Tag Archives: goa

Review: Viva Santiago by Colin Fernandes

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At the outset, Viva Santiago has a lot going for it. There are its pleasingly psychedelic cover and long lunch-friendly 137 pages, for a start. More importantly, there is its promise, as can be deduced from the synopsis, to be that rare thing in Indian literary fiction: a jovial, light-hearted read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

But then, being confronted with the groan-inducing email forward cliché – “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving in a well-preserved body; rather, to slide in sideways, mojito in one hand, Mary Jane in the other, screaming whoo hoo… what a ride!” – that is its first paragraph swiftly sets the tone for the rest of the book. In an odd way, this novel both tries too hard and doesn’t try at all.

Alonso Gonzalez, a typical college student in Delhi, finds himself taking an impromptu trip back to his Goan hometown with Yvette, a Canadian woman who claims to have known his deceased grandfather. Grandpa was infamously devilish: perpetually stoned, surrounded by women, addicted to Bob Dylan, and into heavy pseudo-religious tripping (and vehemently blasphemous, of course). And as it turns out, he also seems to have left a treasure hunt of sorts for Alonso, which he embarks on and solves with unlikely ease.

There is a convenience to the plot that makes it completely unrealistic. The mystery is over quickly, with absolutely no room for suspense (and it’s no spoiler to say that everyone becomes privy to what the treasure is but the reader). Way too many deus ex machinae show up – from Yvette, whom our protagonist inevitably hooks up with (laughably, for a book that’s supposedly about hedonism, in a very chaste manner), to the shady character whose mysterious gift sets the whole ball rolling. Yes, life is often stranger than fiction, and with its random drizzling of photographs, Viva Santiago seems meant to be read as autobiography. But bad fiction is not strange, just boring.

Fernandes has a good feel of laid-back student types, and draws Alonso and his friends reasonably convincingly. He also has a flair for macabre and stoner humour, that terribly unoriginal first paragraph notwithstanding. But there is no real arc of logic to the way in which arbitrary anecdotes about life in Delhi and Goa are thrown together. Plus, there is a boastful undercurrent to the book which erases, if it were ever intentioned or present, the kind of nostalgia and broader concerns that underpin the best memoirs and memoir-like fiction. But like everything else about this book, even the self-absorption isn’t fully-realised. There were several points at which I wondered whether I was reading a casual blog post or an actual book.

It’s rather little saving grace, but Viva Santiago is the kind of novel that only makes one think about how disappointing it is after breezing through it. Perhaps that’s too kind a statement for such an unfledged read, but to its credit, it’s decently-written enough to irritate the reader above all else only with the failure to be the supremely cool novel it could have been. And this is a pity – one suspects that Fernandes is actually a fine author, but lets himself coast by on the bare minimum of effort. The note at the end of the book acknowledging that it was written in three weeks confirms this.

Which makes me wonder: is Viva Santiago, the book, just like all the anecdotes contained within it? Perhaps the challenge of writing it was for exactly what one gets the feeling Grandpa’s and Alonso’s shenanigans are supposed to amount to: impressing someone who’s being chatted up. In which case, this girl, at least, isn’t charmed.

An edited version appeared in yesterday’s The New Sunday Express.

The Shaming of Scarlett Keeling

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(Cross-posted at Ultraviolet)

That violence against women rarely grabs any attention except for in the presence of gruesomeness, sensationalism, drama and tragedy is already known. But more disturbing by far than the fact that the murder of a teenage tourist in Goa last month has been making headlines precisely due its cocktail of all the above elements is the level of moral sanctimony that accompanies the media coverage, the ensuing debates, and even what are ostensibly the responses of those who knew Scarlett Keeling and her family.

On February 18, the body of 15-year old Scarlett Keeling, a British national, was found on a Goan beach. Police initially chalked up her death to drowning after consuming too much alcohol, despite evidence of severe bruising and rape. But investigations and post-mortem investigations revealed contradictory facts, as did eyewitness accounts by people who had seen the girl during her final hours. Scarlett had been in India with her mother Fiona MacKeown, MacKeown’s boyfriend, and her siblings. They were frequent visitors, and on this instance were on a six-month-long trip.

Allegations were quickly leveled against MacKeown for her negligence of Scarlett. The moral higher ground was quickly swamped by those chastising her for her irresponsible behaviour. One whiff of scandal led to another, and details about MacKeown’s private life were dug up. Scarlett’s diary entries were exposed in the media. The bottomline message was that somehow, by choosing to lead lifestyles that included partying, sex and substances, they had asked for the tragedy that befell them. Terms like “alleged murder” were popular, as though it could have been anything else, until today’s gruesome revelation: Scarlett was murdered by having her head held underwater for between five and ten minutes. She asphyxiated to death.

It is alarming to watch the cruelty of the media – from possibly every newspaper in the country to even NDTV’s usually fairly progressive We The People to the blogosphere – and what can be gauged of common opinion by it. Despite the horrifying brutality inflicted on a person who by Indian standards was still a child, and the overwhelming confusion and despair her loved ones are no doubt experiencing, the attacks made against the victim and the family censure them with only superficial demonstrations of sympathy. Political officials in Goa are calling for the revoking of MacKeown’s visa and a ban on her entering the country again, blaming her for maligning the image of the state. She has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life from both the drug mafia and state officials whom she has linked to them.

Scarlett’s boyfriend, an Indian citizen named Julio Lobo, has been taken for medical tests to see if he is “sexually active”. A DNA test of substances found on or in the victim’s body would not be unreasonable, but pray tell, what does his being or not being sexually active reveal about the horrific tragedy? Is it necessary, given that in her diary, Scarlett had written not only that she had sex with him, but that she felt he used her for it? Is there a test that proves sexual activity in males? Or is this like one of those repressed, backward ideas about broken hymens and being able to pee in a straight line? That this person’s private life is being pried into in a manner that is unlikely to shed any light on the senselessness of the incident is nothing more than one of the many ways in which the blame is being pinned on “the wanton Western way”. The boyfriend, we are to assume, has sinned by his affinity to this lifestyle of debauchery, which – we are also to assume – is imported to India by the likes of the Keeling family. But even that doesn’t quite crack it: Lobo is being tested not because of his character – but because of what the conclusiveness of science is meant to tell us about hers.

Lobo, in turn, has retaliated by attacking MacKeown because she had been aware of Scarlett’s lifestyle (but she says Scarlett was neither a binge drinker not drug abuser, to her knowledge). This, too, is reprehensible. At 25 years old, a decade older than Scarlett, his relationship with her could amount to statutory rape. Clearly, prior to the murder, MacKeown’s liberal parenting style benefited him. His attempt to deflect attention from his actual law-breaking by ganging up against the bereaved mother with the rest of the patriarchy squad is sickening.

In other words, the condemning of the murdered girl, her family, her friends, their lifestyles and their choices is a typical misogynist response – the wicked woman gets her dues. And this time, there are not one but two “wicked women”: Fiona MacKeown, mother of not just the victim, but of several more children of “varying paternity”, and Scarlett herself. That the women in question happen to be from the West (that corrupter of our chaste and virtuous ways of life!) is icing on the cake.

Rape, murder, the works – apparently, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, they can all be justified.

Make no mistake. What we see in the media today is not an enquiry into a crime. It is slut-shaming, plain and simple. The nation is not in shock because a 15 year old has been so brutally treated. Those are not the sounds of protest and outrage; they are the sounds of many hands rubbing in glee, so thrilled to be vindicated of their position that women who break the rules deserve what’s coming to them, and what’s coming to them is exactly what happened to Scarlett Keeling.

But what happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with if she had sex, if she did drugs, if she drank. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with why her mother so frequently chose to travel to India or lived a bohemian, unconventional lifestyle. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has only one reason: some places in the world are not safe for women, not because of culture or tradition, but because of an absence of respect for them as individuals. India is one of them. India killed Scarlett Keeling – and every day, kills many less sensationalized individuals. That Fiona MacKeown has seen this is not delusion on her part.