Thursday, 23 August 2018

The Portuguese Men of War

This wasn't a good Sunday for me to get my walking-pedicure on the beach. Somehow, I'd also started out without the usual sense of abandon when in the proximity of the waves. There's something irresistible about the ocean's waves crashing onto the shore-line, especially in the monsoon. Swollen with rain, there seems to be an urgency to the forcefully rising and falling white crests that rush at the sandy seaboard. The higher they surge, the faster they swoosh inland and the more wicked they are, the greater my heart surges. It's almost as if the recklessness of the waves, rushing in and running back, over and under each other, without a care of what they carry aground, equally indifferent to the torment they may cause, pulling back into sea, things and people that matter to us, inspires a sense of freedom.  Observing their powerful coming and going, one after the other, without a pause, can evoke a lack of inhibition in me.
The week gone by, I'd been running alongside the sea. Enthused by the energetic waves, I'd just felt like jogging, instead of the usually lazy saunter at sundown. And no matter how much I'd try, not to get wet, the watery crests would have their way. Greedy tongues, frothing at the tip, would reach higher and higher, as white foam slithered up the gentle slopes of golden sand. Deceptively lazy from a distance, they have strong currents that send them out and up, which also pull masses of sand, back into its depths. It wasn’t easy keeping my balance on the undulating sandy terrain at Candolim. Even walking, if my step falters, sea water soars upwards, wetting me through and through.  In one such instance, my iphone, though covered by a leather pouch strapped around my waist, tasted the salted waters, never to recover from that fatal sip. But this evening, I couldn't muster the energy to run.

Barefoot is my preferred mode on this favoured stretch of the Goan coastline- from Candolim to Sinquerim. And truly, it's the best pedicure you can get. It certainly beats the nibbling fish. If you can even stomach the idea of sitting with your feet inside large, transparent, fish-bowls, watching inch-long fish feed on your dead skin - not to mention the creepy feeling as minutely scaled, marine creatures munch on your epidermis! I've seen people seated three in a row with their naked feet inside transparent, glass fish-bowls, on the ground floor lobby of Mall de Goa in Porvorim, who’ve paid 150 rupees for ten minutes of this treatment. As I passed by, I became squeamish, just seeing those gobbling fish in action. I much prefer the sand exfoliation as I run or amble through it. Though I do miss the chit-chat with Prem Singh and Rishi at Silhouette, at The Oberoi in Delhi, where I’ve regularly had my feet cleaned and massaged. Aside from nature’s sand-pedicure, it's the only other place I’ve had the confidence to entrust my toes.
This evening, the usually benign coastline was hostile. I didn't know it when I stepped off the wooden steps of Palm and Sands, a resto-bar at the edge of Candolim, but, I was just naturally inclined to walk slowly - with measured steps. To my mind, I was just getting into the mood to run, but that day, it wasn't even a remote possibility.
A new hobby, I've recently taken up, is picking up stones left behind by the waves. It's probably a kiddish thing to do and collecting has never really been a pastime for me. But, the pebbles are all marked in unusual ways. And, as I stoop to gather some, run into the water to wash off the sand, touching, feeling and examining each that I put inside the collecting-bag, I realise that every piece of that shingle I’ve picked up, has a story to tell. Each portion of dismembered rock, caressed by the sea has been marked by its journey. There are histories they carry in their grain, size, texture and hue. This fascinates me.
I keep a small plastic bag handy, and carried it onto the seashore that day too, hoping to find unique ones that inspired with their look and feel. Hopefully, different to the ones I'd already got. Just as I bent down to scoop up a smooth, dark one, which I'd spied from a distance, I found myself looking at something I'd never seen on the beach before. Mind you, I'm hardly an old-hand at these things and living beside the sea is new for me. But even so, in the past year, at least, I hadn't seen anything quite like them. I knew that Jellyfish can come up with the monsoon tides and we were bang in the middle of the rainy season, but the jellyfish I'd seen were large, fleshy, translucent and whitish. They took on the colour of the yellow-brown sand and weren't exactly easy to spot. So, what were these tiny blueish things? They had a jellyfish aura about them, but so small and so many all at once? What brought them here and surely it was an aberration rather than the norm - at least it 'felt' like that to me. If I hadn’t been looking for nuggets, before the sun set, I might not even have noticed them.
I put the dark, rounded stone, in my bag. Then spotting a yellow, plastic straw nearby, I picked it up and ventured to hesitantly prod one of those odd-looking, unfamiliar creatures. There was a pop, like a balloon burst. On hearing that sound, not much different to a rubber burst, I thought it may have been a discarded condom. Momentarily, a trifle embarrassed, I quickly moved back. Stranger things have been thrown into the ocean and washed ashore, so it was possible! But as I walked on, looking to add to my loot, so many of these purple-blueish tinted, transparent creatures, were amassed that, unless it had been, a large, happy, beach-party the night before, these were not the remnants of such an event.
 I stopped a fellow walker and asked, but he didn't know either. In fact, he hadn't even seen them. I caught sight of the familiar red and yellow life-guard uniform, in the near distance. Two young men, one with surf-board in hand, were heading towards us. We approached them, pointing to the creatures asking: "yeh kya hai?" They said, it’s the Blue-bottle jelly fish and warned us to not even touch them, adding that they’re very dangerous. Dead or alive, this species was considered extremely poisonous.
 Oops! I didn't have anything under my feet, other than the sand which the jellyfish had claimed with their lethal tentacles. It was too far out for me to return to the resto-bar to retrieve my chappals, if at all they'd be any help in negotiating wet and loose sand. The stranger-turned companion was wearing sandals and commiserated with me for my unshod feet. It started raining a short while later when he ran for shelter, but I put on my plastic, orange coloured, knee-length raincoat and continued. I love strolling in the rain, and venomous marine life or not, I wasn't going to turn back now.
When on this stretch of the sea-side, I like to go right up and touch the uniquely textured, reddish-black laterite walls of Fort Aguada. The ancient turret, which juts out into the Arabian Sea, has so much character. Passing through time, sun, wind, rain, moonshine and changing tides, its walls have weathered with age and sport a gouged and rugged air. I feel as if their souls beckon. And wonder that, were I to look hard and long enough, would they spill all - telling of the gory and glory of those who’d navigated these waters. Standing mutely, at the far end of Sinquerim they’d surely witnessed history made and undone. But, I didn’t have time to ponder today. Despite my determination to complete the walk, I was distracted by the toxic blue limbs which I've been doing my best to avoid contact with. I touched the rocks in gentle acknowledgement and headed back towards Candolim.
When I'd started, around 6.30pm, there were few people around. The sudden shower drew most of them under shelter, so I was virtually alone, aside from two resilient fishing enthusiasts. I stayed as far away from the water as I was able. The tide was coming in, rising higher and higher, pushing me up, higher and higher inland, but I couldn't bring myself to take a chance with these rough waves throwing up dreaded aquatic life. I rarely, if ever, pace through dry sand, preferring to kick my way through the swash. But this evening, not a drop of sea touched my toes, neither had I ever ventured so high up-shore, nor so carefully, on this stretch of the coast.
Each step I took was fraught with danger. I questioned why there were no picture signposts warning us of this menace, or for that matter any signs to inform. Children had been sitting close to the waves, playing with the sand, enjoying their wetting, as indulgent parents looked on. One child was almost going to step on one of those dreaded blue creatures with his naked feet, when I passed by and hastily lifted the bemused child out of the way. The two men fishing, and most people roaming that stretch were also barefoot like me, and probably, clueless.
On my return to the restaurant, I searched for information on the internet. I was most curious about these odd-looking things. NDTV, Times of India and Hindu, all reported the sighting of the tiny, but highly poisonous Blue-bottle jellyfish, also called Physalia utriculus or the Portuguese-man-of-war. It is found all through the beaches of Australia and inhabits the Indian Ocean too. These news reports emphasized that the Candolim stretch of Beach had been unexpectedly affected. Stating that right up to Baga and even at Morjhim, local fishermen and tourists had been unsuspectingly stung. Warnings had been issued and the life-guards alerted, but no-one on the seashore that evening had been aware, not until the stranger-turned-brief-companion and I, started spreading the word. Both of us were scared and one way of dealing with our fear, was an unspoken but mutual acknowledgement that, telling others was a way to wrest control of this dread. It reminded me to watch my step. I walked with concentration. I didn't have time to meditate on the vastness of a limitless horizon. I didn't have time to let my thoughts tumble as I watched wave after wave take a crashing bow. Head down, afraid, but being careful, I strode on.
The Blue-bottle jellyfish, were no more than an inch long. Their bodies are transparent and oblongish, like tiny, tightly inflated, amoebic balloons. They have dot-like bluish stains on the upper length, suggestive of feint vertebrae markings. It's highly unlikely that they have this mammalian feature, but these marks seem to be more than just adornment. Possibly serving like a fortified seam, to sustain the air within their fragile bodies, protecting the sheer membrane from being torn by lashings of sea. On the lower part, of it’s essentially see-through body, were dark and densely coloured, indigo blue clumps, spread-eagled in an ungainly sort of way. This is the area of their form which contains the dreaded poison. Some had larger blue appendages surrounding them and others had barely any at all. I later realised that where I could see less of the indigo patches, these tentacles had penetrated the surface - holding tightly onto the golden grains. Most likely, as terrified as me. Apparently, they can see and hear us and were probably holding out against the power of the mighty sea which had unwittingly carried them, to this place. However, I did wonder, if by plunging their toxic feelers into the sand they had now rendered that patch of sand poisonous. Would it ever be safe to stride with naked feet again?
In the water, when these jellyfish float, buoyed by their inflated bodies, the indigo-blue limbs, which I'd seen gathered as clumps, unfold and dangle below the primary body-form, like vertical ribbons of uneven length. Pictures, I found on google, made them look exotically delicate and quite beautiful too. But, all through my forty-five-minute stroll, I had to watch my feet, carefully avoiding contact with these fragile beings, for fear of being stung in retaliation. I didn’t want to hurt them nor be infected. I knew nothing beyond the chance warning given by the life-guards. I had no idea what could occur if any of them were accidentally trod underfoot or if I brushed passed one without seeing it. My subsequent internet search revealed that, if anyone does get stung, a quick wash with sea-water should be followed by a generous cleansing with vinegar. They're inclined to leave their tentacles in or on their victims’ bodies, attaching themselves to it, which vinegar dissolves. And finally, but most importantly, is a must visit to the hospital. Depending on each person's physiognomy the impact of their sting can be a mildly irritating allergy to life-threatening cardiac arrest.
After the demise of my last iphone, I'd taken to leaving all phones and other technical paraphernalia behind. It was meant to allow me to be as carefree as I wanted to. However, if there is one thing Goa has shown me, in the last six months since I'd moved here, is that carefree as I understood it in Gurgaon wasn't the same carefree here.
In a gated complex, within its secured, mile-long, walled perimeter, it was easy to cycle or walk in the rain, there was no peril in the swimming pool either. Here, green snakes lie camouflaged in the paddy fields and don't announce their presence like the gently croaking frogs who reside there too. They crawl up, onto the narrow roads - some get run over by vehicles at night to be seen mutilated early the next morning. And that's how I've identified their secret habitat. If I happen to amble alongside these fields at sun-down, it's with considerable trepidation that I tread the narrow roads. Vying for space to pass along the slender, tarred passage, honking trucks and buses push me right at the edge and I'm wary, lest I haplessly trample an unseen, snaking green, who may then bite back in self-defence. Trekking in the rain, is even more hazardous as the roads are slippery, but the vehicle drivers - especially the motorcycles and scooters don't have a care. If I want to cycle, I must rise early and hit the road by 6.30 -7.00 am. It’s a planned endeavour where I wear a helmet and gloves for a better grip, as well as proper shoes - quite unlike the spontaneous cycling sprees with rubber chappals, in Gurgaon. There, I'd be able to ride at any hour - even in the dark, which is unthinkable here, particularly for a novice like me. And now, on the beach, where I'd otherwise felt able to hang loose, these creatures of the sea were staring menacingly at me.

Walking beside the ocean, has often prompted me to open my arms to receive the wisdom it's spirit might share with me. Striding with utmost concentration, I didn't do so that evening. I was alert to everything that could vaguely resemble the Blue-bottle jellyfish. My eyes were focussed on the sand, visually sifting through the tide borne debris of discarded water-bottle caps, drifting twigs, transparent fish-net, seeds, stones and coconut husks. With furtive but frequent side-glances, I also kept an eye on the rising flow, inching its way up the sand, striding higher and higher up the sloping coast, keeping myself away and dry. If the Blue-bottles could sting on contact, then I didn't want to be in harm's way. I might avoid stepping on them if I strode with care, but I had no way of seeing what the swollen and rushing waves carried and would unthinkingly throw at me. I dreaded the idea of splashing through them and being stung unsuspectingly. It wasn’t worth the risk.
At the end of that arduous exercise when I sat and recounted to Venetia, the proprietor of Palm and Sands, that treacherous but mindful gait I'd undertaken,  that I did truly begin registering the wisdom the ocean and its creatures had carried forth.
I'd been wondering how to make all the requisite adjustments in my new abode. Spiritual precepts were evolving and I was trying to pay more and more attention to my feelings - those vibrations that are mostly inexplicable, but which muster matter into form. How was I to keep pace with this increasingly vibrant inner world and participate meaningfully in the external one, was the dominant quest on my mind. And here, was an experiential example of how it could be done – mindfully, watching every step with focussed attention.
The limitless sea of consciousness, I understood would always be there, beside me. I didn’t have to keep looking deep into its greenish-grey waves to recognize the wisdom of my own soul. This kind of looking does open the mind, but daily living requires concentration. Meditation can be a walk, writing, cooking or sewing, all things done - mindful of the job, where rooted in the doing is sometimes enough. Each moment thus, if we can feel its power, can be rewarding in its own way.
A few days later, Venetia accompanied me on a walk down Candolim Beach- just to catch a glimpse of the Portuguese Men of War. Both of us wore closed shoes. A middle-aged man, was approaching us in the opposite direction, carrying a stick – possibly to ward of the dogs. Venetia saw that his feet were unshod, so went up to apprise him of the surge in the blue-bottle jelly fish. He looked down to  where she pointed and seeing a string of them lining the golden  sand, he said you mean these things are poisonous? And stomped them all with his big bare feet, adding that this is what they did when they were kids and that they were only lethal while in the water. The moment the blue-bottles came ashore, they couldn’t breathe, and lost their sting. This was contrary to what the newspapers reported and the warnings given by the lifeguards. 
I was in awe, but we never saw him again. I have no idea if that moment of bravado had proved fatal, or not, but I cannot forget the blue Men of War and the fear they brought forth in me.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Through the Neighbourhood, Walking the Rain

Wet rain, dripping rain, non-stop drizzling, pouring rain. This is just the start of the monsoon in Goa, This June it is early, it is heavier than expected, but everyone I meet has something contrary to say. I have only the experience of the previous year and remember that it was hardly spectacular. And this, what I have been witnessing over the last couple of weeks and especially these past few daysy, has been very heavy rain. This wetness, the cold breeze and constant pitter-patter make me restive.  I just cannot stay indoors. I had heaps of work to do today and did want to be disciplined about it. I had been on a wonderful, long wet walk, yesterday evening and said to myself, fun is okay some of the time, lets get down to some work, and I did, but barely. Come 5pm, all that control got to me,  I had to get out.  I put on my raincoat, wore my sturdy all-weather Bata sandals, and off I went.
It has been raining all day long, more or less, since Monday. And between yesterday and this morning the Meteorological department has recorded 124 centimetres of rain, which is termed as ‘heavy rain’. I wonder what they will say of the kind of rain today and how much it would be in  terms of inches or centimetres of rainfall. It has to be tons more than the previous day's 124 centimetres. For  there was absolutely no lull whatsoever. It just poured and poured and poured – just poured. Pure unadulterated showers of drenching, snivelling, shushing rain  that has silenced the neighbourhood to a slithering hush  - of water finding her path through foliage, mud, rocks and drains. Amid the whoosh of the breeze slipping in and out of the leaves of trees.
I have rather noisy Goans, for neighbours. It’s just their way, they speak loudly and seem to work out of doors most of the time. And in the rain, quite naturally they are not heard because they are mostly indoors. But what surprises me is that the birds are also silent. It is only when the rain begins to peter out, when it is less than the occasional drizzle that, usually a crow will kaw-kaw first and another will respond. And a brief exclusive crow-dialogue will ensue. Until the hens join them and then as if an afterthought the Koel will let out one long call and then the twittering and chirping chorus of many others follows suit. But not for long, the moment the rain begins her heaving whispers, everything else becomes silent. I like to call it the silence of rain.
Today was a kind of tense day to begin with. My sister messaged to say that Mummy had gone to the hospital for a routine check-up but her blood pressure was extremely low, so the doctor decided to keep her under observation and do some tests. It was worrying and thankfully by the end of the day they discharged her as all was under control. She completes 86 years of age tomorrow, the 21st of June and it’s a fragile age.
 I am also  coming  to terms with a total change in my daily routine. I have opted out of the Gurgaon-style of housekeeping where I had a whole contingent of staff and someone to oversee them, to trying to work out another methodology. One that gives me efficient housekeeping with less staff and more space of be creative and write. This means that I have to do a whole lot more chores than I have ever done my entire life. Even as a student in London, when my dad was keen I take up a flat, find a room-mate and do that kind of living, I opted to stay in a hostel. Cooking and cleaning have always interfered with things that I would really like to spend my time on. But, the help here is not what I can handle and an open plan kitchen makes it rather crowded during the day – to accommodate a maid and me. Our auric fields clash. So, I have to do the dishes and make my own bed and cook (some of the time). I haven’t got used to the routine yet, so maybe this also makes me restive, but between this and mummy’s precarious health situation, just hours before her birthday, were unsettling and the rain only seemed to make it worse. In anycase, I am not calm in the rain. I can’t sit for hours watching it pattering down. I want to get up and do something. I want to be out there in the rain.

Yesterday, a young neighbour accompanied me and we went rather far from the neighbourhood, walking through lanes and by-lanes that I hadn’t seen till then. This evening, being on my own, I was less adventurous. Cycling was a option I could have explored, but didn’t because the rain was really heavy and while it keeps the dogs indoors – out of barking reach and scaring me away. I decided to walk. And with minutes I realised this intuitive decision was the right one. I had not yet exited the Riviera Sapphire complex, and saw there was water logging more than six inches deep. I made a mental note to return from the other gate because the last thing I needed was to trample a snake or encounter a frog or any other reptilian or amphibian which I plug together in the general category of creepy-crawlies.

Recently, another young friend, whose lived most of her life in Australia, but now lives in Siolim, told me that she had ordered a pair of gumboots online and couldn’t figure out why no-one in Goa wears them. Then I had laughed and said but why not let your feet get wet, its fun. But today, I thought of getting a pair myself. There were not just puddles to traipse through, these were rivers flowing down the slopes of Siolim. The earth bleeds such an intense russet which is so opaque, it is impossible to see what you're walking on or into. And, at the very start of my trek I fell into something deeper than it seemed. Without even realising it, the grit of the stones got caught between my big toe, on the left foot, and the sandal strap, and within minutes I had a blister that started to bleed. Fortunately it was a tiny one and I strapped the sandal Velcro ties tightly enough so that there was no movement, nothing grazing against the skin and I completed my walk up to the Chapora Bridge or Siolim bridge as it is called, and back.

Turning right as I left Sapphire I headed for the Sodiem Road which can be quite a busy one but fortunately for me it was lean time. Just before I turned onto this road, at the very corner, I stood and looked out at the paddy fields filled with water. Bits of green stuck out of reddish muddy water and it was quite a sight with the odd white stork hunting for something to eat in the earth. The cows, whose backs they are usually found on, were probably sheltering from the rain and the food in  the fields more enticing. This expanse of fields is what I can see from the swimming pool at Sapphire. When I looked today, it seemed as if the sea had come right up to my doorstep. The fields stretch for miles and are called Viangan, which I am told is because they get water logged and therefore are  usually sown in the winter months. When the paddy is green it is a treat for the eyes and I am fortunate to see this en-route, to and from the local markets, almost every day. Elsewhere, one can see people busy in their fields. Small tractors, colourful raincoats and umbrellas can be sighted from afar as men and women go about the arduous job of tilling their fields.
Just a little further down the Sodiem road going towards Tarchi Bhat, about five hundred meters from Sapphire, is another set of flats called Blue lagoon. And within yards of this complex, the road is flanked by fields and these too are water logged at this point. Although the frogs don’t usually start their natter until it gets dark, probably fooled by the darker shades of the sky, they were quite loud  at 5.30 pm. I had heard them yesterday too and thought they were the pigs, who lived in the land we had passed, frolicking in the rain and making a racket. But, when asked if pigs made that kind of sound, I listened and it certainly wasn’t an oink, but a sort of oinky-croak – very loud. And this is what I heard again on my walk today. I scanned the water surface to spot the frogs. I am told they are rather large too, but I could only hear them and didn’t see even one. I walked and walked through the rivulets and puddles and my blister started troubling me.
I stopped at a local kirana store. In my knee-length, lilac coloured raincoat, dripping water from every inch of my being; my hands wet, my face dribbled with raindrops and cap pulled close over my head; I must have made a very curious sight. I took off my cap and the grey hair may well have made things seem even more eccentric than before. But, when  I asked for some cotton wool, informing them that I wasn’t carrying any money, the boys who were manning the Krishan General store were rather sweet. Without much-ado one of them took out the cotton from the Puja stand  - the soft cotton that is used to make the wick for the diyas and handed it to me, saying that I may be better off going to a medical store. Soft as the cotton-wool was, it only made things worse. I thanked them,  abandoned the first aid and continued to walk as I had done before, tightening the strap as much as I could to avoid any friction between the toe and sandal. And somehow, I walked more than six kilometres, because of the puddles where I would stop more than just occasionally to wash the wound. Letting water ease the discomfort, even if just for a while.
I was now walking past familiar terrain. I was heading towards the main road that comes from St. Anthony’s church at Siolim Square on the Aguada-Siolim-Chapora road. I passed Burye’s from where I bought the paint to colour my stool ( a project still pending completion). Then Sahil's shop - the furniture maker from Dehradun who’d made the chest of drawers in the local Shivan wood, which now houses my stash of sequins and beads. His shop is out in the open with tarpaulin for a cover and today,  he had plastic-wrapped it on all sides (like most vendors who have gone home for the off-season in Goa do.) Sahil too, it seemed had gone home.  I spied a  gap on the side that had opened up with the wind and wanted to go across the road to pull the plastic tight but there was so much water everywhere with loose mud too boot, that compassion took a back seat. Even on the way back, I had to remind myself that even though I was out for fun, self-preservation must have its say. He had after all packed up this way, knowing the rains would come and he was an old hand at it, so  knew what it meant. Besides,  there must be someone looking out, to have enabled him to leave all that furniture out in the open with just bamboo and plastic for protection – which was hardly any, was it! Maybe  he’d just taken the day off, and hadn’t gone home after all. And so I  continued walking through the puddles, and running into deep waters, then spying no traffic so rushing to the higher ground – small stretches of tarmac where the road was uneven. Its funny, how one doesn’t notice that the road is so uneven while driving through or even walking otherwise, but water shows up all the cracks, all the shoddy workmanship of road building.
It’s about 3 Km from Sapphire to the bridge that spans the Chapora River. Before this was constructed, which is just 8 years ago, you had to take a ferry across the river. It must have been an awesome experience to pass by the dense mangroves and see the occasional crocodile too. And this is the season when they come to this part of the river, when the water is sweetened by the rainfall. Otherwise there is too much salt from the sea which the crocs don’t like. On my way back down from the bridge, I took a detour,  I came past the Tar Fish market. Clams, oysters and mussels are what fisherman catch aplenty in these parts. The steps from the jetty to the fish market are always littered with discarded mussel shells, especially those that have a viridian green tint. Apparently they were traditionally used to make a kind of chuna for painting houses, before the era of distemper paint. Now they just lie on the steps, like garbage, waiting for the tide to carry them into the sea. The Fish market is only operative in  the mornings, so was deserted by the time I got there. All the brightly coloured plastic tubs were overturned and each person's place saved for the next days trade. It is mostly the women who sit in the market. Earlier, it was just an informal gathering of fisherman’s wives at the village hub and bus stop. People would come from Chopdem, Morjhim, Pernem and beyond, travelling from across the river to catch the buses to and from Mapusa. So the women, prudent as ever, collected there to sell the days catch.
In the empty market-shed I met Anil and two of his colleagues who told me that the way it was raining, we’d had three months of rain in just three days. Adding, that it was too early for the monsoon and in the past three to four years, there had been much less rain. I asked Anil about the crocodile and asked if someday I could ride in his boat to catch a glimpse of it. If he had seen it. He walked to the edge of the jetty, and moved a few feet back and gesticulating, said it is very long, almost ten to twelve feet. "My friends go into the mangroves to collect the oysters and in all these years it hasn’t bothered them, but the unsuspecting dogs who dip their heads into the water at night, have been gulped down in a jiffy". Apparently a few yards down from the fish market, along the river’s edge there is a chicken and meat shop which throws its waste out at night and the croc feeds there, so is a common sight in these parts.
When I had stood on top of the bridge and looked both sides, towards Morjhim on the West and Pernem on the East, I couldn’t see much. The broken lines of water were so intense that it was as if sheets of plastic made the ambience translucent and unclear.  And when I reached the steps of the fish market, I realised how much the river had  swollen. It was beginning to ebb because the tide had changed and was working its way back into the sea, but when I had been there buying fish some weeks back, there were many steps and today I could only see two. I had on my raincoat which keeps me quite snug, but today, the rain was just too much. And I could feel wetness on my shoulder and neck areas. I suppose these things are not made for a two hour walk in the rain, but intended for those who need to get places or get home from work and are on errands for short durations. I cannot imagine the makers of raincoats taking into consideration the eccentricities of those who want to walk in the rain, for the sheer pleasure of it and that too for hours at a stretch.

I was still far from home and needed to go to the loo. I knew I shouldn’t have had that cup of tea before my walk. I realised that with all that water around me, that I could have piddled in my pants and no-one would even notice, but thankfully  I remembered that Amancio was only a few steps from the fish market. Amancio is a family restaurant and bar run by Ashley who has taken over from his father, who took charge from his father. It started out as a general store selling fish and tackle as well as stuff for daily use, graduated to a liquor store and now it is a rather nice space in the middle of a small village
It’s getting darker by the minute. I pass by Uday Moyhe the general store that sold me the fishing net just last week and stop to say hello, next I pass by the shop run by Mangama and Srinivas from Hyderabad who iron my clothes. I haven’t been to collect my laundry but reassure Mangama whose untypically lounging among the piles of clothes, that I will come by in the car tomorrow. As I walk, I visually map the route back home. Shall I go past the Goa electric depot, which means I must go farther the Siolim-Aguada Road. Or shall I go back via the Sodiem Road. I choose the latter and return to a rowdy chorus of crickets and frogs. My god, what a noise they were making. I still couldn’t see any, but it was a screeching, girgitting-frogging-croaking at different keys. The sopranos and baritones punctuated with the sharp tenor of the oinking croaks. How I wished I could see even one frog, but I didn’t want to be surprised by any jumping on the road ahead of me. I keep telling myself that I cannot hope to live in such unfettered natural surroundings and expect them to toe the line of social niceties. But I didn’t see any of those large, loud frogs.

And finally, finally, after shedding copious tears, it has stopped raining. The skies have decided to call it a night and I must catch some sleep too. Actually its past 1 am, and another day, forecast with thunder storms and equally unrelenting rain.
PS: on this walk i didnt carry a phone, so the pictures are from various other trips, usually in the car...

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Harvesting Shenanigans

A rice-sifter at work

Every day, I pass through the same route, the same fields and villages, on my drive from Verem to Siolim. For the last six months, this route has been de rigeur because of the renovation work that’s in progress in my Siolim apartment.  It had been happening and stressful, then abandoned by a careless contractor,  re-started after a two month hiatus and much effort, and now I am toiling hard to get it completed. It’s been a testing phase. But, despite the anxiety of it all, over the change of seasons during the months from April to October, I’ve seen subtle variants in the landscape and activity en route; particularly in the villages of Pilerne and Saligoan.
Fields flank both sides of the Pilerne Road,
 from Mansher to Pilerne
Goa in May is surprisingly arid and dusty-dry. All the lush green that one associates with its landscape is a grimy shadow of its post-monsoon panorama.  Driving through winding roads that circle the gently undulating landscape, I’ve seen dry fields being ploughed in readiness for the rain. Watching, an otherwise laidback populace suddenly swing into action as soon as the pitter patter started, and  village men and women began sowing seeds for the paddy crop. Many fields don’t get worked upon because farming is labour intensive. And, according to locally rumoured calculations, only ten percent of land, in most of the villages of Goa, is cultivated. I’m told that the younger generation of landowners find it tedious to farm and hired labour is expensive. Rice is staple diet for the Goans but, those who opt out of farming find it easier, and cheaper, to purchase their requirement from the market. And their fields have lain barren year after year, three to four years in succession. Some locals say that the stretch from Verem to Pilerne got flooded when the Nerul creek flood gates got broken, some four or five years ago and no farming has been done since. Reportedly, it took the panchayat years to repair the system gates,  and once out of the habit of farming, these folks never mustered the energy to resume. Whatever the reasons, out of every four fields with billowing paddy green there are four more that have billowing weeds that look a lot like paddy to the uninitiated, like me.
Some fields are paddy and some are not!
For those die-hards who continue a dwindling tradition of farming, it’s a dedicated job.  In the middle of scorching afternoons, I’ve seen upturned plastic crates used as stools.  Placed in the middle of the large tracts of low-lying fields with not a tree for shade,  a lone, seated man or woman would keep vigil, shooing away birds and cows. Around this time, scrawny scarecrows also began to dot the landscape.  Made with the  traditional cross of sticks, these stick-figures were meagrely dressed with flapping plastic bags in pink, white and blue. On one such scarecrow, a discarded electricity meter was used to represent its face. And, it did look foreboding from the distance.
View of the fields off the Pilerne Road,
between Verem/Mansher and Pilerne
Towards the tail-end of the Monsoon Rains
For a city-bred lass like me, these things are novel and interesting to note. I’ve never had occasion to watch any kind of agricultural process and have only heard from domestic help about the rigours of kheti-baari. For me, being in the midst of this sowing and harvesting, of rice, was a first.  And even though it wasn’t always possible to stop, while driving, to satiate my curiosity. I couldn’t prevent myself from asking people I met during the course of my day, the many questions that would go through my head, as I passed the activity in the fields.
View of the fields off the Pilerne Road, between Verem and Pilerne
On the few occasions that I’ve stopped to chat with the farmers, I’ve learned a few things that local gossip couldn’t tell me. I’ve also seen dead snakes the exact colour of the glistening leaf-green paddy crop, crawl out of the fields onto the tarred road, crushed under the wheels of a truck or bus. I’d wonder how these farmers negotiated such hazards, to be told all kinds of scary tales, deepening my dread of the reptile family.
Freshly Threshed Rice Fields off the Saligaon Road, on my left as I drive through to Nagoa
May turned to October. Dussehra and Diwali have been celebrated as has Ganesh Chaturthi and Narakasura Chaturdashi. Visitors and holiday-makers throng the streets of Goa. Traffic is nearly as impossible as in  Delhi and the number of bikes is maddening. But, precisely because of the crush, in these past few weeks, the large tracts of open fields are especially soothing. In paying particular attention to them, I’ve also observed the harvesting in progress.
As comical as the human scarecrows were, at the start of the farming season, with their clapping hands and other shenanigans to distract bird, dog and cow from devouring the newly sown seeds, I’ve also noted similarly weird antics while the grain is being harvested. Just as one enters the tail-end of Saligaon leading to Nagoa, there’s a large tract of cultivated land and along this scenic route, I’ve seen some bizarre goings-on. From the point on the Pilerne Road heading towards Mapusa, where I turn off, to pass through Saligaon,  green fields lie on both sides of a generously curving road that allows me to see them from a distance and all the way through till I pass by, driving into the built-up, residential area of the village. 
One, hot, October afternoon,  I saw an ample-bodied, middle-aged woman, with short cropped hair,  wearing a calf-length, printed dress (looked like mill-printed polyester) clapping her hands and shouting out something, while intermittently waving a cloth in the air. First with one hand and then the other and alternating the two in rapid succession. This went on, right from the onset of the fields coming into my view, until I drove passed her, a good few minutes later. I have reason to believe that she did this non-stop for a good many hours and had been sitting out in the heat for much of the day, keeping vigil on the grain being threshed in the field before her.
The next day, I found her seated at another field along the same road. It could have been another person because I didn’t note the facial features earlier. But, from the body structure and attire, it seemed to be the same woman. This time, she sat on an upturned crate, at the edge of the field, on the verge of the roadside, while a handful of men stood mid-field of a small plot of land, threshing the crop, manually. She held a black umbrella over her head. It was an overcast day, but it hadn’t rained, so I was wondering about the umbrella, when she started opening and closing it. Every time she opened it, she’d raise up the umbrella and in closing it, bring it down - just above her head, and then open it and raise it again, in quick repetition of the same up-down movement. It was a most unusual sight and a quirky dance of sorts, for there was definitely a synchronised rhythm in these otherwise awkward movements. Sometimes, she’d just bob the open umbrella up and down.  And do the same with it closed. These movement were accompanied by a bevy of sounds - shouted out loud, enough to be heard but were unintelligible. She could have been addressing workers in the fields, but I cannot be sure. Most likely, she was shooing away the pesky birds, hovering above, hungry for a peck of freshly harvested grain.; telling them that they couldn’t have any.
During an earlier conversation, in July,  with Pratibha and Pandurang, a farming couple whose fields lie off the Pilerne Road near Moicawaddo, close to where I live in Verem, I’d learned that neighbouring farmers take turns to keep the pestilence away from each other’s land during the day and hire someone to keep vigil at night. I couldn’t help but wonder, if this lady with the umbrella was a land-owner keeping tabs on her numerous fields or if she’d been hired to do so. Because, whatever I’d seen her do was tedious. Inventive in her routine and strategy to keep prey at bay, it signalled endeavour of vested interest, precisely because of that,  but, seeing her in different fields on different says raised some doubt.
All these months, I’d been content to mostly observe the farming activities. Driving past busy, narrow roads doesn’t offer much scope for photography and neither was I in the right frame of mind. The odd conversations about farming had been with locals that I’ve met in the course of living, or the odd farmer I encountered during an evening walk. I kept telling myself that there would be plenty of time to document and get material for a story. I was always preoccupied with things to do at my apartment so there didn’t seem scope for much more than the passing glance, albeit drinking it all in with a sense of wonderment.
For days, prior to Diwali, I’d seen women lifting the threshed rice above their heads and shaking off the chaff, letting it fly off with the wind as they poured the sifted rice into large kattas. Lined up on the roadside these ample bags - both plastic and jute, bulged outwards, stately and statuesque with the grain. It was rural novelty at its best.
Work in my apartment was now happening at an easier pace. The pressure to complete this was still there, but nothing quite as strenuous as the past two months had been. Coerced by circumstance I’d taken on the role of a contractor to finish the abandoned work on my flat. I’d been going crazy with the job - so alien to anything I’d ever done in close to six decades of living. There had been almost no time to reflect on life unfolding, beyond some crochet which allowed confused thoughts to tumble out and create just enough space for another chaotic day. Fascinated as I was, I’d still be tired and too listless to make the effort to stop the car, get down and take photos. The thought of carpenters waiting for me, the constant demands for money and long list of things to be done would bog me down.  Every time I passed and noted something interesting and didn’t feel like stopping, I would tell myself that next year, I’d do a full documentation with thorough research.
But then one day, I thought that next year it will not be the same thing. I couldn’t lose the moments that fascinated me today, waiting for a good time to make note of them. Driving past, one Saturday afternoon, when there wasn’t such a crush of things to tend to, I decided that work or no work, it was too picturesque, for me to pass up this moment and wait another year to document. There were, mercifully, few cars on that stretch. Inspired to stop, by the visual of a weather-beaten woman winnowing, I parked my white i20 on the side and walked up to watch her lift the rice up in her wicker basket and sift it down, letting the wind waft away the chaff. I paused to record and listen to the soft rustle, a warm and comforting nuance, of rice grains falling: caressed by the soft hush of them kissing each other as they piled up on the ground. This was augmented with something the winnower seemed to be telling me but regrettably I haven’t yet learned any Konkani, so missed out on what she said.
I took my photos and drove on, stopping to chat with a Saligoan landowner who was selling his grain. I rolled down my window. He thought I wanted to buy some, so informs me that he has enlisted for government support, and was selling the rice at ₹21 per Kg, where otherwise the price would be ₹25 per Kg. I asked if all the rice was for sale or if he kept some too, when he said both and that by boiling the rice, it keeps well for a year.  A useful bit of information, for it was something I didn’t know. The patch of land, I found him standing by, didn’t seem to have much grain. I asked how much rice lay before us,  to be told it was about five quintals. I wondered if  that would  be enough for personal consumption and for sale, when sensing my question, he gestured to the land around, informing that he had many more fields.
And that is what made me realise that probably the lady of the umbrella dance also owned numerous plots of land. Since I had found her sitting in and around fields on the same stretch of fields, she could also have been his mother. I didn’t ask, but felt that I  shouldn’t have entertained those earlier doubts, because who’d imagine hired help going through such effort and such totally bizarre attempts at shooing off prey. The crazy stuff is what we rise to, when we care enough, isn’t it?
As I was wrapping up this story, the housekeeping staff walked in to clean my apartment with Saraswati leading the way. She is a young graduate, newly married, from neighbouring Karnataka and if she happens to find me in the apartment, she quizzes me about what I am doing - always curious and in awe of my creative endeavours. This time around, she insisted on knowing the story I was writing. As I narrated the dress-clad woman’s antics, telling her how I wondered if she owned the land or was hired to do these tricks, when she said with the unstoppable authority of youth : “ Maedum, paeesa dene pe bhi nahin hone ko hota, kitna sharm aata na?, voh Catholic Aunty ka khud ka land hoga, bilkul hoga, koi shak nahin!”
Well, that certainly put it unarguably into the same perspective I had arrived at. The crazy stuff is what we do when we are involved with and have a vested interest in the resultant outcome, anyone else would feel too embarrassed to do the same things. The ploughing and harvesting of seeds that we sow through life, are rife with many awkward moments that we’d probably be too embarrassed to own up to and face ourselves for, on hindsight. As would the woman, if I had taken a video, of her at work, and shown  it to her. Would she.....,I know that in her shoes, I would.  And probably never work with such uninhibited ardour and abandon again!

Monday, 3 April 2017

Nature Versus Nature

Vrooom vrooom! A motor bike revs up as it drives up the Pilerne road. It's powerful thrusts breaking the silence of the morning, otherwise punctuated with a neighbouring roosters daily cry: kukroku, kuu, kukrukoo! The Verem-Pilerne road is a busy one as it comes from Panjim and continues onwards to the town of Mapusa and almost all day I can hear sounds of various engines motoring up and down the narrow, coconut palm-lined, tarred road.
Each morning, I sit on the balcony of my apartment, sipping a cup of chai and just being with myself. The traffic up and down with the swishing of tyres and occasional shouts to gain the attention of a passing friend doesn’t bother me. It's sort of reassuring because through this, despite being alone, I get a sense of having people around me.
From the first floor verandah, La Mer, overlooking the Verem- Pilerne Road
The bamboo is nudging its fresh green leaves in through the black wrought iron railings of the verandah. But, as yet, I can’t touch it, unless I stand up, lean across the railing and bend down a bit. And I haven't wanted to do that. It's just peaceful to have her unquestioning presence, a familiar sight each morning. I can hear the tweets and melodious chuckles of birds from within the bushes beyond the bamboo. Graceful Areca palms sway beside the bamboo and line the pathways, all around the La Mer apartment complex, where I've taken up residence for a few months.
In a neighbouring, vacant plot, tall Saal trees stand guard. The light colour of their statuesque trunks, which draw an almost-straight, vertical line into the sky, is echoed by the fading hues of the mesh of the iron fence that separates us. It was probably never painted and as the colour of iron faded through the rigour of seasonal rain and sunshine, the Saal grew taller; it's bark thickening to the timber merchants' satisfaction. Apparently, it takes many, many years for these trees to become wood that’s marketable.
I like these trees with their over-hanging branches and large, very large, over-sized leaves that are turning from green to brown and often fall onto me as I swim in the pool or walk around. Like abandoned or lost feathers they waft down weighted by their size - swiftly and softly - unless I happen to be in their path of descent. And then, after an almost inaudible crackle of leaf breaking off from its stem or branch, I feel a gentle thump or the graze of a dried leaf brushing past exposed limbs as it descends, uncaring of who or what stands in its path.
When I'm swimming close to sunset and in the fading light, it can be quite scary. I've often wondered and shuddered at which coarse creature has chosen to kiss my arm or hand that’s risen out of the water and is reaching back into the pool to push the water backwards, helping move my body forward in a free-style stroke. By now I should know it's the free-falling, over-sized, wizened and brittle Saal leaves but, in that moment of rough caress, I'm always petrified. I lose my swimming stride and it takes a good few moments for me to allay the fear of encountering either a snake or frog or praying mantis - creatures that have been spied around these parts - before I resume my swim.
Thankfully, I haven't seen any snakes but frogs have crossed my path and one even came visiting while the girls were busy cleaning my rooms. It jumped, they jumped and I did an unbelievably long jump screaming loudly as I did. Spontaneous and prompted by fear, I've never managed such a leap since, not even in jest, while narrating the incident and trying to demonstrate the gigantic yelp and the leap it inspired. And praying mantises are everywhere, silently praying as they seat themselves on the sun beds or look curiously at me through glass panes. As I peer to get a closer look, their brown eyes and heart-shaped green heads turn in curiosity. Sometimes it seems that we are having a conversation, that they understand and respond to what I'm doing and saying. But maybe not. For all I know, I am an oversized alien in their view of things. So, these creatures are not imagined, they're very much around me and I don't handle our encounters with ease, not unless I am behind glass doors. A lass that's city born and bred, much as I love nature, I'm squeamish about other creatures. Well, in truth, some of our own species are also not excluded from this kind of uneasiness.
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The tree right in front of me has grown so tall that at first-floor height, where I sit, there are no leaves – well, almost none. But that is what draws my attention, in the midst of this morning's traffic on the Pilerne Road. The lowest branches fan out in a kind of elegant dance-mudra on three sides, and these branches and sub-branches have just about three brown leaves hanging on them but barely - they're on the verge of dropping to the ground. Crinkled like a woman who has lived her life, exhausted each breath granted her, awaiting the final call of the universe; to take that leap of faith into the unknown and embrace a life below the branches of the tree that lofted her high into the blue of sky. The wind tugs East and then West, but the resilient stems don't let go. It's not time yet. There is also the odd leaf which has fallen off a higher branch and lodged itself into an inverted armpit, where an arm-like branch extends outwards from the tree trunk. Held between limbs that stall its descent into the earth, these leaves look as if they're still attached to the branch. Until a forceful gust of Vayu jolts one of them out and it rustles and crackles before taking its final bow amid the low-lying burgundy, purple and green plants in the garden below.
Just then, as my glance is occupied by the falling leaf, a large, blue-black bird, with curiously contrasted, reddish-brown wings, flies into view. My mobile phone rings, and it flies away before I can look long enough to study its visage. But this much I did see: it had a sturdy red beak.
Despite the bikes, buses and cars (some are rather noisy too) but undisturbed, nonetheless, I enjoy the silent companionship of the bamboo, palms and many other plants in the garden below me. It's become a breakfast ritual I now look forward to. The passing noise of people going about their business doesn't disturb me, it never has. It's the sound of people trying too hard to enjoy themselves, playing loud music as they pose for selfies, which grates. And it's not just here in Goa but in Delhi and Gurgaon too, road traffic or trains never shattered the silence of contemplation but unnaturally loud people noises always did.
This morning two young girls, dressed to the nines in their minuscule shorts, Ts and over-sized sunglasses, were playing some loud, music on their phones. They didn't seem to be listening to the lyrics or beat and neither were they listening to and in consonance with the plants they were posing among for their selfies. The incongruous, unwelcome sounds invaded my otherwise silent space. I cringed. I hate it when people bring loud music into such a tranquil environment. If you are here to bask in the beauty of nature, wouldn't it be more appropriate to listen to the rustle in the trees and let your silence invite the butterflies to come greet you? I called out “hello, hi, excuse-me!” to no avail. Barely a few yards away from me, they were deaf to my voice, drowned out by the loudness they played.
I'm peeved but tell myself they're just passing through, like the traffic on Pilerne Road. I decide to take out my Bluetooth speaker and put on some soothing earth sounds. Taking a few deep breaths, I ignore the girls and continue studying the leaves on the Saal trees, which fascinate me.
There's still some tea in the thermos. I pour the brew of Earl Grey tea into my mug and observe the insect-eaten holes in the leaves and the lace-like gathering of tiny, ever so small and delicate, feather-like extensions that grow at the tip of each branch. Where many such branches come close enough, this gossamer spider web-like growth gently meshes with its counterpart on another high branch and it looks as if nature is crocheting the whole sky with lightly beige coloured, fine lace, under-laid by a luminous fabric of ever-changing blue.
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