[ Issue 6 / August 2013]
You close your eyes when you feel its corrosive presence in your gullet, the sides of which you imagine chipping away, when all you want to do is retain some of it in your throat, feel the liquid accumulating around your Adam's apple so that to anyone on the outside, it looks like a clear, transparent patch that will stand out on your neck, making you the Shiva of Saligao, the Destroyer who remained unpoisoned, the neelkanth, the fenikanth.
Feni and cunt. You open your eyes, and find yourself chuckling, like a drunk in a taverna, which you are. Destroyer who remained unpoisoned is far from the truth. Someone puts on a switch somewhere, and a bulb half-heartedly illumines the figure in front of you: a dense haired, wet-lipped apparition, but you notice only the freckles, which you have called (will now call for the last time) stains on the face of the moon. The Englishwoman is shaking gently, not yet undone by the liquid conductor of the opera this evening, this First World Parvati of yours, and the professional drunks of Saligao don't even look up as they go about their job with practiced ease.
In this life at least, you're a bellboy at the Taj property at Candolim. Too young to strut about like a fucking comprador, too old to think that you're never going to get out of Goa. You're attractive in a wolfish sort of way, the sort of way fellows like you are attractive to women like her.
In one swift motion, she has locked the door of her room and pulled you towards her, attacking your lips with her own pink ones, even your teeth and an unprepared tongue. There is no time for you to wonder whether she had caught you staring at her heavy, dotted breasts, sticking out from under her summer dress, when she was in the lobby. This was audacious even by the standards of a washed-up Englishwoman who gets on a flight to this country within a country to get over a messy divorce.
You've never had an older woman before, and are still reeling from the sex when she begins talking about herself. You see her hurtle towards what you know she considers her redemption, her second chance, and you say nothing even as you know that this deliverance might turn out to be her biggest folly yet. Hypnotized by the sight of her breasts straining against her t-shirts, and spoilt by the opportunity to free her of that yoke, at the very least, you begin to listen. Pressing your wiry frame against a rear that eats up, bit by bit, your capability for rational thought, you become her dumb assistant as she decodes her sins, unhampered by red curtains and latticed windows. All the very well. Padre Lucius would not be pleased.
It is monsoon. The only time of the year when Goa is for the Goans. When it doesn't matter whether anyone has left for Lisbon yet. Quem vio Goa excusa de ver Lisboa, they will say now. The awnings in Fontainhas drip throughout the day, and the sullen Mandovi looks like she has finally had enough of her reddish-brown burden. On the floor of the barge to Betim, you can make out the brown imprints of the soles of the cheap, black sandals that the middle-aged women of this state have made a habit of wearing. Their black umbrellas tucked under their pudgy arms, they gossip about other people's sons or, if they are not in the mood for chatter, try not to think about the day when their own boys will leave. While the Englishwoman buys her smokes, you try to avoid the gazes of the gaunt, old men that still carry the last dregs of a dream. In them, you see moth-eaten visions of the Bombay docks and the bottle-green jerseys of football clubs.
You pick up Sabby's bike from his little dugout on what has come to be known as the River Princess Street in Candolim, after the ghost-ship that lies forgotten in the sea a few meters away, daring scrawny, enthusiastic youths and pot-bellied men trying to spice up their marriages with a bit of holiday machismo swim upto its wreck, despite the warnings of the occasional life-guards in garish red-and-yellow. You, in your local pride, hardly consider the wreckage to be an ennui dispeller, until that night when the Englishwoman drags you to the edge of the water at the witch hour, and you hear the waves breaking against its ominous, ghastly silhouette, untempered by any sort of illumination that the shacks on shore provide when the sun makes an exit after its cameo performance. In the silence that follows, you feel the manic frothy foam accumulate around your ankles, tightening and loosening its grip around them, fists of the vast, vast ocean clenching and unclenching, undecided whether to take the fight to you or wait for you to forsake the shallows and wade farther. For the first time, you notice that the Englishwoman, in the four months she has been here, has gradually slayed the River Princesses of her own past – the vacuity of an unhappy marriage, a job as a low-level functionary in a firm managing hedge funds even as the creeping tendrils of the recession were growing into unruly, self-strangling vines, her spectacular failure as a writer in a previous avatar – not decapitating them with one smooth stroke of her Exacalibur called Goa, instead chipping away at them with it, eroding and discarding the past as only a change of air can. On the edge of the water that night, you understand how one can fall in love with a place through a person. Along with freshly-fried calamari, snatches of Konkani drifting in from next door at the rented accommodation in Anjuna and the gentle whistling of ancient, swaying palms in a ruined paradise, you have been totemized. Love is nothing if not a totem for a new lease of life.
And so you ride with her on Sabby's bike to Morjim, as the monsoon peters out and an assertive sun calls out to the denizens of countries that colonized and liberated and re-colonized this place. This is it, you think. The endgame. Let the season begin, let the hordes in oversized yellow swimming shorts take over North Goa, and cause her to think of her admittedly long vacation as just that – an admittedly long vacation. You're not too worried about the people talking. Countless young men before you have tread down the same path – fooling around with white women until it is time for them to get on their flights to Riga or Birmingham or wherever it is they have to go to next. Everyone knows how these things end, and such idle chatter is just a way to fill up the hours, because people need their intrigue, imagined or otherwise, whether it is Goa or Gangtok. How else can we justify the tyranny of never-ending afternoons and early evenings? The beginning of the tourist season will mark the end of the courtship and the beginning of the marriage you think will be her second failed one. But on that evening in the Greek's shack in Morjim, as you watch her with her head bent down, rolling another joint, you get the first signs that going back home is not very high on her list of things to do. She sits back crossed-legged, seemingly unperturbed by the attention she usually receives from the adolescents from the Indian metros on their annual holidays, and imperiously inhales from the joint. Her eyelids droop for a brief moment, like they do when you rub the day-old stubble on your chin in her nether regions, before they open suddenly and she looks out on the sea again.
You begin to feed off your own fear, revealing yourself to be colonized by flesh. Not once do you indicate that you are uninterested in emotional involvement, fearing that an unequivocal rejection of her mind will cause an automatic relinquishment of flesh, for she is now a woman in love. As she absent-mindedly circles your bare chest while you smoke a cigarette, she whispers that she loves you. She does not demand reciprocal declarations, and now you do not know how to deal with the situation. The hunter has become the hunted.
And so you find yourself in this taverna in Saligao, when you finally announce that you're getting engaged to Flavia next week, and boarding a train to Bombay next month, where you'll begin a journey to Africa that'll end with you posted as a cadet in an oil tanker off the Angolan coast. This is your fate, you tell her. There is no question of wanting to leave. Like generations of men before you, you have to leave. There seems to be no need to explain. She has had a lot to drink, but she has nothing to worry about for she is home. You ask her what she will do when you are engaged, and then gone. She smiles, and as if to confirm your suspicion she says that she will wait for monsoon to come again.
Vikram Shah was born in Bombay and is a student of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He plays shadow tennis and tries to wake up at dawn to go running.