A key of gold unearthed from a pregnant woman’s grave; another pregnant woman hacked to death; and an exhumed corpse discovered to be as fresh as on the day it was buried. These are the strangely wondrous elements of Johny Miranda’s novella Requiem for the Living (2013), translated by Sajai Jose from the original in Malayalam, Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees (2004). That the title and the aforementioned moments from the narrative reveal its obsession with death and thwarted reproductivity is apparent. At the book’s centre, however, is a man whose youth is meant to symbolise futurity. Osha/Josy Pereira’s Portuguese name evidences his identity as a Paranki. Descendants of the Eurasian encounter between Iberians and natives of the Malabar coast, they were speakers of the once thriving Cochin-Creole language. Despite the potential of his youth, Osha’s quest to find the lock to which the golden key is the counterpart serves as a metaphor for his impotence; an ineffectualness that is itself a metaphor for the condition of his community. And herein lie the parallels that can be drawn between the religious minority around which Miranda’s magical realist story revolves and Catholic Goa.
The most obvious linkage between the two is their shared religious and colonial heritage. All too often, because the Malabar came to be seen as a Dutch colony, its historical intersections with the Konkan have been obscured. Of the influences that make up the historical, cultural, and linguistic background of the Parankis, J. Devika notes in the introduction to the novella that it is just as important to consider the Eastern influences that Portuguese colonisation would have brought along with it to the Malabar. Cautioning against binaristic notions of miscegeny and other forms of cultural mixing, Devika catalogues “elements from South-east Asia, especially Java and Malacca, which were prominent centres of Dutch and Portuguese trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” as also being part of the Paranki experience. Clearly, Devika cites the need for an understanding of colonialism that is not only beyond the usual Anglo-centrism of the field, but also of the nexus between colonial powers, and the trans-colonial trajectories of subaltern groups. Similarly, in Goa, one might ask how coloniality can be understood as a local experience marked by the multiculturality of early modern and later coastal interactions that were Arab, African, European, and South Asian on the one hand, but also intra-Asian and inter-coastal on the other.
Though these cultural crossings on both coasts may ostensibly represent an openness, as Devika points out, “foreigners and foreign ideas were welcomed only insofar as they were willing to be integrated within the terms of the highly iniquitous hierarchy of caste…” Within this twisted notion of cosmopolitanism, what becomes of the Parankis – a community whose very miscegenation and religion renders them impure? Relegating their Eurasianness to the mists of time, Devika chronicles how the 1931 Census decreed that Parankis – a term derived from the Malayalam word for Portuguese – “no [longer had an] admixture of foreign blood”, but also that “[t]hey differ[ed] very little from Indian Christians”. This official redesignation of Paranki identity not only signifies a crisis over concerns of racial purity, but also the primacy of caste-Hinduism in the nationalist conception of proper Indian subjectivity and its resulting religious hierarchies. As suggested earlier, Miranda’s Parankis may well be seen as occupying a similar strata in contemporary Indian society as their coastal cousins, the Goan Catholics.
It is no surprise, then, that Osha, Requiem’s protagonist, lives in a state of suspended animation. This is proven by his reluctance to consummate his marriage and his impossible pursuit of a lock that can be opened by a key he found in a pregnant woman’s grave. That the dead woman’s own future was cut short is amplified in that she was pregnant, her unborn child symbolising the lost hopes of a new Paranki generation. The requiem, or oppees, of the book’s title refers to a prayer offered in memoriam for the dead, but in this case it is a dirge for those whose impending demise is in sight, while the ultimate horror resides in the realisation that even this self-awareness cannot ward of the inevitable. Though Devika argues that Miranda’s book is a prayer for the imminent loss of a community whose unique set of ritualistic practices and cultural expressions are being swallowed up by Roman Catholicism, this critique of institutionality must also be extended to the State which has marked the Parankis as other to itself. For even though cosmopolitanness is prized as a signifier of Indian modernity, Parankiness is difference for all the wrong reasons. Yet, Requiem is not a tale of hopelessness. Reminiscent of the relic of St. Francis Xavier, the unearthing of the unblemished corpse of Osha’s grandmother – a female village elder – represents a cultural remnant that lingers despite efforts to bury it away.
From The Goan.