The first time I read about Palolem was in an article written by Frederick Noronha in a travel book brought out by the Outlook group back in '08. It seemed fascinating, I asked my mother who hails from Goa if she had heard of it, she told me that she hadn't. It seemed puzzling to me, so I asked her if she had heard about Cancona. And that seemed to work, she recalled her time spent at her Aunt's house in Cancona when she was quite young. She spoke very fondly of her aunt, who wasn't related to her but was a neighbour while they lived in Mahim. But as it is with most neighbours, she was as good as a close relative. Years passed and she eventually moved to Ulhasnagar and from there to Cancona where she ran a small eatery. Mom fished out two photos of her, one taken at her home while the other taken at Mallikarjun Temple. Rajani Naik, a plump, jolly looking woman smiled at me. She had a exuberant smile and I wondered if I would ever meet her.
Last year, in November just before heading on an impromptu visit to Palolem I decided to locate the Naik family. I had photographs, their full names and some very vague directions to their house from the bus stand at Cancona. Nevertheless, by habit I ran a google search and I was surprised to see her name in a PDF file listing beneficiaries of a house renovation scheme of the Goan State government. It also contained her full address and the name of the locality - Chawadi. I was very eager on making this trip now, apart from the beach itself, this trip had acquired a new meaning.
That Saturday afternoon, after some very poor Goan pulao at one of the shacks I hired an auto to go to Chawadi. At the auto stand, I began my enquiry. I approached two pilots standing there with their bikes, I asked them about the Naik's and one of them seemed to know her. I showed them the photographs and he quite blatantly stated that she was bed ridden, very ill and would pass away any moment. He offered to take me there for Rs. 30 since it was 3km away from the auto stand. I hesitated, doubting his recognition. I enquired about her son and he seemed to recognise him too. He directed me to the eatery that wasn't too far away. The Khanaval or as an eatery is locally known was located in a small lane, just off the main market road. A ramshackle structure, complete with red tiled roof. Inside there was a small eating hall with plastic tables and a smaller kitchen from which wafted the smell of fried fish. I entered and approached the man frying fish, he was her elder son, S. I recognized him from the photo. I quickly introduced myself and showed him the photographs. He was elated, he remembered my mother's vacation there. He must've been a child back then but remembered everybody quite fondly.
The Goan hospitality soon kicked in and I was ushered to the nearest table and a fish thali was quickly laid out in front of me. It was simple but delectable food, very reminiscent of my grandma's cooking. A welcome change from the tasteless, expensive food served at the shacks back at the beach. My companions for the meal was an eclectic mix of professionals. Bank officials, Insurance agents, traders and even the local Postman was present. I wiped my plate clean and her son, S offered to take me to their home. In a few moments we were zipping across grasslands and fields, drongos flitted about on wires as we made our way through the typical Goan countryside. We pulled in front of the house, made of brick and a corrugated tin roof. He led me inside and we turned to the right, into a small room with pink walls. A marathi dance competition played on the 14 inch CRT, an old fan whirred overhead and on the small cot lay a frail old lady.
S, tried to explain to his mother who I was.. It took her a few moments and eventually she remembered my mother, her siblings and Mahim. S returned to the eatery to clean up and promised to meet me later. Rajani aaji(Grandma) enquired about the other siblings and explained how she had ended up like this. She had fallen down on her tailbone six months ago, to relieve her pain they saw a doctor. The doctor saw nothing but a minor injury and recommended rest and iodex. The injury was far more serious than what the doctor diagnosed. In a few months, they realised that water had formed near her spine. Sooner, she lost mobility in both her legs and she was bed ridden. Her appetite dropped and she lost weight rapidly, from her plump figure she had reduced to only skin and bones. Wrinkled flesh hung from her arms and she was completely immobile, below the waist. Her eyes welled up with tears as she recounted her story. She spoke in a slow, tired voice but she was absolutely coherent. We spoke about a lot of things, of her life and times in Bombay, her move to Goa, the death of her younger son, of the vacation that my mom had spent there. She explained sadly that she had to wear diapers, and the room had to be sanitised regularly. It did smell like a hospital ward but it did not bother me. I held her hand while she spoke.
She had stopped eating completely and her diet largely consisted of water and some juices. We both marvelled at how we had ended up meeting after all these years and how computers were such a wonder. She told me that she was exhausted of living and she just wanted to close her eyes and sleep peacefully. I assured her that she would get well very soon and be walking about. But we both knew that it wasn't going to be so. It was incredible how close I felt to her, someone whom I had never met but had only heard of. We seemed like old friends, sharing stories of our lives with each other, catching up as they say. I updated her on all the recent happenings related to my mother’s siblings, the passing away of my grandfather and other such details. After what seemed like almost an hour, we sat for a few moments in silence and watched kids perform a mix of hiphop and bollywood dance moves on the TV. Her daughter in law served me tea and I drank in silence.
Just after tea, I bade farewell and decided against taking her photograph as I had initially planned in order to show it to my mother. I didn't want her to see her favourite aunt like this. A passing biker gave me a lift upto Chawadi and S greeted me with a pack of cashewnuts. He asked me to visit again and told me that I now had family back in Cancona, so I could count on them when in Goa. He dropped me back to Palolem, another 3 km away. We exchanged numbers and promised to meet again. As I walked back to my beach hut, I couldn't stop thinking about the past few hours. How many memories I was taking with me, how incredible it all had been. I really hoped that she would get well soon.
On reaching Bombay, I passed on his number to my mother and my aunt. They rang him up after a few days and he informed them that Rajani aaji passed away on Wednesday. We were mildly shocked at the turn of events, but also quite relieved. Her suffering had ended and she was free. The entire meeting seemed all a matter of chance, had I gone there the weekend after, I might have never met her, she would’ve always remained a legend to me. She wouldn’t have known that my mother still remembered her fondly and her memories were cherished, even after all these years. For me, it was another lesson that travel had taught me. It was important to reach out to the people who once meant something to you, and had drifted away over time for some reason or the other, it didn't matter how far they were. You just have to make that trip, before it is too late.