Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Redundancy of Courage: Reading Goa in Timor

Living in the metropole of your former colonial empire definitely comes with its benefits. For one, like summer holidays at your grandparents, you get to interact with persons from other parts of your colonial family. Like distant cousins who live in a foreign land, one slowly gains intimacy with them, realizing that while placed in different contexts, there are nevertheless similarities that you both share. These similarities at the end of the day are what allow us to bond as family.

It was in just such a context that I came across Timothy Mo’s novel,The Redundancy of Courage’. A friend from Mozambique thrust it affectionately into my hands. ‘Read it’, he said ‘I think you will identify or sympathise with it’. Timothy Mo seems to have a way with describing the small things that are striking about the Portuguese colonial experience’. The Moçambicano was right, Timothy Mo does have a way with describing the Portuguese colonial experience. In fact Mo’s narrative in ‘The Redundancy of Courage’ was so familiar that in many places he could have been speaking about Goa.

‘The Redundancy of Courage’ which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1991 is a novel set in the island of Danu. There is enough in the initial chapters of the novel to indicate to us that Danu is in fact the island state of East Timor. Danu is located on half an island, not too far from Australia, is a Portuguese colonial possession and at the start of its independence from the mother country is invaded by the ‘malai’ who control most of the archipelago of which Danu is part. The ‘malai’ invasion and occupation is genocidal in its thrust and leads to a spirited guerilla resistance. The novel is narrated from the point of view of Adolph Ng, a gay Chinese hotelier in Danu, and follows him as he witnesses the invasion, is forced to host a malai General in his hotel, joins the guerillas in their armed resistance, is captured by the invaders. Subsequently, he works as a domestic slave, until he is finally able to buy his freedom to eventually settle in Brazil.

Adolph is an interesting character to narrate the story from because he is located on numerous margins. To begin with he is gay, though thankfully – and this is credit to Mo- there is no perverse interest in detailing his sexual exploits. Adolph is educated in Canada (in the English speaking world), which allows him a perspective outside of those steeped in Portuguese. Most crucially of all however, in being Chinese he is regarded by the native and mestico Danuese as not really being Danuese. This location should ring true for so many ‘outsiders’ in Goa, who while having known no other home, are very often still cast as being unable to feel the passion that ‘ethnic’ and ‘native’ Goans feel for the land.

The feature in this novel that resounds most in the Goan experience is the manner in which Mo has been able to suggest and capture the small size of the Danuese people. Everyone knows everyone else here. And in the finest of Southern European traditions, every one holds an opinion and almost everyone is a polemicist. This tendency towards polemics does not allow for a peaceful transition to independence however, since these polemical battles, lead also to a brief civil war. In an observation that should echo in Goa too, Mo has Ng observe that the while it appeared that the battles – both polemical and otherwise - were the result of ideological positions, in reality, these were merely reflections on older tribal or family feuds.

Perhaps the finest feature of Mo’s novel however, is the manner in which he has captured a type of character that almost all of us in Goa are familiar with. To lend flesh to this character Mo creates Martinho Osvaldo. Martinho used to be a seminarian, but didn’t ordain as a priest. Not a priest, he nevertheless retains a manner which allows him to pontificate, indulge in the world and yet act as if uninterested by it. There was a time in Goa, when the seminary provided one with a decent education and an opportunity for upward mobility. Not everyone who enrolled in the seminary went on to become a priest, and today Goa is littered with remnants of that age, men who masquerade as priests, sanctimoniously preaching rather than engaging. Indeed, as I read the novel, I configured Martinho to look like one of the activists in the Save Goa movement. Veering to the political left like Martinho did, this man too is not above invoking fire and brimstone as he coaxes people to tow his political line!

In the context where there is much social tension in Goa, tensions that are defined not only by the current socio-economic conditions in Goa, but are influenced also by our past as a Portuguese territory, ‘The Redundancy of Courage’ is definitely a book that should be on the reading list of all Goans. Possibly, with the reading of this book we will be able to walk away from the tired clichés with which we think about Portuguese colonialism and identity in Goa. The impact of Portuguese colonialism has impacted all of us through the fact of our being small societies markedly different from the others around us. This difference stems not from our knowledge of the Portuguese language, not from the food we eat, or the dress we wear. Least of all because of the religion we espouse. It has impacted on us, because of the kind of the late industrialism that preserved the cozy (sometimes too cozy) feel of our societies. It has impacted on us for the kind of polemical politics we are given to. One could go on, but it would perhaps be more fun to read the book!

(With thanks to Luis Rafael for the gift of this book)

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 28 April 2010)

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