Monday, June 1, 2009

Save the Frog, Save Goa: Midweek notes on an unlikely cultural mascot

I am not normally one to fall prey or encourage the use of nationalistic slogans such as ‘Save Goa’. Which Goa I am tempted to ask? Save what? From whom? For whom? And yet when I heard of the ‘Save the Frog’ campaign, the formula above suggested itself to me as peculiarly appropriate.

What is so wonderful about Goa, is that within the larger context of India’s taboos and hyper-sensibilities, it very often offers mascots and symbols that elsewhere others shirk from. It is no doubt this relative freedom from social restrictions that makes Goa such a wonderful breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy sub-continent. The frog would be an unlikely mascot for any threatened culture, and yet peculiarly and thankfully, a concerted action in favour of this threatened amphibian would result in a possibly addressing a number of Goa’s contemporary material and ethical dilemmas.

One of the major threats that the frogs face is the destruction of their habitat, the fields, and hills of Goa. On the one hand the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in our fields works to slowly poison them. These poisons subsequently build up in those who eat frog meat, posing a serious long term health risk. More crucially however, the building over of these fields and hills, results in a sure destruction of these amphibian habitats. What impact this will have on the environment we cannot yet tell, and yet we can be sure of a significant negative ripple effect on our environment. Joining the ‘Save the Frog’ campaign would in this manner not only push us toward more sustainable and healthy agriculture, but also save the fields and hills that so many of us would hate to see gone.

The immediate action that we are encouraged toward this monsoon however is, to not eat frog legs (or jumping chicken) this season, and not hunt them. And yet when eating frog legs (like wild mushrooms) is part of the monsoon culture of Goa; how can this abstention from frog legs still be argued as an action in support of ‘saving’ Goan culture? The Save the Frog campaign offers us a peculiar option; by putting us in apparent, and possibly temporary conflict with a manifestation of Goan culture, it could actually allow us to save it in the long run.

To begin with, Goan ‘culture’ itself seems to have morphed. Whereas in earlier times bands of young men would head out in the dead of night to hunt bull-frogs (they wouldn’t touch a female of the species), this is not the case anymore. Frogs are being hunted indiscriminately. Secondly, while the hunting in former times met a domestic consumption, hunting these days, caters to a few restaurants that serve ‘jumping chicken’ despite a legal ban on its consumption. A commercialization of frog hunting has set in, that leaves frog populations doubly vulnerable. It would be logically and ethically incorrect therefore, to argue that consumption of frog legs alone is Goan culture. An integral part of that culture is the process and the ethics of that hunting. Disassociate the ethics and process of the hunt from the consumption, and we will only compromise the ability of future generations to engage in this very Goan monsoon event. A case of Goa today, Gone Tomorrow.

Recognizing the connection between the hunt and the consumption, would allow us to also recognize the connection between the material base and culture of Goans and the disappearance of Goan culture. While there is no doubt that there are more ‘non-Goans’ in the territory today, we will realize that the change in the material life of the Goan is itself leading to the disappearance and destruction of Goan culture. The authentic Goan is disappearing like Alice’s Cheshire Cat. But it seems that like the Cheshire Cat, the Goan is arranging his own disappearance and grinning while at it! If this cat is to not disappear, we need to either rethink our relationship to our material base, or accept that the symbols of Goan culture are going irrevocably change by our own hand.

The Bebo (frog) is a symbol of the average Goan. An earthy Goan, who goes on nocturnal frog hunts, swigging feni to warm himself from the cold of the rain. This is the Goan who also slogs in the fields to cultivate them, the Goan who slogs on board ships and in kitchens across the world. The Goan, who sweats and is connected in a very material way to the soil. It is not a symbol of those who merely eat the meat that others have hunted for them. These are merely consumers of a product, they could be Goan, Punjabi or British, and they could be anywhere, consuming any kind of exotic meat.

Our country’s ‘Project Tiger’ project tried to present the Tiger as the pinnacle of a natural pyramid. Conserve the Tiger and we would conserve the entire eco-system it argued. Unfortunately however, the Project pitted man against the Tiger. The ‘Save the Frog’ campaign however incorporates the Goan in every sense into its campaign. Saving the frog involves saving the lifestyles and landscapes that we recognize as an integral part of our being Goan. Lifestyle and landscape has been the core component of the Goan fitna that we have in the past months been both witness to and participant in. In addition, our abstention from frog meat today, would also allow the opportunity of frog meat for future generations of Goans.

Adopting the frog as our mascot opens up for us a world of pro-life politics and therefore the slogan; Save the Frog, Save Goa!

Abstain from frog meat this monsoon.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 27 May 2009)

(Carried in The Goan Review Vol. 20, No.4, July-August 2009, p. 49)


vikramhegde said...

Sir, one of the reasons for decline in frogs and waterfowl around Mysore is a shift from cultivation of paddy to sugarcane. Could this be one of the reasons in Goa as well?

I'm also unable to reconcile myself myself with the view that "our abstention from frog meat today, would also allow the opportunity of frog meat for future generations of Goans". Should Goans be thinking about some way of cultivation of frogs so as to be able to feed goans of today and tomorrow?

Anniesen said...

Good arguments, cogently put (as yours always are), Jason. But I'm personally not sure (as I wasn't when you brought it up at the Kala Academy meeting) that the final bit -- "our abstention from frog meat today, would also allow the opportunity of frog meat for future generations of Goans" -- will really wash. It sounds tongue-in-cheek. And because it comes right at the end, it feels like it's summarising your argument, and dilutes it somewhat.