Friday, December 23, 2011

"After Midnight" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 24 December 2011)

“Already 50 years...” my father mused, reading the morning’s papers on the Golden Jubilee day of Goa’s decolonization. He had been a teenager then, yet his recollection of the events of 1961 are vivid: Planes overhead; the radio news; and the vacant home of a Portuguese acquaintance who had so hastily departed that his cup of tea, half-consumed, was left behind like a disowned memory. My father’s nostalgic tone did not invite me to share in his recollection; rather, it cast me as a co-witness who must already know what it had been like at that life-defining moment.

Perhaps I did already know. So too my mother and my sister, none of us born in Goa. This remembrance of an event that the rest of us had not been present at, would shape our existence, just as it had shaped Goa away from one country and into another. This recollection of events from 50 years prior, does not belong to my family alone. It exists precisely in its re-memberance: shared by many and often reiterated. It is a memory that spreads across generations. She will know too...

“At the stroke of the midnight hour,” when the rest of India was free, Goa was still asleep. Both of my parents, born in different locations – Goa and Kenya - came belatedly to freedom in comparison to the country they would become nationals of. And while my sister and I were born passport-holders of postcolonial India, it was only because Kuwait, the country of our birth, would not allow us its citizenship.
Midnight’s Children, a novel about children born at the moment of India’s independence from the British on 15 August, 1947, serves as a metaphor for the nation that itself has just been born. These children share a connection; they are able to communicate with one another telepathically, thoughts shared as if it were the nation’s itself. In Mirrorwork, a book Salman Rusdie edited to mark 50 years of Indian writing as a celebration of India’s Golden Jubilee, the author reflects on the originality of his work. He reveals, “that the idea of a long saga-novel about a child born at the exact moment of independence ... 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 ... in Goa.” With this disclosure, Rushdie pairs the imagined and imaginative community of his book with the actual community it represents. If in the first instance it is an allegorical India, linked through children born so closely in time that they are mentally tethered, then in the latter, the parallel community, an India that includes Goa, is linked through its writers that represent the nation. The common element is a mutual fate and faith in freedom.

What became of the Goan midnight child? Did the poet abandon the book because Goa was yet to be free? Unlike my parents, my sister, and I, whose births were mismatched with independence and citizenship, she has a different story. This historic year, we welcome a child born after midnight: my niece. She is the first in our family to have been born in independent Goa. In time, my father will tell her the story of 19 December, 1961. She will vaguely recall having heard it before.

Originally appeared here.

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.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Finding Freddie" - INDIA CURRENTS (California - November 2011)

Farrokh Bulsara as a Young Peterite
The halls of St. Peter’s School are lined with frames that hold photographed highlights from each school year – athletic competitions, scenes from plays, and such. Of these, the ones from the late 1950s have pictures missing, notably those of a flamboyant musician and a star “All Rounder” at sports and studies. All that remain are captions that say Farrokh Bulsara. 

In time, even that name would go missing. Freddie, Bulsara’s nickname, eclipsed his original moniker, and the last name he took on reflected his mercurial character. Three decades after Mercury attended St. Peter’s, I wandered down its hallways as an eight-year-old who had started at the boarding school at about the same age as the rock star. Like Farrokh, I too had been “sent back to India” from the diaspora. I often stared up at the frames, wondering who the lad in the missing pictures had been.

The Bulsaras, Parsis from Gujarat, worked in Zanzibar, East Africa, where Farrokh was born on September 5, 1946, the year before India’s independence. Already from an Indian minority culture, the colonial Asian-African displacement further removed the Bulsaras. In sending their son to school in India, even if it was a British institution, Farrokh’s parents might have been attempting to retain their roots and acculturate their offspring. The school in India reflected the Bulsaras’ own displaced multiculturality. St. Peter’s attracted students from all over India and the diaspora, making for a culturally, but not necessarily economically, varied student body. The postcolonial diversity departed from the intent of the school’s original purpose: it had once been named The European Boys’ School. The name change notwithstanding, the student body continued to be exclusively male. 

Vista View of St. Peter's School

Memories of Freddie lived on long past his tenure at St. Peter’s, his eccentricities so at odds with the ostensibly staid school, one that still held on to its British colonial era character. Nestled in the Western Ghats of Panchghani, Maharashtra, some hours’ drive from Bombay, indeed, what should have been considered odd was the anachronistic school itself. Conceivably, it was here that Freddie Mercury learned to become British even before his family immigrated to England in the 1960s. 
The School's Emblem

Institutions such as St. Peter’s, which in 2004 celebrated its centenary, arguably followed Lord Macaulay’s famous 1835 call for education that would create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” This attempted hybridity reveals a class-based strain of Indianness, but also the manufacturing of British identities on other shores. Mercury’s transnationalism blurred these lines. One wonders if the ostentatious, spandex-clad, and sexually provocative musician was the prime subject Macaulay had in mind when he wrote his Minute on Indian Education.

Mercury’s vanished Indianness as he rose to fame in England has been the subject of much speculation. On the one hand, it is undeniable that his Persian-Parsi background, manifested in the colour of his skin, likely allowed the entertainer to pass for being Anglo. There was also the name change: “Farrokh Bulsara, Rock Star” was presumably not going to cut it in popular mainstream culture during the heightened racial climate of 1970s Britain. Those were the formative years of Queen, the band that Mercury came to front. Concurrently, the political tide was turning. The Iron Lady, Conservative Prime Minister Thatcher, ascended to office at the end of the decade. 

But on the other hand there are the vague but still cognisable cultural self-references. There are Mercury’s orientalised lyrics with Islamic allusions in the songs “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Mustapha.” These fuzzily signal a Persian-South Asianness, where Koranic and Middle Eastern themes hint at a historically multicultural Indian subcontinent. The lyrics draw a connection between the many Persian influences on Indic culture, though the references are not specifically Zoroastrian. Stylistically, the baroque flourishes of Queen’s repertoire in such songs as “Bohemian Rhapsody” are akin to the Arabesque excesses of Mughal-era art and architecture. Even in his choice of name, the performer stuck with Freddie, the nickname acquired at his Indian school and which had emerged from “Farrokh.” The inventive “Mercury” suggests the mythical and   questions the assumption that some names are more authentically Indian than others. This can hardly be the case in a subcontinent that has served as a major confluence for people of so many cultures and religious faiths. Yet, what is inescapable is that his name needed changing.

Despite his light complexion, Mercury’s dark and dense moustache, familiar to us simply as “The Indian Moustache” for its ubiquitousness, also intimates other possibilities. It is probable that Freddie had discovered his sexuality much before arriving England, perchance at an all-boys school in India. Mercury’s moustache, figuratively and subversively represented an affectation of masculinity, evidenced in such Western gay visual and popular cultures as Tom of Finland illustrations and the music of The Village People. The singer’s follicular trademark could be read as both homosexual and desi. Finally, there’s the band’s name: Queen. It juxtaposes the image of England’s leader alongside queer parlance for flamboyancy. Simultaneously, Mercury’s position as a postcolonial queer immigrant, born and schooled in the colonies, and then culturally ruling the British airwaves challenges the old guard as represented by Her Majesty. To borrow the title of the controversial song by Mercury’s contemporaries, the Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen...

The Famous Moustache
This year Mercury would have been 65. November 24, 2011 will mark the 20th anniversary of his passing from the AIDS virus in the 30th anniversary year of the disease’s advent. Mercury did not reveal that he had the disease until the day before he died. It was suppressed from public knowledge like so much else in his life. What remains is the ambivalence that surrounded Freddie’s identity. Perhaps it was by design, or maybe it was an ongoing, self-reflective negotiation – the kind seen in the opening words of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia: “... I am an Englishmen born and bred, almost.” Mercury’s Britishness was already filtered through Asian and African coloniality and as an Indian minority born in Africa, the cultural position he occupied was a queer one.

Freddie’s identity is like the missing pictures at St. Peter’s School – memories framed by everything else around them. I once animatedly remarked to an elderly Goan woman in England, upon finding out that she had lived in Zanzibar: “Freddie Mercury was born there!” I then apologized for the oblique reference, thinking she might be unaware of who he was. Instead, she replied, “Yes, I used to see little Farrokh running outside my house.” The complete picture may be missing, but Freddie’s identity continues to unsettle easy assumption. Long Live Queen. 

An online version of the article appears here and a different version in O Heraldo. The article was also republished in Kenya's AwwaZ Magazine.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Dia de los Muertos" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 29 October 2011)

Sugar Skulls

All Hallows or All Saints’ Day is preceded by Hallowe’en and followed by All Souls’ Day. In Mexico, the November dates are commemorated with sugar skulls and remembrances of the dead, fusing Catholic traditions with indigenous ones that predate colonization. American celebrations of 31st October are synonymous with costumed children trick-or-treating and cinematic horror. The neighbouring countries share a fraught history in which borders, labour, and cultural influence have been hotly debated. Against this backdrop, Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, in Mexico and its diaspora, captures issues of colonization and discrimination. 

Like Goa, Mexico too had Iberian colonizers, Portugal and Spain respectively. Catholicism was the common imprint. However, despite conversion, the cultures in the two regions were not completely translated. What emerged instead were localized traditions that refused to abandon the past.  Anthropologist Robert Newman refers to this as the “synthesis and co-existence of cultural elements of different origins.” This may appear to imply allowances made by the colonizer. Rather, the syncretization of Iberian Catholic traditions in the colonies entails resistance and a reconsideration of mortality.


The commonality between Hallowe’en and Dia de los Muertos is a recall of death, but where the celebrations differ is in how the finality of life is regarded. American commercialized festivities lend themselves to the macabre – death is equated with horror. In contrast, Mexican community merriment around the transience of life makes light of it. As influenced most notably by Aztec culture, the inevitable is caricatured in flower-bedecked skeletons. Death is embraced as part of life and not simply its end. The revelry departs from the sombreness of European Catholicism where even triumphant events such as the Resurrection relegate rebirth to the arena of the miraculous. Death, in the meantime, is associated with infernal terror. Arguably, fear was a useful quality in colonial projects in which religion played its part. The melding of native and colonial traditions stands testament to how colonial authority was challenged and subverted. 
Olvera Street Altar to Casualties of the Iraq War

Dia de los Muertos continues in popularity echoing the lasting signs of resistance against empire. If in Mexico such cultural opposition was in response to the Spanish empire, then in the diaspora artistic efforts that reclaim indigenous Mexican traditions speak out against other empires. A 2004 Dia de los Muertos style altar to Iraq War casualties in Los Angeles’ Olvera Street, the city’s original Spanish settlement, brings to mind the deathly efforts of neo-imperialism, the U. S. Army’s opportunistic enlistment of soldiers of colour, and renewed coloniality.

Hector Silva's Art
Syncretism’s Lessons

Mexico’s syncretic traditions offer lessons to Goa in the religio-colonial similarities the two share, primarily in the possibility of recovering community. Newman refers to the Little Tradition – persistent kinships and beliefs across Goa’s cultures despite colonization. This urges recognition of the subaltern indigeneity which is the basis of Goan culture. In this there exists the opportunity for communal liveliness and, moreover, an acknowledgment of All Souls.

 A version initially appeared here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"Cracking Columbus" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 1 October 2011)

San Antonio, Ibiza
Chickens and Eggs

Following his discovery of the New World, Christopher Columbus was invited to dine with some Spanish aristocrats. Naturally, discussion centred on the Genovese mariner’s feat, which had been patronized by the Spanish crown. The noblemen demeaned Columbus’ accomplishment, arguing that one of their own countrymen would have done the same if given the opportunity.  

Columbus listened to his detractors and then asked for an egg. He enquired of the others if they could make the egg stand on its end with no external aid. No one could. The explorer tapped the egg on the table, so as to crush one end, thus balancing the egg upright. Once something is accomplished, he wished to demonstrate, it is easy to claim it is simple. 

This account is apocryphal at best. However, I find it interesting that I learned the story at school in India, a postcolonial state. The anecdote was dispensed with nothing said of the Age of Discovery, colonialism, or the decimation of Native Americans. If anything, our young minds were being offered the exploits of a hero whom we should seek to emulate. No doubt, this tale is taught globally, the Americas included.

Between Two Indies

In October 1992, indigenous American tribes protested national celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. Among other events, plans to sail a replica of Columbus’ boat in San Francisco were halted. Similarly, it was only last year that the Portuguese ship Sagres circumnavigated the globe. Its arrival in Mormugao harbour coincided with the quincentennial anniversary of Goa’s capture by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510. The ship’s visit was described as being one of goodwill by Goa’s former colonizer, a naval stopover devoid of political intent. Several Goan freedom fighters saw the incident differently and famously protested. 

NRP Sagres
The Iberian-sponsored “discoveries” of the Americas and the Indies are connected as we know. Columbus was in search of the latter, which is why there are now two parts of the world whose natives bear the “Indian” moniker. Eighteen years apart, celebrations and protests highlighted the 500th anniversaries of European incursions into those areas. How might these legacies be reconnected? Certainly not by focusing on the colonizer alone.

Decolonizing Education 

What makes the tale of Columbus’ Egg particularly apocryphal is its lack of recognition of the navigator’s failure in finding the Indies. The hero only became one because of a mistake. Regardless, colonization still found its way across the globe. Furthermore, the story casts the sailor as an underdog in the land of his benefactors. He is othered by his lack of privilege in comparison to the aristocrats who mock him. Meanwhile, the recipients of colonization recede into the backdrop. It is Columbus, instead, who serves as the repository of otherness. The narrative and real effacement of the natives in their own homelands make room for new identities, such as Columbus’ – the underprivileged seafarer with a dream. Empty Continents thereby become Lands of the Free and stories of the colonized go unheard. 

Despite indigenous protests, Columbus Day continues to be celebrated in the United States.

Previously published here.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"10: 9/11" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 3 September 2011)

Crossing Borders

“So, you’re Indian?”

“Uh huh...”

“But you were born in Kuwait?”

“Yes,” I said, wondering if my passport had magically altered itself.

“I see,” the customs official responded, not seeing at all.

It was two weeks since 9/11 and while “swarthy” skinned folk expect the allegedly indiscriminate scrutiny they attract, I knew it would now be exponential.

“Returning from the U.K., huh? That where the accent’s from?”

“Oh... I went to an Anglo-Indian school –”

“And you’re a U.S. resident now?” The official asked, cutting me off. “You look...” He stopped himself, likely about to say “black.” “And you have a... What is it? A Spanish name?”

“Portuguese.” I so desperately wanted to point out the irony of this interrogation given that the official was East Asian American, but I knew that my seemingly muddled identity was dangerously close to having me tossed in a secret detention centre. Not how I wanted to end this holiday.

The man finally handed me back my passport, but with one last question: “Why?”

“It’s called colonization,” I said, and hurried away.

The Inscrutable Goan

In 2003, Berna Cruz fared far worse. Returning from seeing family in India, she transited in Chicago where her Canadian passport was declared a fake because it was thought inconceivable that someone of Indian origin could have a “Spanish” name. Denied contact with Canadian authorities, the distraught traveller was deported to India on a Kuwait Airways flight. Fortunately, she was assisted by the Canadian consulate in the Gulf.

It would seem as if diasporic Goans, travelling for the most mundane reasons, are international people of mystery - our displacements and colonial history not easily lending themselves to nationalist projects of categorization. But why should they?

U.S. War Department Pocket Guide to China (1942)
Similarly Different

Borders are pierced every day, as painfully proven ten years ago by those hijacked planes. The United States descended into a perilous spiral when the terror was brought to its own soil. Attempting to make itself whole again, the nation’s ire was directed externally against Afghanistan and Iraq through vigilante foreign policy. Internally, xenophobic attacks erupted nationwide against those that were or bore any resemblance to “Muslims” or “Arabs” – South Asians, Jews, and even Latinos. These events only further demonstrated that terror comes in supremely white hues too, as also seen in the July Norway bombings. Rather than critique the chauvinism responsible for post-9/11 attacks against their communities, the understandably assimilatory impetus of the aggrieved was to instead reiterate their own Americanness: We are not like “those” terrorists. But who exactly “those” people are has never been a stable qualification. The other always changes in marking the difference against which a nation can define itself. Even as multiculturalism is celebrated, it is not a wholehearted embrace of difference. Rather, it is the re-characterising of difference as being suitably Nationalist.

If colonial projects were about managing difference – for example: extending Portuguese monikers to Catholic but not Hindu Goans; then neo-colonial ones are about successfully deploying difference. When a neo-imperialist war continues in Iraq, does it make much difference that the U.S. President is a black man? The world changed after 9/11, but some things continue unaltered. Not least, a decade on, the importance of acknowledging difference and allowing it to be exactly what it is – a challenge to the status quo.

 A version of this article appears in print and here.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Becoming Portuguese" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 6 August 2011)

Identity Malaise

An instructor from Portugal who was to teach in Goa took ill upon arrival. She had fallen victim to that age old oriental problem: the infernal heat. Admitted to a hospital, the nurse in charge looked over her chart, only to quickly look back at the white woman lying in bed. “You have a Goan name!” she amusedly remarked. Taken aback, the Portuguese teacher was quick to retaliate: “No! It is you that has a Portuguese name.” The nurse was unconvinced, her departing expression one of much concern for her patient’s state.

In this month that commemorates India’s independence from the British, Goa finds itself between the 500th anniversary of colonization by and the 50th anniversary of decolonization from the Portuguese. At this juncture, the intriguing impasse between the aforementioned postcolonial characters serves as a metaphor of what history has wrought: The legibility of Portuguese identity because of Goa. Consider that the teacher does not have to realize her “Portugueseness” until discomfited by the Goan nurse’s comment. It is in the deep offense felt at being challenged by the “other” that the teacher attempts to rectify her displacement, recalling the identity bequeathed her by colonial history.

Afonso de Albuquerque
500 Years Not So Long Ago

In 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque defeated Adil Shah, the ruler of Goa, and quickly enacted his Politiça dos Casmentos. The Marriage Policy’s purpose was to encourage inter-marriage, particularly with the desirably fair-skinned widows of the vanquished Muslim soldiers, and create a progeny of “white” children. This new white tribe, created out of racialized and gendered subjugation, would ostensibly form the basis of Portuguese rule in the East.

However, the Portuguese inception of whiteness in Goa would require a suspension of disbelief that it was not miscegenated. If this newly established identity was to function as a continuance of Portuguese identity in the colonial sphere, then it would also function to subsume the miscegenated culture of Iberia, coloured by its Moorish past. To rename the new miscegenated identity as authentically Portuguese, would reinvent what it meant to be Portuguese in the new world order. The defeat of Goa, especially in being ruled by a “Moor,” not only allowed Portugal to redeem its former subjugation by the Moors, but also the opportunity to recreate whiteness. Yet, race-making in the new colony was not predicated on any illusion of erasing difference; it rather served to perpetuate racialized colonial hierarchy. Ultimately, the Portuguese would still be whiter and more powerful than their native wards.


As Goa approaches the 50th anniversary of its decolonization, nostalgia dangerously veers towards recovering the erstwhile colonizer’s legacy. The argument between the Goan nurse and the Portuguese patient offers a counter-intuitive way of thinking about that legacy: The patient would have hardly thought about her identity had she not been challenged. Undoubtedly, Goan identity has also been transformed in the colonial encounter, not least through the Inquisition, conversion, and syncretism. An examination of what constitutes the evolution of colonial and postcolonial identities from an indigenous standpoint cannot be complete without including the too easily overlooked perspectives of gender, race, and caste – It is only in so doing that reengaging the colonial legacy can be truly liberatory in understanding Goa’s contribution to itself and the world. 

A version of this article appears in print and here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"Quilted Together" - INDIA CURRENTS (California - August 2011)

On July 15, 2011, the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco, California, inaugurated the exhibit “Soulful Stitching: Patchwork Quilts by Africans (Siddis) in India.” Curated by Dr. Henry J. Drewal, Professor of African and African Diaspora Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Sarah K. Khan, Director of The Tasting Cultures Foundation, New York, the exhibition displays 32 quilts, or kawandi, by members of Karnataka’s Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative, a non-profit. Siddi is a term used to describe various South Asian communities of African origin – Their presence is as widespread as Balochistan, Pakistan and Junagadh, Gujarat. The collection at MoAD, however, comes specifically from descendants of Africans enslaved by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century and brought to Goa. Fleeing most notably during the Inquisition (1560-1812), the runaway slaves set up free communities in nearby Karnataka which still exist.

Dumgi Bastav (2004)
Kawandi visually embody the inter-raciality and syncretism that occurred over centuries between Africans and Indians in Goa and Karnataka. Pieced together from saris and other fabric, the quilts may bear crescent-shaped ornamentation to signify the maker as a Muslim woman while the works of Catholics incorporate cross motifs. Interestingly, Dumgi Bastav’s 2004 quilt, featured in the exhibition, bears both icons. What is common to all kawandi is that they are considered incomplete if not embellished at the corners with layered triangular pieces. These are called phula, which in Konkanni – a language spoken in Goa and Karnataka - means flowers. The incorporation of this arguably vestigial adornment, both linguistic and artistic, alongside other cultural signifiers, emblematically bears witness to historical hybridity and contemporary culture in the everyday use quilts provide in Siddi households.

“Soulful Stitching” bills itself as the first exhibition of quilts by Siddis outside India. However, this legacy is little known within India itself. Generally, the cultural imaginary associates India’s experience with Africa through the British colonial-era diasporic presence of primarily Punjabis, Goans, and Gujaratis in the now free nation-states of East Africa. It was also from Africa’s east coast, ironically, that the Portuguese trafficked slaves and where, too, an Afro-Asiatic commerce existed prior to European contact. MoAD’s exhibit here in the United States – a nation itself no stranger to the African slave trade - offers an opportunity to rethink Afro-Indian diasporic cultural heritage through the symbolic quilting together of these identities and their markers in the patchwork of kawandi. The exhibit runs through September 18, 2011.

Versions of this article appear in print and online at India Currents (California) and O Heraldo (Goa). An online version of a longer print article on the exhibit can be read at AwaaZ Magazine (Kenya).