Friday, 27 July 2012

DELUGE AND DAMNATION


Writing a debut novel can be a tough task. Inexperience can be a major hindrance. The plot may digress and may not be able to hold the attention of the reader. If such manuscripts do not go through a process of critical surveying, followed by the tightest possible editing, then the end result could be a bad reading experience. The review of Budd’tti, a novel by Manuel Fernandes in the Roman script will discuss such a shortcoming and also try to read the plot (or plots) of the novel along with the contemporary social and political Goan world.
            Manuel Fernandes has written and directed a few tiatrs and has presented his plays on the All India Radio. He is a regular writer who has published his writings in many Konknni mastheads, especially Gulab.
            Budd’tti or flood is a novel which takes its inspiration from the Biblical tale of Noah and the deluge that God had sent on the earth. Manuel Fernandes has tried to use the symbolism of the Flood and how it inundates everything, in trying to comment about the abysmal and egregious conditions of Goan political life and also (I suspect) the declining moral values of Catholic families. But in attempting to invoke this symbolism as well as wrapping a moral message for his readers, Manuel Fernandes’ novel fails to live up to the expectations. The plot changes directions several times; to the effect that it seems that the author is abandoning one strand of narration and starting a new one, only to discard it once again.
            The novel opens with Ronald, a small-time cloth merchant and his wife Ravina who are very devoted to each other. But there is a sudden twist in the story: Ronald starts having an affair with a young widow, Sofia. Ravina is divorced by Ronald and he drives her out of the house – and into destitution. In another turn of events, Ronald is shown as leading an agitation against a pollution-causing factory. This agitation snowballs into a popular movement which propels him into politics. In due course of time he also becomes the Chief Minister of Goa. Agitation against big industries is an important theme in the book and I believe it is included in the narrative because in recent times Goa has gone through many such agitations. But though Ronald is the protagonist and contemporary politics a major space for comment, the author seems to be struggling to keep these strands tied together in a unifying narrative.
            Ravina is shown as migrating to Bombay, only to make a dramatic and somewhat surreal entry in the end. Manuel Fernandes had tried to keep the suspense for the last, but such a model does not succeed in providing a coherent and believable ending. Along with the revamping of the plot in the editing stages of the book, the author also had a lot of scope to expand and develop his existing narrative. Elaborating more on the characters and the plot at the beginning of the novel would have, in my opinion, provided a solid base to the narration.
            Meanwhile, due to his power and influence Ronald starts indulging himself in corrupt practices. He starts smuggling arms and precious metals as well as making under-the-table deals to set up pollution-causing industries. Ronald chances upon a hidden vault when constructing his house and he converts it into an underground cave; a haven for his contraband. This hidden cave is accidentally discovered by Felicio, a journalist who puts his principles and the ethics of the profession first and follows them to the book.
            After a lot of rather bizarre twists and turns, Ronald receives punishment for his evil deeds. His criminal activities are exposed (though in a way that would never stand a chance in a court of law!) and he has to run away from the long arm of the law as well as the frenzied fury of his voters. Ronald escapes to the surrounding jungle and returns in a state of destitution and injury to a dilapidated house, where he breathes his last. During his funeral, suddenly, the sky becomes overcast and there is a torrent of rain. And since the novel is set on the banks of the Zuari (Cortalim to be precise), the banks of the river overflow and the resulting flood washes the coffin and with it the corpse of Ronald into the sea.
            What Manuel Fernandes has tried to do is to use Ronald as a symbol for the rot in Goan society, where everything that we cherished has been destroyed or is on the verge of destruction. Ronald is the corrupt politician who is selling dear Goa for his own benefit, not for a second thinking about the general public or listening to the voice of his conscience. And somewhere, between so much gloom and doom, there is a longing for the good old days; for an ideal to be realized
We can find a caution in the novel, that if we don’t wake up fast, along with our “coffins” we will also be washed away in the sea of nothingness. This metaphor is primarily invoked to guard the Goan identity, an issue that has gathered a lot of storm in the recent times. But since the novel is an attempt to be a comment and a critique on the politics, society and morality and at some level is made to operate as a homily, it lacks nuance. Manuel Fernandes has tried to focus in this direction but has fallen short to provide a strong argument and narrative simply because his views are not nuanced and critical of the world he has observed and is a part of. Coupled with a lack of planning of the plot, the whole novel stands on shaky ground. Throughout the novel, Manuel Fernandes also tries to portray how an ideal woman should behave and conduct herself in the society. His portrayal of the woman being not just a seductress, but the very object of temptation seems shallow for our times.
            The cover of the book could have been a lot better. Budd’tti is published under the aegis of the Dalgado Konknni Akademi and as such there is a greater responsibility resting on the shoulders of this organization to think of including more checks and balances in the editorial department so that the end result may not lack in the most important aspect of a book: a good reading experience!

Budd’tti by Manuel Fernandes (Cortalim/Kutt’tthalli: Dog Bhav Prokaxon), 2011; pp. 164, Rs. 60/-; Phone: 91-0832-2221688 (Available at Dalgado Konknni Akademi, Panjim)

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 28, 2012). 

Friday, 20 July 2012

POWER, POLITICS AND TRAUMA: THE CASE OF ROMI LITERATURE


The close interrelations of power, hegemony and history in the politics that surround a language and/or script were brought to the fore by Dr. Fr. Victor Ferrao, Dean of Philosophy and Professor of Rachol Seminary.  Dr. Fr. Ferrao was delivering the Late Fr. Freddy J. da Costa Memorial Lecture organized by the Dalgado Konknni Akademi (DKA) at Tiatr Academy’s Conference Hall, Panaji on July 19, the eve of Fr. Freddy’d birth anniversary. Fr. Freddy who is known for his journalism and writing in Konknni was incidentally the founding member of the DKA as well as its first President.
            Dr. Fr. Victor Ferrao who recently released his book, Being a Goan Christian: the Politics of Identity, Rift and Synthesis, was awarded PhD for his thesis on ‘Involving God in an Evolving Universe: Dialogue between Science and Religion’ and has taught at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune. A highly erudite scholar, Dr. Fr. Ferrao who has published many papers in various journals, argued his case with finesse. He spoke on the topic of Romi Lipintlem Konknni Sahitya: Kal ani Az [Konknni Literature in the Roman Script: Past and Present]. Rather than providing a descriptive history of the books and authors in the Roman script, Dr. Fr. Ferrao took the debate to a very intellectual level, focusing instead on the larger and much malignant issues of power, hegemony, linguistic politics and the changes wrought by colonialism. (Incidentally, some felt that Dr. Fr. Ferrao was deviating from the topic). Needless to say, the thought-provoking lecture left the audience, which also included the Journalism students of St. Xavier’s College, Mapusa, with much to chew on.
            Driving straight to the point, Dr. Fr. Ferrao invoked the Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure and said that no language has a natural script. He then went on to explain how we create words and represent them with scripts and how meaning is then encoded in them. And drawing from the thesis of Sausure, he stated that he was not prepared to accept “that any script could be ‘natural’ and ‘scientific’ to a language.”
            Dr. Fr. Ferrao tried to locate the problems of script of Konknni as well as the Medium of Instruction (MOI) in the Portuguese colonialism and believed that there were close linkages between these issues, historically speaking. The proponents of ek bhas, ek lipi, ek sonskrutay [one language, one script, one culture] are misguided, he said. By making such an argument, Dr. Fr. Ferrao asserted that a “forgetting of history” takes place. And since Dr. Fr. Ferrao identified colonialism as intimately tied with our problems today, he dwelled quite at length on the differences between British and Portuguese colonialism as well the Orientalist and nationalist scholarship of the 19th century that had produced knowledge through racist and upper-caste lenses. Dr. Fr. Ferrao was of the firm opinion that such frameworks should be abandoned.
            He also brought to the discussion two insightful concepts of “colonial difference” and “coloniality of power”; the former being the difference between the foreigner and the native where the foreigner projects himself as superior while the latter concept was the acceptance of foreign power without any question. Dr. Fr. Ferrao while acknowledging the contribution of the missionaries in creating a corpus of Konknni literature also recognized the “side benefits” that it may have provided for the Portuguese state. This indeed was a new insight.
            Elaborating on the theme of “forgetting of history”, Dr. Fr. Ferrao cited the example of Manthan, a recently-released book in nagri by the Professor of Konknni at the Goa University, Dr. Madhavi Sardesai. Commenting on Eduardo Jose Bruno de Souza’s novel (which was the first in Konknni), Dr. Sardesai claimed that this novel gave a picture of the state of the Konknni language when it was released while at the same time expressing regret that there were many Portuguese words used in the text. “Madhavi Bai forgets history yet again. For the spoken language always borrows and lends,” said Dr. Fr. Ferrao.
            Although Dr. Fr. Ferrao conceded that the literature of Konknni in the nagri script is great or “mahan”, he admitted that this literature was relatively young. He said that there was an attempt to invent a long and glorious past. This, Dr. Fr. Ferrao said, was being achieved by finding the roots and origins of Konknni in Sanskrit. If we keep the many scripts of Konknni aside from the mainstream, can we develop the language, he questioned.
            Dr. Fr. Ferrao stressed that the events of the 16th and 17th centuries are evaluated by the frameworks of the 19th century Hindu lenses. Taking the help of established scholarship that has convincingly demonstrated that ‘Hindu’ was a relatively recent invention due to foreign invasion and colonial intervention (for instance, the work of Romila Thapar and David Lorenzen), and asked a very provocative question whether it was correct to superimpose 19th century frameworks on the 16th and 17th centuries and when did the Goan Hindu actually become “Hindu”? These questions are significant as the burden of conversion has to be borne by the present day descendents of the converts, most of whom are the protagonists of the Roman script. Readers would remember that more recently the protagonists of the Roman script have been dubbed as “anti-nationals” and “agents of the Portuguese” by stalwarts of the nagri lobby.
            Along with the power, politics and history, Dr. Fr. Ferrao also included “trauma” in his analysis. He said that if conversion has hurt the Hindu community, it has also instilled a shame in the Catholic community. And such a trauma (or the hurt to put it in more simple terms) produces its own politics, he said.
            Dr. Fr. Ferrao was very critical of the thinking and policies of ek bhas, ek lipi, ek sonskrutay persuasion. Rather than wait in hope for the unity of Konknni under one script, why can’t we accept its diversity and move ahead, he asked.
            In the ideas and arguments that were presented, Dr. Fr. Ferrao has demonstrated that he is a capable intellectual and a scholar who has presented his case with sensitivity. There can be no doubt that Dr. Fr. Ferrao, with his remarkable insight, is slowly emerging on the Goan intellectual scene.

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 21, 2012).

Friday, 13 July 2012

SACRED ART, MODERN PERCEPTIONS


A span of 450 years of colonial experience has provided Goa with numerous cultural interactions from many regions and countries of the world. These cultural interactions, be they in food, music, art etc, have enriched the Goan culture in ways that many of us may not know. Influences from Persia, Africa and Europe inter alia are little known facts. In the architecture of Goan churches, these influences, be they Islamic/Islamicate, Persian and European have fairly been numerous as is suggested by scholarly research, particularly by Dr. Paulo Varela Gomes’ latest book Whitewash, Red Stone: A History of Church Architecture in Goa (2011. New Delhi: Yoda Press). But what if this centuries-old heritage in the form of church buildings and the art they house is not preserved and is withering due to ravages of time, neglect and the elements?
Agnelo Fernandes (C), Nickson (R) and Glen (L)
            The answer to preserve and protect our heritage is obviously to conserve and restore such buildings and art. But since Goa is a small place with too many churches and specimens of art and since every one of us has seen such buildings and art being neglected and destroyed, such a situation merits the asking of a very pertinent question: do we have the skill and the consciousness required to preserve our heritage? A common complain in Goa is konn monis nant or there are no skilled people that are easily available. But I feel such a view results from our own ignorance of the people involved in conservation/restoration of sacred art as well as the failure of such people in building networks that would facilitate the movement of information.
The altar of the Quepem church that needs restoration
            Agnelo Fernandes and his two sons Nickson and Glen are engaged in the conservation and restoration of sacred art heritage. Originally hailing from Borda but now settled in Arlem, Margao Agnelo Fernandes’ tradition of restoration and conservation stretches back to his great-grandfather; making Nickson and Glen the fourth generation heirs to carry forward the family tradition. Agnelo and his sons are fondly known as the Bicos because it was the nickname of Caetano Fernandes, who had started this family tradition. The Bicos are a very passionate lot about their trade. One could go on-and-on listening to them – especially Agnelo Fernandes –about their latest projects and other experiences of the past. When I visited them, the first thing Agnelo Fernandes and his sons did was to bring one specimen after another and explain to me the technique and patience that went in working on each art object.
            We settled down to chat about various issues that I was most interested to learn from them. Agnelo Fernandes, the father is not much of a talker. I got the impression that he prefers to allow his work and art to speak for him. Nickson on the other hand is the most articulate and illustrative. It was from the experience of Agnelo Fernandes and his sons that I wanted to know what are the hurdles and problems that are faced by them. How do the lay people react and respond to their own heritage and why it is important for us to urgently start thinking about creative ways to take the issue of the heritage, and particularly of sacred art, right to the people.
The painting in the sacristy of Quepem Church needing restoration
            The most recent major project that Agnelo Fernandes and his sons have completed is the painting and partial restoration of the Holy Cross Church in Quepem. Earlier, the Bicos had worked in Bombay (St. Andrew’s Church), Cochin (Church of Our Lady of Hope) and in Mangalore (Bethany Convent) amongst others.
            According to Agnelo Fernandes and his sons, the interior decoration of the Quepem church is “unique” and “rare” in Goa. The church need not be destroyed, Nickson says, as it would be a mistake. They are of the unanimous opinion that the beautiful, gold-gilded altar should be conserved and reinforced as it is about to be spoilt.
            “It [conservation and restoration] is a long process and people need to be educated,” Nickson says when asked about why such projects are not taken more freely by the lay parishioners. “Lay people have no knowledge of restoration/conservation and they want something new,” he further adds. ‘New’ in the sense of how lay people desire the end result to be jazzy and kitschy.
            If Agnelo and his sons try to argue otherwise, then the oft-repeated pretentious phrase ‘We are paying’ is directed at them. If such is the behaviour of the lay people, then what about the priests of the churches that they have worked with? “Some of the priests want to put their own tastes in the project,” they say. As a result Agnelo Fernandes and his sons have walked away from many jobs for a reason that can be euphemistically referred to as creative differences!
Another painting which needs attention
            So is there a policy regarding the sacred art of the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman, I ask. “No, there is no policy,” I am informed. Talking to Agnelo Fernandes and his sons, I got the feeling that much of the problems stem from our ignorance. But Nickson is especially hopeful, for he feels that the heritage scene is showing signs of change. Last October, the Fundação Oriente had organized a workshop which brought together priests, academics and technicians – like the Bicos – on one platform. Nickson is of the opinion that such efforts could lead to an increased awareness in heritage matters.
            Our heritage and how we understand and view it would define us as a community. With a cohesive and practical policy regarding sacred heritage yet to be on a sound footing coupled with the general apathy of the laity, it is high time that we start thinking of sustainable models to preserve our heritage for the future

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 14, 2012).

Friday, 6 July 2012

CASTE AND COMPROMISE


Love triumphs all, is a theme that is not new to any of us. We have experienced this theme in movies, TV soaps and literature: the lovers go against all odds to assert their love for each other and to gain acceptance in a wider society of their (generally) clandestine affair. I have always felt that such narratives provide a utopian picture of the real world for us. Things are not always as black and white as they are made to appear…
               Pandharinath D. Lotlikar’s debut novel Toddzodd joins the long list of such narratives. He is no stranger to the readers of Konknni, having contributed to various magazines and having written both in Romi and nagri. Formerly with the All India Radio and Durdarshan, he decided to publish his first novel in the Roman script because he wanted his novel to reach a wider audience all the while acknowledging the important contribution of writers in this particular script to the corpus of Konknni literature.
               The story that Pandharinath Lotlikar sets out to tell is one which moves back-and-forth between many identities: Catholic-Hindu, rich-poor, upper-caste-lower-caste. The protagonist of the novel is Suzan who is Catholic, as the name suggests. Suzan is also a girl coming from a financially modest family and as suggested by the narrative of the novel, one can safely presume that she is of low-caste birth. She falls in love with the son of her boss and their amorous affair eventually leads Suzan to unwed pregnancy. Although the son, who is known as Babush, agrees to marry her, there is a lot of opposition from his family. Hence, Suzan has to abort the child and due to the stigma attached to unwed pregnancy, along with her mother leaves for the Gulf where her father is employed.
               Suzan has a very sympathetic and ‘modern-thinking’ uncle. He is of the opinion that narrow barriers such as caste and wealth should not come between the union of two people. To that effect, Suzan’s family visits the house of Babush to discuss the marriage arrangements. But they are driven out very unceremoniously and due to influential contacts of the father of Babush with the police, they even get arrested. Babush is cast as a playboy, who even after the fiasco with Suzan does not stop his philandering and hedonistic ways. After a few years Suzan returns back to Goa.
               Due to his immoral behaviour, Babush receives a lot of infamy and his chances of a happy married life are impaired because of his previous record. Babush starts to drown his sorrows in alcohol, which concerns his parents. His parents Mr. and Mrs. Khomvtte (Khaunte) are these elitist bigots who like to keep their distance from the ‘others’ and who never fail to insult those people who are low-castes, for instance Subhada’s friend Udai. The story takes a turn when their daughter Subhada elopes with a boy from Bihar. It is here they realize that Subhada’s friend Udai, who was from the barber’s community and who had just completed his studies in medicine could have been a suitable match for their daughter.
               The bigoted parents realize their faults and set out to make amends. Bubush now has to redeem himself in the eyes of Suzan because he realizes that he still has feelings for her. Since Babush helps Suzan’s family in a nasty property dispute involving an unscrupulous builder from Delhi, things start to change for the better. In the end they get married and even the estranged daughter and son-in-law of Mr. Khomvtte are reunited with the family. Happy ending!
               Although there is a happy ending to this novel, I believe that there are many issues that the author has raised and some that he has glossed over and such issues need to be critically examined. In order to break the narrow shackles of caste, Pandharinath Lotlikar suggests and in a way endorses least possible interference by adults when the question of their children’s marriage is concerned. But the rubric of adlem chintop (old thinking) is too broad or vague to discuss caste divisions or religious divisions. There are no clear-cut indications of whether the author is pointing towards caste or religion. The idea that inter-caste/religious marriages can lead to greater social justice and general happiness is not something that one can easily accept because the power and gender relations of caste and marriage are much more confounding than the simplistic view that we find in Toddzodd like, for instance, “Vornna vevostha” or Varna hierarchy is no longer existent in contemporary and technologically advanced times.
               Although Suzan is the protagonist of the novel, her role is that of the passive bystander. Most of the decisions pertaining to her life are either made by her uncle, Antao or she is shown as having no other option but to accept what fate has in store for her. When Suzan gets married she is shown to have converted to the religion of her husband and even gets her name changed to Suman – one who has a good/pure mind. The author here doesn’t dwell much on this aspect of the story; it is treated as something very natural in the course of events of the story. Suzan’s voice is not her own and it is in the treatment and construction of the character of Suzan that the contradictions, conflicts and dichotomies of such thinking, like that of Pandharinath Lotlikar, come to the fore. It also exposes the shaky arguments that are made by the author against caste/religion-based inequalities for on one hand a call is given to abandon the old (read as bad) and burst forth into the new, which is egalitarian and good; but on the other one can find such practices of not only asking a woman to convert but also fundamentally changing her identity by way of giving a new name. And because the author has not bothered to comment and clarify his stand on this glaring contradiction, I feel that it has been glossed over. Although the idea behind this novel is the compromises that parents should make when marriage of their children is concerned, Suzan the poor and presumably low-caste Catholic girl seems to be making the most compromises.
            Politics of representation and caste aside, Pandharinath has a beautiful way of writing Konknni. It is simple yet mellifluous. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments in the novel such as the prank that is played on Babush during the Carnival ball! If we beak the title Toddzodd into two equal halves we get two different words: todd (=to break) and zodd (=to join). I feel that one needs to break a lot of casteist mindsets before we start building a new society. Perhaps then toddzodd or compromise may not be required.

Toddzodd by Pandharinath D. Lotlikar (Panjim/Ponnji: Dalgado Konknni Akademi), 2011; pp. 155, Rs. 50/-; Phone: 91-0832-2221688 (Available at Dalgado Konknni Akademi, Panjim)

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: July 7, 2012)