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Goa's Golden Age

Soon after arriving in Lisbon for the first time, I went looking for India. In London, where I now live, India seems very close; it lies scattered in the city's street names, in its Victorian-Gothic buildings, so like those of Bombay, and in the cooking smells of its Indian-dominated suburbs, Southall and Brick Lane.

I was born a Hindu and spent most of my life in India. But it was in London that I began to look at myself as a colonial, as someone shaped primarily by the metropolitan West, particularly Britain, and it was in London that I grew curious about Portugal, that other great, though much more constricted, European presence on the Indian subcontinent.

Until it was annexed by India in 1961, the state of Goa, which lies south of Bombay on India's western coast, had been held by the Portuguese for close to half a millennium—more than three centuries longer than British rule over India. Unlike the British, the Portuguese had worked hard to convert entire native populations to their faith and lifestyle; it was one reason why the Goans I met in London intrigued me.

They called themselves Goans, but they knew little about Goa. Though ancestrally Hindu like most Goan Catholics, they expressed contempt for India and Hinduism and were more Westernized in their choice of food, dress, and music, more detached from India, than any other Indian community in Britain.

Some of them knew that I was going to Portugal and gave me names and telephone numbers of relatives in Lisbon. But I arrived on a long weekend, and everyone I tried to reach was out of town. The weather didn't help. It rained hard and continuously; each foray outside my bright modern hotel—past the shuttered boutiques in decaying buildings, through the abandoned-looking squares and parks—each foray brought on a strange melancholy.

In Belém, on the western edge of the city, there was the great monastery of the Jerónimos, built to commemorate Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India in 1498; but how little it held of India itself. I would come across the odd square or street named after Alfonso de Albuquerque, the conqueror of Goa in 1510; but there was not much else. In Lisbon, Goa seemed an aberration, a distant land that the Portuguese had acquired during a time of imperialist ambition and energy and then had forgotten about.

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