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Goa's Golden Age

He told me that I had met a "true Goan" in Lisbon—the true Goan being someone who knew how to make caste distinctions even after nearly 500 years of Roman Catholicism. "As for the Goans you met in London," Miranda said, "they've been out of Goa and India for a long time. I used to wonder about their lack of identity, and then I realized that they are 'uprooted people.' They might like prawn curry, but that's it."

We were at Martin's Corner, one of South Goa's best restaurants—no problems with vegetarian food there. It was early January, but the air was warm and the service slow. Not that there was any real hurry. Deep in the Goan hinterland—the coconut and mango and jackfruit groves, the rice fields and meandering streams and clean ponds—you learn to surrender to a pleasurable torpor.

And when you are in the southern part of the state, the clichés of Goa seem safely distant. In the north, beyond the capital city of Panaji, where the sun is hot and you feel a bit exposed walking on the beaches with the cut-price European tourists and the sarong hawkers, where in the evening strings of electric lights come on in the seafood shacks and the rave parties begin to throb, only the lone white church in the darkening field, and the potholed narrow roads past the beer bars and surfing shops and pizzerias and tattoo parlors, remind you that you are in Goa, India, and not Ko Samui.

On the other hand, the beaches in the south stretch emptily for miles on end, and the tropical countryside with its seclusion and silence comes right up to the edge of the water—a suitable setting, it always seems, for the elaborate private rituals and mysteries of the Catholic faith.

Miranda and I had returned that morning from a tour of South Goa's posher hotel resorts: the Taj Exotica, designed by a Hawaiian architect along the lines of a Latin American hacienda, and the Leela Palace, its cavernous lobby modeled on the palaces of the great 14th-century Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar (destroyed by a neighboring Muslim power just five decades after the Portuguese conquest of Goa).

The hotels, with their various inspirations, seemed at first part of a promiscuous "international" style that outsiders had brought to Goa after its discovery as a tourist destination in the 1960's. However, Goa has been receiving the styles of the outside world for some time: Miranda's own ancestral house was designed about 1750 by Italian Jesuits, and it was where, later that day, Miranda took me.

The house lay in Loutolim, one of the many old villages in the part of Goa known as Salcete. The country road we took skirted well-tended rice fields and red-roofed bungalows with shaded balconies, and then suddenly began to climb a small hill. We went past a church with a white Baroque façade presiding over a dusty tree-lined square, and then down a dirt path. Wrought-iron gates opened onto a slightly overrun garden and a wide cream-colored house that resembled an Italian palazzo; above the main door, which led to an open, room-lined courtyard, was a cartouche with the Miranda coat of arms.


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