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Apparent divide, actual bridges

The stereotypes imposed upon Goa and its people by Hindi cinema, charter tourism, and fanatical Indianisers are all dispelled by Maria Aurora Couto's treatment. A review by RANJIT HOSKOTE.


MARIA AURORA COUTO's Goa: A Daughter's Story is an extraordinary narrative that weaves together autobiography and collective history, bringing to light a rich social and cultural tapestry little known outside its locus. Couto takes, as her demanding subject, the complex story of the Goan identity as a product of the colonial encounter between the Indic and Iberian cultures, launched by this circumstance on a trajectory distinct from his neighbours in British-ruled India. Goa and its people have long had to suffer the foolish stereotypes imposed upon them by Hindi cinema, charter tourism, and fanatical Indianisers: the pernicious myths of the easy-going Goan drunkard, Goa as a kingdom of sun and sand, Goan culture as a European aberration in an Indian environment, are all dispelled by Couto's treatment, which is distinguished by an elegance and sensitivity, a felicity of touch that masks the labour of archival research and fieldwork.

Couto's inquiry leads her into the records of the Portuguese colonial administration, the reminiscences of the fast-vanishing generation of mandarins, scholars and activists who grew up in colonial Goa. She re-creates vividly for us the lives of thinkers inspired by the drama that was the European Enlightenment. She imparts a flesh-and-blood reality to the generic bugaboo of "conversion", attesting to the strategic, yet traumatic, choices made by communities faced with the Hobsonian inquisitor's choice between preservation of religious identity and loss of social and economic prestige.

The title of Couto's book holds its key gesture: the author speaks as the inheritor of various legacies, heirloom dilemmas, family tragedies, and sources of hope and regeneration. It is both a meditation on the persistences and lacunae of collective memory, and also a compelling account of the development of a private self through the momentous passage from colonialism to the post-colonial period. As her father's daughter, Couto paints a moving portrait of her father, a man devoted to the refinement of sensibility, but at odds with conventional society; she memorialises the graceful, vanished milieu of cultivated intellectuals and gifted artists in Goa and Dharwar, where she grew up during the 1950s. As the daughter of a particular community, whose way of life was forever altered by the arrival of the Portuguese in 1510 A.D., Couto reflects on the Saraswat Brahmins of Goa, descendants of Kashmiri scholar-priests who became influential landowners and mandarins, and were locked into a complicated sequence of negotiations with the Portuguese colonialists.

By contrast to the simple-minded tale of ruthless conquistadors thrusting sword and cross upon hapless locals, Couto unfolds an intricate fabric of social and religious transactions, demonstrating how concessions alternated with impositions, force was succeeded by relative tolerance; and if conversion to Catholicism was used as a basis to divide Hindu families by the colonial administration, through differentials of property transfer, those who remained unconverted and marginalised staged a comeback through the espousal of trade. One lasting result of this uneven rhythm of upheaval and tranquillity was that, between the 16th and 18th Centuries, one section of Goa's Saraswat Brahmin elite converted to the Catholic faith, while others crossed the river into North and South Kanara, or sailed to Kerala, or migrated to the Maratha territories, to preserve their religious freedom in exile.

Sharing Couto's ethnic background as I do (her ancestors remained behind and were baptised; my ancestors crossed the river with their gods), I am amazed at the honesty and courage with which she has chosen to address the theme of conversion, in a public sphere dominated by the forces of aggressive majoritarianism. Living at the cusp of twinned religious and cultural narratives, Couto investigates the processes of self-definition and self-renewal, in response to the historical crises of migration, invasion, conversion and flight. With her, we trace the gradual assimilation of the Catholic Saraswat Brahmin into the Portuguese language and European world-view; the Hindu Saraswat Brahmin's slower entry, shadowed by insecurity, into that world; the changing positions of the Portuguese as the notion of divinely sanctioned kingship yielded before a humanist conception of the body politic. And so we come to an appreciation of the distinctive character of Goan culture, in which the major divides are also the most enduring bridges.

In conversation with Couto, Dr. Xencora Camotim (the name is a Lusitanian version of Shankar Kamat), an erudite Margao advocate now resident in Lisbon, offers what the author calls a "profound, humane and existential" judgment of this vexed history. "Two hundred years of tragic drama: we should not simplify the choices made by our ancestors, yours and mine, under the exigencies of the time," says Dr. Camotim. "And you ask me how Hindus survived then? Did not Catholics survive the Moors in Spain? Each such interaction between cultures, empires, conflicting powers, has to be seen in the right historical perspective. Why is there religious persecution in India now, when there are no colonisers around?"

Couto's powers of description appeal to the senses: she evokes the breathtaking landscape of green paddy fields touching the blue of sky and river; the mango and jackfruit trees, heavy with fruit in summer; the deep maroon tiled floors; the laterite pillars and sloping monsoonal roofs. But she never loses sight of the tense interactions between individuals and classes, from which the fabric of history is woven: her book traces the transactions between scholar-landowner elite and subaltern peasant, between colonial administrators and local grandees, bigot and reformer, inquisitor and convert. She never dismisses the violence and confusion attendant upon the colonial encounter; at the same time, she sets it within the context of the Buddhist, Jaina and Brahminical pasts, the Mauryan, Kadamba, Vijayanagara and Bahmani ascendancies. This has the effect of relating Goa to South Asia's macro-level processes, without leaving it isolated as a dazzling but inexplicable pendant.

Couto graphs the entry of Goa into the Indian Union through a dramatic personal account. Having grown up in Dharwar, she found herself cast as both insider and outsider to her ancestral homeland in September 1962, when she accompanied her husband, Alban Couto, then a young and idealistic Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, into a Goa newly "liberated" from Portuguese rule. She relives a fraught situation in which Goans and Indians regarded one another with mutual suspicion; a time when realities, long dreamt of, arrived bearing the menacing edge of weaponry, when the dreams of local nationalists were shattered by the cynical arrogance of a liberating power that was often as imperial in its instincts as the regime it had deposed.

Nehru's use of armed intervention summoned forth criticism at home and overseas, not least from the wily Salazar, long-lived dictator of Portugal, who argued that, since Goa was a province of Portugal and its residents Portuguese citizens, India had invaded a sovereign nation. Indeed, Couto shows how Goan nationalism, cut adrift by Congress's refusal to intervene in non-British-ruled India, was informed by its own distinctive dynamic. This evolved from the hopes raised by the revolutionary formation of the Portuguese republic in 1910, and the thwarting of those hopes by Salazar's 1930 Acto Colonial. The Goan liberation struggle originated within this Iberian context, although it was acted out, as elsewhere in colonial South Asia, both in Gandhian and violent avatars.

Indeed, Couto's major contribution in this book is to show how both bigotry and reform rose from the Portuguese colonial system, as the poison and the nectar did from the Cosmic Ocean. Her book is to be cherished for its account of what might be called a Lusophone modernity in India: as very few people realise, the Enlightenment arrived and established itself in Goa, via Portuguese and French sources, well before it did in British-influenced India. Couto's is a work of clarification in the most affirmative sense: instead of merely dismantling stereotypes and debunking myth-mongers, she dwells in rich and significant detail on the submerged history, the little-known threads of exchanges through which an ecumene was mobilised in Goa.

The principal figure in this story is the Marquis de Pombal, a celebrated European statesman who was influenced by the philosophes of the Enlightenment, and served as Prime Minister to Dom Jose I of Portugal. He inaugurated a humanist modernity throughout the Portuguese empire; his Law of Equality (1761) and Instructions (1774) gave the rights of citizenship and representation to all subjects, including Goans. He upheld customary usages and institutions in Goa, reduced anti-Hindu discrimination, promoted education and tolerance, and abolished the colour bar. As a fruit of the Pombaline vision, Goa is today the only State in India to have a uniform civil code, which ensures women equal rights of succession, property and inheritance. Couto's book originates in the need to explain an identity that eludes the Procrustean dogmas of language, region, even religion.

But it moves on subtly, from this private need, to suggest a model of how the fixity of identity can be rejected, in favour of a mobile position. The self can adopt or reject its inheritances by reference to civilised reason rather than crude passion; it need not commit itself to pogroms, to mythologies of resentment and a supposed rectifying of historical wrongs by violent means that brutalise both self and other. So that the ambiguities of personal and collective history, which appear at first to be daunting and debilitating, become enabling and empowering gestures. In a singularly important antidote to the politics of revanchism and irredentism, Maria Aurora Couto reminds us that we must accept the complexities of our past and treat these as enriching points of departure, not obsessive destinations of return.

Goa: A Daughter's Story, Maria Aurora Couto, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2004, p. 436, Rs. 495.

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