Monday, August 30, 2010

Opening the Third Eye: Goan History after Into the Diaspora Wilderness

This column last week challenged the notion of Goa Indica as being an incomplete cliché, incapable of capturing the nuances of Goa’s history. Because it sought to do battle with the idea of Goa Dourada, an idea promoted by Portuguese imperialism, the contours of Goa Indica are suffocatingly nationalistic. Manifesting in local rhetoric, Goa Indica had to deny the Portuguese impact, and look for an independent Goan identity prior to the Portuguese. As a result, it fell into the Indian nationalist trap of looking at history from a brahmanical point of view. This ignored, almost entirely, the history and experience of the non-dominant sections of Goan society, especially those Catholic groups that were the non-dominant (or subaltern). To be sure this was not a malicious overlooking, but the result of the position from which this history was being written. Where the Catholic faith was seen as a Portuguese injection into Goa, how could anything that these groups possessed, be capable of yielding a ‘pre-Portuguese’?

This forgetting of the subaltern Catholic is however, gradually being redressed, and thank goodness for it. The movement for the recognition of the Roman script and the cultural productions associated with it, the celebration of Cantaram with the recent Konkani Rocks concert, are moves that seem to be slowly addressing this grave lacuna in the crafting of the Goan identity. To this happy move, was recently added Into the Diaspora Wilderness, a book written by Selma Carvalho about the Goan ‘diaspora’ in the British Empire.

Carvalho’s book is a must read because it shifts the focus in the telling of Goa’s story in many ways. Already in the ‘Short Introduction’ she indicates a few changes in the way in which she looks at Goa. She is critical of “[A] miniscule section of the Goan population (who) sat indolently in the grandeur of chandeliered reception halls”. This book is not about their story. This is a story of those who moved away. Those who could not see the otherwise much celebrated “quiet eloquence of rural Goa: the peace, tranquility, self-sustaining village life in which one seeks solitude”. This is the story of those who could not bear the 'desultory, isolation of the vaddo...the eerie silence of the night...The empty, hollow sense that nothing could germinate in the village which could take one beyond its boundary”. And it is because it is a story of those who moved away, it is not a story that is tied to Goan land and histories of gãocarial connections to land. It is a story that is forged by the traveler, in particular the otherwise-mocked tarvotti, the sneered-at Gulfie, whose travels “have profoundly shaped our cultural mores.” These stories take us across the seas, into Africa and are twined with British Africa, and the Anglo-Saxon world. Carvalho is fully aware of these shifts she is making, evident when she says; “Very often, when the story of the Goan migration is told, it is done from the vantage point of Goa. It is as if Goans went to these countries but somehow remained unaffected by what transpired in these distant lands, as if they existed in a political and cultural vacuum. The reality is, there were transformations taking place every step of the journey, transformations which have inevitably affected the collective Goan psyche.” This story then, makes the profound point that has to be made again and again, and again before it becomes part of Goan commonsense; the Goan psyche was profoundly influenced by experiences outside of Goa, and these Goans were subaltern folk, who left Goan shores in search of financial sustenance, often to escape the suffocation of a caste-ridden, hierarchical and unimaginative society. There is a third shift she effects. She speaks of Goan times, under Portuguese sovereignty, but there is barely a reference to the Portuguese. In doing so, she prompts us to ask if when looking at the histories of the Goan subaltern, the Portuguese were perhaps not the main referent? Perhaps this obsession with the pre-Portuguese past is just a red-herring that disappears when we start looking at the histories of the subaltern Goan? In other words, the crafting of a Goan identity need not centre (as Goa Indica also does) around the Portuguese. They were merely one small, if significant, chapter in a larger Goan story.

Carvalho rescues the stories of a number of persons for the telling of Goan history; the otherwise uncelebrated Caitans and Joãos, who no doubt went to their grave thinking they were nobodies. But Selma also tells these stories twined with her own. Like Maria Aurora Couto before her, Selma too tells a daughter’s story. This positioning of both these Goan raconteurs within the bosom of family is perhaps not coincidental. Like Selma points out, Goan migration was often pioneering, going into uncharted waters. For these groups, subaltern in the larger global hierarchy, security and upward mobility came not from State or Company, but via the support from family and the connections generated through creating familial relationships with each other.

One wishes though, her narrative had dealt with caste a little more critically than it does. By virtue of telling the stories she has, she is forced to mention caste. But having done so, she falls into the old Goan Catholic trap of not discussing caste in public. We pretend innocence about it. As a result, she mentions caste, but fails to attempt a critical discussion of it. This failing is nowhere as obvious as when she discusses its presence among the Goan communities in Africa. Thus for example in the case of the relationships that Goans in Kenya had with the future of a postcolonial Goa she refers to the fact of the two sides (pro-India led by J.M. Nazareth and pro-Portuguese faction led by Dr. A.C.L. de Souza) being motivated by caste battles. Having done so, she refuses to elaborate on the name of these castes or elaborate on these divisions.

But perhaps this silence is also because through her writing what Carvalho is also attempting is a rescuing of the dignity of the groups she writes about, from the humiliation they normally experience. The discussion of caste could perhaps wait another day, when we are more secure in, and less apologetic about our identities. Carvalho however, also seems to uncritically accept other hierarchies, for example that of the white (Anglo-Saxon) man who crafted the British Empire. While acknowledging the role of the Goan in lending vital support to this Empire, she does not seem to be critical of the manner in which it moulded the Goan psyche. Did being the Imperial overseer create racial prejudices that we do not acknowledge? Where there are possibilities to take this forward, she unhappily lets these threads fall. At times, one could not help in wondering, whether the twining of the Goan story with that of Empire, does not make the Goan somewhat nostalgic for this time of Empire.

Finally, even though it is a wonderful read and a critical contribution to Goan historiography and literature, the stories that Carvalho narrates are often snapshots strung together from disparate settings. There is none of the thickness of description that is the demand of the ethnographer. Very often, the story has only begun when it very frustratingly ends. One wonders therefore, if her book would not have been better served through more focused elaborations of selected theaters of Goan migration. But then on the other hand, this is perhaps only the first of more productions that will fully elaborate the untold stories of the subaltern Goan abroad? It would be a shame if Selma Carvalho, with her charming prose, resolute voice, and unflinching gaze stops at just one book.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 1 Sept 2010)

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