Wednesday, 6 January 2016

NATIONALIST SAINTS: T. B. CUNHA AND GOAN HISTORY



There is a difference between a biography and a hagiography. The former is written about a historical person whose life may be something other than ordinary. A hagiography is generally the life of a saint and the miracles that s/he had performed in his/her life. Although there is a difference between these two genres, scholars and critics complain that biographical accounts and sketches often read like hagiographies (without the miracles, of course!). This is exactly the thought that came to my mind after I finished reading the recently released graphic novel, The Life and Times of T. B. Cunha (2015) narrated by Nishtha Desai, with illustrations by Ved Prabhudesai.

In recent times, Goans, especially Catholics, have been accused of being inadequately Indian/nationalist and being overtly westernized – a stick that secular nationalists and right-wing nationalists alike use against Goan Catholics. This view has been heavily influenced by Cunha’s rather infamous pamphlet, Denationalisation of Goans (1944). In such a scenario, a minister in the present government, Mr. Dayanand Mandrekar asserts in the introductory pages, “Cunha’s views continue to be relevant. Our people continue to be fascinated by the west and fail to appreciate our history.” His words are only symptomatic of the many problems within the ‘denationalisation’ thesis of Cunha and those who subscribe to his views.

If one reads Denationalisation, Cunha is seen to understand all the policies introduced by the Portuguese empire and state as a means to destroy the authentic culture of Goa and to enslave Goans – although he does not specify what this authentic culture was. Thus, for Cunha, even Christianization was a means of westernization and enslavement of the Goan people. Unfortunately, in keeping with the model of nationalist politics during the ’40s and ’50s, Cunha’s critique was only confined to European imperialism while the internal fractures within Goan society, in terms of class and caste, were either ignored or conveniently forgotten. In his Denationalisation tract, Cunha had – proverbially speaking – thrown the baby out with the bath water. In one sweep, Cunha was able to mark Christians as suspects within his nationalist vision.

The graphic novel in question is faithful to Cunha and his views on Goan history and, as such, reproduces many of his problematical nationalist stances. Like Cunha, this graphic novel is also selective of the facts that it chooses to mention and illustrate. For instance, it is an well-known fact that Afonso de Albuquerque conquered the city of Goa on 25 November, 1510. But it is also eminent fact that Albuquerque had native collaboration in the form of Mhal Pai Vernekar and Timayya.


From the moment of Albuquerque’s conquest in 1510, the book draws on the usual, clich├ęd, and endless saga of mass conversions, mass migrations, and mass suppressions. The problem is not that the book is unable to include all facts about colonialism in Goa, but the problem lies in a certain narrow and nationalistic interpretation of the few selected facts. “A few people were happy with Portuguese rule as they were given positions of power and respect – they thought themselves superior to ‘Indians’”, we are told without any specificity. Interestingly, the illustration immediately below depicts a group of suited men, sipping alcohol, and smoking cigars – or elite Christians. Further, it was not just elite Christians who enjoyed positions of power and privilege within the Portuguese state, elite Hindus did too. To further problematize the simplistic understandings of Goan history, new research by Dr. Anjali Arondekar has brought to light how the Gomant Maratha Samaj in the nineteenth century was successful in petitioning the Portuguese state for rights to land and protection against upper-caste aggression. How different would this graphic-novel and Cunha’s politics look, if both had pondered on such facts a little more? Surely, this notion of pure victimhood at the hands of an all-powerful outsider would have been tougher to sustain.

And since Cunha’s writings and politics were entirely focused on dealing with imperialism, the graphic novel is unable to ask why Cunha did not view the internal inequality within Goan society as an equal – if not a greater – threat in realizing a just and democratic society. After all, the creation of an equal society was the main thrust of Cunha’s political activism. Instead, we are presented with an image of a saint who, right from childhood, displays signs of greatness and is moved by the poverty of the people of the land – stopping just short of performing miracles. This is exactly what the illustrations seem to be trying to do – prop up a hero or a saint. The text of the novel, in contrast, is quite thin, besides being devoid of any critical gaze on both Cunha’s political career and activism, or Goan history. One would have expected a lot more given that Cunha’s ideas and writings show a change over a period of time – especially since he was unhappy with the manner in which India was handling the question of Goan self-emancipation. Thus, this book does not do justice to either the times or the life of Cunha.

In understanding and evaluating the life and times of Cunha one can be very sure that there is a lot more to the man than merely his image as the ‘Father of Goan nationalism’. A celebratory account will only obscure it.

See also, 'The English Language and Denationalisation', here.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 January, 2016)

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