Sunday, September 7, 2008
Goa and Pondicherry
Today being Sunday we took a trip to Panjim the capital and walked around the mostly empty streets (probably because it was too early). Panjim in many ways retains its European (Portuguese) influence. It has wide boulevards with wide sidewalks where people can amble along in the evenings. The facades of houses and buildings have a Southern European feel to them with bright colours and columns. There are small parks dotting the city and small town squares kept reasonably clean and green. We had lunch in a well known restaurant called O Coquiero -- Coconut Tree (in Porvorim/Mapusa) which has a nice mix of Goan and Portuguese food. It is also (in)famous for the place where the notorious international criminal Charles Sobhraj was captured -- an event immortalised by a plaster cast of his sitting at the table where he was having his dinner when his sins caught up with him. The Portuguese influence in Goa is still quite strong. Many people dress in western clothes (women really, men anyway dress in western clothes all over India), there are a large number of d'Souza's and Vaz's and d'Mello's, all the churches that the Portugese built are still functional with regular service and very European architecture and ambiance, though they are nowhere as well preserved. Large numbers of Goans are Christian, the food is a fusion of local (Konkan) and Portuguese influence, and so is typical Goan music. However, except in the names of places and people, there is very little trace of the Portuguese language. Even some of the higher end hotels' and restaurants' waiters speak the three language formula of India (English, Hindi and the local language which in this case is Konkkani), very few people speak Portuguese. I couldn't help comparing this with the other 'colonial' era town I know well, Pondicherry (or Puducheri as it has been renamed). Pondicherry, except for a small 'French' quarter, is a typical small Indian town -- noisy, chaotic, no sidewalks, vehicles with horns blaring. Except in the street names, there is little French influence of the kind Goa has. There are no more Christians than in the rest of Tamil Nadu, the food is standard local food (except in special restaurants which serve a generic form of European food), almost everyone dresses in the Indian way (western dress for men, salwar-kameez/saris for women) and hardly any churches of note (again, no more than the rest of India). However, the French language is still very much in existence, large numbers of people still speak French, it's still traditional for children to learn French in school (aided by the Aurobindo Ashram whose schools actively promote French), there is even a French language bookstore, and incongruously enough, the policemen wear kepis. In other words, French intellectual activity survives while popular culture has become totally Indian, almost in exact contrast to the Goan experience. Perhaps there is an explanation for this, and it doesn't need a rocket scientist to figure it out. (Of course I could be wrong). The Portuguese were responsible for very aggressive proselytizing and large scale (and occasionally forcible) conversions. At the same time though, the Portuguese inter-married with the local population more freely than other colonial powers, resulting in a large fraction of people in the population of mixed blood. Like all examples of cross-pollination this produced a rich new (Christian) fusion sub-culture whose remnant we see today in Goa. The Pondicherry experience was very different. The French with their Gallic aloofness, never tried to convert (in any case their republican ideals would not approve of such actions) and never inter-married with the locals. The two sections always existed separately (and peacefully) for the most part. However they introduced the French language in their schools and their administration, which meant that the language (and its associated intellectual structure) slowly percolated amongst the local populace. Thus, while popular culture remained local (in this case Tamil), French language and literature flourished and continued to do so, even after the French left. The fact that the French departed from India amicably meant that there was no strong movement to banish all vestiges of the colonial past. Whatever be it, one can't help feeling that while India may have been invaded many times over, a fact that is regularly met with much bemoaning and breast beating by the BJP and its Parivar, in the final analysis it has left India richer in its cultural and intellectual heritage and given her its unique syncretic culture.