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Sunday, April 22, 2001

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Portugal's Goa

As SARAH JOHN discovered, the Goan connection in Portugal is alive and kicking.

I WAS going to Portugal at last. This tiny country at the south- western tip of the European continent held a special fascination for me because of its place in the history of the west coast of India, the area I come from. The western coastline of India is still dotted with relics of its past connections with Portugal, particularly in its religious influence and architectural style. The people of this region share a common climate, a love for seafood and a natural, unimpeded friendliness resulting from centuries of exposure to alien civilisations from over the seas. The west-coast Union Territory of Goa, especially, with its unique culture - the result of strong ties and intermingling with the Portuguese culture - had kindled my natural curiosity in Portugal. And, finally, I was going there.

As we flew south, low along the west coast of Europe in order to land in Lisbon, the straight coastal line of Portugal, facing the harsh waters of the Atlantic became clearly visible - hardly any convenient bays or protected alcoves to make life easier for the seafarers. Yet, it was from this tiny seafaring nation that a Vasco da Gama emerged, who dared to go round the Cape of Good Hope - discovered by another landsman - and sailed further across another expanse of ocean for the first time to discover the sea route to India. Later, as I stood at the tomb of this great seafarer who had come to my country over the seas as the first European as early as 1498, at a time when navigating unknown waters was hazardous, I bowed my head in respect.

Vasco da Gama's remains lie inside one of the most beautiful old churches of Lisbon, close to the waterfront where a huge monument stands in memory of all the great seafarers of Portugal.

Even while discovering the fascinating aspects of Portugal's unique history and its legends, and marvelling in the exciting mix of races and cultures in beautiful Lisbon, my mind kept wandering to Portugal's Goan connection. It became all important for me to trace evidence of it there. The path led me naturally to the Indian Embassy. My initial apprehensions were put aside when I realised that the Ambassador's Secretary had a typical Goan name. Mrs. Wanda Noronha turned out to be a delightfully helpful person, who put me in touch with other members of the Goan community in Lisbon.

After a few telephone conversations and two days later, I found myself meeting some interesting people of Goan origin at the seat of their cultural association, Casa de Goa, in a prime location in the city. Accompanied by tea and samosas and sweets, we sat there in the late afternoon hours and chatted. It soon became clear to me that these friendly people were just as enthusiastic about our meeting as I was, and even amused at this sudden new interest in them as a community.

Although it was in Kodungaloor on the Malabar coast that Vasco da Gama made his first landing, it was further up the coast in Goa that the Portuguese really eastablished themselves in the 16th Century. Their main aim had been to spread the Roman Catholic faith and to trade for the spices and other wealth they found in that region. The hardy fishermen in their little boats and the fishmongers carrying their fish in baskets balanced on their heads were as common on the coasts of Portugal as they were on the coasts of India.

Over the years, not only religious but also the strong cultural influence of the Portugese came to be accepted by large numbers of people. Especially in Goa and Mangalore, evidence of it is still to be seen in the dress, music, dance and gastronomy.

The Goans who originally came to Portugal as far back as the 18th century were the elite. They studied in Portugal to become priests or civil servants. Some also entered other respected professions. Many Goans went to the other colonies of Portugal in southwest Africa. There are now more than two or three generations of families of Goan origin living in Portugal. The total number is unknown: estimates range from 80 to 100,000 Portugese of Goan origin.

Mr. Jose da Costa Barbosa, an engineer by profession and project manager in a German multinational company in Portugal, spoke of his ancestral family and an older generation, of which all 18 siblings were spread across three continents. He came to the country in the 1960s, to study engineering. After spending more time in Germany studying, he went back to India where he worked for many years in Mumbai and got married to a Goan. Some years ago he returned to Portugal on a posting by his company. His children now grow up in Lisbon fully integrated in the Portugese environment and culture. According to him, the reason for the Goans not having a separate identity in Portugal is itself evidence of their total integration into Portugese society. Social integration is almost complete with mostly-mixed marriages.

For the most part, the Goans have managed to maintain a high standard of living, and belong to the upper middle class in Portugese society. There have always been MPs of Goan origin in the Portugese parliament since the 19th Century. One Prime Minister, Alfredo Nobre da Costa (1978) was the grandson of a Margao-born doctor by the same name. The Minister of Justice in the ruling socialist government is also a "grandson of Goans". The present president of Casa de Goa, Mr. Alfredo Bruto da Costa, is a professor at the Catholic University of Lisbon. There are now Portugese-Goan educators, economists, journalists, engineers, doctors and managers in government or in the private sector. They refused to be officially classified as a minority-group in order to avoid the inevitable ghettoisation, and have never regretted it.

I was told of a new "Indian" presence in Lisbon - a recent development, which has relatively little to do with the Goans. This mainly North Indian community comprises two groups: Gujarati-families who have made the move from the former African colonies of Portugal and young Punjabis who emigrated from India for economic reasons. They have yet to establish themselves. The Gujaratis were small-traders in Africa, having lived there for generations as they would in a Gujarati village. Motivated and hard-working, their children are certain to do well in Europe.

Mr. Barbose called my attention to a revival of the search for identity in Europe as a whole, and especially in Portugal, as a direct outcome of the integration into a bigger European community and the resultant changes. The new-found mobility from rural to urban communities has caused changes in social commitments and values. As often happens, this also creates a certain restlessness or uneasiness leading to a longing, a search for one's roots, as though one does not ever want to lose what once was. This probably explains the founding of Casa de Goa and its activities as an association of Goans, Damanese and Diuese, especially the formation of "Ekvat" as a cultural group 10 years ago. "Ekvat" is a music-and-dance group, with typical Goan character. I read of a parallel organisation with another name, and another split music-group called Surya. At Casa de Goa there is a charming little restaurant, serving typical Goan fare. Other activities include publishing a quarterly magazine called Goa.

Ekvat had its first performance in Bombay and in Goa in 1999. Virginia Bras Gomes, an active participant in this cultural group, had taken time off from her work at the Ministry of Labour and Solidarity to meet me. She heads the International Relations Unit of the General Directorate for Social Action. She had come to Lisbon in the 1970s to study, and had married into a Portuguese family. One of her children is now a participant in Ekvat. She described the initial apprehensions about how they would be accepted back in India. After all, they were now outsiders, and they were going to perform Goan music and dance in Goa - like taking coal to Newcastle! When the Indian Army marched into Goa and took it back from the Portuguese in 1961, no treaty was signed. As a result, the status of the Goans had been in question - they were neither Portuguese nor Indian. Families were split when some of its members decided to move to Portugal while others preferred to stay on in Goa. The organisers of Ekvat were eager to explain to their Indian contacts that their intention was to link the two communities.

A romantic dream of mine, to meet the Goans in Portugal, had come true. As we said our goodbyes and exchanged addresses at the Casa de Goa in Lisbon, I felt that we had always known each other. The common bond with the Indian West Coast is, and will always be strong.

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