AND SO, to Sinbad’s lair. The cocaine whores are already there when I arrive. Sinbad likes cocaine whores: boys and girls; and if they come by, in-betweens. Having them around fills his sails. It’s a sickle moon tonight, and sickly, captured by streamers of cloud. Even with the moon largeand luminous, free in the sky, there is a curious space between the wrought iron gate and the verandah. This is a walk of only a dozen steps, a chessboard of velvet grass and granite that keeps at bay tentative rushes of palm, hibiscus and bird of paradise. Here, the light from the sharp gate lamps and bright rainbow souk-lanterns on the balcony, the laughter of the whores, the chink of glasses touching or the urgent sound of one breaking, are all muted.
The place eats up sound and light, this moat-avenue. It exudes a collective
threat, as if a wall would rise to block progress were anyone to arrive or leave with bad intention.
So far, the place has let me pass, even as it knows of the death I carry in my heart. A mystery.
I told Sinbad as much some weeks back when I had gone to invite him for a modest concert at the Clube Vasco in Panjim, the event a decoration in my life that old comrades occasionally try to make less than empty. We were in the heart of Sinbad’s lair. A vast open space of undulating gardens and waterways serenaded on one side the rooms of the main residence, a low adobe and stone castle. An entertainment and dining area stood on an adjacent axis, a holding pen for all except the most favoured visitors.
Sinbad had looked politely at me for long seconds as we stood on a verandah outside the dining area. And then he was gone, with a pat on my shoulder and an entreaty to stay a while to drink, as though it never occurred to him anyone would decline. He was habitually dressed in a white linen shirt and trousers and Mediterranean rope sandals, a flute of champagne in one hand, the other kneading the sarongclad back of his newest muse. This olive child-woman had for a while, so Sinbad claimed, stoked the fires at a pizzeria in some backpacker den in Manali.
“Had to do the owner because she lived there,” Sinbad told me in his peculiar manner the same evening, dispensing with some words as if these only impeded communication, deleted time. “Greedy bastard. Got tired of doing him. Travelled around. Found her way to me. Welcome here. Everyone is.” In scant months elevated from waif to lady of the house, she now makes certain Sinbad’s guests are fulfilled as they sail with him.
On nights such as tonight, she will make certain no hand or desire is empty, aperitif like wine, the whores, and silver snuff boxes with their chemical dreams only a glance away. She will make certain the little pool by the sit-out at the back, where I serenade Sinbad’s guests, the pool that lives by water pissed from the sandstone mouth of some species of Sun God, is full. The water will carry jasmine and rose petals and floating candles. Some reveler will try to drown in it, his belly full of tofu and asparagus canapé and nose full of some crystal.
Hail Sinbad, the sultan of good times.
There will be much singing tonight. It’s the child-woman’s annual coming of age. It’s why I’m here, Sinbad’s bard.
The whores take shape and colour as I approach the verandah. They are huddled on giant cushions in a corner to the right, grouped together like lost children, wreathed in perfume and exotic weed and sex. A few warble once-fashionable songs of lost American dreams as if, even in tragedy, American dreams are supreme. Their blood and lives are so travelled and mingled it is appropriate they are here, this place that welcomes all who come in peace and commerce: Sinbad’s willing sailors.
Fluorescent Shiva, Ganesh, and Che and the eternal Rastafarian, other Gods of the forsaken, grace the whores. There is a profusion of silver and lapis strings and bracelets, ballooning pants or sarong, glitter and peacock feather, and slippers of softest kid and camel hide in colours of the rainbow.
We decorate Sinbad’s lair. The whores. The child-woman. Me. The Mexican Made-in-China skeleton wearing a sombrero, poncho and guitar perched above the kitchen worktable, Sinbad filling a tiny glass with choicest tequila at sunset for it: every day is All Soul’s Day. Alternating stark cubist paintings and lush jungle scenes that offset the grand ebony table in the dining area. The lightest breeze that is captured to meander through the rooms. Here, we all have our place, our bidding.
This palace has a name: Esperança, hope. To diminish the cruelty of it, in jest I instead call it Casa de Zorro, the House of Zorro, all the better to expect in each mysterious shadow a cape, under every arch a mask, in each metallic sound against stone premonition of a drawn sword.
Here, everything is in harmonious battle, I once told Sinbad.
That earned me an embrace. I knew then the poison had taken to me.
“What will you sing for me?” Sinbad’s child-woman asks, touching the guitar case that sits beside me. What can I tell her? This whore, this princess? That she must at once forsake her lover, her keeper, her trader?
And walk this broken land with me? It is too early for me to sing, I finally tell the child-woman. She smiles, this gift with malachite eyes and hair of dark plaited vine. I tell her when everyone is gone, even Sinbad to his chambers, perhaps waiting for her, perhaps not, I will sing for her whatever she commands me.
We are Sinbad’s own, her lingering glance seems to tell me. We love him as we despise him. He is ours, and we are his. She kisses me on the lips gently and without pity.
Let the whores makes their music any way they wish. I know what I will sing when Sinbad’s fellow mariners arrive, these owners of the land, owners of the people, owners of all the power. They will come from wherever Sinbad traded, and that is everywhere. And among them will be the Thief of Goa.
I will sing to them about my village, Socorro Do Mundo. Succour of the world. I will sing about my land. And I will sing about love.
As we journey, rage will threaten me. I know that too. As I sing with more passion, they will look at me, these thieves, toasting my songs, when all I want to do is destroy them in an instant, me and all the gods come alive and vengeful, Shiva, Ganesh, Che and the Rastafarian, risen from every bosom to strike.
There will be tears in my eyes — I know that too. They will not know why a grown man cries. No matter: there will be applause. There always is.
Sinbad and I met as sailors sometimes do, in unlikely places. And so, likely places.
I had entered Bar Manuel, my refuge after battling the day. It had just ended, after an evening of vigil with a hundred others — maybe two hundred, the light after sunset can be a misleading light, and streetlamps only add to confusion.
I HAD LED us. We had travelled by Nini Braganza’s buses to Panjim, and gathered in front of the palace of the Thief of Goa. Our voices were soon hoarse from singing we-shall-overcome, and hands singed with candle wax. I wanted the candle to burn right down to the end, as if by feeling pain I would understand the pain of others who lay broken and bruised, even old men, women, and children, their lives and homes interrupted on account of battling this thief we had all sent on to rule us, not knowing how much he would steal, not knowing he would sell our land and our futures to those who pay ever higher, as if this beautiful mongrel speck on a mongrel subcontinent had everlasting supplies of both.
I wanted to break through the barrier of the thief’s policemen, kill the thief, burn down his palace, put his fattened family back on the streets, reduce them to thinness and beggary. I wanted to protect our children from him — them. I wanted so much. The thief had come out to his balcony, a level up from the street, bathed in our candlelight. He had smiled and invited us all in. It was a cold night, he said. What was his was ours, he said, and we were welcome to it. He had laughed as he said it, with the natural grace of a false prophet. He even used a formal Portuguese phrase, Minha casa é sua casa, as if this would preach his civility to those of us who sought in that language a fading history of regard. We disbanded after desultory curses and sighs, unsure of what to do next, where to go. Homeless. Lost. And so, we were taught civilisation by a thief.
SINBAD WAS there like he had always belonged, seated alone at the corner table at the Bar Manuel, my regular table. It was bracketed on one side by a large piece of driftwood from which were suspended small plastic packets of salted peanuts and gram. On the other, we were serenaded by a plump nymph on a calendar selling some forgotten alcohol and celebrating some forgotten year, her nakedness the only reminder of time and place.Sinbad looked like he owned her.
His near-white clothing lit up now and again with the fairy lights that decorated infant Jesus, watching over the world from a perch by Edwin the patrão. Sinbad invited me as if it was a most natural act. He was bereft of any ornament, even a watch, a chain around his neck. I remember that. I remember too his impassive face, shoulder-length silver hair tied with blue string, the arched dark brows, trim dark beard. A startling pirate’s mask, but somehow gentle, bereft of threat.
Our meeting must have been a coincidence. Even now, after I have seen and heard so much, I refuse to believe otherwise.
I didn’t know his name then. It was strange to so easily unburden myself to this stranger, my enemy, who presented me drink after drink, gently waving Edwin away whenever he intervened with nervous laughter, also waving away my consciousness that wondered, weakly, how he could address me by name when I had not offered an introduction.
“Mr Sinbad now lives in our village,” Edwin said finally, managing to sidle up after a while, whispering to me so all could hear. “Mr Sinbad is a very important man.” “No more important than you,” Sinbad replied graciously, but without looking at Edwin.
I was quite shaken. “Where are you from?” I finally managed after a long silence. “Does it matter?” he said. “I am here.” “Why are you called Sinbad?” He looked surprised, as if nobody had ever asked him that question. He shrugged it away. “Sing,” he said, gently, pointing to my guitar case, speaking as to an equal, never demanding. “Sing, please.” That night, I sang for him, and for me. Soon, it didn’t matter for whom and for what.
I sang about the green of our land, and the red that stains it. I sang about thieves who come to our shores to loot and pillage, with the help of mercenaries among us. Through it all, Sinbad smiled his patient smile. In the end, in desperation, I sang about love.
My father had taught me some of these songs. Others I learned along the way from other minstrels, who are grief-mutes, like me, until they begin to sing. Other songs I made up on days when I thought I would wither if I didn’t take to music.
I told him about the Thief of Goa. He smiled. I told him about our battle. Sinbad’s smile didn’t waver.
Enraged, eager to destroy his composure, I dragged him to his feet, unmindful of Edwin’s protest at manhandling this god, instead surprised that a person I had expected to be a giant was no taller than me. I led Sinbad out, and he came easily. I took him past Bar Manuel, past the groceries preparing to close, past the quieting tinto, past the abandoned chapel to the slim bridge from where we could look far.
THE BACKWATERS snaked towards the river, and soon the ocean, beyond our line of sight but within our hearing. The world was about us: stars, faint smell of hay, a whiff of the day’s fish, a voice suddenly raised or hushed in the homes spread out along the slope of the hill and down to the water’s edge, temple bells. We were for this time beyond the capture of postcards, beyond the lure and the leers of a packaged paradise that now touched our little village.
See, I told the man who owned the Thief of Goa, you don’t need much reason to do battle.
I took him then to where I sometime took my meals, Sameer’s tiny hovel with a single bare plank of wood between two slimmer planks serving as seats, and fed him, unresisting, a simple meal of red rice, fried rockfish, and a curry of okra and coconut. I remember that, and how easily he scooped the food with his hands, defeating my stratagem of discomfiting him; a pirate of his stature, I had thought in delirium, can only be made to feel naked in unsuspecting ways.
This is what we fight for, I said again, as Sameer quietly led us out. His family was preparing for sleep in the tiny space behind the curtain that shielded his life from us. We washed our hands in the water Sameer poured from a cracked plastic jug. How can you ever know? I suddenly screamed at Sinbad.
Then my strength gave out.
A gentleman, Sinbad reached me home in his black chariot, all cool air and soundless glide and nearly too big for the lane to my empty home, a home for castaways, little in it except past lives and vast spaces of wishful thinking. And my anger. Always, anger. Sinbad took it all in as he sat behind the wheel. He said we should meet again; and I agreed. I couldn’t deny him, not that I wanted to by then. I wanted to peel Sinbad, wanted mastery of his soul, ownership of the force that made such a man work; the man behind the Thief of Goa, they all said, a thief to surpass all thievery. The world travels through portals he owns, they said. Sinbad is the purveyor of all dreams, they said, all pleasure. I was fascinated: pope of pillage had overrun us.
That’s what I called Sinbad then. The Pope of Pillage. Sinbad laughed out loud, as I stood at the gate, deathly tired. He seemed in no hurry to leave. The two tiny plaster soldiers perched on the wall on either side of the gate, wearing twirled moustaches and skewed bush hats, looked resolutely bewildered, as if they would rather not answer for what went on around them. Their silence was nearly a taunt: If you make it, so be it. Sinbad took a hand off the wheel to wave it in a short chopping motion. “Had to meet you before you met me.” “Bastard.” “That too,” he smiled. “Some day,” I recall telling Sinbad, trying to focus at the centre of his brows as his face shifted in front of my eyes. “Some day, we will come to your place too. We will light candles, we will sing songs, and destroy you — I promise you.” “I will wait,” he said, still smiling. “My house is your house.”
Sudeep Chakravarti (born 1963) is the author of the bestselling debut novel Tin Fish, published in 2005. He has since had two more works published, both in 2008. Red Sun — Travels in Naxalite Country, a work of narrative non-fiction, is a critically acclaimed bestseller. Once Upon a Time in Aparanta is a satire set in the churn of present-day Goa. Chakravarti is also a columnist, professional futurist, and consultant to media. He lives in Goa, where he is engaged in writing his third novel, a second work of non-fiction, and setting up a marine conservation initiative. This is his first short story.