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Going down the Goan memory lane

It’s not glam. You won’t think you are in Ibiza. You won’t be able to pretend it is a Greek island. But it’s Goa. The real Goa.

brunch Updated: Jan 23, 2015 18:49 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Every generation has its own Goa. In the late Seventies and the early Eighties, I wearied of professional Goans and Bombay old-timers who talked of the Goa of their youth still ruled by the Portuguese, full of Latin music, happy villagers, grand churches and rivers of alcohol (the rest of India had Prohibition). Somehow, they always left out the failures of the Portuguese, who believed that Goans did not deserve electricity or drains, and managed to make kerosene lanterns and pig toilets seem romantic.

And then there was the Goa of the generation just before mine: a sort of hippie-dippy paradise where flower children sat on the rocks by the sea and played guitar, where you could pick up imported jeans at throwaway prices at flea markets, where the white women were always topless (and many of the beaches were nudist) and where Bob Dylan/George Harrison/Joan Baez/Donovan (pick singer of your choice – it was all a fantasy anyway) would slip in to play secret gigs by the light of the silvery moon.

The idea of Goa as an Indian outpost of the Woodstock nation always made my generation feel warmly towards this sleepy former Portuguese colony, though by the time I finally got there in 1976, the only hippies to be found were tired old junkies who, you prayed, you would never come across on a nudist beach.

But even then, there was the sense that Goa was a different part of India. There was something vaguely Latin/European about the ethos and somehow money didn’t seem so important.

The actor Shashi Kapoor once told me in an interview that when his career packed up in the early ’70s, he retreated to his shack on a Goan beach, drank and slept all day and counted on the guy at the local dhaba to bring him his meals. In Goa, he said, it didn’t matter how many movies you had signed or whether you were still a bankable commodity, (but, of course, the phase did not last. Shashi’s career revived and he became Bombay’s busiest star).

Shifting sands: I finally got to the state in 1976, and even then, there was the sense that Goa was a different part of India.But by the late ’70s, when I became a regular visitor, the Portuguese and hippie Goa had vanished, to be replaced by a new entity: tourist Goa. Though we don’t realise this now, the idea of Goa as a tourist destination was the work of a single hotel group: The Taj. The company’s head, Ajit Kerkar, was a Goan who dreamt of building a great hotel in his home region.

And when the Tatas refused to back him, he raised finances from various high-net-worth individuals (RV Pandit, Manubhai Madhvani, Rajan Pillai and others) to create Indian Resort Hotels, which owned the Fort Aguada Resort (managed by the Taj).

The Aguada was designed by the great architect IM Kadri to reflect the beauty of Goa. Nothing was taller than the palm trees. And in those days, the law allowed you to build directly on the beach. A few years later, the Taj opened the Holiday Village (in 1980, I think) and cemented Goa’s status as a tourist destination.

That avatar of Goa was more commercial (as you would expect, given that a hotel company was its prime mover) but still quiet and charming. Rooms were relatively inexpensive, guests were mainly drawn from Bombay. Eventually, as Bombay’s rich and famous clamoured to spend New Year at the Aguada, it became so difficult to get a room that the Taj ran the resort like a club, making value judgements about who it would let in for Christmas/New Year and who it would not.

In 1983, the Commonwealth Heads of Government scheduled a retreat at the Aguada and the Taj built an all-villa wing called The Hermitage for them. And by the end of the 1980s, there was nowhere else in India to go for the winter vacations but Goa.

I stopped going to Goa for New Year eventually for reasons that were entirely misanthropic: I dreaded the thought of being stuck in Aguada over the holidays with people I had spent all year avoiding in Bombay and Delhi. But I still went in the monsoon, when room rates were much lower and Goa was at its loveliest. The glamorous types would not come in the rains and the Holiday Village was always full of decent, hardworking professionals taking a well-deserved break with their families.

It was during these trips that I became friends with Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala. Cyrus was the genius chef-in-charge of the Aguada and the Village and Pervin (herself a trained chef) ran the front-of-the-house. Then, one day, Cyrus disappeared. I was told he had left the Taj because they wanted him to open the new Taj Bengal’s restaurants. (Why would that upset him? No idea. But he’s always been a bit of a crazy Parsi!)

Eventually he surfaced in London, running a restaurant called Café Spice Namaste, in that era, the only quality Indian restaurant in that city except for the Taj’s Bombay Brasserie. Then, I watched astonished, as he first became a celebrity chef (the first Indian to reach those heights) a bestselling author (we still use his Café Spice Namaste cookbook at home), and then incredibly enough, a pillar of the British establishment with an OBE, an MBE, invitations to cook for the Queen, and assorted other distinctions.

I thought he was now a long way from Goa. But two years ago, when I turned up at Café Spice Namaste, he was still the same old Cyrus, shouting orders to his Goan cooks in Konkani and discussing food with me in Gujarati.

He is, of course, a big-time TV chef (his latest show The Incredible Spicemen, which pairs him with an unintelligible Sardarji in a kilt is being telecast in India now), but the only way in which I thought he’d changed was that he’d really become a master of ingredients and their provenance in a manner that few Indian chefs are.

Coming full circle: Former Taj Aguada chef Cyrus Todiwala became a celebrity chef in London and returned to Goa to open a signature restaurant at the Acron Waterfront (above).

Last month Cyrus returned to Goa. He opened a signature restaurant at the Acron Waterfront, a charming, tiny (29 rooms only) resort in Baga on a spot of land between the riverbank and the beach. When he called to invite me to Goa for a charity dinner at his new restaurant, he said that four excellent British chefs would also be coming.

I told him that though I steer clear of Goa these days, I’d come because I’d first met him 30 years ago in Goa and now, the wheel had turned full circle.

Why had I stopped coming to Goa, he asked.

Well because it was no longer a Goa I recognised, I said. It was full of pushy north Indians and loud Gujaratis who stayed in ugly, overpriced, modern hotels with disgusting food. There had been so much construction that it looked like any other part of India.

And all the people I met in Delhi who flew to Goa at great expense either treated it as some exotic food place ("great Greek food, yaar!") or as a cheaper alternative to Ibiza.

It was getting harder and harder to even get a decent Goan meal – all the old favourites had become tourist traps. And what about the Russians? Ever since they had taken over Goa, the hotels and tour operators had ceased bothering with guests from the rest of the world.

And then I stopped.

Suddenly, I remembered the old Goa bores of my childhood who mourned the passing of their Goa and complained about how much it had changed. I was beginning to sound exactly like them.

So I shut up and took the flight to Goa. And I had a great time. The hotel is owned by really nice people and has a character all of its own. The British chefs were wonderful. But how can anyone top Cyrus Todiwala’s food: a mutton Country Captain done like a Shepherd’s Pie, a beetroot rasam that sounded strange but was delicious, little tartlets filled with freshly scrambled akuri, a shoulder of lamb slow-cooked so that it melted in your mouth, and much more.

You should go. It’s not very glam. You won’t think you are in Ibiza. You won’t be able to pretend it is a Greek island. And you’ll see the local fishermen cast their nets in the morning.

But it’s Goa. The real Goa. And it doesn’t apologise for being itself.

From HT Brunch, January 25, 2015
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First Published: Jan 23, 2015 13:47 IST