March 20, 2009

The Innocence of an Evening

When I look at this picture now and reflect on the fate that befell the pigeons that used to gather across the road from The Taj Mahal Hotel before the terrorists struck Mumbai the night of November 26 last year, I try not to think of whether this particular pigeon made it through the night of carnage. I like to believe she survived the night.

Early one evening several months before the terrorist strike I found myself, camera in hand, milling in crowds gathered at the Gateway of India. Families on an evening out by the sea off the Gateway crowded along the parapet that looks out to sea while vendors hawked their wares, selling peanuts, ice-creams, lollipops, and grains to feed the pigeons.

Professional photographers, cameras slung from their necks, prompted visitors into having their pictures taken in the backdrop of the Gateway of India or the magnificent Taj Mahal Hotel for a fee. Far too often they were refused.

“With mobile cameras affordable by most we have far fewer visitors needing our services now,” one photographer told me, scanning potential customers even while he spoke with me.

No visiting relatives return from Mumbai without seeing the waterfront landmarks. The Taj Mahal hotel and the Gateway are among the two major landmarks that define the city in terms of its visibility in the media and elsewhere. Couples, families, and friends among others make their way to the waterfront in the evenings, often to do nothing more than look out to sea. Sometimes crows join in.

From the platform that runs on either side of the Gateway of India, the landing area where boats ferrying tourists to the Elephanta caves dock on their return journey is a beehive of activity, with ushers shepherding passengers onto harbour cruises for a half hour spin around the harbour or boats headed for the Elephanta caves. From here the city stretches back by a bit and one can see the ‘lesser’ landmarks in the distance. Guides with spotting scopes will point out the landmarks for a fee. Most however will have their relatives and friends point them out for them.

To my left a bubble-maker wound his way among families knowing well the children would gravitate to him as he blew soap bubbles in the air. While their parents looked on, the children thrilled in the bubbles the bubble-maker blew in the air, chasing them or trying to cup them in their little palms, smiles widening as bubbles landed in their open palms. Then they chased more soap bubbles, thrilling more in their efforts to catch the bubbles than in actually managing to do so.

And the bubble-maker blew even more bubbles in the air. In a bubble or two that caught the glancing blow of the Sun it framed the Gateway of India in its convexity, encasing a moment in history in the transience of the present.

Eventually the children would run back to their parents and tug at their trousers until they bought the bubble-making kit from the bubble-maker, and then the children blew bubbles in the air. Soon there were so many bubbles that it resembled a scene from a Bollywood film set.

But in all the time that I watched the scenes unfold among smiling children, and the childhood transience they chased in the bubbles floating in the air, not once did the bubble-maker smile, not when the children were chasing the soap bubbles, and not when he sold them the bubble making kits.

In the moment a bubble breaks, a child will look forward to the next one. But rarely so an adult.

I made my way to where pigeons had gathered on the pavement at the spot where it turns onto the Apollo Bunder road. The road runs by the Taj Hotel before passing 19th century buildings on its way to the Radio Club at the other end. The parapet that looks out on fishing-boats, yachts, and Harbour Cruises in the harbour by the Gateway of India encloses the Apollo Bunder road on one side while the Taj and other old buildings enclose it on the other.

According to one story, ‘Apollo’ is said to be a derivative of the name that sable-fish found in the waters off the Gateway are known by, Palva. Koli fisherfolk used to land sable-fish in the harbour, so the name Apollo Bunder.

Known as the Victoria earlier, horse carriages on the Apollo Bunder road awaited visitors to the Gateway looking for a joy ride around town. Every once in a while a pigeon would on a carriage before flying off to a window ledge on the Taj from where it watched over the crowd below until it was time to eat grains that visitors were only to happy to feed them.

Camera at the ready I moved around, letting the bonhomie of an evening out by the sea rub on me. It was then that I noticed this young lady patiently enticing pigeons to eat out of her hand, smiling invitingly. Her friend stood behind her while she squatted, grains in her palms, hand outstretched.

I waited.

Then one pigeon responded, coming in from behind me, low and straight to the lady. Surprised at seeing the pigeon respond to her she seemed unsure of how to react except to instinctively stretch her hand out even further, and smile more.

I released the shutter.

In her joyous moment froze the innocence of an evening by the sea, and ever since then whenever I go through the pictures I wonder who she was, from whence she came, and to where she was headed.

And now about the pigeon that came flying in from behind me.

Update: Public voting in the Best Travelogue category in the ongoing Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009 has ended, and Windy Skies has placed first in the results declared a short while ago. Thank you all for the unstinting faith, support, and encouragement the last few weeks. Public voting constitutes 50% of the overall judging. Next the Lonely Planet judging panel will evaluate the blogs to account for the other 50% and combine the two for the final score.

March 15, 2009

Butterfly Morning in Mollem

If it wasn’t for the frog that I was chasing across the stream with my camera we might never have discovered the tiny sandbank hidden from view by trees along the turn the stream took before cutting through the wildlife sanctuary at Mollem, 56 kms. off Panaji and bordering Karnataka State to the east. And we wouldn’t have seen the Common Map Butterfly (Cyrestis thyodamas).

Much of the stream along the course it took in the stretch visible to us was shaded by trees lining the banks. In the few patches where sunlight streamed through canopies it lit up stones in the shallow water, a few protruding above the waterline. On one such stone a frog basking in the Sun caught my attention. Sensing my approach it quickly leapt back into the water and swam towards another stone, then yet another as it led me on a merry chase down stream. The water was cool to the skin and I moved carefully lest I slip and land the camera in the water. In the canopies that rose on the banks birdcalls sounded at steady intervals. In the silence of the jungle it is the tiniest creatures that sound the loudest.

I disappeared round the bend, leaving Philip behind scanning the trees for birds with his binoculars.

At 240 sq. kms., the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats mountain ranges abuts the town of Mollem in Sanguem taluka in the State of Goa, and is the largest of Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries. The National Highway 4A passing through it on its way to Belgaum in Karnataka cuts the wildlife sanctuary into two and poses the most serious threat yet by facilitating transportation of manganese and iron ore from surface mining sites that ring the wildlife sanctuary.

I soon lost the frog. Turning around to retrace my steps I caught sight of the small sandbank to my left. For a moment I was startled to see a perfectly formed sandbank, an uncommon sight in the wildlife sanctuary. Water had splashed upto my knees. I was wearing light trousers and in the October heat it would take less than twenty minutes to dry once we got back on the trail in the Sun. I called out to Philip to come have a look at the sandbank.

The Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the leopard, and the bison among other mammals, and to the Cobra, the Krait, and the Vipers – the Russels, and the Saw Scaled, among other species of snakes. Birdlife in the wildlife sanctuary is said to number over 200 species of birds. I’ve logged over 90 species in the sanctuary myself on my treks over the years.

But it was butterflies I was seeking that October morning last year, and anything ‘interesting’ along the way.

As we prepared to make our way across the stream to the other side I paused to photograph shoots sprouting on the trunk of a large tree. A hint of Sun that made it through the canopy lit up the tender green of the sprouting plant in an ethereal glow as if in a halo around a divine event. Much else was hidden in deep shade, and contrasted sharply in the glow of the Sun meeting the tender shoots on the trunk. At times few sights in the jungle can match the interplay of the sun and the shadows.

It was about then that Philip caught the Sun glinting off the back of the frog sunbathing on a stone mid-stream and I went chasing it before eventually losing it downstream.

As Philip made his way to the tiny sandbank I settled down in the sand more for feeling the sand underneath than for resting. We drank water from the bottle and settled down to soak in the quietude. We had walked two hours before coming upon the stream. Our voices will have been carried downstream, alerting the jungle to our presence. Jungle eyes miss nothing, least of all human voices.

At first I didn’t notice the Common Map Butterfly among the stones, not until it shifted position, seeking a stone in a moist patch to bask on before leaving it for a patch of moist sand.

Its wings matched the pale white of the sand, camouflaging it well in its environs. Unlike some butterflies, most notably the Grass Yellow and the Pansy (Lemon, Grey, Blue, and the Peacock) among a few others, the Common Map Butterfly showed little on no inclination to lead me on fruitless chases in the Sun. It barely moved while I photographed it.

Over the years I’ve come to favour butterflies that seek damp places if for nothing else than for the fact that unlike other butterflies that make photographing them a backbreaking effort in the Sun, water-course loving butterflies wouldn’t be bothered much with human presence unless one got very close,

Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon) is the other species I’ve had better luck photographing. I first came upon Common Bluebottles while we were tracking a leopard along a riverbank, following its pugmarks in the sand when we happened upon a delightful group of Common Bluebottles mud-puddling in the sand, their greenish-blue bands running prominently along the length of their wings on the outside and setting off the pale sand in a burst of colour. I went on my knees with my camera and for close to ten minutes they barely moved, engrossed in mud-puddling. The males among the butterflies are known to mud-puddle along riverbanks and are said to ingest dissolved minerals.

The Common Map Butterfly is rarely to be found away from water courses in the forest and belongs to the Nymphalidae, the butterfly family that accounts for most butterfly species found in India.

As we left the sandbank to pick up our original trail a movement in a leafy branch overhanging the path revealed a butterfly that I thought looked like the Common Indian Crow (Euploea core), among the more commonly found butterflies in the wildlife sanctuary. It looks similar to the female of the Great Eggfly (Hypolimnus bolina) and can be mistaken for one. I’ll remember the Common India Crow for a memorable sighting one summer day in the sanctuary a few years ago.

While on our way to Collem through the sanctuary, Philip and I ran into hundreds of Common Crows migrating through the forest, easily numbering over five hundred and pushing on seemingly determinedly. As they flitted across our path we stood in silence watching them move on. Neither of us had a camera on us that day, and never have I needed a camera as badly ever since!

On long trails flowers break the monotony of the landscape. Here they are not to be found in abundance in the lower reaches of the sanctuary, in marked contrast as one ascends the hills in the vicinity. However Ixora (Ixora coccinea) blooms in the sanctuary all round the year, drawing attention with its bright red petals contrasting sharply against the grey of its surroundings in the summer. Ixora belongs to the Coffee family.

When I started out I had expected to see more of Grey Pansy (Junonia atlites) and was surprised with how few there actually were on the trail. I cannot be sure if it was the time of day that was responsible for so few numbers or if it was the time of year. Whatever the case may be I was delighted to have a Grey Pansy fly over to me and settle on my trousers. Trust makes for delightful company on jungle trails, more so when trails goes quiet in the afternoons.

Teak grows aplenty in the wildlife sanctuary and so does Kindal. Silk Cotton and Flame of the Forest blaze away in early summer while Ficus trees attract birds in droves and together they feast on figs in relative peace. And they feast long. Once I spent over an hour watching a pair of Grey Hornbills oblivious to my presence while they feasted on the figs for the entire duration.

As we walked along more flowers graced our trail, a welcome sprinkling of colour and a reason to pause and take them in before moving on. The Bicolour Persian Violet (Exacum tetragonum) above lent the dry earth promise. Like many flowers in deciduous forests, the Persian Violet flowers in September-December. They were few and far between on our trail.

We dodged Common Grass Yellows (Eurema hecabe) flitting about on the narrow path in the direction of Nandran Mol. Watching pairs of Grass Yellows zig zag along the path it was easy to assume they were courting pairs, it seemed proper to do so, and having done that they acquired a renewed interest in my eyes, and in their every twist and turn I sought a pattern I could then interpret. There was none I could notice though. On occasions the Grass Yellows (Family Pieridae) would feed on flowers before taking off. They added urgency to the quiet afternoon, rarely flying higher than waist level and sticking to the open area of the jungle path. With the Sun beating down on my back one of them eventually perched on a flower long enough for me to release the shutter several times.

In a clearing the forest department had effected along the path not far from where it forks into two directions, one leading to the Vasant Bhandhara, the other up the hill to the highest point in the wildlife sanctuary, a lone male Danaid Eggfly warmed up on the embankment burnt hard by the Sun, closing and opening its wings in slow motion. I crossed over the embankment to get closer to the butterfly.

While returning I was alerted to a rustling in the plants clustered around a tree and which I had brushed on my way back. A menacing looking centipede emerged from the cluster of plants and hurried up the tree at admirable pace.

It was past noon. At a time when one would expect the rarer among the sightings to have retreated into the shade deep inside the jungle, the Grey Count (Tanaecia lepidea) surprised me by making an appearance. Not content with merely making an appearance it flew over to me and settled on my instep and I was loath to move lest it take wings. Moments like these warm the trails in ways that only acceptance by another can. To have it happen to me the second time in a little over an hour and half must mean someone was helping bring things together. I cannot recollect the last time I spotted the Grey Count. Its characteristic white band resembles an upturned mustache. The languorous flight as it took off and settled among low lying vegetation and the easy familiarity it displayed in settling on my instep redeemed the trail in no small measure.

It is never easy to identify the Common Sailor (Neptis hylas) from the Common Sergeant (Athyma perius), more so given how quickly they move about but Common Lascar (Pantoporia hordonia) was easy given their orange markings as against the white of the Sailor and the Sergeant.

Lemon Pansy (Junonia lemonias) matched the Grass Yellow in numbers. Unlike the Grey Pansy, the Lemon Pansy has striking markings on its wings. The two pairs of eye-spots display prominently on the wings. However I was baffled seeing several of the species flying around with broken wings, too many for one trail. I wonder if those eye-spots on the Lemon Pansy had attracted predators into making a grab for their wings. I'll never know.

It’s never easy to overlook a bright and cheerful butterfly with broken wings and move on, and so many!

But I had to!

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March 09, 2009

A Holy Bath in the Tirumala Hills

On my way to the shrine to Ganga (India’s holiest river) at Papavinasanam I avoided looking in the direction of little Ramu while he pranced around his handler lest I pause and let the little fellow inveigle me with his charms and delay my schedule. I have difficulty in telling the age of a monkey just by looking at its face excepting of course when they’re newly born and only a few days old.

Looking at Ramu’s face, his wrinkles et al, I found very little in his expressions and his turn of nose to suggest how far he must have traveled into this world. It was his tiny frame, and a hint of unsteady movement as he walked around exploring all that triggered his curiosity that indicated that maybe he was a little over a month or two old.

The madari, as the keeper of monkeys is known, had put Ramu to work along the narrow path that led on to Papavinasanam, one of the sacred places that pilgrims while on their pilgrimage to the Venkateswara temple at Tirumala, a little over five kilometers away, take time off to visit for a bath in the holy water.

Papavinasanam means ‘ridding sins’. Here pilgrims opt for a holy bath under one of the seven streams of water descending from high above their heads and conducted through openings set high in the wall. Bathing in the sacred water is believed to rid one of sins accrued in deviating from a life of piety.

Those who’ve been visiting Papavinasanam at Tirumala since long recollect of a time when there were no openings in the wall to conduct the holy water that is said to emanate from the Papavinasanam river. Apparently the water used to stream down the height without any conduit channeling it down. It was only later that outlets were made in the wall to channel the sacred water to the convenience of visiting pilgrims, and seven outlets ensure there’re no long queues at the place.

Adjacent to the bath is a dam that goes by the same name as the bath, Papavinasanam. It is one of the three dams the temple town sources its water requirements from, and is 255 metres in length with a catchment area of 8.44 Sq. Kms. The other two dams are the Akashganga, and the Gogarbham.

In the backdrop of the hills and hidden by vegetation from where I stand, the dam stretches like a stairway to the hills across the valley. Standing there I traced the length of the dam as it seemingly bisected the valley, open skies stretching on either side. There was no context to measure it against except the wide open skies and that gave the dam a feel of an ancient fortress guarding angels in the skies. At 9.14 metres, the width of the dam along its length gave it a feel of a massive gateway to somewhere mysterious, somewhere where mortals are barred from entering.

White clouds rode the blue skies, and as they moved along, their shadows fell on the hills beneath. I looked at the clouds in the skies, watching them drag their shadows with them as if drawing a blanket over the hills beneath, turning them a deep shade of green.

While we were there, pilgrims came visiting Papavinasanam in their hundreds. They came in jeeps, in cars, and in buses. Some had shaved their heads at Tirumala in obeisance to the deity, Venkateswara, before traveling to the holy bath, others came barefoot and bare-chested. Then there were families and children, and the young and the elderly, all heading to the bath for a shower under one of the seven giant mouths conveying the sacred water from considerable height, all hoping to leave behind things they must have regretted doing at some point in their lives.

It must hurt I thought to have a shower nozzle that high up, but there was no sign that the water conducted down in narrow streams hurt anyone. Devotees smiled as they cast their clothes away and made for the baths, turning their faces up to catch the streams on their faces, grimacing as it stung the skin.

However not all devotees will have traveled to Papavinasanam for the purpose of cleansing their sins away, actually most wouldn’t have. Devotees usually make their pilgrimage to the Tirumala hills to seek blessings of the deity, Venkateswara, and depending on the time available to them before they make their way back from Tirumala hills to whence they had traveled from they will schedule a quick trip to Papavinasanam, and Akashganga since they both lie within a radius of five kilometers of the Venkateswara temple.

The holy bath at Papavinasanam finds mention in the puranas, the ancient Hindu texts dating back thousands of years. The display board at the entrance to the bath says, “According to Sri Venkatachala puranam a holy bath in this theertham will purify the sins of the devotees and bless them with peace, prosperity and progress. Sunday combined with Shukla Paksha Sapthami in the month of Aswayuja or Dwadasi with Uttarabhadra star is an auspicious day in the teertham. The prominence of this theertham was also mentioned in Skanda puranam.”

Children gloried in the opportunity the bath provided them to frolic in the water, no doubt egged on by the communal nature of the bath. Then there were other children they could join with and share playful pranks under the water coursing down. Excited squeals rent the air as they splashed water on each other, delighting in the freedom to run free. Before the end of the day many a new friendships will have been forged among them, only to go their separate ways as their families bore them away back to where they came from.

Memories are etched the strongest in the moment of separation!

In the warmth of the morning Sun, with clear skies for a roof, a sense of purpose is often strengthened in the shared nature of faith and so it was watching pilgrims partake joyously of their own experience in the bath as from watching others do likewise.

To one corner of the bath lies a shrine to Ganga, the holiest of Indian rivers, revered and worshipped as a deity. At the shrine pilgrims visiting Papavinasanam make offerings to Goddess Ganga while seeking her blessings. On a low platform the statue of the deity was barely visible amidst the garlands adorning her. Priests were busy offering prayers, chanting sacred hyms while worshipers stood at the entrance, hands folded, deep in prayer.

To the other corner lay changing rooms for women for use before stepping in for the holy bath, and afterwards, to change into dry clothes. There was none for men that I could see.

A little girl held up a mirror to a young woman as she combed her hair after the bath, the girl watching the woman’s face intently while the woman looked into the mirror unwavering, patting each strand back in place.

A family of three stood at the parapet, the father lifting his daughter so she could see the bathers below, then turning her to her mother so she could adjust the little girl’s dress. If he lifted her any higher she would’ve been within reach of a passing cloud. As more pilgrims walked in they first stood at the top peering over the parapet to watch devotees bathing below before themselves walking down the steps and getting under the water streaming from above.

Sometimes it is in participating in a community that one achieves a sense of completion, and at other times, a sense of closure.

We prepared to make our way back to where the jeep we’d hired waited for us to return us to the Venkateswara temple, the reason we’d traveled to Tirumala from Tirupati where we were put up on arriving from Bombay. The previous day we bought tickets for entry to the sacred shrine of Venkateswara to offer prayers to the deity and seek blessings in return, and were allotted the noon slot for entry into the ancient temple dating back centuries. With time on our hands until noon we’d hired the jeep to travel to Akashganga, and Papavinasanam, both within a radius of five kilometers from the Venkateswara temple.

On the way back from the sacred bath we passed vendors on either side of the path. In makeshift stalls items on sale ranged from souvenirs, handicrafts, religious books, incense sticks, combs, hair-bands, to salted mango slices, and pictures of Hindu deities.

At the turn where I had first seen them as we took the path leading to the Papavinasanam bath, Ramu the little monkey and his handler were engaged in engaging passing devotees, collecting money from enthralled passers-by. Ramu watched the madari count the money he received from passers-by.

I paused so I could photograph little Ramu. No sooner I squatted to draw level with Ramu sitting tightly squeezed under the madari’s arm, he said something to Ramu that I couldn’t quite pick, and in a jiffy Ramu responded to the madari’s instruction and leapt over to me and sat on my lap, running his tiny hands on my stomach as if to say “Hey, you’ve a full belly here, help me fill mine,” his lease trailing from his neck.

I could barely feel his weight. People around me smiled at the picture little Ramu and I made together. I smiled too. I passed Ramu a banana and he made little work of it in no time.

Sometimes the joy of being accepted comes from acceptance by the unexpected.

In time Ramu will learn new tricks. He will learn to salute, to somersault, and many other things so that he can amuse passing devotees. If devotees stopped being amused by Ramu there’s just a chance a baby monkey somewhere will get to stay with its mother!

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March 01, 2009

A Riverside Inn

Finding no one around to hear her out the old lady turned to me and said, “I asked him for tea. He hasn’t brought it yet.” Then she turned to face the youth she had come with, possibly someone she knew from the village or maybe her relative. He stood near the door talking into the mouthpiece of a yellow coloured coin phone resting on a narrow table that also doubled up as a shelf, and a counter. The light had turned a shade of yellow as it bounced off the folding door painted a bright yellow.

H. N. 35 was marked in clear bold letters on the wooden planks making up the door. I wondered if this place was a home before it was converted into an inn, but I could not remember ever seeing it as anything other than an inn in the decade and half of my intermittent travels to the Volvoi ferry point. Moreover it is not uncommon in Goan villages to find a room in the house converted into a shop, or an inn. Other times the inn becomes the house, the family living in a room to the back.

The folding doors are characteristic of Goan inns. Unlike apartment residences where doors open to admit visitors in before closing behind them, shops need to keep their doors open all times and folding doors take up little or no space.

The inn was beginning to crowd with passengers awaiting the 10:50 a.m. river ferry to take them across the Mandovi to Surla-Maina on the other side of the river, and from there buses awaiting the arrival of the ferry would take them to Bicholim and beyond, to Sanquelim.

I’ve traveled by the Volvoi ferry several times, heading back from Sanquelim, and each time I’ve resolved to avoid the Volvoi ferry if I could, less for the ferry itself than for the road leading to the ferry point at Maina-Surla. Mining trucks making their way back and forth between loading points down river and the open-pit iron ore mines at Surla have turned the roads between Surla-Maina and Sanquelim into dusty bowels, reducing the traveling to bumpy rides.

I had little to worry about this morning, for I wasn’t taking the ferry anywhere. I had come in for a bit of quiet, and a bite of Pao Bhaji for breakfast.

From where I sat, my back to the makeshift kitchen, I could see the door that led into the small inn by the riverfront in Volvoi. The inn was set back from the mud path that led to the river. On the outside two pillars held up the sloping roof fitted with Mangalore tiles. A large window from where the innkeeper conducted his business lay to one side. Beneath the window lay a wooden bench where elderly village folk gather for a casual chat in the evenings, at other times passengers awaiting the ferry rest on the bench in the shade of the roof. The inn faced the approach road to the river, but if one sat by the window to the front of the inn, next to the door, one could see the river and the activities nearby.

Across the approach road from the entrance to the inn, a fishing canoe lay covered in dried coconut fronds. The last time I was here two fishing canoes shining from a vigorous application of cashew oil lay drying in the Sun. I could smell the cashew long before I saw the canoes.

I had scootered down to the narrow riverfront at half past ten for a breakfast of Pao Bhaji, a combination of vegetable preparation and bread, favoured by Goans for a quick bite. The quiet of the riverfront at Volvoi is inviting, though of late sand-dredging in the river has introduced commotion unique to dredging activities.

"Most of the dredgers have been brought in from Orissa," a passenger awaiting the ferry was telling another as they watched workers walk past the inn to their boats in the river. As the boats began to fill with sand dredged from the river, workers on the boat filled baskets with sand and passed them on to other workers who carried them off the boat, walking down the planks leading from the boats to the shore.

“He’s handling the customers all alone,” I replied. The old lady did not seem convinced with my reply.

“He’ll bring you tea. It’s just that he has many passengers to serve, and all are in a hurry like you are to get to the ferry before it sets off,” I explained, smiling. This time she muttered something under her breath, returning my smile. In the noise of passengers stepping into the inn for a cup of tea or a pack of biscuits, or to make a call from the PCO her reply drowned out.

“I have to catch the ferry. What if I miss it?” she asked me in a brief lull in the conversations to the front of the inn. I had no answer to that except an acknowledgement of her concerns.

The old lady sat sideways on the wooden bench constructed from metal angles. Only a little time remained before the ferry would sound its departure. With the clock edging to the time of departure, the elderly lady grew even more irritable and there was still no sign of her tea.

“Tell him you’re getting late,” I said to her, motioning with my thumb behind me where the innkeeper was washing glasses.

Cha maaglele re (I had asked for tea),” she called out to the innkeeper in Konkani, the local language.

“She’s waiting for tea,” repeated a middle-aged woman who had tuned in to our conversation. Soon it became apparent that the middle-aged woman and the old lady were traveling together.

“I’m yet to make tea,” the innkeeper replied from behind me, before walking up to an old Philips refrigerator to the back of the inn. Meanwhile another lady steps in to ask for a pack of biscuits. Opening the refrigerator he reaches in for a cold drink someone had asked for, then reaches for a pack of biscuits on the shelf of the glass cupboard facing the window.

Seeing the refrigerator open the old lady gets up from her seat. “Maka ek thand di,” she says to the innkeeper. (Give me a cold drink). Tea is now history.

He hands her a bottle of orange drink. Zen sells well in villages in the heart of Goa. Locally manufactured it has caught on among villagers in the last few years, considerably cheaper than Pepsi or Coke. However I find its Cola flavour strange to taste, orange is okay though. The youth has finished calling from the PCO. He turns to see the old lady accept the cold drink from the innkeeper but says nothing.

No sooner she had taken a sip from the bottle she drew her head back as if stunned by the experience. “It’s too cold,” she said to the youth.

“You should’ve have a taken a slightly warmer one,” the youth replied.

The old lady went quiet, and attempted another sip.

“For old people it is difficult to drink something this cold,” the middle-aged woman said to no one in particular. The innkeeper heard her but did not break stride as he moved from customer to customer, each hurrying him into completing their purchases, each worried that the ferry would depart without them.

“Don’t worry,” said the middle-aged woman to the old woman, “you drink it warm. The ferry will wait.”

The old woman is not convinced. She looks out the window to check if the ferry is still around. It is. She turns her attention to the orange drink. It’s still too cold for her. She hands the bottle over to the middle-aged woman and that is that!

The refrigerator opens again. A customer who’s just walked in asks for a cola.

Goa feels the heat in October and sales of cold drinks goes up after the lull in the monsoons. I cannot remember the last time I saw a Philips refrigerator. The innkeeper tells me that he bought it second-hand for Rs. 2000, a year ago. “Somebody I knew bought it from somebody they knew in Margoa, then they sold it to me. It’s running well,” he said.

“I owned a Kelvinator before this one, had it for many, many years. I could not repair it anymore so I let go of it and got this one (Philips make). This one is old too, but has not given me any problems yet.”

Just then a call sounds outside the window. In a matter of few seconds the inn empties out of customers as they hurry out to board the ferry. The innkeeper walks up to the entrance and watches the ferry pull out as its sets off for the other bank. Silence returns to the inn.

The innkeeper walks over to where I sit and says, “Now I will get you your Pao Bhaji.”

“Sure,” I smile.

When I had walked into the inn earlier in the day he had asked me if I had a ferry to catch. When I told him I wasn’t taking the ferry he asked me if it was okay if he attended first to customers who had a ferry to catch. I told him to go right ahead.

He returns to the back of the kitchen to whip up Bhaji. I sit still watching out the window.

I eat the Pao Bhaji in silence. The Pao is fresh. In no time I finish both. Then I ask for another plate of Pao Bhaji, then some tea.

Time passes. The wall clock shows 40 minutes past eleven. Voices of sand dredgers float in to where I sit. If I listened carefully I might be able to hear the water lapping the banks in the distance.

The next ferry is scheduled for 11:50 a.m. Until then I have the silence of the inn to myself. A fly buzzes somewhere in the inn. At times when the ear tunes in to a sound in the silence, the sound, more often than not, ceases to be an irritant.

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