By Selma Carvalho
There are reasons why we write. One of those reasons has to be the belief that we can do good; that we can talk to the heart of man, affect change, lend dignity to the dehumanised and invisible. This, in large part, is what led acclaimed haute couture designer Wendell Rodricks to write Poskem: Goans in the Shadows (Om; 2017), his debut fiction novel. Poskem (adopted) spans the interconnected lives of four adopted individuals all of whom have entirely different experiences.
The book has elicited much discussion on Goa’s own Victoriana. I use the word ‘Victoriana’ because the issue of abandoned children so plagued Victorian England, that it has a firm place in English literature of that era. There is, for instance, Charles Dickens, whose almost obsessive interest in the subject led him to write sympathetic leading characters whose fate it was to be parentless. Quite apart from the eponymous hero Oliver Twist, more interesting perhaps are the complex lives of Pip and Estella of Great Expectations. Both Pip and Estella are spared the indignity of the dreadful Victorian workhouse and are instead helped by ‘patronage’ to escape a life of destitution. Estella is adopted by the spinster Miss Havisham who extracts a heavy price for rescuing her and Pip is aided by an anonymous patron. What Victorian writers often highlight was that adoption did not necessarily mean better lives for these children.
Rodrick’s book dwells on a similar custom of ‘patronage’ predominant among the landed gentry of Goan Catholic society. Here, the ‘adopting’ of children, in one guise or another, led inevitably to a life of servitude for those being adopted. This debased life – one of belonging neither to the adoptive family nor being part of the retinue of servants in the household – is best captured by Rodrick’s main protagonist Alda. It is not perhaps a coincidence that Alda suffers a mental breakdown. The vicissitudes of such a life would be stressful for any human being. And indeed it was not unusual, for the poskim of Goan households to seem slightly erratic in their ways, harried by the demands put on them usually of single-handedly running households, and faced with knowledge that escape through marriage was not in the offing.
So little of this custom is written about either in literature or academic study that its origins remain somewhat of a curiosity. The Portuguese, very early on in their conquest of Goa, established the Santa Casa Misericordia de Goa, a charity institution set up to house orphans and ‘wayward’ women, possibly women who had conceived out of wedlock. Writing in 1878, historian Jose Nicolau de Fonseca in A Historical and Archaeological Sketch of the City of Goa, gives us some idea about the importance of this institution: ‘To the south, at a distance of a few paces, there was an elegant group of buildings dedicated to certain charitable institutions which were under the administration of the Santa Casa de Misericordia (Holy House of Mercy), a pious association of laymen - similar to that of Lisbon – established in Goa some five or six years after its conquest.’
Fatima da Silva Gracias, author of several books on the lives of colonial-era women, informs that the Santa Casa also sheltered African slaves abandoned by their owners. This overarching remit is of significance and allows us room for conjecture. Paul Melo e Castro, Lecturer in Portuguese Studies, University of Leeds, is possibly the most widely read and trusted source on Goan Literature in Portuguese. According to Castro, references to adopted children are rare in fin-de-siècle Goan literature, and when they do appear, they are ‘either never explicitly framed as such or else described as crioulos.’
The word ‘crioulo’, Melo informs, has a conflicted history, and ‘disparate usage across geographies.’ Most likely derived from the Latin root ‘creare’ to ‘create’ and the related Portuguese verb ‘criar’ to ‘raise or bring up’, in its initial usage 'crioulo' referred to black slaves born in the Americas, a word used to differentiate them from slaves brought over from Africa.
But what did the word mean in Goa? Luis Cabral de Olivier, left this entry for the word ‘crioulo’ in a dictionary of ‘imperial’ Portuguese terms: ‘The term crioulo was used in Goa in a sense different to the one it is usually associated. The word served to designate either an adopted child or a servant close to the family raised at home from childhood.’ It is interesting how over time 'crioulos' a word linked to slavery and African heritage, and mired in race miscegenation transformed to mean 'adopted' in the Goan context.
Many a ‘crioulo’ in Goa, did indeed have African heritage. Goans who had migrated to Africa, at times, returned with indigenous African servants who might have been in their employ there. Fatima Gracias hypothesises that freed slaves, after the abolition of slavery within the Portuguese empire, might have been adopted. Given that the Santa Casa had in their custody abandoned slaves as well as orphans, it is hardly a stretch to assume that the Santa Casa would have encouraged people to adopt slaves, no doubt as labour rather than as children to cherish. And finally, there were African troops stationed in Goa; anecdotal evidence tells us there were illegitimate children of biracial Goan-African stock who were adopted by families.
The etymology of the word ‘poskim’ is from the Konkani ‘possunk’ which roughly translates ‘to raise’ similar to 'crioulo'. To further muddy the waters, the word criada (loaned from the Portuguese to Konkani), meaning ‘servant’ is closely related to the usage of ‘crioulo’ for adopted. These adoptions no doubt were with a view to providing unpaid labour on the vast estates that landed gentry of the time owned. Some poskim did not even refer to their adoptive parents as father and mother, but rather as padrinho and madrinha (Godparents), similar to Dickins's portrayal of adoptive guardians being 'patrons' rather than parents.
Quite a few of the illegitimate children adopted were bastards of the bhatkars (landowner or his male progeny) themselves who impregnated tenanted women on their land. Wendell Rodricks has done well to bring to the fore a neglected subject and even though, strong legislation post-independence now assures adopted children of rights, including the right to inherit, it is with interest that we must examine this former period of Goan history, holding Catholic altruism to scrutiny.
The banner picture is taken from Wikipedia commons depicting the collection box for the Massachusetts anti-slavery society.
Wendell Rodricks is an internationally acclaimed haute couture designer, museum curator and the author of three books, the latest of which is Poskem: Goans in the Shadows (Om; 2017), available at all leading bookstores across India. You can order the book online here.