A few weeks ago, we heard from Prerna Shah in our series of readers’ stories – she’s back again today with another piece. You can find more of her work here.
Goa – an old memory piggybanks on a new one
On some trips, the past and the present merge and run together. It may feel like alternate reality, or two realities running in parallel.
This has happened to me, and I remember that it felt like fiction; like I was a heroine in a magic realism novel. It is a story from 2013. I had joined my husband in Bangalore, and it was our first trip after our honeymoon.
Like a just-opened soda bottle, bubbles of excitement were bursting forth in our car as we entered the state of Goa.
Driving down from Bangalore, ours was a small group. My husband and I, and in the backseat of our car was a friend that I had known since university. In another car, was my husband’s best friend and his wife and in their backseat was her best friend and her husband. At our first sight of the beach at Calangute, Sahil, my husband’s best friend exclaimed – “We are in Goa now and from this moment onwards it is a crime to drink anything else than beer.” We all laughed.
However, on the first day itself, the husband and I got into a disagreement. I did not like the shack/guest house and wanted a different place to stay – some place that had clean sheets and a non-leaking commode. Over the next few days, on sweltering mornings and afternoons, and breezy evenings, we made up, the ebb and tide of the ocean helping heal and soothe our differences.
There were many beers to be had, and churches to be explored, impromptu pit stops for lunch, and sometimes slightly overpriced dinners of freshly grilled fish at the shack on the beach. But in all those moments, something kept shadowing me, a memory, light, and comforting, and also tinged with a sadness that I could not quite explain.
A memory from the past
You see, this was my second visit to Goa. The first time I visited this coastal state, I was in university, and it was a trip that I had made with my parents. I have an album of photographs taken from my Fujifilm camera from that visit to Goa.
Growing up, ours was a single income family, and I was a late-born child. By the time I enrolled into a local university for my graduate degree in English Literature, my father had retired. Though my father was a doctor, he worked in a government-run hospital and his income was modest. For most of our holidays, we would stay in very inexpensive hotels, and whenever we were in Bombay, it was almost invariably a community hall that my father would zero down on, one with shared bathrooms – something that I particularly hated.
So that trip to Goa with my parents was special in many ways. A direct train from Vadodara to Goa had been introduced, and the train being new, was clean and our journey was very pleasant, and I was looking forward to a very relaxing time.
However, the highlight of our holiday turned out to be the place where we stayed. It was a beautiful old bungalow owned by a couple in their early sixties or so, and one of the bedrooms upstairs was ours. Surrounded by chickoo (sapodilla) trees, the property had such a regal personality, almost like a gentleman from the past. Our room was large and airy, and every morning, I would wander downstairs and talk to the lady of the house, sitting with her at her dining table and marveling her collection of pottery, heirloom pieces and crockery that had been with the family since many, many years.
I would also converse with her once we returned in the evening, filling her up with our adventures of the day, where we went to, what did we see, what were my impressions of the places we visited. It became a sort of a happy hour for the both of us.
On the day we were leaving for Vadodara, we had a very early bus to catch, one that would take us to the Madgaon railway station. And because it was early, we met uncle but aunty, as I would call her was sleeping and therefore, I did not wish to wake her up to say goodbye.
We were at the bus stand when uncle came running, almost breathless. And just then, our bus also made an appearance. There was barely any time. Uncle managed to put in my hands two spoons, made of shell, their handles encased in silver and metal. “From aunty – for you. She is upset that I didn’t wake her up in time…”
Those memories had always stayed with me. It had been a perfect vacation with my parents, made all the more endearing by our interactions with our hosts. I thought of aunty and uncle on this trip, almost over a decade after I had last met them, but I wasn’t carrying their address with me. I had lost the business card that my father had so carefully preserved, and I had also lost my father by then.
The past and the present come face to face
I told my husband I had this urge to see them. “It is impossible, Prerna, how will we find them in this big city? You don’t even have any directions. It could be anywhere in Calangute. And you just refer to them as uncle and aunty, you do not even know their names!” he reasoned. “Across the bungalow, just a little further down the road was a restaurant called Plantain something. I do remember that. It was a vegetarian restaurant, and we went there a lot,” I said, as my mind struggled to conjure up more details. Somehow, we couldn’t find that restaurant on google maps.
On the day we were leaving, I was looking out of the car wistfully. We were past the beach in a blur and now whizzing by the Baga road and suddenly I saw a bungalow. It did not stand alone and proud amongst a quiet locality as I remembered it from years ago. It was surrounded by shops and establishments, and ugly electrical wires were jutting out from the stores, and almost touching the bungalow’s boundary walls. And yet it seemed familiar. Like an old friend. A past life acquaintance suddenly making an appearance in this life. And then, I saw a restaurant. It was called Plantain Leaf.
Stop, stop the car, I screamed. It is them! It is the house! My husband looked at me, incredulously.
“Your mind is playing tricks with you Prerna,” he said. “And I don’t think you should go knocking at someone’s door like this. This bungalow doesn’t even seem like a homestay, and it says nowhere that rooms are available for guests.” I wanted to listen to him, but I was already out and running as soon as he parked the car. I opened the iron gate and raced up the old stairs and rung the bell.
Aunty opened the door.
Yes, she said, looking at me, a stranger on her doorstep.
It was her. I had found her!
I filled her in. The memories returned and she smiled.
My father, I told her had passed on to the other world. But this homestay had been his find, and he had always wanted to come back here one more time. She asked about my mother, and I told her about my marriage, my newlywedded husband of a year or so. She hugged me. She asked us to stay for a meal, have something to drink at least. But we had to go. Get back to Bangalore in time.
We held hands.
“You see how the area has changed now,” she said ruefully,
“everything is like a busy, commercial street.”
“But I am glad the bungalow stands, and I can still see some of the chickoo trees.”
“Yes, I did not want to sell the bungalow. This is home and so are the trees.”
Aunty, I said, as I bid her goodbye, I still have your spoons.
With a quick hug, and with a silent prayer for her good health, I sat in the car beside my husband. As our car embraced the tar roads and began its run, I could make out the shape of her, waving us goodbye.
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Keep traveling, keep safe.