Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Goa Election 2022: How Green Was My Valley

A proud Goa resident recalls a place torn asunder by ravages of time and human greed

Goa Election 2022: How Green Was My Valley
Goa Election 2022: How Green Was My Valley Illustration by Govit Morajkar

! live in a slice of a small cake that’s pretty much eaten up. My postal address mentions my name, a house number, before the word Doxoxxir crops up, ahead of Anjuna. Doce in Portuguese-influenced Konkani means small cake and xir in Konkani resembles a slice. Doxoxxir, a small village ward in Anjuna, wasn’t really in the popular consciousness till some years back. It is located just beyond the upmarket Assagao village, which is now referred to as the Beverly Hills of Goa. Doxoxxir is also far from the sands of Anjuna beach with its famed grunge club crawl, hostels and cultish dives. Doxoxxir’s eastern border is flanked by a brook which flows ferociously in the monsoons. The brook separates Anjuna from Assagao as far as cartography and village jurisdiction goes.

When I was in school, one would have to walk or cycle to Assagao if one needed to grind a load of wheat into flour. The closest flour mill was in Ass­agao. That mill, located next to the Assagao Union High School, no longer exists. Now portable cem­e­nt mixers and trucks laden with sand, cem­ent and crushed rubble make a beeline for that village, which over the last 10 years has transformed from Doxoxxir-like anonymity. Before it came to be mir­rored with Los Angeles’ most sought-after neighbourhood, Assagao was also known as the valley of wild flowers. Over the years, rising real estate prices have wiped out that identity of the village. You still see flowers though, especially spiny clumps of bougainvillea which fight their way over or through walls of neatly-designed gated community clusters or on hedges which line the long driveways of elaborate standalone villas. You can also see flowers shaped like wreaths embossed on customised azulejo tiles outside ornate gates of lavish bungalows owned by the swish set, who perhaps already own plush addresses in other metros and felt the need for a mention of the tropics in their house ownership inventory.

There could be another reason why the flour mill in Assagao could have shut down. A flour mill just does not fit into the new landscape of Assagao—dotted with boutiques, fine-dining restaurants and luxury housing complexes. Like the wild flowers, the flour mill may have just wilted in face of the rapid changes over the past decade and some more. Some months back, the village’s local population and the new settlers rose as one voice to mourn the felling of a large banyan tree to make way for yet another ultra-premium luxury housing project. Perhaps, they missed the broader point. They could have instead mourned—once and for all—for the death of the village and the birth of the age of wro­ught-iron fenced communities.

Fish on Weed Painting by Goa-based artist Francis De Sousa

Doxoxxir for long served as one of the several unsung furrows which led to Anjuna beach, the ultimate destination for the bohemian golden sand rush which began with the hippies in the 1970s. Till the late 1980s, you could still see the odd hippie walking the beach naked or wearing a loincloth. Doxoxxir’s 300-400 metre stretch of road is flanked by less than 20 houses. I cannot claim to have deep roots in Doxoxxir. I wasn’t born here. My family’s claim to the coarse soil of Doxoxxir, where the foundations of the home stand are sunk in, was rooted in a financial transaction carried out somewhere in the 1970s.

It was predominantly a Catholic-oriented locality. My parents were relieved when another Hindu family built a house alongside. The new occupants of Doxoxxir also tried their hand at spinning their own mythical Hindu twist to the name Doxoxxir. My father argued, the name was a Sanskrit reference to ten heads or ‘Dasha-shir’. Somehow that logic never caught on. So, at some point, he gave up peddling it. The newly-purchased house came with some kitchen arti­cles used by the previous Christian occupants. I rem­ember my grandmother talking about sprinkling the wooden flat used for rolling chapatis with cow urine to purify it before she rolled her bread on it. Not too dissimilar to dogs who mark their own territories with urine to wipe out any traces of past identities.

Over the last 20 years, langurs have used Doxoxxir as a passage to traverse the two hills—one in Assagao and the other in Anjuna—between which the ward is wedged. The hills are largely bald with wild grass growing in abandon. In the monsoons they turn emerald and in summer, as the grass dries, the hills fade into a dull sepia. Cashew, mango and other wild trees bearing a var­iety of berries, grew in thorny thickets along the hill slopes. The berries and cashews were a source of adventure for children. We would scamper up and down the hill slopes, plucking ripe white, black and red berries on most afternoons during summer vacations. One could hear the langurs hoot in the distance and they did not move too far from their habitat back then.

Some time back, the state forest department int­roduced Australian acacia saplings to green the hills some more. It is a fast-growing species, which needs little water or care. But this invasive species has caused more harm than good to the indigenous fruit-bearing species, which have been muscled out by the voracious acacia over the years. If there ever was the perfect metaphor to add­ress the issue of identity in Goa, it lies in the rapidly expanding barren spreads of the Australian acacia groves, in whose deep sinister sha­dow nothing really grows. Its leaves do not rot easily either.

Now, deforestation and the rep­lacement of fruit-bearing trees with villas and gated complexes, which creep up the slopes of Assagao and Anjuna—all the more with every summer—have necessitated the migration of langurs from one wild patch to another for foraging. Now, you cannot find the mud trails which lead to the hills. There’s just one discernible path near the chapel right above the Doxoxxir slope which still exists. The rest have been subsumed by new houses which have cropped up on the ruins of old homes and a few bare plots where rabbits scurried in the recent past. The paths, or their abs­ence, mean little to the langurs, who make do with leaping from bough to roof and roof to ano­ther bough in search of food. And yes, their everyday expeditions damage a lot of roof tiles. Any giv­­en year would require replacing dozens of tiles broken due to the constant simian thoroughfare.

Monkeys top the human-animal conflict cases in Goa and were being lined up to be officially culled, until the government last year picked on wild boars for selective slaughter instead. The boars have now become the fall guys in Goa’s race for ‘development’, while the monkeys have escaped that fate for now. Constant wear and tear of such timber-lined roofs due to monkey traffic costs a lot of money to repair. Switching to a cem­ent roof tends to make life easier, even at the cost of altering the house’s identity. The house I live in has also suffered modifications which were und­ertaken when my father was alive. It was the quintessential ‘Goan house’ when it was purchased in the 1970s from a Christian family which migrated to Bombay. It even had a clay rooster on the roof. A rooster is the national bird of Portugal, which ruled Goa for 451 years. But the figurine of the Portuguese Galician rooster was dethroned by my father’s ambition to own a terraced home in the 1990s. The terrace now juts out like a long tongue from the original edifice, as if it too is in shock at the alteration. Out of the 20-odd houses which make up for the civilisation of Doxoxxir, five were in a state of ruin as far back as the 1990s. Nobody really knows how the house located in front and across the road came to be a ruin. It had perhaps crumbled much before several of us came to live in Doxoxxir. Two years ago, the ruins made way for two identical bungalows. One facing the road and the other—its mirror image—right behind it at the bottom of a hill. They have been renovated twice, but the home owners are elusive thus far.

Snapshots Sights and colours of Goa. Photographs: Chinki Sinha

Empty houses aren’t a new phenomenon in the new Goa, which has emerged from the ashes of paradise as a colony of snow-white concrete and Italian marble with full-to-the-brim swimming pools, where public taps run dry often.  According to the 2011 government census, nearly a quarter of the homes in Goa are currently unoccupied. Most of the unused inventory is linked to rapid real estate development in the state, which is one of the most sought after second home destinations in the country. The ruin on the left of where I live now has a swimming pool and a pristine villa overlooking the water’s edge. Until some years ago, one could see just bare brown walls of exposed laterite and a rusty green iron awning over a broken window. The ruin was repaired by a local contractor, a distant relative of a mining magnate and first sold to actor Arunoday Singh. He’s been missing for a while and the stunning white villa designed by Ritu Nanda is now available on rent for holidayers.

Towards the southern tip of Doxoxxir, the part where the ward narrows down to a point, is a ruin which once had a windmill. The windmill has crumbled now, with its rusted blades long since powdered to dust. When I was  young, it wasn’t a ruin, but the windmill was already in a state of disuse. But the house was still called ‘girgiryale ghar’ (pinwheel house). The house sheltered an old man who wore chequered shirts and kept to himself. His was the only house with a windmill that I have known of. The windmill, one presumes, would lift water from the well to irrigate plants in his yard. The old gent perhaps migrated, perhaps died, but the house he left behind has crumbled considerably. If there’s a car parked outside it now, chances are it is a real estate dealer trying his luck with a prospective buyer.

I returned home to Doxoxxir in 2008, after spending several years in Delhi. Many of my neighbours work abroad, fuelling Goa’s remittance-influenced economy. Punjab, Kerala and Goa account for nearly 40 per cent of overseas rem­ittances to India. Out-migration from Goa began in the 19th century and the phenomenon peaked over time, virtually transforming the state from an agrarian to a remittance-based economy. The only study on out-migration from Goa conducted in 2008 states that 12 per cent of households in Goa had an emigrant abroad, and a majority of them were Christians, mostly men. According to the state government’s Economic Survey Report-2020, out of the Rs 78,074 crore stored in fixed deposits in Goa’s banks, 18.36 per cent, i.e., Rs. 14,447 crore were deposited through Non Resident External (NRE) acc­ounts by Goan immigrants. The United Arab Emirates has been a preferred destination for the workforce migrating from Goa.

The vacuum left by departing manpower has been filled up by those who travelled to Goa to seek work. Immigrants from rural Bihar, Kar­nataka, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh have dubbed Goa as the ‘Dubai of India’ on account of the relatively high wages compared to the states they have migrated from. Amid the swinging population outflux and influx, five more houses have been added over the last decade to Doxoxxir’s civilisation, while two more plots are being cleared for residential projects.

The slice of cake on Goa’s plate has now almost been devoured. And the battle is on for the crumbs that remain.  

(This appeared in the print edition as "How Green Was My Valley")

(Views expressed are personal)

Mayabhushan Nagvenkar is the Goa correspondent for Indo-Asian News Service