Thursday, 23 February 2012

SHANTIES AND THE CITY


The sprouting of slums is concomitant with the development of small and big cities. The slums are appalling and they stand as a sore thumb on the seemingly beautiful, developed landscape of our cities: the glass and sparkling steel against a clear blue sky. We extrapolate the degree of development and progress from the height of the skyscrapers and other markers of wealth and prosperity are the basis for our claims of a progressive and happy nation. But in all of these eulogistic discourses of how India is progressing, we overlook (or give superficial attention to) the millions of poor in the rural hinterlands and the slums of the city.
            Delia Maria Knaebel, the Pune-based researcher and activist who has some roots in Goa, is the author of a self-published book – a novel to be precise – set in Chavanagar, a slum in Pune. Delia personally handed me a copy of her book when I met her a few months ago in Pune and also confided in me that the book was primarily published to help other social workers and NGOs working to alleviate the problems of the slum dwellers, particularly the issues concerning women. In the foreword of her novel Delia says, “This novel depicts what it was in the India of 80s and 90s for a woman living in an urban slum. This is told through the story of Lata, a woman who faces multiple oppressions; poverty, handicap, caste, colour prejudice and discrimination, both domestic and in the working (sic) place. There are thousands of such women in the country whose stories are similar but have not been written.”
            Many of the women of Chavanagar work as domestic help in middle-class flats/bungalows where the mistresses are very exploitative and unyielding. “In many ways the middle classes were more communal minded than the poor, though many labeled them backward as (sic) narrow-minded,” Delia informs when she talks about the encounters of slum women with middle class women. Along with the main characters – Lata and Tara – this novel also tries to weave the stories of other women whose lives cross paths with the central characters.
There is a genuine concern that Delia has for the slum dwelling women and certainly, her voice is valuable. However, this is Delia’s first book and that too self-published and hence in the writing and presentation this book does reflect a certain rawness.
           Though it is claimed that Lata is the protagonist of the novel, her role is just marginal in the novel. Lata, the protagonist and her sympathetic middle-class friend, Tara themselves flit in and out of the book. Tara and Lata take an active part in an NGO working for the slum-dwelling women but we are not told anything about Tara’s background and the reasons that move her to sympathy for the slum dwelling women. In trying to pack as many stories of slum women in the book, the central plot and the flow of narration is lost.
However, if one considers just the story of Lata in isolation, then Delia has done a very good job of crafting this character for there is nothing amiss in her prose. Delia had great scope to develop her characters in greater detail so that the finer subtleties and nuances of what it means to be a low caste slum dweller (and particularly a woman) would be clearer and would also act as a terse political statement against elitist mentalities. Though the point that Delia tries to make is a very valid one and most welcome in terms of the politics of gender, caste and class one cannot help but notice that this point tends to be lost in the pages of the book.
Delia prefers to identify her slum dwelling women as “working class women”. In India, more than our class we are stratified in caste which has a direct bearing on whether we are going to enjoy better life chances or not. My disagreement here is that if a woman is financially and sexually exploited, it is not just because of her position as a woman but a large measure of her oppression would/could result from her caste position. The same happens when the slum-dwelling, low-caste women encounter middle-class women who belong to a particular caste (arguably upper) and who bicker and bargain for every paisa and benefit that the domestic help from the slum ask from their employers.
         The reason why caste needs to be included in the discourse of such subalterns as Delia’s slum-dwelling women who are trapped in a world of poverty, abusive and drunken husbands and exploitative in-laws along with class is because caste is not theorized enough. Bharat Patankar writing for Kafila.org (Caste and Exploitation in Indian History translated by Gail Omvedt) says, “Class has beentheorized extensively in terms of exploitation; to some extent gender also, butnot caste. Exploitation as (sic)women in various forms has also been a reality for thousands of years; thisalso is not through ‘class’. This reality from throughout the world gives ablow to the idea that exploitation can only be class exploitation.”
Rather than a novel Delia could have presented her stories as an anthology of short-stories celebrating the resolute spirit of women oppressed due to financial, sexual and caste exploitation. And before I end, I would like to reiterate something that I have said in the past elsewhere. It is not easy to self-publish a book. My heart and thoughts go out to people like Delia who are engaged in such enterprises. 

The River Weeps: Life and Sexuality in a City Slum by Delia Maria Knaebel (Pune: Self Published), 2011; pp. 153, Rs. 99 [ISBN: 978-81-8465-344-1]
e-mail: shalom2000@rediffmail.com

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: February 24, 2012)

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

AN INTERVIEW WITH BERNADETTE D’SOUZA, New Orleans’ First Family Court Judge

“My client was gunned down by her husband in my presence after a court proceeding.  I truly believe that God had spared my life and so I became purpose driven to make a difference in the lives of the victims and their children.”
Bernadette D’Souza, originally hailing from Vhoddlem Bhatt, Quepem, Goa, has created waves in the American as well as the Indian press for being elected for the New Orleans’ first Family Court judgeship in the first week of February. Fondly known as “Busha” to her relatives in Quepem, Bernadette D’Souza won the elections when two of her rivals, Kris Kiefer and Janet Ahern dropped out of the race. In her victory statement D’Souza says, “I thank all the members of our community, who have entrusted me with this historic opportunity to shape the role of this new Family Court in our judicial system, including my worthy opponents, Attorneys Janet Ahern and Kris Kiefer, who have allowed me to begin the important work of this court immediately by withdrawing from this race. I want everyone to know how seriously I take that responsibility. I pledge to make you proud of my service as your first Family Court Judge.”
Recipient of numerous awards and honours, D’Souza is a graduate of the Bombay University and Tulane University Law School in New Orleans.  She moved to the U.S. in 1978 and joins the ranks of Keith Vaz, Bobby Jindal, Sunita Williams etc. who have made it big in the West.  
In a very personal and frank chat Bernadette D’Souza talks about her ambitions, childhood, Bombay and Quepem – her home during her childhood years.

Tell us about your childhood in Quepem, Goa and also about your father Tony Gomes, who was a renowned musician of yesteryears.
I was born in Goa to loving parents Anthony (Tony) and Esmeralda Gomes. I have fond memories of my childhood in Quepem. Every summer holidays in May, we would visit with our grandparents, Joao and Anamaria Gomes. We had a fun time visiting with relatives. My parents often entertained friends and relatives in our home. The feast days were special.  There was so much excitement around the house.  To raise funds for a worthy cause, my father arranged for a New Year’s Eve dance in the Quepem Municipal Garden.  I remember going to see him perform.  It was well-attended and the people of Quepem appreciated his kindness.  It was such a proud moment for me as his daughter. My father never hesitated to give a helping hand to those in need.
My father was a well renowned musician in Bollywood.  My early childhood was spent in Mumbai because of my father’s employment.  He was the primary influence in my life and was my role model.  He would take me to the film recording studios, where I watched him play his guitar.  Many of my leadership traits were taken from the examples of my father.  He was the first Indian musician to introduce the electric guitar in Hindi movies. I remember being introduced to the music directors and other musicians that he worked with, and was in awe of his greatness.  His untimely death left a sudden void in my life and compelled me to carry on his message of striving to achieve my full potential.  His outstanding legacy will always be a part of my life.

As a Catholic girl from Goa, how was it like for you growing up in Bombay? 
We lived in an area that was predominantly Goan Catholics.  I attended a nearby Catholic school in my early years. As the oldest child of 8 children, my father wanted me to have a good education and sent me to a convent boarding school in Siolim, Goa. My father always emphasized on how important an education was and had great expectations of me.  I thrived while there and was the head girl of my class. I came back to Bombay to attend college and graduated from the University of Bombay with a degree in Psychology (with Honors).
With husband Dr. Terence D'Souza

You moved to the U.S. in 1978. Was it primarily because of academic reasons or were there any other reasons?
I came to the United States in 1978, as a young bride having married my husband, Dr. Terence D’Souza of Cuncolim, Goa.  He came to the US to do a medical residency in Neurology.  I chose to stay home and raise our 3 wonderful children, Lloyd, Vanessa and Christine.  When our youngest entered kindergarten, I decided to go back to school and was admitted to Tulane University Law School in New Orleans.  I graduated in 1992 with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. In 2002, I was appointed as an adjunct professor to teach a course at Tulane Law School.

How was your initial experience in the U.S.? Did you encounter racial discrimination?
My initial experience in the U.S. was a lot easier.  Both my husband and I adapted very easily to the culture of New Orleans.  New Orleans is a great city and the people are welcoming and hospitable.  New Orleans is a city very much like the cities in Goa, with Spanish and French influences.  It is predominantly Catholic with lots of old churches.  We quickly made friends and became a part of the community that we live in.  We did not experience any racial discrimination. Our accomplishments as a physician and a lawyer helped break any cultural barriers.

What motivates you in taking up public service?
As a public interest lawyer, I worked at a non-profit law firm and represented the indigent population of our city.  People who could not afford a lawyer obtained free legal services. I was the managing attorney of the family law and domestic violence unit.  Representing the poor of our city gave me an understanding of the need to offer myself for public service.
With Chief Justice Caloger and Louisiana State Bar Association President Guy de Laup after receiving the Career Public Interest Award in 2008

Why is the issue of domestic violence so close to your heart?
In 2000 I was the board president of the Young Christian Women’s Association (YWCA). The YWCA had the premier battered women’s program in the city.  The incidents of domestic violence were growing.  I saw a need for representation of victims of domestic violence and through my law firm applied for funding to the Department of Justice to represent the victims in civil court.  I established the unit at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and began my work. The issue of domestic violence is so close to my heart because of an incident that occurred outside the courthouse.  My client was gunned down by her husband in my presence after a court proceeding.  I truly believe that God had spared my life and so I became purpose driven to make a difference in the lives of the victims and their children. 

Having being brought up as a Catholic Goan girl, to what extent did it influence your personality and outlook on life?
I attended a Catholic boarding school in Siolim, Goa where the emphasis was on education and leadership. The nuns in the boarding school also instilled in me a strong desire to help the needy. “To those whom much is given, much is expected,” is a quote from John F. Kennedy.  I have continued to be involved in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, having served as a pastoral council member in my parish.  I also serve as a lector and Eucharistic minister. 
With her entire family

Can share with our readers some interesting anecdotes or incidents that you experienced in the process of your amalgamation in American society, in the sense of being accepted in America?
My career path in public interest law has been a gratifying and rewarding experience.  I thank God, my wonderful husband and children, who have been my source of strength and grace that has enabled me to continue the work I do for my community. I have been honored by the community in New Orleans having received numerous awards and recognitions, and most recently honored as the 2011 Women of the Year by City Business, a local newspaper.  The American society recognizes success and excellence, and acceptance has not been a problem.  In addition my children have also been finding success in their own careers.  My son Lloyd is a writer director in Hollywood, my daughter Vanessa (Michael DePetrillo) is a Patent Attorney in New Orleans and my daughter Christine is Director of International Sales and Acquisitions at Preferred Content in Los Angeles.  We are proud grandparents of Aidan Michael DePetrillo.

Email: bdsouza54@gmail.com
            Web: www.bernadettedsouza.com

(A version of this interview appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: February 15, 2012)

For the Konknni translation see here.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

WHITEWASH, RED STONE AND THE JESUIT HERITAGE

The Society of Jesus has come a long way from the time the first Jesuit missionary had landed on the shores of Goa. Taking an initiative into scholarly work, the Jesuits, right from the start have actively compiled dictionaries/grammars for Konknni as well as other languages. Involving themselves actively in the spread of Christianity, among other things, required the construction of churches and chapels. A new book on the Jesuit-built churches in Goa (thank you, Francisco “Xik” Dias of Dramapur for gifting me your copy!) gives one the impression that throughout the five centuries that the order has been here, the Jesuits have been as busy as the bees.
            Most of the magnificent churches – the brilliant white façade against a lush green background – that we are so used to in any Goan landscape and which we believe to be our cultural heritage, were built by the Jesuits. One of the simplest ways to recognize a church built by the Jesuits is to spot the insignia, IHS, which is displayed in a very prominent place in the church. Listed in this book are nearly 80 churches (and some chapels too) that were built by the Jesuits. Jesuit Heritage in Goa by Savio Rodrigues SJ is a coffee-table book with photographs by Rinald D’Souza SJ and Shannon Pereira SJ.
This book is dedicated to Fr. Moreno de Souza who had immersed himself in researching about Goan churches and whose four volumes in Konknni (Bardezcheo, Saxtticheo (2 Vols.) and Tiswaddecheo Igorzo) are a testament to his scholarly work. In his dedication Savio Rodrigues says, “Fr. Moreno could not wait to see the publication of this book, which has now seen the light of the day, thanks to the insights he shared with us. We gratefully acknowledge his willingness to accompany us on a tour of the churches of Ilhas, just three months before God called him to Himself. His long hours of research, revealing interviews, and finally his books on the churches in Goa have contributed immensely to the publication of this book.”
            This book briefly tries to acquaint the reader with each of the churches that the Jesuits built using history (not exactly the hardcore one), anecdotes and traditional lore. The pages of this book are full of photographs and anybody who needs quick and concise information about a particular church can profitably refer to this book. Though informative, the prose sometimes lacks the delightfulness of a coffee-table book. More revisions could have been certainly welcome. Interesting traditions associated with a particular church could have been woven in the text to make the overall prose more delightful. One just needs to browse through a Mario Cabral e Sa authored coffee-table book on Goa to understand what I am talking about.
             The layout and printing of this book is neatly and artistically done. I must give it to the two photographers who provided the images for this book. There are some stunning pictures in this book and credit should be given to Rinald and Shannon for their dedicated effort. But some of the photos did not capture the beauty and detail of the churches. Like the photos of the detail of the façade of the College of St. Paul bearing the Jesuit monogram (p. 17) and the sanctuary of the Church of Our Lady of Hope (p. 119).
            This book did raise a question in my mind: why did the Jesuits of today feel the need to publish a book about their own heritage? The answer is that, maybe, they want to reclaim their heritage and remind us of their legacy. Due to the Pombaline reforms the Jesuits, along with other religious orders, were driven out of Goa. The Jesuits were the most affected because they possessed enormous amount of property and, as this book has shown, some of the biggest churches were built by them. Though they have lost control over their material property, their intellectual heritage and legacy cannot be forgotten. Perhaps, the Jesuits are trying to assert this point. “Suppressed and expelled centuries ago, some Jesuit legacies refuse to remain repressed. They remain alive in the people. Probably prior to the rock-strong foundations of stone, the Jesuits first built faith-foundations among the people themselves,” Savio Rodrigues says in the opening few lines on the Colva Church.
             One of the most interesting vignettes in this book is the one on the Ponte de Linhares, the bridge that connects Panjim to Ribandar. This is a Jesuit contribution to a secular building. “The Ponte de Linhares was built by the Portuguese Viceroy, Count of Linhares, Dom Miguel de Noronha, between 1632-1633. It was meant to link Panjim with Ribandar and the City of Goa. The Portuguese sought the technical expertise of the Jesuits of the College of Saint Paul (Paulistas) in 1632 to build the massive bridge that was to be the longest in the whole East. The 3,026 metres long bridge was built on alluvial soils after stabilising it with solid trunks of local timber known as zambo,” Savio Rodrigues informs. All this while I was always under the impression that the Portuguese were responsible for the construction of this bridge. A couple of days after reading the book and while travelling on this very bridge, I recall thinking, “Hey, the Jesuits helped!” 
              Another interesting piece of information comes from the Our Lady of Pilar Church, Seraulim: “The Church of Our Lady of Pilar at Seraulim contains a huge side altar dedicated to Saint Sebastian, the patron of soldiers. The Portuguese royal insignia that rules the altar appears quite striking at first sight. The altar subtly illustrates the rule of the Crown even over the Church.”
            Because the text of this book is very brief and simple, perhaps the same could be used to make small video clips and made accessible to the public on the internet. A tech-savvy person like Fr. Rinald D’Souza could use his expertise.

Jesuit Heritage in Goa, by Savio Rodrigues SJ (Panjim: Goa Jesuits), 2009; pp. 184, Price not mentioned [ISBN: 978-81-906554-0-8]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: February 6, 2012)