A drunken man is close to god.
– K’iche Mayan proverb, Guatemala
Take your pleasures freely, but be prepared to pay for them.
– Spanish proverb
Dawn in Goa. The sky is seashell pink behind the silhouetted fronds of the coconut palms. High on the hill behind stands a small white chapel overlooking the valley. From the jungle surrounding it comes the deep ‘hoop hoop hoop’ of langur monkeys serenading in the new day. There is the ascending limpid whistle of a bird – a koel – a sound I always associate with Goa. Other sounds: the honking klaxon of the poi guy, who pedals up and down the lanes selling the small, round wholemeal rolls. The ringing of a handbell from a fruit vendor. The occasional quack of scooter horns. The shriek of an unoiled gate. A frenzy of barking from the pack of labradors across the road as a cow wanders into someone’s garden. The plosive sound of Russian speech as two women leave their apartment, heading out for a morning swim, and the slap of their flip-flops down the stone stairs. The thunk of a 500cc Enfield engine riding along the road. Mostly, though, there is silence, but for the birdsong.
One of the first things I saw on my return to Goa was a man falling into a ditch. Riding into Chapora one night I saw him stagger into the headlights on legs as floppy as a ragdoll’s, then just topple headfirst over the parapet at the side of the road. At the last minute, as he realised that the ground was rushing up to meet him, he casually extended an arm to ward off the low concrete wall and nosedived almost in slow motion over the edge, coming to rest face down in a clump of bamboo which sprung back and forth, absorbing his impact. He was a skinny local guy with a mop of black hair and a filthy white shirt. I know he was none the worse for his experience since three days later I saw him again, meandering up the other side of the road in exactly the same condition.
Chapora always had a slightly edgy feel, with a whiff of danger like a frontier town. Small, slightly seedy bars lined the main strip, playing rock music to a rather dissipated clientele – the kind of place where everyone had a past and nobody really talked about it. It was a microcosm of Goa itself, in many ways; the old Goa which had drawn the hippies since the 1960s: a home to people who didn’t fit in anywhere else any more; the drug addicts, the drunks, the fugitive, the mad… and those who had simply opted out of a more conventional existence. Some had given up on life altogether, some had decided to create a new one as the old priorities didn’t seem to matter any more. Here nobody judged; no state mechanism existed to provide either support or condemnation. People formed their own community of sorts in the anarchic free-for-all of a society which prided itself on turning a blind eye.
And it was cosmopolitan – Russians, Brits, Israelis, French and various other Europeans all rubbed shoulders, intermingled, occasionally hampered by language but more or less getting along. Many were long-stayers and had Indian friends or partners; our next door neighbours were a group of Russian women in their early 40s who took turns babysitting each other’s children as the parents went out partying. The latest story doing the rounds was of a European who had been arrested for operating a large drug dealing network. While on bail he had fled the country, but had ended up on an interpol watchlist and was arrested again. Extradited back to India to face trial, the Goan court confiscated his passport and granted him bail again, so he promptly opened up a nightclub locally and resumed his former business activities while waiting to come to trial once more – a process that could take a long, long time. It was not an uncommon story.
If there was a hierarchy at all to it, it wasn’t based on money or social status but rather how long one had been in residence. “I have lived in Goa ten years!” I heard a man protesting in a thick Israeli accent, in protest at being overcharged for something, thus attempting to establish his qualifications. The shopkeeper smiled thinly and repeated his price, subtly reinforcing the fact that it was all the same to him – a foreigner was a foreigner, and therefore rich. Rules and regulations, such as exist in India at all, were by default ignored: everybody rode motorbikes without a helmet, often while drunk, people smoked hash openly, everything was negotiable, risk was relative. There was no CCTV, no snooper’s charter, no paranoia about terrorism – despite the outgoing police chief begging Delhi for funds as Goa was a wide-open target due to the tourism industry – or government meddling in people’s lives, unless they showed signs of political aspiration or activism which threatened big business interests. It was one of the things that Goa was known for: a sense of freedom. To people coming from more constrained, authoritarian societies (i.e. just about anywhere) where a fast-paced anxiety had somehow become the underlying mood, and “busy” or “stressed” were commonplace responses when someone asked how you were, the atmosphere was enormously liberating, and the air of tropical lassitude seductive. It was the sleepiest place I had ever been – people just lay down and dozed when they felt like it: shopkeepers swaying in hammocks in the shady interior of their stalls, tourists sprawled out on deckchairs beneath beach umbrellas, locals snoozing beneath the great banyan trees. The entire population seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness, lulled by the heat, gently rocking on the tides of a dreamlike torpor. Susegad, it was known as locally – a kind of relaxed, laid-back attitude to life.
We moved into a top floor apartment in a little enclave – three blocks built around a swimming pool – a short distance inland from the coastal strip, with a rent of £260 a month, including all bills. Though invaded by columns of tiny ants on a regular basis, it was breezy and spacious, and we began to establish a suitably tropicalised routine of sorts: I’d get up at 6 am in the cool of dawn, switch on the ceiling fans and make coffee – Leo coffee from Madras, which had chicory added, giving it a dark-roasted French flavour. I’d rinse off the ants which had congregated on the draining board overnight, chase out any lizards from the walls, then write for a couple of hours. Then it was time for the first shower of the day: rinse under the tepid water then work up a paste of Mysore Sandalwood Soap and rinse off again. Later K would join me for breakfast – either muesli or toast and marmalade – and then we’d both write until mid-morning. For lunch we’d ride to a restaurant somewhere, before heading home again for a siesta in the hottest part of the day.
We hired a local woman as a sweeper to clean twice a week. She was stick thin and languid, with quite distinctive features – her face had the high cheekbones and slanted eyes of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, but for the unmistakeably Indian long black hair which hung down her back in a plait. She was in fact from a tribal group in Chhattisgarh in central India, and had a rather watchful air which frequently dissolved into a radiant smile. She had fled from an abusive marriage with her young daughter and was taken in by an order of nuns, essentially as a domestic worker. Eventually she met a Goan man who was charmed by her, and who made her a very simple offer: “I will look after you, I will look after your daughter.” She quietly accepted.
She would pad soft-footed around the apartment, sweeping with a plastic-handled broom with grass bristles known as a jhaadu, while giving us the latest gossip in a sing-song Hindi that she’d learned from the nuns… but she was completely illiterate. During the initial negotiations as to how much we should pay her, she suggested 100 rupees a time. “”I’m not paying her that!” K said to me. “It’s outrageous. We should give her 150 at least.” On being told of her spontaneous pay rise she nodded, lowered her eyes and kept on sweeping, her face impassive. Despite her poverty she had recently taken in two dogs from an expat couple she cleaned for who had abandoned them, and somehow managed to look after them on her tiny income.
Religious orders such as the nuns who had taken in our sweeper still exerted great influence in Goan life. Despite a Hindu majority of 66%, Goa had a uniquely Christian element in its heritage, steeped in the ornate tropical Catholicism of many Spanish or Portuguese colonies. There was something in the lavish celebration of high mass which appealed to the locals, combined with a fairly straightforward theological framework – the guilt and absolution that forms a cornerstone of the Catholic psyche. Goan Christianity, however, was itself a fusion incorporating earlier influences: prehistoric petroglyphs dating from 6000 – 8000 years ago indicate shamanic practices in a predominantly hunter-gatherer culture. Later, around 2000 BC, people worshipped the earth goddess in the form of an anthill, or more accurately termite mounds – a practice which continues to this day. Buddhism was introduced to Goa in the 5th century BC under the Mauryan Empire, followed by centuries of Hinduism and then a period of Muslim rule in the 14th century.
On the 10th of December 1510, Goa was captured from the Ottoman-allied Ismail Adil Shah by the Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, and in 1534 the Catholic Archdiocese of Goa was established. Soon the missionaries arrived in force, winning over the populace by giving them rice and offering paid positions in the Portuguese administration – the same tactics that are still deployed at political rallies today, where a crowd’s loyalties can be bought with free food and alcohol and promises of jobs. But easy come, easy go: In 1545 St. Francis Xavier suspected that many Goan Hindus and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism were still practising their old religion in secret, and wrote a letter to John III of Portugal requesting that the Inquisition be established in Goa. The Inquisition tortured and tried thousands, suppressed the local Konkani language, and prohibited the growing of the tulsi plant (also known as holy basil) which is sacred to Hindus as the earthly manifestation of a goddess who venerated Vishnu. Outside our neighbour’s house, a single-storey building with a rust-red corrugated iron roof partly covered by dusty tarpaulins, a tulsi shrine six feet tall stood in layers of red, yellow, blue and white in the yard on a plinth. Atop it was a bowl in which the tulsi plant was grown. Each evening the lady of the house climbed onto the plinth, watered the plant, then shakily descended, pouring some of the water into her hand and wiping it over her face, before clasping both hands in prayer and bowing her head before it. The house opposite, a large, multi-storey building with Escher-like staircases that seem to lead nowhere with an open skylight in the roof, had an enormous white cross perhaps 15 feet high just outside the entrance.
The Inquisition also banned dietary taboos on pork and beef, ensuring that both became staples of the Goan diet. Local cuisine was full of Portuguese influences, and the names of dishes didn’t sound Indian at all: reichado, balchao, sorpotel, xacuti and vindalho (also spelled vindaloo). Like the Keralans further south they had a reputation for being great drinkers – the local spirit feni, unique to Goa, is distilled from either cashew or the coconut palm. Talking to a Goan friend one day about the state’s druggy reputation, he expressed frustration. “It’s all the tourists,” he protested. “They want to smoke hash so it’s supply and demand – because it’s around a lot of locals smoke too as a result. But smoking is not our Goan culture – we prefer to drink. You take one beer, five beers, maybe some Old Monk. You know Old Monk?” It was a dark rum. I’d once seen a couple of guys finish a litre bottle of it one night between them then get on their motorbikes and ride home in the small hours – helmetless, of course. The next morning I said to K: “Shouldn’t we call them, make sure they got home OK?”
“Nah – they’ll be fine,” she said. “Anyway, it’s Saturday. They’ll be drunk again today – best not to disturb them.”
There were, of course, plenty of people who did both. Anjuna’s Saturday Night Market, a small town that sprang up each week in the season, with white canvas tents and palm-roofed stalls spilling down the hillside selling pipes and shishas, ethnic clothing, Bob Marley T-shirts and vaguely BDSM-themed fashions, had the distinct whiff of hash smoke about it. It was like Camden Market combined with Glastonbury, but with palm trees. Lanterns hung in golden orbs overhead, and the fronds of the palms were decorated with lights that left glittering trails of debris like shooting stars. There were tribal women in elaborately mirrored costumes, hippy Europeans who had been here for decades, groups of Indian boys in skinny stonewashed jeans and hideous sandals, potbellied Goan uncles with families in tow, a Thai girl in a skin-tight pink minidress leading a guy by the hand who looked like the actor Ernest Borgnine if he had been playing the part of a Maori biker. A lissom pair of six-foot Baltic goddesses wafted ethereally over to a stall with every item priced at 100 rupees; the shoppers within had expressions of scowling concentration as they flicked through the items on the rails, grimly determined to pick out a bargain.
Up at the top of the hill was one of three dancefloors, pulsing to a mellow, spaced-out trance beat. Three Russians were sprawled out in wicker chairs with blissful expressions, eyes shut, nodding along to the music. One of them, a young guy in his 20s, had a crumpled sheet of paper full of a mixture of hash and tobacco, and was trying to roll a joint, but he was so drunk he kept dropping it. His friend, a guy in his 40s, opened an eye blearily in frustration to see what was taking so long, then spotting us sitting nearby, picked up the package and swayed over to us. “You have injury?” he asked.
“What do you need? Papers? Tobacco?”
“Ryul? You mean roll? You want help rolling?”
“I khave no energy. No fuel!” He proffered the package, asking if we could roll it for him.
I looked around. A guy with dreadlocks all the way down his back was pinning up a poster for a “Tribal Warriors” class at a nearby art cafe. A couple of Nigerians bobbed in time to the beat with a loose-limbed fluidity as one texted on his mobile phone. The two beefy security guys at the entrance were engaged in preventing a group of rather excited-looking Maharashtran lads from coming onto the dancefloor. Meanwhile westerners filed past. It seemed unfair, but was borne of long experience – groups of young Indian men from out of state had a reputation for getting a little overexcited and pestering the girls. Laid-back local Goan guys, no problem – they knew the scene – but the Indian frat boy crowd had a very different vibe; one that basically exuded an air of desperation. They looked geeky and provincial, wide-eyed at the licentiousness of it all, peering over the security mens’ shoulder to see what they were missing. A deeply tanned girl in a tiny pair of white lace shorts with a thong visible beneath them favoured the security guys with a coy smile as she made her way in, and they, along with the Maharashtrans, followed the progress of her neatly swinging bottom across the terrace and up the steps to the dancefloor with a hot-eyed, unblinking stare.
“It’s not safe,” I told the Russian. “You must go up the hill. Maybe cops here. Militsia.”
He scoffed at the notion. He was in Goa, as far as he was concerned. There was no point explaining to him that we knew the place better than he did, where was safe to smoke and where wasn’t, and that undercover cops were mingling with the crowd, looking for a chance to shake down a tourist for a bribe. In a cloud of neat vodka fumes and clutching his package he stumbled away, looking for someone more accommodating.
Dusk in Goa. The sun is low, shafts of golden dust hanging in the air. Pigeons come down to drink from the pool as we float in it, suddenly taking off in fright, startled by something, then returning one by one. There is a spray of bright purple bougainvillea cascading down the wall, and behind it a riot of jungle vegetation. The chowkidar – security guard – is ambling around watering things with a hose. I lie on my back and the water rushes into my ears; high overhead I can see hawks silently circling in the blueness of the sky. The evening is perfumed with woodsmoke. As I surface again sounds return with a rush: laughter from the local boys play cricket in the lane, a passing motorbike, and the low whistle of a koel, slowly ascending higher and higher, on and on. We’ll head out again for dinner soon, enjoying the cool flow of the night air on the bike as we ride along narrow palm-lined lanes, out onto the main road briefly and over the bridge, past the enormous church whose ornate facade looks like a wedding cake with thick slabs and spires of white icing, perhaps to a small family-run place in Chapora that we like, or to a Greek restaurant perched upon the clifftop…
Above the dark tapestry of the sea shot through
With threads of silver from the rising moon,
And the booming of surf on the rocks below,
The silhouette of the palms as they gently swayed
Out on the headland, and the lights, all the lights
That danced away into the distance along the Malabar Coast
Sparkling in the jungle night like dewdrops on a cobweb.