"Aren't you now in Latin America, in Brazil, the land of football, Samba, and beauty queens?"
"Indeed, I am. But it is Portuguese here and not Spanish and to answer your question my language is still pretty bad," I answer.
Their ignorance is understandable. This land is so far, so remote in one's imagination, that to believe that all of Latin America speaks Spanish; that to Samba is the same as to tango is natural though not true.
At my Brazilian end too, I get questions. "What is common and what is starkly different between Brazil and India?" ask some Brazilian journalists to me, a new Indian ambassador. Our two countries today are in several common groupings with fancy acronyms which bring emerging countries together -- IBSA, BRIC, G-20 and so on and hence curiosity about India has been rising.
"Well, the commonalities are several," I start and enumerate the obvious: "We are both big countries: Brazil is actually two-and-a-half terms the size of India, but India is a big country too; both have large populations -- Brazil is one fifth of India, but two hundred million is not a small population; both are vibrant democracies; possess great diversity -- Brazil has large numbers of people of Japanese and Lebanese origin apart from millions with European, African and native Indian descent making it a happily assimilative melting pot for the last 300 years; have capabilities in industry and in S&T..."
Even as I go on listing all this, my questioners from the media become impatient. "What are the differences then?"
Again I start with the obvious. "We speak English, Hindi and many other languages; but you are nearly mono-lingual in Portuguese; you excel at football and we are passionate about cricket; your cuisine is varied no doubt but tends to be bland at least to me and ours is also diverse and exotic, but spicy to most Brazilians."
When I am saying all this, my mind is wandering and wondering about how our different pasts, specialty the colonial past have influenced our present.
The story of European colonisation starts with Portugal, a small country compared to England, France or Spain, but which had many adventurous seafarers. Their first voyages occurred at the same time with landings in both India and Brazil. If Vasco de Gama landed at Calicut in 1498, Cabral the sailor who 'discovered' Brazil landed in the northeast coast of Brazil in 1500, again in a search for a route to India.
As we know, Columbus was trying to reach India and in the process 'discovered' America; Cabral with a similar intention landed at the coast of another country in another continent to the South that came to be named Brazil.
What lay at the other end of these voyages was however very different. India already had hundreds of millions of people, an ancient civilisation and a long history of political organisation and administration. The Portuguese and later the British were in a long line of foreigners landing on our shores.
In contrast, the huge area of Brazil was much less inhabited, some estimates put the figure of indigenous people at one million, had nearly empty vast interior spaces and the Tupis -- the native inhabitants were readily welcoming the European 'guests' according to accounts of that period, a bit different from the Zamorin of Kozhikode.
Each colonial history is different: The British, the French, the Spanish or the Portuguese brought their own distinctive traits to bear on the land that they colonised, but equally the character of the land and the people too shaped the outcome of the encounter. In Brazil this took a distinctive form like nowhere else.
Portuguese may have been the first Europeans in Brazil and today, five hundred years later, Portuguese may still be the lingua franca of Brazil, but its identity, culture, customs or cuisine have been shaped by many other influences apart from the European. The reasons for this are the sheer vastness of Brazil, its abundant riches and resources, and as a result the influx of people from different parts of the world starting from as early as 1550.
As we noted, first there were the indigenous natives and then the new settlers from Portugal. But soon it became evident that to farm the land, to grow sugar and later coffee, labour was needed in plenty.
In the first few hundred years after 1500, slaves were brought from Africa, on a scale much larger than the United States. Their large numbers and the cohabitation and to use that terrible word that we see in colonial studies the so-called 'miscegenation' has imprinted Brazil with a distinctive African heritage.
The manifestations today are in the world famous Carnival, the sensuous appeal of the Samba and in the pulsating magic of figures like Pele or Ronaldinho. They are integrally Brazilian but with some African ancestors casting a benevolent eye on their graceful exploits on the football field.
But this, the influence of Europe and Africa is not all. In 1908, a century ago, there was a famine in Japan and the search for work led to a large migration from Japan to initially work in the coffee plantations of Brazil, the world's richest coffee grower. Today next to Japan, the largest Japanese community is in Brazil, all speaking Portuguese and many following the Catholic faith.
There are also very large Brazilian communities tracing their roots to Lebanon, Germany and Italy adding to the colours of the kaleidoscope.
I find it fascinating that this is one country without many Indians, our kind of Indians. The reasons are natural, once you think of it. The huge numbers of Indian labour that were taken or sent to work in plantations went to where the British ruled -- Sri Lanka, Fiji, Mauritius and farther apart to the Caribbean -- Guyana or Trinidad. No British domination over Brazil and hence no Indian migration.
That India would get ruled by the British and not by Portuguese except in some parts was a historic destiny. Why, even Mumbai was given away as a dowry gift by the Portuguese, when their princess, Catherine de Braganza married Prince Charles of England in 1661.
Apart from all this, there is another interesting and perhaps unique twist in the Brazilian past that has made Brazilians not think of themselves as having been 'colonised'. Though the huge landmass of Brazil had come under tiny Portugal, in 1807 Napoleon threatened the Portuguese monarchy in Lisbon.
In a flotilla of four hundred boats the royal family fled to Brazil and established their capital in Rio de Janeiro. Subsequently, the Portuguese empire declared that its capital and seat would be Rio rather than Lisbon. Comparable to Calcutta being declared the seat of all of the British Empire!
One result of this history is that there are few seminars on 'colonial inheritance' or 'post-colonial deconstruction' of the kind that we see in Indian academic circles. Portuguese is not a foreign language for the Brazilians: in fact it is their language, often their only one.
'How come, you don't speak Portuguese?' ask some friendly Brazilians.
I don't know what to say. "Well, I am learning," I answer tamely. "Not all Indians are Goans," I try as a joke. They look mystified, understandably clueless at a shared bit of historical connection from the remote past.
B S Prakash is India's ambassador to Brazil and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Illustration: Uttam Ghosh