Red earth, as the poet said, and pouring rain.
The phrase runs around in my head every time I think of Goa. Red earth of laterite rock, bleeding down the hills as the monsoon storms lash them, the precious rain seeping down into the soil and into the paddy fields, rivulets flowing down leaves and branches.
But that's a vastly different picture from the travel brochures, or indeed from the beautiful one I stepped into at Palolem beach. I sat on fine golden sand, and watched the palm trees dance languorously with the clouds above, the breeze whispering the steps to both. I sat on a rock between a tiny islet and a tip of one Sahyadri ghat, both covered by a tropical forest, and watched as the tide swirled the pinks and oranges of the sunset in among the rocks at my feet. I sat below a velvet black sky, a sliver of the moon giving a Mona Lisa smile while I tried in vain to look at all the bright points of diamond starlight at once. I watched the waves lazily come in, the surf doodling starry patterns in the wet sand to cover the marks of my feet.
And yet, two weeks after I left Goa, the red earth, no more than a faint trace of fine dust now, but still red earth, clings stubbornly to the soles of my sandals, even as not a trace of sand remains. It's not so easy to shake it off, especially as it is that red earth in which I am deeply rooted, the same earth that my ancestors cultivated, the same laterite rock out of which they built their homes, the same that they returned to in death. It wasn't sand; it was earth.
Is it then surprising that beautiful as the beach may have been, it isn't what I could really write about as my Goa? Flights of fancy were possible, but nothing that made me feel truly a part of the place. Nor could I write about the tree-lined road along the river in Panjim, the quiet streets of Fontainhas with houses of cobalt, deep red and ochre, the chapel of San Sebastian, where I was given a key and allowed to let myself in, the sleepy and proudly inefficient tourist office, where "all India" knowledge was professed, but none of Old Goa; I was alien enough there to find myself wandering Goa's capital at siesta time with only a pack of dogs for company. In Old Goa too, I was no more than a faithless tourist, standing in front of the ornate casket that holds the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier and instead of praying, contemplating the fact that after 450 years, it was perhaps time to return him to the earth.
My Goa, the Goa that brings to mind that red earth and pouring rain, lives in the villages, where I didn't take a single photograph as a tourist, because no tourist ever takes pictures of the familiar. It is possible to visit a Goan village and see what I saw; the gently sagging tiled roofs of the houses, the decrepit but inevitable tavernas covered with promotional paintings for brands of alcohol, the whitewashed churches with flat Portuguese facades, adjoining cemeteries echoing their structures but only as lifeless shells, the wayside shrines, cross after cross and saint after saint, all honoured and cherished and looked after for decades, if not centuries.
It may even be possible to go into a village house and look at it; the shady veranda at the front of the house, with its resident dog lazily opening one eye as the stranger passes, the cool quiet rooms inside, luminous with a faded mellowed sunlight that has to pass through windowpanes of crushed seashells to touch and warm the carved furniture and the geometric patterns of tiles on the floor. Family portraits look down from walls while the Virgin, Christ and the saints who occupy a high altar remain aloof. A beam of brightness steals a patch of the floor through a skylight in the kitchen, where meals may still be cooked over a wood fire, and jars of pickles and vinegar in the corners and the loft await their hour of glory at the table. Chickens scratch in the red dirt of the yard outside, while cats lurk at the doorstep. Pigs nose into the toilets outside, sociable but unwanted, except as an ingredient for sorpatel, vindaloo or sausages.
It's possible to see all of that, but it will never be possible to truly know more about it than superficialities; as a child of the city, not even I should know more. High mass at the church at noon can be attended on a sweltering humid day of a feast, an impromptu football match in the church grounds can be watched, a concert of music organised by the maestre can be attended.
But that secret life that each village guards and holds close, the mixture of love, hate, holiness, patience, tolerance, violence, every emotion and feeling known to humanity - that you can never see, because it lies below the surface. It is brought out furtively on lazy afternoons, after heavy lunches, when tongues are loosened enough to tell of that fertile mixture: the stories that only a Goan, and a member of the family will ever hear, the stories that ultimately give me some possession of that earth.
Who would ever tell an outsider of the man who stole his brother's house and the dowry of his brother's widow? Of the woman who was thrown out into the cowshed to bear a child after her husband died? Of a woman who spoke only through song, or a man who ran away to sea? Of lives lost in the great influenza pandemic? Of walking along the Konkan coast from Bombay to Goa, from India to Portugal as it was at the time? Of marriages arranged, of jewels and ivory brought from Africa, of illegitimate children and unmarked graves? Of secret recipes handed down, feeding generation after generation? Of the remembered stories of words and actions that came from impulses and motivations now dust?
No one will, unless I tell you myself. Those are the tales of my own family and my own village, and unless I one day find words to capture them and overcome the guilt of turning over the topsoil to dig up what lies beneath, they may remain forever untold. One side of the disintegrating hillside will reclaim the old ancestral house of laterite stone, even as the village grows more modern on the other side, and cement buildings spring up from palm-fringed fields.