Fiona MacKeown was by no means the first parent of a large family to travel from a rambling home in rural western England, in the middle of a damp winter, and see what Goa had to offer by way of diversion. Evelyn Waugh had six children (a seventh died in infancy); Fiona MacKeown had nine (eight since February 15, when her 15-year-old daughter Scarlett Keeling was found dead on the beach at Anjuna). Waugh travelled from Piers Court, a Georgian mansion in Gloucestershire. MacKeown came from a huddle of caravans near Bideford, Devon, a home summarised as “a mountain of old tyres … empty beer bottles … and rubbish” by Wednesday’s Daily Mail. But the bigger difference is that Waugh left his children behind.
He came to Goa in December 1952. “The scenery [is] delicious … the people soft and friendly,” he wrote to his wife. The Portuguese colony made a great deal of him. A car and guides were provided. While he was shaving one morning in his hotel, a solicitous official appeared and said, “All the peoples in Goa are asking how you slept.” Waugh was no stranger to drink – nor probably to drugs in his youth – and like MacKeown he was a great traveller, though not a Romany. What he wanted out of Goa, however, was a religious rather than a sensual experience. As a Roman Catholic, he had come to witness the exposition of the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary whose body had been brought back from China to Goa in the 16th century, where it had lain (minus its right forearm, which other missionaries had hacked off and taken to Rome) miraculously preserved in its glass and silver casket ever since. Waugh joined the queue in the cathedral, kissed a foot (“one brown stump of toe emerging from the white wrapping”) and then went off to a five-course lunch in the palace of the patriarch.
What did the name “Goa” mean then? In the west, almost nothing. India’s independence five years before signalled that colonialism was coming to an end, but the countries of western Europe still had plenty of colonies. Goa was merely the oldest, a small enclave in India taken from its Muslim rulers by the Portuguese in 1510. The conquerors’ religious zeal and skin-blind sexual desire meant many Goans were Catholic and of mixed race, but this hardly recommended them to either the rulers or the ruled in British India. All the qualities that were later distorted and exaggerated to make Goa “the world’s number one party destination” met Anglo-Saxon disapproval. The explorer and translator Richard Burton, there in the 1840s, found it “a worse than useless colony” filled with drunk, lazy men, and abundant evidence that religious conversion and miscegenation led to “the utter degeneracy of the breed”.
Degeneracy to one writer in one age is harmony to a different writer in another. Ten years after Waugh departed, his friend and fellow Catholic Graham Greene arrived to write a piece called Goa the Unique. Goa had been repugnant to Burton; to Waugh it seemed either sacred or quaint; but in the give-and-take of its villages and mixture of religions Greene glimpsed of a happier society than many countries, including India at large, had achieved. He stayed with a civil servant in a government bungalow. The civil servant’s young wife, Maria Couto, remembers that at a party one night Greene was offered Benzedrine and took some. The Coutos had never seen recreational drugs before. Remembering this to me this week, Maria Couto said, “The important thing to stress is that it wasn’t offered by a Goan – it came from a German girl.”
The year was 1963. Two years earlier India had invaded or “liberated” Goa after a long confrontation with Portugal’s dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. As Maria Couto explains in her recent history of Goa, A Daughter’s Story, it was the years of Indian blockade that laid the foundations of a new Goan way of money-making that you might say, taking an impossibly long view, killed Scarlett Keeling. Salazar was a defiant imperialist who determined that Goa would survive any shortages. Imports went far beyond local needs: potatoes and oranges from Europe replaced Indian sources, but there was also gold, watches and liquor, with the surplus smuggled to India. Goa’s iron ore deposits became an ever more crucial export; mining licences were granted indiscriminately. Agricultural labour became scarcer, the coconut crop smaller, the police more corrupt. What Couto calls “a seamy side of life” developed that was well placed to take advantage of every drug-seeker, sun-worshipper and property speculator who has arrived in Goa in the 50 years since.
We know what hippies made of Goa when they first saw it in the late 1960s because they’ve given us accounts of the empty beaches, friendly shack-owners and cheap charas. But what, in turn, did Goa make of the hippies? In 1984 in the capital Panjim I met a local historian who recalled his first sight of one. “She was sitting on a bench reading a paperback edition of Wordsworth – I think it was the Prelude. But she was dirty. I had never seen a dirty European before.”
Today the beaches of north Goa have signs in Hebrew and Cyrillic as well as English, and gangs from Israel and Russia control a substantial part of the trade in drugs. On the coast, a building boom threatens mangrove swamps and cashew groves with shopping malls, gated communities, flat-shares, golf courses and hotels. Naturally, there is a Save Goa society, struggling against a tide of money and concrete, drugs and paedophilia. None of this was planned, and 25 years ago – before the beach trance parties, before the cornucopian world economy – it would have been hard to predict. Still, it would be foolish to imagine 1984 represented a continuation of a 60s utopia where, so we are led to believe, happy young people sheltered under palm trees puffing chillums and reading Jack Kerouac.
The lost, the damaged and the crooked were already there and stumbling about. That year, also in Panjim, I met Grace de Souza, who did unpaid work for the British high commission in Mumbai by trying to find Britons reported missing in Goa by their parents. She had many stories. The young Australian who’d lit a fire under a tree and climbed up it, believing himself dead and needing cremation; the English girl who at the sight of her anxious mother, fresh off the plane, had “screamed blue bloody murder” until she was taken to the asylum; the night the morgue held six young white bodies, all thought to have drowned in separate incidents. “It used to be just hash, grass and LSD,” she said, “but now we’ve got cocaine and brown sugar. Even Goans are on heroin.”
It was to an even darker scene that Fiona MacKeown brought her family in November last year: a woman born of an age which has somehow forgotten to teach both caution and curiosity, in the belief – not shared by Burton, Waugh and Greene – that apart from the weather everywhere is much the same.