In After Blenheim, an 18th century anti-war poem by Robert Southey, an embittered old man attempts to describe a famous war victory to an impressionable young boy. The poem itself is a dialogue between age and inexperience, glory and loss, and a battle over two opposing perceptions of war itself.
It ends with the old man asking young Peter a question and the latter’s answer.
“But what good was it in the end?”
said little Peterkin.
“Why that, I cannot say,” he said,
“But it was a famous win.”
I had read these lines at school, but I know them now. Away from the rugged land borders to northern India, I ask the same question sitting here in Goa, when I think back to the past two decades.
Yes, Goa is a much more popular holiday destination. Yes, there are more sophisticated cars on our roads. Yes, we drink better whisky. Yes, we have a much more diverse cuisine at our service.
But just like war, the material improvement of our lives comes at a cost.
It is the land that made Goa rich. Dig it and there are deposits of iron ore that have sustained Goa’s mining industry for decades. Later, the tourism industry also thrived on the same land and sea, which charmed millions of tourists visiting the state.
However, large-scale development and concretization has led to overexploitation of the much-needed asset and left low-lying coastal areas at significant risk due to climate change.
In 2002 I was a freshly minted MBA from the Goa Institute of Management and had dove headlong into my family business as a partner in Tan Estates which owns and manages three heritage buildings as hotels and hostels in Fontainhas, namely Panjim Inn, Pousada and Peoples. We partnered with the WelcomHeritage hotel group in 2010.
The Panjim Inn, located in the picturesque Fontainhas of the state capital, was our family’s first hotel business. The origins of the house where the Panjim Inn stands today date back to the 1880s. It belonged to Dona Tsushima, my grandmother.
My father Ajijt Sukhija, an engineer, was ahead of his time. Despite the social stigma attached to the profession of innkeeper in the 1980s, he transformed the house into a heritage hotel.
At the time I joined the family business, Goa was in the throes of political change. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had come to power with the late Manohar Parrikar – also an MP for Panaji – at the helm. The early 2000s had also seen the rise to power of his sometimes dark beast, sometimes ally, sometimes cabinet colleague Atanasio Monserrate, elected deputy for the assembly constituency of Taleigao adjoining Panaji.
Parrikar and Monserrate were chalk and cheese. The former was the first Indian Institute of Technology Bombay alumnus to serve as chief minister, while Monserrate had a string of criminal cases against him.
While Parrikar added intellectual weight and a cutting edge to Goan politics as a legislator, Monserrate was the harbinger of a new political trend. The trend that has made him as indispensable to Goan politics as Parrikar himself. While Parrikar’s politics were about the macro, Monserrate’s political ethos was rooted in the micro.
As he continued to be charged with allegations of corruption, fraud and controversial land conversion, Monserrate was also known as the “kamacho munis,” a man who would get his constituents’ jobs done, regardless of the legalities or illegalities involved, a la Robin du Taleigao-hood.
A wedding in a constituent’s home and in Monserrate would bring much more than just blessings, school fees to pay and the lawmaker would do it without batting an eyelid.
Monserrate was Minister of Land Use Planning when he was sacked from the cabinet after proposing large scale changes to Goa’s land resources which could have really, really accelerated Goa’s ‘development’ into a mess of land. steel and concrete. It was the land that had funded Monserrate’s political rise and he had tried to return that favor with concrete slabs.
Of course, Monserrate’s exit from the cabinet at the time only ended up stalling the hasty materialization of Goa for a brief period.
Dating back to the 1980s, Fontainhas, where our heritage hotel is located, was considered a part of Panaji that was past its sell-by date. The area is called the Latin Quarter, as it is inspired by the narrow, winding alleys of old European cities. But the houses were crumbling there, the roads were narrow, and the Latin Quarter looked like an old, out of circulation coin found in the dusty corner of a rarely used drawer.
Panaji was then not a city but a city which had refused to develop. It was above all an urban space from which the administrative apparatus of the state functioned. The secretariat was still operating from the Adil Shah’s summer palace in Bijapur, the Mandovi river was cleaner, and the roads didn’t stink of urine.
Unlike today, where hotels have sprung up at an unprecedented rate, financing a heritage hotel project was also a major challenge in the 1980s, with nationalized banks forcing you to manage financing from pillar to post. . Finally, it was a cooperative bank that granted a loan for the restoration with our family home as collateral. My father is still irritated by the five hours his mother spent queuing in the sun on a hot tropical day to have the property registered at the sub-registrar’s office.
But my father had just quit his job at the company. He had time on hand and kept plugging into the project all the time. He spent his time finding the best period furniture, which was neither fashionable nor commercially valued, but still hard to find. It has continued for decades now, putting all the pieces of the heritage puzzle together to put together the hotel, which decades later is now, dare I say, part of the Panaji heritage.
While my father was tinkering with the construction of his dream heritage hotel, tourism began to flourish in Panaji in the 1990s. Politically, Panaji elected an IIT alumnus Manohar Parrikar as a legislator in 1994 It was the first time the BJP made its presence felt in state politics. In the late 1990s, the first of the casinos appeared in Panaji, bringing a steady stream of tourists to the city. And the forgotten district of Fontainhas has come under the spotlight.
My father’s perseverance paid off in the mid 2000s when the Lonely Planet described the Panjim Inn as one of the reasons the Fontainhas is a highlight in Goa. Along with Panjim Inn, Fontainhas has also landed on the list of places to go in Goa. The tourist footprint has grown significantly, so much so that locals have put up signs urging people not to use their homes as exotic backdrops for their incessant Instagram stories. The narrow streets of Fontainhas are also full of restaurants, cafes, bars, street film shoots and social media influencers that haunt you at every turn.
It is in this context that I return to Southey’s poem. War and ‘development’, as we learned in Goa, both ravage the landscape and its people. The first is obvious, while the second is only when it is too late.
Running a heritage home like Panjim Inn is always a work in progress. Twenty percent of our revenue is reinvested in repairs and maintenance, with the shadow of a basic structural remodel always looming in the background.
Sometimes I feel like Panaji needs an overhaul too, not just a makeover. It must reclaim the fields, Khazan lands, mangroves and salt marshes that once surrounded its outskirts. The city needs an overhaul of the chaos it resembles. Or maybe Panaji just needs to plant himself in a planter’s chair for a spell, and watch time and the Mandovi pass.
(Jack Ajit Sukhija is a Goa-based hotelier and tourism entrepreneur.)