American anthropologist Robert S Newman’s new books ‘Goan Anthropology: Mothers, Miracles and Mythology’ and ‘Goan Anthropology: Festivals, Films and Fish’ strive to define Goan culture, and also showcase how Goa is in fact much more rooted in Indian culture than is acknowledged. In a tête-à-tête with the author
CHRISTINE MACHADO | NT BUZZ
- What brought about the idea of this book?
I have been studying and visiting Goa for over 40 years now. I started publishing articles about Goa in the early 80s, but they were scattered over many countries and journals. In 2000, I published a book ‘Of Umbrellas, Goddesses and Dreams’ which combined many of these articles but It completely sold out by 2011. These two new books combine 11 out of the 13 chapters in that book with six new chapters.
- What was your idea of Goa before you came down here?
I first came to Goa as a tourist in 1965 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer working in Lucknow. In those days, people in America seldom came to India as tourists and certainly not to Goa. I had never met a Goan before and didn’t carry any ideas of Goa in my head. I found a beautiful, calm place very unlike Lucknow. Everything moved slowly, it was clean and orderly, and people were more reserved than in the north.
- The idea of Goa as a piece of the West in India, and as nothing more than a place of beaches and partying has, as you’ve mentioned in the book, stimulated a lot of travel. It is thus expected that those in tourism would seek to maintain this image? How then can we get out of this cycle?
A lot of damage has been done by Bollywood films. Of course, filmmakers in a democracy can make whatever films they want, as in Hollywood too. But it is Goa which has borne the consequences. The films, to me, are the most powerful agents for Goa tourism. Since nobody can prevent such films from being made, and Bollywood certainly doesn’t specialise in portraying reality, I think getting out of this is very difficult.
Only if Goa doesn’t allow things to go to the lowest common denominator can things change. Goa’s image would rebound. After all it is a beautiful place and people are not the idiots often represented in Bollywood films. Goa does not have to gratify the dreams of moviegoers.
At the risk of offending somebody, I think Goa’s own laws also ought to be enforced in a far more regular way to ‘get out of this cycle’. Goa’s image has always been transmitted by outsiders.
It is very hard for such a relatively small group to overcome the ideas of a very large group. Hawaii is another example of such a place. But it’s worth a try.
- You’ve written about your visit to Christ Ashram in Nuvem. Given that the centre has been met with opposition from other religious, did you face any difficulties in writing about it?
No. People in Goa back in 1979, when I first went there, told me various fairly negative things about the place. But Miguel Colaço who founded it allowed me free access. I saw it as a place where people affected by stress, the hardships of emigration or living on ships for years, the changes in society, etc, found some psychic healing.
The religious symbols and treatment found there relieved their burdens. The patients or clients at the time all swore that it was the only place that could help them. It was not alternative medicine as such, but a substitute for psychiatry which was not available to the average Goan at the time.
- Bollywood movies, you’ve stated, have often portrayed Christians as ‘foreign and therefore not so moral’. Do you feel that the religious tensions in the country against this minority community have in part been brought about because of this portrayal?
No, these tensions have been brought about by cynical politicians and their schemes to get power. Bollywood just goes along with general trends in society. Since questions have been raised by the politicians, Bollywood plays to the crowd.
The censors in India have always been worried about sex scenes, but that’s ridiculous in the age of the internet. They should be more concerned with those negative portrayals of minorities.
- Do you feel that this perception of ‘being different’ from the rest of India still continues in Goa, especially among the older generation which lived through the Portuguese era?
Goa has a different culture, but yes, of course, there is an Indian side. The older generation is reluctant to identify simply as ‘Indians’, but I don’t think they identify as ‘Portuguese’ either. They seem to me to identify as ‘Portuguese speaking Indians’ or ‘Goans who speak Portuguese’ or simply ‘Goan’ as opposed to some sort of stereotypical ‘Indian’. And I think there is nothing wrong with that. After all, didn’t a large section of Indians take British culture to their hearts? Isn’t English a foreign language in India too? Why is Portuguese a suspect language when English is taken as one of the two national languages?
As we get older, the world changes, but we feel nostalgia for those old days. So, the feelings of the older generation in Goa are totally normal because their youth was often phrased in Portuguese.