Thursday , 16 August 2018

Re-searching Goa

Frederick Noronha

Serendipity has been defined as ‘the fact of finding interesting or valuable things by chance.’ When we look back on life, that happens so many times to us all. Leslie de Noronha, the under-acknowledged Goan writer of another generation and no relation of this columnist, has said somewhere that the person you met ‘accidentally’ over breakfast can change the course of your life.

It happens to us all the time. A book you read can shape your thinking for years, decades or for your entire life. It can make you a better or worse person.

As a young student at the Goa University in the mid-1980s, the chance stumbling across of Robert S Newman’s essay called ‘Goa: The Transformation of an Indian Region’, completely changed my approach towards understanding Goa. It created very mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, suddenly Goa began to make sense, as the various parts of the jigsaw puzzle started to fit in together. At another level, it was quite embarrassing to realise that one knew so little about the historic place we so boastingly call home. Even while someone half a world away had such interesting ways of explaining the place. That led me to a lifetime of collecting books on Goa, reviewing books on Goa, and later on even publishing a few.

There are a small but growing number of concerned citizens who realise that understanding a place is the first step towards improving it. And understanding our yesterdays, is important in shaping our tomorrows.

In the past few days, I came across the recent work of a trio of scholars, which offers interesting insights into the past; including people who never took history seriously as a subject while at school, and dropped it completely later on in life, like I did.

The first was Alice Santiago Faria and Sidh Losa Mendiratta’s paper on ‘Goans and East-Indians: A Negotiated Catholic Presence in Bombay’s Urban Space’. Santiago Faria and Losa Mendiratta belong to the younger generation of researchers in Portugal who have been doing some interesting research on Goa in the last decade or two.

Their work gives insights into the Goan-East Indian relations in India’s long-time commercial capital, Bombay. It also gives a hint about Goan migration to Bombay, its nature and shape, when it got started and how it changed over the decades. Names like Cavel, Mazagaon, the palm groves of Mahim, Roger de Faria, and the more humble migrants to the Big City crop up often in this story.

Many Goans who take anti-migrant stands nowadays often argue that when Goans migrate elsewhere, they don’t swamp other cultures. In this context, some of the figures cited here are interesting.

For instance, in the early 1930s, there were 50,000-60,000 Portuguese citizens residing in then British India. Hardly 200 were of European origin, 7500 were Hindu or Muslim, and the rest were Catholic. The famous Jer Mahal building at Dhobi Talao (and its wings like the Jer Mahal Annexe, Sona Mahal and Dinshaw Mahal) house as many as 22 Goan clubs, with 1746 members and a total of 499 residents. That’s almost a small Goan village of members there! In 1939, the residential Catholic clubs (kudds) in Bombay had a total of 20,792 members and 5226 resident members. Quite a number!

Unlike their predecessors, their perspectives move beyond the excessively nationalistic and colonially-tinged work of Portuguese researchers of another era. Because these researchers have strong bi-lingual skills, and easy access to Portuguese records (and the Portuguese were indeed good record-keepers), they come up with interesting perspectives. I think their scholarship owes its roots to those who preceded them by 15 to 20 years, who mentored a long-overdue global interest in studying Goa, and who straddled both the worlds, including scholars like Dr Paulo Varela Gomes and Dr Teotonio R de Souza, among others.

Losa Mendiratta is Punjabi-Portuguese, while Santiago Faria is Portuguese herself. This offers interesting perspectives from others who come from different backgrounds. Thanks to online sharing sites like, it is today possible to share the work of a number of other researchers, without it being restricted behind paywalls.

The other scholar making a presentation was Ângela Barreto Xavier of the Universidade de Lisboa, a Goan from Margao who has grown up in Portugal too. Barreto Xavier has been doing a lot of Goa-centric work, which is often thought-provoking, and was hosted at the medico-artist Dr Subodh Kerkar’s MoG (Museum of Goa) on the weekend.

Her presentation focussed on ‘writing the politics of the empire’, the interactions among different social strata of Goans in colonial times, and the stands taken by some of its intellectual leaders. Without being defensive or embarrassed about the inconvenient truths of the past, she linked developments in Goa with the social changes taking place back in the Europe of those times.

Of course, history can restrict our vision to the grand narratives and dominant discourses that we have bequeathed. For understandable reasons, Portuguese history focuses largely on tiny influential segments of our yesterdays. The lack of records might make it seem as if the vast mass of people, whether Catholic or Hindu or Muslim (or even Portuguese), were just silent bystanders in the making of history.

Such work nonetheless informs. It also leaves one wondering why so little writing on Goa has to come out from Goa, even today.

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