Saturday, September 1, 2018

Why Braz and Cyprian stand out in the Goan-African theatre of storytelling

The Literary Maladies of Diaspora Goans: Reasons to be reasonable

I have been reading these exchanges. Some scattered observations.

1) "The Literary Maladies of..." is an interesting approach to many
topics. Here, it's possible to drop the word "Goans" because diaspora
is universally associated with complicated and often contradictory
feelings and circumstances. The cultural output of a self-conscious
diaspora responds to different compulsions than similarly
self-conscious "natives". What is more, different diasporas will
naturally generate varying points of view from which to make sense of
their new realities, despite sharing the same universe of meaning they
left behind. It's fallacious, pointless, and misguided to judge one
subset via the presumptions and mores of another. Yet, we keep doing
this in the most addled, self-inflicted manner. Ajeeb hai yeh Goa ke
log, yes indeed!

2) Literary criticism cannot be "rebutted", least of all by personal
attack. Dialogue has to be initiated by more literary criticism that
suggests different approaches, or posits contradictory value
judgements. In this instance, the critic has graciously apologised,
because in his words, "The message I tried to convey in my article has
obviously been misunderstood" and the author has equally gracefully
"received with thanks." In this manner, Ben and Cyprian have resolved
a literary contretemps focused on implication. They are in agreement
now. There may be some or many who do not wish the matter to be
settled, and will attempt to keep inciting diatribe. Let them stand

3) There are two larger + more deep seated issues here. I will address
them at greater length.

- unfair judgements.

This problem is aptly encapsulated by (a) Mervyn Maciel's plaint
(which many other 'Afrikanders' believe, and have experienced) that
East African Goans are often convenient "whipping boys" , and also (b)
by Augusto's oft-repeated comment (which many bandwagon-jump when
useful) that "a colonial regime is an evil regime and to remember it
as a paradise is an insult to the people who had to suffer under it."

But it is certainly not that simple. Human experiences and memories
are diverse, fragile, tenuous and highly individual. When those come
together to make art + literature, it does not necessarily align with
politics (which are in any case mightily fungible).

Remember here that Camoes wrote part of his soaring, grandiose Lusiads
in prison, and perhaps the greatest music of upliftment emerged from
slavery. We have learned time and again that Paradise is man-made,
perceived in the brain. See the interludes of pure joy - paradisiacal!
- in the Holocaust memoirs of Primo Levi. My 93-year-old friend, the
freedom fighter Alvaro Pereira often tells me with great conviction
the best years of his life were in Aguada jail (even though he was
sadistically tortured there by the dreaded Agente Monteiro).
Similarly, most Goans old enough to remember those years before 1961
wax rhapsodic about "good old days" even though they lived under
colonialism, with very real victims. And what about today? Do we not
live in times of slavery, oppression and exclusion? Can a child
growing up now not remember her 21st century experience of Goa as a
kind of paradise? Can I not? Is that also an insult to people
suffering through the same moment?

Furthermore, unlike other diasporic waves that left Goa, the East
African Goans suffered expulsion, and disenfranchisment. After toiling
generations building new lives, amidst people they often loved and
certainly identified with, that incalculably precious bedrock of
identity and belonging was stolen from them in a calamitous
disruption. It was a monstrous episode that did not have to happen,
and is largely regretted by all parties involved (something like

This is particularly the case with Kenya above all, the third nation
whose early independent history was substantially shaped by its tiny
Goan minority (India and Portugal are the others, there's also
Pakistan to make a fourth) such as Pia Gama Pinto, Joseph Murumbi, JM
Nazareth and Fitz de Souza, and certainly both Braz Menezes and
Cyprian Fernandes. They worked with evident idealism in that greatly
defining postcolonial moment, and when it did not happen they were
dispossessed, experiencing true exile. It is both churlish and absurd
to somehow deny or qualify their expressions of the feelings that
resulted, in whatever form that might occur. They are not wrong, and
there is nothing wrong about it.

- Who should write (or paint) what?

On July 4 earlier this year, I shared on Facebook a small 'chemical
painting' by FN Souza that depicts the 4th of July. That work emerged
after I challenged the artist to explain why he'd spent some three
decades in America, but kept on creating images (masterpieces, really)
redolent with feelings for Goa (above all) and London. In fact, he did
have a few other "America' works, but easily less than 1% of his
oeuvre, and this despite rarely leaving New York, let alone the US.
Souza's initial answer (which I readily accept) was "So what?"

Look across the board at first generation immigrant artists and
writers in North America, and only a tiny handful engage successfully
with something other than their homeland, and its migrants. There are
exceptions - the unbelievably skilled 'The Golden Gate' novel in verse
by Vikram Seth stands out - but very few.

In my view, there's probably real physical trauma (which could likely
be mapped in the brain) that goes along with adults being transplanted
from the global South to late capitalism in America and Canada. We can
see in most people that it takes a lifetime to get over, and usually
prominently hangs over the second generation as well. To go back to
literature, the two most highly acclaimed writers of Indian origin in
Canada are Rohinton Mistry and MG Vassanji. The former's truly great
novels are all set in the Mumbai he left behind almost forty years
ago. The latter has a much larger output that spans different genres,
but his focus of interest is East African Indians in all of them.
(Since it is relevant here, see my review of his "returning home to
East Africa" memoir here:

Are these terrific writers sick? Ask them, and you'll surely get a
ruder answer than the one Souza gave me.

Finally, the books by Braz and Cyprian (and in fact, much of Ben's
excellent writing as well) fall into the category of literature of
retrieval. They remember and recount lost histories by filling in some
of the glaring, gaping blanks left in the literature written by
colonialists on one hand, and the indigenous on the other. In between
these two obviously compelling, dominant narratives, there was indeed
something very valuable and interesting and beautiful, and it is only
thanks to writers and artists that we can get a glimpse of it. I - for
one - have learned a lot from the Goan East African writers who have
endeavoured to find  precious words to communicate elusive, ineffable
moments and emotions and characters that would otherwise now be
dissipated like dust.

Warm regards,


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