Two Cultures in India

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The Basilica of Bom Jesus, which holds the remains of St. Francis Xavier, in Old Goa.

The claim by the Republic of India to the Portuguese possessions in India has aroused world interest. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the dispute may involve commitments by the signatory powers to NATO. But the matter is in itself of more than ordinary interest, being very different from the usual colonial problem so often in the political news today.

The Portuguese Indian difference poses this question: Are a people what they feel themselves to be, or must they forever remain what their forefathers were? In other words, is a person an American, a Dutchman, an Italian, or an Englishman simply because his ancestors belonged to one of these nations? Is an American Negro less an American because his origin is African?

If colonialism is taken to mean keeping a people subject to alien rule and exploitation, it is repugnant to the majority of people today, and rightly so. But the Portuguese have been in Goa more than four hundred and fifty years, rather longer than the Europeans have been in America. In the course of these centuries, more than fifty per cent of the total population of half a million people in these territories has ceased to be Indian in all but origin.

Unlike the early settlers in America or the British in India, the Portuguese neither exterminated the indigenous inhabitants nor were they content, as the British were, simply to rule the Indians. Instead, they strove to assimilate them into their own culture by Baptism, by intermarriage and by sharing with them the culture they had brought from the West. As a result, a stranger meeting an educated Christian Goan today is in doubt as to whether he is an Indian or a Southern European. This metamorphosis is not, as in the case with the majority of westernized Indians in India, a shallow varnish acquired from an English public school education but is of the mind and spirit. Such Goans are no longer Indians; they are as much Mediterranean Europeans as the present descendants of the various European nationalities are today Americans.

During my fourteen years' residence in India, under both the British Raj and the Republic, I never met an Indian--no matter how well disposed to the British nor how English his education--who considered himself other than an Indian. At the same time I never met a Goan who thought of himself as an Indian, who ever regarded himself as anything but a Goan and a Portuguese, or who expressed the slightest desire to be an Indian subject. The Christian Goan has a typically Southern European mentality. His customs and habits are so divorced from the Indian that there is no longer any real affinity between them. This fact is strikingly illustrated should you be a guest of either, provided that you are intimate enough with an Indian family to be received informally.

To be the guest of an educated Christian Goanese family is to be entertained as one would be in any middle-class European household of small means. A cloth is on the table, everyone sits on a chair and eats his curry with a spoon and fork, the womenfolk eat with the men and converse freely with the company. All are dressed in European style; with the poorer classes the women often retain the graceful Indian saree but never the accompanying nose-ring and anklets.

Indian hospitality, though always more formal, is equally warm in its welcome. But regardless of the social status or financial means of your host, and no matter how Western his education, if you are favored as an intimate friend you will squat on the floor and eat your curry with your fingers. The curry will be served to each guest on a large banana leaf, or, in the houses of the well-to-do, from small silver dishes set on the floor beside you. The ladies of the house will greet you in Indian style, their hands pressed palm against palm and never touching yours. Then with a charming shyness they will almost immediately depart from the room, custom forbidding them to eat with men, even those of their own family.

In an Indian home, your host and his friends will have discarded the European clothes which, if they wear them at all, are adopted only for outdoor wear as a concession to modem conditions. Since the essence of home is to be in one's true environment, they will sit in the comfort of a dhoti, a length of muslin wound many times round the loins, reaching down each leg to the ankle and drawn up between the legs to be tucked in at the waist. An Indian is often naked to the waist, and he is always barefoot in his home. He sees life as a thing of the spirit in which the accidentals and non-essentials have no place inside the hidden precincts. For the Indian, to live is to be in harmony with the daily life around one, with the customs and habits of life that reflect one's inner self.

To the Christian Goan, on the other hand, to live is to enjoy life. He is deeply attached to his family but, like a true Mediterranean, he nevertheless spends most of his leisure outside the home. In Goa he sits in the cards; in Bombay he goes to his club. There he drinks, though seldom to excess, gossips and, if he is young and unmarried, preens and ogles the pretty girls around him. He dances to the latest American tunes, and he gambles. Work for him is a means to existence and to pleasure, not to satisfying ambition or amassing wealth. He spends with more freedom than discretion, and a large part of his earnings goes on clothes, for he dearly loves to "cut a fine figure." The Goan loves life with a joyous gaiety.

This attitude on life the Indian finds incomprehensible. The Indian's austere pessimism regards such behavior as undignified foolishness fit for children. Dancing as practiced in the Western world is to him a depravity; by the Indian woman it is regarded as a degradation to her sex. Though the drinking of alcohol is indulged in surreptitiously by the lower classes and more openly by the ultra-westernized, the average Indian looks askance upon the habit, and even the most emancipated Indian woman would hesitate to take a drink in company.

To a Hindu, joie de vivre is untranslatable; he could never grasp its sense. This is true even on his greatest occasions. At a wedding or religious festival the Indian drum beats out its summons to the professional dancers, and their movements are often a song of exquisite grace, and the rhythm itself suggests exultation. But the mien both of the dancers and the spectators throughout remains solemn, even sad, as though it were the drum alone that moved the dancers.

Hoarding his money with an almost religious reverence, the average Indian would be at a loss to find a use for the halo of spirituality bestowed upon him by the inherent sentimentality of many Anglo-Saxons. Idealism and philosophy may occupy the thoughts of a few sages and busy the tongues of the intelligentsia of Bengal, but to the ordinary Indian it is the talk of fools.

Endless discussions go on in the little tea shops of the cities or in the bazaars of an Indian village, but it is not politics or philosophy that is being discussed. Instead, the Indians talk of stocks and shares, property deals, cotton quotations, the price of grain or of a buffalo, for in these may be found money to accumulate, steps to achieve power, the power of a commercial magnate, the petty power of head clerk or the prestige of a village headman. Beside such pleasures the Indian sees the joys so ardently pursued by the Western world as a mirage.

What the Christian Goan fears is union with this alien way of life. He does not want to be absorbed into the three hundred and fifty million Indians across the border. Under the slow but inexorable pressure of environment, he is afraid that within a few generations he would lose his identity. An alien education, he fears, would lead to the gradual disintegration of his life, if not the ultimate subversion of his Faith. For despite Mr. Nehru's assurances to the contrary, he knows the forces lined up against him are too great even for Nehru.

The Christian Goan does not doubt Nehru's sincerity, but he sees that the laws proscribing caste have availed nothing against the tenacious heart of Hinduism. Loved and respected as Nehru justly is by the overwhelming mass of the Indian people, this homage is to his integrity, his almost miraculous incorruptibility and the sincerity of his love for India and its people. A confirmed secularist from his English education, Nehru in this is that much less an Indian. An idealist and a true patriot, he sees his country and his people through the reflected rays of his own idealistic conception. The vast multitudes throng to hear him speak and listen enraptured by his oratory that rises high above their understanding. They mutely sense his love for them, and this strikes a response from their own hearts. They then return to their homes strangely comforted, because here is someone who cares for their welfare, here is a leader whom they can trust. Yet the sinister shadow of caste is each year more discernible in Nehru's India, for Raj may come and Raj may go, but India remains intactly Hindu.

Mr. Nehru's party, the Congress Party, is built on big business, and big business is solidly Hindu. His political opponents, the Hindu Mahasaba, are avowedly so, with "Hindustan," India-for the Hindu, as their Party Slogan. Though the Communists pay lip service to the abolition of caste, it is to their interest to abet all that tends to hurt the fragile, scarce-born unity of the country.

No matter how liberal his views, how unorthodox his practice of religion, or how European his education, the pride and prejudice of caste remains indelible in every Hindu. He can never forget that the Indian Christians were converted from the lower castes; to him they are, almost instinctively, akin to the untouchables. Consequently, Goan and Indian Christians find it more and more difficult to find employment in a time of increasing urban unemployment. Time was when the large Hindu firms, following British custom, took the best man for the job. Since the Christians are, on the whole, better educated than their Hindu counterparts, they were mostly sure of regular employment as clerks and stenographers. But now caste has come into its own again and preference is too often now given to the particular caste or community of the staff manager.

The young Indian Christian's prospects are dimming before his eyes. Soon there will be no future for him in India, as there already is none for the young Anglo-indian, the official designation of the Eurasians of Indian descent. The Anglo-Indian's position has become so hopeless that if he has not the means to emigrate he has no escape from a steady deterioration from his present European standards to the meanest place in the employment market, notwithstanding his usually superior education and undoubted abilities.

The Hindus in the Portuguese territories undoubtedly have a sentimental affinity with India, but it is unlikely that they would wish to change their present status. Because of the Christians' lack of commercial qualities, all trade and commerce in Portuguese India is in the hands of the Hindus, and the Christians make their living as clerks. It is most improbable, therefore, that the Hindus would relish the influx of Bombay Gujaratis and Sindhi refugees from Pakistan, two of the sharpest trading communities in India, a move which would inevitably follow from the change-over.

In acquiring Goa, India would gain nothing save the prestige of victory and a fine harbor at Marmugoa of which it has no great need. In losing Goa, Portugal stands to lose nothing except prestige, for it derives no benefit from these possessions. Ideals are, however, involved in this issue. To Nehru, with his vision of India, it is inconceivable that an Indian, no matter how remote or mixed his origin, could choose to remain outside Mother India and the Asian Fellowship. To Portugal, it is hardly less difficult to imagine that the Christian world can be content to cede voluntarily the oldest Asian citadel of Christianity, to strike the tents of Western culture in surrender to Asia. Geographically, India's claim is unassailable, but it is the people, not nations, who will gain or lose by the ultimate result of this contest. Neither geography nor prestige should be permitted to overrule the paramount rights of a people to choose their own destiny.

 

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