To Goa, with love: Memories of roses, longing and the sound of rain
You accept the limitation of words and language. You believe instead in the music of the sea farers.
- Total Shares
"If you write me letter...
I will write you back
If you forget me...
I will forget you...
Until the day...
You come back"
That’s how the song ends. Cesária Évora’s voice cuts through the rains in this quaint village with maybe a hundred abandoned old houses. Called the "barefoot diva", her songs have the lilt of the melancholic Portuguese Fado and the seduction of the African Morna. When writer Craig Bromberg travelled to Cape Verde to meet the singer who loved her rum and cigarettes, he asked her about the source of her music and its sadness. She had replied with "Sodade".
They say "Saudade" means longing for something that was and might never return. But it is an elusive word. I read somewhere that Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo defined it as "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy".
In this village, which is far away from the sea, I have come to listen to stories strangers have to offer. There is a river nearby but I can’t hear it. I see the man who brings the bread every evening when the sky is a shade of indigo and the white of the chapel in the quiet village of Aldona in North Goa stands in contrast. There is a pink house next to it. Nobody lives there. My friend tells me he is a Poder, who brings the bread every evening to the households in villages here. This is a leftover tradition in a place that’s changing. For once, I admit that change is the only constant, the only fidelity we know of.
I work with the lost and found. Always.
Fado, they say, is the soul of Portugal in a song. The sailors sang these songs of yearning and of tragic loss. Fado means "fate" but then you can’t ever fully translate.
Like me, she couldn’t swim and yet she lived by the sea and sang about love, loss, missing people and the sea. Perhaps travels like these are an exercise in remembering those we have not known or those we have known only a little. And whatever comes out from the sea is solace, like a gentle caress. Once my friend and I had sat at the beach late night and drank our rum while we watched the dark sea and a little dog walking in the sand. The singer said the sea is the home of nostalgia. It is also a place of hope.
I believe in serendipity. I am waiting for his call. I know he wouldn’t call.
I am in this room with a tiled roof and an ancient bed with windows looking out into the garden with rose shrubs and mango trees.
And so, for a long time, I heard the rain fall on to the roof. For a long time, I waited for Maria, the matriarch of the 500-year-old house to emerge from her room. And it is good to wait. Because “meanwhile” is a space that can lead to more encounters. People ask me do I seek out such people as Maria or the man in the window who plays the violin for his caged bird all day long in an old mansion. I don’t know. I guess I just stumble upon them.
All these three and a half decades, I have written notes on paper, on phone and on scraps of paper everywhere. Sometimes these were written with dates. Sometimes, the entries are more obscure, more timeless. The people I meet during these travels are described with the hope that I might meet them again.
When I turned back at dusk, he was standing in the window playing the violin. The windows had no curtains. From where I was standing that afternoon, the rooms upstairs looked like nobody had lived in them for a long time.
I had waved at him and he had smiled back. I stood outside the window and asked him if I could come inside.
“Come on Sunday,” he said. “I am busy until then.”
He was wearing a threadbare vest. The air had been still for a long time that afternoon.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Just a writer,” I said. “Do you live alone?”
“Yes,” he said.
He resumed playing the violin. And it sounded not melodious but strangely melancholic.
Grass grew tall in front of his window. The room had some furniture and some old faded photographs in gilded frames.
A corner of memories.
Ivo Furtado lives alone in an old Goan house in Fontainhas. Outside his house, there was a wishing well.
I work with the lost and found. Always.
I forgot to make a wish. I returned to the little restaurant I left my parents at and asked about Ivo. They said he lived alone and played the violin throughout the day. He would come in every night to eat at the restaurant.
He played the violin for his caged bird, they said. I call him the Violin Man.
Ivo Furtado didn’t invite me to his house after all. I returned again. He smiled again. I left my number with him. I waited for him to call me that evening. He didn’t.
That night I listened to Fado, the music of Portugal. It means “fate”. You can’t fight the inevitability of what destiny has in store for you. Maybe that’s what he plays for his caged bird. I saw the bird in the cage the second day when he was standing outside with the violin in the afternoon, inside the old quarters of Panjim's Fontainhas.
“Once someone said
That fado put to sleep
Those who heard its moaning
That fado takes away our energies
That it takes away our happiness
That it is a song of the defeated
It is a heresy, it is a sin
To say such things about fado
To make such a statement
If fado is sad, when it is sung
It only brings to tears
Those who have a heart,” a writer wrote about Fado.
Isn’t it beautiful to play music to your bird? Isn’t that what love should be? And in the alleys at dusk, the notes from the violin sounded like the most beautiful sound ever. I would have asked him why he plays the violin for his bird but I know the answer already.
I threw a coin in the wishing well the second evening.
I look at the room across the courtyard. The windows are open. I see the lace curtains fluttering in the wind. The dogs are lying down in the balcony. Maria must be in her room, I think. I waver between the different untranslatable words from countries I have never visited, like the Czech word "Litost" or the Russian word "Toska", or the Spanish "Duende", which the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca in a lecture in Buenos Aires in 1939 said "is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation … everything that has black sounds in it, has duende".
Does the rain in a distant place where I have come to forget a "dark sound" like the duende? The rain is coming in through the windows. It drowns out the other noises. This is what I need.
There is a longing for who I was or who I could be. I can’t say. There is a strange sadness that is amplified by the sound of the rain and the songs.
How do even begin where language ends? You can’t translate the sorrow. Metaphors are not the props you need.
Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian writer, said Toska was beyond what linguists could translate.
“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
But the word that I find the most untranslatable is "Litost".
Czech writer Milan Kundera said this word was like the wail of an abandoned dog, of someone witnessing their own misery. At his liberty was poetic licence and artists are known to be rescued by such licence. Love, hate, suffering are all muted. They are untranslatable. There is the silence of a hand dropped on the ledge of the window, of the stars suspended in the night — trying to break through the obstinate greasy fog.
There is that frustration of those unspeakable words, of those drawings that cover so much experience and yet can't be defined or restricted by what is known. Language is restrictive. Suffering and love aren't.
Maybe I know about this particular state of being where, in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Kundera, a boy slaps his lover because she could swim better. He, who was plagued with the past and a disability from there, can't begin to fathom why his lover had a happy childhood. We are always looking for love in the wrong places. In the void, we speak in no language.
Once, art curator Ina Puri saw a doll on her travels and sent me a photo. It was the Little Prince in a shop window in Bilbao. A forlorn prince.
I saw the rose and the fox although they weren’t in the frame and the nine worlds.
In one frame, a man owned the stars and I wondered again what it would be like to own the stars and count them every day. Would that be the ideal vacation?
They say roses grow more beautiful if you tell them stories of faraway lands. That’s a good enough reason to collect stories.
I stay on and shut my eyes.
I see no more that evening but flashbacks in my mind.
A writer belongs nowhere.
We are our own soothsayers.
I have come to this village with its white chapels and empty houses to imagine a new life. I am not sure if I know enough about the Poder and the bells they ring in the village when someone dies to be able to become a part of the living here. But I feel I know the arches, the windows and the tiled roofs of the old houses. I know the laterite floor. I know them from another life or from imagined narratives and from travels.
In the old faded photos hung on the wall of the family dining room with its long table and its brass candlesticks and its porcelain dolls, María is smiling through the window grill. One morning, as she reads through the obituaries, she says the house has changed in the last 500 years but the facade is the same. Her mother was a Russian nurse and married a doctor posted here during World War I.
She returned to her house in this village to take care of her mother. She has been here all her life. They call it Cancio’s House. The son Roberto takes care of the property and I see him repairing the roof and painting the windows ahead of the rains. His wife tells me the curtains were designed by her and she got the lace from Germany. Once the house had 40 rooms. But with time, some rooms have been lost to memory. Maria can tell the stories but her memory comes and goes. She is also moody.
I see her room when I walk to the kitchen. I see the blue walls, the white lace curtain, the icons and the photo of Jesus.
I wonder how it must feel to grow old in a house you were born in. I ask her if she lived in the same room always. She says "almost always".
There is an old doctor with old posters that hang on the walls of his 300-year-old house. He allows me to take photos of the posters. He tells me about Maria and her mother. He says Roberto is the son who stayed with Maria in the house to take care of her. She lost another son to an accident not so long ago. They used to be wealthy.
It seems like I have lived here for a long, long time. I know about the Russian grandmother of Roberto. I know about the caste hierarchies in the church and I know the young man I keep bumping into always had a habit of choosing the wrong women. But he is growing. He will recover from the ailment of bad choices. He says he is looking for a job.
Saudade is for the older, the ones who have more time behind them than ahead of them. Or maybe for those like me who sit in a forlorn village and try to understand that there is no relationship between events. You remember things that were and those that weren’t. They aren’t coming back. But you miss them.
Even what you didn’t experience. Things that could be. That’s how we remember. With hope and defeat.
And the rain comes again. And the lights are switched off in Maria’s room. Tomorrow she will go to a funeral. She says the family of the deceased didn’t want flowers. They say people could donate to the departed’s favorite charity.
Tomorrow, I will go to Mapusa. And maybe to the sea. I think it will do me good to see endlessness. Desert, sea, skies. I am tired of endings.
Maybe I will return to the river here and write a letter.
I will say this — I have forgotten the dream but I remember the fear. And once I have forgotten the fear, I will remember the love.
But I will not send the letter although I have walked past an old post office here. It is on a little hill.
Maybe I will take some roses for Maria. But I am yet to figure out where the florist is.
Some travels are just this. Encounters and a little smile, a bit of a conversation and a lot of rain.
And you carry back the image of a man with a violin looking lovingly at a bird in a cage, his sole companion in this great world, or of a woman in a blue room with a transparent skin reading obituaries and talking about how her Goa used to be. You listen to Fado in your apartment in Delhi and dream about the endless sea and the endless rains.
And smile at the untranslatable words in your notebook. You accept the limitation of words and language. You believe instead in music of the sea farers.