Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Konkani and the Silence of the Goan Catholic: The Concanim Series

There was a commotion in Cyberia a couple of weeks ago, around some of the observations made by Adv. Uday Bhembre in the course of an interview. The statement that caused so much of consternation was made in explanation of why Adv. Bhembre opposes grants-in-aid to schools that impart primary education in English. To give a sense of what irked the cyber-Goemcars, the statement by Adv. Bhembre is extracted in some length below.

Let me narrate to you a glaring incident that happened in my life. When I was the Independent MLA of Margao in 1985-89, I was invited by the Grace Church Parish to speak to the youth on Culture. The audience comprised of young boys between 20 to 25 years of age, to my surprise there were no girls. I don't know. The three preceding speakers spoke in English and I spoke in Konkani. During the question and answer session the Priest requested them to ask questions, I too requested them. But they did not respond, later the priest told me that if I had spoken in English perhaps they would have understood. Then I asked him (priest) why they did not understand. “They did not understand because you spoke in Konkani and not English”, the priest replied. It was all the more astonishing that all of these youth were Goans and did not understand or might not want to speak in Konkani. And if that was situation in 1988 what would it be now? So that kind of a situation is bound to develop according to me if English is encouraged at primary level itself in Goa."

Adv. Bhembre is perhaps not the first person to face this strange situation, given the two other similar situations this column will narrate, but perhaps he (and the friendly parish priest) may have misinterpreted the situation they faced.

The first of the situations took place in a training session for rookie ‘announcers’ for the AIR. The crowd was largely English speaking and faced with a Konkani speaking staff member of the radio station. The session was a nightmare though, for not a single question presented by the trainer drew a response from the audience. It seemed as if the explanation articulated by Adv. Bhembre, would have held good here as well, a crowd of young Goans, brought up to be English speaking, and yet unable to speak in Konkani.

Subsequent to the training session, asking one of the members of the audience if it was the case that she did not speak or understand Konkani, drew a fierce response. ‘Ofcourse not!’ she responded, opening her eyes wide. ‘I sing in Konkani, I do the readings in Church, I can manage quite well in Konkani. But his (referring to the trainer) Konkani is different no?’

This response affirmed the capacity of the silent audience to speak and understand Konkani, but it provided no reason as to why, because there were two different Konkanis in operation, the response of one of the Konkani speakers should be silence. This reason was provided in another conversation, this time round with a Catholic priest. In the course of our conversations around Konknai, this priest indicated a strong friendship he enjoyed with a Hindu gentleman. At one point however, the priest recounted that he was reproached by his friend; ‘Why is it that you never speak to me in Konkani’ the friend asked. To this question the priest responded that he felt ashamed, since his friend’s Konkani was so perfect, so pure, whereas his own was the ‘impure’ version that the Catholics speak.

This deep-rooted sense of inferiority of their version of Konkani is the reason for this silence among vast sections of the Konkani-speaking Catholic population in Goa. This sense of inferiority is not the result only of the dominance of the Antruzi variant since the legislation of the Official Language Act in 1987. The hierarchy that privileges Antruzi is the result of larger theoretical understandings that have been deeply grounding in society, since they came into operation since the nineteenth century, though to be sure these understandings have been underlined by teachings in school since 1987.

This silence is not a uniquely Goan phenomenon however. This response in silence has famously been highlighted by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his exploration of the power dynamics among dialects within France and their relationship with ‘official French’. Bourdieu points out that as a result of the active diminishing of the legitimacy of other variants of the language, and the stress of auto-correction that persons who do not naturally possess a facility with the official variant encounter, there is a tendency of working-class children to eliminate themselves from the educational system, or to resign themselves to vocational courses and training. He also pointed out to the unease and ‘the hesitation leading to silence’, which may overcome individuals from lower-class backgrounds on occasions defined as official.

The silence among Adv. Bhembre’s audience is not therefore the result of not knowing Konkani, but of the shame that has been drilled into Catholic society (not least by their own intellectuals from the nineteenth century on) that the Konkani that they speak is not proper Konkani. This logic is not limited only to those sections of the pro-Konkani world that favour Antruzi as the finest form of spoken Konkani. Take for example the spelling of the Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr, which seems to replicate the Sanskritized sounds of Antruzi, rather than the broader sounds typical to the Concanim spoken among Catholics in Goa. From Bourdieu’s work it would appear that introduction of the ‘official variant’ into schooling compound the problem, since it provides a systemic production of this shame. From this logic, it would appear therefore that rather than addressing the problem Adv. Bhembre mistakenly perceived; schooling in Konkani is one of the systemic forms of perpetrating the shame and driving more and more young people away from Konkani. The solution that Adv. Bhembre seeks therefore, may come from routes other than the compulsory education in a language form that many students do not in fact identify with.

The provision of solutions to Adv. Bhembre’s pickle is not the purpose of this column. The purpose of this column was to stress that there are multiple ways in which silence can be read. Silence is not always a sign of stupidity or a lack of knowledge. Silence can be the mark of shame, or unease, or equally of disobedience. The silence in response to Konkani speakers among Concanim speaking audiences could very well be one among these many reasons. Indeed, we can safely say that it is not one of either stupidity or lack of knowledge.

(A version of the post was first published in the Gomantak Times 31 Aug 2011)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

English Talks, Konkani Rocks! : histories, innovations and democratic public culture

The problem around Goa’s Medium of Instruction (MoI) did not begin this year, nor did it begin in the 1990’s when the backbone of education in Goa, the Diocesan supervised schools switched their MoI from English to State Konkani. The roots of this problem lie all the way back, at the turn of the nineteenth century toward the twentieth. This was the time when Konkani was being set-up as the ‘mother tongue’ for Goans through the hand of not only Varde Valaulikar (Shenoi Goembab) but other (Catholic) intellectuals as well. Indeed in his later years, Valaulikar got a good amount of support from Catholic intellectuals, making his effort secular in the sense that it was a project that cut across religious divides.

What has not adequately been discussed however is that beyond this cross-religious collaboration there was also a caste-class divide that compromised the secular potential of this Konkani language project. Valaulikar’s Konknni was seen by non-brahmin Hindus as a Saraswat Brahmin project, that presented the Saraswat dialect alone as the perfect form of the language; while the Catholic intellectuals who supported this project, saw value in this project as a way of civilizing those Goan Catholics (both in Bombay and Goa) who came from non-dominant castes and were largely working class.

This working class had no real need for a Konkani language project however. They produced abundant literature of all forms for their consumption, and worked Concanim into the cultural forms that gave them livelihood. Thus they produced Concanim music to the form of the Waltz, Rhumba, March, Swing and Jazz (among others). Concanim lived among them, as it did not for the elites who moved this political project. For the Catholic elites Konkani was a way for them to not only civilize their ‘lower’ brethren, but to also regain a cultural authenticity that the nineteenth century theorization of society told them they had lost. For the largely Brahmin movers of the project, Konkani was not only the primary tool to forge one single Saraswat caste from multiple Konkana jatis along the west coast, but also a political tool through which they could carve an area for their dominance. If Pune and Bombay belonged to the Marathi Brahmins, who insulted and ridiculed them, then Goa would be the Konkana base. These two trends are the basis of the eventual decision to recognize Konkani (in the Nagari script) as the official language of Goa.

In making this move, Konkani was cast into more familiar forms of Indian nationalism. As in the case of Hindustani, Nagari alone- primarily for its brahmanical origins, though ‘scientific’ arguments were also thrown in - was seen as Indian. As a result of the historical model for Hindi that Konkani follows, the burden of North Indian communalism weighs heavily on the Konkani project. With this formulation, the Hindu and Brahmin came to be seen as the font of cultural authenticity. As a result of the elite (and hence minority) location of this project, and its nature as a civilizing mission, official or State Konkani could not walk normally as a language. The Konkani language project was marked by multiple anxieties. Because of its minority location, it could not be popularized; it had to be constantly under the control of a minority group. Because it was a civilizing mission too, ‘deviant’ forms could not be permitted. Because it was not based on a living social reality but an imagined past, it could not look to the future.

When cast in this way, it is little wonder that State Konkani did not find sync with a large number of Goans, and especially the Goan Catholic migrant working class, who were (and despite the allegations of the BBSM and its ilk, remain) the lifeblood of this language and its cultural forms. For this group Konkani was so much theirs, it sat lightly, but no less cherished, in their basket of social capital. No fuss about it. It would pass on to subsequent generations as it had to them, without passing through school. School was for where they learned other tricks and trades. The official Konkani project is to make them Konkani in an official and nationalist sense, the Goan Catholic working class, already knows it is Concanim enough.

Once we recognize that there are at least two Konkanis at work in the Goan cultural sphere, things begin to make a lot more sense. We can see that the official and stunted State Konkani may in fact be killing a vibrant unofficial one. Recognizing the working class history of unofficial Konkani, would also point us in the direction where Concanim can be a vehicle for an inclusive secular culture in the State.

It seems that it is this history that Armando Gonsalvez and his collaborators have connected with in their ‘Konkani Rocks’ project. It has been interesting to see the manner in which this project slowly evolved from ‘Jazz’ to combining ‘Jazz’ with ‘Konkani’. The beauty of the whole project is that because it delves, quite unselfconsciously into lived (and living) Concanim history, there is hardly a contradiction in the project. It is fun and it draws the crowds, persuading us without being heavily pedantic that Konkani can and indeed is fun. Simply put, it ‘Rocks!’

In this project, Konkani is not a nationalist millstone round our collective necks. On the contrary, it connects both with cosmopolitan past, and a cosmopolitan future. Armando’s formulation, ‘English Talks, Konkani Rocks’ twines the pragmatic approach of the Goan working class perfectly. There is no need for either to be displaced since each language has its place, and fulfills a definite need. Furthermore, 'Konkani Rocks' returns to a history that many of us, not just those pushing State Konkani, have done much to hide and forget. These actions, of shame in our working class history, have done much to ensure a shame in Concanim. By holding it, albeit indirectly, as something worth returning to, 'Konkani Rocks' reminds us that the Goan Catholics working class past is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it was a period that generated the culture that we today recognize as Konkani.

That this formulation is also concerned with what the BBSM claims to be concerned with is obvious from a column Armando penned some days ago. He pointed out that ‘When I felt that my children were not so keen on learning the language [Konkani], I was all the more pained because I myself am not that good at it. Hence, instead of forcing the language down my children’s throats, I decided that the best way forward would be to attract them to the language, to pull them to their mother tongue, and what better way to do it than via music, dance and other cultural avenues. I presumed, correctly I think, that if my children would sing a Konkani song and dance to one, their interest in the language would improve drastically, and in this way their will to learn the language would be that much more fired up that without this cajoling.’

Rather than pull out some dusty folk-song and dance that the children may not identify with, Armando delved into a cultural tradition they could identify with. On the twentieth of August they drew from one of the most popular forms of recent history, the Big Band; and voila, Magics became!

Konkani Rocks is truly magic, and is a wonderful example of the role elites can play in pushing a more democratic public culture to greater prominence in society, by attending to popular histories instead of relying on civilizing missions that were inspired from the racist and colonial paradigms of the last millennium. It would be interesting to see how ‘Konkani Rocks’ manages to push forward a more democratic and sustainable model for Konkani in this State.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 24 Aug 2011)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Etiquette and the foreign stranger

It is never easy to move to a new place. Given that there is a whole world that one has to not simply construct, but for oneself, one should consider oneself lucky if the locals are warm, welcoming and hospitable. In a single word, if they are ‘nice’.

There should be no doubt that the Lisbãocars are ‘nice’. The Portuguese are a good-natured people, kind and helpful, but they leave much to be desired when it comes to being welcoming and hospitable. This realization is especially stunning when you grow up in those nostalgic Goan circles and hear of how the Portuguese embraced Goans on the streets after the sad news of 1961; or of how some Portuguese continue to embrace you as ‘one of us’ when they know you are Goan (this last anecdote is in fact true, heart-warmingly so). All of this embracing does not necessarily translate however, into their welcoming you into their home, their family, or their circle of friends. They will smile at you in the street, chat with you there, help you even, but that is where it will end.

This is the experience of a number of foreigners who come to this paradisaical gem of a country expecting an open ‘Mediterranean’ society and face the same bewildering response. Portuguese colleagues who have lived abroad explain the situation with a most pained expression. They tell us that the Portuguese person takes time to get to know you; they take time to open up to you. But when they do, they assure us, you can be assured of solid, almost familial relationships that will hold you up forever.

This may be true, but in the meantime the good folk definitely make it difficult for you to get to know them. There is this other curious feature a foreigner notices; one that elicits embarrassed titters from Portuguese friends when recounted. Assume you are the foreigner, new in town, invited to this party by an acquaintance. ‘This is it’, you think to yourself, ‘this is my lucky break, I will meet people, get to know them, and my social isolation among other foreigners will end.’ But then it is not as simple as that, for when you go to the party, either with this acquaintance, or with the promise of meeting up at the party, you realize that you are not being introduced to anyone!

Ask the friendly foreign-returned Portuguese and they will assure you that it is nothing personal, but another Portuguese tradition. The Portuguese apparently do not engage in the ritual of introducing a stranger to the group to facilitate conversation and entry into the group. How is one to explain this situation? Perhaps by realizing that other technique to getting around in Portuguese society; you should be a part of the circle. If you are then you don’t need to be introduced, if you are not, then well you don’t belong here in the first place!

This logic can be quite punishing it turns out. One hears stories of how when two people get together in a relationship, whether within marriage or outside of it, one continues to have 'my friends' and 'your friends', with the two circles of friends not quite meeting. Oftentime there can be a situation where one lets go of one's own friend circle and sticks to the circle of one's partner. The tragedy is, according to telling of one persons experience, that if and when one separates from the partner, one realizes that one has also lost a whole new social circuit and has to start over from scratch!

A good number of Portuguese are quite happy to blame two institutions for this sort of cagey behavior, the trauma of life under the Estado Novo, and the Catholic Church. While not denying this possibility, this may be a bit of an overstatement. The quirks highlighted are also essential to the kind of hierarchical society that this column has earlier observed Portuguese society to be. In which case, the Estado Novo and the Catholic Church, while adding their own contributions to Portuguese society, were also fundamentally creations of and sustained by the same society that is today marked by the social norms that makes a foreigner’s smooth entry into Portuguese society a Herculean challenge!

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo, 21 August 2011)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Of Apologies and histories: The past that sits uncomfortably

A year ago, this column dealt with the matter of Portugal having to (or not) apologize for the atrocities of the past committed in its sovereign name. This matter of apology keeps coming up from various quarters, whether it is in places where persons were abducted into the slave trade, to places where these persons wound up as slaves, or places where there is a belief that the national spirit was unconscionably violated by the actions of the colonial power. Goa is but one of those places.

The earlier column questioned the value of these politics of apology and this column will not get into those issues. The focus of this discussion will be the suggestion posed by a Goan living overseas, of a different kind of apology. This gentleman, Silviano Barbosa, suggests that the apology that is required is one that needs to be made by the dominant castes in Goa. Mr. Barbosa’s argument is that these social groups, who were in control of the Comunidades as gãocars, need to apologize, to those residents of Goa who were cast out of the comunidade system and rendered foreigners in their own land. Further, he argues that ‘The word "gaonkar" is not politically correct for the 95% of Goa's original population, who are offended and belittled by it, every time comunidade books or history buffs or someone else uses it.’

This is a very interesting argument and is deserving of more attention than that it has currently obtained. In any circumstance, those who argue for apologies from the colonial powers, would do well to be more rigorous in their demand for apologies and consolidate all these demands. It would be an interesting move, because it would acknowledge that while there was violence done by the colonizer, there was also violence done by dominant groups, towards marginalized groups within the territory that subsequently came to be known as Goa. It would amount to an acknowledgement that none of us are angels, persuading us to a different path to deal with the violence that permeates history and our contemporary social structure.

Mr. Barbosa is also the author of a novel, titled The Sixth Night. In this novel, Mr. Barbosa crafts a situation that underlines an argument that this column has often made; that while recognizing the problem with the brahmanical order, this does not render only Brahmins the ‘bad guys’. In his novel, it is a Chardo individual that asserts caste privilege and edges out a Shudra from her preferred location in the church. This is an important recognition to ensure not only that an agenda against Brahmanism does not turn into an agenda for Brahmin-hunting, but also to ensure that covert caste politics do not continue under the garb of anti-caste politics.

In his review of The Sixth Night, Ben Antão, another Goan novelist, articulated his own challenge to the brahmanical beliefs that structure our understanding of Goan identity, a challenge extracted here at some length;

‘To those who would go back to the pre-Portuguese era and take on Hindu names, I say think before you act….If you look at the history of Goa before the Portuguese conquest, youd note that from 1469 this region called Goa was in Muslim hands; after the conquest in 1510 there were inter-marriages between Portuguese soldiers and Muslim women…. So we are now looking at a whole new generation of Catholic population with Muslim-blood antecedents. And yet a great many people in Goa today are brainwashed to believe that their ancestors before the Portuguese were Hindus! I guess Abdullah, Mohammed and Khan are not fashionable names!’

The reason these names are not fashionable among ‘Indianising’ Goans (or Indian Catholics along the west coast) is largely because of the Muslim antipathy built into the nature of brahmanically influenced Indian nationalism, as well as the ‘upper’ caste histories of those who wish to reclaim their past and settle comfortably within the power structures of post-colonial India. One should not excuse however, the European discomfort with the Islamicate that we in Goa have inherited in no small measure.

To return to the review by Mr. Antão though, we must recognize that the review was written in the year 2005, in the face of the flexing of the Hindutva muscle both in Goa and elsewhere. Mr. Antão’s review therefore, was not merely a literary review, but also the remarkably astute expression of a potential political project. The project argued that there was need for us to reframe our Goan (Catholic or otherwise) identity so that it did not walk straight into the Hindu nationalist trap that was setup even before Indian Independence. It is an argument that recognizes not only the value of diversity, but acknowledges the existence of such a history, that is all too often erased.

The untold side of this column is the self-doubt that often visits subsequent to articulating an idea. Is the column merely engaging in the Quixotic tilting at windmills, or does this speak to the daily experience of people. An affirmation of not being Quixotic (well not entirely Quixotic at any rate) was provided in a conversation subsequent to the Global Goans Convention. In a conversation with two sisters, and discussing the presentation of Dr. Sardessai, I mumbled angrily that we were always treated to the same old brahmanical representation of Goan history. Discussing genealogies, one of these two sisters commented, quite without prompting, that they were probably descended from the Muslims who lived in Goa, prior to the coming of the Portuguese. I stared at the woman google-eyed for a minute, until able to continue conversing. Her suggestion does not establish the fact of her Muslim antecedents, but it does indicate the possibility for Goans to actively re-imagine the past they have been persuaded into constructing. Interestingly, the fact that this lady did not come from the ‘gãocar’ wards of a village otherwise known for its snotty and insufferable dominant castes, suggests the ways in which non-dominant castes can imagine their pre-Christian past.

One does not even have to look for blood descent from Muslims however. Indeed, to do so would take us right back to the biological logics that form the basis for both race and caste. On the contrary, we can stress that we are culturally products of the time when the Islamicate idiom was commonly accepted as the idiom within which to articulate one's identity. Too often, the history of Goa has been written in a manner as to suggest that the Islamicate presence in the territory was a minor accident. On the contrary, the Islamicate was a strong presence within the Deccan and the Konkan before the territories that eventually constituted Goa were part of the Bijapuri Sultanate, and even after, even during the time of the early Portuguese sovereignty in Goa. This Islamicate presence ensured that dress codes, and modes of etiquette, were appropriately Arabic, Persian or Turkic inflected. There are other ways of measuring our ancestry, and blood is not necessarily the only, or even the most important one of them.

To return to Mr. Barbosa, his demand for an apology is also the articulation of a political agenda for Goa. While unaware of the nature of the apology that Mr. Barbosa is suggestion, one would imagine his demand is not merely for a formal apology, but for a structural change in the workings of Goan society. To this extent, this demand for an apology impacts fundamentally on the manner in which the movements to ‘save Goa’ have been operating. Demands for local self-governance are often subtly disguised demands for a return to the Comunidade system of yore. While the Comunidade system does offer the possibility for a holistic management of land, it is also couched in social inequalities that need to go if we are to revitalize and revive it. Mr. Barbosa’s suggestion of an apology, would work to constantly remind us to the inequalities we have to address, so that the Goan future is not built on the inequalities and the violences of the past.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 10 August 2011)