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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Goa Journal, January 2009

Savoring the Drift

It’s been nearly two months since we were in this haven of mental comfort. Daytime temperatures are in the 30s Celsius (80s Fahrenheit); at night the mercury drops into the teens Celsius (60s Fahrenheit); the weather is perfect. In the interim, we’ve been part of a hectic social life in Delhi, confronting a grim business scenario and watching the politicians and bureaucrats respond ineptly to the Bombay terror attacks and to the global economic crisis.

Even worse, the major opposition party has betrayed its nationalist platform, choosing to berate rather support the government in its handling of the Bombay crisis; it doesn’t know enough to challenge the government’s response to the economic meltdown. Under the circumstances, even though the government came under fire for its inept response in Bombay, the opposition party was shown up to be an opportunist, seeking to milk any and all situations in the hope of narrow political gain.

Leaving all that behind, we are here with our long-loved friends: talking about books and films, architecture and agriculture, business and finance; now sitting in a beach shack, next swimming in the sea, or having dinner at home, listening to music that stirs the soul under a sky embroidered with a zillion stars. One afternoon, we exhilarated in the film, Slumdog Millionaire, an uplifting and entertaining account of the experiences of minorities in a rapidly changing India. Before that, we sat in picturesque cafĂ© near Panjim’s Miramar Beach, anticipating the richly awarded film.

The four-year old multiplex, which screened the film, is the best I have seen: a slick glass and chrome building in a shady plaza across from the Mandovi River promenade in downtown Panjim; surrounded by gems of Portuguese colonial architecture including the Maquinez Palace. What struck me as we arrived at the plaza was the presence of a television crew. “Might they be doing a feature on the excellent architecture and the blend of the modern and traditional aspect of Goa?” I wondered. Moments later a bunch of dyspeptic-looking middle-aged and young men, ignorance writ large on their faces, arrived at the spot and unfurled protest banners identifying themselves as members of a Hindu revivalist group.

Not just me but a whole bunch of others including foreigners asked them what they were protesting. Their spokesman, not looking at me, addressed the white man: “The movie is an insult to our god Rama.” How? Clearly, they had not seen the film; after all, it was just the second commercial screening that day; the Hindi version debuted at 1.30 pm; we had tickets for the first show in English at 4 pm. Anyway, the Hindu revivalists had been told to protest so dutifully, they showed up. “Even if the film offends you and you have the right to protest,” I asked their leader, “do you know the Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression?” He’d never heard of the Constitution. So I gave up on him and walked into the theater.

The film has been nominated for 10 Oscars and that is awesome. It is wrong to crow that this is the first Indian movie to be so hugely recognized. It is not Indian, only its theme is. It is an absorbing film that should at the very least win the Best Editing award. While we were in the auditorium, the lackadaisical Hindu group had been supplanted by more militant Shiv Sena storm troopers, who set about destroying posters and threatening violence unless the screening was stopped. Mercifully, the police showed up to drag them away and all went well that ended well.

Such fringe, Taliban-style attacks are erupting all over the place, most recently in Mangalore where Hindu fundamentalist thugs assaulted men and women enjoying music and dancing at a pub. Such people are encouraged in states where the government is perceived as weak or as a promoter of Hindu fundamentalism. That such lumpen groups feel free to disrupt, destroy and terrorize innocent citizens is further evidence of the utter failure of governance. When governments all across the country acquiesced in the renaming of major cities and urban landmarks under pressure from such groups, we shouldn’t be surprised if such events occur and multiply.

So much for our dose of grim reality! After that experience at the movies, we spent a laidback evening with friends talking about vegetable dyes and fabrics and plants and trees, with a great meal thrown in. By the time we bade farewell to our friends, we had virtually forgotten about the incident. Many thoughtful commentators in Goa and elsewhere have lamented the rise of gated communities that separate the new India from its old timeless regime of poverty and numbing tradition. That’s true; more worrisome is the huge mindset gap. There is much to criticize about the divides of class, caste and religion. We should wake up to the biggest rift of all: the awareness chasm, which divides illiberal and liberal opinion.

Even so, Goa claimed us with its sensuous charms. We spent the next day languorously, sitting on armchairs, reading books and watching television, especially an episode of the BBC’s wondrous series on Mathematics. Somehow in Goa, since the senses are sated, we look to stimulate the mind. Dinner was at a shack on the beach, talking about Obama and the amazing ability of the American political system to throw up leaders with a forward vision and a plan to change things.

And so the days pass in Goa: the mind is rejuvenated and the body sheds accumulated stresses. You sleep soundly and wake up refreshed, looking forward to a breakfast of poi, the wonderful pita-style bread that’s delivered fresh each morning, and fresh fruit like figs. You can almost feel the toxins draining out of the system and the mind refreshed. Every now and then, you spend an afternoon on the beach, communing with the sun and sand, bathing in the gentle swells of the sea. The food is fresh; your taste buds are more alive and you can drift off on a sun bed while reading a pulp novel.

Soon it will be time to return to the storm-tossed world of urban India. But you feel better-equipped to handle it, especially knowing that soon you can come again and be part of the timelessness of this haven.

copyright rajiv desai 2009