A Portuguese Relic's Place in the Indian Imagination: Choudhury

The word "India" is a kind of unicolored canopy thrown over an extraordinarily dense, diverse and tangled set of political histories, a behemoth threatening to drown out "the small voice of history" -- to borrow a phrase from the historian Ranajit Guha -- unless the little traditions find a way to assert themselves.

Many Indians, especially those of my generation, were reminded of the necessity of disaggregating the threads of history this week when the state of Goa celebrated the 50th anniversary of its annexation by India.

A small, sylvan territory on the west coast, now India's most popular tourist destination, Goa had an experience of colonial rule that was longer and very different from much of the rest of India. From the early 16th century onward, it came under the control of the Portuguese, who converted much of the local population to Catholicism and ruled much of the region for more than four and a half centuries as Estado Português da Índia, or the Portuguese state of India. The encounter between the Portuguese and the indigenous population of Goa, while unmistakably marked by coercion and repression, also produced a distinctive culture, cuisine, architecture, and worldview that still makes Goa a standout out in modern India.

As Vivek Menezes, the scholar of Goa, wrote in an essay in the magazine The Caravan earlier this month:

[B]y the 16th century, Goa had exploded into the richest trading port the world had ever known, the centre piece of a truly global empire that extended from Brazil to Timor to Aden and back to Lisbon; Goans were profoundly globalised centuries before the first British merchant showed up in the subcontinent. (In fact, the British East India Company was formed in response to a series of letters by Thomas Stephens, an English Jesuit who marvelled at the riches of Portuguese Goa.)

Although India's anti-colonial movement in the first half of the 20th century had a ripple effect in Goa, the end of the British Raj in 1947 had no effect on the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, who continued to deploy a governor to rule the territory, leaving it, after 1954 -- when the French withdrew from their Indian territories -- as the last colony on the subcontinent. Finally, in a controversial move, the government of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, took Goa by force in a short, swift operation in December 1961. Two years later, in 1963, Goans voted in elections for the first time, and entered the narrative of Indian democracy by becoming the country's smallest state.

But assimilation into India brought with it a fresh set of quandaries about identity, such as a movement within the state in the 1960s to have it incorporated into Maharashtra, the much bigger state to its north, which also includes the metropolis of Mumbai, itself once a Portuguese holding subsequently handed over to the British.

The core of the dispute revolved around language: Was Konkani, the tongue widely spoken on the west coast of India and particularly in Goa, merely a dialect of Marathi, the language of Maharashtra, or was it an independent language? In an India that was being organized into new states based on linguistic boundaries -- a very full account of this reorganization can be found in the historian Ramachandra Guha's book "India After Gandhi" -- this was a vital question. The matter was finally decided, unusually, by a referendum in 1967. More than 54 percent of the people voted against merging with Maharastra.

Fifty years after decolonization, it might be said that Goa is still coming to terms with its complex past and sometimes too-thin present, as interpreted through the sunglasses of Indian and foreign tourists. As the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai wrote recently, "Brand Goa for the tourist is defined by plenty of sun, many beaches, all night bars, loud music, and the occasional rave party: basically, a chance to rid oneself of the inhibitions of middle class India without the neighbour complaining."

Goans are seen by outsiders as pleasure-loving, laidback people who are fond of a tipple and a siesta and a jangle on the guitar. Sometimes this is too reductive and unlayered a narrative. (Only the need to share a laugh compels me to tell you a story about my friend Merwyn, a Goan baker who now lives in the suburb of Borivali in Mumbai. Last year, he embarked on his summer vacation to Goa leaving on the door of his shop the sign: "Closed For Summer Holidays: May 10-June???")

Meanwhile, Portuguese, which was spoken by many Goans 50 years ago, has almost died out; the imperatives of an economy dependent on tourism mean that most people in the state have had to embrace Hindi, the closest thing to a national Indian language. The ambiguities of this situation were brought out in an essay by the Goan writer Frederick Noronha called "Liberation and its Discontents":

Goa’s significance to South Asia, not just to India, is often lost in the story. Here was a place that was a meeting point — nay, a clashing point — of cultures. It was among the earliest European colonies in Asia, and stayed the longest. It was ruled by the Portuguese (who were themselves ruled by the Spanish for part of their term here), blockaded by the Dutch, and “protected” by British troops stationed here. Goa’s colonial cousins at one time stretched from the coast of Africa till Macau and Japan.

Portuguese rule here was bigoted in parts, and tolerant in others. Yet, out of it emerged an ethos where communal amity largely prevails. A land that saw drastic changes with every new set of rulers has been able to look ahead, adapt, and even gain from the upheaval. Its sons and daughters have excelled in music (both Western and Indian), food, sport, the languages, brokering between cultures, and so many other fields. [...]

Five decades is long enough time to re-evaluate the past and overcome hurt. Maybe it is time to re-evaluate the long, not-always-pleasant and not-always-unpleasant relationship with the former colonisers. Should not great Portuguese individuals like the pioneering 16th century Jewish-origin botanist, Garcia da Orta, and the writer of global epics, Luis de Camoes, be seen as belonging to Goa (or India and Asia too) having spent a considerable part of their lives here?

If only every Indian could attend at least a single session of a major conference being held this week at Goa University called "Goa: 1961 and beyond." The event celebrates Goa's place in the history and imagination of at least three continents, including Africa, and features, among others, contributions by the writer Damodar Mauzo ("How Liberated Is Goan Literature?"), the literary critic Rukmini Bhaya Nair, the historian R. Benedito Ferrao ("The Many Africas of Goa"), and the urban-studies scholars Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove ("The Portuguese Past in Contemporary Mumbai Villages..."). For the story of India to be kept alive in the greatest depth and density, so must the story of Goa.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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