Saturday, February 2, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L


Getting away from the world... to be in Goa
Khushwant Singh

IF you want to get away from the world, there is no better place to be in than Goa. From Delhi it is half-way across the country. Air fares have become murderously expensive; it is cheaper to fly to Singapore or Bangkok than to distant places in your own country. It does not make sense. But then so many things in India make no sense. And since you want to get away anyhow, shell out what airlines ask for and get aboard.

On a chilly, windy morning, I left my home for the airport. On the way it began to rain, the first of the winter: good for the rabi crop but not for a human in low spirits. In the crowded airport lounge, the loud-speakers informed us that our flight would be delayed by one and a half hours because weather conditions had delayed its arrival from Kolkata. Ultimately we did take off in heavy rain and blustery gale. It took us almost half an hour of being buffeted about to pierce through the dense clouds and emerge triumphantly into bright sunshine with the snow-white sheet of clouds beneath us. At 4 p.m. we thudded down the runway into a sun-drenched Goa.

EARLIER COLUMNS
Coping with the death of a loved one
January 26, 2002
Count the blessings of old age
January 19, 2002
Vajpayee, the poet
January 12, 2002
When Indian writers meet
January 5, 2002
Behind the mask of a terrorist
December 29, 2001
An exercise in futility
December 15, 2001
The power of self-destruction
December 1, 2001
Jaipur and its Rajmata
November 24, 2001
Meting out humiliation as punishment
November 10, 2001
Women like her do not die...
November 3, 2001
The Karnataka-Canada connection
October 27, 2001
Making English an Indian language
October 20, 2001
Worshipping the mother of all rivers
October 13, 2001
Salman Rushdie: Genius or eccentric?
September 29, 2001
A Telugu saga set in 19th century
September 22, 2001


I was not sure what sort of welcome awaited me at the Bogmalo Beach Resort where I had spent over 15 Christmases and New Year Days barring the last two years because of my wifeís illness. The hotel had changed hands three times. The changes only affected the top executives whom I rarely met during my stay. The staff members, who remain the same, come from Bogmalo village and Vasco, a few kilometres away. It was the staff, most of whom I knew by their first names, who mattered to me. The present owner is Ajit Kerkar, the real builder of the Taj chain of hotels across India and abroad. He knows more about hoteliering than anyone else in the business. My fears were set at rest. To receive me was Rita Sequeria who I have known over the years. Her daughters have grown into young ladies; Rita remains the same as she is determined never to look over thirty. With her was an attractive young woman Priya Suresh, in charge of public relations. They drove me in a fancy limousine to the entrance of the resort. Awaiting to receive me was the manager, Sunil Chopra, the food and beverage manager, Deepak Rai, and the head chef, Subroto Roy. They were new to me. The rest: the bell captain, cashiers, barmen, waiters and waitresses were old friends.

I could sense the changes the master hotelier had brought about since he became its proprietor. Floors were being renovated. Ajitís wife who made such a splendid job of the interior of Taj Man Singh in Delhi is doing the same to the resort in Goa. What most Five Star hotels in India often overlook, is the quality of the food they serve. All menus run into many pages, the fare they lay out has a wide variety of dishes to choose from but all are uniformly second-rate. Iíd much rather go to an eaterie which has very limited options or even no option at all, but what it serves should tickle the palate. On the first evening I did not go beyond the simple dal and rice because the rice was the fragrant basmati and the dal tastier than that in any reputed roadside dhaba. I complimented the chef and his boss. "Anything special you like?" asked Subroto Roy. "I like seafood, "I replied. "Crabs if you can get them." The next three evenings, I had fresh crab cooked in different ways. Delicious.

One morning I was sitting alone in the airy verandah, gazing at the sea, when Priya Suresh joined me. I thought it was an exercise in public relations. It was not. She was full of something she wanted to share with me. "You know sir, I lost my husband a few months ago. He was a helicopter pilot. His chopper went down in the sea without trace." I commiserated with her on her loss and asked her how she was coping with it. "I am trying to forget everything. He was only 39. He has left me with two young children to bring up." There was not a tear in her eye: her grief was too deep for tears or she had shed all she had. "Did you seek solace in religion?" I asked. She paused before bursting out. "I lost all faith in God. How could He be so cruel to me? He slammed the door in my face. But then He opened a window. The hotel people were very kind. They pleaded with me to return to work so that I could keep myself occupied. Then I got an offer from Lawrence School, Ooty. My accommodation and my childrenís education will be free. On a widowís pension I could not have given my children good education and comfortable living. Now I will be able to do so. God takes with one hand, gives with another." Priya is wanted at the desk, she excuses herself and leaves, with a smile on her face. I resume gazing at the sea. Men may come and men may go, but the sea goes on forever.

Coromandel & Malabar

There are lots of references to Coromandel and Malabar in David Davidarís novel The House of Blue Mangoes. I was not sure if these regions had at any time clearly defined geographical limits and from where they derived their names and why hardly any one uses them today. Coromandel and Malabar have musical resonance. Neither Madras, Tamil Nadu nor Chennai have it. While Malabar has a masculine ring, Malayalam sounds like a by-product of clotted cream, and Kerala, a South Indian mispronunciation of karela (bitter gourd). So why have Coromandel and Malabar lost popular appeal and now appear only in names of hotels, picture houses and drinking dens?

I put it to Vibha Parthasarathy, chairman of the Womenís Commission whose husband and daughter-in-law come from the region. Vibha wasnít sure but promised to find out and get back to me. She did not. I put the same questions to my school-time friend Bharat Ram, who is the chairman of Coromandel Fertilisers. "I should know but I donít," he admitted. "But I will find out and get back to you." He did not.

I turned to Hobson Jobson which is a treasure-house of information relating to Indian subjects. It says Coromandel is "a name which has been long applied by Europeans to Northern Tamil country or (more comprehensively) to the eastern coast of the Pennunsula of India from point Calimeri (presumably Cape Comorin or Kanya Kumari) northward to the mouth of the Krishna up to Orissa." It goes to explain "much that is fanciful has been written on the origin of this name. Tod makes it Kuru-Mandala ó land of Kurus. Another version speaks of Karumandal (black sand). C.P. Brown, a scholar of Telugu, was of the opinion that the word is of Portuguese origin. Yet another theory puts the origin to Khara Mandalam (hot country). Compilers of the dictionary believe that it is derived from Choramandala, Tamil dynasty based in Tanjore.

There is similar confusion about the origin of the word Malabar, the geographical area to which it applies and the language spoken there. It is generally accepted to be the southern part of the western coast of India, extending from Konkan down to Kanya Kumari. The Portuguese called it Malabar, its people Malaburis and their language Malayalam. They also used the word Tranquebar.

Catching Bin Ladan

A search party of US soldiers and Indian army men went out on a manhunt to nab Osama bin Laden in his cave in the mountains of Afghanistan. After scouring through numerous caves they came to a large bottle-shaped cavern which had an ominous lamp burning at one end. The search party geared up to capture their prey. Rifles were cocked, machine guns straddled to shoulders and torches beamed out light. "There he is!" roared out a dozen voices even as they spotted a lone figure seated at a table, who was in the act of raising a half-finished bottle of vodka to his mouth. As the searchers came close to the man, an Indian soldier in their midst exclaimed with appalling loudness: "Holy cow!"

"Whatís the matter?" said his companions.

"I know that man:It is not Osama bin Laden!"

"Then who is it?"

"Itís .... itís... itís Khushwant Singh" said the Indian soldier, even as he passed out with shock.

"What the hell are you doing here?" asked an American soldier.

"Iíve been here ever since the Russians left," said the man, "the caves are full of it. Free vodka!"

(Contributed by Priya Nath Mehta, Gurgaon)

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