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Sunday, Oct 20, 2019

“Dog-whistle rhetoric aside, open sectarianism remains political suicide in Goa”

Can Goan solidarity last in the increasingly reactionary national atmosphere? Don’t bet against it, says the writer. Like Asterix’s tiny Gaulish redoubt, there does seems to be some magic potion at work here.

india Updated: Aug 05, 2017 23:52 IST
Vivek Menezes
Vivek Menezes
Hindustan Times
Writer-photographer Vivek Menezes poses for Hindustan Times in Goa.
Writer-photographer Vivek Menezes poses for Hindustan Times in Goa.(Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)

Last Sunday, one of Goa’s favourite celebrations took place at the 16th century church of St. Anne, set like a massive diadem high above paddy fields in the village of Talaulim, a short drive from Panjim. The patron saint was Jesus’s grandmother, but biblical lineage had nothing to do with the riotous eruption of fervour on 30th July. Instead, the magnificent baroque monument was thronged by thousands of Hindus and some Muslims (amidst a minority of Catholics) because beloved ‘Santana’ is legendarily infallible in her response to pleas for male offspring, accompanied by ritual offerings of cucumbers.

So, every year, Talaulim brims with anxious would-be parents brandishing cukes, and couples proudly cradling divine blessings of baby boys. What is elsewhere cloaked in high Christian style, in Goa becomes characteristically syncretic revelry, where everyone from every background participates.

The “cucumber feast” is just one example of the many layered Goan identity, which confounds observers used to rigid delineation and impassable barriers between traditions.

In India’s smallest state, locals freely venerate all available deities, while remaining notably tolerant towards each other, and remarkably accepting of newcomers and migrants. This difference from much of the rest of the subcontinent becomes instantly apparent to even the most casual visitor, and is particularly attractive to young Indians.

A beach in Goa’s Siridao village.
A beach in Goa’s Siridao village. ( Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO )

Take a drive through the coastal tourist belt during the high season, and it is wall-to-wall blissful desis, all visibly relieved to be where no one particularly cares if you are in a bikini or burkha, or discriminates based on the colour of your passport.

These laissez-faire attitudes must not be mistaken for weakness. They do not imply the natives are a pushover. Rather, openness is a central civilisational trait of the Goans, evolved through millennia of profound cultural contact and exchange. As far back as recorded history, this riparian sliver of the Konkan coastline was famous for willingness to encounter and embrace the outside world.

The state laureate Bakibab Borkar wrote, “Tribals, Dravidians, Aryans, Assyrians and Sumerians settled in this territory… but Goa’s scenic beauty humanized them all so insistently and efficiently that they amalgamated into a single society, with one common language and one cultural heritage. The kinship and co-operation forged unto them by the aesthetic impact of Goa’s rich scenery taught them the art of living in peace and friendship, and inspired them to strive for nobler ideals.”

Goa’s cultural unity and communal harmony is hard won, and has been repeatedly fought for through the generations. This continues today, even as worrisome trends accompany an explosion of Hindu extremism across the border in Karnataka and Maharashtra ( thus compelling an anxious Catholic circling of wagons). But still the peace holds, as even the political fringes of the state are forced to commit to concord. Dog-whistle rhetoric aside, open sectarianism remains political suicide in Goa.

Can Goan solidarity last in the increasingly reactionary national atmosphere? Don’t bet against it. Like Asterix’s tiny Gaulish redoubt, there does seems to be some magic potion (besides feni!) at work here, powering impressive resistance to communal discord.

Almost every day, I walk Panjim’s waterfront promenade to sip coffee at the decades-old Farm Products storefront presided over by 92-year-old Alvaro Pereira. A non-violent hero of Goa’s anti-colonial resistance, he was severely beaten and spent many years in jail for opposition to the Portuguese dictatorship. We are inevitably joined by octogenarian Gurudas Kunde, who also spent years imprisoned at the same time, after offering satyagraha in protest of foreign rule (for which his family disowned him).

These two best friends, and exemplars of valour, know no difference between themselves. They treat everyone they meet each day with identical old world grace. In their company, plumb middle of a swirl of visitors from everywhere, conversation switches easily from English and Hindi to robust Konkani and liquid Portuguese. Here, all are one. That is Goa, and so will it remain for the foreseeable future.

Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and co-founder and curator of the Goa Arts and Literature festival

First Published: Aug 05, 2017 20:54 IST

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