If one were to ask me about a history book that I had read, on Goa (or for that matter on any other subject) that was so interestingly well written, my answer, without batting an eye-lid, would be Selma Carvalho’s, Into the Diaspora Wilderness. I was expecting to find random biographical sketches of Goans who undertook long and arduous journeys to unknown and distant lands, but what I got was more than I had expected: a history book that I read like a thriller-novel!
Selma Carvalho has spent most of her life in the Diaspora and hence she is able to bring a personal touch to this volume on Goan migration to the African colonies (of the British primarily), the Gulf, Europe and America. Along with the numerous stories of persons of extra-ordinary courage that Selma deftly etches against the background of the history of the region concerned, she also weaves her own personal story with equal eloquence. By placing the seemingly insignificant history (of a Goan) against the history of a region, Selma might have very well ushered in a change in analyzing Goan history and the way we perceive it. This book tells us the stories of those men and women who were nearly forgotten by everyone, including history. The focal-point is the humble Goan who comes from an equally humble village.
In this book, Selma assesses the political climate and economic condition of each region in which her stories are based. The reader will surely be awed by the fact that many Goans had a major part to play (politically and economically) in each of these regions. Reading through the pages one finds that racism is also a major element. This is natural as Selma has intimately experienced being a ‘brown’ person in the Gulf, in America and in the UK. She has walked the precarious tightrope of racism. Selma has a rare gift of the sensitivity of a writer as well as the spirit-of-inquiry of a historian. No one has ever portrayed the pathos of the expats with such haunting and heart-wrenching detail.
This book has certain lines and passages that are sure to stay with anybody who reads them for a long, long time. Selma is at her literary best when narrating her own migration story. After living in the Gulf for twenty-eight odd years, she had to leave that place – a place to which, she never belonged. And when she felt homeless and lost, this is what she said, “I bowed my head to hide the tears. Would I ever be back? I didn’t know. With a thud on my passport, the young immigration officer stamped me out of the country, my place of abode for 28 odd years. I was a stranger just passing through.” Sure, all of us who have left our home and family behind and are based elsewhere can empathize with the predicament of Selma.
A new look and perspective is seen in the pages of this book regarding the much mocked as well as envied tarvotti (one who works on a ship) and the Gulfie (one who works in the Gulf). This book records the chronicles of such Goans likes the ayahs, butlers and cooks and people engaged in other odd jobs in distant lands, and trying to plug their experiences and contributions to the mainstream history. Though all these stories begin in Portuguese India, one is startled to find the extent to which the British colonizers have shaped them. The English-speaking and meat-eating Goan Catholic was so indispensable for the British administration, particularly in Africa. In fact, the Portuguese appear only fleetingly which goes in to underpin the much neglected and overlooked influence of the British in the Goan Diaspora. Most of the records that Selma has utilized to write this book are lodged in various libraries across England and this should come as no surprise in the light of the abovementioned facts.
The most surprising of stories in this book are the ones of Goans in Kenya. Pio Gama Pinto, very much politically active before and after the independence of Kenya, became that country’s first martyr. Needless to say, he was from a Goan extraction. Kenya’s second vice-president, Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi, belonged to a Goan-Maasai ancestry. His father hailed from Guirim, a village in Goa.
Selma’s voice and prose flows like music and she has the words to keep the reader hooked-on to the book. But when Selma moves to the UK with her husband and daughter, her story ends abruptly and the last few chapters seem to be loosely strung together. This book could have also done with a better cover rather than a collage of nautical maps which gives it an appearance of a geography text-book. But these complaints dwarf in front of the immensity and magnitude of the work put in by Selma.
In one of the chapter titled, The Exiled Intellectual, Selma talks about the Goans who having an intellectual bent of mind, sought success in other lands, yet who were always longing to come back home. This longing, Selma says, is advantageous as, “Goa at least will never be bankrupt for its artistic sons of the soil, whether in Goa or in the Diaspora, refuse to abandon her.” Comforting lines not only about sons but daughters as well (like you Selma) who refuse to abandon dear Goa. With her voice and intellect, Selma shouldn’t stop at just one book. Into the Diaspora Wilderness is a must-read!
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: October 6, 2010)