Windows, and looking in–tourism and social identity in India

Funny, Emily Dickinson, that strange 19th century recluse, frequently pops into my head when I question my increasing reluctance for human company. I spend most days quite alone, lonely at times, content other times, but needing to come to terms with my reclusiveness. “Sunlife Residency” in Varca, Goa, is quite a big complex of apartments. With my ground floor apartment situated in a corner where residents (passing or permanent) of another block have to cross, I am the target of curious stares. I sit out on the little patio in order to get best dibs at the erratic Internet reception, and so my bent head receives those glances.

cropped-photo-on-10-03-13-at-5-07-pm.jpgSome come up to chat like the Kashmiri, Fayaz, with his beautiful wife, Mulammal, and cuddly Haziq, their baby son. Melodious, the sounds of all those z’s. The humans live up to their names. Mulammal is tall and fair with a noble Persian nose, soft spoken, and hesitant in her English syllables. With her head wrapped in a scarf and her salwar kameez (shirt and pajamas), she harkens back to those old Hindi movies my mother used to watch– Nargis, Nutan, the mystique of their presence.

Fayaz drives a silver Nano (Tata Motors‘ coup as the lowest priced car in the world), and approaches me with no hesitation. A businessman, as most seasonal Kashmiris are in Goa, his manner denotes savoir faire. “Come, visit my shop in Mobor, next to Cavellosim- ‘Exotic Gems’,” he urges me a few times. Hating jewellery shops, and wishing that Fayaz would notice my utter lack of ornament, I hesitate. But, he, as are most people here, is curious about the rent I pay. The usual response to my reply is “but noooo, that is toooo much, you can get a much better apartment for less.”

Most of the income, in Goa’s tourist economy, comes from renting rooms and apartments to tourists. Indeed, I drove around different neighborhoods, asked residents in their gardens, and discovered every other person had a room to rent. So, the curiosity about rent is constant, creating much havoc in my judgement until I learned to go with my comfort zone. If I am gullible, and can’t bargain beyond a point, so be it. The curiosity is also about how I am perceived–single, in relatively roomy one bedroom serviced apartment, with a car in tow.

Driving back from Margao (the biggest town in south Goa), I notice a huge black hoarding with yellow letters that shouts, “Exotic Gems, Mobor.” Earlier, staying in Luisa-by-the-Sea, an upmarket, swish collection of villas set in a landscaped gated enclosure on the River Sal, I noticed that the boundary wall to this exclusive property was set with a line of posh-ish shops. In the main, they were occupied by seasonal Kashmiri traders (there October through May) who returned to Kashmir for the summer and monsoon months. One trader, in particular, remains with me, an older man in traditional attire (jacket and cap) who played atonal but stirring Sufi music early morning, and opened up to me when I requested that he replay the music when it ended. “Muslim music,” he told me, while my friend hunted busily for a 34DD bikini top….

Goa is no exception to the rest of India, where Muslims, even those indigenous to the place, are looked on with suspicion. Being Catholic here ensures an automatic acceptability. I fit in quite easily, and can pass as Goan if I wish to, with my features, and skin color, and dress. My mongrel self, coming from Catholic and Hindu parentage, fits into no real class or creed. Too much emphasis either way and I feel constricted, hemmed it, paradoxically bereft of a god. Even the ashram society, unable to process a philosophy which compared religions to the fingers of a hand joined at the palm, moves increasingly toward the Hindu in ritual and belief. The true God, different peoples insist belongs only to us, to us, and by this insistence they define their identities.

This is the ultimate irony of a spiritual society; perhaps ‘societies’ by their nature thwart the longing for god? Perhaps, it is the misfits, the outsiders, the wanderers in the desert who can truly devote their lives to longing?? So Emily, dear Emily, the outsider at the window who knows that entering, belonging, cannot bestow identity or security–

I had been hungry all the years
My noon had come, to dine
I, trembling, drew the table near
And touched the curious wine.

‘Twas this on tables I had seen
When turning, hungry, lone,
I looked in windows, for the wealth
I could not hope to own….

“Nor was I hungry; so I found
That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.”
“I am Nobody, who are You?”