November 25, 2008

Riverside in Panjim

Spanning time as much with their longevity as they do the road between the Secretariat and Miramar with their lush canopy, the Rain trees that line the Dayanand Bandodkar Marg make traveling along the riverfront one of the highlights on entering the city of Panaji on the West Coast of India. Panaji is the capital of Goa. I have walked the promenade along the Mandovi often, taking in river ferries as they make lazy crossings between Panjim jetty and Betim that lies across the river in the direction of Mapusa.

It is not uncommon to find large barges ferrying iron ore from open cast mines to loading points downstream of the river where it meets the Arabian Sea. Sometimes I have paused to watch the evening Sun glint off the river. From the road snatches of water rippling gently are visible through the balustrade that fences off the promenade from the river, and every once in a while tourists visiting Panjim walk along the promenade and take in views of the Mandovi. The locals mostly hurry past. Many Government offices are located along the stretch to the other side of the road.

Occasionally a lonely soul or two can be found perched on the riverfront parapet gazing into the distance. I have found expanses of water inviting such gazing, as if in the stillness that flatness of any kind induces there is to be found an evenness to steady the turbulence within. Not all who come here do so to gaze at the Mandovi lapping the promenade. Couples whiling away time can be seen sitting on cement benches lining the promenade, their attention divided between their companionship and the placid waters. Lamps punctuate the line of benches. As the Sun goes down they soothe the stretch with a familial glow bringing comfort to wandering souls far away from home.

Early this month I passed the Military Headquarters HQ 2 Signal Training Centre on D. B. Marg, casting a quick glance at the arched porch centered in the facade before crossing the road to the promenade. I had time on my hands as I made my way along the river. In the far distance spans of the bridge over the Mandovi connecting Panaji to Mapusa were visible. The Portuguese had based their military headquarters in this building before they were driven out by the Indian Army, ending their centuries’ old occupation of Goa. The Portuguese Generals must have enjoyed a quiet evening view of the Mandovi in happier times.

Casting my eye into the distance I noticed a lone figure wielding a net attached to the end of a long bamboo pole peer intently into the waters. In the backdrop lay a large floating casino, almost obscuring a stretch of the river. Casinos have been brought in to cater to affluent western tourists, beating back local protests fighting the spread of casino culture in the tiny state.

He waded into the waters, the large pole balanced against the back of his neck, the net attached to one end of the pole. A few of his friends sat on the parapet talking even as they kept an eye on him. On the face of it they appeared to be regulars at this time of the day, most probably workers at the end of their working day come looking for some banter and a catch to take home for dinner.

The fisherman lowered the net in the river and in a sweeping movement traced an arc in the waters. Lifting the net out of the water he checked it for catch. There was none.

He waded further out until his knees were well under the water. There he lowered the net again and in a sweeping movement he traced an arc from left to right, only pausing on facing resistance to the sweep. Apparently the net had snagged on some debris in the water that he couldn’t quite see. He took a few steps further out to avoid the obstruction before lowering the net again. This time the sweep yielded a catch. Cheers went up on the parapet where his friends sat following his progress. By now his effort had attracted a few passers-by as well.

The catch was by no means large but the bulge in the net as he lifted it out of the water indicated a catch worthy of a dinner for two, sufficient enough to satisfy a few minutes of exertion on an evening stroll with friends. He had landed Prawns (Sungto in Konkani, the local language).

The Sun licked the length of the promenade golden, casting shadows that loped along as people walked its length. Across the road to my right lay the Institute Menezes Braganca. Adjoining it was the Police Headquarters, formerly known as the Quartel da Policia do Estado da India, established during the rule of Dom Manoel de Portugal e Castro in the late 1920s during the erstwhile Portuguese regime.

Now that he had his catch I waited for the fisherman to make his way back to the promenade. I expected him to empty his catch before heading out again. Instead I saw him hesitate and look closely at the spot where his sweep had encountered resistance in the water. A few moments later he beckoned one of his friends sitting on the parapet to where he stood and passed him the long pole, the fishing net weighed down by the catch at one end.

Then he stepped back into the water and felt the spot with his hands until he located the obstruction. Standing there, my elbows on the parapet, I had a feeling he knew what the obstruction was. Soon enough I saw a tyre emerge from the waters as he rolled it upright. There was no knowing how long it had lain in the waters before he had found it that evening. Fishermen are known to leave tyres in the shallow of rivers.

He ran his hand along the inside of the tyre, searching no doubt for crabs that seek shelter in such opportunities. Sure enough he found one crab. Excited cheers went up on the parapet as he extricated the reluctant crab from its home before heading back to where his friends sat.

One of them expertly emptied the young prawns on a piece of cardboard box, picking off stragglers left behind in the net. The prawns shone silver in the evening light, catching the Sun as they wriggled desperately, surprised by the unfamiliarity of their situation.

In contrast the crab seemed resigned to its fate, barely moving as one of the men held it firm under his thumb as I took its picture.

Behind me the river showed no trace of the little drama it had just witnessed. Like with other instances before this moment too passed into history no sooner it had taken place, swallowed by the stillness of the waters.

I walk down the promenade in the direction of the Panaji Ferry point that connects ferry passengers to Betim on the other side of the river. A Cross abuts the promenade near the Ferry point. Resting in the shade of sloping sheets it reminds passing people of passengers who died in an accident on the river when the ferry they were traveling in capsized some years ago. The Cross was built in their memory by locals living nearby.

A man stops by to ask a bicycle-borne ice cream vendor for directions about town as I make my way past them to where local buses headed for the Kadamba bus-stand halt for passengers. The days are short and the shadows lengthen quickly. I can see the Mandovi hotel from the promenade. The traffic on the road is light. I turn to see if any buses are headed my way.

Soon enough a mini-bus comes to a halt by the promenade and even as I release the shutter I make a run for the white and blue bus, the conductor waiting at the door. Barely have I made it up the landing and the bus lurches forward and we are on our way.

November 10, 2008

A Day Out in Divar

Each time I take the ferry from Piedade to Divar and disembark on the island I stay close to the Mandovi, hearing her waffle lazily beyond the thick wall of mangroves that hides a narrow bund hewn from the earth and baked hard by an unrelenting Sun.

The bund keeps the river at bay, separating the paddy fields inland from the estuary where the Mandovi empties into the Arabian Sea. Were the river to breach the bund at high tide and flood the fields inland it would leave salt deposits behind and render the fields unfit for cultivation for a long time.

On the stretch of bund I now take in the direction of Chorao there’s little or no sign of an opening in it though I’m hard pressed to account for the still water on the other side of the bund, in the direction of paddy fields that lie in the backdrop of churches of Old Goa. I can see faint outlines of the churches in the distance. From where I now stand, straining for a glimpse of the churches above the head-high vegetation lining the bund it is difficult to imagine I’m on an island. In the distance haze blurs their outlines. Behind me slapping sounds emerge from the mangroves as the Mandovi laps it on the outside. Up in the sky Kites circle lazily, riding invisible thermals.

In wide open spaces a sense of silence is had from a lack of movement, accentuated by the stillness of the landscape. There the distance between the wandering eye and a life form insulates each from the other. It is as if an invisible blanket separates the two, letting you look in but hiding movements in the distance separating the two. But in enclosed spaces like I’m in, hemmed in by mangroves on either side of the bund, silence makes itself felt in the small noises one cannot easily trace. Not knowing the source from whence the noises emanate makes me acutely aware of the silence separating instances of repeating noises as I count the moments before I hear the noise again. It is in the interludes between signs of life that I live the silence. And nowhere have I experienced it as acutely as when walking on the bund in the middle of the mangroves at Chorao and Divar. And it is only in the breaks in the vegetation where the Mandovi glints silver from the Sun glancing off its surface that one feels there’s life beyond the confines of space one is currently navigating.

When the ferry deposited us on Divar where a small Holy Cross sheltering under a corrugated sheet welcomes visitors to the island I cast a longing glance at the ribbon of a road that winds its way between paddy fields on its way to Piedade, passing picture postcard pretty houses along the way. There’s something about sultry weather on an island with pretty houses set back from the narrow road that winds its way about the place – it keeps people indoors much of time else how does one explain the empty streets. Some homes have fallen to time, others soldier on, and yet others burst with life as if untouched by time, and they make the trip across the Mandovi worthwhile.

“When you come over I’ll take you to show my house in Divar,” Percival Noronha said over the phone. Apparently he meant ‘or what is left of it’ for, it collapsed in 1993, weighed down by want of care. It wasn’t so in the decades leading up to its demise. “Who was there to take care of it,” he said before continuing, “most of them (relatives) migrated to America and elsewhere and it fell into disrepair.”

Percival Noronha returned to India from Uganda when he was all of six years old and went to live in Divar where his maternal grandfather, Joao Silveira-Vital, had a home in Sao Mathias, ‘one of the wards making up the island of Divar’. Piedade and Malar are the other. “Later Piedade was split into Navelim and Goltim. The Goltecars are from Goltim, now they use ‘k’ instead of ‘c’ and spell it Goltekar,” he explained. Divar has come to be known for the Bonderam festival. Celebrated on the fourth Saturday of August, the Divar Bonderam festival is said to trace its roots to the pre-Portuguese era. A harvest festival it commences with the cutting of the first sheaf of paddy.

“My ancestor converted to Christianity in the 1580s,” Percival recollected of the period in Goa’s history marked with much strife in the face of repressive conversions the Portuguese carried out largely under the threat of force. “On converting he was given the surname ‘Silveira’. In time impressed by his knowledge and abilities the Portuguese conferred him with ‘Vital’ and the surname changed to ‘Silveira-Vital. Among all the Silveiras he was the only one accorded this honour,” he recalled with pride. ‘Vital’ is ‘essencial, indispensavel, de importancia vital’ in Portuguese.

In 1930 Percival Noronha left Divar for good, his mother having shifted base to Panjim so he could school further. Remembering the home they left behind in Sao Mathias on the island of Divar, he said, “It was a typical bhatkar’s family home. A stately staircase opened into an imposing balcony. Inside were a large sized drawing room and an equally large dining hall, richly furnished. An attractive machila (means of transportation for two or more in olden days) added a graceful, aristocratic feel to the atmosphere in the house. Both the manorial halls were sided with bedrooms, and so was the long corridor leading to the kitchen. Then there was the nursery with 3-4 nannies in attendance while 7-8 servants looked after the stable of cows and buffaloes in the area adjoining the house. The nearest neighbour was far away.”

Later in the day we were to pass many a stately home on our way to Piedade. Piedade lay only a short distance from where we had stopped on our way to watch students from the Our Lady of Divar High School practice football in an empty paddy field under the supervision of a coach who would call out urgently at the lads learning the moves. “Go now, quick,” he shouted. “Get the ball here, get it.” Behind us a dead bat hung from electricity wires that ran parallel to the narrow ribbon of a road bisecting the empty paddy field into two.

To our left stretched the other portion of the paddy field, ending in mangroves to the West. The field was covered with ash, and as I walked through it black soot rose and stung my nostrils. In the backdrop of undulating hills a leafless tree stood alone in the distance. Kites took off and landed in the tree.

We parked the car in the shade of a tree by the road where the previous day a group of four men from the village lazed with beer and sandwiches, their scooters parked to the side in the shade of the tree. On the wires overhead Roller Jays paused for breath while Bee-eaters somersaulted in the air, picking insects as they dived sharply. Every once in a while Black Drongos landed on the wires. It was that time of the day, approaching evening when birds go looking for prey.

To the West where mangroves bordered the rice field an occasional Sandpiper, head bent to the earth, foraged in the shallow waters, taking wings as I approached it with my camera. Other species of water birds followed. A breeze blew in from behind me, cooling my neck. Bird calls dissected the late afternoon even as the coach called out instructions to his wards as they practiced on the field, dribbling the football past defenders. It was a setting reminiscent of ‘village life’ that city dwellers occasionally dream of, peaceable and purposeful without being rushed. In the retreating noise of an occasional motorbike passing on the road, the only other activity, other than the schoolboys kicking the football around was that of myriad birds frolicking on the electricity wires.

Speaking of birdlife on Divar, Ajay recalled seeing Asian Openbilled Stork, Osprey, White Ibis, Redshank, Large Egret, Median Egret, Small Blue Kingfisher, Purple Heron, Common Sandpiper, Shikra, Pipits, Drongo, and Roller Jay on the island. “There’re bound to be more species out there that I haven’t seen,” he conceded. Most of the species were to be found in and around the mangroves. Only the Shikra, the Pipit, the Drongo, and the Roller Jay stayed inland. Since Chorao adjoins Divar it is only natural for them to share the number of bird species to be seen in those parts.

I walk back the length of road I had taken to photograph the Sandpiper. A Maruti car, apparently belonging to the coach is parked to the side of the road. A lanky young boy in a blue t-shirt sat with his back against the rear door, watching the others practice. He had cream-coloured capris on. Joel Correa was the captain of his school’s under-14 football team.

“Why aren’t you joining them to practice,” I asked him, pointing to his schoolmates practicing hard under the watchful eye of their coach. He went silent for a moment before answering, “The coach kept me out for not turning up in shoes.”

I kept quiet. I knew better than to comment given the embarrassment he must surely feel to be ordered out of practice, more so given his responsibility to the team as their captain. It was their first day at practice after they had broken for exams. They had a match coming up shortly against ‘a team from Panjim’. There wasn’t much time between now and match-day. Surely it must hurt him I thought.

Time and again the coach, Mario Aguiar, would abruptly stop issuing instructions and sit on his haunches before calling the boys over to explain strategy with a stick, patiently drawing positions in the mud. Then he would straighten up and exhort them with a stinging, “START,” “GO, GO, GO-GO-GO.”

“Does he coach at your school?” I ask Joel.

“Yes, and also at the St. Esteves Sports Club.”

A large cement pipe lay to the edge of the road. Propped against it were several bicycles the boys had ridden to the ground. The older (under-16) among those who had turned up for the practice sat on the pipe watching the younger lot (under-14) being put through their paces by the coach. An extra set of footballs held together in loose netting lay on the ground not far from where the boys sat on the large cement pipe. A couple of them circled tightly on their bicycles, passing time, waiting to be called in to practice. Another bounced the ball on his instep. Whatever else they might’ve put up with; ‘waiting’ was not among them. One of them intoned to his friend who sat alongside him on the cement pipe, complaining about the coach. “Why did he call us for practice if he was only going to engage the under-14s?” he asked his mate. I did not catch the reply, my attention having been diverted by a Kingfisher calling loudly as it took off from its perch over my head.

Dull thuds sounded regularly as the boys made contact with the ball. “Block it. See the body position,” the coach called out instructions, never once tiring in the heat. Evidently there was a lot at stake in the upcoming match-up with a team from the city across the Mandovi.

“How’re you blocking it (ball),” he shouted at a student, displeased with the way he was moving. Then he called out to him with, “Give him the ball,” pointing to another student, before repeating, “look at your body position. Look at it.”

I sit there with the boys, taking in the simplicity of it all. Out there, away from everywhere, you could be a wandering soul and yet belong in ways that makes you one of them. It is hardly surprising for, when you have time to stand and share, and the space to do so, you get to share their passion for life that becomes momentarily yours. The late afternoon is beginning to give way to early evening. Shadows inch across the road as I walk back to where they wait under the tree by the car that’ll take us home.