Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Goan Identity: Between a rock and a hard place

Read any tract that deals with the Goan identity, especially one that has to grapple with the Portuguese and Catholic elements in this identity and you will run up into a protest. Practically every author will take pains to point out that while the Goan is culturally influenced by the Portuguese, there was practically none of the famous Portuguese miscegenation in Goa. This is to say that the Goan remains by blood and genetics, a 100% ‘Indian’.

This statement could be seen as the necessary rhetoric by a minority group threatened by the Indian action that forcibly integrated Goa into the Indian Union. Indeed, such a statement today does a play a role in affirming the ‘Indian-ness’ of the Goan, by suggesting that unlike some kinds of Indian Muslims for example, these Goans do not come from ‘outside’, nor are they the descendants of ‘invaders’.

To stop at this explanation however, would ignore the much longer and complex history of this representation of what constitutes the Goan gene pool, for the fact is that these sorts of statements were being made much before the Indian Union ever came into existence. A good number of scholars love to point to the famous statement by Francisco Luis Gomes when he was an MP representing Goa in the Portuguese Parliament, where he claimed that he belonged to the land that crafted the famous Mahabhrarata. This statement is often given as an example of his nascent ‘Indian’ nationalism. This affirmation may unfortunately be somewhat misleading however since Luis Gomes was making this argument in an entirely different context, that the Goan people (and by this he meant the native elites) came from an ancient civilization, and being so civilized, did not particularly need a benevolent hand from Lisbon to run the territory, they could do so quite well themselves. When reading this argument today, we should not forget that this argument was made in a context where the ‘native elites’ (the Brahmins and the Chardos) were locked in a caste battle, not only with each other, but also against the local ‘Portuguese’ i.e. the Luso-descendents, who proudly claimed a Portuguese lineage. The history and presence of this group in Goa is largely erased, and when recalled they are remembered only as simpletons, or as cruel persons. Both these memories, it should be recognized, as memories ascribed by groups who were their opponents in a bitter fight for power over control of the territory.

Thus the peculiarly Goan affirmation of one’s pure blood and cultural mixture had a definite political context even in colonial times. It indicated that one was a member, and legitimate descendant of an ancient culture, while at the same time claiming the civilizing benefits of ‘Western’ culture. For the native elite at the time, it was a win-win argument.

This argument was far from the truth however, since there were marriages (and products outside of marriage as well) both among the native elites, as well as the non-elite classes. All these groups had relationships with people from metropolitan Portugal, from Africa, from China, and the claim to pure blood is largely a fiction that exists only because it serves a political purpose. Seen from a secular perspective however, this argument privileges caste superiority. It affirms a brahmanical model for the country and hence is an argument that as secularists we would do well to abandon. Indeed, it is possible for us to take this myth of sanguinary purity seriously, because we actually take the caste myth seriously in the first place, assuming that caste was in fact always a stable and rigid social formation, whose rules were always followed. A politically correct Goan identity therefore would not harp on blood purity, but amiably acknowledge the possibility of sanguinary admixture. How does it matter after all whether we are bearers of Lusitanian or Central Asian blood?

But life is never that simple is it? While living in Portugal, one is often met with delighted responses from metropolitan Portuguese who assume the Portuguese family-name that many Goans carry as a mark of Portuguese antecedents. There are a good number of metropolitan (or continental) Portuguese who are in love with the idea of their forefathers having traveled the world, leaving both a genetic and cultural presence there. While gratifying at an immediate level, these responses are simultaneously somewhat offensive. These responses are offensive because the embrace that it comes with is not based on the acceptance of difference, but because of a rejection of difference. Thus the embrace is warmer and longer if one is assumed to be the descendant of the traveling Portuguese of yore. A more sympathetic reading of Francisco Luis Gomes would admit that perhaps the good man and his compatriots were similarly fighting for a recognition of difference and the ability to self-govern, and unfortunately got dragged into the affirmation of caste for reasons that can be understood, but definitely not perpetuated today.

The politically correct Goan is faced with a pretty pickle as a result of this situation. When based in the subcontinent, political correctness demands that we affirm the possibilities of miscegenation. Not just with the Portuguese from the continent, but the Portuguese from Africa and other parts of the Portuguese empire, as well as with other groups across the world. When in continental Portugal however, one is faced with the need to refuse continental antecedents, primarily because one wishes to ensure that recognition of cultural brotherhood is based on the acceptance of cultural and sanguinary diversity. Also, we aren’t really in this game of rejecting a ‘pure’ South Asian lineage merely to wind up affirming some kind of cultural superiority of Western Europe. We are ‘Portuguese’ not because we have Lusitanian blood, or speak the Portuguese language, but also because we lived under the umbrella of Portuguese sovereignty, bound by bonds of politics and law, and now after all of this has passed, by an affective relationship that ties us to spaces beyond metropolitan Portugal, but places scattered around the world.

A contemporary and politically correct Goan identity, is one that is caught between a rock and a hard place. It would be appropriate to suggest that the construction of this Goan identity is akin to having one’s feet in two boats at the same time and having to jump from one boat to the other, constantly at the risk of falling into the perilous waters below. The point however is that in facing this admittedly tricky situation, we may in fact be working towards a situation in the future, when we ensure that both the Goan and other social groups, do not have to jump between boats or straddle worlds uncomfortably, but sit comfortable in one comfortable bark. The power of a Goan identity that is inclusive of the complex history of the territory is as yet unrealized, for it holds within it the power to alter the way we take for granted phrases that we today take for granted. Such exclusive phrases such as 'European'. To achieve this larger humanitarian end, our current discomfort would be well worth it.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 14 Sept 2011)

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