We begin our Goan holiday in Vasco much as I had done the last time I visited, 31 years ago, in 1977. The difference is that then, Hari and I had chugged in on a train as poor undergraduates should; this time I flew in with my family. For a middle-class family man in early 21st-century India, travelling by train isn’t genteel or seemly.
That first holiday was a celebration of the end of undergraduateness; given the timing of university exams, this meant we got to Goa at the same time as the monsoon did. Vasco was a room made up of dirty green plywood partitions but our first beach, Bogmalo, made up for that. It was a lovely beach, so perfectly like the model beach in my head (I had never been to the seaside before) that it was corny. It was crescent-shaped and fringed with palms and, set back from its virgin sands, was a picturesque village, complete with well. No hotel disfigured it and we had it to ourselves.
But we were desi tourists, not to be detained by a single beach, determined to see everything Goa had to show us, so we pushed on to Panaji the next day and found ourselves a room in the Hotel Safari, a small, newly whitewashed guest house. But this was only its latest avatar. The owner of the Udupi eatery in the nearby market claimed it had been a brothel before it became respectable under new management. For a week we set off every morning from our rooms and used the local buses to hunt down every beach in striking distance — Colva, Calangute, Miramar, Anjuna — drank stinky cashew feni, gagged over cheap vinegary wine, ate quantities of beaten beef and marvelled at the saltiness of sea water. But drunk or sober we were careful not to swim out into the sea: there were warning signs at all the beaches that told scary tales of swimmers swept away by lethal currents.
For cultural relief we visited Old Goa. Hari, who had travelled in Europe, knew something about church architecture, but my interest in the place was more specialised. I’d spent 12 years of my life in a Jesuit school and I wanted a look at the embalmed body of St Francis Xavier after whom that school was named. The only memory I have of that visit to Old Goa is that his casket was so high that it was impossible to see any part of him. I remember an entirely unreliable guide telling his bored flock that the reason they didn’t display his relics any more was because a perfervid devotee had bitten off a toe one year.
Since this is a Rip Van Winkle return (and he had only been gone 20 years) I am braced for built-over beaches, crowded with trippers and litter. I try to inoculate my children against disappointment during the hour-long taxi ride to our hotel just off the beach at Baga. But this is hard to do because the landscape we were driving through keeps distracting them.
Vidiadhar, our driver, shows them salt pans: shallow rectangles, some three metres square, arranged in a grid, which trap sea water and yield yellow heaps of salt. It seems a hard way to make a living. Then he slows the car so we can look at a ship on our left which is actually a floating casino. My wife and I, children of a more puritanical time, marvel at an India so modern that it licenses off-shore gambling. The loveliest sight on that journey is man-made: we are driving over a road bridge when, parallel to us, the spectacular spans of a Konkan Railway bridge comes into view. Since Mr Sreedharan, the engineer who built the railway is currently building Delhi’s Metro, I feel joined to Goa by his excellence. The road we are travelling on is perfectly metalled and the taxi is air-conditioned so we are introduced to Goa’s landscape without having to endure its weather. Consequently, far from steeling the children against disappointment, our taxi ride serves to raise their expectations.
The hotel does nothing to depress these. The Cavala is a set of connected double-storeyed buildings built in a vernacular style in laterite and roofed with red tiles. Its heart is a door-less bar and restaurant that opens into the yard around it, café style. On the other side of the road, much to our delight, is the Cavala’s swimming pool with rooms built around it. After some badgering we manage to swap our rooms in an annexe (a concrete villa a little removed from the main buildings) for two wooden cabins (yes, air-conditioned, since you ask) overlooking the pool.
It’s hard to imagine, but things got better. The morning after we arrive we walk down to the beach and it’s like going back in time. Okay, it isn’t Bogmalo circa ’77 — there is no village, no well and no palm trees — but it is uncrowded and unlittered (if you discount water-bottle tops), the shelf falls away gently so even amateur swimmers like us can bathe and leap into cresting waves without drowning.
Because this isn’t the season, the people on the beach are mainly Indian and most of them are there for therapeutic reasons. Lots of the women are lying in the shallows in their saris, soaking in the seawater, hoping to cure their arthritis or rheumatism and I notice a couple of men being buried in sand in an unplayful way.
Then I see people flying. That didn’t happen in 1977. At a distance from the beach, we can see parachutes erupt from the ends of motorboats, and hoist stick figures into the sky. This seems at once so magical and so seductively modern that we sign up immediately. We are ferried out to sea, where we climb into the parachute boat. We are kitted out with life-jackets; I asked the man at the wheel if they’ll be necessary. He shakes his head and says, reassuringly, “Boat to boat, boat to boat.”
The way it works is simplicity itself. We are made to wear harnesses that are clipped to the parachute, which is winched out once the boat is in motion. My son goes first. Parasailing is fun for everyone but it’s a must-do for the family man. To watch your child suspended near-vertically above you by a cord is an oddly umbilical experience. Once he is winched back on to the boat, my daughter and I go up in double-harness because she is nervous of going up on her own (“Costs same, okay?” “Yes, okay”) and we scream as we rise. But it isn’t in the least like flying: there is no sense of being propelled, of motion. The reverse, if anything: I feel a great stillness, as if I’ve been casually hung on an invisible hook.
Then we go and spoil it all by not knowing when to stop. We return to shore and go jet-skiing. It’s horrible; riding those little sea-scooters is rather like driving a Vespa over a succession of speed-bumps at top speed. Raghu has a fat lip at the end of it and I, a jangled lower-back. We retire to Britto’s, the best known of the beach cafés in Baga, for lunch. I ask, not wishing to be original, for their seafood platter: calamari, prawns, mussels, and stuffed crab. It’s first-rate. At 220 rupees a go, it’s also affordable. We have been told by friends that the beaches in Goa are over-run, filthy and intolerable, that to find beach breathing space we might have to go north, to Morjim, but I can report that unless you choose to visit the beach on a Sun-day evening (when it’s seriously oversubscribed), Baga in May is sublime.
The trouble with being a tourist in Goa is that it’s hard to find a way of connecting the beaches with their hinterland. Unlike western seaside towns which grew to answer the holiday needs of natives, Goa’s beaches seem things apart from the social world to which they’re attached. Part of the reason for this is that the business of beach leisure is a foreign idea, still substantially driven by a foreign clientele. But the Indian holiday-maker contributes to the alienation because, apart from the beaches, what he looks for in Goa are the residues of an exotic colonialism. He enjoys Goan ‘culture’ (food, architecture, lifestyle) because it’s different from the commonplace India the British left behind. For him, paradoxically, Goa’s natives are interesting to the extent that they embody a foreign and vanishing Portugueseness.
The mandatory visit to Old Goa is part of this savouring of the exotic. I go again with the family and we are astounded and uplifted by the grandness and scale of the Basilica of Bom Jesus where St Francis’s relics are kept and the Sé Cathedral, one of the oldest and largest churches in Asia. Work on the present cathedral began in the middle of the 16th century, which makes it roughly contemporary with Humayun’s Tomb, one of the most celebrated medieval buildings in the sub-continent. But the Indian tourist doesn’t own the Sé Cathedral in the way in which he sees Humayun’s Tomb, as ‘his’. And the reason is straight forward: the cathedral for him is a left-over of alien imperialists who eventually left, whereas the Mughals are seen as domesticated conquerors who stayed. So Humayun’s Tomb in histories of Indian architecture becomes an instance of the special genius of Indo-Muslim architecture, whereas the buildings of old Goa, regardless of their age or excellence, remain provincial examples of a metropolitan style.
But this is silly. The coming and going of imperialists can’t be the measure of Indianness and foreignness. To see how Indo-Portuguese art was made, every tourist should go to the Museum of Christian Art, a little jewel of a repository housed in the Santa Monica Convent in Old Goa. Its icons, crucifixes, coffers, chalices bear witness to the extraordinary coming together of Portuguese, Mughal, even Jain art. And this isn’t fancifulness: we know that Akbar and Jehangir sent delegations from their courts to Goa to work with craftsmen there. Perhaps Indo-Portuguese culture is too large and hyphenated; perhaps Goan is the term we should use because it’s both particular and inclusive, allowing us to claim a culture that is the result of a specific fusion of colonial and domestic practices. That its patrons were mainly Christian and colonial ought to matter no more than the fact that the grandest Mughal architecture was commissioned by Muslim empire builders.
One of the great delights of Goa is that unlike all but a few places in India, you can actually find houses that have been lived in for hundreds of years. Monumental architecture is commonplace in India, historic domestic buildings less so. Encouraged by the writer, historian and critic, Maria Couto, I set off to see one of the great colonial houses in Goa, the Braganza mansion in the village of Chandor in south Goa. It’s an hour’s drive from Baga and it’s well worth the effort.
The house is a long, low, two-storeyed building with a façade made striking by the 28 windows set in it. When I ring the bell the door is opened by its present mistress, the 91-year-old Dona Aida de Menezes Braganza. A European couple turns up as well and she shows us round the house. Dona Aida represents the eighth generation of the Braganza family to live in the house, parts of which date back to the 17th century. More remarkable than the age of the house are its furnishings and interiors. The floors, the china, the furniture, the books, the mirrors and chandeliers aren’t just old and choice, they were ordered or custom-made for the house and have been in their places for more than 250 years.
The family history reads reads like a case study of the Indo-Portuguese encounter. A landed Hindu family of notables in Chandor, called Desai, was converted ungently to Christianity in the 16th century. It assimilated so well that a 19th-century descendant, Francis Xavier Braganza, was knighted. His grandson, Luis de Menezes Braganza, represented Goa in the Portuguese Parliament, wrote eloquently in the cause of Goan self-rule, and was, in the words of Dona Aida, “the Goan Nehru”. Menezes Braganza’s brother in law, Tristao de Braganza Cunha, went one step further and allied himself with the Indian National Conference, for which he was imprisoned by Salazar’s regime. The family fled Goa and returned only after the Portuguese were expelled in 1961, which is when Dona Aida took up residence again in the mansion, restored it and opened it to the public.
When Dona Aida finishes the guided tour of the house, she shows us her donation box and gracefully steps aside. The European couple puts in 100 rupees, rather less than two euros. Is this stinginess, I wonder? Or just thrift in action?
The easiest way of absorbing Goa in all its complexity is to eat and drink Goan. I ask Maria Couto, who knows Goa’s past and present as thoroughly as any individual can, for advice on where to eat. She recommends the Riorico at the Hotel Mandovi in Panaji. It’s an expansive restaurant with great air-conditioning and a pink plaster ceiling. At the mention of Maria’s name, the maître d’hotel, Mr Remedios, shows us to a nice table and walks us through the menu. After a while we stop trying to decipher Chicken Cafreal and Seafood Caldeirada and eat, at his recommendation, fresh snapper, chicken in a coconut sauce, two sorts of prawns, curried and combined with papad, fish and chips for my unadventurous daughter and fragrant Goan mangoes and vanilla ice cream for dessert.
And drink? I try cashew feni after 30 years in Alban and Maria’s house and find that I still don’t like it. When I tell a friend in Delhi this on my return, she looks superior and says, “Urrack, you should have drunk urrack!”
Next time. I’ll be 82 in 2039; my palate might even have matured enough to savour feni.