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)

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