It’s 6 in the morning in Goa, and the party has wound down at a couple of beaches just a few hours ago. But in Betalbatim, a tiny fishing village about 30 km from Panjim, Dr Sonali Khandekar, 48, is making her way through the paddy fields, stopping every now and then to see if the kingfisher, who had been accompanying her, is still there. She has time, not only to wait for the kingfisher to show himself, but also to marvel at the green of the paddy crop, spot the dewy cobwebs and inhale the aroma of fresh bread being baked at the small eatery down the road. Or just walk into an old Portuguese house to chat with the elderly lady sitting on the porch, sipping a cup of tea.
Not many know just how hard-earned this calm is for Khandekar. Ten years ago, the orthodontist had trooped down to the beach town from Pune, all alone with just a backpack, and spent three days sitting at a tiny shack on the Betalbatim shore — she was emotionally exhausted after a personal crisis. “I was at a crossroads in life. I decided to step out of my comfort zone and hop onto a bus to Goa. I remember doing nothing but sitting on the beach, disconnected from the world, looking out to the sea and just trying to connect with my own self. I came back to Pune a different person,” says Khandekar. “The sound of the ocean was akin to chanting. I felt exactly like how I had felt when I did Vipassana a few years ago or when I experienced the electrifying serenity at the Golden Temple in Amritsar,” she says. Khandekar bought a fetching little apartment 300 meters from the beach four years ago and lives between Pune and Goa.
For years, Goa has attracted settlers from beyond its borders, from the romantics to the retirees and the recluse. There is also now a wave of migrants — the broken-hearted, looking for healing and in time, happiness.
In April, Aishwarya Sehgal, a web designer from Delhi, came to Siolim for a break from the “fast, aggressive” life she had been “mindlessly’’ pursuing. A bad marriage that lasted only a year was made worse by the 36-month divorce proceedings, which had depleted the 38-year-old’s strength. “I came to spend a few days at my parents’ apartment here and haven’t returned to Delhi,” says Sehgal, who spends her days dabbling in pottery, resurrecting her love for painting, and visiting temples. “I know that I will soon have to earn a livelihood. But at the moment, I am happy just being,” she says.
“I saw four deaths in seven years in my family. In 2005, my brother-in-law died, in 2006, my father passed away. Two years later, my sister died, and in 2012, I lost my mother. I couldn’t bear to be in Chandigarh any longer. Every nook and corner of the city reminded me of the times I had spent with my loved ones. My husband and I packed our bags and we came to Goa,” says Monica Madan, 50, who left her high-profile job as director, Gurukul group of schools, in Chandigarh.
Initially, the empty hours were not easy to cope with. She soon discovered that Goa didn’t have too many opportunities for educational start-ups or enterprises. “People outside of the state have this impression that if you are staying in Goa, you are at the beach every day. In reality, daily life is much different,” she says. But eventually, Goa’s natural beauty worked like a balm on her. “I am so much more at peace with myself since we relocated two years ago. For tourists, it may be beach and beer but the true spirit of Goa is its serenity,” says Madan, a diabetic, who also noticed a marked improvement in her health. “My husband says it’s because being calm and relaxed is in the air in Goa,” she says.
So what is it that really works for a place, best known for its tourists and pubs and partying, to actually double as a soul sanctuary? “Goa affords you the kind of anonymity you want at a particularly difficult time in your life. It gives you solitude but has enough energy and life to not let you slip into depression. The ocean is so therapeutic as well. Very importantly, people here let you be,” says Subodh Kerkar, artist and owner, Museum of Goa.
Psychiatrist Shyam Bhat feels it has less to do with Goa and more with the desire to get away during a tumultuous time. “I am not sure that only the ocean does this, so can the mountains. People go off elsewhere to get a perspective on their lives. Three things happen there — first, nature plays a big role in healing; then, you are far removed from home or the scene of turmoil; lastly, you enter a milieu where you can stop and reflect on your life,” says the Bangalore-based doctor, who is better known as actor Deepika Padukone’s psychiatrist.
As the rash of meditation or yoga institutes in Goa show, there are many who seek calm. “Earlier, the demand for houses was near the beaches of north Goa, the happening party place. Now, people specifically ask for houses away from the din; near the sea but somewhere quiet and isolated. In fact, we have started an inventory of such villas now — away from the crowd and where people want to be just with the nature and themselves,” says Nikhil Mirkar, proprietor, Goa Unlimited, a real estate company.
While the idea to get away from the world and escape into one that promises soul food and susegad may be inviting, living in a wholly new milieu is not always such a breeze. Even if it’s Goa. When Avatari Diksha Anand shifted from Mumbai to Goa in search of some peace of mind, she had some misgivings about the move. When she had separated from her husband five years ago, she went by her instinct — to wind up everything in Mumbai and take off with her two young children. “I had a lot of family support in Mumbai and everything was taken care of, but somehow, it just didn’t feel right. I was stagnating and I thought of moving to the mountains but then my family thought that would be isolating myself. Also, the children’s father had moved to Goa and he felt they would have a better quality of life there. Logistically, it would be easier. So I consulted my 10-year-old son and when he said yes, I moved to Carra last June,” says the 38-year-old stylist, who worked in advertising and films.
Thrown amongst new people, a new lifestyle and most importantly, new schools for her children, the first six months saw her scrambling to make sense of a new life. But a year down the line, Anand feels she has found her peace near the sea. “The challenges taught me that one has the capacity to rise to them, that one is abundant enough and after all the practical aspects of life were tackled, the healing came in waves, literally,” she says.
Perhaps, it is not just chicken soup, fish curry for the soul works, too.