One grey February day in 1998, I faced a paradox. I was in New York’s MoMA, my first visit there, and my vision was adapting uncertainly to its shifts of space and colour. It was 4 pm. I noticed the time because that’s what it was all about. A moment ago I was standing in the aqueous shimmer of Monet’s Water Lilies. In their pale light, the world had a muted iridescence. When I emerged, it might be to find a new planet waiting, shiny and luxurious. That was the moment before. Then abruptly, everything was extinguished, everything else had disappeared but this.
This was unexpected. I had seen it a million times before, but never quite like this. I had expected it to be huge. It was small (24 cm x 33 cm). I had seen it as a fantasy, now it was the only tangible reality in the room. Earlier, its palette had seemed banal. Now, on walls awash with affectation, its hues were honest as my eye. In the midst of flux, it was permanence. And this was the paradox: this was Dali’s iconic Persistence of Memory.
I hadn’t understood the painting till this moment when I confronted its simplicity for real. The melting watches dissolved the moment. The rush of life evaded it, and moved instead towards the tranquil horizon, the permanence of sky, water, land.
I looked at my wristwatch, the mean ambit of its hours, and recognised how fallacious was its construct of time.
Back in Bombay I walked familiar streets, stood in familiar places, listened to familiar tones, and all I heard was the ticking of that darn watch. I began to look for the permanence that Dali had painted on the horizon—land, water, sky. How could I find that in a landscape that morphed and mutated faster than viral DNA?
The trick was in the twist of time. The city was a Moebius strip. Its memory surfaced at every street corner. All I had to do was look for it. Naturally, I couldn’t do this alone. I needed memories. Other people’s memories. I needed to travel through those memories and match them against what confronted me. Would I see what they had seen? Had they really seen this?
I couldn’t use just anybody’s memory. I needed the memory of people who had walked these streets with a sense of arrival and discovery, of people who found the banal curious. Visitors. Time travellers. Storytellers. They who had actually been here.
‘The said lands are called Manora. They include, in one part, an island called Salsette where there are two pagodas or houses of idolatry under ground. One is under a very lofty hill built of stones in greater quantity than in the fortress of Diu, and which may be compared, in Portugal, with a town of four hundred houses. This hill has a grand ascent, and on arriving at the hill it is found to be a great pagoda worked and cut within the rock, where the Friars of San Francisco afterwards built a church called San Miguel. There are many pagodas of stone on the ascent, and near the summit there are other stone houses with their chambers, and still higher are houses cut in the rock, and in them there is a tank or cistern of water, with pipes to lead down the rain water. Altogether, there must be three hundred houses, and all contain idols sculptured in stone. But they are very heavy and dark, as things made for worshipping the devil.’ (The 54th Colloquy, from Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India by Garcia da Orta; 1563)
Certainly, the best place to start was at the highest point. Kanheri, at 1,500 ft, represents the peak of the volcanic surge that makes up my island, and I see it as an undulation of lava domes. Hirsute with wiry tangles of weed, a few stalwart trees, but the bare rock showing through. The abandoned monastery has been a tourist attraction since Hseun-tsang wrote about it in the 7th century. But he is of little use to me. A Chinese or Arabian traveller is practically my second cousin, and cannot be trusted to tell tales out of school. I needed European voices that looked upon it as extraterrestrial, something alien to the world they knew. They’ve been here, and the world has listened to what they had to say.
Kanheri has been described with awe, admiration, terror, disgust—depending on the visitor’s degree of xenophobia. Vandals are challenged by it. A chiselled date commemorates a picnic in 1718, and there are recent cigarette burns on an Apsara’s thighs and pudendum. Antonio do Porto, who lived down the road from here in 1540, defaced as many ‘stone devils’ as he could, and ran the place as a chapel. Twenty years from now it might become a luxury spa. It will still survive, and standing here, it’s easy to see why.
The man who thought up Krishnagi- ri—architect, builder, labourer, priest—saw what still dominates the vision nearly two millennia later. A series of basalt domes, clustered like a city. Waterfalls became canals and drained into a river that formed a moat. It was all here, waiting. It had roofs, doorways, corridors, windows, but to get to them, he had to pick up his chisel and cut a path.
Here are those steps he carved. The fanciful balustrade, the effigies described by Hsuen-tsang, they are all gone except for a weathered lump with a faintly leonine cast. It’s back to being how it was in the beginning, a staircase leading—where? Nothing beyond is discernable, except emptiness and light.
Is that what the sculptor perceived as he cut a curve, made a new wrinkle in ancient stone, a fresh crease of memory, a fold of intelligence in the earth’s brain? It marked his path to escape or to light. He had made this journey clambering up the rock, relying on treacherous handholds of tufted weed. Not everybody could do it. So he made it easy for those who would follow, and cut this staircase into the rock. He had seen what lay beyond, but it had to be stated. These stairs are the text of the idea of Kanheri.
A little beyond this I encounter a square pit on the dome’s cheek. What could it possibly be but the abyss? I feel its centripetal tempt and dig my feet stubbornly into the sunlit grass. What did those monks experience in their descent?
Perhaps it was this very abyss that the spelunking evangeliser Antonio do Porto entered in 1540, lashed to a convenient pillar with strong rope. Legend has it that he walked for ten days and nights before surfacing. Couldn’t have been this cave, I realise five minutes later, but he did convert it into a church, as Garcia da Orta noted in 1563.
A century later, the Italian adventurer Niccolao Manucci lived in Bandra, down the road I walk to work. Today, there’s a bus depot at the site. Earlier, there was an abattoir, and before that, a Jesuit seminary that extended its hospitality to this jaded rake. He was quizzed by the Inquisition at the Franciscan monastery Antonio do Porto established. Manucci, like Da Orta, was not humbled by these austere spaces. They were not on the mappa he carried in his brain, so it’s only fair that I pursue his map, the one drawn by his hosts. It takes me to another temple, which, in 1569, became a church.
The Church of St John the Evangelist is a ruin now, but in the careful embrace of the industrial complex of SEEPZ. Aban- doned more than a century ago, mass is still celebrated here once a year. At the entrance, the triple arch of the portico rests on pedestals that once upheld a temple. Baobabs have supplanted the sacred nyagrodha and peepal. Fallen stones make up rough pews. Saints have all fled their niches. The altar is vacant. And yet, in the silent dusk, the breeze says vespers, the walls still enclose a sacred space. The loosened stones have been soldered together again—this time, not by human hands. A ligneous web of peepal roots and a fibrous mesh of banyan support the very walls that uprooted them.
Just past this church is a road well travelled. It was the overland trade route to Bassein Creek in the north. Caravans passed through this village of Kondivti carrying goods from Balaghat as they wound their way to the planet’s floating emporium — the Indian Ocean. Today’s Kondivti is a bizarre maze of glass-skinned towers, the last place really, where you expect to find an ancient trade route. I walk chanting the magical names from The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, compiled in the first century by an unknown Greek: Barygaza, Sristhanaka, Kalliana, Cambaya …
I must be crazy. But here is a market place! Today is Saturday, and this is Shaniwar Bazar. I could have walked past without a second glance—the city is full of pavement bazaars—but a sharp breeze stung my eyes with dust. When I opened them again, I was bedazzled.
An old man tipped over his wares from a white polythene sack, and out toppled rainbows flashing gold. I dashed across the road for a closer look. Brocades, laces, tassels—embroidered with gold, encrusted with gems. Surely the loot Pliny grumbled about, the stuff Roman matrons wasted their money on. For certain, the fabled silks of Sristhanaka the Portuguese were still gushing about 1,500 years after their mention in the Periplus. Surely geegaws the Virgin Queen’s pirates laid at her feet, for she’s wearing them in Nicholas Hilliard’s miniatures. Bits of glass and plastic and tinsel, a little bit of gaiety for a cheap blouse or qameez.
There’s only one way to find out. After I’ve picked a fair selection, I ask Ramzan Ali, ‘Where do you get your goods from? How long have you been coming here to this bazaar?’
He laughs. ‘My family has sold zari here—for generations. My grandfather’s grandfather I know for certain, but maybe even his grandfather before him. Always, we bought our goods in Thana. There is no other place.’
I would have dismissed that if I hadn’t smelt the shrill scent of cloves. Just beyond Ramzan Ali was the spice bazaar.
Bhavnaben, who sold me excellent cinnamon, echoed Ramzan Ali’s story.
And where did she get her goods from?
Barygaza! Cambaya! There was no help for it. I had to go to the great depot of the Indian Ocean. I had to find my way to Diu.
The world coveted Diu. The trade of Cambaya was conducted through Diu. Here’s a list from Cesar Fredrici, the original Merchant of Venice, who was in India during the years 1563-81:
‘These barks are laden with all kinds of spices, with silks of China, sandal-wood, elephants’ teeth, velvets of Vercini, great quantities of Pannina, which comes from Mecca, chequins or gold coins worth 7s. each sterling, and various other commodities. These barks carry out an infinite quantity of cloth of all sorts made of bumbast or cotton, some white, others stamped or painted; large quantities of indigo, dried and preserved ginger, dry and confected myrabolans, boraso or borax in paste, vast quantities of sugar, cotton, opium, asafoetida, puchio and many other kinds of drugs, turbans made at Delhi, great quantities of carnelians, garnets, agates, jaspers, calcedonies, hematites or bloodstones, and some natural diamonds. ’
Everything shipped out of this little island that jutted like the point of the chin in Gujarat’s baggy jowl.
‘As long as you may be powerful at sea, you will hold India as yours; and if you do not possess this power, little will avail you a fortress on the shore,’ wrote Francisco de Almeida in 1509, shortly after he won the battle that allowed the Portuguese to control sea trade for the next two centuries. The Sultan of Gujarat had powerful allies—the Egyptian Mam- luk and the Ottoman Turks—and a contingent from the Zamorin at Kozhikode. The Portuguese had their new friends: four hundred Nairs from Cochin.
It seemed right then to begin my journey at Diu Fort, the site of this historic change. But the fort had nothing to do with that war: Francisco Almeida refused the Sultan’s kind offer. He had fought this battle to avenge the death of his son Lorenco at Chaul the previous year:
‘I the Viceroy say to you, honoured Meliqueaz, Captain of Diu, that I go with my knights to this city of yours, taking the people who were welcomed there, who in Chaul fought my people and killed a man who was called my son, and I come with hope in God of Heaven to take revenge on them and on those who assist them, and if I don’t find them I will take your city, to pay for everything, and you, for the help you have done at Chaul. This I tell you, so that you are well aware that I go, as I am now on this island of Bombay, as he will tell you the one who carries this letter. ’
Added to this formal missive were a couple of jibes:
‘He who ate the chick must also eat the rooster, or pay for it,’ and, directed at Malik Ayyaz, who was a eunuch, ‘watch how a man with balls can fight.’
The battle ended with Malik Ayyaz restoring the Portuguese prisoners taken at Chaul. As they stepped on board the Portuguese vessel, well fed and honoured with new clothes, Almeida responded. He had his prisoners, Egyptians, Turks and Gujaratis tied to the ship’s cannons and blown to smithereens. Others he hanged after disembowelling them, while his soldiers plundered, raped and burnt the city.
The story didn’t end there. Twenty-five years later, the Portuguese murdered Sultan Bahadur Shah after he had signed away the islands of Bombay to them, and built this fort, just in time for another, more brutal battle.
The Diu Fort’s story is really the story of a man who doesn’t appear in history books. He has no name, no nationality and no loyalties except to his own insatiable greed—not for power, for he was content to be a petty chief—but for money. The story of the European assault on India is neither that of Vasco da Gama nor Alfonso de Albuquerque, but that of an Italian mercenary history knows as Khoja Safar. By turn Italian, Egyptian, Turkish, Gujarati, temporarily Portu- guese, relapsed Egyptian and naturalised Gujarati, Khoja Safar arranged the fortunes of maritime powers according to his needs of the moment.
This fort was his idea, and I think I understand why. The rampart designed like a ship’s prow faces the land—shouldn’t it be facing the sea? It is a bulwark against Diu itself, from which it is separated by a deep moat. It is meant to defend the conqueror from his victims. I think I begin to understand Khoja Safar. This rampart is Portugal in India.
I left Diu Fort to walk on Ghogla beach, perhaps on the very stretch of sand where Khoja Safar bled to death in the Second Battle of Diu in 1548. As dusk enclosed the empty sands in purple and crimson, a spiral of smoke stained the horizon. I felt the tumult still as if I had arrived at the end of days. The arcs of sky and water met at last at this end of an empty land. Everything was silenced. The man I had come to see was dead. And paradoxically, through his eyes, I saw what it was like in the beginning.
In the beginning, as the ship lurched on the molten sea, all that was visible was this crescent. Two points would have been visible then, as they are now, on the forbidding rim of rock: a white dot, and a green one. A temple and a mosque. I was yet to understand this conjunction.
The next day, walking across the state line into Gujarat just beyond Ghogla, the smells of cooking and exhaust gave way to something stirring and ethereal. I breathed it in greedily.
I smelt roses, I smelt tulsi.
I followed the perfume, which inflamed as I neared a small enclosure with a green dome. The enchanting perfume came from its garden where small crimson roses blossomed in the midst of luxuriant tulsi.
The caretaker Rehmat Bibi was lighting agarbatti at the shrine. She smiled when I asked her how old the dargah was.
‘It’s always been here, and we’ve always looked after it.’
That was qualified in the next half an hour. Six hundred years, and they had records to prove it. Rehmat Bibi gave me rose cuttings and tulsi seeds for my window box at home. The temple next door also shared her flowers.
‘It has always been this way,’ she said.
The soil’s good here, her husband added. Push a stick down into the earth and it blossoms before you know. That seemed strange. I hadn’t particularly noticed the soil. What I had noticed was karst.
Karst is soda-pop rock. It is riddled with event—bubbles, streaks, ridges, holes. It is the conversation between limestone and seawater, and here on Diu, there’s an endless dialogue. Everything—coastline, promontory, fort, church, or the beautiful amphitheatre designed as memorial to INS Khukri where cleverly distorted curves synchronise with the rhythm of the land—everything is karst. On the steps of the amphitheatre, karst shows its spectrum, no less variegate than the iridescent necks of the pigeons that strut and preen along its arc.
Within the fort, in the open-air chapel, where perhaps the Portuguese gave thanks after battle, a square window lets in the sea.
A tiny speck rocks lazily on the blue. There’s nothing else in sight. If that boat sails due south past the curving horizon, its next landfall will be Antarctica. To the west lies Socotra, and beyond, the Horn of Africa. Antarctica has no presence here, but as I leave the fort, Socotra is all about me.
Diu’s signature hokka, the curious palm with the bifid trunk, is a native of Socotra. Its syrupy scent in the hot air brings back my childhood.
Here’s another paradox. The travellers—Italian, Portuguese, Dutch—who came this way, were all keen botanists. All of them came here by way of Socotra. Why did no one mention the hokka, the gingerbread tree? Called doum in Arabic for its branching trunk, its fibrous fruit is much prized in the Nile valley. And the tree itself is simply too beautiful to be overlooked.
Diu is full of churches, but very few of them date back to Khoja Safar’s time. Most were built in the early 1600s. When I get to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception on Christmas morning, I find an entire shoe shop on display in the courtyard.
Father Joe Perriera laughs. ‘My own congregation comes in shoes,’ he says, ‘but our Hindu and Muslim friends will only enter barefoot.’
I bypassed the chapel this morning. I had been invited to see the interior of the 400-year-old church. There was another, more modest entrance. I entered with a sense of being submerged. The blue and white walls with their lovely seashell cornices may have had something to do with that. There was also a shifting light I couldn’t explain till I noticed the door. Its wood, perforated with age, let in narrow beams to give that space the quality of a mirage. Two Rajdoot motorbikes parked beneath the seashell were strangely reassuring. I touched their cold metal to connect with the present—but not for long.
The stairs, dating back to 1604, and the silent pillared corridor all served to remind me of a time that began soon after Khoja Safar’s death. His mother in Ottranto apparently never stopped hoping that her son would shun the heathens and return home. It is lucky he died when he did. Had he lived a little longer, he might have shared the fate of my next traveller: Charles Dellon, the French doctor, who was arrested by the Inquisition on 24 August 1673. He lived to tell the tale.
To find Dellon, I must journey a little further. Not all the way to Goa just yet, for the story of his incarceration begins elsewhere. It begins in Daman.
In the 1600s, Daman was a much more imposing town than Bassein. Pietro della Valle who wrinkled his nose at Bassein, calling it ‘a small dirty place,’ was very impressed by Daman. Four centuries later, it’s hard to share his opinion, but the Fort of Moti Daman is in a time warp.
It is afternoon when I get there, and everything is asleep, gilded in the slant of a late sun. Waiting for the church to open, I walk around and catch sight of the belfry. Three bells, graded like musical notes, might ring out in the next hour or two. Strangely, I am not expectant but alarmed. Perhaps because just a stone’s throw from here is a squat building that announces itself as the prison. Was this where Dellon was incarcerated? This is his description:
‘The prison of Damaun is adjacent to, but below the level of the river, and is consequently damp and unhealthy … The walls are very thick. The prison consists of two large halls on the ground floor, and one above; the men being confined in the lower, and the women in the higher storey. About forty persons were confined in these rooms, without any other place for answering the ordinary demands of nature; and where the collected water formed a pool in the centre of each apartment. The women had no other convenience on their floor; but with this advantage, that the water ran off from their hall and filtered through the boards into ours, which thus became the reservoir of both. The only receptacle for our other excrements was a large tub, emptied but once a week, and engendering an immense quantity of worms, which crawled over the floor, even upon our beds. ’
I want out. I want the sea. The mouth of the Daman Ganga beckons, and I hurry towards the horizon in time for sunset.
I was tricked at the water’s edge—surely, those black ants against the burning sky couldn’t be people? Why, they were way beyond the stretch of water. It took me an indignant moment or two to acknowledge the sandbar. The river mouth opened past the thin strip, and, I could walk all the way out to sea. Out to the imagined homelands of Khoja Safar and his sort, my unseen friends whose memories are here for me to touch and feel and see through a twist in time.
Ishrat Syed’s exhibition of photographs The Persistence of Memory: How Travel Bookends History can be seen at the Premchand Roychand Gallery in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (the former Prince of Wales Museum), Mumbai, from 7-23 October 2011.
This exhibition is a small part of Ishrat Syed’s photographic project Palimpsest—The Erasures that made Bombay