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January 10, 1997


If there is Paradise, this must be it!

Harsha Bhogle sings a rhapsody to Goa

It's early morning and something feels wrong. Or, well, sounds wrong. There is a lovely emptiness around. I strain to catch a sound. But there is no honking. Or the sound of the rude taxis trying to rev up at 30 km an hour. I can't hear my neighbour's tanks overflowing onto doddering, soaken walls. Come to think of it, I can't even hear myself shouting at my son to get ready in time for the school bus.

I had always wondered what the 'sound of silence' meant. I thought it was one of those lovely cosmetic expressions that songwriters and copywriters come up with. You know, something that sounds and feels great but means nothing! I know now what it means and I love it. If you live in Bombay and haven't been to Goa, you'll be stunned by the silence. You will be bludgeoned by it, battered and mutilated by it. And you'll cry for more.

I was delighted to change my mind about Goa. I have always been deeply suspicious of tourist resorts with fancy brochures and ad campaigns. And from what I have read I imagine I am going to meet Remo and his guitar at every street corner; run into Frank Simoes writing a book every time I pass one of those old houses with lovely backyards; catch Mario Miranda standing under every tree sketching a cathedral. Luckily I don't expect to meet ad film-makers because I am not staying at a fancy hotel at the client's expense! (One of the first books on advertising I read told me why every commercial begins with 'Scene opens on lovely beach in the Caribbean.' Replace that with Goa for desi effect.)

And yet, it hadn't quite started with the flavour of paradise (that is the effect copywriters have on you. A tourist destination is always 'paradise'. The only one I have ever known is a run down cinema theatre in Secunderabad!). The car to pick us up hasn't arrived and the only telephone booth is locked.

I go to the prepaid taxi counter and am told it will cost me Rs 512 to Vagator for us and two bags. I pay Rs 550. "Give me change," says the man at the counter without looking up. I haven't any.

"Okay, it is 520," he says changing my receipt.

"But you just said 512."


"It includes luggage."


"But...." I stop. I have come here to enjoy myself. So I give him my best side glance that says I know you're conning me but what the hell. He gives me back a look that says I know I am conning you but what the hell, I do it every five minutes!

I leave the airport and memories come alive. I've been to Goa a couple of times before but only for a day as a stopover with the cricket caravan. Airport-hotel-stadium-hotel-airport. It doesn't matter if it is Goa or Cuttack! But Michael Holding told me how much the palms and the breeze reminded him of Jamaica. I'd been impressed because Jamaica, of course, is where Ian Fleming chose to have James Bond surrounded by beautiful, aggressive women. I see the palms and feel the breeze and decide not to think of the rest until another day.

Suddenly our cab drives off the road and parks under another palm tree. The driver hops off and returns with a large can. "Feni," I tell myself as another tourist brochure swims before my eyes. But hang on. He's pouring it into the petrol tank. I haven't seen it before and I almost start to say "Gaad, is that how they do it out here in these parts. No gas stations!" I am embarrassed and guilty because I suddenly realise that living in cities and hotels and watching satellite television is making me a stranger in my own country.

It is a beautiful drive to Vagator until we suddenly run into some bulldozers doing a great job of tearing down a hillock. There are construction workers around and it is suddenly dusty. There is a placard there. 'Proposed site for new legislative assembly building,' it says. Or something to that effect. Do they do that in Jamaica? I tell myself I must ask Mike Holding that the next time.

The countryside makes just the odd allowance to the city. We drive into and out of the capital, Panaji, quite quickly. I notice even the little wayside shops are different. 'Cabral Motors,' a sign says with an arrow underneath. There is little to indicate that either Mr Cabral or his garage are within shouting distance. He must be a great man. If you want Mr Cabral to attend to your car, you've got to look for him first. I fall in love with the timelessness of it all. Mr Cabral will probably talk to you about his mother-in-law while he fixes your clutch plate.

'Ferreira Stores' whizzes by. So does 'Dias Agencies'. Names I know very well from having read the starting lineups of football teams from Goa. It has always struck me how football teams from Spain and Argentina and Colombia and Portugal seem to have players with Goan names.

But soon we are at Vagator and at the beach and I realise why the story of Goa has to be the story of its beaches. There is no champiwalahere and no monkey show either. The closest bhelpuriwala is probably 500 kilometres away and there are no signs of any Ganapati immersion having taken place recently. Some empty bottles of mineral water and finished packets of Uncle Chipps are the only concession to civilisation. But then replace Uncle Chipps with Ruffles or Cheetos and you probably find something similar on the moon. Or on Everest. So I am not complaining.

I haven't seen too many beaches but Vagator must be as beautiful as they come. The sand is a lovely, light shade of brown and as you walk barefeet on it you come across little holes that the tiny crab-like creatures vanish into every time they hear footsteps. In Bombay they would never emerge. At Vagator, they come out to sun themselves quite often.

I try to get close to some of them but it is impossible. They are gone before I bend leaving, lovely scratch marks behind. There are other little holes too. These are probably more permanent residence because they have scratch marks all around and tiny mounds of earth beside them. I've seen human and mechanical bulldozers on my way here but I want to see these bulldozers at work too. I don't They probably work at night.

The water at Vagator is blue and the waves seem gentle. My son and I wade into them hoping one of them will roar onto us and crash onto our backs. Instead we find them rolling gently towards us, climbing up from our hips to our necks and moving on. There is no fury to them. They don't even seem in a hurry to lash the beach. I realise the timelessness of the place is coming back at me all the time. If these were 'designer waves' (the citybred in me reacting to designer shoelaces and designer memo pads) they would probably be designed by Mr Cabral.

I could spend the whole day at Vagator. I have left my wristwatch in my room so I don't know what time it is. I don't even want to know. I quickly make a plan for the next day. Early morning walk on the beach, late morning dip at the beach, late evening dip at the beach, after dinner walk at the beach.

But we have to play parents too and the children have to know a bit about Goa so we decide to visit Old Goa. And then drive on to the beautiful temple at Mangeshi. I have been to the Basilica of Bom Jesus as a little boy twenty five years earlier. It is a long interval for me, not for the cathedral. When you are four hundred you probably change your bedsheets every twenty five years.

There is something about churches that moves me greatly. There seems such a dignity to them and the old basilica is an extremely dignified place. Places of worship in India are strangely wet and dirty but that is not true to the great cathedrals and though I haven't seen too many I believe this must be one of them. There is a stillness to it and even little brats seem to whisper once they enter. You may love the beaches but you cannot leave Goa without visiting the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Even if you go there every year.

Mangeshi isn't wet and dirty either. It is a small temple and when I had been there nine years earlier, it had struck me as a place where people came with reverence in their hearts and a prayer on their lips. This time our car cannot get close because we have to go into a parking lot and make our way through a load of tourist buses. My wife isn't amused. She is visiting the family shrine, not a tourist spot. We mingle with Europeans in torn jeans and short blouses; with kids looking for a Pepsi; with group of engineering students on an educational tour ('Changing, Profiles of Temples' suddenly seems a more appropriate dissertation topic!)

It strikes me too that for a place with equal following among two diverse religions, Goa is a wonderfully peaceful place. There seems little hatred as we pass houses with the traditional 'tulsi' planted in it and others, often adjoining, with a cross built in the courtyard. The locals whisper to me that the politicians are sowing the seeds of discontent but I let that pass because each man has to do what his profession demands of him.

But Goa is not a land of politicians. To me, Goa is all about Vagator and as I leave I wonder if I should write about it at all. For I discover a childish possessiveness growing inside me. Will more people come there if they discover what it has to offer? Will there be too many people the next time around? But soon I allow myself to dismiss such thoughts. There is too much to offer there.

Strangely, in spite of the brochures and the hype, it is a great place to go to.

Illustrations: Dominic Xavier