Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Engagements from Beyond the Border: Reflections on the Know Goa Programme

Subsequent to hearing a critical participant’s observation about the ‘Know Goa Programme’ organized by the Department for NRI Affairs, I had my reservations about the Programme, wondering if it was not just another waste of public funds. My experiences with participants of the second edition of the ‘Know Goa Programme’ however, allowed me a partial retake on the initiative.

The ‘Know Goa Programme’ is apparently modeled on the ‘Know India Programme’ that has been designed for young adults (between the years 18 to 28) of Goan origin to spend some time in Goa, and get to know the place their parents or grandparents arrived from. The experience involves something of a guided tour across Goa, and the opportunity to interact with individuals, institutions and officials. Interacting along with other local Goans with these visitors over the past weekend, it became obvious that despite the possibility that the Programme could in fact be an all expenses paid holiday trip, it has it benefits.

Listening to the participants of this year’s programme speak, Harish Rao, a Californian-bred Goan, and present in the gathering, spoke up, hitting a nail squat on the head. He pointed out that when we (as young people of Goan origin) come to Goa on holidays with our parents, Goa is reduced entirely to an encounter with family. It boils down to visits from one family home to another, and a few photographs. There is no experience of a wider Goa outside of this family circuit. If we are to develop a connection with Goa, this young man pointed out, we need to be able to move out of these family circuits and establish larger connections with the society at large. To be sure, this is what the Programme seems to be attempting, allowing these young persons an initial engagement with Goa as individuals, and outside of the suffocating frameworks of family (and its often tiresome obligations).

Unfortunately though because the Know Goa Programme is couched within the larger context of diasporic politics, the Programme (or at least the part I was witness to) replicates the problems of diasporic politics. Two of these problems are, the essentialising of culture, and the restriction of the cultural identity within a national framework.

In their encounter with local Goans, the participating young adults were berated with the idea that they ought to learn ‘Konkani, our language’. Then came the usual lament of how we don’t do sing the Mando, dance fugdi, dhalo etc etc. There are a number of problems with this approach, the most important being that it freezes culture into being necessarily from the past, and must be held on to. There is no recognition of the fact that this culture evolved in the context of a certain time, certain kinds of social relations, and as time, economy and social relations change, this culture will change as well! One must be aware of the past yes, but hanging on to it suffocates a society. This suffocation is perhaps one reason why latter generation immigrants of Goan origin do not attend Goan events, or why younger local Goans take ‘cultural events’ lightly; these do not speak to the vibrancy of their lives and experiences. These events ask only that we continue to animate corpses that ought to have been buried.

Another problem with this way of understanding culture, is that once locked into lament mode, the only way in which you can address the Other (in this case the young participants) is to ask for their help. Because they also largely come from the countries of the developed West, this request for help comes loaded with all the implications of colonial and post colonial politics. Do we really want to continue these racist and deeply inegalitarian relations, or do we want to move on to equal and mutually nourishing relationships?

The third problem of diaporic politics is the manner in which a rich cultural tradition is shoved into a national framework. Thus given that Goa is now politically linked to the Indian nation-state, one has to stress the Indian connection. The rich histories of the Goan migrant that evokes memories in Karachi, in Mozambique, in Kenya are all erased. If not erased, then because we now view Goa primarily through an ‘Indian’ lens, there is no way to meaningfully make sense of, and engage with this wider cultural tradition and history.

I would like to supplement Harish Rao’s suggestion of breaking out of the family networks to engage with the larger society. I would suggest that the way forward lies in encouraging the participants of the Programme to engage as individuals with other individuals. Thus meet officials and get to know of institutions, but also know the individuals behind them. More importantly get to know local individuals who would like to know you on an individual basis. Such an individual interaction; quite simply the development of friendships, offers one way out of the problems with diasporic politics.

Get to know an individual and you get to know of her daily experiences and the manner in which she deals with the challenges of daily life. This is her culture, strongly rooted in the contemporary local. Vibrant and alive, there may not be a direct link to the Mando, fugdi, dhalo and Konkani. Yet despite this, they are profoundly Goan!

Engaging with another’s experiences draws you also into an understanding of local politics. The ‘Culture’ that is normally presented within diasporic settings is apolitical and hence dishonest. For example, when we are urged to speak Konkani, we are not told that there are huge contestations around the language. There are issues of dialect and script. Feelings of shame and humiliation. We are also not told that Konkani is just one (as it is) of the many languages that are natural to the Goan. Engaging with politics and with the individual, develops bonds of affection, that perhaps offer a far greater possibility of the person of Goan origin engaging with Goa’s future. What is more, for reasons of being based on a personal relationship, it is possible that these relations will tend towards being egalitarian, rather than reproduce the inequalities of international relations.

Finally, based on relationships, it encourages rising above the national boundaries that are severely limiting and fail to allow us to appreciate culture in all its breadth and depth. Emerging from a State initiative, it would be difficult for the Programme to achieve these objectives, but in merely creating a space, the Programme is perhaps doing enough!

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 9 Dec 2009)

1 comment:

Ulrike Rodrigues said...

Hi Jason,

And thanks for these thoughtful comments. Just a clarification -- I didn't actually participate in KGP myself when I wrote "Youth Travel Free with Know Goa Program" in March 2009. I researched the story and interviewed a number of subjects.