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Monday, June 29, 2009

A Goan Retrospective

Pictures at an Exhibition

Watercolors


Sitting on Goa’s northern Morjim Beach one Monsoon morning, the solitary man on the horizon gazed dumbstruck at the turbulence of the waves, crashing ashore in 20-foot walls of water and giant sprays. He thought it was a spectacular Impressionist water color, with a streak of menace that would be difficult for even Claude Monet to capture on canvas.


Entranced, he gaped at the scene: steel grey skies pregnant with black water-laden clouds lit up by jags of lightning; thundering brown water bearing down on the beach with giant whitecaps and a compelling surround-sound roar of thunder and angry thumping water that eclipsed the soaring Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Sometimes called “a memorable page in universal culture,” this masterful last movement celebrates the human spirit and exhorts man to higher achievement. But the Monsoon tableau on display that morning made any achievement of man look and feel shallow. It was an epiphany, a darshana, a terrifying revelation of divinity.


The drama that unfolded before his eyes would not let him be a mere spectator; he was commandeered as a participant. The pounding surf, the ominous thunder and the streaky lightning compelled him to acknowledge the sinister majesty of Nature; sinister because violence was its central core.


For a moment, he thought he’d go into the roiling water. Just then, the rain started pelting down and he stood petrified. The rain disrupted his trance, luckily as it turns out, for to have ventured into the ferocious sea could have been fatal.


Beating viciously on every surface in sight and beyond, the downpour blurred his vision. The incessant sound of the rain and the breakers mixed rhythm and melody like the jazz drummer Max Roach. As the rain came down, he looked around and debated running back to the shelter of his car, decided against it and simply sat there, transfixed.


The man could do no more than to surrender to the storm. Stretching his arms out, he turned his head skyward and let the rain beat down on his face and his body. He seemed to be shouting, not that there was anyone there to hear him. He was the only person on the beach; it was him and the Monsoon, an atavistic one-on-one encounter.


His clothes, his body, his very insides were drenched. But he was like a child, shouting to be heard over the storm. Still the rain kept pouring, and like Credence Clearwater Revival, he wondered if anyone could stop the rain, even God. He felt helpless and yet strangely, deliriously happy. This was sheer abandon: unprecedented, sensual, liberating, joyful, glorious and magnificent. To succumb to the majesty of Nature like he did that morning on Morjim Beach was to assert that the soul is immortal.


***

Portraits


But we have fast-forwarded the story by about 50 years. What was the man doing at Morjim Beach? What circumstances led up to that Monsoon morning in Goa? Why had he been coming to Goa for 27 years? What led him to buy a house there some 10 years ago? Answers to those questions paint a portrait of the life and times of the Goan diaspora in Bombay and elsewhere.


So let’s pause and go back to the 1950s. We are in Bombay, looking at a pre-teen boy standing of an evening in his living room verandah. Let’s call him Marco, as in Marco Polo because over the next 50 years the boy would travel far and wide, literally and metaphorically. For the moment, chin on the railing, Marco is looking through the window of a neighboring apartment. He sees a family at prayer. They were his friends from the neighborhood, kneeling with their parents at the evening rosary.


His friends were Goan Catholics. They could be found in the city’s cosmopolitan, culturally diverse neighborhoods. The middle classes tended to cluster in the western suburbs of Bandra and Santa Cruz and in city neighborhoods like Dhobi Talao and Byculla Bridge.


The verandah on which Marco stood was part of a large and airy apartment on the second floor of Court Royal, an apartment building in Christ Church Lane in the Byculla Bridge precinct of central Bombay. It was a middle class neighborhood of breath-taking cultural diversity including Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Hindus. A large number of its Catholic residents were Goan, including the family that Marco saw kneeling in prayer that evening. There were a number of Protestants as well, mostly Anglo Indian…and an occasional Hindu family


Named after the school it abutted, Christ Church Lane had the characteristics of cultural diversity balanced by traditional conservatism that Montstuart Elphinstone would have approved. A Scottish statesman, who was appointed governor of Bombay in 1819, Elphinstone was widely respected for his thrust on education. He established the Bombay Education Society that set up schools such as Christ Church.


(For the record, the Elphinstone Road station on the Western suburban line of Bombay’s commuter train service was named for his nephew, John, who was governor of the province in the 1850s.)


Living in Christ Church Lane through the 1950s, Marco came to believe that India was a culturally diverse, tolerant project, little knowing that outside Byculla Bridge, it was racked by caste, ethnic and religious conflict.


The neighborhood was home to Bombay’s aspiring middle class: cosmopolitan, diverse and secure. Growing up there, the only disagreements Marco had with his friends were about Elvis versus Cliff Richard, Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone. Yes, he was a fan of Hindi film music and his family was the only vegetarian in the building but the neighborhood was so culturally diverse that his food habits were accepted as part of the diversity. He was included in the community of kids playing games and fooling around each evening until the street lights came on.


At day’s end, his Goan Catholic friends would go home to be in time for the family prayer. Then they would sit at the dining table and have a convivial evening meal. Marco found it comforting that the family came together every evening to pray and to dine and to talk. Sundays, they dressed in their best and drove in the family car to church and returned to have lunch together.


In the summer vacation, they all set off in a ship from Bombay to spend two months at their home in Goa. On their return, they would regale their friends with tales of the sea journey and talk about singing and dancing on the boat with many others like them. They told stories of their sojourn in Goa: loafing on the beach, splashing in the waves and of guitar-strumming, singsong picnics.


A picture of this wondrous place that was at that time not part of India began to form in Marco’s mind. It got entangled with his impressions of England derived from the novels of Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton (of “William” fame) and countless other schoolboy books: of country lanes, green pastures, bicycles and tea shops.


Christ Church Lane was widely known for its gorgeous girls. Marco and his friends called all of them Diana, after the Paul Anka song, “I’m so young and you’re so old…” They were innocent of sex then; they knew only puppy love and panted after every lovely girl who walked down the lane. It was romance at a distance; they eyed them and generally behaved in an idiotic manner. Forget sex or holding hands or kissing; all they craved for was a smile, an acknowledgment that could keep them going for days.


Embroiled in this vivacious diversity, Marco began to believe that all of India was the same. It was far from the truth. This became apparent in the early 1960s; he had to leave Christ Church Lane because his parents were transferred to the new state of Gujarat that was formed when the old Bombay state was bifurcated. Like a refugee, Marco was forcibly relocated to Ahmedabad, a moffusil town that was the designated capital.


And so it came about that on a warm April evening, Marco stood on a train doorway, teary-eyed and desperately unhappy, waving goodbye to his close friends, bound for an unknown future


Plucked from the crucible of cultural diversity, he struggled to grow up in a milieu of moffusil values and suffocating conformity. His teenage years were turbulent as the reality of the hinterland began to cow him down; the comfortable middle class milieu of Christ Church Lane seemed to recede. It seared his mind, the awakening that the drivers of life in India were prejudice, disruption and division.


***

Landscapes


Last year, I made my first trip to Goa in the Monsoon.


One morning, I took time off to cruise the northern beaches. Ominous dark clouds were gathering low in the sky. As I wandered up and down the coast, I finally settled on Morjim to watch the fury of the sea. Virtually hypnotized by the tableau, my mind floated back to the first time I came to Goa.


My wife and I, along with our infant daughter stayed with her family at their house in north Goa. They introduced me to the place that was just a notion in my head for all the years I had spent with my friends in Christ Church Lane. The experience plunged me headlong into the earthy robustness of Goan life, including food, mindset and scenery.


I still remember vividly my first visit. As we came out of the (still) chaotic Dabholim airport, Goa burst upon us with sweeping vistas of the Arabian Sea and the mighty Zuari River as the car wound its way up and down the hilly highway. Since then, I have probably traveled the road at least a hundred times but to this day, the beauty never fails to amaze me


What adds to the visual experience is the promise of time snatched from the world to luxuriate in the serene green of Goa: long drawn out days in which the major decisions you are called on to make include mostly sensual delights: whether to have prawns or fish for a meal; beer or some other aperitif, perhaps even a slug of Goa’s lethal cashew feni, which can stay in your system for days


Goans call the experience sussegad; a state of mind in which each morsel of fish and every sip of beer is an eternity. There is impermanence about sussegad; it is an altered state of consciousness in which time is stretched to make every nanosecond count.


Given my wife’s umbilical bond and my own fascination with the place, we got our own house in Goa. Then we began to see another dimension not always evident to casual visitors. Suddenly, Goa was more than palms and sand; now there were bazaars and repairmen; rambling drives through quaint villages and glimpses of impressive white churches that dot the landscape. The concept of sussegad also changed; from an eternity on shacks on the beach and frolic in the sea, it became an unhurried pace of life in which things must get done without demanding schedules and dictatorial appointment books.


Every now and then, when the day’s hurly burly’s done, we repair to a small cafĂ© on the backwaters of the Mandovi River. There, we sit and watch the sunset paint the water and the mangroves with the spiritual hues of color: magenta and crimson, purple and black. It feels almost like a high mass in an awe-inspiring cathedral. We sit quietly but the birds don’t seem to get the message: swallows, gulls and various other avian creatures zoom in and out of the mangroves with sharp cries and the sound of fluttering wings. Thus, we let Goa spread through us like a mood-elevating balm.


Sometimes we head off to Panjim, the capital, at the mouth of the expansive Mandovi River. Decked up in lights at night and by day resplendent with gorgeously painted buildings, Panjim is unrivaled in its big city feel and its small town ways. It feels like an India that should have been but got lost somewhere in the transition to modernity


To many Goans, this restful capital is the big, bad and stressful place. So in what havens do they live? For one thing, there’s our small village that is less than ten minutes away from the busy National Highway 17 from Bombay to Kerala. Anchored by the white splendor of St Elizabeth Church, it is the capital of quiet.


Nestled between river-riven paddy fields and a picturesque hill, our village does not feature on a local map of Goa. Of an evening, residents gather at the church piazza, which has a bucolic view of the paddy fields and an unnamed river in the distance. There, they while away the evening with a snifter or two of feni, watching young people play volleyball in the church compound and talking about things that I would dearly like to know about.


It is an appealing scene. We don’t participate in it but simply in observing it and waving to the people as we drive past the plaza, we feel part of it. In a vicarious way, we feel we belong there. That is the attraction of Goa.


***

Gallery


The reason I was in Goa last Monsoon was to sort out arrangements for my daughter’s wedding later in the fall. Fittingly, the ceremony was held in our village church, a stone’s throw from our house.


We had a traditional Goan Catholic wedding with Goan cuisine, band, dance and cocktails at our house. The event represented my traverse of a full circle from the pre-teen years when I first encountered Goan Catholics in central Bombay’s Byculla Bridge neighborhood and the end of my teen years when I met my wife, also a Goan Catholic to my part Goan daughter’s nuptials last year.


The trip to Morjim Beach was special alone time for me, an opportunity to take stock. Mesmerized by the Monsoon tableau and lost in thought, I could feel the hard rain falling on me. I thought to dash to the car but was drenched. I looked up at the sky in abandon. With the rain in my face, the spectacular jags of lightning in my eyes and the roar of thunder and crashing surf in my ears, I yelled at the top of my voice, “Thank you.”


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2008