Wednesday, February 24, 2010

No Carnaval in Paradise: The impossibilities of Carnaval in a post-Christian world

There is a certain familiarity that Lisbon brings to the Goan visitor. The place is full of familiar names, figures and remembrances. In this context, a friend suggested that rather than think that it was Portuguese names that Goans bore, it was in fact Goan names that the Portuguese carried with them. Goa, in other words, is where Portugal originated.

Now this suggestion seems facile, ridiculous even. We would do well to remember though, that history is always an artifice, a construction of ideas, emphasizing some aspects rather than others, the direction of some flows, rather than others. Much writing and thinking, especially within Portugal, begins from the assertion of Portugal’s gift of culture to the world. Where there is talk of counterflows, the influence of the colonized is seen as only ornamental, superficial. The colonized has not really impacted on the famed continental Portuguese soul.

I am led to these ruminations by my thoughts this last Carnaval. Through the entire festival, I was possessed by a strange irritation; an irritation I just could not figure out. I was sure it had to do with my conviction that Carnaval is a tropical feast, and my being out of Goa and missing the passion with which Carnaval is celebrated in Goa. I argued in my last column that the Goan Carnval is now a brief and gaudy lament for a lost citizenship which is why we Goans are still so passionately celebrate it. It was after seeing my thoughts on paper, that it all came together, and I could place a finger on an alternate source of my irritation.

‘These silly Portuguese are not doing it right’ I kept thinking, holding Goan practice to be the model-type. And indeed why not, since as I will go on to argue, the Goan Carnaval continues to approximate the ideal of what Carnaval is supposed to be. The Portuguese Carnaval simply has ‘to suck’ as a Lisboeta friend put it, because it has largely lost any context that a Carnaval ought to have.

The hierarchy of the Goan Catholic Church may disapprove of it; and our last gasp of fun, before Lent may not quite be the spirit in which we ought to approach Lent. However, we must recognize that the fact that Lent is still taken fairly seriously provides a significant context for the Goan Carnaval. Even if we do not abstain during Lent, the Goan Catholic enters into a social context, not different from that experienced by the errant Muslim during Ramzaan. In not abstaining we recognize deep down, that it is we, the non-abstainers, who are the aberration. In the post-Christian society that Portugal has become, the absence of the tension of restraint that Lent provides to the periods of moral laxity and consumptive excess through the rest of the year, results in a Carnaval without an edge.

The Catholic faith in Portugal has been largely replaced by a more secular faith, that of the ceaseless worship of Mammon, through constant consumption and sensorial gratification. Ghalib perhaps captured it best in his couplet; ‘Hazaron qwahishein aisi ki har qwahish pe dum niklen; bahuth nikle merey armaan, phir bhi kum niklen’ (Thousands of desires, each worth dying for...many of them I have realized...yet I yearn for more...). My perspective is to be sure partial and biased. I am but a few months a Lisboeta, and live in close proximity to Bairro Alto, the veritable temple courtyard of Mammon in Lisbon. In this location, and to quote the Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan in his poem Madhushala, ‘Every day is Holi, and every night Diwali’.

Carnaval is necessarily a period of abandon, when we create a fleeting material paradise of plenty, to contrast with the daily deprivations we may suffer. As such, it is also a festival with stresses our relationship to the corporeal. When in this consumeristic world, every day is a Carnaval, and want is almost unknown, what sense in having a half week of Carnaval just once a year?

Portugal may be poor, its standards of living lower than in the rest of Europe, and yet, this is not the poverty of its not-so-distant past. It has, despite its grumbling, and it has to be said that the Portuguese lo-ove to grumble, settled comfortably into the Pax Europeana. This Pax is what Foucault has would have called governmentality. A situation where by and large our every material need is taken care off, or at least entertainment and distractions provided if it is not. Portugal’s needs may not be taken care of, but it definitely lives within a bureaucratic and consumeristic net where the edge of frustrated desires are blunted. The Goan Carnaval, as I laboured to indicate last week, is powered by the desire to incarnate a radically different citizenship from the one we currently inhere in. At Carnaval, we dance on the edge of that desire.

Goa, and indeed much of the world, lives outside of such a Pax. We may all be made of the same flesh and blood, but thanks to this Pax, this net of distraction, we realize our bodies (our corpus) in radically different ways from those in the European continent. It is perhaps a realization of this radical difference in corporeality, and the ensuing impossibility of Carnaval in Lisbon, that was at the basis of my irritation through Carnaval this year.

The time of Carnaval, and its relationship to the world, is an ideal. Once we are admitted into this reality, there is no new or old, authentic or pretender. When Portugal (or the colonizer) falls away from this ideal, it is indeed, Goa (or the colony) that becomes the model. The colony then, is where the metropole, can now originate from.

(A version of this column was first published in the Gomantak Times, 24 Feb 2010)


Image No.1 - Campo das Cebolas - Lisbon

Image No. 2 - Carnaval in Lisbon - 1907

Image No. 3 - The Fight Between Carnival and Lent - artwork by Pieter Bruegel

Image No.4 - Roman Triumph

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Carnaval and Citizenship: Capturing the streets without barricades

Year after year, since I began this column, I would, around this time of the year, dutifully trot out a column dedicated to Carnaval. The column would try to contemplate the political significance of Carnaval, gesturing toward its radical potential in overturning norms that normally mark the status quo. Even today, as I think about it, in a severely hierarchical society like India, including Goa, the spring festivals of Holi and Carnaval provide a welcome release for those who have to through the year suffer the insufferable.

This year brings different emotions however, born no doubt from my presence in a different context. This year, I find myself in a city where a number of us would believe that our Carnaval practices were born. As yet, this has to be the most lackluster Carnaval I have had in years. Perhaps we can put it down to the fact of rain that seems to pour down interminably. Carnaval to my mind is necessarily a tropical feast. The cold, frigid rains of northern climes do not sit well with my imagination of the feast. Or it could be the fact that there has not as yet been a public parade like I am used to in the land of my birth. Be that as it may, so far this year, at the time of the writing of this column, Carnaval sucks.

But this is a good emotion; this disenchantment. The disenchantment is

a good emotion because it provides another position from which to think this entire festival through. For a number of us Goans, Carnaval is a time not only of wild celebration, but a time of lament as well. We gather to celebrate and lament the better times that were had before. As I lament this year, for entirely different reasons than the passing of good times, I ask myself if Carnaval has not gained the significance that it does because it is a primarily a time when we mourn something besides the past.

As I have mentioned before, the point of Carnaval is to invert dominant morality for ever so short a period. The Goan Carnaval, however much we may lament the passing of its great age, does invert a morality. It inverts the sanctimonious morality that comes along with the Indian State. Whether this is done to boost the inflow of the tourist rupee or not, the call to inversion allows Goans to flood the streets, drink and dance. In doing so, with the Carnaval parades, with the dances, the drinking, the intruz, they do something that would ordinarily be quite unthinkable. In doing this however, they also celebrate the possibility of a Republic that might have been.

But this articulation of a desired citizenship is no simple articulation of a Goan consciousness. It is part nostalgia; partly fed by the nervousness of a insecure Catholic minority; and partly conceived through the Goan State’s own construction of the Goan identity. Whether we like it or not, the construction of the idea of Goa has critically impacted on Goans, regardless of whether they are Catholic, or Hindu.

There is no other reason that I can think of to explain the gusto with which most Goans I know reach out to use the Carnaval to wear saris and dance in the street, to get on to ridiculous floats, to shave their legs, to capture the street in a couple of brief gaudy hours. What is going on is nothing less than at attempt to assert the possibility for another kind of citizenship that the kind that is currently on offer.

I understand citizenship as the complex of relationships between citizen and State. This bond encompasses a number of relationships that include the political, moral and cultural. It is embodied in the manner in which certain things are allowed, and certain things disallowed. The manner in which you may behave in public, and ways in which you may not. Ways in which political leaders may behave and ways in which they may not.

Take a closer look at the occurrences in Goan public life, and you will realize that since the start of our post-colonial existence, we have constantly been attempting to define the nature of citizenship in this tiny space. The dynamics of this relationship are to be sure over-determined by the inertia of the Indian political system within in which we operate, but between the spaces of the framework there are multiple attempts to configure the dynamics of citizenship in Goa.

The Bahujan Samaj’s bid for Marathi and merger, the ramponcars movement in the 80s, the definition of Goan identity primarily around Konkani, the demand for the recognition of the Roman script for Konkani. In more recent times we have sought to define Goan identity to include a definite spatial aesthetic. Urban design, as I have argued in earlier columns, encompasses definite social relations. We now demand a ‘Special Status’ for Goa. Look closely and away from the immediate issue and you will see that what underlies all these issues is a desire to cast Goan citizenship in very definite ways. There are social movements in many other states in this country. Yet I wonder if they blossom with such frequency in other places, as they do in Goa.

Carnaval is one such time when this desire to recast citizenship is expressed. Not necessarily by all, but definitely some definite segments of our population. This column will be published only after the fires of our desires have been put to ashes. And yet, who knows, some day those fires will burn long enough to brand the world around us? One only hopes that it will reforge the bonds of citizenship with a tendency towards greater equality, rather than the tendency toward autochthony that we so increasingly see.

Viva Carnaval!

(A version of this blog was first published in the Gomantak Times, 17 Feb 2010)


Holi image from

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Taking the Republic Seriously: Why the Centenary of the Portuguese Republic is a Goan event

The year 2010 is a year of great significance for in this year we commemorate a number of hugely momentous political events. We mark the fifth centennial anniversary of the conquest of the city of Goa by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510, the centenary of the declaration of the Portuguese Republic in 1910, and six decades since the enforcement of the Constitution of India. Subsequently, this year shall give way to another, when we in Goa will mark our integration into the Indian Union in 1961.

Let us leave aside the event of 1510 for the moment. We shall have much to discuss about this event in the months to come; and I dare say that the nationalists will have even more! Let us concern ourselves however with these two Republics, both of which are appropriately ours as Goans; the Portuguese and the Indian.

There are moments in time, when one is confronted with events of such profundity, that one can understand them only as moments of rebirth. The old self passes away, and in light of the revelation before us, is reborn, rather like a Phoenix from the ashes of the old. One such personal moment of rebirth, was the realization that the Portuguese Republic of 1910 was my own. This was a fundamental moment of rupture. Happily for me, the initiation into this truth occurred at the hands of not some nostalgic ‘Portuguese Left Over’ (PLO) – as they are so unkindly called – but via an activist of the Goan Bahujan Samaj. Standing up at an event this man proclaimed to all the Goan world, that he was first liberated when recognized as equal in 1910, under the effects of the Portuguese Republic that recognized all Goans as citizens. His reference was to his formal liberation from the caste oppression that, he will argue, continues to dog the lives of numerous ‘lower’ caste Goan Hindus, as well as to the formal recognition of equality that was given effect to via the hard work and perseverance of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Father of our Constitution.

For too many of us however, Republic Day is just one more day for nationalist ‘India Shining’ chest thumping, the offensive displays of the might of the Indian armed forces, and the cloying sweetness of ‘cultural diversity’ parades. I was the horrified witness to a entirely serious discussion on Facebook, where a number of young Indians maintained a steady discussion on how awful it was that we had a frumpy looking woman taking the military salute at this years Republic Day parade in Delhi. Why couldn’t we have a more stylish, smarter woman as President? Why can’t she just do something for her hair!!!

Can Republic Day mean more to us? Our Bahujan Samaj activist gives us an insight into taking the Republic seriously. The declaration of republics in various parts of Europe meant the abandoning of social and legal orders that were based on feudal privileges and hierarchies. It presented the idea of a political order where all were to be equal. To be sure we realized in the course of time that these republics replaced one inequality with another. The idea of equality which was to apply to all men, was taken literally, in that women were excluded for a long time from political representation. All men however did not apply to men of colour and to colonial contexts. And yet, the mere idea of these rights were important because it allowed us to imagine different ways of relating to other human beings and assured us we did not have to always be cowed down. The promise of equality and rights was the gift of the Republican ideal. In many parts of the world, not just in Europe, the idea of the Republic is taken very seriously. It is something to continuously fight for, to ensure that these values of equality are in fact realized on a daily basis.

In India too, the constitution of the Republic is significant for the fact that it announced to a country filled with hierarchies of different sorts that these were to now be a thing of the past. The Indian Constitution announced formal equality to people who until that moment lacked it. This Constitution was not won easily. The Indian Constitution was defended vigorously by Dr. Ambedkar and others from ideas that could possibly reaffirm the old hierarchies. This is a project that is not as yet complete, for not only are the egalitarian ideals of the Constitution not realized in effect, but there are constant attempts to undermine these ideals. The military drills, ‘India Shining’ and the standard celebrations of Republic Day are in fact parts of this process of distracting us from the more profound significance of the constitution of the Republic.

The Goan Hindu, more specifically the elite Goan Hindu, is perhaps best placed to be able to appreciate the significance of the declaration of the Republic. With the Declaration of the Portuguese Republic, all Goans were now full citizens of the Republic. There was to be no more of the second class treatment of old. The Goan Hindu was able to now burst forth legitimately into the public arena, and burst out they did. While the Goan Hindu elite were always a significant force behind the Estado da India, the Republic allowed them to now take a more significant part in this process of governance. In allowing for the land reform legislations, and liberating subaltern Goans from the material conditions that sustained oppressive social regimes, the Constitution of the Indian Republic continued for the Goan, the promise of the republican ideals that were cut short by the interlude of the Estado Novo.

Commemorating the year of the Declaration of the Portuguese Republic is crucially important because it marks our long and continuing journey towards equality. Erasing such an early leg of our history would serve only to obscure the length of our struggle and more easily distract us toward nationalist celebrations. Indeed perhaps this is why our Bahujan Samaj activist declared his debt to the declaration of the Portuguese Republic. In recognizing this longer history he refused the many lies that are peddled to us under the garb of nationalism. In recognizing the contribution of the Portuguese Republic he tells the story like it is. The enemy is not some possibly-foreign colonial. On the contrary, the enemy lies within. Not necessarily a person, or a group, it is a tendency to underplay the importance of this egalitarian goal and push us in other (nationalist) directions. These directions while stressing boundaries and differences detract us from the republican ideal; that is equality for all.

For this reason, therefore; Viva a Rep├║blica! Viva Portugal, Viva India; Viva Goa!

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times, 10 Feb 2010)