Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Raising a toast to the Goan’s Tambdi-Ingliss

The past couple of columns have attempted to joust with the figure of the Catholic bigot (CB). The CB is the phantom that most Goan Catholics live with. We either share in, or sympathize with, some of the thinking of the CB, or are too fearful as a minority group with other external challenges, to openly declare war with this interna

l regressive character. But battle we must, more importantly for the damage the CB does not least within the Catholic fold. Take for example a recent correspondence via one of the many email groups that debates (and mourns) the passing of Goa.

Responding to the arguments of a Goan whose English was not what one would call ‘proper’, this particular CB requested to be taken off the e-list. His reason was that if this was to be the standard of English in the discussion, he didn’t want to take part. He didn’t want to ruin his English. The argument is laughable in the extreme, given that if one’s English is liable to be ruined because of a minor conversation, then surely your command over English is not very substantial in the first place. A case of the pot calling the kettle black. What is not laughable however, is the manner in which this particular CB was attempting to humiliate the other participant in the conversation. This humiliation unfortunately, is a daily part of Goan interaction. It calls on older traditions of caste and class difference and conflict, and is often an attempt by the humiliator to remind the other of her (or his) lower social origins. Leaving aside a discussion of the other hierarchies among the Goan Catholics for a while, let us focus on this matter of English for a while.

An earlier column had suggested that speakers of Konkani in Goa, who often complain that all discussions happen in English ought to take the burden onto their own shoulders. Speak in Konkani, the column urged, those of us who have lived in Goa long enough, will understand you and respond back in English. This route may possibly avoid the manner in which Konkani is oftentime shoved down peoples’ throats. What these Konkani partisans do not realise, is that Konkani is too tied to caste locations to allow it to operate as a language in which one can realize self-respect and social mobility. Our speech in Konkani marks our caste and class location, and there has been no serious action within the Konkani language movement to address this issue. On the contrary, as the ongoing challenge to the selection of Antruzi Konkani as the standard form for Konkani indicates, one particular caste and regional form of Konkani has been privileged over all others. Also, mutual respect does not form a basis for Goan society, and thus any salvation from this lack of respect, has to come from the outside. English is thus, and especially among the Catholic (though this does not exclude the Hindu), the preferred route for social mobility.

Given that English is the preferred route for social mobility how does one deal with those of us who do not speak English very well, and yet insist on using, what some of us call, tambdi-Inglis (Red English). The term red-English is a condescension, and we must recognize it as such. To castigate the English spoken by young (and older) persons who insist on speaking in English in fact goes against international literary trends that gives space to the different inflections of English. Take A Sea of Poppies, the latest offering by the sometimes-Goa-resident Amitav Ghosh. In this novel, Ghosh uses in relevant portions what some would call a gibberish-English proper to the sailors and persons of early British India, and by and large makes no effort to translate it. That English represents a milieu. The tambdi-Inglis of the Goan youth similarly has a milieu. It shares a similar fragrance that is often attributed to Konkani. It is often structured by Konkani grammar, it is powered by the life experiences of those who stem from Goan soil, it is a uniquely Goan English. It can emerge in no other place in the world, from no other experience. If we committed not to fetishize Konkani but to respect the ‘common’ Goan people who speak the language, then we would also respect their English.

To be sure, for those comfortable with a standard English, this Goan English may present its challenges, either when spoken or when written. But the point to social communication is the effort we put into understanding the Other. The object is to understand the point that they are trying to put across, rather than merely the form in which they put it across. An obsession with form is a commitment to the social snobbery that maintains the hierarchies of society. It is not necessarily tied with the value of that content. As an example, consider the situation where at a conference in Pondicherry on urban planning, RaviKumar an MLA from the Viduthalai Ciruthaikal Katchi (VCK- or Liberation Panthers Party), was invited to speak. Not comfortable with English, he spoke in Tamil to much rolling of eyes (myself included). It was when we heard the magic words ‘Utopia’ and ‘Foucault’ that we sat up and realized that there was more to the man than his apparently inability to speak in English. It turned out that RaviKumar was one sharp mind, versed in a host of thinkers from Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser, Foucault and Derrida; and Periyar, Ambedkar and Tiruvalluvar; and an articulate ideologue of the Dalit movement in the South. It exposed in one fell and nasty sweep, the superficiality of our democratic commitment and the depth of our social snobbery. If we are committed to creating a better Goa, one not marked by daily humiliation, then it would behove us to put some effort into understanding the form in which the Goan youth speak.

To our Tambdi-Ingliss then, let us raise a toast, and hope for the articulation of a multitude of ideas, imbued with the famed fragrance of our Konkani-speaking land.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 23 Feb 2011)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Toothless and blind: Insult, intimation, disrespect and the public space

Time after time, this column returns to the on-going fitna (or upheaval) in Goa’s political life. There have been calls to ‘Save Goa’ and this has now led to some campaigns to prop up ‘clean’ candidates who will clean out the system. There have been attempts in Mapusa, there are some plans for this in Loutolim, and a general hand-wringing and desperate pleas from overseas Goans over the internet.

One does not know whether to read the presence of Dr. Hubert Gomes in Benaulim’s electoral fray as a part of this movement for change. However, given that electoral success may result in the frustration of the establishment of a political dynasty and a familial capture of legislative power, his entry should be welcomed for the challenge it brings.

This challenge however has not gone unobserved. On the contrary, it received a rather nasty retort through an abusive public message signed by a number of Churchill Alemao’s supporters and recently published in the Herald. The notice has been rather mistakenly called defamatory, when really it should be seen as a naked threat of violence. Dr. Gomes’ response sets the tone for what this column would like to focus on, the building of bridges rather than engaging in mutually destructive warring. Dr. Gomes’ response pointed out that he had been advised to file criminal cases against the signatories to the message and trap them in a long drawn legal battle. He resolved the issue by asking himself the question if he should get involved in settling scores and waste his limited resources and get side-tracked from his real mission in politics, or focus on the task at hand? Thankfully for him, he opted to focus on the latter.

If Dr. Gomes’ response was the epitome of how we should build politics in our fragile democracy, then the responses of his well-wishers to the public message tilted to the other extreme. “Chorchill Alemao is a Pig and a big Chor of Goa.” went one message. More than one messages stooped to insult Churchill by calling him uneducated. Another suggested that he was a “Tarvotti cleaning toilets on the Asian cargo ship. He came up in his life by doing smuggling business.”

These responses of support are perhaps as shockingly unacceptable as the initial public message by Alemao’s supporters. What is additionally disturbing however is that they single out hard labour and a lack of education as the reason for Alemao’s alleged sins. Education, we should all know, is no antidote to corruption. Neither is ‘good’ birth. We have extremely ‘well born’ political leaders in Goa who engage in pretty much the same antics as Alemao is accused of. What the responses of support from Dr. Gomes indicate perhaps, is one of the reasons why we have the corruption that we do in Goa. In a society where the hard labour of a sailor, or a sanitary worker, is not respected, but on the contrary spat at, is it any wonder that we spur on a society that is looking to make a quick buck?

Dr. Gomes in his public response to the public message thanked his well-wishers for the various messages of support that apparently poured in subsequent to the message. If Dr. Gomes is serious about his aim of entering into politics in order to help clean up the State’s political stables, then it is incumbent on him, to issue a public statement distancing himself from these remarks. Such a message would indicate the norms that his supporters must necessarily follow in public debate and discourse. Clean politics, we must realize, is not only about what our elected leaders do within and outside the legislative assembly. It is also about the actions of all of us that contribute to creating the larger political environment. For too long, the activists who cry ‘Save Goa’ have been strutting around with a holier-than-thou attitude. They must realize that if their messages are anything to go by, they are as responsible for the internal class war that is tearing Goa apart. They must stop blaming the outsider (variously labeled as the ghanti, bhinta) and introspect as to their own role in the mess we are in.

For his part, Mr. Alemao would do well to distance himself from the public message that threatened Dr. Gomes. Dr. Gomes himself has assumed in his response that the message came directly from the hand of Mr. Alemao. This may be true, but seems entirely without direct proof. If we are to create a respectful public space, it behooves us to give him the benefit of doubt, and give him the opportunity to distance himself and request forgiveness for the actions of his supporters.

The message threatening Dr. Gomes, and the subsequent responses of his supporters against Churchill Alemao seem to indicate that the Goan public space is deeply lacking in traditions of respect that are necessary to create a civil society. Such incivility draws to mind the words of Dr. Oscar Rebello who a couple of years ago warned that Goa was in the middle of a civil war. We would do well to realize that the behaviour of our leaders is not determined solely by them, but also by our own actions and the way we treat those we disagree with. Goa’s problem is not merely corruption; it is the fact that it is a broken society. The building of bridges ought to be our primary political goal. Perhaps then we will get somewhere.

(This blog was first published in the Gomantak Time 16 Feb 2011)

Letters from Portugal: First impressions of the Metropole

The colonial adventurers who travelled to the ‘Orient’ often had strange and bizarre stories to tell of the ‘exotic East’. Today, when we do not find these realities we assume that their demise resulting from modernity and development. However, these ‘realities’ were oftentimes figments of these westerners’ imaginations. Strangers to foreign lands, they tried to make sense of the differences they experienced as best as they could. Comparisons were made to what they already knew from home. Worse still, at times they were ill, sometimes violently so, and wrote in a delirium, or recollected their experiences from the time of the delirium. None of this, you will agree, makes for a coherent or dependable travelogue.

Things are not easier for the modern traveler. When we travel, we suffer the discomfort induced by culture shock and jet-lag. The speed of contemporary travel, when we can dine at home, and lunch half way round the world heightens our nostalgia for home. Finally, we are hostage to the frameworks that have already been put in place for us by those who have come to our land, or gone before us to foreign lands. The Goan who travels to Portugal is hostage to all of these challenges. There is definitely the nostalgia for home, but there is also this colonial baggage that we carry.

We recollect that statement originally intended for the now vanished City of Goa, ‘He who has seen Goa, need not see Lisbon.’ And then, we actually take it seriously! We come to Portugal, with these ideas buzzing in our heads and promptly seek to place the images we encounter, into little Goan boxes.

My own first trip to Portugal took me to the University town of Coimbra. The journey from Lisbon to Coimbra took me past the margins of the river Tejo. Fortunately I am not the only one to have imagined these margins to look like the beloved Khazans of Goa. Unfortunately though, the other person who made the comparison was another jet-lagged, home-sick Goan. Over the days spent in Coimbra, huffing and panting up the roads that led to the University perched on a hill over the old town, comparisons were made to the old Lyceum in Panjim´s Altinho. The aesthetic of many of the University buildings was so similar, and our Lyceum similarly perched on a hill. Added to this was the period of my visit. Travelling in June, the season was nominally summer in Portugal. But the weather that year was strange. We had almost daily torrential downpours that pulled wet curtains over the sun. Given the warmth that otherwise prevailed, the hill slopes around the university, like some tropical jungle, sprung verdantly to life. This fortunately, was no nostalgia-induced hallucination. Much of that foliage was in fact tropical. A good amount of tropical vegetation both from America and Asia that first moved in the course of the colonial ‘adventures’ now find themselves very much at home in Portugal.

It is perhaps when the traveler puts down roots; or stops to remain in the land for a while longer; when her interactions with the local turn from casual to quotidian. It is then perhaps that the old boxes suddenly seem insufficient. That is when a fresh struggle begins, to find new words to express a reality that does not quite fit the mould.

(A version of this blog was first published in the Herald dated 20 Feb 2011)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Monte Festival and how the Portuguese got it right

‘To many people in the official circles in Portugal,’ the informant whispered, ‘Goa is a bad word. They believe,’ he continued, ‘that they have burned their hands once too often.’ The reference was to the histrionics of this column’s favourites, the ‘freedom fighters’ and Hindu right-wing elements in Goa. But surely it takes two hands to clap? My own response was to fiercely (and somewhat triumphantly?) whisper back that ‘If they have burned their hands, it is because large sections of Portuguese officialdom have almost never gotten it right when dealing with Goa!’

This column has pointed out in earlier installations that the Portuguese nationalist element in fact supplements the Hindutva element in Goa as they work together (and always unwittingly) to screw things up in Goa.

To portray the ‘freedom fighters’ and the right wing elements as determined to protest every Portuguese event in Goa is not helpful. It is not helpful because by uniformly vilifying this group it shuts the space for dialogue. More importantly it prevents learning as to where we are making mistakes in the forging of a new post-colonial relationship between the two spaces. There have been some Portuguese sponsored events in Goa that have almost never been at the receiving end of negative attention from the champions of Hindutva. One such event is the annual Monte Music Festival conceptualized initially by Sergio Mascarenhas, then Delegate of the Fundação Oriente and supported by a host of local institutions.

This column has from time to time been charged with the mistake of over-reading issues, and this particular column may well possibly join that list of mistakes, but perhaps the risk is worth it. While the Hindutva gangs are a visceral threat to the people and peace of Goa, it is necessary to also see where they exercise restraint, so as to open up portals of understanding and dialogue.

When contacted personally after his participation in the episode where the visit of the Sagres was denounced in Vasco, one of the participants elaborated on the reason for his opposition. He pointed out that his opposition to the Sagres’ visit was motivated by the fact that the event of 1510 was sought to be commemorated by a unilateral celebration. There was no though given to a combined program that could revisit, or move on from 1510. The event required us only as audience, he suggested, not as equal participants. If the nature of his protest was entirely unacceptable, his observation was perhaps bang on target.

On this front the Monte Music Festival is a perfect example of what the Portuguese establishment could do to create a space for equal interaction. It does not unilaterally push ‘Portuguese culture’ but creates a platform where both ‘Indian’ and ‘European’ are put on proud display. Audiences for one genre, usually stay on for the performances of the other. The audience it creates then is the subject that Goan history has produced, an individual capable of transitioning between the worlds of the ‘East’ and the ‘West’.

The conceptualization of the Monte Music Festival used existing cliches of Goa as the ‘meeting space between the East and the West’ ‘Europe and India’. There is, it should be said, nothing wrong with clichés. As long as they do not suffocate other ways of thinking, they can be useful places to begin thinking from. The Monte festival is a wonderful example of how a cliché can be used to produce a valuable, and valued, cultural production. The problem however is when the cliché begins to limit rather than allow for elaboration. Thus for example, when we think of the ‘Indian’ segment of the Music festival, does it limit itself merely to India or to a wider ‘Indian’ sub-continental culture? The suggestion is that the Monte festival should actively think of including artistes and musicians from Pakistan and Bangladesh at the very least, if not from Nepal, and Afghanistan further afield. These spaces are not outside of the ‘Indian’ space. Not only do they share aspects of the same tradition, but continue to inflect the space of ‘Indian’ classical traditions. Consider for a moment, the fact that while actors from ‘Hindi’ films are wildly popular in Pakistan, a good number of Pakistani musicians and rock bands are wildly popular in India Republic. One particularly interesting example would be the productions from the Coke Studio in Pakistan. This project melds the ‘traditional’ classical traditions of Pakistan, with a range of contemporary and ‘western’ musical instruments and arrangements.

To make this suggestion of border-crossing to the Monte festival should not be seen as radical. The Western music presentations at the festival have often crossed political borders within Europe, and also presented, from time to time, American artistes specializing in ‘European’ classical music. To extend such political blindness to the Indian subcontinent would only go to enrich the offerings and value of the Monte festival.

Dialogue, it will be agreed, is much preferable to the option of standing on our little soap boxes and carving out audiences with defined boundaries. We are too small a people to be carved out into fields desired by the Hindutvawadis, and Catholic bigots. To recognize a point our ideological opponent is making could help toward emasculating the brigands on both sides and create more space for dialogue. After all, as the Monte festival annually indicates, dialogue creates such wonderful mo(ve)ments.

(This post was first published in the Gomantak Times 9 Feb 2011)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Paving a Road to Hell: Highways, Safety, Life and the Indian Republic

Addressing the Goan public on Republic Day, one of the many bits of paternal advice that the Governor of our State chose to impart was with regards to roads. He lamented that there were over 300 young deaths on the roads every year. The widening of roads he therefore argued, (he meant the controversial highway expansion project) was necessary to take care of the ever growing vehicular traffic and to contain incidents of road mishaps.

It’s a wonder that the Goan public are not already tired of the truckloads of gratuitous advice that they get from all quarters. These various patriarchs seemed convinced that the Goan public is like some misguided barque of youth that need to be guided into calm and responsible waters. Fortunately for this Goan public however, a good amount of their actions are actually sensible, far-sighted, and it is these patriarchs who would be better served by wider reading.

The cause for deaths on Goan roads is not their narrow width. On the contrary, if the narrow roads contribute to anything, it is to limit the number of deaths one would encounter if the roads were any wider. It is a rather simple fact of physics that the faster one’s vehicle is moving, the greater the impact and the greater the extent of injuries. Narrow roads, and the fact of people and animals moving across them, serve to slow down traffic and make these roads people and life-friendly. Wider highways on the other hands are veritable death-traps. They allow for faster movement, and when in such fast moving vehicles, it makes more sense to ram into the animal or vehicle that makes the mistake of being in your path, than swerving to try and avoid this obstruction. You can swerve to avoid an accident best when traveling at a slower pace. As inconvenient as it may be then, the increasing number of vehicles on Goan (and Indian) roads probably works to our advantage, by reducing speed and saving lives. If there is a reason for the number of deaths on Goan roads, then it must be credited to the high speeds at which we attempt to travel. Blame this on the increasing capacities of vehicles and the misguided sense of style and liberation we get from being in or on fast vehicles. And so sorry Mr. Governor, but you need to marshal better facts, if you are to convince this unruly, troublesome Goan public that they should not be opposing the highway expansion project.

While on the subject of speed, I was recently made aware of the reasons for the low speed limits on bridges; 40 in the case of the Mandovi and 30 in the case of the Zuari. It turns out that if you have an unceasing flow of traffic coursing at high speeds over the bridges the bridge too starts to sway with the speed of the traffic. This eventually leads to stress that the structure has not been designed to deal with and sooner or later one winds up with rather catastrophic end to the bridge. The speed limit is obviously there for a purpose. Speed however is something that we seem to take as a fundamental right and it is hard to drive on either of these bridges without getting some speed-crazy maniac trying to overtake you or honk the living daylights out of you.

To return to the issue of highways though, what we need to recognize is that highways are not built primarily for local people to traverse through the State, but for larger vehicles – commercial carriers- to get to point A to point B as fast as possible. This is not to make a nativist argument, but to point out that this process is not without impact on the populations that fall on the route of these super-highways. Thus highways may connect people, but they also separate them. They divide villages into two portions and to a large extent prevent normal communication between these two segments of the village. No longer is it possible for a person to walk across the road to visit the shop or chapel or temple across the road. Underpasses are prone to flooding, overhead bridges inconvenient for the physically challenged and the infirm, and they are often spaced too far apart to be convenient for a pedestrian. Not only do highways separate, they also evict persons. Entire lifetimes that were spent building a home, or tending to an orchard are destroyed as quickly as you can ‘land-grab scam’.

The kind of super-highways that the Goan public is being pushed to accept makes sense in the vast unpopulated spaces of the United States. They make sense in places where people have been forced to stop walking and get into vehicles for every single requirement. This has ofcourse come with its own curse of social anomie and high death rates on highways. Highways also invariably come with undemocratic forms of government. It is all part of a package deal.

For these and other reasons, it is therefore strange that the Governor chose to urge Goan members of the Indian Republic to acquiesce to highways on Republic Day…but of late, most strange are the logics of the Indian Republic.

(A version of this blog was first published in the Gomantak Times 2 Feb 2011)