Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Identity Mishaps: How the Portuguese Never Get it Right

As the debate around the innocent request for English to also be granted State support when used as a medium of instruction (MoI) rages in Goa, and the issue converted into a case against Goa’s Catholics, who are just one segment of the population making this demand, on other fronts, life goes on as usual.

Take the example of the rather interesting initiative of the Fundação Oriente to organise the ‘Goan Short Stories 2011’ competition, with an aim to contribute towards Indo-Portuguese cultural exchange and the promotion of Goan identity. This initiative by the Fundação Oriente is clearly marked by an attempt at fostering the pluralism that constitutes the Goan identity, given that it has indicated that stories written in Portuguese, Konkani, in the Roman as well as Nagari script, and English will be accepted. In accepting stories in these languages, what the much maligned, and often unwarrantedly so, Fundação Oriente seems to be indicating, is that the evolving Indo-Portuguese cultural complex, as far as Goa is concerned, is composed not just of Portuguese, but these other languages as well that are a part of the Goan cultural fabric. This is a broad and welcome statement, and is a credit to the Fundação.

And yet, it appears, the Portuguese can never get it right. In crafting a statement of commitment to Goa’s pluralism, and indeed that of our Indo-Portuguese heritage, the Fundação Oriente has left out another significant Goan language, Marathi.

This exclusion is unfortunate given Goa’s and indeed the Estado da India Portuguesa’s historical relationship with the Marathi language. Marathi was effectively a State language in the days of the Portuguese State, a status that was never enjoyed by Konkani. As Rochelle Pinto’s research on the print politics of nineteenth century Goa demonstrates, Marathi was inserted into the official lexicon of the Portuguese State in India thanks to the efforts of the Catholic elite of the time, who saw the demand of the Brahmin elite (the ‘big families’) of the time, as a legitimate demand. Marathi has been the language of social emancipation for not just the Hindu bahujan samaj, but also of the impoverished segments of the Hindu dominant castes in Goa. The poor, rural segments of the ‘small families’ of the Hindu dominant castes used education in Marathi as a tool through which they could migrate to the Bombay Presidency and gain employment there. Pinto is quick to point out that very often the writing in Marathi did not reflect the specificities of Goa, and was often used as a vehicle to criticize the operation of the Portuguese State in India. Regardless of this argument however, Marathi was (and continues to be) a part of the cultural heritage of Goa and its Indo-Portuguese cultural basket, given the fact that so much of its social reform, a good amount of it supported by the Portuguese State, happened in the Marathi language. Even if not used actively in Goa today (a fact that will doubtlessly be contested) Goan segments of Indo-Portuguese history is written in Marathi, as much as it is written in Portuguese.

While unaware of what exactly has led to the Fundação to this forgetting of an important part of Goan, and Indo-Portuguese history, one wonders if the presence of the Konkani Bhasha Mandal, one of the organisers of this competition had something to do with this exclusion. The Konkani Bhasha Mandal, as we know, are rather zealous Konknni-mogis (Lovers of Konknni). Their love is a jealous love. No other language may share space with their beloved Konknni. As the current controversy over the MoI will indicate, they are a skillful lot these Konknni-mogis. When English seeks to assert its place in the Goan sun, they will gang up against it along with Marathi. When Marathi seeks to assert itself, they will gang up against it with those who produce in the Roman script. The winner at the end of the game will always be Konknni, this peculiar version of the Concanim language.

The Fundação Oriente should not feel terrible however. It is not the only institution to get the complex configuration of Goan politics wrong. A much more venerable institution, like the Catholic Church in Goa, has also, and often, got the equation quite completely wrong. In an earlier time, responding to the call of the Universal Catholic Church via the II Vatican Council, the Catholic Church in Goa acknowledged various errors of the past and made amends by adopting wholeheartedly the Konkani language. Indeed, it went a couple of steps further than what was required under the changes suggested by the II Vatican Council. Rejecting a Concanim by the priests and understood by the Catholic laity, it converted Concanim into Konknni, sanskritising the language with the vigor of the Brahmanical partisans that destroyed the Buddhist hegemony in South Asia. Aligning itself with the sub-nationalist cause of an earlier generation of Konkani Bhasha Mandal leaders, it stood by while the Catholic masses were rallied in its name to the cause of Konkani, converted the Diocesan schools to teaching in Konknni, and reveled in the warm glow when it was praised by these leaders. The mat was subsequently pulled from under the Catholic hierarchy’s feet when they responded to the demand of parents for English as MoI in diocese run schools, the good Church, had become in a twinkling of the eye, the bad Church.

A close reading of post-colonial Goan history should teach a few lessons to the leadership of the Fundação Oriente. One does not become the good guy by blindly dancing to the Konknni fiddle. Like the Catholic Church is learning today, they were but a tool in the establishment of an intolerant hegemony in Goa. The moment one steps out of the line dictated by the Konknni hegemony, one transforms in an instant, from the good guy to the bad guy. You cannot dance the tango with a Konknni-mogi.

And so, my dear Fundação Oriente, after this little letter to your good sense, will you dance the Fandango with me? Why not contemplate the inclusion of Marathi in the list of acceptable languages for the competition?

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 29 June 2011)


Anonymous said...

Why not Telugu and Kannada?

SK said...

Marathi became a State language in Portuguese colonial era? Due to the Catholic community? Can you explain this please?