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Trailing the stethoscope

Frederick Noronha

For some reason the number of history books in my Goa collection seem to outnumber all other topics. Of course, there also are quite a few books related to creative writing, fiction, short stories, novels, etc. If you place in one basket all the fictional writing in all languages – primarily English, Konkani, Marathi, even Portuguese and Hindi – you’ll find quite a few.

But still, I’ve often joked that it almost seems as if every fourth Goan considers himself to be a historian. This holds true despite the fact that the world of history operates like a narrow, closed circuit. Entry is not easy to gain. Historians are possessive about who comes into their field. They quickly raise the question, understandably, of what qualifications one has to write ‘history’.

Compare this to the field of journalism or the media. These are fields that are quite wide open. Anyone is welcome to come along and contribute their views and expertise, more so, in the comment, features, and opinion section. Nobody will ask you whether you have any journalistic qualifications to write. It all depends on how you can express yourself.

On the contrary, people like me have long believed that the specialist from just about any field indeed does bring with himself or herself useful field knowledge which can be shared among a wide audience, through the media. In the media or journalism, you’re only as good as your last story or article. Qualifications and experience count for little.

Despite this, Goa does have a lot of interest in its own history. I suspect that’s because this region does indeed have such a rich history. More than that, the early encounter Goa had with Europe has also meant a lot more of its known history has been carefully recorded and preserved. In my experience, village-based histories have a market too, and there’s a lot of interest in reading about the very people we know.

* * *

Quite some time back, I encountered Shirley Gonsalves, who at first looked like any one of those expatriate Goans coming our way. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those who is uniformly dismissive of expat Goans. Some, admittedly, are clueless about the realities of current-day Goa. Others are quick to compare us with former colonial powers and expect their tiny home state to offer something like the lifestyle and infrastructure their homes in the West can do.

But one tiny section is definitely deep into understanding Goa, studying it, getting to know it very deeply. Their absence from here for decades together does not mean they have lost touch with the place. Instead, they have used their locational advantage, to dig up intriguing details about the ‘Goa story’. They’ve worked in field like history, sociology, gender studies, literature and a lot more. Without their endeavours, our understanding of Goa would definitely be poorer.

Shirley Gonsalves’ research finally ended up as ‘The Luso-Indian Stethoscope’ (2018). It basically looks at how many ‘Luso-Indians’ (including Goans, but also East Indians) took part in the “medical profession in nineteenth century Bombay”.

Gonsalves has been a Masters of Philosophy student of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Better known as SOAS, this institution was founded over a century ago in 1916, in Bloomsbury in London’s West End, a locality known for its many prominent cultural, intellectual, and educational institutions. SOAS’s original goal, we are told, was to educate colonial administrators, missionaries, doctors, and teachers. London then wanted to rival the Oriental schools of Berlin, Petrograd, and Paris. But in changed times, it is obviously playing a different role.

Gonsalves’ book tells us that the ‘Luso-Indian’ medical doctors, many from Goa, indeed played an important role in 19th century Bombay. From the cover, we see an early picture of the Grant Medical College. This was an institution prominent till not long back when it was overshadowed by bigger and costlier advanced hospitals and colleges set up by industrial houses and some of the richest families in the country.

But, in those times Grant Medical College provided Goan doctors “a springboard for entry into the medical services of (British-ruled) colonial Bombay”. There was a reason for the Goan participation, Gonsalves suggests. They had a more open approach towards Western medicine, and didn’t view it as unclean.

Scouring archival and other records, Shirley Gonsalves has put together a rather interesting story, which one found insightful. She looks at the links between race, religion, and medicine. With colonialism, she argues, “a new set of professional and service occupations that were previously taboo due to religious prohibitions for the majority of the population became available to Christian communities”. Western medicine, at one stage, was seen as unclean or ‘polluting’ in India because of its association with bodily fluids.

In its pages is a listing of some 70 ‘Luso-Indian’ doctors. At least a few names would be familiar to our generation too: the parliamentarian-author (after whom the Navelim library is named) Francisco Luis Gomes; Jose Camilo Lisboa from a prominent family in Assagao; the Bhau Daji and Narayan Daji siblings; Jose Gerson da Cunha of Arpora; Claudio Gama Pinto who has a hospital still named after him in Lisbon; Froliano de Mello who is still remembered by elders in Goa; the D’Monte doctors of Bandra, Bombay; and others with surnames like Nazareth, Godinho, Souza, Valles, Saldanha, Velho, and others.

One of these doctors, Acacio Gabriel Viegas of Arpora (b: 1856) was the first doctor to diagnose plague in the 1896 epidemic in Bombay. He was the president of the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1906, and even has a statue in his honour at Dhobi Talao.

There are other trends that emerge from this story too. These doctors “were linked in a number of ways”. Their children often took to the profession as well. Once trained at Grant, they often went on to leave Goa, for training or to work. Indian Christians, she argues, were represented in “higher numbers” in medical professions – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and medical assistants.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, the medical men were often prominent intellectuals. They played a key role in social, political, and cultural activities. Some built reputations in ‘Oriental’ literature and language, new fields of science (ophthalmology, phrenology, evolutionary theories), even the Masonic movement!

Gonsalves uses the term ‘Luso Indian’ to describe the indigenous inhabitants from the Indian west coast whose ancestors had been ruled over for some time by the Portuguese, and who had converted to Catholicism.

This forgotten section of Goa’s population can be role models for the generations to come.

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