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