I’m really honoured to have the author Frank Kusy on my blog today talking about the first book in his memoir series Kevin and I in India.
Monday the 2nd of January 1985 saw me on a British Airways flight to Delhi, via Kuwait. And I came so very close to missing it.
‘Hey, Frank!’ my girlfriend Anna called after me as I leapt out of her car at Heathrow. ‘I think you might have forgotten something!’
I turned on my heels and regarded the small, black familiar object she was waving at me.
‘This just fell out of your pocket, you idiot,’ she laughed. ‘It’s your passport!’
From my prized window seat on the plane, as I fingered the errant passport, I began writing a diary. A diary that would eventually run 200,000 words and encompass all 144 days of my travels in India and Nepal.
‘For the first time in my life,’ I started it dramatically, ‘I am completely independent, alone and free. No supports, no crutches, nothing familiar to lean on. All that I have is an address or two in Delhi, and the hope of a good following wind to get me there.’
The good following wind ran out at Kuwait airport, where our plane was disembarked and we were informed that owing to fog over Delhi there would be a six hour delay. ‘How depressing,’ I thought. ‘What on earth am I going to do for six hours in this stark, bleak and clinically sterile airport lounge?’
The answer was: meet Kevin.
Like good, typical English types, Kevin and I circled each other warily – despite being the only two Europeans in the vast lounge area – for three hours before finally being driven together at the foreign exchange counter.
‘Do you think we’re better off changing money here or at Delhi airport?’ was my opening gambit.
‘I don’t know,’ responded Kevin. ‘But I tell you what, they better have a cheese sandwich waiting in Delhi. This Arab lot haven’t even got a coffee shop!’
In retrospect, it seems quite incredible that a chance conversation at a near-empty Arab airport should have led to a deep and mutually rewarding travel friendship lasting over two months and taking us 15,000 kilometres around the continent of India and into the Kingdom of Nepal. But once I had got over the shock of Kevin being an ex-7th Day Adventist boat builder from Lowestoft, and Kevin had reconciled himself to the company of a Buddhist astrologer from London, we decided to take digs together in Delhi.
With the coming of Kevin, my diary took on an entirely new dimension. The reason? Kevin was allergic to just about everything about India. Pigs, dogs, beggars, lepers, even holy men, queued up to attack him, and for no apparent reason. ‘What is he doing here?’ I found myself wondering as he tried to cross the road on a busy traffic crossing and nearly got run over. ‘I mean, I’m here to check out the birthplace of Buddhism. But Kevin has no such excuse. His only goal, as far as I can work out, is to score a cheese sandwich!’
I quickly found in Kevin, however, a most congenial travelling companion. He was amusing and pleasant, held a lively, informative conversation, was extremely open and accommodating, and didn’t snore. He even supported – though he never quite understood – my Buddhist practice. “Have you chanted yet?’ he asked me once, and when I said: ‘No,’ he shook his head in mystification and said: ‘Are you sure? I’ve been hearing that bloomin’ chanting everywhere I go!’
What was truly wonderful about Kevin though was the carefree way in which he laughed at vicissitude. Racked with discomfort from mosquito bites and sunburn, and unable even to find a cup of sugarless tea anywhere, he was able to maintain: ‘I’ve never felt better in my life!’ When I pointed out that he’d had flu for the past three weeks, he said: ‘What I mean is, I’ve never felt in better mental health!’
Sometimes Kevin challenged my own mental health, like when he went off on a one and a half hour whistling rendition of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ and ‘Oh, I do like to be beside the Seaside’ (two tunes I absolutely hated) but this was a small price to pay for his boundless enthusiasm and optimism.
‘Where else,’ I found myself asking, ‘could I find a travelling companion who can liven up your day by accidentally changing the combination on your padlock so that it takes you a whole afternoon to escape from your room? And who else, when bored, spends his time bouncing coconuts up and down the walls, then blending slivers of Cadbury’s chocolate, coconut juice and Indian rum into a personal cocktail in a malaria tablet bottle?’
The only thing that dented Kevin’s enthusiasm – apart from his ongoing battles with beggars and rickshaw drivers – was the near absence of European cuisine. ‘I ordered chips,’ he raged on one famous occasion, ‘and all they’ve given me is six slivers of raw potato!’ On another famous occasion, in Varanasi, he finally located a plate of cheese sandwiches, but had to turn them away. ‘I couldn’t eat that plate of sandwiches,’ he complained in his own diary. ‘To be honest and blunt, they were disgusting. Stale, stained black and bone hard, I opened them up and found bits in them. I think the main “bit” was a dead spider.’
The search for the Holy Grail of the edible cheese sandwich would take Kevin the whole of his tour round the Indian sub-continent, and only conclude when we came to Kathmandu and he found a bakery which served him up endless plates of the stuff.
I suppose the summit of our trip – if one discounts the time Kevin was forced to eat five chilli omelettes in quick succession and nearly had a stroke – came when we decided to have our heads shaved bald.
‘If I’m here as a Buddhist,’ I told my young friend. ‘I might as well look like one. Besides, it’s too hot for hair.’
Kevin’s broad, ruddy face creased in amusement. ‘You haven’t got the head for it, Frank,’ he laughed. ‘Me, I’ve got a lovely head. I’ll look just like Sean Connery.’
And it was true, once Kevin’s light, brown locks had fallen to the floor of the ‘Disco’ barber’s in Kumily he did look just like Sean Connery. Only trouble was, the next town we came to, he was unexpectedly mobbed by a crowd of James Bond devotees who wanted him to sign autographs and bless their babies. All of a sudden, Kevin didn’t want to look like Sean Connery anymore.
October 14th 1985 was a momentous day for me. Having written up my diary and turned it into a book, I selected 42 publishers and agents who would be the lucky recipients of my masterpiece and popped it off in the post. Then I hopped on a plane to Japan, spending every penny I had, and prayed to the main Buddhist temple there that my gamble would succeed.
Three weeks later, soon after my return to the UK, the phone rang.
‘Hello,’ I croaked through the worst case of flu in my life. ‘Who is it?’
‘My name’s Jean Luc Barbanneau from Impact Books,’ said the unfamiliar voice. ‘Can I speak to Mr Kusy?’
There was a stirring of excitement in my chest. ‘That would be me,’ I said. ‘How can I help you?’
‘I just finished reading your travel diary. I think I might be interested in publishing it.’
I sneezed in disbelief. ‘Might, or will? I mean, do you really like it?’
‘Yes, I do.’ I could hear this Jean Luc smiling at my naiveté. ‘And the “might” depends on you changing the title. I don’t much like “Yes, We have no Chapatis.” How about “Kevin and I in India?”’
I nodded furiously down the phone. He could call it ‘Back Passage to India’ for all I cared! I did a silent jig on the carpet and punched the air in triumph. Suddenly, all the hardship, suffering and effort of the past seven months – which was how long it took to write my diary – seemed worthwhile!
Kevin and I in India is now available – for a limited time only at 99c/p – on the following channels: