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Goa’s travellers across the times

Frederick Noronha

Each year, maybe millions of tourists and travellers visit Goa. Depending on whose figures we choose to believe, visitors to the region outnumber locals by a 4:1 ratio. So what are their impressions of the place? What are the memories they take home with them? What are the records they keep of this place? Does anyone care?

‘No’ might seem like the logical answer. In a world where we are careless about researching what is our own, it’s easy to forget and overlook the building of something so nebulous as the image of Goa. But three books came one’s way recently, which only remind us how memories and observations linger on. Sometimes across the centuries too.

These three books come from diverse directions. One is by Luis S R (Santa Rita) Vas, the Mumbai-based author and more. Vas, in his modest and low-profile manner, has played a big role in writing about Goa, promoting publishing with early outlets there (Jaico’s), and has even authored over two dozen books. To my complete surprise, I found Vas being mentioned in prominent editor late Vinod Mehta’s memoirs, in connection with the role Vas played in Mehta’s getting into journalism!

From Mumbai, Vas crafted ‘Eyes on Goa: Travelling through Goa’s History’ (Broadway, 2019). Luis Vas has done work on this theme earlier too; his ‘Veni, Vidi, Goa’ was published in 2011 with the assistance of the Vaikunthrao Dempo Centre for Indo-Portuguese Studies.

There is a similarity in the approach of these books; but that doesn’t mean any of these is redundant. The subject is so vast that there’s still there’s enough scope for originality and individual interpretation.

In Vas’ latest work – one of about 27+ books he has produced – he looks at what travellers passing through Goa had to say about the place. For one, this gives a hint of the role tiny Goa played across many points in history. For another, this book is also useful because it gives us a compilation of what a range of travellers said about Goa. Whether one agrees with them or not, whether what they wrote is accurate or incorrect, whether it’s flattering or otherwise, all this is very interesting for anyone who wants to understand Goa.

Vas’ book begins with pre-historic (Usgalimol, Kushavati) and pre-Portuguese Goa (Fr Heras). From there we encounter a number of prominent names who visited Goa. For instance, Ibn Battuta, Ma Huan (a 15th century Chinese officer), B H Baden-Powell (not to be confused, as I earlier did, with the similarly named founder of the Boy Scouts!).

There are also others: Ludovico di Varthema, who visited “Goga” in 1504, a 1512 emissary from Abyssinia (roughly today’s Ethiopia), and others like Tome Pires (1514), Diogo do Couto and Manuel Faria y Sousa (1561), Petro della Valle (1624), Mandelso (1639), European eighteenth century travellers writing on Ayurveda in Goa, the French Abbe Cottineau de Kloguen (1827), among others. There’s such a wealth of information here, that it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.

The second book that came one’s way is ‘Entre Dois Imperios: Viajantes Britanicos em Goa (1800-1940)’. One could translate its title to ‘Between Two Empires: British travellers in Goa’. It’s by the Portuguese researcher Filipa Lowndes Vicente.

Like the average person of my generation, one sometimes feel handicapped due to language. But not before recognising who’s featured in this book, and using Google Translate to reach out to some interesting themes.

Vicente looks at the writings of travel-writers, the Prince of Wales, the wife of a consul, various governors, an Anglican reverend, diplomats, military functionaries, clerks, and scientists. Her view is that the British Empire, then at its height, saw Portuguese-ruled Goa as something definitely not to be emulated, unless the Brits themselves wanted to repeat the Luso errors.

To the British travellers then, suggests Vicente, “Goa emerged as a hybrid place with fluid boundaries between Portuguese and Indian, with abundant visible signs of this mixture – in architecture, music, clothing, religious practices, language, in intellectual culture, in the body.” Quite something…

Filipa Lowndes Vicente’s book (FCT, 2015) comes with the thoroughness of the younger generation of Portuguese researchers, and is also aesthetically designed with an insightful set of photos. On the flip side, the book is in Portuguese and not available in Goa.

The third book in this series is more modest, but interesting for another reason. It comprises mostly Goa scholars, looking at how this region is described by travellers to here. ‘Goa Through the Traveller’s Lens’ (Goa, 1556, 2019) is edited by Nina Caldeira of Goa University. Though based on a set of seminar presentations, some of the chapters do read well and offer insights. This only reminds one that scholars here – mostly young women – are more than capable of good work, if they get enough opportunities at which to present it.

Essays in this book include more recent writing on Goa, and some of it from remote times. Sushila Sawant Mendes writes about the ‘oeuvre’ of anthropologist Robert S Newman, someone whose work has influenced people like me for long, especially regarding his work related to Assolna, Velim, and Cuncolim. My other favourite from this volume is Natasha M Gomes’ critical and blunt analysis of the French journalist Anne Bonneau’s radio travelogues because Gomes makes more than quite a few valid points here.

I’m not sure how seriously the reader in Goa will take these books. But if anyone wants to delve deep into these issues, it’s just out there.

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