Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Adopting a characteristically Marxist approach to study and theorize about Goan society and history, the US-based academic Raghuraman S. Trichur in his book Refiguring Goa: From a Trading Post to Tourism Destination, tries to fill in a void where academic studies about Goa were and are rarely theorized in a rigorous manner. Trichur’s short study comes as a critical intervention in the scholarly and academic sphere of Goa, which one can argue, has progressed only sluggishly. Against the backdrop of the issue of whether or not the Goa University had failed to protect the interests of its researchers which had cropped up a couple of months ago, Trichur’s work merit a serious reflection.

If Trichur views his work as throwing in “a proverbial spanner in the wheel of Goan studies”, then the question of how debates and representations of Goa have occurred until now, is a pertinent one to ask. Of the many issues that Trichur has undertaken, I would like to limit the focus to discuss how Goa gets represented. From a reading of Trichur’s book as well as an engagement with recent Goan writing, it emerges that two main conceptual entities have thus far been used to represent Goa, and even now continue to be deployed in this task. One is the Goa Dourada (i.e. Goa that is essentially Portuguese and Catholic) and Goa Indica (i.e. Goa that is essentially Indian and Hindu), and the bhatkar-mundkar (landlord-tenant) land relations paradigms. Trichur’s study in a crucial way plots a conflict between these conceptual paradigms, no doubt owing to the fact that his analysis is grounded in historical materialism.

Simply put, historical materialism is a set of theoretical assumptions that the economic production determines the intellectual and political history of a particular epoch. Limitations notwithstanding, such an approach or analysis is useful as now the thrust is to explain Goa; for very often, what happens is that we describe Goa (such as Goa is oh-so-beautiful, its mountains, beaches etc.) with very little done as far as having a nuanced understanding of the different facets of Goan economy and society. If one tries to explain the emergence and development of the essential components of Goan society, as Trichur does, then one can see how Goan society, over the centuries, has been hammered on the anvil of conflict.

By focusing on this conflict and reflecting on it deeply, one can suggest, that the paradigms of Goa Dourada, Goa Indica, and the bhatkar-mundkar land relations come together in debating and representing Goa. To understand these paradigms is crucial as these are “class-based ideologies”, as Trichur asserts. To follow this particular strand in Refiguring Goa, these conflicting caste- and class-based paradigms and ideologies need a site or location on which the conflict or multiples conflicts can be played out. Trichur looks at trade, agriculture, and tourism as sites that engender conflict. For our purposes, we shall just look at tourism. Trichur argues that much of the tourism-related services are provided by the peasant households, who had to make a shift from agrarian activities owing to the declining productivity of agriculture in the coastal areas.

Tourism is an important site over here, as it can be clearly seen how the different paradigms of Goa Dourada, Goa Indica, and the bhatkar-mundkar land relations operate. Trichur argues that it was through tourism that Goa was in reality incorporated into India. This was done by constructing a Southern European and Catholic image for Goa, while simultaneously maintaining an essential Indian-ness and an idea of primordial ties with India. It is through tourism-related activities that the bhatkars and mundkars can also be viewed as coming in conflict with each other, and not just due to conflicts pertaining to the ownership of land.

Take for instance, the case of sossegado or susegad, the USP of Goa not just in tourism brochures but also in the countless features about Goa in national and international newsmagazines. Susegad was essentially a lifestyle and ethos of the Catholic landed elite, which as Trichur mentions, “symbolize[d] [the] acceptance of and submission to the Portuguese colonial order”. The susegad lifestyle of the landed elites was made possible essentially because the bhatkar could extract labour out of his mundkar. With the emergence of Goa as a tourist destination in the 1970s, the peasant or mundkar households entered into the hospitality business – though of the petty kind. This “enabled them [the mundkars] to imitate the lifestyle of the landed elite of the colonial period, who frequently played host to colonial administrators and other foreign visitors”. Thus, in this case, the extension of hospitality – chiefly to westerners – operates as a “status enhancing mechanism” for the peasant and kharvi (fisherfolk) population of coastal Goa.

Due to the assumptions of historical materialism, Trichur, in his study is not much concerned with the symbolic aspect of the operation of the abovementioned paradigms and ideologies. Perhaps, it is here that a Marxist perspective is limiting, as within the Goan society, many aspire to appropriate the figure of the bhatkar along with the trappings of his power. Although there has been and will always be a conflict between the bhatkars and the mundkars, the actual workings of this conflict are much more complex, than can be accommodated within historical materialism. Elsewhere, I have spoken about this longing that the bhatkars and mundkars have for the ‘good old days’, which gets expressed in the form of a ‘lament’. I call this the ‘Lament for Bhatkarponn’.

Though there are limitations, Trichur’s work can be used to constitute a better understanding of Goa. To look at how Goa Dourada, Goa Indica, and particularly the bhatkar-mundkar land relations operate within the Goan intellectual framework, is to reach at the very heart of what Goa really is. Suddenly, Goa emerges as a complex intellectual and political space. Suddenly, Goa opens up possibilities.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 28 May, 2014)