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Creaky paradise

Goa has been going to seed much before Scarlette Keeling. And it’s not only ‘outsiders’ who are to blame, writes Sudeep Chakravarti.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2008 22:16 IST

Two days ago, a friend and I were breakfasting at a chic café in Baga, a bizarre Goan confluence of the digital hippie, Indian yuppie and those whom I simply call Charter Jack and Charter Jane — “Oi, mate!” and chips with everything. A French couple, replete with tattoos, wearing worn clothes, BO, and a girl of about six came and sat by us, burnt some charas, rolled a joint, and began to fumigate the vicinity. My friend, a Goan preparing to adopt a girl, was outraged at the couple’s nonchalance in doing something so openly in Goa that would land them in jail in their own country, besides possibly placing their daughter under State care.

“I can’t believe these guys,” she spat. “They should be whipped. And this Scarlette,” she continued, “how could her mother leave a 15-year-old girl by herself in this day and age, in an area known to be unsafe, known for drugs and raves and what not and go away on her travels? Would she do that in England? No. But this is Goa, right? So now the girl is dead.”

Scarlette Eden Keeling, flower-child of a flower-parent, is dead, after allegedly being on an extended trip of substance abuse, after allegedly being raped by a manager of a shack at Anjuna beach. Less than an hour’s drive north of where I live, in Panjim, Anjuna was once the eastern extremity of Woodstock. Today, it is a tawdry zoo-market of veggie and chemical kundalini, Che T-shirts, Tibetan exileware, brownies and banana lassi by a coast denuded by theft of sand and encroachment of humanity in shacks, shacks and more shacks: legal, illegal, extra-legal. Unfettered rave parties take place on hilltops and valleys within everyone’s hearing — even the administration and the police. At the Café Looda each Wednesday in season, world travellers with beatific smiles brought on by produce from Shiva’s kitchen garden take photos of each other on mobiles, as they gyrate to mediocre psychedelic lounge music and fairly robust rock.

And now the world has come to Goa to inspect this tiny, pretty state’s seedy, seething underbelly, all because of Scarlette. Where the heck was the world all these years? Why the quiet till Scarlette?

Perhaps, because for too long the world and Goa have mutually dressed each other in contraceptives of ‘hip’ and ‘cool’. Perhaps for too long we have bought into an idea of Goa complete in delusion and denial that India’s premier ‘party state’ all too readily offers us, and all too readily has learnt to prostitute. People call it many things. I call it Malaise de Goa.

Goa, once Gomantak and Govepuri, and in the time of the ancients, Aparanta — the land at the horizon — is a charmed place. To come back home to Goa from travels is to ascend into calm. Walkabout in Panjim, I can greet familiar touch points from the grocer and pharmacist to the ageing grandee and elderly beggar. For days, there is little reason to speak; to hear birdsong is enough. Friends and family criss-cross Goa to be with each other, share a drink, meal, humour, care. Here, I learnt again about colour. After two decades in the Big City, here I learnt again to breathe.

But even as I look upon Goa with the eyes of a lover, I experience violent disenchantment with it. It is difficult to deny a place that resembles a fading courtesan, desperate for coins; even, a Banana Republic with caricature dictators. This is a creaky paradise, a pilgrimage for Marquez.

Nearly two years ago a restaurateur acquaintance of mine, an Indian and a longtime Goa resident, was killed at his home. He was first beaten up, and then his neck nearly severed. The whispers were soon about: land deal gone sour, dangerous business. There were also overtones of marital deal gone sour, dangerous business. Both happen.

They still haven’t found — ‘apprehended’? — his killer. Family and friends were advised by the powers not to push investigation; even a flamboyant businessman who calls Goa home passed the word. Let it rest, he advised. Look to the future.

In the four years I have called Goa home, this has happened quite a lot. Diplomats’ children have turned up dead. So have sundry, evidently healthy tourists from all points of the globe. They have turned up dead in hotel rooms, beaches, crevices and forests, for reasons ranging from depression and drugs to pure mystery. Several names have simply disappeared, either AWOL in the subterranean afterlife of Goa, or ‘disappeared’, to use a euphemism for those forcibly taken out of circulation. As with Goa’s stupendous garbage problem and increasing raucousness and belligerence, deaths too are routinely downplayed at the fickle, all-forgiving altar of tourism.

Credible sources in the police, administration, media and even the all-knowing tourist trade have often mentioned to me that Goa is today a party zone drawn into specific lines of control by Russian interests (‘mafia’ is too dramatic a word), and those of Israeli stock, Nigerian, Kashmiri, and, of course, Goan. There are beaches to the north and south where Goans, let alone other Indians, are unwelcome. This is Firangistan. A prosperous Goan hotelier friend of mine marvels that he makes in an entire season what an organiser of rave parties makes in two such parties. Not far from his hotel, I have seen tourists being offered along with furniture a variety of drugs to numb an army of monitor lizards.

Land too is gold in Goa. As the promise of riches once brought the Portuguese and others to Goa Dourada — Golden Goa — land often pays back the investor five times the value paid three years ago. ‘Old Goan’ houses continue to be flavour du jour. (The editor of a major TV channel handed me his card sometime back in Delhi with the terse command: “If you see an old Goan house that suits me, give me a call.” Silly boy.) Many Goans are today wealthy by trading in this asset to ‘outsiders’ —from Mumbai and Moscow, Bhatinda and Blackpool, and, of course, planeloads from the National Capital Region. Land is being converted from active farmland and active forest to be sold to mining and construction interests. Those who participate in the conversion to this new religion are both Goans and not. A powerful minister in Goa’s government was compelled to resign early last year when massive public protest against the Goa Regional Plan 2011 exposed complicity of political and business interests in this conversion and encroachment that involves the length and breadth of Goa. But protest has abated. The former minister and present MLA’s powers have not diminished. The compelling mix of power, money and what the Chinese call ‘fragrant grease’. Here, peace and prosperity can cost 10 per cent — even 50.

The stakes are high, and getting higher. Piece-of-the-action is driving Goa to the edge. And in all this, Goa and its people are in a state of high churn, where medieval mores and the incestuousness of the village clash with the lure of easy money, crash-lesson modernity and bright lights. The bogey of the ‘outsider’, and xenophobic paranoia, have reached ludicrous proportions. A minor politician from fashion designer Wendell Rodrick’s village of Colvale described him to me as an ‘outsider’, as Rodrick is resident of another vaddo, or ward, of the same village. An apartment block near my favourite Chinese restaurant in Panjim warns ‘outsiders’ to park outside. There is no ‘visitor’ any longer. Neither is there acceptance of the irony that ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ are often blurred into the same side of a coin.

Goa is today a teeming, turbulent, touchy place. In the ancient days of 40 years ago, Goa was a trip. Now it’s also a business, a disease.

If only young Scarlette knew.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. His novel, Once Upon a Time in Aparanta, set in present-day Goa, will be published later this year. He lives in Goa.