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 as far as I can tell, Goa is not in the process of 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 have agreed with Donna Georgina. But more numerous have been the 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 fail 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!)

26 thoughts on “Getting to Know Goa, Slowly

  1. Amardeep: I, for one, am glad you’re visiting India. Love the tone in which you write the appraisals of where you traveled. The voice is so restrained and matter-of-fact, so unlike the foppery of ‘look-where-I’m now’ travel writing. I do love Dalrymple’s, or Fanny Parkes’ exuberant writing in general, and travel writing as a genre is very appealing. But the trend these days is to describe one’s travel in the most extravangant terms: how one’s destination is the most unusual place with a complicated history, natural bounties, cuisine, and a local flavor that generates endless soulful epiphanies…..Your style though is less ornate — a refreshing change. One day, when you do have the time and appropriate distance from the present, I’d love to hear about how it is like to travel with a young family. That is the one of the small things that scares me about marriage and children: the loss of the ability to just get up and go, to move around with very little planning and provision.

  2. One day, when you do have the time and appropriate distance from the present, I’d love to hear about how it is like to travel with a young family. That is the one of the small things that scares me about marriage and children: the loss of the ability to just get up and go, to move around with very little planning and provision.

    Portmanteau, glad you’ve been enjoying the posts.

    Traveling with a young child can indeed be quite difficult, and I’ll think about doing a more personal post on the subject, if I can. It certainly makes sense to satiate one’s desire for grown-up travel, art museums, chic night-clubs, and fancy restaurants before having a kid. But it’s by no means the end of the world to travel with a kid, and your kid can give you angles on a place that one might not have had otherwise.

    For instance, what are the playgrounds like? In London this month, we visited no museums [blasphemy!], but we had a great time at the splendid children’s playground in Hyde Park. Also, seeing London’s red double-decker buses with a two-year old’s eyes can remind you that they’re not just cliches — they’re actually a really fun way in which to travel around the city. I hope they don’t replace them with generic buses you have everywhere else.

    In India, Puran loves the motorcycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, and animal life. The roads here are much more alive than the roads in the U.S.

  3. 1 · portmanteau said

    about how it is like to travel with a young family. That is the one of the small things that scares me about marriage and children:

    Actually, I take inspiration from Manmohan Desai families and hope that travel to strange places will provide wonderful opportunities to lose one’s young family.

  4. 3 · Rahul said

    Actually, I take inspiration from Manmohan Desai families and hope that travel to strange places will provide wonderful opportunities to lose one’s young family.

    :-)

  5. 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.

    Idiotic policies (ban on beach parties), recession, and the effects of Mumbai attack and other security concerns (the murder of the British girl earlier this year), have thrown tourism into a tailspin in Goa. I friend who visits Goa often said that last week the usual places seemed deserted. The tranquility is nice for now, but the Goan economy will really start hurting if the tourists do not return in mass soon.

  6. How widespread is the use of Konkani among upper and middle-class Goans? Has English largely supplanted it in that group? Can the younger crowd still speak it fluently?

  7. That is the one of the small things that scares me about marriage and children: the loss of the ability to just get up and go, to move around with very little planning and provision.

    you think too much yaar. the froot of your lions will do just fine or you could just adopt an older, self-sufficient guy [raises hand]… this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship

  8. Amitabh,

    I am by no means an expert but from personal experience a lot of people including Goan Christians speak Konkani and I have met a lot of younger people who are fluent.

  9. love the account Amardeep. it is always interesting for me to hear non-Goan’s account of the place my family calls home. i feel my trips there are always offer me a skewed perspective (Goan Catholic, local vs. tourist, etc) of my understanding of Goa’s complete story. Goa has an admittedly unique history within Goa, and it’s “composite culture” is at the same time it’s most intriguing to me as well as it’s most perplexing. I would love to hear more of your thoughts from your trip. Keep writing!

  10. My grandparents lived on the baga beach all their lives and I have lovely memories of spending long summers at the beach literally a hop and skip away. Speaking of only the baga area, I have seen it transformed a sleepy fishing village with two hotels- bays dos sol and riverfront into a ereally big tourist hub.A lot of locals rented out their homes/ rooms to tourists who live there for 3-6 months at a time. The income generated was a welcome addition to the primary income- fishing and living off remittances from relatives abroad. As for Konkani, it seems the north and south of goa speak different dialects, not sure about the south but my grandparents and people I know used the roman script to write Konkani and claimed not to understand the devngri script.

  11. My memories of visiting Goa are almost dual-natured. Visits with the parents always involved beautiful temples and fresh fish cooked in different ways. The distinctive architecture styles of Mangeshi, Nageshi, and the Shanta-Durga temples are in a world completely different from beautiful churches from the cities like Panaji. Later on, when I was older and visited with my friends, we mainly went to the beach and the small shacks for the fish and cheap beer. Two different worlds..

  12. 9 · khoofia said

    you could just adopt an older, self-sufficient guy [raises hand]… this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship

    khoof, i can’t tell you how many times i’ve fallen for that one. i’ve paid for it in tears as madonna aunty puts it. dhanyavaad ji, but no thanks :)

  13. This is the best time of the year to go to Goa, not too hot and not too crowded. About Konkani, it comes in many different flavors, the Konkani spoken by Saraswats in Southern Maharashtra and Karnataka (Belgaum, Karwar) is quite different from the Konkani spoken by Goan Christians, which is closer to Marathi, while the other variation has many words derived from Tulu and Kannada. So when you speak of Konkani speakers in Maharashtra I am not sure who exactly you were referring to. The language divide in Goa is more of a religious divide between the Goan Christians and Goan Hindus. FWIW I think its good that Goa is not a part of Maharashtra, it is a large enough state as it is.

    If you like seafood Amardeep try Xacuti(sp?)with mussels the fresh fish in Goa is unbelievable! Happy New Year to you and safe travels.

  14. A question that I have always thought about but never put any effort in getting an answer about Goa is

    Do Indian women there wear bikini’s on the beach or really long shirts with men’s trunks?

  15. Do Indian women there wear bikini’s on the beach or really long shirts with men’s trunks?

    the answer might surprise you. this is an indian mataji’s backside resplendent in nothing – and this is a lady bodyboarding.

    khoof, i can’t tell you how many times i’ve fallen for that one. i’ve paid for it in tears as madonna aunty puts it. dhanyavaad ji, but no thanks :)

    dang! foiled again.

  16. Amardeep, very interesting post. There are some really thoughtful essays on Goa here. There’s a wonderful flickr photostream of Goa by Frederick Noronha here.

    As you mentioned, many artists, artistes, writers, musicians, etc are moving to Goa from elsewhere in India and abroad. Amitav Ghosh, for example. (Check out this first person account by an expat).

    Goa being the locus of the longest period of continuous colonial presence in South Asia, one of the longest in the world, I have to wonder what it means when writers choose to move there to write their trilogies on the British colonial period? Perhaps you will tell us! I look forward to your future posts on/from/about Goa.

    As I write, it is already New Year’s in Goa, though this one is set to be more subdued, with cops on the beaches, sandbagged as if expecting an invasion! (The cop chief interviewed in the clip is a real wordsmith, he says “We have sufficient capability, but it’s not enough, yes“.)

    Happy New Year to you and all at SM!

  17. The best part about konkani – ALL variants proudly serve some of the most colourful swear words in India. It’s an honour to get cussed out by konkani grandparent.

    Happy new year all.

  18. One day, when you do have the time and appropriate distance from the present, I’d love to hear about how it is like to travel with a young family. That is the one of the small things that scares me about marriage and children: the loss of the ability to just get up and go, to move around with very little planning and provision.

    we had our kids (2 boys) late, and prior to that did a fair amount of travelling. No question that kids take out the spontaneity of being able to go on a whim. But, with careful planning we still travel a fair amount. The older one sleeps or reads, so he is not an issue at all. The younger one is a lot more lively, and was initially a handful, but we have developed coping and control mechanisms eg portable video, musuems in 1 hour max chunks and so on. We are reasonably ruthless about dumping them with baby sitting in reputable hotels (where we are staying) if we need time off as adults. It does need more planning (which costs nothing) but we are pretty happy with our ability to travel. We will be popping up to NYC this weekend, and to other destinations in April (Easter), somewhere else in Summer, and then probably India in Dec.

  19. Visit LLoyd’s on the Calangute-Siquerim road at 3 AM,have his mom’s Fejado and poi, drink a cold one and listen to the local boy’s (everyone from owner’s of the fancy resorts and restaurants, the local MLA and an occasional celebrity) solve the world’s problem with the absolute knowledge that tomorrow it starts all over again.

  20. 21 · tiglath pileser said

    We will be popping up to NYC this weekend, and to other destinations in April (Easter), somewhere else in Summer, and then probably India in Dec.

    awesome. our parents were also traveled with us extensively when we were younger. but we were very pliant i think: getting up very early in the day, sightseeing until we were exhausted, and not minding the relatively spartan places we stayed at (and we didn’t whine at all those days, but even if we did, i doubt we’d have gotten anywhere; my dad used to abhor the resort-type vacations). now, of course, we’re all grown up and hardly ever vacation with our parents (when i make more money, hopefully that will change). but i’m really grateful that they took the effort to plan for holidays in diverse locations, despite the expense and trouble. i’m sure your kids will thank you also when they’re old enough to realize what goes into planning a vacation, especially in out of the places in India.

  21. Great post, Amardeep.And the links are very good.Thanks.

    IMO, the best time to visit Goa is June (not because I am a Gemini ! ).

    Reason: The last of the Indian summer tourists leave by May end.There are a few foreigners (people who have come to spend 1-2 years or possibly longer), and the beaches will be empty.You can get beach front accommodation at throw away prices.The chefs are relaxing and try out some new dishes on the few customers.

    And then we get the first drops of monsoon rains. Oh to be in Goa to welcome the south west monsoon !

  22. Amardeep, Thanks for the detailed post on Goa. I wish more Goans would read it. To know what is being lost. I talked to my Dad and Mom on Xmas – and they mentioned it is the first time they remember the Panjim church bells silent after midnight mass. There were metal detectors and snipers on rooftops. I guess Goa has arrived. Tourism is a mixed bag in Goa – those who profit love it . Those who do not hate it. Times Square has nothing on the Arpora – Anjuna road on New Year’s Eve. My sister lives a block back from that road and i hear the worry in her voice when she considers the influences her teenage children are exposed to. But her hubsand’s small convenience store thrives from Nov. to March. I have overheard sheepish Scandanvian retirees inquruing about non-prescription Viagra purcahses. All this is nothing like the Goa i remember – carefree and safe. Bike rides and picnics and peaceful hippies not threatening to turn every beach into a suburb of Tel Aviv. Or a Russian fortress. True, the political identity of Goans is getting an airing with the Goa Bachao Andolan – but individuals are hurting. Public transport, those languid and humid bus rides (the best way to see Goa) are a thing of the past. I stood all the way from Calangute to Panaji at 10 pm one night packed like a sardine with scores of Kannadiga construction workers headed for home – me to my parents aging apartment, the workers to the one room slums that have sprouted in Chimbel. Diversity of abodes notwithstanding, I am sure everybody had a water contingency plan for the following morning.
    As teenagers, our interests centered on music and girls (surprise!), we’d snigger at the tourist brochures that sold “our” Goa as a land of white beaches and swaying palm trees. How boring, we’d say, gazing out at the ferry boats and barges lumbering down the Mandovi as we smoked and swigged rum oppsite the Customs House. Nowadays the image of Goa as some party place fills me with revulsion. Those “floating” casinos on the Mandovi are the epitome of the bastard culture that has taken hold. In other uplifting news, I have observed Hooligan behavior from close up. In Candolim. I have seen piles of plastic bottles behind Benaulim shacks that would shame Colorado Blvd after the Rose Parade. Cue the Paul Okenfield soundtrack. There are more air kisses at Tito’s than bangde in the sea.
    So, grumpy old me, I’ll take refuge in memories. All i’ll see is white beaches and swaying palm trees. Hope to read more of your posts Amardeep.

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