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SAINT SCARLETT

PART TWO of  GOOD FRIDAY IN PANJIM

*

I wanted to see where Scarlett Keeling was murdered.

Well, not the exact spot – but the beach, the scene, the whole Goa culture for myself. Well, here it was. I was looking at it, shuffling slowly past the hokey masseurs and souvenir shops, past the coffee-shops and rickety restaurants, past the dread-locked ferals staring blankly at the horizon, sucking on their Bhang lassi, feeling oh, so very cool. The occasional gap-year adolescent passed by, stunningly fresh faced, tangled hair, baggy Indian pants and Goa T-shirt; a backpacker or two trudged on, lugging their life, bent double under the strain, extra shoes dangling from their luggage, water bottle clutched in one sweaty hand.

It was a midday slaughter when I sauntered along the main drag at Anjuna Beach. The shopkeepers were barely awake – there was nobody around to sell anything to. I was the only thing moving and they could sure see at a glance that I wasn’t their target audience – Dogster was just some old fart wandering down the street. There were a few half-heated entreaties, a few ‘you wanna buy..?’ but their hearts weren’t in it – nor was mine. It was too hot.

I saw two lads inspecting hovels, reeling back from muck and flies, closing the door behind them with a look of mild distaste – heading off to the next one, anxious to stretch their hundred rupees a night to a castle by the sand – that same sand where fourteen year old Scarlett was murdered not long ago; that same sand that clogged her nose and mouth, that same sand that saw five local brutes rape her – then leave her to drown in the incoming tide.

Ahhh, Goa, sweet Goa, the jewel of the South – what a heart-break old whore you are.

But if you’re a gap-year baby, if you’re a student child with the whole world in front of you, if you’ve discovered sex and drugs and India in one glorious moment, then Goa’s a pretty damn fine place, I guess, for that first rite of passage, the ceremony of innocence, that moment when you first find your life.

It was a long time since I’d had that feeling. I had to remember to embrace the awakening in others – not hate them for their naivety. Dogster was there before any of them, just as stupid, just as fresh-faced, just as dumb. It all seemed like a long time ago.

He was feeling old.

So, of course, when the next young man whispered ‘Manali Hash?’ the old Dog nodded like the old fool he was and followed him down a lane, into his room, just like a thousand fools before him – sniffed the black lump in his hand, paid too much, stuffed it in his old Dog pocket and scurried straight back to his old Dog car.

When in Goa…

*

Anjuna wasn’t nearly as sleepy when I returned a day or so later for the Wednesday Market. This was the last market of the season, the monsoon was looming and scandal was amok. Scarlett Keeling haunted every paper, every current affairs show, her face stared out from television every night. Not that any of this seemed to have made the slightest impression on the human zoo let free in the market this afternoon.

The Anjuna Market is the piece de resistance of Goa, a great melting pot of foreign flesh poured slowly over a football field of bamboo stalls tied together with string, rows of them baking there in the sun, each one selling variations on the same thing, that same generic South Indo-crap, woven, embroidered, bejewelled Indian tat, tat to wear till it rots off you, tat to dangle round your neck, tat to hang from your veranda, tat to carry home in your rucksack and keep forever on your desk, appliquéd tat to drape on your bed, a tattery of T-shirts to remind you that you’ve been to Goa, that you’ve been to the Anjuna Market. You were there.

Stall after stall of rubbish – after a while in this blazing heat you just glaze over, smile and just say ‘no’, ‘no,’ no-o-o-o-o!’ to everything. Maybe there were diamonds hidden in the debris – it seems so, judging by the arm-loads of it some tourists were carrying. Dogster wandered along with the flow, bored with looking at the same stuff he’d seen in shops all over Asia for the last thirty years, bored with the grasping hand. With a bolt of pure insight, he realised that he was missing the show.

Anjuna Market isn’t about the stalls, the endless entreaties, the tawdry commerce at all. It’s a great religious parade of the faithful, all drawn to the flickering promise of the Great God Goa, people from all over the world, a tumbling mass of tourists in what they imagine is an exotic location – and, if you live in Vladivostok it probably is. That Goa happens to be in India is an irrelevancy. Goa happens to be in the sun.

In that great swirl around the market, paraded before his unbelieving eyes, was a cultural history of Euro-beachwear, a fashion parade of unique awfulness. The more astonishing the outfit, invariably, the less appropriate the wearer – like the legion of the ladies who shouldn’t – not in public, at least; tough mutton dressed up as sweet baby lamb. A floppy sun hat perched gaily over floppy flesh, a tiny bikini top dug into rather too generous shoulders; that G-string lost somewhere in rather too generous thighs, generous legs balanced on designer sandals squeezed over dainty, generous feet.

Blond Eastern European tourists in skimpy bathing costumes wandered down the road, their voluminous flesh imprinted with the sunburnt impressions of the clothes they’d worn the day before. Lard in lycra blithely strolling through the crowd, shrivelled vitals wrapped in tiny bathers, a loose flowing shirt parted in the middle by a great white gut, exposed to the sun for the first time since its owner last took a bath.

A tall blonde Russian girl tottered along the dirt path in gold high heels: young, beautiful, slim: a lass who had contrived, in her search for the ultimate fashion, to make herself look for all the world like a drag queen hooker. Her hands were heavy with Russian bling, her eyes heavy with the aftermath of last night’s drugs. Long Russian legs climbed higher and higher, stopping traffic in their wake, culminating in the tiniest, flimsiest mini-skirt that slid up her body coming to a halt just above her nipples. The only thing that prevented young Indian men from ejaculating on the spot was the two shoelaces that held the whole contraption up.

A fart of two of ferals sprouted along the trail, way too cool to buy anything, way too stoned to try, lounging in the shade looking as if they had taken root. I was struck by the excess of dreadlocks everywhere, puzzled by this sudden onslaught of Rastafarianism in Goa, only to stumble across one gormless thing sitting cross-legged in a stall having fake ones attached. Long thin fuzzy sausages made of sheep’s dags were being threaded carefully into her own perfectly nice brown hair. Ribbons and dingle dangles could then be surgically attached to these fat dangling rat’s tails to produce an effect not unlike a hairy gay octopus stuck upside down on her head.

This then explained all the bald young ladies I noticed on my wanders – I’d imagined they shaved their skulls in a fit of religious fervour, were wandering past me with that ‘perfect’ look on their Joan of Ark faces heading for meditation class – but, actually, they just couldn’t get rid of those terrible dreadlocks any other way.

The Church of the Immaculate Misconception gathered for Mass; a flood of freaks, geeks and the desperately ordinary, all drawn to the great idea of Goa, paying their yearly pilgrimage to sun, sand and sex, unaware they also pay homage to the free-thinkers, smokers and jokers that came here all those years and all those joints ago. Package homage to a myth that exists no longer, eaten away by the death of thousand cuts, a thousand greedy men and a thousand-thousand wide eyed wanderers, each of whom sucked at that ragged counter-cultural teat till it was dry.

Now the church had a new Patron saint. Had they marched a life-size plaster statue of Scarlett Keeling down the main road, hands clasped in prayer, hair still matted from the sea, clothing ripped, her mouth frozen open in one last silent scream –  nobody would have turned a hair.

The martyr of Goa was soon forgotten. It was her, not them, in the morgue.

The staff at the Panjim Inn grew friendlier by the day. After the affair of the light-bulb we’d bonded. They’d seem my willy, after all – there weren’t many other big secrets. Mr. Dogster was an easy guest, non-threatening, undemanding, rather elderly to their youthful eyes – they gradually adopted him, called him ‘Uncle’ or ‘Papa’. He’d wander out with a salute, come back after his morning shave and a coffee in town, head over to his favourite lunchtime restaurant, drink a large brown bottle of Kingfisher beer then reel back for a joint mid-afternoon.

They had no idea ‘Papa’ was self-medicating in Room Four, no idea that the Manali hashish and kind ‘Uncle Dog’ were making close acquaintance up there on the balcony. Perhaps then they might have thought that my benign smile and occasional confusion had a less profound cause.

‘Always happy Papa, always smiling,’ the lad at reception said as he took my key. ‘You are a very handsome man.’

Even the Patron started to talk. He was the kind of man who could not be approached. Little by little, day by day he warmed to me – and I to him. Every day at breakfast he’d drop by for conversation. We discussed the news, the ubiquitous Scarlett Keeling case, the ways of this Goan world – two old guys with quite a bit of wisdom between us, one way or another. We were straight with each other, as guys like us tend to be. No need for bullshit – anymore.

‘There is no Goa,’ he said one morning, waving one arm out expansively. ‘Goa is a thousand little Goa’s.’ He was warming to his topic. ‘Panjim isn’t Goa – nor is Calangute.  Anjuna’s just a strip of sand with a dead tourist, that’s not Goa. Everybody talks about Goa this, Goa that – but there’s no such thing, my friend.’

He was talking back through time.

‘Wherever you settled, wherever you laid your pack, wherever you sat and smoked and talked – that was your Goa. They didn’t come for the beaches,’ he said, ‘think back. They never went near a beach – they were too busy getting stoned in their hut.’

That physical culture, the beach culture was nowhere in sight on the Hippie Trail – this was packs of emaciated youth stumbling from place to place – everything was in the mind, the spirit and, it has to be said, the genitalia. Body culture, rippling muscle, gyms and physical vanity on such an epic scale, the verb ‘to party’ – all came later.

‘They came for the drugs,’ the Patron growled, ‘and cheap liquor. Oh,’ he added as an afterthought, ‘a place where they could screw each other more or less in private. Remember those times?’

I did. The Hippie Trail branched after Kashmir – one path continued across the North, through Varanasi and Kathmandu – heading for the Golden Triangle, down to Bali then ultimately Australia; the other trailed down South in search of palm trees – and cheap drugs. As India got narrower and smaller, as they got to the pointy end, some of them clearly just got too confused to continue. As the land ran out – so did their capacity to go any further – so they sat under their palm tree and stayed.

‘This girl, look at her, this Scarlett,’ he was pointing to the Times of India, ‘look at this, look…’ he read out, ‘she died with a deadly cocktail of alcohol, cocaine and morphine in her blood.’

Two big brown eyes looked over at me.

‘Pftwahhh. She was fourteen. Where was her mother?’

All of India and most of Europe were asking that.

‘That’s been going on for twenty years,’ he said, ‘dead tourists. Happens all the time.’

The Times of India had counted one hundred and twenty six of them in Goa in the last two years.

‘Nobody cares – they only care about this one, this stupid Scarlett girl.’

This is a clear case of murder and it has gone out of proportion because the police tried to cover it up,’ Goa’s Tourism Minister had told Reuters the day before.

‘So it’s all covered up – so what? That’s normal,’ he shrugged, ‘nobody wants to know.’

‘Why cover it up? Who makes money out of covering it up?’

He leant forward over the table.

‘Without the tourists we die. This I know.’

*

One morning, late in our acquaintance, he gently enquired about my life. Up until then he’d respected my privacy – and I his. We knew to take it slow.

‘So,’ he said gently, ‘where is your family…’

It’s the inevitable question – in India a solo traveller is still a bit of an oddity – a self-contained, seemingly content, benign and apparently friendly older one, ‘always happy, always smiling’ – even more so.

I looked at him over my glasses and shrugged.

‘They’re all dead, my friend.’

He nodded and smiled – then his eyes filled with tears.

We didn’t talk for a while. He’d been there too.

Outside, the black dog sat in his corner.

‘Aahaha-haha-haha-ha-ha,’ he panted.

He looked like he was smiling – just like Goa.

Just like Goa, he was not.

*

On my last day the Patron strolled over.

‘I’m sorry to see you go. You’ve been a good guest.’

Praise indeed, from the man who’d seen it all.

‘Take this,’ he said gently and produced a beautiful little miniature painted on a thin strip of marble, about the size of a small postcard.

On it, draped in a pink, blue and orange sari, stands a gentle young woman holding a lute. She’s holding out one hand to the peacock hovering behind her, an expression of absolute peace on her face. In the background a blossoming tree, a clear blue sky.

Saint Scarlett Keating. Could’ve been, should’ve been – never was.

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

Humidity reaches a certain point, moisture gets between the bulb and the socket.

‘Bam! It explodes.’

Scarlett Keating’s legacy lay all around us, shards of glass in the sand, shattered into a thousand pieces from one end of Goa to the other. They’ll always be picking a piece of Scarlett out of their newly bloodied foot. She’ll be there till the next one self-destructs and the next one after that – collateral damage to the real Gods of Goa; self-indulgence, ignorance and greed.

We shook hands.

‘Come back,’ he said simply.

Outside the black dog yawned and stretched.

Nah, I thought.

Nah.

*

COME TO MUMBAI

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