An outsider in Goa

BAL MUNDKUR

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WHAT does one look for when one plans to retire to Goa? A good environment to start with and Goa certainly has that – clean, beautiful beaches, magnificent scenery and a character all of its own. On the flip side, the weather is not so good in April/May and in September/October, but a combination of sea breeze and air-conditioning takes care of the heat. June, July and August bring the monsoon rains which, though sometimes tiresome, bring out the true beauty of Goa with the lush greenery of its paddy fields and abundant vegetation.

When I decided to opt out of Bombay in 1995 I had the world to choose from but I chose Goa as the place to relocate to. The general prediction was that I would either die of boredom or be back in Bombay within six months. Nearly ten years on, I am still here and loving it and it is not I, but Goa that has proved those Cassandras’ wrong.

Another consideration was a change of pace. After years of living in Bombay’s stressful environment and working in an even more stressful profession, I wanted to slow down, have time to think and, more important, to do the many things I have always wanted to do. In the beginning, I must admit that the laid back attitude in Goa did prove to be a bit irksome, particularly as I was building a home and had a deadline to keep. Used to things happening when they should made it difficult to accept things never happening on time. They still don’t, but it does not seem to matter as much any more.

 

 

Intellectual stimulation was another priority. This was not necessarily filled by Goans themselves, but by others who have made Goa, if not their primary home like me, certainly their secondary one. Goa’s many attractions bring them to Goa often enough during the year. Happily a number of my friends from Bombay either returned to their roots or have built homes here.

There exists a mindset among non-Goan settlers who have made their home in Goa – that we are treated as ‘outsiders’ however long we may have lived here. A part of this problem is that we must accept the fact that those of us who have settled here from cosmopolitan metros, have imbibed a way of life which does not make it easy for us to assimilate with the slow-paced, easy-going Goan way of life. It is a question of our being too set in our ways to accept a lifestyle to which we are not willing to adjust.

While Goans are generally warm, friendly and helpful, they have led very blinkered lives and resent what they perceive as our being an intrusion in their lives and as being patronizing about them and their culture. I must confess that there is an element of truth in this. What is more, our failure to adjust does not bring out our best traits; we fail to adapt and accept Goans as they are without impinging on their lives. No wonder that we are treated as outsiders or even intruders.

One of the remarkable things about Goa is that it is a classless society. I once employed a driver who attended a village school with a friend who later became a prominent politician. They remain on ‘back-slapping’ terms. This just does not happen anywhere else in India.

December to March starts the ‘silly’ season, when people from all over the world descend on Goa – and I don’t only mean those who come on chartered flights – backpackers, looking for the sun and a cheap holiday, the lower end of the tourist trade. Many of us who came to live in Goa did so not so much for the sun and sand as for the peace and tranquillity that it offers. Unlike Bombay and Delhi, it is pollution free, free of beggars, free of defecating folk along the banks of our rivers and highways. There is much that we have to be grateful for.

 

 

An added bonus is that many writers and authors have made Goa their permanent home – Sudhir Kakar, the novelist who lives in Benaulim, frequent visitors like Sunil Khilnani, Phillip Knightly and others. I have on occasion met a number of famous columnists like Simon Jenkins, author William Dalrymple and Nisha da Cunha. There is also a constant flow of European intellectuals. Of these the British in particular, spend most of the bleak winter months of England in sunny Goa. This is rare elsewhere in this country except perhaps Auroville and parts of Kerala. They have long chosen Goa as their favourite winter holiday destination.

A number of them have bought Goan homes, lovingly restored them, preserving traditional architectural features and built homes in the traditional Goan style. A number of them are extraordinarily interesting, a cultured fraternity with varied interests. One is a retired musicologist – an expert on opera and Mozart who was vice chairman of the Royal Opera House in London and later founded Granada Television which gave us ‘A Jewel in the Crown’, ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Coronation Street’. Another delightful brother and sister duo who live here most of the year, were born in India, and are descendants of Lord Napier and John Lawrence. The brother, Lord Sheriff of Westminster, is deeply involved in music and is a trustee of the Royal Opera House. There are others who are equally stimulating company.

 

 

There is much talk about Goa being one of the preferred tourist destinations. I do not subscribe to this view for a very good reason. Infrastructure is lacking. This is because neither the central nor state governments have introduced a ‘hands on’ tourism policy in India, even less in Goa! Not so long ago, the administration reportedly decided to send a 14-member delegation to promote tourism in Australia of all places! Coincidentally, most of the delegates had relatives in Australia. Was any research carried out to ascertain the potential tourist traffic to Goa from Australia? Goa, like the Centre, participates in international travel jamborees, as for example Olympia in London. We buy expensive exhibition stalls and man them with totally inexperienced staff. The quality of tourism literature is pathetic. Our ‘delegates’, usually a large contingent, spend more time at Oxford Street stores than in the cubbyholes that constitute our stalls in Olympia, far less call on major tour operators.

How and when we will perceive tourism as an important industry, only God knows. The draft of our second five year plan in the ’50s dismissed tourism in precisely five lines as a ‘potential foreign exchange earner’. This was at a time when Spain and Italy were attracting millions of tourists. Apathy and muddled thinking are the rule of the day. In a recent television programme our worthy minister for tourism dodged embarrassing questions by saying ‘we are looking into it.’ This is the standard proverbial stance that the government employs. So it is with Goa. If only the government demonstrated its sincerity and willingness to take tourism seriously, Goa would thrive as a tourist paradise.

At the other end of the spectrum is the woeful neglect in the development of natural resources. Once a state with a predominantly agricultural base, farmers no longer find it economical to till the soil and thanks to marauding builders, they have gradually urbanized their land holdings. For years on end there has been talk about water harvesting, but nothing has been done and much of the rainwater flows into the sea.

 

 

What is also charming about the Goan way of life is that unlike Bombay and Delhi, Goans are not a competitive breed. They are self-contained and proud of their heritage. One thing that never fails to amuse me is that ‘expat’ Goans who live beyond the Ghats and who as recently as a decade back referred to us as ‘you Indians’, have now assumed a new avatar. They now call themselves Saraswat Brahmin Catholics. This is pontifical hypocrisy at its best. Surely, today’s Catholics were yesterday’s Brahmins, who in turn were Indians!

One reason is that after nearly 450 years of Portuguese dominance there has been a steady loss of identity, particularly among Hindu Goans, leaving them almost totally ‘divorced’ from the mainstream of the Indian way of life. It manifests itself in many ways. The tactile components of culture, art and architecture in particular are an essential fabric of Goan life. Yet very few Goans appreciate these aspects of their heritage. Evidence of this for example, is that traditional Goan music, folk art, literature, oral histories and theatre are relegated to the fringe of Goan society.

 

 

Soon after I relocated to Goa, I volunteered to source funding from a trust I chair to finance and build a fully equipped 8 to 10 bed clinic in my village. I invited the sarpanch and his acolytes in the panchayat home and made the offer. They made demands which were unacceptable and I was obliged to withdraw my offer. As another example of the state government’s apathy, I was invited a year back to provide a communications package to educate and create awareness on the spread of HIV-AIDS in Goa. I spent weeks putting together a well-researched and detailed proposal and submitted it to the then health secretary. When, after some time I called to ascertain the state government’s reaction, I was told that the person concerned had been transferred. I then sent a copy to the new incumbent, to which I await an answer. It would not surprise me if the report is gathering dust at Adil Shah’s Palace. I persist in carrying on despite it being an exercise in futility.

Life can be great fun in Goa. The food is varied and wonderful. Fresh fish is in abundance and so are vegetables. There is considerable difference in the cuisine of Catholic and Hindu Goans, though both are equally appetizing. Dozens of new restaurants open each year, some run by expatriates who have made a fortune. Goa is in many ways a food lover’s delight. Five star hotels have an up-market ambience but are best left alone as their food is uniformly bad. Goa sports nightspots and ‘Saturday’ bazaars in the season. The Carnival is an annual feature though a bit motheaten and markedly lacking in the revelry and gaiety of the colourful carnivals that were staged not so long ago. There are the ‘happenings like the Fontainhas festival in which residents of Fontainhas – the ‘old city’ of Panjim, happily participate. Frequent jazz sessions, an increasing number of art galleries, smart bookshops and boutiques have sprung up in the recent past.

Goans are very musical – be it jazz or Bach. It gave me great satisfaction to organise a performance of the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, in the winter of 2002. It was an enormous success. The people of Goa got a chance to experience classical music of an international level. After the performance in the beautiful Church of St. Francis of Assisi, many felt it was the most memorable concert of its kind in Goa since independence.

 

 

There is always something in Goa that makes it pulsate with life! The historical secretariat building, once the palace of Adil Shah, is to be partly converted into a cultural centre even though there is a limit to how much the citizens of Goa and visitors can absorb! Besides an entirely Goa-oriented museum with portraits of a galaxy of freedom fighters, a restaurant/cafeteria on the verandah on the first floor facing the Mandovi river just 10 metres across the road, jazz concerts and occasional food festivals are contemplated and tentatively approved. These are certain to bring sleepy Panjim to life after dark.

‘What do you do with yourself all day?’ is a question I am frequently asked. I believe that when one retires from work but not from life, there is always plenty to do. Ever since I relocated to Goa, I have endeavoured to be useful in every which way possible, but the ‘road blocks’ one encounters are bewildering! This is owing to a surprising lack of commitment and dedication at many levels – government included! I have often found my involvement and association with projects frustrating and irritating.

I am now involved in a new project which will be the biggest challenge of my entire life and may give Goa another unique cultural ‘shot in the arm’. This is in addition to my active participation in the setting up of Asia’s only museum of Christian art in a remote seminary in Salcette in South Goa. It now reposes in an annexe to the chapel of the Convent of Santa Monica in old Goa, making it far more accessible to visitors. Official constraints prevent me from providing details of the project.

 

 

One of the unfortunate aspects about Goa is that the so-called ‘season’ (November to March) is short-lived. A great number of hotels, restaurants and beach shacks trim their service staff to a bare minimum during lean months. This is understandable. Once the backpackers depart, practically all the beach shacks close down and open only in October. Their mortality rate is high. This explains why hotels, restaurants and shacks hike their charges outrageously during the season to generate adequate revenues to see them through the lean months.

There is another strange phenomenon, and this is particularly evident in restaurants and shacks. Practically all through the season, Indian tourists are ignored, as the staff is inclined to hover around their European clientele. This is ironic, because there is a steady and increasing inflow of Indian tourists visiting Goa throughout the year and it is they who spend a great deal more money on food than overseas visitors. I may be accused of generalizing, but in all likelihood this is very much part of the Goan psyche! It perhaps explains why those of us who have relocated to Goa permanently will always remain outsiders however much we love Goa. I have now lived here for nearly 10 years and sadly have very few Goan acquaintances – not for the want of trying. Some are old friends who were literally forced to return to their roots as they had no choice, being obliged to vacate their homes as they could ill-afford to either buy or rent apartments in Bombay. Even they find it difficult to adjust to the Goan way after having spent the best part of their lives away.

 

 

The Goans have a mindset which is peculiar only to themselves. They tend to be easy-going ‘lotus eaters’, peaceable, warm, friendly and go out of their way to be helpful. This is rare in our metros. Three-hour lunch and siesta breaks are common without regard to the loss in productivity. Professionalism among a section of Goans in the way I interpret it, is lacking. This has its own charm but can also be exasperating, especially when it involves matters of business. One thing Goans have in common with Bombay is that like their Parsee brethren, the landed gentry tend to be perpetual litigants. By the time they see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ they find that their lawyers have made more money than they expected to inherit!

Now that second and third generation Goans who were born in Portuguese Goa can obtain Portuguese passports, the floodgates will open and a deluge of youngsters will leave Goa to seek better career opportunities in the European Union. What is astonishing is that they are willing to work hard – they have to in Europe, which they are not inclined to do in Goa. The brain drain is expected to rise to alarming proportions over the next couple of years. This is compounded by a lack of motivation in the younger generation owing to the lack of career opportunities in Goa. This has sapped them of entrepreneurial spirit. It is because of these frustrations that they leave Goa to seek more attractive opportunities.

I recently met Father Romualdo de Souza, Director of the Goa Management Institute. He told me that the institute now has 220 students – hand picked from 8,000 aspirants from all over the country. When I asked how many of these were non-Goans, almost embarrassedly he admitted that most of them were non-Goans! I recently interviewed a batch of young Goans for an exciting career. Even though the pay package offered was higher than average, I was astonished that there were no takers! I had given each one of them a job description and a checklist of 85 odd items that had to be executed so they could see what the job entailed. Perhaps they didn’t like the prospect of working six days a week, a lunch break of only one hour and no sectional holidays!

 

 

Goa is also perhaps more secular than most other states in the country. This speaks a great deal for the people of Goa who live in peace with other communities. Religious celebrations – Christmas, Divali, Ganesh Chaturthi – are celebrated by all with the same gusto as the annual carnival presided over by King Momo! These are the delights which make Goa a very special place to live in. By way of an example, Catholics greet their Hindu friends with ‘Happy Ganesh’ during Ganesh Chaturthi.

Another charming aspect of life here is that Goa essentially lives in its villages. A large number of citizens employed in the four big towns, stream in and out in buses that service the most remote villages in the countryside. It is probably this phenomenon that is the root cause of the blurred conservatism that prevails in Goa. What most of us in the country are unaware of is that under Portuguese rule, electricity in Goa was restricted to only four or five towns. Paved roads were confined to links between these four towns. Goa lived by the lantern till as late as 1961! Infrastructure was conspicuous by its absence.

On the flip side the Portuguese may be forgiven because they gave us the chilli, cashew, tomato, potatoes and avocado. What would we do without the chilli? On the downside there are the well-to-do Goans who continue to live in the past. They speak Portuguese among themselves and some perhaps even miss ‘the good old days’. This explains why the more enterprising and talented among them fled Goa to seek their fortunes elsewhere after 1961. The tragedy is that Goa was literally denuded of potential entrepreneurial talent. Despite all this, Goa’s transition from the bullock cart to the jet age in a short span of 30 to 40 years has been truly remarkable.

It has matured culturally as well. We tend to forget that Goa produced legendary singers like the late Kesarbai Keskar and the late Mogubai, mother of Kishore Amonkar, Lata Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhonsle. Their virtuosity has contributed significantly to classical vocal music in India – incomparable in many ways to other parts of this vast country.

 

 

In contrast we now have Remo Fernandes, the brilliant balladeer who regales audiences all over India with ethnic Konkani songs. These are the cultural ambassadors India is proud of. Add to these stellar names like Wendell Rodricks, the fashion guru who hopes to set up a museum of ethnic Goan costumes. Are my Goan friends who have done remarkably well in Bombay and overseas, listening? It is time that they took time off to do something meaningful in Goa, though there is a strange lack of motivation among the majority of them to help enrich the quality of life in Goa. Some even distance themselves from Goa!

Goan youth today are far more resilient and anxious to seek careers in more exciting avenues than in the recent past when they were content to work in the hospitality industry or the merchant navy. Mercifully the thirst to seek their fortunes in the Gulf countries is less evident.

 

 

In conclusion, I must confess that I regard politics as an anathema, though it is a necessary evil. Under normal circumstances I would not have introduced it here. What is different about politics in Goa, however, is something else! Barring the relative stability that was evident during the last four years of BJP rule, governance in Goa had both a comical and a tragic twist to it, not entirely unlike Italy from the ’50s to the ’70s when political immaturity brought near-disastrous consequences to that country. Similarly, the frequent changes in government in Goa particularly after 1990, created an endemic instability.

It became increasingly difficult to focus on what was happening. The side-effects were disastrous. Not only did administration lack any sense of direction, the constructive decisions taken were rarely implemented, if not abandoned midstream by succeeding governments. I am no supporter of any political party or the BJP for that matter. But as an outsider and with no axe to grind, I will say that a sense of good order prevails in Goa today. Decisions taken, good or bad, have been or are in the process of being implemented.

Goa continues to have the best quality of life in the entire country. That is why I do not mind being an outsider!

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