Thursday, July 30, 2009

Structure and Critique: Thoughts on Reading ‘Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun’

A few months ago, a visiting friend recommended that I read Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun. “It will shock you” he assured me. It was this assurance of a spicy read that made me lunge at the book when I did find it in one of the Panjim bookstores. The book however didn’t exactly live up to reviews on the jacket, and given that, subsequent to my reading, I didn’t find any reasonable review, I thought that I might as well get this column to reflect on the book.

Amen, has been written by Sr. Jesme, a Malayali nun who was formerly a member of the CMC congregation. As she reveals it, the intention of her book, was to highlight the various corruptions that are rampant within the high walls of the convent in particular, and the Church in general, with a view to initiating a wider debate on these corruptions. In particular she reveals the problems of religious who are spiritually uninspired; members of religious congregations who use the funds of the congregation to feather the nests of their natal families; and use their position within the Church to further familial fortunes. She speaks of religious congregations who while engaged in imparting education engage in practices that while not necessarily illegal, are definitely unethical. Finally, she also speaks of the sexual transgressions engaged in by those who have taken vows of celibacy.

Though Sr. Jesme has raised a number of issues that need to be addressed, what is remarkable is that most of the perfunctory reviews of the book (including those from persons within the Church) have focused only on the sexual episodes in her narrative. What could the possible reason be for the singular focus of these reviews?

I believe that we could address this question on three levels, the reason for the clerical response, the reason for the secular response, and a reason that lays responsibility for this focus on the structure of Sr. Jesme's narrative itself. The first reason; that of the clerical response, is relatively easy to address. Sr. Jesme already informs us in her narrative, that her book and her departure from the congregation was a result of a failure of the higher authorities within the institutional church to deal with the issue. Rather than address the issue, on multiple occasions she was informed that she lacked the virtues of the religious, and on other occasions was compelled to turn a blind eye to the corruptions that upset her. This scenario will not be alien to a Goan audience especially those who have attempted debates or dialogues and have been shut out by the ‘head in the sand' approach that is often (though truly not always) the preferred route employed by the Church hierarchy.

The response of the secular reviewers too falls into a rather predictable mode. The Catholic Church is seen as the font of all evil. No good can emanate from it, and it is to be understood primarily through the more popular lens that operates today, that of sexual impropriety. This mode can perhaps be traced to the history of the Western European experience with the Church, a historical experience was then converted into the ideology of secularism. Initially a battle of the temporal powers of Western Europe with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, this 'secularism' is in fact the continued attempt of temporal powers to deal with differences that they cannot or will not tolerate, especially if these differences allow for a split in the loyalties of persons within their jurisdiction. Thus on the one hand in Europe when secularism is quoted as the reason to prevent Muslim women from veiling themselves, the motive is in fact not secularism, since other religious motifs are permitted to be displayed. In India, secularism is reverted to when religious minorities demand that their differences be respected. Furthermore, when religious values challenge the temporal temptations of consumerism, an all-out war is launched against these 'irrational' religious beliefs. This occurs even though consumerism, as a belief that one's desires will be satisfied through consumption, is a certain kind of religious value, and in fact not particularly rational! In this battle of consumerism and secularism against other ideologies, it is very often tracts like that of Sr. Jesme that very often are used by the temporal powers to advance their agenda of effectively domesticating these theologies to their own temporal (state or market) agendas.

It was possible however that Sr. Jesme could have avoided falling into the trap of the ‘secularists’. She could have done this by providing a structure to her narrative. As of now, Sr. Jesme's text reads as a breathless babble, jerking, most often without providing an appropriate context, from one episode to another. Without providing a structure for her narrative, without framing her arguments, it is little wonder that her text, that has the potential to raise serious issues, was either dismissed as being about sex, or co-opted to pillory the Church as a nest of sexual deviants. Indeed the lack of a structure prevents even Sr. Jesme for developing a broader critique of the situation based on her personal experience. As such, the book remains the personal story of just one nun, who is unable to justify why her experience is in fact representative of many such experiences.

Even worse, the failure to provide a structure to the narrative prevents us from understanding the richness of the Catholic spiritual tradition that has clearly nurtured and continues to sustain Sr. Jesme, even when she has opted to remain a nun outside of the organizational location of the convent and congregation. Once more, providing such a context would have allowed the non-Catholic reader of this text (and given the context of its publication, this type will no doubt preponderate) a holistic understanding of the Catholic tradition. It is not as if Sr. Jesme is not aware that she was addressing this audience, but perhaps because of the fact that the majority of her life was spent within the confines of Central Kerala (that has a strong Christian presence) she forgets that not all non-Catholics in India have the same front-row experience of the Malayali non-Catholic.

What is odd however, is that this unstructured text should come from the pen of one who has been awarded a PhD in no less a field than English Literature! Rather than fault the Indian educational system, I would like instead to point to the lack of intellectual rigour that seems to mark a good amount of the work that comes out from constituents of the institutional Catholic Church. Even congregations that were formerly marked for their intellectual rigour, today display a good number of persons who produce work that displays a certain lack of rigour. There is not the space here to ponder the reason for this drop in standards, but it is a matter that needs to be systematically probed.

The reason that we need to probe this lack of rigour is displayed once more in Sr. Jesme’s narrative. Throughout the text Sr.Jesme jerks between patriarchal notions and the desire for liberation, frustrating in the process her own ability to produce a critique that would be useful for the debate she seeks to initiate within the Church. Just like Sr. Jesme, the frequent lack of intellectual rigour, prevents constituents of the institutional Church from articulating rigorous and careful responses to critiques of the Church. Failing this intellectual background, they are reduced to the ‘head in the sand’ approach, engage in limp-wristed defence, or worse still ad hominem attacks against the levelers of this critique.

For many of the faults of the book (and there are many) the blame should be placed squarely at the feet of the publishers, Penguin India. This is one book that can still do with a few rounds of rigorous editing, both grammatical and structural. The book as it stands now should be seen as an embarrassment to the publisher and the author. Also, within the sensitive context of the Indian republic, it has the potential to do great and unjustifiable harm to the Catholic Church. While pillorying the Catholic Church in the Christian west may be a popular pass-time, we should not forget that the Church(es) in India are not merely institutions, but are cultural organizations that frame and support the lives (and livelihoods) of many Indian Christians. A blind attack on the institutional Church) no matter how justified, could often result in an attack on innocents.

Despite all these faults however, Sr. Jesme’s narrative is one that deserves reading and further reflection on. From my own reading of the book I believe that it is clear that the problem lies not only with the institutional Church and the hierarchy, but with Catholic society as well. Sr. Jesme documents Malayali society, but the features she highlights is one that is not so dissimilar to what our own was a few years ago and continues to be so today. She speaks of small communities that suffocate individuals who may attempt to be different, where gossip operates as a mode to discipline people. Communities that mistake patriarchy for Christian values, and stress a blind dogmatic obedience while losing sight of its mystical value. None of these situations are unique to Malayali society, and it is incumbent on us therefore to begin a contemplation on the issues that Amen seeks to raise, but so woefully fails to carry to fruition.

(A shorter version of this review, was published in the Gomantak Times on 29 July 2009)

(It needs to be said that the finest review of the book so far is that penned by Bobby Kunhu, available via this link)

The Frustration of José Felipe: A Fable for our confused and frustrated times

For those of us who grew up English-speaking in Goa, feeding on a rich diet of Enid Blytons - so thoughtfully collected by the Central Library in Panjim - created a strange understanding of our ‘Goan’ world. Take for example the anecdote provided by my friend José Felipe. Brought up in Vasco, the family had an ancestral home in Sinquerim that they would travel to on holidays and in the summer. In the early 80’s, with or without the Mandovi Bridge, the trip was nothing less than an expedition. José Felipe was an avowed Enid Blyton buff. Sometime through the trip, Zé who was sitting squished between his two sisters in the back seat of their Fiat car, and hanging onto the back-rest of the front seat, couldn’t take it anymore. He’d been looking right and left for a while now, and unable able to control his excitement any longer, now piped up; “Ma, when are we going to see the natives?”

Recounting this anecdote always has us in splits, and poor Zé is never going to be allowed to forget this innocent gaffe. But ofcourse, the fault (if fault there is any) was not entirely his. We are what we read, what we see, and what we are led to believe. Zé reading the Enid Blytons, was in his mind, the audience that Blyton was writing for, British school-going boys and girls. This transformation was not entirely difficult for Zé, since he shared with the protagonists of Blyton’s writing a certain class-status. Like The Famous Five, the Secret Seven, he too belonged to a certain kind of middle-class. Like these adventurous British youth, he too was able to go off for trips into the ‘countryside’, and like these youth, would also in time, encounter the natives of the strange tropical worlds he was going to encounter. Clearly, his home in Vasco was seen as the realm of the natural (and civilized?), while the space outside of this home (and town) was part of the great unknown, a place full of mystery to be explored and discovered.

I am now at a critical juncture of this little narrative. There are two possible ways that I could go down. The first would be to trot down the road that says ‘Medium of Instruction’. This road breaks up into two further paths. The first, is the route of incrimination. I will have to pile up slur, upon slur, castigating Zé and his parents, for bringing up a child so clearly out of sync with his environment. Such an upbringing, this path will dictate to me, is not to be encouraged. Being of similar background to Zé however, I am most loathe to go down this path. I would rather choose a path that takes me toward a destination that I am more familiar. One where I see Zé, grow up to be a fine member of his community, fulfilling all the demands that tradition makes on his, as well as innovating for the future. I would normally have chosen this route, one that embraces the persons we have become, encouraging us on toward further heights and glories. The former path is the path of eternal misery, where we would reach nowhere, eternally unsure of ourselves, so confused and seized with doubt, that we would achieve nothing.

I have a vague feeling however that the next few weeks and months will give us plenty opportunities to ramble down these paths and the countryside they pass through. For this opportunity we must unconditionally thank Agnelo Fernandes who has raised a critical issue that for too long has gone without debate. With this prophetic knowledge therefore, I choose to take this narrative down another path, one of the disappointment that Zé encountered when globalization finally threw itself upon Indian shores.

Raised with Enid Blyton, then subsequently with every manner of literature, local, regional, national and international (all brought to us via translation in English) he longed for the destruction of the material and the intellectual constraints of our provincial world. It was with an eye to this destruction that he initially welcomed globalization, and with joy in his heart strolled through the sea of wonders that globalization began to spit out. Larger, glitzier music stores, fancy-shmancy book-stores, where books were stacked as far as the eye could see, malls with marbled halls hosting food-courts and world cuisine.

A couple of years into the era of globalization however and resident in Bangalore, Zé realised that something was seriously amiss; globalization was not delivering the goodies he had been expecting. There were fancy malls, large and promising book-stores, food-courts and music stores alright, but the content we had been expecting was all wrong! Rather than giving us more than what the Central Library had already been delivering to us, he found that these book-stores sold less! Crude and entirely utilitarian self-help books rather than the more stimulating selections from the literature of the world. The music stores were definitely larger and equipped with gizmos that allowed you to sample your music before you bought it, but there something dreadfully, dreadfully wrong! The music store was full of Tamil and Kannada music, devotional music and the same old boring ‘English’ music, but where was a sampling of music from around the world? Where was the Arabic music, the Iranian pop, Latin sounds from America, the Korean ‘singing witch’? The food-courts were perhaps the biggest disappointment. If he expected a certain democratization of food, a release of haute-cuisine into the commonplace, he was made painfully aware that he was living in a fool’s paradise. There was to be no steak, no sushi, no hummus and kebob. On the contrary, there was to be all varieties of chicken, and an expulsion of beef and pork, while at the same time pushing ‘American’ foods.

Globalisation it appears conspired against José Felipe! It did not result in any expansion of the intellectual or the material boundaries of our world. What it resulted in, was the expansion of unlimited consumption. In this conquest, the forces of globalization co-opted the vernacular cultures to further consolidate this new culture of unbridled consumption. Thus we don’t see vernacular books in these pretty new stores, the vernacular is used merely as a toy to rope in the innocents toward the altar of consumption. Everything is up for sale now, the innocence of those Blyton-educated days appearing no more than a dream, a possibility condemned to impotence.

In the course of the debate on the medium of instruction, perhaps this little fable of the rise and fall of the world of José Felipe has something to tell us. Rather than press home the interpretive advantage that is normally the domain of the polemicist, I’ll leave the options of this fable to you, gentle reader…

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 15 July 2009)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Judging the Magdalene: Law, Love and the Homosexual

The decision of the Delhi High Court, on the 2nd of July, to read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in so far as it pertains to consensual sexual relations between adults (even when they be of the same sex), was welcomed across the country, and indeed internationally. This reception has good reason. The reading down of the provision decriminalises an activity that many argue is normal, if less common. For those who are not convinced by the normalcy of same-sex relations, the argument has been offered that even if one disagrees with the proposition that homosexual relations are immoral, a criminal identity is hardly something one can thrust on people who are going about their business in the privacy of their homes.

The response to the law however was somewhat distubing. One saw gay activists and others claim to ‘be proud to be Indian’. This pride is somewhat bizzare. Why pride in the country? One can feel a pleasure in knowing that innocents will be no longer branded criminal. But pride? The pride became understandable when one ran through a number of Facebook messages on the 2nd of July. The pride was connected with India having arrived in the 21st century, in having ‘grown up’, and in having ‘progressed’.

The whole idea of progress, the maturation from immaturity to maturity is deeply tied to our colonial past, when the colonised were held to be like infants, who needed to be disciplined by the adult in the relationship – the white colonial master. Indeed, Winston Churchill maintained that the Indians were not ready (i.e. not mature enough) for self-rule. National movements were attempts by colonised elites at recovering their self-respect and showing that they were indeed mature, and progressive. Unfortunately, all too often this meant not charting their own course in history, but following the path of the former colonisers. The welcoming of the decision of the Delhi High Court therefore, I suspect, has less to do with a deep-seated commitment and belief in the rights of persons to a dignified existence, and more with the desire to be like ‘them’. If they can recognise gays, then so must we, else we might prove how ‘backward’ we are! And ofcourse, as the whole idea of ‘India Shining’ showed us, we care deeply about what the West (read world of the white man) thinks about us.

If the decision of the High Court has been welcomed by the secular liberal and assorted others, members of the religious right have been quick to denounce the decision protesting that this decision will only encourage more ‘anti-social activities’. Homosexuality is against the traditions of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, they scream.

Before the religiously inclined make any decision however, it would be worthwhile to have a look at the statements made both by the Delhi Archdiocese as well as the Catholic Bishops Conference of India. Writing on the matter, Fr. Dominic Emmanuel, a significantly placed cleric in the Archdiocese of Delhi in his column in the Indian Express expressed that “the Christian community does not (repeat it does not) treat people with homosexual tendencies as criminals. Nor does it be believe that they can be regarded on par with criminals. Therefore, it has no serious objection to the repealing of Section 377, which incidentally is what the Delhi high court seems to have ruled today in its historic judgment. In other words, it does not object to decriminalising homosexuality, though it fears that doing so might increase cases of HIV/ AIDS”. Echoing a similar position, though in the negative, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, President of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India expressed that “Although decriminalizing homosexuality does not make it moral, people in general may think thereby that it as morally permissible. The government should not give the impression that homosexuality is licensed”. Reference to documents from the Vatican, in particular the Pastoral Letter ‘On The Pastoral Care Of Homosexual Persons’ suggests as well that hatred toward the homosexual is not the position of the Church, but affirms the loving embrace that must be extended to the homosexual. To quote Fr. Emmanuel again, “The Vatican’s stand on this is quite clear: “They [homosexuals] must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (From the Catechism, No. 2358). But one must hasten to add …that decriminalising is not the same as: a) granting legal benefits; and b) accepting it as normal or natural.”

It should be clear that the Church finds itself in a sticky position vis-à-vis the criminalisation of homosexuality. It does not bless the criminalisation of the homosexual, but is clearly concerned with the impression that if decriminalised, the message that will go out to the wider world is that homosexuality is immoral. I do not wholly concur with the position of the Catholic Church; and for that discussion the space of this column is not sufficient. Yet I believe a valid point is being made by the Church when it cautions us against the perils of “consumer culture”. My own perspective on the welcome sexual liberation of the West has been, that while liberation was obtained for the human person from repressive sexual mores, the same person has now been colonised by the culture of consumerism, which sees the human body as just another vessel for consumption and pleasure.

To return to the thrust of the argument though, in this sticky situation, and especially given the larger context of India, it would be wise for the Church to remain within the moral sphere and not dictate the law, or lend their voice to dictation. The sphere of the Church (and religious leaders of other denominations) is ideally the moral sphere. In these days when States are composed of plural societies, we cannot hold on to the proposition that law is the reflection of the morality of society. Or as Cardinal Varkey would like to phrase it, “Criminal laws of a country defend the minimum morals of a society.” Those days, if at all they existed are gone. The notion of law that this proposition suggests was a notion of law suited to societies that were forming themselves into national communities. Nationalism as we know has often had to wipe out entire communities to produce the unity they are so proud of. The law of the State as we would have very often noticed is also unable to deal with the human being owing to the burdens of politics and procedural bureacracy. The moral sphere on the other hand, allows us to place ourselves in the position of Christ when judging the Magdalene. While not necessarily flexible, it is able to stand back from dogmatic positions to recognise the vulnerability of the human condition. It is only in the moral, that the Christian position of Caritas, can truly be realised, not through the violence that is inherent in processes of Statist Law.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 8 July 2009)

Subsequent to publication of this essay, as a blog post, a few of my friends suggested that I ought to have discussed also the Islamic position. Space being a challenge in a newspaper column, please follow the links to queer-friendly religious positions, and one short essay on the possibilities of a gay-friendly Islam.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Kunbi Devi and a Secular Republic: Learnings from the Peoples’ Tribunal – III

At the concluding ceremony of the Peoples’ Tribunal, like all grateful organizers, GAKUVED presented the members of the jury and the expert panel with mementos. In this case, a classically-styled image of the Goddess Bhagvati Chimbelkarin as Mahishasura Mardini. That single moment threw into sharp focus the possible options that GAKUVED – the organizers of the Tribunal- have before them in their continuing quest for justice for Goa’s tribal people.

The presentation of the image of the Goddess was hugely problematic not only because it was the image of a Hindu goddess being presented to people who don’t necessarily share that faith. The first problem with the image of the goddess was her representation as Durga Mahishasura Mardini. As Durga, the demon slayer, what GAKUVED presented us was the image of a brahmanical goddess, killing the demon in the shape of buffalo. A number of Dalit activists, and other scholars have often pointed out that brahmanical myths operate to justify the subjugation of non-brahmanical groups, represented in these stories as asuras and demons. This story should be familiar to the organizers of GAKUVED who see the brahmanical myth of the advent of Parashuram as the story of their enslavement by brahmanical groups; an enslavement that eventually left them without control over land or their temples. It is for this reason that the presentation of a Brahmanical image of the Goddess was surprising and even troubling.

The brahmanical representation of the Goddess, as fair-skinned, tall and supple, with sharp northern (Aryan!) features is just one of many ways to represent the Goddess. A scholar friend who was researching the temples in the New Conquests, once recounted the visit of the Goddess to her in a dream. Not one to dismiss such visitations as nonsense, I asked her what the Goddess looked like, having in my own mind, the image of a fair, light-eyed woman, decked in gold and green. Imagine my surprise when with the deepest of conviction this researcher should indicate that the Goddess had appeared as a Kunbi woman!

This appearance of the Goddess in this form should not startle us, since it was the Kunbis who first discovered and recognized the presence of the Goddess in our lands. The original rocks and ant-hills, that were the primal mark of her presence, were worshipped for long without the brahmanical imagery that we today associate with her. In fact, this brahmanical imagery exists in a very interesting manner to the actual object that is held to be the deity. The images of the deities that we see today, are only coverings (masks) placed over the objects held to be the deity. These objects are either rough, misshapen rocks or ant-hills. The brahmanical decorations therefore, reject this original appearance, mask it, and present their own image as the acceptable image of the Goddess. At multiple levels therefore, the brahmanical image is a rejection of the tribal element of Goan culture and the tribal roots of our Goan-Hindu deities.

GAKUVED would do well to recognize this fact, and realize that the liberation of the servitude that Goan tribals find themselves hinges also on the creation of a counter-culture and an aesthetic that shuns the brahmanical and privileges the non-brahmanical. On receiving the image of the Goddess I inquired from a friend, why they would think that the image of Durga was appropriate as a memento. He explained to me that Chimbel was an area that was reputed to have the largest number of tribals and hence they were presenting an image of Bhagwati Chimbelkarin. Even more so therefore, the need for an image of the Goddess as a kunbi woman. To fashion the Goddess in this manner, would unleash a huge amount of self-respect within the community.

GAKUVED would also do well to take a leaf out of the history of the Bahujan samaj both in Goa and Maharashtra. By not challenging Brahmanism itself, but only fighting the Brahmins, they continue to be caught in the brahmanical trap, unable to get the respect they originally started out for, on the contrary, getting trapped as the foot-soldiers of Hindutva’s attack against the minorities of this country.

On this note, we can see how the presentation of the image of the Goddess (and use of other paraphernalia such as the ‘traditional lamp’ at the inauguration) stands to divide the tribal population of Goa, rather than unite them. Goa’s tribal population includes Catholics, and both groups would do well to combine to fight for their rights together rather than separately. The use of religious symbols however definitely acts as a deterrent to this unity.

Brahmanical seduction is however not the only barrier to tribal unity in Goa; the law does it fair share too, pointing to the brahmanical bias of the Indian state. GAKUVED is the association of Gawdas (GA), Kunbis (Ku), Velips (VE) and Dhangars (D). These groups stand to benefit from their mobilization, primarily because they are recognized by the State as Scheduled Tribes. This privilege is available only to Hindus, the non-Hindus among the tribals unable to benefit from State recognition. Until such time as this State-incentive to not renounce Hinduism is removed, it is difficult to see a collaborative demand for the correction of the systemic injustices that the tribal segments of our population encounter. Given that we work in a system where numbers count, it stands to reason that until such a time as tribals from all faiths come together, their demand will be that much easier to dismiss.

This legal obstacle toward the unity of the tribal demand, is one more evidence of the manner in which both State and society in India conspire to consolidate the existence of a Hindu community in brahmanical mould. Starting the Tribunal with the lighting of the lamp, and ending it with the presentation of an image of the Goddess, created the tribunal of a Hindu movement. Unless GAKUVED reflects carefully on the manner in which it mobilizes, it risks becoming the unwitting foot-soldier for the Hindutva movement. The challenging of Hindutva does not necessarily mean a conversion to Islam, Catholicism, or Buddhism. Neither should it be assumed to be a call to secular atheism. On the contrary, all that it calls for is a conscious articulation of a tribal identity that throws off the Brahmanical mask that stifles it. Recast the image of the Goddess as a Kunbi woman. Discard the brahmanical rituals that are seen as the only possible ritual. Rediscover, reinvent even, rituals and a religiosity that comes directly from the tribal experience. Babasaheb Ambedkar pointed out that “For a successful revolution it is not enough that there is discontent. What is required is a profound and thorough conviction of the justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights”. Such a thorough conviction of justice and the necessity and importance of political and social rights, would ensure that GAKUVED fights for the rights not only of those who have been recognized as Scheduled Tribes by the State, but also for the recognition of those who the State unjustifiably prevents from obtaining rights that they ought to have.

I wish you luck and strength my friends.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 1t July 2009)