Tuesday , 22 May 2018

The little (wo)man of Goan history

Frederick Noronha

For some reason, the other day, my mind went back to the little man in Goan history. He is the person who has contributed so much, but is often forgotten and unsung when it comes to being acknowledged.

Actually, the little ‘man’ is more often a woman. This is true in our times, and has been so before, given the active role played by women in diverse segments — liberated as they were by education and migration, not so much the law as it exists on paper itself (though the latter often gets praised).

To my mind, these individuals have made our society what it is, have contributed so consistently without thinking twice, and have never had their glories sung or praises recorded.

As a young boy, the closest one I had to a grandmother was a nun, Isabel. Her modest work was to manage the huge kitchen of the convent, where my brother and I were day-boarders. Her job too was relegated to the back-stage, but terribly important. It earned no praise, but kept the institution marching. It was a job shorn of glory, but a critical one nonetheless.

In my village, there are many whom I would recognise as having lived in more or less the same levels of deprivation and lack of opportunity for the past three to four decades. There are some areas of Goa which have hardly changed – in terms of empowering their residents. But when and if change came, it was mostly a different set that was able to cash-in on it.

But what is perhaps most galling is the way in which the contributions to the past have been forgotten. Our village shoe-repairers have kept generations well-heeled, so to speak, and able to undertake their crucial work. Today, in a world of online shoe purchases and use-and-discard approaches, this profession has all but vanished. At the Saturday Market in Calangute in the last week, a traditional Potter from Siollim told about how she no longer crafted pots in her home but just bought them wholesale “from far” and resold them.

Professions have vanished, like that of the typewriter repairers, the watch repairer, and to some extent the village tailor. My son, just entering his teens, was fascinated the other day to be able to visit the shop of that dying breed, the persons who once played an important role repairing typewriters!

There are other examples too.

I recall how surprised we journalists were to learn that, according to one official estimate, Goa had as many as 2000 kilometres of riverside bunding walls. Who built these protective walls that avoid the ingress of saline water into our lands during the high-tide? Undeniably, such a task could have been done only with huge amounts of manual labour. Was it voluntary?

The story of Goan migration was almost lost to history, but some are now attempting to record the same. There too, there are many stories of heroism and determination, even if those who made it big get the play as compared to the ‘small man’ (and woman).

For instance, if you search for the word ‘Gomesi’ on the Wikipedia, you might be surprised by what you find. The name of the colourful floor-length dress, the most commonly used costume in part of Uganda, was probably stitched of cloth by a Goan tailor named Gomes.

Then, there’s the story of the precious stone called Tanzanite, named after the country in East Africa, is said to have been found by Manuel D’Souza, a tailor and part-time gold prospector living in Arusha (Tanzania).

At least these ‘small men’ now get mentioned in online histories. But what about the many others who went before them, forgotten because their contribution was not recognised. Or they were on the ‘wrong’ side of history, say, having achieved something in a Portuguese world which was not recognised back home?

Even more humble are the people back home, who are unsung because our society’s idea creation process was mostly controlled from many hundred or thousand miles away. Until not so long ago, Goa still had a traditional system of healers – ‘dais’ or traditional midwives, bone-setters, and other medicine-men who treated the body and even the mind. Today, their role is all but forgotten, if not delegitimised.

The role of Goan mothers in educating and building their children has only tangentially been commented on. Is it because such work is often taken for granted?

Likewise is the role of our agriculturists, who fed us amidst trying times. Goa might have been a region often facing food-shortages (even since Portuguese times). But without their valiant efforts amidst really trying situations, the situation would have definitely been far bleaker.

Keep in mind that till not long back, maybe a generation or two, our villages were actually productive units, much like Gandhi wanted them to be. They were a far cry from the dormitories they have now become, where people ‘belong’ only to the extent of being residents there. Our villagers are no longer the productive units which sustained the lives of the majority of their people.

Which was why it was a pleasant surprise to encounter an initiative by the Anjuna-based my-village.org, when our paths crossed quite by coincidence. This network honoured over half-a-dozen ‘living legends’ (as they called them, rightly so) of their Bardez village. These were mostly the ‘small (wo)men’ from history. Among them were chefs, writers who rose from the grassroots, tiatrists, coconut pluckers and agricultural innovators, besides educationists.

These are the people who really make a difference to our societies. Even if history, when it is written if at all, focuses on the rulers, the rajahs, the colonisers, the ministers and the winning politician.

Prominent Nigerian novelist and essayist Chinua Achebe is quoted as having said: “There is that great proverb – that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

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