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)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Letters from Lisbon: Of Gates and Cyclical Time

Lisbon used to be an Arab city once. At any rate it was ruled by Arabic speakers. Some time in the tenth century, the Portuguese King supported by Frankish crusaders began their attack on the Arab kingdoms in the region and captured the city from the Arabs after a successful siege of the city in 1147.

Given the importance that Lisbon would assume for Portugal, a number of legends grew around the capture of the city. One of these legends surrounds the figure of Martim Moniz. A Frankish noble, Moniz is said to thrust himself into the gates of the castle as they were being shut by the defending Arabs. As per the legend, Moniz was either jammed by the doors or cut down in the course of his valiant attempt. His attempt however, resulted in the gate eventually being overwhelmed, allowing the Crusaders entry into the castle and eventual victory.

Moniz was immortalized by naming one of the gates of the castle after him and later by the naming of a square, Praça Martim Moniz in the city below. Today the Praça Martim Moniz is an interesting space, giving its name to the neighbourhood around it. Architecturally, it is a huge, horrifically ugly modernist nightmare. The square in its current formation is the result of the Estado Novo’s attempts to modernise the city. In the process of that modernization attempt, large portions of the Mouraria (the old Moorish quarter) had been destroyed. Today we would mourn the destruction of that loss, given that it is the Arabic feel of the old city, its narrow lanes, the buildings clinging tightly, together that draws the tourist sighs, and more importantly their Euros. But perhaps the damage to the Mouraria had already been too far gone, and the only option was to push forward with the modernist experiment. The ugliness of some of the buildings that skirt the Praça must be seen to be believed. These monstrosities could only have come from hell!

Almost ironically though, if Martim Moniz jammed the gates of the castle to drive out the Arabs and fashion the city as a decidedly Christian space, his memory seems to be playing the same role all over again. The neighbourhoods around Praça Martim Moniz, today play host to large portions of the lower income migrants to Portugal. These migrants come from the Punjab (both Pakistani and Indian), Bangladesh, Brazil, Angola and Moçambique, and almost amusingly, from the same Muslim North Africa whose people Moniz originally fought against. Around the Praça one finds Chinese stores selling fashion for the thrifty, South-Asian stores that allow you to breathe in the scents of home, and restaurants (both legal and illegal) offering Africa and Chinese food. Descend into the two commercial centres that stand on the square and you could sometimes imagine yourself in an oriental bazaar and encourage the idea that the Arabs never left Al-Isbuna. Some of the more secure Lisboetas celebrate Martim Moniz as their own centre of multiculturalism.

The red and green republican flag of Portugal flutters over the castle Moniz’s sacrifice won. There are times when in the Praça Martim Moniz, playing on the Islamic confession of the migrants, I joke with friends; ‘You see that flag fluttering up there on the hill? Someday, inshallah, that flag will be all green. And ‘we’ shall have returned’.

Letters from Portugal: The Chinese in Lisbon

Some months ago this epistolary series made reference to an underground Chinese restaurant in the vicinity of Lisbon’s Praça Martim Moniz. The experience was so grittily unappealing that it is only in the best interests of the reader that the experience that ought to have been a hipster’s fantasy adventure is not repeated on the pages of this newspaper.

The Chinese in Lisbon however are the source of a number of interesting stories. Ubiquitous in urban Portugal, the Chinese shops, the Lojas dos Chineses, are invariably large stores that host all varieties of goods, ranging from electronics, shoes, umbrellas, kitchen utensils and underwear. Given that these stores, not surprisingly, also offer the cheapest prices for similar quality goods, they are also the first option for those looking for the cheapest option. Judging from the snazzy canvas shoes a friend was displaying the other day, these stores may not necessarily be lacking in style either.

Speak to some Portuguese and they will tell you that the Chinese presence in Portugal is not related to the handing over of Macau, and nor was it a slow growth of a community. It was more like a big bang. One day they weren’t there, and the next day, there were Chinese all over the country. This sudden presence has not come without observation in Portuguese society, some offering a suggestion that this presence, and the rumour that the Lojas dos Chineses pay a lower tax rate, is linked to the investments of the Republic of China in the Portuguese economy. Some of the best stories however, are linked to the restaurants that the Chinese run.

There used to be a time, the story goes, when Lisbon was full of Chinese restaurants, and then one fine day, they all began to shut down. This closure was only temporary however. These restaurants soon re-opened with a new décor, and cuisine. The formerly Chinese restaurants were now Japanese, serving among other things, a cheaper sushi-dining option.

The change occurred, if one is to believe the rumour, after people started getting sick from eating at these Chinese restaurants. Their popularity plummeted drastically. An alternate version is that some over-enthusiastic health and hygiene inspector started targeting the Chinese restaurants, and rather than risk going under the block, they voluntarily shut down and re-opened under a new guise.

One can’t help but imagine, in this context, that there is a certain attempt at dissimulation that the Chinese are attempting, a certain turning of the Orientalist tables on ‘the white people’. It is as if the Chinese decided that since all ‘Oriental’ people look the same to the white-eyes, they might as well pull a fast one on the presumably none-too-sharp Portuguese customers.

The wickedest story about these restaurants however is tied straight to the presence of this large community and the anxiety it must create in some Portuguese. The story goes that till date, there have been no Chinese people buried in the local cemeteries or otherwise consigned to the elements. There are similar stories of the Vietnamese population in Warsaw. The rumours in Warsaw are that the dead are covertly buried and their papers are used to support new ‘illegal’ entrants into the community. The reasons the Chinese in Lisbon apparently give, is that they send their dead back to China for burial. The version some wicked Portuguese peddle however, is that the dead, end up in… the Chinese restaurants!

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 4 Sept 2011)