They’re down / and they’re not easily found / Buried / They’re buried in the ground / Yeah, they’re buried upside down
It was just a place I had heard of, a seaside honey pot, a trap snaring tourists and locals alike in a joyless phantasmagoria of picture-postcard tableaux, narcotic stupors, terpsichorean excesses and paper-thin multiculturalism. Goa did not, at any point, seem like a place I wanted to visit; besides, I preferred the mountains, or even hills, to the seaside. What I’d never thought about was its hybrid heritage, the many strands that entwined to make up the fabric of this strange, sunny province.
The transcendent strangeness of the place came home to me on a hot afternoon in Panjim, at the foot of the statue of Abbé Faria—a sinister sculpture of a long-coated man gesturing masterfully over a swooning woman. It was meant to represent the Abbé’s pioneering work in the field of mesmerism, but at first glance, shorn of context, it is a magus casting a spell on a hapless maiden. Dull grey against a brilliant blue sky, it is a singular focus for the attention and I found it hard to imagine that even the most jaded local would ever quite get used to looking up and seeing it. It was the kind of sculpture that will not stay still in your mind’s eye, in your memories, and your dreams, the kind of sculpture that gives the impression it does not stay still when there are no eyes to gaze upon it.
Still, the Abbé’s monument was not what revealed the strangeness of the place to me; it was only the setting, a baseline to underpin the horn flourish to come.
I was sitting on a bench by the pedestal, gazing out at the gambling boats on the Mandovi River, thinking about that novel by Tim Powers where a group of unlikely initiates gamble to decide the identity of the next Fisher King, a European Christian legend with possible pagan roots, transplanted to a new world that was already ancient when the first Europeans set foot on it. My wife, Nadira, was somewhere in the market streets behind me, shopping with Pallavi, the friend whose wedding she’d insisted we simply could not miss. As I’ve mentioned, I had no particular affinity for Goa, but staying in a safely middle-class house in a prosaic part of Panjim City seemed harmless enough. And so far, I had not experienced anything inimical—in fact, I was rather taken with the remnants of Portuguese architecture in the Fontainhas area. It had a decaying, Mediterranean charm that was not at all unpleasant, and I was discovering a fondness for the local palm feni, a fondness encouraged by the fact that, as Nadira threw herself into preparations for the wedding, I was frequently at a loose end.
So, yes, I was a little sozzled that afternoon, sitting baking in the June heat, not quite napping, not quite awake. But I saw what I saw, I am sure of it. I was wondering what time it was, and whether I had the energy to walk down to the bar at the Mandovi Hotel, when a shadow fell across me. With the shadow came a stale, dry smell. I looked up to see a middle-aged woman in a white blouse and a dark brown skirt shuffling by. Her hair was short and matted, and she had an unkempt look. Her bare legs were streaked with different shades of brown, from a dark teak to a pale bamboo, as if her skin was peeling in sections, slowly unraveling. She could be any middle-aged Goan Christian woman on her way to market if you squinted at her from a distance; this close, it was clear she didn’t quite add up. I watched her, trying to fight down a sense of alarm and disgust, as she picked up a scrap of waste paper, wiped her face with it and threw it away. She picked up another piece of paper and put it in her mouth. Then, she continued on her way, dragging her feet and slowly chewing on that piece of paper. I got up, took out my mobile phone and called my wife.
“Nadi, it’s me. Where are you? Can I join you?”
“What, really?” She laughed, surprised. I had resolutely stayed away from all her shopping expeditions so far. “Are you sure? We’re at this boutique a few buildings down from the Mandovi Hotel, but you’ll be bored . . .”
“I’m already bored. Might as well be bored in company.” I found out where she was and went to join her. She and Pallavi were trying on necklaces, and I found looking at the different colours and designs a great distraction.
In the evening, I was given the task of going down to the bus stand by the Mandovi Bridge to receive some more wedding guests. Strictly, our hosts’ driver could have received them himself, but Nadira had decided I had to make myself useful. At the bus stop, I stationed myself near a cart selling chaat and settled in for the wait. The variety of people milling around made it interesting. Young couples on honeymoon, the men strutting like roosters, the women wearing too much make-up and their bridal bangles, middle class families on vacation, vexatious offspring in tow, raucous college students and young bachelors living it up, travel-stained western backpackers looking dazed from the heat and foreignness, or just from drugs, older white tourists with sunburned skin like boiled tomatoes, local folk back from their own holidays and ventures elsewhere. Amidst the crowd, I noticed a slim figure, odd even in this muddle of people. He wore a green cap and black shades, a red t-shirt, black shorts, green knee-length socks and red sneakers. He had a small, yellow radio pressed to the side of his head. As he passed near me, I realised the radio was not on, or at least was not tuned to any signal I was capable of hearing. After he had passed, I felt something brush my ankles. I looked down to see a bright red flyer. I picked it up. It featured a murky drawing of a demonic figure, smudged, but seemingly more Hindu than Christian, turned on its head. It was underground—an inch above it, you could see the line of the surface, where a huddled mass of people, even more smudged, gathered. The border around the text was made up of little crosses. The text itself was in Portuguese. The headline screamed “Santa Papel.” I could understand a stray word here and there—“fiesta,” for instance, but the flyer was largely opaque to my understanding. Shrugging, I put it away in a side-pocket of my cargo shorts and resumed my idle scanning of the crowd. In a while, the wedding guests arrived, and like the ancient mariner, I seized upon them and would not take no for an answer.
That night, I woke up a little past midnight, soaked in sweat. There was a power cut, and although Nadira was still fast asleep, I wasn’t able to go back to sleep because of the heat and the clammy feel of sweat on my skin. I slipped out of my t-shirt and track pants, found my mp3 player and went out to the balcony in my boxer shorts. On the balcony, I shuffled through the menu on the player, found the second Portal album and cued it up. Disappointingly, the air outside was as heavy and bestilled as within, but at least it was less stale. As I listened to the song I’d chosen, a strange concourse of deeply detuned guitar riffing called “Illoomorpheme,” extraneous sounds started impinging on the music. I could hear drumbeats other than the ones on the song, the kind I associated with festivals and processions, the keening of poorly coordinated horns, such as you hear when an inept brass band is playing, and a sort of low chanting. I was pretty sure I had not selected shuffle mode, but my mp3 player switched to “Saints Are Down” by The Cult. Stabs of acoustic guitar shimmered in my ears as a procession came into view below. Even though some of the people in the procession carried torches, it was hard to make out what they looked like or who they were. I could see the idols they bore—papier-mâché figures of what seemed to be an eclectic mix of Catholic saints and minor Hindu gods and demons. The saints were none that I knew of—but that meant little enough. They bore the mark of terrible tortures. One lady saint held her head in her right hand. It seemed to be drinking from a jet of blood issuing from her neck. A figure that had the headgear and jewelry of a Hindu god cradled his own entrails in his hands as demonic creatures strove to pull them further out. A kind of Asura stood with his arms bound to a pillar or tree, with dozens of arrows piercing his flesh. An angelic figure stood in an attitude of sorrow, hands crossed on its bosom as a grinning imp held out a platter containing a pair of severed human breasts. Ropes connected all these figures, hung with long scrolls that contained rows of pictures that told the stories of these unknown objects of reverence. By the time the procession had passed back into the obscurity of night, my player had skipped to a Minor Threat song. It was considerably cooler and the power was back. I went to the bathroom, washed some of the sweat off my face and chest, and then returned to bed.
The next day, over breakfast, I asked my hosts if there were any festivals this time of the year, anything involving a procession. Apparently there was nothing, Christian, Hindu or Muslim, just now. No one else had heard the procession. I stayed off the feni that day, but I saw something weird anyway. Strolling through Fontainhas, looking for a place to settle down with a sandwich and a book of old sword and sorcery short stories I’d been meaning to read for a while, I lost my way a little. Actually, I was always a little lost that fortnight in Panjim, and I realized I liked it that way—I have known few better places to be a little lost in. This particular time, I wandered into a narrow alleyway between a side road and a decrepit vacant lot. In between a couple of abandoned, rusty cars, I saw something that made me gasp and step back, frightened. I stood transfixed for a few endless seconds, literally hearing my own heartbeat, just like in a thriller novel. Then I told myself to be reasonable. That couldn’t possibly have been the grey, stiff corpse of a naked man, one hand held up in a gesture of benediction, the other clutching at his midriff. And yet, I was sure I had seen what looked like entrails trailing out of a wound in his belly. Well, even if that was what it was, I had to be sure, so that I could go and report it to the police. I took a deep breath and stepped closer to the cars. The figure was indeed there, propped up against a wall behind the cars. It had the colour and posture I’d remembered, but I saw that it was just an old papier-mâché figure that had been left to slowly decay in this place. Relieved, I walked even closer to it. Those weren’t entrails, just the papier-mâché slowly coming apart around a rip. I saw a spot of colour and peered at it. In one of the figure’s hands was a small, bright yellow radio. I reached out to touch it and it came to life, exuding a hiss of static and distant voices, pitchshifted and squeaky. That was too much for me. I was determined not to run, but I did turn around and walk away very briskly.
Nothing else untoward happened until our last day. The wedding was over, and Nadira and I were on a final ramble through Fontainhas before heading to the bus stand at the Mandovi Bridge. At a square near a café we were heading to, I saw an old Caucasian woman walking along with a lurching, uncoordinated gait. Her skin looked like weathered parchment, yellowed and wrinkled. She wore a sleeveless top in some light colour and a denim skirt. She was obviously an aged hippie, someone who had turned on, tuned in, dropped out, made the trek to Goa along with the first wave of backpackers, popped some heavy acid back in the day and burned herself out. Her eyes were like the broken windows of an abandoned house. As I stared at her, she walked up to a young white woman, a tourist, put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and began speaking to her. My wife spotted the café and we stepped in. When we left, I glanced around but couldn’t see the woman or her interlocutor. We passed the statue of Abbé Faria and I glanced around, curious, but the paper-eating woman was nowhere to be seen. Instead I saw the parchment woman, engaged in a deep conversation with another white woman, this one closer to her own age, but well-groomed and tidy where she was decrepit and disheveled. “Eternal life,” she was saying. “Life eternal. It’s all on paper.” I shuddered, took my wife’s arm and walked on.
A couple of hours later, we boarded the bus back to Bangalore. I’ve been back to Panjim a few times since, and I’ve seen strange things and people there each time, but nothing so odd as that first set of encounters. What bothered me the most about them was the sense that they were all connected, as if I could understand what they meant if I just had one more piece of the puzzle. I’ve kept the flier I picked up that day at the bus stand. Sometimes, I pull it out of my desk in my study at home and look at the drawing. I read the text, which I still cannot understand. I should get it translated and see what it is all about. Then I think of the Abbe’s supine subject, the lack of expression on her face, and I put the flier away, determined not to think about it, any of it. I usually do pretty well, until the next time the memory starts nagging at me. There is something in the depths, something inverted. I have it on paper.
Spread the word!