Thursday, July 30, 2009

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)

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