Here is a partial list of some of the plants I noticed a few days ago at the Reis Magos Fort in North Goa: asarina vines with light purple trumpet-like blossoms; frangipani trees statuesque in a courtyard that could been in a different edifice (an inspired house, a resort); dark-leaved Krishna tulasi; white bougainvillea; coconut trees ridging the coastline of the Mandovi estuary; a banyan tree that – a sign tells you – parasitically strangulated a coconut tree over almost a century then collapsed once its host caught fire; flowering weeds whose names elude my knowledge, growing mutinously between the red laterite bricks. I had wanted to see the fort, and the view of open water from its citadel points, but once I was there a strange feeling made me linger on the foliage instead.
When this Fort became a jail, the opening at the back was sealed with masonry,” said a signboard on the wall outside an entrance. I didn’t step inside. There was a lamp hanging from the ceiling, and beyond it a simple door with bars that revealed fronds of leaves, the water, and Panjim on the other side of a bridge. In other places therein, the glass that had been put in during reconstruction transformed the space, as windows do. Sunlight flooded away the tangibility, but not the fact, of what had happened within those solitary confinement cells and prison holds. To imagine what had was what caused the dizziness that made me steady myself with greenery.
I found it beautiful, this centuries-old fort restored into use and given such serenity only as recently as a decade ago. Its beauty was necessarily marred by its history, exhibited in signs throughout, in captions alongside photographs of freedom fighters and longer descriptions chronicling aspects of Goa’s political past. I skimmed the texts, a little apprehensive about the slant they may take. One anecdote caught my eye: of how African soldiers (from where, though; the only description was “tribesmen”?), themselves under colonial rule, had been deployed by Portugal to suppress revolutionary dissent. In order to manipulate them, they were shown maps depicting Goa as being larger than India. It’s an age-old tactic, exaggerating threats, and still used today to spread misinformation and goad people into inhumane actions.
It was impossible to ignore the larger signs (except if one can’t read in English). Near the entrance, I looked up to see a “Death Hole”. Upstairs, in a hall lined with art by Mario Miranda, was its other side. One could reverse vantage points: feel the claustrophobia of the idea of hot oil cascading from the ceiling, and then feel the bloodthirst and security of being where one could thwart the enemy.
From within a fort, one can believe oneself safe. One can take borrowed pride in its architecture. One can even let the robust walls muffle the sounds of nearby screaming. One can. That never means that one should. History doesn’t only echo. Sometimes it’s in what’s here, condemned to repetition. The signs are all there, and when we’ve steadied ourselves on pretty plants and sun-dappled waves and sea breezes, we cannot refuse to look at them.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 26th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.