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From Goa to Bangladesh

  • Published at 02:08 pm January 17th, 2020
Goa’s tiny capital has always been a friend of Dhaka BIGSTOCK

Our fates and sympathies are deeply intertwined

I grew up believing in the truth of the precepts that were available to me: I believed in the reality of space; I believed that distance separates, that it is a corporeal substance; I believed in the reality of nations and borders; I believed that across the border there existed another reality. Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (1988)

Just footsteps away from where this column is written, the Mandovi river opens up to meet the Arabian Sea. This is Panjim, the tiny capital city of Goa, India’s smallest state. 

We are 2000km overland from Dhaka, with the breadth of the sub-continent sprawled between us, encompassing an immense swathe of the characteristically deshi tumult of languages, ethnicities, and cultural practices. 

And yet, as is also typical for this part of the world, there are many profound connections between our two locations, which have persisted throughout every kind of political upheaval throughout the ages.

Some of these linkages are ancient, and thus only faintly discerned, such as those implied by the close relationship that linguistic scholars have found between the Bengali and Konkani languages. 

But others are much more direct. 

For just one example, in 1518, four ships commanded by João da Silveira sailed down the same Mandovi river which flows outside my windows, and headed purposefully across to Chittagong, where they arrived on May 9, and eventually established the first colonial enclave in Bengal. 

This became part of the Portuguese Estado da Índia, and was administered and ruled directly from Goa (which had become its capital in 1510).

When the British supplanted that dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries, the old maritime connections were severed, only to be replaced by an even more robust Raj-era pipeline of teachers, tailors, musicians, bakers, and countless clerks and administrators from Goa who served in Bengal. 

My grandmother’s cousin Joseph Anthony Vaz, who was the first of our community to become an Indian Civil Service officer (he won the Kaiser-e-Hind Gold Medal in 1921 for his efforts in famine relief), spent years in both western and eastern districts of the Raj-era Bengal Province.

The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War featured significant Goan involvement in the Indian armed forces that defeated Pakistan. 

My friend, the author Valmiki Faleiro -- whose 2010 book, Patriotism in Action, surveys Goa’s modern military history -- told me: “The number of Goan officers in action in 1971 was the highest in terms of regional representation, including the Sikhs.”

Goan commanders saw action on both western and eastern fronts: Lt General Walter AG Pinto in Punjab, Maj General Eustace D’Souza in the Kashmir valley, Lt General Eric Vaz in Rajasthan, and Maj General Benjamin F Gonsalves in what became Bangladesh. 

Even more crucial was the role played by Anthony Mascarenhas, who was part of the small but persistently noteworthy Goan community in Karachi (there are still thousands who remain there). On June 13, 1971, his brave, shocking report about Pakistan’s war crimes against the Bangladeshi uprising was published in the Sunday Times in London. 

In that decisive moment, world opinion pivoted in sympathy. 

The paper’s editor Harold Evans later wrote that India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told him the article upset her so deeply it prompted “a campaign of personal diplomacy in the European capitals and Moscow to prepare the ground for India’s armed intervention.”

The great Amitav Ghosh, who has ancestral roots in East Bengal and now spends part of each year living in Goa, once memorably wrote: “In the geography of human history, no culture is an island.” 

It’s an essential insight, which applies in equal measure to our tormented 21st century, with its worldwide eruption of the politics of exclusion, even in the face of a looming climate change catastrophe.

We can certainly try to enforce barriers -- India has just announced plans to rapidly expand its non-cut meshed anti-rust fencing along the border with Bangladesh -- but our fates and sympathies have never been more intertwined.

An interesting episode that illustrates this remarkable coming-together took place over consecutive years at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival, which I co-curate along with the eminent Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo.

In the middle of the last decade, we were blessed with a strong delegation from Bangladesh, which included the effervescent US-based author, Abeer Hoque. 

The next year, she came back again, and this time we were quite surprised and pleased to see the venue’s catering staff greeting her with much celebratory delight. 

One of their colleagues in the previous year had been from Dhaka, and had insisted on taking them all to her sessions. They had become her fans. But the following year, there was no Abeer. The catering staff was incensed. 

Every time they saw me, they complained: “What’s the point in even hosting this festival, if we don’t have anyone from Bangladesh?!”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.