In the early 90s, Air-India printed a calendar showcasing people from different states in their traditional costumes. The Goa portrait had a couple at a church wedding in bridal finery: the lady in a flowing gown, her partner in a jacket and tie. The publication sparked off protests within the Goan community, who accused the national carrier of portraying a flawed image of the state. In a state where over 60 per cent is Hindu, the calendar was seen to reinforce the stereotype of Goa as a ‘Westernised’ Portuguese enclave. Ironically, the protests were led, among others, by the redoubtable architect Charles Correa, a Goan Catholic proud of his Saraswat Brahmin heritage, someone who was perfectly comfortable in his kurta pajama and Kolhapuri chappals. The protestors were successful enough to force a change in the calendar. When the Air-India Maharaja gets it wrong, what chance does the average Indian have of getting Goa right?
For decades now, Goa has been the victim of a rather perverted caricature: the stereotypical image of the state has been of a lazy, fun-loving coastal community with a weak moral core. Bollywood, often the trailblazer in setting cultural trends, did Goa no favours. The majority of Hindi cinema showed the Goan as the drunk Anthony Gonsalves-like character, a woman on one arm, a whisky bottle in his pocket. Even the otherwise well made Dil Chahta Hai created the idea of Goa as the ultimate fantasy of the young Indian: girls were easy, sexual freedom guaranteed with the puritanical streak of the rest of the country absent here. Rewind to the original ‘Goan’ film, Bobby, in the 1970s: find me a Goan fisherman’s daughter who dresses in skimpy bikinis and shorts like Dimple Kapadia and I will buy you a villa next to Vijay Mallya’s seaside bungalow in Candolim.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been easy to shake off the ‘live the good times’ image of Goa, especially when the mainstream media have lapped it up so easily. If a few years ago, it was fish, feni and football that was considered to be the limit of Goa’s vision, it’s now sex, sin and sand, courtesy the Scarlette Keeling controversy. For an increasingly tabloidish media, the Scarlette controversy is manna from heaven. A teenage White woman drugged, drowned, possibly raped, perhaps murdered, on a beach in Goa by mysterious shack-owners: what more can a carnivorous media ask for? Especially when there are enough close up pictures of a semi-nude Scarlette with marks all over her body, suggesting foul play and a possible cover up?
That the area where the incident took place is notorious for drug peddling, that Scarlette herself appears to have had an active sex life, that the girl’s truant mother has a past history of crime, and is now embellishing her public remarks with unsubstantiated allegations against Goa’s top politicians, that Goa’s netas and local cops have a terrible record in fighting crime, can the media really then be blamed for seeing this as a sensational crime story that will catch restless eyeballs?
But Scarlette’s story is not simply another whodunit. Nor does it fit in within the ‘fight for justice’ framework that in the aftermath of the Jessica Lall case seems to have become the new war cry for a section of the media. Instead, the Scarlette saga lies at the heart of a more abiding conflict between diverse cultural strands of Goa: between licentiousness and piety, between new world normlessness and old world certitudes.
There is the Goa of the beachcombers, of the hippies who discovered Baga in the early 70s, of the rave parties, of paedophilia, of decadent hedonism. But there is also the Goa of deep social conservatism, of folk religiosity in its village temples and churches, of simplicity of lifestyle within rural communities, of a premium on education and of immense pride in its plural, multi-cultural heritage. The Goa of a tiny strip of beach between Candolim and Anjuna is constantly in the media gaze and makes front page headlines. The vast majority of Goans who live outside this world are rarely documented because their lives seem much too unexciting to be explored. Historians and anthropologists have done much to unravel the ‘real’ Goa. But for the national media, it is so much easier to reduce an entire people to a tourist brochure.
Indeed, Goa’s tourism industry — earning the state approximately Rs 10,000 crore in foreign exchange per annum — has been at the heart of the modern-day mythification of the state as some form of a sexual paradise. It is estimated that around 25 lakh tourists come to Goa each year, a vast majority of them local tourists, eager to explore the ‘idea’ of being in a ‘free’ state, free from the restrictions of middle-class attitudes. Only a fifth of the tourists who visit the state each year
are foreigners, most of them looking for a cheap holiday. The Caribbean is too expensive, the Costa del Sol not exotic enough, and Australia too far. So why not clamber onto a chartered plane to a land of the ‘carnival’?
Unfortunately, the postcard image of Goa often has little connection with the living reality of its people. The result is a clash of cultures that has partly shaped the debate over the Scarlette issue. For many Goans, the foreign tourist is a needless intrusion into their community life . Even now, the idea of any form of nudity on the beaches offends Goans. At times even the sight of a half-clad gent on a bike troubles villagers. Which perhaps explains why very few Goans seem to have any sympathy for Scarlette’s mother, shocked as they are by her decision to leave her teenage daughter behind and travel to neighbouring Karnataka on her own. The Keelings’ behaviour offends Goan sensibilities. It reopens lingering fears of a traditional society being overrun by the ‘outsider’. That a young girl might have been raped and murdered by locals doesn’t seem to concern a majority of Goans as much as it should.
And yet, the real threat to Goa’s cultural identity does not lie in the lifestyle of the tourists, confined as they are to a small stretch of the state. In fact, in a state with limited employment opportunities, Goa needs to attract more, not less tourists. The critical threat to Goan society instead comes from within: from the brazen sale of priceless real estate to those who have little stake in the state’s future. It isn’t the influx of tourists that should trouble Goans as much as the growing influence of the builders and construction agents who appear determined to destroy the state’s environmental treasure in violation of all existing laws.
While Goa’s politicians go into cataclysms over the Scarlette case, how many of them have bothered to raise their voice against the virtual auction of the state to land sharks? Is it any surprise that in a state that has seen as many as
19 Chief Ministers in 21 years of statehood, politicians have lost the moral authority to speak up on the issues of governance that really matter to the average Goan?
Frankly, the challenge before Goa today is not the one which is being posed by a Scarlette-afflicted media: a permissive drugs and drink culture might make for good television, but it’s not central to Goa’s impending identity crisis. The real challenge for Goans is whether they can preserve the uniqueness of their land by ensuring that it doesn’t become another concrete jungle. Environment may not make sensational headlines like a murder can. But in the long run, preventing environmental degradation can alone secure Goa’s future.
Postscript: Let me also debunk another stereotype: the ‘desai’ in my surname often leads people to presume I am Gujarati. The fact is that my father was a Goan, and I am proud to be one too.
The writer is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN