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).

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Pan-South Asian American identity refers to the shared collective identity of South Asian individuals living in the United States, who otherwise have distinct national origins. South Asian Americans include Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Indian, Maldivian, Nepali, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan Americans. Despite religious, ethnic, and regional diversity within the South Asian American population, the shared experience of European colonization, displacement, and discrimination in the United States are some factors that have fostered the development of a pan-South Asian identity. Because it is a relatively new phenomenon, debates among South Asian Americans remain whether a pan-South Asian American identity is possible, whether one even exists, and how it exists within a larger Asian American rubric.

These multiple and layered identities are the result of cultural and population exchanges between regions, of arrivals of people from outside South Asia who became part of its cultural fabric, and of displacement caused by European colonization. The legacies of the colonial period continue to manifest themselves in South Asia and in diasporic communities; hence, it is not unusual to find South Asians whose migrant journeys span generations and continents, as is the case with Parsis, an Indian ethnic group of Persian origin who found employment in East Africa under the British colonial administration that also ruled India. In 1972, expelled along with other Asians by post-independence dictator Idi Amin, they may have attempted to find refuge in Canada because it is part of the British Commonwealth and, itself, a former colony. Other multiple diaspora South Asian origin groups include Indian Fijian and Siddhi (African descended) Pakistani Americans, for example. As immigrants, South Asians share many similarities with other Asian American groups, but they have not generally been part of the larger ethnic umbrella group.

“Desi” is a term often used to encompass pan-South Asian identity in the United States. Originally meaning “of the land,” the word desi connotes the idea of origin and connection while also recognizing the transnational, shifting, strategic, and pieced-together identity of an otherwise diverse and often disparate group. The appearance and adoption of the term desi, even if not uniformly, implies a process of self-definition and a means by which to construct a multifaceted immigrant identity.


The region of South Asia has long been synonymous with India, and more specifically north India, whose historical, religious, and cultural sway have greatly influenced the area and the global imagination at large. The mistaken interchangeability of India with the wider and very diverse location of South Asia adds even more confusion to questions of naming of ethnic American identities, when it comes to South Asians in the United States. Consider that the term “Indian,” as used in North America, does not necessarily differentiate between those of Asian origin or Native Americans (perhaps explaining why the U.S. Census has employed the classification “Asian Indian” for clarity). Also, the term “South Asian,” which has gained currency only lately and not necessarily within all ranks and generations of the community it seeks to aggregate, correctly identifies geographic and historic origin but seems phenotypically at odds with the commonly held notion that Asian Americans are only those of East and Southeast Asian origin.

In the civil rights era of the 1960s, Asian American identity centered on ethnic movements that attempted to address the lack of recognition of communities, some which traced their immigration histories back to the nineteenth century such as Chinese and Japanese Americans. In comparison, while indentured and other laborers of South Asian descent had been in the United States during this period, their numbers were far smaller and generally understudied. Increased visibility came with the arrival of greater numbers after the 1965
immigration laws changed to attract educated and skilled immigrant labor from South Asia and elsewhere.

Immigrants who arrived during the post-1965 period were thus differently skilled than those South Asians, primarily Punjabis, who settled in the Pacific Northwest and California in the early nineteenth century and onward and who took to farming, which was in keeping with their agricultural background. What both sets of immigrants—nineteenth century and post-1965—had in common is that shared religious and cultural practices allowed for community formation. The Punjab region crosses the borders of what are today northern India and Pakistan and is also a multifaith area, with Sikhism being one of thereligions followed. Though secular and multifaith, India’s population is predominantly Hindu, as are most U.S. immigrants from that country; similarly, Pakistan, a theocracy, is largely Muslim, as are most of its emigrés. These differences may suggest that South Asian immigrants of various ethnic and national origins limit their associations with each other in their adoptive countries, and while that possibility exists, shared histories, customs, and, in some cases, religious backgrounds, have fostered panethnic community formation for South Asians in the United States.
Professional and class-based affiliations should also be credited for the roles they play in this process. At universities, South Asian student-founded organizations, though often ethnic-specific, may also offer opportunities for multiethnic desi programs, focusing on culture or community service. These youth-based
affiliations also extend into off-campus venues, such as the club scene. These trends, though largely more visible among second-generation South Asians, have also aided gender-based community projects, such as South Asian women’s organizations that counsel and shelter female victims of domestic abuse, including
women who are first-generation immigrants. Just as pan-South Asian identity may be fostered through community design, factors external to the community can also play their part. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in which the World Trade Center’s “Twin Towers” were demolished by hijacked planes, many South Asians found themselves detained by authorities for interrogation or fell victim to vigilante violence by those seeking revenge against anyone thought to resemble the perpetrators of the attacks. The conflation of Muslim/Islamic, Middle Eastern/Semitic, and South Asian identities, be they in targeting individuals based on phenotypic appearance or erroneous assumptions about religious and ethnic garb, caused both the ironic possibility of pan-South Asian solidarity in protest against the violence and detentions, but also equally widespread disidentifications based on ethnic and religious differences within the larger South Asian community and against other national-origin communities, usually Muslim-identified ones. This desire for safety was thus predicated upon an appeal to American solidarity, but it also ostracized specific groups within and without the South Asian community. Some took great pains in explaining the significance of religious garb unique to their faiths to mainstream audiences in hopes of gaining acceptance and tolerance. However, these same efforts also resulted in disidentifications between various marginalized communities.


The high visibility of U.S. South Asians in lucrative professions related to medicine, finance, engineering, and computers, among others, is often in contrast to those, equally visible, employed as taxi drivers and convenience store clerks. While the former, described as immigrants of opportunity, made their way to the United States post-1965, their sometimes less-privileged kin followed suit under family reunification provisions made in the 1980s, and they had to take on professions that did not match those of their more affluent sponsors. In some cases, it is the enterprising, earlier-arriving family members whose investment in the form of a motel or franchised convenience store has provided the possibility of employment for a newly arrived family member of lesser means. South Asian–owned franchises of popular businesses, such as fast-food restaurants and gas stations, rely on kinship networks to staff their venues, but they also attract nonfamily employees of similar ethnic origins. These kinship and ethnic-solidarity networks, while supportive, can also be fraught with the possibility of abuse, where new or undocumented immigrants may be taken advantage of because of their lack of knowledge or because of their precarious position in the eyes of the law. To protect against these and other kinds of labor abuses, including those by corporations, organizing efforts have given rise to desi organizations such as New York City’s Workers’Awaaz, a nonprofit dedicated to educating South Asian women employed in domestic service about their rights, and Taxi Workers Alliance, which protects the rights of taxi drivers of South Asian origin.

In addition to class and professionally based distinctions between South Asians in the United States, there is also the added dimension of ethnic and national origin. Not all South Asians immigrate to the United States directly from South Asia. Those that come from other diasporic locations, such as the Caribbean, Guyana, Suriname, parts of Africa, or Fiji, may be differently skilled than their counterparts from South Asian countries. Even within South Asian countries, not all have the same opportunities available to future immigrants, often necessitating their departure in search of opportunities abroad. This also indicates that South Asians, of various class and ethnic backgrounds, often have transnational families and maintain ties that cross continents. Thus, while South Asians in America may regularly be identified as a model minority, this is not a uniformly panethnic trait and is a supposition that belies the class diversity and some of the issues facing these communities.

Published here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Whose Blood is This? Mourning the Death of Gregory Fernandes" - O Heraldo (Goa - 12 April 2009)

Gregory Fernandes
 Our community has long had its share of travelers, migrants, and a storied diasporic existence, with Goans employed in so many different capacities the world over. We readily remember such prominent figures as Abbe Faria who, literally, entranced nineteenth century France with his work in hypnosis; Pio Gama Pinto who in 1965 became independent Kenya’s first martyr; and Vimla Devi whose writing in Portuguese spans several decades. But in remembering these great and illustrious Goans, what room is left for such unsung heroes as the rig-workers, cabin boys, sailors, nannies, and cooks? Often separated from their kin in Goa, they have offered their families opportunity and financial security. Like so many Goans before him and, certainly, many to follow, Gregory Fernandes traveled outside his native Goa to make a living. On October 20, 2007, the 32 year old Goan sailor and his Tamilian colleague Pithilnaviram Vinod were set upon by 20 English teenagers at Fawley port, Southampton, just outside their hotel, in a racist attack. They were both severely injured and, shortly thereafter, Fernandes died. Gregory Fernandes was murdered because he was Goan. His killers received sentence in March 2009, but the Goan sailor’s slaying still leaves a lot to consider.

Reporting on the incident, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) states in headlines: “Sailor Attacked ‘Because of Race’” (October 23, 2007; online) and “Seven Held Over ‘Racist’ Killing” (October 26, 2007; online). Perhaps the impression the BBC wishes to give by placing the reason for the attack in quotes is that a sense of neutrality is required; that one’s opinion should not be clouded by such incendiary terms as “race” and “racist” until the true course of justice has been followed. Perhaps the English sometimes have a way with words, using their own language to successfully allay the real issues at hand – “Race” and “racist,” physically sectioned off in these headlines imply that attacks of this nature are random and solitary, detached from regular English society and aberrant to it. But, truly, can it ever be the case that twenty English youth wake up one day and decide to attack a couple of unwitting people of color and kill one of them, or are their actions indicative of a more prevalent but covert racism? The Daily Mail reports that the gang of drunk teenagers was heard to have said they wanted to “beat up a Paki” (February 29, 2009; online). This premeditation instantiates a current of xenophobic hatred that made these youth believe they could perpetrate the kind of crime they had planned because they thought so little of the lives of their intended victims. Moreover, they thought they could get away with it because they considered their beliefs to be widely held.

Memorial at Stockwell Tube Station
One incident alone might not sufficiently support this view. Sadly, Gregory Fernandes is not the only one whose life was taken in a race-related incident in England in recent times. Following the 7/7 bombings and the failed July 21, 2005 bombing in London, police shot and killed Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station on July 22, mistaking him for suspect Hussain Osman, a Briton of Ethiopian descent. The victim was a 27 year old Brazilian national who had a few years prior come to the United Kingdom to work. He was unarmed and shot at point blank range seven times. The bereaved de Menezes family, much like the Fernandes family, found themselves having to pressure the authorities to follow up on the case. Neither the mainstream English media nor the inquest into de Menezes’ death clearly stated that race was a factor in the Brazilian man’s killing. To do so would be to acknowledge that race is a tangible factor in how the English police system addresses and deals with issues of terrorism. The use of racial profiling is an obviously deeply flawed and arbitrary method of apprehending a suspect as evidenced in that a light-skinned Brazilian Latino could be mistaken for a Black African British suspect. At the close of the legal inquiry, the de Menezes family stated their discontent with the proceedings, raising several queries about police procedures.

On the contrary, Merseyside police were particularly careful in their investigation into the death of eighteen year old Anthony Walker, who like Gregory Fernandes was assailed by a group of youth. The young man was with his girlfriend and a cousin when attacked; he died from a blow to the head with an ice axe. Walker was Black and his girlfriend White. The group of White youth responsible for the crime was earlier heard being racially abusive to Walker. Incidentally, they had all grown up in the same neighborhood as their victim. This fact is in sharp contrast with the statement delivered by the Justice who presided over the case who stated that Walker’s death was the result of a “racist attack of a type poisonous to any civilised society” (December 1, 2005; The Justice’s declaration while deservedly strong still marks the racist victimization of Walker as being extraneous to a society where civility is equated with Englishness and Whiteness. It thereby refuses to recognize that they might emerge from the process of racialization and the anxiety of maintaining the centrality of Whiteness to the British state. The violent desire for a racialized hierarchy of difference reveals itself in the brutal stop put to the inter-racial romance between Walker and his girlfriend.

The attention given this case by Merseyside police was principally driven by the events of twelve years prior: the April 22, 1993 murder of Black teenager, Stephen Lawrence in southeast London. Lawrence died following a racialized encounter, just as Fernandes, de Menezes, and Walker had. Like Walker, he had been waiting at a bus-stop when he was surrounded by White youth, racially abused, and stabbed to death. Doreen Lawrence said that in the aftermath of her son’s murder, the Metropolitan Police demeaned her family as would “white masters during slavery” (February 25, 1999; None of the youth responsible for her son’s killing were prosecuted. The perseverance of the family and the initiation of the landmark 1999 MacPherson review of the Metropolitan Police which deemed the organization to be institutionally racist, changed the face of British criminal justice.

Stephen Lawrence
Lawrence’s murder revealed the comparable racism in society and state systems, such as law enforcement, and became the measure by which all future race-related murder crimes were to be gauged. As reported by the BBC, following delays in the investigation of Fernandes’ murder, Flavio Gracias of the United Kingdom’s Goan Association was prompted to draw parallels to the Lawrence investigation, when he said, “We hope that history will not repeat itself” (January 18, 2008; online). The cases recounted here reveal that history has repeated itself. These are the more famous of the examples that disclose the underlying race tensions that continue in multiracial Western societies today.

The anxiety and grief of a family based in Goa, represented by the victim’s priest uncle Father Diogo Fernandes who lives in the United States, while seeking answers in the United Kingdom indicates the complexities underlying Gregory Fernandes’ case. The transnational nature of the Fernandes family’s tribulations is matched in the struggle for justice instigated by a British mother whose daughter was murdered in Goa. White teenager Scarlett Keeling’s body was found on Anjuna beach on February 19, 2008. The efforts of Fiona MacKeown, the deceased’s mother who had left her fifteen year old in Goa while visiting another part of India, led to a second post-mortem which revealed that homicide was involved. Keeling had also been raped. Consequently, the media circus that ensued in India and the United Kingdom, and the efforts of Goa’s police to cover up their mishandling of the case, led to various deliberately disingenuous stories about the personal lives of the dead young woman and her mother, focusing on their lifestyles, class background, and sexuality. These stories maligned the two women and undermined the grief of a parent over the loss of her child in highly suspicions circumstances. It must be stated that the rape and murder of Scarlett Keeling in Goa and by Goans is completely indefensible, as is the obstruction of justice following it. Of issue, instead, is the idea that no one dies in “paradise” – the impression that Goa as a holiday destination allows for a different set of rules and values than one would have apply to themselves in their countries of origin. The racialized nature of Keeling’s murder may also seem to imply that an instance of reverse racism had occurred. Yet, such an allegation is not only specious, but also attempts to reduce critiques of extant racism in the West by misleadingly claiming the universality of racialized discrimination as common practice the world over. It is ironic that while the British media readily spoke of a Goa where Westerners like Keeling were vicitimized (as in the March 9, 2008 The Independent: “British Families Still Happy to Live Hippie Dream as Goa’s Lustre Dims”), it refused to consider its own nation racist in light of the aforementioned crimes that had occurred in England. Surely, it would be more worthwhile for concerns over the safety of women, frank and open discussions surrounding sexuality, and the exposure of the corrupt workings of state agencies to be equally applicable to the wellbeing of foreigners and locals. Goa is after all not just a holiday destination. It is also the home of Goans who continue to live here long after the foreigners are gone.

The murder of Scarlett Keeling in Goa and that of Gregory Fernandes in England connect questions of justice and the rights of victims in an increasingly globalized world. Furthermore, linking the murders of Fernandes, de Menezes, Walker, and Lawrence, in England, highlights the conditions wherein people of color, be they Goan, Brazilian, or Black; visitors, guest workers, immigrant, or Briton, are connected. In an editorial headline, the Goan newspaper O Heraldo inquires, “Gregory Fernandes Murder: Anyone Cares?” and reminds the Goan government of how this young man’s income “[contributed] to the welfare of the state” and exhorts the state government to advocate for the rights of overseas workers; it similarly inquires what “Goan organizations both locally and internationally [are] doing about this” (November 6, 2007; online). The subtle point this editorial makes that should not be lost is that Indian workers abroad come in different income brackets and from different class backgrounds, poignantly reflecting classist bias in government practice. In her article “Growing up Goan-British,” author Selma Carvalho begins by surveying Goan immigrant identity in Britain in the recent past and arrives at the conclusion that “Goan immigrants today seem to be more firmly rooted in their sense of being Goan than ever before;” nonetheless, she does not discount that “racism is still very present in British society [even if] … the days of ‘n*gger-hunting’ have passed away…” (March 8, 2009; O Heraldo). While Carvalho suggests a current British racial formation that departs from the blatant racism of the 1970s and 80s, she too readily subsumes the specter of institutionalized racism in her reading of Goan-British identity as hybridity or even assimilatory practice, predicated upon middle classness. Additionally, her foregrounding of Goan middle class identity as Britishness, though not dismissive of discrimination, excuses it in lieu of less visibly violent forms of racism in prescribing class ascendancy as a preventative. For instance, upon interviewing a charity Fundraising/Marketing Assistant and a History teacher, both of whom “contend that they have not felt discriminated against [at] … work,” Carvalho decides, “It is largely upto the individual to make an effort and go the extra mile…” Being Goan and successful, however, is no deterrent to race crime in England, no matter one’s class background, as borne out by Gregory Fernandes’ murder. Finally, both the O Heraldo editorial and Carvalho’s analysis fail to adequately connect racism against Goans with racist violence against other groups of color. While Gregory Fernandes died because he was Goan, he also died because he was a person of color. Efforts against racism that concern themselves solely with issues of national or ethnic origin define themselves too narrowly and any exhortation of Goan institutional advocacy, in Goa or the diaspora, would be more fully served with a recognition of diversity in terms of class and the commonalities of racism.

On March 20, 2009, Gregory Fernandes’ killers received their sentences having plead guilty to manslaughter rather than murder. But judicial sentences alone do not alter society. The legacy of race related violent crime in England is a stark reminder of educational, social, legislative, and legal changes yet to come. Each time a murder of this nature occurs, it must be considered contextually and historically in relation to the society in which it occurs rather than as a singular event in the contemporary moment.

May Gregory Fernandes’ soul rest in peace.

A version of this article appeared in O Heraldo (Goa).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"In More Than One Place: Goan Kenyans and the Crisis of Identity" - PARMAL (Goa - December 2008)

In a Mombasa cemetery overgrown with weeds and tall grass, we looked for a grave that
held the remains of my grandmother. My uncles, aunts, and cousins tried to make sense of the graveyard’s organization while its caretakers followed closely, their voices low as they informed us that they looked after this site and that perhaps they could assist us. We had, of course, been warned that any African who offered us assistance must want money for services they would be hard pushed to render in the first place. So, we ignored them until it became clearer after a while that we were getting nowhere in our attempts to find our matriarch’s resting place.

Euthimio de Souza
 In December 2006/January 2007, over forty of us had come to Kenya to celebrate a family reunion. We had arrived from different points on the globe, some of us in Kenya after many years (for my mother this had been the first trip in forty years) and many of us here for the first time ever. As we drew up our family tree, three generations of sons and daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren marvelled at how from two had come one hundred, my deceased grandparents the point of origination of this journey. We celebrated our happiness at having finally come together, yet mourned the loss of those we had known and loved. But the greatest loss of all grieved by this large family of Goans was that of Kenya itself. Particularly for those of us who had never been here before, the constant refrain heard was of how Kenya was no longer the place it once was; how once the Africans had regained their independence they had run the country into the ground; how Nairobi was no longer safe and overtaken by “too many Blacks” (a relative I pointed out the obvious to was not amused). Therein, though, lies the unseen pain of nostalgia – beguiling in memory but embittering in its post-dated influence. For the Goans of East Africa, particularly those of my mother’s generation and before, their edenic memories marked with the sweetness of childhood, young courtships, and sepia tinted photos, this millennium’s Africa is another place – one that changed forever when they left. While that is indisputable, the firm belief that it was their presence and the colonial era which made Kenya, and their departure with the end of colonization that led to its decay, bears scrutiny.

The provenance of Goans from East Africa throws up several questions about their postcolonial identities, not least of all to Asian East Africans themselves. In Kenya, this community would have held passports that nominally made them British citizens of Kenya. Because Kenya was considered a colonial protectorate, it meant that British passports held by Goans, others of Indian subcontinental origins, and Black Africans as well, rendered their ability to travel to England impossible. One need not dwell too long on the reasons why such an artifice was employed to come to the conclusion that it was simply to restrict the flow of labour within a specific, and secure, gamut. Many Goans either directly made their way to British East Africa or by way of British India, to which they travelled because of the few educational and economic opportunities in Estado da India Portuguesa. When Goans left Goa to provide service and to live in colonial Africa, they were indeed Portuguese citizens, but not in a majority of cases were they of mixed-race origins, which is a commonly held, but erroneous, view of the extraction of Goans. Unlike in Brazil, the colonizer and the colonized seldom mixed, both sides looking down upon the practice. This, of course, does not mean that there were not some intermarriages, rapes, affairs, and elopements. In early colonial times, interracial marriages were the product of strategic alliances between upper-caste Indians and their aristocratic Portuguese equivalents, meant to cement business and power relations. Evidently, the reason for such partnerships being to limit the exercise of power, their own numbers were limited and the practice did not filter down into the socio-religious ranks. While it might be true that there was little inter-raciality, there is no doubt that Goan culture in the process of 450 years of colonization had been Lusitanized, in much the same way that the cultures of the Philippines and parts of Latin America had been Hispanicized.

Fast-forward to the present era. In 1961, Goa received its independence from the Portuguese and was absorbed into the Indian union. It was a tumultuous time for Goans as identity politics took over and the little enclave faced losing autonomy with its potential assimilation into the adjoining state of Maharashtra. The event was marked with the use of religio-cultural and elitist caste politics to sway opinion towards the merger. Despite this, an ensuing referendum in 1967 made clear the view that Goans, of Hindu and Catholic faiths, wished to be Goans and that Goa should be its own political entity within the union of India. It thus became a Union Territory and then, later, a fully fledged state. Previous calls for Goa to be an independent country had by this time fizzled out and Goans themselves were not immediately given the option when the Indian government wrested it from its European colonizer. The loss of that prospect is interesting less for its nationalism, but more for providing yet another example of how hegemonic Indian politics function to reduce minority voices. How else would one account for the fact that Indian history books recall Goa’s liberation not as a struggle by Goans themselves, but as an Indian-orchestrated event? Undeniably, Goa had a lot to offer India, because of its tactical coastal location. For the same reasons that the Portuguese had made Goa the capital of their Asian empire, newly independent India saw the geopolitical necessity of removing the natural harbour from the hands of a foreign power. And so was rid the last European colonial power within the contiguous Indian land mass, only to have the Indian navy set up shop there instead.

Meanwhile, Goans in East Africa and other parts of the diaspora were in an interesting moment of historical suspension: While their homeland had during the two short days of the Goan liberation struggle gone from being Portuguese to Indian, they were in a kind of ethno-national limbo. They were “British” by supposed virtue of their colonial status, but were restricted in travelling to Britain; they were African because they resided on that continent, but were indigenously not so; but were they then Indian, or were they still Portuguese? This quandary was made possible by the fact that this community had left Goa while it was still Portuguese and their birth certificates would have laid testament to this fact even if their native land had now become part of India. Their relatives in the homeland might not have had a choice when India took over, but for Goans in East Africa, their divergent history still left their choices open. In time to come, this dilemma would prove very useful. To make things even more complicated, in 1963 Kenya threw off its own British colonial shackles.

It might be argued that colonization brought together various communities and that in the struggle for independence these heretofore disconnected groups bonded to oust their common oppressor. The problem with that analysis is that it belies the history of trade and cultural exchange that characterized the Indian subcontinent even before colonial times. More to the point, while ousting the British may have led to the creation of the modern nation states in South Asia, what was left behind was the legacy of divide and conquer commonly used by the departing Raj as a means of control. Just as this is the case in the sub-continent, so too has Africa continued to struggle with the cartographies of violence that have overlaid older tribal histories. Within this, the major Indian diasporic communities of Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Goans, displaced and generally little known to each other, given the circumstances of geographic distance and lack of cultural commonality in the Indian context, had little reason to commingle in East Africa. Over time, while community and religious ties may have kept individuals close to their respective groups, the employment of particularly the middle classes in colonial administration would have put them in a position to rub shoulders with each other and, to a limited extent, with their European employers. Social interactions between Asians and Blacks in the East African racialized political economy would have been restricted, as a result of deliberate and sometimes unconscious segregation. It is no surprise that Indians already educated in colonial ways in British India could avail themselves of various opportunities not afforded to Blacks in European Africa once imported there, leading to superiority complexes that further separated them from Blacks. They often conveniently fell into the hierarchical, racialized system of colonial subjugation of native Africans – a much more subtle yet refined form of divide and rule. With the departure of the British in East Africa, the Indian communities were left behind to live in countries soon to be led by their own indigenous sons and daughters. What was seen as collaboration with the former colonizer led, in some cases, to a high price to be paid by the immigrant communities, as in Uganda.

Where they could, several Goans and members of other Indian communities departed for Western shores. Some found that after years of service to Britain they were not seen as equals there and were barred entry. Several went to India, and in the case of Asian Ugandans were forced there and elsewhere as refugees. Yet, many others stayed back in East Africa, which was the only home they had known. As immigration laws changed in countries like England, the United States, and Australia, Asian East Africans made their way there, creating a doubly displaced diaspora. Portugal became a very attractive option for Goans both in Goa and the diaspora with the genesis of the European Union, causing a scramble to reclaim Portuguese identity vis a vis their colonial birthright (and certification) as explained earlier. Many successfully migrated using the historical anomaly to their advantage; others found that in their attempts to rehistoricize themselves, they were instead taken for a ride by shysters who promised them a Portuguese passport only to disappear, once paid, into thin air.

Clearly, these post-independence migrations from East Africa indicate the destabilization felt by diasporic Goan communities, but what was the source of these insecurities? More obviously, there was Idi Amin, the political and economic instability of these newly formed countries, and a general anxiety of having to deal with change. But within all of this was also the sense of fear that these communities felt at having lost what they saw as a colonial protector with the departure of the managing classes of Europeans who provided the divisions between Blacks and Asians. Class, colonial legacies, and history continue to impinge upon inter-raciality in Kenya. This is not to suggest that interracial relationships would necessarily be indicative of communal harmony, but their dearth is also suggestive in its own way. Given all this, what future do Goans and other South Asians in Kenya envision in what is largely viewed as a Black run country?

Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi
 The dramatic suggestion hovering here is that, postcolonially, Goans may feel they have no political future in Kenya because their agency was created and made manifest through the colonial structure and ended in its demise. This is simply not true. There is, if anything, an impressive legacy of the involvement of Goans in the nationalist anti-colonial movement. Take Fitz R. de Souza, a lawyer instrumental in defending Kenyans accused of Mau Mau activities and a parliamentarian in free Kenya, or Pio Gama Pinto, a freedom fighter who was assassinated post-independence in 1965, and not to forget Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi, Kenya’s second Vice President (1965-66), who was half Goan and half Maasai. Sadly, there is little to suggest that the legacy exemplified by these figures continues. Goans in Kenya recently celebrated the hundredth anniversary of a popular social club, but what marks their political history in that country seems to have stopped in the build-up to and then just after independence.

My younger cousins are proud to call themselves Goans and so I asked them what this meant to them. Often, their response was that this was a statement of their difference from “other Indians,” because they were “part Portuguese.” I pushed the question further to get at whether this was a product of wilful confusion, communally upheld in the desire to hang on to colonial legacies of difference and thus superiority, or unwitting ignorance. The answer I came closest to was that it was a combination of those and other factors.
Goan Catholics form 1/3 of the state’s population and while as a whole Goan identity crosses religious difference, it is also coloured by it. The Goan diaspora in Kenya is largely Catholic and in addition to the nostalgia for the Kenya that once was, there is also the prevalent idea that Goans are becoming a minority in their own state. While this might be an overstatement, Goans, regardless of religious affiliation, are a cultural minority, but are not recognized as such by the Indian nation. Goan Kenyans continue to have ties with their families in Goa and their identitarian feelings are perhaps an extension of the minoritization Goans of Catholic backgrounds feel in a state and a country that, while it is important to point out is secular, is predominantly Hindu in its population. This transposition is indicative of a cultural dialogue between homeland and diaspora which at once attempts to disrupt dominant and monolithic ideas of what it means to be Indian in both locations and also intensifies the existing feelings of displacement and identity crisis in diaspora communities. Goans in the diaspora thus seem to feel the loss of more than one “home” land.

Simultaneously, in the African context, feelings of minoritization take on an air of victimization at the hands of a state that is seen as having failed its constituents. While there might be corruption in Kenya, its victims are not just Goans and other immigrant communities, but also indigenous groups, and class privilege still affords advantages despite racial background. A year after my visit, Kenya experienced post-election violence in December 2007 and January 2008, which resulted in the deaths of many Kikuyu and Luo – the tribes most affected by the events due to political allegiances. The Western media summarily reported on these events as the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence, conflating tribalism with barbarism, rather than examining such causes as area-specific poverty, joblessness, and other endemic issues. A cousin emailed me from Nairobi in fear of her life following riots in the city. I met her husband and children who were vacationing in Goa at the time, and shared their concern for the family and over what was to become of the places we had not so long ago all enjoyed together. Soon to leave Goa, they expected to petition the British Embassy in Bombay to allow them refuge in England where they would meet the rest of their family from Kenya. They confirmed that several other Goan Kenyans sought to leave, even as reports in the Indian media made it clear that South Asians had largely been left unharmed. Some Indian shops, though, had not fared as well, falling victim to the looting that had ensued.  My younger cousins, the same ones who think of themselves as part Portuguese, commented that the recent events could only occur in a place like Kenya. Their father countered this, reminding them that despite other issues, the country had not seen political disruptions of this nature in a long time. Kenya’s recent violence parallels several global events where the politically and economically dispossessed have felt pushed beyond their limits. I was reminded of the so-called race riots in Los Angeles, following the 1992 acquittal of the white policemen involved in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, or the 2005 civil unrest in Paris sparked by the electrocution deaths of two teenagers from a working class commune who were chased into a power station by policemen. All this notwithstanding, my cousins’ views remind me that Goans in Kenya continue to see their lives as unfolding against a political backdrop that impacts them but does not involve them, for at any moment the choice to leave exists and political instability provides not only the opportunity but also the mechanism.

In writing this piece, I must point out some biases. Knowing that my own thoughts are underpinned by Western education, as well as Asian American and Asian British ideas of diversity, my limited knowledge of Asian African multiculturality leaves me with the hope that, despite what was visible, there exist positive interactions. It is not my intention to undermine the historical difficulties faced by Asian East Africans, particularly victims of political displacement. Yet, if Goan and other Asian East Africans really feel that the countries they call or called home are in crisis, then the onus is upon them to interrogate the causative forces, their collusion, and what they can do to affect change.


Felicidade de Souza
The African caretakers of the cemetery in Mombasa cleared patches of grass as we walked through the graveyard. They indicated where Goans were usually buried and politely asked us when my grandmother died. Without the help of these caretakers, we would never have found her last resting place. She had left Goa as a young woman, courted by my grandfather who brought her to Kenya. It was here that she died prematurely after bearing her children. I never knew her. To be able to pay my respects at her grave was to also do so to our history in the land that adopted my family.

Versions of this article appear in Parmal Magazine (Goa) and AwaaZ Magazine (Kenya).

Monday, September 5, 2011

"Clerical Errors" - INDIA CURRENTS (California - May 2007)

Before quoting Mahatma Gandhi, Hillary Clinton sought to familiarize him to her audience at a 2004 Missouri fundraiser by saying, "He ran a gas station down in St. Louis." Drawing on the audience’s recognition of the predominance of a particular ethnic group in the running of convenience stores, the remark was racist because it sought to entertain a mainstream audience by casting a major figure from that ethnic group in a position of ridicule. The audience laughed, fulfilling the intent of the joke built on the back of the well-known stereotype in American media of the South Asian clerk. The South Asian community and others were rightfully offended and Clinton issued an oblique apology along the lines of "I’m sorry it was taken that way." While much had been made of the event’s inherent racism, little was said of its elitism and that of the South Asian American community’s response. Clinton’s equation of Gandhi with the lowly occupation of a clerk failed to acknowledge the rising affluence of professional desis; and the community’s response advertised this fact in its desire to not only correct Clinton’s gaffe, but to also separate the elite among us from those who tarnish the shiny image of the model minority. Given a voice, how might South Asian clerks themselves have responded and would Gandhi not have felt more akin to them given his message of dignity in any form of labor and uplifting the underclasses? None of this excuses Clinton’s comment. Rather, it highlights the continuing problems of the representation of minorities in American media and the divide within communities along lines of class.

The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) claims nearly 150,000 shops under its aegis, with revenues close to a half trillion dollars. While there are no ethnic-specific surveys, many estimates by Asian-American trade associations and groups such as the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees underscore the evidence of a high rate of South Asian ownership in the convenience store business. This begs the question of why, despite the large proportion of South Asians and other minorities in the convenience store arena, we are yet to see a 7-Eleven or AM-PM commercial that acknowledges this fact by featuring South Asian employees or actors who play them. Evidently, actually matching the reality with self-made media representations would cause such companies to appear to have been overtaken by immigrants and one wonders if the misrepresentation is in fact an attempt to reinscribe Americanness by creating distance from the foreign other.

The reality of who runs convenience markets has been relegated, instead, to the fictional representations in any number of television programs and films that are mockingly xenophobic, etching the image of the middle-aged, sometimes turbaned, funnily accented, angry brown man and his hapless wife deeply into the imagination of the American viewing public. This has been proven nowhere better than with one of the most recognizable South Asians in American media: cartoon character Apu, Quik-E-Mart clerk of The Simpsons, who is voiced by a white actor. In their November 17, 2003, press release, NACS proudly claimed "Apu May Not Be All That Bad for Convenience Store Image," citing the character’s work ethic as inspirational, and chiding him only for flouting commonly held theft-deterrence rules by having a rifle behind his store’s counter. Nowhere in the press release do they mention Apu’s ethnicity nor that of a large number of convenience store owners.

Even the films Clerks (1994) and its sequel Clerks II (2006), which glorify the profession, do not feature South Asians in the titular roles, made even more ironic because they are set in multi-ethnic New Jersey. And when a second-generation South Asian American youth came face-to-face with a first-generation, older, desi clerk being terrorized by young white bullies in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle (2004), one of those rare moments in mainstream film history that acknowledges the diversity of immigrant identities, Kumar ambivalently flip-flops between aiding the clerk and then leaving him to the devices of the vagrants, taking advantage of the confusion to steal their car and continue in his pursuit of a burger.

Today, as South Asians become more noticeable in high-profile professions across the American economic landscape, their desire to prove they have made it often requires an overstatement of those aspects of the American dream which are marked by rising class status, political power, and visibility. It is often embarrassing, then, to be associated with the image and reality of the convenience store clerk, the taxi driver, and the motel owner. Even where South Asians now own such businesses, having worked their way up in classic immigrant style, the desire is to distance themselves from those roots and those who have taken their place. Particularly for some new immigrants, even today, these are the professions that give them their start. They are the South Asians most visible to the mainstream, given the prevalence of these small businesses, and they are also often the ones in the front line of criminal attacks, petty crime, and anti-immigrant violence, as made amply evident post 9-11.

The popular American media stereotype of the South Asian clerk is troubling in its uni-dimensionality. In representing a section of our population, it leaves out the many other roles played by members of our community, but it also does no justice to the clerk himself—his accent representative of his ability to speak more than one language; his curtness perhaps bearing testament to the long hours and late nights; and his work ethic being less about that (and him) than that he does this job to make a living and support his family.

An online version of the print article appears here.