Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The African in Goa: Village Goa beyond the Gãocaria

Every month the Xavier Centre in Porvorim hosts History Hour, a platform for local (national and international) scholars to discuss their works. In doing so it provides happy stimulation for a diverse audience. Last Friday the Centre played host to the release of Beyond the Beach: The Village of Arossim, Goa, in Historical Perspective. The work of Dr. Themistocles D’Silva, the book is a history of the village of Arossim from which Dr. D’Silva hails from.

The work is clearly a labour of love from one of its native sons, perhaps born from the nostalgia that émigré sons feel for their motherland. Dr. D’Silva’s work however also continues a longer tradition, that initiated by his father, Justino da Silva. Justino da Silva, was an archivist of village history, having laboured over the genealogical charts of the prominent families of the village. In his presentation of the work at the Xavier Centre, Dr. D’Silva pointed out that he hoped that his book did not remain an isolated work. On the contrary, he pointed out that there was a need for greater numbers of us to put into writing the histories of our villages, increasing the documentation on the rich histories of Goa beyond the beach. Such histories also go beyond the Goan histories obsessed with the sixteenth century and the Portuguese governance of the territory. Indeed, in the course of the presentation Dr. D’Silva pointed to the urgency of the task given that many of the older generation and their memories are passing away, and that private archives fall victim to the ravages of insects and weather. On this front perhaps Dr. D’Silva was being kind to the custodians of these archives. Though Goan society has produced a number of luminaries, the same intellectual drive that powered these luminaries is not necessarily passed on to the next generation. Many archives have no doubt been discarded into dust heaps and kitchen back-yard fires.

What is most interesting in this book, is that Dr. D’Silva has written it by combining the various influences that have moulded him as an individual. In doing so, he brings to the fore a central problem in the manner in which we think about the Goan village, and thus Goan identity.

A member of the village elite of Arossim, his book locates the village gãocaria (or Comunidade) as one of the points of departure for his narrative. This is not entirely out of place; the Comunidade was a powerful institution in our history and to speak of a village history without delving into the history of the Comunidade would produce a dull, incomplete history. However to speak of the village from the point of view of the Comunidade alone does not exhaust the history of the Goan villages, since there were (and are) a number of people who while living in the village, were not gãocars of the village. What would the history of the Goan village look like if we were to write a village history from their point of view? The threads that Dr. D’Silva draws out gives us a hint into this possibility.

Dr. D’Silva points out in his book a fact that has by and large been left unsaid and unspoken in the public sphere about the Goan village. This fact is of the presence of African slaves within our village communities. The few voices that do mention the presence of the African are Dr. Savia Viegas, Adv. Valmiki Faleiro, and Margaret Mascarenhas in her novel Skin. While speaking of the presence of the African slave in Goa, Dr. D’Silva manages to point out to us that the Goan village was not an idyllic, happy setting for all. These slaves were ill-treated sufficiently to make them want to escape. And escape they did, into the jungles of British-India where slavery was abolished much earlier than it was in Portuguese-India. Dr. D’Silva made reference to the fact that the failure of their master’s to provide a nutritious diet to the slaves forced the latter to poach for fish from the village ponds at night. He also pointed to the fact that these African slaves and their descendants lived at the edges of the villages, pointing to their social marginalization.

When we speak of the African slave’s presence in Goa’s villages, we must recognize that their descendants married local men and women, or if they did not marry, in any case produced babies with local persons. This gives to a good amount of Goans, a history different from those of the gãocars – who in any case could not have been a majority of the population. When speaking of the Comunidade we often create – as did Dr. D’Silva - for the Goan, a Hindu pre-history. If we recognize the presence of the African’s as a part of the Goan village – by not being obsessed with gãocarial histories – we create a Goan with an African history. And what a different, richer and more exciting history that would lead us to!

The entire row over a proposed mosque close to the site of the former World Trade Centre resulted, among other things, in a couple of discoveries about US History. It was pointed out that by virtue of the presence of African slaves in early USA and the site of New Amsterdam (subsequently New York city), early American history includes the history of peoples who professed an Islamic faith. True many African slaves were baptized when they were brought to Goa, but as the Hindu-past obsessed histories tell us, mere baptism does not drive away former influences. In addition to these African slaves, Adv. Valmiki Faleiro has pointed out the presence of Chinese labourers (who worked the railway line that passes through Arossim) and of their marriage to local people. In addition, we have the presence in pre-Portuguese Goan history of the many Muslims who converted to Christianity to save their lives and properties.

All of these people contribute to the histories of Goan villages, which we, befuddled by Gandhian idiosyncrasies, often erroneously believe to be where the real Goa resides. To effectively write about these histories, or to even realize that they exist, we need to move beyond the framework of the Comunidade centered histories that we still take as the central focus of our local history writing. While largely within the frames of this traditional perspective, Dr D’Silva was possibly able to move beyond this traditional framework because of the fact that he is not trapped by traditional social-science ways of writing about Goan history. Or the fact that he has clearly spent a good amount of time in and interacted with the politically inclusive trends of thinking about society within the United States.

For his effort we must thank Dr. D’Silva, buy his book, and then go write our own village histories!

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 12/ 11/ 2011)

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