Thursday, September 26, 2013

"The Ugly Politics of Beauty" - OUTLOOK INDIA (25 September 2013)

 The racist tweets about 2014 Miss America pageant winner Nina Davuluri have become the stuff of legend, sparking reactions quite contrary to the expectations of the twits that tweeted, and only further raising the title-holder’s profile. Indeed, writers from India and America, including American writers of Indian origin like Davuluri herself, have weighed in with opinions about how the ugly tweets do not reconcile with the beauty of America’s diversity as represented by someone like Davuluri, and also how the newly crowned Miss America could never be Miss India because, though beautiful, she is far too dark for mainstream Indian tastes. Lakshmi Chaudry notes in her piece for the Indian blog First Post that Miss USA’s “dusky” complexion would not make her the ideal candidate for Bollywood stardom, the endgame of several Miss India winners, “unless she makes the miraculous colour ‘adjustment’” required by the profession. What Chaudry alludes to is not only the prevalence of skin bleaching as part of a regular maintenance regime for beauty pageant contestants and actors, but also the role played by Indian celebrities in shilling skin whitening products – a role the dark-skinned Davuluri was just not born to inhabit.  On the same blog, and also on the Huffington Post, Sandip Roy opines emphatically that “Nina Davaluri’s Story is an American Story, not an Indian One.” Hmm… I am not so sure about either of these claims.

But before I take up those issues, a little side trip is necessary to a land that is neither India nor the United States, but this detour is, nonetheless, still about beauty being more than skin deep. Like Davuluri, Yityish Aynaw made beauty pageant history for similar reasons. She was named Miss Israel 2013, the first black winner of that title. Like other Ethiopians of the Jewish faith, Aynaw came to live in Israel as an aliyah immigrant. She had been orphaned at a young age in her birth country before she moved to Israel with her grandparents. While Aynaw gained publicity for her success story as a black Israeli woman, news reports about the lives of several Ethiopian women, many of them refugees, told a far from positive tale. Revelations emerged that thousands of them had been injected against their will with Depo-Provera, a contraceptive. As The Guardian reported, “The phenomenon was uncovered when social workers noticed the birth rate among Ethiopian immigrants halving in a decade. An Israeli documentary investigating the scandal was aired in December [2012]…” Then, in February 2013, Aynaw received her crown. 

“So what then, to make of Aynaw's crowning as Israel's latest beauty queen (apart, that is, from the irony inherent in treating winning an appearance-based contest as some sort of victory for human rights)?” asks Ruby Hamad, writing for Australia’s Daily Life. As Hamad poignantly states, “It is indeed tempting to take [Aynaw’s] triumph as a sign that things are changing but her victory is at best purely symbolic and at worst utterly cynical.” And it is the symbolism that is inescapable here, as in the moment when the first black Miss Israel, upon special invitation, met America’s first black President on his official visit to Jerusalem a month after Aynaw was awarded her title.  

Miss Israel named Obama as one of her heroes, seeing the similarities between them: “Like him, I was also raised by my grandmother. Nothing was handed to me on a plate and like him I also had to work very hard and long to achieve things in my life.” Clearly, what is being evoked here is the symbolic rhetoric of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps – that oft-told tale of immigrants being able to succeed if they try hard enough, a foundational element of the ethos of the United States. While other allegations have arisen this year of how, generally black, asylum seekers in Israel have been discriminated against when searching for accommodation, Aynaw’s victory not only serves as PR on domestic race relations, but also in using race to support diplomatic relations across borders. Of course, US-Israel relations have a long history, but the depths of that connection continue to emerge, as in The Guardian’s exposure of the “memorandum of understanding” between the NSA and Israeli intelligence. Politics, they say, makes for strange bedfellows, but does it also help if they are beautiful? And what does that query have to do with the reigning Miss America and the land of her ancestry? 

If there is one thing that many Americans, if not several around the world, have heard of India lately, it is the news of the vicious rapes, with the December 2012 Delhi gang-rape case being the most well-known example. The brutal incident resulted in the young victim, a student of physiotherapy, losing her life. Nation-wide protests ensued in India, and international attention was drawn to questions of the treatment of Indian women. Just a few days prior to the Miss America contest, the sentencing of the convicted men in that case was pronounced. What I have to say next, is not pretty. Davaluri’s win projects her, just as Aynaw’s did her, as someone markedly different from those others of her ethnicity – hers is an exceptional position because of the country of her citizenship. 

While for Aynaw the comparison to be made is to other Ethiopian Jewish women in Israel, in Davaluri’s case she is remarkable because, as an American of Indian provenance, she is to be seen as unlike women in India. Aynaw becomes an icon of immigrant aspiration while obscuring the plight of black refugees – victimized by the state and society – who, if they “work very hard and long” can achieve some measure of success. In other words, the onus is not on the state, but on the individual herself. Davaluri, meanwhile, becomes an illustration of how her country has allowed her to fulfill her potential as a woman of immigrant roots – she can aspire to be both a pageant winner and someone who wants to go on to study medicine. Quite by coincidence, there is a similarity between the 24 year old Miss America’s vocational goal and the 23 year old Delhi victim’s paramedical field of study. In contrast, then, India is relegated to the position of a patriarchal society where women are seen as victims, not least because of the pervasiveness of rape culture.

This is not an attempt to diminish the very real existence and problem of rape, patriarchy, or even their interconnectedness. Nor am I arguing that pageants are part of some nefarious state design to afford a nation the moral high ground either in domestic concerns or international affairs. (Yet, one must admit that it is very interesting that pageants use the imperial language and symbols of state: queens, their reign, and crowns, for instance…) Rather, I want to make a case for how pageantry works politically, even if unintentionally. An Indian American winner counter-poses America and India, likely indicating that one of those nations is more patriarchal and discriminatory against women. Simultaneously, what does it do for American women themselves? How does it take attention away from legislative battles over women’s rights to reproductive and sexual healthcare in states such as Texas, or reduce concern over the cover up of rape on US college campuses, because the notion is that these problems must be far worse in a developing nation like India – that foreign land of Davaluri’s origins? 

Admittedly, charges of India’s treatment of its women citizens were not the most apparent on social networks where users were more concerned with calling Davaluri a terrorist or a Muslim (or some combination thereof), but what those racist tweets did was to underscore Davaluri’s foreignness, and all it stands for, even if she was born in the United States. This is precisely why pageants themselves need not be directly calculated in their political intent; the mechanisms are already in place for their outcome to be judged, a second time, in the popular arena. Racism, beauty standards, the media, and the contemporary ubiquity of social networks where commentary can be passed freely and invisibly are all in place to mete out opinion based on the color of a woman’s skin. In that sense, not much has changed since thirty years ago when Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America, only to be stripped of her title for having appeared in an adult magazine.

Speaking of the color of a woman’s skin, much has been made of why the dark-complected Davaluri would not fare as well in a pageant in India as she did in the country of her birth and citizenship. Undeniably, the most famous winners of the Miss India title, some of whom like Aishwarya Rai went on to win the Miss World contest, have all been light-skinned women, giving even more of a fillip to a thriving industry in skin-lightening products. However, just because such beauty care items are not as commonly seen or advertised in the United States does not mean that a nexus does not exist. For example, Amway, once a sponsor of the Miss America contest, is but one of many multinational beauty product companies that sell skin-lightening products in India and other parts of Asia. In itself, this begs the question of why an event that casts itself as a scholarship, rather than a beauty, contest would be financed by a cosmetics giant. Apart from the politics that pageants may unwittingly participate in, there is also a pretty penny to be made from issues tied to race and appearance. Miss America Nina Davaluri may not be hawking skin-lightening cream in India, but who is to say that she will not be the face of a cosmetics line that will use her appearance to open doors in the land of her ancestry?

This article appears on

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Common Sense and Hindu Nationalism: Why the Catholics in Goa are Not Hindu" - KAFILA (India - 16 September 2013)

Can a Goan Catholic be Hindu? Can Catholics professing a tradition of Catholicism that is over five centuries old be considered Hindu in culture? This is what the Chief Minister of Goa, Manohar Parrikar, sought to suggest in a recent interview with Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi of the New York Times India blog IndiaInk, where he said,
I am a perfect Hindu, but that is my personal faith, it has nothing to do with government. India is a Hindu nation in the cultural sense. A Catholic in Goa is also Hindu culturally, because his practices don’t match with Catholics in Brazil [a former Portuguese outpost like Goa]; except in the religious aspect, a Goan Catholic’s way of thinking and practice matches a Hindu’s. So Hindu for me is not a religious term, it is cultural. I am not the Hindu nationalist as understood by some TV media – not one who will take out a sword and kill a Muslim. According to me that is not Hindu behavior at all. Hindus don’t attack anyone, they only do so for self-defense – that is our history. But in the right sense of the term, I am a Hindu nationalist.
Parrikar’s bizarre statement was in response to the question of whether he saw himself as a Hindu nationalist. Of course, a quick and easy response to his statement would be to summarily dismiss it as expected rhetoric flowing from his saffron affiliations; yet, questions persist, not least because of the peculiar and oft-misrepresented Goan scenario.

More than meets the eye

Goan Catholics today find themselves in a strange situation. On the one hand they are summoned to maintain a distinct Goan identity which rests in large part on the Portuguese past of the territory. This distinct identity is called upon not merely by an officially approved tourism policy and practice, but also by local elites who use the claim of a distinct identity to cyclically generate local mass movements that help them maintain their dominance. On the other hand, as Victor Ferrão argues in his recent book Being a Goan Christian: The Politics of Identity, Rift and Synthesis (2011), there is a simultaneous suggestion that this Catholic ‘cultural’ element is not compatible with a Goan and Indian identity; this is precisely what Parrikar is proposing here. What he further does is to paint the community as a monolithic entity, despite a situation where large segments of the Catholics are being delegitimized by dominant-caste members of their own faith who participate in a Hindu nationalist reading of Goan history. Parrikar’s statement also distorts history through a saffron lens, contributing to the further marginalization of not only Goan Catholics, but also Goan Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis.
Finally, when Parrikar says that his Hindu faith has nothing to do with governance, he is cleverly skirting the intimate connection that religion and caste ideologies, including the right-wing one he professes, have with state apparatuses in post-1947 India. In the political mobilizations of the dominant as well as the subaltern sections in India, religion has emerged as a potent and important factor. Our contention, not necessarily a new one, is this: that religion in post-1947 India is not a personal affair; it is deeply public and profoundly political, and has now become even more overtly so with the rise of the BJP.

Goa’s encounter with Christianity

This background of political machinations and mobilizations makes it even more necessary to unpack Parrikar’s statement against the actual historical context in which Goa and Goans encountered Christianity.
As has been pointed out by the historian R. E. Frykenberg in his book Christianity in India: From the Beginning to the Present (2008), despite appearances to the contrary, the transmission of Christianity from the proselytizer to the converted always involved shifts in practice. These shifts resulted in new and unique forms of Catholicism or Christianity as the converted took in the message of the faith and made it their own. Thus, when Parrikar views a Goan Catholic as different from “Catholics in Brazil”, he is right only to the extent that there would be some ethno-local differences, because the local culture of Goan Catholics is Goan culture in its multiple variations, including, but not limited to, Hindu culture. Further, just as there are many shades in Goan identity, as also with the universality of Catholicism, there are many identities of the Brazilian Catholic. So which Brazilian Catholic is Parrikar referring to? Or is this also part of the fascist project - to understand every community or region everywhere in terms of its majority or dominant group? 

Pre-Portuguese Goa was not a Hindu Space

When Parrikar suggests that the Catholic in Goa is culturally a Hindu, and that Hindus and Catholics in Goa match in their practices and ways of thinking, he lends weight to a particular assumption about pre-Portuguese Goa: that it was a Hindu space. The truth, however, is that the territories that became Goa following Portuguese conquest in 1510 were, if anything, Islamicate spaces. This means that, although the majority of the people were not Muslim, they were culturally influenced by the Persian, Arabic, and Turkic traditions of dominant Muslim groups. As Phillip Wagoner and other scholars of the Deccan have pointed out, the notion of kingship in the early modern Deccan was firmly fixed within Perso-Arabic, and Turko-Afghan traditions that had taken root among the elites of the peninsula. Even the ostensibly Hindu kings of Vijayanagara adopted a vast variety of Islamicate traditions, in addition to styling themselves as “Sultans among Hindu kings”. The control of pre-Portuguese Goa shuffled between the Delhi Sultanate, the Deccan Sultanates, and the Vijayanagar kingdom for close to two centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese. In turn, this laid the ground for an Islamicate culture in the territories. So, when Parrikar proposes that Goan Catholics are culturally Hindu, he effectively obliterates the vibrant erstwhile and contemporary manifestations of the Islamicate in Goa by suggesting that the state’s society is one of Hindus and Catholics (with putative Hindu pasts) alone.
Goa’s pre-Portuguese history prior to the Islamicate period similarly reflects a complex diversity. There were communities who followed indigenous belief systems which cannot be considered Hindu, and ruling classes that were only recently Hindu. There is strong evidence of Jain and Buddhist communities in the Goan region in the first millennium of the Common Era, communities who were wealthy enough and politically dominant enough to leave behind fairly substantial architectural remains. While there are those who would lump both Buddhist and Jain ideas into Hinduism today, the fact is that these faiths arose and developed in opposition to brahmanical ideas. Parrikar’s statement thus erases the complex cultural life of pre-Portuguese Goa, collapsing it all into ‘Hindu Culture’ even as Hindu “practices” become the benchmark of evaluating the Goanness and Indianness of a Goan Catholic.

Parrikar’s logic implies that Goan Catholics are lesser citizens

Parrikar’s assertion that Catholics are culturally Hindus has another insidious side to it, for it draws from the old accusation of Hindu nationalist historians that Christianity and Islam are foreign to India. While Parrikar may not have actually said that Christianity is foreign, his statement makes it foreign. The truth though is that just as the Christians of the subcontinent are not foreign, their practices embody the culture of the land too. To label such culture as Hindu is not just erroneous, but also pernicious. As a corollary question to Parrikar’s logic, are Hindus living in Christian-dominated countries ‘culturally Christians’?
As Victor Ferrão demonstrates in his book, assuming and asserting a Hindu or brahmanical character to pre-colonial Goa has another ramification. It brings into play the purity and pollution principle that structures caste life within the political realm. The colonial period, and the colonial introduction of Christianity, is seen as polluting the former purity of the Hindu body politic. Consequently, Catholics are placed outside the purview of legitimate citizenship in Goa and India, because the nation’s purity is predicated upon assumptions of its essential brahmanical Hinduness. In Ferrão’s words: “Being polluted by the colonial era, [the Catholics] are thought to have lost their ability to take Goa to the path of authentic progress”. The Catholics may remain in Goa, but every time they make a demand that challenges the assumptions of Hindu nationalism, they are charged as being anti-nationals. This can be seen in the response to the demands for the recognition of the Konkani language in the Roman script, as also the demand for state grants for primary education in English. Thus, even though Parrikar’s statement on the cultural essence of Goan Catholics may seem to embrace, it is in fact a reminder of the second class location of that community within the Goan polity.   

Reinforcing clichés of the nationalist historiography of India

The assertion that the term ‘Hindu’ “is cultural” rather than “religious” privileges only a certain rigid notion of Hindu culture and way of life, while relegating anything that is not Hindu to a second class status; this of course also begs the questions as to which religion is not a prescription for a way of life? It also relegates everybody in India who is not of the ‘Semitic’ faiths into the category of ‘Hindu’ by default.  Such co-option has been challenged in Jharkhand where a struggle is on to give official status to the local Sarna religion. Dr. Ram Dayal Munda, the former Vice-Chancellor of Ranchi University, has written in detail about how the Sarna faith differs in cosmology, myths, deities, rituals, priesthood, and other details, from Hinduism. Yet for many like Parrikar, non-Christian and non-Muslim Adivasis are ‘automatically’ Hindu. Kancha Ilaiah also discusses similar processes in his path-breaking book Why I am not a Hindu (1996). Ilaiah points out that for many children of subaltern communities even in the 20th century, the introduction to Hindu deities, epics, rituals, and other traditions happened only when they joined school, and the novelty was on par with learning Christian faith traditions.
Parrikar’s assertion that Hindus do not attack except in self-defence, i.e. they are a peaceful and tolerant people, is another myth that has been successfully contested by historians as well as scholars of contemporary caste society. That the Hindu nationalists play the card of perpetual victimization, as Parrikar does, when in reality it is the Dalits, Adivasis and many minority groups who are violently oppressed and abused by the caste nature of South Asian society, a society whose ethos, traditions and survival are now championed by Hindutva politics, is an old irony. As for peacefulness, Parrikar may never take up a sword to kill, but he is already neck-deep in a discourse that is violently casteist, racist, and – not to forget – Islamophobic. Furthermore, he does not have to personally pick up a sword because the Hindu right-wing has set up several proxy organizations that do the job, while political leaders like him either plead helplessness or remonstrate that such violence is not ‘true’ Hinduism.

A ‘Universal’ Church divided in itself

What Parrikar and others who think like him should acknowledge is that many of the converts to Christianity were from the subaltern communities. But it is also necessary to acknowledge that the Church hierarchy in Goa is not only dominated by upper-caste Catholics, but displays a tendency to discriminate against the subalterns in a manner similar to that of Hindu caste society. There are many examples of this, as when the demand for the Roman script of the Konkani language to be given official recognition in the state, which was made by subaltern-caste and -class Catholics, was opposed by the sections of the Catholic clergy. Ironically, many of those clergy members themselves use the Roman script on a daily basis. The discrimination against the subaltern Catholic groups is intensified by the tendency of the Hindu Bahujan Samaj to ally with the Hindu dominant castes. This tendency is most evident in the way the Saraswat-led Konkani language establishment allied with the Hindu Bahujan leadership to ensure that English language education at the primary school level was denied state grants; a move that the Catholic hierarchy acquiesced to. Grants were thus reserved for schools offering education in Marathi or official (Nagri) Konkani, a move which seriously hurt only poorer (and subaltern-caste) Catholic families, the wealthy being able to shift their wards to private schools where they could continue with an education in English.

Summing up

Goan Catholics are not Hindu. Most never were. The reality and history of Goa militate against the simplistic concepts offered by Parrikar. His understanding of universal Hinduness deliberately excludes the minorities while at the same time strait-jacketing and leveling any differences from the point of view of the dominant sections of the majority community. Such notions may appear to unite communities but in reality foster discrimination.

This article appears online at the Kafila website, and was co-written with Dale Luis Menezes, Albertina Almeida, Jason Keith Fernandes, and Amita Kanekar. Versions of it have also appeared in The Goan, on UCAN, and Round Table India.

Friday, September 6, 2013

"The Goan in Goa: A Response to Aravind Adiga" - OUTLOOK INDIA (6 September 2013)

In his essay “The Lusitanian in Hind” for the magazine Outlook India (2 September, 2013), novelist Aravind Adiga strives to situate the 19th century Goan writer and politician Francisco Luis Gomes (1829-1869) as an Indian patriot while decrying how “most Indians [have] not heard about Gomes,” which to Adiga “speaks more about the narrowness of our present conception of Indianness [...].” Yet, through his essay, Adiga further perpetuates the very narrowness he warns against. In trying to resuscitate national and nationalistic interest in Gomes, Adiga explores the possibility of the Goan polymath’s canonicity solely within a prescriptive Indianness hemmed in by Brahmanical, masculinist, Anglo-centric, and ethnocentric preconceptions of what it means to be Indian. In Adiga’s estimation, Gomes can only be made legible to the larger Indian imagination if, as a Goan of the Portuguese colonial era, he can be seen as adequately Indian based on elitist particularities of caste and other constricted views of proper national and historical belonging. 

While Adiga notes how Goa generally registers in popular Indian thought “as a landscape of fun,” he also pre-empts any discussion of the history of the region apart from modern India, and the impact of such historical regionality upon Gomes’ own oeuvre. Instead, when citing Gomes as having written of himself that he “was born in India, cradle of poetry, philosophy and history, today its tomb,” Adiga rushes to correlate such sentiment with Gomes having penned those words in 1861 which, in turn, would make one suppose “[naturally] enough that [the] author was a Bengali Hindu, writing either in Calcutta or London.” However, as Adiga interjects, “[Gomes] was a young Goan Catholic in Lisbon [...].”Clearly, Adiga endeavours to draw attention to the biases that exist in how perceptions of patriotism connote an Indianness circumscribed by location, coloniality, and religion. Nonetheless, rather than striking a contrast for deeper critical reflection on difference, Adiga’s purpose is to collapse all distinction into nationalist similitude as if it were “natural.”And what is believed to be natural here is that Goa can be a known quantity precisely because there allegedly is no difference between it and British-colonised Hindu Bengal, which at once reveals what the historic, religious, ethnocentric, and colonial default of the nation is as Adiga predicates it in this ostensibly neutral reasoning.

There is no denying that there were overlaps, and even collusions, between British and Portuguese colonialisms, but there were also marked differences. Although relegating it to a parenthetical aside, even Adiga must admit that “[u]nlike Britain, Portugal gave its colonies the right of representation.” This was an opportunity that was not available to the subcontinental subjects of the British Crown, not even to Dadabhai Naoroji who even while he may have been the first Asian in the British Parliament, was able to raise issues about British India only while representing a constituency in London. In contradistinction, it was from his position as a representative of Goa in the Portuguese parliament that Gomes sought to speak about the effects of colonialism on his Goan homeland and about India. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his book Os Brahamanes, or The Brahmins, written in Portuguese and published in Lisbon in 1866, making it one of Goa’s, if not India’s, first novels. What might Adiga do with other divergences in histories between the former British and Portuguese Empires in India? Not only was the latter a longer colonisation, witnessing radically different forms of inclusion and exclusion of the colonised, it also resulted in the decolonisation of Goa in 1961 after the rest of British-occupied India. His essay can only sidestep the fraught history of India’s “democracy” in which Goans were not allowed self-determination despite much evidence of efforts in that vein. This is itself a political trajectory within which one could arguably place Gomes’ own polemical writing. 

In his haste to employ a one-nationalism-fits-all approach, Adiga’s lauding of Gomes as a forgotten patriot occurs, furthermore, along the lines of an unquestioning maintenance of religious and other supremacies as the default of proper Indianness. One way the article effects this is by privileging narratives of upper caste loss. For instance, Adiga posits the notion that it was “[t]he brutal start of Portuguese rule in Goa in 1510” which caused Saraswat Brahmins “to flee their homeland in order to protect their faith [...].” This according to him was a “boon for modern India,” as the Saraswats “fertilis[ed] commerce and culture everywhere they went.”

Yes, under the leadership of Afonso de Albuquerque, there was much bloodshed of the residents of the city
of Goa by the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century; strikingly, many of these victims were the soldiers of Adil Shah who, like the Bijapuri ruler of the city, happened to be Muslim. Albuquerque is in fact said to have declared that Muslims were enemies and the “gentiles” friends, which is not surprising given that he was aided in his conquest by the army of Saraswat chieftain Mhal Pai, after being invited by Timayya, agent of Vijayanagara, to capture the city in the first place. These allies buttressed the more preponderant contestation between the Portuguese and the “Moors” for trading rights and privileges in the Indian Ocean. Some Brahmins did flee, as did members of other caste and religious groups who do not factor into Adiga’s retelling; consequently, their contribution to India is forgotten rather than celebrated as a “boon.” Some Brahmins and others even opted to convert to Christianity. As recent research has shown, not all conversions were forced, but were calculated decisions taken by members of various groups. Moreover, in the last few years, scholars like Pankaj Mishra and Goa’s Victor Ferrão have questioned the idea that Hindus, as they are known today as a faith group, pre-existed the orientalist efforts of colonisers to classify, and lump together, discrete religious sects into one category. In addition, Adiga does not reckon with how members of the upper caste echelon who lived on in Goa sought to preserve their authority within the machinations of colonialism. As in other parts of India, Goa too bore witness to the collaboration between colonisers and higher caste groups in order to strengthen domination based on existing hierarchies.

These details fail to appear in Adiga’s narration because he predominantly restricts his understanding of Goan history to the mythologies of the Saraswat caste. In so doing, he also misrepresents the fact that the Saraswat caste was already dominant through the length of the Konkan coast prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. It was this coastal dominance that allowed the Saraswats to operate as interlocutors for the Portuguese, as well as to ensure that those Brahmins who chose not to convert were able to migrate to places where they were not entirely without some social and cultural capital. The casting of Goa as a Saraswat homeland was a feature of nineteenth century Goan politics, a politics supported in equal measure by Catholic as well as Hindu Brahmin elites as they both sought to jockey for greater power. For the latter group, in particular, their power struggle was to secure a regional fiefdom in Goa against the Marathi-speaking Brahmin groups that dominated Bombay city.

As Adiga repeatedly points out, despite the privileges accorded to some natives in the Portuguese colony, even elite Goans found themselves “doomed to a second-class existence.” Of Gomes’ own trial by fire at the onset of his time in the Portuguese parliament, Adiga states that the Goan politician “heard another member demand that the government rescind the right given to colonial savages to sit in a civilised parliament.” This caused Gomes to wax eloquent about the civility of Indic cultures in educating his parliamentary counterparts, a group Adiga refers to as “the carnivorous Europeans.” What is the purpose of such an authorial statement other than to ascribe some notion of purity to one group over another along the lines of casteist exclusion? While it serves to characterise Europeans as uncouth because of their presumed dietary habits, it can only do so by participating in the logics of defilement used against the many marginalised peoples in India and, perhaps, meat-eating Goan Catholics, a group that Gomes himself belonged to. Though that irony seems to escape Adiga, it nevertheless continues to establish a sense of Indianness in the article that strongly veers toward Brahmanical Hindu nationalism.

The bent of such nationalism is made even more explicit when Adiga likens Gomes to – or claims that Goans regards Gomes as a “homegrown version” of – Vivekananda, Tilak and Gokhale, especially the first. The essay purports that Vivekananda and Gomes had similar visions of emancipation: “Vivekananda saw education and the renaissance of Hinduism as the answer. Gomes, who believed Hinduism was spent, pointed to education and Christianity.” As one might expect of a novel titled Os Brahamanes, the book – like Gomes’ own politics and thinking – is not without orientalist or elitist notions. Albeit, in describing some of Gomes’ narrative as being “Orientalist escapism,” Adiga spotlights the novelist’s indignation at the inherent contradictions of European colonialism. The essay quotes Gomes’ novel as declaring that if “the law of Christ governs European civilisation [...] [i]t is a lie – Europe tramples upon Asia and America, and all trample upon poor Africa – the Black races of Africa are the pariahs of the Brahmans of Europe and America.” Idealism, no doubt, but it is in this regard for the oppressed beyond the confines of nation and religion that one can locate the conspicuous distinctions between Gomes and Vivekananda.

In “Dharma for the State?” - an article that also appeared in Outlook India (21 January, 2013) - writer Jyotirmaya Sharma begins by underscoring the “one phrase [...] that effortlessly invokes the name and memory of Ramakrishna,” who was Vivekananda’s mentor: “Ramakrishna’s catholicity.” The article, which is an excerpt from Sharma’s book Cosmic Love and Human Apathy: Swami Vivekananda’s Restatement of Religion (HarperCollins 2013), charges that “Vivekananda, more than anyone else, helped construct [...] this carefully edited, censored and wilfully misleading version of his master’s ‘catholicity’.” Like Gomes, Vivekananda travelled beyond his homeland in the 19th century. Sharma records how “[i]n 1896, Vivekananda gave two lectures in America and England on Ramakrishna.” Studying these lectures, Sharma finds “that they are placed entirely in the context of the glorious spiritual traditions of India as contrasted with the materialism of the West.” While on the one hand a decided subversion of the universality espoused by Ramakrishna, the essentialism Sharma infers from Vivekananda’s lectures may also be seen in Adiga’s aforementioned pronouncement of an East-West dichotomy founded upon casteist notions of restrictive purity. 

Of the lectures, Sharma goes on to mention that “[t]here are frequent references to Hinduism’s capacity to withstand external shocks, including the coming of materialism in the guise of the West and the flashing of the Islamic sword. Despite all this, the national ideals remained intact because they were Hindu ideals.” What should be perceived here, then, is not only the conflation of nationalism with Hinduism, but also the theorising of the religious state as needing to be masculinist in order to withstand purported threat. Accordingly, it is not only Vivekananda that Adiga troublingly aligns Gomes with, but also “Tilak and Gokhale” as if the only way to understand the Goan’s place in the Indian context is by placing him firmly within the male iconicity of nationalism.

Gomes’s position is much more complex that the easy binary of bad coloniser versus the suffering colonised that Adiga seems to have adopted, and it is precisely Gomes’s Christianity that sharply distinguishes him from the Hindu nationalism of Vivekananda, Tilak, and Gokhale. As Adiga mentions, Gomes may have worn a dhoti to a reception, and spoken of the hallowed wisdom of the East, as also of the hypocrisy of Western civilisation. Even so, this should not be read as representative of Gomes’ overwhelming desire to cast off his European self and wholly embrace Indian subjectivity. Rather, it should be seen as a limited strategy that he, as a member of the Goan Catholic elite seeking greater autonomy within the Portuguese empire, was using against recalcitrant Europeans. If there was one position that the Goan Catholic elite of the 19th century espoused, it was that they were capable of managing the Estado da India Portuguesa without metropolitan oversight because they were not only heirs of the millenarian Indian civilisation that spun the Vedas, but were also reprieved by their Christian religion and, through this faith, European traditions. They were not merely Indians superior to the Europeans; they were Goans superior to both the Europeans, as well as the subcontinentals because in either case they had a marker that trumped the other: ancient Indian culture against the Europeans and Christianity and European culture against the subcontinentals. Nor was the contest that Gomes was in necessarily a simple case of natives versus those with foreign blood as Adiga seems to suggest when recounting the case of Bernado Pires da Silva, who in 1835 was “[t]he first Indian to rule colonial Goa.” In attempting to craft Goan history within the narrow frames of nationalist British Indian history, Adiga fails to highlight that the Goan polity of the time was the scene of a vicious battle for dominance among the local dominant castes, that included the metropolitan Portuguese, the Luso-descendente caste, the Catholic Brahmins, the Hindu Brahmins, and the Catholic Chardos (Kshatriyas), with theatres spread over Goa and the metropole.

If Adiga really believes in the project of securing visibility for those marginal regions and personages that do not figure in usual conceptions of the Indian cultural and political landscape, this cannot be achieved without accounting for both the peculiarities of a location apart from the nation-state and the vexed relationship between the two. It is not colonisation alone that chronicles a history of the marginalisation of Goans, but also the contemporary postcolonial condition. Adiga asks if Portuguese, “the language of the Inquisition” can “be called an Indian language” as it was one of Gomes’ “mother tongues.” One could put this strange question to Sanskrit, or indeed any language used by rulers anywhere: can the language of the Manu Smriti, the language that advocated the horrifying oppression of Dalits, be called an Indian language? By equating Portuguese language and culture with the Inquisition alone, Adiga negates the formation and endurance of Portuguese culture in the former colonies. He brushes aside a whole gamut of cultural innovations by peoples, many of them subaltern, who still cherish their traditions, even if he does allude to them in passing.

The memory of the Inquisition, as Adiga posits it, either shames if one is a Catholic, or it hurts if one professes Hinduism. This essentialist rationale proceeds to permit Catholics to feel ashamed and Hindus to feel victimised, thereby leading to the victimisation of their Other. The majoritarian Hindu politics in Goa with all its trappings of casteist purity has made sure, quite successfully, with the insensitive misuse of the history of the Inquisition, as well as conversion, the perpetual marginalised status of the subaltern Goan Catholic, and those seldom mentioned groups, like Muslims. Correspondingly, language is another site of contention. Gomes’ other language, as Adiga indicates, was Konkani. Adiga rightly offers that Konkani is “now Goa’s official language,” and also that “Catholics, aware that their presence in Goa is diminishing [...], seek to protect their heritage.” But what Adiga obscures is that the postcolonial state’s official recognition of Konkani is only in the Devnagri, and not the Roman script largely used by Catholics. 

For the Goan in Goa and for the marginalised elsewhere in the country, it is not useful to simply be squeezed into a preset notion of Indianness, but for that very category to be critiqued at every turn for its lack of inclusiveness by design.

This article was co-written with Dale Menezes, Amita Kanekar, and Jason Keith Fernandes. It appears online at