Seas flow and converge into the ocean beyond a distant, rocky point. Kanyakumari consists of pastel houses, slowly decaying hotels, an enormous statue of a poet-saint who stares out across the waters. Pilgrims flock the beach, dipping hands and feet out into the water, and praying to the virgin goddess who rests here. Her home lies on the very southernmost tip of India.
When night falls, enormous vampire bats swoop and screech overhead. Ghostly music shimmies out from the coast and the temple, which stays alight. The power dips on and off, and the town is cast into darkness and into light in an irregular, unpredictable rhythm. Walking the streets becomes a journey through the black, with just starlight and reflections on windshields to guide the way.
All along the south-western coast lies a decaying amusement park. Like the houses the colours are bright and childish, neon blues and pinks and greens, slightly murkier and mossier now from age and neglect. An ancient aquarium lures a handful of bored children, and dozens of carnival rides slowly rust in the sun and the salt spray. A ferris wheel still runs, still lights up sometimes in the night, a great circle of flickering orange and yellow. The tilt-a-whirl died a quiet death eons ago.
People invested here, once: Kanyakumari, the romantic city. A city to hold weddings, a city to delight the children, a city to wow and amaze and thrill. Lights once shone along the beach, electricity flowed at all hours. Strange delights were enjoyed under a ceiling of stars and sky. People were amazed. This was the past.
It is Coney Island, after the fall. The semi-apocalyptic landscape wastes in the hot sun. Pockets of livelihood thrive—restaurants and hotels and the few lonely carnival games. The temple sings at all hours and people still journey to the islands. But enveloping them is a shell of disrepair and decay, the dying outer petals of a struggling flower.
We arrive midday, our train slowly chugging into this terminal point, this absolute nexus. Only a few roads criss-cross the town, and it is easy to orient ourselves, with the very precipice of the entire country sprawled our before us. The sea is on three sides, and land is on the fourth. A few rickshaws ply their trade and try to convince to join them for a ride; they promise a quick journey to our hotel, that it will only be 50 rupees, 100 rupees, that maybe it will be difficult for us to find otherwise. We march on.
Our hotel abuts the ocean, and we walk along the water until we find an outcropping in the sea. Great stones stretch into a jagged path, and we hop along until we are nearly a kilometre at sea, until India is far behind us. We have been travelling a long time, and walking out into the salt water feels like the next natural step.
The temple thrums. To respect the goddess, men must enter bare-chested, and all around the outer ridges of the temple people are bathing in the water. Saris soak and denim grows heavy. People eat and laugh and touch the very end of the world with their toes and fingertips
I wake up on the seventh to the sound of crashing waves. It is my birthday, and I am in one of the strangest places I have ever been. I made the request to my friends long ago: that, if we could, I wanted to be in Kanyakumari, that I wanted to be at the every tip of India, that I wanted to celebrate my birthday possibly as far as I have ever been. From home, from work, from all that I know. I wanted to be in the new.
We journey to the island, to the Vivekenanda memorial. White stone paths bake in the sun, and every tourist attempts to circumnavigate the building entirely in the shade. There is a Gandhi memorial too, on the mainland, quiet and dusty and open, surrounded by children’s playground equipment with chipped paint.
The restaurant we choose proves devoid of cake, and so we order the sundae to celebrate my birth. A three-layered monstrosity appears before me: a layer of pink, a layer of green, a layer of white. The top stratum appears to be vanilla, and hunks of banana detritus are interspersed in a great wad of ice-creamy mucous. When I delve into the next level I taste globs of half-shredded apple embedded in a foamy, yogurt effluvia, possibly some wads of curd. I struggle, but I bestow a happy grin, as my friends want so badly for me to have a good birthday. I poke at the pink core of the sundae, which quivers gelatinously and maybe makes the sound of a dying iguana, and I declare that I am full. (Faith takes a bite, not believing me, and bursts into laughter. “That is the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted.”)
The next morning we set off for Kerala once again, for the beach and for curry, for sand and sun and temples and the recognizable. Lime green mosques and acid-white churches, dogs and mosquitoes and long walks under the hot sun. The ocean on one side, instead of all.
It is the most peculiar birthday I have celebrated. I am farther than I have ever been, nations and continents and seas from any of my homes. I have been filled with glasses of weird ice cream jelly, I have slipped my feet into the ocean under the gaze of a virgin goddess, I have drank glasses of scotch in a basement bar of an Indian hotel while watching a Nicolas Cage movie. I have friends at my side, years behind my back, and a road that stretches out before me.
And I can’t think of a better way to spend a birthday.