Plan in Pieces
This trip seems doomed. I have waited and
worked but the pieces of this puzzle will not come together. Like
everything else, some things with this go smoothly and some simply
hold out to the last minute. The universe appears to ask, “Just
how badly do you want this?”
And my mind’s eye responds simply with an image of boundless
blue ocean. I must go. That image awaits me.
It has lured me in a thousand ways. In dream after technicolour
dream. The brilliant gold-tinted blue of a sun-kissed ocean, much
like the blue tiles of Mediterranean artisans, touched occasionally,
nonchalantly, and with the security and self-confidence brought
by moments of wealth, with spare gold. Blue and gold.
And after nights of toiling, days of waiting, hours of anxiety
and minutes of panic, I am in Lisbon.
Indeed, mad dogs, Englishmen and I appear
to be the sole adventurers on the Avenida de Liberdade. It is 2
p.m. and time to stay indoors.
What is it about this road that takes me home to Bombay where
there are no islands of trees dividing broad avenues? Is it the
sun? Is it the trees that look like they never shed a leaf in their
life? Is it their unfussy flowering?
I have seen these buildings before too. Strawberry cake with
white frosting. Vanilla cake with pistachio flowers and strawberry
patches. Angel-white cake with pearly beads and white lace. All
holding firm in spite of the sun beating down on them. All facing
the world unprotected by the shade of trees. Strong, brave, pristine.
Until I cross the road. And then I see—strawberry is peeling,
vanilla is stained and the patches are actually scar tissue where
plaster molding has fallen off. I have definitely seen this before.
At the Praça dos Restauradores, there appear to be no locals,
except those cruelly constrained by their occupation as bus driver,
café attendant or street vendor to hold down the fort. Nor is there
a crowd in the Chiado area. Where did all those people go that got
off the plane with me this morning?
If I see no one—well, relatively speaking—who lives in these
closely built buildings with tile façades on these narrow streets?
Regency heroes and empire
I come to Lisbon—Lisboa, to give it
its Portuguese name—with an assortment of (mostly English) literary
images and Portuguese colonial remnants in my luggage.
I have been here before. Disastrously, with Cunégonde, Dr.
Pangloss and Candide during the earthquake. Then, I came with a
couple of fine English aristocrats acquiring scandalous pasts before
heading home to the happy endings Georgette Heyer had planned for
them. I have come also with the British sailors and soldiers on
assorted missions. And finally, gloriously, with the passion of
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets.
In these streets and alleys where I have lived others’ lives,
I meet old friends from Colaba and of course, Santa Cruz! Here’s
Saldanha and Pinto, there’s da Costa and Silva, and my, Pinheiro,
it’s been a long time! Sequeira, Borges, De Souza—you taught me
well in school. Are you living here now? But when I look at the
faces that go with the names, they are European faces. How disappointing
to come this close to home and not be there!
I hear you can offer wax body parts at Portuguese churches
in your quest for divine intervention. They must have learned that
custom from the anxious crowds that throng Mahim Church every Wednesday.
I look at these people around me. I walk through the touristy
sections of Rossio and no one seems to understand the word ‘vegetarian.’
On my TAP Air Portugal flight, the crew had trouble communicating
in anything other than Portuguese. I look at people around me, as
lost in their ‘Portugeuse-ness’ as the Koreans are in their ‘Korean-ness.’
I find it hard to reconcile them with the fact of their maritime
explorations and overseas empire. I listen to them around me—on
the plane, in the café where someone finally understands what I
cannot eat, on the street. How did they come up with the drive,
the enterprise and the imagination to find and conquer new worlds?
Portugal is proud of its past global engagement. The Brazilian
cafés, the Angolan and Chinese faces, the monuments and museums,
even the street names, attest to this. As colonizers, they have
a mixed record. They were terrible, oppressive administrators, but
unlike other Europeans abroad, they mingled and intermarried freely,
even purposely, with the ‘natives.’ In spite of all this, in the
aftermath of empire, Lisbon is not like London, Amsterdam or Paris.
The empire has not struck
back with floods of immigrants and the production of a hybrid, post-colonial
culture—or so it seems.
I wander the streets reflecting on these matters—and absorbing
this new world.
I know I am growing older. The day is finally
here when I am carrying food and water with me where I go, and seeking
out Indian food. But the triple burden of vegetarianism, a low-cholesterol
diet and finicky taste buds completely limit one’s options. And
my stomach will not let up because I am traveling through carnivorous
The food is easily explained by one’ s physical limitations.
Less easily explained is the great need to speak my native Indian
languages. That is more interesting to me. I grew up speaking both
Tamil and Hindi poorly enough that little children would ask me
to speak for the pleasure of mocking me. Then almost miraculously,
my fluency in both languages improved. Now, I cannot resist the
impulse to speak them, immersed as I usually am in a mono-lingual
I walk through a series of narrow streets which are best
described as alleys, except that they are not that. You don’t see
streets like this in America. The restaurant I seek has an entrance
that would serve illicit paramours and spies in trenchcoats equally
well. Stepping in tentatively, I find I am alone until a woman appears
and shyly invites me in.
She and her family are from Mozambique. From India via Mozambique.
And given when they made the first migration, from Diu via India
via Mozambique. There is a large community of Indians from Daman
and Diu here, she tells me.
Now I know we are a peripatetic people, but in India’s mind-boggling
diversity, it is easy to forget places and people altogether. In
thinking about Portuguese colonies in India and Indians who chose
to leave at the time of Goa’s liberation/invasion (here, I will
learn to remember, if not acknowledge, that there are two words
for this historical event), I have forgotten that must include the
Gujaratis of Daman and Diu. I have looked for the faces of my Roman
Catholic Goan schoolfriends—Cardozo, Pinto, Fonseca, Fernandes—but
they blend into the sea of faces (and I have seen seas of faces
since that first day). I cannot tell them apart from the Brazilians,
There are enough Diu Indians in Lisbon that there is a Hindu
community center and a wholesale market for Indian spices (the restaurant
owner tells me). There is also a cinema hall that shows Hindi movies—the
latest from London—on weekends. (The TimeOut Lisbon tour guide also
lists Navaratri as an important Lisbon seasonal event.)
Not so long ago, we used to wait for Hollywood films all
over the world. There was usually a significant time-lag between
a film’s release in LA or New York and its leisurely appearance
at Regal or Sterling in Bombay—and this is Bombay we are talking
about. Now, I come to Lisbon--not London or New Jersey, but Lisbon—and
people get to watch new Hindi movies so often they are blasé about
them. But watch them, they do because this is what accounts for
the excellent Hindi these Diu-Mozambique Gujaratis speak.
The Diu-Portuguese—should I hyphenate their identity American-style
and how would they identify themselves? —are not to me visible on the streets of Lisbon. Unlike the ubiquitous South Asian cabbies
and newspaper kiosk-owners of New York, software engineers of the
Bay Area and janitors at Heathrow, it is hard for me to see where
they go when they leave the Indian restaurants where they offer
hungry Indian travelers the comforts of home.
That these are comforts from a home where few of them live
is immaterial. The atmosphere hangs heavy with nostalgia for a world,
fading memories of which must be further obscured by the poor lighting
that is a decorating staple for Indian restaurants abroad. What
is absolutely authentic is the warmth of the hospitality, especially
when the guest is an Indian more at home in that sub-continental
lingua franca, Bombay film Hindi, than in Portuguese.
Bonded by that fragile thread of not-our-mother-tongue-Hindi,
guest and host converse at length. Stories of multiple migrations
and of “home”—lost, regained, rebuilt—are shared. Opportunities
abounded in Portuguese Africa for a community with a maritime cosmopolitanism
and entrepreneurial energy. Brother sent for brother, father for
son, son for wife and parents. Caught in the cross-fire of independence
struggles that became battles of attrition, the community moved
again—not to Diu but to Portugal. Building anew, the community has
diverse business interests—restaurants, stores, imports and exports,
etc. As is the pattern for other South Asian diaspora groups, marriages,
education and business are all pursued across the frontiers
not just of home and host (countries of origin and residence) but
across the other centers of this diaspora.
Thus, a Diu-Mozambique-Portuguese girl is married to a young
man from Gujarat via Bombay. A Diu-Mozambique-Portuguese son goes
to study business in Lisbon. One branch of a Diu-Mozambique-Portuguese
family investigates business possibilities in New Jersey and another
matrimonial alliances with Gujarat-Kenya-Leicester families. All
of these individual (and collective) links are based on
a real sense of shared identity whose actual everyday underpinnings
are more nebulous. That is, they eat, speak and dress differently.
They have shared memories of places they have scarcely visited.
Their flight trajectories are different as are their histories.
Why did they leave where and when they left? Where did they go?
And why did they leave again? All that is common to them is a history
of multiple migrations and the tenuous, vague notion of a shared
place of departure.
The Diu Portuguese are one of Lisbon’s many surprises. They
become the lens for me to consider many questions, as one sated
on their homely dinners contentedly might.
haven’t met before..”
you published anything?”
night, I was perusing the sixth volume of Locke’s treatises before
I fell asleep.”
see, as I have written in several
of my publications, this is a rather important topic.”
“As you have written…” “Yes, I have written this in several places.”
is getting so hard to keep up with the press of professional demands.
The President and I were just talking about this last week…”
President? Were you there? I was there helping draft the new law.”
that so? So they’re serious..?”
but poorly informed. I had to write up the basic text on post-it forms
for them. You know, we were having coffee and they were really begging
heard very recently, is that they are very poorly prepared—working
off hand-written notes…”
what did you say you wrote on? As I was saying, and of course, this
may not be your field, but you should do a comparative study of death
penalty laws.” “At any rate, someone should.”
say this wine is good.”
wine is always good here. The women on the other hand…”
She thinks, “Am I supposed to disappear, join in or blush?”
“I have written about this in several
of my publications.”
gardens and mosaic pavements
Setubal jacaranda (c) Swarna Rajagopalan, 2002
everywhere. That is how I will remember Lisbon. Jacaranda blossoms
on trees and on pavements. They carpet the sky with a pretty purple
and still-early-spring green. They sprinkle that same purple carelessly
over the carefully tiled sidewalks of Lisbon’s main squares.
first walk around Lisbon, apart from leaving me breathless, also
made me remember the old Bombay trick of watching where you step
and picking each step, nimbly, firmly but cautiously. There are
places where you walk, thinking you don’t want to know what went
before you. Rather like much of New York City.
in New York, the rubble and dirt do not cover exquisitely paved
sidewalks. In Lisbon, the sidewalks deserve to be called promenades.
They are broad and expansive in places, and often bear tile patterns
(black on light, worn off-white) that are inlaid with regularity,
symmetry and precision, almost as though they were block-printed
on the ground. You wonder about a people who would go to so much
trouble over something they would trample on.
are walking along Praça dos Restauradores, eyeing the throng of
fellow-tourists knowingly and the lingering (loitering?) locals
(men as always—why do women seldom loiter without a purpose?). With
the practiced eye of a life-long city-dweller, you manoeuvre past
others, thinking only of two things—where you must reach, and what
you might step on. One glimpse of the tiled sidewalk which looks
like it belongs on the verandah of an aristocrat’s villa or on the
lavish terrace gardens of a Mediterranean estate, and the Praça
is peopled with the ladies of the Portuguese court, the fine gentlement
with whom they take a turn, Georgette Heyer’s Regency heroes in
exile and a couple of ruddy, rough-hewn men, dressed in a style
much richer than their features and carriage suggest. Explorers,
did you say? Just back from Brazil?
course, my dear, you would have to ornament these sidewalks—milady
could not possibly set her feet down anywhere else!
narrow, climbing side streets have less ornate pavements, but the
bounty of blossoms that more than compensates. Narrow streets with
houses set so close as to share walls, only the variation in façade
decorations giving away where one house ends and the other begins,
are home to the rich and to those who serve them. The façades are
sometimes peeling, sometimes dull. I think, could people care less?
then through a gap, you see a garden, Grecian-looking urns filled
with little pink and white flowers. Bougainvillaea in purple and
pink weigh down walls. Another profusion of purple-unrelated to
the bougainvillaea—spills over the trellis-walls of the garden.
at the miradouro (look-out point, but the Portuguese word is more
portentous of the magical view) at the Jardim de Saõ Pedro de Alcantara
and take in this beautiful city. At my feet, terraced rows of houses
descend into a stately square and behind me, they rise with the
pride of those who know they are beautiful. Before me, would be
a fairy-tale vista. What there is, is a fairy-tale vista in decay.
the distance, just short of the horizon stands the Castelo de Saõ
Jorge, and around it, the packed but expensive housing. The look
of genteel disrepair obscures the fact that this is an upmarket
at the miradouro—a word that is resonant to my mind, awakening miraculous,
golden images—in a moment that is magic. Before me, lies a city
that wears its past still, but does so casually. I stand on a paved
terrace for which some artist dreamt up the design that some artisans
translated into stone and concrete. Around me, surrounding me, are
blossoms I scarcely imagined.
is jacaranda-kissed Lisbon. Where the spirit of a people’s
artistry survives beneath the dust and grime of contemporary life.
sea, the sea, the sea
to say the sea called me to Portugal. In Hindu myths, deities often
appear again and again, calling ordinary men and women to their fold.
The sea has thus spoken to me in dream after dream, calling me to
in your dreams can be portentous of ill-luck if it is rough. However,
in my dreams, it is always calm, always beautiful, embracing me. And
if there are moments of fear or moments of dread in the dream, recalling
the sea dispels them.
to Portugal came at a moment when everything in my life felt fraught
and uncertain. As I read about Portugal, however, certain names beckoned
me—not Sintra, but the Estoril Coast; not Setubal, but Arrábida.
The sea, always the sea.
struggled to mire adversity for spiritual gold, I knew that I could
lay my troubles to rest at the Atlantic shore of Portugal. You may
read this and chuckle, “Would-be writer’s fantasy!” But I know! I
did not know at many turns whether I would make it to Portugal, but
I knew I must.
the first chance I could, I set off (with a colleague) for Sintra
and the coast. Sintra is lovely. No, we did not visit the palaces,
but the hilly roads and the flowers were pretty too. We stopped in
town, walked around, took obligatory pictures before the National
Palace and nodded in Pena’s direction. But I could not linger. The
main event was elsewhere.
first glimpse of water, something broke inside me. There, beyond the
hills and the hamlet, lay the Atlantic, shimmering and turquoise.
I could not wait to jump out and run towards it. But, not yet.
we reached Cabo de Roca, the weight of worry was lifted right out
of my soul by the gusty winds that blow there. I found myself running,
skipping and bounding across the paths that surround the westernmost
point of the Eurasian landmass. I became as light as a blade of grass
and as energetic as a child. Copper sulphate around me everywhere,
was as I remembered it. Like those ridged, transparent copper sulphate
glass bangles that lie in my dressing-table at home, when the light
catches on them and they reflect the gold bangles I am wearing with
them. Still and yet turbulent, the water is strong enough to take
on the burden of my insignificant life. The expanse of water puts
me in my place and allows me to surrender to it much as a child worn
out by its frenetic play and willful wakefulness surrenders to sleep
in a parent’s arms. At Cabo de Roca, without word, without thought
or ritual, I surrender my petty tribulations to the ocean, and invite
it to wash over me, remake and redeem me.
it hard to leave the cape. But this is life and while redemption is
certain, attachment to it is not permitted. I leave, like a child
being sent away to boarding-school, craning my neck to catch a glimpse
of my moment of redemption.
down the coast is beautiful. However, my heart keeps asking—did I
surrender everything? did I lay it all to rest? did I relinquish every
vestige of control? In true bureaucratic Brahmin spirit, I wonder
if I ought to have performed some ritual, uttered some incantation
to let the ocean know. Ought I to have sought some sign that my surrender
was noted? Already my moment of redemption was slipping away.
write this, I understand the nature of my complete emancipation at
Cabo de Roca. For the quarter of an hour that we were there, the winds
that were practically blowing me around were in fact keeping me completely
in the present. All I saw were the cape, the ‘ice’ flowers and dandelions,
and the sun-kissed sea stretching to eternity. I felt the wind and
instead of resisting it, allowed it to gift me the sensation of free-flight.
I heard the waves and the gale and I allowed my heart to respond with
delight and laughter, without a thought to what they might cause (I
might be blown off, or people might find me strange). And so the Cabo
freed me for one minute, into that minute and eternity.
and Estoril were pretty, touristy towns like Sintra. You remember
them for a pleasant afternoon but for me, after Cabo de Roca, they
were empty, vacuous. In towns like this, where we tame the universe
to our postcard montages, we empty them of their essence, the unique
nature that brings us here in the first place.
marine pilgrimage took me to the Arrábida region. I had looked up
Arrábida when I was first invited to this conference. The name captured
my imagination and the images captivated me. Jaded as I was feeling
after several days of sightseeing, the vistas in this region took
my breath away.
combination is always spectacular. Nature puts her two most awe-inspiring
features in a single frame. Each on its own dwarves you, and both
together leave no room for doubt that we, our lives, with their attendant
highs and lows are all inconstant, transient, ephemeral. What is forever
is the grandeur of elevated rock-face and vegetation and the profound
expanse of truly unceasing waves. And yet change and flow are intrinsic
to their cycles too, while our plaintive nature is a constant.
as in other things and places Portuguese, this impact is made very
casually. Here is no belaboured “look at me, I am so spectacular”
state park. Instead, the Portuguese government has declared this area
a forest reserve, and left nature on its spectacular own. The mountains
stand tall and arrogant and uncaring of what we think. The sea ignores
the mountains, the forest and gawping tourists altogether and simply
carries on its with its ebb and tide.
glimpse of this paradise is from the ramparts of the cemetery at Seisimbra.
I am no necrophile, and indeed the one thing I have not enjoyed on
all my tourist expeditions in Portugal is the insistence on lingering
over and discussing the remains of the dead. But at Seisimbra, the
view from the cemetery impels me to walk past the gravesites.
and over, what I am struck by is how little the ocean cares about
our comings and goings, our admiration of it or our failure to notice.
I grew up surrounded by sea, and yes, it was beautiful, but I think
of the number of times I have sat with friends in front of an expanse
of sea and been so engrossed in the ongoing drama in our lives that
I have not so much as looked at it. It simply was there and like everything
else about those years of my life, I could take it for granted. It
was my home, my shelter.
is no longer true. The sea is my past and my future—as illusory and
elusive as both most of the time. Until the odd magic moment, like
the one I felt in Cabo de Roca. At Arrábida, I felt overawed
by the sea, and I felt its distance from me. It lay there, distant,
unattainable and with every fibre of my being, I longed for its embrace.
At Arrábida, I was left only with ritual. I tried to speak
to the ocean, but the distance and the feeling in my heart that I
could not hold on to this vision, silenced me. Arrábida is
the unattainable ocean of my dreams—ever-beckoning, never-heeding.
the rainbow washes up
verbal caresses of the ocean would be incomplete if I failed to record
the many colours inlaid—like mosaic or pietra dura—in the blue and
gold visions I have raved about. Other colours lurk within this flat
depiction of mine.
place where the tour guide tells us to look, we can see the sea-bed,
turquoise yields to a teal, malachite, ochre and gold. At Cabo de
Roca, the sea is the precise colour of copper sulphate crystals, with
gold dust. As we drive past the Estoril coast, the water looks sea-green,
the pure aqua of the water blending with the brilliant yellow of the
sunlight—rather as if the primary colours of a child’s drawing had
run into each other. At one point on our mountain drive, a bright
turquoise sheet is interrupted by designer patches of lilac-to-violet-to-iris.
On a postcard, these would all look artificial and no camera could
capture what the eyes have had the privilege of seeing.
Garrett and my Muse
in Lisbon with a heed full of literary images. That may be responsible
for the words that cried out to be written, every hour of every
day, most of which I have lost before they could be recorded. But
there is something in the air of this city that recalls the pleasure
of moving pen over paper smoothly, watching words form sentences
in your handwriting. It recalls the delight of watching your best
handwriting deteriorate because your hand cannot keep up with your
mind. It recalls the profound joy of being able to write. There
is something about Lisbon that reawakens the aspiring writer in
the tired political scientist.
guidebooks talk about Lisbon’s literary and revolutionary heritage.
I walk by the cafés and imagine the debates and conversations that
once took place where there are now tourists. On the tables, with
the small cups of potent Portuguese coffee, sat newspapers, secret
telegrams, Rousseau and Marx. Now I see Lonely Planet and Fodor
and other guides to Portugal in a variety of languages. The smoke
is still there, in this continent of smokers. Through the haze,
I see the writer’s table covered with coffee-stained papers, dried
up coffee cups and crumbs of cake and bread fossifying on the pages
held down by a saucer. I hear the strident voices of those who would
change the world. I hear the buzz of political gossip and the hush
that falls over the room when someone speaks long and eloquently
about something. I see the swift movements of men closing secret
political deals. I must confess I don’t see to many women, and this
is one reason I hesitate to go in.
I wander around and everything about this place reminds me of this
long-standing wish of mine to take the sort of vacation that the
heroines of English novels took, particularly after debilitating
bouts of influenza. I would love to be somewhere exotic like Portugal
or somewhere near the sea, to write and paint and think deep thoughts.
I am so tired when I reach Portugal that there is no question I
feel entitled to one of these long sojourns.
on Rua Garrett during the second half of my short trip. This picturesque
street, according to my guidebooks, used to be something of a literary
and intellectual center, and I feel that I too must write while
I am here. But the words don’t come to match that impulse.
myself picking up the threads again and writing furiously at Lisbon
airport, on the plane, in Newark and far, far away in my apartment.
Lisbon’s literary air lingers, and I cannot tear myself away from
writing even when I am not writing. My soul, fatigued by struggles
of faith, acceptance and patience clings to the little creative
spark that says my mind, weary with devising survival schemes, my
heart leaden with disappointment and my spirit spent and tired after
months of cheerleading the rest of me—are in fact, alive!
few spare pieces of tile,
few spaces left uncovered
travels abroad to cease the perpetual motion within. Yet, voyages
return one to the very center of one’s soul. And one’s most extensive
explorations remain ultimately preoccupied with the recesses of
one’s self. So going to Portugal ultimately allowed me to shift
perspective in my navel-gazing. The internal-external dialectic
is different because the external is different.
this account, there may be repetitions and inconsistencies. There
are certainly bound to be errors of fact and judgment. And omissions
abound—the beautiful churches and monasteries I visited, most notably.
excuse is that I am an apprentice at word-craft and in the word-mosaics
I practise creating, some pieces are bound
to fall off and some to jar with the design. My design itself is likely
to be flawed and my execution to result in the overuse of some tiles
and under-use of others. But the resulting mosaic reflects, I hope,
my effort and my passion.
Newark, New Haven