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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dark Clouds on Goa's Silver Lining

Quiet Nights and Starry Skies

What can you say about the brutal rape and murder of a 15-year old girl? That she was a British tourist from a white trash family? That her mother, unforgivably, left her alone in Goa amid the raves and the drugs? That the authorities in Goa, cowed down by mule-headed NGOs, who oppose high-end tourism, have willy-nilly encouraged the backpack and drug culture? You can say all that and more. The Scarlett Keeling murder is a case that exposed the sleazy underbelly of a grimy local subculture that has grown like mushrooms around cheap tourism.

I first noticed it nearly 15 years ago. We were at a restaurant on Baga beach. My younger daughter wasn't feeling well so we decided to head back home. Seeing a cab outside the restaurant, we signaled the driver, who said it would cost 800 rupees; what's more, he actually had passengers, who were at dinner and thought he could make a quick buck while waiting for them to finish. I was struck by his greed and told him so whereupon he advanced menacingly towards me. Luckily, members of the staff of a well-known beach shack stepped up to prevent an ugly incident.

Today the situation is infinitely worse. Local service providers like cabbies, waiters and shopkeepers in the tourist spots are forever looking to fleece unsuspecting tourists; others do much worse: they morph into gigolos and drug pushers. At the extreme, like those accused in the Scarlett case, they turn really ugly: into rapists and murderers. One stream of this subculture finds it way into the real estate business and from there into politics. With notable exceptions, politicians in this sylvan haven look and behave like mafiosi; they switch parties, bring down governments and generally plunder and pillage the state.

Just consider this: between 1963 and 1990, there were three chief ministers. However, between March 1990 and the present, there have been fourteen; of them, only Manohar Parrikar has lasted a full term. Party affiliations don't seem to mean much with the new floater breed of politicians; they go where they can enjoy the perks of power. They are complicit in the prostitution of Goa, whether in real estate or crime. As they used to say many years ago in America about the Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team: if they weren't professional hockey players, they would have been in jail. Many of Goa's odious politicians have evaded jail and continued in their corrupt ways.

The Scarlett rape and murder had its genesis in Goa's corrupt public life. Indeed, while some psychopathic thug took advantage of the 15-year-old girl from Britain, the crime took place because of the lackadaisical approach to law and order and because the Goan underworld thrives on the patronage of politicians. It's very simple: the beaches are dotted with ugly makeshift shacks manned by "owners," who could not possibly raise the 70,000 rupees or more it takes to get a license. It's all very sleazy and it has made the beach experience into a nightmare. For the 10 weeks in a year we spend at our house in Goa, we go to the beach maybe 10 times.

On the other hand, there are some wonderful restaurants and beach cafes, smack dab in the middle of the sin strip from Sinquerim in Bardez to Querim in Pernem. We try to avoid places like Anjuna, Vagator, Morjim and especially Arambhol as we might garbage dumps. Full of the detritus of the Western world and the Goan plankton that feeds off of it, these venues are where the sleaze is.

There is another subculture in Goa that is personified by Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher Villa. This is the high-flying set of Page Three People. Dark rumors have it that there are far more expensive designer drugs as well as loose behavior that stops short of rape and murder. In my book, this is no different than the lowlife exposed by the Scarlett murder. It has nothing to do with Goa; yesterday they came from Pattaya, the sleazy Thai resort that was all they could afford; tomorrow they will be somewhere else. Like Scarlett, they are carpetbaggers, looking for good times.

Meanwhile, there is Goa for the rest of us. For me, it is my sasural, a bond of love because my wife's family is from there. I have been enamored of the place for the past four decades. Ten years ago, we bought an old Portuguese villa and restored it so it became our home that we call Imagine. We now live, off and on, in our little village of Uccasaim, right by the gorgeous St Elizabeth Church. We spend as much time there as we possibly can.

Our little village has no police force and some miraculous municipal services that keep it clean and green. The church bell rings at eventide and from the nearby temple we hear strains of devotional music in the classical idiom. At night, we sit on the patio enjoying quiet nights and starry skies, listening to the rain-like rustle of swaying palm fronds and the music of silence; in the morning, we wake up to the concert of the birds.

copyright rajiv desai 2008