Monday, May 6, 2019

The in-between African Goans

The in-between world of African Goans
By Vivek Menezes

(I am a great fan of the huge body of work by Goa-based writer Vivek Menezes. He leaves many wannbes in his wake.)

Why do you call me “guest”
When here I have my home,
When here my father lived and died,
My mother too, and a brother?
Their graves lie there within this City’s bounds,
Where I myself was born,
My children too – all three of them.
Must they and I leave this land,
Be strangers to it
Because your skin is black and mine and theirs is brown,
Your folk came here some scores of years ere ours?

                       To the African: No Guest am I, by J. M. Nazareth (1975)

At the cusp of the 1990’s, while meant to pursue graduate studies in London, my attentions instead swivelled to an alluring young woman who had been born in Kampala a quarter-century earlier, and our subsequent courtship drew me into the in-between world of the African Goans. It was my first extended encounter with these Indians twice removed, the first time voluntarily from our collective palm-shaded Konkan homeland, but then with haunting consequence from “good old days” in the British and Portuguese colonies in Africa. The double exile was bedrock to their identity. I found myself surrounded by men and women utterly riven with melancholy, whose eyes brimmed with tears whenever the Swahili love song Malaika played (which was often). Home was liminal, the heart was elsewhere. Only loss was omnipresent. 

It took some time to realize these collective doldrums were triggered by an exceptional history, and there really is nothing else quite like the case of the “Afrikanders” in the annals of globalization. In the first place, they had poured out from Goa Africa in response to an urgent opportunity which seems inconceivable from our 21st century vantage, what Sir Harry Johnston (Special Commissioner in Uganda from 1899-1901) enthusiastically referred to as “an America of the Hindu.” In her excellent ‘Community, Memory, and Migration in a Globalizing World: The Goan Experience 1890-1980, the historian Margaret Frenz says these “subaltern elites” became “an interstitial category, neither simply imperial handmaidens nor subordinates, neither solely exploiters nor exploited. This makes them a rather exceptional group…Goans played a remarkable role in the administration of both the British and Portuguese Empires, constituting the ‘backbone’ of local government structures.”

But just when the going became genuinely good, then came the fall. After the mother countries of the subcontinent wrenched freedom at midnight in 1947, decolonization loomed inevitable in the African colonies as well. Here too the colonizers manoeuvred cynically to divide and rule. As the advocate J. M. Nazareth summarized in his biting, mournful ‘Brown Man Black Country: On the Foothills of Uhuru’ (Tidings Publications, 1981), “when the drums of freedom sounded in India their echoes were heard in Africa. The British lost no time in planting a wedge between Indians and Africans. Suddenly they developed concern for the “native”…The greatest triumph of European racism was the way it succeeded in deflecting African hostility from the European to a helpless scapegoat.”

The Goans of Africa were blindsided and betrayed. Their universe of meaning became calamitously disrupted. Even many decades later, the wary community I encountered in London were almost visibly cloaked with the bitter lessons of their forfeiture, still pulled tight against the winds of change. As Ivo de Figueiredo writes in the wonderfully sensitive ‘A Stranger At My Table’ (DoppelHouse Press, 2019), his new memoir centered on his Kenyan Goan father, “The harsh truth was that now my family became redundant people, mere slag from the grinding wheel of history. They were a people with origins, history, but no territory of their own. The empires that had created them had gone and now they were left standing among the colonial ruins under the scorching sun.”

Yet, there were some fantastic twists to the Afrikander saga. While the majority fled westward in difficult circumstances – de Figueiredo’s father eventually settled in Norway - many stayed, to plunge directly into idealistic nation-building. One outstanding example is Mapusa-born Aquino de Bragança, who was a leading campaigner for the freedom of Mozambique, and was eventually killed in an unexplained plain crash while accompanying President Samora Machel in 1986. About him, Nelson Mandela famously said, “He was a great revolutionary. Aquino prepared the ground.” But there were several other outstanding Afrikander anti-colonialist freedom fighters, two of whom were similarly assassinated in murky circumstances, both of whose memories have been kindled by recent books.

By far better known is the subject of Shiraz Durrani’s quirky, fascinating ‘Pio Gama Pinto: Kenya’s Unsung Martyr 1927-1965’ (Vita Books, 2018). This selfless, unrelenting Kenyan patriot was hailed by the Indian communist leader Romesh Chandra as “a bridge between India and Africa” who “demonstrated the oneness of the anti-imperialist battle, the solidarity of Asia and Africa, of India and Africa.” That transnational fluidity, an essential Afrikander characteristic, is nicely described in Rozario Gama Pinto’s contribution to Durrani’s book, which admits the family “produced a number of dedicated nationalists…our late uncle Mathias da Gama Pinto in Brazil and our sister, Mrs Sevigne Athaide [in India].”

Pio had explicitly linked those worlds by participating in civil disobedience in Dharwad in the 1940s, then fiercely abetting Goa’s liberation movement, before dedicating himself to anti-imperialism in his beloved Kenya. His brother writes, “When the African-American leader, Malcolm X visited…he found he had a lot in common with Pio. They planned a common strategy to deal with the daily humiliation and indignities suffered by both Africans and African-Americans. Malcolm X was assassinated on 21 February 1965, three days before Pio. Their murders are linked in that both were considered dangerous to vested interests.”

There is anther Afrikander revolutionary story more extraordinary still, which is now available in English for the first time via Texas-based translator D. A. Smith’s deft rendering of the Portuguese journalist (no relation to her Norwegian namesake) Leonor Figueiredo’s ‘Sita Valles: A Revolutionary Until Death’ (Goa 1556).

If the Cuban revolution found its photogenic martyr in Che Guevara, his Goan counterpart was this glamorous ‘Passionária de Angola’ who was “always at the centre of the whirlwind.” in the communist student movement in Portugal, and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola guerrillas. Figueiredo writes, “The international backdrop was complex, polarized between the two great powers, each seeking spheres of influence.” Valles “was at the forefront of the action, taking pleasure in walking the razor’s edge.” In the end, the 26-year-old Goan was kidnapped by the forces she supported, and executed in “a ceremony of catharsis.”Her contemporary is quoted, “There was a large dose of vengeance in her death... She was an uncontrollable force.”

Via email, Smith shared some interesting insights with me, “I don't think Sita Valles as a person, or the circumstances in which she lived, can be treated in simple, dichotomous terms. One of the strongest impressions I had while working on this translation was of the difficulty in making definitive statements about Sita's life, and not only because there are gaps in her personal history. Single-minded as she may have appeared to those who knew her, she was not just a communist, just an Angolan, or just a revolutionary; she was all of those and more. Her story gave me a greater appreciation of the necessity of context, not only as applied to translation, but to life in general. Without at least some understanding of the variables surrounding a situation, it is far too easy to jump to conclusions or make faulty judgments.”

The black Indo-Portuguese is an utter radical, he has gained much from Constitution.
              Richard Burton, Goa and the Blue Mountains (1851)

Examine the comparative histories of British and Portuguese colonial history in India, and one great distinction leaps out that made all the difference. After an admittedly spectacular heyday in the 16thand 17thcenturies, Portugal lost its ability to project significant power and influence across the oceans, marking the latter centuries of its 451-year hold on the Estado da India by painful compromise, replete with hugely significant political concessions.

Starting from the early 19th century, the Goans seized and zealously defended effectively equal rights of citizenship to their Iberian counterparts, which conspicuously horrified the Raj’s racists. Within a couple of generations, self-confident and assertive, they were spanning across the Indian Ocean, sparking resistance in their turbulent wake. In 1907, Armand de Souza founded the Morning Leader newspaper in Ceylon, which he is credited for using to provoke “the awakening of the Singhalese” against the British. A few years later in France, Tristão de Bragança Cunha set himself up as what the eminent historian K. M. Panniker called “nationalist India’s first ambassador”, tirelessly advocating for Gandhi and the end to colonialism.

The same phenomenon played out amongst Afrikanders with impressively lasting effects into our times. Mozambique-born anticolonial novelist Orlando da Costa’s son Antonio is currently the socialist Prime Minister of Portugal. There are three current members of the UK Parliament who share kindred roots: Labour’s Keith and Valerie Vaz were born in Aden (which is in Yemen, but administered alongside British East Africa), and across the aisle at the forefront of the Brexiteers is Suella Fernandes Braverman, whose Kenyan Goan father made it to the UK in 1968. London’s Deputy Mayor Shirley Rodrigues was actually born in Nairobi.

But while politicians abound amongst the Afrikanders, it took an entire generation’s passing for significant art and literature to emerge from the community’s trauma. Next month, the 2019 Whitney Biennial in New York will prominently feature the versatile 39-year-old Kenyan-Goan-Canadian artist, Brendan Fernandes, whose artworks often refer to his multi-layered heritage. But the most significant turning point comes this week itself, when Ivo de Figueiredo’s unforgettable memoir is published in English for the first time on April 23. There is delicious irony the long-awaited “great Afrikander book” has emerged most unexpectedly in in Scandinavia, first written in Norwegian by the biographer of Norway’s most cherished cultural icons: Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch.

En Fremmed Ved Mitt Bord was nominated for the 2016 Brage Prize, Norway’s most prestigious literary honour, which its author previously won for his biography of Johan Bernhard Hjort, the reformed fascist who is yet another vital figure in the making of Norway’s much-envied social democracy. The accolades are deserved, because Figueiredo is an impressively sophisticated writer, who has been especially acclaimed for his language skills (this new book won the 2016 Språakprisen for excellence in Norwegian). Born in 1966, he’s an important part of Norway’s stellar contemporary cohort of verfabula specialists, pushing narrative nonfiction into the high art category classically reserved for novels and poetry. Notable contemporaries include Karl Ove Knausgåard, the international publishing phenomenon whose six-volume autobiography plumbs the extreme limits of versimilitude, and Åsne Seierstad, author of The Bookseller of Kabul, which topped global bestseller charts even as its details became heatedly contested by its main subject.

 That formidable pedigree shows itself in the literary chops exercised throughout A Stranger at my Table, which swoops meaningfully in, out and around Xavier Hugo Ian Peter de Figueiredo as he scatters far from his birthplace of Stone Town in Zanzibar to Langesund (literally “the long fjord”) on the Telemark coastline of Norway, in ultimately doomed pursuit of permanent new life with the sparkling, adventuresome young woman he had met in London. Here he is in a black and white photograph on the book’s very first page, where his son tells us “I’ve come to think of him as a stranger, some guy who lived with us for a few years, and then disappeared…An Indian in the Norwegian snow. Dressed for the city in a snowdrift in the middle of the forest. For years I’ve looked at this picture and felt it safest that he stays there, at a distance, frozen, tranquil, before the snow melts and stirs everything into motion.”

These are understandable sentiments, when you take into account the intervening childhood traumas. Figueiredo writes, “Dad demanded that we speak English, demanded that we sing and sit in the park together, demanded we be a happy family. We never knew quite what to say, but defended ourselves as best we could. In Norwegian…He was against us, and we were against him. We made detours around him to get peace. Useless, of course, because he was still there with his over-sized emotions.” Finally, “His need for control over the family was boundless, whether he was happy or angry. He began hitting her.” And most heartbreaking, “He had gotten everything he wanted. He had every reason to be optimistic. The future lay before him like a bright Norwegian summer’s day. But that was not enough. We were not enough.”

Painful experience has taught us alienation shadows migration, vesting multifold in successive generations. There is already vast literature in this vein: a million Naipauls now, and forever. But Figueiredo’s book is different, lifted by immensely moving feats of empathy in reaching across time and half the world to plunge towards his father’s long-abandoned Afrikander universe of meaning, as well as an uncommon willingness to lay bare the confusions, failures and humiliations that plagued his quest. A Stranger at my Table is packed with with ultimately endearing embarrassments: the earnest Goan-Norwegian wimps out of visiting his grandmother’s Nairobi grave (in what is now a murderous neighborhood), crashes fruitlessly through jungle in inappropriate shorts while his sandals fill with blood, cringes uncomfortably with “shame burning in my cheeks” in his ancestral village of Saligao in Goa.

At no point does Figueiredo stop doubting himself, “The truth is I haven’t a clue; I am just arbitrarily clutching arbitrarily at the myriad threads that lead from me and Dad to the dead and long forgotten. In tearing at these threads, I tug at handfuls of stems and greenery, and hack at branches to penetrate the vegetation. Will I really get closer to Dad, closer to myself, battling through this thorny jungle in search of a relative who rotted away and evaporated into the ether long ago? This jungle is too vast, our family tree like a giant tangle of branches that fill the horizon, that stretches across oceans and continents, across centuries, so large that it spans the rise and fall of empires, the birth and death of nations, the release of slaves, the displacement of peoples. And if Dad is one thread in this vast tangle, then I am dangling at the end of it, over an empty void.”

When I connected with him at home in Norway, Figueiredo told me via email, “I did what I had postponed too long. I asked: What the hell happened with my dad? And as I startedpulling that thread, all this other stuff came tumbling down…During the writing process it was as if the ongoing globalization outside me calibrated with the inherited globalization within me.” It’s rather a beguiling image, the writer coming into balance by acts of imagination. 

A Stranger at my Table contains these lines, “Sometimes we open a door that ought to have remained closed. There are thresholds we ought never to step over, choices that are irrevocable. And we know that immediately the door is opened, the step taken, the decision made, nothing will ever be as it was before.” The literature of India’s diaspora is greatly enriched by this acclaimed Norwegian author’s leap of faith into his father’s lost history, the vivid lore of the African Goans.

(note: the version of this essay in Mint Lounge is slightly abridged)

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