Sunday, July 24, 2005

Lost stories

No one knew where the forts of Chaul were. The residents shook their head and directed me to the next resident, who fared little better. As consolation, alternatives at Alibag, from where I had arrived, and Murud were offered. It could have been frustrating, but their lack of knowledge was reward for having come this far. If they did not know of the forts, how many did? Discovery, even rediscovery, would be cherished, for each new sight adds value. This hope, with its natural companions, despair and loneliness, had already become my palette.

Further inquiries about the Portuguese and their churches pulled me to Revdanda, a neighboring town that had succeeded in sweeping away the finer memories of its past. Blue- and green-eyed fishermen went about their task with an interest in the present, speaking in Portuguese Creole, whose century-old cracks were filled with Marathi and English. A watchtower across the bay from the nearby steel factory was ruined, its turrets having fallen in. Rusting cannons four centuries old were scattered among shrubs and fallen bricks and a tree grew on the broken arch above the entrance. A crushing stone ball rest on the bones of invaders, and centuries of dust rest on it. The dead spoke in the wind’s whispers. Spectral soldiers slept under open skies. Grandeur’s fate also is to ultimately be forgotten. And what greater opponent than a fading memory?

Here we were, the Catholic policeman and I, remembering memories, no, stealing them, seeking concealed tunnels and ammunition stores, cutting a swathe through walls of living green, hoping each step forward took us back. His was a curiosity forged by the tales that had been forgotten: who were his ancestors; how did they live? He had never strayed this far before, he muttered in the middle of pushing away a bush, and he had not known so much before. Could stories that had been lost one day be found here, he asked. If they are, they will be dusted and possibly unrecognizable, having none of the gloss applied by each successive storyteller.

When we saw the tunnels, they had already been discovered, covered with paint marks that hinted at a local religion. But neither noticed the marks. He leapt with the energy of discovery, and I sat down to comprehend what lay beyond.

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