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.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

As you say, the French kept to their quarter and the Tamil quarter (just across the canal) looked like a typical small Tamil town. This sort of thing did cause resentment in other places. I was particularly struck by the portrayal in "Battle of Algiers", where the French quarter of Algiers looks as shiny and imposing as Paris, while the Algerian quarter (the "casbah") is a wreck. But in Pondicherry it doesn't seem to have caused resentment, perhaps because the locals felt the rest of India was no better off.

I don't think French is particularly widely spoken outside the French quarter. It's Tamil and English. This is in fact a contrast with other former French colonies, where French is widely spoken, sometimes to the extinction of local languages.

Other diffences between Pondicherry and Goa:
1. Goa is much bigger
2. The Portuguese were there for much longer
3. The local (Konkani) culture was already different from the dominant cultures in neighbouring regions. Pondicherry locals were as Tamil as their neighbours.

Anant said...

Very nice, thought provoking post. Could not agree more about the syncretic nature of our land, etc..

Kedar said...

I hail from Goa, and studying in Chennai, and I couldn't agree more with you.

Lovely descriptions! It felt like I was in Panaji! The delicious fish, and the air just smells of torpor!

I guess Pondicherry is so different because it is a much smaller place than Goa. Being bigger, Goa was successfully able to develop its own culture and cling on to it. With the French leaving for their homes, Pondicherry mingled with the rest of Tamil Nadu, and all that is left now is a beautiful boulevards with French names!

AMOK said...

Thanks for a very nice narrative of your visit. Once was I in Goa but was forced to live in 5-star luxury, golf carts and swimming pools. The real Goa was kept from me except on the journey back -- by rail -- as it turned out, without a proper ticket owing to a mixup. Being in 3-tier 2nd CLass A/C sleeper was the best part of this journey!