Caju and conversation

Caju and conversation
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First Published: Sat, Jun 13 2009. 12 54 AM IST

Hypnotic: A statue of Abbe Faria in Panjim. Zac O’ Yeah
Hypnotic: A statue of Abbe Faria in Panjim. Zac O’ Yeah
Updated: Sat, Jun 13 2009. 12 54 AM IST
Somehow, Goa had been filed away at the back of my mind as the quintessential tourist spot with its hippies, who still hope that The Beatles are going to reunite for one last gig in Anjuna, with George Harrison and John Lennon playing the Ouija board. And its beaches, where shacks innovate in permutations of German, British, Swedish, Italian, Israeli and French cuisines, and also, of course, due to the fact that it was recently used as a backdrop by Hollywood as the perfect hideaway for Matt Damon in the thriller Bourne Supremacy.
Simply, a place for going underground, letting loose and getting tight.
Zac O’ Yeah speaks to Sudeep Chakravarti on Goa’s ascension as a creative paradise
But I had to rethink my preconceived notions when I heard of a mysterious migratory trend. Somebody mentioned that my favourite author, Amitav Ghosh, had moved there and that many of the other writers I find interesting, from Sudhir Kakar to Sunil Khilnani, have homes in Goa. When an old Mumbai acquaintance, children’s writer Rahul Srivastava, bought a lovely flat overlooking the Mandovi river at a fraction of the Mumbai rates, I realized that I had to go and find out what was going on.
Once you tear your eyes away from the semi-clad tourists littering the beaches, you’ll, of course, discover that Goa has always been a literary hub.
Booked for good: (clockwise from top left) Sudeep Chakravarti says he wants to start a writers’ cooperative in Goa to support literary work in South Asia; Cecil Pinto, a Goan, is a humour columnist and florist; Diviya Kapur, a former lawyer, converted a 100-year-old bungalow in Calangute into Literati, a book café. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Pick up the delightful anthology Ferry Crossings (1996) and you’ll read some of the best Goan fiction, compiled by the renowned Goa-based poet Manohar Shetty. It includes Damodar Mauzo, whose Konkani novel Karmelin won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1983, and the veteran journalist Victor Rangel-Ribeiro, author of Tivolem—one of those novels which, like R.K. Narayan’s, are deceptively simple but seem to encompass an entire universe. Besides, Goa has its great non-fiction writers too, most notably Maria Couto, who wrote the monumental Goa: A Daughter’s Story.
The multicultural traditions run far back, as proven by the fact that Goan literature is written in Konkani, Marathi, Portuguese as well as English, and that Goans are prominent in the Indian diaspora from Africa to New York. Yet, few visitors are aware that one such “expat”, Abbe Faria, born in Candolim in 1755, developed a method for “hipnotismo scientifico” way back before hypnotism was officially invented, and became so famous in Paris that Alexandre Dumas even based a character on him in his swashbuckling, pseudo-historical, mass-market best-seller, The Count of Monte Cristo (1845).
If Goan soil is so fertile, it might make sense for new writers to put down roots and perhaps cross-fertilize, I thought, as the propeller plane made hesitant loops over the tiny Dabolim airfield. I carried, in my head, images of 1800s Berlin or fin-de-siècle Paris, times when artists from around the world were pulled to the cabarets; or the Carmel-Big Sur stretch of Californian coast that attracted Robert Heinlein, Henry Miller and even, for a short while, the perpetual hitch-hiker Jack Kerouac, who wrote the documentary novel Big Sur (1962).
And then there was this fascinating research that I’d come across: Recent studies suggest that in a global economy, creative milieus—measured by the number of artists per capita, ethnic variety in the population, general educational level and the number of forums for self-expression—have high competitive potential. And hence, attract even more talent.
Hypnotic: A statue of Abbe Faria in Panjim. Zac O’ Yeah
Interestingly, two years in a row, Swedish and Indian writers have come together for easy-going workshops in Calangute—among prominent participants have been novelists Manjula Padmanabhan and Anjum Hasan, children’s writer Paro Anand, and Malayalam poet K. Satchidanandan, a former secretary of the Sahitya Akademi.
Among them were also Swedish poet laureate Arne Johnsson, who visited Goa for the first time in February, leaving an icy Scandinavian climate behind. He felt deeply stimulated by Goa’s mix of cultures and the many creative people he came across. Being in India was “like being in the eye of a storm”, he told me, and shared his thought that Goa would be a perfect place to sit and write a book.
Workshop organizer Tomas Löfström, who promotes Indian literature in translation through the Indian Library in Stockholm, is a frequent visitor to Goa. Calangute, according to him, is “India Light” and conditions are optimal for a literary workshop—you have all the necessary facilities without the hassles of a big city.
He says, “Cultural or literary tourism may be worth developing, considering that many Indian writers seem to spend part of their year in Goa, and visiting Westerners might look for something beyond the beach life.” He points out that the infrastructural elements are already in place: Kala Academy’s multistage cultural venue, artist Subodh Kerkar’s gallery-cum-restaurant, Gerard da Cunha’s museum of Goan architecture, the new Angelo da Fonseca Museum and last but not least, the friendly book café, Literati.
Let’s begin our literary expedition at Literati, run by Diviya Kapur, who decided one day to chuck her job as a lawyer in Delhi and fulfil a dream. A friend found her a 100-year-old bungalow in Calangute, and this charming book café was born in 2005. There are cosy sofas and books ranging from the latest releases to second-hand copies, as well as a shelf devoted to Goan writing for those who want to dip beneath the surface—actually, many of the local publishers are small presses, so the books are rarely found outside the state.
But that’s just half the story. Every time I drop in, there is something happening: One day the Commonwealth Prize-shortlisted Shashi Deshpande is participating in a discussion on translation; two days later, a writer of a book on motorcycling is speaking in the serene garden. While I browse, the Booker winner, Kiran Desai, suddenly walks in. It turns out she is renting a house nearby to write for a few winter weeks.
Autograph-hunters find themselves in heaven because Literati has, over the last couple of years, hosted events with Ghosh, William Dalrymple, Dayanita Singh, Ranjit Hoskote, Hasan, Amruta Patil, Zai Whitaker and others.
Serious book-shopping always makes me thirsty and luckily, there are many watering holes around, a crucial component of any really creative milieu. I end up at Bomra’s, which serves Burmese nouvelle cuisine—tribal and rural recipes infused with the personal ishtyle of the jolly chef, Bawmra. But what makes it a literary destination is the special Glass Palace Menu of Ghosh’s favourite dishes, ranging from pickled tea leaf salad and home-made chickpea tofu with tamarind soya sauce, to slow-cooked pork belly with apple chutney and a cashew nut crust—food that has also earned Bomra’s a reputation of being among the world’s finest Burmese restaurants.
A regular visitor to Literati, author Sudeep Chakravarti has set up house in Panjim. His debut novel was Tin Fish (2005), which some critics have termed “the Indian Catcher in the Rye”. Like Salinger, who left New York for a cabin in the woods, Chakravarti traded his job as an editor in Delhi for a space to write. And so he is, in fact, the third person, in a short span of time, who tells me about the joy of leaving a metro in favour of a new life in Goa.
Chakravarti’s friends, of course, told him he was crazy when he drew up a list of four places he thought might be suitable for a writer: Mussoorie, Puducherry, Goa and Santiniketan. Goa won hands down. It wasn’t an emotional choice, but a practical one—a decision which brought creativity back to him. “In some ways, I had arrived at a time and place in my life when the urge to pursue a lifelong dream to write books couldn’t any longer be put on hold,” he says. Since coming to Goa he has been prolific, publishing three books: Nos. 4 and 5 are on the way. He also wants to start a writers’ cooperative, The East India Writing Company, to support literary work in South Asia. “You could say Goa and I are in a state of pleasurable cohabitation,” he says.
In Goa, writers are so abundant that they seem to grow on trees. One of the first days in February, at a Kala Academy poetry reading, I bumped into Ghosh. At the youthful age of 52, he has written himself into literary history and nowadays spends about half the year in picture-pretty Aldona, in the bucolic interior of Goa. He’d been visiting for decades, until one day he found himself a crumbling old villa which he lovingly restored. One wing was in such a state of disrepair that it had to be almost fully rebuilt, he explains, after inviting me home to a dinner party. Ghosh’s study, which naturally interests me the most, impresses with its large writing desk, his personal range of hide-bound Egyptian notebooks, and, right outside, there’s a wide terrace suitable for recreational birdwatching.
For Ghosh, one of the pleasures of Goa is that it’s such a literary place—just down the road lives Maria Couto and he entertains writer colleagues at tremendously pleasant dinners. He also interacts with the Goa Writers Group, a loose association of up-and-coming littérateurs.
The group’s convener is humour columnist Cecil Pinto, whom I personally find seven times funnier than Woody Allen. Pinto is also a connoisseur of Caju (cashew feni). He’s brought the most exquisite village-distilled brews from his collection to Ghosh’s dinner party, where he takes it upon himself to teach the noble art of imbibing Caju to guests ranging from the lowly yours truly to Nobel laureates such as Orhan Pamuk.
Despite rumours that the Turkish novelist might, too, be looking for a house in Goa, he sniffed somewhat sceptically at the booze which had been poured out of a recycled Smirnoff bottle to him at one such dinner party in February. I tried to help by pointing out that Caju tastes sublime as soon as one gets used to it—only later did it occur to me that any Nobel Prize-winner sticking his nose into a glass of the potent brew might worry about possible brain damage. Pamuk, however, isn’t the kind of writer to waste either brain cells or time, as was discovered when one of the budding littérateurs offered to show him around Old Goa if he could take a morning off from his writing—to which he replied that the number of mornings left in his life were barely enough for the writing he planned to do!
I asked Pinto what he thought of all these literary migrants. “That Goa is already becoming a hub for writers is evident. But regarding your question of Goa benefiting from writers moving here, now that is a complicated matter. Writers, like people, come in different types. When a writer like Amitav Ghosh comes here, he enhances our literary environment through his interactions. There are other writers, on the other hand, who have portrayed a totally bizarre image of Goa to the world. This type we could do without.”
Another member of the writers group, Savia Viegas, feels that, first of all, Goa needs a writing and storytelling culture among children: “It will help develop Goa as a sustainable literary space.” A teacher by profession, she tries to get visiting creative people to have workshops at schools.
On my last day, as if my fascination for Goa let out the genie from a bottle, I walk past a real estate agency with apartments for around Rs20 lakh—swimming pool included. Before I know it, the efficient staff has me bundled into an AC SUV and I’m driven to a construction site. Most buyers, I’m told, are middle-aged Brits looking for retirement homes, or NRIs who see it as an investment. In the last two years, prices have shot up by 300%.
The next-door neighbour at the site is a farmer ploughing his field with a buffalo. As I survey the damp concrete cave of a 2BHK, I wonder if this is realistic. Or have I been imbibing too much? I tell the real estate agent that I might be better off with a town house. He argues that anything I need is on the beach. There’s even going to be a McDonald’s soon. I tell him about the existential insecurity a writer might feel far from urban spaces. He counters: “Our houses have round-the-clock guards and the compound is surrounded by 10ft-high walls. If you feel insecure here, you won’t feel safe anywhere in the world.”
After that slightly too realistic view on the state of things, I figure that for me, Goa shall remain a place to dream about—a creative space to run away to when I need to sit down with a manuscript in progress. And a Caju on the side. Then some day, with a little help from karma, I may hope to be reincarnated as a Goan in my next life.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based Swedish writer of crime fiction.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Jun 13 2009. 12 54 AM IST