Love at first sight (and in retrospect) (An essay by Keerthi Purushothaman)

Chosen as Editor’s Pick of the Day (Essay) on WordPress Discover – 13 June 2017.

“For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name.” 

Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

Writing about a city is a meditation of one’s self and a mediation of one’s wills. For me, it also happens to be a job. As a result, I am quite conscious about how words make a city. I write about the same city in different ways – for project reports, for blog articles, and even in my personal journal. Isn’t everything we do somehow rooted in space? All of these writings are centered around urban (or urbanizing, if you will) spaces I have come to know like the back of my hand. My palm prints could pass for the cartographic illustrations of these cities. But I have always only written about cities after a threshold of familiarity has been crossed.

However, this time it is on some place different. To adopt a metaphor, (that is incidentally also almost literal), this post is about a one-night stand and the unrequited-insatiable-unabashed lust for a city whose language I can’t speak, whose routines baffle me, whose street corners will still surprise me. One I fell in love with only in the morning, when everything was over, and I had left. I consciously use this metaphor with an underlying connotation of lust, because it does not simply suffice to say I love the city. If Goa were a man, I would be the  clichéd weeping mess of a woman who met her soulmate fleetingly, but recognized when it was too late and the bed was cold. Everything about my love for Goa is a rom-com cliché – from how we met accidentally, my initial attraction and discomfort that occurs simultaneously when one eats an unfamiliar, perhaps, forbidden fruit, a passion I have felt for no human or thing, and the unending fantasies of a happy ending with a hope of a forever.

I went to Goa on a ticket that was booked for someone else (and was fined for travelling under a false name). Two hours for the train to depart and I was still unconvinced about this trip. Everything about the trip seemed risky. I usually do everything to avoid being put in a vulnerable spot. I am a teetotaler and this is the land of sin. Isn’t Goa the seat of the Indian devil? (Fun fact I learnt much later: one of the Gods of pre-Portuguese Goa is Betaal, which is mistaken to be a demon in mythology now.) Others saw it as a land of sandy beaches, cheap liquor, and fun. I saw it as a one-and-a-half-day trip with my classmates, almost everyone a stranger, whose ideas of fun did not seem to intersect with mine. I remember sitting on the edge of the train seat and looking back all the life-decisions that had led to that point. My apprehension had started before the trip. I had made a list of places to visit – based on the Lonely planet website and recommendations from other teetotaler friends – that I can go to, because I expected everyone to be hungover or high. I was surprised when a few others showed interest in my walk that covered the major touristy landmarks of Panjim and Velha Goa– churches, souvenir shops, and a book store. I was shocked when I saw that they were actually having fun.

Goa is that boy who kept pushing me to come out of my very-tiny comfort zone. From getting into cars with strangers and talking to bar owners to arrange for a “semi-private taxi”, the city kept me on my toes, in a constant state of anxiety. I lived in fear of the uncertain (which city that prides itself on having the best nightlife has the last bus at 7PM?!) I did have my sources of calm – in quaint churches in Panjim and in old Goa, taking off my shoes to feel the laterite, in between shelves of a book store when it seemed as though every family in Goa had published a memoir. I was that mesmerised woman in Abbe Faria’s statue (best find of my aimless walk – I must’ve visited it four times in the few hours I had). I bought books at the museum, at the church, and every bookstore I went to. I came back and ordered every book on Goa that fit my budget from Amazon. The city had me wound around his finger and I didn’t even realise it. When did I fall in love? Was it then or was it much later, only when I began writing my travelogue? Did the act of writing create the desire for more?

This is all despite me not having the typical touristy experiences – not dipping my feet in the sea, not seeing a beach, not eating bebinca, the fresh catch, or any of the local food, (because they were all heavy on coconut), not having more than a minute’s conversation with any of the locals, not visiting a bar or a casino. All I did in the city was to walk around. What is it about the city did I fall in love with? It wasn’t just the buildings or the physical space. I had many moments of solitude in the city because I was the only one who woke up for breakfast and coffee. Is that it? How had it been different from my morning walks in Chennai, Bangalore, or Mumbai? Everything I learnt about Goa was learnt on the spot, with a patchy 2G internet connection and Google Maps, but much of what I know of the city was learnt only later, when I was already several miles away.

What did I fall in love with? Was it just the freedom of being alone and virtually anonymous in a strange city I was not tied to? A literal one-night stand. How would this man change if I saw him again or if I lived with him for longer period? Would his habits annoy me and leave me disillusioned or would I have finally found true love?

More importantly: do I want to know?

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