A house by the sea
In Gopalpur, Odisha, a family vacation jostles with the search for a perfect beach property
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I had always known that Gopalpur wasn’t the ideal spot for my family reunion. A majority of the Parajulys are vegetarian, so no one salivates at the thought of freshly caught seafood, for which Gopalpur is known. My parents don’t enjoy the sea because they find the waves violent. They don’t appreciate the sand because it gets stuck between their toes. And to get to Gopalpur, on the Bay of Bengal in Odisha, from Gangtok, up in the Himalayas, is a chore. But Gopalpur is close to Puri, and after decades of living with a cobweb-addled altar, my parents have awoken to gods, loud devotional music and the Char Dham. The children in the family would put up with a trip to Puri only if it was saddled together with a proper beach vacation. In addition, I had my selfish interests. For some time now, I’ve been looking to buy a vacation home somewhere that’s not Goa. Gopalpur—about which I had heard nothing until a year ago—seemed like a quirky, cheap choice for a beach house.
In Puri, we had descended on the Jagannath Temple at the crack of dawn and, alongside thousands of India’s faithful, offered obeisance. Our toothless guide had sold himself to my parents by fishing out his sacred thread and peppering his English with Sanskrit. After Puri’s ugliness—floating sanitary pads, chocolate wrappers and plastic bags didn’t really make for pleasant sea-dipping—the coconut- and casuarina-grove-lined road leading to Gopalpur already looked promising.
I was expecting Gopalpur to be one of those seaside hamlets bustling with fluorescent colours and guest houses with mini pink soaps. But as beach towns go, it is startlingly sedate. You don’t find pushy henna artists or conch peddlers here like you do at other Indian seaside towns. Colonial wrecks, long-forsaken stately homes and near-empty beaches lend to the town a sepulchral feel.
Gopalpur’s story is one of ruins, of aborted projects, of abandonment. As you walk by yet another derelict property, you see vestiges of what the town once was, signs of what direction it might have taken. Look at the gate that encloses the remains of the last royal grounds, for example, so close to being converted into a hotel, but whose progress the government stopped because the building was too close to the sea. Or at the grand Bengali mansion with cracked paint, guarded by rheumy-eyed caretakers who laugh about the owners last being seen here three years before. Or at the shuttered house with no caretakers, no squatters, no living souls—given up because Goa, Puducherry and the Andaman Islands were more glamorous.
It wasn’t always this way. Gopalpur had once been a humming port town full of warehouses and factories. As trade with Burma (now Myanmar) thrived, the town’s popularity as a holiday destination increased. With World War II, trade relations with Burma stopped, shrinking the port’s importance. After independence, the British left India, and the Bengalis left Gopalpur. The Odisha government has been trying for some time to restore the town to its former glory, but a temperamental sea—the biggest source of livelihood to the town’s fishermen—has posed complications. Cyclones and super-cyclones are common, and Gopalpur perpetually looks like it has given up on resurrecting itself.
I like this quality about a town that’s too lazy to rebuild. It’s a respite from cities that have tapped their full potential and exploited every tourism resource available. Here, you might walk by a structure of great historical importance, but you wouldn’t know. There are no signs to tell you, no visitor-friendly information desks. The roads are excellent, the Internet works all right, and the people are friendly without being intrusive. It’s an ideal spot to buy a house at. It’s everything Goa isn’t, and the beach is far cleaner than any I have seen in Goa. Goa is still undecided about what it wants to be. Gopalpur doesn’t know—nor cares about—what it wants to be. I like this quality about a town that has ceased to aspire.
The snubbing of aspiration stops at the gates of the grand Mayfair Palm Beach Resort, where we are staying. The property, an anomaly in a town whose sole reason for existence now seems to cater to the lower-middle-class holidaymaker, is easily the most divisive topic related to Gopalpur.
Sentimentalists pine for the hotel when it was the Oberoi Palm Beach, closed down because the group could no longer keep up the battle with cyclones. They remember learning to play the grand piano in the lobby, the chequered tablecloths, and the white walls and the brick-red floors. In place of the solemn white now stand colourful walls with bird designs and floral motif. Beachy, wicker-heavy furniture has replaced the colonial stuff. And then there are people like me who have little patience for Raj-era nostalgia. I think the Mayfair is eccentric. I find it so cute!
No one can fault its location. I can hear, smell and taste the ocean from my balcony, which is the size of my New York apartment. I hear the fishermen returning from work. They could be talking, but I think I hear singing. The waiters aren’t turbaned or white-gloved, but the service is impeccable. Plus, the hotel has a giant three-room library, where I spend a rainy day reading trash. The property is almost self-sufficient. There’s a beach right outside the gates that isn’t private, but it doesn’t matter. It feels private enough. Three women in ballooning saris and three men in Cheers underwear bob in floating tyres thrashed around by the waves.
Our toothless guide from Puri—who has so ingratiated himself with my parents that he’s accompanied us to Gopalpur—has chalked out a charming itinerary for us. We’ve been told no one requires a guide in Gopalpur—a town of under 7,000 residents—but the guide claims he hails from a village close by. Besides, he says, he’s a Brahmin, so he’s not accompanying us for the money. I figure he might be of help when I look at houses, so I allow him to tag along. His programme entails a whole lot of walking up and down the town’s main artery of shops and narrow houses.
He shows us the town doctor’s clinic. He shows us the bus stand. He tells us which decaying house has well-behaved ghosts and which one has bad ones. He points at the (retired) headmaster’s house. He shows us several ATMs. We see budget hotels with various permutations of “Sea” and “View” in them. If one isn’t in ruins, it is in dire need of a paint job. We take selfies with the red-and-white lighthouse, Gopalpur’s most famous landmark, and try petting a family of glum pigs, of which the town has plenty. We make yet another trip to the remains of the royal grounds and imagine what a hotel there might have been like. The guide fails to sell us on a trip to the woods nearby. “Copper-coloured cobras, you will find there,” he promises. “Is it a zoo?” I ask. “No, they are in the wild.”
The guide has made several references to a hill close by. Because we speak in English, the guide suggests—sadly—that we might be interested in a church there. We put on our hiking shoes and carry bottles of water, and arrive at the hill in exactly 6 minutes. To call the slight incline a hill is like calling Chilika lake, the pride and joy of Odisha, an ocean. Had it not been for our guide—and a hotel named Hill View Cottage Hill Top—we would have missed it. “It’s the Christian part of town,” the guide says, as we walk by a Daughters of Charity Sacred Heart House.
There are houses that could do with some love and big, well-fed churches bursting with too much of it. We couldn’t have missed one in particular. It’s the beautiful church the guide has been raving about. It’s quaint and almost Portuguese and colourful, like a Mrs Magpie cake has thrown up all over it. It’s a Sunday, and throngs of devotees crowd the church. “All first-generation Christians,” the guide says.
My family laughs at me for wanting to buy a house there. They admit the sea is beautiful but know me well enough to guarantee that I will not last a week there. Another problem is that of real-estate logistics. How does one negotiate prices in a town that’s full of abandoned houses?
“I wouldn’t pay anything more than Rs5 lakh,” my mother says. “And it would have to be a mansion in tip-top shape.”
I am not looking for a mansion. The guide has led me to a house—the marble plaque at the gate says it’s Betvic House—that has piqued my interest. It’s near the lighthouse (but, again, few places in Gopalpur aren’t). The house is not colonial. It’s not grand. It’s not derelict. It’s red-bricked and cute. It’s tiny—I may just about be able to carve out two bedrooms from it—but enclosed in a massive compound lined with coconut and mango trees. Ducks waddle in a pond. And what is that I see? It’s a barbecue pit. I may have found the perfect house.
I phone the owner and beg him to tell me the story of the house. A retired British army soldier named Victor Soren built it in 1981. Before independence, Soren’s father had been in charge of the port in Gopalpur, where Soren was born. After retirement, Soren moved back to India with his wife Betty—the other half of Betvic—who didn’t quite take to Gopalpur. When Soren died in 2008, Betty promptly sold the house to the current owner and moved back to England.
“I don’t know if you saw,” the owner says, “but there’s a room upstairs. You see the sea from it.”
I congratulate him on the house. “With so much ‘old’ history that’s been erased here, you are at least preserving some ‘new’ history,” I say. “It’s sad to see all these beautiful houses go to ruins. No one knows anything about their history.”
“I am going to keep this house as it is,” the owner says. “There’s even a basement. I’ll use it soon.”
“Will it be a guest house?”
“No, that would force us to expand. We would be changing the character of the house.”
Here’s at least one house that will not be deserted. I ask the owner if the house might be on sale. I already know the answer.
Prajwal Parajuly is the author of Land Where I Flee and The Gurkha’s Daughter.