Monday, 25 July 2011

REFLECTING IMAGES OF GOA

I had read Reflected on Water: Writings on Goa about a year ago and had completely forgotten about it. A few months back, Jerry Pinto, the Bombay-based journalist who has edited this book, came down to Goa for the Goa Book Club meet. This rekindled my interest in the book and I said to myself, I must read it again with greater scrutiny.
            The book contains essays, excerpts, short stories and poems of many personalities and on diverse topics that are related to Goa. Jerry Pinto says that the pieces in this book are like mirror images of each other; offering contrasting images which at times are true and sometimes are false. This book in a way gets us to rethink about the images and perceptions that are generated about Goa. Some of the pieces genuinely tried to look at Goa afresh, while others were seen entirely from racist and casteist frameworks.
             In At Donna Georgina’s, William Dalrymple describes a visit to a landowning, upper caste Catholic lady. He begins by skimming over the history of the Portuguese in Goa. One gets the impression that Dalrymple is subtly trying to poke fun at things Portuguese. Britain (England) has always assumed a superior status over Portugal for over many centuries. Why else would Dalrymple describe the portrait of a viceroy as “…he looks as if he is on his way out of a brothel,” as well as point out the “accent heavy with Southern European vowels”? Elsewhere, in this particular essay, Donna Georgina in response to Dalrymple’s remark about the liberation of Goa gets visibly miffed and says, “Did you say liberation? Botheration more like! (emphasis in the original)” and that Goa was invaded by the Indian army rather than liberated.
            Misunderstanding Goa is an excerpt taken from Prabhakar S. Angle’s Goa: Conceptsand Misconcepts. It is an attempt to do away with the many wrong ideas that got circulated in the media regarding Goa. Prabhakar Angle tries to say that Goa is a place that was devoid of any Portuguese influence. In an essay titled “Some Contrasting Visions of Luso-Tropicalism in India” [(1997) Lusotopie: 377-387], the noted Indo-Portuguese historian Teotonio R. de Souza has this to say about Angle’s Concepts and Misconcepts, “Obviously Prabhakar Angle is on a war-path against ‘lusotropicalism’ and exudes strong prejudices against the style of living and behaving of the Goan Christians. Such an attitude takes him to easy generalizations, and to close his eyes to obvious realities, even though they may affect only a minority of the Goan population, namely about 35% Goans who profess Christianity and had closer cultural-religious contact with the Portuguese… Angle and several others [like him] need to be understood as part of the cultural resistance against the disturbing effect of the Portuguese colonial and missionary policies, and as such they are not without foundation. But it would be ridiculous to close one’s eyes to the reality and refuse to admit that the Portuguese presence did not leave deep traces in India for good and for bad.” Angle’s bias is clearly visible when he wrongly spells Percival Noronha’s name as Perceval Narona (I wonder why it was not edited in this book).
            On p. 9 and p. 16, there is a quote which William Dalrymple attributes to Donna Georgina (p. 9) while Prabhakar Angle says that William Dalrymple is quoting Percival Noronha (p. 16). Who exactly said it? The extract From Goa and the Blue Mountains by the 19th century British traveler, Richard Burton is also a repetition of biases as his racist world-view is well known.
            The reader would find many articles or essays that reminisce (or rather is it Saudades?) about the “good old days”. Take for instance Laxmanrao Sardessai’s The Goan Bread Vendor. In this essay, Sardessai laments the extinction of the unddo (or oondo as the translator of this essay spells it) from Goa. The Konknni aphorism Te poder gele ani te undde-i… is frequently used. “Look at his bread – all the paos are the same colour and shape, like all citizens who are ‘equal’ in today’s democracy,” as he observes regarding today’s bread. What does a statement like this mean? Laxmanrao Sardessai is not wrong to lament the loss of a delicacy which as a child he cherished but should the poders (bakers) stay in the same economic position they were always in? Shouldn’t they and their children have a shot at a better life?
            Naresh Fernandes writes about his tedious and winding search of the elusive humerus of St. Francis Xavier in Macau in Tomb Raider: Looking for St. Francis Xavier. Naresh is an awesome writer and every time I read his work I say, “Damn, when will I write like him?” In this essay Naresh also discusses the problems of contemporary Christians in India, how they are perceived and after so many centuries of contact, is Christianity really foreign to India? Of course, the essay ends with Naresh finding the elusive humerus, although quite fortuitously. An interesting piece on tiatrs by Cynthia Gomes James and one on Konknni cinema by the late Andrew Greno Viegas is a must read.
            The celebrated George Menezes asks, Where has all the Culture Gone? George Menezes in his characteristic finesse gently pokes fun at the absence of basic etiquette in today’s Goa. The familiar theme of how good Goa was in the “good old days” and how it should never change resonates here.
Goa reflects in the myriad pieces of this collection. But which Goa are we talking about? Reading through this book, I couldn’t help but feel that the Goa in this book was not the Goa that I live in. Then again it might just be me. But exactly how far can this book lead us to a fresher and more nuanced perspective from the oft repeated epithets (or rather stereotypical clichés) like “Kashi of the South, Rome of the East and the Pearl of the Orient” is something that you should decide.

Name: Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa
Edited by: Jerry Pinto
Published by: Penguin, New Delhi
Year: 2006
ISBN: 978-0-14-310081-2

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 25, 2011)

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

THE DNA OF SLAVERY

There are only a handful of novels in English that have been written by Goans or persons of Goan origin/ancestry. Margaret Mascarenhas’ Skin is one of them. This novel was first published around 10 years ago by Penguin. For the last few years I have come across sporadic references on the internet forums regarding Margaret’s novel and I always nursed a desire to read it. Last year when Goa1556 took the opportunity to republish it, I was of course thankful –the book was finally in my hands!
            The protagonist of Margaret’s novel is Pagan – half American and half Goan, half white and half brown (the name stuck because her parents being liberal-minded did not baptize her and hence her grandmother in Goa considered her a pagan). A gruesome and horrifying experience as a war-reporter in Angola shakes Pagan’s mental health and she decides to find her roots after she nearly kills a man harassing his wife on a street in San Francisco. When Pagan reaches Goa, she finds her grandmother (an ogre of a matriarch in her younger days) on her death-bed. She fails to recognize her because Pagan’s skin has been tanned due to her stint in Angola. Throughout the novel, the skin or colour of the skin plays an important role. Skin, like its many colours, assumes the role of superiority when it is fair and that of servitude and hardship when it is dark or darker. And the skin also comes to represent the tension surrounding race and caste relations.
             Livia, her aunt starts narrating to Pagan her family history, “Before the Portuguese came, we were Kamats – Saraswat Brahmins who had migrated to Goa from northern India centuries earlier. One branch of the family converted to Catholicism in order to retain their land and assets… [the Saraswat Brahmins] were given high-level government and administrative posts.” Bernardo, the grandson of a wealthy merchant named Afonso Miranda, inherits all the property and by marrying a rich, young heiress, starts the lineage of the Miranda Flores’ – Pagan’s family. Bernardo thinks it fit to venture into slave-trade as, for him, trade in slaves was more profitable than trade in luxury rarities.
            However, the real story is different – one which differs from aunt Livia’s sanitized version and is told through Esperança – the descendant of slaves that were brought from Angola. Esperança narrates the torture and hardships that were inflicted upon her ancestors by Pagan’s family. Here’s an excerpt, “But it was the colonial edition of history, not the true story. The true story had been given to Esperança by her mother, who had received it from her mother, and so on.”
Just like the mitochondrial DNA, which we can only receive from our mothers, the stories or histories in Skin are relayed by women. (As an afterthought, how about calling this mitochondrial narration?). Women are at the center of this novel. Their longings and losses are skilfully portrayed. The men who genuinely love the women in this book die an untimely death and the ones who don’t, meet a ghastly end.
            The plot of Skin is multi-layered, a saga that spans many generations and centuries with the story moving from America to Africa to Goa and Daman. Written in prose that flows smoothly, this book also includes enlivening folk-tales of Angola. The use of myths and folk-lore seems out-of-place as some of the major twists in the plot are made to depend on magic and the supernatural. Margaret weaves a complex tale with characters trying to make peace with their past, their history.
            Since Margaret is a product of the Goan diaspora, in some pages of the book one finds her reminiscing about the natural beauty of Goa and commenting on the culture and politics of the land – sometimes expecting the natural surroundings of Goa to be preserved like in a museum, frozen in time and changeless, and at other times hitting the nail where it ought to be struck, “Our culture, thinks Pagan. Goa has been overrun by so many cultures, no one knows who they are anymore, much less what culture they belong to. The Goan Catholics are trying to be Hindus. The Goan Hindus are trying to be Maharashtrians. Only the tribals know who they are. But for how long?”
            Pagan’s search reveals to her, through the stories of her childhood - and those that are narrated by her aunt Livia and Esperança – that her blood is a mixture of Native Goan, Castillian (Spanish) and African genes. Pagan tries to come to terms with the atrocities that her ancestors heaped on the African slaves and their descendants while at the same time trying to cope with her own personal and psychological issues. The whole novel is about the journey that Pagan undertakes – physical, spiritual and intellectual – in tracing her roots and reconciling with the past.
            The artwork of the cover of the Goa1556 edition done by Ravi Kerkar and Crisologo Furtado is a visual treat. Margaret’s hope that future endeavours too would use local talent is also shared by me. Some faint writing is observed on the back cover and the spine.  What does it signify?
            What also interested me about this book is that when it was first published 10 years ago, the idea that many of us Goans have African genes or ancestry was something that would have been scoffed at. Margaret Mascarenhas has tried to include a neglected aspect of history through her writing, thereby opening our eyes to another side of our history.  One reason why Margaret’s book needs greater contemplation and readership.
 
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 19, 2011)
 

Thursday, 14 July 2011

A ‘SPECIAL’ JOURNEY FROM GOA TO GREECE


In the recently concluded XIII Special Olympics held in Athens, Greece, Quepem’s Jesus Rebello has not only made Goa proud but has also achieved laurels for his country. Jesus Rebello is the son of Annie and late Anthony Rebello. The feat of Jesus Rebello is very unique as he has won three medals – gold, silver and bronze – in badminton mixed-doubles, singles and doubles respectively. What it simply means is that Quepemkars now have an Olympian we all can be proud of.
            Jesus Rebello was felicitated by the people of Quepem on the 13th of July, 2011 in the Indoor Hall of the recently-inaugurated Quepem Sports Complex. Young and old gathered to celebrate not only the remarkable journey and achievement of the Olympian Jesus Rebello, but also the grit and determination of the woman – the mother of Jesus Rebello – who so steadfastly stood behind him. During the felicitation, Jesus’ mother was moved to tears. From Goa to Greece, her son had come a long way! 

Excerpt from the citation:
The motto of the XIII Special Olympics World Summer Games was I’m In! Through your glorious performance you have showed that if we remain ever focused an chase our dreams with all our hearts and minds – then all of us can be ‘In’ – ‘In the Limelight’, capable of scaling great heights and achieving the impossible.

The councilors, John Fernandes. APEI of Quepem Sports Complex and the MLA of Quepem constituency Chandrakant (Babu) Kavlekar along with Jesus Rebello (center).


Jesus Rebello waiting to be felicitated



















Along with his mother Annie, Jesus Rebello receiving a citation from Quepem MLA











The medals on display










Certificates and medals of Jesus Rebello on display



















All pictures (except the logo) by Dale Luis Menezes


(A version of this photo feature appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 15, 2011)

Monday, 11 July 2011

“WE HAVE NOT ABANDONED THE OLD CHURCH”



For many of us, the steep climb to the spring at Rivona and later the frolic at the spring itself has always been a memorable experience, prompting everyone to ‘chill-out’ time and again. But every time we may have made a trip there, a small church at the start of the climb to the spring may have gone unnoticed. Even if it was indeed noted, at best it was just a perfunctory glance which soon was forgotten. The church looks like a chapel owing to its size. A brief visit to this church first and conversing with the parish priest, two days later, revealed a great deal about the efforts of the villagers to preserve the church and also the problems they are facing at present.
            The Our Lady of Rosary Church was actually a chapel in the beginning. The Archdiocese Directory of Goa and Daman, 2006 informs us that, “The chapel of Rivona was built in 1890 and affiliated to the church of Tilamola [or Tilamol]. Rivona became a separate parish by the Provision of April 1, 1940. Since 1952 it has been entrusted to the pastoral care of the members of the Society of Pilar.” Years later when the congregation grew in number, the old church became inadequate. The present Our Lady of Rosary church, a kilometer or so away, was opened to the faithful in 1962.
             The old church fell to neglect. It was the desire of the parishioners to preserve it as many had intimate memories of the church. Many parishioners wanted to come and offer prayers as this was the place where they received their holy sacraments. Their efforts bore fruits and in 2008, the church was renovated. But will mere renovation guarantee that a church which is not frequently used not fall prey to neglect again?
The pulpit
            I put forth my fears before Fr. Aurelio Rodrigues. He assured me that once every week a mass is celebrated in the church and during the Lenten season, the cross which stands tall in the chancel area is taken in procession to the new church and later brought back to its original place. “We have not abandoned the old church,” Fr. Aurelio said.
            Although the efforts of the parishioners of Rivona are laudable and the small step that they have taken is definitely in the right direction, I do feel that there are many areas that still can be improved upon.
            A wooden balustrade in the unassuming church divides the chancel from the rest of the body. In front of the main wooden altar lies the cross – the one which is taken out in solemn procession every Lenten season. The efforts to restore the wooden altar must be commended. But many improvements could have been made over the simple varnish and paint job. Perhaps, the good offices of the Archbishop could step in and along with experts ensure that proper and scientific restoration of the wooden altar is done.
It is pertinent to note that the altar pieces in many of the Goan as well as Daman churches are not a cut-copy-paste affair from Europe; they have been enriched by native ingenuity and design and hence are very important entities of our history. Though neglected in the past, these altars have caught the attention of the scholars who now try to understand them in new and proper historical perspectives.
            The wooden pulpit has also undergone some form of restoration. But this has been haphazard. Whatever artwork existed has been painted over with a coat of pink distemper. The flooring of the church is well kept. A small porch at the entrance seems to be a later addition and looks shabby. Some parts of the façade too need to be repaired.
            While visiting the church, I was accompanied by my father and another fellow Quepemkar Ivor Gomes, whose innovative design to enlarge the nearby Quepem church was featured in Gomantak Times as one of the “10 Ideas That Rocked” Goa (GT: 28.12.2009). On our way back and over a cup of tea, we discussed the heritage potential of the small church owing to its proximity to the famous Rivona zhor (spring). It could well become a stopover that showcases the history and culture of Rivonkars.
When questioned, Fr. Aurelio Rodrigues mentioned that there was space crunch to build a compound wall around the church. But lack of space to build a compound wall should not – ideally – come in the way to give the church a facelift. Fr. Aurelio also cautioned, “The zhor is private property. Visitors dirty the place by littering. If this continues, the owner may one day restrict access to the spring.”
The architecture of churches in Goa does not in any way ape that of Portugal or Europe. It has emerged from the interaction of (to use a cliché) the East and the West. Native Goa and Europe and/or Middle East. Upon closer scrutiny, one finds in these churches a distinct expression of its own which can assist people to approach and interpret their own history and culture.
Fr. Aurelio Rodrigues
             While commending the efforts of the priests of Rivona as well as the lay parishioners for preserving their slice of history, it is my humble hope that wisdom be showered on all of us so that anachronistic ways of looking at architectural history may soon be history.

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 12, 2011)

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

HISTORY AND THE FISHMONGER’S SLAB




In a recent episode of the hit animation series The Simpsons, the doting Marge is shown as a college student (with her hair gracefully brushing her shoulders) coming out of a particularly enlightening history class. She runs to Homer and says, “Homie, did you know that history is written by the winners?” Homer Simpson, in his characteristic dim-witted behaviour guffaws and says, “But I thought it was written by the losers!” Jokes and puns aside, what do we understand by the term ‘history’?
For many of us, the most tiresome and tedious subject in school that needed to be studied was history. The chore of remembering each and every event chronologically as well as the dates (year or sometimes even the day!) was just too much of a burden, a drone of facts that needed to be digested, just like a bitter medicine. But such a sombre view of history, in my opinion, results from the misguided pedagogy of our educational system. History is much more vast and meaningful, too.
            E. H. Carr in his What is History? tries to explain the meaning of history, how a historian should, ideally conduct him/herself and how history ought to be. First published in the 1960s, this book is considered a classic and serves as a good guidebook to approach history. In short, Carr discusses the philosophy of history. Against the background of Carr’s book, I would also like to explore a few issues of teaching history in our schools.
            An essay by Gananath Obeyesekere in the Economic and Political Weekly a few months back pointed out that “…no one can be certain about what actually occurred in history and one must be satisfied with ‘reconstructing’ history from the bits and pieces of evidence that we possess. History is always a matter of interpretation and interpretation permits considerable leeway for disagreement.” Carr also makes a similar point, “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate [emphasis mine].” He states the example of Caesar crossing the Rubicon as constituting a historical fact. Many beasts of burden as well as people have also crossed the Rubicon which equally qualify as historical facts but are not considered by the historian as such.
            Carr says that, “The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.” The metaphor of the fish and the fishmonger should have no trouble in etching itself in the minds of Goans!
            To me, as a student of history, these abovementioned observations are basic. In schools (as well as in the universities) we are made to believe that whatever is in the textbooks is true. But since history is an interpretation there can be counter-arguments; are the students in a classroom encouraged to disagree and counter-argue? Without knowing what exactly is history, is it prudent to start learning history? Wouldn’t a parent be mortified and horrified if a child is taught how to solve quadratic equations without knowing the basic additions, subtractions, divisions and multiplications? And what would be the cognitive state of the child subjected to such misguided pedagogy?
            Importance of knowing the background of the historian is discussed by Carr. It is very important to know the biases of a historian as they would make him/her choose certain facts and discard the rest for historical interpretation. His/her analysis too would proceed in a way that supports his/her ideological leanings and biases (or “buzzing”). “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing,” Carr says.
            I do find the definition that Carr gives about history very holistic, “‘What is history?’ is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” In the Indian and Goan contexts, the colonial historiographies were replaced by Indian/Hindu nationalist historiographies; at the same time some scholars tried to move in a post-colonial direction while not falling in the traps of questionable triumphs of nationalism (a good example would be Teotonio R. de Souza’s Medieval Goa). We need to realize that history is not a static entity but a dynamic process shaped by the political climate and the problems existing at that point of time. A process that continues…
            History primarily depends on written sources. Carr criticizes the tendency of historians to believe whatever is in the written documents. “If you find it in the documents, it is so. But what, when we get down to it, do these documents – the decrees, the treatise, the rent-rolls, the blue books, the official correspondence, the private letters and diaries – tell us? No documents can tells us more than what the author of the document thought – what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to happen or would happen, or perhaps only what he wanted others to think he thought, or even only what he himself thought he thought.”
            Since history is essentially a tool for the elite and powerful to propagate their ideologies and since our educational system is hell-bent on teaching our kids history without actually teaching the meaning and methodology of history, I feel that it is unjust to teach history to young kid whose minds are very sensitive.  Perhaps, history can be introduced from class VIII onwards when a little more maturity is attained, with the first lesson being – you’ve guessed it! – What is history? In the previous classes, I feel, sociology can be introduced as, what it fundamentally teaches us is that, there are many ways of looking at the world and all have a legitimate right to do so. A mangled and biased understanding of history, who knows, may make one’s child into a venom spewing monster.
            Inasmuch as this book is a practical guide to a student of history and a brilliant critique of the various nuances and processes involved in the construction of history, I feel What is History? has the potential for augmenting a lay person’s understanding of the historical processes.


Name: What is History? (2nd Ed.)
Author: E. H. Carr
Year: 1980
Published by: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-14-013584-8

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 6, 2011)