Tuesday, 29 December 2015
Monday, 21 December 2015
I guess part of the reason why it’s taken so long to do this has been that i wasn't (and still am not) sure about restarting the blog. Only because Blanche said she wanted me to do it I've agreed. There has been plenty of material to witter on about but then there's the elephant in the room, George. It would be wrong to pick up our story without talking about the tragic loss this time last year of one of the nicest people you could hope to meet but to do so in my blog for one and all (including his family), to read so soon after his death felt wrong. It was an awful, and yet... somehow... life affirming time, an experience which has made me question how we view and react to death in the UK. So... here's what happened, the first part anyway, I’m not sure how much I told you around Xmas so I'll start at the beginning.
Last year finding somewhere to stay on arrival was the usual chaotic, frustrating but fun time as previous years. In the end we had found somewhere by the start of November, a rather nice three bedroom bungalow, all en-suite, a large clean kitchen, and through lounge dining room. It was in a quiet area, mostly surrounded by local Indian family homes and was just a fifteen minute walk to the beach along relatively well lit back roads The family we were renting from were very friendly and keen for us to feel at home, the exchange rate was good and October's mini monsoon was drying out nicely. We spent our time walking, eating some of the best seafood you could imagine, swimming and bouncing over the waves on Ashok Beach. Most of the tourists and fellow refugees from the northern hemisphere's winter hadn't arrived yet so things were moving at Indian pace, a pace designed to deal with 30 C+ heat and 80% humidity. It was all good, even the washing machine we bought went into the outside kitchen with little trouble. Health wise, we were both losing weight without trying as we took more exercise and switched to an Indian diet (no nipping up the road in the car to get chocolate to eat while slumped watching TV), joints were free moving and flab was turning to muscle.
By mid-December we were fully acclimatized to the heat, food, pace of life, no longer "on holiday" but enjoying living in our little house in the sun and looking forward to George and Blanche arriving for their pre-Christmas break.
Who are Blanche and George? Sorry I should have introduced them, how rude of me. Blanche and George are a couple we first met about 8 years ago on our second visit to Kovalam, they hail from Northern Ireland and work in the health/social care/community development sectors. How did we meet? Well we were all staying at the Golden Sands Hotel and Sarah was looking for somewhere to do yoga and had spotted Blanche heading out from the hotel early in the morning with a yoga mat tucked under her arm, she followed her and that was that. So Blanche and Sarah shared a love of yoga and George and I shared a love of cricket, coffee and rum, and acute depression which went away in the Indian sunshine. (The one thing that annoyed me about George was his ability to tan in under 48 hours - As a card carrying ginger it was most frustrating) However, together we all fell in love with Kovalam, the place and the people and ended up sharing a plan to retire there in the winters.
As i was saying, Blanche and George arrived in Kovalam as usual about three weeks before Christmas, this year they had a friend with them from Northern Ireland who was visiting India for the first time. The plan being she would be shown the ropes by them for the two weeks she was there then B&G would have the last week or so to wind down ready for a family Christmas at home. We would catch up as and when we could allowing us all to do what we wanted during the day and share the odd meal and story in the evenings.
Our first meal together was great fun, it was for Blanches birthday, and we had great fun hearing the news from home, B&G's plans for the future (they were selling their house) and for once, even though they had been there three or four days... George wasn't browner than me... in fact he looked a bit peaky and had a hell of a cough. He was however as much fun as ever and a good craic was had by all. Sarah and George sharing their favourite dish, Christopher gently pulling Blanche's leg, George and I talking about the upcoming Sri Lanka tour and if we should fork out the £80 return flight and catch a match in Colombo or Candy. A cake had been arranged and we were just about to serve it when PK arrived, now PK used to be a waiter but retrained as an Astrologist and I can honestly say it was a great decision as, though a lovely person and great fun, he was a disaster as a waiter. You could never be sure if you would get what you ordered for two reasons
1) If he didn’t know what a dish was on the menu he wouldn’t sell it you, to this day we have no idea what Satellite Chicken is PK had no idea and wasn’t prepared to let us order it to find out . “I don’t know what it is, you don’t know what it is, I don’t think the kitchen know what it is , you can’t have it “
2) He had no real comprehension of eating food in courses – you were as likely to get the main meal followed by the soup as the other way round and if one of you decided not have a starter then all bets were off.
So he retrained as an astrologer, I loved the irony, a man who couldn’t foretell what he was supposed to be going to serve you from one minute to the next retrained as a futurologist. George, being George had fully embraced this career change and for fun had on the previous visit asked PK do his chart for him only to be surprised at some of the insights PK gave him.
Anyway PK had managed to pitch up just as cake being served… spooky and funny.
A fun night was had by all.
The next morning I felt bloody awful, I had TMF (Tourist Man 'Flu), the Russians had arrived earlier in the week and I'd caught whatever they had brought in with them. Consequentially, we decided to stay away from B&G it would have hardly been fair to inflict or infect them with a pre-xmas lurgies. So it wasn't until nearly 10 days later we met up in the Malabar Cafe, Sarah and I had had an early dinner (Seafood Soup and a chapatti) and were just finishing as B&G came in for their evening meal, their friend had returned home and they were free agents again. George and I agreed the trip to Sri Lanka was a no go as England were demonstrating just how bad they had become. We arranged to have a big blowout meal on Thursday or Friday (Crab Masala) as they were due to fly back in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Tuesday the day we had considered jetting off to Colombo was a bright warm but breezy day so Sarah and I decided to head off to Ashok beach, the waves were big but we were used to them and spent an hour or so leaping into the air to clear the crest before they broke. It was a glorious morning. About 11 we reluctantly climbed back onto our sun beds and decided what we would have for lunch, fish masala, 3 chapattis, lime soda, diet Pepsi and then the phone rang.
It was Peter, a friend who had rented a bungalow just round the corner from us.
I watched as Sarah's face crumpled and a sob escaped
George was dead.
He had collapsed and drowned on Lighthouse Beach just round the headland from where we were swimming.
Could we come?
He was going with Blanche to the hospital
Could we meet them back at her Hotel, Golden Sands, the Hotel they stayed at twice a year, the one we had met them at all that time go.
We said yes.
Blanche arrived back at the hotel with Christopher, Peter and his wife Catherine at 6 pm. They had spent an indescribable afternoon between police station hospital and mortuary. All looked pale and exhausted. Sarah and Blanche hugged and shepherded her up to her room. George was everywhere, his clothes, cigarettes, whiskey, chair out on the balcony, headphones where he had left them that morning. I kept expecting him to amble in, pour us a drink, light a cigarette and laugh as he told us it was all a joke. He was fine, don't be stupid, people don't die in Kovalam, not people you know, not people you care about... except... he had.
The next bit is a blur, We asked Blanche what she wanted to do, did she want us to stay, did she want to go somewhere else, we had booked into a room downstairs, had she eaten, did she need to see a doctor, who did we need to tell, what happens next, how do we get George home, will there be a post mortem, an inquest, should relatives come out, endless questions, half answers, more questions, on and on and on and on and…
Peter and Kathrine went home, they were exhausted and there was nothing else they could do, nothing any of us could do tonight, not in India. But it was 2 pm. in the UK and family and relatives worked to find answers and make contacts.
I don’t remember when or how we decided (were told?) to go back to our bungalow, I remember stopping at Peter and Kathrine’s for a drink on the way home, they were sitting out on their porch as we passed and beckoned us in. I think it was about then I realised what a remarkable thing they had done, they had supported Blanche all day, from police station to hospital to mortuary, Peter had been one of those who physically lifted George into the mortuary fridge, they had been there when Blanche was told George had died and when she had formally identified him for the police and yet, prior to today they had exchanged fewer than a dozen words, Blanche and George were just people we knew and they said hi to as they went into and out of the Malabar Café. They told us how they had become involved, it appeared George had collapsed while out swimming, eye witnesses had seen him one minute playing in the waves having a great time enjoying the surf and sun and the next minute he was being carried up onto the beach having collapsed. A German tourist attempted CPR and a paramedic unit was called, George was carried off the beach on a sunbed. At this point no one knew his name who he was. Kallam, one of the sunbed sellers knew George bought his cigarettes from Habbib and rang him, Habbib knew that George knew Christopher so rang him, Christopher tried to ring us but we were in the sea but knew George stayed at the Golden Sands so rang them and then he ran into Peter and Kathrine as they were coming off the beach. It had been an extraordinary day, we told P&K how by the time we made it back from Ashok Beach the whole beach somehow knew our friend George had died and from store owners to fruit sellers, T-shirt sellers to restaurant staff all had greeted us with genuine sorrow and distress and concern for Blanche, where was she? Could they do anything? How was she coping? Did we need anything? In the midst of such a tragedy it was a life affirming moment, so many people wanting to help with no thought for themselves. A selfless kindness we would see much of over the next few days.
We finished our drinks and headed home, I thought it would take some time to sleep with thoughts of George, the good times, the day and the days to come, Blanche and how she would cope, what support she would need and how to get her home to her family but I was wrong, my body intervened as mental and emotional exhaustion kicked in and I slept soundly until 6am and woke watch the sun rise on what was to be a long day.
We ate quickly, a breakfast of cereal, drank tea and coffee and left to join Blanche at her hotel. We knew from conversations the previous evening that she would need return to the police station and then visit the hospital and mortuary to collect the necessary papers, everything hinged on getting two certificates one being the permission to repatriate George the other being his death certificate. We had volunteered to go with her together with the hotel owner Pradeep, Sanjeev the hotel manager and Christopher. When we arrive Blanche told us how during the night she had spoken to her children at home and how they had updated each other on what we needed to do next. It had been a tough time. She also told us how the hotel staff had been wonderfully caring, regularly checking on her, constant offers of tea, food or sometimes just to hold her hand, hug or to sit and be quiet with her.
Having made sure Blanche had had something to eat, it was going to be a long, hot day and she would need the energy, we headed for the police station. On arrival we were herded into the back of the station a relatively new building, a series of offices and rooms off a central area, plain concrete walls in regulation magnolia, a few well used desks and chairs it could have been any small town nick in England except for the small multi-faith shrine in the corner. Ganesh and other Hindu deities sat bathed in Incense smoke next to the Virgin Mary and Jesus on the cross.
Christopher introduced us to the station chief and then to ADSI Ajay Kumar, who had been given the case to process by his superior. (ADSI - Assistant Deputy Sub Inspector, only the NHS has longer less informative job titles than the Indian police, suffice it to say he had 3 stars and coloured ribbon on his lapels and on his chest,) We were asked to sit while the officers talked and passed papers back and forward, forward and back between them, then with a flourish multiple rubber stamps were produced, checked, inked and tested before being applied to various documents. And that was it… all done, as if. This was just the beginning of the process, permission to obtain other papers which otherwise would be barred to us. Little did we know just how many of these rubber stamps we would see before we had all the papers and George could go home. While we waited a police sergeant walked over to talk to Sarah and I. I think he wanted to put us at our ease and practice his English.
“So are you related to the person who died?” he asked smiling.
“Errr, no he was a friend, his wife is sitting there with some of our friends from the hotel” I replied, slightly on edge as his grin broadened.
“How did he die, what happened?”
“We think he collapsed in the sea, sorry I wasn’t there, I think they are going to do a post mortem”
“That would be normal, how old was he?”
“He was sixty”
“Oh good age then” he grinned. “In India 60 is good age, I am 48 and don’t expect to reach 58, we don’t make old bones here, too much fried chicken”
With that he waved and smiled at Blanche and wandered off out to his police jeep. (I found out later the life expectancy for a man in India currently stands at 63.8 years, not great but the year I was born, 1961 it was 43.2 so things are getting better).
Meanwhile Blanche was beginning to look more anxious as the officers talked in Malayam, only every so often an English word or phrase would break through ”jibber jibber jibber the body jibber body jibber….” and “jibber, jibber, the body, jibber, jibber”. It was dawning on her that the body they were talking about was George, her George. At that moment things got decidedly surreal, PK arrived, he walked over, hugged Blanche, looked sad and offered to go and fetch breakfast. We all just looked at each other and then declined his kind offer.
First set of papers in order we headed out for the hospital in convoy, George was at the city mortuary where he was due to have a PM and the plan being once that was done to transfer him to the private mortuary at KIMS hospital to await his flight home.
Blanche, Sarah and I were in Pradeep the hotel owner’s car; Christopher rode with the police station chief, Ajay Kumar and Sanjeev in a taxi and a police SUV rode on ahead. The drive was about 45 minutes through Indian rush hour traffic, not helped by a protest taking place in central Trivandrum at the time. The protest was organised by the bus drivers’ union, some of the bus company’s pensioners hadn’t received their pension for over two years. One pensioner had become so desperate he had taken his own life, in response the protest had been called and just to make the point the protesters had taken the dead body of the pensioner with them on the march, laying it out in the middle of the main road outside the state government buildings. Meanwhile, in the car on the way we discussed PK’s arrival at the police station. Firstly how had known we were there at the police station (spooky), and secondly if we had ordered anything what were the odds on him getting it right (very slim).
The state hospital in Trivandrum is enormous, and I do mean enormous, it’s the university medical, dental and nursing school too. Our first port of call was the mortuary where George had been taken overnight. Finding a parking place was horrendous or would have been without a police escort and two senior police officers in the taxi so we just pulled up outside and parked in the area sectioned off for police vehicles. I noticed Praveen had become quieter and quieter as we approached the hospital
“Are you OK Praveen?”
“Me? Oh I’m fine its just it brings back memories of my Father”. Praveen’s Father had died the previous year “I had to do all this for him, getting the papers I mean.”
“Oh I’m sorry I didn’t think. Did it take this long?”
“I haven’t got them all yet”
I looked round to find Christopher tapping on the car window beckoning me to follow him. I climbed out as he motioned for Blanche and Sarah to stay in the car.
“Come, come” he lead me round the corner to a large grimy concrete one story building, more like a military bunker than a hospital building. On one wall, facing the main road through the hospital, was an open doorway and a large meshed window where people were standing around, some smoking and generally peering in to the building.
We had been joined by Sanjeev and the taxi driver and Christopher motioned for us to follow him though the crowd and in through the doorway.
Inside the entrance I realised what the crowd outside had been looking at, I was standing in a small room on one wall was the mesh grill window, on the other 5 or 6 hospital trolleys and on one of them was an old Indian man, covered in a hospital green sheet with his head and feet poking out at each end. His name was written on a parcel tag tied to one of his big toes. He was very dead. I’ve seen many dead bodies so it wasn’t that which surprized me, it was how others were reacting i.e. they weren’t. They were having a quiet fag outside chatting with their mates, sharing the odd joke, probably discussing last night’s IPL match or what’s for tea, occasionally glancing in the mesh window to look at the white bloke after all you can see a dead body any day but a white bloke in a mortuary that’s something to talk about.
A mortuary attendant appeared and collected a trolley then pushed it out through the door in the far wall summoning us to follow. In the middle of the second room stood a bank of well used mortuary fridges 3 blocks high by about 10 long, I forget the exact number but you get the picture, a lot but probably nowhere near enough to serve a population the size of Trivandrum and surrounding area. Or so I thought, but then I remembered this was a 24/7 country, a PM while-you-wait so to speak. The attendant opened a fridge door and pulled out a slider, it was George. He was covered in the same manner as the body in the first room, green sheet, feet out, luggage tag attached. He looked… asleep, I half expected a snore. (George is the only person I have met whose snoring could keep me awake especially after a tot or too of Gentleman Jim – A fact I found out when we shared a room when we went to see an IPL match finishing a very pleasant evening by putting the world to rights and getting slaughtered on the roof of the homestay. George told the story differently swearing it was me who kept him awake).
“Come, come” the mortuary assistant waved some more. I wasn’t quite sure what he wanted then I realised he wanted us to lift George out of the fridge onto the trolley. I know there have been cutbacks all over but seriously? I looked round at the others expecting a usual tirade in Malayam or Hindi about him being a lazy git and why weren’t his colleagues helping? Where were the porters? But no Christopher, Sanjeev and the taxi driver (whose name I never knew) stepped forward, so I did likewise. Then with great care and respect and I would add with considerable effort we lifted George onto the trolley. In the UK this would not happen, but think about it for a moment, after your death would you rather you and or your loved ones be moved around by those who know and care for and about you or by some pimple faced youth on a modern apprenticeship who doesn’t know you from Adam? Makes you think who’s got it right doesn’t it?
So once on the trolley we wheel George out into first room, which I now realise is the viewing room. The reason for the mesh window is so the entire family and friends can see the deceased and with Indian families that’s no small group. An Indian solution to a practical problem. It’s at this point that Christopher turns to me to ask if Blanche would like to see George before the PM. I look at George, still expecting him to snore, he is a little blue but other than that he looks ok, but I’m used to bodies, its not a call I’m going to make alone. “I think Sarah should take a look first”. Christopher looks at me and nods.
We pop back out to the car, tap the window and wave for her to get out of the car.
“Nothing… well it’s just do you think Blanche would want to see George before the PM?” Sarah looked at Blanche sitting in the car, then at Christopher, then back at me.
“I’m not sure, how does he look?”
“A sort of blue asleep, I keep expecting him to snore”
Sarah looked back at Blanche then said “I think I need to see”
“OK”, said Christopher and “do you have some money?”
“Yep no problem” said Sarah handing Chris about £20 in rupees. We had been expecting this everything costs in India, someone has to pay for the pens and paper after all.
“Thank you, it’s for the photos and video” Having watched lots of CSI it’s not exactly a surprise after all George was a sudden death, his body would be inaccessible to the authorities once shipped a permanent record of the PM made sense. I remembered Praveen and the fact 12 months on he still hadn’t got all his papers and thought in the great scheme of things paying for PM video and photos was the least of our worries. And if it greased the right palm so what, the objective was to look after Blanche and George.
Anyway, back to what needed to be done. Sarah took one look at George, the surroundings and said no but she would check with Blanche first. Blanche agreed, now was not the time or place. Christopher then asked me to come with him again back to see George for what I assumed would be one last time.
Then I noticed a man in the corner of the room with a rather expensive looking camera, he was writing on a slate in chalk which he propped up against George on the trolley. He then proceeded to take his photograph, portrait, portrait with slate, full length from the end of the trolley, slate at George’s feet, side on, plus and minus slate. Then he produces a video camera and repeats the process. Its at this point I realise I’m in the video, not just in the background but a full participant as is Chris, Sanjeev and the taxi man. Finally he poses us behind George for the video finale and a series of stills.
Christopher thanks the man and proudly informs me that the video and photos will be ready tomorrow, English time not Indian ready for Blanche to take home. The photos weren’t for the police, they were for us. I should have known, previously we had sat through a slide show of photos taken at Christopher’s mother-in-law’s open casket funeral with his children pointing out who was who and setting it to a rather jolly Indian piece of music (I’m not sure if it was theirs or their grandma’s favourite and she certainly wasn’t giving anything away). In the west, even today when everyone carries a camera on their phone funerals are a photo taboo, in India no one gives photo bombing a corpse a second thought, a white person, a body, a great selfie opportunity.
The look on my face as the crowd tried to get in on the video must have been hilarious. The one thing I do know is George would have been howling with laughter. To this day I’m not sure if I saw him smile as I turned to walk back to the car at the ludicrousness of the situation.
“Hey Ranjeev!!! Have I shown you the photo of my dead English friend? Come and look at my Nokia 635, the clarity is super mega awesome!!! You can see him smiling!!!”
Part 2 to follow