Sunday, February 01, 2015

Reviewing Manohar Shetty's Goa Travels: In TNIE today

I was asked to review Manohar Shetty's Goa Travels recently. Read the review in the magazine section of The New Indian Express today, here, or see below for a slightly unedited version. It is a delightful book, one I'm hoping to pick up again for some non-work reading.


It is hard sometimes not to perpetuate a cliché and not frame the entirety of Goan culture within the lassitude and indulgent idea of susegad, the concept of kicking back the flip-flops, hoisting feet up on the sun lounger and indulging in a slow, laid-back attitude to life. Goa in the mind is still where being relaxed about the pace of a day is expected, almost demanded. It is a patch of translucent blues with a string of adjective-laden clichés unavoidably attached to its beaches, to its old quarters and on its many shaped and sized beach bodies. Within this time tested imagery comes, sticking out like tweeds in the tropics, an older idea, that of Goa as an El Dorado where trade in "Persian and Arabian horses, spices, all sorts of aromatic gums, alcatifs, porcelain, vessels of agate, several things made of lacque..." made it Portugal's fabled jewel and the 'metropolis of India. Goa Travels: Being the Accounts of Travellers from the 16th to the 21st Century, edited by Manohar Shetty, draws from the writings of visitors of many nationalities and professions to portray why Goan shores have continued to appeal for centuries.
Arranged in near chronological order, the writings range from those of Fernao Mendes Pinto's evocative account of when the body of St Francis Xavier was brought to shore in such grand splendour that the "native gentiles and Moors stuck their fingers in their mouths to show how deeply amazed they were as is their custom" to Francois Pyrard de Laval, "a talkative and observant Frenchman of the seaman class" who frowns upon the decadence into which the Portuuese had fell into to Richard F Burton's disdain for pagan Hindoos and the mongrel men. Dutchman John Huyghen Van Linschoten's observations, translated into quaint old world English, describes "very luxurious and unchaste" women who did not hesitate to drug husbands with the Deutroa (Dhattura) herb, rendering them senseless for nearly four and twenty hours, while they took their pleasures with one or two lovers. Ralph Fitch, among the first Englishmen on this land, calls Goa "a fine city and very handsome for an Indian town," whetting the appetite of the Europeans to start setting up trade links with India.
Nearly all the early travellers write in detail of the women being most jealous of infidelities of lovers and of the lives and excesses of the mesticas of Goa, mixed breed women born of Portuguese fathers and native mothers. Francesco Carletti finds them the "most desirous creatures imaginable", remarking on the ardour these women would go to, to get their men and how this amorousness pervaded their waking hours. Many travellers write on the practice of Sati as well, some having seen it first hand in neighbouring Narsyngua (the kingdom of Vijayanagar).
The book traces beautifully the rise and fall of the power of Portugal in Goa, from the economics of extensive trade to the moral degradation that travellers and priests found had affected Goan society. The Inquisition, Goa's darkest years, is brought to life again in Gabriel Dellon's account of his trial and eventual grant of freedom. From this account from the late 1600s, the book jumps to the mid-20th century, to the tail end of Portuguese rule in Goa. After Homes A Jack's report on the Goa liberation movement, the anthology veers towards adjective-laden descriptions of the sea and skies in the manner of modern day travel writings. Present day Goan holiday imagery begins to take shape with Graham Greene "lying on the verandah of a village house in Anjuna, watching the constellations wheel out of view...", the hippie Anjuna that in 1976, David Tomory describes as having "an aggrieved air, like an artists' colony suddenly chosen to host a beer festival." Katharina Kakar's interviews with the beach boys about their sexual excesses with white women and the editor's reminiscences of his first visit to Goa, eventual relocation to Dona Paula and the poetry it has only recently begun to impart to him tidily tie up this anthology.
Goa Travels is a fascinating constellation of accounts that adds an older, much different view of a place where Europeans made and unmade their fortunes to the ever popular sentiment of Goa Dourada, the Golden Goa of blue-green beaches and its many indulgences.

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