Kimmy Katkar has made me a kumquat cake. A friend brought the fresh fruit from Australia and she baked it in honour of our interview; it’s clear she needs little incentive. Later this evening she’ll be off for sundowners – she’s already decked out in wedges, a caftan and sunglasses. But for now, it’s time to unwind by the pool with her photographer husband Shantanu Sheorey, son Siddhanth and the friend. We’re having lemon liqueur with the cake. Because what else is there to do on a warm winter afternoon in Goa?
The Sheoreys have lived in Mumbai, Melbourne and Pune, but moved to Goa in 2014, when Shantanu decided to open a photography school here. They’re part of a small number of people who’ve always known that Goa’s charms extended beyond boozy breaks, calamari starters and Instagram sunsets, but who’ve realised that it’s finally possible to live here full time and make a living in the shade of its coconut groves.
Not everyone who’s moving in is rich – Tejasvi (who goes by the name Anahata) and Shaun Moitra are making a go of it in Assagaon as a spiritual healer and canine behaviourist respectively, after quitting corporate jobs in Mumbai. Not everyone has a Portuguese villa triangulated by a church, paddy field and beach – Karan and Yogita Manral and their daughter Tara have an inland apartment. Not everyone is an outsider – Rahul and Shobhana Chandawarkar both lived here when they were younger. And not everyone is nearing retirement – Pralay Bakshi and Bina Punjani are raising their three-year-old made-in-Goa son Neil here. But everyone, whether they’re renting or buying, is happily making adjustments in life, work and play to be in Goa.
It’s not hard to see why. Nikhil Desai, Goa Tourism managing director, calls the state a “settler’s delight”: rivers, mountains, seas, forests. Clean air, less traffic, warm, cosmopolitan vibe. Flights are plentiful, locals speak English. Food, drink, petrol and electricity cost less. And, as Bangalore’s Sujit and Sudha Sumitran found when they moved to Goa last year, you can rent a rambling villa (porch, gardens, roomy kitchen and household help) for less than what you’d pay for a one-bedroom Bandra flat.
“Of course the economics matter,” Desai says. “But people primarily move to Goa for the lifestyle. We have great tolerance and respect for privacy. We don’t blow our lids off at the sight of a scantily clad woman on the beach. We don’t look twice when women take their scooters out at night. If there’s a start-up next door, no one’s peeping in. You don’t get this anywhere in India, and many people are realising the value of it.”
Delhi litigator-turned-Calangute-bookstore-owner Divya Kapoor realised it back in 2004. Yogita Manral realised it even earlier, in 2002. “For my first job interview, at The Energy and Resources Institute, I drove from Karmali railway station to Dona Paula, passed two water bodies, saw the place and thought ‘Whatever the job is, I’m taking it!’” she recalls. She eventually quit, but stayed on in Goa, setting up an organic farm with her husband Karan. They’ve found, over the years, that Goa attracts a certain type of resident: city-weary creative folk – writers, academics, musicians, filmmakers. And now, traders, entrepreneurs and those who’ve spent time abroad and want what our overwhelmed metros can no longer give.
“We lived for five years in Melbourne. But I wanted to return to India and set up a school,” says Shantanu. “What were my options: Pune? Crowded with schools run by politicians for profit. Bombay? You can’t live there anymore. Everything’s rushed. Everyone’s tense. Delhi? You can’t even breathe there. Goa was always hassle-free.” Bina Punjani, who lived in Mumbai, London, Dubai and Delhi, says Panjim “reminded us of what Bombay used to be in the 1970s, before it got crazy”.
For theatreperson Arundhati Chattopadhyaya and her musician husband Neel, Goa offered the quality of life they’d had abroad. “Not just cheese and wine,” she explains. “The ocean, greenery and quiet. We hear the birds and the flour mill across the street. We have frogs and monitors in our courtyard, a kokum, jambul and jungle tree. And a studio where Neel does riyaaz every evening.”
Making the green
Those who dream of Goa in their too-cold office cubicles and on the too-stressful drive home tend to think in clichés: sea-view cottages, siestas and starting a restaurant to pay for it all. Those who’ve lived there know that only works out for hotshot chefs. Instead, they’ve found inventive ways to match their skills with Goa’s charms.
The government is keen on developing the state as an arts hub. It already hosts several cultural festivals and the local arts movement is vibrant. So Rahul Chandawarkar has parlayed his years in marketing and his performance artists’ contacts as a journalist, plus wife Shobhana’s IT background into an event management company. “We came here in October, and in the first week of November, we’d held our first event,” says Rahul, who’s planning a world festival of sacred music in February.
Theatre person Arundhati Chattopadhyaya is tapping into the new cultural vibe too. “The audience wants more than classics now,” she says. “There are performance spaces designed keeping in mind light, space, wind and the elements. I visited Sunaparanta in Panjim when we arrived, took one look at their amphitheatre and said ‘My God, I want to do something here!’ I just walked in and asked if I could work with them. It was that easy, yaar.” Kapoor, in turn, has opened her bookstore-café in busy Calangute.
Others find their market outside Goa. Sujit Sumitran, a leadership consultant, flies out to clients and coaches them by phone. It leaves him free to help his wife Sudha tend their organic garden, make artisanal cheese, and build a wood-fired oven. “We eventually want to start a homestay that also teaches skills like cooking and making bread. It won’t work anywhere else,” he explains. Pralay Bakshi, who spent 12 years in radio across India and in Dubai and now does freelance voiceover projects from a studio he’s set up in their apartment, says: “My clients are set. Work comes to me.” He assists his wife Bina in running her hair salon in Miramar.
But for many who’ve moved, the sunny state has supplied bright ideas. “Yogita’s kitchen garden experiments kept getting bigger and bigger until we were farming on 2.5 acres of friends’ land, giving them weekly bags of produce in exchange,” says Karan Manral. “We’ve been offered more acres, but we don’t have the bandwidth.” Instead, they help farmers grow more than rice in their lush fields. In her first week here, Anahata found herself taking bookings for healing sessions, “a sign that this is where I am meant to be”. Her husband, Shaun, discovered an interest in canine behaviour, and went back to Mumbai to get his certification. “He returned and said, ‘I’m a dog trainer, yaar’.” They’re now building kennels in the lower level of their house. “I don’t want to think of a business model,” says Shaun. “The money will come.”
Seeing the bright side
And while the money comes, there’s so much to do. Like take morning cycle rides through villages and shoot pictures at the railway crossing, like Rahul Chandawarkar does. “It’s much more romantic than the crowded lanes of Pune,” he says. “Barely 60km away is a wildlife sanctuary so pristine that when you visit, you’re the only people there.”
Or you could do what Kimmy Sheorey does: “Go to Mapusa market, come from Mapusa market, go back to Mapusa market”. The old bazaar is a wonderland for food lovers. You can spend months scouting sausages and small-batch homemade preserves sold by local women. And, of course, she’s often baking up a storm: “We eat fresh food. And everyone has the time to eat right.” Shantanu doesn’t even miss his city friends. “I see more of them now. Someone is always visiting Goa.”
Divya indulges in naps and heads to the beach often. Pralay and Bina don’t bother. They’ve got a 60-inch TV, a La-Z-Boy recliner and other city thrills. The Sumitrans are learning kalari-yoga from the man who supplies fish compost for their garden. Anahata paints and wears feathers in her hair: “People would laugh at me if I did that in Bombay.” Shaun rides the Bullet he’s had since college. Neither watches TV. “Goa makes you do new things – like look up at the sky,” says Shaun. “It’s the life you want now, rather than wait till you’re 60.”
Karan Manral believes no one in Goa starts conversations with “What do you do?” If they did, they’d best be prepared for Arundhati. “I’m busy every day!” she exclaims. “Tuesdays, we take a mobile library to the interior villages. Wednesday I teach bharatanatyam in the kitchen.” Thursdays, she works with local teens on community theatre projects, getting Goa’s young people to understand issues like environmental damage and sanitation. She’s teaching at Sunaparanta, conducting a 10-day workshop for an architectural college, and the day after we met, she spent the morning rescuing a snake from her well. “I take walks through the hills in the evening and my friends let me use their pool. And I socialise, of course!” Sujit Sumitran, on the other hand has a simple answer for what he does in Goa: “Nothing. Because I can’t do that in the city.”
Shining a light
To live the dream in Goa, you must first decide where to make your bed. Long-term residents tend to prefer quieter, greener living. “We were clear that our school and home had to be on [the inland, non-touristy] side of the NH17 highway,” says Shantanu. “The Anjuna-Baga belt is for a different fantasy – for a man to be noisy, drunk, in a ganji and shorts on the street with a beer in his hand, something he could probably never do at home.” He had some trouble with that stereotype when school admissions started. “Parents would say, ‘Oh God, Goa!’ their kids would say, ‘Oh yeah, Goa!’ but once you live here you can tell the difference. Students eventually despise those areas.”
Away from the shacks, Goa can be a revelation, but not always the good kind. “There’s a façade of urbanity,” says Divya, referring to the music, white tourists and English-speaking locals. “But rural life dominates.” You’ll find, as Karan did, that the finite group of people from cities are the only interesting company and “six degrees of separation become three”. There’s one mall and few supermarkets. “Westside opened only a few years ago,” says Karan. His wife Yogita adds, “If you spotted basil in the bazaar, you’d call every friend about it”. There was no fresh mushroom or paneer until recently. “Even supermarkets stop selling the good stuff when the season ends,” grumbles Kimmy.
Public transport is patchy. Nikhil Desai suggests having your own bike or car so you’re never stuck. “Unlike a big city, you may have to drive 6km to a chemist.” And when you do, pray you’re not too late – everything shuts in the afternoon, even medical stores. “Booze shops stay open,” Shantanu points out. “One shopkeeper jokingly told me, ‘Sir, that’s the real medicine’.”
Pralay recalls with a laugh the romantic notions he had of settling in Goa. “We thought we’d rent a villa by the beach. One room would be my studio, one room would have a mirror and a chair for Bina. We’d have a chilled-out life. Then someone told us how our romance with an old Goa house would die in the first monsoon – frogs in the house, snakes in the bedroom, no one to come sweep the floors, the Net won’t work…”
When things work, they’re at the susegaad, laidback pace that characterises Goa. “At a shack, you can tell where people come from by how they react when they haven’t got their water or service in the first five minutes,” says Divya. “But as a resident, you find that the slowness is part of the charm.”
Turning the tide
Could Goa be your cup of tea (or glass of feni)? It depends entirely on what you want from it, and what you’re willing to give, and give up. “If you’re running a year-round business, be realistic about volumes,” says Bina. “Goa is small, you’ll make five times less than Mumbai. Local businesses are threatened by outsiders, so offer international quality and hire staff who has worked in a city.” Divya says that running an independent bookstore in Goa is as hard as it would be anywhere in India. “The terms of the trade are not in your favour; we have to take it year by year.”
Good internet is hard (and expensive), but not impossible to find – it took Shaun 21 days to get their fibre-optic connection running. While some new residents complain of contractors showing up late, others find it’s no worse than the cities. “The state is governed by the Goa Civil Law,” says Nikhil Desai. “The whole family, wives and daughters included, have equal shares in property. You can’t ‘buy’ homes from one person. So pick a Goan lawyer when buying your home.”
Eventually, Goa will grow on you. You’ll find locals even friendlier once you find common ground – for the Manrals it was growing produce – and attempt the local language. “People opened up to me because I bindaasly speak to them in Konkani, without putting on airs,” says Arundhati. Its narrow roads will remind you to share. “One guy will get off the road and wait for the other to pass,” says Shantanu. “Often, both cars will pull over, saying ‘You go’ ‘No, you go’.” And you’ll discover that having a good neighbour means being a good neighbour – Shaun’s locality enjoys high-speed internet because of him. “One girl calls me internet man!” Sujit’s neighbours happily keep an eye on his ageing parents when he goes out.
Without even knowing, you’ll become one of them. When the school opened, Kimmy got the local priest to come bless the place. “He came, blessed everyone and everything, then, at the next evening’s Mass he announced what he’d done and asked the congregation to support us,” says Shantanu. “I didn’t even have to ask.”
(Photos by Aalok Soni)
Follow @GreaterBombay on Twitter
From HT Brunch, January 31, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch