Goa and the Challenge of the New

February 12, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)


[This is an edited version of an address delivered in Panjim, Goa, on the 50th anniversary of the events that led to Goa’s incorporation into the Indian union, in December 1961.]


It is truly an extraordinary privilege for me to be here today, with so many friends, old and new. It is a privilege particularly because this is, as we know, a special moment for Goa – the 50th anniversary of a very significant event in its history, an event that marked the end of an era that began before the arrival of the Mughals and lasted until modern times.

As someone who spends a lot of time daydreaming about history I often wonder about the unrealized possibilities that lie embedded in the past. What would have happened for example, if the Portuguese dictator, Salazar, had seen the writing on the wall and granted Goa its independence in the 1950s? Would that independence have then become a fait accompli, establishing Goa as an independent nation? Or was the post-independence euphoria of that time so strong that Goa would have been pulled into the Indian orbit anyway, either through a Sikkim-style annexation, or perhaps even by its own accord, through a popular vote? The latter may seem like an unlikely possibility today, but the 1950s and 60s were a different moment in time – a moment when Egypt voted for union with Syria, and Kuwait with Iraq.

Perhaps a better question is: what difference would it have made? Would there have been less corruption, less construction, less mining in Goa today if Salazar had taken that fateful step?

In the public commemoration of history certain dates are treated as if they represented absolute and irreversible breaks with the past. But history is a mighty river and its course is not easily changed. Within the Indian subcontinent certain patterns and continuities seem to persist irrespective of boundaries, dates and disjunctions. I remember once being taken to a hill above Kathmandu. The valley below was a vast lake of smog and pollution, filled with the clamour of Tata trucks, Tempos and three-wheelers. I remember thinking: Nepal didn’t need to go down this path; it’s a different country isn’t it? Why didn’t they choose a better way? I remember my first visit to Pakistan. From the air the outskirts of Lahore looked exactly like the suburbs of New Delhi. The airport was no different either; the walls had the same paan-stains and there was the same pervasive smell of urine. I said to myself: But they embraced free-market capitalism while in India we were socialists of some kind. Why do so many things look the same in spite of that?

One thing that unites the Indian subcontinent is that we make many of the same mistakes: another is that certain traits endure. Our tastes, our injustices, our eccentricities – they endure in every corner of this landmass. Yet, even as they endure they are refracted into startlingly different configurations. There is an analogy here with Indian classical music. The notes of a raga are always the same, yet its realization is always unique, unrepeatable: the music exists only in the moment, in improvisation.

Of no part of the subcontinent is this more true than of Goa. When I look around me here I see things that are distantly familiar, from Bengal or Kerala or North India – and yet something is elusive; there are elements from places far beyond our horizons; there is always something surprising, something new.

I remember the first time I encountered the familiar Goan gesture of greeting, where, after shaking your hand people will touch their fingertips to their hearts. I was astonished – for this seems to me a quintessentially Arab gesture. And indeed the Arab world is everywhere in Goa – it is after all, only on the other side of the pond. The taxi driver who brought me here tonight speaks Arabic; sometimes we use it as a secret language. In Panjim I have heard young Goans arguing with each other in Arabic – they had perhaps grown up in the Gulf. Here is something at once very old and very new.

Nothing is more difficult to recognize than the new; and nowhere is it more difficult to recognize it than in Goa, where the past has such a weighty presence. We know very well, from the history of modernism in the arts, that the challenge of the new is often met with bewilderment and anger, confusion and outrage. This history is, I think, repeating itself in relation to Goa: it seems to me that in this instance the anxiety of the new has given birth to something that might be called a narrative of dystopia.

There are many strands to this narrative. One is a prelapsarian strand and it is woven largely by Goans themselves – or at least by those who look back in longing upon one or the other of many pasts. In comparison with those lost Edens the Goa of today seems irretrievably fallen: it is difficult to see anything of value in its present aspect. Another strand is woven by people outside Goa – foreigners as well as Indians. This is a braid that joins together various threads of envy, puzzlement and an abiding distrust of the new. We come across it in the writing of Richard Burton, who came to Goa and saw only miscegenation and the flouting of racial boundaries. We see it in the reactions of certain Westerners who are shocked or outraged by Goa because it refuses to conform to their idea of India or the Orient. We see it most of all in the constant chorus of press reports highlighting the various ills of Goan life.

The longer one is in Goa, the more one is astonished by the extent of the purchase of these narratives of dystopia. Every so often friends who live elsewhere will send me news reports about violence and drug-running on the beaches; or about prostitution and the Russian mafia and so on. These reports are not of course, without foundation. I know there is crime and violence on the beaches of Goa – but I know also that the beaches of Goa are not nearly so dangerous as the streets of New York or New Delhi.

I go to the beach as often as I can and what I see has no relation to what I read in newspapers and magazines. I see young urban Indians who look as though they’ve been freed of their fetters for the first time in their lives; who find themselves hesitantly exploring new versions of their own selves. I see vendors from Karnataka and Maharashtra who are perfectly at ease in this improvisatory world; I come across workers and waiters from Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa and the North-East and I have conversations that would not be possible anywhere else. I see young Russian families who appear to be ordinary, middle-class people, desperate only to escape the Siberian cold. I listen to coconut sellers from Siolim, bargaining fluently in the language of  Tolstoy and Turgenev. I marvel at the fact that there is a shack on a Goan beach, run by a best-selling Russian novelist, where you can eat blinis and borscht beside the Arabian Sea.

All of this is new. I am not afraid of it.

Every so often friends will send me reports about land-grabs, illegal mining and corruption in Goa. Some of these friends live in places where corruption is rampant and the governmental machinery is in terminal breakdown. Yet the ills of Goa seem to loom larger in their minds than the abuses of their own experience. And of course they are not wrong in pointing to these ills. I have only to look out of my window to see hills that have been stripped clean of their forests and topsoil; intensive mining has left these once-verdant landscapes with scars that will last for generations.

But this is not all I see. I see also evidence of an extraordinarily energetic and creative activist community. Goan activists have been arguably more successful in exposing abuses than their counterparts in any other state. Ironically, it is this very success that has led people elsewhere to imagine that there is something uniquely malign about Goa’s problems.

More often than not, when I read about Goa I do not recognize the place I know. Perhaps this is because I was fortunate enough, when I first came here, to meet people of exceptional talent and ability (and it must be said that this tiny state contains an extraordinary number of such people). But I don’t think it is just that. My Goa is a place where village schoolteachers seek me out to talk about books; where my neighbours’ children are among my readers. I am speaking of a village that rose up in protest when a telecom company decided to place a cellphone tower in its midst. The villagers produced reams of material on the health hazards associated with these towers and ultimately the panchayat rejected the proposal. I remember at the time thinking that my neighbours were over-reacting. But some years later, when hearings on the same subject were held in the United States, I realized that they had anticipated the findings of the US Congress by many years.

The village I am speaking of is a place where jazz as well as filmi music is heard at festivals; where if I walk towards the church of an evening, I know I will hear some remarkably fine choral music. I know also that it is no accident that this land gave birth to Mogubai Kurdikar, Kesarbai Kerkar and Kishori Amonkar; I know that the local mandirs offer Indian classical music of an exceptional standard. And just as a Renaissance altarpiece is best seen in the chapel for which it was painted, no one who has ever experienced it can doubt that the most wonderful way to listen to Raga Malkauns is to hear it wafting across a paddy field and over the coconut palms.

And yet elsewhere in the same village youngsters will be dancing to techno music. This combination of tradition and innovation is one of the many things that make Goa what it is; it is evidence of Goa’s incomparable ability to accommodate the new.

I have long been fascinated by cosmopolitanism and the one thing I have learnt about it is that it is rarely to be found where one might expect. The cosmopolitanism of New York, for instance is often a kind of provincialism, for it assumes that its existence is proved by the mere fact of having a variety of cuisines at its disposal. Similarly, it is perfectly possible to travel very widely and yet remain completely provincial: European colonial officials made a practice of this in the 19th and 20th centuries; World Bank functionaries excel at it today.

One of the ways in which Goa is new is that it has invented a kind of cosmopolitanism that is peculiarly its own. It is a cosmopolitanism of lived experience; a cosmopolitanism of inner dialogues, where the outsider becomes a part of an inner voice. Sometimes embraced and sometimes excoriated, this voice is nonetheless not ignored as it might be elsewhere. It is this very cosmopolitanism that has led you to invite me to speak here on this very special day, the significance of which will perhaps never be fully understood by someone like myself. This is one of the reasons why I am truly honoured to be here, and what I would like to impress upon you on this occasion is this: change is never a simple story; it brings many evils and these must be identified, criticized and resisted. But it also brings with it many exciting new possibilities and we must not shrink from these merely from faint-heartedness or a lack of imagination. Let this be a day to celebrate the newness of Goa – in music, art and literature.


Amitav Ghosh

December 19, 2011


3 Responses to “Goa and the Challenge of the New”

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  1. Comment by Pundit — February 13, 2012 at 7:08 am   Reply

    Goans were raped in during the invasion and the rape of Goa contin ues under the indian union. For bengalis Goa is a cushy place a break from the misery of Calcutta.

  2. Comment by Bhooter Raja — February 13, 2012 at 9:47 pm   Reply

    I enjoyed reading this post.

  3. Comment by AliyaFebruary 24, 2012 at 12:20 pm   Reply

    Hey there….

    I loved “The Shadow Lines.” I thought it was the best Indian book I have read after Tagore’s Gora. I have an exam tomorrow… TSL is part of the syllabus… so I was just going through your blog for some inspiration…. I think I have found some points here that might help me. 😉 I am Goan btw. Goan studying in Bangalore. I miss ‘home’ so much.


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