Benaulim: a triptych set in Goa

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Benaulim: a triptych set in Goa

An essay linking migration, development, and environmental destruction in Goa, through the lens of a coastal village.

1.

‘You’re late,’ I say, getting into the back seat. ‘Did you forget, or what?’

Roque grins sheepishly in the driver’s seat. ‘Slept late. Feast yesterday, no?’

I call Roque when I need to travel the short distance from Benaulim beach to my parent’s flat in Margao and he’s happy to earn a quick twenty-minute fare. As we’re driving along, I remember to ask him how his daughter is doing.

A few months ago, after dropping me home, he reached into his glove compartment, pulled out an envelope and handed it to me with that same sheepish grin.

‘Come, anh,’ he said, before pulling the car away.

It was an invitation to his daughter’s wedding. I had missed it because it clashed with another event, and I was seeing Roque for the first time since the wedding, so I enquire.

He looks pleased. ‘Reception was good. Everybody was happy.’

‘Where are they now?’ I ask, thinking that the newlyweds have probably moved to a place of their own.

‘Honeymoon,’ he says.

‘Is it? Where did they go?’ I ask, imagining them at a budget beach resort in North Goa, or even visiting one of India’s many urbanscapes. My imagination stretches further, to Shimla.

‘America,’ says Roque. I have to ask him to repeat. ‘Yu-ess,’ he says.

Wow, I exclaim to myself, dazed with the information. I recover quickly. Maybe they’ve been saving up. Perhaps I’ve underestimated his family’s financial situation. After all, I know that his wife and daughter own a hair salon in Colva and that his son is ‘on board the ship’ though I’m not sure in what capacity. He could be kitchen staff, an engineer or anywhere in between. Still, honeymooning in America is not a cheap venture.

‘Where are they visiting?’

‘Texas,’ he tells me. This is even more curious. Texas is many things but it is definitely not a honeymoon destination for first-timers to the Yu-ess.

‘They took a honeymoon visa and stayed back,’ he reveals trustingly.

A flame flickers to life in the embers of my understanding. So, they’ve illegally migrated. But then, why wouldn’t they take the chance, I reason. After all, they have nothing to lose.

Years ago, Benaulim was a thriving fishing village surrounded by paddy fields and a vibrant agricultural community. Just like his father and his grandfather before him, Roque was a fisherman. As trawlers moved in, fishing catches dwindled and tourism moved into the area, fishing stopped being as lucrative and Roque looked to move away from the uncertainty of the livelihood he was born into and towards something that would give him and his family more security. He learned how to drive a taxi and now owns two cars. While this has given him more independence, recently he told me that he’s fed up of the taxi mafia that are rooted in Benaulim, with their hands in every imaginable pie that might yield fruit. They make deals with resorts and claim territory. As a cab driver, if you want to have customers from an area, you have to fight the established interests who are not only making deals from the tourist spots in the area, but are also threatening each other if someone or the other doesn’t pay up.

Roque is building an extension on his house, because his son will be married soon, he says. He’s also invested in a part-rent, part-buy scheme for a flat in the residential complex where I live and work, not far from Benaulim beach. It’s in his daughter’s name. That’s probably how she got the visa, by showing evidence of property assets here in Goa.

‘Do you have someone there helping them?’ I ask. I find myself worried for them.

‘Yes, some contacts there helped them get a job. They’re doing something,’ he says abstractly. I shake my head, imagining that the video whatsapp calls home are full of repressed homesickness and unspoken trials that his daughter shares vaguely with her parents, if at all.

I finally ask him the question, because I can’t resist myself.

‘What if they deport them, Roque? They won’t be able to return to the States.’

‘So what? They’ll stay two-three years maybe and earn money, no? Here what can you earn? Whatever you make, everybody else wants to take. For my taxis, I have to pay big-big guys. If I don’t give them money, they want something else. Everybody wants something. ‘

I sense Roque’s discomfort discussing this topic, or perhaps its mine, and I try to change the subject.

‘How’s your son?’ I ask. ‘Still on board the ship? When is he coming home?’

‘He’s also gone, no?’ Roque says in a tone that tells me that I’ve missed the point.

‘Gone? Where?’

‘He’s joined my daughter.’

He tells me that his son paid six lakh rupees for the right documents to allow him to jump ship in Florida and enter the country legally, though he will be outstaying whatever visa he has and, like his sister, will be deported if caught.

‘But his reputation is ruined. He’ll never be able to work on board a ship again.’

‘Yeah, he can never work there again,’ Roque tells me, gazing at a fixed spot in the distance, on the wide road spread out in front of him. ‘But, maybe he can make his future now.’

2.

Before moving to Goa, I lived in England for sixteen years, where I worked as an environmental policy lobbyist in a fast-paced environment that was often reacting to the vagaries of international politics. To me, the move was a way of slowing down, being nearer to my ageing parents and learning to be open to a new way of living in the moment, as a creative writer.

When I first moved to Benaulim, I would wake up to the sound of pin-drop silence occasionally punctuated by birdsong from sunbirds foraging for their breakfast. My seven a.m. morning ritual involved throwing open my balcony doors and sipping from a mug of hot coffee as I watched the wetlands in the abandoned property across from my balcony turn into a smorgasbord for feasting water fowl and heron. The two red-billed kingfishers that sat on nearby powerlines held court, diving down only when they spotted the fattest frogs darting about.

It took me a while to learn how to gauge the changing season from the birds that arrived and departed. In October, I knew I’d have to wait till the thunderstorms had passed before a familiar pair of red-whiskered bulbuls appeared on my windowsill. Soon after them, gossiping jungle warblers would appear, bouncing along the low bushes in a co-dependent mob, leaving a long string of chortling in their wake. By November the Southern Coucal couple, the purple swamp hen and the bee-eaters would start making place for the Indian rollers, the grey heron and lesser whistling ducks to settle in for the winter. I could hear the brain-piercing screech of the anxious water fowl protecting their nest from marauding snakes and prying Kites that flew too close for their comfort.

The only ones who never seemed to bother with who was coming or going were the cattle egrets and the kingfishers. They glided around in a state of utter self-contentment.

Then, just under a year ago, I heard a mechanical excavator rumble into the catchment area with intent. I watched from my balcony and felt my heart breaking as the JCB uprooted trees, bushes and weeds I’d come to love because of what they nourished and kept safe. The JCBs multiplied during the week and even the papaya tree I begged the site manager to save eventually withered away from loneliness, without its family around it. The tree in the distance that dogs used to retreat to for respite from the May heat. The low-hanging bushes which camouflaged snake holes and where the waterfowl nested. These were all pulled asunder, broken apart, torn from the ground. A familiar feeling of being uprooted myself, struck me hard. The feeling was unexpected.

After the JCBs, came loud rumbling trucks, barrelling down sideroads and dumping loads of dirt. The JCBs continued to hack away at the earth. I stared at the series of dirt-red wounds rending the earth, that replaced my bird-laden wetlands. Ten months on and three blocks of cement, wood and metal have been erected. My days are filled with the endless sounds of hammering and drilling. Fifty men move ceaselessly throughout the construction site, which is guarded at night by two blue-uniformed security guards.

A couple of months ago, they built a few makeshift shacks for some of the staff who are roughing it, along the wall just under my balcony. At seven in the morning, I watch them from behind my shut balcony doors, as they brush their teeth and beat the dust out of their clothes using water stored in metal cylinders in one corner of the site. I watch them work in the hot sun. Their ears aren’t protected from the sounds of electric drills, persistent hammering, excavators working in the background. Some wear canary yellow hardhats as they move around the construction site in open-toed slippers and shorts, deftly navigating their way around metal wires jutting out here and there.

These men risk their health and bodies in this way because they rationalise that at least, they have a job. The memory of hunger is so close they can taste it as they go about the construction site, working long hours and doing whatever is demanded of them by the site manager. They feel indebted; grateful for any work. Some of them really are indebted to money lenders back home and need to keep earning money to pay back what they owe, with massive interest. They come in truckloads, uprooted themselves, from their familiar home that has no employment for able bodies and restless hands, and spend their lives doing backbreaking labour in other states among alien people and cultures.

After work, at sunset, a group of them bathe in their underwear in the open, in the middle of the site. I see some of the men on their phones in the evening and imagine them speaking to their mothers, their lovers and their children. Their phones are a lifeline to everything that feels familiar to them.

Late at night, I hear Bollywood music from the shacks. Someone is playing loud music on their phone and a group of about six men start a group dance. They occupy themselves with preserving the memory of something familiar. I wonder about their stories and their lives back home, but feel unable to converse with individuals whose language I don’t speak and who don’t speak my language, even though we have uprootedness in common.

On another day, I spot a woman amongst them. She wears a long-sleeved shirt, a long skirt and a scarf over their hair. She has a child near her. I see her helping around the site, carrying something in a basin on her head and later, joining the men in watering the cement to harden it properly. I only see her once, then never again, just like the purple heron that once descended onto the now wiped-out water real estate for a day, then disappeared from my sight forever. And, just like I did with the purple heron, my eyes scan the site every morning, wondering if today will be the day I spot her again.

3.

In London, where I lived before moving to Goa, seasons were guided by leaf growth and leaf fall, by temperature and the frequency of rain. Here, the sky, the birds and the beach signal the waxing and waning of seasons. I know the rains are coming when dense, grey-black clouds gather themselves into one mass filled with the heft of their collective melancholy, weighed down with the promise of water. I know monsoon season has ended when the fishermen take their boats out again after the seasonal fishing ban is lifted after stocks have been left to replenish themselves. For a people who consider fish curry rice their staple diet, this is a universal relief in every Goan household met quickly with joy at the anticipation of the next fish curry meal. I know it’s October when freak thunderstorms rattle the windows for a few days, then vanish just as suddenly as they appeared. I know it’s November when I feel the first slight chill sewn into the morning dew. I know it’s after Christmas when I spot Indian rollers sitting on power lines and wires, looking for insects.

But, in Benaulim, people don’t describe the seasons this way anymore. When the German bakery at the junction next to Kadar supermarket is open for business, that signals the official opening of the ‘season.’ When I see the handful of small supermarkets that cater for the tourists starting to re-stock steady supplies, I know that Diwali is approaching. Then gradually, I spot carpenters hammering intensively along the coast, oblivious to the beach dune ecology they are eroding, putting up beach shacks overnight that serve breakfast the next morning and cold beer in the evenings. I groan inwardly and hope that temperamental tides wash them away overnight, but quicker than a resilient ant’s nest, they re-form the next day, in the same spot, surrounded by sandbags. Some of the shacks put up makeshift dance floors on the sand, complete with disco ball and neon lights. I remember when I was a kid on holiday in Goa sitting on this same beach in the early evening with my family, cousins, aunts and uncles around me. Someone would start humming a song and we’d all join in. The occasional passer-by would smile at us, probably wondering if they’d just come across the Goan version of the family von Trapp. We’d sing until sunset and wait for phosphorescent waves to make their appearance. Those days are decades long gone.

Now, it’s the scent of money that starts to move around Benaulim that signals the changing seasons. This sweet smell is accompanied by the invasion of construction crews and destruction of local ecology and its interconnected micro-ecosystems. The trash problem is only compounded as shacks and buildings rise without the infrastructure required to maintain them. Benaulim’s ruralscape is being forced to evolve into something new beyond its carrying capacity to sustain it. I cannot blame Roque for wanting his children to build a future elsewhere. He’s lived through the slow destruction of his fishing livelihood and is one of the few who adapted to a tourism-related industry, but even that’s not sustainable, and he knows it.

On one of my morning beach walks, the sandcrabs are canvassing for best hole-digger. The drumroll and pour of crashing waves is beating a rhythm in my ears. Brave early morning bathers cheer as waves of cold seawater crash over them. I have other memories of this beach; of tarballs so large and round, they look like smooth bits of jaggery left on the beach. They take days to wash off completely, if you accidentally step on one. Of half-torn packets of Ariel and Durex stuck in the sand, trying to escape. Of Kingfisher and Budweiser bottles wedged in deep, at awkward angles. I walk straight into the stench of fish and turn my head towards its source. Three metres away, the fishermen, back with a fresh catch of mackerel and kingfish, are rolling up their nets. Each one is wearing a different footballer’s jersey. Starving dogs and nimble crows target the scraps scattered around the boat.

I meet a friend at one of the more established beach shacks here on the beach: Rafaels. She’s a writer too and we have much in common to talk about. She asks me what I’m working on and I tell her about this Benaulim narrative, capturing the movement happening around me at the moment, and trying to make sense of it.

‘My uncle had a place just down the beach, you know. It was recently sold off to someone,’ she says.

‘Do you know who owns it now?’

‘Not sure, but there’s no trace left of the house I remember when I used to visit here on holidays.’ She’s silent for a moment, then says, ‘Except for the blue gate, which I remember. When I walked across to the place where the house was, to see what had happened to it, I found a piece of the blue front gate, lying in the sand. The rest is all gone.’

She shows me a photograph of the gate that she’s taken with her mobile camera.

‘I must seem maudlin,’ she says. ‘After all, change is inevitable.’

I walk home after our chat and look up the prose poem online that she’s told me she’d written after her last visit to Benaulim, four years ago. I read it once, then again and lean back in my chair, knowing that there’s little else left to say about the place where I choose to live.

BENAULIM (by Suneeta Peres da Costa)

Dusk, but we can still see down past Sernabatim to Colva; and the sight of these small birds – sand plovers – content with what they find in the shallows, almost makes it possible to hope nothing will change, although change seems the only constant, the horizon diminishing as rapidly as our expectations, the shadow of Lord Parushurama’s arrow quivering in the breeze of our willed amnesia. Are we shameless for questioning his marksmanship? For saying Shiva was remiss in gifting the mythical axe to him? An axe for history? For breaking hearts and drawing battle lines? Dreams that bring suffering must be something other than godly though this region is called god’s own. And who are we to quarrel with the past, we who sold out long ago, fleeing not to the mountains with our idols but with a mid-century craving for exile? I remember how Uncle Fernando would swim far out into the sea, this sea which will one day engulf Benaulim though not before it is swallowed by developers. At the ruins of the Maratha Fortress in Aldona, my camera snaps another sort of disappearance, the land blasted for bauxite, iron ore and who-knows-what more ... We’re all strangers, I think, I myself reduced to a child’s quest for permanence and transcendence: collecting shells. I lag behind, caught in carious likenesses: exo-skeletons and husks, the living and their remains. You don’t look back but in your eyes I see the imprint of earlier footsteps: small legs clambering up to fence posts (still blue though the paint is peeling); the coconut grove bespeaking Fernando’s favourite ambortik (we hear the rats have got into the coconuts); the bungalow closed now the German tenant is away. The caretaker whispers one dog has died of snakebite; the well too fallen into disuse since a snake was found dead in it. Contamination and superstition, same-old same-old. Still, it’s inviting and I trespass into the garden, steal a pink hibiscus and, enchanted by the butterflies, feel a quiet reverence that the living and the dead may meet in this one life.

(The final prose poem was first printed in The Joao Roque Literary Journal, Issue No. 7, Feb 2018)

***

Jessica Faleiro’s fiction, poetry, essays and travel pieces have been published in Asia Literary Review, Forbes, Indian Quarterly, IndiaCurrents, Coldnoon, Joao Roque Literary Journal, Mascara Literary Review, Muse India and the Times of India as well as in various anthologies. She’s published two novels, ‘Afterlife: Ghost stories from Goa’ (2012) and ‘The Delicate Balance of Little Lives’ (2018). She won the Joao Roque Literary Award ‘Best in Fiction 2017 for her short story ‘Unmatched.’ She has an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University, UK and is currently the Commissioning Editor for the Joao Roque Literary Journal.

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