Agonda, South Goa, India – November 2019
I run across the potholed road, pulling my suitcase behind me onto the central reservation, and am narrowly missed by an oncoming lorry and a beeping scooter.
Mr Happy is gesturing to me from across the road. “Come, come!”
“I am coming!” Just as soon as this stream of traffic gets out of the way…
I grin to myself. Only in an Indian airport would you be expected to run across a busy road with your luggage to get to your taxi.
“Oh my god…” Mr Happy isn’t happy.
I can see the red battery light flashing on the dashboard but decide not to say anything. Instead, I grin to myself again, knowing this is all part of the experience. I watch Mr Happy turn the ignition key over and over.
“Let’s go!” he finally shouts, as the engine shudders into action and he backs slowly into the face of oncoming traffic.
My grin morphs into a set of gritted teeth as cars, lorries and scooters screech all round us, beeping their horns.
I’ve done this journey from the airport to Agonda before in the darkness of the early hours, but this is the first time I’ve done it in the late afternoon, when people are still awake. As we drive on, I recognise the painted bus shelters with their advertisements for petrol and Coca Cola and the Catholic churches and Hindu shrines that form the landmarks in each town. This time the shops aren’t shuttered – they are throwing light onto the pavements, showing gangs of men discussing the day’s events over chai or schoolgirls with their hair in plaits, giggling.
As usual, the sides of the road are dotted with dogs, strutting along looking like they have somewhere to go to; or lying directly in the road itself, surprised to find themselves regularly disturbed by a vehicle.
Mr Happy avoids them all deftly. “Is everything ok?” he asks, taking his eyes off the road for moment.
“Yes, I’m ok. I’m impressed with your driving!”
Mr Happy grins, batting his long, dark eyelashes and looking askance at the newly purchased rainbow-coloured dreamcatcher dangling from his rear-view mirror. I suddenly remember that my yoga friend, Chris, calls them ‘flycatchers’.
Mr Happy is a taxi driver and local businessman from Agonda. His family own a hut resort in the town. He is called Mr Happy because his name is Anandu, which means ‘bliss’ in Sanskrit. He is the right person to bring me back to the place I love so much: my other ‘home’ in South Goa.
Finally, the car lurches out of second gear into third and I exhale with relief. Driving in a low gear in this world of driving obstacles, it feels like I’ve had to hold my breath for too long.
“I can’t believe people overtake on a bend here!” I cry, holding onto the sides of my seat.
“Yes, it is very, very bad,” says Mr Happy, calmly.
He pushes the car back down into first gear on the hill and proceeds to overtake a brightly coloured lorry on a bend. The driver in the cab waves him forward, obviously able to see the road ahead. A sign on his bumper says, ‘BLOW HORN OK’. Mr Happy beeps in gratitude. I breathe again.
As we turn into the road to Agonda, I spot the empty tables on the corner where women sell fruit and vegetables during the day. I am nearly home and I sigh happily.
“You recognise this place?” Mr Happy asks.
“Yes, I know exactly where we are. We are nearly in Agonda!”
Before dropping me off at my lodgings, Mr Happy pulls up outside his house where his children surround the car, smiling shyly through the windows at me. I get out of the car and they take turns to shake my hand.
Mr Happy turns to his wife, who is approaching in a fuschia-pink patterned sari. “She said she was impressed with my driving!” he cries, pointing at me. “I did not tell her that my brakes were not working.”
* * *
My home for the next six months would be the Red House. It sat grandly in the middle of the main road in Agonda, a Portuguese-style villa with crimson walls and white paintwork. I’d known during my last visit to the village that I would stay here – it called to me every time I walked past. It was near the bar I frequented, Kopi Desa, and there was a convenient sandy path down to the beach right next to it. It was technically the Red Shade Guest House, but I liked its shortened name: the Red House. Simple and to the point.
I’d last been in the village six months earlier. Agonda had got into my soul like no place before it and I knew that I had a home and family here. I’d found a strong connection with a young man, Shubham, who worked at Kopi Desa and I was back to see if our virtual romance – one we’d kept going over video message while he was on a cruise ship and I was back in London – was something that could exist in the real world.
I was also here to embark on a new working life – I’d be one of those ‘digital nomads’ I’d always envied, which would see me freelancing from my laptop in India, wifi-allowing. I had my misgivings – at fifty-two, I was supposed to be thinking about settling down into a nice comfy armchair somewhere in the UK and starting to enjoy the fruits of my labours in the publishing industry, but that hadn’t been my destiny. For one thing, I couldn’t afford to stop working. Fruits were in short supply.
In May 2019, I’d completed my yoga-teacher training and my first book in Agonda. I returned back to my flat in London that summer with a mission in mind: I would not try and seek out another senior role in publishing where I’d spent the last twenty-five years of my career – I would embrace freelance life. For one thing, I knew that such roles would be scarce. I’d seen far too many women like me get pushed off the career ladder in their fifties and I had a sense of what would happen: I would go into circulation as a maternity-cover filler-person and pop up at publishing houses all over London. The children’s books scene was peppered with us – women who had been ‘someone’ in the industry back in the day but had been pushed off the ladder (usually by another woman) in our fifties.
As a publishing director, I’d had these women on my teams from time to time, and as I got older, I began to realise that there was a very real chance I would become one of them. I wouldn’t play the corporate game in a toxic workplace – and ultimately, that would be my downfall; I refused to support ideas and practices that I didn’t agree with. So, when my time did come, on a crisp, clear end-of-February day, I turned my face to the sun as I walked back home through Holland Park and knew exactly what to do: I would return to India and embark on a spiritual journey.
Three months later, I set about packing up my home, putting everything in storage and renting out my flat to enable me to go back and live in India for six months. Because I could. I had no ties (an ex-husband, no kids and a dwindling number of family) and I wanted to start a new life away from city life, from the lure of the London publishing scene and its drinking culture. I was in my first year of sobriety, having had my last drink in Goa in January 2019.
Once I made that decision, I felt an incredible urge to get rid of stuff; shedloads of it. I’d had to do it once before when I’d left my marital home nine years earlier, and moved out of a four-bedroomed house in Buckinghamshire into a one-bedroomed flat in the city. Then, as now, it gave me great pleasure to slough off everything that had formed my previous life.
The first time it had been an exodus of shared marital possessions – a peeling sofa that had to go to a skip; the mountain bike I’d never really wanted that got stolen. It was as though these things knew they were no longer wanted, so they fell into ruin or disappeared from my life without any effort from me. Gradually, I’d replaced them with things that were mine and mine only. But now I could see that I was still holding on to possessions that I didn’t need. I could only afford a small storage pod so I had to make decisions on what had to go. Quickly, a ‘get-rid’ plan emerged.
I started by extracting a selection of books from my huge collection and made piles of them in the lobby of the ‘gold building’ where I lived among fifty other flats in Kensal Rise, north-west London. I posted on our Facebook group that they were free to whomever wanted them and half an hour later, they’d all gone. I still had bulging shelves of books but I couldn’t quite part with my collections of Murakami, Theroux and all the other authors I loved. I don’t know why getting rid of books is the hardest thing to do, but all I know is, I’m still paying for a small library to sit in storage. They form the bulk of my possessions, along with fake-leather photo albums filled with all the holiday photos from my failed marriage.
I went through all my toiletries and beauty products and put everything I’d been hanging onto – tiny sample bottles of serum I kept for no reason, the shampoo for hair I no longer coloured, the palettes of eyeshadow I kept for a ‘you never know’ moment even though I’d largely stopped wearing make-up – into a tub and placed it in the lobby. Again, everything went, taken by the gold building’s unseen elves.
My desire to declutter gained momentum – I experienced an actual rush whenever I was cleansed of another set of things I didn’t need: clothes in the wrong size that I was keeping for the day I would be the right size; numerous bottles of alcohol; an ugly glass TV table and a huge collection of CDs that couldn’t be played on anything – the more I got rid of, the more I could see another layer of unnecessary belongings around me.
I started to post items for pick-up on Facebook Marketplace and met wonderful people who really would give my things a good home. A man picked up my camera for his daughter for her school projects; a woman took my entire DVD collection to cheer her auntie up after losing her husband (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that most of them were stories of heartbreak with tragic endings). A Brazilian family picked up my beloved iMac – the model with the periscopic head that I’d bought with my first work bonus at the turn of the century. (It turned out that it was the only bonus I actually got in publishing so I’m glad I spent it wisely).
As everything disappeared from my little flat one by one, a lighter, brighter future emerged. I remembered why I’d felt so light and free moving into this flat in the first place, now that the sunlight could bounce off its huge white walls. Why had I felt the need to fill the space again, when the spaces I’d found when I first moved in were so deliciously free of stuff and so liberating?
I enjoyed the countdown of months, then weeks, until my departure for India in November, just as the winter in the UK was about to start. Each week brought a freshly cleared space in my flat and the weights of my past – the unhappy marriage and relationships, the stressful jobs, the alcohol addiction – were lifting. I began to pack my bags and set aside some belongings for my return in six months’ time, to be stored at a friend’s house. It was more stressful deciding what to keep than deciding what to get rid of – and I knew I wouldn’t see my stored things for a long time to come. What could I live without?
On the last night in my flat I slept in a sleeping bag on my stripped bed, with all my worldly goods packed into a large rucksack, suitcase and carry-on pack. Everything else had gone into storage, wedged into a tiny metal box by a huge Ukrainian guy who was determined not to have me paying for a second pod. It was like watching a giant game of reverse Jenga. He beamed proudly when he was done, obviously loving the satisfaction of making everything fit in, like he was making a drystone wall and had placed the final stone.