Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cosmopolitanism and Culture: Should the Goan be ashamed of being Cosmopolitan?

It is the events at the Goa Konkani Academy’s commemoration of the adoption of the Official Language Act, on the 4th of February that provides the meat for this week’s ramblings.

The key speaker at the event was Advocate Uday Bhembre who spoke on the Official Language Act in the context of Culture (Asmitai). In the course of his lecture Adv. Bhembre made a rather stunning observation. He referred to an event in Margao sometime ago, when Goans were referred to as being cosmopolitan. Uday baab smiled. The word cosmopolitan at first blush sounds very nice he said. But if you go to look at it, what it really means, is that you have no authentic culture or identity that you can demonstrate to the world as being uniquely your own.

It was now my turn to smile. Clearly the venerable Bhembre had been plucking his fruit from the wrong tree. Most cultural theorists, philosophers and political thinkers would be hard pressed to agree with his understanding of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism for most of the world means the ability to appreciate the culture of others and relate in a positive manner to these cultures, taking, imbibing adding on to it, enriching one’s own cultural position. In doing so, one’s own cultural position definitely gets changed, but this, it is the firm belief of cosmopolitans, is only a positive accretion, as one moves from being the frog in the well (the Sanskritic kaupamanduk) to being a citizen of the world.

If there is a large global opinion that runs counter to Bhembre’s understanding of the word, why does Bhembre position cosmopolitanism in this manner? The possible answer is that he is probably collapsing the word cosmopolitan with the (British)Indian understanding of Goan culture. For the British-Indian, Goan culture is but the culture of the Goan (Portuguese Indian) natives who took everything they have from the Portuguese. They are therefore cosmopolitan in all that they do, because they don’t really have their own culture.

This British-Indian position is without doubt a violent position that denies the Goan cultural agency. However what is disturbing is that rather than fight this British-Indian (im)position on our own (Goan) terms, Bhembre tries to fight it on British-Indian terms, by rejecting the hybridity of Goan culture (rather than embracing it) and accepting the nationalistic British-Indian position that stresses and celebrates authentic regional cultures, that are united primarily in their derivation from some common Sanskritic mould.

To meet this goal, he reduces the Goan identity to just one feature; Konkani, nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately however, Goan identity is much more than Konkani, and the definition of Konkani is an extremely contested one. In stressing Konkani, and doing so on British-Indian terms (that recognize primarily brahmanical, Sanskritised forms) what he is doing is rejecting the existing hybrid and cosmopolitan bases of Goan-ness. What we should be very clear about though, is that what this rejection does, is to lay the foundations for conflict and discord in Goan society, one such extant conflict being that spawned by the lack of recognition to Konkani in the Roman script and the dialects associated with it.

It is tragic that Bhembre chooses the more regressive of the British-Indian traditions. Within the modern Indian tradition, we have at least two exemplars of cosmopolitanism, Gandhi and Tagore. Gandhi was clearly uncomfortable with the parochialism that marked the building of a nationalist culture. Tagore was similarly uncomfortable with the building of cultural barriers and the celebration of authenticity that guarded itself from contamination. Bhembre has definitely chosen the winning team though, given that both Gandhi and Tagore are something of anomalies in contemporary India.

Bhembre is a suave and sophisticated speaker and if you weren’t listening closely you would miss the violence that is necessarily a part of his rejection of cosmopolitanism. The violence of this project however was clearly sketched out by the side show that Naguesh Karmali put up when invited to speak at the event. Karmali opined that we are a shameless people. The Portuguese came to our land, mangled the names of our villages to such an extent that today we don’t recognize them in Konkani. And yet, so many years after their departure, we have till date not returned them to their original forms.

Original, Mr. Karmali? For me my village is Sancoale, Cuncolim and Divar, there are other names for these villages, but I prefer to use these, since these are the names I use on a daily basis and the names as used by my family. Are you suggesting that my knowledge and the identity from it is wrong? Am I, my self, my being and my life wrong? Can the one life that a human being has, when not causing harm to another, be wrong?

Karmali didn’t just stop there; i.e. in branding a good portion of Goans as ‘wrong’. He went on to suggest that we should emulate places like Karnataka and Gujarat and other places where the names of places have been reverted to their ‘original’ forms. I will not elaborate on the fact that what these changes have done is to legalize intolerance. Only one name is legally permitted for a place, there is no space for a cosmopolitan identity for these places. Thus the beauty of a Bombay in English, Bombaim in Konkani and Mumbai in Marathi, when spoken by the same person is no longer legally permissible. But the violence of the legal world is not the only kind we should be afraid of, since Mr. Karmali seemed to have more corporeal violence in mind. Can we celebrate examples drawn from Gujarat and Karnataka without also knowing that these same changes have laid the foundations for the shocking anti-minority violences in both States? In Gujarat it was the Muslims that bore (and continue to bear) the brunt of this parochialism; in Karnataka, anyone who does not speak Kannada, or looks non-Kannadiga bears the brunt of this politics of authenticity. But then we should not be surprised by Karmali’s statements and proclivities. This is the same man who was at the forefront of the attacks on ‘Portuguese’ street names in Fontainhos a few years ago, and he runs free despite it.

Cosmopolitanism is a welcome cultural marker. It stands against the sectarian visions of nationalism. Those who actively seek to work against it, only lay the foundation for the destruction of our social order.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 11th Feb 2009)

1 comment:

Sameer Pandit said...

Very interesting! Share most of your thoughts.