Ten days into my stay at Luisa-by-the-Sea in Cavelossim,
[This photo of Luisa by the Sea is courtesy of TripAdvisor] I decide to get some lunch more suitable to my south Indian palate, so I venture into ‘Sagar Kinara’, a Hindu restaurant that offers a variety of cuisines. No sooner do I enter and look around for a table, a woman hails me, “Hey there, are you alone? Come, join me, lets have lunch together.” Surprised at her chumminess, I take her up on her invitation. Skinny, white, blonde and about my age, she’s a little inebriated, but that doesn’t put me off. I order a gin and tonic to catch up with her. Plates of shrimp, dhal, rotis, litter the table, but she merely picks at the food and begs me to share.
Sandy tells me that she lives in Goa, but is really from Scotland. She questions me about where I’m staying, and remarks that she owns a couple of apartments, one, indeed, in Cavelossim. “Would I like to see the apartment?” Renting out those flats provides her with income, but she’s still short of cash. The information given with bitterness, she begins a rant about Goans being crooks. Why then, I speculate to myself, did she invest in property here, particularly as I know there are restrictions on foreigners owning property in Goa? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3351813/Keeping-it-legal-how-to-buy-safely-in-Goa.html
A few years ago in London, she and her friend buy a “Vogue” magazine in order to check the advertisements. Interested in applying for a job as a train driver, her friend knows that the London Underground has advertised in “Vogue” for women subway train drivers. In that same issue, Sandy coincidentally sees adverts of property in Goa, probably with pictures of the sunny coast, and quaint Portuguese architecture. The prices, to western eyes, are low despite being quoted in sterling. Just having sold her house and with money at her disposal, she yields to impulse without even having set foot in Goa.
On arriving here, as to be expected, Sandy is disillusioned as the construction is way behind schedule. Now, a few years wiser, sitting in ‘Kinara,’ downing a couple more beers, she mutters that the other owners (all expats) and she are involved in a class action suit on the property developer. Syllables a bit slurred, only picking at the prawns before her, Sandy mutters, “don’t trust Goans, they’re goin’ to rip you off. Le’ss go, le’ss see my flat. I fix’d it up nice. I ‘ll hav to clean it up, but com n see.”
We need to visit the rest room first, and as I take my turn, Sandy pays off the waiter. I force money on her on our way out, followed by curious smiles from the staff. Surprised at the car, Sandy worries about my driving on the narrow winding roads along which the local buses, taxis, scooters hurtle along. We make our way back to Cavelossim, and to her flat which lies in a complex fronted by expensive looking shops. As we get down, she greets two men at the gate effusively, only to receive reserved nods in return. On the first floor, her flat is carefully furnished with attention to detail, but the tenants have obviously just moved out. Sheets to be washed are piled up in a corner, the kitchen counter is grimy with food debris.
“Who’s gonna clean all this up?” I ask.
“I’m the maid, I come in twice a week to give the place a once over. No money, I need the rent.”
About her tenants, she snaps, “Those people were strange, they moved out soon.” [mumble, mumble]
I puzzle over Sandy’s life– she’s so short of money that she cleans the flat herself. Labor here is a little more expensive than in the ashram, but to hire a maid is still cheap. Though I notice her outbursts, I initially put it down to her being a bit sloshed with beer, but begin to suspect she is as irritable with her tenants.
“those Russians, they come in and think they own you. Those Russian girls with older men, see how young they are? Whores, and most of them underage. I called the men downstairs for help when a Russian man abused me.”
She wants to go out for dinner but I need to get to Luisa-by-the-Sea to leave the car. Besides, its still too early. Once in the villa, I get out the gin, and Sandy hits the bottle. She gets expansive: “When you walked into Kinara alone, I thought, that’s unusual, an Indian woman on her own, walking into a hotel. I just had to call you over.” Recounting her various relationships, she glosses over any reference to gender. I call her on that, “so was your partner a man?” My gay-dar has picked up the omissions, though she looks straight with her longish blonde hair.
“My partner was a woman. She died.”
Sandy rambles on, “I’m a dyke, its hard being a dyke in Goa. There’s no gay scene here at all. My hair was very, very, short earlier, like yours, but I got fed up of Indians calling me ‘uncle’. Don’t you get called ‘uncle’?”
“No, maybe ’cause my boobs are big.”
“Hey, you telling me I’m flat? I got boobs, see.”
Looking more closely at Sandy, I notice scars on her shoulder with red welts trailing down her arm.
“I fell down the stairs and my shoulder joint got broken,” she explains too glibly.
Later, after more gins, she confides, “A Goan family in Colva, my neighbors, threw me down and beat me up. They threw boiling oil on me, ‘tell anyone, and we’ll see that you get beat up even more.’ Whom can I tell?”
I am horrified by her tale: the red welts and white scars are palpably real, but I also suspect that there is more to the beating than she lets me hear. Unwilling to delve too deep, and wary of her mood swings, I let her story be.
We go out for dinner, walking down the main road and looking about for any suitable restaurant. Deprived of choice, we head down a narrow lane that ends in a restaurant on a jetty, on the River Sal.
The place calls itself “The Hungry Shark,” and we see quite a few diners, all whites, the women dressed for dinner. As we walk up to a table in the corner, the guy at the next table smiles and winks at me. I stare hard at him, picking up the vibes of a foreigner-local interaction. Sandy, on the other hand, is loud; she joins her hand in an Indian namaste and walks up to the couple’s table. “Hello, how are you, we’re here for dinner. Is this a good place?” The woman is reticent, but the man, perhaps in his forties, dark haired and sunburned, starts up a conversation. He discloses that they’ve been coming there every year for the past three years.
Sandy responds, “what’s a white woman to eat here? There’s nothing on the menu. Give me dhal tadka, kya?”
I order the Goan prawn balchao, which arrives too vinegary and sears my tongue.
Seated with my back to the dark waters of the River Sal, I look toward the interior of restaurant. Three men cluster around a pool table, two browns and a white. The white man has an young girl draped over him. From northeastern India by the looks of her, with narrow uptilted eyes and high cheekbones, she can’t keep her hands off the man, older and stocky though he is. The pair intrigue me, and I point them out to Sandy.
“Of course she’s a whore. Look at him.”
Her comment rings true. Oblivious to the girl’s caresses, the man is absorbed in discussion. All three men pay the girl no attention, and yet she is striking with her exotic looks and flamboyant dress.
The restaurant, despite the Brits dining at the brightly lit tables on the jetty, darkens and takes on a more sinister hue. I am unable to finish the second gin and tonic. Sandy, on the other hand, wants a shot and insists that a genuine bottle of tequila be brought to the table so that she may examine the label. Genuine though the bottle look, I wonder if the contents are diluted. But, the shot is brought, and Sandy downs it, orders another. At long last, we request the bill: it is a hefty sum. Splitting the amount, Sandy runs short of cash and I make up the difference. When we question the alcohol noted on the check, we realize that the place serves no small pegs–every time we’ve ordered liquor, we’ve been served a double. “The Hungry Shark” is a monster alright!
Tottering with all the pegs she’s put away, Sandy blusters about not having enough cash on her as we walk back through the dark lane. “Forget it, no big deal,” I say, but my reassurance falls on deaf ears. Midway between her flat and my studio villa, my own temper flares up. I’ve had enough of her.
“Fuck you, Sandy, I’m off.”
“Can you reach home safe?” she questions.
Her concern is genuine. She looks ludicrous, hardly able to stand, worried about me. A visceral empathy with her–her contradictions, her mess of memories, the violence of her interactions–almost undoes me, but I move on. To the studio, and to bed, and the relief of solitude.
I never see Sandy again nor do I attempt to. Strange fish, stranded on the shore, belonging neither to the Indian seas nor to the tourist reefs. For the space of an evening, Sandy and I, both women and both misfits, overlapped in our common shadows; then, we swam away in separate currents, fashioning our different selves.