NOTES FROM INLAND GOA

Watching the gleaming coaches of my train disappear down a red laterite valley after depositing me at Thivim Station six hours behind schedule, which, according to Goan Standard Time, is not very late at all.

Listening to Prabhakar, my wizened motorcycle pilot, detail the decay of Goan politics and still punctuate every point with “phir kidhar jaaneka?” which, in his tone, meant “what more do you want?”

Being asked to lower my normal speaking voice on my first day here. There is no background noise for me to drown out.

Breakfast every day at Simonia’s, where they wish you “good morning!” like they mean it. Falling in love with a girl named Bebinca, She of Seven Layers.

Warbling away in a bathroom the size of a bedroom, with a lofty ceiling and acoustics that magnify my voice to majesty.

An old man leans against an old post-box, reading oHeraldo, The Voice of Goa – since 1900.

Fish. Fish fish fish. Fish curry. Fish thali. Fried fish.

Banana leaves in the breeze, nodding off to sleep.

A bank shut in the afternoon in the week after demonetisation.

An aged woman in a Nauvari sari, grinding grain by the kerb.

Relishing the crusty Goan pao called poie.

Spending evenings on one of many causeways over the Mapusa River, reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the sparse shadows of a mangrove. Feet inches above the eddying waters. The whorled reflection of crows on a wire. Red and green leaves drift by. Shutting my book at dusk to listen to the soaring voices of men singing Dehachi Tizori for the evening aarti at a village temple, while someone bangs out a rhythm on a plate.

A sweaty football team sipping on sodas at the village tuck shop.

A couple – amorously entwined atop a motorcycle – snogging away in the middle of a quiet bridge.

A phalanx of shirtless, wrinkled and boiled old white men, riding into the sunset.

Watching the sun set into the Arabian Sea from an almost private beach, just off a popular tourist spot. Guarded by forested crags, in a small cove with plentiful perches among calm waters. No, I won’t tell you where it is. Go away.

An auburn supermoon rises over Panjim.

Swarthy men lean on the low parapets of bridges across the Mandovi, and fish – at night, off a national highway. While petrified motorists like me swerve to avoid knocking their neon-trunk-clad bottoms into the dark currents below.

Finding out that I like pork after all. Trying beef; liking it.

Listening to old Konkani songs on the radio every night. This yearning, maudlin music is the mother lode of every 60’s and 70’s RD Burman tune.

Everything said in Konkani sounds and feels like a friendly backslap.

Churches dressed in white, with blue trimming. Three whitewashed chapels between churches a mile apart.

In Goa, palm trees grow like weeds – wherever possible.

The iconic edifice of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church is flanked by the long, low building of Anjuman Nurul Islam Urdu Primary School.

No two homes are alike; each is wondrous to behold. Painted red and white, white and yellow, yellow and green, green and white…

Regal staircases that zigzag up to the front doors of the hillside mansions of Altinho, designed perhaps to discourage relentless Romeos.

Visiting my schoolteacher and her family in their charming Portuguese villa – stone seats on the porch with a view of the river across the road, a vegetable garden out back, sloping roof with Mangalore tiles and a peaceable dog to warm your feet. Meeting after a decade, for an evening full of warmth, conversation, and fluid hospitality (pun intended). Drinking beer (and rum and Kahlua and Jägermeister) in the presence of a teacher? Check.

Government buildings resemble film sets. The Directorate of Accounts looks like a wedding hall, complete with chandelier.

Exploring one of the unguarded, stately buildings of the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court. Watching teenagers play badminton in the plaza.

Riding my scooty everywhere (I miss you, 6498), ferns brushing against my shins. Developing a distaste for the pedestrian commute.

Finding a Finding Fanny village. And another. And another.

Tolkien could have set Middle-Earth in Goa: the Orcs of Orgao, the Dwarves of Barazan, the Elves of Poriem, the Mines of Morpilla, Lord of the Kingdoms of Arpora and Gaundalim, Radagast of Pomburpa, the Vale of Sangolda, the Marshes of Marcaim, the Last Homely House of Chinchinim.

The odd sight of well-to-do men gesturing at solitary motorists for lifts. Eventually relenting, and discussing parallel cinema over my shoulder with a film festival delegate as I took him from one venue to another.

Flagged down by a bleary cop at a naakabandi. Dismissed without argument after furnishing a PAN card instead of a licence.

Boarding a roll-on, roll-off ferry from Divar Island. Admiring the dome of the Chapel of St Cajetan and the towers of the Chapel of St Catherine, visible above a fringe of palm fronds, as I crossed the Mandovi to Old Goa.

A new bride in a translucent sundress on her honeymoon, with bangles choking her forearms and mehendi up to her knees, kneeling on a pew in a 17th century church and pretending to pray while her freshly acquired husband captures her devotion on camera.

A Caucasian woman in a Punjabi dress next to a gaggle of Indian girls in gowns.

A bald man sporting a dreamcatcher on his head.

From the elegant balcony of Panjim Inn in the old quarter of Fontainhas: a withered dowager in a purple dress has an antique chair brought out of her heritage home and placed on the footpath by her solid wooden door. As she bestows a woebegone smile on all those who pass by, her face is a landscape of pained joy and relished sorrow. When a local stops to greet her, she clasps his or her hand in both of hers, and kisses it.

Tombstones of ancestors buried in front yards. Crosses mark graves by the wayside, some remembered with garlands.

An epitaph: Zolmolo (born), Somplo (finished).

In the classifieds: “Dear Viv, but…why? So sudden, so shocking, unbelievable!!! I shall always remember you.”

Sign at a seaside wedding: “Pick a seat, not a side. We are all family.”

Sign at a Panjim carwash: ‘We give the best hand jobs in town.’

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Writing Assignment: The City Story

I write for The City Story, an independent website that documents interesting people, places, experiences and eating options in Mumbai and London. The writing is lucid, placid and devoid of attention-grabbing gimmicks. All stories are either about hidden gems in the metropolis, or urban icons looked at from a novel perspective. Each story is written in the first person and celebrates the voice of the writer. Everything is pinned onto a Google map of the city with an accompanying address, phone number, website or Facebook page, to help you explore the city on your own.

You can find the links to my stories on The City Story page of this blog.

I will, of course, continue to write here. Thank you.

THE RAILWAY CYNIC’S JOURNAL

An earnest bachelor travelling on work slides his glasses up his harried nose and attempts to tinker with his laptop while a family of seven corners him in with a teething baby, a farting grandpa, a painfully beautiful daughter, a corpulent son who strips down to his underwear, a family friend playing Antakshari with himself, a matronly housewife who rains curd-rice from the berth above and a sickeningly cheery paterfamilias who wants to discuss the stock market.

An arthritic retiree reposing on the lower berth curses upto the seventh generation of the ten teenagers who’ve spread a bedsheet over twenty legs bridging the two upper berths and are playing a very physical card-game that requires frequent ululations and screaming of the war-cries ‘doooooood’ and ‘faaaaaaaack’ in a high cackling voice that terrifies him more than the possibility of death by burial under millennials.

Merciless fathers alight at ill-lit stations in the middle of the night and petrify their adoring children by not re-appearing until half an hour after the train is in motion, twenty-five minutes after they’ve begun to wail and twenty minutes after their mother has decided to disembark at the next station or signal, whichever comes first.

The perspiring state of semi-sleep I have befuddled my tired aching cramped limbs into is shattered at the wispiest crack of dawn by the piercingly nasal cry of an ambitionless man peddling weak tea over-boiled from questionable water collected from the rusty faucet in the much-abused toilet.

Obese aunties waddle to the loo for a pre-chai prophylactic dump, scent up the closet, pant their way back to newsprint-stained vadas seared in rancid oil and the continued interrogation of a solitary girl accha beti what is your good name what caste is that Hindu only na haan haan Jain is Hindu only where is your native place mummy papa let you travel alone aaj kal ke girls na they are so modern in my time toh accha how come you aren’t married you look old enough to have two children better get engaged at least soon varna all the good ones will be taken heh heh.

Fearless lads suspend their scrawny bodies out of the overcrowded doorway, their hearts throbbing hair flying faces gleaming until the piss flies into their eyes.

Every wayside station boasts of a paan-painted drinking water fountain used to wash hands, faces and kerchiefs, a bored man listlessly waving a green flag, and a single hut sheltering a single couple, the girl bedecked and bashful, the boy staring at the horizon for a glimpse of any train to escape on.

The train thunders across a mighty bridge over a brown rivulet at whose banks women squat and beat their families’ clothes with a vehemence reserved by those who live next to a railway line and a couple of hours from the nearest station, whose menfolk have long departed for all the big places all the big trains go to.

Respecting the caste system of Rajdhanis-and-Shatabdis-first-everything-else-follows, my train spends an eternity at a siding while a sun-baked man with a damp towel around his neck cradles a fluorescent green bucket in his elbow and executes his business idea of walking along the tracks selling once-cool bottled water to the passengers of a fully air-conditioned train.

Middle-aged men wearing faded black trousers and nondescript shirts strut on the platform with arms akimbo, staring at the signal, wishing, urging, daring it to turn green so they can sweat under their collars and manfully leap aboard a train speeding at a kilometre an hour.

The train halts at a red signal in the middle of a nameless nowhere boasting of cracked earth, failing fields and an undernourished bull being worked to death by an undernourished farmer who doesn’t lift his eyes off God’s earth to look at the sky, the train or anything else.

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IN THE NAME OF THE MOTHER

This morning, I conducted a one-person sociological experiment. Instead of falling out of bed and groping my way to a cup of coffee, I stood myself in front of a mirror and shouted, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai!’

Not much happened. My eyes, hitherto closed, fluttered open an angstrom. My ears, bracing for impact, thanked the poor acoustics of my room. I coughed up a mucus plug that had spent the night in my throat. And realised that I disliked the pitch of my voice during the extended ‘kiii…..’

Nothing else happened. I did not feel more patriotic, or one with my countrymen. On branch-branch, gold bird did not sit. My country’s soil did not gold produce, produce diamonds-pearls. I did not feel like my country’s bulbul; it did not feel like my garden.

I’m not in the habit of screaming slogans at my reflection. But my country’s statesmen, cutting across party lines, deem it the most important issue of the day:

Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi said he won’t say it, even with a knife to his throat.

Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis said say it, or leave the country.

Maharashtra MLA Waris Pathan said he wouldn’t say it, was surrounded by and shouted at by his fellow MLA’s in the Vidhan Sabha, and suspended, without irony, for ‘violating parliamentary traditions’.

Yoga guru Ramdev said say it, or off with your heads! – at a Sadbhavna (goodwill) Sammelan.

UP Minister Azam Khan – who has abused an IAS officer, dared the Shiv Sena to demolish the Taj Mahal and claimed that Kargil’s peaks were won only by Muslim soldiers – said Mr Ramdev is spoiling the congenial atmosphere.

Mani Shankar Aiyar said say it, and say Jai Hind and Jai Hindustan too. Mr Aiyar is a former Minister of Natural Gas.

The Darul Uloom Deoband said don’t nobody say it, it’s un-Islamic, thus putting it in the same category as working women, Salman Rushdie, and shaving.

Omar Abdullah said Mehbooba Mufti, who said nothing in the 88 days she left Jammu & Kashmir headless, should say it.

The Shiv Sena said Ms Mufti should say it to honour deceased Kashmiri Pandits, thus proving that it isn’t just a Hindu majoritarian party. It is also a Hindu minoritarian party.

Khalistan ideologue Simranjit Singh Mann said don’t say it, Sikhs don’t worship women in any form – endangering Punjab’s position as a leader in gender equality.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said saying it should be spontaneous, proving yet again that in Indian polit-speak, those two words are not contradictory. He also said that saying it is part of the all-round development of youth, along with bachelorhood, Aryanisation and finally, full pants.

The Hon’ble UP Governor Ram Naik said we should ignore those who oppose saying it because they are a minority, thus fulfilling his constitutional duty of being sensitive to minorities. His Excellency also said that if we don’t say it, the world won’t acknowledge it, leading us all to imagine a future where Australia se leke America, dil chaahe bas Made In India.

Himachal Pradesh CM Virbhadra Singh, whose posh Delhi flat was recently attached by the Enforcement Directorate in a disproportionate assets case, said it thrice in the state assembly and said he is a true patriot.

Party elder LK Advani said it is a meaningless controversy. No one listened to him.

Rakhi Sawant said, ‘ceiling fans haaye haaye, Bharat Mata Ki Jai!’

No she didn’t. But she will soon.

We have gone to the zoo.

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STRANGER IN THE NIGHT

Before I see her, I hear her. No, it is only her stick. Her, I never hear at all.

When her battered wooden cane clacks against the old wooden seats, we who are sitting at the front of the first compartment of one of the last locals to Borivali, look up. In the aisle stands an elderly lady, left hand clutching the hook of her stick, right hand cupped in supplication, her entire frame swaying with the motion of the train.

Thinning grey hair, straggly and uncombed, plastered against her skull into a tiny bun at the back. A fading tattoo at the centre of her sun-bronzed forehead; a caste-mark, perhaps. Her eyes are shut. Perhaps she cannot open them. Perhaps she chooses not to. I don’t know.

She wears a dark green blouse that yawns around her elbows. A green and red sari, not unclean. Bangles on her wrist, golden, perhaps gold. Not someone who was always poor. From wizened head to unshod feet, she is four feet something and sparsely built, just like my grandmum.

We are terrified she will fall over.

The middle-aged man with hennaed hair who has just boarded at Khar, already proffers a coin. My faintly moustachioed young neighbour, who has spent the last fifteen minutes telephonically advising his associate about relationships, compromising and how not to say ‘fuck’ in front of one’s mother, tucks his phone between shoulder and ear, digs out his wallet and extricates a ten-rupee note. And I, who think myself inured to beggars of all description – wheedling eunuchs, anaemic urchins and deadpan single mothers – fish in my change pocket and draw out all its coins.

She accepts our coins without remark and drops them into a pocket sewn inside her blouse. The note she raises to her forehead, murmurs a silent thanks, and tucks into the waist of her sari.

She shambles on to the next set of seats. I find my head turning to watch her. She lightly grazes the heads or shoulders of the seated men to steady herself; maybe also to garner sympathy. I stand and lean against the back of my seat for a better view. Few are those who don’t bring out their wallets.

As Santacruz approaches, the train decelerates. She turns around, steadies herself for a moment and inches towards the door. She is too short to grasp the hand-grips overhead. The train stops with a jerk. She teeters, but does not fall.

She lowers herself onto the platform. On an impulse, so do I.

The train thunders out of the station. She uses her cane as a pathfinder, casting about in front of herself as she walks, nay, totters along one side of the platform. I stroll unobtrusively along the other, looking at her sideways. She shuffles up to a foodstall. Identifies it with her hand. Shuffles onward. Bangs her stick against a bench. Reaches the next stall. Hand flails for the counter. This too is open. She chooses to totter on, not exhibiting the measured confidence of the blind.

I follow, hopefully inconspicuous. Should I walk alongside her, I will attract more than a few stares, even at this late hour. I’m already embarrassed by what I now realise is my stalking, but am unable to stop.

She reaches a third foodstall. Taps the glass. Gestures to the attendant to pack something. A few samosas and vadas. She produces notes out her sari.

The attendant catches me watching. Locks eyes for a moment. Then shrugs, and returns to wiping the counter.

Ten minutes have elapsed. A train has drawn in, paused, and departed. I realise that I don’t need to be shifty. She is not at all aware of my presence.

Turning around, she backs up against the stall and slowly slides to the ground. Withered, veiny hands rip open the parcel and count its contents. Satisfied, she stuffs it into a cloth bag on her shoulder. One hand pushes down against the concrete. With the other, she bears down on her stick. After a few seconds of crouched uncertainty, she straightens up. Circles around a shut newspaper stall. And slowly squats on her haunches.

She is facing the stall, instead of resting against it. I am puzzled. Until I observe a small stream of something emerge from between her feet, darkening the platform.

As another train draws in, she struggles up, and advances to the edge of the platform. A man walking by warns her to go no further. She stops, and lets her cane clatter against the doorframes of the slowing train. Thut…..thut….thut…thut..thut. When it halts, willing hands pull her in. I board it too.

What will claim her first – death, hunger or a terrible accident? Will she welcome death, or is she terrified of it? Where does she find the courage to fend for herself, and for how long has she been on her own? Does anyone ever speak to her? What does her voice sound like? Where was she born? What is her story?

She goes on to Jogeshwari, a few more rupees and God-knows-what. I alight at Andheri, for a thirty-rupee rickshaw ride, dinner, and bed.

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