Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Innocence and desire: Tourism and the continuing colonial project

A fortnight ago I had suggested an odious content to three posters that were used a year ago in a lottery competition in Portugal. Responding to this, two persons suggested that I was over-reading meaning into these posters. These individuals suggested that the persons who designed the posters and the ad campaign ‘were not that smart’ and that they were not drawing on nationalist and Lusotropicalist formula but international formula associated with tourism.

In response to this suggestion, my response was to acknowledge the possibility of over-reading on my part, but to also point out that tourism is not an innocent activity but one that is integrally tied to the colonial project. This column will elaborate on that argument.

Tourism is not an innocent activity. It is an activity that is firmly located within power relations. On the inter-personal level, it is one where the tourist is invariably economically superior to the host. On an international level there is invariably a power relation between the tourist who comes from the global North and travels to the global south. Travel for a long time was the privilege of the elite. In particular, within the international context, it was the privilege of the white elite. These folk traveled either to Southern Europe, namely Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece, whose people were deemed to largely be not-white. In these spaces they engaged in activities of leisure and pleasure-seeking. In this process, they created the image of the romantic and sexy Latin lover. These white folk, also traveled to Africa and Asia, where they ‘discovered’ strange lands and exotic peoples. The pleasure of sexual experimentation was not missing here either.

These images continue to populate the realms of tourist-speak today. Thus the largely white consumer is encouraged to come and ‘Discover India’. The colonial sub-text of the invitation is hardly hidden. India and a variety of countries in the global south are consistently marketed as ‘exotic’. And it is not some evil, neo-imperial foreign master who does this, but very often the neo-colonial national state that does so. Thus the Indian state, as the neo-colonial successor to the British-Raj, markets its own land and people for tourist consumption.

Tourism is not an innocent activity. It is an activity firmly located in the project of performing white-ness. Contrary to popular perception, white-ness is not only about skin colour. It is about social and geo-political location, it is about class, and it is about how one behaves and thinks. One can have ‘white trash’, only because skin colour does not make a person ‘white’. Social behaviour and culture does. Thus Southern Europeans were until recently not considered properly white. Thus many Indians, can and do attempt to pass off as white folk. In fact, tourism is one of the ways in which elite Indians attempt to produce their whiteness. To do so, they reproduce the activity of the white colonial masters. Thus if colonial whiteness was produced, among other things, by traveling to Southern Europe, then the elite Indian has holiday homes in Goa; her own piece of Southern Europe. That both Southern Europe and Goa have similar models of tourism – invasion by charter tourists from the European North, should indicate that there is more than just coincidence operating here.

Further more, travel continues to be a privilege of the elite, requiring not only surfeit of cash (or a favorable currency exchange rate) but also the ability to transcend geo-political boundaries that are selectively permeable. There is no denying that it is much easier for a poorer Briton to travel to India, than it is for a socially comparable Indian to travel to Britain. Leisure travel or tourism then, produces white-ness for larger groups of people, even as it creates black-ness for those who are unable to travel for leisure. It is no surprise then, that the advertising campaign that was referred to a fortnight ago held images of primitive ‘black’ people holding symbols of a ‘white’ culture, rather than some entirely different set of images.

To assert that tourism is not an innocent activity is not to assert that the project of tourism is animated by deliberate intention. It is for the large part not. These power-relations of race, class and power that mark national and international relations also mark tourism, and for the most part operate silently in the background. It is this silent operation that allows tourism to so innocently reproduce itself, and contribute to the fixing of peoples and locations in colonial imagery, even as sovereign colonial power has been replaced with sovereign national power.

As any initial student of economics will know, demand for a consumer product does not just emerge, but is cultivated in an individual. The seed of this desire is planted in our mind, it is watered and nourished and encouraged to grow so that we come to believe that some insatiable need in our life will be met by our consuming that product. The tourism industry operates similarly, it creates certain desires, or amplifies desires that lie in our subconscious. To do this, it draws, either consciously or unconsciously on ideas that already exist, or creates them afresh. Tourism sells to us our desire to be powerful and elite. It sells to us exotic dreams. Its allure lies not only in the possibility of sexual experimentation, but also in the knowledge that we are doing what Kings and adventurers, business tycoons and heroes did before us. It is for this reason that we should not really be surprised that tourism takes recourse to colonial imagery when selling us our tickets…

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 1 Dec 2010)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Drama around the NRP Sagres II : Attempting an inter-cultural dialogue

Last week this column tilted at the protests by the ‘freedom fighters’ and the ‘Hindu’ nationalists suggesting that they were contributing to the problem rather than resolving one, by creating an environment where dialogue was not possible. In the process however, the column also suggested that all was not well with some strands of contemporary Portuguese nationalist tropes that draw on colonial images and understandings. One of the arguments the column sought to make, was that both these nationalisms worked to support each other, and continue the post-colonial mess we find ourselves in.

However it is because we are inextricably twined together that dialogue is both necessary and the only option. Demonstrating perhaps the value of dialogue, the column generated a response from three Portuguese men, all of who have some sort of connection with, or interest in, India. Today’s column will extract portions of these responses from ‘the Portuguese’ and seek to dialogue with them, conceding some arguments, and disagreeing with others.

One of the respondents argued that “Saying there's a transfer of culture does not mean you don't recognize other peoples’ cultures. I suggest you read Fernão Mendes Pinto who in the XVI century spoke of the superiority of the Chinese over the Europeans! But you need a really very sharp anthropological look to recognize your cultural debt to the Bororo people... Even in India, tribals are seen as less civilized, aren’t they? I don’t agree, but that they are seen as such is a fact.”

The second of the respondents partially disagreed saying, “Good points, but not sure I share your conclusions towards the end. In any case, "a disco of fados, a Gallo de Barcelos, and scarves celebrating the Portuguese football team" are not "culture" (in general) but "a culture" (specific). And yes, I would say that, in comparison with other colonial encounters, the Portuguese was far more symmetric in terms of what you call mutual transfer/exchange of culture.”

The third of the respondents felt that “Jason falls into that common trap of academics: over-interpretation. The posters say nothing of what he reads there, they are not that smart. Their inspiration is not nationalistic tropes about civilizing missions, it is the internationalistic tropes about tour operating.”

To the first of the respondents, I would like to agree that the descriptions of Portuguese culture do not unilaterally deny the transfer of culture from the various parts of the world, and the former Portuguese territories to the Portuguese metropolis. On the contrary, there is a good amount of the mythology of the country that acknowledges and celebrates this mixture. However, we must acknowledge, if we are to challenge and move forward, that there is a dominant tendency, that seeing Portuguese culture as European, falls into the trap of acknowledging it as superior and having contributed more than it has received. As an illustration, but also to complicate the image and point out that it is not always an ‘us’ south Asians (colonized etc.) versus ‘them’ Portuguese (colonizers etc), contemplate the following anecdote, recounted by a Portuguese historian. He pointed to the historical works of Teotonio De Souza as significant to the intellectual world of the Indo-Portuguese. Too many of the rest he argued, were still using terribly antiquated notions. He pointed with some horror, to the works of a Portuguese historian of Goan origin who still used ideas like India being in a state of barbarity until the Europeans (namely the Portuguese) brought culture and Christianity!

Sticking with history, the first respondent should be reminded that merely because Fernão Mendes Pinto spoke of Chinese superiority, does not make him representative of Portuguese society for that time, nor for the same society in different other periods. Once again, this does not deny the capacity of the Portuguese to recognize superiority or merit in the Other. It merely affirms the fact that societies are polyphonic – they speak with many voices. The voice of Fernão Mendes Pinto was one of these voices, and possibly at times, a marginalized voice.

The more interesting observation of the second respondent was to repeat the Lusotropical illusions that the Portuguese colonizers were more symmetric in the exchange of culture. Lusotropicalism thrives on the idea of Portuguese colonialism being a good, equitable and gentle colonialism. A response to this idea would not be to counter Portuguese colonialism as bad, violent and inequitable, but point out that the reason we do not see British colonialism as symmetric, is because of the way the British colonial state represented its colonialism; as non-interfering in the cultures of others, and of not mixing racially with its subject populations. The transfer of culture is not a conscious choice, it occurs through unconscious actions in the daily lives of people. Where the colonial state was not around to bar such quotidian mixings, as very often the Portuguese state was unable or ideologically unwilling to do, one sees a greater amount of mixing. We have to bear in mind that we should not, as we often do, take the representations of the colonial British too seriously.

To finally address the last respondent; yes, it is possible that the last column was an over-interpretation. That possibility exists. But as with all columns, the point was not to establish an unassailable and definite truth, but to contemplate the possibility of the general points being argued. The posters of the Euromilhões lottery were merely an excuse. To however deny entirely the possibility of colonial stereotypes continuing to populate contemporary Portuguese imagination would be to affirm the possibility that colonial imagery still does play a role, and that the contemporary Portuguese are unwilling to talk about it. Furthermore, tourism is not an innocent bread-winning exercise. Tourism rests critically on colonial imagery, as well as colonial relations. One does not see mass-tourism from the global south to the global North. The touristic locations of the North are marketed differently from those of the South. Furthermore, as the subsequent column will go on to explain, the character of tourism in Goa, is not so distinct from that in Portugal.

To conclude, dialogue, as in the act of speaking to each other, may possibly help more than violent protests. Dialogue is not a one-way street, in pointing out possible problems with the Portuguese we open up the space for them to point out our own weaknesses. For example, as first respondent pointed out, don’t most Indians see the tribals of South Asia as less, or uncivilized? Do we not for this reason see our colonization of resources in their homelands as legitimate?

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 24 Nov 2010)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Drama around the NRP Sagres: Why Karmali cannot critique offensive Portuguese imagery

Whatever opinion one may hold about the ‘Hindu’ nationalists and the ‘freedom fighters’ in Goa, one has to give them credit for their predictability and constancy. You could be blissfully unaware of a cultural or other event in Goa, and thus loose out on an interesting experience were it not for the hullabaloo that our rightist friends faithfully create, and the media just as faithfully gives attention to.

The drama this time round is the docking of the Portuguese Naval ship NRP Sagres in Mormugão. Added to this, these Johnnies have decided to protest a film festival being conducted by the Instituto Camões, as well as demanded the renaming of streets that bear ‘Portuguese names’. Don’t forget opposing the name of Garcia da Orta for the Panjim Jardim Municipal.

There’s a funny thing about nationalism and nationalists; they need a sharply defined object around which they can mobilize, and in this case demonstrate. If they don’t find it, they will create it. In this sense, both Portuguese nationalism and the ‘Hindu’ nationalism in Goa work hand in hand and reinforce each other.

The ‘freedom fighters’ who constantly demonstrate the presence of Portuguese culture in Goa, should ideally think twice before they protest and look deep within themselves for the results of Portuguese colonialism. The food that even the most pious Goan Hindu eats is a result of the transcontinental mixing that occurred thanks to Portuguese supremacy in the waters of the Indian Ocean. Tomatoes, onions, maize, red chilies, potatoes, American spices. All of these were not part of the South Asian diet until enabled through the presence of Portuguese adventurers in South Asia. If we are to protest the presence of Portuguese culture, why not protest this in your very own kitchen?

Having pointed out this home-truth, I would like to rush to suggest that we should not now celebrate South-Asian cuisine as ‘a gift of the Portuguese’ as I sometimes polemically state. For this would play directly into the hands of Portuguese nationalism. We do not particularly want to encourage this nationalism either. Portuguese nationalism would like to have the Portuguese people believe that Portugal gifted culture to the parts of the world that encountered Portuguese sovereignty. This is an ancient trope, that even currently, some Portuguese have no problem renewing as they attempt to resolve their own identity issues. Take for example the advertisements that appeared in the city of Lisbon in connection with a promotion associated with the same NRP Sagres that is now in Goan waters. A lottery competition offered a trip on the Sagres as one of the prizes of the lottery. Among other images advertising this offer were those on three different posters. All three of these posters featured a black man, dressed in ‘tribal’ outfits – with grass skirt, feathers in the hair, war paint, and holding distinctive markers of Portugalia. These were a disco of fados, a Gallo de Barcelos, and scarves celebrating the Portuguese football team. Read within the context of Portuguese nationalist rhetoric, the message was clear. The ancestors of the western civilized Portuguese, gave culture to these savages. Buy the lottery ticket and gain a trip in the foot-steps of our noble ancestors round the world.

No one could deny that this suggestion is offensive. And there appears to have been a murmur of protest against these images within Portugal. But such disagreements could do with external support. These images continue to deny the possibility that the ‘transfer of culture’ was a two way street. That even the most ‘savage’ Africa contributed fundamentally to the making of Portuguese (both contemporary and colonial) culture; that the largest part of the culture transfer happened via unwitting colonial adventurers. Portuguese nationalism thus, suggests that there was a concrete, deliberate civilizing of the world that is largely a figment of a Portuguese nationalist imagination.

There is much that needs to be critiqued in Portuguese colonial and post-colonial imagery. But this will not happen via the histrionics of these ‘freedom fighters’. On the contrary, their violence threatens those groups in Goa that visibly bear the mark of the former Portuguese presence in Goa. Portuguese colonialism and its lingering impacts, like other impacts of other colonialisms, are best seen as a virus, inserting itself into ‘foreign’ bodies and then facilitating the creation of a new culture. Think of it in terms of the lacto-bacilli that enter milk to create yoghurt. The bacilli are so small as to not register their presence, and yet they work to catalyze a process, quite happy to remain unnamed. In keeping with the virus imagery for Portuguese colonialism, we must remember that the so-called Portuguese names, are in fact now the names of Goan persons. The ‘Portuguese’ names of these streets do not anymore honour forgotten metropolitan Portuguese persons. They affirm the domestic cultures of a part of Goan society.

The ‘nationalists’ who claim to protest colonial Portuguese violence also forget a crucial fact about Garcia da Orta. The name of Garcia da Orta, that they refuse for the Muncipal Garden in Panjim was in fact the name of one whose eternal rest was disturbed by the Inquisition. This man, who converted from Judaism to Catholicism to avoid persecution, had his bones exhumed and burned by the Inquisition. One would imagine that these protesters would show greater solidarity with the memory of this man.

The ‘nationalist’ threats of violence forces a good percentage of Goans to close ranks and deny the possibility of careful and thoughtful critique. It traps our relation with postcolonial Portugal into a tiresomely repetitive cycle. Thus what these ‘freedom fighters’ do, is to create, not only an exclusionary Indian nationalism, but also prop up an offensive Portuguese nationalism. As is evidenced by their refusal to honour the memory of Garcia da Orta, and their selective protesting of ‘Portuguese culture’, these Johnnies prefer ignorance to debate and discussion. There is a world awaiting critique and transformation, but this can happen only if we generate the internal environment to calmly reason things out. But then this does not seem to be what these ‘freedom fighters’ are fighting for.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dated 17 Nov 2010)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Between Lisbon and Panjim: Developments for a healthy city

Lisboacho ganv, khoxen anv poitelem

Poitoch Lisboa, viva re Goa, ghara yetelim

A week or so ago, Goan newspapers informed us of the visit of a high-level Portuguese delegation led by the ambassador of Portugal to India, Dr Luis Filipe de Castro Mendes to the Corporation of the City of Panjim. This delegation included the Consul General of Portugal to Goa, and the Director of international relations at the Camara Municipal de Lisboa and proposed signing of a tripartite memorandum of understanding between the Portuguese government, the Goa government and Fundação Oriente for the development of Panjim in vaious areas.

This occurrence is largely representative of good news. The news report suggested that Panjim’s Mayor, Ms. Po has asked for assistance of the Lisbon Municipal Council in areas like city’s internal public transportation and preservation of some heritage buildings in the city. All very good news, there is a need for us to deal with the mounting pressure of traffic in our little town, and nothing would be more sensible than introducing a decent public transportation system within the city; one that would link up efficiently with the public transport that connects other parts of the state to the town. Indeed, perhaps as in Lisbon, we could also work out a system where we have cycle lanes and pedestrian paths that would bring some measure of civility back to the streets of Panjim. Ms. Po suggested as much, when she specifically referred to trying to do something about Panjim’s footpaths. Given that Panjim’s topography is not uniformly level, it might not be a bad idea to introduce buses that allow cycles to be carried, either inside the bus, or outside of it.

Mr. Po seems to have other wonderful ideas as well, and this includes garbage management. For those who are as yet unaware, a good amount of Panjim’s garbage now finds its way to an abandoned quarry site on Taleigão plateau. The quarry is now almost full up to the brim, if not nearing its capacity. Getting an efficient waste management system would not be a bad idea. Except that we know that Goa’s waste management crisis is not the result of a lack of technology. It is the lack of political will; both at the level of the common person, as well as that of the administrative bodies. Nevertheless let us give credit where it is due and note that the initial efforts of such persons as Clinton Vaz, who initiated the system and idea of the segregation of waste is slowly gaining ground. When the Mayor of a city indicates the need for it, you know that we are headed somewhere. For this initiative, thank you Ms. Po, Clinton and the many other activists who were responsible for initiating the idea of waste separation as a solution to Goa’s garbage crisis.

There was a point though when the meeting between this ‘High level delegation’ and the City Corporation seemed to carry in it the seeds for urban disaster. The director of international relations at the Camara Municipal de Lisboa is reported to have indicated that “… we have even offered to extend help in building technical bridges like flyovers in Panaji.” Perhaps this is where we need to smile and get a grip on reality. Panjim is not Lisbon, and perhaps it will never be. Lisbon is the capital city of a country and hosts a population of about 564,402 people. Goa while a capital, caters to a much smaller region and a smaller population. There is no reason for us to assume a need for flyovers when we have not begun to contemplate effective mass transit options.

There was another issue that suggested a need for horrified reaction in the news report, and that was where Ms. Po observed that “the new generation families in the Portuguese capital are asked to construct their houses outside Lisbon, and as an incentive offered free transport to the city, besides their house tax and school fees of the children being borne by the municipality.”

Lisbon is a wonderful and charming city, and surely we should associate with it. However, not all is well with Lisbon. In fact one could go to the extent of suggesting that Lisbon and Goa suffer from similar ills. One significant problem that Lisbon suffers from is that the centre of the city is largely empty of residences and hence shut up. There is a flight from the charming centre of town, and a number of buildings are run down. One of the reasons for this flight and abandoning of buildings are the rental regulations that somehow stand in the way of urban renewal. The problem however is that when these buildings are renewed, they are priced out of the range of the lower to middle class populations. Richer Portuguese and foreigners on the other hand purchase these buildings as investments and holiday homes. (Does this story sound familiar yet?) There is a distinct process of gentrification on in Lisbon’s centre and this is not necessarily a good thing to happen. What is worse, is that the real estate lobby in Lisbon is no worse from that in Goa. There are hundreds of newly built residential buildings in greater Lisbon that are going empty. Some of them have been empty for years now. Thus one has a push out of the historic urban centre, but a greater destruction of the environment in the outlying areas, than there is demand for homes.

There is already a similar process of sorts at work in Goa. A greedy real estate lobby encouraging urban sprawl, and the conversion of Goan homes where real people live, into showcases for the lifestyles of the (largely non-Goan) rich and famous. City improvement does not mean getting people out of the city; it involves getting people to have a better experience in the heart of the city. Ms. Po has already got a part of the equation right, investment in heritage buildings, in public infrastructure like public transport and walkable footpaths. Having people within the city allows for us to have a public and civic life. Shunt people out to suburbs and the civic and public life manages to die.

While conversations and exchanges between Goa and Portugal are something that we should encourage, we should remember that we are not in the game of blindly copying. We need to take from Portugal what we need. Thanks to Portugal’s participation in the EU process, there are a number of participatory governance mechanisms that we could learn. Not least of which is the notion of a service state, where the State serves, if not services it citizens.

Let us a raise a cup to the possibility of a new venture then, and keep our fingers crossed for healthy developments! Or as the lyrics of Lorna’s Lisboa go…

Chintlelem chintop purem zalear puro re Deva

(Subsequent to the publication of this column, it was brought to my attention by a member of the Portuguese delegation that visited the Panjim City Corportation, that Ms. Judice, Director of international relations at the Camara Municipal de Lisboa had been misquoted in the article by the Navhind Times. She did not make any reference to the issue of 'flyovers', and secondly, given that there was no representative from construction and infrastructures integrated into that delegation, a proposal would make not have made any sense at that moment.)

(A version of this column was first published in the Gomantak Times dated 10 Nov 2010)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Resisting nationalism’s seduction: When a Goan boy in Australia is attacked

Last week this column discussed the manner in which nationalism highjacks humanist causes that rise above the petty and parochial politics of nationalism. Sometime between that column and this one, there was another incident that seemed custom-made for highjack by nationalism. Some of the many responses to the incident demonstrate however the manner in which we can respond to the human element by building larger solidarities and side-stepping the seduction of nationalism.

On October 18, two boys attacked a 12 year old school boy of Goan origin at their school in Melbourne, Australia. This boy was so brutally beaten up that he has reportedly had to have a titanium plate inserted under his eye, and may possibly loose sight in that eye. Some of the reporting on the incident sought to colour the incident as yet another racial attack on ‘Indians’ in the continent. However rather than go down that road, some of the responses to the incident have had a warm, familial, concerned response that seem better suited to the trauma that the family has been expressing.

Responding to the incident, a Goan resident in Goa felt that there was a need to reach out to the family, writing, ‘when a father feels that there is no future in remaining in Australia anymore (due to this incident), it becomes a defeat of the dreams one nursed for the future of his children having giving up everything one had in one's own land for a future for one's off-springs.’ This letter placed concern very appropriately in the interests of a family that had already possibly sacrificed much to get to Australia. To go down the ‘Indians being attacked’ road would have possibly gotten international and governmental attention, but would such concern for the individual family necessarily have received attention? More importantly, would it have received such fraternal solidarity from individuals, unrelated by blood?

At a more systemic level, where one needs to make sure that such incidents do not get repeated, other Goans pointed out that there are high levels of violence in some schools, and that these need to be tackled at the level of the school. These observations did not rule out that there is a possible racial element to the attack, but seemed to refuse to get trapped in the ‘racist attacks on Indians’ formula. It seems to have helped that this particular Goan was particularly critical of the failings within India. To raise slogans against Australia, he felt, would only be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Touché!

Yet another Goan pointed out that while he was raising the issue and not denying the possibility of a racist element to the attack, he also agreed that there needed to be a larger response to the incident. The Indian Government uses these incidents to boost its own international visibility, attempting to act like its role model, the U.S. State that reassures its citizens even when they are abroad. Rather than pull in the Indian state, perhaps one could reach out to existing organizations in Melbourne that seek to work against racial stereotyping and addressing the social problems that emerge in multi-racial and immigrant neighbourhoods like Noble Park where the school is located.

Speaking at the much maligned conference on Azaadi at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi a couple of days ago, Arundhati Roy made a powerful observation that we would do well to apply here. Kashmiri’s who want Azaadi for Kashmir, she said, would do well to forge solidarity with other movements for justice within India. Similarly, if we as Goans are concerned for the fate of this boy and his family’s continued residence in Australia, we would do well to work towards fostering bonds with groups that work on social harmony. The answer to the Indo-Pakistan conflict, some believe lies in person-to-person contact. There is no reason why we cannot manage such a contact, rather than engage in nationalist sloganeering.

Seeking alternatives to nationalism is imperative if we are to resolve a number of the problems we face. Very often nationalist thinking is so ingrained in our thoughts that we fail to see alternative ways of thinking. The responses to this Goan boy’s sad plight however shows the multiple levels at which we can respond to the issue.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 3 Nov 2010)