Monday, June 26, 2023

Writing Goa for the future: words at a book launch

 Excellentissimo Senhor Paulo Gomes, Delegado da Fundação Oriente em Goa, estimados senhoras e senhores, boa tarde.

The single word that repeatedly popped into my head as I read Celine de Almeida’s Feasts and Fests of Goa: The flavour of a unique culture, was performance. Now this word will need some context if you are not to think that I am insulting Professora Celine.

Among anthropologists and cultural studies scholars, there is a recognition that things do not simply exist, they must be acted, or performed, for them to exist. We need to act out, with our bodies, a concept, or idea, in our head for that concept, or idea, to actually be tangible to other persons. We need to speak, or perform, our language, for the language community to exist. We have to perform politeness, for a polite society to exist, else, as we all well know, it will cease to exist. Or, for example, I wear a clerical habit to manifest a Catholic moral and social order. Without my wearing of the habit, or rather without a number of us doing so, the Catholic moral and social order may exist, but it does so only in my/ our head, and this way it is easier to dismiss, or even destroy. Performance, therefore, is at the heart of social activity.

So that is it that Celine Almeida is performing through her opus primus, Feasts and Fests of Goa: The flavour of a unique culture.

What exactly is she performing through this book, however, and does this performance have any value?

I would argue that there are a number of performances here and all of them are of great value, especially in the imperiled times we live in, and for this reason, her performance is virtuous.

To begin with, Professora Celine is continuing a performance that first began in the 18th century, which is that of the literary elite. The literary worlds of the 18th century laid the foundation for the republics and democracies that we have today, when people with opinions expressed them, in writing, as books, for an audience. In doing so, they created a public sphere of ideas and debate.

This modus vivendi found expression in Portugal as well, and through Portugal in Goa too, where we had a flourishing public sphere of debate, discussion and polemics. This is the other performance effected by this book, it continues a grand Goan tradition of public discussion. Professora Celine has an opinion on Goa, and what could be done to make it better, and she expresses this in the book, fulfilling the task of a public intellectual. This performance is even more critical because it comes at a difficult time, when public discussion is under threat and people are afraid to express their opinions.

So thus far we have the performance of the literary elite, of the public intellectual, and there is another performance that this book effects, which is also important. This book also performs Goa. It maps out Goa, in terms of places, regions, communities. And this is critical because it is through such mappings that places are produced and persist! More importantly, Professora Celine performs a Goa where communities live in harmony, unaffected by the wickedness of Hindu nationalism. I have to confess that I was initially irritated, or annoyed, by this book, and its focus on these feasts for which I often have little time. I thought it was too backward looking, too full of nostalgia, saudades, and I’d like to stride into the future. I thought all of this, annoyedly turning pages, until I realised that while we need to stride into the future, we also need to do so from a past and present that is harmonious. Celina Almeida’s books fulfills this necessary task, by having done the work of an amateur ethnographer, she captures a time 2022 when this harmonious Goa still existed, and it tells us that there was a value to this time and in the future, we might like to look back and emulate it.

For all of these performances, therefore, I thank you Professora, most sincerely, as I am sure your readers and future generations will thank you as well.

But simple nostalgia is not sufficient for us to save Goa from the evil that threatens it. We need to also need to develop new tools which can secure the Goa we love from destruction. New tools need to be built not in laboratories or ivory towers, but from an experience from the ground, and this is something else that marks this book. As I have already indicated, Professora Almeida has actually visited many, if not all, of the sites of the feasts, and her work is thus the work of an amateur ethnographer – another feature of a past generation of the literary elite of our land – and it yields us details that we can now use to build the tools that will correct the mistakes of the past.

Take, for example, her reference to the practice associated with the feast of the three kings in Cuelim where the flags accompanying the kings are waved in a circular motion at each of the standing or fallen megaliths. I was struck by this description, because this is so similar to a practice I witnessed in the Italian city of Siena last year. I was there for the feast of Corpus Christi, and when the procession concludes in the Cathedral of the city a number of fabulously dressed flag bearers come before the Blessed Sacrament and wave the flags in circular motions before they exit the Cathedral.

Then there are the details she provides about the same feast where people pass under the horses used by the three kings. Now so often we assume that many of the Catholic practices that don’t obtain in Europe but are found here are the result of “Hindu” customs, but in fact this practice of passing under the horse seems to be similar to that of the custom of passing through the horse Duldul in the Muharram processions. The Islamic base of Goan society is a topic that needs to get more attention.

There is something that I wish this book had done, I wish it had been more critical of – perhaps even attack and debunk – older forms of presenting Goa, forms which were established in the 19th century, continued in the 20th, and are now reaping their harvest of hate. We must not forget that much of Goan popular history, and I stress that much of it is popular and not academic and therefore rigorous history, is the result of the Portuguese anti-clericalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Added to this was the desire of local dominant castes – brahmins and chardos both – to try and fit in their caste and family histories to work with Indian nationalism. Thus, we have the silly tales of demolished temples, and churches built over them, of idols retrieved and reestablished in villages outside the control of the Portuguese. These are all myths and we need to contest them, and this is a task I wish this book had also taken up.

I also wish that the book had been more assertive of the goodness that Catholicism has brought to Goa. Indeed, Goa was produced because of the Catholicism that came with the Portuguese. There was no Goa, as we understand it today, before the Portuguese. In her discussion of the handi fest of Curtorim, Professora Celina once again gives us important details that will prove helpful to future scholars. She points out that:

in pre-Portuguese times, this ceremony of constructing the handi was preceded by a ritual in conformity with the religious beliefs of those times – a cockerel was slaughtered and its blood was smeared on the spot where the handi was to be built.

Professora Almeida is very demure about this detail, but the fact is that pre-Portuguese Goa, which we often assume was this lyrical land of peace and love, was a very violent and blood-thirsty space. Ritual blood-letting, which today, thanks to our Catholic sensibilities, a sensibility shared even by Hindus, we are horrified by, was in fact quite common. Indeed, importing knowledge from other parts of the subcontinent we know that the blood of the cockerel would have been used to satisfy the spirit of a person who had originally been killed to protect the handi. When cockerel blood was not sufficient, once again persons could be offered. And perhaps it is to the credit of the Islamic heritage of pre-Portuguese Goa that we do not have records of human sacrifice when the missionaries came in. Islamic rule may have prohibited human sacrifice, but it did nothing to prevent the sacrifice of animals. This was put to an end by the adoption of Catholicismby the local populace, who would have realised with relief that they did not any more need to offer repeated blood sacrifices, because the one sacrifice that saves all, and can be represented day in and day out had been made for them. I speak of course, of the great sacrifice made at Calvary. It is because of this logic that you have crosses in so many places in Goa – like at manos gates – where earlier blood sacrifice would have been demanded annually. Catholicism made Goa better.

Among all the nice things that I have to say about this book, however, I also have a significant complaint to make. This book is in English, and while it is welcome, I believe that this book should have been in Portuguese. It would have reached a more diverse audience, and would have, above all, effected the performance that is so, SO, important in our times. To assert that Portuguese is our language, a Goan language, that it is still alive, and must be if we are to also be alive. I trust that having now published this book, Professora Celina Almeida will make sure her next opus is to translate the book into Portuguese, a task for which I wish her well.

(A version of this text was delivered at the launch of Feasts and Fests of Goa: The flavour of a unique culture, at the Delegação da Fundação Oriente in Panjim on 24 June 2023.)

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