Thursday, May 24, 2012

No…Mo…Zo! Taking Urban space back to whom it belongs

About a fortnight ago, citizens of Panjim city and from various other parts of the State celebrated a Non Motorized Zone (NoMoZo). By all descriptions, NoMoZo was a grand success, overwhelmed by a huge turn-out of people who flocked to the stretch of Dayanand Bandodkar Road around Campal that had been blocked off for traffic. This NoMoZo then turned that stretch of road into a playground for the citizenry, allowing people to walk across the road, to cycle, to skate, little children to use their tricycles, for the road to be used as canvas for temporary art-works, for playing community games and the like. There was, as was to be expected, some amount of chaos as a result of the traffic diversion, especially where people were unaware of what exactly was going on, but by all reports, this chaos was not substantial.

In the afterglow of such success however, and especially because of the various interpretations of the event that are going around, it is important that we refocus on the agendas that could legitimately animate NoMoZo. One of those supporting the NoMoZo for example, suggested that having Campal free of motorized traffic for a couple of hours was the point of the exercise. “It would look so nice.” The fetishization of traffic-free spaces in elite neighbourhoods however is not the point of NoMoZo. On the contrary, the NoMoZo movement has plans to reconvene next, on 18 June Road, the throbbing heart of Panjim city, on the eighteenth of June. The fetishization of vehicle free roads eventually takes us down an elitist path, justifying the good old days, when only a few people had vehicles. This is categorically not the aim of NoMoZo that has a much more sophisticated relationship with traffic.

There is no denying the fact that since everyone wants and has a vehicle, the traffic in our cities is getting out of control. It is leading to road rage, and the destruction of our cities through the expansion of roads and the consequent demolition of homes and livelihood spaces. One has to also recognize however, that the result of this growth in private vehicles has been the boost in self-image and the social assertion of the owners of these vehicles. This growth in vehicles then, was a part of the democratic project. However, because it is the democratic project that is our goal, and not the growth of automobiles, we need to take this democratic urge forward, by equalizing the playing field and encouraging more people to travel in public transport.  One of the critical goals then, is to boost the use of comfortable, safe, reliable and efficient public transport, transportation that is intended for more than those who cannot afford private vehicles.

The first edition of NoMoZo effected a ban also on the entry of public transport into the demarcated zone. This may be a useful step in the short run, but if public transportation for all is to be our larger goal, it is important NoMoZo be open to including the passage of public transportation when it is in progress. There are a number of reasons, in addition to the discussion above, why this should be done. First, it would encourage, what is admittedly the currently callous way of driving public transport, to discipline itself. Given that NoMoZo is about pointing out that the first citizen of the urban space, is the pedestrian, and not the vehicle, it would train the bus drivers and conductors, to give the pedestrian right of way. Too often unfortunately, might has become right in our society, allowing larger vehicles to mow down smaller vehicles and smaller people. NoMoZo should therefore, actively create an environment where the pedestrian is king. The second reason to allow for public transportation when NoMoZo is in progress, is because it will make people realize that there is a middle-path between using private vehicles and walking; reliable public transportation. If people are annoyed that their thoroughfares are blocked to their vehicles, we should be able to indicate to them, that there is the option of public transport that they can use. Ideally, the State and city governments should use NoMoZo as a way to introduce people to the new mass transit systems that they should start implementing. Also, given that as of today, public transport is used by those with no other option, to evict public transport, when a democratically inclined event like NoMoZo is in operation would be surreal step towards making it just a one-off picnic for the ‘hi-fi’!

There is another cancer that has been eating into our urban life that NoMoZo is ideally located to deal with. This cancer has been the steady abandonment of our public spaces and their falling into disuse, as we retreat to finding entertainment in private spaces.  This trend marks the slow death of society, and the eventual rise of a climate of suspicion of the neighbor. A significant contributor to this tendency is no doubt our increasing use of private capsules to shuttle from one private location to another. Add to these capsules the currently fashionable air-conditioning and our disconnection from the public sphere is compounded. What NoMoZo does is to rekindle the threatened community spirit by taking us away from the private capsules into which we retreat, and back into the public spaces that were being abandoned in favour of private spaces. There will be many who will acknowledge that participating in the first NoMoZo, on the  thirteenth of May, ensured that there are a couple of more faces that they now know in Panjim city, and can smile at, as a result of participating in the community events that animated the event. 

It has to be acknowledged however, that the determined recapture of our public spaces has been a project at least in Panjim city, with the Campal Creek project, the many musical performances at the bandstand in the Jardim Municipal, and many others. While speaking of concerts in public spaces, it should be pointed out that another one of the triumphs of NoMoZo was the use of non-amplified music. Where road-rage is initially released through raucous honking, there is also something disturbing about our indiscriminate use of loudspeakers that foul the public sphere. Toward this end, NoMoZo is also laying the ground for a renewal in the manner in which we conceive of the use of the public sphere.
One of the better learnings from NoMoZo however, came from those who, rather than participating in the fun activities that formed the core of NoMoZo, performed the volunteer’s tasks of redirecting traffic. What became increasingly obvious to these volunteers was the kind of effort that goes into a traffic policeperson’s job. A job that has to deal not only with exhaust pollution, but noise pollution, and more often than not the disrespect from motorists. This disrespect involves the refusal to budge, especially when directed by police-women, to vacate no-parking zones; the blithe jumping of red lights; and the refusal to wait patiently in line, but rather resort to individual attempts to cut the traffic jam. Perhaps with more citizens volunteering to manage traffic, we would be able to develop an empathy with the often maligned police forces, returning to labour the dignity that is so often snatched from it?

Goa is fast becoming the victim of its own success. While the growth of real-estate developments are evidence of its success as a destination to live in, the growth in traffic is a success of the society flush with funds. The problem with the latter however, is that we have entered a spiral where the pedestrian is not privileged, and it is the vehicle that has the right of way on roads.  The person has been displaced to locate the vehicle as the appropriate subject of the urban space. Thus we engage in this unending expansion of roads, and see our urban space, not as places to live and play, but as places to park and drive vehicles. NoMoZo is such a welcome move to put the social actor back in the spotlight.  To all those who worked toward making the first NoMoZo a success, thank you, and may your work see fruition. 

Viva NoMoZo!

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 23 May 2012)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Letters from Portugal: The Modernity Deficit Complex

The Portuguese suffer from what I call the modernity deficit complex. Let me explain this with an illustration. Some weeks ago, a friend of mine placed the link to a video on her Facebook wall. The message that accompanied the link, a message that received a fair number of “Likes”, suggested that one could “safely substitute the Portuguese flag for the Italian and you get a sense of life in Portugal...” The video itself is hilarious. It consists of a contrast of two kinds of experiences in various episodes in life; from attempting to cross the road at a zebra crossing, to waiting for a bus, attempting to find parking, to political engagement. The first experience is represented by a flag of the European Union, while the second, which demonstrates the difference in Italian experiences from “the rest of Europe” is represented by the Italian flag. The experiences of the EU flag are what we all associate with the European experience, orderly, systematic, the text-book case of what is ideal. The experiences of the Italian flag however are a complete disaster. While in the EU case, one waits for a bus around five minutes and then hops into it, in the Italian case, the bus takes well over an hour to arrive, when it does, it leaves without the waiting individual. When the politicians in the EU illustration systematically take their place in power and leave it once their term is up, the Italian politicians, the video suggests, refuse to let go, and grow tentacles to cling onto State power. The suggestion of the video then, as well as its adoption by my Portuguese friend, suggested that Italy and Portugal, were not really European, they were simply members of the European Union, and failed to act genuinely European.

What was amusing about the video however, was that one could have easily substituted the EU flag for a label which said “modern” or “civilized”, and replaced the Italian flag for the Indian to get a “a sense of life” in India according to a good number of India critics. When we do this then, we get a sense of how the EU, both in its self-representation and in its estimation by others, represents the civilized norm. Clearly however, this norm, that is perceived as European, is not uniformly experience by all Europeans equally. There are some Europeans, who feel that they are not really European, but are only European in name. The question that emerges then is, where exactly is this ideal Europe located? Which are the countries that represent, not just for those outside of Europe, but those within the EU as well, the European ideal, and in this process, ideal modernity? Who are these ‘real moderns’?

One does not have to live very long in Portugal to realize that these moderns are vaguely identified as ‘the countries of the North’. Press further however, and this vague idea begins to disintegrate, and one realizes that it isn’t even most of Northern Europe that these impressions of modernity belong to, but more specifically countries like Belgium, Holland, Germany, the Scandinavians. The scope of modernity therefore is rather limited to a small set of Northern European democracies, democracies that are marked by societies that are perceived to be rather well-ordered and disciplined.

To return to the Portuguese however, their self-flagellation about not being modern, continues in other forms. Thus for example, the suggestion received on numerous occasions, whether it be intimate conversations, or animated dinner discussions, that the Portuguese do not have an educated elite. The grumble is that, unlike other places, the Portuguese social elites, are not particularly educated, nor cultured. One of the ideas that circulates for example, is that these elites in a rather hierarchized society, are quite comfortable with not having to obtain higher education, or read outside of the prescribed course work when they do take up professional courses. The fact that they are well-born, and they are in possession of plenty of money, is quite sufficient. One will recognize in this description of the Portuguese, a possible description of Indian elites as well, but let us leave this discussion for another moment and focus on the fact that once more, the Portuguese imagine ideal norms of civilized, and hence modern, society being located elsewhere, and not in their own country.

This idea of not being modern enough however, can work both ways, both as self-criticism, and often strangely enough, as a suggestion that we should be grateful for not being so messed up like those societies that have achieved modernity. Take for example the rather astute observation by another Portuguese friend. This friend pointed out that the Portuguese translation of the popular American television comedy series, Modern Family, is not a literal translation. On the contrary, the Portuguese translation, which is Uma Familia Muito Moderna (A VERY Modern Family) has an interesting twist, given that it suggests, that it is not merely a modern family we are talking about, but a VERY modern family. It has to be stressed here, that this translation is peculiar not to the Portuguese language, but only to Portugal, since the Brazilian translation is simply Familia Moderna (Modern Family). The family we are speaking about then, is deemed in the Portuguese case, to be an example of an excess of modernity. The implicit suggestion then, is that too much of modernity can be bad for you.

A glance at the storyline of Modern Family may possibly help us identify what is this modernity that is deemed as too much. The drama revolves around three families, related to each other through Jay Pritchett, the patriarch of this family, and his children, Claire Dunphy and Mitchell Pritchett. Jay Pritchett commences this excess of modernity, not merely by being divorced, but being married, as a white older man to a much younger Colombian (hence coloured) woman Gloria. Together with Gloria, Jay raises her son Manuel (or Manny), who is a somewhat odd boy, eminently cultured, way too old for his years, and whose character partakes of an unsure sexuality. Will the boy grow up to be gay, we are forced to wonder, or is he just extremely cultured? Claire, Jay’s daughter, is a fulltime mother of three children and married to Phil Dunphy, a real estate agent and man who just tries too hard to be a ‘cool’ father. Being the only other heterosexual adult male in the drama, his character struggles with some kind of desire for his step-mother-in-law. The Dunphys have three children: Haley, the stereotypical teenager, Alex, the smart middle child, and Luke, the offbeat only son. Jay’s son Mitchell, who is a lawyer, and gay, brings to this ‘modern family’ his (male) partner Cameron, who while having grown up on a farm, and possessing various skills that we identify as hyper-masculine, is best described as a flaming queen. Together, they have adopted a Vietnamese baby, Lily, and together strive to be good parents.

One will admit to some amount of ambiguity to the name of the series in the US as well, but given that the ambiguity already exists in ‘Modern Family’, one could also suggestion that highlighting this ambiguity with ‘Very’ is a reference to the deep discomfort that Portuguese society is expected to experience with regard to this otherwise normal modernity.  The suggestion then, is that, this modernity is not us. We Portuguese, are not like this. We prefer to be not quite so modern. 

In light of all of this, surely then, the Portuguese can be said to experience a curious relationship with modernity, if not an outright Modernity deficiency complex?

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dtd. 21 May 2012)
In light of all of this, surely then, the Portuguese can be said to experience a curious relationship with modernity, if not an outright Modernity deficiency complex?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Out with the old? Advocating a measured approach to built heritage

That we ought to tear down ‘ugly’ and ‘old’ buildings was the suggestion of Mr. Armando Gonsalves in a recent column in the O Heraldo dated the third of May. Mr. Gonsalves was careful to specify however that when he recommended this demolition, he did not mean ‘heritage’ structures, but buildings that have come up in post-Liberation Goa. Among some of the buildings that Mr. Gonsalves recommends that we pull down, is the building that houses the Department of Health in Campal, as well as the Junta House in the centre of Panjim, that is home to a number of Government offices.

The Dept. Of Health, Campal.
These suggestions are hugely problematic ones to make for a variety of reasons. To begin with, there is the assumption that the idea of beauty is one that is universally held by all. The argument assumes that there is something that one can look at and immediately pronounce, ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case. Because, as is well known, but little reflected on, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder; beauty is not intrinsic to an element, but depends on the appreciation of the beholder. Thus, beauty is reckoned by a canon, or code or rules. If we do not know the rules to appreciate the building, or image, then we would simply fail to realize in what manner the building is an interesting, or uninteresting contribution to built heritage. Thus for example, one may look at the Junta House, or indeed the Department of Health, or the similarly styled Department of Education building in Panjim city and marvel at their ridiculousness. However, if one sees them within the context of modernist design that they were being articulated from, then they become very interesting buildings in themselves. Add to the fact that these are government buildings and the State that built them, whether it was the Portuguese State (as may be in the case of the Junta House) or the Indian State, and you realize that a statement was being made. These buildings were not meant just to house governmental departments, but were built to make a statement. Of new times, of the will and determination of the State. Once again, for these reasons alone, these buildings gain an interesting perspective, and grow in beauty in the eyes of the beholder, as well as the heritage activist.

Dept. of Education, Panjim.
If we have so far been unable to appreciate the beauty of these (and other like) buildings however, it is perhaps because of the odd contours of the word ‘heritage’ that is being provided both by Mr. Gonsalves as well as others within the area of built heritage in Goa. What Mr. Gonsalves at any rate is doing in his argument, is to limit the scope and terrain of heritage to solely buildings built before the ‘Liberation’ of Goa. While it is surely not his conscious attempt, what Mr. Gonsalves is doing is to stop Goan history with the period of Portuguese sovereignty over Goa. The rest of Goa’s architectural evolution, does not really matter. This is not an uncommon position unfortunately, and the process of selling Goa (both by State and non-State actors) as a Portuguese-Indian paradise has compounded this trend. Unfortunately, what is often seen as Indo-Portuguese heritage are often the homes of the more privileged members of Goa’s colonial society. Even more unfortunate has been the manner in which buildings from before Liberation, often articulating international styles like Art Deco have been stripped of their ornament and distinctness, to be rearticulated in a new form that seems to be slowly emerging, figuring azulejos, pastel earth tones, and harking to a rural ideal. Post-Liberation architecture, from the homes of people who got rich via tourism and earnings from the Gulf, to the apartment blocks erected by the fledgling real-estate developers, tells us a critical story of the rise of formerly subaltern groups, out of a restrictive social environment, to a more liberating one. These buildings, as ‘ugly’ as they may appear to us, even when we understand their internal vocabulary, are a proud moment in Goan history, and we cannot simply brush them aside and order their demolition! To cast only a particular genre of Goan built heritage as heritage, would result in our effective freezing of a definite kind of social relations, one that sustained the colonial presence in Goa, and this would be simply obscene!

Rearticulating an urbanTaleigao Indo-Portuguese style
More than obscene however, they will lead to a whole lot of social strife, because the association of Goa with Indo-Portuguese styles alone, and this freezing of time sometimes relied upon by heritage enthusiasts, is opposed not just by the Hindu nationalists, but a wider swathe of the Goan population than we would imagine. Take for example the incredible support that Mr. Monserrate, the MLA formerly of Taleigão, gained for projects in the constituency that scandalized one segment of Goa’s population. These projects, aimed at destroying the rural structure of Taleigão, by inserting roads and the like, was supported primarily because the rural setting, a particularly privileged locale for the Indo-Portuguese aesthetic, is not particularly appealing to those native-Goans who form Mr. Monserrate’s vote-base. That Mr. Monserrate nevertheless used elements of Indo-Portuguese design, drawing on conventions of certain kinds of European design, and interestingly rearticulated these in the projects that he initiated, however, is another matter, and one that points us in the direction of lessons that we ought to take note of.

Mr. Gonsalves’ arguments are scarier than they prima-facie appear to be, because they draw on a logic that once approved for use in the manner in which we determine which buildings can stay, and which have to go, the logic can be extended to other areas of social life as well. Take for example, the fact that Mr. Gonsalves suggests that the building of the Department of Health ought to be demolished because it does not fit in with the rest of the ‘Heritage’ zone of Campal. The logic that lies below this facile suggestion is that if something, or someone, does not fit in with the larger group, out they go. This sort of exclusivist logic is the very basis on which the vegetarian ghettos of Indian cities have, and are, been formed; where difference is absolutely not tolerated. This is the logic that eventually led to the European Holocaust that saw the calculated murders of Gypsies, homosexuals, Jews and Communists; simply because they did not fit in into the larger scheme of things. This is ofcourse not the intention of Armando Gonsalves who has led many a charitable and philanthropic event, but these are the implications of the logic that he has perhaps unwittingly used in making his suggestions.

Mr. Gonsalves also makes the error of assuming that if the buildings are ‘spanking new’ then they will replace the older buildings that he finds ugly, with a more interesting urbanscape. His assumption is that “Architecture was not such a developed art a few decades ago”. The sad truth is that, none of this is true. Architecture was just as developed a few decades ago, as it is today. There were some buildings that were perhaps more provincial or clumsy followers of international trends, and others that manifested international trends interesting. But we would know this only if we developed our understanding of the vocabulary that architects and designers have been using. Furthermore, some of the problems with the built environment in Goa, as in other places, is not simply that they are ugly, but because increasingly, every architect seems to want to make a statement; because street facades are not being maintained, because the skyline (or the roof façade of the city) is increasingly out of control, and the sense of scale is being violently disrupted, the larger sense of order that we experienced is being lost. The answer to our built heritage woes therefore, is not necessarily to pull down anything that is old, but to spend some more time figuring out what exactly is the problem, educating ourselves in larger issues of urban design, management and styling, and once we do that, to address the issue advisedly.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 16 May 2012)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Contra factum: The Hindu reformer Ambedkar…

Reading the headline “Ambedkar was a true Hindu reformist: Arlekar” in the Herald a couple of days ago, literally pushed me off the chair I was having my breakfast in. Published on 30 April, the article was a report of the Speaker of the Assembly Mr. Rajendra Arlekar speaking at an event held by the Dalit Seva Sanghatana in Margao, to felicitate the former Fatorda MLA Mr. Damu Naik with the Dalit Sakha Puraskar.

It was a strange way to frame Babasaheb Ambedkar, given that it was the same man who, at a Dalit conference in Yeola (Nasik district), in 1935 declaimed that “I was born a Hindu. I couldn’t help it, but I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu.” And this was not the first time that Dr. Ambedkar made explicit his intentions to not allow the Dalits to be identified with Hindu society. Indeed, in the course of the Round Table Conferences that were held between 1930 -32, as part of the British attempts to lay the ground for democratic transition in colonial India, Dr. Ambedkar presented a demand for separate electorate for what were then known as the ‘untouchables’. This demand, which came along with a similar demand by the Muslim leadership for the Muslims in the subcontinent, was however vehemently protested by Gandhi. While Mr. Jinnah’s, and Mr. Ambedkar’s fears were those of Hindu upper-caste majoritarianism that could threaten the interests of the groups they were representing, Mohandas K.  (also known as Mahatma) Gandhi’s reasons for his opposition were contrary. Gandhi was afraid that recognizing the right of the Dalits to a separate electorate would effectively disintegrate what he thought of as Hindu society. To obviate this possibility, Gandhi resorted to a fast-unto-death at the Yervada Jail where he was being held at the time. The inordinate amount of pressure that this created, resulted in Dr. Ambedkar being forced to concede his demand, and settle for assurances from Gandhi and the upper-caste nationalist leaders that gained the form of the Poona Pact in 1932.

Dr. Amberkar finally succeeded in effecting the Dalit split from Hindu society by converting, along with half a million of his supporters, to Buddhism in October 14, 1956 at Nagpur. Dr. Ambedkar died some three months later in December that year and remained true to his words in 1935, he did not die a Hindu. And yet, as Mr. Arlekar’s words demonstrate, the attempt by Hindu leaders to appropriate Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalits to their cause continues unabated. One of the common strategies through which this appropriation is effected is by casting Buddhism as a reform branch of Hinduism. Another strategy is to point out how rather than converting to Islam or Christianity, both religions that have traditionally been routes for lower-caste and untouchable converts seeking liberation from caste strictures, Dr. Ambedkar chose Buddhism instead. The logic attributed to Dr. Ambedkar is that he did not want to lead his folllowers into the arms of foreign religions, but rather into a tradition that had grown in the soil of India, an ‘Indian’ religion. Indeed, this rhetorical strategy is similar to the one employed by Mr. Arlekar when he reportedly said “that representatives of other religions had approached Dr. Ambedkar to bring the Dalits into their fold, but he had declined.”

There are a number of possible reasons for Dr. Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism and rejection of the Christian-Islamic option. The first that we ought to consider is that conversion to Christianity or Islam, while it may have minimized, through its ideological acknowledgments of the equalty of persons, the whip of caste oppression has not ended caste-based prejudice against the Dalits. The second is that Buddhism was preferred for the rationalism that accompanied the version privileged by Dr. Ambedkar. This was not a version that stressed ritual, but like Protestant Christianity, underlined the central location of the individual. To stress the individual and his/her role in contemplation as a route toward salvation, Dr. Ambedkar was making a historical choice for those who have traditionally not been recognized as individuals. It is possible that the foreign origins of Christianity and Islam may have also prevailed on Dr. Ambedkar, and this would not be surprising given the nature of scholarship and thought at the time. However, to suggest that he chose Buddhism because he was a Hindu reformer is to not only pervert but to insult his memory and the radical choice he made. There is a strong trend of scholarship that has suggested that Buddhism is merely reform Hinduism. This impression however is largely the product of orientalist historians who operated under the fundamental assumption that India was primarily Hindu.  Buddhism that emerged as a response to Brahmanical and Vedic religious practices, did take on brahmanical rituals in the course of its twining with Empire, but nevertheless maintained a tense and often hostile relationship with Hinduism. Indeed, it has been argued by some historians that the destruction of the ancient university of Nalanda was not entirely the work of the Turko-Afghan forces under Bhaktiyar Khilji. Another lesser known  and somewhat controversial argument suggests that once the Turko-Afghans had left, it was the local brahmanical groups, natural enemies of the Buddhist establishment, that got together, and set upon the struggling remains of the university ending the saga of the ancient university.

Mr. Arlekar is not out of place though in suggesting that Dr. Ambedkar was a Hindu reformer. It is in keeping with the Hindu right-wing’s view of the world that all religions that originated within India are in fact parts of Hinduism. Furthermore, as the Hindu right wing, seeks to consolidate its power within the Indian nation-state, it has attempted to woo the Dalits into its fold. To achieve this aim, it has sought to appropriate to its agenda the venerable figure of Dr. Ambedkar, no matter that his agenda was substantially different from that of the Hindu right-wing. 

This attempt to appropriate the figure of Dr. Ambedkar may have nevertheless had some tempering effects upon the Hindu right-wing. An example of the strange situation that the saffron groups have found themselves in as a result of an attempt at this appropriation has been commented upon in a recent editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly. Reflecting on the inarticulate response by the Hindu right-wing to the contentious “beef festival” held at the Osmania University by some dalit and left student groups in Osmania University of Hyderabad, the editorial commented that this was perhaps explained by the fact of the location of the groups that have backed this food festival. While the cow-related politics of Hindutva has been largely aimed at striking at Muslims and Christians in the country, these groups are clueless as to how to respond when nominal Hindus such as the Dalits claim the beef is a part of their traditional diet and forms part of their right to nutrition. An aggressive response such as the Hindu right normally uses would be to hit out at the Dalit icon Dr. Ambedkar, which in this case is not quite the best option, given the attempts at wooing the dalits.

Calling upon Dr. Ambedkar as a Hindu reformer it thus appears, is not quite historically correct, nor would it be seen as a serious claim from within the frame of Ambedkarite politics. And yet, when doing so, the Hindu right wing may perhaps be inviting a change in its operation that it might not entirely be comfortable with. C’est la vie…?

(A version of this post first appeared in the Gomantak Times dtd 9 May 2012)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Books, Buildings, Building Blocks: Evaluating the new Central Library

Even before the inauguration of the new location of Goa State Central Library, there was talk about it. Persons associated with the new building were giddy with excitement, asking in tones that communicated they did not wish criticism, ‘Don’t you think it is wonderful?’

This excitement however, has perhaps to do with all the wrong reasons. There is the almost childish excitement over all the gadgetry that has been employed in the new library building and the marveling at the contemporary styling involved in the façade-design of the building. This sort of adulation however may be missing the wood for the trees. The Central Library was already a formidable institution before it moved to its new location. Its stock of not just books, but multi-lingual newspapers from the days of Portuguese sovereignty over the territory, made it a place of pilgrimage for scholars from all across the world. The imaginations of many a contemporary adult were fired through the books made easily available at the Central Library. These are the fundamental treasures and assets of the Central Library, and happily these seem to have now been given a setting worthy of their value.

An earlier reflection in this column worried about the manner in which the Central Library was being displaced from the centre of the city to the margins of Panjim. Did this reflect on our priorities vis-à-vis knowledge and learning, that column had asked. Happily, it turns out that with the attention that has been lavished on the library building, such fears could be for the moment put aside. Indeed, given the manner that provisions in the new building seem to intersect with plans for State libraries outside of the Panjim, it may well turn out that the shifting of the library to the margin of the city, was not a shifting from the centre to the periphery of our attention, but a shifting to reach out to the often ignored peripheries of our State. If the new library with all its gadgetry can respond to the intellectual demands of locations outside Panjim, the shift would have been well worth it.

There is a grave danger to the library however when the focus on the new building is placed on its gadgetry. There is a peculiar Indian fascination for gadgets. Once obtained, and the status value the gadgets promise is achieved, we conveniently forget about them, and they rust or dust to death. We ought to be careful therefore where we place our emphasis when evaluating the new infrastructure of the Central Library. As mentioned above, our emphasis on the library must focus primarily on its intellectual resources. However, there is also another resource that power the earlier incarnation of the Central Library, and continues in the new, its human resources. Anyone who has used the Central Library, both old and new, will comment on the staff of the institution, who as a rule over-extend themselves to address the regular users of the library. There ofcourse the usual annoyances, when the librarians who ought to preside over the silence in the library, are often at the root of the cacophony that can preside even on the research floors of the library. Or the stray occasions, when students timidly entering onto the research areas, are given a tongue-lashing that may probably scar them away from research for the rest of their life. Despite these regular incidents however, as a rule, the staff will go out of their way to help. This has been a standard feature of the library, and happily the augmentation of the staff, seems to have not changed this fact. To forget the human resources of the library in a provincial fascination for technology would be the single largest mistake with which to inaugurate the new location of the Central Library.

Prasad Lolayekar & Carlos Fernandes
What should perhaps also be recognized however, is that in addition to the regular staff of the Library, the Central Library is currently blessed not only with an extremely hospitable, ever-listening, and eager-to-please Curator in the form of Carlos Fernandes, but his energies are supplemented by the innovative and visionary energies of the Director of Art and Culture  Prasad Lolayekar. We should consider ourselves blessed to have them at the helm of affairs. It appears that as a result of the synergies of these two men, and the countless others they have consulted with, and the fact of consultation should not be lightly dismissed, the Central Library is poised to reach out to ever diverse segments of the Goan population.

One other significant manner in which the Central Library has been augmented, is the inclusion of conference halls, gallery space and theatre halls within its design. The conference halls are an appropriate addition to a location that is not merely a lending library but a significant research destination. Hopefully, this new addition, will allow the Central Library to highlight its holdings, encourage a deeper engagement with these texts, and who knows, engage in the publication of the discussions and conferences held around these texts? Before all of that is done however, one hopes that the newspapers in various languages, that are rapidly disintegrating, will be speedily converted into digital format. We have waited for years now, for this critical and long-delayed action to be effected, and this action should now be undertaken post-haste, without further delay.

If the emphasis of this comment on the new location of the Central Library has focused on the human resources of the institution, then there is one last comment that needs to be made. In keeping with the general sentiment of awe and wonder with which the new location has been approached, there have been visitations organized for a variety of groups, ranging from noisy students from primary schools, to disinterested civil servants, and softly cooing visiting notables. If we are serious about the Central Library reaching out to ever larger segments of users (and we should bear in mind that this library is not merely a local treasure, but in fact an internationally significant resource centre), then there is an ever greater need to engage in some disciplinary actions with regard to our interface with the Library. A library is not a show-case object that can be viewed and appreciated. It is an object whose value and faults emerge in the course of daily and repeated use. Rather than merely the walk through the park introductions that are being given to young students therefore, perhaps there should be a focus on initiating these younger students into the cult of silent and patient pouring over the texts (now happily extended from print, into visual and audio-visual) that this institution holds. Indeed, in the long run, it is from the bowed and patient heads from inside the library that the most useful critiques of our new library building will emerge. From the moment, and from the outside, it appears that not enough is being done to encourage this aspect of the library’s objective. This objective can however, be achieved only through a more systematic, and long-term interaction between the Central Library and the various higher-secondary schools and colleges that send their students to the library. This objective will require the already pleasant staff, to develop other skills; and it will require the Central Library to develop nodes in other parts of the State, not limiting itself to the larger towns of the territory.

To focus on the technological additions to the Central Library, without appreciating its other assets would be to seriously miss the point of the new location to the institution. The new location of such a venerable institution offers Goan society a new start of sorts, a start which no doubt has its short-comings, but a start for which we should be grateful, and one we should seize to reimagine and rework our society. For those who were responsible for all of this till date, a big thank you.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 2 May 2012)