The second-last Sunday every July, a great, big jamboree descends on Goans who call London their home. For one brief day, on which we pray to the Weather Goddess not to douse us with rain, frayed buntings are strung up, green canvas tents erected, deck chairs unfolded, centre-stage tarted-up with threatening-looking audio equipment, glittery, uncreased costumes donned,chief-guest alerted, mikes tested, and we are ready for what is the Summer Goan Festival hosted by the Goan Association (UK).
As I walk towards the food stalls, I hear broad Konkani being exchanged across a sea of flailing arms all trying to buy chouriço-stuffed pão. The festival, which in former years merely limped along, has been rejuvenated largely because of a second migratory wave of Goans into Britain. It is the last vestige of Goan tradition in multi-cultural London, a city which quickly cannibalises cultures and spits out mellow caricatures faintly resembling something Caribbean, African or Asian but somehow utterly British.
From a purely amateur anthropological point of view, the festival is an immense experiment in social engineering. Standing at the centre of a swarming mass of people, this year 9000 visitors strong, I have to admit that life does not stand still; that neither culture, nor its sibling, identity can remain static; that all of humanity moves in a seamless dance of Darwinian evolution, invisible to the naked eye, but silently reshaping our world.
Conspicuous in this directionless throng is the recent immigrant from Goa; young, brazen with a chest puffed-out sort of confidence, and muscles hardened with labour, he moves in packs which arrive on buses from Swindon, Wembley and Ealing, the first-generation immigrant hubs of Britain. In certain pretentious London Goan circles a thinly disguised sneer is emerging which refers to him as PPP –Person with Portuguese Passport- which in years to come may evolve into an ism all of its own. The Portuguese-Goan speaks in unadulterated Konkani, and dresses loudly with jangly gold bracelets and stone-washed jeans.
Somewhere in the line of stalls, lost in the blur is the East African Goan; ageing, doddery, he limps from tent to tent, trying to find friends he knew back in East Africa only to find their numbers dwindling with each passing year. He arrives dressed always in a smart jacket, holding forth in crisp English spoken with a quasi-Anglo accent, leaving one with the impression of being permanently perched on a make-believe podium, about to toast some other eminent East African Goan receiving his OBE from the Queen. But all these are faded glories, from another era which he left behind in East Africa along with the Goan clubs and colonial civil service whose memories he retrieves from life’s gold purse of indulgence on occasions such as these in the company of those who have made the same journey.
In between these two strange animals who seldom socialise with each other, there lies a spectrum of other more nebulous and emerging identities; the offspring of things Goan but largely British. I can hear a strong South-East London voice behind me, brusque bordering on rude, driven almost by a Thatcheresque “what’s in-it-for-me” type of individualism.
All these voices can, of course, legitimately co-exist without intruding on each other. This is the great achievement of the 21st century, that we are no longer bound by geography, custom, tradition, nationality, colour or creed to embrace identities. We are moving ever so fast into an indistinguishable mass of faded jeans, popcorn chicken and Facebook facelessness. If there is a tiny part of me which grieves for the old world of rock-solid cultures, it is only because I am a grumbling fool, conditioned to look at the past with nostalgia, blur out its limitations and prejudices, and sterilize it into a trembling memory of pristine goodness.
In the hospitality tent of the Festival, I extend my hand to a tall, fair, beautiful woman, who was an universal phenomenon long before Facebook was invented, for in 1966 she was crowned Miss World. Reita Faria not only did her country proud but broke the “white-only” stranglehold over the competition. Faria was born in Matunga, Mumbai, but is of Goan origin. As a child, she travelled frequently to Goa on holiday. She was studying at Grant Medical College to be a doctor when she entered the Miss World contest. Classmates covered up for her absence during this time, she laughs, still carrying with her a certain aura of Bombay Catholic chic.
In December of 1966, she accompanied the legendary American comedian Bob Hope on his annual USO Christmas shows to South Vietnam. Asked if she was fazed by all this, she says she has never been intimidated by status in life. Her parents and friends back in Bombay were well acquainted with Bob Hope and were perhaps slightly more nervous than she was of her appearance before hundreds of American troops stationed in Vietnam at the time. The scene however, left her a bit unnerved, as so many young men, permanently handicapped, filled the front rows of her audience. Faria soon gave up the glamour world to complete her medical degree and practice medicine. Today, she lives in Dublin with her husband, endocrinologist David Powell and family, lavishing all her time and attention on her young grandchildren.
As the day fades to an end, a summery sun recedes into the horizon, tents are dismantled, deck-chairs are stacked, the large passenger-coaches edge away from their parked stations and head homewards, until next year. n