I can’t quite remember the first time I experienced Goa. It was probably in the 1980s. Goa had just about come out of Portuguese rule, and many homes were deserted. The roads were kuccha (unpaved), the electricity intermittent, water had to be drawn from a well, and my village was dark and deserted by sundown.
It was not a comfortable time, yet people seemed content. Our ancestral village is in north Goa, called Colvale (now famous for being the home of the late designer Wendell Rodricks). There were no trains or planes to Goa at the time, and we had to make the journey by bus. Non-air-conditioned buses, with non-reclining seats. Even today, public transport inside Goa is not the best.
I remember being annoyed by this so-called ‘pilgrimage to my native place’, forced upon a ten-year-old me during my summer vacations. Time that I would have otherwise spent in
Mumbai with my friends would now have to be dedicated to my parents and family I hardly knew.
The ancestral home was my great-grandad Chagas’s home, and lore has it that he spent a great deal of time working in Mozambique with the Portuguese. So he was known in the village as ‘moshmikar’ (a term given to Goans who worked in Mozambique). Incidentally, a man named Joao Chagas was the Portuguese prime minister in the year 1911. I don’t know if my great-grandad was related to him or if they just shared a last name. Probably the latter.
The ancestral house had quaint stone seating on the porch, popularly known as balcão, a sal (hall), living room, storage room (where all the pickled goodies, rice, coconuts and jaggery were kept), a few bedrooms and a kitchen that led to a backyard filled with trees. But the best part of the house was that one of the windows overlooked the well.
Almost every Goan home has a well and, for reasons best known to my great-grandad, in this house, the well was attached to a wall near the kitchen with the window overlooking it. This is significant because of what happened one day.
It was a hot, boring afternoon and all the elders in the house—my parents, my aunt and uncle and my nana—were enjoying their afternoon nap. But not my sister and me—two children who would just not keep quiet, much to the annoyance of my mom. Angry with us, like most moms, she ran towards us with a cane (my uncle had one), and I thought it would be a great idea to jump out of the window and escape into the trees in the backyard. If it were not for the timely intervention of my mom, I would have fallen straight into the well that day! This was the same well we would draw water from to cook and have baths. I learnt the simple joy of filling a pot of water and drawing it up all by myself early on.
Such Goan experiences are part of my memories, from plucking cashews—eating the sour fruit and roasting the nuts, to waiting for a bus for two whole hours just to go grocery shopping to the Friday market in Mapusa.
Over the years, I added more adventures to my memories, from taking a boat down the Chapora River only to drink toddy, to watching mango seeds dry while making sure no birds came to steal them.
Even though I lived in Mumbai, the Goan art of contentment firmly took root in me, and my regular visits to Colvale only helped it grow. Over the years, I’ve realized that cultivating the susegad spirit is a constant work in progress.
I’ve kind of put my finger on the different aspects of susegad and consciously taken steps to make it a part of my daily life. I’m going to try and tell you what I’ve learnt of this seemingly
magical, hard-to-pin-down quality and, over the course of this book, help you become susegad in your own life. It’s not magic, but I promise some of the Goan ways of life are superfun. So, yay!
Susegad comes from the Portuguese word ‘sossagado’, literally meaning ‘quiet’. When irritated, Goans will often say in Konkani, ‘Maka suseg di’ (Give me peace or quietness). This need for ‘quietness’ is actually associated with a yearning for ‘peace and satisfaction’. Many Goans place these above all else. And more power to them for doing so!
One can’t say for sure when it was that the susegad spirit entered the state of Goa. Did some of it seep into the land over centuries when it was called ‘Gove’, sometime during the seventeenth century? Was it being meditated on when the Buddhist monks lived here a thousand years ago in the tenth century? Or did some of it sail in with Vasco da Gama when he landed in Goa in 1524?
All of the above is probably true. The fact is, Goa has evolved into something unique and has become the global magnet of picture-postcard contentment.
To understand the magical parts of susegad, I think it’s important to take a look at the potion. And the more I think about it, I’m sure three ingredients play a major part in it…. Climate, culture, and habits.
If you had to open Maps on your phone and look for Goa, you’d find that it’s situated 15 degrees north and 74 degrees east. And since you’re not Vasco da Gama, that means little to you! Except for the fact that this location gives it the distinct advantage of 160 km of beachfront spread across 300 km. On the west side, the vast Arabian Sea; on the other, the tropical forest of the Sahyadri Ghats.
The weather in Goa is mostly sunny and often humid. Summers are balmy. That’s code for ‘you’ll be soaked in sweat’. You might be wondering why this sounds like a geography
lesson and what it has to do with susegad, but ask any Goan and they will tell you it is everything.
The environment rules our moods and our feelings. Throughout the day, no matter where you are in Goa, you can feel a warm sea breeze on your face, which also blows through the rich tropical biodiversity that covers half of its geographical area.
Goans have learnt to live with sea breeze on one side and a tropical forest on the other. A lot of the state’s delicious food and resources are to be found within the valleys of its mountains or the shores of its seas….
When Indian Hindu culture melded with that of the Portuguese Catholic, there was the possibility of strife and tension, and indeed there was quite a bit of both. But over
time, the natives settled and embraced these differences and today, that has filtered down to the way people approach situations, challenges and day-to-day life.
The language is a lilting mix of Konkani and Portuguese, wherein phrases are made up of both languages. Goan cuisine too is a melting pot of native styles mixed with Portuguese and other colonial influences.
Goa learnt that, to find peace, it is necessary to embrace differences. The susegad spirit also arises from this intercontinental cultural marriage.
Goans have made susegad habits a part of their everyday life. It’s an automatic system, from the little things like buying poee (bread) in the morning to taking a siesta in the afternoon.
Habits that contribute to a susegad frame of mind arise from a combination of culture and climate. Goans have respect for the environment and recognize the role that it plays in their happiness, satisfaction and lifestyle.
You’ll find that most of the people who live in Goa are super aware of the weather and climate, whether it is a sultry summer day or a rainy afternoon in the fierce monsoon.
For example, before the monsoon, Goans will be seen drying the popular fish bombil or ‘Bombay Duck’ so that they have enough stock to last during the monsoon, especially when fishermen can’t go out to sea and bring in a catch every day. This tender fish, when fried to a crisp, is a staple side dish with xitt (rice, pronounced ‘sheet’) and kodi (curry). In summertime, Goans will have harvested cashews and distilled their first batch of urrak—a light alcoholic beverage that cools the body in the humid summers.
The humid climate of Goa makes one sluggish in the afternoons, and this is why you will find that Goans choose to have a daily siesta in the afternoon. The common misconception that this has given rise to is that the people of Goa are lazy. Rather, they are conscious of nature and the impact it has on their bodies. It’s tough to work in the high heat and humidity of the afternoon, so they choose to rest and resume activities later in the evening.
But these habits and activities are so integral to the lifestyle of Goans that it doesn’t feel like a task or something that must be done each day. Instead, it is a way of life; rituals they’ve integrated so deeply into their lives that they hardly notice them. Which is why, if you ask Goans what’s the secret to their susegad, they’ll wave it off by saying, ‘It’s just our style, men.’
Excerpted with permission from Susegad: The Goan Art of Contentment to be published by Penguin Random House India on 22 February.