Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"In Fact, Fiction" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (20 December 2014)

At the recently concluded fifth edition of the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, I was compelled to attend a panel with the intriguing title of “Goa’s First Diaspora.” What followed, however, was a perplexing display of cultural hubris and the obfuscation between fact and fiction. In conversation with Dr. Kiran Budkuley, the head of Goa University’s English Department, writer Gopalkrishna Pai discussed his Kannada novel Swapn Saraswat (2009) which chronicles the alleged sixteenth century exodus of 22,000 Hindu families from what we now know as Goa; this, it was averred, was due to the conversions that ensued with the arrival of the Portuguese. To be clear, there is little historical doubt that conversions occurred and people were displaced. Nonetheless, what is less certain in Pai’s version of events is the questionable reality in which these claims are grounded. What Pai’s project entails, then, is the remaking of events in order to claim a history of persecution for a contemporary community of religiously and culturally elite, namely the Saraswats.

In turning a critical eye to the way in which Pai translates assumed fact into fiction, my purpose is not to deny the Saraswats their identity, although others have successfully argued that the very category of the Saraswat is not one that emerged till recently. Rather, what is up for examination is the manner in which Pai uses fiction to establish a Saraswat past. Operating from his own standpoint as a descendent of the diasporic community he fictionalises, Pai – a heritage Konkani-speaker – claims evidence of the persistent existence of this tongue, despite exile, as proof of origin. What is notable here is the equation formed between language, geography, and persecution, which the writer melds together to explicate origin.

Not only does this origin-story rely on the postcolonial idea of language-based states that are the hallmark of Nehru’s vision of modern India, but this linguistic basis of nationalist Goan origin is remade in Pai’s reclamation of a past Goan geography for the Saraswats of his novel as an undisputable homeland. This is curious, because “Goa” of the early modern period at the time of the Portuguese conquest was only the Velhas Conquistas, and one would be hard-pressed to believe that any one language was spoken exclusively in any region. Apart from geographic closeness, if the exiles chose Karnataka, it would also have been because of pre-existing kinship networks and linguistic familiarity. In other words, while colonisation may have caused exile, its routes were pre-ordained.

What this also speaks to is a power-base that extended beyond any one location; so, if such linkages can be traced through language, as Pai does, then they must also be traced through caste. During his panel presentation, neither was Pai questioned about how he dubiously arrived at the figure of 22,000 exiled families from a Goa that would have been far smaller than the region we know now, but also what it meant for such a group to continue to exercise power as an upper caste elite group. It would appear that the panel was more interested in foregrounding Saraswat identity as one of the community having been victims. In such an uncritical mode, no room was left to enquire into the possibility that the purpose of the migration might have been to maintain hierarchical caste power, especially with the advent of a new political force in the shape of the Portuguese. History is replete with examples of power operations shifting to other locations in moments of crisis and the elite continuing to function in such capacity even when in exile.

Pai did make some passing reference to the colonial displacement of other communities, such as the Kunbis. But as is common in all considerations of Goa’s First Peoples, that community is given short shrift in Pai’s evocation of diasporic Goanness, and were mentioned only as an afterthought. One wonders what Pai would make of the fact that African-descended slaves also escaped Portuguese India into Karnataka. Surely they too should be accounted for as being part of “Goa’s first diaspora” if they found themselves in the same region as the Saraswats and in the same general timeframe. Yet, what passes for research in Pai’s mythification of a community is not overly concerned with accounting for “facts” that have little to do with destabilising the ethno-racial and religious supremacy of the people he chooses to centre.

What is one to make of Pai’s strange assertion that he is in possession of a photograph that shows the
Hindus of Goa handing over keys to the Portuguese in the sixteenth century? Later during his talk, he corrected himself and said he meant a painting, instead; but at any rate, whatever the alleged visually symbolic proof of the handover of power, that this serves as research evidence for his novel should raise eyebrows. In lieu of this, Budkuley asked Pai why he felt his novel had received so much acclaim. Pai basked in the moment. Perhaps the answer is that people love stories of the resilience of the persecuted, especially ones that traverse fact and fiction as if they were one and the same.  

From The Goan.

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