FOREIGN EXCHANGE: Teri Mary maa — Kalpana Sahni
‘GRCB Bachelor 27 yrs B.Com, 5’7 seeks alliance from GRCB Spinster, graduate, age 22-25 years fair, good family. Height 5’5’. Why a 22 year old girl had been referred to as a spinster was beyond me. Was it a Goan quirk? As for the acronyms, I might as well enlighten the readers: GRCB stands for Goan Roman Catholic Brahmin
It took the Portuguese missionaries three long months of travel from Goa to arrive at the Emperor Akbar’s court in Fatehpur Sikri. It took us less than three hours to fly from Delhi to Goa. Our drive from the airport was through lush greenery, the occasional dazzling white church or girja (our derivative from the Portuguese) and meandering rivers. The moment we crossed the bridge across the Mandovi River our taxi driver unbuckled his seat belt, removed the white shirt covering his bright orange t-shirt and announced with a grin, “Traffic police left behind!” He had had enough of the Goan police regulations prescribing a seat belt and a white shirt.
Next morning we were reading the local newspapers in the German run Lila cafe recommended to us as the best place for breakfast in north Goa. The front-page headline read “Churchill Ridicules Faleiro’s letter to Sonia”. Behind me I heard an Englishman exclaim, “ Imagine that! His first name is Churchill!”
Churchill Alemao turned out to be the local Congress MP who was ridiculing the Goan education minister, Luizinho Faleiro’s letter to the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi concerning a new airport. Everything is possible in Goa! English surnames seem more attractive as first names, while Portuguese names jostle merrily with a range of others.
To assume that Goan vitality was due exclusively to 450 years of Portuguese influence would only be partially true. One should not forget that Portugal was under Arab rule for 500 years. Consequently Goa received a heady mixture of Portuguese-Arab influences, which in turn merged, with the rich amalgamation of local and foreign cultures already present in Goa from earlier times. Arab influences returning with the Portuguese included glazed tiles azulejos (from Arabic al zulayj), guitarra or guitar and music, including fado. Catholicism arrived with the Inquisition.
An old friend recently re-settled in Goa dispelled some of our initial bewilderment. She is a Mangalorean Goan.
“The Mangalorean Goans are looked down upon by these fellows, who keep harping on about the good old days. Have you seen them in their black stockings in this heat? We call them PLOs...”
I thought of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
“No, no, it has nothing to do with them. PLOs are Portuguese Left Overs.”
Many Goans, fearing confiscation of their property, converted to Christianity but continued with their earlier customs, dress and rituals. Relentless Portuguese persecution for their “impure” practices finally forced them to flee to neighbouring Mangalore.
Seeing a large concrete cross, I asked my friend why there was a grave right outside her front entrance. But it was no grave. Like the sacred basil or tulsi plant found in brightly painted concrete containers outside Hindu homes, the converted Christians decided to place a cross. Most of these enormous crosses, scattered across Goa, are bedecked with garlands.
Next morning, we followed our friend’s advice and looked up the matrimonial columns in the newspapers.
“GRCB Bachelor 27 yrs B.Com, 5’7 seeks alliance from GRCB Spinster, graduate, age 22-25 years fair, good family. Height 5’5”.”
Why a 22 year old girl had been referred to as a spinster was beyond me. Was it a Goan quirk? As for the acronyms I might as well enlighten the readers: GRCB stands for Goan Roman Catholic Brahmin... but it could well be GRCC as well with ‘C’ for Chardo or Khatri! More letters can be added to these acronyms. There are Goan Saraswat Brahmin Roman Catholics (GSBRC), as well as Catholic Chitpavan Brahmins!
So, depending on the situation they can opt for a Goan identity at one moment, and at another moment a Christian or Brahmin one. They could also opt for all of them rolled into one, or none. Wonderful! Because all these identities exist in their genes and the dividing lines seem rather blurred.
As with all religions, in Goa too, the earlier traditions and conventions got amalgamated into local innovations in the ‘adopted’ religion — like the crosses outside people’s homes. One family, for instance, which looked after the local temple in a Goan village, continued to do so after being converted. Now this family was in charge of the church that had replaced the temple. In all likelihood they would have been the Brahmins.
Furthermore, the ancient (pre-Hindu) cult of the mother goddesses, the Saptamatrukas or the seven sisters, merged in time with the cult of Siva and Parvati, revered locally as Shanta Durga or Santeri, who later donned a Christian mantle as St Anne. The Cucumber Feast, for instance, is in honour of St Anne, the mother of Virgin Mary venerated in Goa not only as St Anne but also as the reincarnation of the mother goddess, Santeri. People of all faiths offer cucumbers to the goddess in order to be blessed with a child. Similarly, after Easter, all Goans celebrate the festival of Milagres Saibin — Mother of Miracles in the Mapusa Church and both Christians and non-Christians offer oil, candles and objects to the statue of Saibin, one of the seven mother goddess sisters. Such permutations are endless and preclude any attempt to box identities or cultures into pure hermetically sealed compartments.
Dr Kalpana Sahni has been a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. A doctorate in Russian literature, she has published extensively on literature and cross-cultural issues. She can be reached at email@example.com