Global Village Called Goa

Warts and all, an alternate idea of India is steadily burgeoning in the country's smallest state…
Global Village Called Goa

Every weekday morning in Goa, a visibly anxious crowd starts milling together at the side of Panjim's old, tree-lined Largo Afonso de Albuquerque, now renamed Azad Maidan. Soon after 9.30 am, twin lines begin snaking past the colonnaded entrance to the state police headquarters, towards the Foreigner Regional Registration Office. One comprises the stream of foreign citizens from every part of the world who seek visa extensions and permission to stay on longer in the state. The other line of petitioners is made up of Goans about to surrender their Indian passports, one of the final steps to migrating abroad.

The latter phenomenon – emigration – has been an integral part of Goan history for many generations, gathering momentum after the British occupied the Estado da India Portuguesa during their war with Napoleon in the early 19th century. During those years, the native Catholics – mostly converts from the 16th and 17th centuries when Portugal exhibited some missionary zeal before lapsing to exhaustion – quickly became prized for their facility in cooking non-vegetarian foods, playing western instruments and stitching western styles of clothing, and especially for their willingness to travel.

From that point on, Goans in considerable numbers accompanied every British expansion around the Indian Ocean: they helped build Karachi and Nairobi, staffed cantonments in Poona and Kanpur, and manned innumerable orchestras from Singapore to Zanzibar. By the 1930's, close to 20% of Goa's population had already emigrated.

These intrepid pioneers played an outsized role in the making of modern India – like Bhau Daji Lad, one of the founding citizens of Mumbai, or Nehru's confidant Frank Moraes, the first Indian editor of the Times of India. Karachi-born Anthony de Mello founded the BCCI and launched the Asian Games, and Lata Mangeshkar and many other Goan musicians came together to help shape the seminal sounds of Bollywood.

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Other Goans fought for the liberation of East Africa – Fitz de Souza was the lawyer for the Mau Mau and Jomo Kenyatta, and helped draft the constitution of Kenya, while Aquino de Braganza negotiated FRELIMO's takeover of Mozambique from the Portuguese – as well as Sri Lanka, where populist editor Armand de Souza is credited with "the awakening of the Sinhalese.”"

But the reverse process – migration into Goa – never took place in any appreciable measure until 1961, after Nehru's troops quickly dispatched token Portuguese resistance to annex the territory to the Indian Union. While Goa's population held stable under 600,000 to that point, open borders with Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala immediately skyrocketed the growth rate over 30%. In 1981, the state population topped 1 million. Today, native Goans are a decided minority in their homeland, with official statistics clearly underestimating a population visibly surging to 2 million. Every tourism season, even that number doubles.

Lots of Goans have responded to the dramatic shift exactly like previous generations. They have voted with their feet – either taking up a Portuguese passport (an option extended to anyone with direct antecedents who lived in the old Estado da India) and winging abroad, or shifting to the big Indian cities. But many more are now choosing to stay home as Goa is remade into a magnet for ambitious fortune-seekers from around the world. While the influx of unskilled labour from across the subcontinent continues unstemmed – migrants from the North East, Nepal, Jharkand and Bihar have become a significant presence – India's sunshine state now hosts a bewildering mix of new residents: artists, football players, software developers, chefs and CEOs who are quietly transforming the state's economy and culture.

As any local will tell you, there is a substantial seedy element to the neo-Goan story. The deeply unpopular casinos attract all kinds of hustlers and touts, and prostitution now flourishes barely concealed. It is an open secret that every notoriously corrupt politician from across India has parked money in Goa, with full connivance from equally bent local authorities. Just last month, Dawood Ibrahim's ace "shooter" Shyam Garikapatti was arrested in the prosperous North Goa village of Saligao, where he had been living for several years, dabbling in real estate. The notorious David Coleman Headley, the co-founder of Indian Mujahedeen Yasin Bhatkal, and the "most-wanted" Maoist Shambu Beck have all chilled out under the radar in Goa.

But even if parts of the state coastline do seem outside the writ and reach of Indian law enforcement, Goa continues to feature a laid-back and accommodating vibe and a multicultural, polyglot mix of permanent residents that has made it an attractive destination for entrepreneurs and a host of ambitious start-ups, as well as an amazing range of young families from around the world. Many schools in the hinterland now cater to children from a dozen or more different countries, while the range of Goa-made ethnic foods available at "village" supermarkets like Anjuna's Oxford Archade arcade has edged way past Italian mozzarella and German bread to Ukrainian smoked fish and Japanese pickled ginger.

Lots has been written about globalisation's effects in Bangalore or Gurgaon – where giant corporations have established beachheads and cycle foreign employees in and out – but much more interesting and meaningful is what is happening in Goa, where hundreds of nominally "foreign" children are born each year to parents who have no intention of "going back" or ever relinquishing their place under the coconut palms. This sizable international community blends into its surroundings in different ways than happens anywhere else in India, as the growing number of Goan-Russian couples demonstrates. Some of the most passionate defenders of the state's environment and traditional culture are now "outsiders."

Rapid change always breeds anxiety and insecurity, and so there are chronic rumblings in this fingernail-sized territory about demographic displacement, and land laws which are perpetually subverted to favour crooks. But as the celebrated writer and novelist (and part-time Goa resident) Amitav Ghosh has written, that "narrative of dystopia" tends to drown out much more that is unique and valuable in the new Goa, including "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." Nothing less than an alternate idea of India is steadily burgeoning in the country's smallest state.


Vivek Menezes is a widely published writer and photographer, and co-founder and curator of the annual Goa Arts + Literary Festival

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