I loved Goa immediately. A thick silence hung in the air and the fields were ripe and saturated. The grey of the monsoon cast a heavy green over the trees. The feeling of Goa was tangible, like there was something distinctly different from other places. It was instantly relaxing, like stepping into another world.
Because Goa is another world. It was a Portuguese colony until 1961. While the rest of India was becoming an independent nation, Goan aunties were speaking Portuguese and attending Catholic mass. But the Goa I encountered was distinctly Indian - a mix of all of its influences. Brightly painted churches stood on scenic stretches of coastline; Statues of the Virgin Mary were adorned with woven strings of marigold; Sacred cows roamed the beaches, and feral dogs ate trash in the gutters.
I didn’t spend long in Goa, but the time I did I spent driving down winding country lanes on a rented scooter, drinking Kingfishers on the beach, and wading through the shallow tides, counting bubbler crabs and fishing boats. Goa was one of the first places in India where I felt like I really wasn’t ready to leave, like I could have spent endless days floating on the rivers and strolling down the sands.
There’s another city that I also loved but couldn’t wait to get out of - Calcutta. Calcutta was wild, coarse, unbearably humid, aggravating beyond belief, and just way too much. But I had a great time. Because beyond the madness, the enervating taxi drivers, the unyielding sweat, and a side dish of food poisoning, Calcutta holds a richness of culture, a lifetime of secrets, held within its curving lanes, just like Goa.
It was in Calcutta that I visited the homes and legacies of cultural figures such as Rabindranath Tagore and Mother Theresa, learning about their contributions to contemporary Indian society; Where I visited the Kalighat Temple and watched families slaughtering live goats as offerings to the goddess Kali; Where I ate some of the best street food I’ve had in the whole country (and then some of the worst); Where I sat sipping chai out of single-use clay cups with old men who’d drank this same chai their entire lives.
The meat market made me feel sick. Outside, woven palm-leaf baskets held different varieties of chickens, of which you could choose which one you wanted. They pecked out at me as I walked past. Old men crouched on the ground, picking out feathers and tearing off wings. Vendors smiled and called me over - they’re not used to many visitors in the meat market. Inside, the mutton vendors were less friendly. Some shooed me away with their blood stained machetes. An entire row of buffalo tongues hung from large metal pegs. Goats were tethered with ropes, climbing over the skins and innards of their friends who had been slaughtered earlier. An elderly man sat on a low stool, squeezing digested food out of loose intestines, and washing out the insides. I wondered what he would do with them later. I headed outside to the vegetable market, which made me feel less disgusted.
The Howrah Bridge stands as a symbol of identity for Calcutta. You might remember it from the movie Lion, where Saroo visits after first arriving in the city. After Partition, when millions of refugees streamed into Calcutta from East Pakistan, it served as a symbol of unity. In those days people were literally dying on the street, as the city tried to accommodate the influx of population. And with the founding of Bangladesh in 1971 it happened again. These images of poverty and squalor are what shape our views of Calcutta in the West. I sat on the steps of Mullick Ghat, looking across to the Howrah Bridge. A chicken pecked at my sandal. Mothers washed their laundry in the filthy river. Children played nearby. It was comforting to be surrounded by these people, to be welcome in their home.
Calcutta was the first capital of British India. It holds dark stories about British gentry suffocating to death crowded in basements as Nawabs fought against them. Many of the freedom fighters were active in Calcutta, and the political climate forced the British to move their capital to Delhi. But this ambition and drive for sovereignty and vibrancy is still evident in Calcutta today - in the nature of the businessmen as they stop for chai amidst the rush of traffic, the young couples as they picnic (and them some) in the gardens around the Victoria Memorial, even the ferry driver, ferrying people back and forth and back below the Howrah Bridge.
As I walked back and forth and back up Palolem Beach in Goa, I thought about Calcutta. How it seems worlds away from this sleepy beach in Goa. I turned up the shore and started walking up the riverbend, past fishermen pulling in their nets and lounging around their shacks. Were these men any different than the men in Calcutta? Did they have different stories to tell? Did they think different things? Believe different beliefs? Or maybe these things are reserved for people with more privilege. Maybe chaiwallas in Calcutta and fisherfolk in Goa don’t have time for such fancy.
I thought about the contrasts of India, how vastly things change from village to village, state to state, and even more so when you cross the entire country. Yet the whole thing is India, the people are all Indian. Even though the fisherman and the chaiwalla speak different languages (Konkani and Bengali), live 2192 kilometres apart, and may never come into contact with eachother, they share a nationality. But they also share something deeper.
I left Palolem at 5:30 in the morning. A vendor I met on the beach offered to drive me an hour and a half to the train station on the back of his bike. I paid him 600 rupees, the equivalent of 12 Canadian dollars. I know that I vastly overpaid, that 600 rupees is probably more than he usually makes in several days. But maybe those 600 rupees allowed him some small time to fancy. Or maybe not. But he was there, awake at 5:30, and he drove me up and down the highway hills as the jungle was waking and the streets were silent. I sat on the train, sipping chai and thinking. My train carried me east, into the state of Karnataka, before it headed north, to Howrah Station, Calcutta.