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.

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