It’s the second time I met the man with the Anton Selmer tenor sax in less than a year. The last time we met, he was soothing the crowds with his brass band at the annual feast-day of the San Sebastian chapel. It was raining colour in the tiny ward of Fontainhas in Panjim, gleaming off rainbow walls and festive dresses. The man with the tenor sax had made the colours his own, injected life into still life.
Here he was again, now respectful to the rain. He wound down, urging his colleagues to cut the weather some slack. He couldn’t be bothered when an overweight leader of the people walked in at the Sunday lunch, hosted by an on-the-make lawyer at tiny Merces village, near Panjim. The man with the tenor sax put it down and sat back resolutely to watch the sky raining pearls and making the land so green. He would not fete the political thug. The man with the tenor sax is a monsoon rebel. A good man.
He didn’t have a choice. It’s that time of the year in Goa when people shed skin like the land, become what they want to be. Maybe the colours, too, are responsible.
Have you seen the green? Really seen it? Greener than the green in the mind’s eye. It’s that kind of green. The colours, and the music coming down in sheets.
“Look at the rain,” said the jolly Goan man called Joseph to my left.
“Yes,” I said, lazily waving a glass of wine. “Lovely. It’s so green, so quiet. Even when the rain is loud, it’s so quiet.”
“Yes,” he agreed, joining me in stating the obvious, in that act making what is given freely our own. “Beautiful, no? What do you do?” he asked me.
“A lot before, not so much now. But it feels like a lot. A sense of freedom, you know…”
“Ah, a gypsy,” he gently cut into my babble. “Maybe I am too. Are you Bengali? I speak Bengali. I grew up in Kolkata. I compere programmes, but I love to teach karate.”
Lulled by the rain, a few minutes later I had agreed to be his student. Nobody laughed, not even my daughter. The monsoon makes her more forgiving.
My family and I drove off to visit friends at Moira village to the north, deliberately taking a longer but prettier route upriver, trading in the man with the tenor sax for Buena Vista Social Club. We drank beer, ate a Burmese lunch (somehow, it tastes better than a Myanmarese lunch), gently made fun of the world for not being there. We admired the cutting of purple frangipani, the lovely temple champa that had taken root over the urgent attention of the German Shepherd and Irish Setter pups. Our children played with cats.
We were at peace. It was a good thing to do: Who could tell what tomorrow would bring?
It brought more rain. It obliterated the view of the Mandovi river from my balcony. The gulmohar tree shed the last of its orange crown jewels. My neighbour the kingfisher, a pack of warblers, and a tomcat took shelter in the porch, too much in awe of the wet to do what they often do, chase one another through the plantain and basil, chillies and lemon grass. They didn’t mind my joining them.
They left a little later when the rain broke. It was twilight. It was so quiet you could almost hear a lotus bloom. Almost.
Goa, Aparanta of Old, the land at the horizon during the times of the ancients, gets this way in the rains. There are fewer that visit. The children of the Dead Sea have gone away home for some months, along with their confusion and anger. Other exchange-rate royalty, ever present in season-summer from October to February, too, are absent: planeloads of charter tourists from Middle Europe and the gut of Britain, and new Tsars. Voluble India is largely away, and with them the tides of Chatter-ji and Chatter-jain, and those that arrive with the world for a high net worth taste of Goa’s trance madness, from New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.
When the tide of pay-per-use humanity begins to recede in April, resident Goans and Goans at heart take to life like happy crabs, potter about empty beaches, and prepare for the rains. There’s a minor orgy of seafood, as the rains will banish that for the months the sea needs to replenish itself, if bottom-trawlers will let it. Produce, both fruits de la mer and of the land, are procured, cured, pickled and stored. Rice is cleaned, spices made ready to warm the body. Dried neem leaves and newspapers are employed to soak up future wet from clothes, books and spaces.
When the rains come, living-giving—and life-taking for the careless and the unfortunate—it changes people, fuels eccentricities, makes poets of ordinary people, engenders conviviality, makes large and small thugs—politicians, taxi-drivers—into gentlemen and gentlewomen. The fisherwoman at the municipal market doesn’t yell at me; she burbles and croons. Young cashew feni, the potent second-distillate of cashew fruit that will cheer both life and death through the rains, arrives (it is narrowly presaged by its delicate first distillate, urrack, that my friends and I call “Goan Beaujolais” in audacious moments). This creaky paradise brought by hippies and happenstance to helter-skelter bloom, a transplanted banana republic without a dictator, plays out its tricks to any Marquez-in-the-mind. Three months of cleansing rain. One hundred days of solitude.
“It is or is it better to be blessed than to be clever?” my animator friend Sonny, who has moved from southern California to Goa, texted me. I was watching the rain at a no-name restaurant by the paddies, soothed by a flambéed cashew feni and jovial chatter about soccer, a Goan passion play. It seemed Sonny was watching the rain, too—it was that sort of SMS.
“Por qué?” I texted back, a polite way of asking ‘what in the sixth letter of the alphabet do you mean?’
“No sé,” he replied, “una pregunta para hoy. Nada mas.” Loosely translated, it means ‘Take it easy. Just a question for today, that’s all.’
Then he decided I merited a better explanation. After all, we had agreed to meet for dinner.
“Sorry, don’t feel like leaving home,” he messaged. “Just opened this excellent, melancholic bottle of red.”
It has to be the rain.
How to go
Train: Though an extremely scenic coastal route, train travel to Goa is not recommended in the monsoon on account of disruptions caused by rain.
Flight: (recommended): SpiceJet daily flies Delhi-Goa and Mumbai-Goa, Indigo daily flies Delhi-Goa; round fares are around Rs8,500 net. Jet Airways, Kingfisher and Indian fly Delhi-Goa daily via Mumbai. Go Air flies Delhi-Goa via Mumbai on all days, except Tuesday and Thursday.
Drive: Mumbai-Goa is a colossally scenic dawn-to-dusk drive (about 600km). Rains lead to some sections of broken, slippery road, so drive safely.
Where to stay
In/near Panjim:The Marriott resort (www.marriott.com) has great views and good deals. Panjim Inn (www.panjiminn.com), a heritage hotel, is a good base for old Panjim. Off-season prices hover around Rs1,500 for a deluxe double room. Casa Brittona is a plush, quiet riverside option (www.casaboutique hotelsgoa.com).
North Goa:The Fort Aguada and the Taj Holiday Village (www.tajhotels.com) are monsoon favourites. Lemon Tree in Candolim (www.lemontreehotels.com) and Cavala in Baga (www.cavala.com) are lower bracket, but good value.
South Goa:This is resort country. Taj Exotica, Park Hyatt (http://goa.park.hyatt.com), Holiday Inn (www.holidayinngoa.com), The Leela (www.theleela.com), Kenilworth (www.kenilworthhotels.com), all offer monsoon deals.
Where to eat
Most good restaurants outside hotels shut in the rains. For Goan food in the south, try Martin’s Corner (Betalbatim 2880061) and Fernando’s Nostalgia (Raia 2777054/98); in central Goa, Mum’s Kitchen (Miramar 98221 75559), Viva Panjim in Fontainhas (2422405) and Ritz Classic (Panjim 5644796); in north Goa, pass up Goan for Italian at J&A’s Little Italy (Baga Creek 98231 39488).
What to do
Laze, bond, breathe. Old Goa, 9km east of Panjim, is a lovely drive and cathedral sightseeing trip. Fontainhas is a charming walkabout; shop at Velha Goa (2426628) next to Panjim Inn, and Barefoot, towards the Mandovi River. Explore the empty beaches (do not swim). Try village drive-throughs, and drives along riverside roads (upriver on the Mandovi or Zuari). Soak in the green, the rain and the quiet.
Sudeep Chakravarti is a Goa-based author and journalist. He also has a blog, Chakraview, at http://schakravarti.blogspot.com