Friday, 7 February 2014

THE LAMENT FOR 'BHATKARPONN'



At the newly-constructed Krishnadas Shama Library (formerly the Central Library) in Panjim, there is a tableau of Mario Miranda’s caricatures at the entrance. These three-dimensional figures consist of a benevolent (and slightly comical) figure of a Catholic bhatkar, placed on the left on a raised platform. This acts like a balcão, from which the benevolent bhatkar surveys everybody else. On the right, there is the figure of a Hindu musician playing the tabla. And if one moves his or her gaze to the bottom of the stairs, one would also notice a poder (baker) on a cycle, on his daily round to sell bread.
Pic: Clara Rodrigues
Pic: Clara Rodrigues
  
This tableau demonstrates a seldom-recognized privilege in Goan society. Humorous though the tableau may be, it tells us something important about Goan society — how notions of privilege, due to our lack of knowledge about them, get re-enacted in our daily lives.  Of course, one could object and argue that the tableau does not depict a privilege and point out, by way of a common-sensical understanding, that these three figures embody the essence of Goan life. But the very presence of the figure of the benevolent, comical Catholic bhatkar is not innocent, and it is not an accident that the bhatkar and the poder, along with the tabla player, are occupying positions, spaces and locations that are just described. For most people, an alternate positioning or inversion of the tableau is simply not possible. Surely, the bhatkar cannot be placed on a lower level and the poder cannot occupy the balcão.
 
Pic: Clara Rodrigues
This essay attempts to introduce and map the contours of the concept that dominate the representation of Goa — that is, how Goans think and write about Goa. Formed from the Konkani word bhatkar which means ‘landlord’, the concept of bhatkarponn can loosely be translated as landlord-ness. In this essay, the term will be used to refer to a certain nostalgia or saudades that Goans have for the ‘good old days’. Bhatkarponn results from a perceived or real loss of power and privilege that the elites, or those who imagine themselves as elite, held in the past. The bhatkar was a figure who had (and was perceived to possess) cultural and economic capital. Another reason why the bhatkar was such a powerful figure was due to the access he had to the state and ecclesiastical hierarchies in Goa.
  
In understanding and representing Goa (whether in pictures, videos, documentaries or text), bhatkarponn borrows its template from bhatkar-mundkar (landlord-tenant) land-relations in Goan society. Thus, the focus will be on two classes of people in Goa — the elites who already possessed cultural and economic capital, and the class of former tenants, who, due to migration to the Gulf and other places, have created an economic prosperity for themselves. These classes are not fixed or monolithic. Their boundaries appear to be fuzzy, and there surely exists other classes of Goans as well. This essay, however, shall discuss the elites and the class of former tenants, because it enables us to understand some crucial issues pertaining to the lament for bhatkarponn. 
Bhatkarponn is often plotted in the form of a ‘lament’ for the days gone by, and is entrenched in Goan society in representing Goa. It is not just the elites who lament for bhatkarponn, but also the former tenants, who aspire and emulate the culture and world-views of their landlords or former landlords. It is this aspiration, coupled with the ideologies produced by the elites and internalized by the former tenants, that leads to the perpetuation of bhatkarponn. Hence, bhatkarponn is not produced by the elites alone, but also the former tenants, who play their part. For the elites, the lament can be found in some recent writing in English which has been projected as the flowering of Goan writing in that language and, hence, this essay will focus on two novels as an entry-point — A Matter of Time: Vignettes of a Golden Childhood in Goa, by Brenda Coutinho (2013), and Let me tell you about Quinta, by Savia Viegas (2011). For the former tenants or aspiring bhatkars, however, there are no such textual representations, like the recent writings in English. Thus, this lament would have to be located through the representations that float in Goan cyberspace, especially on Facebook, where the Goan diaspora socializes and keeps in touch with other Goans. These are primarily images in the sense of pictures, in which the lament for bhatkarponn is encoded. 


The lament for bhatkarponn serves and operates as a metaphor as well as a trope in how these two classes of bhatkars and aspiring bhatkars represent Goa. The two novels, in one way or the other, depict bhatkar-mundkar relations in their plots and settings. But the operation of this metaphor of bhatkarponn rarely gets noticed, because this sort of imagery and vision, expressed through a lament, has become so normalized in Goan society and imagination that even former tenants have internalized it and actively use it to understand themselves. And as the former tenant adopts these elite ideologies, there results a forgetting and repression of the violent and unease-inducing history of land relations as well as caste-relations. Thus there is a need to deal with this repressed history by finding a sensible and sympathetic way of talking about it; a way which, rather than causing pain and anguish would actually lead to a nuanced understanding of, and therefore a better, Goa.

The first of the two novels being discussed here is Brenda Coutinho’s recently-published A Matter of Time. It is about five children: Paula, Lucia, Mario, Mandovi, and Xavier, and is set in the fictitious village of Benfica. The reader is told that the beauty of the book lies in its capturing of those little and charming memories that were once part of a Goan childhood. The narration constantly moves between the comforting childhood memories on the one hand and the stark changes of the present on the other. Despite dealing with childhood memories, the novel is also deeply concerned with and troubled by the loss of land and nature to rampant development for, as the plot of the novel goes, Benfica is threatened by a development project of “a commercial tourist spot”. But the villagers of Benfica decide to fight back and petition the government to rescind its decision and, as luck would have it, the government gives in! I would agree that the concerns for environment and ecological degradation and destruction of the resource of land are real ones, but there is a problem with the quaint narration that is found in this novel. 

A Matter of Time begins with the protagonist Paula, now in her forties, sitting in her balcão and observing the demolition of a “grand palatial house” in her neighbourhood. Paula’s psychological state is evoked thus by Coutinho: “She watched the huge bulldozer raze through the grand palatial house of the Mirandas — Casa Miranda. Her heart sank deeper and her mind swirled like a whirlpool. The bulldozer mercilessly rampaged over the house which once commanded the attention of the entire village of Benfica” (Emphasis added). This demolition of the Casa Miranda can be linked with the cover of the book, for it depicts a picturesque and idyllic palatial house, like the one that is demolished, and not scenes of five children gaily playing against a backdrop of a beautiful village as one might have expected of a novel talking about the charms of a carefree childhood.

 
The lament for bhatkarponn is further facilitated when the grand palatial houses of Goa become a subject for a large number of books that get written about them, thus leading to a celebration of such houses while the more numerous but smaller and less ostentatious houses receive scant attention and treatment. These grand houses are invested with a symbolic, emotional, and iconic value; the ‘house’ in such frameworks assumes a life of its own. In fact, the symbolic and iconic value of the ‘house’ is central to the articulation of the lament for bhatkarponn. Viegas’ Let me tell you about Quinta, set in the Goan village of Carmona, provides the most important illustration in recent times of the centrality of the ‘house’ in lamenting for bhatkarponn, not least because the novel titles itself with the name of a mansion. It is by considering the backdrop of the novel along with the politics of landlessness and land ownership that Viegas has been able to skillfully illustrate the lament for bhatkarponn. In fact, the grand, palatial house emerges as the protagonist of the novel in the story. The theme of the bhatkar-mundkar relations is a recurrent one in Viegas’ novel, and the ‘house’ provides the setting for the enactment of these relations.

The lament for bhatkarponn longs for the time Salazar, the former dictator of Portugal, captured power. Since 1926, when the dictatorial Estado Novo was established, Goans, who were citizens of Portugal like other Portuguese in the colonies, were living under the dictatorship of Salazar with their civil liberties severely curtailed. As the American anthropologist Dr. Robert S. Newman in ‘Goa: The Transformation of an Indian Region’ (1984) states:
  
The Portuguese succeeded in creating an artificial prosperity based on iron-ore exports, high salaries, and low prices for duty-free goods. Aimed at the politically-aware middle class and the intellectuals, however, the system offered little if anything to the vast majority of people — those engaged in agriculture and fishing.
   
The saudades for those ‘good old days’ laments and mourns these thirty-odd years of Salazar’s dictatorship. For the privileged and elites under Salazar, this was a season of plenty and abundance but for others, there was hardship and scarcity, an irony that most Goans miss when they lament for bhatkarponn. Viegas is spot-on when she writes,

‘Only if Salazar comes back,’ Tish Ximeao [a bhatkar] often wished, ‘the old order could be restored to Goa.’ Much to the chagrin of Tish Ximeao and his ilk, Salazar did not come back. Instead, sensing the loss of self, the elites educated, coated, suited and booted, sensitized their ears by quinzos and quintets, packed up their best suitcases and left on the very first ships and planes.

The loss of power and control that the bhatkars felt when a large number of tenants sought employment either as sailors or in foreign countries is reflected when Tish Ximeao, a bhatkar in Quinta laments,

‘Enkh! So what if their husbands and sons are on the ship or in the Gulf, they are only cleaning toilets of Arabs. Scent flows through the toilets of Arabia even if water doesn’t through their rivers — if they have any. Our men are so enamoured by the scented toilets that they would rather clean toilets than till the land.’ (Emphasis added)

Although Quinta is an old, dilapidated and crumbling house mired in litigation, it does not lose any value as there are repeated attempts to buy the house and the property attached to it. Quinta is simultaneously the site from which the changes happening in the socio-political realms in Goa and the changing aspirations of the former tenant are observed. Viegas writes:

A few years after the Portuguese left, the shipping and oil boom afforded good jobs, trucks drove in and out of Carmona, kicking dust storms, levelling the land, and upsetting the cornerstones. Mariquinha [from the landed elite] would sit in her balcao crocheting, watching with cold fury the dust storms that rolled into the village. They brought gravel, sand, cement and laterite blocks for building houses. ‘Busons and butlers are now the bhatkars,’ she would say as the trucks rolled by on the bund across her land. ‘This will ruin the entire village.’
  
The aesthetic of the house, with the mother-of-pearl windows, balcãos, ballrooms, china on display and other accoutrements that are now increasingly used to represent and, in a sense, define Goa for the world, are intimately linked with the changing caste- and land-relations. It is these metaphors and images that are constantly used in Goan society, and which are indicative of the changing socio-political landscape of Goa, that Viegas has been able to bring out in her novel in such bold detail. To return to an earlier point, Quinta provides the reader with a sensitive way to talk about the violent history of caste- and land-relations that have been repressed through the saudades for bhatkarponn. In fact, right from Viegas’ debut novel, Tales from the Attic (2007) to its sequel, Quinta, the eccentricity of the characters helps the reader to confront the violent history and the dark skeletons that are hidden in the closets of the books’ characters. Quinta opens on a frank note of admission where the narrator says:

Let me tell you, when that big house was built it was never about dollars. It was creating a huge showcase of their power with sons in church, and gleaming paddy fields and coconut groves trimmed on the backs of sun-roasted tenants. Mundkars they called them.

Although the setting of Quinta is ostensibly one of a lament for bhatkarponn, Viegas tries to weave a different discourse using the same frames of elite nostalgia and imagination that helps us in understanding where exactly the root of this lament lies. Quinta does not mourn the past but confronts the discourse of lament and longing for the ‘good old days’.

The lament for bhatkarponn is also found, as mentioned earlier, amongst the former tenants whose economic status has improved by virtue of employment either on ships or in foreign lands. The articulation of the vision for Goa of this class is largely confined to online forums and groups and there is a striking similarity of the images that are created, projected and consumed in Goan cyberspace. There is a particular kind of image (both in the sense of a picture and vision) where Goa is depicted as a space of sprawling, verdant and lush-green fields and hills. One encounters images of women, backs bent low, happily working in the fields, or the toddy-tapper climbing the coconut tree or a woman carrying a load on her head. Ill-paid as these workers are, they get celebrated in such representations, while conceding them their rights is conveniently left out of the discourse. There is a simultaneous claim on the fields and orchards and on the subalterns working in such spaces as ours, implying ownership. The comments that follow on these images in social media make it amply clear that a traditional, quaint, picturesque Goa, a Goa that does not change, is sought by the projection of these images.


But what these images also do is to give a sense of entitlement to the aspiration of the former tenant who wants to be a bhatkar. A former tenant cannot easily become a bhatkar even if he or she has made a fortune in a foreign country and now owns land with that money, because the status of a landlord in Goa is also intimately tied up with the caste location of a person. While the former tenant may have attempted to escape caste-based humiliation in the village by seeking employment in a foreign country, the aspiration to be a bhatkar still lives on and most probably will never be given up. It is the higher ritual status that the former tenant seeks. By projecting such images, internalizing them and making it their own, the former tenant becomes, for a few moments, a bhatkar. Land appears simultaneously to be the problem as well as the seeming solution for the aspiring bhatkar. But the argument here is not just about the actual ownership of land, but how Goa gets represented in relation to the politics of land ownership and landlessness. It is the impossibility of attaining the status of a bhatkar despite possessing land from the wealth earned due to employment in a foreign country or as a sailor, that the aspiring bhatkar encodes his/her lament in the images that he/she uses to represent Goa.


Since the status of a bhatkar — with the trappings of being an upper-caste and -class bhatkar — will forever evade the former tenant, other means need to be sought. It is by creating a discourse and ideology of a Goa that is pristine, beautiful, traditional, village-based, rustic, changeless, peaceful, and inclusive and having a simple way of life that aspiring bhatkars, by aligning themselves to the ideologies and discourses of the elite, can hope to fulfill their aspirations for bhatkarponn. There can also be another reason for aspiring bhatkars to align with their erstwhile masters, as there is an identification of the fears of aspiring bhatkars, along with elite bhatkars, of potentially being marginalized due to the introduction of Hindu majoritarian politics from mainland India, the influx of migrant labour, the bahujan as well as the upper-caste Hindu dominance, and alliances in Goan society post-1961, as the Catholic of Goa has marginal access to state machinery and apparatuses. The lament for bhatkarponn, thus, would largely appear to be a Catholic problem. However, it needs to be pointed out that the lament for the ‘good old days’ is not just confined to the Catholics of Goa, as the longing is found amongst the Hindus as well.

The lament for bhatkarponn in the context of the Hindus can be illustrated from the case of Malbarao Sardessai, who is known for his musical accomplishments and whose ancestral house is at Savoi Verem in Ponda. The identification of the subaltern with the elite discourses and ideologies, is best illustrated in a passage in Maria Aurora Couto’s book Goa: A Daughter’s Story (2004). Interviewing Malbarao Sardessai, Couto dwells on Sardessai’s achievements: “A Musicologist and a renowned artist of the pakvasa and the tabla, justifiably proud of his iconic status in the cultural life of Goa…” In the course of the interview, Malbarao Sardessai approvingly quotes the Konkani writer in the nagri script, Pundalik Naik, who hails from the Hindu Bahujan Samaj, which further buttresses the argument that the lament for bhatkarponn is not just confined to the Catholics of Goa. Pundalik Naik in explaining the natural and divine beauty of Savoi Verem, gives the following answer: “And do you know why its [Savoi Verem’s] rhythmic flow is so perfect, its music divine? That is because Bab Malbarao lives here.” It is no accident that Naik connects the musical genius of Malbarao Sardessai with the “rhythmic flow” and “divine” beauty of his village of Savoi Verem. What is also not accidental is the manner in which the comments of Naik and Malbarao Sardessai are presented in Couto’s book, as the normalized nature of bhatkarponn does not allow us to understand the problems with the comments of Naik. The tableau at the Krishnadas Shama library is illustrative of this, as it provides space for a Hindu tabla player, as Hindu bhatkars are known to be connoisseurs of music. Thus, the circle gets completed with the placement of a (bhatkar) Hindu self along with the Catholic self.

The ideology and vision of the lament for bhatkarponn can only be supported by having a section of the population to lord over. In this setting, one would always need a mass of people to labour in the fields and orchards. Otherwise, this vision and ideology would collapse and fracture. The logic of this vision and ideology allows the subalterns of Goa to educate themselves but ultimately and eventually they have to go back to their traditional (read as caste-based) occupations, for this ideology and vision also stresses that (subaltern) Goans should not abandon their traditional occupations. This logic has been internalized by the former tenant or aspiring bhatkar and now are also actively propagating it.

The borrowing of the discourse of the elites by former tenants is not a simple process of sanskritization, wherein upper-caste norms and practices are adopted by those of the lower-castes who are upwardly mobile due to changes in their economic status. Indeed, Sigmund Freud’s insight is much more relevant here. In The Future of an Illusion (1961, originally 1927), Freud begins by stating that all civilizations and cultures — Freud did not see a difference between these terms — are built upon coercion. Despite possessing forces of its own destruction, he maintained that a civilization/culture still manages to survive. Freud argued that “the cultural ideal” provides “narcissistic satisfaction”, helping in combating any fissiparous tendencies within a culture. For Freud, the “benefits of the culture” or in other words the privileges that the given culture bestows, are enjoyed by not only the privileged classes but also by the suppressed classes, as it allows the suppressed classes to victimize those persons outside their culture. There is, thus, an identification of the suppressed classes with the ruling classes and

[t]his identification of the suppressed classes with the class who rules and exploits them is, however, only part of a larger whole. For… the suppressed classes can be emotionally attached to their masters; in spite of their hostility to them they may see in them their ideals (Emphasis added)

Otherwise, Freud argues, there could have been no explanation or justification for the oppression of a large number of human beings. Perhaps, this is the reason why aspiring bhatkars have not articulated themselves in any substantial texts, apart from online forums, as they believe that the ideologies that the elites have produced represent them as well. 

The connection between the tableau at the Krishnadas Shama library, the novels discussed, the concerns for environmental degradation, the aesthetics of the grand palatial houses, and the images and vision of Goa on social networks, is that of an entrenchment of an ideology and discourse of bhatkarponn, in the culture and society of Goa. The metaphors and tropes of bhatkarponn are very much alive and in circulation in Goan society, but they are not easily identified due to its normalized nature. When Goans lament for bhatkarponn, it is not necessarily a conscious lament; it appears to operate on an unconscious level. But there is a need to minutely listen to this lament in whatever diverse forms that it exists in Goan society. When we lament for Goa of the ‘good old days’, somewhere, we miss the suffering and problems of Goans, and particularly the ‘other’ Goans, in the present as well as in the past. Goa will be fine only if we worry about the Goan.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I would like to thank Sammit Khandeparkar for directing me to Sigmund Freud. I would like to also acknowledge the help of Jason Keith Fernandes, R. Benedito Ferrão, and Amita Kanekar in reading and making valuable suggestions to the initial drafts. The help rendered by Vivek Menezes and Nigel Britto in making this essay possible, also needs to be placed on record. Finally, thanks to my parents for their constant support.

(This post was first published in Mundo Goa (2014) as part of the Semana da Cultura Indo-Portuguesa 2013.)

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