Taking a break from the recently concluded Indian elections, US-China trade wars, Brexit, the EU elections and sundry other preoccupations, I decided it was time to relax a little. My sister was visiting us in Goa and I thought it might be a good idea to take a drive to an island I have long wanted to visit, but never had the chance to, before. How could I have had a chance, when I have only recently re-discovered the joys of being mobile?!
Yes, having just re-learned driving after more than 25 years, it was time to put my newly acquired skills to the test and to experience an outing at the same time. A drive to Jacinta Island, just 10km from where we stay near Vasco-da-Gama in Goa, was in order. And my sister’s visit was the only excuse I needed. Mum too was keen on joining in and I said to her, “Well, of course, you must come along. Will be a great change of scene for you.” This was at the dinner table, so Dad piped in “Yes, you ladies go out. I will cook you all dinner.” Done!
The name, Jacinta Island, always intrigued me, and I remembered my parents mentioning having attended a few weddings in a church on the island. The island must have got its name from the church, I figured. But I also knew that Jacinta (better known as Jacinda) are flowers, although I must admit I had no idea they were from the hyacinth family. Well, it turns out that Jacinda is a common Spanish and Portuguese name which is derived from the Greek “Jacinta” which means beautiful.
But there is another, more probable, source of the name of this island: Jacinta was one of three shepherd children from the small town of Fatima in Portugal who all had visions of Virgin Mary as little children and had been venerated as saints by the Catholic Church.
Anyway, the evening arrived and mum chickened out, saying she is too tired for a long drive (even though it is hardly a half-hour drive from home) and she has work to do, etc. Dad had chickened out of his cooking dinner plan that morning itself and as if to soften the blow, he announced that he would cook us dinner on another day. Yours truly was not chickening out, that much was certain. So, my sister and I set out at around 5.30 pm, hoping to catch the setting sun at Jacinta Island.
The drive to Jacinta Island is mostly downhill, as the area of Vasco and Chicalim slope down towards the Zuari river. It is full of hairpin bends, though, which make the drive challenging, but pleasurable at the same time. In the late afternoon sun, one catches glimpses of the river every now and then as flashes of silvery light dancing on the waters. With a good breeze blowing that evening, we didn’t even need the air-conditioning on. Just lowered the windows and let the cool breeze blow into our faces.
As I delighted over the fact that I could now just up and leave home in the car to go wherever I wanted to or needed to without having to depend on anyone, it occurred to me that it is a joy most women in India can’t take for granted. It is a new-found sense of freedom that we have only recently discovered. I would put it to around the late 1980s, when India’s leading car manufacturer, Maruti, launched their first hatchback Maruti 800 in collaboration with Suzuki Motors of Japan. Within a few years of its launch it had revolutionised the daily commute for millions of Indians, and brought women, especially, the thrill of freedom. In comparison with the hulking Ambassador from Hindustan Motors and the slightly better, but still stiff, Fiat Premier Padmini, the Maruti 800 was a breeze to drive. It was easy to manoevre through congested traffic and easy to park in crowded areas. Just what women in India needed, even if they didn’t know it then. It is another matter that Maruti Suzuki, being government-owned then, had a virtual monopoly of the passenger car market and did everything possible to ensure that no competitor could enter the fray during the initial years of its operations. That seven to ten year lead gave them enough of a head-start to just run away with the highest sales and largest market share, which continue to this day. But who’s complaining?!
As far as women are concerned, they are only too happy to be able to get behind the wheel and drive to work, to the shopping mall, to ferry their kids from school or music lessons, or whatever else it might be. Suddenly, it’s as if people’s lives have opened up to new possibilities, they had never previously considered. That’s the magic of mobility. It is freedom in its most elementary sense. It affords us movement when all seems turgid. It gives us direction and puts us in control of where we want to go. It even provides a sense of purpose, in determining and prioritizing how we want to live our lives. Think of the mother who didn’t think her child could learn the violin or tennis, because she had no way of ensuring that he or she would make it to those classes. Or the working woman, who didn’t think she could manage last-minute grocery shopping on her way back home after work or even swing by a friend’s place on the way home. Suddenly, all those are real possibilities. Nowadays, women even drive out of town for short getaways; they get to travel and explore new places on their terms and in their time.
At a time when women being allowed to drive is making news (and controversy) in countries like Saudi Arabia, it is heartening to see how women drivers in India are faring. And now I mean women rally and race drivers. Read all about the latest women champs in Indian motor sports in this article from NDTV. In my old days in Ogilvy, we had a woman rallyist amongst us: Navaz Bhathena was such a driving force (pun intended) for women’s participation in Indian motor sports and it is so good to see her give back to the sport in a managerial capacity as an official, so many years later. You can watch her speak about her passion for cars and rallying in this video below on International Women’s Day 2018 from Overdrive, CNBC TV18’s auto magazine.
On the other hand, having worked on car brands in advertising, I have to say that women have been mostly given short shrift in India. Overall, communication for cars are perhaps at their lowest point ever – adverts with no imagination or story appeal whatsoever try to sell you cars (which are high-value purchases) based on mere product features and price discounts. It’s no surprise that car sales are going downhill, a lot like our drive to Jacinta Island.
My sister and I were almost winding down the last bend before reaching the narrow bridge that connects the mainland to the island. Until some years ago, people had to reach Jacinta by canoe as my mum had to, when she attended a get-together organized by the women’s wing of the Rotary Club. She said it added to the adventure of it all, to be sea-borne, when in fact you were only crossing a small part of the Zuari river. In even earlier times, when my sister was still completing school here in Goa, she had been to Jacinta on school picnics and she was telling me how they would wade back to the mainland in low tide, because the waters would recede so low. My mum and sister have visited Jacinta before and they would regale me with these stories from time to time. Mum said she has even seen fisherwomen scouring the waters in low tide for fresh mussels.
Jacinta is beautifully located at the mouth of the Zuari river, just as it meets the Arabian sea. In that sense, it offers you both the features of a river island as well as the sea, with the sun melting into its shimmering waters in the distant horizon. We entered the island through the bridge and the road forks into two, going in opposite directions. Unfortunately, there is still no road around the entire island that connects it on all sides. We turned left to drive past what must be the only restaurant on the island, rather unimaginatively named Bridge and Tunnel Restaurant. Bridge, I could see but I wondered where the secret tunnel was! The grassy and wooded bank of the road opposite the restaurant slopes gently down to the river and it is there that my sister’s school picnics would take place back in a time when there was no restaurant. Now we saw groups of youngsters on their bikes hanging out near the restaurant. We drove a little further, but came up to a dead end and so decided to retreat.
The other road to the right of the bridge leads first to the church, which enjoys a rather prominent place on the island, even as it faces the river to the east. It was almost 6pm and you would think that that the sun would be dipping in the sky at this time, but no such luck. Since we are on India’s West Coast and it is mid-summer, the sun was blazing brightly down on us. Fortunately, the church side of the island was in the shade and there was a cool breeze blowing as well. I parked the car next to the church and we decided to take a stroll around.
One of the first things you notice about this island is how quiet and tranquil it is, even by Goa’s standards. One could only hear birds calling out to each other as they were preparing to wing their way home in the evening. There were mounds of fishing nets piled up on one side of the island’s shore and we saw a group of fishermen sitting under a large tent and mending their fishing nets. In keeping with the monsoon safety and fishing regulations, the annual fishing ban had just gone into effect, as it does every year, on June 1, 2019. The fisherfolk were using this time to repair their nets, and their boats, possibly.
We walked further down beyond the church where a number of Jacinta Island’s residents live. The road narrows into a lane at this point and I was glad I had left the car at the church. We walked past several brightly painted houses with the typical brown-tiled sloping roofs that all Goan homes have. Separating the houses from each other, were plenty of trees of all kinds. No wonder, the birds were in full song. From plantain, coconut and mango trees to all sorts of flowering trees – including the Gulmohur which flames into brilliant shades of vermillion and red at this time of the year – the lane was lined with them, providing ample shade as we walked.
The lane curved sharply around the hillside of the island and before we knew it, we had reached Land’s End. There was just the sea, huge boulders and rocks and the gentle rustle of the leaves of the trees to greet us. A spot for quiet contemplation, I told myself. Just then some stray dogs barked and I thought we had better retrace our steps back to the church.
I was disappointed that there were no Jacinda flowers. No roads around the island either, that might have made our trip more pleasurable. I was hoping we could drive around to the side facing the sea, which would have given us a great vantage point from where to view the setting sun. Those who have gazed at sunsets would know that the sun dies on you pretty rapidly as it gets closer to the horizon and so I didn’t want to miss this one. It’s as if the sun is always in a hurry to say goodbye.
Meanwhile, it was almost time for us to say goodbye to Jacinta Island. I have not driven in the dark yet, and I didn’t want that day to be the day for it. I guess it will take me a few more months of driving around before I start using the headlights. I will soon also have to learn to drive in the rain. Goa’s monsoons are not just stormy and furious, it also pours incessantly for days, weeks and all of four months. Months go by without sighting the sun; that can be pretty depressing and gloomy sometimes.
We walked back to the bridge to get our view of the sun before it went down. It was still a golden shimmering disc in the sky pouring its golden glow into the waters of the Arabian sea. No Jacinda flowers? That’s alright, I consoled myself. There were other surprises waiting for me. I spied a barren tree in an otherwise dense grove, that had an ashen white trunk and branches. Seemed a rather ascetic sight in what were lush surroundings.
I saw a small empty boat adrift in the river under the drooping branches of a kind of pine tree. Boats are never meant to be empty in the middle of a river, are they? Sent a shiver of excitement down my spine.
And I saw a sea and sky of gold like I have never seen before. Take a look at some of the pictures I have put together below, and you’ll see what I mean.
It suddenly occurred to me while driving home that driving itself is quite opposed to the idea of what an island represents. It is freedom, but it also erases distances. Remember Thelma and Louise in the great Ridley Scott film who start out on an adventure trip in their car (too bad, it didn’t end well for them)? Or what about Gerda Millet helping Davich save his Yugoslavian compatriots in World War II in the 1964 classic, The Yellow Rolls Royce?
Women of today could certainly do with more of the “distance-erasing” power of driving, at a time like this. Relishing that thought, I slid the car into third gear and readied myself for the uphill climb home.