manu-newMANOHAR SHETTY first visited Goa in the early seventies when he was a college student in Bombay. He recounts in this exquisitely written essay, “Drifting on a High Tide”  his experimentation with drugs. In some sense, the accuracy and precision of this narrative reflects a poet’s skill with his medium. One cannot help recalling William Burroughs ‘Naked Lunch’.

 

Drifting on a High Tide

– 1 –

I first came to Goa in the early Seventies, ostensibly a college student — ostensibly because like most other students in my college I didn’t attend classes, and only sat for the final examinations after a month of intensive studying. I came on the steamer, the Konkan Sevak, along with two friends. That steamer — scrapped after a stint with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka — has sailed into cult status. It was where a holiday to Goa actually began with its endless rounds of housie and loud, old-fashioned music. Old timers, both Indian and foreign, still recall those trips wistfully. The ship chugged off from Ferry Wharf in Bombay in theearly hours and arrived at Panjim jetty the next morning, welcomed by a luminous sunrise and the friendly waves of the Mandovi river.

We were not interested in housie or old-fashioned music. We found a corner in the lower deck, and watched with some respect, amidst the din of the diesel engine, long-haired foreigners sniffing cocaine and mainlining heroin, veins in their wrists and forearms bulging like twisted high-voltage wires. Unlike some of my friends, I didn’t do the hard stuff. And unlike the maestro Nissim Ezekiel, I didn’t experiment with acid. I lacked the courage to lose my mind unconditionally to the clutches of a whimsical chemical. But we were armed with smooth Afghani hashish and grass from Kerala — not the inferior Bombay Black, which was laced with opium and looked like goat droppings, that we usually smoked.

We spent two weeks in Calangute, Baga, and Anjuna and stayed at Souza Lobo on Calangute beach. Souza Lobo was then an L-shaped shack with a few cheap rooms, separated by bamboo screens — not the pucca structure and popular restaurant it is now. Besides us, there were a few square foreigners — ‘square’ because they didn’t smoke dope. We didn’t interact with them, but did the usual rounds of the flea market at Anjuna where the air, thick with marijuana, emaciated foreigners sold or bartered old cameras, tape recorders, semi-precious stones from Nepal, home-made cheese and hash cookies, Swiss army knives, books, musical instruments, sleeping bags and haversacks — the last two items much prized after a thorough wash in Dettol.

Much of our time we spent in a narcotic haze, contemplating the sea and watching feline-eyed freaks (as they were known in those politically incorrect days), utterly self-absorbed, slowly injecting themselves into a state of nirvana and an early exit from the temporal world. I didn’t find much evidence of flower-power gentleness and there were areas in Anjuna, especially, where foreigners were openly hostile to the local community and gawking visitors. There were restaurants with an unwritten code that effectively debarred Indians.

I was then a scrawny, longhaired young man at odds with my family and the college curriculum, and as callow as they come. It was the era of Woodstock; all my friends swore allegiance to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and a host of other ‘far out’ anti-establishment musicians. I hummed along tunelessly, but I also buried myself in books. Unlike my friends, who were far more interested in music, I was a compulsive reader. In the boarding school I went to I read the westerns of JT Edson, Zane Grey and the Sudden series by Oliver Strange. Other favourites included the Jennings series and some of the Biggles adventures. In college I read every thing that came to hand: early favourites were JD Salinger and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. I read Camus (a tattered copy of The Rebel bought for three rupees at the flea market), Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Kafka, Andre Gide, Bernard Malamud, Graham Greene, the then fashionable Herman Hesse, and the obnoxious philosophy of Ayn Rand. For a while I went through a science fiction phase and was captivated by the novels of Stanislaw Lem and JG Ballard. I also harboured a strange and illicit secret: I wrote poems — or what I thought were poems. They were savage outpourings heaping scorn on the establishment and reflections on my own raw uncertainties about my future. I hadn’t read much poetry and after the mandatory Tennyson and Walter de la Mare in school, I thought of it as something vaguely pompous.

Apart from what I felt was my focussed, justified and uncompromising rebelliousness and the enervating battles with my family, I was studying such exotica as Mercantile Law and Statistics in a suburban commerce college I loathed. For the first time in my life I failed an examination. All this was enough to drive me to those secret outpourings in a diary. In the early years I was writing in a complete vacuum, with only nebulous notions of rhyme and half rhyme, drawn mainly from the rock lyrics of the time. I knew no other writers or poets, only another young man, intense and handsome, with light eyes and brownish hair, who wrote page after page of Hindi film lyrics. He was always broke and I was a willing cadgee to his hooch and omelette-pao needs. I was highly impressed when he told me that he spent his nights sleeping in the local crematorium. One night he invited me to his fiery digs, and amidst shots of reeking narangi — the local rotgut — and swirling ganja smoke, shadows of flames fanning the dingy walls, he showed me the obituary register, which he occasionally helped fill up. The names of the dead were scrawled one below the other with their ages. I was relieved to find that no young person figured in that list. I could not always understand the lyricist’s highbrow Hindi when he read out his songs, but to me he was the ultimate ghostwriter.

 

– 2 –

 Buffeted around by music directors and other better connected songwriters in the harsh tinsel world of Bombay, I don’t know what eventually happened to him. But I had made a discovery. In Rampart Row at Thacker’s Book Shop I found a shelf containing the Penguin Modern Poets series. Each slim volume carried a selection from three poets. Over a period of time, I bought most of them and read them all slowly and raptly. Brownjohn-Hamburger-Tomlinson; Holbrook-Middleton-Wevill; Murphy-Silken-Tarn; Black-Redgrove-Thomas; Amis-Moraes-Porter. I had never read anything like it before. Sharp, terse, unequivocally modern and the language polished steel. This was poetry, palpable and profound, sometimes inaccessible and opaque, but always intriguing. For some reason the Faber poets were not included in the selections. But I soon discovered them too. Ted Hughes’ Hawk in the Rain, Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist and Thom Gunn’s Fighting Terms were the first full-length collections that I read, followed by Ian Hamilton’s The Visit, borrowed indefinitely from the British Council library. The poems of these four poets struck me with their powerful immediacy and their poise. In later years, I would lose the uncritical enthusiasm in the first flush of discovery I had for some of the Penguin Modern poets, especially after I read more poets in translation from Russian and various European languages and the work of contemporary poets in India. Even in those surcharged Beat-fashionable years, I was not taken in by the Beat poets or the Liverpool Mersey Sound. But at that time of ignorance and innocence, the discoveries were overwhelming and thrilling.

The poetry of Ted Hughes, Gunn and Heaney has always stayed with me. They are My Sad Captains and in those difficult years, my lifeline. In Goa I was armed not just with dope, but with books by these poets. I remember reading Ted Hughes’ Hawk Roosting, one of the great poems of the last century, late one night in that threadbare shack in Calangute, the waves crashing like drumbeats, my eyes dilated in wonder and intoxication, the room filled with the unmatched fragrance of hashish. The words seemed sentient, rising in eidetic loops and whorls. I remember, in a freakish attempt at connectivity, writing in long hand the last stanza of the poem and gazing at it incredulously:

The sun is behind me
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

The banality of evil as seen through the cold soul of a hawk, the tone despotic and menacing. I see it even more clearly now: there are hawks all around us.
We spent most of our time lazing on the beaches of Bardez — we were known by our families as ‘spare parts’. But one morning I took a rickshaw from Panjim to visit a friend in Dona Paula, about seven kilometres from the city. The driver took me through a landscape so rocky and desolate that I felt I was being escorted to a mugging. The sight of a huge monitor lizard soaking up the sun on the pre-Cambrian rock only enhanced the primeval air of the place. However, nothing exciting befell me. But I was not to know then that twenty years later I would buy a home there. And, admiring the refulgent natural beauty of Goa in those drifting two weeks, I was not to know that seven years later I would meet another natural beauty who would one day lead me to Goa.

At that time, I was bonded to Mumbai. Its vicious inequities apart, the city unleashed a pulsating and infectious energy. It was a combative place, though I was a poor runner in the rat race. It was a city which retched you out every evening from crammed trains and buses and regurgitated you the next morning. The queues at bus-stands were like the tails of reptiles which grew back tirelessly and the traffic an endless purring, choking chain. But the city still had a hold on me. At night it was a giant electronic circuit board, emitting siren-like signals. But its sleazy underbelly stank of sewers and a scatology uniquely its own. A few years after the trip to Goa, I wrote a poem called Bombay, in which the city is seen as a beast devouring itself and everything around it. A stanza read:

Marooned by the unkillable
Cycle of mutilations, it widens
Mutant serrated teeth
To rip and masticate the tightening
Tourniquet of the sea.

There is an obvious reference to land reclamation; however, it is not the kind of poem I usually write. I do not relate to places directly and with the same authenticity I do to personal relationships and to undefined, marauding inner anxieties. But a city will grow invidiously into you with its smells, its clangour and overpowering physical presence. Images of it will flicker in and out unconsciously. Soon after Bombay I wrote a poem called Mannequin, which to me conveys a truer, more subtle view of the city. Here is a mannequin, in her own plain words:

Bathed so long in this rich ring of light
I can now discern a recurring face
In those scudding hordes. I watch his
Worried brow, the perpetual briefcase
Weary with age, as he vanishes past
Too pressed for time to appreciate
My groomed slender frame, my glass blue eyes
Gleaming all day from my elevated place.

Sometimes, under the harsh neon light, a woman
Stops before my transparent cage, transfigured till
Closing time by my silks and earrings.
I would like to erase that longing
In her eyes — ornaments can be replaced;
But a vacant darkness swarms
Within me too, and I cannot go beyond
This fixed fond smile.

Thom Gunn in In Praise of Cities talks of the city as a feminine entity, both sweetly seductive and whorish:

She presses you with her hard ornaments,
Arcades, late movie shows, the piled lit windows
Of surplus stores. Here she is loveliest;
Extreme, material, and the work of man.

The city, Gunn writes, ‘is indifferent to the indifference that conceived her’ and it ‘compels a passion without understanding’. I was soon to discover passion of another kind and the indifference that would turn the city into a trap.

 

– 3 –

I first met V, an ineffably beautiful Goan Catholic, in the offices of the Indian Express at Nariman Point where we both worked as sub-editors. Her very first glance had a seismic effect on me, an effect so irradiating it scorched my shyness and sense of reserve. She worked in the daily and I was with the Sunday magazine section. Unlike me, she worked on shifts and there were days I could not see her. After some adroit manoeuvring, I managed to get her transferred to the magazine section, thus ensuring greater proximity. I had by then met a few poets — the genie-eyed Adil Jussawalla who later became the literary editor and Dom Moraes — quaint English accent, whisky flask in the bottom drawer — who was, for a while, the editor of the magazine. When the magazine, then known as The Sunday Standard, shifted its office temporarily to a dreary, empty building at Sassoon Dock, the hub of the fisheries market of Bombay, my relationship with V flourished with its own felicitous fragrance. The warehouses below were full of frozen fish but the waste strewn everywhere turned the office into a putrid, piscine hell. The stench of rotting fish seeped into the newspapers, our clothes, the stationery, even the tea and the galleys. When the breeze swelled the smell rose to epic, ossuary levels. The roads were littered with comb-like bones and the translucent shells of prawns. In the rains, floating fins clung to our shoes and the ends of our trousers. Escapee crabs scuttled around and legions of cats hankered after our fin-filmed shoes outside the docks. One of the staff, a vegetarian, puked regularly at the end of the day. I tried to rise above the miasma and did what any smitten young man does: write a love poem. I called it Gifts:

You unfold, like starfish
On a beach, your touch
Stills the rumpled sea,
Hair plastered seaweed.

I come from the labyrinths:
Traffic lights park in my eyes
Before I cross, highways fork
And stream like veins in my hand.

You hunger for a blade of grass
In the welter of concrete,
I step on softening sand
Suspiciously. Together

We trace a bridge: you pick
A shell translucent as neon,
And I a tribal earring
Reflected in plate glass.

When this poem found its way into Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s The Oxford-India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, and from there into an Italian translation for a journal called Clandestino, and then into a wonderful, multilingual anthology of love poetry, Amore in Verse, published in Rome I sensed that a spark, phosphorous-like, had bobbed up from the sea of dead mackerel, shark and bummalo.

But apart from the poems, the ‘arcades, late movie shows, the piled lit windows’, the city was building an ominous wall around our lives. The salaries of two subs could not sustain a decent household in the city. And there were changes at the senior level of the magazine that made us wary of our future there. There was also talk that the magazine section would be shifted to Delhi. I found no refuge in dope — I had long since given it up after a bummer of such terrifying intensity that I doubled my intake of nicotine. (That trip into paranoia was triggered off by my smoking almost an entire chillum of hash, undiluted by tobacco, in an adda at Churchgate. In that trip, the city stood starkly and grotesquely still, my pulse pounding with the terror that the terror itself would not end.) When the offer came of an arranged marriage, with a dowry masked in some huge property, I was almost as petrified as in that tailspin into palpitating stasis. I had also grown tired of commuting, of being thumped back and forth like a dirty volleyball. And V longed to return to Goa.

For me, leaving Bombay was still an awful wrench. I had published A Guarded Space, my first book of poems and had made friends in the small bardic fraternity as well as in the newspaper world. It was the place, where years before, I had discovered the work of Hughes, Heaney, Gunn and the Americans Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell, all on my own. I would miss the Fort area the most, not only its magnanimous bustle and helter-skelter efficiency, but as a place where I lived much of my life. My mother, an only daughter, had six brothers and some of them owned and ran restaurants and bars in the area: Ankur, Apexa, Alankar, the hugely popular Apoorva, the jauntily named Garden Jolly and in recent years, Wall Street. I ran Ankur for two years in the hope of instant prosperity, but soon realised that there were obstacles far beyond my realm of control. There were unwritten laws I could not transgress. I left Bombay in 1983, with a cavernous bag of books, and little else.

Some months after I left Bombay, I wrote a poem called Departures, about a lonely and disorienting bus journey. The poem is a trifle long to be reproduced here. But a few years later, married to V on borrowed money and settled in Goa, I wrote a poem called Moving Out, whose immediate motivation was the shifting of our house in Panjim, but whose echoes I can track back to my departure from Bombay.

After the packing the leavetaking.
The rooms were hollow cartons.
The gecko listened stilly —
An old custom — for the heartbeat
Of the family clock.

After the spring cleanings
Now the drawing of curtains.
I thought of the years between
These grey walls, these walls
Which are more than tympanic.

There remained much, dead and living,
Uncleared, unchecked: dust mottled
Into shreds under loaded bookshelves;
The fine twine of a cobweb
Shone in the veranda sunlight.

All this I brushed aside along
With the silverfish in flaking tomes,
The stains on marble and tile
Scoured with acid; but the ghosts
Loomed like windstruck drapes;

Like the rectangle left by
A picture frame: below a nail
Hooked into a questionmark,
A faint corona,
A contrasting shade.

 

– 4 –

Old Goa was once a city, the ‘Rome of the Orient’, the most prized metropolis in the Portuguese dominions. The magnificent 16th and 17th century churches in modern Old Goa are testimonials to that past glory when travellers coined a proverb in Portuguese, Quem vio Goa excusa de ver Lisboa (If you have seen Goa, there’s no need to visit Lisbon). Contemporary Goa is, of course, not a city, but a state of 1.3 million people, the smallest in the country. But it is still a state, and for most Goans statehood in 1987 came as a benediction. It released them from the arbitrary whims of succeeding, all-powerful Governors and invested real power in democratically elected leaders. That Goa has seen an astounding thirteen changes in the chief minister’s post in the last ten years is another story — and a prize claimant to doggerel verse. My assimilation into Goan society was made much easier by my marriage to V. Xenophobia existed in 1985 as it does now, as hordes of ‘outsiders’ find a place in the sun in this blindingly-green state. Curiously, my Mangalore origins also paved the way for easier acceptance here. Perhaps it has to do with the early history of Goa when thousands of Hindus fled to neighbouring areas in the wake of Portuguese ecclesiastical zeal.

The Goa I live in is very different from the one experienced by ephemeral visitors. Within a few months of my arrival, I found a job as an editor of a monthly magazine, a position I held for eight years. I soon discovered that beneath the gloss there was much that was gross. Legal threats and abusive phone calls are stock-in-trade for any editor. But provincial meanness can take some absurd turns. In one instance, when I refused to publish a clearly defamatory letter by a young college lecturer, he sent me eight foolscap sheets of invective — in red ink, in stylish cursive and on both sides of the paper. I saw at close quarters the tussles of politicians with their daft dreams of transforming Goa into ‘another Singapore’, the struggle for Konkani to achieve official first language status in the state, the wanton environmental degradation by iron ore miners, the ruinous fallouts of unplanned tourism, the most repellent avarice in both the higher and lower ranks of government, and builders and property developers trampling over the fragile ecosystem with sickening boorishness. The colour of corruption and venality is the same everywhere. For some, Goa is paradise; for others, who have always lived here, it is indeed paradise lost.

Of great concern to the community are the wild distortions about Goa blazed abroad by the media and popular cinema and fanned by the demands of tourism. In my Introduction to Ferry Crossing — Short Stories from Goa, I wrote: “Such has been the gilded smokescreen created by tourism and its avaricious auxiliary industries. It becomes necessary, therefore, to clear the air and place the facts as they are. Few in the rest of the country even realise that the Catholic community in Goa is very much a minority; that the most widely spoken language in Goa, Konkani, is an official language under the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution; that the caste system (the word is derived from the Portuguese ‘casta’) remains deeply rooted in the Catholic community too; or that the tiresome eulogising of vapid, risibly moralistic pop stars has been at the expense of some of the finest Goan exponents of Indian classical music.”

Another misconception is that inter-racial marriages were common and widespread in Goa. The truth is, except in the early years after the conquest of Goa in 1510, when Afonso de Albuquerque favoured such unions between the Portuguese and the native population, miscegenation was rare, and looked down upon by both sides. In the Introduction I also point out howlers on Goa in Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay and in the otherwise admirable A Son of the Circus by John Irving. But so deeply ingrained is the brochured image of the place that even an astute observer like William Dalrymple, the award winning and seasoned British travel writer, goes into starry-eyed overdrive. In his At the Court of the Fish-eyed Goddess, published in 1998, the same year as Ferry Crossing, here is his description of Fontainhas, the Latin Quarter of Panjim, much touted as a tourist attraction in coffee-table books: “Wandering through the quarter in the evening you come across scenes impossible to imagine anywhere else in India: violinists practise Villa Lobos at open windows; caged birds sit chirping on ornate art nouveau balconies looking out over small red tiled piazzas. As you watch, old men in pressed linen trousers and Homburg hats spill out of the taverns, walking sticks in hand, and make their way unsteadily over the cobbles, past the lines of battered 1950s Volkswagen Beetles slowly rusting into oblivion.”

I spent well over three years in this same area, editing that magazine from a small, poky office from 1986 onwards. I’ve seen nothing resembling Dalrymple’s rosy description. The residents of Fontainhas, in fact, routinely complain of the inadequate sanitation facilities, the poor ventilation in their houses and the constant flow of noisy traffic. And as for the famed ‘cobbles’, I discovered that nobody could recall seeing them since the beginning of the last century! All I saw were a few potholes. More worryingly, Dalrymple shares the widely held Western fallacy that most Goans did not desire freedom from Portuguese rule. He derives this conviction after a few interviews and a conversation with a quaint, anachronistic old lady who dwells entirely and most blissfully in the Portuguese past. Such cock-eyed perceptions are inadvertently disparaging of the Goan community at large, and more so to the spirit of the 72 martyrs and the thousands incarcerated and tortured by the Portuguese police in jails in Goa, Portugal, Angola and Cabo Verde during the state’s long and arduous struggle for liberation.

Both the horizontal world of prose and the vertical one of poetry have been a part of me. I write poems because I need to. It is not an act of will, but must come, as Anne Stevenson says of love, as naturally “as a Ferris Wheel to its fair”. Poetry is for me an internal stabiliser and that moment is unmatched when some ephemeral, drifting wisp of thought and image is snatched miraculously from midair and made palpable on paper. Goa has not gifted its poetry to me. I have written poems here, of course, but they have no ‘setting’ and could have been written anywhere. I cannot write obvious Socialist verse, of ‘the blood in the street and blood in the bread you eat’ kind. To me Paul Celan is an infinitely greater poet than Pablo Neruda. And though Ted Hughes’ last book, Birthday Letters, was to me a huge disappointment, his birds and beasts speak to me as lucidly and disturbingly as they did those years ago. In Goa the sunsets are gold and saffron, the seas opalescent, the rivers sinuous and silvery and the greenery riotously green. But there is no intrinsic poetry in external beauty.

The provenance of poetry lies elsewhere. There’s an avocado tree in our backyard. Planted by my neighbour, a Scotsman, several years ago, it is tall and spindly. Lovingly tended, it flowers every year but never bears fruit. I’ve been told that it’s the female of the species, and for it to bear fruit it must cross-pollinate with its male counterpart. No amount of water and fertiliser will bring that tree to real fruition. Native chicku, cashew, bora, guava and mango trees flourish everywhere, wild, fecund as the mongrels in the neighbourhood. But not that solitary, spinsterish tree, alien to the rocky terrain of the place. There’s the seed of a poem in this somewhere. But I can’t get to the root of it. Poems are like that — elusive, sentient creatures. Teasing, disparate images floating about, very rarely dovetailing into place.

There are other pictures: a cauliflower vaguely brings to mind the human brain (vegetable?); a brinjal wears a Roman helmet; a panicky centipede on the widow grille is a roller coaster or the wagons of a goods train; windscreen wipers swish to and fro and I’m reminded of an umpire signalling a boundary; my twelve-year-old daughter’s asthmatic lungs are a guttural tremolo; her sore throat is emery paper. Singly, these are showy, empty pictures. But linked and anchored to a comprehensible reality, to a wider human canvas, and tautened by language and the tug of emotion, these images can grow to meaningful metaphor, claiming a living identity of their own. Poems are not merely ways of seeing but ways of feeling too. Those colourful shreds of cloth scattered on the floor of a tailor’s shop can easily be stitched into a wall-hanging, but into a usable garment — free-size? That’s a little more difficult.

 

– 5 –

The use of the ingenious hyperbolical simile has been raised to a delectable art by the English poets, Craig Raine and Christopher Reid. There’s even a name for it: ‘The Martian School of Poetry’, after a poem by Raine called A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, in which an alien, in honest and child-like bewilderment, sends back his report on Earth. I’ve never written a fullfledged ‘Martian’ poem, but I find that kind of imagination at work profoundly attractive.

A reviewer once complained that I was retreating further and further into the self, into an eventual state of aphasia. But before I’m condemned as an escapist recording the sound of his own heartbeats for an audience of one, I would like to let on that even in my most absent moments, I look at my world quizzically. Last year a poem came to me, unannounced and almost fully-formed, after a nerve-wracking fallow spell, and goodness me, it was all about Goa:

Stills from Baga Beach

Vast freckled Englishwomen
Pylon-limbed
Thaw in the sun. Their breasts
Loll out like baby
Sea lions.

Flabby leftovers of Valhalla
Diet on bread and bananas,
Their dozing blue eyes stroke
Small boys in torn
Pyjamas.

The German studies the Vedanta
In translation through chromax
Dark glasses, her oozing
Tattoo mobbed by
Bluebottles.

The temple elephant, vermilion
Swastika on its domed
Forehead, lumbers
Unblinking over the buff
Sands.

I don’t visit Baga and the other beaches of Bardez too often. Tourism has disfigured the place into facelessness. The shady invasion of the beach umbrella seems unstoppable. Every few yards, there’s a hotel, a boutique, a shopping centre and a beauty parlour —reminiscent of any city. My wife feels the degradation much more keenly — she has irretrievably lost the places of her childhood. At Anjuna, the flea market is a regular bazaar with stalls selling Rajasthani and Tibetan handicrafts. No one plays Bob Dylan here. But I don’t mean to be a killjoy. The seas are still relatively clean and the air eminently breathable. And when the breeze blows the coconut palms do sway. The dress code is very informal, but it is not recommended that visitors roam the streets in their underpants like some of the lager louts from England. And if you are into Goa trance and techno, the state’s latest large-scale export to the west, the place pulsates with it. ‘Adrenalinn drum-Xperimental Goa from Unnatural Recordings’; ‘Techossomy —Synthetic Flesh from Flying Rhino’; ‘Holy Mushroom from the High Society label’; ‘Trance psyberdelic from Moonshine’; ‘Deck Wizards Goa Gil-Kosmatrator from the Psychic deli label’— this is the new cosmic beat, born in Goa and exported to the UK, Sweden, France, Germany and Finland.

I’ve been to only one rave party and consider myself fortunate to be living out of earshot, in Dona Paula, near Panjim, in an eyrie of a house overlooking the Arabian Sea. The monitor lizard population has dwindled sharply and in their place stand luxurious bungalows, row houses and hotels, rising pellmell from the crushed pre-Cambrian rock. I live in an older, more orderly area, one of the pioneering settlements in the place. Dona Paula is filled with myth and legend. They do not stir me. I know them for what they are: tall tales for the gullible tourist. I prefer to watch from my balcony, at night, the radiant clockhands of the Aguada lighthouse scything through the sky, marking time. With each passing year, I feel a greater reluctance to visit the big city.

The historic lighthouse has not inspired a poem. But lately, I found myself examining a bunch of keys. Old, rusted, I don’t remember what doors and cupboards they once opened. But, unmistakably, I saw the stirring of a poem — a skeleton key that opened a doorway to the past and the present. A poem speaks for itself. Once written, it does not belong to its creator. Often, when I come across my old poems in anthologies and periodicals, I find myself wondering which person wrote them. This poem is too fresh in my mind for that otherworldly detachment. To me, it traverses both Bombay and Goa, and unlocks a part of my heart:

Anniversary Poem
A few click into place
From this ring of rusted keys
Like a child’s stick-drawing
Of the human race.

This one, brittle as nicotine-scarred
Teeth, unlocked photographs
Silverfished, sepia with age —
A schoolboy’s album of hills,

Lakes, embroidered gold
Colours on maroon blazers;
And that stray picture of a scrawny,
Long-haired creature

In a narcotic haze, dreaming
Of escape first into a neon
Forest, then into colliding
Waves, spindrift in the face.

But that flat iron key, its bit
A city skyline, opened doors
To a chain of empty rooms,
Cobwebbed calendars, uncleared bins,

Unread books, unwritten poems,
A young man’s wavering silhouette
At a darkened window, toxic eyes
On a key lost in a gunmetal sea.

The master-key that came, warm steel,
Fully rounded, sprung ajar a grey
Shutter to sunlit waves, arms, hands,
Gentle as clouds, shutting down

Room after empty room.

© Copyright – Author

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