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Rediff: In search of the “Real Goa”

 

Rediff: In search of the real Goa

    From: Frederick Noronha (fred@goa1.dot.net.in)
    Date: Tue, 25 May 1999 22:47:47 +0500

Thanks to Frederick Menezes for sending this thru. FN

Rediff on the NeT dated May 25, 1999

Bookshelves and beaches: In search of the real Goa

Ashok Banker

If you're familiar with the beautiful Indian state of Goa and its
equally beautiful denizens, you've probably wondered, just as I have,
why it doesn't feature more often in contemporary literature. After all,
it has everything: a rich history and cultural heritage, a largely
English-speaking populace, and lots of dramatic potential.

Like the USA's Florida, it's an idyllic beach paradise that attracts
tourists from around the world, and perhaps because of this very fat, is
a major stop on the Asian gold-guns-and-drugs smuggling route. But while
Florida has a plethora of excellent, prolific writers churning out books
set against the backdrop of the "Golden" state — Carl Hiassen being
just one name that's made it big recently — apna Goa is barely a speck
on the literary horizon.

There have been a few books that attempt to correct this lack. Victor
Rangel-Ribeiro's Tivolem was an evocative romance set in the Goa of the
1930s. Nisha da Cunha's bittersweet, melancholy tales continue to
capture finely observed slices of Goan life. There was the enjoyable
Ferry Crossing recently, an anthology of short stories set in Goa,
translated from Konkani, Portuguese, Marathi and English, edited by
Manohar Shetty. But these have been rare exceptions rather than the
rule.

I've been visiting Goa since childhood. So I've been able to view its
changing landscape over time. And some of the changes have been
shocking, others saddening.

Recently, visiting Goa for the first time in six years, I found it
difficult to believe my own eyes. At places like Candolim, Baga Beach,
Coco Beach, and Vagatore, there were more foreigners visible than
locals. At some restaurants, my family and I were the only Indians
present!

Now, that's not entirely bad news. After all, most of these goras aren't
the charas-chugging, lice-infested hippies of the Seventies. These
people are respectable citizens from their respective countries, retired
businessmen, working class people who've put their savings together to
settle in a land where the pound or the deutsche mark goes a longer way
than it does back home. They're well-behaved — excessively polite in my
opinion — and much too quiet and boring to be any real nuisance.

Besides, they are good for the local economy. They spend money, a lot of
it as compared to even Indian tourists, and unlike Indian tourists, they
venture far beyond the boundaries of the asinine five-star hotels to
sample the real Goan joi de vivre.

Goan sweet on food

The one thing that's really changed in Goa is the food. Since my
maternal grandfather was a D'Souza from Saligao, I grew up on a healthy
dose of sorpotel, vindalu, and balchao. From whole-husked rice and curry
in the villages to buffets and barbecues at the Taj Holiday Village.
From Panjim to Candolim, I sampled a lot of places. But on this most
recent visit, I was in for a shock.

Goan food has changed. How? Well, to put it simply: It's gone sweet! The
menu's changed too — at some places there are more Continental, Chinese
and Mughlai dishes than Goan ones. But what's shocking is that almost
every dish I sampled was like a dessert to my desi taste buds. I had
chilly fry in two separate places, and the only chillies in them were
Kashmiri ones! (You could even be forgiven for wondering if that's the
influence of the huge number of Kashmiri traders who have also relocated
here).

Oddly enough, the food isn't bad. In fact, it's very good. I ate at a
few places, sampling all kinds of cuisine, and the one thing that stood
out was that Goan eateries have really spruced up their act: The decor
and atmosphere is excellent. The service is great — although it's a
trifle slow, perhaps because of the huge rush at meal-times. And the
food is really good. But it's unsettling to taste sugar instead of
spice.

Of course, authentic Goan food is still available — but you have to
travel further South and West, into the less scenic, less accessible,
and less touristy parts of the cashew-shaped state. Stop at those
roadside dhaba type eateries and try them out. No sugar in the
butter-garlic naans here — in fact, no tandoori naans at all. Only
authentic Goan food, hot enough to make you sweat. And most of all, no
white faces and European accents.

Hot sun, cold hearts

There's a dark side to the silver lining of Goan tourism too.

Paedophilia.

It's a word most people should never have to know the meaning of, but
sadly enough, it's the reason why a large number of foreigners come to
Goa. Boy-loving is probably the most euphemistic way to describe it.
Internationally known social activist and human rights champion Sheela
Barse has been fighting numerous cases of paeodophilia in Goa for years.

The opposition she has faced ranges from simple harassment — the police
themselves often fail to turn up for court dates at the last minute,
rendering her long journeys useless, or worse, are suspiciously lax in
arresting known paeodophiles, often on grounds of diplomatic immunity —
add to that death threats from prominent citizens and even government
officials who have a vested stake in the state's new tourism-driven
prosperity and you can imagine how hard it is for a lone activist like
Barse to fight the good fight alone.

In Goa, when you see a foreigner with a child, or more than one, at the
beach, in a restaurant, in a shop buying chocolates, you don't know
whether to smile or to squirm. Because, chances are, that generous
"uncle" might well be interested in more than just their innocent
company. I saw one such "uncle" at Coco Beach, a peaceful secluded haven
shunned by the mass of tourists because of its dark sand (although the
slope of the beach is so gradual, you can walk out almost half a
kilometre before the water rises above your neck).

This gentleman, an overweight scanty-haired German who resembled Marlon
Brando in Godfather II (remember the scene where the ailing Brando plays
with his grandchildren in the hothouse?), was pointed out to me as being
under suspicions of paedophilia. He was surrounded by a group of 15 or
more young Goan children, some of them pubescent girls. He was rather
physical with them, but they were ostensibly playing in the foam and I
never saw anything that transcended the bounds of decency. Still, it
made even the sugar-glazed mackerels unappetising that afternoon.

Even if he himself wasn't one of the notorious "uncles", the knowledge
that there are many such men out there does darken the sunny cheeriness
of the fun-and-feni state.

Looking for Leonardo DiCaprio

There's no use looking out for a glimpse of Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, the
Titanic star is acting in the film of the novel The Beach by Alex
Garland. But it's not being shot in Goa as originally rumoured. Instead,
it's being filmed at a beach in Thailand, where it faced a storm of
protest from locals who feared that an influx of Hollywood movie makers
will contribute to their growing problem of environmental degradation.
But while neither the star nor the film are on hand in Goa, the novel
itself is easily had.

In fact, it seems to be a hot favourite among tourists, especially the
backpacking kind on low-budget economy holidays. Perhaps because of its
theme of White People on their mandatory Asian Spiritual Reawakening
holiday.

In fact, one of the good things foreigners have brought in to Goa is a
reading habit. As tourism develops, newspaper circulations have been
rising steadily. New air-conditioned bookshops are opening up all over
the state, mostly on the tourist routes. There's even "home delivery of
books" advertised in the Sunday papers. But if you really want to see
what Goa's reading, go down to the marketplaces (Calangute is the best
place to start) and look for signs on doorways which say "Books". Almost
every house in two dozen has a couple of shelves of second-hand books
(bought from tourists and catering back again to tourists).

Besides the usual bestseller tripe, you'll find a lot of Herman Hesse,
Carlos Castaneda, science fiction, New Age and spiritual tomes by the
dozen, and stacks of books in French, Dutch, German, Italian, you name
it. But if you're expecting bargain basement prices, don't get your
hopes up. Because of the strength of Euro currency, you're unlikely to
get even a dog-eared beer-stained paperback at less than Rs 100. You
don't know whether to thank the foreigners for bringing in all these
books or curse them for inflating second-hand prices.

Books are highly visible around Goa, especially at the tourist beaches
where you can stretch out under a hired umbrella (Rs 30 for a day if you
negotiate well) with a cold bottle of beer stuck into the damp sand
beside you, and read from sunup to sundown. If you can keep your eyes
from wandering to the muscular tanned foreigners whacking volleyballs
over a net and their blonde-haired wives sprawled bare-breasted on deck
chairs, turning brown as Goan nuts.

Driving across the new bridge that finally breaches the Mandovi River
(two earlier bridges collapsed due to inferior building materials used
by corrupt contractors) to the capital Panjim (to sound more like a
local, always say "Punjee") and from there to the usual tour of churches
and relics (the Basilica of Bom Jesu, the remains of St Francis of
Assisi), you note the Udipi eating joints, the urban-style shopping
malls, the urban-style refuse on the streets, and wonder if Goa is
getting better or worse as time goes by.

In a way, there are two Goas now. The old one of the villages and
football fields and churches and red-hot sorpotel, as captured so
eloquently in Rangel-Ribeiro's charming Tivolem. And the new Goa of
Whiteskinned tourists, sugar-laced butter-garlic naans and German
novels.

Which is the real Goa? I don't think anyone knows for sure anymore.

Ashok Banker accepts views and abuse at ashokbanker@vsnl.com