants jumped barefoot from the boat onto the jetty.
“No ferry today!” he said emphatically, defying the indignant stare of the businesslike girl who was still checking her watch from time to time, willing the ferry to keep its promise. “No taxi, no bus, no train, no ferry!” he said, relishing his role as the bearer of bad tidings.
This would be a lucrative day for him. He had the boat. We wanted to cross the water. What could be simpler? We discussed the possibility of pooling resources to pay the boatman.
I approached a boy I’d noticed when he wandered in from Ernakulam. He must have been in his early twenties. He was very fair, the kind of fairness that, had the day been brighter, would have been dazzling in the predominately dark-haired group of people gathered at the waterfront. His look was a familiar one. He made me think of the tall blond village lads of the illustrated Russian folk-tales, but he might just as well have been a prince, one of the Vikings who had sailed down the Volga and conquered the land of Rus. He spoke English with an accent that could have been Russian.
“Are you Russian?” I asked.
“Just over the border,” he said. “I am Finn. You are Russian. He is Russian.” He pointed to my father's double who was filling in the time by photographing the vague outlines of Cochin against the smudged horizon. Like my father, he always had to be doing something. I was surprised at the Finn’s perspicacity.
“I am Australian, he is English,” I said.
“But you are Russian, the man and you,” said the Finn, looking at the sky.
Although he seemed to indicate that he’d be interested in joining us on the boat, I felt that there was no real interest in us or in the venture. He seemed to be adrift in India, moving with any current that caught him in its momentum. “I don’t mind,” was his catchphrase.
“Shall we offer the boatman some money?”
“I don't mind.”
“Do you want to go to Cochin?”
“I don’t mind.”
We watched a rat the size of a cat scurry along the scummy embankment. I asked the young Finn what he was doing in India. He was just drifting along. We fell into silence.
A man in a suit was making his way towards us. He looked determined. He broke through the silence and stagnation of the little group by the boat and immediately collared the boatman. There was a short period of negotiation before he announced that he had secured the boat for a crossing. He invited all of us to join him, but we needed to be quick because he was in a hurry. For some reason, he spoke directly to me.
“I am the bank manager and I have a bank to open, national stoppage or not!”
I refrained from heading into the troubled waters of political debate.
The boatman was revving up the engine. The group moved towards the boat. Even the Finn had begun to make a show of movement, his long languid steps making a straight line to the point of embarkation. The scum moved in greenish ripples around the boat. Several more rats scuttled along the embankment.
To my horror, the boat was already pulling away from the quay with a low growl. The Finn extended a long hand to haul me in. It was the only time I was to see him act quickly.
The boat cut its way through the gray glass of water. We moved rapidly from the emptiness of Ernakulam and past some old tankers from different parts of the globe. I identified a Soviet-era Russian rust bucket. Someone was moving about on its top deck. This was the only sign of life, apart from the skimming birds and a cloud of some kind of insect too distant to identify, too gray to be immediately discernible against the sky and sea on a day of national stillness.
When we pulled up at Kochi, we began to put our money together to pay the boatman who stood on the shore with the expectant air of a ravenous gull, but the bank manager waved us away.
“I will settle this,” he said magnanimously.
We drowned him in a chorus of thanks, except for the Finn who seemed to be wondering what to do with the wad of grubby notes he had taken out of his pocket. As he leaned across the railing, watching the rest of us disembark, his grip relaxed and the notes floated down into the water. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“Are you coming?” I shouted.
“Why not?” he replied and came on to the shore.
Kochi was open for business. Or at least it was showing some signs of life. The small group of us who had sailed across to the island, courtesy of the bank manager, watched our benefactor walk briskly away. He had things to do, a day-to-day life of duties to tackle, while we were in that interesting state of being travelers, skimming the surface, drifting along, waiting for the next plunge into discovery.
As if we had all come to a silent agreement that the time was not yet right to break up, we found ourselves at a long table on the shore, ordering cold drinks and tea, introducing ourselves properly, and sharing anecdotes of our travels. The Finn settled beside me with a bottle of Coke and watched. I do not know if he was listening. It didn’t seem to matter, because the occasional smile that rippled across his face didn’t seem to have its origins in anything that was said at the table.
Then, unexpectedly, he spoke to me. “I am actor,” he said.
I expressed surprise.
“I am actor on stage,” he elaborated. “Sometime I am actor on film.”
He laughed. I found it hard to see him as an actor, but on reflection, I thought he might just make a Hamlet in the style of the Great Russian actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky. The look was right.
“Vasco da Gama died in Cochin,” I said because the thought came to me unexpectedly, but I don’t think he knew who Vasco da Gama was, or perhaps he just didn’t care. “Before Shakespeare,” I added, for some reason.
“Ah,” he said, knowingly. “Before Shakespeare.”
For a moment, we were speaking the same language.
The Finn had no idea how long he might be in Kochi, but it transpired that the other people who had come on the boat with us were only there for the day. They had apparently negotiated a return trip with the boatman and were anxious to see what they could see. We parted ways and went in search of accommodation. The Finn came with us.
Buoyed by the successful crossing, my father’s double led us gaily to an attractive guesthouse just opposite the historic Syrian Orthodox cathedral — a strange presence in a strange place. While we negotiated our rooms and the all-important balconies, the Finn sat in the garden smoking a cigarette. Above the puffs of smoke, afternoon clouds gathered in magnificent formation behind the spire of the cathedral in preparation for the burst of evening rain that was yet to come.
After dragging out our passports, filling out the inevitable forms (thank you British India!), hauling our luggage upstairs, testing the plumbing, switching on the lights, stepping out onto the balcony, poking at the bedding, and all the other little things you do when you move into a new room, we were ready for our first foray into Fort Cochin. It was overcast but hot. The others were surprised to see that the Finn was still around.
“Why's he still here?”
“Why not?” I said.
We set off along the road, past the Syrian cathedral and several other decaying churches, toward the Old Dutch sector and Jewtown. Before leaving Australia, I had seen a program about the Jews of Cochin who had come to India two thousand years ago. The program featured the synagogue built by the Jewish merchants of the Malabar Coast, and it suddenly occurred to me that I would soon see it with my own eyes. This struck me as somehow miraculous. I savored the anticipation, walking slowly and taking in the sights offered on each side of the road.
On the way, we stopped for a drink in a rough little bar opposite a disintegrating house that had been grand in its time but now, to my eyes, was more beautiful. The garden had crept into the doors and windows so that the old stonework was dappled with color and shadows and tricks of the light. There were occasional flashes of blue.
For a while, it was hard to tell if the blue belonged to the sky, patches of which appeared unexpectedly in the frames of the upper-story windows, or if it was the blue of feathers belonging to some extraordinary bird. Eventually, our eyes became accustomed to the shifting patterns and we made out the straight lines of an old balcony on which sat a row of birds with exquisite blue breasts, the color of a summer sky. The quiet joys of travel. Silently, we watched the birds and soaked in the other colors of a special day.
Soon, the road took us into the narrow streets of the Dutch sector, where the names of old traders were still discernible on the old shop fronts. We moved further and further into Old Cochin and Jewtown. Here, we found the dark cellars of cavernous spice stores and a few animated spice sellers, seemingly oblivious to the politics and industrial action on the mainland. There were various well-stocked antique stores and a wonderful small bookshop where I bought a copy of Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay.
The synagogue was almost as it had been presented on television, but somehow more delicate with lighter proportions. It was magical just to be in such a place. Outside the synagogue we met two Danes — one, a tall, thin, hungry boy with long orange dreadlocks, the other wearing startling blue eye shadow and a coat straight out of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.They smiled at us, but gravitated toward the Finn.
I turned to him. “Why don’t you join up with these Danish boys?” I suggested quietly.
“Why not?” he said.
We left him in Old Cochin with the two young Danes, his own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It seemed an appropriate end to our association with the indeterminate Finn.
About the Author
Olga Pavlinova Olenich is an Australian writer whose work appears in local and international publications. Her prose and poems have been broadcast on national radio and have featured in national newspapers, and her memoirs included in the collection Best Australian Humorous Writing (Melbourne University Press, 2008) and The Best Travel Writing Volume 11(Travelers' Tales Series. Solis House Palo Alto, 2016). Her poetry appears in several anthologies, including Australian Poetry Anthology V 2006 and Best Australian Poems (Black inc. 2015).