November 16, 2009

Beware Of The Dog And More

For all their love of dogs
The gentle folks on St. Roque Road sometimes forget
That to tell a dog not to mess up
Is to make him do just that!

For, a dog that lets you own it
Will be just as happy to let you own its poop!

November 12, 2009

Lions At The Gate

On the back roads where people are few and far between, where silence is left to its own devices, shattered only occasionally by a motorbike curving past you, it’s easy to be lulled into the melody of a melancholy road winding past old Portuguese-era homes.

That is until you come upon the lions.

We did, first at Brittona, then along the way through Ecoxim, and later, Salvador do Mundo before passing more lions as we made our way through Carona.

They watch over the road in pairs and needless to say they haven’t tired of watching over it for years on end. Decades are passé. The Brittona – Aldona stretch goes back centuries. And so do some houses. The others date back to early 1900s and possibly a decade or two further back, to the late 1800s.

Once we descended the slope to Britona after riding over the Mandovi bridge the ride got quieter specially after we swept past the fish market in the shade of the bridge. As night falls fish continue to be sold in the light of kerosene lamps. Cats keep vigil by the baskets at the feet of fisherwomen seated on small stools. The stools hold up well under the pressure brought to bear by the not inconsiderable girth of the ladies.

The cats have no use for the kerosene lamps. They have no use for the fisherwomen either. Their perseverance with their penance in front of baskets of fish would put a monk to shame.

In the opposite direction, not far from where we made the left turn, fishing trawlers ferry in fish. Across the river lies Panaji. Water ferries used to operate across the river to Betim. The bridge over the Mandovi made the ferry redundant.

The Sun was beginning to dip that October day last month. The Mandovi river lay to our right and for much of our way it would stay with us.

Rounding a bend I was drawn to the looming edifice of a whitewashed church.

The sight of the Nossa Senhora de Penha da França Church on the banks of the Mandovi in Brittona momentarily takes one’s breath away, more for its setting on the river as it curves past the 383 year old church. It is at Penha da Franca that river Mapusa, flowing southward, merges with the Mandovi. Along the road upstream of the river lies the maritime jetty at Virlosa.

On the banks of the Mandovi one can see massive barges ferrying iron ore upstream of the river. Occasionally they sound the horn, piercing the calm, startling water birds in the mangroves along Ribander causeway on the Panjim side of the river.

The Nossa Senhora de Penha da Franca church is known to have been built by seafarers, sheltering in her protective embrace on the high seas. The landscape momentarily stepped out to tango with us as we rode past the impressive white structure in the backdrop of the Mandovi.

White was restricted for use in painting churches during the Portuguese occupation of Goa. No Goan house came to be painted white in their tumultuous reign on India’s West Coast. So Goan homes took on colours nearly the entire spectrum of the rainbow, and they still do in the largely Christian stretch we rode through that evening. However some break ranks and paint white.

Gaily coloured homes lay back from the road, their gates opening onto paths that led to covered porches or balcaos as they are known locally. A profusion of carefully tended flowers in gardens flanking the approach to the entrance rose above the compound walls that ran along the road on either side of the two gateposts, lions guarding the gates.

While I had expected to see houses on high plinths, their balcaos continuing along the steps leading to the road, sometimes shepherded by curving balustrades, I saw few or none as we rode along, past homes. The plinths rarely exceeded a few feet off the ground. If there were any hidden from the road I wouldn’t know.

I could be forgiven for thinking lions came in all shapes or sizes, and different avatars as well.

While the lion resting on his belly came closest to what I might expect of a lion in the wild while it kept its eye out for prey, a sight reinforced by all the documentaries I saw in the years I was discovering wildlife before I discovered myself, I was still prepared to allow the King of the Jungle to lift himself up so he could see above the tall grass, into the far distance as Heraldson’s lion did.

However I could not bring myself to believe that a lion could swallow its pride and allow itself to be painted pink before being tasked with keeping watch over the gate.

Or for that matter take on a form that would make passersby pause and wonder of the fate that had befallen the proud King of the Jungle.

Still worse if it was reduced to mimicking a startled cat even if it could glory beneath many a sprightly flower bending over in affection.

If ever there was a case to be made for returning the King to the jungle, free to roam in freedom and roil the nights with his mighty roars and retain his form and identity, you have to visit John Sequeira’s lions above to see why.

Unlike the others we saw that evening, the lion at Olaulim had no company. It watched over the gate alone. It had turned the colour of the gatepost it was stretched out on. I saw no hint that it had ever worn the colour that lions wear. There was no hint it was saddened by the fact, at least none that I could recognise. Or maybe it was, and I had no way of knowing that either.

Some houses lay in disrepair. Their front yards untended. Gardens overrun by creepers and grass. Yet, the lions kept watch. If anyone decided to return they were ensured of a warm welcome at the gate.

But somewhere deep down the lions must’ve known they were fated to watch over a gate rusting away from a waiting that was lost to memory, lost to hope.

I could only guess. Was it a family that had migrated to far shores, intending to return while their dreams led them along even as they assimilated into once alien cultures, never returning even as they had promised themselves that some day they would walk through the gate and not walk out again?

Maybe they did return over the years, the visits becoming fewer over time until those left behind aged before passing beyond the pale and there was no one to return to, anymore.

I can only guess.

The lions, however, continue to wait.

November 06, 2009

The Mystery Woman

I have no idea how long she’s been there, nor how she came to be there and I know even little of why she’s there, sitting on a platform by the road, surprising travelers as they round the bend on their way elsewhere.

The red of her blouse accentuates the sky blue of her sari, and on cheerful days she might as well have stripped a length off the blue skies overhead before wrapping herself with it. The silver border, exposed to elements over time, has lost some of its shine but it is more than made up by her smile, no less enigmatic and mysterious than the narrow Goan village roads that hide serendipity around unexpected corners.

She looks over an old well and beyond to the road. Behind her a temple to Ravalnath or Bhootnath sits in quiet reflection, of shade and contemplation of an occasional pilgrim making his way to the temple. The deep stambh, a mandatory sight outside entrances to Goan temples, stands in the shade of a tree. A scooter is parked at the entrance to a house adjacent to the temple. A mud path leads to the gate. Blocks of laterite stones are neatly arranged to one corner.

An elderly man is busy working his axe on a coconut tree, splicing the trunk into neat strips, likely for use in fashioning fences or maybe to shore up enclosures in the backyard. It takes skill to splice lengths off a coconut tree. A steady twack-twack-twack interrupts the afternoon. In time it will begin to sound like a part of it. On the back roads nothing is orphaned.

A bicycle is parked by the side of the mud road. The woodcutter probably rode it to the small clearing where he is now working his axe. It’s likely he is doing it for a fee and that the coconut tree belongs to someone in the vicinity of the temple.

The well is old. Three-fourths of the opening is covered by a metal mesh. A rope hangs from the wooden wheel. By the looks of it the well is not very deep. Wells in Goa are usually not deep.

I turn to look at her. She’s tucked her hair into a bun, flowers adorning it. Jasmine probably, I tell myself. Anything else would not befit her posture. It’s easy to imagine the fragrance if you’ve ridden village roads in Goa and stopped by elderly women selling flowers at street corners, often on their feet and holding out flowers wrapped in leaves. While they wait on passing customers stopping by to buy the flowers they lend fragrance to the roads.

The dignity of her pose reminds me of singers of yore, on stage and singing. And of dancers as well while they awaited their turn on the stage. However it is not a pose I would expect to see if she were to be singing religious hymns. She would be sitting cross legged then, eyes closed, her hands seemingly in offering but actually moving to the pitch of the song.

Whatever the case maybe, she seems at home in the village. And travellers, at home with her presence on their journeys elsewhere.

November 05, 2009

The Devil’s Fragrance

Returning late one night last month I stepped out of the rickshaw and into the familiar glaze of sodium vapour lights. Skipping puddles on the road I made for the invisible footpath to shelter from the light drizzle under trees that merged into dark outlines of brooding leaves, beyond the seeming warmth of sodium.

I was not carrying an umbrella having delighted in the sunshine of preceding days. And just when it seemed that rains had given way to an Indian summer on the eve of a Bombay winter, they struck with a vengeance in that first week of October last month.

They washed the streets clean, cleared up the dust on the roadside and lent the air a tingling nip that was at once a pleasure to stroll in and a delight to feel on the neck in the breeze rustling the trees.

While there was work to wind up and packing to do, I was cheerful to the promise of October for, the first week would soon give way to Diwali. It also meant a long journey along the Konkan Coast, watching passing panoramas of old hills shepherding streams and rivers gently along while farm hands prepared to harvest paddy in the fields while twilight trickled over darkening contours, turning that midway moment into burnished gold of rural idyll.

Then on the eve of Diwali the demoniac throes of the drummer boys at Narkasur nights would beckon, the crescendo rising up to meet the evil promise of a demon before he would be reduced to ashes to wild cheers of crowds gathered to witness the ritual triumph of good over evil.

So when I stepped out of the rickshaw I had little on my mind save thoughts of winding up tasks before it was time to board the long distance train heading down the coast.

I was already imagining the train curving along contours of mountainous terrain while valleys opened up beneath me as I stood at the door letting the Konkan breeze wash over my face when I was brought up short on inhaling deeply of the night air as I made my way under the trees. Behind me the rickshaw had sputtered to life and was returning after dropping me off.

I instantly broke my stride, paused and inhaled again. Then I stopped. This was heady.

There was fragrance in the air, deep, heavy fragrance. A fragrance that meandered, and strengthened as much by stillness as by moistness in the air it hung like an invisible affirmation of a happy evening out.

Horns sounded behind me. It was then that I noticed a swathe of pale orange carpeting the street, covering cars parked to the side of the road in a layer of pale yellow.

A few had settled along the length of a pair of wipers resting against the windscreen. On closer examination they turned out to be flowers, small in size and individually mildly fragrant while collectively they intoxicated the night street about them.

While I stood there before bending down to scoop up a handful, more flowers fell, in slow motion. They meditated as they descended; exhaling their fragrance, adding to the hundreds, no, thousands that now carpeted the road.

A heavy wind had rattled the windows the night before and continued through the day.

I looked up. The first time I had chosen to make sense of a tree I must have passed by umpteen times, here and elsewhere. But not once had I wondered as to its existence except for taking its shade, and that of the other trees in the neighbourhood, for granted.

More flowers descended from the branches above, twirling as they fell to the earth. The branches were heavy with flowers, and the flowers heavy with fragrance, and the neighbourhood heavy with atmosphere.

That night I looked them up and realized they belonged to the Indian Devil tree (Alstonia scholaris), an Indian flowering tree native to the tropics and one of the 40-odd species of the Alstonia native to a wide geography.

The next morning I stepped out to the sight of more flowers covering the road. In the distance I could’ve mistaken them for snow if it was not Bombay and not the first week of October.

The flowers were white, five petals to each flower.

Elsewhere in the city the Indian Devil Tree was in bloom, lending the morning fragrance to school children on their way to school. The tree itself was not very big, close to twenty feet tall. Sweepers swept the roads, bunching the flowers by the side of the road.

Office goers hailed rickshaws while workers moved to clear fallen branches of an Indian Devil Tree that had failed to withstand the winds of the night before.

The flowers having graced the roads, and the fragrance the air, the early October morning had turned intoxicating. As I inhaled the morning freshness the fragrance lent the air a sharp nip as I drew it into my lungs. I could only guess as to its name. Devils purportedly intoxicate to overpower.

I was inclined to believe.

And I had little doubt that long after the tree had shed the last of its blooms, barely days after its first, the roads would carry fragrance from the fallen flowers and wandering feet would bring the intoxication home.