Unmapped
Issue 36

The Fashion of Freedom

By Payal Khandelwal

A house painted blue. A balcony with a divine unobstructed view. Coconut and chikoo (Manilkara Zapota) trees in the courtyard right in front. Chikoos sneakily being gobbled up by monkeys who made a special appearance only on Sundays. Working for a few hours in the morning, followed by leisurely cooking, making gimlets, walking on the beach and sometimes into the sea, nuzzling into the rough yet soothing sand, curling up with Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, taking pictures of bold-coloured Portuguese villas, making new friends at the beach, listening to Goan music at shacks that tenderly tussled with the sound of waves, getting freshly baked bread from the French Bakery (Baba Au Rhum) downstairs, working some more, cooking some more.

This is a glimpse into my life for two months in Goa last year.

So here’s a brief background. Early last year, I thinned out my life in Mumbai, a hyperactive metropolitan city where I had lived for almost ten years, and distributed most of my possessions amongst family, friends and the security guard of my building. I somehow convinced my then-workplace to let me work remotely. I took my red backpack, stuffed it neatly with bare essentials and nervous excitement, and left for Goa to live there for at least six months.

I rented a spacious blue house on the first floor of a Goan villa, along with a travel writer friend Sonali Shah, who was quite skilled in shuffling between Mumbai and Goa on a regular basis.

Settling down took precisely two days. I immediately felt at home.

One day, while having coffee at Baba Au Rhum, I stumbled upon a set of extremely trippy books by someone called ‘Sunny Jetson’. They were full of crazy psychedelic haikus that barely made any sense to me. But the one below made me smile:

The Pleasures of Time
Not having 1000’s of things
In my head
Goa- Land of Allowance.
“Come look my shop”
Everyone can be who he wants.
Accepting Happiness.

I knew what Sunny Jetson meant. Time was definitely different in Goa. It was as if it had turned into a blob of clay, eager to be moulded to my every wish and command. The slower time moved, the easier it was to uncover the veiled aspects of life around me.

Freedom also expressed itself in very physical ways. I could dress the way I wanted, without being gawked at in any way. Most days, I would put on free flowing dresses. Some days, it would be an uncomplicated pair of shorts or skirt and a t-shirt. No make-up whatsoever. A plastic flower clip perched on my messy hair. Sometimes, even a real flower. Pillion rides on our rented scooter with the wind dancing on either my bare back or almost bare legs, and sometimes on both.

Freedom, in fact, seemed to be the way of life in the majority of Goa, especially the non-touristy areas like Arpora Junction, in North Goa, where we stayed. Sonali and I would often end up chatting with people from different parts of the world at Baba Au Rhum, over a big spread of breakfast. Most would cite the uninhibited and unhurried vibe they get from Goa as the reason for their settling down there.

The first few weeks were incredibly exciting. And no less because of the people we met - Our landlord Paul, for example, who told us that we could feel free “to bring boys back home”. Soon after granting that permission, he happily gave us the downstairs bakery’s Wi-Fi password that we could use it, at no cost. After his initial briefing, and a warning about his dog Chase who was notorious for biting people, he never bothered with what we were doing. He would simply smile whenever we bumped into each other outside, or we could call him out of Chase was untied or if he was working at the courtyard and I was out smoking in the balcony.

Having spent the last 10 years in “cosmopolitan” Mumbai, where I would get at least a 30 minute long moral charter (What religion are you? Working? Single? No boys allowed! Strict Policy!) from the self-appointed watchdogs of any building that I lived in, this was a truly pleasant change. Thank heavens for the Portuguese who once colonized Goa, I would mutter sometimes under my breath.

My work was going smoothly, and I was able to pack in much more reading and writing than I could normally do on workdays in Mumbai. I also felt that my craft was improving. I was doing more personal writing than ever. I was being experimental.

    

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I only recently asked Sonali about why she takes off so often to Goa. “For me as an Indian girl,” she said, “the ‘freedom’ that Goa offers is actually the ‘safety and absence of religious moral policing.' It helps when I'm out of the house, and don't have to look over my shoulder every few minutes and remain hyper alert, as I have to do on so many Bombay streets.”

She feels that somehow this state of mind seeps into her writing too. “When my mind is relaxed, my work improves. What worked for me - besides being able to set off on the scooter for a refreshing ride under the stars at three in the morning - was the variety of settings the coastal villages that North Goa offers. A cliff, a freshwater lake, a hill, a beach, a fort, a swim, a rocky climb, a lighthouse - all within twenty minutes of each other. Choose one of the above, grab your moleskin or laptop, and you're good.”

Over the years, Goa has metamorphosed from just being a serene coast to let your hair down to a home (temporary or permanent) for many creative minds who have found Goa to be conducive to their work and bohemian life. Some, like the acclaimed Indian fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, a native Goan, have elevated Goa to the status of muse. Rodricks has been living in Colvale village in north Goa since 1993. The distinguished cartoonist and artist, the late Mario Miranda, was immensely inspired by his hometown Goa, which also found its way into a lot of his works.

Writer Amitav Ghosh, who has been settled in Goa for many years now, said at an event in 2011 that Goa shocks many Westerners, as it doesn’t conform to their idea of India. He also said that “One of the ways in which Goa is new is that it has invented a kind of cosmopolitanism that is peculiarly its own. It is a cosmopolitanism of lived experience; a cosmopolitanism of inner dialogues, where the outsider becomes a part of an inner voice. Sometimes embraced and sometimes excoriated, this voice is nonetheless not ignored as it might be elsewhere.”

Not just for creative individuals, Goa has also become a fertile ground for congregations on creativity. One of the biggest creative festivals of India – Kyoorius Designyatra (KDY)– made Goa its home ten years ago. Every year since then, speakers from around the world and delegates from India excitedly flock to Goa to attend the conference and of course, let their hair down afterwards.

During a conversation after concluding the tenth edition of KDY this year, Rajesh Kejriwal, founder of Kyoorius, confessed that at first glance, Goa doesn’t really seem like an apt fit for a serious content-led conference, as most people equate Goa to shacks, beaches, late nights, liquor, and other such merrymaking. But really, Goa is a place that disconnects people from their day-to-day professional life for those three days of the conference. It provides a great natural setting, away from the cubicles and staid buildings that we are used to. And of course, Goa being Goa, it provides a seamless transition to the evenings where people can actually talk to each other and relax, he feels.

    

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Goa does provide a much-needed breather, and sometimes a clean break from various kinds of structures we face in our concrete metropolises. I realised this in those two months when I got the opportunity to really be a part of Goa, and not just experience it as a transient traveller.

After the first five to six weeks though, something went amiss for me in Goa. I was in the arms of the quixotic life I had always wanted – a life that was celebrated so lavishly by so many creative minds, but somehow I wanted to leave.

I’m crazy, I thought at first.

But then just a few days back I spoke to the brilliant writer, painter and graphic novelist Amruta Patil, and discovered I wasn’t alone. “I am no longer living and working out of Goa… I did not find Goa particularly conducive to my work. This needs to be taken with a pinch of salt because your experience of a place has a lot to do with your mental state. Maybe as a person, I work best in a less cosy/warm climate and a more anonymous social setting. Maybe the darbar-culture in which creative people congregate in places like Goa doesn't work for my temperament.”

I can’t put my finger on what exactly happened with me when I decided to leave Goa. All I know is that I had started craving some form of structure around me. I felt that since I could mould my time, I was taking it for granted. I needed to wriggle myself out of this monstrous placidity. I missed having to fight the rigmaroles of a frenzied city and emerging victorious at least once in a while. In Goa, I couldn’t emerge victorious because there seemed to be nothing to really fight for in my unbelievably charmed life.

Maybe the freedom that Goa lends might just be too vast a space for some people to play in. It might make some people, like me, feel a bit lost. I needed (and probably still do) something in between.

At the end of two months, I knew for sure that it was time to part ways with Goa. I came back to Mumbai with a much better version of the threadbare soul that I had left with though, and I was truly thankful for that.

     

Payal Khandelwal is a freelance visual communications journalist and writer based out of India. She is on Twitter at @thefloatingbed.

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