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What's eating Goa?

india Updated: Mar 06, 2009 22:39 IST
Zara Murao

Russians own the hotels; the Brits are dining on tandoori fish and butter chicken; Indians from the south and north throng the beaches. It’s hard to believe this is the same city-state where, as a child, I walked barefoot to the local brunch joint for some lazy late-morning bacon and eggs. The hotels then were run — or at least managed — by Goans. Steaming Goa sausages were an option with every meal.

And, oh, the sorpotel. Back then, you could get pancakes on the beach at any time of day. And the large, homely woman dishing them up would chat about the weddings she was catering for, attending or singing at. A portly husband would emerge from the back of the shack, the home being separated from the establishment by the merest curtain. As they crossed paths, a kiss or a grumble would tell whether they had had a good weekend. Now, it’s either Mughlai joints run by grumpy — I’m sorry to use the word — outsiders. Or the most unbelievably ill-fitted cafes you could imagine. Not that the cafes are unattractive. Quite the opposite. They have everything the tourists must have missed all those years — curving upholstered chairs, glass fronts looking out on a bustling street, designer lampshades and 65 different kinds of coffee from across three continents.

The only thing missing is Goa.

Same old, same old

The same startling newness stretches across most towns along the coast. Trucks carrying construction material for new buildings — and the debris of old homes — growl along the highways where cycles used to be the main mode of transport between the beaches. One elderly woman — who now serves only tea and biscuits in her tiny eatery; the other food had no takers — tells me in a stunned voice that she can no longer leave her slippers outside her house-cum-stall because the “labourers from out of town” steal anything they can get their hands on. We need more children of Goa to come back home and take care of their state, she says pointedly, as she plies me with homemade biscuits. I’m not Goan, I smile. She pauses, considers, and concedes: “You, I like. You must come back any time to our beautiful state.”

Ah, now that is Goa. Half an hour’s ride away, sipping coffee at a beach bar at Anjuna that has still not reopened after the monsoon onslaught, I gaze at the ocean smashing onto the rocks just a few feet away. Centipedes crawl about on the sand floor. The roof is open to the sky; the restaurant decorated mainly in cane and wood. There are no stainless steel amenities in the kitchen, no mood lighting, no cushions. Nothing but the swell of the ocean and a rough-hewn coffee table. Finally, I sigh. “It used to all be like this,” says Richard, the owner, nursing a mug of his own. “Now, it’s all thumping raves and corrupt policemen.” As his two young cooks, four dogs and I sup on chicken broth and bread, Richard discusses his plans to move inland. “I’m heartbroken,” he says. “I just can’t take what’s happening to my Goa.”

Heartsick, I find myself wandering into — strangely enough — Cinnabar, a café that was the very symbol of all I had been railing against. After a few sips of Korean-Kenyan special bean coffee (or some such delight), I leave the hushed orange space for some real food. A young man sitting alone in Ma’s Bakery down the road dishes up just the stuff. As he brings out the steaming dish of sorpotel and fresh, soft pav, I smile. All was not lost… yet.