Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Calling for a Mystical Renewal of the Goan Condition

This column appears on the eve of the Konnsacho Fest, the great harvest festival of my adoptive village Taleigao. Tomorrow the gaocars of the village will march to the field from which the corn is traditionally cut and subsequently distribute it among themselves. The feast however is being celebrated alongside rumors that dark forces seek to purchase the traditional field of corn, even as the physical context within which this field now sits is sought to be transformed. There are plans to plunge a ten-metre wide road into the heart of green that surrounds the field of the konnos. But it is not just the operation of speculative real-estate development that threatens the continuation of the Konnsacho Fest of Taleigao. For some years now the corn that is distributed among the gaocars of the village is not corn from the field of the konnos or from the fields of Taleigao, but grain purchased from outside of the boundaries of Taleigao. Materially this may not affect the celebration of the feast, but the feast is not just a material event. It is also an event of spiritual significance when the villagers give thanks to the deity for the bountiful harvest and maintaining the environmental order and the social order that rests on it. More crucially, it is a feast that reaffirms the bonds of the villagers with the land that sustains them. To obtain corn from outside the village is to retain merely the material aspect of the festival, asserting a certain social order, without asserting at the same time the spiritual aspect, the bonds between the village and the earth that the festival sanctifies.

In these days of Goan upheaval, much noise is being made about the need to also preserve Goan culture. Without going into that elusive debate of what exactly constitutes Goan culture, we can safely recognize that as with any culture, it is a spiritual base sustained by a physical environment that one is in communion with that sustains a culture. As in the case of Taleigao, it is this spiritual rot that threatens the Goan, her environment and culture. This spiritual rot stems from a near total divorce of the Goan from the local environment, the environment being debased to a mere saleable commodity, not regarded as a landscape replete with spiritual significance. The challenge before us therefore is not merely legal change, but simultaneously, a spiritual one.

It is in this context that the recent statements of the Goan church must be viewed as providing appropriate direction to the Goan Catholic, and inspiration to other Goans resident in the territory.

The first statement, is the more recent, where the Church of Goa, through the Council for Social Justice and Peace has asserted that it supports the right of the people to participate in planning sustainable development in their respective villages and towns, while at the same time committed to motivating the people to fulfill their duties. This statement lays the material basis for the re-establishment of our relationship with the land, the physical environment. Early in the environmentalist movement conservationists in India were faced with a dilemma. How was it that groups that had a culture of caring for the environment now plunder it mercilessly? Decades of research and policy experience has revealed that when the right of decisions over land are divorced from the people, no matter what their earlier culture, they begin to see the land as a commodity to be exploited. Any sense of communal spirit is simultaneous destroyed, in the dog eat dog world that follows. Restoring the balance with nature and within the social order thus depends on asserting the rights of local people to communal stewardship of the local resource base. As the Church has rightly pointed out therefore, the step toward reanimating the Goan spirit lies in asserting the right of the village/town over its resources. This was the spirit of the gaocarial system, and while we cannot in today’s democratic age re-create the inequalities of the gaocarial system, we can imbibe its spirit.

The second statement of the Church that merits consideration is the Pastoral Letter of the Archbishop for the year 2008-2009. The Pastoral letter lays the spiritual ground for the rejuvenation of the Goan condition, filled as it is with ecological imagery. The Letter compares faith to the fonddaro/ onddo; ponds that dot the paddy fields of Goa, to the paddy field and to the golden grain that the field produces. Indeed the very grain that we celebrate this month. Disappointment was expressed in some quarters with the choice of imagery in the Pastoral letter. The fondarro is not something nice. It is seen as the location of chickol (dirt and muck). I choose to disagree with this point of view. The letter has taken the ubiquitous feature of our landscape and converted into a sign worthy of contemplation. No longer is it merely the giver of water (important in itself). Further, the letter urges us to change our attitudes to the fondarro. Falling into the muck of the fondarro, is no longer the falling into muck, but a process of being enveloped in the life-giving waters and soil of our land. To move to this position is to be unable to see the field and its ponds as merely a saleable physical entity, but to see it as the giver and creator of life itself!

In itself the statement of disappointment is indication of how far we have fallen from a respect for the land and the person enveloped in its life-giving water and soil. The Letter does not merely point to the physical features of our land as signs worthy of mystical contemplation. It points also to the figure of the farmer as worthy of contemplation. It is true that despite Christ having lived his life among fishermen, we don’t have much respect for them, but it is possible that the genuinely mystical contemplation of the figure of the farmer will allow us to generate the respect that this figure genuinely deserves. This respect is perhaps at the bottom of the key to Goa’s solutions, since it is the disdain and disrespect that we reserve for the farmer that is in part responsible for the abandonment of the Goan paddy-fields. A result of this contempt for physical labour has ensured that even if we may not have any other work to do, we will not step into the fields for fear of the lowly status that we will then earn. An abandonment of the ideals of the farmer, indicates also our abandonment of a spirit of humility and poverty that allows the farmer to depend on forces larger than oneself. As we can see all around us in Goa, we are today animated by the spirit of fast-money-here-and-now. Nothing could be further from the spirit of the monsoon dependent farmer who earns from the sweat of her brow.

The two statements of the Goan Church should be seen as articulations of a single position. The change required in Goa is not merely legal; it must be accompanied by a spiritual renewal. The key lies not only the realization of the oft-touted 73rd ad 74th amendments to the Constitution, but in simultaneously rebuilding a spiritual relationship with the land and its produce. When that is done, our task will have been complete.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 20th August 2008)

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