Friday, February 22, 2008

Panaji, Capital of Goa

You can call it Panjim, if you want, but it annoys the Goans. It was Panjim for four hundred and fifty years, under the rule of the Portuguese. The Indian version, Panaji (The Land That Does Not Flood), was symbolically resurrected after the intruders were shown the door in 1961. The language, architecture, cuisine and art of Goa still reflect its sometime rulers, but then, fifty years is but the wink of a painted eye, as far as cultural heritage is concerned. We’re staying in the Panjim Inn, which seems a bit contrary, but the wonky letters on the wall look as if they were there long before Portugal got the boot. By way of recompense, the retreating Portuguese left all their furniture, or so it seems from a brief glance at our room, which is decorated in the monolithic style, and smells lung-crushingly of mothballs.
Panaji's not much bigger than Knutsford, if it puffs it chest out. We can walk most of its length without recourse to CPR, or even a glass of beer. Most of its 60,000 population is on the pavements, watching us watch them. They do a bit of ore-mining, and tinker with building the odd rusty boat, but Goa largely depends for its living on magnolia-tinted tourists. You’d think, factoring out rarity value, that we’d be less entertaining to the locals. However, we get helloed and patted and pointed at, even by people not wanting to sell us a marble elephant, or a pair of fake Ray-bans. Possibly we got unusually gorgeous overnight, but, sadly, I don’t think so.
We couldn’t be more struck by the differences from Mumbai, if we had gone to Knutsford instead. For example, there are hardly any dogs worth throwing a stick for, and no people living under the flyover, or in the central reservation. In the whole of Panaji, I count less than twenty-five tuk-tuks (is OCD catching, do you think?), which means the roads are roads, not vibrating car-parks. Our weekend taxi-man, Amit, is what dear Monu would call “danger driver,” quite happy to over-take a car already over-taking a bus, on a blind bend. We long to shuffle along in the fumes and congestion of our new home-town, where fifth gear is a thing dreams are made of, but Amit only takes his foot off the accelerator to show us a delapidated shrine to Mother Mary, or the Church of St Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the Indies. (I can’t not tell you this: they take the saint’s four-centuries-old body for a walk round town, once every ten years. Well, what’s left of it: his right arm’s gone to Rome, the other hand to Japan, part of his intestines are in South-East Asia, and a Portuguese woman bit off his little toe off in 1534. So much for Requiescat-ing in Pace...)
It’s hotter, too, and yet, it contrives to rain. I say rain, not what we’d call rain, back home. A score of spots spatter the paving-slabs with a hiss, practically evaporating before we have time to notice them. If you stand still for thirty seconds, you can watch the whole water-cycle in action, over and over.
We retire to our camphorated suite to recuperate, while the sun goes down. Roland swots up on Goa in the Rough Guide, while I lie on the bed, under the whirring fan, wishing I’d not eaten half a bag of Bombay Mix, and trying to feel zen. Beneath our window, the taxi-drivers gather, chatting, eating oranges, talking about the cricket, waiting for some guest to put a single pink toe across the hotel threshold. One of their mobiles goes off – “London Bridge is Falling Down” (where’s the Portuguese influence there, then?). A monkey wanders into view on the ridge of the tiled roof opposite. A whole other India.