When I look back, it seems like yesterday; actually, it was a good thirty years ago. I vividly recall my surprise on coming across an unusual and unexpected article. It struck me like a bolt from the blue while spending time scanning through periodicals in my favourite space at the old Goa University campus library (when it was still housed in a hospital-to-be).
The article in question came through in some esoteric journal called ‘Pacific Affairs’. And it was called ‘Goa: The Transformation of an Indian Region’. After scanning through for a minute or two, I quickly requested the friendly librarian (was it Panjikar, or John?) to make a photocopy for me. In those days, to copy a page cost 25 paise.
On reading it more closely at home, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a sharply insightful commentary on social change in Goa, published so far away. It sought to explain a region which we ourselves often struggle to understand, and it did so in a crisp and insightful manner from some remote corner of the globe.
In my impetuous mid-twenties style, I soon typed across my opinions and dashed it off by an aerogramme (which cost maybe two or three rupees in those times) to La Trobe University in Australia. Email and the internet were still unknown to most then. I was surprised when a two or three-page detailed response came through. It politely responded to many points I was raising. It came from the author of the article himself, who said something to the effect that this feedback was the first he had received from anyone, “Goan or otherwise”.
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Last week, I repaid in part a long overdue debt to Robert Samuel Newman. In the meanwhile, he had become a lifelong friend, kept the contact, and nourished the relationship over three decades.
After our exchange of messages via the post, ‘Bob’ Newman (and his wife Sudha, whom he met as a Peace Corps volunteer in Meerut in the 1960s) dropped in to meet me, a junior nobody, in the offices of the newspaper I then worked for. Each year, a greeting card (sometimes of a photograph showing the snowy climes of the New England area of the eastern United States) would punctually arrive at Christmas. It was odd: a Jewish anthropologist and his Hindu wife, sending greetings to someone of a Christian background almost dutifully. The latter, of course, felt that cards were a waste of time and ecologically unfriendly, so never responded, though admittedly one kept in touch through other ways.
‘Bob’ Newman has many friends in Goa. He has studied the region through repeated trips and written widely about it. His ability to maintain equations is something that never ceases to amaze. As does his love for travel, the many stories he can narrate at the drop of a hat, and also his knack at explaining complex concepts in rather engaging ways.
But more than the personal equation, it was the intellectual influence that probably left its mark on many here, not just me. I can still recall thinking, ‘We don’t understand our own home, but look at these firangs (no offence meant!) who have comprehended it so well.’
Researchers like him make you want to do something more yourself. Without any direction in particular, one began an attempt to ‘understand’ Goa by simply collecting the few books on Goa that were available in those times. In the meanwhile, another big-time friend of Goa, the Lucknow-bred journalist of Bengali origin, Debashish Munshi, would shame us into addressing our little understanding of the region. Then serving here as the Times of India lone correspondent, Debashish would bundle us then bachelor-types to embark on Sunday Know-Your-Goa drives with colleagues and friends like Prakash W Kamat and Dadu Mandrekar.
Meanwhile, the Goa book collection grew. As they say, you are today who you’ll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read (Charlie ‘Tremendous’ Jones). The next step after collecting the books was to review some of them. There were anyway so few people doing reviews of Goa books, and this was a gap waiting to be filled. One thing led to another, and after a series of fortuitous happenstances, some of us got into some alternate forms of book publishing.
More than that, ‘Bob’ Newman kept inspiring quite a few of those with his own ability to understand the complex reality called Goa. (Others from the field of journalism, from outside the State, like Uday Shankar who wrote on the ‘khazans’ and Ashok Row Kavi on language politics also rate high up there, in my view.). Together with this, he kept making the point that Goa keeps getting defined by everyone but its own people.
For instance, he has elaborately written on how Goa is ‘shaped’ by Bollywood, often in very unflattering ways. In his unique style, Newman mixed his personal hobby of stamp-collecting and his role as an anthropologist. In one academic paper, he explains how Goa’s Portuguese rulers would project a certain image of ‘India Portuguesa’ through the stamps they released over the decades!
He wrote about the plight of India’s traditional fishermen when he ran into that issue while in Goa. In another piece, he sees Western tourists as modern day ‘pilgrims’ in search of something hard to find. Some of his insightful work looks at how Goa has got caught up in a lot of myths. He talks about the multilingual nature of Goan society (which we seldom choose to highlight).
A lot of his work has focussed on religion in Goa. He points out that most who work on Goa “wrote instead of innumerable caste, tribal, religious, and linguistic categories that made the reader wonder if Goans per se indeed even existed”.
Newman, in my view, offers a mirror through which to understand ourselves. There are a few other scholars who have done this. That we choose not to read them is our loss.
Incidentally, after teaching for almost a decade-and-half in Australia, Newman’s father passed away and he decided to return back to the US. The distance, and being out of formal academia, meant he could hardly keep in touch with Goa. Had it not been for a chance invite to another seminar in Europe earlier in the last decade, he would have perhaps not written some work which could deeply shape our understanding of Goa.