Getting to Know Goa, Slowly

Though it is undoubtedly one of India's most popular tourist destinations, it might be surprising to readers that Goa most definitely is not being overrun with big-time real estate development projects. There are some large resorts around (the "Taj Exotica"), in both north and south Goa, and a really insistently Philistine foreign tourist could potentially stay in Goa and never leave one of those places. But Goa is not becoming another Dominican Republic or Jamaica, with mega-resorts so dominant they threaten to eclipse local populations and culture. The best beaches are still, by and large, open to the public, and while some are quite crowded (Calangute), many of the public beaches we've visited seem perfectly tranquil, with a mix of foreign (largely Russian) and Indian tourists enjoying the sun and sand.

It's also worth pointing out that the state has a substantial economic, industrial, and cultural life that has nothing at all to do with tourism. (To give just one example, Goa is apparently popular with pharmaceutical companies, because the low levels of pollution in the air and water make it easier for pharma factories to achive high levels of purity in manufacturing medicine. The local Cipla plant makes the Indian/generic version of AIDS cocktail drugs that are sent to sub-Saharan Africa, and delivered to patients at a cost of $1 a day.)

This resistance to outside money and mega-tourism projects is not for want of trying. This New York Times article from March 2007 is a good introduction to some of the debates over the direction of Goa. The short version is this: the state government was more than ready to implement a "regional plan" that would open doors to major development projects, but a popular "Save Goa" protest movement emerged in 2006-7 that forced them to drop the plan. As a result, you do see some pockets of new tourist development, but it is measured and limited. (The article foregrounds the story of an investor whose focus is on finding distinctive individual houses in Goan villages to renovate and then market in a limited way.)

The emergence of a movement to protect Goa's distinctively laid-back, but fluid cultural heritage does not come without some problems and dangers. Yesterday, we had the distinct privilege of meeting a local Goan writer and journalist named Vivek Menezes, who had a lot to tell us regarding both the history and current status of Goa.

One article Vivek published in 2006 details the tensions produced by the boom atmosphere that was prevalent at the time:

Chakravarti continued, "Piece of the action is ...driving Goa to the edge," and writes movingly about tears at his friend's funeral marking "a sense of loss for a Goa we pine after but can no longer recognise."

It's a sentiment that’s nearly universal in 2006. Long-stayers, relative newcomers and locals all describe a sensation of being under siege.

This feeling is particularly strong at the fringes of Goa's burgeoning tourism marketplace, in the decades-old long-staying communities that developed from the hippie phenomenon of previous decades. On the heels of a series of directives from the centre, officials from half a dozen different state agencies are turning up at people's doorsteps, checking the ownership and legal status of homes and businesses, and denying licences and permissions required
to et up shop in Goa. (link)

I would recommend reading the rest of Vivek's article, where there is some great material from people abroad who have come to the state not as tourists, but to live and settle here.

My preliminary outsider's sense is that the feeling of "crisis" Vivek was referring to in 2006 may be at least temporarily at bay with the collapse of the regional plan. Some people still seem to have a sense of nostalgia for the lost "old Goa," but in a region with history as rich as this one, it's not always clear whether they are talking about the 1990s (Goa NRG/rave culture), the 1970s ("Dum Maro Dum"; western hippies), the 1920s... or the 1570s.

Vivek lent me a book called Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa (edited by Jerry Pinto; Penguin India), in which I've been encountering some interesting essays that address some issues relating to Goa's earlier history. More about that below.

First, William Dalrymple has a great essay in the collection called "At Donna Georgina's," which was originally published in his book The Age of Kali. Here are two paragraphs that give an account of the rise and fall of Goa as a center-piece of the Portuguese commercial empire in the east:

In its earliest incarnation Old Goa was a grim fortress city, the headquarters of a string of fifty heavily armed artillery bastions stretching the length of the Indian littoral. But by 1600 the process that would transform the conquistdors into dandies had turned Old Goa from a fortified barracks into a thriving metropolis of seventy-five thousand people, the swaggering capital of the Portuguese Empire in the East. It was larger than contemporary Madrid, and virtually as populous as Lisbon, whose civic privileges it shared. The mangrove swamps were cleared, and in their place roses the walls and towers of Viceregal palaces, elegant townhouses, austere monasteries and elaborate baroque cathedrals.

With easy wealth cam a softening of the hard eges. The fops and dandies had no interest in war, and concentrated instead on their seraglios. Old Goa became more famous for its whores than for its cannons or cathedrals. According to the records of the Goan Royal Hopital, by the first quarter of the seventeenth century at least five hundred Portuguese a year were dying from syphilis and 'the effects of profligacy.' Althoug the ecclesiastical authorities issued edicts condmening the sexual 'laxity' of the marrie women who 'drugged their husbands the better toenjoy their lovers,' this did not stop the clerics themselves keeping whole harems of black slave-girls for their pleasure. In the 1590s the first Dutch galleons had begun defying the Portuguese monopoly: by 1638 Goa was being blockaded by Dutch warships. Sixty years later, in 1700, according to a Scottishsea captain, the city was a 'place of small Trade and most of its riches lay in the hands of indolent Country Gentlemen, who loiter away their days in East, Luxury, and Pride.

So it was to remain. The jungle crept back, leaving only a litter of superb baroque churches -- none of which would look out of place on the streets of Lisbon, Madrid or Rome--half strangled by the mangrove swamps.

I'm a little skeptical of this account, in part because there might be material factors leading to the decline of the Portuguese empire that outweigh the culture of extravagance and profligacy Dalrymple is describing here. (Admittedly, I haven't studied this in depth.)

Dalrymple goes on to give an account of an interview he had with a contemporary 'old Goan' -- a woman named Donna Georgina, who 30+ years after Goa's annexation by India, remained nostalgic for the time when Goa was still a Portuguese colony. In fact, there has traditionally been a small group of diehard Portuguese loyalists who agreed with Donna Georgina. But more numerous have been Goan writers and intellectuals with a strong pride in Goa's unique cultural identity and heritage, who also comfortably identify as Indians.

One example of the latter was Armando Menezes, who happens to be Vivek Menezes' grandfather. After Goa was liberated in 1961, there was a movement to absorb the state into Maharashtra; the state does contain a fair number of Marathi speakers alongside those who speak Konkani and Kannada. (There are also a significant number of Konkani speakers in Maharashtra.) In the same collection where I read Dalrymple's essay there is the text of a speech given by Menezes in 1965, just as the debate over the future status of Goa was underway. Menezes puts a great deal of weight on the Konkani language as a feature distinguishing Goa from Maharashtra, but also manages to offer a more general vision of Goa's cultural identity:

All that the Goans want is the freedom to choose. Ther are a few things which he cannot choose, but which have rather chosen him. This soil, this Goa, has chosen him; and wherever he lives and toils and dies, there is a corner of a foreign field which is forever Goa. His tongue has chosen him; it is metaphysical impossibility to chose another. One can choose one's wife; one cannot choose one's mother: that is why it is called the mother tongue. We must be the merest renegades, the merest waifs and strays blown about the streets, if we fil to recognize that. And one cannot choose one's history. Untold centuries, even long before the arrival of the Portuguese on Indian shores, have chiselled our souls to what we are; we have known the confluence of many cultures, the impact of many destinies. The Goan soul is woven of many strands and is, at bottom, a coat without seams--even in spite of the recent attempts to tear it to tatters.

I like this formulation because 1) it doesn't lean exclusively on the history of Portuguese colonialism (which would be merely another species of Raj nostalgia), and 2) it manages to be proud without being exclusivist. Goan culture has long been a composite formation, and needs to continue being such, if it is to continue to grow and develop.

British author Graham Greene also referred to the conundrum of Goan identity when he visited Goa at just around the time Armando Menezes gave the speech quoted above. Much of what he wrote in 1965, describing the style of living here, still seems somewhat salient:

There are few extremes of poverty and affluence: most houses, however small, are constructed of laterite blocks with brown tiles of great beauty. They were built by Goans, not by Portuguese (for the Portuguese lived only in the towns), often by Goans in exile, in Aden or in Africa, who hoped to return one day, for the far-ranging Goan has a loyalty to his village you seldom find elsewhere. It seemed the fiurst thing one Goan asked another--not in what city he worked but from what village he came, and in distant Bombay every Goan village has its club of exiles--350 clubs.

In the first Indian village outside Goa on the road to Bombay you are back to the mud huts and broken thatch which are almost a sign of affluence compared with the horrible little cabins made out of palm fronds and bits of canvas and any piece of old metal on the outskirts of Bombay. These are dwellings to escape from; how can their inhabitants feel loyalty to Mahrashtra--the huge amorphous member-State of the Indian Union neighbouring Goa, into which Goa must almost certainly be sooner or later submerged?

Without agreeing with Graham Greene's assessment of poverty in Maharashtra, one can be pleased that his prediction of Goa's inevitable cultural and political absorption has turned out not to be true.

(That's all for now; I might have more Goa posts as I continue to see and read more things. Happy New Year, everyone!)