Fragments of Goa
Azima Melita Kolin
When on the eve of the seventh day, God noticed the leftovers of rocks in his pocket and the sack of black pebbles on his back, he tossed the rocks into the sea and the pebbles into the rivers. A thousand Greek islands rose out of the water beholding the sun, and the pebbles, carried by the rushing waters, spilt all over the Indian continent. Bumping and rubbing against each other, some became smooth and polished, others, still rough and coarse, moved by the currents, multiplied with alarming speed, grew arms and legs and settled into large communities amongst the palms together with their animals. Sitting in the café at the noisiest corner of Calangute, I watch the relentless river of black heads on black motorbikes speeding and zigzagging around the meandering buffalos and cows on the streets and wonder what God had in mind.
I had dreamed of visiting India for years, but the opportunity never materialized. In the sixties, when the hippie backpackers flocked into India in search of gurus and yogis, I was trapped behind the iron curtain, and in the seventies, I was too occupied raising a family. I had to wait for many years until in my painting class I heard about a winter art academy in Kerala. Spending a month with Indian artists, Kathakali dancers, raga singers, dance, and traditional painting was a stroke of luck. I couldn’t imagine a better introduction to India.
Twenty years later, I am back, this time in Goa. My fascination with India never ceases; the blue sky, the loud chorus of exotic birds at dawn as the sun, never late for its appointment, peeps behind the palms. Pale and dreamy at first, it slowly burns the morning haze, getting hotter and dispassionate, to witness the wake of another day on the ground. The dazzling colours on the women’s saris look brighter in the sunshine as they walk gracefully on the dusty roads with heavy baskets on their heads, erect and proud like queens. Young girls hang clothes and bags on the stalls, comb each other’s long hair, paint intricate designs on their hands with henna while waiting for the first customers, beaming friendly smiles at you. Stray dogs sleep in the middle of the road, miraculously spared in the chaotic traffic. Gentle and docile during the day, they follow everybody around with begging eyes, but at night, howling like a pack of wolves, they become unruly and dangerous.
Wrapped in the pink silk of dawn, I walk onto the shore, watching a crow play an amusing game with the waves, performing a backwards step dance, determined not to wet his feet. If I try to engage him in a tête-à-tête conversation, he flies in the opposite direction. Another one takes his place, and the game continues with endless variations. Now I know that no one crow is like another. Smaller, with bulging eyes, elegant in their shining indigo feathers, they hop awkwardly on the ground like old arthritic men, foraging through leftover food, plastic bags, and ice-cream containers littering the sand, which the sea tides regurgitates back onto the beach.
Once, complaining to an Indian man about the amount of rubbish around, I had an unexpected reply: Yes, people here are not aware what they are doing to the environment—we have sold awareness to the world and left none for ourselves.
It seems that the crows have spilt from the same sack of black pebbles, not different from the youngsters on the beach, screaming at the top of their voices and throwing each other, fully dressed, into the water. I have seen crows gather in hundreds on a tree, weighing down its branches as if holding a parliament, quarrelling for hours over an important decision. Their ear-splitting racket makes any human conversation impossible.
Every morning, the little lane on my way to the beach greets me with a tapestry of colorful saris and bedspreads drying over the fences. Women walk about in their nighties, putting incense sticks in the flower pots outside their houses that make the whole street fragrant, while the men, pulling a chair out, sit in the middle of the road washing their teeth and spitting on the ground.
Nowhere else have I seen the art of sitting brought to such perfection. In the last three years, next to my corner café, I have been observing a man, selling souvenirs and pashmina shawls, sitting as if glued to his chair in front of his shop. Flabby and bent, with hair receding further back each year, he looks worn, much like the faded, dusty shawls hanging above him. I have never seen a customer enter his shop, or him attempting to get up from his chair when tourists glance up the steps into his shop. He just sits there, day after day, frozen like a statue, gazing vacantly at the passing crowds from his spot. I wonder what goes on in his mind, if anything at all. Is he an enlightened sage or a fool? By now, he greets me with a nod. This year, I was astonished to find him dozing in a chair at the café, as the waiters maneuvered around him. What prompted him to take a few steps to another chair without even ordering a glass of water remains a mystery.
At the market, overwhelmed by the smell of meat and fish mixed with spices and flowers, I stop to greet the guru of fragrance, Rama Krishna, an imposing figure sitting inside the smallest kiosk with a myriad of colorful bottles sparkling in the background behind him. There is always a large crowd of adoring customers in front of his booth, watching as he concocts magic oil perfumes to suit the personality of each client. He decants the mixture into cute little flasks and, looking intensely in their eyes, he promises eternal happiness. A businessman and a master of scent, his imposing presence, broad smile, and large teeth no doubt have a beneficial effect. He learned his craft from his grandfather and father, and must have amassed millions by now, but says that he will never leave his small kiosk; he doesn’t do this for the money.
Strolling through the market, I spot the cover of “The Old Lady in the Van” at a video stall and buy it to watch with my friend. In the evening, we sit with a cup of tea and insert the DVD, but instead what we find inside is “The Marigold Hotel.” The next week I complain to the same guy about selling me the wrong movie.
“I know” he says, waving his hand, “but the real one is more costly.” I pay the difference, reassured that this is the right film. Back home, we find another movie with Maggie Smith in the same packet, “My Old Lady,” that thankfully happened to be excellent. Amused by the surprise DVDs game, we visit his stall next week, and this time, under the same cover, we find the latest film, “Youth,” with Michael Caine. We never saw “The Lady in the Van,” but found the lottery film experience most enjoyable.
Here, every day presents new challenges; crossing the road is a hazard with no guarantee of reaching the other side alive. No one takes notice or shows any inclination to slow down; they all look straight ahead, blind to the waiting crowds. It’s puzzling that there are not road accidents every day. Without traffic lights and road regulations, you have no choice but to take a deep breath, shut your eyes, plunge forward, and hope for the best.
Happiness comes easily. The Indians, usually very agile, seem deprived of spatial awareness. Today, struggling against the relentless flow of rickshaws, buses, cars, and motorbikes on the main street, deafened by the cacophony of horns, beepers and bicycle bells, I find myself squeezed between a bus, a cow, and a man standing in front of me picking his nose. I could’ve stood there forever; totally unaware of blocking my way, he won’t move an inch. I tap him on the shoulder. He looks stupefied for some time before taking a step aside to let me pass. However, the lack of rules has its advantages. If you lift a hand at a bus going your direction, it stops to pick you up and lets you out wherever you want. I stop at a fruit stall to buy a watermelon when a huge coconut falls on the ground, missing my head by a millimeter. The man on the stall chuckles, hey, a lucky escape! Feeling a bit shaken, I walk home to find the whole Indian family, who takes care of the house, gathered together around the mother, Sofia. She looks dazed and pale. She had collapsed unconscious for half an hour after a Golden Tree Snake fell on her lap from the tree she was sitting under with her grandson. The snake quickly climbed the tree, but Sofia’s screams brought the whole neighbourhood into the courtyard.
Going every year to the same place in Goa feels like coming home. The familiar faces, the dusty roads, and noise have an immediate effect; back to the essential. Walking barefoot, the red dust and heat, the open skies and light, the ever-changing colours and smells hit my senses and tear apart the protective veil I have been hiding behind, plunging me into a primaeval world in all its variety, raw, harsh, and intense. The hideous tower I watched being built in front of my café last year has grown into an obnoxious hotel. My friend in the stall next door had never changed his position it seems, still sitting under his dusty shawls.
It happened to be election time in Goa, and loudspeakers blared horrible music through the town. The local government has forbidden alcohol served in bars and restaurants after nine thirty at night to keep the voters sober for a month before the election. It seemed a ridiculous idea, considering that alcohol was available to buy in every shop. I asked our rickshaw driver if people knew whom they are voting for, and he was quick to reply, “It makes no difference who wins, everything will be just the same.”
Accustomed by now to the hassle and bustle on the streets, the cows meandering amongst motorbikes, cars and rickshaws, and the constant sound of horns, this time I look with different eyes, trying to sense what lies behind what appears, mostly observing my reactions, wondering where this feeling of well-being and joy comes from when I find the constant noise, chaos, dirt, and crowds hard to tolerate.
I am not trying to compare two different worlds; India is not a place I could live without being affected by the vast corruption, poverty, and ignorance so deeply rooted that even the Indians think it can never change. But why, in spite of everything, do people look so joyous with a constant smile on their faces? Observing them on the beach, old and young alike, holding hands with sparkling eyes and white teeth, laughing and playing with the waves like children. The joy of life here is contagious and never ceases to surprise me. I wonder how, having such a hard existence, they have never lost the pure joy of just being alive. Here, it seems there are no walls. Life is all outside; the doors are open, you see women cooking, hanging the washing out, children and dogs running about, men sitting and chatting on their big bikes.
On the lane to the sea, new stalls have appeared. My new friend the fruit seller, who always chooses the best watermelons for me, has increased his business by making tea and cooking breakfast; the aroma of curried eggs and chapatti is so appetizing that there is always a crowd gathered in front of his stall. He has even put out chairs in the middle of the road, disturbing the flow, but no one seems to mind; the bikers maneuver around the chairs. Old women greet me with toothless smiles, the young girl selling tee shirts and clothes smiles sweetly and even washes my feet with the hose while watering the earth in front of her stall to keep out the dust. Everybody knows everybody in this small community of Christians and Hindus, whose lives, I am sure, are not without jealousies and big dramas, but it makes me feel part of humanity. Inclusion is natural; it comes from the red dust on the ground that stains my feet and clothes pink.
And, of course, this feeling of well-being has a lot to do with warmth; the sun feels so comforting on the body. Walking every morning on the soft sand with feet in the water, I watch the ritual of the fishermen’s return. Sliding the boat onto the shore on oiled boards set in a line, some pull the rope while the others push from behind. A spectacle that has been going on for centuries. I’ve seen it a hundred times but could never tire of it. The ancient tale of the fishermen and the sea unravels in from of my eyes. A handful of rough men in a small boat bring the catch of the night, loosen the net, arrange the fish according to size into baskets while a crowd of bystanders, dogs, and crows gathers around them. To witness that joyous, living tableau of the eternal link between man and the sea always fills me with gratitude.
Being in the present moment is the gift of India. Dazzled by the heat and noise, the bustling crowds and the chaos, the mind withdraws to somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, leaving not a thought of yesterday or tomorrow, only the spectacle of now. There is no struggle to empty the mind. India just is the power of now—a walking meditation, a book of many pages that are erased each night to start the day anew with an empty one.
Being nobody, just a segment of this flowing river of people, in the present moment is immensely freeing. Maybe it is the secret of the well-being, of being human.
Today, back in London, wrapped in my winter coat, shawl, gloves, and boots, I walk on the concrete pavement and feel constricted and separate, a unit of its own, far from nature. I look at the people on the street, folded into themselves, headphones on and talking to the air, oblivious to everything in an artificial world. What happened to our joy?
Azima Melita Kolin, born in Sofia, Bulgaria, is a concert pianist, artist, and writer. She has published five books of Rumi’s poetry and, combining poetry with classical music, she gives series of concert-readings. She has written a book about her journey from Communist Bulgaria to Italy, Switzerland, and England. From Bach to Rumi, from music to painting, and from painting to writing: a life full of paradoxes.