Sunday, January 22, 2012

Letters from Portugal: The Kiss...

We were fairly intimate in Goa, which is why when she came to Lisbon, we spent a good amount of time together. It was in the course of these meetings; long, languid summer afternoons in the park, that she, a regular visitor to Lisbon, felt the need to educate me in the subtle manners of Portuguese society.

‘When you meet a fidalguia’ she informed me, ‘you don’t kiss her twice as you would do with other women. You kiss her just once’. My eyes opened up wide, confused and perplexed. ‘But mana,’ I responded ‘how will I know if she is a fidalguia?’ She just smiled at me nonplussed, ‘Don’t worry, you will!’ The conversation turned then, to this and that and other matters.

Given the multiple, and fine gradations of elite Portuguese society, the issue of what exactly is a fidalguia is still one of the mysteries that I am struggling to decipher. However, it should suffice us for now to know that a fidalguia is a lady of the upper strata.  In the interim however, I had still not figured out how I was to locate a fidalguia from a crowd of mudbloods, and how was I to respond to such a lady when greeting her.

The opportunity arrived at a party one evening when introduced to a venerable older lady who had obviously heard of me before our meeting. ‘Jason!’ she tinkled, wafting over to me, ‘I’ve heard so much about you!’ It should have been the bouquet of aromas that wafted before her, and the baubles around her neck that should have given it away, but the little wheels still did not click into place. The tinkle, the wafting and the scented breeze the gusted before her had me primed for a double kiss in the air. It was only when I was locked into cheek-grazing embrace, when I tried to disengage after the first formal peck and move to the other cheek that I realized I was still being firmly held on to! The nice old lady was not letting go of me! A few seconds later, she let go and with her right hand that held my own right palm steered me away from her.  I had apparently met, greeted and embraced my first fidalguia, and as it turned out, received one more lesson in my continuing education in the customs and manners of the Portuguese gentry.

It turns out that it is not so difficult to figure out which woman one kisses once, and which woman twice. It is apparently not the baubles, or fancy perfume that one must watch out for, since as everyone laments, the ‘real’ old families in Portugal are now quite impoverished.  What one has to be alert to in this greeting ritual is the body language of the woman that you bend forward to greet. While with most women one moves forward for the perfunctory kiss on the first cheek before moving on rapidly to the other; these ‘ladies’ hold onto that single kiss a few moments longer than would be necessary in the case of the regular double kiss. The pressure that they apply on your arm as you bend in for the kiss also seems that much more firmer, than in the case of the regular touch-and-go. In the poor language of one unused to such elaborate ritual, I would surmise that given that they are denied the opportunity to go for the double-kiss, the time they take to effect the single kiss is as long as that taken by more ‘regular’ people. The key to the ritual it appears is in being aware of the oh-so-subtle messages that are being communicated in the course of the otherwise quotidian and banal gesture.

Thus armed, onward then, to future adventures!

(A version of this post first appeared on the O Heraldo 22 Jan 2012)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Sweeper: Hazare, brooms and the culture of corruption

There was a rather shocking newsreport in The Hindu a couple of days ago. The report indicated that the sad story of the widows of Vrindavan often does not end with their death. On the contrary it continues beyond, since there are no provisions, at least in two of the Government sponsored institutions, for the last rites of these destitute women. The result of this gap is that their corpses are carried away by sweepers, cut into pieces, and then disposed of in jute bags.

What was also shocking however was the tone of the first of paragraphs of this report, that, after reporting on the fact, thought fit to mention, that “This, too, is done only after the inmates give money to the sweeper!” In making this statement, the report added one more figure to the list of villains of the piece. There was, the families of these women, who abandoned or forced these women to destitute existence; the proprietors of the homes they live in; the organizations set up to care for these women; and finally, the sweepers who dispose of the bodies. And yet, because they are the final link of this chain of shame, the sweepers appear as the greatest villains of all. The sweepers are villainous here, since they seem to lack the basic humanity of disposing of the body without asking for what, this sentence suggests, is essentially a bribe.

The question that we need to ask however is why is it that the sweeper is being effectively asked to bear the burden of humanity that has been shrugged off by the rest of society? Why was no thought given to the fact that in addition to take on a responsibility that is not a part of the services they offer as part of their contract of employment, by taking on the responsibility to discard the corpse the humanity of the sweeper is in effect compromised by the fact of their having to cut up a human corpse like it were that of an animal? Catering to the dead is often seen as a mark of respect to the dead. However, it can also be thought of as catering to the sentiments of the living. By treating the dead as if they were still alive, we renew in the living the sense of value to life and the human body. By having to dispose of the bodies of the widows in this manner, it is not just the widows, but the sweepers as well who are effectively being dehumanized.

The reason these questions were not asked by the reporter who penned the story, is perhaps because of the space the wielder of the broom holds in our society. The position of the sweeper is not an open category job opportunity. It falls within the reserved category. It is reserved often for those that are deemed untouchable, or nearly untouchable. This fact was strikingly demonstrated in the course of the protests by upper-caste participants against the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, as well as general protests against reservation. The message they sought to transmit, was that thanks to this policy of reservations, they would be unable to gain respectable jobs as engineers and doctors, and have to take up the shameful jobs of being sweepers. The broom then, was a mark of shame, while at the same time indicating that there exists no need for us to necessarily respect, or treat as humans, those who generally wield the broom.

There have been other uses of the broom however, where there is an attempt to use the symbol of the broom as a positive element. Very often though, these uses have not detracted from the generally negative symbolic value of the broom. On the contrary, they rely on the negative connotation that the broom generally holds in our society. An example of this was the use of the broom in a recent art installation by Raj Bhandare, a Goan artist, in favour of Hazare’s movement against corruption. Titled ‘Anna Logue’ the installation referenced the ‘shit’ that the country was in, and incorporated into the work, a number of elements necessary for us to resolve the problem. One of these elements was the broom, incorporated as an an appeal to one and all that we need to take it up upon us to Cleanse the System.’ In this arrangement, the broom gains importance primarily because it is ‘us’ respectable folk, who are taking it up. It is clear from the installation’s phrasing of the broom element, that the citizens do not normally take up the broom, that the taking up of the broom is an extra-ordinary circumstance, and it is for the general benefit of society that we must now debase ourselves to clean up the shit that we may have contributed to. In sum, the power of our action lies because of the negative value that is normally associated with the broom and the everyday, or ordinary, wielder of the broom.

The wielder of the broom then is often not understood to be human. The place of the wielder of the broom is to do their job, and their job is not regarded as the list of duties set out within a contract of employment. No, their job is to serve, without question. If this servant asks for reimbursement for extra services rendered, that is to say, demand their right, the response of the rest of the system is to sit back in shock. This demand is seen as the demand for a bribe, it is seen as corruption.

Since the past few weeks, it appears as if the Hazare saga has come, or will eventually come to an end. However, regardless of the presence of Hazare, the unquestioning attitude as to what comprises corruption continues. At the height of the Hazare mania that overtook the country, asking these questions was tantamount to justifying corruption. Perhaps it would now be a more convenient time to interrogate ourselves on what is our understanding of corruption, and if our notions of corruption, like those of the reporter for TheHindu, are not twined with a morality that stems from our own limited upper-strata of society locations.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 12 Jan 2012)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Letters from Portugal: The politically-correct Portuguese

You know how a number of us Goans like to say ‘Hanv Portugues’ (I am Portuguese) right? Now get this; while there are some Portuguese who will indeed be flattered by this and cavalierly acknowledge that indeed being Goan makes you Portuguese, or at the very least, quasi-Portuguese; there are also a good number, especially the politically correct Portuguese, who will visibly wince when they are faced with this exuberant assertion by Goans who do not hold Portuguese nationality.

This statement is uncomfortable for the politically-correct Portuguese because it reminds them of the now-embarrassing claims of the Salazar regime, when the Estado Novo claimed that it did not have colonies, but only overseas territories, and all persons therein were in fact Portuguese. Those statements made Portugal an international pariah, out of step with a world that was marching forward into a new ‘post’ colonial order; and to make this claim of a Portuguese identity is today seen as quaint at best.

What these Portuguese don’t realize however, is that when being embarrassed by these affirmations of an also-Luso identity (because most of these Goans are not casting away their sub-continental identity), they facilitate a certain kind of racism. Etienne Balibar, a renowned scholar of citizenship studies, calls this form of a response ‘differential racism’. The kind of racism that most of us are familiar with is a biological racism, one that assumes that genetic differences, that manifest as colour and facial features for example, can be the basis for differences among human beings. Differential racism on the other hand marks differences not between races, but sees cultural differences as insurmountable. 

Sterling examples are provided by the politically-correct Portuguese. They don’t want you to say that you are Portuguese. They want you to say that you are Indian. In their mind this Indian has definite cultural features distinctly not present among the Portuguese. For example the Indians have a caste system, which the Portuguese categorically do not have. There is the usual orientalist imagery of how the Indians take their religion much more seriously than the European. Then there are the observations of how Goan Catholicism is imbued with local syncretism. Inherent in these assertions of difference is the assumption of Catholicism as European, and the existence of a kind of Catholicism that is pure, unblemished by local traditions. The unspoken affirmation is that Portuguese Catholicism is of this sort. What is being set up through these sorts of affirmations is not only that to be Portuguese one must be exactly like them, but also that these distinctions are, at the end of the day, insurmountable. Eventually it boils down to a biological racism, once a brown person, always a brown person.

The tragedy is that while the Estado Novo used the rhetoric of one Portuguese identity mischievously, it did in fact, and continues to; possess interesting possibilities to deal with racism. This rhetoric built on the longer (if restricted) history of the Portuguese Empire that recognized multiple non-continental groups as citizens of the Empire. This made it made it possible for racial discrimination to be actively challenged, either then, or now. What contemporary politically-correct Portuguese seem to not to realize is that it is possible for us to exorcise the baleful influence of the Estado Novo and reuse our common history to a much more interesting end, by affirming not difference, but the commonality of persons across borders. Engaging in this project would eventually be much more politically correct, than unwittingly raising walls of radical difference. 

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 8 Jan 2012)

Letters from Portugal: Portuguese neo-colonialism?

Some weeks ago, the Universidade Lusofona in Lisbon, under the aegis of the Association of Scientists of the Lusophone space, organized a series of conferences around the theme ‘A Construção da Lusofonia na Era Pós-Colonial’ (The construction of Lusofonia in the Post-colonial era).  One of the round-table discussions, to which I was invited to speak, was on the theme of ‘Lusofonia in Goa: Today, and in the future’.

At this roundtable I argued that Goa, entirely for internal reasons of socio-political equity, ought to become a more Lusophone (that is Portuguese speaking) space. However, prior to this, it was important that we decenter metropolitan Portugal from this Lusophone project, or else this project could turn out to have very serious neo-colonial implications. The argument pointed out that we ought not to forget that Lusofonia existed in the context of the prior establishment of both the Commonwealth and Francophonie. Both of these two concepts and institutions attempted to be post-colonial associations of a former empire, and yet both of these projects contained a tendency to continue the hegemony of the metropolitan center of these two empires. As long as we could decenter metropolitan Portugal and not associate Portuguese exclusively with Portugal, and create a forum for equal interaction among the pluri-statal members of this linguistic group, Lusofonia was a great idea.

The shit hit the fan subsequent to the presentation of this argument. One of the panelists abandoned his own notes to passionately respond to my suggestions, arguing that Portugal did not have the power, nor the will, to be a neo-colonial power. ‘Look at us now’ he argued, pointing to the financial mess that the country was in. Another member of the audience affirmed emphatically that in fact the neo-colonial implications of Lusofonia simply did not exist, since the concept had been actively discussed, and it was agreed that the language was not the marker of imperial ambitions, but merely a symbol that seemed to connect the former empire together. 

The force of these arguments should not have surprised, since there is a strong tendency among some metropolitan Portuguese, even academics, to reject their complicity in anything colonial or neo-colonial.  This affirmation is possible since they make the simplistic assumption that their opposition to the Estado Novo and its rhetoric make them eminently post-colonial. What these individuals forget however, is that because of Portugal’s unique position in the global hierarchy, its forms of possible neo-colonialism will be different from that of other stronger European countries. Thus there is no point indicating that Portugal has no economic or military capacity or desire to engage in colonial takeovers today. This fact is painfully obvious. What is offensively colonial however is the contemporary equivalence that these particular Portuguese seek with other former colonial powers. This attempt at equivalence translates into the imitation of the Commonwealth and Francophonie, in their rejection of post-colonial actions because ‘the British are not asked to do this’, or in the equally horrific suggestions of their current interest only in business (economic diplomacy) and not cultural relations. 

Colonialism is not only in the past, it exists in the contemporary when we attempt to create structures of inequality, rather than equality. The facile rejection of the existence of these possibilities leads us up the road of possible neo-colonialism.

(A version of this post first appeared in the O Heraldo 25 Dec 2011)

Letters from Portugal: The Governor-General and I

How does one respond in a situation when faced with the statement, ‘Ah, you are from Goa? My grandfather used to be the Governor of Goa.’ The responses it turns out, can be varied, depending on the situation one encounters this phrase in.

The first of such scenarios was when ensconced in the home of a friend, who had spent the day creating scenarios within his plush home for a commercial. As we reviewed each of these sets, our eyes fell upon an oriental looking bird-cage. ‘This cage,’ the friend announced ‘was made in Goa.’ I looked incredulously at the object. A wooden bird cage built to look Indo-Saracenic, there was no way it could have been made in Goa. ‘But it is’ he insisted ‘it was a baptismal gift to my grandmother, who was, along with her father and family, in Goa at the time.’ ‘In Goa?’  I asked all excited; ‘what was her father doing there.’ ‘He was the Governor-General’. This to my mind did not settle the provenance of the bird-cage, but that bit of our conversation ended there.

A second such situation occurred at the birthday party of a colleague’s daughter. At some point in the afternoon I was introduced to the child’s grandmother, who flashed me a most wonderfully warm smile and indicated that she had always wanted to visit Goa, but had as yet not managed to do so. For good measure she also indicated to me, with the same level of warmth, that she also had a cousin, General Craveiro Lopes, who had been the Governor of Goa. 

Perhaps in both circumstances the conversation stopped short on the Governor thread, but continued on others, since I did not know my Goan history well enough to be able to have an intelligent and cultivated conversation on the Governor in question. This lack of history was however filled in rather interestingly when reading some of the works of Ravindra Kelekar. In this one particular essay Kelekar wrote; “People in Goa knew this man (Francisco Higino Craveiro Lopes) very well, as his father General Craveiro Lopes was the Governor of Goa. He would often create a ruckus in Panaji in those days and many people have been involved in altercations with this 'white-skinned ruffian'. Rajabab Hedo threw him down on the road during a fight. His father got so fed up of his ways that he sent him off to Daman as Governor. This man was now Head of State.”

Had I known this little tidbit of information, perhaps the conversation with this good lady at the birthday party would have been somewhat more animated than it had. The fate of that conversation is not the point however (it concluded sweetly enough) but the response when informed that the persons’ relative was once Governor of Goa. While I personally find it hard to bristle with nationalist indignation, the fact that I flounder for words would indicate a somewhat nationalist conundrum lurking deep within.  The fact perhaps is that there is no need for this nationalist drama. As is often the case when Goa-Portuguese stories are narrated, the sentiment involved when indicating that one’s relative from the past was Governor, is one of deep, almost familial, bonding.  The attempt is to cull out a personal memory to share with you, and to draw you into that memory, to make you family.  In any case, all too often, as the story of Higino Craveiro Lopes, and the even more famous story of Bruto da Costa’s famous fisticuffs with the Governor illustrate, relations were also fairly unconventional. It would not hurt though, if the average Goan knew a little more about our own history and did not have to flounder for words or emotions.

(A version of this post first appeared in the O Heraldo dated 11 Dec 2011)