Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Looking for Goa at Midnight: The Cartography of Loss" - SEMANA DE CULTURA (Goa - 2011)

Passports and Maps - A Family History

I was born free.

It is true that neither of my passports is from the country in which I was born. And one of them is not in fact my passport anymore. But I was born free.

Both of my parents, as their parents before them, lived in colonies. My father was born in Goa two years before India won its independence from Britain and at which time Goa was still occupied by the Portuguese. Two months before the decolonization of India, my mother was born in Kenya, which was then and continued to be a British colony for almost as long as Goa remained under Portugal’s dominion. They were not among Midnight’s Children.

Having laid his wife to rest in the Goan section of a Mombasa cemetery in 1958, my grandfather, who by this time had gone blind, wished to return to Goa knowing he would die there. He took his youngest daughter, my mother, with him. The rest of her siblings and their progeny would, in time, scatter themselves across the world. Besides India and Kenya, they also live in Sweden, England, Canada, Australia, and the United States.
When my father found out his future wife was to enrol in typing school, he did the same. I believe it is what destined me to be a writer. My fingers took to the old manual typewriter my parents had far more easily than they did to a computer keyboard. The clack of metallic keys accompanied the conception of the first words I ever had printed in a newspaper as a teenager. And that was long before I formally learned how to type in community college in the United States. The early 1960s saw my parents, both the youngest in their families, take bicycle rides on the dusty red roads of Merces, Ilhas, which is where my mother’s family is from, and alongside the lush green paddy fields of Panarim, Bardez, where my father grew up.  

My father’s parents once lived in Portugal. It was before their little Goa briskly changed partners in a dance that whisked them around the world over two short days in December 1961. Though they never left Goa, they were citizens of two different nations in their lifetime. Three of their four children, including my father, worked in the Arabian Gulf. The Ferrão children of my generation were born in Kuwait, except the eldest. Following tradition, my oldest aunt wanted to have her first child in Goa with my grandmother in attendance. My only other cousin born in Goa was the daughter adopted by my uncle, who did not migrate to the Middle East. Today, in addition to India, my paternal cousins also reside in various parts of North America.

By some coincidence, my father shares his name with his mother-in-law, Felicidade, whom he had never met. Her name bears the same root as my father’s – the Latin felicitas. He was named for his father’s brother Felix, who mysteriously left Goa. Among my grandfather’s effects was found a letter he had written but never sent his brother. It was meant to be mailed to Italy. In the last reported sighting of my great uncle, he turned in recognition of his name being called out, a name that means happiness. He looked away and kept walking. It was in the Persian port of Abadan where the plague was running rampant. 

In Iran, perchance, there is a family that does not know where their father came from. My kin has been spread far and wide, but there is not much that separates my family from so many other middle class Goans or, indeed, other postcolonials who have dispersed beyond their homelands. I lay out my family’s travels not to provide a source of wonderment, but to consider the cartography of loss. What does it mean to be Goan without having been born in Goa or to no longer be resident upon its red earth? I do not use loss here to imply the sadness that arises from not having something anymore. Is it possible to miss something you never had to begin with? Indeed, melancholia informs what I attempt to explore here, something akin to the Portuguese word saudades. Yet it is not even the smouldering yearning that glows like embers at the edges of a burning map, singeing away time and places past. Can one be nostalgic for what they never possessed?

My once Portuguese father and British mother suddenly turned Indian in the postcolonial, freewheeling 1960s. Well, if it could happen to the “hippies” that went native, then why not my parents? As Europe and America’s flower children made their way east, my parents made their way to the Middle East. It was here that they became Indian, constantly reminded of this fact not only through the passports they now had, but also the special privileges afforded them: special schools for their children, special treatment under the law, and special words reserved only for their kind. But it was also here that they found community with hundreds of other expatriates like themselves. Their earnings, far more than they had ever made before, helped cushion all the specialness they felt in their non-home away from home. And when they did return to Goa decades later, it was unlike the place they had left. Like them, their homeland had also changed.

I belong to the first generation of Goan children born after the end of colonial rule. And unlike my parents and their parents before them, I was born an Indian citizen. But that is odd really, for I was not born in independent India. I hold the irony of my birth, marking me as one of a legendary cohort, so close to my heart that I could not give up my Indian passport when I reluctantly became an American citizen. When asked to relinquish proof of previous citizenship, I said I had lost it. Did I ever really have it to surrender anyway? I was born Indian because I was not allowed to be a citizen of Kuwait. I have a passport-shaped hole in my life; an ersatz citizenship mapped not by lands of residence but, instead, by their loss. The traces of this invisible geography are in the names passed down between generations like stories, in storied sightings of the lost, in lost letters to addresses unknown, in the unknown locations of distant graves, and in the distant birth of babies beneath unfamiliar stars.

I was born free. Free of any country.


The Other Midnight Child

“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
Jawaharlal Nehru’s words that announced the independence of India have always sounded like an incantation to me. Their magical quality is captured nowhere better than in Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, himself born in 1947 and just a few days after my mother. In the novel, the newly liberated nation’s firstborns, brought forth from their mother’s wombs between the stroke of the midnight hour and 1 AM on 15 August, 1947, embody the fledgling country’s ambitions and aspirations; they possess an ethereal telepathic connection symbolizing their shared earthly trajectories. In the midst of this enchantment, however, is a desperately gnawing anxiety. It is the anxiety of separation. Two children are switched at birth in the novel, and are separated from their biological families. This cleaving is not only symbolically that of Britain and the erstwhile Indies, but also India and Pakistan – the tempering of the rampant joy of independence by loss. This torn postcolonial map is also haunted by other missing pieces. Like my father in Goa and my mother in Kenya, midnight’s other children were still asleep. And what was to say that they would want their freedom, once they awoke to it, to be cleaved to the new nation?

In Mirrorwork, a compilation of writing co-edited with Elizabeth West, published in 1997 to commemorate 50 years of Indian writing on the anniversary of India’s independence, Rushdie notes of his allegorical novel: 

After its publication ... I learned that the idea of a long saga-novel about a child born at the exact moment of independence – midnight, August 14-15, 1947 – had occurred to other writers, too. A Goan poet showed me the first chapter of an abandoned novel in which the “midnight child” was born not in Bombay, but in Goa. 

While Rushdie’s own “midnight child” could conceivably have been a Goan born in Bombay – indeed there is much evidence of such vibrant characters in both the book and life – the genesis of the novel’s protagonist, the very story, and hence the symbolization of India would be impossible if not for a Goan character. It is Mary Pereira, the nursemaid, who switches the children at birth – one from a well-off family and the other from a disadvantaged background - and changes their destinies in an attempt to effect social equality. At the moment of India’s birth, Goa was a component of the landmass of the new nation, but was not then constitutive of its polity. Nevertheless, Midnight’s Children implies the impossibility of thinking of India without Goans. 

Mary Pereira need not have been a Goan character, but there is particular significance in her so being. She re-emerges later on in the book as Mrs. Braganza, borrowing her name from Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese Infanta who was married to the English King, Charles II in 1662. The arranged marriage, a custom thought of as so quintessentially South Asian, was an alliance between the two colonial powers. Portugal acknowledged Britain’s pre-eminence by including one of its Indian ports in the royal dowry. Perhaps Portugal gave up that possession thinking it far less significant than the natural harbour of Goa, but the gift was to become a major factor in the establishment of British commerce in the East. That port was Bombay.

In having Mary Pereira/Braganza be Goan, the author brings into focus the significant role of his character’s native land in the European imperial history of South Asia. The Goan character draws to mind the ports sought out by the Europeans in their search for the fabled Indies and the harbours that were to become the centres of imperial power. Mary Pereira also evokes the figure of Goa as one of the earliest colonies and then the last foreign dominion in what was to become modern day India.

Though adopting the Braganza moniker, Mary Pereira arguably challenges heteropatriarchal constructions of nation, unlike her namesake. Catherine’s marriage to Charles II was to secure the bond between two colonial powers, but it was clear that it was to be an unequal coalition – the queen signifying the feminized position Portugal was expected to occupy. Mary, on the other hand, switches a rich child with a poor one in an attempt to impress Joseph, the man she loves, who is a communist radical. Rushdie’s use of the biblical names of the parents of the Christ child is deliberate; yet, where there should be an immaculate conception, there is anything but. Mary and Joseph of Midnight’s Children ultimately never have a relationship. Additionally, the switched children – of different economic and religious backgrounds – are raised by parents of other means and faiths. Through Mary, Rushdie destabilizes familial order consigned by biology, culture, and economics, and instead envisions a postcolonial independence where such constraints will bear no consequence to the new nation. Saleem, due to Mary’s intervention, is welcomed into a life of privilege and is chosen by a newspaper as the midnight child, born at the same moment as India’s independence. Nonetheless, Rushdie attempts to mitigate Mary’s maternal instincts gone awry by making her so consumed with guilt that she signs on to become a nanny to Saleem, the chosen male child of midnight.

At the same time as Mary Pereira had her hand in creating the midnight child of Rushdie’s book, what became of the other midnight child, the subject of an abandoned novel set in Goa? Is that child forever lost? The position of Goans in relation to the recently formed Indian union in 1947 was an ambivalent one – a part yet apart – somewhere between a child unseen because she or he had not been fully authored into existence and Mary Pereira who from the sidelines becomes involved in a moment that emblematically represents the new nation. In this regard, Goans of the homeland and the diaspora were similarly displaced, mapped onto other lands and still looking for their own Goa.

If Rushdie acknowledges the importance of Goan identity to the emerging India of Midnight’s Children, Victor Rangel-Ribeiro does the reverse. In his introductory foreword to Donna Young’s Mirror to Goa (2009), the diasporic writer argues

that despite Portugal’s long and determined attempts to impose a Portuguese culture on Goa, once Goans began to emigrate en masse to Bombay in search of a university education and well-paying jobs, we became exposed to liberal ideas and to India’s push to independence; the more deeply we breathed in the heady winds of freedom, the more tenuous became Portugal’s grip on our hearts and minds.

Rangel-Ribeiro’s observation of the burgeoning thoughts of liberation amongst the Goan diaspora in Bombay extends to Goans in other parts of the world; the quest for freedom would involve transnational influences from across the diaspora. 

Tristão de Bragança Cunha (1891-1958), often referred to as the father of Goan nationalism, and poet ManoharRai Sar Dessai (1925-2006), both French educated, could not help but feel the limits to their freedom and the desire for self-emancipation in the colonial context. Maria Aurora Couto chronicles Sar Dessai’s firm grasp of his identity when deemed alien upon his return to a country he thought of as his own. In Goa: A Daughter’s Story (2004), Couto writes of Sar Dessai’s experience that

... he was disqualified in the 1950s from the first job he applied for when he returned from his studies in France. It was a government job at the prestigious Elphinstone College in Bombay. [It was] because he was a foreign national, a condition over which he had no control. “I did not choose to become a Portuguese citizen,” he argued. “I am Indian. No one listened. We were perceived as foreigners within our own country ...”

As the movement for India’s independence intensified, the effects were felt in Goa where demonstrations led to a crackdown by the Portuguese army in 1946. Tristão de Bragança Cunha and other activists were taken to Portugal where they were imprisoned in Peniche. If the administration was repressive in Goa, then “Salazar’s regime was even more repressive at home,” Couto remarks. As a result, she goes on to say, de Bragança Cunha “[met] a quality of mind and spirit in Portuguese jails which made his life within bars far more enjoyable than when he was free but compelled to live in exile.”

Goa: A Daughter’s Story recounts such episodes of Goan deliberations over identity and emancipation to establish that aspirations for liberty came from Goa’s own people, even if the end of Portuguese rule was achieved with the Indian army’s use of force in 1961. Fourteen years after the rest of India awoke to freedom, Nehru gave the order that would bring to a close 451 years of Portuguese colonization in Goa. Even as Couto narrates episodes of self-determination, she observes that following Liberation “... there was both jubilation and consternation within Goa. Worry about change, hope for the future ... Change is seldom welcome; it is even less welcome when fraught with so many imponderables.”

I often wonder why the Goan author who began writing about the midnight child abandoned his novel. Did the writer believe that child could not be the herald of freedom if India was liberated but Goa was not? There is clearly more to the story of this child. I would like to think that it continues to look for Goa at midnight, seeking its many people, distributed across the globe like a fragmented map. There is so much for this child that is imponderable, as Couto muses. Among what is most imponderable is all that is yet to come, for freedom is ever-evolving. The magic of midnight is that one is never certain whether it is the end of an old day or the start of a new one.


Goa is Not Here

Europe was looking for Goa, even though they did not know it then. Six years after Columbus’ 1492 voyage for the Indies that would instead lead to the discovery of the “New World” and the decimation of its native peoples, Vasco da Gama found himself on the shores of Calicut. His voyage to Asia would not have been possible without the knowledge of navigators in Malindi on East Africa’s coast in present day Kenya. African familiarity with the sea routes to Asia came from trade between the two continents, evidencing contact between the locations well before European colonization. Following da Gama’s entree into South Asia, Affonso de Albuquerque won Goa for the Portuguese on 25 November, 1510.

What followed was a nearly half-millennium long colonial saga that would see the Inquisition, the bringing of African slaves to Goa, religious conversion, and the exodus of persecuted peoples. None of this happened without the participation of some Goans themselves, it must be stated, for the business of colonization requires collaborators. At some point in this history, as previously noted, Bombay became the gift that Portugal bestowed upon England. It also became a conduit for Goans between the two empires in India. From British India, many Goans found their way to other British colonies, East Africa included.

When she left Goa, did Felicidade know she would be laid to rest in another country, so far from her own native land? Or that her children and grandchildren would journey even farther afield? In 1993 her youngest daughter, my mother, emigrated to the United States along with her family, under an African quota. I was to enter the new country of my residence because of Kenya, a place I had never known. In 2008, it finally became untenable for me to continue to hold on to my Indian citizenship. That year, I voted in my first U.S. election, bringing to power a man of part-Kenyan origin, America’s first black president.

Just before the historic election, I had the opportunity to visit Kisumu, where the Obama family is from. The 44th U.S. President’s Kenyan origins had, until recently, been the reason why there was so much suspicion about his birthright to that office. I also visited the sites of my family’s own history in Kenya, including Felicidade’s last resting place in Mombasa. Since living in the United States, I have not been to Kuwait. My last time there was during a transit stop on our voyage as immigrants to California, which was to become our new domicile. Northern California and South London see most of my time currently, though I routinely visit my family who once again live in Goa. Given my past, to this day, and maybe forever, there is a question that will always confuse me: “Where are you from?” Is there solace in knowing that even the President of the United States has himself been repeatedly asked that question?

The question of origin places the diasporic of Goan origin at the moment of midnight, disorientalized and looking for Goa. In this quest, there is no map, only a fragmented cartography. There is an inherent paradox to maps: They orient a seeker, not unlike the colonial quest for Goa, promising a kind of knowledge of discovery; even so, what is a map if not a conglomeration of lacunae? The indeterminate can only be ascertained upon the actual journey and there is no guarantee against going astray, as Columbus’ excursion attests. The diasporic disoriental loses sense of direction, becoming Goan not through a sense of place but by its loss. For the diasporic Goan, being Goan is not about Goa. It is about Goa. Around it. Such a configuration does not preclude Goa; it additionally sets it beyond the apparent parameters. An example of this is the aforementioned transnational influence that informed the liberation of Goa.

Fundamentally, there still needs be a difference between the diasporic disoriental and the marauding colonial explorer. It is a difference that must go deeper than cosmetic multiculturalism. Selma Carvalho’s Into the Diaspora Wilderness (2010) narrates the cultural history of the Goan diaspora. The author includes an anecdote about a group of postcolonially exiled, middle class Goan East Africans she was acquainted with. While on the one hand “[their] Africa belonged to colonial Britain,” there was no denying the African cultural influences they had imbibed, though they might be unlikely to acknowledge them. Among the various places in the diaspora Carvalho has found herself, East Africa is not one of them. This notwithstanding, in revealing the influence of that region upon the displaced Goan East Africans, she also reveals its influence in the formation of her sense of self as a diasporic Goan when she writes:

It was only when I grew up that I realised Malaika wasn’t a song about Goa, but an outpouring of [the exiles’] love for Africa. The Kenyan song, meaning angel in Swahili and Arabic, echoed the social struggles felt by native Africans at the time. Whether any East African Goan ever shed a tear for the social unrest, poverty and turmoil of indigenous Africans is difficult to say.

The histories of modern Africa and South Asia have run parallel and often intersected because of colonization, even when the colonized could not see the similarities they shared with other oppressed people.
Undoubtedly, Africa has influenced the formation of a Goan sense of self within and without Goa and even at the hour of Liberation. As Couto relates,

Nehru’s military action was the result of many compulsions, not least the pressure brought on him by freedom fighters in the African colonies. Furthermore, the action was crucial for the morale of African nationalists. Goa provided the precedent. It fuelled the intensity of their struggle for independence.

Freedom, it would seem, is a contagious thing. It cannot be constrained to the location of its birth, leaping forth to disorient and negate captivity elsewhere. All the same, disorientation cannot simply mean placelessness; it cannot preclude a sense of responsibility for the locations in which one finds themselves. In The Location of Culture (2008) Homi Bhabha critiques the “kind of global cosmopolitanism ... that configures the planet as a concentric world of national societies extending to global villages,” creating a veneer of multicultural harmony that involves diasporic subjects. These are the kinds of places, I would add, where “social unrest, poverty and turmoil” may exist, but for which no one “[sheds] a tear” because they see themselves, ironically, as residents who are conveniently extra-territorial and therefore not responsible for the plight of others. Liberation comes in many forms, but one cannot be free when witness to the captivity of others.

Goa is in the many places of the diaspora, just as the reverse is true. The broken topography that connects midnight’s other children connotes loss. But this is only because what is gained is often indiscernible - much like freedom itself, which can so easily be taken for granted. In my disorientation, I hear Goa in the African songs my mother sang to me as a child and in the names that were passed down from one generation to the next. I see it in the dust of my grandmothers’ graves, in Mombasa and Aldona. It is in the passports I was not allowed to have and in a novel that remains unwritten. It is waiting to be found at the midnight hour. 

These are my map to Goa where I was not born. For I was free before I was born.    

Semana de Cultura (2011) is currently only available in print.


  1. Are you trying to be a new Jason Fernades? It's one too many already...

  2. I can only try and be myself. You, on the other hand, have succeeded quite well in being a coward.