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GOOD FRIDAY IN PANJIM

*

Lazy Good Friday in Goa; too hot to move, too hot to think, too hot even to dream. Television spewed the death of a young British girl on Anjuna Beach, just a few miles up the road. Fourteen, raped and left for dead, drowned by the incoming tide; every day a new revelation – corruption, incompetence, malpractice, murder – an interlocking web of greed that seemed to extend into infinity.

No point going into town – it’ll be deserted; restaurants closed, streets empty, doors bolted, all slammed shut for Jesus. In a fiercely religious place like this one, Good Friday is a serious event; a day to mourn a dead Christ. Nobody much was mourning the dead Scarlett Keeling. They were arguing over her corpse.

Shaky footage of youths covering their faces; the police chief suggesting she’d raped herself, beaten herself up and jumped face first in the water; Scarlett’s mother, a tall British hippy woman with a long, sorrowful face standing silent by the sea. Drugs – everywhere drugs, corruption and accusation, scandal and secrets repeated ad nauseum, blasting out into the thick Panjim air.

Nothing to do but sweat, sit and pray, sprawl dripping on my balcony, limp witness to the to and fro. Dog was on the first floor, directly overlooking the Panjim Inn courtyard and restaurant. This was a popular joint with a wide, interesting range of travellers, presided over by el Patron, a portly Panjimmer of aristocratic stock. He sat silently in his Patron’s chair, a faintly regal figure in a wide-brimmed Panama hat, looking out on the world he’d created.

He’d seen a million guests come and go, a thousand-thousand backpackers, the grisly panorama of human nature – there was nothing he needed to say that he hadn’t already said, not a stranger’s conversation left in the world he hadn’t heard, not a question he hadn’t answered a hundred times. He sat and stared into space. Bugger all was happening – a few stragglers in their Sunday best headed off to church, a couple of lads on bicycles cycled around in circles, a tourist or two wandered in and out of the hotel – all in all, pretty dull. Across the road a skinny black dog lay in the shadows.

The dog looked up at Dogster. Dogster looked down at the dog.

‘Aahaha-haha-haha-ha-ha,’ panted the dog.

A bright pink tongue lolled free, jiggling with every breath. He looked like he was smiling – but he wasn’t. I know that Black Dog.

The dog stopped panting, closed his mouth and growled. I could see his pink devil eyes staring at me.

‘Gr-r-r-r-r-r-rrr,’ said Dogster.

Piss off Black Dog.

The deserted streets hummed like a bottled bee.

*

Mr. Dogster switched on the bathroom light.

Boof! There was an almighty explosion. The light-bulb shattered with a flash and a smell of burning plastic, showering every inch of the place with pieces of broken glass. Christ!

There’s not a lot you can do in a bathroom covered in broken glass. Dog stood there, naked, confused. He was in bare feet surrounded by minute shards of ex-light-bulb. What to do? This is all too hard, too early in my day.

Dog didn’t need to worry. With a crash the door to his room burst open. There was the Patron, puffing hard. Following close behind him was his son, the receptionist, the bell-boy, the security guard and the chef. They all flooded in and came to a halt at the bathroom door.

We had one of those frozen moments. Dog stood naked surrounded by broken glass. It had been barely twenty seconds since the light-bulb attacked him. The poor stupid mongrel was still working out what to do, working out where to step without bleeding. Six men came to a rapid halt in the doorway. They bundled into each other like the Keystone Cops.

Mr. Dogster looked at them. They looked at Mr. Dogster.

Then the Patron started to laugh. His stomach shuddered, shoulders shook, his ample mouth fell open wide. He laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed till the tears ran out of his eyes.

‘I thought you’d shot yourself!’ he said in between guffaws.

The staff laughed and so did their guest. We were in for a merry time. I saw their eyes flicker down to my shrivelled Dogster dingle, but I didn’t care.

‘We’re all men here,’ I said, flinging my arms wide, ‘what can I say…’

‘Pass Mr. Dogster a towel.’

Mr. Dogster’s modesty was restored and he was rescued from his plight. Glass crunched under their shoes as their guest was extricated from the bathroom and they all carefully examined the light.

‘It’s normal,’ said the Patron, ‘around this time of year…’

Humidity reaches a certain point, moisture gets between the bulb and the socket and ‘Bam!’ he snapped his fingers, ‘it explodes.’ I knew just how that light-bulb felt.

‘I’m very sorry,’ he chuckled, ‘but I’m glad you’re still alive. I didn’t need a suicide this morning.’

Nor did Mr. Dogster. He was pleased he hadn’t killed himself too.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception stood proudly at the top of a mountain of steps, a morsel of Portuguese Catholicism plonked slap in the middle of town. Dogster thought it looked rather pretty, in an inappropriate kinda way. By the time he got there the Good Friday service had long begun; pews, aisles and doorways jam-packed with worshippers. Jesus was popular today. He peered on tip-toe over the heads of the crowd, deep into the soaring blue, white and gold cathedral. The back wall hung with black drapes covered in stars, huge European chandeliers dangling high above the centre nave and along the side aisles, a plain wooden altar surrounded by candles, red-robed priests and in the middle of it all a Bishop making a very, very long speech.

Pillars of gold held up a host of plaster angels whose fate it was to listen to this mournful, unctuous drone. The congregation alternately sat, knelt or stood, their faces those of the faithful everywhere – respectful, simple people for whom this public demonstration of their belief was both duty and drudge. Some were more attentive than others, some were clearly bored – but all were paying public respect to something bigger than themselves. Everything went ahead very slowly; very solemnly – which I guess was no surprise – after all, they weren’t exactly celebrating a win at the soccer.

Outside the church, listening on speakers, were as many people again, their numbers growing by the minute. These were the more pragmatic of the worshippers – they knew it was more important to be seen worshipping than to actually do the worship. They sat wherever they could, mostly on the walls surrounding the church, dressed in the Sunday best, silent, devout and severe. About the only signs of levity were the frilly white socks their daughters wore, pious little kewpie-dolls on their best behaviour decked out neatly in confirmation dresses.

The crowd prayed, knelt when appropriate, listened as the speech continued and whispered to their neighbours when the sermon got too dreary to bear. It went on and on for what seemed like hours. Dogster practiced his tourist Zen, standing silent; serious, respectful, head cocked as if he understood every word that was said.

Finally – mercifully – it seemed to be over and there was gentle movement in the crowd. Those outside took off their shoes, lined them neatly beside the entrance and formed two huge lines either side of the church. ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ started up, sung so slowly it sounded as if the congregation was on sedation.

‘On a hill far awa-a-a-ay,

stood an o-o-o-old rugged Cro-o-ss…’

There was no joy here; no theatre – this was tedium of the highest order; no style, no pace, just a grim, deathly slow plod through the service.

‘The e-e-e-emblem of su-u-uff’ring and sha-a-a-me…’

The hymn singing was woeful. Inside the congregation stood up and began to shuffle into the central aisle, each on a slow-motion mission to greet the priest, get their blessing, touch the altar and then file outside again to be replaced by those outside.

‘And I lo-o-ove that old Cross where the de-e-earest and best…’

On it went, on and on and on. Shuffle. Stop. Bow. Bless. Shuffle. Stop. Bow Bless. All the dead weight of Portuguese Catholicism hanging over their shoulders. Shuffle. Stop. Bow.

‘For a wo-o-orld of lost si-i-i-nners was…’

They were dragging their souls behind them. Shuffle. Stop.

‘…sla-a-ain.’

Bless. Bless. Bless me father, I have sinned. God almighty, this is dull.

*

Prophet Mohammed was born in the month of Rabi’ al-awwal, the third month in the Islamic calendar, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’ – probably 570 – and however you work out the dates, in Panjim, on this Good Friday, right at this very moment, this particular event seems to have been celebrated – just to piss off the Christians.

It very nearly worked. The Church of the Immaculate Conception stood at one end of a wide tree-lined avenue leading into new Panjim, the commercial hub of town. From the far end of that street a rival procession appeared but these guys weren’t holding a funeral – they were having a birthday party. A thousand of them, two, three – they just kept coming; in cars covered with plastic flowers and red and green flags – lorries cunningly disguised as minarets, young children dressed up in brightly coloured costumes – everybody wearing a hat, a scarf, a handkerchief wrapped around their head. Groups of fierce youths stood proud on the roofs of buses, waving their flags wildly, chanting and shouting their love for the great inspiration.

Prophet Mohammed was having a splendid birthday party indeed and the drums and car-horns of his followers drowned out the amplified drone of Good Friday. ‘The Old Ragged Cross’ disappeared beneath the joyous cacophony of five or six thousand Muslims of all shapes and sizes, all ages, waving banners and flags, happily marching down the main street.

They were headed directly for Jesus. It was fine little party – and as a piece of pure theatre left those dreary Christians for dead. Dogster stumbled down four long flights of stairs to the street and stood, poised somewhere between dead Jesus and the baby Mohammed – hymns droning in one ear, the shouts of the parade in the other.

The Muslim celebration promptly came to a stop, right at the foot of the church stairs. Looking up at the church were the Muslims, looking down at the Muslims were the Christians. The unbeliever was in the middle. It was a delicious cross-cultural moment.  Spread out on the sidewalks watching the collision were the rest of the local population.

They were Hindu.

*

Those devil clouds grew darker, seemed even blacker as the floodlights around the cathedral flickered on. A single red neon cross flashed bravely at the top of the tower. The sheer gloom of the proceedings inside had attracted all the psychic melancholy in the surrounding air – Dogster could feel it tumbling in towards him, sucking him into that bleak, black hole of faith. Something had to give.

With a great final shout the Muslims disbanded. Prophet Mohammed’s birthday party evaporated in a dozen directions as the church regurgitated its congregation. From out the front entrance the entire assembly of Christians poured into the fading light of evening, a sea of white shirts and dresses, black trousers and frilly socks. There must have been a thousand or so, walking silently down the many steps to the street. Behind them came a hundred men dressed in lurid, shiny red. Each wore a half-length satin cloak with a hood over their shoulders, just covering a see-through lace curtain that nearly reached their shoes. They formed two lines, a river of pious blood slowly zigzagging down the four flights of white stone stairs to the street.

About half-way along this procession Dog could just make out the life-size statue of a plaster Mary Magdalene, her hands loosely clasped in prayer. She wore her traditional blue shawl, an expression of pure, blank piety and a halo of stars. In front of her a dozen men carried a black awning that sheltered an open palanquin carrying the body of the lifeless Christ, lit from above by a neon tube.

Jesus lay there dead, the painted blood running down his plaster face. He sported a realistic black beard and thick, long black hair with an embroidered band around his forehead where the crown of thorns had been. A bunch of bright red flowers lay on his chest on top of a gold robe. He looked as he was sleeping and at peace – which, I guess, was the point of it all.

Just as the palanquin made it down to the street the rains came. Jesus was safe – he was undercover – but Mary Magdalene, by the time she got to Dogster, was spotted with great gobs of rain.

Splat! Another drop hit Mary.

Splot! Another splash on her head.

Miss Magdalene was crying real tears as she passed him, the love of God ran in streaks all down her face. Priests and attendants were getting soaked – but not for an instant did they break ranks. Red satin cloaks hung limply round their shoulders, rain matted their hair and ran into their eyes – still the slow march persisted, unhurried, unaltered, as the sky turned yellow and green. A clap of thunder scattered the crowd lining the streets, the rain poured down but the parade continued on – Jesus and Mary wobbled off into the distance, sodden, solemn, serene.

*

PART TWO

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