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With the island’s old-timers moving to Europe, Diu’s 400-year-old Portuguese influence is fading

The interiors of Diu Fort.   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

I enter one of Diu’s most-recommended restaurants and almost instantly I’m greeted by a fluttering green-and-red Portuguese flag. A big group of people are enthusiastically singing ‘A Portuguesa’, the country’s national anthem. This is followed by a few more Portuguese songs rendered by a little band of singers, a guitarist, and a violinist. A couple breaks into a dance. “We are visiting Portugal’s former colonies,” Ana Almeida, a woman in her 50s, tells me. Shortly after, the group folds up the flag and makes its way out as the other diners and the waiters applaud. “It’s beautiful, this place. We feel very proud looking at the architectural marvel left behind by the Portuguese,” Almeida says.

They must feel proud. After all, the district is home to Fort Diu, one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal, a list of the most magnificent monuments the country built at the height of its colonial powers. Built in 1535 as part of a defence alliance with the Sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, when he was under attack by the Mughal Emperor Humayun, Fort Diu is an imposing structure overlooking the Arabian Sea. There are canons, bastions, and other remnants that sweep you off your feet.

The structure also reflects some smart planning and foresight on the part of the rulers. For instance, the fort has evidence of rainwater harvesting, “a necessity that was born after India cut off fresh water supply to the island” during the power struggle, according to V. Solanki, one of the two government-approved guides at the fort. The Portuguese ruled Diu for more than 400 years, until 1961, when it was finally liberated.

Long gone

But oddly, the centuries-old Portuguese connect diminishes rapidly as soon as you leave the gates of Fort Diu. “Well, how will it be possible to hear stories about Portuguese influence so easily any more? After all, more than 85% of Diu’s original inhabitants live outside India now,” says Solanki.

With the island’s old-timers moving to Europe, Diu’s 400-year-old Portuguese influence is fading

In his early 60s, Solanki says he understands Portuguese but cannot speak it as fluently as his parents and grandparents did. A study published in the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages in 2006 stated that Creole (a language developed from the mixture of different languages), a sort of Diu Indo-Portuguese, is spoken by the original inhabitants of the island. A survey of the marketplace and popular joints frequented by the locals, however, resonates with a heavy Gujarati influence.

Rafiq Sabri, co-owner of a shop that sells bags and electronic goods in the heart of the market, says that although the Gujarati influence has always been prevalent — they are, after all, neighbours — it has magnified over the years. “In terms of business, for instance, a number of shops are on lease because the owners have taken Portuguese citizenship. So the shops are run by people who are not originally from Diu,” says Sabri. He is awaiting his own red Portuguese passport — his uncle and other members of his extended family left for Europe two years ago.

I realise that this explains the rows of empty houses on this tiny island. And the strange signboards on courier shops in the market that declare ‘swift courier services to Lisbon, Mozambique and London’.

Under Portuguese nationality law,anyone born here before December 19, 1961, when India liberated Diu (and Daman and Goa), is eligible to apply for citizenship. This facility is extended to three generations. The catch is, Portugal is a part of the European Union (EU) and under the Schengen Agreement, people with a Portuguese passport can settle in any member country of the EU. So most of those migrating out of India with a Portuguese passport head instead to the U.K.

With the island’s old-timers moving to Europe, Diu’s 400-year-old Portuguese influence is fading

“Portugal’s economy is not very bright, somost people prefer to settle and work in the U.K.,” says Sabri, hopeful himself of employment and a better life. “And because people start earning more and leading better lives, they don’t feel the need to sell their homes here. They usually make an annual visit to Diu.”

According to U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, there were 28,000 India-born U.K. residents with Portuguese passports in 2017. Reports in Portuguese media suggest that this number could be much higher, and include people from Diu, Daman and Goa.

Three dates

“I was barely one when the Portuguese left and Diu officially became a part of India. I have grown up celebrating three important dates on the calendar: August 15, January 26, and December 19 (liberation from Portuguese rule),” says Romano, a provision shop owner, who wishes to be identified only by his first name. “Having said that, I have also grown up hearing my parents complain about the rising corruption here, about the dilution of culture. I want a better life for my children, I want them to get better jobs, and so both my children have taken Portuguese citizenship and moved abroad.”

Romano’s store is a short distance from the St. Thomas Church, which was converted into the Diu Museum in 1992. Built by the Portuguese, the church, with its impressive façade, is a testimony to a rich legacy. A closer look, however, reveals a neglected present. Peeling walls and a giant net — to keep out pigeons, quite unsuccessfully — meet you at the entrance. The caretakers immediately ask you to remove your shoes, but apart from this, there is hardly any other mark of care. The museum houses exquisite wooden sculptures of saints, some of which are 400 years old, that lie covered in dust, and the floor is littered with bird droppings.

Not far from here, St. Paul’s Church appears to have fared better. Built in 1601, the church holds regular mass, and has been declared a protected monument. Considered one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture, the church bears striking resemblance to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, also built by the Portuguese, and features among Portugal’s Seven Wonders. The woodwork in St. Paul’s Church is intricate; the altar, which has the image of St. Mary, is said to have been carved out of a single piece of Burmese teak. On the walls of the church are old paintings, dating back several decades.

Apart from the architectural heritage, the Portuguese also leave behind a gastronomical legacy: whether it’s the introduction of some of the most indispensable fresh produce used in our everyday cooking — potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, for instance — or culinary techniques such as curdling milk, that made way for cottage cheese. Goa’s famous local brew, the pungent feni, is also believed to have a Portuguese connect, and so is the world-famous vindaloo (introduced in Goa by Portuguese sailors in the early 16th century).

So, naturally, I am curious to know if any cultural influence can still be sampled in Diu. My hunt leads me to O’ Coqueiro, a tiny, six-tabled, restaurant in an area known as Firangiwada. It is the only restaurant that serves Portuguese food in this 40 island, and is run by a couple from Uttarakhand. Kailash Pandey, the owner, says he took a course in Portuguese cooking, and while the Caldo de Camarao (shrimp soup) and the mild Caldeiradade Peixe (fish stew) were delicious, my meal felt incomplete without a sense of history, without the stories behind each dish.

With the island’s old-timers moving to Europe, Diu’s 400-year-old Portuguese influence is fading

Hoka trees — unique to Diu, and said to have been brought in by the Portuguese all the way from Africa — deserve a special mention. Locals say they also call it ‘Ravana’s head’, considering how the trunk grows into a Y-shape and and keeps branching out in twos until there are 10 (or more) branches at the top.

Veera, a plump and smiling grey-haired woman, sells the fruits of the Hoka on the roadside near Nagoa beach, one of Diu’s most popular tourist attractions. The tattoos on her hands, neck and feet denote that she belongs to the Koli (fishing) community. “There are lots of visitors on weekends from Gujarat; there are families, but most come for the liquor. You must have seen the rows of liquor shops in the market?” she asks. “There are so many different people who have settled here now — through marriage, through business — that some parts of the past are forgotten.”

Not entirely, not yet. It won’t be time to say tchau until the big bell in the marketplace dating back to the 16th century stops chiming.

When not researching new stories, the Gujarat-based freelance journalist likes spinning tales for her toddler.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 7:18:52 AM |

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