Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Muddling about in Mapusa: Why Mapusa deserves a second chance…

This column should have appeared on the 12th of May 2010, to accompany the bandh called by the Mapusa Merchants Association (MMA), and to show solidarity with their cause. Failing that however, this column may still have some purpose, to assert the legitimacy of the demand of the MMA and renew attention to the larger issues that the MMA was drawing attention to.

The MMA organized their bandh to protest the step-motherly treatment that they allege (and is evident for all to witness) has been meted out to the once proud market complex. The association of merchants made another important observation however when they argued that it was not just the treatment that was the problem, but the manner in which the ODP (Outline Development Plan) for the town had been created. The ODP proposes expanding roads around the market complex, in a manner that would demolish large sections of this complex. The roads are designed to provide access to the communidade fields beyond the market so as to open these up for development as locations for high-rise apartments.

Given this second threat to the market it is little wonder that the MMA extended its support to the protests of other citizen groups against the Mapusa ODP. Indeed, given the centrality of the weekly Friday market to Mapusa’s contemporary identity, it is significant that a challenge to the ODP has emerged from the merchants of the market. It is indicator to all of us that it is time Mapusa makes a determined departure from the future it seems to be hurtling toward.

There was a time when people from Panjim would sniff when referring to Mapusa. Mapusa was the provincial hick town when compared to its Mandovi-bank cousin. And yet, even today if one looks closely, there is an architectural charm to Mapusa that cries out for recognition. The entire area of Feira Baixa, Feira Alta present a veritable map of the kinds of architectural trends that have passed through Goa and this trading town. Where the harmony of these stylistic jostlings is interrupted is in the high rise buildings that have come up in the past half-decade. The harmony is disrupted not because they are contemporary buildings, but because these high-rise buildings are entirely out of scale with the buildings around them, sticking out, quite literally, like sore thumbs.

Another charming area, one that deserves to be preserved as a heritage space is the residential locality of Dattawadi. Nestled around the Datta temple, the charm and heritage value of this largely Hindu middle-class locality has been unfairly ignored for way too long. Ignore someone or something long enough and they will begin to believe their lack of value. This has been Mapusa’s unfortunate fate. The destruction of Mapusa’s architectural and urban heritage will however, be not just this town’s, but Goa’s at large.

There are a number within Goa’s tourist industry who are waking up to the fact that Goa’s tourism cannot be sustained merely by the beach-bums we have so far been catering to. We need to innovate and expand, even as the beach belt continues to be a major revenue earner. In such a context, the concerted preservation and subsequent utilization of Mapusa’s heritage potential could be the next logical and crucial step. Despite being the logical option to service the beach belt, and elaborate Goa’s tourist industry it is unfortunate that Mapusa’s role has been restricted to a largely utilitarian use.

There is a little lesson for us to be learned from the protest of the Mapusa Merchants, even though it may be an unintended one. Just a very small group stands to gain from the developmental pattern of the high-rise buildings. This group is those associated with the building lobby. As evidenced by the concerns of the MMA, this development pattern hits not just the common man, but even such comfortable groups such as the middle to upper class market merchants. Taking cue from the Mapusa market as a heritage building, we can begin to sense that building from heritage benefits a larger segment. Heritage is after all what everyone already has as capital, it requires only a supporting Governmental framework (like a decent urban plan and tourist industry support) and everyone can cash in on the golden goose. Looking at existing urban settlement patterns and structures as capital allows us to realize another lesson. To pull down priceless heritage buildings is a case of killing this golden goose. It also highlights the poverty of entrepreneurial imagination. But then this is perhaps why Mapusa has gone from a charming provincial town to a dusty trading town; a total lack of entrepreneurial imagination!

The real tragedy of Mapusa however, is that this apparent lack of entrepreneurial imagination is conveying the impression of an absolute lack of a middle class in the city. Where most heritage structures in Goa have been converted to cater to high-end or middle class consumption, the almost absolute lack of such structures in Mapusa seems to suggest the lack of such a class inhabiting the city. This assumption has serious consequences for Mapusa in that it could result in a total lack of any future investment, a flight of capital, eventually turning the town into a large slum catering primarily to the lower income classes. This is not a suggestion that heritage or urban infrastructure is or ought to be restricted to the upper classes, but merely a sad recognition of the manner in which our priorities (especially urban planning) seem to stand. Indeed, one way to display commitment to egalitarian development, and heritage together would be to use the now abandoned building formerly used by St. Anne’s convent as the new location for the Mapusa Municipal Reading room, converting it into a state-of-the-art library and resource centre.

There is a time and season for everything an old lyric tells us. And so it is that if there is a time and season for something in Mapusa, it is one for urban regeneration, based on a recognition of its heritage value. To do so will ensure not just more equitable development, but also rescue the town from the dark future it seems to have consigned itself to.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 30 June 2010)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Post-Colonial agenda for IFFI 2010: Pointing the significance and relevance of 2010 to a peoples’ history

A couple of days ago, Dr. Nandkumar Kamat, from the Goa University, made a rather interesting suggestion via email to the Chief Minister of Goa. Rather than be an occasion to mindlessly spend huge amounts of state revenue, he has suggested that the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), now held annually in Goa, be themed for the year 2010 to commemorate “Colonialism and peoples’ struggles / movements across the world”. To this already interesting proposition he adds one more laudable suggestion; rather than invite an actor or actress from Bombay, who as he says leave no ideas behind, why not invite Arundhati Roy to inaugurate the festival? Roy, he suggests, could also be asked to speak on “Colonialism down 500 years a topic which would be suitable considering the completion of 500 years of Goa's conquest by Afonso de Albuquerque, on 25th November 2010 and foundation of colonial rule in Asia”.

This is perhaps one of the more incredible suggestions that have been made regarding the IFFI and perhaps in the intellectual and cultural life of the State. Subsequent to his email to the Chief Minister Dr. Kamat has requested public support for this suggestion and it is incumbent on all of us to support this suggestion and ensure that it gets converted from an idea to solid fact. This column today, seeks to be not just a public show of support for Dr. Kamat’s stellar suggestion, but a request to all those who may read this column to send emails of support to the Chief Minister’s email id and ensure that the proposal is converted to reality.

There are a number of reasons why this proposal must be supported wholeheartedly.
The organization of recent IFFI has been disappointing to say the least. Rather than an occasion to reflect on the messages that film can and do generate, the focus seems to be on creating a hedonistic bubble where movie stars can be feted. Where a number of Goans believed that the arrival of IFFI would contribute to the intellectual and cultural life of ordinary Goans, we have been disappointed to see that rather that critical world cinema, it is Hindi potboilers that have been dished out to the Goan public as a part of the festival. To theme the IFFI in the manner Dr. Kamat suggests would perhaps reorient the Entertainment Society of Goa (ESG), the local organizers of the IFFI to ensure it contributes to an enhancing the referents for local cultural articulations.

But Dr. Kamat’s suggestion has value beyond the limited scope of a renewal of the possibilities of the IFFI. Some weeks ago a Coimbra based researcher remarked that there was an almost eerie silence, both in Portugal and in Goa as regards the fact that the year 2010 marks 500 years since the formal establishment of the Portuguese State in Goa. Kamat seems to underscore this fact and points that this event that inaugurated the long durée of colonialism in Asia deserves some reflection. Kamat’s suggestion is wonderfully nuanced in that is skips over the polemics that often govern this field to nudge us in the direction of recognizing that colonialism and the struggles that challenge it did not end with formal decolonization. The colonial relationship has been continued, if not renewed, under the aegis of the national states that were left behind by the colonial regimes. It is because these national states fail to mirror the desires of substantial sections of its people that popular movements of discontent plague these post-colonial states across the world. India is but one of those states.

Dr. Kamat further nuances our appreciation of the moment of 2010 and i
ts possible commemoration by pointing out the double significance of the year, a century since 1910 when formal citizenship rights were definitively extended and claimed by a wide variety of Goans. In doing so, he once more eases us out of nationalist jingoism, to make sure our focus is on the rights of peoples, rather than some nationalist one-upmanship. The point of the commemoration of 2010 is not about Portugal, or India, it is about focusing on the need for the recognition of the rights of people.

Dr. Kamat’s suggestion is rather daring in that it challenges both the Goan and Indian state to display its true commitment to democracy. By inviting Arundhati Roy he argues, ‘the government and state of Goa would be able to demonstrate that the most dissenting voice is given a public platform in this state and we're not a ‘failed democracy’. In so doing, Kamat rightly points out that democracy is sustained not by quinquennial elections, but in fact only by ‘our own willingness to welcome dissent and dissenters’.

As wonderful as his suggestion is however, it is possible that it has come a little too late in the day for the IFFI 2010. This should however not dampen our spirits. By a queer twist of history, the year 2010 melts into the year 2011, the latter marking fifty years of the end of the Portuguese State in India. If 1510 opened a new chapter in global history, and 1910 opened new possibilities for the Goan, then so did 1961. If we cannot get the IFFI to
focus on colonialism and peoples’ struggles in 2010, then 2011 would be just as well. If however the organizers of the IFFI refuse to comply, then there is nothing that should stop the people of Goa from organizing their own festival in which they could commemorate the dates that are significant not just to their own history, but the global history of colonialism and peoples’ rights. There is a precedent here in the actions of the Ganv Ghor Rakhon Manch who in 2008 organized parallel to the IFFI, the Goan Peoples’ Film Festival. Organized in a remarkably short time, the festival managed to attract some attention and international support. There is no reason why this story should not be repeated, with Arundhati in attendance, in 2010. One hopes however that the Goan government will take Dr. Kamat’s suggestion seriously. In doing so it would redress the unjustified silence in marking 2010, it would reorient the IFFI to make it more meaningful than just a bash for national and international film stars. In this latter aspect, this reorientation would only add to the prestige of the IFFI, and simultaneously enrich the cultural lives of the Goan people, which is the primary reason why some of us welcome the IFFI in Goa.

Thank you Dr. Kamat, and all power to your suggestion. As for you dear Reader, remember your emails to the Chief Minister!

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 23 June 2010)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Love, Sex, aur Dhokha: Sexual harassment on a bus journey between Mapusa and Panjim

Given that the past week or so in Goa has been of torrid sexual drama, it seemed appropriate that this column too jump into the fray. Most sexual stories get told from the male point of view, and this story will be no exception. Where this narration will differ however, is how this particular male gets treated. In this story, the narrator is victim, rather than the victor or voyeur.

My story begins onboard a Kadamba shuttle service between Mapusa and Panjim. Not left with much seating choice, I moved to the back of the bus where the 5 seater held three men. There was a young man in his mid-twenties on one side, a possible 10 – 12 grader boy dressed in shorts on the other. In the centre was a rather personable young man in his late twenties to early thirties. No sooner had I settled down, than he flashed me a charming smile, asking “newspaper?” Given that I was fortuitously carrying one in my bag I handed him the newspaper. He flashed me another broad grin while asking me where I was from; “Goa?” I rolled my eyes, and responded, rather aggressively, that I was from Goa “Why? Don’t I look Goan?”

Having thus beaten him to silence, I retreated into my own personal world as we bumped our way toward Panjim. A couple of seconds later he gamely slid away from me and slapped the seat space between the two of us. Since I had managed, in the process of seating myself, to get squashed between this charmer and the twenty-something young man, I thought that the ‘charmer’ was making more space for me. A few seconds later however, I realized that the charmer had slid over merely to create space for the huge bag that the boy, on the other side of the seat, was carrying on his lap. Trying to make the best of the situation, I decided a couple of minutes later to use the bag as an arm-rest. Imagine my horror when I saw, as I turned around, the use my newspaper was being put to! Our charmer has ensured that while his hand away from me was holding the newspaper, it was also resting on the bare thigh of the young boy. The other hand was using the newspaper to screen this circumstance from the rest of the bus should they choose to look back.

‘Ok buster’, I thought to myself narrowing my eyes ‘I know what you’re up to!’ The boy though seemed oblivious to the location of the Charmer’s hand and was babbling away breathlessly. Taking this for some kind of consent from the boy, I looked away and decided (I now think wrongly) to mind my own business. A couple of minutes later, the charmer was back by my side, another winning smile, returning my newspaper and making small talk. After some perfunctory small talk about the location of where one should store cell phones on one’s person, I dove into the newspaper shutting him out of my space.

Now you have to remember that all this while we continue to bump our way towards Panjim. In the course of this ride, as I struggle to keep my eyes on the newsprint, I am convinced that the charmer’s hand is grazing my wrist rather deliberately and insistently. Since I don’t want to jump to conclusions, I decide that it’s just a result of the journey and my now hyperactive imagination. This state of mind lasts until with the next bump when the charmer’s hand is lightly, but quite surely around my wrist!

“How does one respond to this situation”, I asked myself as I pretended to focus on the paper. First the whole situation is rather and obviously embarrassing, and secondly, while I didn’t appreciate the sexual attention, I didn’t want to be the guy who initiates a session of old-fashioned gay- bashing. Fortunately for me I managed resolved the situation by quickly and deftly lifting his hand off my wrist, placing it on the bag and continuing to read the paper. The charmer mumbled ‘I’m sorry’ (not that I believed he was) and I feigned a distracted nod indicating that it was nothing as I pretended to be immersed in the newspaper. We reached Panjim without further incident and none of those winning smiles from the charmer.

While the power dimensions between two men are somewhat different as that between a woman and a man, I was nevertheless able to estimate something of the position women are placed in when they encounter such unsolicited sexual advances. For starters, one asks oneself whether one has given any indication that we are open to these attentions. I knew enough in this case to say that indeed I did not. The second issue one has to deal with is how, does one fend this person off. Invariably in the case of men propositioning women, the issue is not really a desire for sexual relation as much as it is the desire for conquest. In societies like ours, where the ideal male is seen as a hunter, it is through conquest that the male becomes in fact a Man. For the woman to indicate displeasure, and not be backed up by a crowd therefore, is to perhaps invite renewed and redoubled advances. Like I indicated earlier, between men the power equation is rather different (though this really does not hold for the charmer’s interaction with the boy), but one is still placed in the delicate, and for most men unique, situation of having to resolve the issue. When the expected social role for men is to be the hunter, rather than the hunted, such unwelcome sexual advances are invariably responded to with violence. For the gender and politically sensitive however, this is not really an option. Such a route merely re-inscribes the dominant expectation of what it is to be a man, and perpetuates homophobia. To resolve this situation through public shaming without violence, is to court becoming the butt of public ridicule. After all it isn’t particularly manly to be seen as attractive to other men, even if you have not been sending out any signals. Besides, in using shame and not violence, one is not really using one’s male prerogative of violence, and displaying in this manner, one’s lack of masculinity and therefore culpability.

As the Pacheco story develops perhaps we will realize that there are deeper and more devious political games being played. However in the interim it would be worthwhile to contemplate the manner in which the sexual practices of our society, that is the manner in which sexuality, masculinity, femininity and power interact, are as responsible for this mess, as the personal actions of those involved.

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 16 June 2010)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Standing on the shoulders of giants: A chapter from ‘The Training Manual for Younger Activists’

I attended a couple of days ago, a meeting by a group of young activists, who like many of their compatriots were concerned about the state of Goa. The idea was, as with others, to save Goa from the fate that it seems determinedly headed toward. One of the highlights of this meeting were the sage words from one of these young activists; Goa was headed towards becoming another Bombay. It was going to become the base for big capital, and as with the old Bombay, the social groups who earlier constituted the space, would be forced to move out. This person was speaking in the context of the Bombay Goans and the East Indians, but he might as well have added the Parsis and other sundry groups that constituted the old Bombay. The new Bombay is a space for the national and international money bags, even as the city is awash with labouring groups from all over the subcontinent.

Despite the obvious enthusiasm to address the problem, and the willingness to form a group to address the problem, I came away from the meeting with a deep depression. The depression had something to do perhaps with the fact that these enthusiasts were ‘young activists’. The young is not a reference to their age. There were some older persons in the group. The young is a reference to their experience as activists. This was clearly, the first time that these folks were attempting to come out into the public sphere and assert their stake in the governance of the land. And yet, merely because we are young as activists, there is no need for us to reinvent the wheel, as I perceived was the case, and the problem, at that meeting.

The Goan public sphere is no stranger to activism. Right from the seventies Goa has seen persons emerge from out of the blue to take a stand in the way the state ought to be governed in the larger interests of its people and its environment. Some of these activists have gone down the political party route and are thus lost, in some measure, to the larger public cause. However, a good number of them have continued to remain in the popular space, outside of party politics and continue to raise their voices against the injustices in our land. One of these activists points out how in the seventies, when the first environmental protests were being raised in Goa, the Chief Minister of the time scoffed at them. ‘What environmentalists are you speaking about’, he is reported to have asked; ‘you can count them on the fingers of your hand’. What may have been true in the seventies, does not hold true today. Those seven voices today have grown into a voluble chorus, graced by a number of committed souls and fine minds with keen analysis.

In such a context then, younger activists have no reason to reinvent the wheel and contemplate how or where they ought to begin their fight to save Goa. Our first attempt ought to be to engage with these older activists. These activists represent a range of political positions and preferred and tested strategies allowing us to gain in this process of engagement, a political education and a choice as to our preferred route of engagement. This engagement would also allow us to plug into existing networks and causes, building on the foundations that have already been laid. Why start from scratch when there is already such a wealth of effort and energy at our disposal?

Goa is young as a democratic political society, and the qalb (the upheaval) that we witness today are signs of a population coming of age politically. We must remember that the Portuguese era was not so much a time of suppression by the Portuguese regime, as much as a time of suppression of the common man by local elites who collaborated with the Portuguese state. This domination has continued since ‘Liberation’, making some mockery of that term. What was missing was the presence of larger popular democratic institutions and the current tension in our society allows us the opportunity to create these. If this politically poised population is to mature therefore, what it requires is an investment in some kind of institutionalization. It is this institutionalization that still seems somewhat lacking in our state. This allows for younger activists to continue thrashing wildly while they seek to address the rot in the state.

Institutionalization does not however mean forming registered bodies or groups. It does not even mean taking the positions of all the existing and older activists as gospel truth. Institutionalization should mean merely the creation of a framework for a consultative process. A process through which we can gather, discuss, agree and disagree, and in the process sharpen our analysis and then be able to strengthen each other’s causes. If we can stand on the shoulders of giants, it should be possible for us to see beyond the dark that threatens our present and look into a promising distant future.

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 2 June 2010)

Konkani Only: And the options for polyphonic public debate

Standing up at the start of the open house of a panel discussion some weeks ago, the editor of a local language newspaper in Goa began a narrative that should be well-known to those familiar with Goan politics. ‘All you fancy cats speak in English’ he charged, ‘and as a result no one speaks in Konkani, and the common man who does not understand English is left out of these discussions’.

This Konkani position that we hear being articulated today stems from the ideological posture that Konkani is THE mother-tongue of all Goans. This position conflates being Goan with speaking Konkani, and this assertion is deeply troubling. It is troubling because it cuts out of the equation those groups living in Goa for whom Konkani is the language of commerce, that is to say, the language of the market, and not the language of the home. It also complicates the relationship of those people who continue to assert that their mother-tongue is Marathi even though they speak Konkani at home, and their earlier generations have always lived within the political boundaries of Goa. To assert that Konkani is equal to Goan-ness is to not respect the peculiarities that result in these situations. This is a deeply troubling position, since Konkani is but one of the legitimately Goan languages within which we can count Portuguese, English, Marathi, Hindustani; Gujarati even. Each of these languages holds a portion of Goan history and to erase these from the public sphere is to do injustice, not just to those who speak that language, but to Goan society itself, given that our history is intimately (if invisibly) tied to these languages.

This whole idea of a single language for communication stems from the now outdated notion of European nationalism. European powers before they began their overseas colonization began an internal colonization. This internal colonization involved the suppression of multiple identities and the cultivation of one language that was then labeled ‘mother tongue’. In truth, the idea of a ‘mother tongue’ does not fit the experience of most peoples across the world, including those in South Asia. They are able to easily converse in one or more tongue, switching between languages based on the context they are in. Rather than trying to impoverish our socio-political lives therefore by imposing uniformity, it would pay to cultivate plurality, especially with regard to languages.

One route toward cultivating plurality would be to gain some familiarity with the languages mentioned above. In South Asia, genuine illiteracy comes about when one is unfamiliar with the languages that are spoken around oneself. Thus it is incumbent on us that we at the very least understand these other languages. We may not be able to fluently express ourselves in these other languages, but if everyone is familiar with the other’s language, we would have made a move towards understanding each other. Can we therefore contemplate a situation where people speak in the language of their choice, are understood by their audience, who then respond in diverse and multiple languages? Can we contemplate a situation where in a public discussion A speaks in Marathi, B responds in Konkani and the whole discussion is moderated by C in English? This is not an unfathomable situation since this is a reality of life, in Goa at least. To allow for such a situation would be to allow the possibility for a richer discussion in our public sphere.

If there is a challenge to this situation coming into being, then it is the intolerant ideology that discussions must happen in one language alone, and to speak in the language other than the one dominating the discussion is shameful. To be fair, this shame is felt largely by those speaking a language other than English. There is without doubt a certain arrogance that the English speaker brings to the public sphere. However, most of the time the complaints that discussions are conducted primarily in English are made by those familiar with English, and speaking in English. The burden of creating this polyphonic public sphere therefore falls first on those Konkani activists capable of articulating in Konkani. To them the advice would be, speak in Konkani even if the debate is being conducted in English. While there is no obligation to speak in Konkani, there should be an obligation to at least understand Konkani, Marathi and Hindustani. Once the stalwarts of the Konkani language movement make this move to make public discussions in Konkani, one assumes that the common man, that these stalwarts are so concerned about, will themselves begin to speak and debate in their tongue of choice, regardless of whether the debate is in English or not.

It seems to me though, that the problem lies with these stalwarts, who need to display, in English language dominated settings that they are capable of speaking in English as well. In such a case, what are we to do?

(First published in the Gomantak Times 26 May 2010)