The girl in the bikini is just going swimming

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A passionate attack on all the malicious stereotyping and ‘sexy’ misreporting of Goa in the media

By Frederick Nornha

Illustration: Naorem Ashish

I TRAINED long and heavy in Goa this year, starting in early June and continuing even in the second week of November. Like the torrential downpour, denizens of India’s smallest state are getting used to torrents of stereotypes, as the “mainstream” and “national media” struggle to understand Goa.

In the past fortnight, a “national” news-magazine bestowed some strange epitaphs on the region. Goa woke up to realise it was the “crime capital of India”. It was also dressed in images of being home to “sex and mafia on the cocaine coast”.

How does one reconcile such lurid images with this tiny region (3,700 sq km, 1.5 million population)? One whose people have done well for themselves — despite its politicians, and the influx of big moneyed interest out to make a kill from tourism and real-estate, as has happened in so many scenic destinations around the globe?

Goa has long claimed fairly good social indices. It offers a lifestyle that can be an option to the concrete jungle. It does make it to the news occasionally, often in bizarre ways. Thanks in greater part to the gatekeepers sitting at news desks in the metros, and their idea of how the ‘periphery’ needs to be reported and commented on.

Yes, we do have our problems. We have our mafias in parts of the state — probably not as big as any metro, and created with the perfect collusion of New Delhi and its satraps in Panjim. For too long, those that rule Goa have attempted to push problem issues under the carpet, and in a small state tiny gangs can have a disproportionate impact. But in Goa, you’re more likely to find concern about the real estate buyout, the challenge to earn a decent salary, and our rather unrepresentative politicians, rather than alarmcausing cliches like “Russian mafia” and about “sex and crime”.

I was one of those journalists outraged at the Goa Police’s attempts to block news emerging about the death of Scarlett Keeling. But two wrongs don’t justify each other. The British media circus that descended on the issue — followed by its national counterparts — was equally misplaced. Such sensationmongering has less to do with the reality, and more with the pressure on journalists to perform in these times of intense media competition and a dodging of more serious issues.

Take a look at how loose political talk emerged into sexy headlines. Goa was called the “rape capital” of India when one politician (Mickky Pacheco) aimed to settle scores with a rival (John Fernandes) who almost defeated him in an election and the latter got caught in an alleged rape case. Does this become more exotic, erotic and newsworthy because a Russian is involved?

To show how ludicrous matters can be, Pacheco himself, in turn, was pilloried big-time by the media in another case, after he turned inconvenient to Panjim’s political powers that be. Now, everyone seems to have forgotten all. More so the media.

An opposition eager to target individuals not issues, and rivals within the Congress, makes the most of such issues. For the media, it’s just sensation that sells. Yet another politician here, the controversial Babush Monserrate (who’s propped up both BJP and Congress governments) was dragged into more headlines, for his son’s affair with an underage girl obviously undergoing an adolescent crisis. Goans, particularly the Catholic minority, are stunned at seeing their most controversial names given easy access to political power, raised high, then flung into controversy when it affects the parties that call the shots.

Goa was called India’s ‘rape capital’ when one politician was caught in an alleged rape case? Does a Russian make this news more erotic?

CRIME, SEX and mafia are only the latest of stereotypes to hit Goa. For much of the 1990s, Goa was the place for toppling governments. There was hardly any space to discuss the lobbies behind our political dramas of those times, or the money poured into it. Have politicians in Goa suddenly stopped being fickle-minded and opportunistic?

In the 1980s, the “national” media was stuck with explaining language conflict in Goa. “Goans turn communal” was a screaming headline in the aftermath of the killings that rocked Goa. Giant point-sized headlines are hardly any substitute for a better understanding of complexity and diversity.

Goa has all but given up protesting the stereotypes about it in the filmi world of Bollywood. ‘Mainstream’ India has long complained about the crude stereotypes through which the West has seen the second-largest country in the world. One would expect a nation on the receiving end to be more sensitive towards its smallest state.

Like with any stereotype, there is an element of truth here. But the ‘truth’ has been grossly exaggerated, even misunderstood, and juxtaposed in a way to create a very misleading picture.

First, the news media is expert in repeatedly focussing on limited incidents. A Scarlett here, a Russian land scam in one coastal Pernem village, the slipshod way in which police deal with suspected drug traffickers (nobody seems to talk of the rivalry between them) and all this becomes clinching evidence to make sweeping claims.

Secondly, and this is more galling, there is nothing new about this situation. Pockets of Goa’s coast have been wild places since the late 1960s. Apart from a few voyeuristic accounts, the mainstream media hardly had the space to discuss such an issue.

In the early 1970s, villagers from Calangute protested against nudism and drugs in their area. Newspaper reports of those times record how a prominent woman politician in Panjim simply turned around and said the protesters had themselves come in sleeveless dresses, which was obscene to her!

Drug deaths have been routine. Five to six years ago, colleague Ashley do Rosario and I found there had been 45-50 deaths happening each tourist season (November to February roughly). The lack of testing labs here is crucial to allow a situation of ignorance and neglect to continue.

New Delhi, and its media mouthpieces that set the “national” agenda, has been quite comfortable with this reality all along. It is little consolation that many of the ‘beyond the mainstream’ parts of India suffer from being stereotyped, routinely and ruthlessly. But if an influential British historian like James Mill could claim that Indians (like the Chinese) are cowardly, unfeeling and mendacious, then what’s there for the ‘national’ media to see “sex, drugs and mafia” in all things Goan? Ironically enough, such coverage will probably only increase interest in the place, and draw in the crowds who end up disappointed in not finding what they expected.

A decade ago, a section of the media declared Goa to be the destination for the millennium bash. This saw thousands mark their entry into the new century with a hours-long traffic snarl along the now over-concretised Calangute-Baga road, a generation ago just a fishing village along the north Goa coast. Great fun?

Noronha is a Goa-based journalist and author

[email protected]

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