A long walk along the north cliff in Varkala in Kerala around sunset is heavenly for numerous reasons; a hot cup of tea accompanied by a cool breeze and a picturesque sunset at the blue sea. Amidst all this beauty, a slender old man donning a hat calls out to passersby.
“Hello, don’t you know me?” the 70-year-old asks everyone. “I’m a celebrity – the famous Hatman of Varkala.”
And he has the internet to prove his fame. “Google me, I’m on the internet,” he says. And people find themselves immediately putting their fingers to work.
“Do you want a picture with me? But it will cost Rs 100,” comes next.
A. Madhiyazhagan Arunachalam is a staff member at the Blue Marine Resort at Varkala, which is just one of the places he has been working for the last 42 years. Madhi left his state for Kovalam in 1980 after working as a production assistant in various film studious of Chennai. He was born in Thirumalvadi, a small locality in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu. “I don’t have any contact with my family but i know they are well settled,” he replied, on being asked about his family.
The thought of the old man asking for money for a photo with him sounds like he’s duping tourists. The elderly man carries a handful of diaries, stuffed with letters and portraits of himself from people of different ages, cultures and nationalities. “You have to see how much love I get from tourists visiting here,” he said. Letters in French, German, Hindi, Tamil and so on can be seen.
On being asked what inspires such love, he says, “I sell conversations. I talk to people.”
Some of the entries in his diary read: “Better days lie ahead! Uncle bro, you are more than an uncle and a bro. More than a Hatman, you are a great man. I am more than happy to know you, I love you. Keep the wind to your back and your glass filled with rum,” one Omas Vahe from the US wrote.
“If we will ever be sad again, just by recalling your smile we will be happy again. Be like this your whole life,” wrote Swati and Bikram.
These letters are intriguing and emotional. They make one wonder how this old man got so many admirers. One has to look at his celebrity status differently. Humans are always seeking a source of joy, compassion, and emotional bonding. And here is this man in his sevnties with an infectious aura that attracts people.
“Dear Hatman, It was an unexpected and yet best meeting I’ve had in my entire life. You’ve taught me how beautiful life can be without materialistic riches. Life is beautiful isn’t it,” wrote Riya.
His smile is tempting and others are tempted to smile back. They sit next to him and talk. He shares his life stories like a seven-year-old. He proudly recalls meeting foreigners, who account for a big chunk of his admirers. He tells about meeting Patrik Sjoberg, the three-time Swedish high jump Olympic medallist. This is what his stardom looks like – memories stored in letters.
The Hatman gets emotional remembering the years gone by. He is ageing fast and won’t be able to work long hours anymore. The COVID-19 pandemic brought more misery and desperation. He carries a two-year-old written note in English, appealing to people for financial assistance. It says: “I have a lot of friends and my happiness lies on them all my lifetime. But, in this pandemic, my condition is very deplorable. I am turning 69 now, with many health issues. This jobless condition is making me so down and pathetic.”
Not just him, the entire town is reeling under the impact of the pandemic. They’re missing the good old days when the tourist influx was much more. The Hatman remembers his old friends, who visited the town but left later for their countries. They’re too far, he says.
“When people remember me and call me after going back from here, I forget all the ordeals of life,” he said. Some also send him monetary help. However, things have been grim after the pandemic for him. His ailing health and finances are pushing him to desperation… forcing him to put himself out there as ‘a celebrity’.
In the hope that some of them would be interested in getting a picture with him or just listening to his stories, the man who sells conversations is waiting to talk with a wide smile that masks his ordeals.
Shivam Kumar Mishra is a student journalist based in Kerala, currently, pursuing my post-graduate diploma in English Journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Kottayam.
All images have been provided by the author.