From Sardesais to Ribeiros

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on January 20, 2018

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Ambarish Satwik

Ambarish Satwik   -  Business Line

The Lusitanisation of Goa’s Hindus has the acclaim of being the most sinister in Christendom

The strident, choir-singing acidity of toddy vinegar was what was Goan about the feijoada: pungent pig sausages (Goan chorizo) cooked with kidney beans, tomatoes, onions and a grievous amount of chilli.

In a bona fide Portuguese restaurant called Ferradurra (horseshoe) in the Latin quarters of Panaji, over this bitch-slapping Goan edition of a stew that was invented in the slave quarters of Portuguese Brazil, my old friend and comrade Frederick Ribeiro told me the story of how his lineal ascendants became Christians in the 17th century. How one vanggod of the Sardesais, Gaud Saraswat Brahmins of Succoro, Porvorim, quite suddenly, became Ribeiros, taking on the family name of the priest who had supervised their conversion. He’d heard the handed-down story from his father and to him what was bewildering about the whole thing was the utter and unalloyed Lusitanisation of the New Christians.

Not only had the Sardesais not relapsed into their old, lived faith but had completely moulted their way of life. It was a sloughing off not just of plumage, but of all material and performative expressions of Hindu culture. How does Pundalik Sardesai, an obligatorily lacto-vegetarian Brahmin (who wouldn’t even accept victuals from the lower orders), suddenly turn into a porcophilic, cow-eating Iberian? Why would he turn his back on the unchanging ancient agricultural and ritual calendar that would begin with Chaitra and Vaisakh, lead up to plantation in Ashadh, harvest in Bhadrapadh, weddings in Kartik and end with the harvest of the winter crop in Falgun? And replace it with the Catholic calendar that conformed to European agricultural and seasonal patterns? Why would he stop playing the robana or the gaita, stock musical instruments of Gomantak revelry? Why would he stop wearing the purvem (dhoti) and forbid his wife and daughter from wearing the choli?

In 1560, Cardinal Henrique, as regent of Portugal and the Algarves, alive to the spiritual requirements of the Indies, dispatched to Goa Aleixo Falcão, as inquisitor, to found the Holy Office of the Inquisition in these latitudes. ‘The Inquisition’ is a commendably misleading Catholic appellation. It sounds something like an Inquiry tribunal, but was actually a metonymic stand-in for f***-me-mercilessly-Iberian-torture-to-sniff-out-heresy-followed-by-broiling-at-the-stake. Obviously in a manner that would ‘best conduce to the glory and honour of Our Lord and the expansion of the Holy Catholic Faith’.

The whole point of the Inquisition was to forestall and defeat the tendency of the new converts to revert to the practices of their old religion. It was only to be expected that the Hindus hauled into a new religion would have little awareness thereof or love therefor: a high-yielding soil for heresy and thus a lot of breadth for the activities of the Inquisition.

Torture of a crudely surgical nature was used by the Holy Office as an expedient to obtain a confession. In the chamber of torture, the accused was adjured, in the presence of two Inquisitors and the Diocesan bishop, to tell the truth about his relapse and unburden his conscience. If they did not confess satisfactorily, the executioner, a physician and a surgeon were called in. A notary was also present to keep a record of the proceedings. And he did faithfully record all that passed, including the shrieking ejaculations and the patient’s piteous appeals for mercy or to be put to death (en passant: the word ‘patient’ is used in the Manual of Regulations of the Inquisition for the heretic; from the Latin patientem — suffering person, enduring without complaint). Ordinarily, the torture of polé (pulleys) was administered for the entry-level heretic. The patient’s hands were tied behind his back and then with a cord around his wrists, he was hoisted from the floor (with weights to his feet) to the accompaniment of the psalm Miserere and then suspended as long as was desired. Following this, he was allowed to fall with a jerk for a short distance. Then, Miserere again. That was the house style. On occasions when the physician felt that on account of weakness the accused could not stand the polé, the torture of potro was given. This was a prototype of the Guantanamo waterboarding sessions, but with an iron prong distending the mouth and a variety of garrottes cutting into the flesh. Lesser forms of torment included leg crushers and breast rippers, applications of boiling oil and burning sulphur and candles held beneath the armpits, and so on. The Goan chapter of the Big I, by the year 1600, was at full tilt and had earned the acclaim of being the most sinister and sadistic in all Christendom.

The Edict of the Inquisition of Goa (1736) gives an inventory of 52 prohibited items and offences by new converts that would invite the attention of the Inquisition. Some of them, in no specific order, are as follows: the said natives should not have in their gardens or properties the plant known as Tulosi, and if it exists already, should be uprooted immediately; the said natives should not during the appearance of the season of new crops (Novidade) arrange feasts in their houses; should not in public or at home wear purvem (dhoti) nor should women wear cholis; should not allow the principal woman of the house to bathe before cooking; should not observe as feast days Wednesdays, days of the new moon or full moon; should not distribute viddas (betel leaves with areca nuts) during the celebration of their marriages; should not sing vovios (celebratory wedding ditties) publicly or in private; should not anoint the bridegroom or bride with a mixture of ground saffron, milk, coconut oil, rice powder, crushed leaves of abolim; should not during the days of confinement of their wives coat with cow-dung the place in the house where the confinement is to take place; should not place their newly born children on raw rice… The Edict was structured specifically to unmake any residual Hindu disposition.

Any person who had known or heard that a New Christian had committed an offence listed in the Edict was required to apprise the Inquisition of the particulars within a period of 30 days under pain of dire consequences. The witnesses were required neither to substantiate the charges nor confront the accused. The least suspicion, the slightest word, was enough to apprehend the heretic and send him to Orlem Gor, the House of the Inquisition. Giveaway expressions of aversion were looked for as beef was served to the new convert for a Saint’s feast.

Four days after the Ferradurra meal, I had the privilege of meeting the extended Ribeiro-Pinto clan, which had gathered for the 50th wedding anniversary of Frederick’s parents. As Julio Ribeiro raised the toast to his brother and his wife in the midst of a tapestry of variously noble, markedly illustrious, bespokely dressed, liberally urbane, Portuguese-speaking people, I found myself anatomising the conversion of Pundalik Sardesai. Not the part about whether he came to Christ by faith, voluntary love or prevenient grace, or fear, or for temporal advantage, but whether the tapestry would’ve been different had he continued as a Sardesai.

Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer;

Published on February 19, 2016

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