Wednesday , 23 August 2017
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Understanding those who left

Frederick Noronha

Last week, in a typically Goan (online) debate which started around one theme and ended quite somewhere else, the issue of the Goan expat came up for discussion once more. There’s nothing new about this. Like the never ending BJP versus Congress, medium of instruction or my religion is better than yours debates, this topic too has been discussed with no end over the past couple of decades, at least. If you look at the world of print it has been discussed since at least the 1930s.

What emerges often is that we in Goa have very complex and sometimes problematic approaches to our diaspora population, till date.

Understudied, bereft of acknowledgement, and treated with quite some suspicion, Goa’s diaspora population (whose ancestors first left home shores well over a century ago), are often treated like the prodigal sons; or daughters.

On the other hand, struck by the differences they encounter when they get back to the place they call home, the expat Goan is often confused and unsure of how to deal with it. Sometimes, the expat treats Goa with an air of condescension or superiority.

But leaving that debate for another day, the question at hand is whether we actually understand those who left. Why did they leave? What options did they have? How has their relationship with Goa changed (over the generations)? What role can they play in today’s Goa? Where do they fit into the larger, complex picture of the current Goan reality?

Let’s agree on one thing… The returned expat Goan has played, and still does continue to play, a very significant role in Goan life. I sometimes half-seriously argue that a returned expat can play either a very negative role here, or an extremely positive one. Seldom would you find a returned expat who is lukewarm towards life and matters in our state.

After 1961, Goa was shaped by many a returned expat, whether from the rest of India (till then another ‘country’), or from any other part of the world. They manned part of Goa’s bureaucracy, and got involved in its educational system. They helped run newspapers here (English was still largely a new language then), and built up games like hockey. They set up some of Goa’s best known restaurants (think O Coqueiro and Gines Viegas) and authored many of the books that defined us. Yet, some of them also took Goa down along a path which it could not sustain, and a few have been accused of changing the state in unrecognisable ways for the worse.

But what are the dominant images of the expat in today’s Goa?

(S)he is seen as someone who deserted Goa, as someone who has forgotten the land of his or her ancestors, and as someone who has even lost contact with their local language.

The earlier charge that the expat Goan doesn’t have a clue about the reality in Goa, doesn’t hold very true today. Thanks to cyberspace, anyone interested can keep close contact with this region and what’s happening here.

I’ve heard stories of expats keeping abreast with the changing (and how, specially this monsoon!) weather in Goa. When they phone home and carry on the conversation on this topic, their relatives back here are quite surprised, wondering how they are so clued in!

Once, an expat mentioned how his relatives were shocked to learn (from him, abroad) of a murder in their very own vaddo. The folks here were not up to date on the case, but the expat abroad had got all the details, through the internet.

Of course, not everyone (or even the bulk of expats) abroad might be keen to closely keep in touch with happenings back home. Life is fast there, and out of sight is out of mind, as they say. But, on the other hand, there are also writers based abroad, whose literary imagination is largely focussed on Goa and things Goan.

There was a time when those travelling overseas were somehow seen as deserters to the cause. I remember studying in college that the cost of the brain-drain was huge. In those days (1980s), it was said that each medical graduate migrating abroad cost the country (India, that is) an investment of about Rs 1 lakh. This was a huge sum in those times.

Today, the debate has shifted quite a bit. As more states in India have a larger expat population, to shift elsewhere is seen as just another option, not a betrayal of the nation. The attention today gets focussed more on how much remittances we receive from our expats.

There are no figures specifically available for Goa, but a July 2017 report said that India was the top recipient worldwide of expat earnings, as Indians working across the globe sent home $62.7 billion last year. This surpassed the earnings of even China, according to a study by the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development.

A point sometimes raised is why we in Goa celebrate those of our achievers who have gained name and fame working for some other foreign flag. For example a Keith Vaz, in Britain’s House of Commons, or an Antonio Costa, as the Prime Minister of Portugal, no less.

In the first place, today, neither Britain nor Portugal are enemy territories. Secondly, and more importantly, it is not true that either of these politicians have ditched Goa in any sense of the word. Their ascent in distant lands was part of the wider story of Goan migration — to Aden (in today’s Yemen) in Keith Vaz’s case, and to Mozambique and Portugal (intertwined with France) in Costa’s case.

As far as language loss goes – a common charge against the Goan expat – such issues need to be seen in context. ‘Language attrition’ (losing a native or first language) is a common process which happens when speakers are isolated from their first language. As more Indian communities migrate in larger numbers, we’re seeing such language loss or attribution among Tamils, Punjabis, Malayalis, Telugus and others.

Agreed, in the case of speakers of a big language, the loss is first felt in the written form, and only later in the spoken word or comprehension. As against this, we need to also take note of Goan communities eagerly trying to pick up some Konkani speaking skills. I’ve known Goans in Bombay trying desperately to buy Konkani learning texts, and scrambling to find the same. Even our country cousins in Portugal have attempted to organise Konkani language classes, despite all the odds, and to keep song alive in that language.

The fact is, Goa doesn’t even know how many expats it has in different parts of the globe. We deal with most of them on a basis of envy, distrust or seeing them as cash cows waiting to be milked.

Until the kin of our politicians start migrating in big numbers (there are signs that some already do), we will perhaps not have enough attention paid to such issues. In the meanwhile, both sides need to build a healthier equation towards one another.

Easier said than done?

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