Letter from Panjim

Chryselle D’Silva Dias

India

It is just past 10pm on a weekday evening when I do something unusual. My son is safely in bed, dreaming of Legos and superheroes. This is usually wind-down time, a precious last few hours to catch up with deadlines, conversations, putting away the dishes, prepping for the next day. But that night, instead of heading to my computer, I put on my sandals, sling my purse across my shoulder and wedge my camera in, along with my wallet and keys. And then I walk out the door.

These nocturnal walks are an attempt to get lost, to explore my beautiful city by night, to loiter. I want to investigate how things change after the sun has plopped into the Arabian Sea and the tourists, lured by the gathering dark, have all moved out as if they were iron filings drawn by a magnet.

It is quiet when I sneak out of the house careful not to wake my sleeping child. I leave the house and cross the road onto the new Patto bridge. Traffic is still heavy and like most tourists who attempt this crossing, I have to make a dash between headlights of motorcycles and cars. There is no zebra crossing. Even if there were, drivers in India either do not know what it means, or they pointedly ignore it. I make it unscathed to the other side, where the Mandovi River flows dark and heavy along the promenade.

If you had told me, a dozen years ago, that I’d be living in sleepy Goa overlooking the hefty Mandovi, I’d have laughed at you. I really had no plans or dreams for leaving Bombay (Mumbai). A new job, perhaps. But a new city? Bombay had enough excitement for me. There was no reason to move.

Except love, of course. Love that came unexpectedly at an airport café. It was the most peculiar feeling. I’ve been in love before (or thought I was) yet this time, within five minutes, I knew I had met the man I would marry.

Love took me out of my city to England, and then to Goa. I would never have mapped out that route for my life.

***

I’ve lived in Goa for over a decade now. The old streets of Panjim are intimate friends; I love most of them with a familiarity born of walking them often. My history here is limited, for sure, and I am still very much an ‘outsider’.

I like that I am not from here. It gives me a perspective that is unique, cosmopolitan, hopeful. Without the baggage of childhood memories, neighbourly disputes or infatuations gone wrong, I can enjoy this ancient city and see stories that perhaps long-term residents miss. It still baffles me, though, when the local vegetable vendor insists on speaking with me in Hindi (while her husband speaks with me in the local Konkani) to show that she knows I’m not from here, a subtle assertion of ‘insider’ status, never mind that she’s originally from the neighbouring state of Karnataka as well.

As I step on to the promenade, I think about this whole insider-outsider controversy. I’m comfortable enough in Konkani now to hold a conversation, even though a native speaker will immediately pick up on my accent and floundering for certain words. I feel ‘local’ yet perhaps I am not.

On this evening of exploration, it doesn’t matter. I have a city to wander through, to see how it changes at night. I want to see whether I change after dark.

***

In Goa, one of India’s most popular tourist destinations, there are few people around at this time. And they are all men. There’s a fisherman still trying his luck in the dark waters gleaming with reflected light from the neon sign boards on the opposite bank. He has his net in the water and he sits patiently, gazing at the water. A group of young men sits on the parapet, cans of beer in their hands, their bodies taking over the pavement. As I near, they fall silent, their curious looks giving way to a path in between their circle. They are quiet until I pass by. Then they begin murmuring and laughing among themselves.

I feel safe yet I am uneasy. This is my city, my home, my neighborhood. Yet in all the years I have lived here, I have never walked the promenade by night. I have never wandered the streets by myself after dinner. There has been no need, no desire to walk among the men, exposing myself to the skin-crawling laughter and innuendos that may or may not have been directed towards me.

The recent spate of violence against women in India has hit most of us hard. Brutal rapes and multiple cases of assault show up almost daily in our newspapers. It is almost as something evil has been unleashed in the Indian male and any vulnerable woman is fair game. How do you enjoy a solitary walk when you feel the need to be vigilant at all times?

Growing up in Bombay, I was never timid. From the day we were old enough to understand, my mother taught us to be tough. She gave us the confidence and the courage to stand tall and not be afraid to be women in a space dominated by men. This advice and belief in the strength of women kept us going through teenage years now marked by the memory of the wandering hands of the bus conductor on the 361 double-decker bus to Kurla or amorous body parts pressed against you at Churchgate. I fought back. Hard. Often, I would come home and my mother would almost collapse with relief that I was safe, not knowing if my propensity for hitting back would get me into trouble that I couldn’t handle.

I took that fighting spirit with me to England, determined to protect myself in a land without my mother and sister and brother to back me up. For four years, though, I experienced a rare kind of freedom on the streets that I never had in India. On the outskirts of London, I ran with a bunch of women late in the evening, I walked to and from home, I took the tube and sauntered around town and didn’t worry about being touched without my consent.

In England, whether I was running on a deserted street lined with soggy autumn leaves or walking uphill alone after work, no one bothered me. In England, I was left alone. For a girl from teeming Mumbai, this was heaven.

In Mumbai, you’re rarely alone. Coming home from work at half-past-eight in the night can be as busy and challenging as rush hour. Come to think of it, half-past-eight was rush hour still. At that time, and further into the night, Mumbai’s streets and trains and buses are filled with women. In trains, women leave their offices in South Bombay and squash themselves into too-full compartments, piles of vegetables on their laps, cutting and peeling, sharing gossip, the dinner prep done during the hour-long (or more) journey north. There’s never a night in Mumbai where women are absent.

In Goa, I feel that emptiness acutely.

Since that first saunter in the dark, I have ventured out several times, trying a different route each night. And during all those nights, I come across only men. The absence of women is startling. There are no women around, not even tourists finding their way back to their hotels and homestays. I walk on, mindful of my solitariness, clutching my phone like a lifeline.

Goa is traditionally considered one of India’s safest states. I have always felt safe here. Most female tourists, especially Indian women who are continually subjected to the leering, grabby men in other Indian cities and villages also experience a huge sigh of relief here, of freedom. In Goa, you can wear what you like and in most cases, you will not be bothered. The locals are used to women dressed in shorts or swimwear. It seems absurd but it makes me grateful, just for this reason, that I live here.

***

I walk along the promenade, stopping to take photos of fireworks lighting up the sky on the opposite bank. Two scooters with four men slow down to see what I’m doing; the sight of a woman alone cause enough for curiosity. I glare at them and they speed up and head out of sight.

The promenade is illuminated for the most part. There are bits where the pavement has cracked and you have to watch out, in the semi-darkness, for the shifting stones. At one point, the street lights have given way completely and in the shadow of Lexicon, an anchored cruise boat now empty of tourists, a group of men linger, doing nothing at all. They’re dressed in the uniform of one of the offshore casinos. Some are car drivers in their all-white uniforms with Deltin Jaqk embroidered over their heart; others are in the gold and black outfit that the casino dealers wear. They’re just standing there, not talking, just looking.

And it makes me very uncomfortable.

A disclaimer: I don’t get along with the casino employees. They have taken over my city, usurping every free parking spot, every corner, sometimes even the pavements. The 24-hour service on board the offshore casinos means that there is no respite. I have lost count of how many times I have woken at five a.m to step into the verandah of our home, to yell at casino employees loitering under the arches, drinking whisky at the end of their shift, waking us all up with their noise. In their wake, they leave piles of foil packets of food, plastic bags, broken glass bottles and wide-awake and irritated people.

There’s not enough light right now to tell if some of these men are the ones I have regular yelling matches and calling-the-police drama with. I cross the road at that point, not wanting to linger in the darkness. The splendid Old Secretariat, once the palace of Adil Shah, stands empty yet full of promise. It is rumored to be the future home of the Goa State Museum, a plan several years in the making. The spacious rooms with their gleaming wooden floors similar to the ones in our home and the wrap-around verandah serenading the river are vacant most of the year, except for December, when the building comes to life, dazzling in its lit up glory for an annual arts festival. Outside, the statue of Abade Faria, our pioneer of hypnotism (and immortalized in Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo), looms large over a female patient. Two male tourists stretch out next to a cannon, backpacks under their heads, faces to the stars.

I walk down M.G. Road and Rua José Falcão, past hi-end clothes shops with familiar brand names and local, family-run stores long shut for the night. At the end of the road, the 16th-century Panjim church, white with zigzag steps, towers over the bright and busy church square. This church, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, dates back to the 1500s, when it was built on the highest point of the city. Today, sailors on the river can no longer spot her white towers, the antique bell hidden from view by taller buildings and a changing topography.

In the ten years that I have called Panjim home, the church steps have evolved from being a means to get up to the church. The white-washed laterite stones are now a popular meeting point, a resting place for tourists, a selfie-spot with magnificence in the background. They remind me a little of the Spanish Steps in Rome. On some evenings, there’s a similar vibe here. On this night of exploration, there are still plenty of tourists around. I see some women, never solo, always accompanied by men. This is something peculiar to the night in Panjim. By day, there are plenty of female travelers, Indian and foreign, who walk about the city fearlessly. They vanish as dusk falls.

The locals disappear, too. In a city as gorgeous as this, I would expect people to enjoy a post-dinner walk along the promenade, ignoring the stinky, fishy smell of low tide yet embracing this rare, walkable public space. We have pavements, another rare luxury even if they are uneven and end abruptly. Locals, people who live here and not just visit, spend their evenings at home, or in a favorite restaurant. They’re just not walking about at night.

Walking around the church square and down the Rua Emidio Garcia, I feel a surge of love for this adopted hometown of mine. I love these streets with their solid old homes, their delicate tiled roofs reaching into the night sky, the windows patchworked with luminescent shells. It’s not just affection born out of a fascination for fast-fading architecture, though. There’s something incredible about a building that has stood tall for a few hundred years. It’s a pity some are being torn down to make way for more ‘modern’ designs, but equally, others are being restored sympathetically, or duplicated, to retain the character of the neighborhood. To the average visitor, a good replica cannot be distinguished from a restoration.

At the foot of the slope, a lone poder (bread man) with his cycle and basket of bread tied behind is about to head home. I think about what a lovely painting this would make, then quickly chase that thought away. The reminder of the pile of blank canvases and a trunk-full of paints languishing in a corner since our return from England ten years ago is guilt-inducing. I’ll go back to painting someday. I feel bereft of the time and mind-space to do so right now.

The poder recognizes me and stops. He asks if I want any poie bread. I have no money with me or I’d have bought some of that fluffy soft bread for breakfast tomorrow. As I’m talking to the poder, someone else hails me in Konkani, asking what I’m doing out so late. It is the vegetable vendor heading home, packing up his little shop in the shadow of a supermarket. I tell him I’m out walking and he looks bemused, but smiles, his thick grey mustache glinting silver under the new LED streetlights.

I smile to myself, thinking of these unlikely acquaintances.

I make my way back home past the Head Post Office, once a Tobacco Depot in the 1800s, now a place where letters and missives disappear. In the orange glow of the high-mast lamp, I can taste the lingering sense of exhilaration, the sense of privilege that I get to live here, in this unique and historical city.

Yes, I miss the quiet and the green of England. I sometimes long for the buzz of electricity that lives in Mumbai’s air. Yet on this night, I don’t feel the loss of those places. Tonight, I feel I can exhale. I feel I have come home.




Chryselle D’Silva Dias is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.