Thursday, August 01, 2013

Páscoa (Easter), 2010

(The author, Fernando Rosa Baragül, is a Brazilian anthropologist based in Kuala Lumpur and Melaka.)

Easter. There were so many people at St Peter's Church in Melaka (built in 1710 - two images on the right) that it was impossible to go in. It was not unlike an Easter procession in Brazil. Even as a child I had found that there was something slightly gloomy about processions. This one was no exception as it wound its way along the Melaka river early in the evening, with thousands of people, stopping and then starting again when someone gave a signal (usually by clapping hands). All those at the head of the procession were men. This compared well with my vague memories of its counterpart in Brazil. It was indeed a very male procession.

People said that it was the first time in many years that the procession has been allowed outside the church grounds, and they were excited. (In Brazil, processions normally proceed along the streets). Some people thought this was the first time in history that the procession was allowed onto the streets. But they were wrong. I learnt that as late as the late 1960s (and some years after that ), the Easter procession in Melaka was along the streets. It is intriguing how short historical memory is. It was something that had gone on for centuries, then stopped for a couple of recent decades by the government, and was already fading out of social memory. I was certain, however, that the Portuguese community - especially the older members - still remembered.

There was not much difference between this procession and the ones I had watched occasionally as a child (my family was not religious). There was one difference however, and it stood out  prominently: many of the participants in Melaka were not even Catholics. It was obviously a religious and social event that everyone participated in. It was the hub or fulcrum for Melaka's incredibly varied society. Someone told me that in old times people would carry large incense sticks used in Chinese temples instead of candles. I did not see any this time. There were only candles (and there were many sellers of these by the gate to the church grounds). Long candles of the same type I remembered from home; giving out light in the gloom.

I did not feel like staying on, however. It was hot and crowded, and somewhat too familiar to hold much fascination. It was funny how familiarity triggered disinterest. Nonetheless, it was all reassuringly familiar. It served as a point of reference, an anchor even, because of my own history. It was something so parochial that, at home, I would not have even given it a second thought. On the contrary, I would have shunned it for being boring.

Religion feels so different in Melaka when compared to Brasil. Here, it envelops everything, it's part of the social fabric. Religion here is as important as ethnicity, and commerce is thoroughly intertwined with both. It is funny how academics seem not to see it, and treat ethnicity as either part of politics or folklore. But it is part of neither. It is about being a part of the world -- being different in different ways. It is also not fixed, and that's why the Easter procession and the mass are Melaka events, not merely Portuguese ones. The Portuguese run the show, but it is for everybody.

It was also intriguing how many inquired later, over and over, whether I had witnessed it. They somehow also acknowledged my history as theirs.

Fernando Rosa Baragül has worked in the Caribbean, Cape Town, Kerala, and was, until 1999, in Macau. He is also interested in Dutch-Afrikaans, Arabic, and Malay writings, and the possible overlap between them.

His latest publications include a comparison between Brazil and Kerala in the rise of local literary canons and modernity; a bird's-eye-view of African language materials generated in South Africa in the twentieth century, and their racial underpinnings; and a book chapter (in Portuguese) comparing Cape Town and Melaka in terms of their history, urbanscape and people. His next publications will be a comparative study of two authors, namely Garcia d'Orta and Sheikh Zainuddin, one Jewish, the other Muslim, the former writing in Portuguese, the latter in Arabic, respectively in sixteenth century Goa and north Kerala.