Goa: More welcoming to tourists than to 'new' residents?

Deep-rooted locals call you a peanut. Everyone is up in your business. City slickers miss privacy and parks, select social circles and 'serious studies'. So who stays on, and how, and why?

A beachside restaurant at Anjuna.
A beachside restaurant at Anjuna.

Lalita Iyer

In September 2020, my then 11-year-old son and I arrived in Goa for a two-week break from the jail Bombay had become (courtesy its RWAs or Resident Welfare Associations) during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Thanks to a month and a half of all online schooling and no play, a pervasive listlessness had occupied my son’s body. Evidently, we both needed to recharge.

Upon arrival, we inhaled our deepest breaths in six months, feasting our eyes on the green all around. In Goa, we felt safe and free. We could breathe, walk, cycle, swim— simple things that felt like luxuries. To our joy and surprise, we discovered a small school right next to the AirBnB we were staying at and it was open. My son attended a three-day trial and fell in love. “Can we stay here, mamma?” he asked.

It was a no-brainer. I found myself saying why not, rather than why, and within the month, Goa became home. My son was cycling to school and loving it. I was grateful to the pandemic for catalysing something I had filed away for later.

Since I had already been working remotely for some years, my life wasn’t any different, except for the spring in my step, the sounds and smells I woke up to, the things I saw around me—breadfruit, bimbli and bushy-tailed cats. I was falling hopelessly in love and the October rain clinched it. The views were great, the fields all around were a feast for sore eyes, the AQI was show-offy. The more time-rich I felt, the less I worried about money.

We chose to rent the first floor of an independent house; our Goan landlady and her two daughters lived downstairs, her sister one house away, her mother-in-law next door, and her drunk husband was an occasional visitor. Christmas goodies arrived from three different households, as did gifts of coconuts, breadfruit, sanas and bimbli.

Goa lived up to its promise. It healed me, it slowed me down, it helped me notice the small things about myself, about the world around me. I did origami and storytelling workshops from my patio, pausing to jump on the trampoline, watch coconut pluckers at work on my landlady’s trees, or plan sewing projects with Bridget, my 90-year-old neighbour.

I joined a book club hosted by a local bookstore and library and an Urban Sketchers Group that met every Sunday in different parts of north (and sometimes south) Goa. I went for market walks while my son explored newer cycling paths in the village. I felt at home.

Within a year, an astounding number of people felt the same, and Goa was teeming with ‘outsiders’. WFH became WFG (Work from Goa) for many; for the first time, people were moving to Goa not to chill, but to work. Now that Goa had cracked its internet problem, things were set. It became a paradise for digital nomads, even as militant ‘Don’t Come to Goa’ groups mushroomed on Facebook.

Unlike earlier when people were trickling in for a life of quiet and charm, a new breed of people were now storming in. This mass movement was unreal and quite unlike the not-so-frenzied migration in the years preceding the pandemic when people moved to Goa for Goa, its quiet and its charm.

As artists, sports coaches, yoga therapists, musicians, writers, software developers, designers, chefs, sustainability architects and entrepreneurs quietly transformed the state’s economy and culture, the locals scoffed.

We (now that I too was a ‘local’) found ourselves scoffing at tourists holding up traffic on the Parra Coconut Tree Road (a.k.a. ‘Dear Zindagi Road’, after the Shah Rukh Khan–Alia Bhatt starrer), posing in their newly bought sun hats and Hawaiian shirts, making reels and stories for the gram.

Goans have not warmed up to these fasttrack settlers. The Konkani word bhingta, which means groundnut, is used as an insult for outsiders (non-Goans), especially the kind who are disruptive.

Rumblings occasionally find their way into tiatrs (local musicals), poetry and other sorts of artactivism. But there is also something unique and valuable in this new global village.

A scene from the movie Dear Zindagi shot on Parra Coconut Tree Road
A scene from the movie Dear Zindagi shot on Parra Coconut Tree Road

Amitav Ghosh, celebrated novelist and part-time Goa resident, describes it as ‘a kind of cosmopolitanism that is peculiarly its own. It is a cosmopolitanism of lived experience; a cosmopolitanism of inner dialogues, where the outsider becomes a part of an inner voice. Sometimes embraced and sometimes excoriated, this voice is nonetheless not ignored as it might be elsewhere’.

Goa is a unique playout of urban folk, mindsets and lifestyles within a rural context. With a staggering number of GoanRussian couples, among others—a third of my son’s school mates are mixed race—the sense of an international community is like nowhere else in India.

For him to experience such global diversity at an early age, and that too in India’s smallest state, is unique. As a single mother, Goa is safer and less intrusive than any other place in India. No one asks you where your ‘Mister’ (or your child’s father) is. There are enough kids with single moms and older moms in my son’s school for us to be normalised.

The male gaze is strangely absent, and as a woman, I have felt safer here than in most places in India.

The Goa slowdown suited my need to break from an over-productive temperament, a constant need to earn and challenge myself but, as time went by, it became a source of worry. How can I raise the bar for myself with so much susegad around me, I wondered. Other friends who aimed to get into learn-rather-than-earn mode found themselves tarrying.

At first, it was nice to meet people who were time-rich, but as time passed, I wondered what they did for a living and why no one talked about money or struggle. I missed the honesty of the hustle in big cities and the cerebral stimulation.

I wondered how so many people made rent or afforded the lifestyle they led or the cars they had. (Back in Bombay, these dots connected easily.) I realised that although WFH was the reason some of them came to Goa, they did not have to work. Some of them were just here to ‘try it out’, others had family money backing them.

Our new friends were people who had moved from other parts of the country— some pre-pandemic, but most were ‘pandemic movers’ like us.

Tourists on a heritage walk in Fontainhas, Goa
Tourists on a heritage walk in Fontainhas, Goa

Saurabh Jain, for example. A single dad who runs a computer hardware company and moved from Gurgaon with his teenage boys, he has set up a unit in Patto. He finds Goa “great for business” and mental health, and is an authority on all things Morjim and Mandrem.

Then there are the Guptas of Gurgaon (Vikram and Saloni) who moved into a gated villa complex in Anjuna where their occasional neighbours were weekend party people. Every time we met, they complained that Goa had “no parks” for their children to play and asked me how I managed.

Two years later, they decided the education here was not cutting it, and they are now moving to Bangalore since their daughter is in grade 11 and “you can’t mess around anymore”.

A fellow single mother, Dilshad Master, ex-TV professional and trekking enthusiast, is also moving to Bangalore, citing “lack of a support system” in Goa as a reason. She has no real neighbours and her daughter has no friends. Many other families I know (especially those with children in higher grades) are on the fence and waiting for a sign.

Is this reverse migration? Not really. Will this affect property prices? No way. Because for every person leaving Goa, there are two more driving in, hoping the Goa life will turn their fortunes.

The feeling of alienation is real and finding your tribe is hard in Goa. There is only so much permaculture, growing your own pumpkins, and swimming with your dogs you can do. Cities offer the opportunity to create a bubble of people you choose. In Goa, communities are smaller. For a while, you are a curiosity, but then you need to make the effort to ‘fit in’. You’d like to, but it’s hard to know where one wants to belong because the population is so nebulous.

One can live in Bombay/Delhi/Bangalore forever and crib about it—the crowds, the claustrophobia, the air quality, the rat race—but when in Goa, you must never complain about Goa. It’s not done.

Even with vast tracts of land, Goa is a small pond; north and south never meet and there is no room for serendipity, even at the Serendipity Arts Festival. “No matter what you do, you will always be an outsider,” said Heta Pandit, author of several books on Goa and founder of the Goa Heritage Action Group. It has been 26 years in Goa for her and just three for me. I am happy to un-belong until I belong. That way I will always have a voyeur’s eye view, something I never had in Bombay.

At a ‘singles night’ recently at Okapi, a trendy pop-up kitchen and community space in Quitla, I ran into my broker, my next-door neighbour who is a single mom, another neighbour who lives two floors above, a single dad who is also a fellow parent at my son’s school and a buddy from my yoga class. Talk about small pond.

But there are also small joys. The carpenter sends you voice notes on how to solve the mite problem. The help brings you moringa leaves, drumsticks, and mangoes from her yard. The fridge mechanic explains why he cannot come on the day you want. “I am rehearsing a Konkani song for my church fest,” and then proceeds to sing the song, verse by verse, the minute you accidentally say that you understand some Konkani.

The song loosely translates as “Thanks to you, our bridge is falling”, and refers to ‘the outsider’.

Does it bother me? No. For now, I am happy to be an outsider looking in.

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