Friday, October 19, 2012

Consuming Empire: The continuing vitality of the Indo-Portuguese

The fourth episode of the Semana da Cultura Indo-Portuguesa makes an interesting and critical innovation this year. Rather than restrict itself, as it formerly did, to the possibly provincial location of Goa, this year the Semana travels to the Indo-Portuguese world’s former metropole[1], Lisbon. This innovation is significant because, in doing so, the Indo-Portuguese (Goans and others) make a grand claim. They indicate to themselves, and to others, that theirs is not a provincial culture to be appreciated only among intimates and in the shuttered confines of the home. On the contrary, it is a cosmopolitan culture, crafted from the mingling of the Indian Ocean cultures, and must be justifiably appreciated universally. Indeed, as this essay will go on to suggest, the Indo-Portuguese, and Goa in particular, could lay rightful claim to being a centre of a cosmopolitan Portuguese culture. Hopefully, Lisbon will mark only the first of these international assertions of Indo-Portuguese culture.

It is because this year’s Semana da Cultura marks a break in certain traditions, however, that it is important for us to also acknowledge that the Semana must also articulate itself in a new language. If it fails to do so, then these bold cosmopolitan moves will get lost in the provincial imaginations that populate, among other places, the metropolitan imagination in Portugal. Take for example the manner in which the Indo-Portuguese encounter is largely understood in Portugal. If a Goan were to meet a Portuguese person in any part of the world, the Portuguese is bound to inquire of the Goan if there are still, fifty years after India integrated Goa into itself, signs of a Portuguese presence. What this Portuguese person is invariably looking for is the robust presence of the Portuguese language, or the presence of persons with metropolitan Portuguese ancestry and, finally, perhaps Portuguese architecture. In all of these cases, the ‘Portuguese’ or the Indo-Portuguese that they seek, is not only something tangible, but something that is seen to originate unambiguously in metropolitan, or continental Portugal.

There are a number of problems however with viewing the vestiges and the continuing remains of the Portuguese Empire in this manner. To begin with, the Portuguese language continues to remain in Goa, as it was in the period of Portuguese sovereignty in the sub-continent, a minority (though by no means dying) language. Secondly, given the racialist biases of the caste system, most (upper-caste) people would not acknowledge their non-‘Indian’ roots, even if these existed. Thus, most upper-caste Goans refuse to acknowledge a possible metropolitan ancestry. Given the manner that writing on and about Goa is largely written from these upper-caste location, imagination of the Goan self is largely trapped within these frameworks, and there is not much work, at least in the English language, that explores non upper-caste locations and histories of the Goan selves. Finally, there are many who will argue that except for some buildings in Old Goa, most of the civil and religious architecture that one finds in Goa, is not in fact Portuguese, but Goan, or at the most, Indo-Portuguese.

Those of us who are committed to a continuing dialogue between Portugal and Goa may feel somewhat fatigued by such a scenario, but before we attempt to redress this state of affairs, we should also underline the fact that in the first place, the manner in which this search for the ‘Portuguese’ in Goa, and the identification of the ‘Indo-Portuguese’ is set up by these well-intentioned metropolitan Portuguese, is in fact rather problematic. It is problematic because implicit in this search for traces of the Portuguese, there is the idea that genuine Portuguese-ness emerges only from continental, now nation-state, Portugal; that Goa is only the space for receipt of this culture; and finally, following receipt, Goa can only faithfully reproduce. Any deviation from the original is seen as being ‘syncretic’, which is to say, watered-down Portuguese. The term ‘syncretic’ represents one more challenge to understand the vitality of the Indo-Portuguese, since it sets up a binary opposition. Either something can be ‘Portuguese’ or it can be ‘Indian’. If it is not Portuguese, then it is ‘syncretic’, that is to say, not quite ‘Indian’, and definitely, not ‘authentically’ Portuguese. Indeed within this framework, the Indo-Portuguese is exactly that, one half Portuguese, a half whose Portuguese pedigree must be definitely ascertained.

The practical implications of these constructions of the Portuguese, is that the poor Indo-Portuguese (and I am thinking particularly of Goans) are doomed to ceaseless blind repetition if their cultural productions are to be understood as maintaining a link with Portugal. Thus, we have the unending repetition of the Corridinho, of the same old Portuguese language songs from the 1950s and such like. In a situation that T. B. Cunha, in his polemical tract The Denationalizaton of the Goans, both warned against and would have abhorred, this framework leaves no space for the Goan to engage in cultural innovation, and still have these innovations considered as within the frames of the ‘Portuguese’. There is thus clearly a need for us to articulate a different, or additional, paradigm[2] to understand the manner in which the Portuguese continues to robustly inhere within the Goan body politic.

Happily for us, the Lusophone world, in the metaphor of anthropophagy provides us with just the vantage point from which we can recast the relationship of the Indo-Portuguese to Portugal, and see the existence of a much larger Portugal beyond the usual, and unsatisfactory, understandings of Portuguese-ness in Goa.

While the word anthropophagy refers to the eating of human flesh, and is derived from the Greek words anthropos, “human being” and, phagein, “to eat”; there is a unique history of the Lusophone world to this practice of eating humans. Where popular Eurocentric imagination holds ‘African tribes’ to be cannibals, some scholars suggest that it was the target population of the slave trade in Africa who first developed the idea that the early modern metropolitan Portuguese were in fact taking people away to eat them. That they practiced a religion that stressed the eating of a divine human being who gave his life for them, perhaps only deepened this African belief about these Portuguese. As things came to pass, however, by some sleight of hand, it was these African groups that were then held by later Europeans to in fact be the cannibals! Anthropophagy however is different from cannibalism, a fact underlined by the Movimento Anthropophago (Anthropophagic Movement) one of the more important Brazilian literary and artistic movements of twentieth century Latin America. This movement pointed out, with reference to the practices of the Tupinamba tribe of the Amazons, that people were not eaten for the pleasure of the taste for human flesh or hunger, but to incorporate the essence and attributes of the victim who had been eaten. This logic is not foreign to South Asian understandings of the world. In this part of the globe, the leftovers of a superior being, be it a husband, guru, or deity, are often consumed, though without the element of equalizing present in the modern Brazilian interpretation of the act, precisely to incorporate the essence of the superior into one’s being.

What is critical to our understanding of the adoption of the anthropophagic metaphor in recasting the relationship of the Indo-Portuguese to Portuguese-ness, is that the Anthropophagic movement in Brazil was an attempt to challenge the centrality of Europe in the crafting of the Brazilian identity. Rather than the source of unmitigated good, Europe was seen as inherently problematic. It was largely the virtues of the indigenous, who had incorporated cultural forms from Europe, through this process of corporeal ingestion that were believed to be able to provide a new holistic direction to the development, not merely of Brazil, but Latin America and all of its peoples. What I seek to emphasize here, is the move that the use of anthropophagy metaphor sought to effect, which is that of liberation from the centrality of Europe as being the definer. The liberation intended was almost nationalist, being an attempt to assert an independence from the former metropoles of Latin America. In their imagining, anthropophagy could subvert meanings, destroy hierarchies, escape the oppressive forces of colonial relations, and transfigure their nihilistic energies into a source of vitality. My own use of anthropophagy, however, is not to assert a nationalist sensibility but, rather, like the Semana da Cultura, to transcend it. Nationality and national identities have their own place, but there is more that our identities and cultural capacities are capable of, and this is what I seek to underline in this text.

The contours of anthropophagy as developed by the Movement are no doubt riddled with their own problems, but a restricted understanding of anthropophagy, limited to the idea of bodily incorporation and reconstitution of that which is ingested has distinct advantages. It would allow us to see a role of the Indo-Portuguese as not merely derivative of the Portuguese, or incompletely Portuguese, but as Portuguese in their own right, having, in the course of their half-millennium-long encounter ingested, digested and incorporated the Portuguese and all that came in the wake of the Portuguese. The reverse is of course true of the continental Portuguese, though this is not seen as problematic in continental Portugal, where African, Chinese, Indic and other elements are seen as naturally part of the Portuguese fabric, not a syncretic, that is to say, add-on, part[3]. Indeed, one could argue that this inequality in relations is precisely because all along it is the metropole, that is metropolitan Portugal, alone that has had the right to be seen as the devourer, and not the colony. An anthropophagic moment, then, while asserting the communion between metropolitan and colonial, would also affirm a radical equality that has as yet, not been affirmed, despite the putative ‘Liberation’ of 1961 and its subsequent metropolitan recognition in 1974, neither in the metropole, nor in the colony.

The anthropophagic moment rests however on a crucial distinction that what we consumed was not Portugal the post-colonial nation-state, but Portugal the Empire. Further, by carrying forward the anthropophagic trope and simultaneously embodying the Empire, we can take the dismemberment of the Empire, in the wake of its forced decolonization, as symbolic of its butchering for consumption. What we are left with therefore, are those who partook in that banquet. This leaves us with the Angolans, the Mozambicans, the Indo-Portuguese, and the Portuguese of the Portuguese nation-state, all of whom, having consumed the Empire, now embody Portuguese-ness differently, yet equally. If we are today unable to perceive this equality of Portuguese-ness among the post-colonial guests at the banquet of decolonization, then it is because of the privilege of self-referentiality that has been taken up from this banquet by the former imperial centres. Thus Portugal the nation-state continues to bear the name of the Empire, just as the nation-state of India, takes on the name of the former imperial sub-centre of the British Raj. In both cases they use this name to be seen as The legitimate successor states, a practice that must necessarily be challenged to effect genuinely democratic postcolonial politics[4].

If the Indo-Portuguese is viewed in this anthropophagic light, then one would perhaps not be consumed with possible anxieties, experienced by some cultural entrepreneurs, of presenting only what is identifiably Portuguese or whose Portuguese ancestry can be traced. Anything, and everything, that the Indo-Portuguese produces is also instantly part of the Portuguese oeuvre, regardless of the intention of the producer. This move of affirming the Portuguese-ness of the Indo-Portuguese should not raise fears of erasing the identity of the specificities of, say, the Goans. On the contrary, the Goans would continue to affirm their individual identity. On the contrary, rather than see this as a validation of the continuing centrality of the metropole, this anthropophagic perspective would allow us to see multiple centres for Portuguese-ness and follow with equal interest the developments that are taking place in each of these spaces.

Thus, just as subsequent to Portugal’s incorporation into the European Union there has been a flowering in a variety of fields, so too, as Goa has been joined into the Indian Union there has been a transformation from the traditionally recognized Indo-Portuguese into a variety of fields. These influences have come from the larger world of the Indian Union, perhaps lesser so from the rest of the subcontinent. Cultural flows have been profound from the Anglophone world, in particular the United Kingdom and the United States of America, just as metropolitan Portugal has often been strongly attuned to cultural developments in the United Kingdom and ingests and incarnates contemporary cultural developments in the United States. The developments have taken place not only in Goa, but through its substantial diaspora, a diaspora not dissimilar to the metropolitan Portuguese, across the world, and in a variety of fields.

On the other hand, there is no reason for those who are concerned that a conversation with Portugal will come to an end as a result of this decentering of the Portuguese nation-state. The decentering of the post-colonial Portuguese State to allow for a recognition of multiple centres does not call for a cessation of conversation. It continues to allow for these conversations, but at the same time affirms that simultaneous conversations must also be conducted with other parts of the Lusophone world, as well as those parts of the world that while not being a part of the late Portuguese empire, were critical to creating the unique character of the Indo-Portuguese centre of that empire. Take for example therefore, the conversation that occurred with East Africa, those territories under Portuguese sovereignty, as well as those under British, both during the late colonial period, as well as earlier times. Or with Ethiopia, or with the Persian State. This decentring calls not for an end to conversation, but rather a broadening of the conversation to point to the depth of contacts that the imperial Portuguese period provided to the construction of the Indo-Portuguese character.

A shift away from the syncretic model of cultural impact towards the anthropophagic affords us a more profound way toward appreciating the Indo-Portuguese as it arrives in Lisbon this year. It allows us to recognize that the sub-continent can be an originary font of a vibrant and dynamic Portuguese culture, affording what scholars would call agency, to the Indo-Portuguese. It allows for continuing dialogues, not rooted only in the past, but conversations that can look forward to the future, building relationships and partnerships that are not necessarily limited to the cultural. Given the emphasis that is being placed here on a gustatory model, then, let us raise a toast to the Semana da Cultura Indo-Portuguesa and the affirmative step it takes to show us that the Indo-Portuguese is indeed alive and kicking.

(A shorter version of this essay was published in The Goan, on 20 Sept 2012.

I would like to dedicate this essay to my friend and colleague Prof. Dileep Loundo, via whom I first encountered the concept of anthropophagy, and who opened the doors to thinking about Goa from the Brazilian experience.

Further, I would like to share laurels for the crafting of this essay with Benedito Ferrão. And finally thanks to Miguel Vale de Almeida for some amount of publicity about the essay and the ensuing attention. )

[1] I would like to draw the attention of the reader to the specificity of usage of the words ‘metropole’ and ‘metropolitan’, terms I draw from usage in Postcolonial theory. Rather than refer to a significant urban setting, metropole refers to, and underlines, the centrality of the colonial capital. Consequently, metropolitan refers to that which belongs to the metropole, whether it be a person, a value, or object.
[2] I would like to stress that I find the complete discrediting and abandoning of one theoretical model for another rather problematic. Such abandoning and embrace erroneously suggests that one theoretical model can effectively capture complex realities and forces us into static models of appreciating dynamic social processes. Also, the abandoning of one model for another fails to take into consideration that after a length of time, a representational model does in fact come to mould reality, such that it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, given that it now has a very real, embodied presence in the field of study.
[3] I would like to suggest however, that this acceptance is more appropriately restricted to culture of the Portuguese elite groups, rather than a feature of popular Portuguese culture throughout the nation-state. Following from its nineteenth century origins and subsequent development by the Estado Novo, this popular culture celebrates the assumedly hermetic cultures of peasant groups in various parts of continental Portugal. The elite groups on the other hand, rely on their linkages with the Empire, to demonstrate, through the quotidian use, or display, of Oriental objects, the length of presence as members of Portugal’s elite, or of their comfortable presence within this group.
[4] As I make this observation however, I am aware of other imperial politics that are at play, and this is the manner in which in this essay, Goa, the imperial sub-centre, swallows up the rest of the very wide and diverse Indo-Portuguese world. I make this observation only to highlight that I am aware of this failing in the text, and beg only for more time and opportunity when I will be able to elaborate on a broader understanding of the Indo-Portuguese and the manner in which it can respond to this cannibalistic devouring that Goa, and Goans, often undertake.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Wandering through halls with a hundred doors: Book Review of Let Me Tell You About Quinta

Ever since the Indian army marched in and annexed the Portuguese State of India to the Union, Goan society has been involved in an incredibly intense churning. This churning has occurred as Goans sought, and continue to seek, their location within the larger Indian polity; as they sought to make sense of the rapid changes that overturned the social structures of a highly stratified society held in place through late Portuguese imperialism; as new elites emerged and waves of, until-then, foreigners landed up to radically transform the Goan landscape. A churning that has been on for some decades now, it would not be wrong to say that this process reached a particularly intense moment in the past couple of years. It is within this context that Let me tell you about Quinta should be read, evaluated and appreciated. A good number of Goan, and non-Goan artists, musicians and writers have attempted to grapple with the upheavals that have beset Goan society, and it must be said that Let me tell you is clearly one of the finer products of that churning.

Set in the village of Carmona, Let me tell you about Quinta is narrative that spans three generations (including an illegitimate one) of a Catholic bhatcar (i.e. landed Goan) family and its multiple Others. Weaving between time-periods, pre-colonial, colonial and the post-colonial, the narrative is punctuated by the voice of the initial narrator of the epic, and the figure closest in time to us; the readers. Indeed, the delicate texture of time that this narrative produces is one of the finer features of this book, fine-grained in its attention to detail, yet never leaving one exhausted from the burdens of history. And yet, the central protagonist of the narrative is clearly Quinta do Santo Antonio the highly contested property that, like so many Goan homes and properties of the late-colonial epoch, framed the emergence, lifestyles and the eventual dissolution of one class and the burgeoning of another. This grand Goan home, like others in the territory, measured carefully the lives its owners would lead, and mapped the relationships they would enjoy or suffer with their relatives and minions; living on, even as the eaves of these homes eventually come crashing down. It should be said, that one could use this one book as a fairly effective way into getting into a broad and yet sensitive understanding of Goan society and its history.

Let me tell you however, does not limit itself to merely weaving its tale via reference to the quotidian. On the contrary, the magical or the enchanted trespass quite frequently into the tale, be it in the form of birthing fluids that deluge automobiles, women who speak quite casually to spirits that tattle tales of buried wealth, and curses that eventually ruin families. If it were just this however, Let me tell you would fall well into the realm of fantasy, or magical realism. However, because the fantastic that the narrative presents are from well within the vernacular traditions of Goa, this book is poised quite comfortably within the realm of contemporary mythology. The most exciting feature of this book therefore is not the deft weaving of Goan history, or its sociological insight, but the manner in which it has done both of these while integrating the same into the spiritual traditions of the land. Most efforts on this front, especially by Goan Catholic authors tend to tumble headlong into an embrace of brahmanical myth, as they thrash about seeking to recreate the history of a Hindu past that they believe they have lost. Not so Let me tell you, that catholically embraces the fluid movements of Goan history while simultaneously rooting itself in a living and breathing mythological traditions of village Goa, or perhaps more appropriately village Salcette (the taluka within which the novel is so firmly set.)

Because Let me tell you emerges from out of this great Goan soul-searching, because it is located within the mythos of the Goan space, and because it is cognizant of the nuances that time has wrought on this space, it is an intensely political text. Like the time-frame of the narrative, this commentary is pronounced upon various locations of Goan time, not restricting itself merely to the contemporary moment. However, because it is Quinta that is the central figure of the book, the most fundamental comment is the lament for the loss of the Goan homes and the families that built them. Take for example this hugely evocative “‘What a life’ wrote Preciosa to Sun, ‘this was a land of open door, now we have to lock ourselves in to avoid people.’”  And yet, while the narrative mourns the passing of an age, because it reflects on the morality of the actions that built and sustained those home, and eventually came to pass, it is a cathartic lament, creating through this narrative the legitimate space for those former subalterns, the minions of homes like Quinta do Santo Antonio who have now come to succeeded to the Goan earth that they were so long disinherited from.

For the dexterity with which Savia Viegas weaves these many projects together, for its breathless and graphic storytelling, the book is an intellectual delight even if one is not interested in Goa, its politics or its history. Indeed, because of the manner in which it involves itself with the genealogies of a creole society, a number of readers have commented on, and drawn parallels with the works of Marquez and Allende. However, those unfamiliar with the nuances of Goan cuisine, language, hierarchies and idiosyncrasies may at times find it difficult to navigate and make sense of the narrative. Viegas, or the publishers Penguin, would have been well advised to include a glossary along with the narrative. However, one could also perhaps simultaneously discern from this lack of a glossary, the decision to pluck Goa away from its location as an aberration, where it is merely ‘a small part of India’ and return to it its universal significance. While on the subject of language, it should also be said that the few forays that the narrative makes into other languages, be it Hindi, Konkani or Portuguese detract from the breathless beauty of the narrative. One can understand the temptation to invoke the vernaculars to give a flavor of the land, but given Viegas’ skills that have thus far been acclaimed, these little flourishes serve only a cloying flavor that could have well be dropped. Introducing the vernacular tongue into a text written in a different idiom is seldom easy, and this attempt is not Viegas’ brightest moment. There is another grumble associated with language and this one involves the dropping of the accents that communicate the sounds of the Portuguese language used in the book. This, along with spelling errors, is often a ‘mistake’ committed by Anglophone publishers of texts that invoke languages other than English. For a text that seeks to weave the Portuguese language convincingly into its narrative however, this is an appalling oversight. 

The last of the grumbles associated with the production of this book involves the images located in the text. Five in number, Viegas commences each part of this four-fold narrative with a pictograph assumedly crafted by her hand. These images share an interesting relationship with the text. Not quite a show-and-tell, it is as if these images are the remnants of the dreams from which the narrative was born. Given that these images would been executed in colour, and given their association with the text, it is a shame that they appear in the book not in the lavish colour or Viegas’ no doubt technicolour dreams, but in muted and disappointing shades of greys.

Savia Viegas’s book is a delight at so many levels; so do, do let her tell you about Quinta.

Let Me Tell You About Quinta
By Savia Viegas
Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011, 254 pp., Rs 299
ISBN 0143415220

(This review was first published in Biblio: A Review of Books Sept-Oct 2012 as Land of Open Doors)