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Winter 1998, Volume 15.1

Essay

 

Boman Desai

Goa on the Go


Boman Desai (M.A., U of Illinois-Chicago) has received an Illinois Arts Council Award and the Stand Magazine Fiction Prize.

 

Let me give you a taste of Goa. I was there just four days, but let me give you the taste. It's in India, an hour's flight from Bombay, due south along the coast, but though I'd grown up in Bombay, had a Goan ayah, Julie, who'd sung lullabies to me in Konkani, I'd never visited Goa.

FIRST DAY: I arrived late in March. It was surprisingly cool for Goa (80≠90 degrees), for which I counted my blessings. Damania, one of the many domestic airlines, provided an excellent sali boti, potatoes grated fine as gossamer, deep fried and mixed with tender cubes of lamb sauteed in a sauce of spices and fruit. I'd been nineteen when I'd first left Bombay for Chicago; it'd been ten years since my last visit; and the taste was like a kiss from an old friendóbut Goan cuisine, I'd been warned, was a different experience. I'd lost my stomach once already in Bombay (to a hot sauce), found it again as easily the next day, and arrived in Goa prepared to lose it again if necessary discovering the cuisine.

I was met at Dabolim Airport by an old friend, Nauzer Daruwalla, who'd moved to Goa from Bombay some four years ago to give piano and violin lessons. Goa's musical heritage is deeper than Bombay's regarding western classical music. He couldn't have got as many pupils in Bombay.

Perhaps a little history is in order. Goa, India's tiniest state, covering 1,350 square miles, is larger than Rhode Island by a hair. Growing up in the fifties, I imagined it more city than state (you went to Goa like you went to Bombay or Chicago, but not to Maharashtra or Illinoisólike you might go to Rhode Island).

It was the first European stronghold in India, wrested by Alfonso de Albuquerque of Portugal from Yusuf Adilshah, Sultan of Bijapur, in 1510, for its spices, mainly pepper. It was also the last, joining the Indian union in 1961, fourteen years after the rest of India had shucked the shackles of imperialism, following the rout of the Portuguese in Operation Vijaya, the two-day war of Goan liberation. Perhaps the Portuguese no longer deemed Goa worth defending, having long taken what they wanted, but they left their imprint (mainly on the churches, but also elsewhere) in the form of an Iberian rather than a Saxon landscape, dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, gothic, renaissance, and baroque. Until the Portuguese left, Goa was also a conduit for smuggled goods; Europeans had fewer restrictions on imports than Indians.

Nauzer's driver, Falcao (Falco), a Goan, drove us first to the town of Miramar where I was to stay, at the Yatri Niwas Guest House, a landscape of two-storeyed gabled bungalows, whitewashed, red-roofed, each holding four large rooms with adjoining baths, air conditioners, and small verandahs, amid casuarinas, palm trees, and garden paths bordered by flower beds. I could see the beach from my verandah.

Nauzer lived in Panjim, minutes from Miramar by car, capital of Goa, population 40,000. Panaji in Marathi (the state language of Maharashtra, Goa's giant neighbor to the north), is sometimes spelled Pangim by the Portuguese. Place-names in India are often subject to approximations, partly a legacy of India's multilingual heritage, but also of its almost intolerable tolerance of faiths, governments, languages, and of its poignant ability to see normalcy in contrariness. Only in India would you find Christian communists in the numbers available in the southern state of Kerala. Konkani (the state language), Hindi (the national), and English (call it the international) are all effective modes of communication.

The car was a Maruti, smaller than a Ford Festiva, easily the most visible change on the urban landscape during my ten year absence from India. In 1985 most of the cars were either Fiats, Ambassadors, or Standard Heralds, all Indian cars; in 1995 they were Marutis, made in India in collaboration with Mitsubishi. Marutis compete almost as much with motorbikes as with other cars for mileage and maneuverability, also for safety, which makes them better suited for Indian than American trafficówhich is to say they're better at nosing through traffic than speeding past it. Falcao may not have cared which side of the road he drove, but his reflexes matched Annie Oakley's, saving us once from two accidents with two quick swerves: first to the right, when another Maruti emerged without warning from a lane obscured by a bus; then to the left, when a child suddenly appeared in our path, before coming to a halt. There was symbiosis between him and the Maruti; they were an ensemble, he the brain, the Maruti the body.

For the first day, of which we had mainly the evening left, Nauzer had planned a drive through Panjim (the post office, promenade, high court), a short trip to Dona Paula (a nearby fishing village, mostly a market, with a panoramic view of Marmagoa harbor, among the finest harbors in India, where a fleet of sailboats passed like fountains in flight), a cruise on the Mandovi River, and dinner at the nearby Paradise restaurant. Mostly we talked: we had ten years of past to recollect, also a mutual interest in classical music (he teaches as I've said, I'm writing something on Brahms).

It was night by the time we mounted the upper deck of the motor launch for the cruise, and I experienced the first of the times I felt on an outpost of civilization, a product of the darkness, the stillness, the silence, on the water, and the palm trees silhouetted against the glow of the city we had left behind. There were refreshments, soft drinks, there was entertainment on board, folk songs and dancesóbut the folk songs borrowed as much from Trini Lopez as from the Goan heritage. We were treated to numbers in Konkani interspersed with a medley including "Gotta Travel On," "Down by the Riverside," "Marianne," "When the Saints Go Marching In," and "Volare," no doubt for the entertainment of the foreigners, but it made me question the authenticity of the dances though the ambience made the music more enjoyable than Trini himself at PJ's.

We had a fine tandoori dinner at the Paradise to which we walked from the pier, with rumali rotli (handkerchief bread). The dough is spun in the air like pizza dough, but flattened thin as a crepe, puffed, and served as fluffy as a newly washed handkerchief.

SECOND DAY: It's my contention that a good way to know a city is to walk until you're lost, then find your way back. I've tried it in London, Paris, and Zurich among other cities, with a sense of accomplishment; I tried it in Chicago and got mugged. I expected Nauzer at eleven, which left me with time to walk into Miramar, and I set off after a breakfast of toast and coffee on the verandah of Foodlands, a restaurant adjoining the guest house. I'd slept well; the night had been cool, but I'd run the air conditioner anyway to keep mosquitoes at bay. I walked through clean narrow streets bordered by houses not unlike the hotel bungalows: whitewashed, red-roofed, gabled, tiledóbordered as well by trees, mango, jackfruit, coconut. I passed residences, restaurants, dispensaries, a college, school, two boys hiding behind a bus to leap out and startle a third. Residents smiled easily, moved slowly, as on a college campus on Sunday. I passed an aquarium, "Something Fishy," a used bookstore. I could have walked farther, but for once didn't want to get lost, didn't want to keep Nauzer waiting.

Our first stop that morning was Fort Aguada, barely an hour's drive from Panjim, but along the way we stopped by an estuary of the Mandovi River, banks lined with palms, devoid of human structures, deserted except for egrets dotting the landscape. Sandcrabs scurried underfoot, burrowing into the mud. We seemed to have reached yet another outpost of civilization. You might have expected The African Queen beyond the bendówell, not in India, or course, but you know what I mean.

We were soon on our way again, and high in the hills. Cars passed occasionally, but the fort was no less deserted than the landscape we'd left in the foothills. A declivity separated the ramparts from the road, but became shallower as we walked around the fort. The hill descended at the farther side toward the Arabian Sea, and across the valley, alongside an adjacent hill, was a magnificent house, glinting in the sun, rippling in terraces toward the sea. My imagination likened it to the preserve of a James Bond villain: tucked into a coverlet along the coast, easily accessible from land and sea, it became a natural source for nefarious activities.

Well, that was how the trip was affecting me, particularly with the entrance to the fort ahead of us, a huge wooden door, latched, but not locked; there were no signs forbidding entry, and we let ourselves in. The walls were laterite (a porous red stone ubiquitous in Goa), mostly in ruins. We roamed the mound within the ramparts; crows and kites hovered overhead. Making our way down a narrow flight of steps we found ourselves in a vast underground chamber with wide pillars, sunlight filtering from above, echoes resonating with our footsteps and voices.

Lunch was an authentic Goan meal at the Florentine Ben and Restaurant on the road from Panjim to Mapusa (a neighboring city), a thatched shelter without walls, shielded on either side by the kitchen, an indoor eating space, and a bathroom, all practically hidden from the road; if you didn't know it was there you'd pass it by. Chicken Cafereal (I saw it spelled variously later, at other restaurants, Kafreal, Cafreal, the variants are endless). Influenced by African cuisine, half a chicken, roasted and glistening in a green chutney, it was delicious. We ordered fried mussels for starters (it's no wonder, with so long a coastline, that seafood's prominent), and egg fried rice (the Chinese food, readily available in just about any restaurant, was surprisingly good).

Next, what Goa is known for (aside from the numberless beaches), the churches. The best known are in Old Goa, the original capital, farther inland along the Mandovi River than Panjim, for which Goa was named Goa Doirada, golden Goa, in the 16th century, "Rome of the Orient," when it had been more populated than London or Paris, of which it was said, "Whoever has seen Goa need not see Lisbon." Its reputation was mighty, and mightily defended by the Portuguese against Hindus, Muslims, Dutch, and Britishóalmost too mightily. The Portuguese kept Old Goa, but were forced to move their capital to Panjim, the consequence as much of epidemics of malaria and cholera and plague as of the might of armies, leaving behind a land marked as much with churches and residences as pocked with ruins, never again to be populated as before.

We drove first to St. Cajetan's, modeled on St. Peter's in Rome though on a smaller scale, built from 1656 to 1661. Twin towers flank the dome; the exterior is renaissance, the interior baroque, the altar finely carved, seashells constitute the tiny panes of one arched window; the facade is whitewashed, but there's no escape from the blackening of monsoon mildew. What struck me as well were two magnificent tamarind trees in the courtyard; the trunks might have been made of stone for their steadiness holding the spread of branches; reaching in all directions they could have sheltered a small city block.

Next, we walked a short distance up a hill to the Se (Say) Cathedral, also called the Cathedral of St. Catherine (de Albuquerque conquered Goa on the feast of St. Catherine), constructed from 1562 to 1619, the largest church in Asia, and providing one of the finer examples of renaissance architecture. Among its paintings is a huge oil of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, carrying the Christ child on his shoulders across a river. The child grew increasingly heavier because it bore the sins of the worldóor so the legend goes. Traditionally, St. Christopher was a Syrian martyr of the third century.

Ashoka trees (of the Cypress family), flanking the facade, appeared sentient; they might have been guarding the cathedral, fluffing their foliage in the breeze to appear larger, like animals raising their hackles to appear fierce. One of the chapels bears a miraculous cross; its arms have been growing continuously outward through the centuries. Nauzer indicated the distance they'd grown in the few years since he'd first seen the cross. I am sure there are scientific explanations, but prefer the miraculous myself.

Easily the locus for most visitors is the Basilica of Bom Jesus which houses the relics of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of Goa. A contemporary of St. Cajetan, he arrived in Goa in 1542 searching as ardently for souls as de Albuquerque had for spices. He died en route to China in 1552 on the island of Sancian off the Cantonese coast where he was first buried, later exhumed, buried again in Malacca, exhumed again, brought finally back to Goa in 1554. It wasn't until 1624 that his body found its final resting place, the Basilica, perhaps the finest instance of Baroque architecture in India, but he was not to rest in peace yet. The Duke of Tuscany sent a magnificent mausoleum (alabaster and marble inlaid with semiprecious stones, bronze panels depicting the saint's life) in return for the saint's pillow. A pope was less considerate, requesting an arm which was severed and carried to Rome, and both his big toes were bitten off by zealous women admirers.

Adjoining the Se Cathedral was the church of another St. Francis ≠ of Assisi ≠ but there wasn't time to do all the churches justice, not even perfunctorily. Of the rest I enjoyed best the ruin of the Church of St. Augustine, one half of a red and black five-story tower, the red laterite stone again but more black than red silhouetted against the sun, reaching out of the hill into the sky like an armored fist, a giant claw.

Adding to the primal quality was a cabal of five silent, sturdy, black water-buffalos lazing by the ruin, some seated, some standing, none moving, all with strong, streamlined, ivory, wishbone antlers, like inverted tusks crowning their heads.

Less fearsome, but just as uncanny, was the Maruti obeying Falcao, following us from St. Cajetan's to the Se Cathedral to the Basilica and the rest like a pet canine, anticipating our moves, sprinting when we might have needed it, receding when not. You wouldn't have thought a car could sit on its haunches, but I would swear the Maruti did; it also crawled, jumped, hopped, ran, a father tailing his truant daughter, a jealous husband his wife; it also reared on its back wheels, sidled on its side; you wouldn't have thought a car could kick up its wheels, but I would swear the Maruti did.

We dined at Coqueiro's that night, Chicken Xacuti (also spelled Shacuti, Sakuti), a Goan curry, hot with chilies, sweet with coconut, and rice ≠ and delicious. I prayed I wouldn't lose my stomach that night, and my prayers were answered. As I've said, I believe in miracles.

THIRD DAY: Back on the verandah of Foodlands the next morning, ordering coffee and toast, I was reminded once more that I was once more in India. I'd ordered three cups of coffee the day before, at four rupees a cup (thirty-two rupees to the dollar), but decided to order a pot of coffee instead the next day which cost the same as three cups of coffee, twelve rupeesóbut the pot yielded only two cups!

When I brought the discrepancy to the attention of the waiter, he nodded sagely, reminded me that the cups I'd received the day before had been served prefilled with milk and sugar, but not the coffee in the pot. The logic was quixotic at best. Did he mean the charge would have been less for a cup served black, or if I'd added milk and sugar myself? It's the kind of puzzle that drives me crazy when I think about it, and I let it go, ordering instead another cup of coffeeówhich he served black, for which he still charged four rupees! Again, I let it go; it was not the kind of misunderstanding that yielded to rationale, or grew transparent with time. I was reminded of signs I'd seen, posted with out irony, at a Funeral Home in Bombay, equally impervious to explanations:

We can send DEAD BODY
Anywhere! Anytime! Anyhow!
You do the dying.
We will do the rest.

For the morning Nauzer had planned a forty mile drive, almost across the breadth of Goa, to the temple of Tambdi Surla, situated in the foothills of the Ghats, in a valley surrounded by forestland, blue hills in the hinterland. During the last lap of the trip we crossed a ravine, glimpsed black-faced monkeys swinging under the leafy canopy.

The temple itself, built in the 13th century, of basalt, to Sri Mahadeva, is small, but a particular wonder for its mode of construction, without mortar, just stone wrested from stone, thrust into stone: plinth, pillars, pavilion, chambers, roof.

We drove back to Panjim for lunch, western food for a change, at the Fidalgo, one of Goa's premier hotels, in the lounge, chicken fingers for myself, chicken club for Nauzer, after which we set off for the Terekhol Fort, past Goa's northernmost boundary, within Maharashtra's southernmost.

Terekhol was closer to Panjim than Tambdi Surla, but took longer to reach. We needed to cross the Chapara and Terekhol Rivers, drove the Maruti onto ferries, missed one by minutes before the final climb to the fort, now a hotel, atop a hill. I was struck once more by the primordial quality of the landscape. There are magnificent banyans all over India, but a particularly majestic specimen grows from the hillside along the road to the gate, so thick with vines it's a tree of a thousand trunks.

The fort itself, whitewashed, gleamed in the descending sun. Foot-long spikes remain in the door at the gateway, reminders of a less benign past. The doors lead to a courtyard around which the guest rooms (once garrison quarters) are situated; narrow stairways along each side lead to a gallery ringing the courtyard. The fort is hardly large, but a church stands in the courtyard, the Church of St. Anthony, apparently an afterthought from the way it's squeezed into the courtyard ≠ but it would have made even less sense building it outside the walls. St. Anthony, patron saint of the army and navy, is also the national saint of Portugal. You can see the church topping the turrets of the fort as you approach.

The cost per night is a thousand rupees; my guest house in Miramar cost three hundred and some; guests were clearly paying for the ambience which included a dizzying panorama of Goa's coastline across the bay, speckled with palms, the Terekhol River rushing to rest in the bay, the bay itself expanding into the Arabian Sea. The side of the hill had been terraced so you could climb down almost to the sea.

It was dark by the time we boarded the second ferry returning, but light enough for me to witness what might be called the scourge of Goa: hippies. I'd heard the stories: they panhandled from locals who made less in a month than the hippies spent in a day; they walked naked on the beaches violating cultural norms, local laws; when challenged they argued that beaches belonged to everyone, that nudity was natural; fines were too easily paid by the daddies of the developed world ≠ and, if not, two or three days in the pokey made no apparent difference, seemed almost a rite of passage.

Two couples on motorbikes had boarded the ferry with us; both women were blond, both men wore ponytails, but one couple appeared more conventional than the other, dressed in jeans, T-shirts. The second woman, sporting a mohawk which descended into a braid, had a long brown supple torso, difficult to miss between her cutoffs and black bikini top ≠ from which, as I watched, in easy view of the locals gathered around, she extricated what might have been a brassiere. I couldn't see clearly (it was dark, we were in the Maruti, the crowd was closing in on them), but it was a provocative gesture, it couldn't help but be provocative, and right after she removed the garment she and her leather boyfriend faced each other on the bike, snuggling and fondling. The Indians might as well have been animals, dumb and inanimate, for the inhibition the couple felt in their presence, and I was reminded of a passage from Richard Wright's Black Boy, when he'd been a bellboy in a hotel:

I grew used to seeing the white prostitutes naked upon their beds, sitting nude about their rooms, and I learned new modes of behavior, new rules in how to live the Jim Crow life. It was presumed that we black boys took their nakedness for granted, that it startled us no more than a blue vase or a red rug. Our presence awoke in them no sense of shame whatever, for we blacks were not considered human anyway. If they were alone, I would steal sidelong glances at them. But if they were receiving men, not a flicker of my eyelids would show.

Two of Nauzer's friends joined us that night for dinner at the Neptune: Mario, a witty, talkative, jazz guitarist, descended from many generations of musicians in Goa; and Louis, a sweet man, a gentle man, a doctor taking violin lessons. We ordered a mix of Moghlai and Chinese dishes; and talked much, as you might imagine, about music. FOURTH DAY: I have never understood the sun-worship of westerners, find it incredibly dull myself, perhaps because I'm Indian (Nauzer shares my incomprehension), but I do understand that smoking is to the lungs what sun-worship is to the skin ≠ which only further reduces my understanding of the ritual. At least, I console myself, I'm in no danger of secondhand sunburn. Still, Goa is known for its beaches as much as its churches, and on the last morning we visited Palolem, among the southernmost beaches, which accounted for our longest drive yet, almost a hundred miles to the beach and back in time for the plane to Bombay.

We passed through many towns along the way, and about an hour into the drive we stopped to deliver a manuscript to one of Nauzer's students. I was surprised that a student would travel so far for music lessons, particularly in public transportation, hardly the best, more particularly through the heat, and even more, through the monsoon. When I voiced my surprise Nauzer reminded me again of the veneration in which music is held in Goa; the second in command of the Panjim police force takes violin lessons; students accepted with equanimity commutes of more than two hours for lessons which lasted an hour. He was too modest to mention it, but his students' dedication also did credit to his own excellence.

The road wove up and down and around the hills of the Western Ghats providing numberless sudden and breathtaking vistas. Along one stretch, thin white peeling trunks of eucalyptus grew like bars from the near wall of the adjacent valley, and between the bars appeared the far wall, hills ranged like sand castles, matted with foliage. One such vista followed another; neither were we ever far from the smells of the country, dung alternating with fish and fermenting cashews, smells which might cause you to wrinkle your nose in the city but not on the road to Palolem.

Nauzer had chosen wisely; the beach was quiet, entertained few visitors, more sea-bathers than sun. We took a short walk, watched rows of fishermen getting ready to haul in their nets, lunched under a large round thatched canopy, fried prawns, French fries, and chicken biryani. Next to the thatched area was a plot of tents. Three hundred rupees got you a tent for a day, smack on the beach, with a bed and dresser.

We saw plenty, but there was plenty we didn't see, plenty more forts, churches, temples, beaches, and mosques, but also Dudh Sagar (Sea of Milk, a waterfall), wildlife preserves, and I'd like to see Tambdi Surla again, and St. Cajetans, and the St. Augustine ruin, andóbut you get the picture. You might want to visit yourself, Goa does a fine tourist trade. Nauzer will not be available, he's not in the business, but if you want a music lesson .

 

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