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Goa's Golden Age

Superficial impressions; I longed to talk to someone, to be shown something behind the city's reticent manner, and one rainy evening I went to a small Goan restaurant I had read about in a guidebook.

It was hard to find. The taxi driver didn't know the alley it was on; there was no one on the streets he could ask. When we finally got there, the little door with peeling paint didn't look promising. But, suddenly, I was in a low-lit room, animated with warm smells and laughter and the tinny sounds of forks and knives: large, happy Portuguese families clustered around tiny tables, served by smiling but overworked waiters. It was like being given another, very private, view of the city I had felt thus far to be remote and withdrawn, and for the first time in two days I began to relax.

A bald man with dark glowing skin was sitting at the cramped counter. He seemed the Goan owner, and I thought I could see in his eyes as I came in that slight hostility mixed with inquisitiveness that the colonial reserves for other colonials in the metropolis.

Was he satisfied with what he saw?I don't know. He remained distant from my table, sending a young man, who looked like his son, to take my order. I was a bit disappointed for I had hoped to talk to him, to ask him about his life.

The menu was dominated by seafood, particularly prawns, and the young man met my requests for vegetarian food with the same puzzled air and slight exasperation that I have grown accustomed to in continental Europe. He said he'd ask in the kitchen. He went away, and when he reappeared he looked even more puzzled. He said, "My father wants to know if you are a Brahman."

I was astonished. Caste! From a Christian in Lisbon, in 2001 A.D.! I diffidently said yes, suppressing that embarrassment most educated people in India feel about their "highborn" status. The vegetarian food was made available after all, and although I didn't get to talk to the owner I saw him smile at me as I went out: a shy but intimate gesture of recognition.

In Goa I told this story to Lucio Miranda, an architect and musician who belongs to one of Goa's oldest Catholic families. Miranda's gentle good looks, trimmed mustache, and deep-drilling eyes make him look like a Hindu aristocrat or aging Bombay film star, but he speaks with a faint British accent, the product of a five-year stint in London in the late 1950's as a student of architecture.

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