Varkala's cliff area is essentially a lawless zone, a modern-day Deadwood. Okay, perhaps that's stretching it, but compared to Bangalore with its strictly policed 11:30pm curfew, The Cliff is debauchery incarnate. In traditional-minded Kerala, Varkala is a strange outpost of Western freedoms – a sort of tiny imitation Goa – and the contrast with its surroundings is marked. Bodies lie strewn about the place, some of them topless; people flirt openly and flaunt their sexuality; alcoholic beverages are consumed; someone over there may even be sparking up a joint. And that's just the beach.
If you live here, straddling the two cultures becomes a constant balancing act (there are many stories to come on this subject, in addition the ones you can already find on The NRI), and you get to be quite good at it. Most of the time I am Barns, the office saip, travelling on the train in the mornings and evenings and talking about the weather with my elderly neighbour. You can't escape your roots, though, and with this little place that looks and feels a bit like home just minutes' walk away from where you live, sometimes the mania gets to be a bit much and you just have to go out and let your hair down for a night. This is the story of one of those nights.
As usual, it began with a spur-of-the-moment decision. “Let's go dancing,” said my girlfriend one fine Saturday evening in May, and I was on the phone ordering a rickshaw within seconds. None available? No problem. It was a reasonably cool night, so we could walk without having to arrive at the party drenched with sweat. After throwing clothes around the room trying to find something Western that wasn't growing mould in a drawer – funny how you can systematically desi-fy your wardrobe here without even realising it – we were away.
Our destination was The Funky Art Cafe. Funky is generally the place to be in Varkala – it's relatively spacious, plays whatever music you want, and tends to stay open the latest. Quite how they became so well-established is a question many people along the cliff are willing to answer, though no two stories are exactly the same... of course, that could be true of any story told there. When we arrived, we were greeted by M & M, two inseparable young waiters who could get you anything you want if, of course, you happened to want it. Just keep one eye out for the police. Beer and dancing was enough contraband for us, so after the obligatory “Why you are not coming here long time?! Tomorrow also you come!”, we took a table and ordered in our first beers.
The magic of getting a look at the Arabian Sea as you walk out onto the cliff path remains a regular delight, but it isn't until you sit down somewhere with a cool drink that you can really sit down and appreciate it. Night or day, clear or stormy, it's a sight to behold, and as our newspaper-wrapped Kingfishers arrive, we take a few moments to follow the roll of the sea. The newspaper is for avoiding run-ins with wandering police; at other places, beer is served in a teapot. At first I thought this rather an ineffective means of staving off the lawmen, who would surely know all the tricks. Turns out they do. It's just that you have to keep up appearances, at least make it look like you're an upstanding establishment, for the bribes to stick.
An hour later, nobody was dancing. We'd gawked at the more obvious tourists, decked out in accessories, makeup and occasional catty looks, for quite long enough – time to get things rolling. Within a minute of our getting up there, most of the (male) staff and local (male) customers were dancing along with us, trying to get as close to my girlfriend as possible. Thankfully, after a couple of years of living here I'd learnt the tricks: you dance extra close to THEM, make them realise that you're not one of those wishy-washy types who'll let an alpha male come up and steal their girl, and say a couple of carefully chosen words to the more persistent ones. Everyone's cool, you carry on dancing, and inevitably other foreigners join in once they see how much fun it can be.
Hours were lost as we downed a few more drinks and went through the 'just one more song' routine a few times. As the clock moved on past midnight, numbers started to dwindle – this being the off season, the energy in the place was good but not good enough to sustain most folks through an all-nighter. Soon, we were sat back down with M & M and a couple of other staff, chatting away about the madness of their lives working here. “I sleep only one hour every night,” one said through a crazed grin. “You know, here is very bad place,” another intoned quietly, before bursting into a high-pitched peal of laughter and adding, “You stay here long time!” If I didn't know them I might be a little unsettled, but most of these guys are harmless – just kids who wandered into a pleasure-seeking lifestyle and don't know how to leave it.
Suddenly a murmur spread through the place, building with alarm as it passed from one person to another. The music was cut and the lights killed, replaced with the growing intensity of a policeman's torch as it approached nearer. There were three of them – two enormous uniforms with purposely intimidating facial hair, and one smaller man, jacketed, with a very loud voice. As soon as the beam of light hit our chairs, the bellowing began. First, a stream of high-decibel Malayalam as the staff rushed around trying to make it look like the party was long since over. He wielded a large stick with gusto as he turned to us and switched to English.
“What sort of time is this? What are you doing here?”
“Just talking with friends-”
“No, no, this is not a proper time. You will go now, please.”
My girlfriend pressed. “Certainly sir, but can you just tell us when is the curfew here?”
Anger rising, he barely gave her a chance to finish. “Madam, you will go now. Please.”
“Of course sir, but we were not aware of any curf-”
He gripped the stick tightly. The veins in his forehead looked ready to burst. “Madam, you will go! Now!”
I ushered us out quickly and quietly. So much for my alpha male skills.
I'm not sure exactly what happened next. Most likely, the three stooges left with a case of beer or a stack of 100-rupee bills and everybody went back and did the same the next day. We, on the other hand, made good our escape back to 'the real India'. Throughout ten minutes of walking in the dark we kept our eyes peeled as always, just in case – and made it home without event. And finally, a sigh of relief as the Monday return to work, and to reality, had become a much less unsettling prospect. Still, just as you can't revolve your life around your daily grind, so too you can't dance every night away in the separate little universe that is The Cliff. It's finding the right balance that's key.