“Don’t worry, nobody will steal it there. For 32 years now, since I’ve been working here, there have been no thefts. This light here burns all night, that one on the left as well, that one also… And those men down there, sitting in that open van, are playing cards all night… For 32 years now… Don’t worry,” Mr Faleiro, owner and manager of the Hotel Paradise in Nani Daman, assured us, leaning out of the window that overlooks the town’s taxi stand and a parking lot.

“You park your bike right in between those two, and then come back.”

In the meantime, I sat by the reception desk stacked with newspapers, travel guides on Daman and Diu, a rusty ventilator, and an old-fashioned phone. We had entered the town at dusk, after some four hours out of Mumbai.

The road leading into Daman from the south was lined with a single row of lights coiling into the horizon like a lighted snake. On both sides, whizzing past in semi-darkness, a succession of houses and villas built in Portuguese style, their inhabitants sitting on verandas and abstractedly observing the road.

Most of the doors were left ajar, and I could, even on a speeding bike, catch a glimpse of illuminated interiors with wooden staircases leading to attics and first floors in the foreground. Soon we left the stone walls of the Moti Daman Fort—now hardly discernible from the darkened sky—on our left, and crossed the bridge over the Daman Ganga to get to Nani Daman, where we would spend the night.

As soon as everything was settled, we went to the terrace, taking with us a bottle of red wine bought from one of the shops along the main road just in front of the hotel. In a few minutes, Mr Faleiro joined us, asking if we needed anything, and, as soon as he was convinced we were fine, he started talking. His reminiscences were interrupted only by the Coast Guard planes traversing the sky every four minutes and outlining semicircles above a centenary tree that spread its branches over yellow and black Ambassadors neatly parked at the taxi stand below.

“It was quiet and clean before. No industries… We had cheap cheese from Australia, olive oil from Portugal. Only the best things, genuine and cheap. Kraft cheese you could get for 12 annas. For 10 rupees you got a goat. A room cost two. Money had value, not like now.

“We didn’t close our doors. Nothing would ever go missing—we didn’t know what robbery was. Now we have one more door made and we keep them sealed. Police used to take action, not like now. Now unless you bribe them, things don’t move.

“Social occasions are rare now—Christmas only. We had picnics on the beach—some came from Portugal, some from Goa, and we would all get together. We spoke Portuguese.

“At school we were taught only Portuguese literature, history, geography–nothing about India. Many of the Catholic people left for Portugal after ’61, but now everybody wants to go to London. I stayed because I have a family house here, and this hotel. I was Portuguese, now I am Indian. I had to surrender my nationality. But I am Portuguese, all Portuguese. My name is Gilianes, the same as that famous Portuguese explorer.”

Early next morning, on our way to Moti Daman Fort, we rode across the bridge over the Daman Ganga still covered in a layer of mist glowing in the sunrise. Some distance away, the road pierces the fort from the south through an elaborately engraved stone gate that narrates its history.

The fort was constructed by the Portuguese in the 16th century and covers around 30 square kilometres. Inside the stone walls, the same quietness floods the empty streets, amplified by the abundance of greenery. We parked the bike and took a walk around the little square of tall trees flanked by two churches and a few buildings.

A little further down, two men were standing and drinking chai in front of an open gate of what turned out to be the Daman Sub-Jail. We greeted them and moved closer to the building, and, eventually, entered. On the right was a shabby desk on top of which lay something that seemed to be the jail guest book. I hastily leafed through it, but then I noticed a board hanging on the wall in front, displaying the number and sex of the inmates in white chalk.

“Two of them are women,” a man, previously standing outside, said.

“One is still under trial for theft, the other serving life for the murder of her husband.”
The nonchalance of the atmosphere and the appearance of the building itself, along with the two guards enjoying their chai in the serenity of the morning, made it hard to believe this was a fully functioning jail and not a town museum.

Just a few metres away is the Church of Bom Jesus—its gates were wide open. A watchman was sitting, reading his morning newspaper, an aura of golden light forming around his bended figure. The same light permeated the vacant benches and the aisle, as if descending from the gilded altar and the statues of the saints. All of a sudden, it felt unnerving that the two institutions were built so close together—one promising rewards in the next world, the other delivering punishment in this one. 

From there we followed the road that intersects the fort and connects the two gates–southern and northern.

On our way we passed the Secretariat building opposite of which, on a concrete memorial block, it stands inscribed: “Daman was liberated by 1st bn. of the Maratha light infantry on 19 Dec 1961 after heroic fight. Thus ended the 450-year-old regime.”

Just a few metres away, where the northern gate opens on to the mouth of the Daman Ganga where it meets the Arabian Sea, some dozen fishermen were talking and smoking on a low whitewashed wall, already back from their day’s work, as if nothing of historical importance ever happened.

A stray dog was sniffing for food among the shells and seaweed left on the sands by the receeding waterline. Some distance away, protruding from inside of the fort, a lighthouse was visible.

Later in the afternoon, Mr Faleiro invited us to his house in the back street, adjoining the hotel. It is an old Portuguese residence he inherited from his parents and grandparents. The massive door opened on to a wooden staircase leading to the rooms upstairs, while next to it two teak wood chairs were planted against the left wall. On the left was a living room with some more teak wood chairs lined up along the walls, and a small table as a centerpiece.

In one corner stood a garlanded photo of his parents–his father was a postman, his mother a housewife, he said. “My father's name was Jerome, the same as that famous Portuguese explorer,” he added. 

“I have many old photo albums if you want to see. One day I will show them to you. Today there is not enough time. I have to be back in the hotel.”

Then he turned around the room and added, “These chairs here are very old and expensive. I had many beautiful lamps as well. You know, those with shades in different colours, old kerosene lamps. Do you know Montek? Mr Ahluwalia? I gave them all to him, when he came here for a function in the Secretariat. He took all those beautiful lamps, and left nothing behind.”

A merchant from London, Ralph Fitch, visiting Khambhat in the 16th century, wrote in his accounts: ‘In Cambay they will kill nothing nor have anything killed: in the town, they have hospitals to keep lame dogs and cats, and for birds’ 

Back in the sunny alley in front of his house, as he was rushing off to his reception desk and we were getting ready to ride off towards Khambhat, I got to thinking about Portugal—a small country beyond the Seven Seas that I have never seen, nor, for that matter, has Mr Faleiro—a home to adventurous explorers, good wine, stylised verandas and Virgin Mary.

It felt as if together we were evacuated into a past and to an unknown utopian place, sharing in a handed-down feeling of nostalgia that rightfully belonged to somebody else. And that, maybe, just for the sheer aesthetics of it.

The International Kite Festival, which takes place all over Gujarat and marks the winter’s transition to spring, had been over for a week when we got to Khambhat, formerly known as Cambay. You could tell it by the broken patangs entangled in tree branches or dangling from electrical lines, as well as by the pink strings that used to hold them, but which were now running the mazes of town’s streets and alleys, as if left by the Greek princess Ariadne for her lover Theseus, to find his way out after slaying the Minotaur.

That first morning we took a walk along the main bazaar road, dotted with a dozen pastry shops selling all sorts of sweets, cakes and ice cream. Everybody was out, breakfasting on sev khamani, dhokla and samosa. A sideways glance cast into little alleys branching from the main road would come back with reports of ruin and disintegration—donkeys lifting their legs to balance their way over the debris of a collapsed façade, window frames that seemed to be suspended in air, forever open, and stray cats sauntering into doorless living rooms.

If you take a right turn from the Khambhat Tower, you find yourself in what seems to be one of the older neighbourhoods. Khambhat’s historic prosperity is discernible beneath the layers of dust and dissolution on the intricately designed façades. With the arrival of the Portuguese, and the gradual silting of the harbour, the town slowly drifted from its past so colorfully depicted in travellers’ accounts.

One of the better known ones, Marco Polo, after visiting Khambhat in the 13th century, later recollected for his travelogues: “This is also an extensive kingdom, situated towards the west, governed by its own king, who pays no tribute to any other, and having its proper language. The people are idolaters… The trade carried on is very considerable, and a great quantity of indigo is manufactured.

“There is abundance of cotton cloth, as well as of cotton in the wool. Many skins well dressed are exported from hence, and the returns are received in gold, silver, copper, and tutty…”

Although some of this can be deduced from the heavily carved wooden doors or charmingly stylised balconies, and is, nonetheless, a historical datum, some of the accounts still read as an exaggeration of a seasoned traveller, a lotus-eater.

In Cambay they will kill nothing nor have anything killed: in the town, they have hospitals to keep lame dogs and cats, and for birds.

Now, when you lift your gaze you meet the eyes of a young woman combing her hair in the light blue ornamented window frame, or a boy peering through turquoise shutters, not really sure what he’s suppose to appropriate as his object of attention.

Every narrow alley opening along the main street invites a closer look. At one point, I spot a high canopied construction on slender pillars in the middle of a quiet stone-tiled square surrounded by empty balconies. It turns out to be an elaborately carved pigeon feeder.

A merchant from London, Ralph Fitch, visiting Khambhat in the 16th century, wrote in his accounts: “In Cambay they will kill nothing nor have anything killed: in the town, they have hospitals to keep lame dogs and cats, and for birds.”

Underneath the pigeon feeder, two dogs lazily soak up the sun. As soon as they notice me, they spring up on all fours and launch into a tirade of barking. Squatting at the entrance of her home, an elderly woman, palms horizontally above her squinting eyes, stares unblinkingly into mine. The dogs, overpowered by the exchange, fall silent, and I am back on the main street, heading to Jama Masjid, not far away. 

It was built in 1325, after the town was captured by Alauddin Khilji, and is now one of Khambhat’s major landmarks, built of recycled Jain and Hindu temples that stood on the same spot. Its massive outer stone wall runs along a dusty street, with a small door opening somewhere in the middle.

As we pass through them, we see two boys running across the spacious inner courtyard, flying their kites from pink strings, their shouts and thumping of feet on the stone floor reverberating against the carved pillars and hallways.

A line hangs in one corner, and a few colourful dupattas and a sari were left to dry. One boy’s kite suddenly gets entangled around a speaker above the entrance gate to the prayer hall. From out of nowhere an elderly man appears, snaps the pink cord and sends the boys out into the dusty streets. The silence takes over again, while the man, actually the mosque’s keeper, guides us for a closer look at the courtyard and the elaborate pillars.

Henry George Briggs, an Englishman and servant of the Raj, wrote eloquently about the mosque in his journal and a book on Gujaráshtra in 1847: “The exterior exhibits palpable evidence of rapid annihilation; and the decaying colonnades, the in jured arches—indeed every indication of age and ruin are quite as unmistakeable with the interior. Yet it were impossible not to be lost in rapture with the elegant frieze, the elaborate ceiling; the anxiety for costly accuracy in great proportions and minute detail in the trellised windows and the fretted domes–but every thought soon slides into sorrow for the lamentable destruction which is so indolently permitted.”

The same seems to hold true still, maybe even more so. Then the keeper takes us to the opposite side of the courtyard, and, finally, through the square stone gates underneath a spiralling dome. 

On the other side is a tomb chamber. There is no roof of any kind, just lavishly carved stone pillars encircling several tombs—the central one being the biggest; the smallest one seemed to be a tomb of a newborn baby. According to the keeper, a ruler called Malik Tujar lies underneath the biggest tomb stone; on the left is his wife Jijabai, then his one-and-a-half-year-old son Saifi, and a daughter called Fatima Behen.

“You know, 1,200 jinns built this in one night! As they were finishing, the sun began to rise, and they had to leave the roof undone,” he said, and then continued, “There was no rain in the country for two years. Malik possessed a lot of wealth and diamonds, but couldn’t buy grain, because none was harvested. He was desperate; the people hungry.

“Then Jijabai told her son: ‘I’m going to bury you, and make sure that whoever comes here asking for anything will have to offer some milk to my grave and the milk will then reach you’.”
The keeper then pointed to the begum’s grave and then to the smallest one, and said: “You see how close they are? The milk runs underground… They were buried alive,” he whispered, “and can still hear us. They are very old ghosts now. So go and ask anything from Malik. Pray for your kismet.”

The aforementioned Henry George Briggs, when brought to this chamber in 1840s, was told a similar story, by, as he himself said, somebody from his party: “The legend furnished me tells of a Mogli millionaire, Máleh Tujár by name, who in a season of bitter famine offered a handful of pearls for an equal quantity of wheat, and vowed were he successful in this purpose he would provide another similar measure of these Ocean-Gems towards a building of a place of worship… he shortly after raised this masjid. He lies interred under a mean gambaj in the centre of the courtyard.”

Then our guide goes nearer to the central tomb, and runs his palms over the cracked marble. “There was a big earthquake in 2001. The earth shook and the stones went tumbling down. But again, jinns appeared and held the pillars with their own hands, so that nothing was damaged, only this little crack in the marble.

“A fisherwoman named Sakri was the only one here. She saw everything, and, from then on, lost her voice. She is now very old and lives in the fishermen’s village not far from here. Doesn’t talk to anyone… You know, anyone can go completely mad at any given moment. Anything can fall apart any second. But as long as Malik is here, there’s no fear.” Then he touches the cold marble again, and makes the sign of the cross. “After all, I am a Martin, a Christian.”

At that moment an elderly woman in a green dupatta enters and greets us with a warm smile. “This is my wife Jarina,” he says, beginning a new story, while she just stands there, wrapping her arms around herself.

“Two years ago, on a Muharram morning, we came to this chamber to have some food here, and we saw four jinns just hovering in the air. One was headless. The others had long beards and wavy white hair. ‘Do not be afraid,’ one of them said, ‘You take good care of the space we inhabit. Just shower us with rose petals, and we will make you wealthy people.’ Of course, he didn’t mean it in the worldly sense… We are just doing seva, for this and the next world.”

At this moment Briggs’s account again somehow runs parallel to our visit to the chamber. While he was listening to legends from his companions, who might have been the mosque’s keepers as well, he turned around and stumbled upon a chipped part of a pillar that was lying on the ground, a few feet away: “Upon the broken shaft of a column, which was perhaps intentionally rolled within the area, is rudely sculptured diabolical scene, denominated by the parties present with me as the Curse of God; accident rather than anything else afforded me a knowledge of it.”

Before we exit the mosque, Martin sits on the water tank in the courtyard and mumbles a Hail Mary in Gujarati. Then he opens the front door, and, when we are already out on the dusty street again, having walks past the Archeological Survey of India board and leaving the historical facts for another visit, we hear him shout after us: “I’ve told you a story. Now go to your country and tell it there. Tell it elsewhere. Just not here.”

In front of the mosque, two men are chiselling agate into little pendants that look like spears. A bit further down, towards the ocean, several women are digging channels for a gas pipeline, sweating in the midday sun. A little boy, with a translucent green plastic bag tied to a pink string, is running around trying to make it fly. At times, a gust of wind from the sea gently lifts it up in the air.