Caju and conversations



Somehow, Goa had been filed away at the back of my mind as the quintessential tourist spot, with its hippies who still hope that the Beatles are going to reunite for one last gig in Anjuna, with George Harrison and John Lennon playing the Ouija board, and its beaches where shacks innovate in permutations of German, British, Swedish, Italian, Israeli and French cuisines. And of course its tourism factor just went up when it recently was used as a backdrop by Hollywood as the perfect hideaway for Matt Damon in the thriller Bourne Supremacy. Simply a place for going underground, letting loose and getting tight.

But I had to rethink my preconceived notions when I heard of a Mysterious Migratory Trend. Somebody mentioned that my favorite author, Amitav Ghosh, had moved there and that many of the other writers I find interesting, from Sudhir Kakar to Sunil Khilnani, have homes in Goa. When an old Mumbai acquaintance, children’s writer Rahul Srivastava, bought a lovely flat overlooking the Mandovi River at a fraction of the Mumbai rates, I realized that I had to go and find out what was going on.

 


 

Once you tear your eyes away from the semi-clad tourists littering the beaches, you’ll of course discover that Goa has always been a literary hub.

Pick up the delightful anthology Ferry Crossings and you’ll read some of the best Goan fiction, compiled by the renowned Goa-based poet Manohar Shetty. It includes Damodar Mauzo whose Konkani novel Karmelin won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1983 and the veteran journalist Victor Rangel-Ribeiro, author of Tivolem – one of those novels which, like RK Narayan’s, are deceptively simple but seem to encompass an entire universe. Besides, Goa has its great non-fiction writers too, most notably Maria Couto who wrote the monumental Goa: A Daughter’s Story.

The multicultural traditions run far back, as is proven by the fact that Goan literature is written in Konkani, Marathi, Portuguese as well as in English, and that Goans are prominent in the Indian diasporas from Africa to New York. Yet few visitors are aware that one such ‘expat’, Abbe Faria born in Candolim in 1755, developed a method for ‘hipnotismo scientifico’ way back before hypnotism was officially ‘invented’, and became so famous in Paris that Alexandre Dumas even based a character on him in his swash-buckling pseudo-historical mass-market bestseller, The Count of Monte Cristo (1845).

If Goan soil is so fertile, it might make sense for new writers to put down roots and perhaps cross-fertilize, I thought as the propeller plane made hesitant loops over the tiny Dabolim airfield. It was 2009 but I carried, in my head, images of 1800s Berlin or fin-de-siècle Paris, times when artists from around the world were pulled to the cabarets; or the Carmel-Big Sur stretch of Californian coast that attracted Robert Heinlein, Henry Miller and even, for a short while, the perpetual hitchhiker Jack Kerouac, who wrote the documentary novel Big Sur (1962).

And then there was this fascinating research that I’d come across. Recent studies suggest that in a global economy, creative milieus – measured by the number of artists per capita, ethnic variety in the population, general educational level and the number of forums for self-expression – have high competitive potential. And hence, attract even more talent.

Interestingly, two years in a row Swedish and Indian writers have come together for easy-going workshops in Calangute – among prominent participants have been novelists Manjula Padmanabhan and Anjum Hasan, children’s writer Paro Anand, and Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan, former secretary of the Sahitya Akademi.

Among them were also Swedish poet laureate Arne Johnsson, who visited Goa for the first time this year, leaving an icy Scandinavian climate behind. He felt deeply stimulated by Goa’s mix of cultures and the many creative people he came across. Being in India was “like being in the eye of a storm”, he told me and shared his thought that Goa would be a perfect place to sit and write a book.

Workshop-organizer Tomas Löfström, who promotes Indian literature in translation through the Indian Library in Stockholm, is a frequent visitor to Goa. Calangute, according to him, is ‘India Light’ and conditions are optimal for a literary workshop – you have all the necessary facilities without the hassle of a big city.

He says, “Cultural or literary tourism may be worth developing, considering that many Indian writers seem to spend part of their year in Goa, and visiting westerners might look for something beyond the beach life.” He points out that the infrastructural elements are already in place: Kala Academy’s multi-stage cultural venue, the artist Subodh Kerkar’s gallery-cum-restaurant, Gerard da Cunha’s museum of Goan architecture, the new Angelo da Fonseca-museum and last but not least, the friendly book café Literati.

 


 

Let’s begin our literary expedition at Literati, run by Diviya Kapur who decided one day to chuck up her job as a lawyer in Delhi and fulfill a dream. A friend found her a hundred-year-old bungalow in Calangute and this charming book café was born in 2005. There are cozy sofas and books ranging from the latest releases to secondhand copies, as well as a shelf devoted to Goan writing for those who want to dip beneath the surface – actually, many of the local publishers are small presses so the books are rarely found outside the state.

But that’s just half the story. Every time I drop in there is something happening: one day the Commonwealth Prize-shortlisted Shashi Deshpande is participating in a discussion on translation, two days later a writer of a book on motorcycling is speaking in the serene garden. While I browse, the Booker-winner Kiran Desai suddenly walks in. It turns out she is renting a house nearby to sit and write for a few winter weeks.

Autograph hunters find themselves in heaven, because Literati has over the last couple of years hosted events with Amitav Ghosh, William Dalrymple, Dayanita Singh, Ranjit Hoskote, Anjum Hasan, Amruta Patil, Zai Whitaker and others.

Serious book-shopping always makes me thirsty and luckily there are many watering holes around, a crucial component of any really creative milieu. I end up at Bomra’s which serves Burmese nouvelle cuisine – tribal and rural recipes infused with the personal ‘ishtyle’ of the jolly chef Bawmra. But what makes it a literary destination is the special ‘Glass Palace Menu’ of Amitav Ghosh’s favorite dishes ranging from pickled tea leaf salad and homemade chickpea tofu with tamarind soya sauce, to slow-cooked pork belly with apple chutney and a cashew nut crust – food that has also earned Bomra’s a reputation for being the world’s finest Burmese restaurant.

A regular visitor to Literati, author Sudeep Chakravarti has set up house in Panjim. His debut novel was Tin Fish (2005) which “some critics have termed the Indian Catcher in the Rye”. Like Salinger who left New York for a cabin in the woods, Sudeep traded his job as an editor in Delhi for a space to write. And so he is in fact the third person, in a short span of time, who tells me about the joy of leaving a metro in favor of a new life in Goa.

Sudeep’s friends, of course, told him that he was crazy when he drew up a list of four places he thought might be suitable for a writer: Mussoorie, Pondicherry, Goa and Shantiniketan. Goa won hands down. It wasn’t an emotional choice, but a practical one – a decision which brought creativity back to him.

“In some ways, I had arrived at a time and place in my life when the urge to pursue a lifelong dream to write books couldn’t any longer be put on hold,” he says. Since coming to Goa he has been prolific, publishing three books: numbers four and five are on their way. He also wants to start a writers’ cooperative, The East India Writing Company, to support literary work in South Asia. “You could say Goa and I are in a state of pleasurable cohabitation.”

 


 

In Goa, writers are so abundant that they seem to grow on trees. At a Kala Academy poetry reading, I bumped into Amitav Ghosh. At the youthful age of 52, he has written himself into literary history and nowadays spends about half the year in picture-pretty Aldona in the bucolic interior of Goa. He’d been visiting for decades, until one day he found himself a crumbling old villa and which he lovingly restored.

One wing was in such a state of disrepair that it had to be almost fully rebuilt, he explains after inviting me home to a dinner party. Amitav’s study, which naturally interests me most, impresses with its large writing desk, his personal range of hidebound Egyptian notebooks, and, right outside, there’s a wide terrace suitable for recreational bird-watching.

For Amitav one of the pleasures of Goa is that it’s such a literary place – just down the road lives Maria Couto and he entertains writer colleagues at tremendously pleasant dinners. He also interacts with the Goa Writers Group, a loose association of up-and-coming litterateurs.

The group’s convener is humor columnist Cecil Pinto, whom I personally find seven times funnier than Woody Allen. Cecil is also a distinguished connoisseur of Caju (cashew feni). He’s brought the most exquisite village-distilled brews from his collection to Amitav’s dinner party, where he takes it upon himself to teach the noble art of imbibing Caju to guests ranging from the lowly yours truly to Nobel Laureates such as Orhan Pamuk.

Despite rumors that the Turkish novelist might, too, be looking for a house in Goa, he sniffed somewhat skeptically at the booze which had been poured out of a recycled Smirnoff-bottle.

I tried to help by pointing out that Caju tastes sublime as soon as one gets used to it – only later did it occur to me that any Nobel Prize-winner sticking his nose into a glass of the potent brew might worry about possible brain-damage. Orhan Pamuk, however, isn’t the kind of writer to waste either brain cells or time, as was discovered when one of the budding litterateurs offered to show him around Old Goa if he could take a morning off from his writing, to which he replied that the number of mornings left in his life were barely enough for the writing he planned to do!

I asked Cecil Pinto what he thought of all these literary migrants. “That Goa is already becoming a hub for writers is evident. But regarding your question of Goa benefiting from writers moving here, now that is a complicated matter. Writers, like people, come in different types. When a writer like Amitav Ghosh comes here, he enhances our literary environment through his interactions. There are other writers, on the other hand, who have portrayed a totally bizarre image of Goa to the world. This type we could do without.”

Another member of the writers’ group, Savia Viegas, feels that first of all Goa needs a writing and storytelling culture among kids. “It will help develop Goa as a sustainable literary space.” A teacher by profession, she tries to get visiting creative people to do workshops at schools.

On my last day, as if my fascination for Goa let out the genie from a bottle, I walk past a real estate agency with apartments for around twenty lakh rupees. Swimming pool included. Before I know it, the efficient staff has bundled me into an AC SUV and I’m driven to a construction site. Most buyers, I’m told, are middle-aged Brits looking for a retirement home or NRIs who see it as an investment. In the last two years prices have shot up by 300 percent.

The next-door neighbor at the site is a farmer plowing his field with a buffalo. As I survey the damp concrete cave of a 2BHK, I wonder if this is realistic. Or have I been imbibing too much?

I tell the real estate agent that I might be better off with a town house. He argues that anything I need is on the beach. There’s even going to be a McDonald’s soon. I tell him about the existential insecurity a writer might feel far from urban spaces. He objects, “Our houses have round the clock guards and the compound is surrounded by ten feet high walls. If you feel insecure here, you won’t feel safe anywhere in the world.”

After that slightly too realistic view on the state of things, I figure that for me Goa shall remain a place to dream about – a creative space to run away to when I need to sit down with a manuscript in progress. And a Caju on the side. Then some day, with a little help from karma, I may hope to be reincarnated as a Goan in my next life.

(2009; originally published here: Start pagep2p3p4p5 and with a virtual version online here)