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Showing posts with label Goa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Goa. Show all posts

Friday, March 17, 2017

Goa Journal: A sense of liberation

Tainted Congress is Turfed Out.

Driving in from the airport on the day of the election results, we passed caravans of pick-up trucks, cars, scooters and motorcycles. Draped in BJP colors, the caravans were celebrating the clear victory of the BJP in the recently-concluded Assembly elections. As they whizzed past towns and villages, people gathered on the edges of the highway, cheering them on. Like Woodstock, it appeared to me “everywhere there was song and celebration.”

I was struck by the sense of liberation that was palpable on the streets and squares. It was as if a dictator had been felled. “Sir, we are free from the corrupt Congress raj,” the owner of a shack on Morjim Beach told me as we walked in the next morning to laze a few hours away, swimming in the blue-green Arabian Sea and savoring the shack’s basic wares: shrimp curry and rice with fried fish and chips, washed down with fresh pineapple juice and Goa’s own King’s beer.

To get to this picturesque beach, you have to drive east from our house into Mapusa and then head north through Siolim across the bridge on the spectacular Chapora River. The drive from Mapusa, an ugly, Indian-style market town, to Siolim is over a forested hill with gorgeous valley views. The road is superb like most of Goan roads, except that over the years it has become a garbage dump. Mounds of garbage line either side of the road, detracting from the sheer natural beauty.

Even along National Highway 17, the major artery that crosses Goa north to south en route to Kerala, you see similar sights: piles of garbage on both sides. This odious development has come about in the past five years. The years from 2007 have seen Goa assaulted by real estate developers; exploited by illegal mining and stalled by crumbling infrastructure: no waste management, acute power and water shortages, traffic jams, eroding beaches and the growth of Bombay-style slums. Then there are drugs, the Russian mafia and vastly increased crime.

This has happened on the Congress watch. Clearly, these problems were building up over the years but neglected because of political instability. Between 1963 and 1990, there were just four chief ministers; since then, there have been 15. In 2007, the Congress formed the government and lasted the full term until March 3, 2012. It appeared as though a stable government might address the mounting problems. Well, it didn’t; what’s more, it was seen as a beneficiary of these ills. On March 3, Goans voted with a vengeance and turfed the Congress out.

One of the major causes of the Congress defeat is the defection of the Christian vote. Though they form just a little more than two percent of the Indian population; strikingly, Christians in Goa number nearly 30 percent of the state’s inhabitants. They have traditionally shunned the BJP because of its insular Hindutva agenda; this time they overcame their distaste for the saffron party and voted against the Congress.

There is euphoria in this bucolic little corner of India. The BJP has won handily so there should be no trouble for the next five years. Manohar Parrikar, the likable former chief minister, is set to run Goa again. Peoples’ expectations are high; but clearly it more an anti-Congress than a pro-BJP mandate.

Parrikar is a soft-spoken man, educated at the exclusive Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. I happen to know him because he asked me to help publicize the first International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa in 2004. In the course of the project, I met him several times and found him to be focused on outcomes. In the event, we worked together to make the festival a success and to make Goa a permanent home for it.

At the time, I was a member of the Congress Media Advisory Board but that didn’t make a difference to Parrikar. He wanted professional public relations support and so was happy to work with me and my firm. The brief was to make it into a South Asian Cannes.  The IFFI public relations project went south after he was ousted. Subsequent Congress governments had an opportunity to build on the national and international notice the festival attracted. Instead, as a former senior official of the Entertainment Society of Goa (ESG), the unit that ran the festival, told me: “It has become a den of corruption.”

I learned it the hard way when my firm responded to a tender for public relations support for IFFI 2011 put out by the ESG. We made our submission and I undertook a trip to Goa for the opening of the bids. The entire procedure was opaque. Three bids were opened: two firms including mine, made similar financial proposals. Within minutes, the bureaucrat, who read out the numbers (and he looked every bit vile and corrupt), dismissed us and awarded the project to a firm that bid one-fourteenth of the amount that we proposed.

This is the way Goa functioned under the Congress. Even though I am a supporter of the GOP, I found the party’s Goa dispensation less than transparent. I am not surprised they were booted out.

###



This article appeared in The Times of India on March 14, 2012.



Saturday, August 3, 2013

Livin' the Impromptu Life

On the Spiritual Roots of Loafing…

There is a deeply spiritual element in spurning ritual to do something completely different: it’s liberating, this idea that you can just go off the grid. Call it going AWOL. No permissions taken; no explanations provided. This is not about vacation or travel. There aren't any surveys or statistics to cite but it’s a pretty good guess that not everyone can or wants to do it. It is an attitude that for me has begun to take hold as I grow older. Maybe it stems from a growing awareness that in the end, everyone goes AWOL.

No; this is not a lament about growing old or a nervous look at death. On the contrary, it’s about life and joy and sensual pleasures; about the free spirit and the liberated mind that enables the impromptu life.

Periodic trips to Goa fall in that category. They let us explore the elasticity of time in which breakfast is on the table and every bite of buttered poi (Goan bread) with homemade jam satisfies so much you think you’ll never have lunch. Thinking of lunch while eating your breakfast is the impromptu state of mind in which minutes expand to fill an hour; the same minutes disappear in a fleet rush of seconds to leave you breathless, as you finish the clams or put down the book.

In the end, you become so embroiled in non-purposive activity that you lose track of time and begin to live on the wax and wane of nature: sunlight, moonlight, stars, dusk, dawn, rain, breezes, birdsong, rustling palms and the scent of the sea.

You lounge, you laze, go on long drives; read books and magazines all day or go to the beach and watch the Arabian Sea churn and roil in the Monsoon or gently roll at other times. You look for exciting new restaurants, cafes and watering holes; hook up with local friends and shoot the breeze late into the night; catch a movie at Panjim’s slick Inox cinema and in the auditorium, eat bhel instead of popcorn.

Eventually, when the sojourn draws to a close, you are refreshed and ready to look routine in the eye. That lasts a few weeks; then the soul begins to stir; your mind turns once again to the impromptu life in Goa and the serene experience of green rice fields, large rivers, lovely beaches, calamari, clams, shrimp and beer. So you go back again and spend another few days, unmindful of time. In that sense, it is a slice of immortality.

As you grow older and begin to see life’s finite horizon, such experiences gain in importance. You realize you may have done okay for yourself if, in your later life, you can indulge in such spiritual pursuits.  As you plan another journey into timelessness, thoughts hearken ahead to the new restaurant that’s just opened; succulent figs for breakfast; shrimp curry and rice for lunch; for dinner, chilly fry; dessert, custard apple ice cream; pickled green peppers in the fridge and the very dry vodka martini which their corns will flavor.

But wait…why can’t we disrupt routine more often? Is the impromptu life only available in Goa or some other such idyllic place? Of course not; it is a state of mind, as I recently discovered.

Having slept over at our house on a Sunday not too long ago, our granddaughter awoke early and climbed into our bed, making sweet sounds in her own dialect: “Wake up, sleepy head,” she seemed to be saying. My eyes opened and she smiled. I knew immediately then, Monday or not, there was no going to the office, no newspaper…even my tea remained undrunk.

Soon we were in the garden, chasing after birds and chipmunks. Of course, they disappeared; so we spent time scanning the skies and trees, whistling, gesticulating, making noises: trying to lure them back. Finally, the sapping heat got to me so we shifted the impromptu show indoors and went upstairs to sit directly in front of the air conditioner.

Then she happened on the remote control. Well, if we were going to watch TV, I felt Discovery HD was the best option for a stunning visual and learning experience. Except that we came upon the Cartoon Network while surfing…and lo and behold, it was the Tom and Jerry show, with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances as the soundtrack. So heads leaning together we watched as Jerry outwitted the cat every which way.

Another work afternoon, we took her to a playground in a nearby mall where she climbed up slides from bottom to top and ran around among the ingenious sprays that kept the place cool with their mist on a sultry day. Equally thoughtful were the soft cork board tiles that lined the playground…no scraped knees or elbows, no tears, no fears. Then last week, we took the time out of a weekday morning to take go swimming with her.

There was a time when even a half-hour delay in reaching the office would upset me. The pride and joy of my professional life was never missing a day of work, arriving early, leaving late. Things began to change when our house in Goa was ready to be occupied some dozen years ago.

Suddenly, a new appreciation of reality dawned: time isn't all about achievement. It’s about books read, movies seen, friends met, food enjoyed…or just sitting in an armchair, nodding off moments after flipping on the television set.

Years ago in a psycho-linguistics class, we learned the distinction between nominal definition, chair and operational definition, thing to sit on.  This disruption of ritual, which includes squandering of time and indulging in sensory pursuits, is living the impromptu life. The nominal definition is loafing.

The key is to let time wash over you; not watch over you and bind you with punitive schedules. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In My Life
All These Places Have a Meaning…



The single dominant memory that I have of Alan Oscar (pictured above on the right) is of him sitting next to my bed, where I was confined with measles. He was my friend and neighbor in Court Royal, an airy old apartment house in Christ Church Lane in Bombay’s Byculla Bridge. It was the 1950s and our neighborhood was the happening place: gorgeous dames, strutting guys, great music, a mind-blowing diversity of middle-class cultures and above all, the green lung of Christ Church School, complete with trees, parks and a variety of birds from parrots on down.

Alan sat with me through my measles attack and made my convalescence bearable. For a lad of not even 10 summers, there could be no heavier sentence than to stay at home while his friends ran riot in the building and around the Lane, playing carefree, pre-teen games. Alan is six years older and was at the time a TEENAGER!  He became my lifeline as I tossed and itched in bed; the wise, mature, compassionate guy among our tight knot of friends in the Lane.

A tsunami of nostalgia whisked me back when Alan and I re-established contact and he sent me this picture. Christ Church Lane was a defining phase in my life after I left the rarefied precincts of Juhu Beach and plunged headlong into bustling, vivacious Bombay’s 8th arrondisement, Byculla Bridge. A celebration of India’s middle class diversity, Nehruvian-style, this wondrous place was the hope that all of India would burgeon to embrace different cultures and lifestyles with strong middle-class values of work and civic pride. 

Within days of leaving the Lane, I realized most of the rest of India was not like it nor headed in that direction. It also became apparent that cosmopolitan Bombay itself was slowly being transformed into the hapless Mumbai about that time. 

Ah…but that’s another story. Staying with life in the Lane is immensely more interesting because it is about relationships in youth between the unlikeliest of people. That these can be revived a full half-century later is a story that began for me in the mid-1980s when I had my high-school friends (St Xavier’s Bombay, Class of 1965) over to dinner at our house in Oak Park, an old, gracious suburb just west of Chicago.

My friends showed up on a hot July evening; many of them I knew since the fifth grade. The reunion turned out to be good fun but I have never met them again. And that’s largely because I didn’t keep up with them. Having had a taste for nostalgic reunion, when I next went to London, I tracked down my friend Aasif; hadn’t seen him since 1973. So nearly a decade later, I caught up with him. We remain the same good friends to this day: he lives in Goa and we meet every other month.

Having never been to Delhi, in 1981, on my first trip, I looked up Anurag Chowfla, a friend from my days at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In an amazing twist of fate, Anurag is now, family: my daughter married his nephew. Over the years, I also looked up Mark Warner, with whom Anurag and I shared the Shakespeare Society experience in Baroda.

In the same vein, I attended a much larger reunion of the St Xavier’s class of 1965 in January 2008. There I met, among others, my friend Lawrie Ferrao, whom I have known since the fifth grade. He is now Fr Lawrie, SJ and head of the Xavier Institute of Communications. We got along smoothly all over again and he agreed to bless my daughter’s wedding at our village church in Goa the following November.

Over the years, I sought out old friends and re-established contact that I still maintain. Every now and then, I hang out with another Baroda friend, Yogi Motwane, with whom I reconnected in the US…and other friends from the MSU engineering school. Last November, we had a  reunion that attracted other friends from afar: Venky Krishnakumar from Singapore and Harry (Harish) Chopra from Perth. Renewing ties is fun and while it’s not like we meet every day, if I’m in Bombay, Singapore, Perth or New York I will make sure to call them and at least have dinner and a few drinks. Main thing is we are friends all over again.

In my search for old friends, my Eureka moment was when Victor Rodrigues, Bombay’s celebrity dentist, emailed me after he read a column I wrote in DNA. Victor, like Alan, was one of my idols at Court Royal in the Lane. He did this Elvis hair and sang rock ’n’ roll with abandon; his “Hard Headed Woman” still haunts my memory.

Funny though: both Alan and Victor had younger brothers, who were actually my friends. But the older guys became heroes for me because they were TEENAGERS! They had absolutely no need, according to the serious senior-junior hierarchy of those days, to engage with a pre-teen, vegetarian, Gujarati sod.

Nostalgia is a theme that Homer has written about with passionate, poetic elegance; Milan Kundera did a modern prosaic version. Mine is merely a journalistic report that rambles through the 20th and 21st century. There is an echo of Homer in my experiences, though. Despite the allures of Circe and the Sirens, I left America to come back to India; and I had hoped to find the olive tree just as I had left it: older but fecund; familiar but new; and always a defining feature.

Alas, just this morning I received a message from Shawn Fleming Rodrigues, Victor’s younger brother, who has lived in Court Royal forever…he is a friend of my brother, who turned 60 this year. “Byculla has changed so drastically and regrettably not for the better, that I feel that the old Byculla was my past life and this is a reincarnation,” he said.

Everywhere, they honor days gone by with respect and a touch of nostalgia. Court Royal and Christ Church Lane could have been treasured and conserved as a wonderful example of middle class values and lifestyles rooted in cultural diversity.

India seems to kill the past with its brutish reality!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Confusing consumerism with modernity

In a 2007 column, your correspondent worried about the confusion between consumerism and modernity and still remains worried.


Years ago, on a flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh, I sat across the aisle from a woman and her pre-teen son.
The son asked his mother if he could move to an empty window seat. “Just so long as you obey what the captain said: keep your seat belt loosely fastened at all times,” she told him. The boy sat by the window and fastened his belt as he stared out of the window, wonderstruck by fluffs of white clouds floating by and every now and then, another jetliner flying past in the distance.
Meanwhile, the pilot announced we were headed for turbulence. He instructed passengers to return to their seats and ensure their seat belts were fastened. The little boy quickly went back to the seat next to his mother and buckled his seat belt while I panicked silently at the thought of a bumpy interlude.
Cut to November 2007: On a flight from Goa to Delhi, I am sitting behind a family of four. The parents are engrossed in conversation while their two pre-teen boys run amok.
One of them stood right in front of me, noisily wolfing down a bag of potato chips while crumbs fell all over the aisle; when he finished, he blew into it, hoping it would pop, while his brother stood up on his seat, laughing at the older one’s antics.
They screamed and shouted with little regard for other passengers.
The boys’ behavior was irritating but they could be forgiven because they were both under ten years old; deeply offensive was the indifference of the parents. They mostly ignored the boys. The circus continued through the flight; the parents said nothing in admonition.
As the plane came in to land, the two boys got into a fight about the window seat. They raised such a ruckus that the parents were finally moved to do something: they asked the two to share the seat.
As the flight landed and the parents buckled up, the two sons shared the window seat, without seat belts fastened.
Observing such crass behavior, I began to understand why brats grow up to be boorish men lacking civic sense. They drive rashly, be it bicycles, motorbikes or cars; they cross the street anywhere they want; they urinate all over the place; they harass women; and generally make an all-round nuisance of themselves.
The literature says such behavior begins with the family and ends with the school. In India, both are dysfunctional.
The family is, by and large, a totalitarian setup in which children are made to conform to their elders’whims and fancies; schools reinforce conformism. There is no room in either institution for creativity.
Most children end up as nitpicking nerds or mindless conformists; above all, they become seekers of instant gratification.
Meanwhile, the media are pushing similar notions in which conformity is valued over creativity as is obvious from jewelry commercials; narcissism triumphs over civic values: just look at the motorbike commercials.
I once sat through a meeting wherein a senior adman made a presentation about the changes in India to an audience that consisted of senior executives of a global firm. He said India was modernising tradition; we were taking age-old ways and sprucing them up with glitz and glamour.
He confused rituals with tradition and consumerism with modernity.
The brats in the plane are victims of an emergent culture that emphasises narcissism; as long they conform to the family’s whims and fancies, children are in a curiously cynical manner, indulged and ignored.
Neither the family nor schools focus on socialisation, in which children are taught to balance their narcissism with respect for the rights of others.Not all the malls nor cell phones and fancy cars add up to modernity.
Not all the jewelry at Karva Chauth nor big fat weddings and expensive Diwali gifts add up to tradition. India has a long way to go before it gets the right definitions of tradition and modernity.
This column appeared in DNA, November 21, 2007.


Confusing consumerism with modernity

Thursday, July 14, 2011

English: An Indian Language

So here we go again. Language chauvinists in Goa have launched disruptive protests against the state government’s proposal that will allow primary and secondary schools to offer English as a medium of instruction. This is in addition to Marathi and Konkani.

A bunch of rabble, associated with the Hindutva forces, stopped traffic in Panjim and threatened to hold the state hostage to their misbegotten worldview. It’s not just about Goa, it’s all over India. Same people who protested against the screening of the film Slumdog Millionaire; same people who assaulted women coming out of a bar in Mangalore; same people who renamed the airport and the railway terminus in Bombay; same people who renamed Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

English, both the language and our cultural heritage, is a convenient horse to flog. Increasingly, though, the burgeoning middle class is embracing it as the key to success in a modernizing country. Thus, while politicians go on renaming sprees, “Indianizing” names of city streets and entire cities, real estate developers across the country sell their projects with Western-sounding names such as “Provence,” “Belvedere” and what have you. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, I have actually seen commercial and residential properties called “Manhattan” or “White House.”

Coming back to the Goa language disturbances, even the normally rational Manohar Parrikar, opposition leader and erstwhile chief minister, backed the obscurantist protest. He said if children are educated in English, they look down on their parents who don’t speak the language. He is right.

The problem with the English language is it subversive. To accept it is to accept the cultural and philosophical worldview of the Enlightenment. For example: reason, courtesy, egalitarianism and dissent. In the Hindutva worldview, these are not values that are accepted. Instead the focus is on superstition, indulgence, exclusivity and conformism. Children schooled in the English language do not easily buy into backwardness.

If you look around today, journeyman classes that offer students English-language proficiency are burgeoning everywhere. Parents and their children know that to make their way in the world, English is essential. They have no time for chauvinist arguments against the language. They just want their children to get ahead and like all solid middle class Indians place their faith in education.

This is why the Goa government’s bold move is admirable. Clearly, the state government understands that people want the choice to choose English as a medium of instruction. Given the state’s high level of literacy and per capita income, the pro-English segment is sizable and has rallied behind the government.

English has always been an Indian language. In recent years, the number of people who use English as the lingua franca has increased exponentially. A new form of the language has taken shape that incorporates Indian idioms. We are like this only. And it is increasingly accepted. R K Narayan is an early example; Salman Rushdie thrived on it.

Today global literary salons celebrate Indian writers in English bringing Indian cultural flavours to the world. I can name at least a dozen and their number is probably in the hundreds. So it is bit of madness for people in India to dismiss English as a foreign language. Supreme Court judgments are in English as are government policies. They may be translated into various languages but in the first draft they are written in English.

Vernacular chauvinists, who disparage the use of English in India, are products of a feudal mindset that portrays India as a long-suffering victim of colonial oppression. They draw inspiration from the jingoist ranting of M S Golwalkar in his aptly titled book, “Bunch of Thoughts” and amazingly enough also from the Luddite fulminations of Mohandas Gandhi in “Hind Swaraj.” Their India is a closed and diffident victim of unchaste foreigners. Today, such postures appear ridiculous and out of touch with the new, resurgent India.

Protests like the one in Goa flare up now and again, led by fringe groups that are communal and chauvinist. But they fly in the face of what citizens want. The protestors assume that the vast majority of the Indian population has no use for English. They are right; only a small section of the population use English in their lives. However, English is the language of aspirations. Even a semi-literate family in the rural areas knows that for their children to get out of the rut, the passport is proficiency in English.

Unlike yesteryear, when the language of Milton and Shakespeare was a mark of elite status, in the new India, English is the language of upward mobility. As such, it has captured the imagination of a new dynamic and youthful generation that values merit and effort as determinants of success. Its importance is gauged not from numbers but from its grip on the imagination of the burgeoning middle class.

English was introduced as a medium of instruction nearly two centuries ago by British liberals, hoping to “instruct” generations of Indian youth so they could become adequate civil servants in service of the Crown. Many young people from traditional upper caste families eagerly embraced English and parlayed it into a comfortable livelihood with steady incomes and various privileges.

As India enters a new phase, going from a uniquely-won independence to global recognition, English is again the agent of aspiration and change. And it gives me pause to think about just how prescient Thomas Babington Macaulay was when he said in his “Minute on Education:”

Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.”

Curiously, today’s chauvinists who protest the use of English reserve their worst for those who celebrate it as a dynamic Indian language. They call us the children of Macaulay; one of several “M’s” they hate including Marx, Modernity and Muslims.


An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, July 2011.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Goa Journal

The Anxiety of Freedom

Panjim: The beginning is mundane. You arrive at a jetty on this capital city’s iconic waterfront, tumble out of the car, make an awkward climb to a floating jetty and jump into the boat. After that, it is a liberating experience.

Within minutes, the speedboat set off to explore the Mandovi River and its backwaters. We flitted in and out of waterways and their littorals, the mangroves that seemed to eat into the river as our boat maneuvered past overhanging branches through the twisting, winding backwaters. A calm descended on us; the outside word ceased to exist.

For a fleeting moment of schadenfreude, we thought about friends in Delhi and Bombay, stuck in traffic jams and all manner of urban discomfiture. As we floated through the backwaters, it seemed to me we had chanced upon an undiscovered world. And as we emerged from this mysterious water world back into the mainstream, we were confronted by sweeping vistas on offer by the mighty Mandovi.

Rivers play an important role in the life of India. They are considered sacred but modern India treats them as sewers, dumping waste and poisons in them. Most rivers in India are dirty and dying. The Mandovi is, in stark contrast, clean and is used for commerce and transport. Now, it is being increasingly used for pleasure.

And so it was for pleasure that we found ourselves rolling on the river. With the wind upon our faces and wonder in our eyes, we floated in the waters and saw a Goa that is mind-boggling; away from the beaches and the tourist spots. Time stood still here and the two hours stretched to an eternity.

The Mandovi tidal basin is an intricate system of wetlands, marshes and paddy fields, intersected by canals, dykes, bays, lagoons and creeks. The river and the backwaters are governed by regular tides that reach up to 20 miles upstream.

Our two-hour long experience on the Mandovi filled us with reverence for the majesty of nature. The river seems eternal; I use the word “seems” because it is impossible to grasp and define eternity in terms of years, centuries or millennia. And understanding this, the use of “seems,” puts you face to face with spirituality and its temporal offshoots: faith and communion.

Herman Hesse in his book Siddhartha wrote about “the restless departures and the search for stillness at home; the diversity of experience and the harmony of a unifying spirit; the security of religious dogma and the anxiety of freedom."

Over the years, I have come to celebrate diversity, to value harmony. Now I am concerned about religion and its effect on, “the anxiety of freedom.” These imponderables have occupied my thoughts. I have often wondered, wouldn’t it be so much simpler to be a man of faith?

But where do you place your faith?

Of all the religions, I have always been intrigued by Catholicism and its celebration of faith and communion, week after week; generation after generation; across communities, nations and cultures. Each Sunday, believers go to church and reaffirm the dogma that Christ was born of Immaculate Conception; He was crucified and rose from the dead. This they call proclaiming the mystery of faith. They receive the wafer and wine believing them to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which they call the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the thanksgiving.

That afternoon on the boat, contemplating the majesty of the river and its various branched waterways, I began to get a glimmer of the spirituality of faith and the mystery of communion.

And no, I have not found religion. I still remain firmly a skeptic. But that experience on the Mandovi will make me a tad slower to challenge matters of faith. Call it the anxiety of freedom.

On our way back to the dock, we stopped midstream for a libation and a view of Panjim as the lights came on. It was a spectacular sight; the neat laidback city on the estuary came alive with its nocturnal personality. It was not Manhattan or Chicago but from the darkness enveloping the river, it was a sign of civilization. In the end, despite the majesty of nature, the lights of Panjim were comforting, a sign that in the end, civilization is what this world is about.

As we returned to shore, we were forced to contemplate mundane problems like where to have dinner. We settled on a restaurant in Candolim, the hip and happening place in north Goa. When we reached there, a solo singer was in attendance.

When we walked in, he launched into the Louis Armstrong 1968 classic vocal that celebrates nature, humanity, eternity: the wondrous mystery of life: What a wonderful world...yeah!


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011



Thursday, January 6, 2011

Imagine there’s a Heaven

It Was Easy Because We Tried


Goa: Think about it for a minute. It’s New Year’s Eve at our house, Imagine. It’s easy if you try. And because we’re dreamers, our daughters and our entire extended family deigned to spend the evening with us. It was about 20 degrees Celsius officially but in the village where we live it was a little colder. Actually, we’ve rarely seen Goa as cold as to need sweaters. Anyway, we let it out and let it in with mirth and merriment; we made our world a little warmer. We shrugged off the cares that were upon our shoulder and sang and danced as though this eve was forever and a day.

We gave little thought that night to the busy years that had gone rushing by us because we still had our starry notions. And spending the end of the first decade of the millennium with the extended family was a treat that all in the world would devoutly wish. Though many who came were friends, the operative thing was they were all family: from New York, London, Zurich, Washington, Bombay, Ahmedabad and of course locally in Goa. It was a global celebration in a village that does not even appear in any map of this haven.

Arriving here on December 29 on an afternoon flight on our favorite IndiGo Airlines, we drove straight home and landed up at our favorite Cavala restaurant and rocked for many hours to the band Abracadabra into the wee hours of the night. There was this little girl Jessica, not even 10 years old, who jived with her father to the old time rock and roll. She was so good, I asked for her autograph, which she shyly wrote on a coaster. I will treasure forever despite the fact I may never see her again.

Tell me: how can you beat this anywhere else in nerve-wracking India? Is it any wonder that I believed it when a guy, who runs a beach shack in Morjim in the northern part of Goa, told me that nearly 250,000 people were expected in Goa on December 31? For the record, the population of Goa is just 1.5 million.

Goa lives and dies on tourism. This year because of the bad weather in Europe (few Americans come), many charter flights were canceled. The slack has been taken up by free-spending Indians. As such, the Goan tourism infrastructure that is geared to low-level European tourists is trying to adjust to domestic tourists, who demand what they can get in Thailand or Malaysia. Local demand will improve infrastructure in Goa. In the end, as in America, domestic demand makes for a more egalitarian economy.

Indian tourists are known worldwide to be big spenders. You now see in Goa the big Indian brands like Fabindia and hotels like Vivanta and Fortune that cater to the new middle class. They are better and more professional than the cramped little resorts that cater to British truck drivers in Calangute or the illegal purple, green and yellow resorts for Russian mafia and drug dealers in Morjim. In the end, the growth of high-end domestic tourism may be the savior of this gorgeous haven. Again for the record, there is no McDonald’s outlet in Goa.

The fear in Goa is that domestic tourists will bring the Indian sickness to their home, spitting paan, urinating in public, driving rashly and recklessly. Also the new thrust of domestic tourism is a more affluent class of tourists. The question remains: are hippies and backpackers, dubious Israelis and Russians better than high-end Indians from Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore?

Meanwhile, as I sit in my verandah outside my bedroom in our house, annoyed at the buzz of crickets and cicadas late at night, I realize it is all an academic wonder for now. These problems are all about the beaches and the “happening” strips. I’m happy to stay in my house and imagine ours is a haven; to be with family is very heaven.

Love, indeed, is all you need. And the love of family and friends is a treasure.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Goan Journal

The Monsoon Magnificence



You’ve got to be a hardy soul to come to Goa in the Monsoon. It rains incessantly and does drumbeats on the roof; the percussion is as good as anything Max Roach did, especially on his album, Money Jungle, with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. Still, as Credence Clearwater Revival sang, the rain keeps falling. And I don’t really wonder, amid the sophisticated Roach-style beat of the rain on my roof, who’ll stop the rain.


Goa in the rains is a sight for sore eyes and a balm for troubled minds. It has a calming effect: nothing really matters, except the drain of stress. We start from the chaotic airport. You can deal with it because in minutes you can get in the car and leave India behind. Goa is our foreign destination where people are civilized, traffic is orderly and everyone looks out for others. The skies open up with huge rainfall and all you want to do is stop the car, jump out and let yourself be drenched in the Monsoon rains.


We arrived in Goa on an afternoon in July and later that evening drove to Chicalim in the north to celebrate a friend’s birthday. His place is approximately in the middle of nowhere. I may be wrong but even the Portuguese didn’t venture there. And so we’re in our car, negotiating the twist and turns to get there. Once we reach his people-friendly house with its inviting “come, hang out” charm, we forget the world. The only bummer was Germany destroyed Argentina in South Africa; the South Americans were the team I picked to win the Cup.


Goa in the rains is a magical mystery tour. Green is the operative color; moss is your ground cover and the world stands still. Here, you add years to your life. Time is stretched out. Read a book, listen to music, and drench yourself in the rain: you can do stuff you wish you could do in the stressed out reality of India.


In the rain-lashed season, Goa can also be an adventure. There are few places open for lunch or dinner; all the beach shacks are closed; in fact, even the beaches are run over by the sea. You have to be resourceful and find spots that are open. You may have to travel a fair distance or experiment with all manner of local places. But the best thing is to eat at home and then find a rock on a beach, sit on it and watch the thunderous majesty of the sea in the rains.


We’ve had a place here since the turn of the century. More important, this is my sasural; my wife’s family is from Goa and our place is just 15 minutes away from her family home. Also, we have other family here in Chicalim and Aldona and good friends in Panjim, Anjuna and Colvale. For us, this emerald haven is not a vacation spot; it is our second home. We feel we belong here.


Plus Goa is full of random surprises. At dinner one evening at a local diner, a bunch of people showed up. There was this handsome guy sitting in a chair right next to me. He pulled out a bottle of scotch and offered to share it. We demurred but he was insistent. So we had a drink from his bottle. He said his name was Kumar Gaurav, son of the famous Bollywood tragedy king, Rajendra Kumar. He said he was married to Namrata Dutt, daughter of Sunil Dutt and Nargis. As such he is the brother-in-law of Priya Dutt, the Congress MP and Sanjay Dutt, the actor of Munnabhai fame.


We struck up a conversation in this diner called Starlight and he was insistent to take us to his house in Parra, a suburb of Mapuca. It turned out to be a gorgeous place, slick and breathing of wealth. He showed us around and when we left after 15 minutes, we drove away impressed. In the end, we marvelled that something like this could happen in such an impromptu fashion. But that’s Goa for you. You meet some guy in a restaurant or in a market or a grocery store and you become friends.


That’s the social part of Goa. And it’s wonderful. What is equally spectacular is the majesty of nature here, especially in the Monsoon. As I sit in my verandah, surrounded by a cathedral of coconut trees and watch and hear the rain falling, I am struck by the bounty of nature. As the rain stops, the garden is awash with fireflies everywhere, lighting up, for a brief moment, the darkness of the clouds.


My friend Aasif, an architect, who lives here, having come from 30-plus years in London, tells me that the glow in the fireflies is about sex. “It’s their penis that lights up with a view to attract to females,” he says. He also added that fireflies are rapidly becoming extinct with growing urbanization. Because of city lights, their glow doesn’t show and they cannot mate.


Aasif can identify bird calls, butterflies and constellations in the sky. He lived for 30 years a busy life in London but now he is a connoisseur of Nature. What a wonderful way to spend the rest of your life.


So you live and you learn. When all’s said and done, you can be alone in Goa in the rains and have the soothing and disturbing sounds of the falling water to keep you company. Soothing because it lulls; disturbing because in a 250-year-old house, you never know where water will drip. You simply feel at the mercy of nature. So we look at the bounteous aspect: green, blue and grey.


We all know from the news media that Goan politics is all about rent money; corruption is rampant and crime starts in the cabinet. And so it is everywhere else in India. In Goa, though, our local primary health care center has doctors, nurses, ambulances, medicines and diagnostic equipment. The schools have teachers; the roads are well paved and the traffic is orderly.


Sometimes, I think we should just move here and be done with the chaos of the rest of India.



Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Saturday, January 2, 2010

In the Early Hours of 2010…

A Family Celebration



Breathes there the man with soul so dead whose children are alienated from him? When the hurly burly’s done, my daughters seem actually to enjoy time spent with me. Nothing is more fulfilling; nothing so soulful.


And so it was on New Year’s Eve in Goa, we ordered several bottles of champagne while awaiting 2010. There was music and dancing and much merriment. I felt lucky to be me. Those assembled that night were an incestuous mix of family and friends. Above all, it was a raucous lot.


Noise somehow seems to be directly proportional to the fun you are having. And our noise started before even the first glass was poured. If a bunch of stone-cold sober people can stir up the pot, what happens after a couple of bottles of champagne?


Answer: it does not get maudlin or sentimental or nostalgic, only much more fun as people yell and smile and nod at each other to communicate over the loud music, without really hearing what anyone’s saying. They happily pour themselves that extra glass of champagne that teeters between enhancement of reality and oblivion.


So what’s the big deal about this particular midnight? I think it is a generic birthday celebration when we all get older by the calendar year, never mind specific birthdays. It’s not as though human existence can be subsumed by accurate accounting: no, I’ll be 50 only in March; or 65 in September or 21 in July and 40 in April.


On January 1, everyone is a year older, give or take 365 days.


New Year’s Eve is a communitarian birthday celebration and as such egalitarian. Random strangers come up and wish you with a smile in their eyes and good cheer in their heart. And you think to yourself, what a wonderful world! You think about new beginnings, rather than endings; of spring, not fall. The key message is renewal, not decay.



There’s no denying, for many of us, more such celebrations are behind rather than ahead of us. Growing older is a complicated process. At once, you are wiser, more sure of yourself. You realize clearly you will never run a four-minute mile or do a breakdance. The real issue is whether you find value in your life or moan the years that have flown


My wish for New Year’s Eve is we will continue to have fun with family and friends, not just on mankind’s common birthday but on every occasion we can grab.


Happy New Year!


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010


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