11 Sep 2022  |   05:58am IST

Sunset at Curlies

Long before the notoriety that has brought bulldozers to its once-idyllic location in South Anjuna, this beach shack was the last bastion of hippie soul from an era of countercultural adventures that extended from Haight-Ashbury across to Europe, and via Turkey and Afghanistan to India, with separate trails up to Kathmandu and down to Goa. Even as recently as 2005 – when the accompanying photograph was taken – that remarkable cultural history was still alive. And there was no better place to experience it than Curlies, where the entire multi-generational “scene” gathered ceremoniously each evening, to watch the sun go down in the haze from hundreds of chillums.

The first time all this played out in front of me – it was on assignment for the late, lamented Time Out Mumbai – I recall being stunned by the scale and significance of what was happening. There were hundreds of foreigners interspersed with Indians, everyone enjoying themselves hugely, with super-smart young Goans running it all with great style and efficiency. Many were smoking marijuana on the steps in front (which became packed as the sun started to go down) but there were also many families, with scores of children playing in the surf. It was hedonist, but also holistic. As the sky flamed scarlet, I was introduced to “the man who started this all”, and it turned out to be true. This was Yertward Mazamanian, 81-year-old Eight Finger Eddie himself. 

The old American (he eventually died in 2010) is important, because you cannot possibly understand what South Anjuna is today – the kind of place where 42-year-old political aspirant from Haryana (and former TikTok celebrity) Sonali Phogat would spend her final evening “being drugged” – without remembering what happened here since 1966, when Eight Finger Eddie (he was born with only three fingers on his right hand) first showed up. This early ambassador of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” generation later explained that “I abhor work, begrudging every moment I've wasted as a wage earner. My aim in life is to get through life doing what I want to do.” Then, “I was the first freak in Goa. I turned up and liked it so much, I just wanted to stay. And then others started coming. In those days, they came overland from Europe in camper vans, and no one had any money.”

Eight Finger Eddie would make simple food and hand it out in coconut shells to anyone who needed it, and pioneered the famous flea-market. The scene burgeoned: Anjuna chronicler Dominic Fernandes once said “(The hippies) were in love with this place. And we fell in love with them, because of the way they lived.” By 1976, when the writer David Tomory visited (his Hello Goodnight: A Life of Goa is an excellent record of the first waves of tourism), the little coastal village was already world-famous “with the movers and shakers and (had) a certain mystique. Its fame spread.”

Tomory writes that “the movers and shakers began to appear all over the planet in silk, silver, brocades and exotic jewellery, telling tales so beguiling that by the mid-seventies Anjuna was being overwhelmed by its admirers. Once upon a time there had been naked hermaphrodites to astound the fully dressed men, the mobile Californian commune called the Hog Farm had visited. There was at least one family of unrelated adults; there were the Green People, each bearded patriarch marshalling his wives and babies.” Alongside, of course, the inevitable contradictions, “I met a man searching for the very spot where he had been spontaneously seduced by a “nymphet” in 1972, on his way home from a party. He told me that spontaneity had been everything, openness had been everything, freedom had been everything, and now he was on Wall Street.”

There’s one particularly poignant line in Tomory’s account: “there was nowhere like it; it was too rare to last.” Part of the problem was the drugs: psychedelia was liberating, but often led to much darker places. Certainly, as we see in Cleo Odzer’s terrific Goa Freaks: My Hippie Years in India, by the mid-1970s themselves, the “scene” was already turning from consciousness expansion to simply getting wasted: “Anjuna Beach hierarchy sorted itself out to me – those with a lot of coke, those with some, and those with none. The people with quantity formed the focal points of social situations, and we others fluttered between them. As soon as someone pulled out a stash, five or six people materialised out of nowhere.”

It is interesting to see how this blithe, beautiful New Yorker (she died in Goa in 2001) describes the Anjuna sunset ritual of 1975, near-identically to what I witnessed 30 years later: “Their long hair flying loose, the men came in lungis. The women wore long flowing skirts, and many were bare-chested. Both males and females were loaded with antique Indian silver jewellery on ankles, arms, necks and waists. They lounged on the sand and focused on where the sun turned red as it touched the water. Pink snaked across the sky. Purple, orange. People gossiped in lowered tones, almost whispers. A hint of reverence glinted in their eyes as they looked at the colours rather than at each other.”

Odzer explains “the Goa Freaks were young people who’d rejected their home lives and homelands and had come to India to create a new way of life. The communal sunset was part of it. None of the Goa freaks spoke about their families or countries of origin. The past belonged to the straight world they’d renounced. From their speech and mannerisms, though, you could tell they came from comfortably middle-class backgrounds, with well-balanced meals and well-rounded educations. They looked beautiful and healthy, and rich too, covered as they were in silver. They seemed to have it all. I wanted it too. I wanted desperately to be one of them.”

This is a crucial insight. The utopian allure of Anjuna was very real, and survived mostly intact right until 2000, when some of the richest young Indians woke up to its existence. Its ultimate death knell was the turn of the millennium, about which an India Today cover story on “all roads lead to Goa” touted breathessly: “This is Anjuna beach, Goa, current headquarters of Jeh Wadia, who among other things is industrialist Nusli and Maureen's son. He sits, stripped to the waist, wearing a knee-length batik lungi and floaters, working the phones. Partner Whosane, a celebrated disc jockey (deejay) and Manisha Koirala's boyfriend, sits alongside, negotiating with sponsors, supervising construction work and playing hardball with sleepy government babus.”

Make no mistake: that was the beginning of the end. India Today talked about challenges posed by 400,000 visitors for the year-end festivities in 1999, roughly half of whom were expected to be foreigners. But track the New Year’s Day numbers forward just over two decades, and those from overseas have remained roughly the same, while a veritable tsunami of domestic partygoers now totals at least twenty times as many. The entire coastline has become inundated with illegalities, under pressure of unstoppable Indian demand. This is the story of Curlies, of South Anjuna, of Goa itself. Tomory’s most telling line bears repeating: There was nowhere like it; it was too rare to last.”

(Vivek Menezes is a writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival)


Iddhar Udhar