Thursday, January 21, 2016

You want a piece of this?

I was recently greeted at the airport in Dabolim by a most unpleasant advertisement. “It’s time to claim your piece of Goa” read a large poster for Goa Paradise, a project by the real-estate company Tata Housing. I saw the ad and was immediately consumed with rage.

Querying my outrage, some friends suggested that there was nothing to get so mad about. “Why are you offended?” asked one, “it’s an ad meant to sell properties that exist. I would not read much more into it. Locals sold, others developed, now agencies sell.” To make matters clear, the problem with the advertisement does not rest with “outsiders” purchasing property in Goa. The problem lies in the manner in which the property is being marketed and sold. It is the rhetoric through which the property is sold that goes on to subsequently problematize the purchasing of this property.

Postcolonial scholars have pointed out that the problems with European expansion was located in the act of claiming that agents of European crowns effected when they reached the shores of America, Africa, and Australia. The problem with these acts of claiming, such as the claiming of Australia for the Queen of England was that these lands were not terra nullius or no man’s land, but territories populated by numerous groups with their own laws, sensibilities. This claiming subsequent to conquest disregarded the claims of these people, and completed and continued the act of conquest. The word “claim” continues to have those connotations, and it is this effective call to an act of conquest that ensured that I found the ad offensive. While conquest may have been a part of the game in times past, it is definitely not so in today’s post-colonial world.  One is welcome to purchase property in Goa, but when this act of purchasing is converted into an act of claiming or conquest, and opens the path for the consequent disregard of the existing social fabric, it is transformed from a possibly quotidian act to one of colonial violence.

The violence of the advertisement was enhanced by presenting the apartments being sold as “a piece of Goa”. The phrase “a piece of this” is not without connotations. Advertisements work because they often tap into a deeper conscious or unconscious collective understanding. Indeed, another real-estate venture, Aldeia de Goa, seem to have attempted a similar reference to "a piece of this" with an ad line that ran along the lines "If you want a piece of Goa you should become a piece of Goa". The sexual desire for a person, when expressed as “I’d like a piece of him/her/that” is considered offensive and sexist. It is considered offensive because the phrasing transforms the individual, a subject deserving of dignity, into an object that has no feelings, and can be possessed, used, and disposed of. This understanding is also captured in the slang “You want a piece of me?” Often used to challenge an adversary, in this case, the challenger is affirming that s/he is not an object, and will not stand for such treatment. The Aldeia de Goa ad was saved from substantial critique only because it suggested that one had to become a part of Goa, a piece of it, and not merely purchase one's piece of the territory.

As scholars have pointed out, the act of claiming, or the act of any conquering power, is an act of patriarchal power. It sees territory as female, appropriate for exploring, dominating and consuming. It is, therefore, not surprising that Tata Housing clubbed the “claim” with “piece of”.

But Goa is emphatically not merely a piece of territory that can be claimed, or broken up into individual pieces. While an exotic destination for some, and alluring real estate location for others, it is also the home to hundreds of thousands of people. Having lived here for generations, they have evolved a certain lifestyle on the land. Purchasing property in Goa must mean creating an option to participate in this lifestyle, and in a way that is respectful of those for whom who live here. To set up the purchasing of property as an act of conquest that disregards the context in which this property is located, is an act of profound violence and disrespect to the persons who have lived here for generations, and for whom this is the only home they have.

Another response to my outrage over the ad argued; “When Goans ‘claim a piece’ in London or Swindon, Melbourne or Lisbon (including the official residence of PM) why should others not clam a ‘piece of Goa’?” This is a common counter to the concerns raised by Goans about the way their territory is rapidly changing. What needs to be underlined is that the relationship between purchasers of property in Goa, and average Goans is not one of equality. A good number of Goans cannot in fact purchase property in other locations where they migrate to work. Many Goans who travel to Swindon are most certainly not purchasing property there, but living in miserable conditions that approximate Dickensian descriptions of the labouring masses’ lodgings in Victorian England. Further, as migrants who move to other locations, they are not powerful actors engaged in conquest of these territories, but persons merely seeking a life that was denied to them in their natal territories. To equate the prospective purchaser of Goa Paradise with the migrant is an act of colonial violence perpetuated by local elites who have no reason to move from Goa, and see a possibility of integrating into the emerging socio-political order where Goa is seen as a location that can be conquered and dominated.

Further, thanks to the inflated prices caused by the big money chasing ‘their own piece’ of the place most ordinary Goans are in fact not able to purchase property in Goa too, nowadays. This is precisely the reason why the tribal activist Antonio Francisco Fernandes demanded that the government of Goa guarantee housing to all Goans from indigenous communities.

The advertisement of Tata Housing is sexist and profoundly offensive and it must be prevailed upon to withdraw this advertisement at the earliest.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 22 Jan 2016)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Journey to the heart of Bawa

Geoffrey Bawa was the name of a Sri Lankan architect who lived between 1919 and 2003 and was professionally active from about 1957. Even prior to his death, Bawa’s name had already been associated with the architectural style of tropical modernism. Some have described, Bawa’s tropical modernism as a fusion of “traditional” Sri Lankan and Colonial architecture, creating “reflecting pools, colonnaded passages and terra-cotta-tiled roofs—with the modernist emphasis of flowing spaces and clean lines”. What grabbed my attention about tropical modernism, however, was the manner in which modernist sensibilities, arguably first articulated in the global North, were moulded by Bawa to pay heed to the local climate. My own journey towards architectural appreciation emerged in the course of engaging with environmentalist politics, which stressed the idea of respecting nature, rather than working against it. It was not surprising, therefore, that Bawa’s reworking of modernism, that respected climatic context, commanded my attention and admiration completely.

Until recently my experience of Bawa’s work had been secondary, through the images of his works in books dedicated to his work. One should never really trust the camera, for it is capable of much deception. And yet, if this is the case with the camera’s treatment of Bawa’s works, such wonderful deception! The manner in which the verdant outside engages with the insides of buildings, the way in which light is controlled, and the way shadows so beloved of tropical denizens are cajoled into the buildings.

There were many reasons, besides my delight with the kind of magical spaces that he created, that made me identify with Bawa. Like myself, Bawa was first educated in the law, but on realising that the law as a professional practice did not appeal to him found his love elsewhere, in his case architecture. Like me, Bawa too had a thing for gardens, though unlike myself Bawa was able to indulge his fantasies in Lunuganga, a former rubber estate and create what has been called “one of the most important Asian gardens of the 20th C.”

And so it was that when I recently visited Sri Lanka I decided that a pilgrimage to Number 11, his home in Colombo was in order.

Located in the 33rd lane of Bagatelle Road, Number 11, Bawa’s home is open to the public everyday at appointed hours. Choosing the lone option on a Sunday, I arrived excited and hesitant. Hesitant because encounters with one’s heroes can sometimes be a deflating experience.

We were greeted at the door by a man dressed, as a number of Sinhalese seem to, all in white. One later learned that this man, who conducted the tour that day, had been Bawa’s man servant and was hence a long time resident of Number 11.

If the trip had been intended as a pilgrimage, the rules of the tour ensured that this sensation was heightened when just like Moses before the burning bush we were asked to take off our shoes in the entrance courtyard. “Take off your sandals,” he was told “for the place where you are standing is holy ground (Ex 3:5).” Subsequent to this preparatory gesture we were ushered in through the right into a space that had once operated as Bawa’s home office. There, in this antechamber to the temple of Bawa’s presence we were seated with other pilgrims. A hushed, expectant silence filed the room, people studiously devouring the flyer that had been handed out, or arrogant aesthetes brushing off possible engagement by averting their gaze.

After being treated to a brief bio-pic about the home, where the demeanour appropriate to the appreciation of the house was suggested, we were then processed through the home. As it turned out, Number 11 was not always a single home, rather the corridor that was now the spine of the house was earlier a little lane that linked 4 little houses. Starting with one bungalow, over time Bawa proceeded to buy up the other three eventually converting the public lane that connected these units into a private corridor between segments of the home. Like other parts of the home, the corridor, which opened to the outside world through courtyards open to the sky, is also decorated with objects that were either acquired by Bawa on travels abroad, or works of art crafted by artist friends.

In Indic ritual, worship is essentially the services offered to a king from the time s/he wakes up, until s/he is put to bed for the night. As such, the temple is in fact the home of the deity-king who lives out his/her life under the full gaze of the faithful. The sense of Bawa as deity was now heightened by the fact that when we reached the heart of Bawa’s living quarters the keeper of the temple announced “this was His bedroom.”

The living quarters form an inverted T, with the living room being the central portion of the T, the dining room on the left hand, and the bedroom on the right. As a result of the arrangement, the large bed dominates not just the bedroom, but asserts its presence in the dining room as well. One could well imagine a bed-bound Bawa presiding over soirees from his bedroom, like some Baroque-era potentate, or indeed, an Indic deity. Conversely, just as the doors to a temple’s sanctum can either welcome one in, or exclude one, here too one had the sense that the doors to this bedroom were in fact markers of privilege, now open as a concession to the tourist-pilgrim.

At the end of my pilgrimage I found myself a little disappointed. The thought struck me that the house of my hero was no different from the homes of rich Indians. I was expecting something more. The disappointment lingered until it struck me that one of the fonts of the aesthetic I was now attributing to rich Indians was the work of Bawa. I was, I realised, not merely in the Mecca of tropical modernism, but in fact at its Kaaba; the very heart of the faith.

This reference to the Kaaba is appropriate because my journey to Bawa’s home was not without some iconoclastic cleansing. While shuffling through of the home I was struck by a set of Chettinad columns that sit at the end of the central corridor. Rather than appreciate the beauty of these columns, however, I was struck by another thought. Given that I am employing a temple metaphor in describing the tour of Bawa’s home, a reference to the actions of Gangaikonda, or Rajendra Chola would not be out of place. The medieval Tamil king who gloried in the fact that he had extended his empire up to the Ganges, Rajendra Chola is known to have carted away idols from northern temples to serve as trophies of his conquest. While I am not suggesting that Bawa despoiled standing Chettinad mansions to furnish his home, the columns nevertheless operated as spolia, given that they were removed from their original context and re-purposed in Number 11. Spolia invariably operates to indicate the power of the current owner, and these columns reminded me that so much of Bawa’s work had been designed not for the common person, but for wealthy clients, fancy hotels, or the state. Consequently this forces the question of whether despite its engagement with nature tropical modernism has something to contribute to sustainable living, or is it merely an aesthetical justification for the otherwise rapacious lifestyles of contemporary elites? I had encountered this critique of Bawa’s work earlier, but encountering these columns grounded the critique in a substantial way.

A pilgrimage is not so much travel towards a destination, as it is a process that uses the destination towards reflection. As much as the visit to Number 11 ensured that the critiques of Bawa’s work were made more palpable, it also whetted my appetite to see more works by this man. As such, while a phase has ended, the pilgrimage itself continues.

(A version of this post was first published in the  The Goan on 17 Jan 2016)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Konkani Stalwarts and the Archdiocese

The hierarchy of the Archdiocese of Goa must not know what has hit it. While used to accolades from the leadership of the Nagari Konkani movement, more recently the same leadership has been subjecting the Archdiocese to the most vicious attacks. A month ago Naguesh Karmali made the bold suggestion that the Catholic Church in Goa was suppressing Indian culture in a manner that exceeded that of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Portuguese. Uday Bhembre has directed ire against the Catholic Church on other occasions. For his part, Raju Nayak, editor of the Marathi daily Lokmat, indicated that the Archbishop’s choice to address his guests at the Christmas reception in English rather than Konkani demonstrated a certain lack of Indian-ness of the Catholic Church in Goa.

In this column I would like to examine the manner in which Sandesh Prabhudesai, another Konkani stalwart, positions the Church in his book Clear Cut: Goa behind the Glamour (2014). Clear Cut is a collection of the op-eds Prabhudesai has written over a period of years. While the writing is uneven it nevertheless demonstrates the nature of his concerns, the most constant of which is securing a Goan identity through Konkani.

Reading Prabhudesai’s musings, one gets a sense of his opinion of the Catholic Church. Take, for example, the following sentence from the article ‘Medium of Destruction’ (p. 20), written originally on 29 March 2011. Not explicitly referring to the schools managed by the Archdiocese, he says that “the Konkani medium has been ‘exploited’ purely to get salary grants for the teachers and not to impart education in proper Konkani” (p. 21). Nonetheless, he admits in another article titled ‘What does Parrikar's MoI Policy Mean?’ (originally written in 2012 ) that “only Konkani medium schools run by the Church are shifting to English medium” (p. 35). What Prabhudesai seems to be suggesting, therefore, is that the Konkani medium was “exploited” by the Archdiocese way back in 1990, and that the Archdiocese had no inherent love for Konkani, but switched to Konkani only to financially sustain its schools. Incidentally, his suggestion is not very different from that of the opinion expressed by Raju Nayak in his recent editorial, who went so far as to suggest that the Archdiocese was in fact in favour of English right from the very beginning. Indeed, if one reads Clear Cut carefully, one is struck by the similarity between Nayak’s opinion and Prabhudesai’s as regards the Archdiocese’s relationship to Konkani.

What one gets from these writings, is of the Archdiocese as a manipulative institution. The idea of a manipulative Archdiocese is further elaborated in ‘What does Parrikar’s MoI Policy Mean?’ Here Prabhudesai writes: “As expected, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar followed the suit [sic] of  his predecessor Digambar Kamat and surrendered his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before the Church, to work out a ‘political’ solution to the long-pending controversy over Medium of Instruction (MoI).” The critical words to focus on here are “surrendered…before the Church”. There are a number of objectives that Prabhudesai seems to accomplish in this one phrase.

The first objective is that these words seem to suggest that the Archdiocese is an institution that can make or break governmental decisions whenever it wishes. To suggest that the Catholic Church is a major force in local politics is a common trope in Goan reportage. While it sometimes enjoys this power, this is not always the case. The fact is that the Catholic Church in Goa, just as in India, is in fact pinned, as it has been for some decades now, in the grip of Hindu majoritarian politics. All too often, as has been the case of the Archdiocese’s action in the post-colonial history of the Konkani language, the Archdiocese has gone out of its way, and in fact contrary to the wishes of many Catholics, to please the leaders of the Nagari Konkani establishment.

The second objective of the use of “surrender” seems to be Prabhudesai’s intention to shame the BJP into pursuing the anti-minority position that they are popularly identified with. Prabhudesai’s recourse to this strategy of shaming is particularly troublesome because it appears to insist that the BJP not respond pragmatically, but hold on, come hell or high water, to its ideological position. Using the metaphor of a war, tt seeks to provoke the rank and file to shame and anger so that they may prevail on their leadership.

Even more important, this phrase suggesting surrender seems to ignore the fact that the power-brokers of the Archdiocese are not acting on their own accord, but rather responding to the firm demands of hundreds, if not thousands of bahujan Catholics have indicated in no uncertain terms that they wish to have their children educated in English, not the brahmanised Nagari Konkani invented early in the twentieth century. Left to themselves, I have no doubt that the brahamnical leadership of the Archdiocese would have continued to pander to their brahmin cousins in the Nagari leadership. If Parrikar were surrendering, therefore, he would have been surrendering before the wishes of citizens represented in this case by the Archdiocese. No shame in this.  Once again, this denial that the Diocesan leadership is in fact acting in line with the desires of large sections of the laity, is a line taken more recently by Nayak.

It should be observed that I am not engaging in a blanket defence of the actions of the Archdiocesan leadership. There is much evidence to suggest that all is not well in many cases of the sale of church properties. Even if made in good faith, the fact is that various groups within the Church in Goa do not see eye to eye on the issue of the sale of properties. What is interesting, however, is that Prabhudesai, in particular, does not seem to problematize this democracy deficit in operation of the Archdiocese. His single point of critique is limited to his understanding of the Konkani issue.

In a recent op-ed taking issue with Nayak’s editorial, Kaustubh Naik suggests that Nayak’s stance denies “the minorities the agency to make their own life choices”. Naik is spot on in this analysis. In portraying the Church as a manipulative and dictatorial institution, and seeking to shame Parrikar for negotiating with the Archdiocese, what Prabhudesai appears to do is to prevent Catholic groups in Goa from using the Archdiocese as one more representational body to get their legitimate rights recognized by the government. Indeed, the thought of shame gains traction only if there is the suggestion that the Church or Archdiocese has no legitimacy being an actor, or representing Goan Catholics, in Goan politics. As the recent shenanigans of the BBSM demonstrates, politics is not determined solely by the ballot. In such a circumstance, there is no harm in the Goan Catholics utilising the structures of the Archdiocese to organise and articulate their demands. In denying them this choice, Prabhudesai denies political agency, or choice, to the Catholic communities in Goa, forcing them into a field that is dominated entirely by apparently secular liberal, or soft Hindutva rhetoric and politics; a politics that Sandesh Prabhudesai seems to subscribe to.

(A version of this post was first published in the OHeraldo on 8 Jan 210)