I combat the heat that buffets me as soon as the train enters the Konkan coast and floats past me as a phantom would; the vast range of coconut palms springing up like mushrooms on both sides of the track announces my arrival in Madgaon.
The walk to the backpackers’ hostel a kilometre from the flyover bridge that connects the railway station to the town tires me without reason. I drop my bags at the dorm and change out of my second t-shirt of the day; inexperienced as I am and have chosen to wear white, I have rendered it unusable in all likelihood.
The walk to Fatorda – I am here to watch FC Goa play Bengaluru in the Indian Super League – passes through mansions sprawling with vines pasted with stickers proclaiming ‘the best home-made fish pickle in Goa’ but I am not beguiled.
A skeletal dog, gaunt and emaciated due to the scarcity of love and sustenance, crosses the road with the grace unbecoming a creature that is aware it is on its last legs. I long to give it something – a better life? – but am afraid to tamper with such dignity.
Sunil Chhetri remains an unused substitute over the 90 minutes of play. It is hard to remain neutral at Fatorda, surrounded as I am by thousands of home supporters, making me, a season pass holder of Hyderabad FC, move with profound reverence. A passing tinge of homesickness assails me – just a flicker – and I give it as much attention as I do to a fly hovering overhead.
An undergraduate student of biotechnology sits next to me with his grandfather and gives me a running commentary of events that go beyond my ken. Brandon Fernandes – Benaulim boy and captain of the club – is greeted with deafening cheers whenever he touches the ball. My newfound friend’s grandfather is vociferous whenever FC Goa make a mistake; he has not kicked a football ever but remains one of its finest armchair critics.
A shrunken, yet peculiarly overweight bus filled to its brim drops me in front of the beach in Colva the next morning, but I recoil in horror seeing the enormous crowd that has gathered; I look at my watch and am reminded that it is Sunday.
The operator of a kayak stops me midway just as I start striding towards the western end of the beach. He wants me to understand his contraption’s significance right then and there.
Sickened by the horde of people and the lingering aftertaste of dismay that they invariably leave behind, I do not hesitate to retch up inside my mouth. A sip of tender coconut water impedes me; a spot of breakfast appears tempting but I exhort myself to go back.
An odd photograph here and there takes me back to a family vacation in Goa 11 years ago when I was three; I don’t remember much and have to remain sated by the stories that my father’s trusted old Kodak narrates. Although I have comparisons to make only with the photographs – and not memory itself – the shacks look unrecognisable as do the hotels that now cramp Colva’s vicinity.
It was here, in one such hotel bathroom, that I had slipped while in the shower and cracked my skull in half. Seven stitches are not all that remains at the crown of my head now; I have faint stirrings from time to time of resting my head on my mother’s lap and seeing it replete with an endless stream of blood. I also recall an ambulance running amok, and the whining sound it makes in my head is responsible for my insomnia some days of the year.
When I walk past the same hotel on my way back from Colva, I feel frightened out of my wits when, in a moment of sharp lucidity, I recognise that I recognise nothing. The world seems closing in, the heat feels incredibly harrowing, and I find it unpalatable to ask myself why I made the trip at all. The bus that I had come in is waiting to make the return journey to Madgaon; I am reminded that I spent all of ten minutes on the beach in Colva.
The driver looks appalled at my countenance as if he can read the state of mind I am in. He says nothing, and I can tell that he feels he has been responsible for it himself. I smile half-heartedly to let him know that he is partly – why could he not have picked me up at Kadamba in the first place and spared me this pain? Not a word passes between us apart from a greeting of despair.
I board the train to Canacona. Palolem is where I intend to go to. Having run out of clean t-shirts, I recycle the old on the two kilometres or so that I walk from the station to reach my beach-front, yet modestly cheap hostel. The sunset passes without incident, but the night is lit up in anticipation as Brazil play Switzerland and Manchester United midfielder Casemiro scores the winner. Vinicius Junior gets ruled out for offside earlier in the evening, and roars of disappointment go up across the small beachside village.
I walk home from the shack where I watch the game to find a fisherman’s hut painted in the colours of Brazil. His neighbour, not wanting to miss out on bragging rights over a cup of tea the next day, week, or year, has painted his in Portuguese colours. I am bemused but not overly so; India’s football heritage resides in Goa, Kerala, Bengal and the northeast.
Hyderabad, although with tremendous history to boast of in the sport, has not quite come out of the past that the city so stolidly grips itself against. Another faint stirring of homesickness comes to me and I feel like lying down on the beach encompassed solely by Orion and his friends overhead.
The beach appears bathed in a light of exclusivity early the next morning. I rub whatever little sleep is still in my eyes and stride onto it without paying attention to what lies around me. Plans are soon made with my newfound friends from the hostel to go cliff-jumping in a deserted corner on the eastern side of the beach.
I find myself woken out of the reverie I find myself in from time to time when the first splash of the salty spray hits me; in a matter of minutes, my nose and mouth have had enough sodium chloride for a lifetime and beg to be let off. Recognising that I would feel more pleasurable giving up, I persist all the more.
“What’s your name?”
I am visibly astonished for a moment to react. No, it cannot be right, I tell myself. I ask him again. The young boatman who is supposed to take us through the mangrove forest that lies on the tenterhooks of the backwaters to the west of Palolem repeats his name with a kindness borne out of practice and not supposition. For a moment, I hear it to be Vasudev, the venerable boatman of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and am too astounded to respond. The words form slowly in my mind, and I cannot believe what is transpiring. Societal conditioning of the years forces me to shake it off as a mere coincidence, but I cannot quite let it go at that.
There is a voice deep inside me that seeks answers – one that can be found nowhere but within – and I shriek in exaltation. I obey the law that has been passed on to me by my fellows; I make no selection or prejudice in my behaviour towards Nature or those fortunate enough to stumble upon us as concurrence. Vasudeep, all of 18, talks of fishing for crabs and finishing his pre-university course in Madgaon while he steers us through the murky waters that lurk underneath.
While he talks of what seems to be obvious and even blatant to the mere bystander, I see a look of wisdom in his eyes as we deboard. While his face remains set in a mocking smile, I take it to be a gallant endorsement of the world he lives in and thrives upon. He accepts the money we offer him almost as a token of amenability, as if he was one with the water, that he ebbs and flows with its tides, that offerings of money and material appear to be almost insulting to his stature. His father, who walks over towards us soon, is devoid of such abstruse nature and palms the notes before we can thank Vasudeep. In his own way, I feel that the latter has spoken to me as much as Vasudev had to Siddhartha.
I wake up the next day in a sweat knowing innately that my time in Goa has come to an end. I have been away for a fortnight now. “Go home,” I tell myself. “But you are home,” I get reminded by the Witch of the East. Matthiesen and Seth come to me in snatches. I cannot put a finger on it, but a voice that does not use words tells me that my pilgrimage is now complete.
I have arrived.