Thursday, 9 October 2014

DIFFERENT, NOT UNIQUE



It can be said with a lot of certainty that Goans straddle many worlds. Owing to the differences between the colonial styles of the Portuguese and the British, and the interactions that Goans have with these two Empires, the historical and cultural experiences of the Goans are diverse indeed. With migrations to Africa, the Gulf, Europe and now increasingly to North America and Australia Goans seem to be a part of many worlds. This diversity of historical and cultural experiences has been ignored with attempts to fit Goa’s history within Indian national narratives with the region’s integration into India. Rochelle Pinto’s book Between Empires: Print and Politics in Goa draws attention to this fact and also explores it in greater detail.

So why is this diversity of historical and cultural experiences important? It is for the reason that, as many scholars have emphasized, the nature of Portuguese colonialism was ‘different’ to that of the British, Goa’s history need to be looked at from its own standpoint. Recognizing this difference would also provide valuable insights into how the Goan identity came to be constituted. The argument that can be advanced is that it is due to the ‘different’ Portuguese colonialism that Goa acquired its exceptions with regards to its culture and history. For instance, such a difference can be observed in the political structures, its religious experiences, and food practices.

To recognize Goa’s ‘difference’ is not similar to asserting a ‘unique’ identity for it. Indeed, a distinction needs to be made between viewing Goa as ‘different’ and viewing it as ‘unique’. Asserting uniqueness is opposed to the idea of Goa’s difference from the established norm of British colonial and Indian national experience. This idea of uniqueness is largely used by groups who held positions of power and authority during the colonial regime as well as in the postcolonial times. Though originating in elite locations this very seductive idea is not restricted to these groups alone. The significance of asserting ‘uniqueness’ becomes clear if one starts thinking about how the idea of Goa’s uniqueness animates and sustains many popular political mobilizations in contemporary Goa. The movements to protect the environment, the demand for Special Status (to name just a few) have a very strong sense of Goa as a unique space.

If a departure from Indian national narratives can enable us to appreciate the possibility of opening up various worlds to view them as part of the Goan experience, the assertion of a unique identity itself isolates us from the possibility of creating networks with these diverse worlds. Thus, the fact that there might be other groups that are an exception to the norm within India, for instance, may get subsumed by the assertions of Goa and Goans as unique. Such assertions leave no space to forge new alliances with groups whose experiences may not differ much from that of the Goan.

To take tourism as an illustration, while we may recognize the manner in which Goa is reduced to an ‘exotic’ pleasure periphery for foreign as well as Indian tourists, what often gets left out is that there are other places within India itself that function as ‘exotic’ pleasure peripheries. If Goa is the ‘escape’ for many urban Indians from everyday troubles, in a similar way many of the hill-stations in India as well as places in the Northeast serve as ‘escapes’ for the nearby urban population. By ‘escaping’ to such ‘exotic’ locales one just does not leave his/her professional roles behind, but also their social norms and behaviour. The fact why Goa is seen as more liberal, Southern European, and Catholic than the other pleasure peripheries, is the result of its ‘different’ colonization. But this fact in no way separates or isolates Goa from these other pleasure peripheries within India. 

The ‘difference’ that we have discussed above is the product of the last four-and-a-half centuries. This ‘difference’ opens up new vistas and avenues for thinking about the road ahead for Goa. But to ignore this difference so as to solely view Goa within the frames of Indian nationalism would be to limit Goa’s potential and that of its many worlds.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 10 October, 2014)

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