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Syrena’s Elegy: Goa As An Allegory Of A Mermaid

A tale of a sensuous mermaid through her blithe adolescence, meditative adulthood and grim old age—that's the story of Goa too

Syrena’s Elegy: Goa As An Allegory Of A Mermaid
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At around 3 am, the last of the strobe lights had stopped bouncing off the rocky shore­line off Guru Bar in the beach village of Anjuna. Irrespective of when the sun disappe­ars from the sky, nights in Anjuna effectively set in when restaurant and club owners eventually dec­i­de to put the day out of its misery. It’s only when they switch off their electrical fixtures and large speakers, blaring electronic music, that the cras­hing waves and the luminescence of the sea reclaim their brief moments of solitude. That’s before the sun rises once again.

Moments after the strobing beams were turned off, something shimmered in the dark, swirling waters around a rocky outcrop, a couple of hundred metres from the bar’s now-empty deckchairs. The dull blaze of silverish grey caught a sliver of moonlight as the form emerged from the water. Just as a large cloud briefly hid the moon, her gnarled hands grabbed hold of a rock as she hoicked herself onto a narrow shelf.

A small gust of wind cleared the cloud cover and the moon emerged once again; its light bouncing off the luminous foam as a wave crashed on the rocks on which the old mermaid had climbed up. For a few moments, after the sea pulled her wave back into her watery womb, the waters stood calm long enough for her to look into its inky stillness.

The mermaid hadn’t aged well. She was greying and her skin was patched with barnacles, almost matching the grainy, moss-lined greyness of the concrete embankment below the bar.

Concrete appeared to be Goa’s answer for every­thing. You want to grab a little bit of land and pour some concrete on it to block access to others also eying it. It is simple—to grab a bit of the sea and sand, just pour concrete over it.

In a way, you could make the case that the appe­a­rance and the fate of both—Goa the mermaid and Goa the land she loved—were similar and intertwi­ned. The discoloured pigmentation and the accumulated barnacles on the aging mermaid weren’t too dissimilar from the epidermal visage of an inc­reasingly concretised Goa.

She opened her mouth, letting her tongue slip into the gap, where a couple of teeth had fallen off. Her fingers found their way to her fluke—a merma­id’s tail—and gingerly felt the jagged outline of the rip in her lower flank, which had been torn off by a crocodile. Her clan called this mermaid ‘Goa’, as from the time she was born, she loved swimming off Goa’s coastline.

As mermaids of the tropics tend to be, she was dus­ky like the bark of cured cinnamon, her eyes shone like a cluster of stars fused together, and her hair curled like an eager wave, forever on the lookout for a beach to crash on.

When she came of age, however, Goa was ostracised from her splash of mermaids, because she had developed a talent previously unknown to the rest of the group. Goa could speak to the dead. And in the seas which she liked to frolic in, there were dead aplenty.

Goa was in her teens when she realised she had this special power. She was swimming off Vagator beach, drawn by the booming sounds of a rave party and streaks of neon lights which sprayed the Arabian Sea from their perches atop tall coconut palms. The party zone was a coconut grove at the foothills of the 16th century Ch­a­­pora fort that overlooks the beach. The gr­o­ve where hippies sometimes converged at night and woke up when the sun was fierce in their face, has nearly disappea­red now. It’s replaced by a five-star rated resort.

The elders in her splash had warned her against frequenting too close to the beach that night, for fear of discovery. One never knew when some hippie would choose to plunge into the water for a swim at night or just before dawn. They tended to do that after a night of drugs and alcohol, neither of which was in short supply at the raves. It was still the 1970s.

Goa had lain awake until the matrons of her clan had fallen asleep in the bow of a large dhow that had sunk off the coast decades back. Arab traders had sailed to Goa in dhows, swapping Arabian steeds for Indian spices at the Shahpura wharf, which was rechristened as Chapora by the Portuguese.

She slipped out of the sunken dhow’s bow and cautiously flapped her fluke until she was out of earshot of her clan. She then swam towards Vaga­tor beach, far enough to stare at the lights far ahe­ad. The sun hadn’t risen yet, when she saw what seemed like another mermaid glide towards her, pushed by the gentle low tide. Only, she wasn’t a mermaid. She was white, with matted blonde hair, very naked and very dead. Goa pulled her by her hair to a rock nearby.

Goa slithered on to the rock, alongside the cor­pse. She felt cold, colder than the water which gen­tly sprayed over the rock. She had never seen a person up close. To her, humans were those creatures who were always far away. On the beach, they looked like crabs crawling along the sea bed, always scavenging, always hurrying about. And there were always fishermen, who the splash was instructed to steer clear from.

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Goa touched her once again, and on a whim, she opened her eyes and started straight into them. She felt a shudder so violent that she almost toppled over. And then it happened. Through the depth of her still eyes, came a quiet scream. And her eyes started to speak.

Goa’s first two decades were a time for social engineering. In India’s only referendum In 1967, it chose to remain independent and not merge with Maha­r­a­shtra.

Her name was Hannah. She had come from Aus­tria a couple of years ago and had lived on as a hippie. She was studying medicine at the Greifswald Medical School, when she decided to give up on her dream after encountering a bunch of hippies travelling in a van from Berlin to Goa. Her books and clothes were still in her dorm room when she had hopped on to the van to chase another dream.

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The two years in Goa had been bliss. There were hundreds like her, who partied through the night and slept through the day. No one really bothered you here, she said. Place a towel on the beach and that’s where you stayed put all day. When it rai­ned, they would either rent an empty coconut lodge near the beach or use a shelter where fishermen parked their canoes. Their meagre catch put some food on the tables of fishermen at a time when even a sizeable haul of fish wasn’t worth its weight in gold.

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Hippies also injected the wonders of narcotics into the bloodstream of Goa’s popular ide­ntity. This was a time before strong anti-­narcotics laws were in place, and one cou­ld sell marijuana, sourced from Kerala’s Silent Valley, in a gunny bag at the bea­ch, as easily as you could hoick a large JVC boombox to the beach parties.

That night, however, Hannah had overdosed on acid before waking up in a bewildered fit. She ran straight into the sea. As she hit the water, her ankle twisted and she fell, swallowing gulps of sea water before losing consciousness. Goa touched her ank­le. It was swollen stiff, as if corrobor­a­ting Hannah’s story. That was as much as Goa could get out of her, bef­ore Hannah slipped into the realm of death again. She gently lifted Hannah off the rock and lowered her into the water, which slowly swallowed her.

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Her encounter with Hannah in the 1970s was around more than 10 years after the region had been liberated from 451 yea­rs of Portuguese colonial rule. But self-rule was far from the happy end­ing Goa had wished for. It was a new beginn­ing, one which came with a chalice topped with a poisonous brew.

The hippies first arrived here in the late 1960s. More and more of the happy tribe kept coming to its shores, and by the 70s, they had put Goa on the global tourism map.

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For the state, the two decades were also a time for social re-engineering, through legislation and political representation. In 1967, in India’s first and only referendum, Goa chose to remain an independent entity, rather than merge with Maha­r­a­shtra. Tenancy laws were introduced to man­­d­ate land rights for the underprivileged masses, and government schools mushroomed in the remotest of villages.

The scars of foreign rule were being slowly healed with indigenous scabs of self-identity and nationalism, as Goa tried to merge its soul with the Indian mainland. The more obvious victims of this new cultural dynamism were the clay motifs of a Portuguese soldier and the Galo de Barcelo (rooster of Barcelos)—Portugal’s nat­i­onal emblem—which so proudly adorned the top of Goan homes. Both slowly dwindled from popular memory. You can still see the soldier and the rooster on rooftops of some Goan hom­es. But many summers after independence, the soldado now looks worn, sometimes with a limb or two missing. And the roosters seem to have descended from their lofty perch, only to be mar­inated and skewered in clay tandoors; the new omnipresent symbols of mainstream Ind­ian culinary fetish.

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Goa had kept Hannah’s conversation with her a secret from the splash for years. But the incid­ent had left her uneasy. Since then, Goa had con­­scio­u­sly steered clear of floating corpses for a couple of decades. In the 1980s, she stumbled upon a case of imported whiskey at the bottom of the sea. Mermaids weren’t scavengers of the sea, but they did indulge in decadent revelry more than occasionally.

The case, more likely than not, had been dro­p­ped in haste by smugglers who cal­led the sho­ts in the 1980s. A former Goa Chief Mini­s­ter, Churchill Alemao, was even booked under the Conservation of Foreign Exc­hange and Preve­ntion of Smuggling Acti­v­i­ties Act, around then.

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High on alcohol and caught in a low moment, Goa blurted out the Hannah incident to her clan, as they lounged around in the dhow’s hull. They were alarmed, both by the contact Goa had established with the dead human, and her claim that she could converse with them. The clan warned her about mermaids who had been ostracised and banished from their splash in the past, after they tried to get too close to human beings.

Maybe it was the drunken state she was in, or the rebuke from her peer, or just a thirst for adv­enture. Goa picked up another bottle of alcohol from the pile and slipped out of the dhow, flapp­ing her fluke in a manner which in the mermaid world is the equivalent of flipping the birdie. She barely even heard the collective curse the rest of the mermaids flung at her. They warned her never to return.

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Rave all night International tourists at a beach party Photograph: Getty Images

Around the same time that Goa, the mermaid, broke ties with her splash in the 1980s, the Union of India also readjusted its ties with Goa, the terr­itory. In 1987, Goa ceased to be a Union Territory and was declared a full-fledged state; and Konk­ani, once dumbed down as a dialect of Marathi by the language’s critics, became the state’s official language.

The privilege of being a full-fledged state under the Indian federal system meant that the devolution of powers came with an added shot of chores vis-a-vis policy formulation, prudent tax collect­ion and more control on regional resources, as compared to the days when the state was a UT, spoon-fed by the Centre.

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However, greater power was not donned with a greater sense of responsibility by the leaders at the helm, paving the way for the ugly 1990s, when the seeds of peril and greed were sowed in parad­ise. The 90s saw 13 chief ministers grappling and tumbling for power, resulting in a period of chronic uncertainty.

By the mid-90s, Goa had been long abandoned by her fellow mermaids. Every now and then, she would return to the sunken dhow to find it emp­ty. The sense of emptiness in the limited, dark confines of the dhow’s cavity was a larger vacuum than the emptiness of the sea she swam in. It was while biting on the claw of a blue sea crab that Goa realised that her unique talent of speaking to the human dead could be her way to combat loneliness.

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When she was young, Goa, like other merma­ids, had been taught never to surface during the day. That was the only way mermaids could keep their mystery going. Their discovery would put an end to the sense of romanticism and intrigue which mermaids evoked and fed off. This was precisely why human contact was forbidden. Generations of grooming to avoid human cont­act was at the back of her mind of course, but Goa’s interaction with Hannah had triggered a curiosity which had no cure.

The tide was moving southwards towards Calangute beach that particular morning in the early 2000s. Goa had drifted towards Calangute in the past. In the late 1970s, it was a beautiful beach with a few shacks. The water was clean and she would find her way into the creek by the adjoining Baga beach, where she would hunt for rock crabs at night with other mermaids.

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In the 1990s, she had come across a male cor­pse, lodged in the rocks by Baga beach. The dark body merged with the darker lava rocks that lined the mouth of the creek, where it emptied into the sea. She unhinged him from the wedge and dragged him into the channel that was flowing fast into the sea with the tide. She let the tide take them as far away into the sea as possible, until both of them gently hit the sand, once the current had petered out.

It was a new moon night. Not a single shard of light could lick the sea bed. His dull yellow eyes, however, cut through the darkness and stared at her face. Eager to speak to someone, she pried them open wider, just like she had done with Hannah, and his story stared back at her.

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Fishermen and the ocean Artwork by Subodh Kerkar

His name was Hanumanna Rathod. Hanum­anna, a lamani (a gypsy tribe with population pockets in central and western India) had migr­a­ted from Gadag district in Karnataka. A few years ago, he was herded into a tempo and brought to Goa by a labour contractor, who promised him ten times the wages he earned as a farm worker in Kar­nataka. There were 19 others who came to Goa with him. He, along with other labourers who had travelled with him, were shipped out to different construction sites along the coastal stretch.

Real estate was picking up in India post-liberalisation, and disposable incomes made it easier for middle-class and upper middle-class Indians to invest in the sector. Goa emerged as one of the pre­ferred non-metro destinations for parking mon­ey in apartments housed in some of the early, large residential complexes and timeshare accommodations. Hotels too mushroomed in Goa, as the state got its first taste of mass tourism.

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Hanumanna worked at a construction site in Calangute, which was the capital of the state’s construction boom then.

After a couple of years, Hanumanna funded the relocation of his family—his wife, daughter and son—to Goa. His wife also worked with him at the construction site. Their children studied at a government school nearby. Hanumanna’s wife wore the traditional lamani attire, loosely draped clot­hes with silver and glass patchwork, and would pick their children up from school every day. At least once a week, the kids returned home and com­plained of being profiled as ghatis (local slur against migrants) in school.

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Hanumanna was too busy to listen to his child­ren gripe about social profiling. He went about his job every day for years without a break, even managing to save enough money to buy a small shed in a slum in nearby Mapusa town.

Then one day, several workers at the construct­ion site fell ill. Malaria was uncommon in Calan­g­ute until the construction boom. The coastal vil­lage’s skyline had changed quickly. If it took Rip Van Winkle a 20-year-long nap to wake up and find a changed countryside, for most Calangut­k­ars, it only took 40 winks to see the world around them change. The ones who didn’t fall asleep were those who made millions overnight by selling the­ir land. Those like Hanum­a­nna, though, dre­amt with their eyes awake, breaking earth, shovell­ing concrete and crushing stone for someone else’s dream home.

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The third wave of tourists was inspired by the 2001 Bolly­wood film Dil Chahta Hai. The story of three stags taking off on their own to Goa, inspired hundreds of desi stags.

By the late 1990s, water stagnation and poor hygie­nic conditions at construct­ion sites led to the rampant spread of malaria and the relatively new Japanese encephalitis, a harsh, someti­mes fatal, viral fever. But Hanumanna continued to work, along with the others, because the labour contractor would have it no other way. One day, he just collap­sed onsite. Fearing a police investigation, the construction site manager had simply dum­ped his body in the Baga river, after confirming that he was indeed dead.

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“My children will live on here. I brought them here for a better life. I tried my best… I tried my best,” he said, before the yellow eyes packed with sadness, anger and a little bit of hope, shut forever. Goa let him rest on the sand and swam away, even as the burden of Hanumanna’s story slowed her down some.

Over the years, Goa came across several other floating dead, whose stories mirrored Hanuma­nna’s. Unsung migrant workers, whose sweat, bones and blood laid the foundation for the sta­te’s booming real estate industry and tourism eco-system. Many men like Hanumanna just disappeared, as Goa’s concrete skyline rose hig­her than coconut trees at first, and then even dwarfed the hills along the coast. After the era of large housing complexes, construction in coastal Goa took a more exclusive route, with sprawling, high-walled mansions overlooking the sea from hill crests.

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The tide had finally swept Goa to Calangute by mid-day, when she was roused by an awful odour. She gasped as she broke through the surface, unable to tolerate the stench of sewage and human waste that was pumped into the sea covertly by sea-side businesses. Accustomed to the darkness of the sea and tepid comfort of the tropical waters, she held her hands against her eyes, covering them from the harsh light. Goa felt as if she had broken through the sea, only to land up right next to the sun. She dipped into the water again to esc­ape the heat, but clung close to the surface. Only her long, dark hair floated on the surface, like a mesh of dead algae.

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A few seconds later, she heard a volley of sharp whines cutting through the water. Initially, the sound appeared to come from one end, but suddenly it seemed to cut through the water from every direction.

Just as Goa was about to raise her head out of the water to trace the source of the disturbance, she felt a rush of water towards her and a stab of pain in her scalp as a hand grabbed her hair and started dragging it around. It was a young man on a jet ski. He was whooping in delight. “Hey look, I found something, I found something.” He tried to lift the mesh of hair, but obvio­usly failed because of her body weight. Sudd­e­nly, there were seven jet-skis, darting around her, churning the water into foam. The man continued to hold her hair, as her eyes watered in pain. But navigating so many jet-skis in a tight circle isn’t easy. One of the mac­hines collided with her tormentor’s ski, weakening his grip on Goa’s hair. Seizing the moment, Goa darted underwater and away from the coast. She felt relieved only when the water around her grew dark and the sharp whine of the jet-ski engi­nes faded out her aural horizon.

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After the hippie wave of the 1970s-80s and the subsequent flow of foreign tourists flying to Goa on budget charter flights, the third major wave of tourists was inspired by the popular 2001 Bolly­wood film Dil Chahta Hai.

The story of three young stags taking off on their own to Goa, inspired hundreds of desi stags to follow Aamir Khan, Akshaye Khanna and Saif Ali Khan’s cinematic trail.

The explosion of jet skis, water sports, BnBs, restaurants, bars, clubs, cafes and rented bikes along Goa’s coastline was a result of a tidal wave of tourism’s young pilgrims, emulating their film gods. The state government’s tourism ministry even formally entered into a marketing tie-up with the film’s makers.

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After the early real estate explosion of the 1990s, the first few years of the 2000s witnessed what natives thought was an explosion of tourists. The 2010s and the infestation of casinos, which prop­elled Goa’s tourist footfalls from two million to eight million in a few years, hadn’t hit them yet.

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Casino Royale Sunset over River Mandovi. Photograph: Shutterstock

As tourists thronged the coastline by the hundreds of thousands, even dolphins moved further into the sea or to quieter pastures along southern Maharashtra and north Karnataka. They had gro­wn tired of being chased around by indiscriminate ‘dolphin sighting tours’, populated by noisy gro­ups of tourists on poorly maintained boats, which crisscrossed the mammals’ habitat in the hope of sighting dolphins as they surfaced. Goa liked racing with dolphins, whenever she came across a pod swimming nearby. The dolphin pods had thinned out, but so had shoals of mackerels, whitebait and sardines.

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Overfishing and marine pollution were perils which accompanied the astronomical increase in tourist arrivals. Goa’s reputation as a popular seafood destination led to sustained overkill in the waters off the state, with experts even warning of a fish famine in the years ahead.

The 2000s were also the backdrop for an unpre­c­edented boom in the mining sector. The 2008 Bei­jing Olympics demanded the creation of mou­n­­­t­ains of infrastructure to host the Games in Chi­na. Goa’s iron ore mines churned out millions of tonnes of iron ore every year, fuelling Beijing’s insatiable need for steel for constructions of stadiums and other sports and logistics facilities.

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The surging demand for iron ore led to a virtual free-for-all in the barely regulated mining sector. The result was not just a Rs 35,000 crore illegal mining scam red-flagged by a central government commission, but also unprecedented pollution of the state’s water resources.

Goa got a first-hand impact of mining-induced pollution when she swam all the way during the peak mining season to the Sancoale Bay, known for its unique mussel species. She could not find a single mussel cluster to feast on, thanks to fine min­ing silt which lined the bay’s bottom, suffocating all marine life. After the mining industry was banned for some years, increased and poorly managed coal-handling activity at the nearby major port replaced the source of pollution.

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The last thing Tracy saw was the glare of the casino lights in the water above her, as she was being laid to rest in that shimmering grave.

Around the 2010s, Goa’s curiosity drew her to Panaji at night. She had not ventured there in a while. She was curious about the large, brightly lit ships in the Mandovi River, which flanks the capital. She swerved into the mouth of the river. It just took her a few minutes’ swim to spot the spectacle she was promised. The offshore casino ships loo­ked like glittering constellations along the course of the river. Their lights shone on the waters bel­ow, some of the bright streaks even reaching the shallow river bed. That is where she stumbled upon Tracy. A spotlight from an offshore casino fell directly on Tracy, who lay on the river bed. Apart from Goa’s curiosity, which had drawn her to the casinos, a large jellyfish had settled on Tracy’s clothed breasts, its tentacles feeling her face. The jellyfish cautiously shrugged off as Goa glided towards Tracy.

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Tracy was raised in Nagaland, but moved to Goa soon after college to work as a dealer at a casino. She was one of the thousands of youngsters from India’s Northeast who migrated to find employment in Goa’s casino industry.

Tracy was tall, stunning, had a pleasant personality and picked up the craft easily. Plus, she had always been good at math, which made it easy for her to follow the flow of cards, wagers made by gamblers and to keep scores.

Her looks and her talent made her the obvious candidate to handle high-rollers at the casino, who were allotted private gaming rooms in the offshore casino. While the casino floors were outfitted for luxury, the private rooms were upholstered in a way that was several notches higher than middle-class expectations. And they were the only rooms which were not outfitted with CCTV cameras. There was a reason for it.

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On her third day as a dealer in the private room, she was directed to entertain high-rollers from a corporate group based in Delhi, two of whom tried to molest her. She ran away from the room without cameras to the ship’s uppermost deck, which also had a helipad. It was raining a bit and the falling drops kept shattering the reflection of the ships’ lights in the dark river water. She looked over the railing and a few tears also joined the rai­ndrops in their descent towards the river. It only took her some moments to make the decision. She jumped into the water, her short, tight black skirt hardly billowed in the wind as she fell and sank rig­ht into the water. She did not even feel the thick silt in which her body settled within moments. The last thing she saw was the glare of the casino lights in the water above her, as she was being laid to rest in that shimmering grave.

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By the 2020s, Goa had grown weary. She no lon­ger liked what she saw of herself on calm nights, when the sea was quiet and the moon above shone bright. She looked really old and tired. When she looked about her, especially at the hills which fringed the beaches, they too did not look like they once did.

Their dark outlines, once pockmarked by trees and open pastures, now blinked like the stars abo­ve. The tiny stars on the hillside were lights shining through houses, villas, gated complexes and hotels overlooking the sea. Goa wondered what it would be like if the sea made a move on land and just took it over. Maybe she could even settle down in one of the villas, once it was submerged. The waters in the seas she swam did seem to have risen higher of late. Landmarks which were once on the landmass were slowly being swallowed by the water. So may be the sea was making its move on land, she felt.

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Goa’s hunch wasn’t all that far off. The coastline of the state she was named after, very much ran the risk of being submerged. Nineteen beaches in the state face the threat of erosion, according to government records. The threat of erosion due to climate change has already impacted 10.39 km of the state’s approximately 105 km-long coastline.

The early Portuguese religious and military attacks had led to the destruction of hundreds of mosques and temples.

On a stormy afternoon many summers ago in the year 2000, MV River Princess, an oil tanker, had beached along the Candolim-Sinquerim str­e­tch. It stayed put for nearly a decade, even as a succession of governments dilly-dallied over salv­aging the vessel. After the ship beached, its mammoth presence inspired a new set of water curr­ents, which virtually washed away the entire Sinquerim beach stretch, right alongside Goa’s first five-star resorts—the Fort Aguada and the Taj Holiday village.

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The River Princess saga could have served as yet another warning bell to the state authorities abo­ut the perils of erosion, but no one was in the mood for ecological lessons.

The rapid degeneration of ecology in Goa has also coincided with an equally fast communal consolidation. Restoration of the state’s ecology appears to be of little priority, compared to the restoration of the state’s Hindu heritage, ‘mar­red’ during the advent of the Portuguese half a millennium ago.

The early religious and military onslaught of the Portuguese had led to the destruction of hundreds of mosques and temples. The terror of the early colonisers was so fierce that while thousands of Muslims were killed, Hindus of the era had to ship their deities by land and by boats to neighbouring regions of present-day Maharashtra and Karnat­aka, which were outside Portuguese dominion. It was one of those times when Gods had to be ‘sav­ed’ by man, and not the other way round.

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Goa, however, did not appear to have much und­erstanding of the religious conflagrations which were erupting on land of late. Mermaids had no idea of human religions to make head or tail of the nuances of the conflict. In any case, by the 2020s, she could barely swim. Her inability to move briskly had made hunting for food impossible.

But there was a ritual, which she was told about as a young mermaid by her grandmother. “There will come a time when you feel you cannot move a muscle. Your scales will wear off. The salt in the wat­er will sting the cracks in your skin like a curse of the past. Let a new moon night find you lying on the seabed. Wait there. Just wait for it,” she said.

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Later, she had seen her grandmother and a few other pod elders disappear on, or ahead of, new moon nights, never to return.

On a new moon night last month, the dying mermaid too waited on the seabed by the dhow she was raised in. It was so dark that she only felt the swish of a squid cautiously drifting by, but failed to see the splash of dark ink it unleashed on her. She could only smell the brine as some of the ink sett­led on her face.

That was when she heard dolphins speaking to each other at a distance. A pod of dolphins was rapidly approaching her. Goa felt her end coming, even as one of the female dolphins nudged her face with its nose, as the others swarmed around her. As she breathed her last, Goa opened her eyes wide and murmured to the dolphins. “I am Goa, I have a story to tell.”

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That’s when they began devouring her.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Syrena’s Elegy")

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

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