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Goa, ‘susegad’, and stereotypes

Frederick Noronha

If there was law against stereotyping a culture, those who misread Goa would have been among the biggest offenders to be booked. Last week, one came across a BBC Travel series article which gave me the goosebumps for its ability to misread and misunderstand this small region.

BBC Travel has a section called Why We Are What We Are, which is supposedly a “series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.” Given its intent and slated objectives, one would have thought that they would have got it right. Or, at least made a good attempt.

But, for anyone knowing Goa even a little bit, the stereotypes only ooze out from a piece that is meant to examine stereotypes! Stereotypes, as the dictionary tells us at a quick glance, are made up of oversimplified opinions, prejudiced attitudes, or uncritical judgments.

Titled enchantingly ‘India’s ‘all is well’ approach to life’, the article hurriedly attempts to understanding Goa, ‘susegad’, and the pace of life here.

Many friends and colleagues from other parts of India often remark: “Oh, you live in Goa? How lucky!” To which one quickly reminds them that it’s one thing to visit Goa as a tourist or on a holiday, but quite another thing to live here, work out of here, and attempt to make a living from Goa itself.

Appearances can be deceptive. Specially when these appearances are something that we’re not familiar with. For instance, when visitors to Goa find women wearing a different form of dress, they don’t quite know what to make of it. Or, if they encounter forms of socialisation – like a dance or cultural fest – which they’re not aware of, or temples which have their own unique architectural patterns, the confusion takes further root.

I once met a lady journalist from Pakistan who was most surprised to see the number of women riding scooters and other two-wheelers in Goa. One had to explain that there were very real reasons for this, whether linked to transport conditions or migration. Naturally, one cannot translate local practices from one culture to another.

So, the BBC piece encounters susegad/sossegado, the “laid back attitude of Goans”, their seeming “perennial state of contentment”, shops shuttered along the Panaji market street for long in the afternoon, nothing being “open between 13:00 and 17:00, and the like.

Like any writer, this one too finds the quotes to justify the views. But, as any resident of the state would tell you, life here can be indeed tough. Goa, for one, is not a city state (at least, not yet, thankfully). This keeps it green and charming in parts, but it also means that getting work done can be quite a challenge.

Try getting a computer repaired outside of the towns. Or fixing an electricity, cable TV, or broadband fault in your village. Everyone knows what this means. Not just that, even the availability of traditional services are breaking down. Getting a coconut plucker or a roof repairer can be a major challenge. Attempts have been made to work out online solutions, but it’s not clear if this is working.

The reason for this is not that businesses are inefficient, or simply that shop-owners and entrepreneurs take long breaks. In the case of our costly taxi and woefully inadequate bus transport services too, at least part of the reason is that Goa’s geography is unhelpful. If a small business or service professional has to travel eight or 15 kilometres to service a call, you can imagine the inefficiency that would creep in. That we in Goa have yet to grapple with these issues is a fact, but please don’t just blame it on our attitude.

Any shopkeeper in Panaji would be outright offended if told their lunch break extends from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For starters, Panaji might not be the best example of a commercial town in Goa. The businessmen of Mapusa and Margao or even Vasco are far more aggressive, and don’t have to deal with what is primarily a government servant-babu town. But even then, to talk about the opening hours of business without even casting a sidewards glance at Goa’s unsolved transport problem, for instance, and the bottlenecks it causes, is unfair to say the least.

Goa is not, and cannot be compared to, a city. It lacks the efficiency of one. For most purchases, even for services, one can easily get a better deal outside Goa. But that is the price one pays for having a state with a thankfully better social network, somewhat cleaner environment (now only in parts), and overall heightened liveability index. For this, no thanks to our politicians, of course.

To call Goans relaxed, laid-back or remotely close to lazy is one of the biggest insults possible. Here is a community which has been slogging it out for decades, if not centuries, travelling all over the globe, achieving all kinds of positions (despite being so few in number), and still this perspective gets pushed?

It may be true that the best and the brightest of Goans have long tended to migrate out of the state. This means that those left behind, or those who have returned from their bouts of migration, might not feel the need to work as hard as they did elsewhere. A study could find that Goa has more elderly and children than many other societies. But that hardly means that people are not hard-working or not capable. One significant part of Goa’s high per capita income comes from the large proportion who have migrated all over the globe from here.

By focussing attention away from Goa’s real problems, the situation is not going to get any better. Extremities of climate are making life harder for the people, flooding in our urban areas and poor infrastructure isn’t allowing us to be even remotely susegad in our times, while disrupting both life and work.

Where do these stereotypes come from? It would not be wrong to say that post-Independence India has only continued the cliches that colonial British India had about Goa. For instance, read the work of a Richard F Burton (Goa and the Blue Mountains), dating way back to the 1850s, and see the image portrayed there. This text is freely available online.

If colonial British India could not quite ‘get’ colonial Portuguese Goa, the same handicap continues with contemporary India while interpreting today’s Goa.

One of the most articulate essays on the issue of stereotypes and Goa which I’ve read is by the American anthropologist Robert S (Bob) Newman. He watched some 17 Bollywood films and analyses each in detail – among these Bombay to Goa, Bobby, Pukar, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na, Khamoshi, Pyar to Hona hi Tha, Josh, Dil Chahta Hai, Dhoom, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, Musafir, Holiday, 36 Chinatown, Holiday, My Brother Nikhil, among others.

Newman writes: “Hindi films and the Indian cinema industry have turned Goans into modern Hawaiians, in the sense that they are of inferior rank, they are voiceless, and their state, Goa, is turned into film ‘Goa’, an Indian Disney-world catering to middle class fantasies.”

Stereotypes are quick to be born. In a short while from now, Goa could once again be seen as the “political instability capital” and defection-centre of India. It was projected in this manner in the 1990s, with the pundits not bothering to ask what caused it then, and what led the trend to stop from the 2000s till very recently.

A few high-profile cases saw Goa being pointed to as the “rape capital” of India not long ago.

Goa is a complex place, and definitely needs more patience if it is to be understood beyond the superficial…..

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