Consuming empire: The continuing vitality of the Indo-Portuguese

The Semana da Cultura Indo-Portuguesa needs to now look foward to building partnerships

Jason Keith Fernandes | OCTOBER 20, 2012, 12:32 PM IST

The fourth episode of the Semana da Cultura Indo-Portuguesamakes an interesting and critical innovation. Rather than restrict itself, asit formerly did, to the possibly provincial location of Goa, this year theSemana travels to the Indo-Portuguese world’s former metropole , Lisbon. Thisinnovation is significant because, in doing so, the Indo-Portuguese (Goans andothers), make a grand claim. They indicate to themselves, and to others, thattheirs is not a provincial culture to be appreciated only among intimates andin the shuttered confines of the home. On the contrary, it is a cosmopolitanculture, crafted from the mingling of the Indian Ocean cultures, and must bejustifiably appreciated universally. Hopefully, Lisbon will mark only the firstof these international assertions of Indo-Portuguese culture.

It is because this year’s Semana da Cultura marks a break incertain traditions, however, that it is important for us to also acknowledgethat the Semana must also articulate itself in a new language. If it fails todo so, then these bold cosmopolitan moves will get lost in the provincialimaginations that populate, among other places, contemporary Portugal. Take forexample the manner in which the vitality of the Indo-Portuguese encounter islargely understood in Portugal. The contemporary Portuguese person invariablylooks for the robust presence of the Portuguese language, or the presence ofpersons with metropolitan Portuguese ancestry and, finally, perhaps Portuguesearchitecture. In all of these cases, the ‘Portuguese’ or the Indo-Portuguesethat they seek, is something that is seen to originate unambiguously in metropolitan,or continental Portugal.

Viewing the vitality of the Indo-Portuguese culture in thismanner is tricky. To begin with, the Portuguese language continues to remain inGoa, a minority (though by no means dying) language. Secondly, given theracialist biases of the caste system, most (upper-caste) people would notacknowledge their non-‘Indian’ roots, even if these existed. Thus, mostupper-caste Goans refuse to acknowledge a possible metropolitan ancestry.Finally, there are many who will argue that except for some buildings in OldGoa, most of the civil and religious architecture that one finds in Goa, is notin fact Portuguese, but Goan, or at the most, Indo-Portuguese.

Those of us who are committed to a continuing dialoguebetween Portugal and Goa may feel somewhat fatigued by such a scenario, butbefore we attempt to redress this state of affairs, we should also underlinethe fact that in the first place, the manner in which this search for the‘Portuguese’ in Goa, and the identification of the ‘Indo-Portuguese’ is set upby these well-intentioned metropolitan Portuguese, is in fact ratherproblematic. Implicit in this search for traces of the Portuguese, there is theidea that genuine Portuguese-ness emerges only from continental, nownation-state, Portugal; that Goa is only the space for receipt of this culture;and finally, following receipt, Goa can only faithfully reproduce. Anydeviation from the original is seen as being ‘syncretic’, which is to say,watered-down Portuguese. The term ‘syncretic’ represents one more challenge tounderstand the vitality of the Indo-Portuguese, since it sets up a binaryopposition. Either something can be ‘Portuguese’ or it can be ‘Indian’. If itis not Portuguese, then it is ‘syncretic’, that is to say, not quite ‘Indian’,and definitely, not ‘authentically’ Portuguese. Indeed within this framework,the Indo-Portuguese is exactly that, one half Portuguese, a half whosePortuguese pedigree must be definitely ascertained.

The practical implications of these constructions of thePortuguese, is that the poor Indo-Portuguese (and I am thinking particularly ofGoans) are doomed to ceaseless blind repetition if their cultural productionsare to continue being understood as Indo-Portuguese. Thus, we have the unendingstaging of the Corridinho, of the same old Portuguese language songs from the1950s and such like. In a situation that T. B. Cunha, in his polemical TheDenationalizaton of the Goans, both warned against and would have abhorred,this framework leaves no space for the Goan to engage in cultural innovation,and still have these innovations considered as within the frames of the‘Portuguese’. There is thus clearly a need for us to articulate a different, oradditional, paradigm to understand the manner in which the Portuguese continuesto robustly inhere within the Goan body politic.

Happily for us, the Lusophone world, in the metaphor of“anthropophagy” provides us with just the vantage point from which we canrecast the relationship of the Indo-Portuguese to Portugal, and see theexistence of a much larger Portugal beyond the usual, and unsatisfactory,understandings of Portuguese-ness in Goa.

While the word anthropophagy derived from the Greek wordsanthropos, “human being” and, phagein, “to eat”, refers to the eating of humanflesh; there is a unique history of the Lusophone world to this practice ofeating humans. Where popular Eurocentric imagination holds ‘African tribes’ tobe cannibals, some scholars suggest that it was the target population of theslave trade in Africa who first developed the idea that the early modernmetropolitan Portuguese were in fact taking people away to eat them. That thePortuguese practiced a religion that stressed the eating of a divine humanbeing who gave his life for them, perhaps only deepened this African beliefabout these Portuguese. As things came to pass, however, by some sleight ofhand, it was these African groups that were then held by later Europeans to infact be the cannibals! Anthropophagy however is different from cannibalism, afact underlined by the Movimento Anthropophago (Anthropophagic Movement) one ofthe more important Brazilian literary and artistic movements of twentiethcentury Latin America. This movement pointed out, with reference to thepractices of the Brazilian Tupinamba tribe, that people were not eaten for thepleasure of the taste for human flesh or hunger, but to incorporate the essenceand attributes of the victim who had been eaten. This logic is not foreign toSouth Asian understandings of the world, where the leftovers of a superior being, be it a husband, guru, ordeity, are often consumed, precisely to incorporate the essence of the superiorinto one’s being, though without the element of equalizing present in themodern Brazilian reinterpretation of the act.

What is critical to our understanding of the adoption of theanthropophagic metaphor in recasting the relationship of the Indo-Portuguese toPortuguese-ness, is that the Anthropophagic movement in Brazil was an attemptto challenge the centrality of Europe in the crafting of the Brazilianidentity. The movement sought to effect a liberation from the centrality ofEurope being the definer. Thus rather than the source of unmitigated good,Europe was seen as inherently problematic. Problematic Europe was therefore tobe ingested, so that through this process of corporeal ingestion, the virtuesof the indigenous, not Europe would provide a new holistic direction to thedevelopment, not merely of Brazil, but Latin America and all of its peoples.The liberation intended was almost nationalist, being an attempt to assert anindependence from the former metropoles of Latin America. In their imagining,anthropophagy could subvert meanings, destroy hierarchies, escape theoppressive forces of colonial relations, and transfigure their nihilisticenergies into a source of vitality. My own use of anthropophagy, however, isnot to assert a nationalist sensibility but, rather, like the Semana daCultura, to transcend it. Our identities and cultural capacities are capable ofencompassing more than national identities, and this is what I seek tounderline here.

The contours of anthropophagy as developed by the Movementare no doubt riddled with their own problems, but a restricted understanding ofanthropophagy, limited to the idea of bodily incorporation and reconstitutionof that which is ingested, has distinct advantages. It would allow us to seethe Indo-Portuguese as not merely derivative of the Portuguese, or incompletelyPortuguese, but as Portuguese in their own right, having, in the course oftheir half-millennium-long encounter ingested, digested and incorporated thePortuguese and all that came in the wake of the Portuguese. The reverse is ofcourse true of the continental Portuguese, though this is not seen asproblematic in continental Portugal, where African, Chinese, Indic and otherelements are seen as naturally part of the Portuguese fabric, not a syncretic,or  add-on, part. Indeed, one could arguethat this inequality in relations is precisely because all along it is themetropole, i.e. metropolitan Portugal, alone that has had the right to be seenas the devourer, and not the colony. An anthropophagic moment, then, whileasserting the communion between metropolitan and colonial, would also affirm aradical equality that has as yet, not been affirmed, neither in the metropole,nor in the colony, despite the putative ‘Liberation’ of 1961.

The anthropophagic moment rests however on a crucialdistinction that what we consumed was not Portugal the post-colonialnation-state, but Portugal the Empire. By carrying forward the anthropophagictrope and simultaneously embodying the Empire, we can take the dismemberment ofthe Empire, in the wake of its forced decolonization, as symbolic of itsbutchering for consumption. What we are left with therefore, are those whopartook in that banquet. This leaves us with the Angolans, the Mozambicans, theIndo-Portuguese, and the Portuguese of the Portuguese nation-state, all ofwhom, having consumed the Empire, now embody Portuguese-ness differently, yetequally.

 If theIndo-Portuguese is viewed in this anthropophagic light, then one would perhapsnot be consumed with possible anxieties, experienced by some culturalentrepreneurs, of presenting only what is identifiably Portuguese or whosePortuguese ancestry can be traced. Anything, and everything, that theIndo-Portuguese produces is also instantly part of the Portuguese oeuvre,regardless of the intention of the producer. This move of affirming thePortuguese-ness of the Indo-Portuguese, should not raise fears of erasing theidentity of the specificities of, say, the Goans. On the contrary, the Goanswould continue to be able affirm their individual identity. On the contrary,rather than see this as a validation of the continuing centrality of themetropole, this anthropophagic perspective would allow us to see multiplecentres for Portuguese-ness and follow with equal interest the developmentsthat are taking place in each of these spaces.

Thus, just as subsequent to Portugal’s incorporation intothe European Union there has been a flowering in a variety of fields, so too,as Goa has been joined into the Indian Union there has been a transformationfrom the traditionally recognized Indo-Portuguese into a variety of fields.These influences have come from the larger world of the Indian Union, perhapslesser so from the rest of the subcontinent. Cultural flows have been profoundfrom the Anglophone world, in particular the United Kingdom and the UnitedStates of America, just as metropolitan Portugal has often been stronglyattuned to cultural developments in the United Kingdom and ingests and incarnatescontemporary cultural developments in the United States.

A shift away from the syncretic model of cultural impacttowards the anthropophagic affords us a more profound way toward appreciatingthe Indo-Portuguese as it arrives in Lisbon this year. It allows us torecognize that the sub-continent can be an originary font of a vibrant anddynamic Portuguese culture. It allows for continuing dialogues, not rooted onlyin the past, but conversations that can look forward to the future, buildingrelationships and partnerships that are not necessarily limited to thecultural. Given the emphasis that is being placed here on a gustatory model,then, let us raise a toast to the Semana da Cultura Indo-Portuguesa and theaffirmative step it takes to show us that the Indo-Portuguese is indeed aliveand kicking.

Jason Keith Fernandes is a doctoral student studying at ISCTE-IUL,Lisbon. Interested in postcolonial theory, he has traversed a variety of disciplinaryboundaries

I would like to dedicate this essay to my friend andcolleague Prof. Dileep Loundo, via whom I first encountered the concept ofanthropophagy and who opened the doors to thinking about Goa via the Brazilianexperience.

I would also like to grudgingly share laurels for the craftingof this essay with Benedito Ferrão.

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