The yellow curtain with pink swirls seems out of place as it flutters on the pavement, it is billowing out of a tiny door on the side of the road, in the middle of a busy street in Margao city, Goa. As the curtain unfurls, I see a gramophone, the next time it sways I see a stack of old vinyl records.
It seems surreal, like a porthole to a different dimension. This is, however, just an entrance to a tiny dive bar. It looks like any dive bar throughout Goa, Mumbai and the rest of the country. Most of these almost dingy looking spaces are not fully stocked bars, just tiny eating joints that serve the local brew or Indian made foreign liquor.
The “touchings” or snacks that go with the drinks are always locally sourced. It could be a tongue curling sour pickle, a link of Goan sausage, it can be a few slivers of pork fry or if you are sitting in one of the dive bars near Colaba, Mumbai, you could be digging into a brain masala (goat brain, served whole). There is a lot of character tucked in the most unassuming watering holes, and they do have a loyal clientele.
This yellow curtained entrance was to a tiny bar with a handpainted “Quadros” etched on top of the shutter gate. There is a window with a photograph of Jesus tucked into the sill. The is no music to greet you, the gramophone is just a prop.
Once inside, as your eyes adjust to the dim light you see a collection of alcohol bottles lined up on a table in the corner. There is a back room, I think the tiny kitchen and the smell of sausages and pork amsol is strong.
The perfect accompaniments to a quick shot of feni. There were two tables, just two and one of them is occupied by an old man, who looked like he already has a whole bottle of alcohol inside him. His eyes are closed, deep in thought or prayer. It is hard to say.
When you enter a tiny space like this, apart from the obvious grime, you can feel the weight of stories shared here. There are no niceties, there is no expectation of small talk. But everyone who enters has a burden of a story.
The labourer who got swindled, the man who lost another gambling bet, the one who lost a son… there are many sad stories. There are also many alcoholics, who seek refuge in these dive bars. The evenings, of course, the right time to enter these spaces, you will find them almost cheerful.
Some old friends bonding over a bottle, but the rancid air will remind you, this is not a space they love, it is just a refuge. These dive bars are looked at with disdain by the self-respecting folk who would not be caught dead entering or leaving, anything guarded by a flimsy curtain.
In Goa, the taverna was always a space for a social meet up. The men stopped by on their bicycles and spoke to each other. You knew everyone from your village, and you just had your shot or tipple and went home to greet your family. This was like a blue-collar post-work meet up space.
From an open-air sitting area to the almost dingy outlets that most of these tiny bars have morphed to, it is still a space that many seek refuge. The microbreweries, the hipster cafes, the forced ‘social’ labels for the restaurants have nothing on the urgency with which loyal customers, flick away the curtain and find refuge here, under the almost zero watt bulb.
It is a dystopian setting but has become a permanent motif, in many cities and towns. It feels like a montage to a movie about a broken home, till you hear men laughing, you can almost enjoy the alcohol if you switch off the tv in the corner, where Bollywood swill is on display.The food is tasty sometimes as well. If you are lucky to find a bar like Esperanza’s, tucked near a verdant hill off the Zuari river in Goa. It is a tiny space, where fresh crab or prawns, caught from the river are served up, with a swig of
sorro (alcohol, in Konkani). What an apt word, for the sorrows that need to be drowned. The solace of a drink, without pretence, does the trick. The bright dive bar curtain does hide it all.
Sharon Fernandes is a journalist based in Delhi.