Philip Hensher: The reckless hedonism that shames Britons abroad

I once saw a woman walking the streets of the medieval bazaar in Cairo in a bikini

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If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means, there is not much doubt what tourism is the continuation of. The age of imperialism may have ended decades ago, with the withdrawal of European forces from Asian and African countries and the granting of independence. No sooner had that occurred, however, than the tourists descended like a plague of locusts, all in search of an "authentic" experience: many ripping up and insulting the host cultures in the name of that bogus authenticity.

The Scarlett Keeling murder case has transfixed India's large and busy media with a glimpse of a way of life which few Indians can quite believe. A mother with nine children from four – or was it five – fathers. The children, whose schooling seems decidedly patchy, are taken to live on a beach in Goa for months on end in the name of some kind of nebulous larger "education". One of them, merely 15, is left to look after herself while the rest take off to Karnataka. On her own, she takes drugs, drinks a good deal of vodka, has sex with men she has just met – none of which seems to be unusual to her – and is quite quickly murdered.

Rarely can the expression "it will all end in tears" be so grimly literal, and I don't particularly want to add to the terrible burden of grief and guilt which Scarlett's mother, Fiona MacKeown, must have to shoulder from now on.

There are thousands of English teenagers exactly like Scarlett Keeling and not much about her life is unusual, apart from its grisly end. I dare say she was nice-natured and well-mannered; she drank and took drugs recklessly, as many teenagers do; she probably had the air of a streetwise girl, able to cope with situations, and only on reading her diary does it become apparent that she was virtually illiterate, extremely ignorant and as naïve as 15-year-olds have always been. We all know teenagers exactly like that.

I very much doubt, however, whether Indians do. Even now, a family resembling Ms MacKeown's is impossible to envisage in an Indian context; no Indian mother, no Indian child would ever behave as either of them seem to have. What on earth persuaded them, and the two million Europeans who go to Goa every year to dance and drink and, often, take drugs, that this largely Roman Catholic enclave of India is the right place to indulge in their reckless hedonism? What on earth made them think that a family so brutally ignorant and illiterate would add anything to that culture of education and dogged self-improvement? What on earth persuaded them that to holiday in such style could be regarded as "authentic", rather than cultural imperialism of the most brutal variety?

Very few Europeans, on holiday in hot parts of the world, seem to consider that they are anywhere in particular; a place with a history and a culture and a view of public propriety. It is quite incredible to see how Europeans dress and behave once off the plane, and it is not surprising at all that their hosts take their behaviour as a direct insult. In much of respectable Indian society, you would not light a cigarette in front of an older person. The idea of kissing in public or holding hands seems not far from inconceivable outside the most sophisticated urban circles. I once saw a notice in a Bombay nightclub with the lovely imprecation, "No hanky-panky".

Goa is an extreme case, but every society which has been brutally colonised by European holidaymakers has had to bite the bullet and overlook what must seem like direct insults. I once saw a woman walking the streets of the medieval bazaar in Cairo in a bikini, which must have taken quite a high degree of ignorance or sheer nerve. In our own culture, we have learnt that people can determine their own boundaries and take their own moral decisions. For instance, we have effectively taken the view that 15-year-olds are going to get drunk and take drugs and have sex, and their parents don't have a lot of control, realistically, over any of that.

Nevertheless, that doesn't mean, we think, that they are bad people or that they cannot say no to a sexual invitation if they don't feel like it at that moment.

Most of the rest of the world hasn't quite grasped that. When Indians see or read about Europeans living for six months in Goa exactly as they live in Camden Town or some field in Devon, but with many fewer clothes on, they think two things. First, they cannot see where the moral boundaries are here at all; secondly, they feel humiliated and embarrassed and a little bit angry that it is happening where they live, rather than in a field in Devon. I dare say they will come to learn to think and feel differently. I don't suppose it will be much of an improvement if they do.

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