Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On the death of a student: Punishment, discipline and school

On the 20th of July 2010, Roshni Rego, hurrying across the railway crossing at Comba in Margao, was hit by an oncoming train, dragged by the engine, and subsequently died from this encounter. Roshni was a student in Grade XII and the horrific manner of her death has quite naturally shocked the State.

In the aftermath, there have been a number of voices raised in protest. Given the feeling of a lack of misgovernance in the State, the Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, and his political establishment has emerged as one of the top favourites in the list of those responsible for this tragedy. There are however, other claimants for this role. There is the fact that the subway that should have been used by the rickshaw that normally dropped Roshni to school was flooded by rainwater. A case of bad and negligent design. There is the fact that the rickshaw driver ought to have dropped his load of school children directly at the school, and not left them to their own devices. There is the fact that the railway crossing across which Roshni ran was not manned and ought to have been.

A question that appears to have not been asked is; why was Roshni running across the railway tracks in the first place? Why not wait, peaceably, for the train to pass, and then casually walk to school? The answer, as per some of the newspaper reports, indicate that Roshni was in a hurry to get to school on time. A case of an unusually diligent and conscientious student? I think not.

I am unaware of the disciplinary practices that are favoured at the Damodar Science Higher Secondary School, and the practices of this particular school are not the target of this column. Rather, it is the disciplinary practices of schools across the State in particular, and India in general that I would like to focus on. I recollect the days when I was a student of a school in Panjim town. The school had a peculiar practice for those students who arrived at school once the morning assembly was over. They were made to kneel down for a period of time. And if these late comings were repeated, they were then sent to detention, after school.

This particular practice never made sense to me. Let us ignore the fact that one is humiliating a child for a fact that may be beyond his or her control. As children, we are dropped to school, by our parents, by hired drivers, or we come to school by public transport. Most of these situations are beyond the control of the student. In which case, why punish the child? Perhaps a word with the parents, where we try to understand the reason for this delay?

The method of punishment that this particular school, that I use as example, adopted was particularly amusing and indicative of what exactly was going on. Granted that the student was late. But if punctuality to ensure that one does not miss the precious drops of wisdom that are being dispensed in the classroom is the point, why hold the child back longer? The point perhaps is that disciplinary practices in school are not about gaining knowledge, but about training students for life once they leave school. Just as a dog is trained with some harsh treatment as a puppy, we train children for life in general while at school. It becomes necessary then, to run schools as if they were military camps, where we churn out robots for the market.

The suicide of a student in Calcutta, after she was caned by her teacher, had segments of the country up in arms about corporal punishment in schools. I would argue that we need to go a step further and add a ban on humiliation to that list. We would also need to rethink our policies on students who arrive late to school. While there is a point to be made that students should be encouraged to arrive in time to school, surely there is no point in punishing students for things they have no control over? Especially when they are reliant on adults; especially when a parent racing through traffic to reach their child to school on time is courting disaster?

Tragedies are always a time when one reflects on the past that brought us to the present condition. While offering a prayer for the soul of Roshni, perhaps we could also ensure a dialogue that prevents schools from being the reasons for the death of innocents?

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 28 July 2010)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Heritage, Development and Business Sense: Awarding entrepreneurs in architectural heritage

A fortnight ago, contemplating the sad state of Mapusa town, this column suggested that Mapusa’s woes were, in addition to the apparent neglect of their duties by the town’s officials, also a result of a lack of entrepreneurial imagination. The suggestion was that if older buildings are being pulled down to erect the multistoried monstrosities that are entirely out of sync with the rest of the town, it is because the entrepreneurs in the town (and the State at large) are entirely lacking in imagination to see the possibilities present in the older styles of Goan architecture. This week, this column will try to buttress that earlier argument by presenting a couple of cases to the contrary, where ‘heritage’ has been produced to enhance business prospects.

The first case struck me a couple of years ago as I was crossing the footbridge over the Patto creek toward the Rua do Ourem. Somewhere toward the left of my field of vision I caught sight of this multistoried building that looked like it had been built in the mid-1900s. I was convinced though, that that building had not existed a couple of years ago. On closer inspection it turned out that I was right. The building, an extension to the Panjim Inn, on one of the edges of Fontainhas, was in fact a new construction. The façade of this building had been constructed to be in harmony with the general style of the buildings in Fontainhas. The building, which is a ground-plus-two structure, soars above the buildings around it, and yet for reasons of maintaining the line of the street façade, and articulating its height within the architectural idiom of the neighbourhood suggests to the viewer that it has always been there.

A similar experiment, with not as spectacular results has been tried by the hotel Salida del Sol in Panjim. The Salida del Sol occupies a building whose earlier façade had nothing to recommend it. It was in fact quite like the rest of the offensive post-80’s concrete structures that have come up in Panjim and other parts of the State. In the course of the conversion of the building to the Salida de Sol, a newer façade has been pasted onto the building; giving it something of a European, if also kitsch, feel. While the Salida attempt may not be entirely aesthetically pleasing, it seems to have definitely been an attempt in the right direction.

In earlier columns I have argued that the opposition to ‘development’ that one sees in Goa, is to a large extent based on aesthetic considerations. Address these aesthetic concerns and one would see a substantial reduction in opposition to ‘developmental’ projects in the State. Thus you could still have multistoried apartment blocks rising if they attempted to articulate themselves within the architectural forms of the State. It is not as if these architectural forms have not been explored. In the Patto development there are a number of buildings that try to elaborate this aesthetic. One would be the proposed building for the Central Library. The main roof of the building that alludes to the sloping roofs of the West Coast is a joy to behold. Similarly articulated is the building in Patto that hosts a branch of the State Bank. In Porvorim, on the road to Mapusa, is another building, hosting the offices of Delta Peninsula, which by playing with its façade has managed an interesting conversation with the larger body of Goan architecture. Similarly the South Goa district headquarters, that are still in construction, at the entrance to Margão town, promises to be an interesting addition to the body of contemporary architecture that manages a conversation with Goan building traditions.

Highlighting these constructions would beg the question of what exactly constitutes Goan architecture. This is no easy matter to get into, let alone discuss within the brief confines of a newspaper column. However by returning to the two examples that were cited earlier in this column we can make a brief start. This architecture is influenced to a large degree by European (more properly classical) traditions. (Upto this point the Salida experiment gets it right). However this European influence is not simply a cut-and-paste job. It meets existing west coast architectural traditions and is articulated within this idiom. Take for example the beautiful examples of modernist Art-deco architecture in Panjim that are articulated within the traditional format of the Goan architecture.

What is called for then, is a certain amount of creativity and sensitivity to the surrounding built-forms when building newer buildings. In the case of both the Panjim Inn extension and the Salida del Sol, it can be safely argued that heritage has augmented earnings rather than depleted possibilities. Rather than tear down the facades of earlier buildings, could it not be possible to maintain the street-side façade, and incorporate the shell of the older building into the new construction? This has been done with great success in other parts of the world.

How does one encourage the conservation of existing built forms while allowing for continued developmental work (that in any case seems unstoppable)? One way to do this would be to award those entrepreneurs, like the owners of Panjim Inn, who either put up new buildings that actively engage with Goa’s built heritage, or make additions to existing heritage structures while enhancing the value of the older structure. Could we, with heritage groups taking an active position, contemplate a biannual competition, with a substantial cash award to the architects and entrepreneurs who erect such buildings? A competition judged by critical design and architectural experts, with a substantial cash award would possibly be a useful strategy in the cause of heritage conservation in Goa. It would remind us that heritage is not static moment that prevents future development but a dynamic force in conversation with the past. It would encourage innovation, and by awarding such excellence, allow for such innovations to be replicated, and the design logic internalized by others. Such a competition and award would send a signal to such persons as the owners of the Panjm Inn, to the owners of the Salida del Sol, Delta Peninsula and others, that their efforts have been noticed and appreciated, and encourage others to follow.

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 21 July 2010)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Portuguese in the Indian national interest: Expanding horizons beyond the English speaking world

To a small but vocal minority in Goa, Goa’s Portuguese heritage is something to be castigated and cast into the dust-bin of history. To this shortsighted group Portuguese evokes only the continental European country that speaks the language, and they fail to see the linkages that Goa has had, and can continue to have via this language, with a larger Portuguese speaking world that extends across the world.

On the 12th of this month, the Xavier Centre’s History Hour played host to Constantino Xavier who made an argument along similar lines. Constantino Xavier is currently a Fulbright-sponsored Ph.D. candidate in South Asian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, in Washington DC and someone with a number of very interesting things to say. At the History Hour, his argument was that as India opens out to the world, there is space to carve out what he calls ‘diplomatic niches’ outside of New Delhi. Goa, he argued, can play a crucial role in facilitating India's burgeoning economic, political and cultural relations with the Community of Portuguese-speaking countries (CPLP) and the lusophone world. In line with Beijing's efforts to leverage Macau's potential, New Delhi could develop Goa into a strategic hub to foster relations with the emerging "Global South" and, in particular, with Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Macau, or East Timor. It need not be pointed out that Brazil and Angola are significant economic players in the emerging southern economies.

This column has on numerous occasions berated the point that economic capital is not the only capital that one has; rather one should also be alive to the cultural capital that we hold. For the Goan, this cultural capital of global worth includes the Portuguese language. Thanks to the machinations of this tiny group however, we are prevented from using or expanding on this capital.

A greater familiarity with Portuguese and the Portuguese-speaking world holds over benefits as well. This includes expanding our intellectual horizons. It was while reading Opus Dei, a book by John L. Allen Jr. about the Catholic organization of the same name that the truth struck home. Many of the prejudices and opinions that we often have of the world, are those moulded by the prejudices and opinions of the English-speaking world. Thanks to unfamiliarity with other dominant world languages, our opinions, perspectives, and options are in many ways restricted. Goa’s linguistic diversity ought to have been a route for us to introduce the larger Indian civil society space with different ideas from the larger Portuguese-speaking world. Happily, this route is not yet not closed to us.

An example of the manner in which familiarity with this non-English speaking world is useful was brought out by a recent essay by Vinod Vyasulu in the Economic and Political Weekly. Vyasulu who is the Director for the Centre of Budget and Policy Studies in Bangalore, has written a rather interesting essay on Brazil’s cash transfer systems that are a part of their strategy to reduce poverty and income inequality. Apparently the way the system works is that “Since poverty is lack of income, the federal government of Brazil transfers cash to families in poverty to help them meet basic needs, if the family agrees to send children to school and to get them vaccinated.” Similarly as part of the cash transfer system the “Fome Zero, or zero hunger” strategy has introduced the bolsa familia. The Bolsa Familia apparently is a family grant which is a direct income transfer to benefit families earning a monthly income of not more than Brazilian Real (R$) 120 per member per month in any municipality in Brazil. “The objective is to enable the poorest families to buy food and essentials and at the same time encourage these families to access health, education, and social welfare public services.”

Vyasulu reports that the cash transfer system has been largely successful in Brazil and “have not only served to reduce poverty, they have also contributed to a reduction in inequality”. He goes further to suggest that Brazil’s experience shows that when implemented properly, cash transfers, “are at best a necessary condition for poverty alleviation.” Vyasulu is clearly indicating that it would be worthwhile for India to follow a similar route.

It was not however merely this reference to the cash transfer system that caught my attention but the quotation extracted below;

“Inter-governmental Relations… is an area where India has a lot to learn from Brazil. In the 2009 elections to Parliament in India, many of the candidates seeking election to the Lok Sabha, fought on issues of garbage clearance, water supply and the like. These are municipal issues. The job of MPs is to legislate; this was one thing they were silent about. Members of the state assemblies also talk of transfers and local matters, when their job is to make policies for the state. Thus local representatives are denied their space; local government in India is a sham. And unless local government – which we denigrate by calling self-government – works, such policies which require higher level guidance and local integration cannot work. Many studies have shown that integration of programmes at the local level is the missing link in India’s development policy. Each level of government has its role and we must let it play that role. In this we need to find our way back to normalcy from where we are today.”

This observation would taste sweet for many of those in Goa who are fighting the battle for local governments to have greater autonomy in planning. Vyasulu in castigating the Indian practice of self government makes a striking point. In preventing the Goan panchayats from realizing the planning powers they are demanding, the MLA’s are not only wrongfully interfering in local issues, but they are not guilty of failing in their primary duty, i.e. legislating.

The anti-Portuguese lobby in Goa claims its opposition to things Portuguese on nationalist grounds. Both Xavier and Vyasulu however, seem to suggest that it is in fact a knowledge of Portuguese that could work to the Indian national interest. This point of view should give our right-wing nationalist friends some pause to think….let’s keep our fingers crossed!

(First published in the Gomantak Times 14 July 2010)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Architecture of Perfection: A tribute to Manohar Malgonkar, Narva Saptakoteshwar and Quepem Church

The name Manohar Malgonkar should be a name familiar to most literate Goans. In my own case, this is a name remembered from my childhood; from his columns in the magazine section of the Sunday Navhind Times. Those delightful pillars of prose that he constructed regularly were one of the many contributions to my early understanding of both Goa and India. It was thus with some poignancy that I purchased his book, Inside Goa, when I learned of his passing some weeks ago.

If I purchased this book however, I purchased out of a nostalgic desire for my own childhood. A time of simple and innocent frames within which to understand Goa and the world. As I grew into adulthood, I realized how terribly biased and structured by the brahmanical Malgonkar’s intellectual frameworks had been. I did not expect therefore to appreciate much of the book, except for his prose style, even as I settled down to read the book and bid farewell to both Malgonkar and my childhood.

And yet, I was arrested by his description of the Saptakoteshwara temple in Narva. For those who are unfamiliar with the structure and its history, this temple houses a deity who used to formerly inhabit the island of Diwar. After the demolition of the original temple, the deity found its way to Narva where its home was subsequently renovated by Shivaji in the 1600’s. It was Malgonkar’s description of this temple, that I extract for you below, that made me stop in my tracks;

“Whatever really prompted Shivaji to have the temple restored, the important thing is that whoever carried out the work did so with restraint and good taste, and taking care that it did not clash wit the distinctive style of the inner shrine or with the environment.…the Saptakoteshwar temple is one of those rare structures that fit snugly into their natural settings, almost as though the hollow in the hills and the brooding jungle and the cluster of the temple buildings are part of some balanced artistic composition. There is very little scope for slapdash additions and alterations, and almost none for expansion. The slightest thing that is out of accord sticks out like a sore thumb. The electric pole put in an awkward angle in front of the traditional deepastambha or lamp-tower of the temple, might have passed muster in a city street; here it looks like an act of vandalism.”

Beautiful prose apart, one has to applaud the man for his aesthetic sensibilities. The fashion designer Wendell Rodricks has in a number of his writings indicated his horror at dresses that are embellished with bows, sequins and flounce, all piled in for good measure. Good architects will similarly tell you that when embellishing a building, one really needs to know where and when to stop. Shivaji’s architect, and who knows, Shivaji himself, knew when to stop, and this act of mercy was appreciated so many centuries later by Mulgonkar.

Mulgonkar’s words regarding the Saptakoteshwara temple could just as well apply to another building in the Goan ‘New Conquests’. My reference here is to the Church of the Holy Cross in Quepem. The façade of this church is deceptively simple and almost crude. But perhaps this is because it prepares you for the perfection of its interior. For indeed, there is nothing else that can describe the interiors of this building but perfection. The placement of its windows, their relationship with the body of the Church, the snug altars that while obedient to the restrictions of space do not compromise on elegance or grandeur. The church of Quepem is without doubt one of Goa’s finest undiscovered and uncelebrated treasures. It is a building where, to echo Malgonkar’s words, “There is very little scope for slapdash additions and alterations, and almost none for expansion”. It is a building where “the slightest thing that is out of accord” would “stick out like a sore thumb”.

If the temple of Saptakoteshwar is recognized by Mulgonkar as not just a triumph of architecture, but the result of the buildings relationship to the forest and mountains around it, then so too the Church of Quepem. Like the Taj Mahal that interacts not just with the gardens and the gateways and mosque around it, but also with the river and the now lost garden across the river, the Quepem church too sits at one end of a square framed by low-rise domestic buildings, intersected by a waterway and the Palacio do Deão at the other end of it. Indeed the entire township that the Dean of Quepem established is redolent of the romance of provincial Goa of the middle of the last century.

It is a pity therefore that the Church of Quepem is currently hostage to the well-intentioned designs of some of its parishioners. These parishioners would like to see the Church expanded to accommodate crowds that were not thought of when it was established. No matter how clever the architectural model for this expansion, it would destroy this jewel of a Church, as much an expansion, addition or change would destroy the abode of Saptakoteshwara.

But until such time as we have to mourn the death of these gems of Goan architecture, let us raise a toast to their continued existence, to the people who conceived them, built them and preserved them for us today to behold.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 7 July 2010)