Monday, August 30, 2010

Opening the Third Eye: Goan History after Into the Diaspora Wilderness

This column last week challenged the notion of Goa Indica as being an incomplete cliché, incapable of capturing the nuances of Goa’s history. Because it sought to do battle with the idea of Goa Dourada, an idea promoted by Portuguese imperialism, the contours of Goa Indica are suffocatingly nationalistic. Manifesting in local rhetoric, Goa Indica had to deny the Portuguese impact, and look for an independent Goan identity prior to the Portuguese. As a result, it fell into the Indian nationalist trap of looking at history from a brahmanical point of view. This ignored, almost entirely, the history and experience of the non-dominant sections of Goan society, especially those Catholic groups that were the non-dominant (or subaltern). To be sure this was not a malicious overlooking, but the result of the position from which this history was being written. Where the Catholic faith was seen as a Portuguese injection into Goa, how could anything that these groups possessed, be capable of yielding a ‘pre-Portuguese’?

This forgetting of the subaltern Catholic is however, gradually being redressed, and thank goodness for it. The movement for the recognition of the Roman script and the cultural productions associated with it, the celebration of Cantaram with the recent Konkani Rocks concert, are moves that seem to be slowly addressing this grave lacuna in the crafting of the Goan identity. To this happy move, was recently added Into the Diaspora Wilderness, a book written by Selma Carvalho about the Goan ‘diaspora’ in the British Empire.

Carvalho’s book is a must read because it shifts the focus in the telling of Goa’s story in many ways. Already in the ‘Short Introduction’ she indicates a few changes in the way in which she looks at Goa. She is critical of “[A] miniscule section of the Goan population (who) sat indolently in the grandeur of chandeliered reception halls”. This book is not about their story. This is a story of those who moved away. Those who could not see the otherwise much celebrated “quiet eloquence of rural Goa: the peace, tranquility, self-sustaining village life in which one seeks solitude”. This is the story of those who could not bear the 'desultory, isolation of the vaddo...the eerie silence of the night...The empty, hollow sense that nothing could germinate in the village which could take one beyond its boundary”. And it is because it is a story of those who moved away, it is not a story that is tied to Goan land and histories of gãocarial connections to land. It is a story that is forged by the traveler, in particular the otherwise-mocked tarvotti, the sneered-at Gulfie, whose travels “have profoundly shaped our cultural mores.” These stories take us across the seas, into Africa and are twined with British Africa, and the Anglo-Saxon world. Carvalho is fully aware of these shifts she is making, evident when she says; “Very often, when the story of the Goan migration is told, it is done from the vantage point of Goa. It is as if Goans went to these countries but somehow remained unaffected by what transpired in these distant lands, as if they existed in a political and cultural vacuum. The reality is, there were transformations taking place every step of the journey, transformations which have inevitably affected the collective Goan psyche.” This story then, makes the profound point that has to be made again and again, and again before it becomes part of Goan commonsense; the Goan psyche was profoundly influenced by experiences outside of Goa, and these Goans were subaltern folk, who left Goan shores in search of financial sustenance, often to escape the suffocation of a caste-ridden, hierarchical and unimaginative society. There is a third shift she effects. She speaks of Goan times, under Portuguese sovereignty, but there is barely a reference to the Portuguese. In doing so, she prompts us to ask if when looking at the histories of the Goan subaltern, the Portuguese were perhaps not the main referent? Perhaps this obsession with the pre-Portuguese past is just a red-herring that disappears when we start looking at the histories of the subaltern Goan? In other words, the crafting of a Goan identity need not centre (as Goa Indica also does) around the Portuguese. They were merely one small, if significant, chapter in a larger Goan story.

Carvalho rescues the stories of a number of persons for the telling of Goan history; the otherwise uncelebrated Caitans and Joãos, who no doubt went to their grave thinking they were nobodies. But Selma also tells these stories twined with her own. Like Maria Aurora Couto before her, Selma too tells a daughter’s story. This positioning of both these Goan raconteurs within the bosom of family is perhaps not coincidental. Like Selma points out, Goan migration was often pioneering, going into uncharted waters. For these groups, subaltern in the larger global hierarchy, security and upward mobility came not from State or Company, but via the support from family and the connections generated through creating familial relationships with each other.

One wishes though, her narrative had dealt with caste a little more critically than it does. By virtue of telling the stories she has, she is forced to mention caste. But having done so, she falls into the old Goan Catholic trap of not discussing caste in public. We pretend innocence about it. As a result, she mentions caste, but fails to attempt a critical discussion of it. This failing is nowhere as obvious as when she discusses its presence among the Goan communities in Africa. Thus for example in the case of the relationships that Goans in Kenya had with the future of a postcolonial Goa she refers to the fact of the two sides (pro-India led by J.M. Nazareth and pro-Portuguese faction led by Dr. A.C.L. de Souza) being motivated by caste battles. Having done so, she refuses to elaborate on the name of these castes or elaborate on these divisions.

But perhaps this silence is also because through her writing what Carvalho is also attempting is a rescuing of the dignity of the groups she writes about, from the humiliation they normally experience. The discussion of caste could perhaps wait another day, when we are more secure in, and less apologetic about our identities. Carvalho however, also seems to uncritically accept other hierarchies, for example that of the white (Anglo-Saxon) man who crafted the British Empire. While acknowledging the role of the Goan in lending vital support to this Empire, she does not seem to be critical of the manner in which it moulded the Goan psyche. Did being the Imperial overseer create racial prejudices that we do not acknowledge? Where there are possibilities to take this forward, she unhappily lets these threads fall. At times, one could not help in wondering, whether the twining of the Goan story with that of Empire, does not make the Goan somewhat nostalgic for this time of Empire.

Finally, even though it is a wonderful read and a critical contribution to Goan historiography and literature, the stories that Carvalho narrates are often snapshots strung together from disparate settings. There is none of the thickness of description that is the demand of the ethnographer. Very often, the story has only begun when it very frustratingly ends. One wonders therefore, if her book would not have been better served through more focused elaborations of selected theaters of Goan migration. But then on the other hand, this is perhaps only the first of more productions that will fully elaborate the untold stories of the subaltern Goan abroad? It would be a shame if Selma Carvalho, with her charming prose, resolute voice, and unflinching gaze stops at just one book.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 1 Sept 2010)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pork and the Goan pre-Portuguese past: Food habits that surprise!

It seems almost lost in the mists of time now. That time when the idea of Goa Dourada, a Goa that was Lusitanian, or Portuguese, needed to be fought with another idea. The idea that eventually emerged to contest that of Goa Dourada was that of Goa Indica; the Goa that was Indian. If one idea pointed to a Lusitanian inspiration for Goa, the other pointed more properly to a brahmanical inspiration for Goa. The support for Goa Indica was found in geographical contiguity, in Puranic legend and sundry other clues.

Now this Indic connection for Goa was not unwarranted. There was a need to overact the rhetoric overdrive of the Estado Novo, and Goa Indica played its role in this ideological battle. The question remains however, if Goa Indica managed to capture the entire essence of Goa, or was it another incomplete cliché that needs to necessarily give way to another? Where would this new cliché come from if at all? Thankfully, Mother India in her variety provides the answer to that question. In the early 1980’s a group of scholars who had suckled right at the brahmanical breast of the Mother emerged with an interesting intellectual agenda. Styling themselves the Subaltern Studies Group, this group of scholars argued that there was much in the history of the subcontinent, and the manner in which we thought about it that had to change. We had to move away from the understanding of history as the progress led by great men, to a history that features the non-elite groups, the subaltern, as agents of social and political change. This focus on the hitherto small people of history, was matched by the independent growth in the Dalit movement in India. As a result, we can today actively think of crafting a history of India based on Dalit and subaltern experiences and push back brahmanical histories from the centre-stage it has occupied till date.

One of the many problems with Goa Indica is that when it thought of the pre-Portuguese past, it thought of Goa as a brahmanical centre. The history of this pre-Portuguese past was the history of the great men and groups in the brahmanical tradition. There was, and is, no space for the non-brahmanical groups in the imagination of a pre-Portuguese Goa. Having said this though, it must be pointed out that Goa Dourada, at least when used within the Goan context, was a reference to the self-image and perceptions of the Lusitanianised brahmanical and elite groups. Between the two cliches, you have the nationalist, and imperialist imaginations of the elite and the brahmanical. If one has to redress this understanding of Goa then, at the same time not fall into Lusitanian moulds for Goa, where should we go? Where do we find the trope that will allow us to place at the centre, the experiences and histories of the Goan subaltern?

Happily it appears that we may not have to go too far. Perhaps the answer was sitting before our very noses all the time and thanks to our elitist obsessions we just didn’t recognize it!

The eating of pork is essential to any Catholic feast or festive occasion, and many assume that the consumption of pork was something that was ‘imposed’ and introduced to the ancestors of today’s Catholics by the Portuguese and the accompanying missionaries. What if however, this was not quite the story? What if pork was already a part of the Goan diet before the Portuguese came in? Would that possibly change the way in which we look at the constituents of Goan Catholic culture?

It is possible, and no doubt documented, that the missionaries urged pork on to the populace that converted to Catholicism way back in the 1500’s. However, to assume that this was the first time the converts to Catholicism had ever consumed pork is to assume that the entire population that converted was possessed of brahmanical sensibilities. If one looks around, at social groups in the rest of Mother India, one realizes that there is a good portion of the non-brahmanical population of the sub-continent that quite enjoys eating pork. We can also safely assume that these groups were insulated from the rigors of that famed beast, the Holy Inquisition in Goa, and that their pork-consumption is not a savory leftover from their missionary-scarred past. The consumption of pork then, it turns out, is not in fact some Portuguese introduction to Goan cuisine, but in fact foundationally (pre-Portuguese) Goan!

A significant social scientist in Goa, was recently contemplating the fact that the social groups, at least in Catholic Bardez, who were professional cooks were groups that in other parts of India were seen an untouchable. What caused then, this scholar wondered, for the missionary priests, to attach cooking as the traditional occupation of this group on their conversion to Christianity? If one realizes that these groups were in any case consuming Pork, and that the missionaries came from Europe with a taste for porcine flesh, then voila! One sees a natural partnership being produced! This association begins to make more sense when one realizes that the first Christians in Goa, were not members of the Brahmanical castes, but in fact the non-brahmanical castes, no doubt eager to get away from the stuffy sensibilities of the brahmanical groups. The fact is that only after the enactment of penal legislations did segments of the brahmanical groups convert to Christianity.

Realizing that the consumption of pork was a part of the pre-Portuguese culture of Goa pushes us to realize that there is much that we assume to be Portuguese impacts on Goan culture that are in fact remnants from the elusive pre-Portuguese past. To be sure there was some amount of colonial influence in the manner in which pork consumption spread. But for that matter, most of the constituents of sub-continental cuisine, are the result of the intervention of the Portuguese. It was because of the colonial transportation of American spices that we have the Indian cuisine that we are familiar with today.

In sum then, while the idea of Goa Indica was relevant and helpful, it is time we started relooking the clichés we use to describe Goa. Looking at the practices of the non-brahmanical groups in Goa, would perhaps give us another interesting angle to enter the Goan experience.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 25 August 2010)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Goa’s Fascist Future: The aesthetic objections of the Hindu Janajagruthi Samithi

This column is often-times critiqued on the basis that it offers too complex a fund of words for the average Goan to understand. ‘Simplify!’ is the advice offered in the course of such handing out of critique. I am however, not convinced as to the intellectual inabilities of the ‘average Goan’, who is in any case a much sinned against creature. If on the one hand the Chief Minister of the State perpetrates his shenanigans in the name of this beast, then on the other you have kindly Samaritans requesting their intellectual burdens placed on this animal to be lightened. What is however most amusing, is that the Samaritan purveyors of this advice, invariably indicate that they themselves are perfectly comfortable reading what this column hands out. It is not for themselves that they request simplification, but for the ‘simple-minded’ ‘average’ Goan reader.

But given that this charge has been laid, one must, dutifully and conscientiously seek to respond. In the course of a public meeting the term fascism was used numerous times by the respected Konkani activist Eric Ozario. He was using the term to refer to the claims of the Nagari activists, who sought to unite all Konkani speaking people under the slogan of “One language, one script, one people”. Such a slogan he argued, was fascist!

What is fascism however? And how does one understand it? Eric Ozario used the term in the context of the totalitarian imagery of the Nagari activists. Totalitarianism may have been a feature of the fascist leaderships of Europe between the Wars, but this term does not exhaust the meaning of concept of fascism. In the context of the attack of the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) on the Xavier Centre for Historical Research (XCHR) a couple of weeks ago, dwelling on the articulation of the meaning of fascism by Walter Benjamin was, I thought, a suitable choice for this week’s column.

Benjamin argues that “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life”.

Benjamin locates fascism in the history of capitalism that converted peasants who were rooted to their land, into workers for industries. With their traditional life-style changed, and deprived of their property in land, the peasant became the proletarian worker. While the human being is not necessarily inclined to absolute equality, radical inequality, such as was present in the industrial towns of Europe, and indeed in India today, is offensive to the human being. This is especially true, when these proletarian workers continued to hold not-so-distant memories of their more secure past. Once we understand the weight of the term proletarian, the force of Benjamin’s elaboration of fascism strikes home. Fascism seeks to organize the proletarian masses, and provide stability to the new (capitalist) order that has been formed. Fascism definitely speaks to the hungry, angry and deprived masses and in doing so effectively manages them. But it does so, not by recognizing their right to change property relations. On the contrary it distracts them from the demand of this right by providing them with an aesthetic that they are told gives expression to their inner being.

Is the membership of the HJS composed essentially, or even largely, of proletarians in the classical sense? Of this I am neither sure nor certain. However, if one has a look at the website of the HJS, and has a look at the string of protests that they have been involved in, you begin to see that their attack is on the aesthetic. There have been attacks on Dr. Jose Pereira, Dr. Subodh Kerkar, and support for the hounding of M. F. Hussain. All of these three dared to depict India and Hinduism in a manner that they disapprove of. The HJS has disapproved of the popular celebrations of Ganesh Chathurti on the basis that it is not sattvic or pure enough. Similarly their website, presents ‘sattvic’ interpretations of the Hindu pantheon that they approve of as valid.

This obsession with the aesthetic I believe tells us something about the HJS and the manner in which they must be dealt with. It would be possible, even to be sympathetic to them. Sympathetic, because you realize that the support they get, is because the passion which fuels their membership is drawn from the upset with the nature of property relations, both in Goa and India. If a segment of the Goan Catholic protests real-estate development, a segment of the Goan Hindu joins the HJS. Both are protesting property relations, but doing so via the aesthetic.

A focus on the aesthetic, also indicates to us why the HJS must be effectively dealt with, and their victims supported and protected The Goa Police has thus far instructed HJS victims to follow the HJS line and take down the ‘offensive’ artworks. To keep doing this will be to suffocate entirely, creative production in the State, and destroy any meaningful understanding of the Freedom of Speech and Expression. Bear in mind that control over the aesthetic is what the HJS seems to be gunning for. And because the aesthetic itself is not what bothers them, but property relations, the attack of the aesthetic will continue, till property relations are eventually addressed. But this too, as we can clearly see, will not be done.

This then is what the fascist turn in Goan society will look like. An obsession with the aesthetic, even while unjust and inequitable property relations are not addressed. Unless this inequity is dealt with, this tendency towards the fascist will continue. And while banning the HJS may seem desirable, it will not work, until the equity issues underneath it all are effectively addressed.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 18 Aug 2010)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Between Gãocarponn and Goemcarponn: Fighting the pretenders to the Hindu throne

There can be no debate over the fact that the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) attack on the exhibition of the art-works of Dr. José Pereira was a scandal. Prof. Jose Pereira is a profound scholar whose works span the substantial realms of theology, architecture, aesthetics, music. Thus, this column will not spend time protesting this interference by the HJS. Rather it will look to other aspects that seem to emerge from this encounter.

The insight that this encounter presents to us is about the nature and character of Indian secularism, and the actions necessary to sustain it against the onslaught of groups such as the HJS. My problem with the practice of Indian secularism, has largely been that it is an invitation to become more Hindu. The crossovers from Islam, Jainism, Sikhism and Christianity to (upper-caste) Hinduism are more welcome than crossovers from Hinduism to any of these faiths, especially those faiths like Islam and Christianity. In fact, such crossovers are increasingly prosecuted by law and administration. Thus when I saw Dr. Pereira’s exhibition ‘Epiphanies of the Hindu Gods’ introduced as ‘a tribute to his Hindu ancestry’, I was somewhat displeased. To hark to your Hindu ancestry means a couple of things to me. It indicates that your present identity as Christian and Catholic, and the approximately 400 years of cultural experience as Catholic do not seem to count toward your being an Indian. To be authentically Indian, you need to dabble in imagined pasts that then come to you, quite literally as epiphanies. The second problem is that not all of us can claim Hindu pasts. Some of us (in Goa) came from African, Arabian, tribal and Muslim ancestry. When you celebrate your Hindu ancestry, drawing on the cultural capital of ‘Indian culture’ where does that leave us?

Subsequent to the incident with the HJS, I realized an error in my understanding of what it means to dabble in Hinduism, while being Catholic. It seems that Prof. Pereira does not enter the realms of Hinduism as an interloper. He enters Hinduism as a claimant of his patrimony. Catholicism may be his faith, but Hinduism is also, in his eyes, the faith of his fathers. Within the norms of patriarchy then, he has a right to the interpretations that he makes. But Prof. Pereira does not make his interpretations solely on the basis of his patrimonial right. When the HJS came to demand the removal of the art-works of Prof. Pereira they argued that he had misrepresented the facts of the myths of these deities. To this challenge, Prof. Periera leaned back, closed his eyes, and then recited, in the original Sanskrit, the verses from the Geeta Govinda that had inspired him. In doing so Prof. Pereira indicated his dominion over the faith of his fathers, as opposed to the ignorance of the HJS band. Indeed, so flummoxed were they in the face of this learning that the spokesperson admitted that “she was not a learned person”.

Dr. Pereira may be an extraordinary scholar, but his experience with, and claim on Hinduism is definitely not singular. Subsequent to this incident, a certain Catholic gentleman asserted his own claim to Hinduism. In an email broadcast this gentleman indicated that:

“The HJS, Sanatan etc must understand that we Goans are Christians …but first Hindu with a strong Hindu base….we shall not tolerate third rate outside(rs) …to dictate terms to us about our ancestral beliefs”.

He elaborated this by indicating that he had “always countered our 'settler' Hindus in Sontosgao that if at all they worship the Rawalnath kul deo at Vodlo bhat it is because it is the kul deo of our Sontosgao…ancestors who later chose to be converted to Christianity. …As (a) bonafide Sontosgaocar (I) have all the claim to the Rawalnath kul deo as it is my kul deo of my ancestors”. This argument he informed us had “been well taken by our Sontosgao settlers (who) respect this claim”. (Sontosgao is a fictional name inserted to protect the identity of this person).

The crossover to Hinduism then, is not always a crossover that necessarily results in rootlessness. On the contrary, roots in dominant caste groups are presented that allow for the assertion of patrimonial rights over Hinduism. At other times, one’s mere location in a socially and economically dominant position allowed one to gain claims on Hinduism. The mother of a friend once recounted how in earlier days, her father (a Muslim landlord) who loaned his grounds for the local Ram Lila, would be made the honorary President of the Ram Lila Committee. Today, with the displacement of both the Muslim and the landlord, such a scenario is unthinkable. To a large extent, this has been the basis of Indian secularism at the grass-roots of this country. To be sure this sort of secularism is not available to those outside of the dominant castes of the region, and while this is problematic, we need to recognize the value of this upper-caste discourse in creating secular frames that allow for the maintenance of communal harmony. In fact, this is the basis of Goa’s famed communal harmony, not some natural, genetic goodness that flows in Goan veins.

It is for this reason that the HJS pretensions are doubly troubling. The HJS histrionics do not appear to be about genuine “hurt feelings”. On the contrary, as in the Subodh Kerkar episode, it appears about seeking to establish HJS as the gatekeeper of contemporary Hinduism. (And yet, what kind of canonically illiterate gatekeepers are these?). Similar gate-keepers have attacked M. F. Hussain, trying to demarcate who is Hindu and who not, and who will decide (HJS and its ilk) and who not. This particular encounter displayed to me, that the result what the HJS and its friends are doing, is to end entirely the crossovers and experiences of non-Hindus with Hinduism. If you are a ‘Pereira’, you are assumed to have malice, and lack of knowledge. You are either Hindu, or you are not. The current practice of Indian secularism may not be ideal, but we have to acknowledge that it allows a certain bonding that creates the possibility of a tolerant atmosphere. The HJS and its ilk do not appear to be interested in such a scenario of tolerance. The involvement of their group members in the Margao blasts where they deliberately tried to incite violence is more evidence of their intentions. They are seeking to draw sharp lines, and then provoke violence, which they hope, owing to larger number the Hindus will triumph.

They will succeed if they manage to become representatives for Hinduism, which judging by the consistent actions of the police who acquiesce to their demands, they are becoming. It is for this reason, that the crossover to Hinduism is important. And it is for this reason, that the average Goan Hindu, must necessarily stand up and say loudly and clearly, “No! You do not speak for me!”

* Gãocars are male members of the dominant castes of villages, given an elite status. Literally translated, they are the Gão (village) makers (kar from the root kor to make)

** Goemcarponn - translates to Goan-ness.

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 4 Aug 2010)