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The beach tourism haven of Goa implemented a rather draconian lockdown. Stuck in his home, author and our A-List member Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi indulges in a travel reverie. By Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
As a postgraduate student, I lived in Berkeley, California. In those days, travel meant day trips down the coast with a friend, an Afghan exile who evoked his growing days in Kabul with a tenderness that broke my heart. Driving past towns like Bodega Bay in Sonoma County, we reached Sea Ranch on Route 101, flanked by the Pacific Coast on one side and redwood forests on the other. At a bluff, before an expanse of water, we believed we had travelled great distances, not knowing then that we had not even set off on any serious voyage—we were simply far away from our respective homes, confusing dislocation with journey. On the drive to the East Bay, coasting across the Golden Gate Bridge, we’d call at Jack in The Box on Geary Street in San Francisco, the poor man’s McDonald’s—as students, we could afford only dollar burgers. I see now they had been my most delicious meals. But I wish I’d known at the time.
Sequestered in my home in Goa, memories of past travel flood the heart. In Rome, a few years ago, I had rented a small apartment behind Piazza Farnese. Seven scorpions in a white marble claw-foot bathtub made me ring the landlady at 10 pm. “Do not worry,” she said in accented but bolstering English. “The scorpions in Rome are very friendly.” She made them sound like Labradors with toxic competencies; I half expected them to come when called. My favourite Rome memory: returning from a botched date, I turned into Via del Pellegrino—11 pm, sickle moon, cold rain, someone practising the harp. It was sudden, deep, novice music—a cave in which I retreated briefly. Maybe this is why we travel—to break, and to mend in unexpected music.
I’d seen scorpions in Matheran, a pedestrian-only hill station near Mumbai, accessed on foot or by horseback. Local arachnids—two pincers, eight legs, segmented tail—sometimes raise their young in unused shoes. The applicable collective noun is ‘bed of scorpions’, a phrase that also describes my former social life in Mumbai. When I returned to Matheran in February, with my sisters and nephew, the highlights included puran poli, hash brownies, rummy at sunfall. Walking away from Louisa Point to a drop in the cliff, distant ridges of a mountain range stared at us. Dusk was a blush of golden hues as temple bells from a valley village disbanded in echoes. Paul Theroux said travel was glamorous only in retrospect, but I believe it is consoling at all times. Last week, recollecting our break, my sister and I steered clear of the awkward question: What if one of us took ill? Instead, we held the walks in Matheran as a shield against an uncertain time. “Remember,” I asked my sister over the phone, “the last night we lay on a charpoy, so many stars, and the fireflies!”
At a temple in Paro, in Bhutan, I lit butter lamps. Mendicants swung prayer wheels. This was November; only a few weeks ago, I had flown over the Himalayas to arrive in the magical kingdom. Pine needles made a carpet in every forest. The sky was a breathtaking blue—the blue of origin, a Krishna blue. In local mythology, the rivers in Bhutan are gendered, male or female, sometimes uniting. The sense of a pristine world, uncoloured by the extravagance and the bad manners of other places, was overwhelming, every breath an awareness of the world renewing itself. Now, when it seems it will be a while before I leave my home, I return to my days in the lap of great, wise mountains, drawing cold, clean air. How silly I had been to believe I might return any time I wanted. Arrogance is the conviction that you can do, for the most part, as you like. The will of the universe, however, is a bit of a headmistress.
And now I am in Goa. This is home, with milky violet light before daybreak. The state’s lockdown left thousands without access to food or medical supplies. In some areas, white tourists were called ‘Corona’ and asked to vacate their rooms. The dreamy, indolent Goa I’d known and loved turned out to be a castle of cards, coming down quickly. Confinement is a revelation, not all of it agreeable.
Rice fields, in trapezium slots, across my house; yonder, like a serpent, the Moira River curves a bend. In my balcao, watching the river turn, I wait for no one. The pleasure of travel competes with only this: a moment of uncontaminated stillness, an arrival in oneself as we are. About her beloved Africa, Isak Dinesen wrote, “Up in this air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.” I draw the slow, sullen summer air of Moira, dazzled by fate’s caprice, betrayed by the government, yet a will remains. Without flights of imagination and possessions of nostalgia, without a witch broom for adventure, without foreign languages, curious foods, and novel art, we turn hostage to unmoving time, to the view outside the window—the shape of clouds, the black dog barking at the end of the street. Proust was right—discovery was not contingent on travel but seeing with new eyes. It’s not where you’re going, it’s what you’re seeing, and how. So my reconstituted awareness of Goa, beyond familiar things and appreciated places, must rely on nature, the original civilising forces, the bronzed drongos in a shingh tree, an April flowering of the odd, lovely bimli, a mongoose peeking from an ixora hedge. We take the pieces, we reconstruct, we make something like art, which is to say the stuff that shall see us through. It is time to be here, at home, alone, where I ought to be. Now I shall travel deeper and in invisible ways.