03 Jun 2023  |   04:38am IST

Awakening the Quest for Goa

Awakening the Quest for Goa

Vivek Menezes

Hearty congratulations to Dr Sharmila Pais, associate professor of history at St Xavier’s College in Mapusa, and Professor Prajal Sakhardande, head of the department of history at Dhempe College in Miramar, on the launch of their excellent primer, The Quest For Goa: History and Heritage of Goa from Ancient Times to 2019

(Goa 1556). In the highly vitiated present atmosphere, with aspects of our past regularly weaponized by unscrupulous politicians and other miscreants, this is an instantly invaluable resource or – as its authors described it to me – “ready reckoner” about the facts, figures, and fundamental underpinnings of the culture and society of India’s smallest state.

I was honoured to speak at the book launch at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research in Porvorim earlier this week, which is the best starting point to understand this new volume, because it’s where post-colonial historiography of Goa fructified under the meticulous ministrations of Dr Teotónio de Souza (1947-2019), who came to prominence as a Jesuit priest, before leaving the order and pursuing a distinguished career in higher education in Portugal. There’s a direct line between those efforts and the new book, as it was his students – like Dr Fatima da Silva Gracias, who also spoke at the launch – who trained the newer generations of historians including Pais and Sakhardande.

XCHR emerged in the cusp of the 1980s, which is just over four decades ago but can seem like the Dark Ages because the intellectual landscape of Goa has developed unrecognizably since then. I recall the times vividly, because it’s when my own studies in Goan history began, and almost everything available quickly proved outdated, propagandistic and effectively useless. One cadre of “scholars” was still treating our homeland as the derivation of Portugal, and another cohort shoehorning us into Indian nationalist narratives without any understanding about the singular nuances of 451 years in the Estado da India. From my perspective, which went on to include degrees in imperial economic history from the US and UK, all this was mere drivel.

Teotónio – who became my mentor and close friend – did change the scene, but progress was excruciatingly gradual. Earlier this week, I revisited my battered copies of his pioneering interventions, in particular the second book published by the XCHR in 1981 – Coastal Western India: Studies from the Portuguese Records by then-Australia-based historian M N Pearson, who is now 82 years old and living back in his native New Zealand. Reading across the years, it’s fascinating how both scholars hedged their analyses. Dr de Souza carefully endorses “the best effort on the part of a non-Indian historian to do justice to the Indian component of Indo-Portuguese history” and Pearson expends considerable energy differentiating where Goa belongs between “maritime history” and “imperial history” and “internal Indian history”, eventually conceding “any historian writing about any society at any time is faced with the problem of interpreting the past in its own terms.”

That conundrum poses an insuperable paradox in evaluating the fine new book by Pais and Sakhardande. These two wonderful professors – indeed, Sakhardande in particular must be credited with catalysing an impressive and passionate state-wide rediscovery of Goan heritage - have painstakingly compiled an up-to-date historical narrative that is rigorously acceptable to all parties. However, in doing exactly that, their hugely admirable efforts also illustrate some wrong turns “the official history of Goa” has taken since Pearson et al commenced with such promise 40 years ago. The study of Goa’s many-layered history has admittedly flourished, but we’ve also regressed in crucial ways, with far too many concessions to religion, caste and nationalist myth-making, none of which belong in the scientific study of history.

I unreservedly recommend The Quest For Goa: History and Heritage of Goa from Ancient Times to 2019 to all readers – especially students – and sincerely admire how Pais and Sakhardande navigate the fraught socio-political backdrop to their retelling of Goan history. As we all know, this is not only essential but existential, with an ever-present threat of manipulated mob violence against anyone daring to contest even the most absurd orthodoxies. Nonetheless, it is regrettable that any serious history book must still accommodate obviously spurious legends, and casteist fantasies, besides perpetuating the glaring canard of parsing Goa’s population into Aryans and Dravidians.

Here is one more area in which we have gone in the wrong direction, contrary to the efforts of our own best scholars, including Dr de Souza and the great Goan polymath, Dharmanand Damodar Kosambi. The latter scholar (who was the son of an almost imaginably great visionary, the Sancoale-born Buddhist-Communist-Gandhian Dharmanand Kosambi) graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1929, then came home to kick-start and propel several modern disciplines in India, from mathematics and statistics to philology and genetics. When it comes to history, this genius fashioned his approach from the ground up, based on evidence that he literally turned up himself by walking everywhere, seeing clearly with his own eyes, and always rejecting the conventional wisdom as well as contemporary fashion. In fact, that is the only way forward for writing Goan (or any) history.

Here, it’s useful to dwell on the continuing relevance of what Ranajit Guha – himself an epoch-making historian who sparked the Subaltern Studies group – wrote in Unsettling the Past: Unknown Aspects and Scholarly Aspects of D D Kosambi, which was launched at the 2013 Goa Arts + Literature Festival in 2013 by its author Dr Meera Kosambi, the third generation in that incredible family legacy: “Concentration upon the study of religion, superstition, ritual can lead us very far away from history [but] to neglect their study altogether throws away valuable features of the superstructure that indicate real changes in the basis…the history of South Asia has been the scene of a seemingly endless acculturation that has had multiple layers of cultures deposited on it over the millennia in a vast, accommodating superstructure. It is this aspect of history that leads Kosambi to make fieldwork a matter of supreme importance in his reconstruction of the Indian past.”


Iddhar Udhar