By Selma Carvalho
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells us there cannot be a single story which defines 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 (DoppelHouse; 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. I just hope our children won’t ask where their father comes from …’ From this point of dislocation, the story of four generations, several homelands, and intermarriages 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, and interpreters.
In 1954, the Figueiredo family moved to Nairobi; it would be their last move within East Africa, before dispersing westwards. Nairobi, then, had the largest concentration of Goans, predominantly sustaining the administrative arm of the British empire. Here, the family, like so many other Goans of the era, embraced the Anglophone world. 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.
But the journey for Xavier, Figueiredo’s father, had only just begun. In the late summer of 1958, Xavier landed in London, part of that first wave of Goan immigrants from East Africa, who arrived as students, largely from middle-class families who saw the virtue of higher education in the UK, and were somewhat aided by bursaries offered by the UK government. They were met on arrival by representatives of the British Council, an institution which since then has faded from prominence, who settled them with families. Or, Goan Catholic students were lucky to be offered subsidised accommodation by Catholic-run hostels. These scattered settlements of Goans which emerged along commuter routes at Wood Green, Manor House and Finsbury Park, do not exist anymore. Today, concentrations of Goans persist in boroughs near Heathrow Airport. 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 inter-racial 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. At the time, Xavier was a student at Kingston Technical College, studying engineering. Marit had travelled to London in search of metropolitan adventure and was working as an au pair.
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. It many ways, it was Xavier, who having lived in Nairobi, had a wider representation of experience compared with Marit’s rather sheltered, pastoral upbringing in Norway. 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. You haven’t got a strong will, Marit, you are mixing with the wrong crowd.’
Xavier came from the fulsome bosom of Goan patriarchy while Marit thrived on the brink of a sexual revolution which remade lives for women. She wanted to work, to have a life which was 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 unleashed on Marit during the marriage was symptomatic of something far more perverse and 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 patriarchal society in which exercising control over women’s bodies is not only condoned but slyly encouraged. The British explorer Richard Burton in his travelogue Goa, and the Blue Mountains, published in 1851, refers to this propensity for Goan male violence against their spouse. Is it something our society doesn’t readily acknowledge? Something we sweep under the rug, charming the world with our liberal, progressive values?
It’s impossible to do justice to the complexity of Figueiredo’s writing in a review. His lyrical prose is exquisite and has won him Norway’s 2016 Language Prize and the Brage Prize for his biography of Johan Bernhard Hjort. What commitment can we Goans make to his story? 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, where desultory meetings conducted by disinterested parties held little appeal for him.
So, where do we retain parts of our sacred selves? In our skins, our religions, our high cultures? Maybe there is no such mythical place of retention. Maybe we are above all just individuals with disparate stories, capable of 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 ever deny that collective euphoria which transcends distance and binds us together in a primordial understanding of oneness? Figueiredo’s story is ours.
Ivo de Figueiredo is the critically acclaimed biographer of Norway’s treasured cultural icon, Henrik Ibsen. In 2002, he was awarded the Brage Prize for a biography of the anti-Nazi resistance fighter Johan Bernhard Hjort. He is a member of the Norwegian Academy. A Stranger At My Table (DoppelHouse Press, 2019), is available for purchase here.