The afternoon air hangs low and heavy like thick incense, snaking its way through coconut fronds towards eggshell skies. In its muggy womb people retreat, waiting for the sun to lower its unblinking gaze towards the patiently waiting ocean, to come out and resume life and its everydayness. That people manage to get any work done in this time zone slowed by the sun, sea breeze and afternoon naps, is a constant source of amazement to me.
Not just the beach
Like almost everyone else I’ve known, for years I’ve come to Goa — the beach. Unexpectedly, one summer, I found myself there with people who had made it their home eighteen years ago. I lived with them, ten minutes from a beach I didn’t see; because for the first time I saw a Goa that was tucked between winding hillsides and swelling mangroves, hidden on a little island with a solitary bridge, a bar, and a 360 degree view of an inky twilight sky, bustling in the maze of lanes at the heart of Panjim, and expansive at the Promenade where people fished for mud crabs while the floating casinos slowly lit up for the night.
Idyllic, provincial, laid back, content, slow; in my curiosity to understand how locals and visitors see Goa, I have heard many words used to describe this 100 km long state. It certainly is many of those words and the feelings they evoke, but Goa is also a state that has permeated its people. People who have delivered everything from mattresses to vegetables on the basis of a conversation and trust, instead of advances and agreements, cabbies who have shared a beer and college stories about drag bike racing through the fields and lanes, mothers who find the time to smile as they zoom past me in their scooter with two kids in tow and a waiting school bus on their mind, cashiers at stores who have asked me to put back the beer nearing expiry that I had picked up in favour of a fresher batch, friends who drive in to their homes in villages where they don’t bother to lock the front door or gate…if it sounds idyllic, it is because it is.
Often when I tell Goans of my experiences in Goa, they caution me that the state is not all sunshine and susegad as I seem to think. They recount stories of everything from a recent chain snatching, to the mining that has impacted air and water quality, and the unchecked construction of hundreds of apartments, and the loss of trees to widening roads, and traffic jams that they have never seen before. It’s the reality check I could do with, but Goa and its people have a way of reaffirming my faith in their quiet sense of priority, and determined need to nap for an hour in the afternoon.
Resolute in my desire to get past the initial euphoria and find out what lay beyond the rush of falling in love; I committed two months to an exercise in living alone in a village I had never been to in Goa, with no stated goal or intent. When I asked my neighbours if it was safe (for a single woman to living on her own in an apartment on a dark bend of road that ended in a cul-de-sac), they warned me – to keep the doors and windows closed between 6 and 9 p.m., against the mosquitos! Rank strangers have insisted on paying for my breakfast, invited me home, cooked for me when I was unwell, and have reiterated no-expiry invitations for chai, beer or good old choriz-pao. In the two months I was there I lost count of the kindnesses and courtesies of the people I encountered, and went from being suspicious to overwhelmed, to starting to take it for granted.
Once the thrill of the new and unfamiliar had passed I settled into a routine not very different from the one I was used to. Practical challenges like the lack of a well-connected public transport system or the sheer impossibility of finding even the most basic household help notwithstanding, slowly, I found myself breathing in the same pace as everything around me, doing only the most essential things and saving the somnambulent daylight hours for vacant non contemplation. The air, the water, the church bells, the Saturday football game, Sunday fish market, and the all-pervading calm constancy of life in the village I called home for that time, is a place I keep going back to in my head.
I’ve met Goans in their early thirties coming back to a place they call home after having studied and worked everywhere in the world, and those who have lived there all their lives. When I ask them why they stayed or came back their reasons turn out to be the same that drive many of us, family and parents, but they always end by asking me, “Why would I want to leave Goa?”
So they close their doors and windows to mosquitoes at dusk, reinforce their homes in reams of plastic yardage against the buffeting winds and all-pervading torrent of the monsoon, fuel themselves on kokum juice and urack to cheerfully make their unpertubed way through nine months of tropical vagaries, to enjoy three months of bearable weather.
In this state where most street dogs look well fed, wear collars, and look about as content and carefree as its people, I, like many other people I know, have come looking for respite, and in its salty humid embrace have found home. Maybe not a place we can all permanently live in, but a place we can go back to in our minds and on long weekends, when tickets are cheap, and bosses benevolent. And for that brief while feel like it is possible to live a life that marches to a slower drum; where we can wake up with the sun and live and work all while being able to nap in the afternoon.