A window on history

Remains of Portuguese days

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 4.06.16
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Memory can be extraordinarily flexible. As the Portuguese coast recedes and our ship edges into Spanish waters, Évora's reticence about the communist upsurge in the surrounding region called Alentejo reminds me of the stonewall I encountered in Hyderabad trying to talk of the Telangana revolt. Most people assumed I meant the agitation for a separate state. Few even remembered the earlier armed rising linked to the 1948 Calcutta Conference which also resulted in Malaya's prolonged and bloody Emergency.

"In the Alentejo, you travel naturally with and to History," writes a local chronicler. It didn't know a revolution that never was like West Bengal where revolution means speeches, and revolutionaries fatten in office for decade after decade. Alentejo's was a revolution that failed like Telangana's. But without the violence. It also suffered from a confusion of aims. Both mixed the local with the global. The immediate impetus in Telangana was opposition to the Nizam of Hyderabad's regime. However, the Calcutta Conference spoke of a wider ideological purpose. In fact, many believe the insurrection petered out because Moscow's rapprochement with New Delhi prompted the Comintern to abandon the conference's ostensible hosts, the World Federation of Democratic Youth and the International Union of Students.

The peasantry around Évora where we spent several delightful days also felt betrayed. Évora is a charming medieval walled town whose university students in black medallion-studded cloaks over their frock coats sing and dance in the cobbled central square, the Praça do Giraldo, chasing away horrible memories of the burnings that took place there during the Inquisition. Founded in 1559, the university closed down in 1759, when the authoritarian prime minister of the day turned out the Jesuits. It didn't reopen until 1973. Évora was under Muslim rule for 400 years. They came to help a local contender for power and stayed to consolidate their own rule.

The real contradiction was between radical young officers of the Movimento das Forças Armadas and peasant and student protesters clamouring for reform in 1974. The officers overthrew Portugal's long dictatorship in a last-ditch attempt to pre-empt more drastic change. The protesters in the streets who gave them carnations which they put into the barrels of their guns - hence the name Carnation Revolution - hoped for a drastic social and political transformation. The organizations of workers and young people that sprouted all over the Alentejo resembled the proletarian councils (soviets) associated with Russia's October Revolution.

Ordinary soldiers weary of war also set up their own committees to demand democratic rights and an end to Lisbon's imperialist wars. If national liberation movements could rock the foundations of colonial rule in the so-called "overseas provinces" of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé, they asked, why should the metropole remain under the corporatist yoke? Landless labourers who toiled on the great estates called latifundio seized the fields they farmed. According to government estimates, about 2,200,000 acres were occupied. Some 1,000 estates were collectivized.

Something like the Spanish Civil War seems to have been fought out in miniature but with roles reversed. Claiming that fascism had to be defeated, Portugal's reformist Socialist Party and Stalinist Communist Party sprang to support the MFA and the junta it had installed. Social historians believe they destroyed the chance of a socialist revolution. Lisbon promulgated the Land Reform Review Law in 1977. The collectives were dissolved. The original owners repossessed the latifundio. Portugal's aristocracy has retained its wealth through centuries of upheavals. Some of the mansions and manor houses have been in the same family for generations. Hoardings in the vineyards along the road from Évora to Lisbon proudly proclaim the ownership of families like the Fonsecas. No lingering memory of the 1974 uprising disturbs Évora's tranquillity.

The official justification is that the Alentejo collective farms could not be modernized. In the mid-1980s, agricultural productivity was half that of the levels in Greece and Spain and a quarter of the European average. Land holdings were polarized between small and fragmented family farms in the north and inefficiently large collectives in the south. Even Bangladeshi immigrants who had managed to acquire Portuguese work permits fled to more prosperous economies. Decollectivization was said to be the only hope.

I learnt more about Évora and its unexpected links with Bengal from Trilokesh Mukherjee, my graphic artist friend who lived in the Dordogne in France for many years. Now he seems to spend more time in Oxford and South Wales but remains a storehouse of the minutiae of Indo-European culture. Trilokesh told me Évora was the birthplace of Manuel da Assumpção, an Augustinian monk who spent many years near Dhaka and is credited with writing and printing the first dictionary and grammar of the Bengali language, Vocabulario em idioma bengalla e portugueza. "The Portuguese even cast some Tamil and Malayalam types. But they never could cast Bengali types." It's a matter of everlasting regret to Trilokesh that this final triumph eluded the Portuguese. "The first book to be printed in Bengali was printed in Lisbon though the writer, translator and the compiler came from Évora," he wrote. Alas, it was set in Latin type.

Évora's state library treasures another historic document, the manuscript of Brahman-Roman-Kyathalik-Samvada: an argument on Law between a Roman Catholic and a Brahmin by the Bengali Dom Antonio de Rozario. Dom Antonio's life is shrouded in mystery. No one knows his Bengali name. He was apparently a princeling of Bhusana, which some place near Dhaka and others near Jessore. According to one version, Mug pirates took him to Arakan as their prisoner. Another has it he was sold into slavery in Goa. Both agree that another Portuguese Augustinian priest was his saviour and that he converted to Christianity.

The reinvented Dom Antonio is believed to have converted 30,000 Hindus in and around his estate, thereby arousing the wrath of the Jesuits in Goa who sent a senior priest to investigate. He confirmed Dom Antonio's proselytizing success but added the converts had little knowledge of Christianity and had been paid to be baptized. It must be added before ghar wapsi fanatics reach for their purifying water that this was the competing camp's verdict. No rivalry is more relentlessly bitter than that between the pious who are convinced of their monopoly of the truth.

Religion and language are the two main links. Vasco da Gama wasn't quite the pirate in priest's clothing that Bharatiya Janata Party loyalists made out on the 400th anniversary of his landing at Calicut, but he did have a strong religious motivation. Another Portuguese sailor, Luís de Camões, called Portugal's Shakespeare, immortalized his achievement in the epic poem, The Lusiads. If Calcutta had Anthony Feringhee (Hensman Anthony), Dhaka's Christians revere Sadhu Antoni (St Anthony of Padua). Some credit the Portuguese with creating Bengal's first modern city in Hooghly. Others hold their imports of tobacco, potato and guava changed Bengali taste for all time.

With so many connections, it was exciting to stumble upon a Bengali gift to Portuguese (or so I imagined) when my wife was allotted the janela seat on the train to Sintra. I emailed a friend in Calcutta who passed it on to Aditi Roy Ghatak who messaged me from Macau, where she was holidaying, to say the former Portuguese colony had given her a janela on Portugal. I now learn that far from being Bengali, janla is an import like potato, guavas or tobacco. Derived from the vulgar Latin januella, the Portuguese janela travelled east with those first Europeans to inspire the Sinhalese janelaya and Tamil cannal. Our own janla is like almirah or kameez. Borrowing within reason is all right providing it doesn't prompt Mamata Banerjee to follow the late P.N. Oak and claim that Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower are really Bengali creations.