Under one roof: a Brazilian in Goa

Arthur Ituassu
13 March 2008

"Our food is Goan. It is not Indian, nor Portuguese. It is Goan. We are not Portuguese. We are Indian for sure, but we are also Goan."

The speaker is Jeanette Afonso, a middle-aged Portuguese teacher in Panaji, the small, historic capital city of the Indian state of Goa. As well as teaching, Jeanette runs a small guest-house at her Cantinho dos Afonsos, a double-yellow house in Panaji's beautiful Old Quarter. At the end of the street, the little white church of São Francisco de Assis bathes in the light, blessing the neighbourhood and enshrining its history - there is even a crucifix that had given authority to the trials of the Goan inquisition (1560-1774).

For a Brazilian, this is a very interesting place to be. It is so clear that both former colonies of Portugal (Brazil 1500-1882, Goa 1510-1961) are products of a shared history - Portugal's pioneering globalisation - that enables people from widely distant territories to feel at home in the other. When, for example, a mass in Portuguese is celebrated on Sunday morning at the church of Imaculada Conceição, both the oceans and the centuries between Brazil and Goa seem to fall away.

But a common history, as Amartya Sen argues, is no excuse from reasoning. A Brazilian in Goa can equally see that everything here is also "similar, but different". The space for human creation and intervention - for making it new - must never be suppressed. It is such intervention that has also made Brazilia and Goan cultures - their shared histories notwithstanding - different.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His website is here

Among Arthur Ituassu's articles on Brazil in openDemocracy:

"Brazil: never the same again" (4 October 2005)

"Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty" (17 May 2006)

"Brazil at the crossroads" (15 August 2006)

"The green and yellow phoenix" (29 September 2006)

"Brazil, let's talk" (4 October 2006)

"Welcome to politics, Brazil" (1 November 2006)

"Brazil: the moral challenge" (18 April 2007)

"Tropa de Elite: Brazil's dark sensation" (2 November 2007)

Goa is India, and the Portuguese influence could not change this fact. This is a place where Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Arabs and the non-religious have been talking to each other for centuries - even though some people are (often violently) trying to sell the idea of a "pure" Hindu India. In that particular sense, a Brazilian's journey through Goa is one that triggers reflection on one's own self amid Goan/Indian complexity in order to come to a better understanding of one's place in the world. In this interiorising process, India acquires again the imaginative setting of a great experience. As EP Thompson commented (as quoted by Amartya Sen):

"All the convergent influences of the world run through this society: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, secular; Stalinist, liberal, Maoist, democratic socialist, Gandhian. There is not a thought that is being thought in the west or east that is not active in some Indian mind."

The trap of culture

Goa, like Brazil, is world-famous for its beaches. But Palolem and Anjuna are similar to Copacabana for more than their beauty. The faces of those who beg for a little tourist penny are also one. Poverty and deep inequality are major problems in India as they are in Brazil - a country that is less poor but more unequal.

The phenomenon expands the frontiers of economics. After all, both societies seem on the surface to deal with this situation day-by-day in an easy-going atmosphere (though it is sometimes broken in Brazil by huge acts of social violence, and many of India's states are riven by armed disputes). In fact, poverty and inequality are constantly referred to as part of the "cultural" realities of both nations. This is true to the extent that poverty must by definition "also" have a cultural aspect, but this argument too often acquires a determinist tinge. Amartya Sen argues that culture (and history) can explain a lot of things - but never justify. Reason must be free to judge and establish limits to what is and is not acceptable. Poverty and extreme inequality are serious deficiencies in Brazilian and Indian society, and must be identified and targeted for attention rather than passively accepted.

A further prime example is gender. Although Indian women in general face more difficulties in life than Brazilian ones, females are badly treated in both countries: too often lacking education, opportunities and in many areas even respect. Culture, again, explains much of this, but it cannot be an excuse for keeping things as they are. That is why basic education is so important for both countries (Amartya Sen follows Rabindranath Tagore in making this point in the Indian context). After all, it is only through language - access to literacy, and articulacy, and thus education - that human history can be created (and recreated).

India, like Brazil, lacks universal access to justice and suffers from slow, expensive and highly bureaucratic courts. NR Madhava Menon writes that there are more than 30 million judicial cases pending in India's courts: "With delay, cost also increases and uncertainty of outcome persists, compelling people with legitimate claims either to give up or settle for less than their due. Access to justice, one of the fundamental rights, is the causality in this process" (see "Justice without delay", The Hindu, 22 January 2008).

A malign temptation

Alongside these deep internal social problems, the two countries' nationalist ambitions are leading them in a wrong direction in the global arena. India and Brazil are each campaigning for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, at the same time as they are undertaking dangerous nuclear programmes. India's possession of nuclear weapons is open and declared, but Brazil too - though it lacks this military capacity - has an advanced nuclear-energy programme that includes uranium enrichment (at the Usina de Enriquecimento de Rezende) and a long military and nationalist tradition that favours the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

In the context of Delhi's failure to provide basic and equal opportunities to its citizens (which is also Brasília's), Amartya Sen quotes the estimate of Rammanohar Reddy that by if diverted the amount spent on India's nuclear-weapons policy could provide every child in the country with elementary education in a neighbourhood school. When close to 40% of Indian adults are illiterate (and 55% of Pakistani) what could be more important?

Every Brazilian defence expert (and any other citizen tempted by the nuclear option) should read Amartya Sen's article "India and the Bomb" (Frontline, 2000), which tracks the strategic failure the country's policy in this field represents. Moreover, Sen's historical study of India's and Pakistan's path toward the nuclear bomb is extremely useful in providing insights into the competitive environment of those historic rivals, Brazil and Argentina. As Sen rightly says, India's choice of nuclear weapons legitimated Pakistan's own pursuit, putting the two countries on equal military terms - even though India's conventional forces have always been much stronger. The move also elevated China - for some people the real target of New Delhi's national-security policy - to a position of a sub-continental peacemaker, inviting too the further involvement of the United States.

The possession of nuclear weapons has not averted the danger of a nuclear holocaust; on the contrary. The Kargil conflict of 1999, for example - the first military conflict between India and Pakistan in nearly thirty years - occurred less than a year after the two countries' nuclear tests. Amartya Sen echoes other analysts in pointing out that Kargil's confrontations were fuelled by Islamabad's understanding that New Delhi would not be able to use its massive superiority in conventional forces because it feared nuclear retaliation.

Amartya Sen's judgment of India's path to nuclearisation is highly relevant to Brazil:

"One of the interesting sidelights that emerges from a scrutiny of Indian official perceptions is the extent to which the government underestimated India's importance as a major country, a democratic polity, a rich multi-religious civilisation, with a well-established tradition in science and technology (including the cutting edge of information technology), and with a fast-growing economy that could grow, with little effort, even faster. The overestimation of the persuasive power of the bomb went with an underestimation of the political, cultural, scientific and economic strengths of the country."

When a person can - after all that - still defend Brazil's and India's nuclearisation, let Rabindranath Tagore speak for me too: if "in his eagerness for power, a nation multiplies his weapons at the cost of his soul, then it is he who is in much greater danger than his enemies".

A benign interference

If there a single attribute that society in Brazil and India society share, it may be complexity. An awareness of this is also necessary inoculation against the temptation of easy answers. Brazil's culture, for example, includes European, American, Asiatic and African influences - all of which are richly present in religion, food, music, behaviour, language, and other dimensions. Yet this complexity is also a route to something else. The whole country recently celebrated the (officially) four-day-long party of Carnival. But Carnival is not just dancing, colourful floats and some quasi-nude women; it is also friendship, solidarity and fraternity around the life of and between human beings - all of them, with no exclusion. After all, in the face of life, we are all but equal. Perhaps it is societies who most embrace and live with complexity that are the forefront of this understanding.

It is indeed among their own and now the world's complexity that Brazil and India must find a way to live peacefully, fairly and respectfully of each other. This alone would be a great contribution that Brazil and India could give to what both many in nations rightly see as an unfair and unequal world. Both cultures, through their benign interferences, can transform "politics" into whatever they want "politics" to be: from a practice that divides to one that integrates within it values of peace, justice and respect for the other - as in Octavio Paz's idea of an effort to transform society into poetry by the creative exercise of liberty (freedom as a path, not an end). If some have taken a wrong way, it is not necessary that we follow.

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