Friday, December 13, 2013

Why What Happens In Goa Matters

Much opinion has already been generated of Tarun Tejpal’s alleged attempt to rape his junior colleague, and no doubt much more will be written. In addition to these diverse positions, it appears that it may be possible to also use this incident to gauge the nature of the Indian nation-state and its relationship  with the peoples and territories that constitute  its national peripheries.

This gauging can begin from what many commentators have dismissed as a “passing” statement from Tejpal himself. In 2011, on the eve of ThinkFest’s first edition, Tejpal had suggested to early birds at the event's plush venue: "Now you are in Goa, drink as much as you want, eat... sleep with whoever you think of, but get ready to arrive early at the event as we have a packed house."

Then, as much as today, the intense responses to this statement from Goans were seen by Indian commentators as akin to making a mountain of a mole hill. To these media pundits Tejpal’s statement was merely an off-the-cuff remark that should not be taken too seriously. Indeed, some have gone as far as to say that it should still not be taken too seriously, and in any case does not compare in severity with the crime that Tejpal has been accused of.

This article does not attempt to equate these two incidents involving Tejpal, but it would like to suggest that the relationship between them is much deeper than these national commentators would allow for.

To begin with, the very fact that there is a disagreement over how to view this statement suggests the widely divergent perspectives of Goans and the Indian elites who frame national news. This dismissal of the Goan response also manifests another way in which ‘mainstream’ India sees Goans as simple, emotional and not given to balanced thought. Further, it demonstrates how local contexts are not given enough importance in the mainstream’s evaluation of things.

This occlusion is typical of the way in which Indian secular nationalism has been argued to operate. Secular nationalism has consistently sought to look at issues from a purportedly objective position. However, this position is marked by the privileged perspective and interests of a nationalist elite that is largely North Indian, upper-caste, Hindu and male. It is the common-sense of this group that largely determines what matters in the republic and what doesn't. Perspectives from the margins, whether it is the south of the country, non-upper caste, non-Hindu, female, or, simply, positions that do not fit into the national imagination of what is appropriately Indian, are routinely ignored. Thus, if Goan anger in 2011 was overlooked, it was because these commentators also view Goa as a place of fun and frolic, much like Tejpal.

If there was a reason why many Goans reacted at all it is because of the systemic manner in which their state has been treated as a pleasure periphery of the nation. California-based scholar Raghuraman Trichur has proposed that it is through tourism, rather than politics, that Goa has been incorporated into the Indian imagination.  This small state on the country's Western coast is indeed seen as part of its pleasure periphery , India’s very own piece of locally available Europe.

The roots of this image of Goa can be traced back to colonial times. One of the primary sentiments motivating the British Indian native elites’ demand for freedom was their failure to upgrade their status from imperial subjects to that of imperial citizens. The latter would have allowed them parity with the metropolitan British not only in British India, but across the breadth of the Empire where Indians were a critical part of the imperial machinery. At the root of their freedom struggle, therefore, was the pique at not being considered equal to whites.

Procuring Goa subsequent to Indian independence, and framing it as a piece of Europe, provided added consolation. This was where British Indians could enjoy the privileges of Europe as first class citizens and masters. The active participation of the Goan state and the tourism industry only aided in cementing this notion. In the process, Goa has frequently been the subject of marketing campaigns  suggesting it is on holiday 365 days  a year, promising nothing short of surf, sand, and sex.

In many ways Tejpal’s personal association with Goa demonstrates all that is wrong with India's relationship with this state.  

Tejpal's 2011 statement clearly demonstrates what he thought of Goa: a place where rules don't matter and one can behave as one wishes. It would not be amiss to suggest that there is a hint of that infamous American idiom, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. People who live in Goa will testify that all too often, the behaviour of tourists adheres to a similar belief. However, it is evident from the explosion of responses to the charge against Tejpal that this is not always true, that what happens in Goa, does not always stay in Goa.

And as if to prove he is not an exception but the rule, no sooner did the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) begin in Goa shortly after ThinkFest, that a festival official was charged with sexual harassment. In this particular incident, the official was accused by a female subordinate of suggesting that they could have drinks and then engage in “all other things (aur sab kuch)”. Where Indian culture is actively defined as a non-alcoholic one, arrival in Goa, with its more balanced response to the public and convivial consumption of alcohol, is seen as opening the doors for licence and licentiousness.

Another way in which Tejpal typifies the national elite’s colonial relationship with Goa is his ownership of a property in the village of Moira.

Those familiar with the Indian upper-middle classes will know that a second home in Goa is de rigueur. Ideally, it must be a building that goes under the erroneous name of a “Portuguese house”. That these properties are unlike anything in Portugal is hardly the point. Calling them Portuguese homes denies a unique Goan identity, and allows the Indian elites to produce the myth that they are in an Indian piece of Europe.

One way in which colonialism operates is to deny the local identity and assert only the national, while simultaneously exploiting the local for the benefits that it offers the colons. Possession of such homes mirrors the holiday-making of contemporary Northern Europeans, but also of English grandees from the nineteenth century. These grandees would own properties in southern Europe, host their friends , and use these locations to engage in romantic interludes and sexual practices that would have invited disapproval in their own countries.

Tejpal’s house in Goa fits neatly into this model, given that it is also rented out as a Portuguese villa when the Tejpals are away. It is not ironic that while this property is marketed as one offering a taste of the openness that marks Goan society, locals have criticised the Tejpals for erecting a 2-metre high boundary wall.

Once again, Tejpal's is not the only infraction; numerous similar properties violate the regulation capping the height of a boundary wall at 1.5 metres. What is striking is his response to a public statement that challenged his purported disregard of building regulations. After dismissing all the allegations as false, in a tone reminiscent of the white man’s burden, Tejpal suggested he was doing Goa a favour since “the house we bought was an old ruin in an inner village”.

The final nail in the coffin is how another one of Tejpal’s babies, ThinkFest, engages with Goa. This year, a number of local activists protested the event, drawing attention to the fact that the venue violated CRZ regulations, and that the event was supported by corporations that not only made their profits from mining but were known to have perpetrated significant human rights violations against indigenous groups that opposed them.

More horrifying are suggestions that the Tehelka editors procured financial support for ThinkFest by suppressing investigative reports on mining scams in Goa that would have implicated government officials. Most disturbing is that even as ThinkFest is held in Goa amidst dubious circumstances, it hardly engages with the locals. The passes for the event are priced beyond the reach of average middle class Goans, let alone those of lesser economic means. Once again, Goa is merely a location to be exploited for its scenic beauty, another spot that marks the exotic social calendar of the jet-set.

Debates in social media have charged that this focus on Goa as a space is meant to effectively turn the focus away from women and the alleged crime. A riposte to this would be to point out that rape, in addition to being about the violation of women’s bodies, is also about relations of power.

To limit the discussion that flows from Tejpal’s alleged actions to rape and women alone is to fall back into the trap of thinking along the agendas set by the national elite. As pointed out above, this is an elite that would prefer that we forget the particular and focus on apparently universal categories.

Looking at gender between the binaries of male and female alone is the very strategy through which the secular-liberal discourse ensures that the specificities of caste are forgotten, such that the rape of Dalit women and men by upper caste groups are often neatly left outside of national debates.

Focusing on location, as this article has attempted to do, seeks to situate the various kinds of locales within which women (and men) may be placed in a position where they are unable to refuse the sexual advances of those above them in social-political hierarchies. For example, does reducing the question in the present debate to just the aggrieved woman alone not deem irrelevant the harassment that all women in Goa, whether local or visiting, must face as a result of its construction as a lotus-eater’s paradise?

A focus on locale also allows us to see why certain kinds of behaviour are made to seem more acceptable in some locations, like hotels or tourist destinations, and not others. It could be argued then, that the scene for the crime that Tejpal has allegedly committed was set on the day his statement – which painted Goa as a place for sexual excess – was condoned by the national press. 

Furthermore, Tejpal’s initial response to the charge, where he smugly cast on himself the role of judge, can be read as an extension of the egotistical way in which the elite see themselves as entitled to bend regulations to their own advantage. The licence to bend rules seems to operate especially when these elites can justify their overall interventions in society as being in the public or national interest.

(A version of this post was first published online at on 4 Dec 2013)

Fandry: The work of Shakespeare in our times

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? 

Shylock (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1)

  Where generations of urban and upper-class/caste Indians have been able to appreciate the pain articulated by Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice, Fandry, the Marathi language film written and directed by Nagraj Manjule locates the sentiments of the grievously wronged Shylock within the setting of the Maharashtrian Deccan through the story of Jabya. Born into an untouchable caste, Jambavant (Jabya), demonstrates the universality of the human experience when he experiences a boyhood crush on his classmate Shalu. The problem, however, lies in the fact that not only does Shalu seem completely oblivious to Jabya’s feelings for her, but that this possibility does not even cross her mind since she belongs to the area’s dominant castes. What is heart-wrenching in this story is that Jabya recognises that the gulf between their social circumstances would play a role in Shalu refusing to consider his love for her, and yet, continues to hope against hope, that she will indeed fall in love with him. Given that there is no harm in seeking the aid of higher powers, Jabya is also engaged in a hunt for a black sparrow, since he has been convinced by his older friend, Chankya, played by Manjule, that sprinkling the ashes of this bird on the object of one’s affection will make ensure that they fall in love with their admirer.

There are a plethora of reasons why Fandry stands out as an exceptional film, the foremost of which is that it manages to turn our gaze on the ruthless operation of the caste system and the associated social structures by seducing us into following this universal story of first love, and empathising with Jabya’s situation. There is no preaching, no moralizing; Jabya’s story unfolds matter-of-factly, humorously even, with all the quotidian humiliation, and challenges that would face a young untouchable in any mofussil town or village. The film locates the school as the space for change, the space that will enable India to realise its republican dream and challenge the oppression of the caste system. It is the school that permits Shalu and Jabya to inhabit the same space and allow Jabya to be enamoured of his girl. It is also the fact of his going to school and being forced to interact with others as an equal that spurs Jabya to refuse to fulfil the traditional obligations of pig-catching that his caste, and his father (nicknamed Kachru, or rubbish, by the dominant castes of the village) in particular are forced to fulfil. Indeed, the film makes it quite obvious that if caste persists in India, it is not because it is a remnant of some ancient system, but because it is physically enforced by dominant castes across the country and acquiesced to by impoverished Dalits with no other option. Into this miserable reality, it is schooling that provides a possible way out.

It is not as if the school is without its problems. Jabya’s best fried Piraji is prevented from sitting next to an ‘upper’ caste boy because this boy pinches him. Jabya is similarly threatened, and humiliated, by an ‘upper’-caste classmate who sees Jabya’s interest in Shalu and makes it clear that this interest will not be tolerated. It is in fact this burden of curbing Jabya’s self-assertions that by this Patel boy that lays the ground for the dramatic conclusion of the film, when Jabya demands a revenge no different from that of Shylock.

This conclusion comes at the end of the capture of the village’s pig (Fandry) scavengers that Jabya’s family are required to engage in. After having captured the audience with the universality of the human experience it is this dramatic hunt that brings into sharp highlight the various institutions that operate against the Dalit. There is the humiliation of not merely individuals, but entire families as they are forced to do work that others consider degrading. Having engaged in such work for over a lifetime, individuals such as Kachru begin to lose their self-respect. It highlights the threat of rape by dominant caste men that continuously hangs over Dalit women. Most importantly, the film mocks the rituals of nationalism that rather than aiding the lives of Dalits, in fact add to their burdens.

Fandry is a marvellously thought-provoking film that must be seen, not merely for the manner in which it awakens the audience to the silent ways in which the caste system operates in this country, but for the manner in which it elegantly highlights the pain that results when we deny that the Jew and Dalit are as human as the European Christian and upper-caste Indian. 

(A version of this post was first published in on 13 Dec 2013)