“Business is good,” he said in reflective response to the question, “but it’s difficult to get vinegar.” Continuing the conversation in Konkani, the historian commented, “But you were getting a regular supply from Tony, no?” The restaurateur’s visage grew pensive as he remarked, “Tony died a few months back.” Pondering this, the professor solemnly said, “I didn’t know...”
The deceased Goan man was unknown to me, but I shared in this moment of loss along with the other four present. The group comprised of a colleague who is a prominent writer on Goa, the owner of the restaurant who had joined us during the course of our lunch, the historian – an eminent scholar of Goa and a long-time friend of my father’s, and his spouse. It was my first Goan meal on this my first trip to Lisbon where I had attended a conference. Preceding the visit I had felt ill at ease, but this sombre moment had the paradoxical effect of providing me with a sense of calm. Perspective, even.
As I prepared to journey to Portugal, I had felt the weight of history. I was the first in my family to make this trip. Neither of my parents, nor their parents before them, had ever been. The irony of this is that they had all, with the exception of my mother, been born Portuguese citizens of Goa. My mother’s British citizenship had been of an odd variety – as with other residents of colonial East Africa, there was no pretence that her circumscribed rights were on par with those of Britons in the colonizing homeland. Living in Britain, any contemplation I had of a familial history that linked me to the land of my residence was ambivalent at best. As it were, there were plenty of other reasons to reflect critically upon the post-imperial and still imperious British nation. However, Portugal presented a whole other set of challenges – far more personal and now unavoidable.
The meal at the Goan restaurant, nestled on a cobblestone Lisbon street, had been the tastiest one I had had in Portugal. My only experience with Portuguese cuisine had been the dishes my father had learned to prepare. Little did I know that his interpretation had been severely Goanized: lots of pepper and other spices flavour his bacalhau, for instance. I was surprised to find that the “authentic” version of these dishes were bland in comparison. If the Portuguese had journeyed to Goa five centuries ago in search of spices that would preserve food and mask the taste of decay in a time before refrigeration – an effort that led to Goa’s colonization – then contemporary Lisbon had foregone this history in serving up its less than piquant fare.
And, yet, here was this motley group of Goans I found myself amongst in the postcolonial city, lamenting the loss of an erstwhile traveller. Like Vasco da Gama and de Albuquerque before him the Goan man had also journeyed. Clandestinely, he had ferried the flavours of Goa to the once imperial centre. Those bottles of vinegar - an elixir, so potent and integral to a way of life – retain the flavour of colonial history and make it relevant far away from home, wherever it may be.
An online version appears here.