Thursday, October 29, 2009

La Vie en rose: Why the material is mystical

Some months ago, the current Commissioner of NRG Affairs, Mr. Eduardo Faleiro inaugurated a debate over the matter of the management of Church properties in Goa. Initially it appeared that a suggestion was being made that the State take over the management of Church properties, or at the very least have a say, supervisory control over this properties. Howls of indignant protest followed, most pointing out that to suggest that the State have such a power would be like setting the cat among the pigeons. These objections pointed out that the State machinery itself has ruthlessly presided over the sale of common properties impoverishing the common man in the State, and such an institution is likely to only complicate matters further. In light of this rather robust response, Mr. Faleiro presented a document to the Archbishop that suggested internal reform and vigilance.

Among the many suggestions, there was one that particularly caught my eye, especially because it seemed to one that had purchase in some of the meetings organized by Mr. Faleiro. The suggestion reads “Administrative committees, duly constituted, may be truly empowered, so that lay persons feel really responsible for the administration, as the Church are Christ's faithful and the assets of the Church are their assets. Administration of the ecclesiastical assets should be their domain mainly. If this happens, priests will be left free for what is their proper field, viz. apostolate”. An interesting suggestion is being made here, that priests have really no business administering property, since property is a material good and priests have committed themselves to the spiritual. As such, leave property to be managed by those in the secular and material world. A version of ‘To Caesar that what is Caesar’s, and to God…’

Superficially the argument makes eminent sense. It extends one of the principles of secularism, of separating the Church/religion/spirituality from the State/secular/material life. Unfortunately however, this logic works well only if restricted to the secular world, it does not work at all if one does not admit of this distinction between the material and the secular. On the contrary to apply this logic to the operations of a religion, would ensure that religion ceases to have any meaning at all. The mistaken assumption of Faleiro and the secularists is that religion is about ritual and the spiritual, and it has no connection to the material. Making this assumption, they can extend the principle of secularism as they do. However, religion admits of no distinction between the spiritual and the material. On the contrary, religion is about precisely how to guide one’s material life, and as such has everything to do with the material. It is not as if Catholic culture does not admit members of the laity to be models to be emulated. On the contrary, there are a number of such examples, and priests more often than not, operate in parishes across the world in active participation with lay individuals who are identified (either by them or by social consensus) as significant members of the community. However, Catholic culture nevertheless gives the priest, one trained in the scripture, thought and tradition of the church, a preeminent place in guiding the community in its life. And because there is no such thing as a purely spiritual life, and life is lived out in a material world, this pastoral guidance necessarily extends to how we must mould our material life.

However Faleiro’s suggestion is troubling not only because it turns the idea of religion on its head. His suggestion is troubling because it perpetuates other deeply disturbing, though admittedly popular, distinctions. This distinction is between that of the public and the private. One of the reasons for the early continental European separation of Church from the State, was not because these republicans were necessarily averse to Christianity. On the contrary, their public culture continued to echo Western Christian tradition. The separation was necessary because the Church, as a human institution, was closely tied to the feudal order that the bourgeois republicans were seeking to destroy. These liberals also forged the distinction between the public domain and the private. In the private you could continue with your religious (and other traditions), and in the public they cultivated the religion of the State. Feminists for a few decades now have pointed out the problems with this distinction, pointing out that this distinction serves only to blind the eyes of State justice to abuses that go on in realms that are marked out as private. Just as there is no distinction between the material and the spiritual therefore, there is no distinction between the public and the private. Echoing the phrase ‘the personal is political’, popularized by the feminists in this context, will make the overlap between Faleiro’s suggestion and this larger ‘secular’ tradition strikingly clear. [As an aside, I should mention that this proximity between the spiritual and the feminist argument should make some in the clerical hierarchy sit up, take off their bigoted blinkers, take notice, and start thinking!]

One of the reasons I seek to articulate this critique, is because this separation that is being pushed will have a perilous impact on public life. What it will result in, is the further reduction of religion to ritual. Most of us, already thoroughly secularized in our thinking, even if we consider ourselves devout, understand religion to be ritual. Ritual in religion is however, animated by a spirit that makes meaning of it all. When that spirit is divorced, ritual is emptied out, becoming what secularists and atheists hold it to be ‘empty ritual’. The danger of empty religious ritual is that it becomes a kind of a communal marker that is then pandered to, building up the foundations of communal tensions in multicultural societies. Shorn of the mystical element that gives it meaning, and in fact allows us to transcend narrow social markers, ritual becomes the basis for marking difference. We can already see this operating in the Indian polity. ‘Hinduism’ is emptied out of the ethical values it contains to become Hindutva, an empty shell of symbols and rituals that are believed to represent a community. Islam is similarly emptied of its ethical values to become the political agenda of the jihadi. Similarly Christianity. The State panders to these symbols, only exacerbating the problem, when in fact the ethical practitioners of these faith traditions would, in daily life, normally transcend these barriers.

This particular suggestion that Faleiro makes therefore, has multiple problems for which it must be firmly ignored. The larger point however, is of the problem with this binary ‘secular’ logic; that has more followers than just Mr. Faleiro. It is a logic that is so built of partitions that it fails to allow us to lead holistic lives where we can see the connections between each other. It is a logic that builds solutions on partitions, rather than transcending the divisions that are created or may exist. If the feminists suggested so many decades ago that the personal is political, may I now suggest that indeed, the material is mystical?

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 29 Oct 2009)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Diwali I Loved: Saudades after an Explosive Naraka Chathurdashi

If there is one thing that I absolutely adore about Diwali in Goa, it is the relative quiet as compared to other parts of India. It is as if all our explosive tendencies get used up in the course of Chathurti and it is only the die-hards who actually make a bang at Diwali. It could also be a reflection however, that the rhythms of our Hinduism is markedly different from that present in the rest of India, especially North India. Diwali is definitely not that big a deal for us, as compared to Ganesh. And if it is, then Diwali has still not been reduced to the consumeristic orgy that marks Diwali at least in the north of India.

Perhaps the fondest image that I have of Diwali in Goa is an image captured from a rather modest house in Taleigão. It is late on the night of Diwali, and all the world is asleep. It is the proverbial silence of Christmas in the air and before me, was the façade of this little house and its courtyard in front of it. All that one can make out of this house are the tiny, red fairy lights that hang from the eaves of the house’s roof, bathing the Tulsi and the rest of the court yard in the softest and most delicate red hues. I return often to this house, and simply drink up the scene. Having quaffed this scene so often, I can regurgitate it whenever I am away, drinking in once more the beauty of a silent, but light filled Diwali. What is perhaps most beautiful about this remembered scene, is that for me, the weak but constant light of the fairy lamps represents what Diwali could be all about. The weak, yet insistent commitment to good, over evil, that is always more powerfully arrayed and always returns with a vengeance.

If there is one thing that I abhor about the Goan Diwali however, it is this supposedly ‘unique’ celebration of what is now being called Naraksur Nite (shudder!). I used to be under the impression that the Narakasur effigy was this peculiarly Goan Hindu observance, until an anthropologist friend dragged me out of this dream. It is apparently, an invention that came to Goa from Goan migrants who had traveled to Bombay and then returned. Authentically Goan or not, my early recollections of Naraka Chathurdashi are fond. These memories remain fond despite the fact that I now recognize that they brought children and youth together in bonhomie under the umbrella of secular Hinduism. They remain fond, because there was nevertheless a spirit of innocence that we all shared. It was a time when it was possible to not be aware that there were problems with the way this nation was being sutured together. After all in the 1980’s we were just 2 decades away from being Indian and still without the bitter experiences that the last couple of decades has brought.

If there is a Diwali-related orgy in Goa, then it has to be Narakasur Nite. I use the word orgy very deliberately, since the event as it has been arranged does in fact have the necessary requirements for an orgy, which is an out-of-control mob. There is this awful din of pre-recorded music that allows for no conversation, and no meaningful participation. One becomes merely a spectator, who can only watch, ideally with open mouth, stand a while and then move on to view the next creation somewhere down the street, and then watch again. What Naraksur nite becomes is a night for the rowdy young man.

There is more than the environment that allows for the emergence of the rowdy young man, the image of Narakasur has over the time come to also represent the body of the violent young man. The Naraksur of perhaps a decade ago displayed something of the physical types of most, lets say, Goan men. Solid chest and arms no doubt, but definitely the pot-belly! Have another look at the Narakasur from a few days ago. He had the sculpted male body that is sold by Hollywood and Bollywood. This is not just a male body, it is the embodiment of untrammeled male power; muscled and hard. Funnily enough, these contemporary Narakasurs represent the same mistakes made by a number of Indian men who engage in ‘body-building’. So obsessed with cultivating the image of the powerful and strong man, they focus entirely on the chest, growing like bulls around their torso, but running around on stick-like legs. Just like the boys who fashion these Narakasur then, the effigy too is top heavy, and has to necessarily be built sitting down! Talk about worshipping gods with feet of clay!

There is definitely an element of worship that has crept into the celebration of Naraka Chathurdashi. Perhaps this is what the Sanathan Sanstha (SS) and the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) have also sniffed out. This seems to contravene a certain code that they have, as to what Hinduism actually is. I cannot pretend to make sense of this code, because I am as yet puzzled by the contradictions between this group that encourage militancy, and simultaneously discourage it. Could it be the contradictions of Hindutva itself? The contradictions of an ideology that rests on lower-caste/class mobilization and militancy, and yet must bind these cohorts to upper-caste/class leadership. Refering to the ‘dancing, drinking and singing and loud filmi music’ at the ‘Ganapati festival’ Kancha Ilaiah suggests that there has been a certain ‘Dalitisation’ of what had been intended to be modes of conversion to Brahmanism. Given the response of the SS and the HJS, that seek to clean up these acts of their bawdry, perhaps Ilaiah has a point. Perhaps the bawdry does represent a challenge of the ‘lower’ orders to brahmanical norms!

As perplexing as these contradictions are, it is crucial that we make sense of them if we are to ensure the kind of low-intensity Diwali that we seem to be used to in our little State. A rather belated, but nevertheless heart-felt Diwali Mubarak to all.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 21 Oct 2009)

Image Credit: Cecil Pinto via

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Politics of Apologies: Portugal, Slavery and the Politics of the World Order

I get extremely agitated when Portuguese academics express the need to apologize for, and attempt to undo the damage done during the colonial period, especially that of the slave trade that was conducted in part by them. It is not that there is no need to recognize that this slave trade, and other heinous practices under colonialism took place. There is such a need. An example of this need for recognition is the rather disingenuous manner in which in the course of a competition searching for the 7 wonders of the Portuguese architectural world, the history of slavery linked to a number of Portuguese architectural marvels was omitted. But this recognition does not necessarily imply the need for an apology. Even if it does, the fact of apology carries its own baggage; baggage that can further complicate relations between the colonizer and the formerly colonized.

When Portugal apologizes for slavery, it does not do so on a blank slate. It does this on a slate that is already loaded with a large variety of meanings. For example, it is understood that slavery was the slavery of ‘black’ people. Further, it is understood that this slavery was conducted by ‘white’ people. Thus when we apologize for slavery, we apologize not only as Portuguese, but as ‘white’ people who did grievous injury to ‘black’ people. What this apology does therefore, is to re-inscribe race back into international relations. It makes some people (not all) from the African continent black, and the people in continental Europe white.

This easy equation between white and black is also deeply problematic because the historical situation is not so cut and dry. When Portugal engaged in slavery, it was not only white people who were conducting this trade. The trade flourished also because there were other groups from the African continent (‘black’ and otherwise) who participated in this trade. Not just those in the African continent though; the slave trade was profitable also for a number of Goan families, whose current fortunes are built in part by their participation in the slave trade. For the Portuguese to ignore this complexity and shoulder the entire blame for the slave trade is sweet, but it results in another patently colonial act. It casts the (‘white’) Portuguese as responsible and the others (‘Black’ and African) as not. Classic colonialism rested on the distinction between the all-knowing, responsible, adult White, and the child-like, irresponsible, coloured native.

None of this is to suggest that the Portuguese are wickedly manipulating statements to re-inscribe a racial dimension to post-colonial relations. On the contrary, the urge to apologize comes from the more conscientious segments of Portuguese society, who are appalled by attempts to forget or ignore the barbarities committed in colonial times. However what they fail to realize is that given that the postcolonial world is already configured by certain practices established by the dominant powers of the world, their apology only goes to further complicate and worsen postcolonial relations.

What might these practices established by dominant global players be? Take for example the fact that when we speak of slavery we very often only speak of and imagine slavery in the Atlantic Ocean circuit (i.e. toward the Americas). The slave trade in the Indian Ocean is completely erased. Further it is imagined that only Africans were enslaved. Historians of Goa will know that there was also a slave trade in Chinese and peoples from the Far East. And yet one but rarely hears of this trade.

The reason for this bias is owing to the Anglo-American leadership of the debate. This stress leads to the whole imaginary that is created particularly for the US based Afro-American, that the continent of Africa is ‘Home’. There is the specific imagination of these Afro-descendants in the Americas as the African ‘Diaspora’. Some time ago, in the sixties and the seventies, the whole idea of a return to Africa, that was quite fashionable among Afro-American activists. The experiences of those who ‘returned’ were disastrous. The idea however still has some resonance. This longevity can be explained by the similarity of this construction with other racist and nationalist imaginations. It feeds from and in turn supports the whole idea of the State of Israel and the right of Jews to return to a land (that is imagined as originally being theirs). It buttresses the whole idea of Muslims in India being invaders and hence eternal outsiders to the country. The slave discourse that the Portuguese unwittingly enter into when they wish to apologize is loaded with such ideas. And to be sure, there would be some in Portugal, who would like to see Portugal as a ‘white’ space, with the Blacks knowing for sure that Africa is their space, to which they are more than welcome to return to.

As I stated before, there is a need for us to not ignore or forget the cruelties of colonialism. However this whole business of apologies seems to generate as many problems as it does benefits. For one it is similar to the whole idea of righting historical wrongs. When one tries to do that, one invariably gets into a larger mess than one started with in the first place. Have a look at the wars in the Balkans, the Basque demand, the Hindutva demand. Secondly, the apologies generate as indicated above a whole new system of relations between peoples and countries. The recognition of culpability generates the demand by African (and other Third World countries) for Western developmental aid. Once again, though we recognize that Western European and Northern American wealth is built on colonial exploitation, we should recognize that the demand for aid is not so innocent. It is the demand not of the masses of people of the African and Asian nations, but of their elites. The developmental aid that comes in on the backs of the recognition of responsibility is used to cushion these elites, and to push projects that invariably hurt the poor and the marginal of these countries. Finally, the politics of apologies push certain populations in the formerly colonized spaces into tight (and dangerous) corners. In the context where some segments blame Goan Catholics for the real and imagined attacks on Hindus during the pre-Republican Portuguese regime, does this politics of apology not further condemn the Goan Catholic?

The field of postcolonial relations is a mine-field. In the case of Portugal, which does not share the history of dominant world powers, the field is even more fraught with dangers. A case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There are for sure however, ways in which we can recognize the sorrows of the past, not ignore them, and then go on to build relations that do not depend on apologies, especially when they involve the creation of further complications in our already troubled world. This route involves recognition of the combination of local and overseas elites in colonial domination. The route involves a refusal to allow any actions that would reinscribe racism and clientalism of formerly colonized States into international relations. The route involves getting on with our lives and not getting caught up in nationalist politics.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 14 Oct 2009)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

We’re Brahmins! : The transnational transactions of caste capital

There is a certain segment of readers of this column who believe that it deals too much with caste. For the sake of those readers, I was hoping that my time away from Goa, and in Goa’s former metropole would allow us both to get away from the terrible ‘C’ word. Unfortunately, this was not to be. In a bid to be friendly, a student from one of Portugal’s more ancient universities, told me of a classmate who was also Goan. “He always reminds us that he is a Brahmin” this acquaintance told me with a grin. I rolled my eyes thinking, “Here we go again!”

If we imagine life to be a board-game, then the claims that we make in this game are not mere talk. These claims are in fact strategies, or counters for us to get higher in the game, or retain the position that we have. Flashing the right card at the right time can win us a particular round of the game. Thus we often flash our upper-caste belongings when there is need, through the way we speak, the way we look, our names, etc. This country, as almost any honest person will acknowledge, works along brahmanical lines.

Very often in a game, we are left with counters that seem to have no value. In such a case, we would need to transform the counter into something of greater value. The board-game of life seems to provide such options in certain cases. It is for this reason that Goan Catholics from the upper castes very often flash their belonging to Brahmin or Kshatriya categories when forging their careers or trying to make an impression in the former British-India. What they do is to transcend the peculiarity of being Catholic Brahmin or Chardo and find equivalence by casting their identity along pan-Indian lines.

But Portugal is not India, and while it may help to proclaim one’s upper caste status in India; what purpose does it serve in European Portugal? Proceeding purely on logic, it should serve only to make an oddity of oneself, sticking out like a sore thumb. And yet this student claims, we are told, this status constantly!

Trying to make sense of this puzzle, my mind flew back to a conversation I had had 2 years ago. Referring to Narana Coissoro, a significant Portuguese, a man of Goan descet; the lady I was in conversation with said “Ah Narana Coissoro! He’s a noble isn’t he? A Brahman from Goa”.

Speaking with a Portuguese anthropologist who studies Goa, I confirmed what I was beginning to suspect, the early Portuguese understanding of the Brahmin in Goa was to find equivalence for them in European aristrocracy and nobility. This reading was made possible through the fact that the Brahmin caste in the area around Goa was already in the early 1500’s a dominant caste group with substantial land holding. For the late medieval/ early modern European, control over the land translated into the fact of nobility.

Clearly then the counter of ‘brahmin’ that our friend keeps throwing about is not without some value even in Portugal. ‘Brahmin’ is used to signify social distinction, the fact of being a ‘noble’, a cut above the rest, of being special. Portugal’s long relationship with Goa has clearly then established certain rules in the game, rules that are understood particularly well by the elites there, through which counters in Goa, can be translated and made sense of in Portugal, allowing one to play the game with higher stakes there.

Having made sense of this situation, we can now begin to understand why the claims of expat Indians in non-metropolitan parts of the US make no sense to Anglo-Saxon residents of the US. ‘White’ friends from the US invariably indicate that their Indian friends never fail to point out that they are Brahmin, and confess that they have no idea what it means to be Brahmin. The counter that these upper-caste Indians are seeking to parade before to the others does not have any value without the shared historical bonds, and without out the value of the counter having been acknowledged by the larger collective of elites of the US. Ofcourse it does not stop these expats from continuing to claim their distinctive status back home, and it is possible that as India’s star as a potential ‘super-power’ continues to rise, there will emerge a way for this counter to make some sense in dispersed communities in the US too. The situation in Goa was markedly different though, the Brahmin (across religion) was for a long time a collaborator with the colonial power (indeed, this is a common understanding of the Brahmin in Portugal – the section of people with who they had intimate relations). This equation, specifically located in both time and space, allowed for the counter to continue to have significance in the Luso-Indian world.

An ancient coping mechanism when being in the realm of the unfamiliar is to domesticate it by comparing it to the familiar. The tables were turned on me when the unpleasantly familiar turned up rather innocuously in a Lisbon conversation. But perhaps the experience showed me more than the transnational character of caste, which operates as social capital. This episode also showed us how these two societies for all their differences, may in fact be joined in many more places that we often imagine.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, October 7th 2009)