Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells us there cannot be a single story defining us. This is particularly true for Goans. We cannot have a single story; our story is layered with the memories of distant lands, some, in which, we have lived, others buried in the encrypted consciousness of our ancestors, travelling to us through space and time, hurtling us to discover ourselves through the story-telling of dispersed lives. Such is the story told in acclaimed Norwegian author Ivo de Figueiredo’s memoir, A Stranger at My Table (Doppel House; 2019).
What we know about Goan history is this: within its myriad folds were individual lives being lived, full of aspiration and promise, but also lives fuelled by personal demons, violence and the parochial patriarchy of the Catholic Goan world. Where do stories start then, in the bends of history or in our own recognition of a starting point? Perhaps this story pivots on these lines written by Marit Walle, Figueiredo’s Norwegian mother, in 1963, just before getting married to his Goan father, Xavier Hugo Figueiredo. She wrote, ‘Yes, I am getting a strange sort of husband indeed. Hugo is: an Indian, a Portuguese citizen, British protected with a British passport, born in Africa – pff - and he’s going to get married to a Norwegian.’ From this point of dislocation, the story of four generations, several homelands, and intermarriage unfolds.
For the sake of chronology, we begin at the beginning. At the close of the 19th century, Figueiredo’s great-grandfather Aleixo Mariano de Figueiredo, born in Saligao, in 1872, travelled along with his wife Ermelinda, to Zanzibar. There, he achieved some acclaim as postmaster to the Sultan and was awarded the Order of the Brilliant Star. By the second half of the 19th century, a small number of elite Goans had made their way to Zanzibar where they became hugely influential. Work done by British-Goan genealogist, Richard de Souza, points to the nub of this migration being largely from North Goa villages (Saligao, Calangute, Anjuna) and loosely related to each other. A succession of Sultans, commencing with Sayyid Barghash, were particularly enamoured of Goans, and ensured the royal entourage included Goan musicians, personal physicians, photographers and interpreters.
In 1954, the Figueiredo family moved to Nairobi, and embraced the Anglophone world of the British Empire. They would merge seamlessly into a hierarchy (a bell jar, as Figueiredo calls it), where the British reigned at the top; the Asians presided in-between and at the bottom languished indigenous Africans.
In the late summer of 1958, Figueiredo’s father, Xavier landed in London, part of that first wave of Goan immigrants from East Africa who arrived as students, largely from middle-class families, somewhat aided by bursaries offered by the UK government. They were met on arrival by representatives of the British Council, who settled them with families. Or, they were lucky enough to be offered subsidized accommodation by Catholic-run hostels. These scattered settlements of Goans which emerged along the commuter routes at Wood Green, Manor House and Finsbury Park, do not exist anymore. Each wave of Goan migration contends with its own needs and settles where they are most likely to flourish.
Sixties’ London was at the epicentre of a cultural revolution. Young men and women were engaged in profound conversations about civil rights, art, music, and the place of the individual. It was a unique moment in history, a period of democratisation, not just of countries but of culture, giving birth to the idea of universal personhood. It was also a time of glorious possibilities, where interracial marriage, for the first time seemed like something that could work. It was this possibility that Xavier and Marit seized when they met at the International Club in Kingston-upon-Thames.
The most compelling aspect of the memoir is the tension and conflict between Xavier’s world and that of Marit. Just how misguided Marit was about Goans is captured in a letter she wrote in 1963: ‘he has no fatherland … no traditions, customs, art, music, poetry, etc as I do. So, he’ll adopt all our Norwegian ways.’ Not only are Goans bound by a syncretic culture but they are resistant to change, the fulcrum of their existence being a deeply entrenched Catholicism. But it was not just Marit who was harbouring preconceived notions; Xavier carried with him, all the smug disdain Asians have for perceived European immorality. In a letter to Marit, he writes: ‘I’m so glad I met you before you got spoiled.’
Xavier came from the fulsome bosom of Goan patriarchy while Marit thrived on the brink of a sexual revolution. She wanted adventure, to work, to have a life separate from that of her husband. Was it just two misaligned worlds, caught between the fall of empires, that would fail to harmonise? Likely, the darkness, the violence that Xavier unleased during the marriage was symptomatic of something far more malignant: an unhappiness at the core of his being? A mental affliction or just learned behaviour passed on from generation to generation; the toxic masculinity of a society in which exercising control over women’s bodies is not only condoned but slyly encouraged?
It’s impossible to do justice to the complexity of Figueiredo’s writing. His lyrical prose is exquisite and has won him Norway’s 2016 Language Prize and the Brage Prize. Can we claim Figueiredo for ourselves? He has no inkling of what it means to be Goan. His only, fleeting, acquaintance with the community has been the Norwegian Goan Association in Oslo.
So, where do we retain parts of our sacred selves? In our skins, our religions or our high cultures? Maybe there is no such mythical place of retention. Maybe we are all individuals with disparate stories, dissolving and reconstituting, leaving homelands and finding new ones, setting sail from safe harbours and embracing unknown futures. And yet, are we really anything other than the sum total of our shared historical past? Can we deny that collective euphoria which transcends distance and binds us in a primordial understanding of oneness? Figueiredo’s story is ours.
(The writer is the Author of Goan Pioneers of