On returning to Panjim after my day trip to Old Goa, it seemed as if Saint Francis Xavier – the so-called Incorruptible Saint – was a universally loved figure amongst the Goan Christians.
Then one evening I met a couple who definitely did not revere him.
Perhaps better said, they met me.
I was staying at a small, family owned, hotel. There were 5 rooms. These were on the second story, at the top of a long creaking wooden staircase. The owners, a middle aged couple named Soares, lived on the ground floor. In the backyard was an open, thatch roofed shelter with tables and plastic chairs. Breakfast was served here and also evening meals (which had to be ordered in the morning). Near the shelter was an area of grass and against a high wall, a riot of ferns, creepers and palms. This was a fine place to stay, it was quiet and in a secluded back street.
One evening however, it was far from quiet. It was nearing Christmas and festivities were on the agenda. There was a family get together – or rather, an extended family get together – held in the back yard. Trestle tables were set up in the garden and food and drink made available to everyone. Most of the other western tourists staying at the hotel opted to go out for the night. There must have been around 20 people there, including some boisterous kids. Some of the older people I noticed spoke Portuguese. Most of the others, middle aged and younger, spoke Konkani, a language originating in Southern India. Most Goans were conversant with English although rarely fluent.
There were two people there that night who were certainly fluent in English. I had heard about Antonio and Isabella from the Soares. They were a family success story. And they, I subsequently found out, had heard about me because of the lively account I had related to the Soares about my trip to Old Goa.
Antonio and Isabella had left Goa in their late teens, gone to university in London; he had a PhD in biochemistry and she in sociology; later they moved to Portugal, where they were living at the outskirts of Lisbon. They were middle aged and dark skinned but with some obviously Portuguese features. Antonio was a bit overweight, wore gold rimmed glasses, was clean shaven and had a crop of thick curly hair. He wore neat slacks, an open necked blue shirt and an off white cotton coat; Isabelle, still beautiful despite her years, wore a long floral dress with long sleeves, earrings, and necklace; her long black hair was tied up in a bun. Their clothes were simple but were good quality; expensive and purchased in Portugal, not India.
On first appearances, ironically, Antonio and Isabella stood out because they were as well dressed as the pilgrims I had seen a few days before in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa……
Out of the blue, they approached me and with a smile on his face, Antonio said:
‘Heard that you had joined the pilgrims to go and see our wonderful saint!’
Isabella ‘Our very own holy man. I hope you made a wish!’
Antonio: ‘Which part of him did you worship?
Laughter. They were enjoying themselves.
Antonio: ‘There’s not much of him left you know. He was canonized in 1622 and that was the end of him!’.
Make sure you never get canonized!
Isabella explained the mystery: ‘Bits and pieces of his body were hacked off in the hunt for sacred relics. The small toes were cut off, one by one, so that only the big toes were left. The right arm was cut off at the elbow and sent to Rome. Later, the rest of the right arm and the shoulder-blade was cut off and divided up and the relics handed on to various churches spread throughout Portugal’s religious empire. Following this, all the internal organs were also removed and souvenired. ‘
Antonio: ‘Who do you think was responsible for supplying the souvenir industry? The priests here in our very own Goa!´
Isabella: ‘Business as usual!’
One of Xavier’s hands, souvenired in the 18th century and today venerated as a Holy Relic.
It was quite an introduction.
I should have realized that they’d had a drink or two. I was envious. There was a large bowl of alcoholic punch on the table but I hated punch. They’d had a few and this in combination with the fact that they were knowledgeable and smart made for interesting company.
It was a beautiful night.
Clear, warm. The fluorescent lights in the shelter were on and the ferns and palms were faintly illuminated and looked surrealistic, like something out of a dream.
After lampooning the Incorruptible Saint, Antonio and Isabella got down to business, spurred on by my questions.
He was a cynic, Isabella a sceptic.
He was quick to make judgements and she was more inclined towards explanation. Perhaps it was the difference in gender. Perhaps it was the difference between someone inculcated in the hard sciences and someone in the social sciences.
Antonio: ‘Xavier was a thorough scoundrel. He knew about the Portuguese Inquisition. He personally witnessed infidels being burnt at the stake. He wanted to introduce the inquisition in Goa. He was a religious fanatic – ‘
Antonio wasted no time in placing Xavier in the context of contemporary Indian politics.
‘- he would have fit in very well with today’s scoundrels from the BJP.’
The BJP. I knew something about that. In my journeys to India over the previous decades, I kept an eye on Indian politics.
The political party the BJP (short for ‘Bharata Janata Party’) rose to prominence during the 1980’s as the majority Hindus felt increasingly threatened by the Moslems and especially a reactionary version of Islam funded by the Saudis. In the last two decades, the BJP had become the natural party of government. It had overturned the original idea of India created by Gandhi and Nehru when India became independent in 1947: a diverse, multiethnic, multireligious India. Now India was Hindustan, a home for the majority Hindus.
The BJP was allied to two paramilitary Hindu organizations with a long record of agitation and violence: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or ´RSS´ and the Vishnu Hindu Parishad or ‘VHP’. With these attack dogs lurking in the shadows, dark forces had been unleashed. Those who openly criticized the BJP or India – including journalists – were liable to being beaten up or murdered.
But on this night, I didn´t want to spend too much time on the BJP. Normally I would have.
They had raised the subject Saint Francis Xavier. That’s where I wanted to go.
Actually, the BJP was entirely relevant to Xavier – something which didn’t become clear to me until Isabella took charge of the conversation.
When we moved from judgement to explanation.
Isabella: ´When India took Goa from the Portuguese in 1961, they thought they would be welcomed by the Goans. They thought that the native people would be glad to be ‘liberated’ from the colonialists. It didn´t happen.
The Goans hadn’t done so badly by the Portuguese. The education system was much better than anything in India. It did not discriminate on the basis of caste, gender or income. It gave Antonio and I the means to better ourselves. We did not come from rich families. Lower caste blood flowed through our veins. Whilst the Portuguese were paternalistic they were not racists. We were ‘brown Portuguese’. In British India, Antonio and I would have been outcasts, looked down upon on as mulattos, half castes.
So the Indians were disappointed with us, we were regarded as traitors. ‘Independence’ led to the marginalization of the Goan Christians. They were frozen out of government jobs and the political system. We had no control over what happened in our state. Masses of people from outside – Hindus and Moslems – could come here and we had no say in that. The Christian Goans became a minority in their own state.
Antonio: ‘Also mass Indian tourism has overrun Goa and led to the Christians becoming further marginalized!- ‘
Isabella: ‘Yes…so the Christian Goans who have stayed here – many of them like us have emigrated – they need Xavier. They need to believe that they have a special place in his heart because the alternative is to cease to exist. In India, if you don’t have an identity, you will disappear …’
Antonio: ‘It’s like the law of the jungle!’
The word ‘identity’ stuck in my mind.
Isabella: ‘Only those who leave India can afford to live without religion. When we began living in the U.K., we were amazed to see that most people didn’t care about religion. It was the same in Portugal too… ´
I said: ‘So what you’re saying is that the annual pilgrimage to Old Goa is as much about identity as belief.’
Isabella: ‘Yes!…. and the pilgrims you saw weren’t only Christians from Goa. There were Christians from all over India, from Kerala in the south, from the other former Portuguese colonies of Dieu and Daman, from the former French colony at Pondicherry, from English converts in the north…all over India there are small communities of Christian Indians. What they have in common, besides their belief, is that all of them are under siege – ‘
Antonio: ‘The Christians have been targeted by the Hindu mobs. Beaten up, murdered, churches destroyed, bibles burned. It´s happening all the time. The Christians have never caused any trouble. Yet they are somehow accused of being disloyal…..’
Once, Antonio and Isabella must have believed in Saint Francis Xavier and visited Old Goa. Time spent in Europe had not only led to their intellectual and material success, but had also freed them from the group bonds of religion and, identity.
Over the following days, I mulled over my conversation with Antonio and Isabella (by this time I was a beach well south of Panjim and they were back in Lisbon). Many conclusions might be drawn. Mine ran along these lines:
The veneration of Saint Francis Xavier’s Egyptian style mummy, minus an arm, toes and innards, was a ritual of cohesion, of solidarity… and above all, identity. As such, it seemed to me that it was symptomatic of a far wider, global reality.
There was a time, especially after the collapse of communism, when there were hopes for a New World Order, one based upon globalism and democracy – and on the promise of international cooperation. Many pundits predicted that we were headed for an Age of Reason.
It hadn’t happened.
All over the world, nationalism and xenophobia, often supported by religion, formed the basis of ferocious dictatorships e.g., China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Iran….the list was endless.
The law of the jungle.
Everywhere you looked, identity politics ruled the roost and trust in viable, reasonable, solutions had evaporated.
In this sense, Donald Trump’s (in) famous slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ was hardly unique. If anything, it was an adjustment to cold reality.
We had advanced so far since the time of Francis Xavier, yet there was also a sense in which we were travelling steadily backwards. The past seemed to have a way of repeating itself.
It was hard to know how things could ever change. The best we could was hope for was a miracle. Something as preposterous as a corpse which didn’t rot.
It seemed to me that the worship of the Incorruptible Saint was richly symbolic of our larger predicament.
See also: The King