The Assagao effect16 min read . Updated: 07 Jul 2018, 09:16 AM IST
A rising number of creative professionals from Mumbai and Delhi are moving to a small village in north Goa. What charms does it hold for the disenchanted? And how is the village transforming under this cosmopolitan energy?
Within 5 minutes of our meeting, I’ve learnt that the young woman in a leopard-print dress is gripped by heartbreak. A romance that was sure to succeed has ended, and the uncynical, half-written novel it inspired is left searching for a new ending. Perhaps its optimism will be purged, or an ensuing affair with another woman written in. For now, the plan is to retrieve crucial notes from a buggy iPhone. And rest in the quietude of Goa. “You should check out my poetry online," she says before leaving. But I don’t yet know her name.
I credit this easy late-evening intimacy to architecture. The balcao, porch seating designed by the Portuguese and adapted into every traditional Goan home, draws families, neighbours and strangers into conversation with its ingenious design. The built-in seats face each other in a way that’s welcoming, but not obtrusive. It’s also the only spot in a 150-year-old Portuguese home with thick concrete walls where one can find cellular range.
This sprawling heritage villa, formerly known as Amalia House, hosts a new “experiential hotel" in what is now emerging as Goa’s trendiest village, Assagao. It is a postal code shared by a growing number of creative professionals from Delhi and Mumbai, such as fashion designer Jivi Sethi, film-maker Qaushiq Mukherjee, model and entrepreneur Carol Gracias, DJ and founder of the Magnetic Fields festival Smita Singh Rathore, and graphic designer Anjila Puri.
Assagao’s new residents offer one clear reason for the village’s popularity with outsiders—its bucolic charm. When I visit in the last days of May, Goa is scorched and furiously humid. But even in this unflattering climate, the sunken valley is a vision. Birdsong is omnipresent, the foliage is dense, soft-orange crossandras and white bougainvillea vines extend visual relief. Prim and poised Goan homes look on to the streets; some contain inconspicuous stores with no clear signage. Others are overgrown and dilapidated.
A new cosmopolitan energy lurks beneath this sleepy exterior. An example of this is The Project Café, which navigates the chasm between heritage and hipster in a way that makes it a fitting microcosm for Assagao itself. An outpost of a multidisciplinary design space in Ahmedabad, the space doubles as an art gallery and retail store. Everything you stare at, sit on, or eat with, is for sale. On display are superfoods such as cured spirulina, indie clothing labels Runaway Bicycle and Kharakapas, miniature versions of Dayanita Singh’s travelling exhibition, Pocket Museum. It would almost feel like a pop-up in hip city neighbourhoods like Bandra in Mumbai or Hauz Khas in Delhi were it not for the villa’s original foundations—red oxide floors, high ceilings, and green shell windows that blend with the foliage.
Assagao, glossier and more grown-up than its hard-partying neighbours Anjuna and Vagator, also goes by the name fulacho gav, or village of flowers. But, in the last few years, other nicknames have been thrown around—“Little Delhi", “Goa’s South Extension", “The Beverly Hills of Goa", “Goa’s Tuscany".
It takes a village
While other north Goa villages, such as Moira and Aldona, have also transitioned into functioning art hubs, their evolution has been quieter, primarily because they lack Assagao’s favourable location. A scissor-shaped stretch, about 7km in length, makes Assagao an respite from north Goa’s frenetic beachside energy, though it’s still close enough to dip your feet in the madness. Travel down one end of the Anjuna-Mapusa road and a honking junction abruptly breaks the stillness of this cocooned haven. The other end leads to Mapusa, a central market town with better-stocked convenience stores. Morjim and Ashwem, beaches popular with the discerning traveller, are only a 20-minute ride away.
Assagao maintained a quiet profile until three notable restaurants began to alert tourists to its existence. Elisabeth Yogini started Villa Blanche Bistro, a cosy German eatery that hosts lively tango evenings, in 2006, when her only customers were supportive friends from Anjuna. “They all thought it was a bad idea. Assagao was pretty much unknown, a Goan village with some Westerners. Now my main customers are Indian tourists visiting Goa, many of them regularly," she says.
Seven years later, Satish Warrier relocated his reputed Hauz Khas restaurant Gunpowder to Assagao, and it has become the village’s most prominent landmark. Gunpowder remains open through the year, like many village establishments that reject the outdated season model (which considers September-February as profitable). The wait for their Toddy Shop Meen Curry and other regional coastal fare is only marginally shorter in the summer months. Warrier shares a long-time lease of the colonial-era bungalow that houses Gunpowder with friends from Delhi, Gurpreet Sidhu and Orijit Sen, co-founders of the design collective and concept store People Tree. Together, the two establishments go by the name 6 Assagao. Sidhu believes businesses that move here need to ensure they don’t strain the village’s limited resources. “We don’t have any air conditioning here, and we make it a point to recycle and segregate waste," she says.
The third, Vinayak, is one of Goa’s best-loved fish thali eateries (or, as some Delhi natives have begun to call them, “Goan dhabas"). Facing a paddy field, the no-frills restaurant run by Goan couple Rajesh Gadekar and his wife Ujjwala is an all-season crowd-puller that also opened in 2013. The arterial road it sits on is now being widened to solve parking woes.
Assagao’s culinary reputation continues to grow. Opposite Gunpowder, model Carol Gracias runs the newly opened Botanique, a contemporary French restaurant and three-suite guest house nestled in a garden. A long pool-facing table is being dressed for a birthday lunch when I visit, and Gracias, a hands-on host, is checking on room-cleaning requests while her French husband, Samuel Ziza, preps in the kitchen.
“We’ve made little changes to ensure everything is fresh and organic. Like instead of using bottled gherkins in the fish tartar burger, we use bimbli from trees in the garden," she says. Their short menu is almost entirely devoid of frozen food, wet waste is carted to a house on the street that has pigs, and most of the furniture is upcycled. “We came here because we wanted to raise our child in nature. I wanted him to understand where the food on his plate comes from," says Gracias.
Gracias and Ziza are among a number of young parents who are turning to Goa to give their children a childhood that offers beach picnics and tree adventures alongside quality education. Good schooling options have increased, adds Gracias, from the experimental Paradise School Goa in Aldona that works on the SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environments) model to reputed Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools like Green Meadows.
While she’s concerned about the thinning of forest land and new apartments coming up in the area, Gracias sheepishly admits she had to buy one herself. “I can’t afford an independent home here any more…the prices are crazy! They’re competing with Delhi and Bombay (Mumbai) rates."
For those looking to invest in Goa, row apartments are seen as a wiser alternative to independent Goan homes, which are difficult to maintain. “We saw this trend of people moving towards village life. A lot of people choose Assagao for the cuisine and its quaint environment," says Mohit Aurora, a partner at Gulmohar Builders, which has built Amado Villas, a gated community of row apartments and villas in Assagao. The price of these villas starts from ₹ 2 crore. Look for more indulgent alternatives and that figure climbs to a sobering ₹ 8 crore.
Friends in quiet places
Assagao is a village of less than 4,000 people. It takes only a few days for the faces on the streets to turn familiar, and, with every new introduction, like a sleuth in a countryside whodunnit, you begin to connect the dots between its residents. There are alliances built on shared interests, whether it’s dogs, politics or the environment, with spaces to pursue each of these. You could come in with a single-minded commitment to one of Assagao’s yoga houses (Purple Valley Yoga Retreat, SWAN Yoga Retreat and Shala 142), volunteer at International Animal Rescue Goa, an NGO founded by the late Englishman John Hicks and his wife Jo, sample a mind-bending genre of dub techno at the new Hopping Frog hostel, or attend one of the monthly Assagao Mehfils. Musicians Chinmaya Dunster and Sandeep Srivastava co-founded this meeting of travelling artists and diverse music styles, from Sufi to flamenco. The mehfils take place at Hotel Astoria, a 250-year-old home that first opened as a bar for the rare passer-by in 1986. It’s run by a warm and voluble Assagao native, Edwin Fonseca, one of the few locals to hold out on tempting offers by real estate developers.
Most people make the permanent move to Goa after they find financial stability, in their late 30s (though the average age is now decreasing). Studies will tell you this is a difficult time for new friendships, but Saloni Puri, 51, a media consultant who moved to Assagao 12 years ago with her photographer husband Rohit Chawla, finds that the social setting of a smaller village breeds a special intimacy. “People are less judgemental and let their guard down when they move. All those years I lived in Delhi, I didn’t even know my neighbours. Here, when I go out for a walk, I know everyone on this street," she says.
You’re sure to meet friends from nearby villages—Siolim, Parra, Anjuna—at Thursday-night gigs at Robert’s, a popular local pub. I’m told spending a night there is one of the best ways of integrating into the local scene. And while a throbbing headache kept me away, Fay Barretto, an import from Mumbai’s Bandra suburb, who works as a bar manager at The Project Café, showed enough pole-dancing videos and unexplained bruises the next morning to inspire intrigue. There is also a thriving underground scene in the area that film-maker Quashiq Mukherjee, also known as Q, is resolutely tight-lipped about.
While his friend Satish Warrier, the person who suggested the move to Assagao, has turned reticent, village life had the reverse effect on Mukherjee. “In Calcutta (now Kolkata), I was not social at all," he says, as we step into the balcony of his Goan home for relief from another power cut. “But, here, I go out very often. Like a proper village, we meet somewhere or the other almost every week. And I feel very enthusiastic about life because you meet people who very casually blow your mind. Yesterday, I met a deep web coder, and I just could not understand what she did. I thought I was doing cool stuff, but these people keep you in shape." The director of uninhibited films such as Gandu and Brahman Naman also shot his festival-touring revenge thriller Garbage in Assagao.
Incidentally, garbage is an unusual but crucial socializing device here. Till recently, Assagao hill was the village dumping ground, the rest was discarded on no-man’s land between villages or burnt. But that changed when Felly Gomes, one of Assagao’s most popular residents, who has lived in the village since “the time when rent in a Portuguese home cost ₹ 35 per month", began sending out a dry-waste collection team to homes in the area, and drove the local panchayat to take over the job last month. Gomes also inspires citizen activism through the Aware Citizens of Assagao group—a 90-member WhatsApp group that talks plastic and policy, with around 40 showing up for meetings.
One factor that creates subgroups in the community, according to Mukherjee, is politics. “Given the current political situation, people are having to take sides, and that creates subsets, which I find interesting. If it is a creative hub, then it must be political. Otherwise, what’s the point?" he says. “I’ve had to live through (political apathy) in Bombay, where they’d rather discuss anything else. But Goans are extremely politically aware, especially right now. The way they stopped the mining crisis is incredible. It is a citizen’s movement. People go for one protest and lose steam—these guys kept at it."
Mukherjee’s landlady, Padma Shri award winner and advocate Norma Alvares, and her husband Claude, who run the environmental action group Goa Foundation, were at the forefront of the battle against illegal mining. “They are like Goa’s saviours," says Mukherjee, halting at the sight of a hummingbird.
“That’s very rare," he finally says, taking a few moments to admire the bird’s plumage. It’s not the first time I notice a resident stumped by Assagao’s winged denizens. Even after years of moving here, many offer gushing narrations of Assagao’s unexpected treats, like when a white Shikra swoops on to a balcony or a kingfisher’s sudden flight is reflected in a rear-view mirror. The next morning, I find my own moment, when I wake up under the gaze of a suspicious squirrel.
A delicate paradise
The migration of young professionals to Goa has let in a whiff of city-bred ambition and business. One hotel employee bemoans Goa’s halcyon days when susegad (roughly, a sense of relaxed contentment) made an acceptable, and reasonable, counterargument to prompt customer service. With a new work ethic, even sleepy Assagao inspires 10-hour workdays.
While her team operates out of Delhi, graphic designer Anjila Puri runs the design and brand consultancy firm Fisheye from her two-storey Assagao residence. It is an unassuming façade with Pinterest-friendly interiors that expertly play to natural light. After moving here in 2011, she now runs a full-time operation with a workday that often extends beyond 8 hours. “It’s really the internet that just got better and better," she says.
Puri credits Thus, a travelling event company that lands at 6 Assagao every Monday, for providing the community a new space for collaboration. The donation-funded events are run by Thus founder Nilankur Das, who hails from Assam, and accompanied by Naga food by his wife Chan, who also manages the People Tree store. The crowd strength ranges from 20-50, largely familiar faces who gather to keep up with changes in the state.
Das has a keen interest in the worries of Goankars, like the troubling state of their rivers, and aims to create a mood of assimilation, rather than a divide. One of their events, titled “Sordid Tales Of Tiracol", was a presentation by locals that took issue with Four Seasons’ purchase of agricultural land in north Goa. The hoteliers plan to build 250 cottages and a golf course in the area, which threatens to displace locals and deplete water resources.
“When we talk about creativity, we only think about graphic designers, artists, writers. But what’s incredible is the work that’s happening with permaculture, with water, with garbage," says Puri, who has transformed her backyard into an organic patch, like many others in the neighbourhood. Goa native Peter Fernandes and his wife Rosie Harding run an expanding food forest, and are assembling an active permaculture community in Assagao and beyond. “Our interests are mainly educational and we want to teach more people to grow food for themselves. We work with local farmers, small holders, urban dwellers," says Fernandes. When I ask about Assagao’s new reputation as a creative melting pot, he fails to contain a smirk. “How do I answer that without being offensive?"
He pauses, continuing carefully. “Assagao did happen to house people who were doing really interesting things, and doing them in a low-key manner. Now people are looking at Assagao as a cool place to be because of the cool people that are there. But they want to come here in their little high-tech bubble. Now if all your friends have the same idea, what happens to the greenery? Most places have woken up far too late and realized that everything they came here for is gone—and they were the primary culprits in hastening its demise."
The unfortunate reality of every artist neighbourhood is that it rarely ages well, and some believe Assagao may already have lived through its best years. In Neighborhood Renewal, Phillip L. Clay outlines his model of gentrification, which can be condensed into four main phases: first, when the risk-oblivious or alternative lifestyle seekers move to a disinvested neighbourhood, then a sprouting of cafés and small businesses draws in the risk-prone, and, finally, the influx of modern comforts and a real estate boom signals the risk-averse. Stage 4 is when economic and demographic restructuring prices out the area’s earliest inhabitants.
Assagao, too, is in the midst of a transition. Hills are being razed and old landmarks are changing. On the other hand, new jobs are being created and locals are fetching high rents.
Felly Gomes believes the debate about insiders and outsiders, or bhaile in Konkani, is now trite, and solutions need to be drawn up collectively. His greatest concern is the shielded existence in the new, gated communities and self-sufficient events that reduce interactions with locals. Starting September, he plans to run bimonthly events around Assagao, in association with the Deccan Heritage Foundation, to spotlight local food, musicians and performances. “We will invite people from gated communities—maybe this can be a common cultural ground for everyone to interact."
Assagao today serves a diverse crowd, either as an idyllic home or a therapeutic pit stop. Amongst its residents, new and old, there is an awareness of Assagao’s inevitable transformation, but also a growing sense of responsibility for their slice of paradise.
Back at The Project Café balcao, a quiet visitor in white linen and round spectacles, who seems well under 35, speaks of his “very long connection" with Goa. His tone carries the sincerity and propriety you’ll find in every outsider who believes they got here right before the crowds—20 years ago, when the trance scene was at its peak, 10 years ago, when Wi-Fi was non-existent, five years ago, when Assagao was still a secret.
When in Assagao
A handy checklist for your visit
The Project Café will please design enthusiasts with its contemporary interiors and art exhibits. For family-friendly suites, fresh French cuisine and a verdant garden to lounge in, head to Botanique. To experience traditional Goan hospitality, retreat to a cottage at De Aluizio or check into the 250-year-old Hotel Astoria, with their affable dogs for company.
Sample the extensive Sunday brunch at Villa Blanche Bistro* or head over to Ruta’s Roadhouse for freshly-baked breads and excellent coffee. Don’t leave without getting a taste of Vinayak’s famed fish thali. Make dinner reservations at Gunpowder for coastal fare, and order repeats of their steamed appam paired with Andhra-style prawn curry. For a more intimate setting, settle down at the popular Italian restaurant Ciao Bella*.
Take the scenic bike road to the St Cajetan Church, situated atop a hill. It you can’t commit to week-long Ashtanga lessons at the reputed Purple Valley Yoga Retreat*, try one of their Ayurvedic massages, or take a drop-in class at SWAN Yoga*. To sample Assagao’s nightlife, head to a gig at Hopping Frog, or catch a live act at Soro “the village pub". If you’re around on a Monday, attend an event at 6 Assagao curated by Thus. For the low-down on Assagao’s history, sign up for Felly Gomes’ heritage walks.
Browse the racks for block-printed blouses and dresses made from recycled saris and Kantha embroidery at People Tree. Shop for fine gold and silver jewellery by Goa-based designers Kees Van Andel and Karen Peace at the Cheshire Cat Gallery*. And pay a visit to Indian Story for a fine collection of handcrafted textiles, or for a refreshing blend of organic tea.
*Open only during the season months, roughly from September-February.