Tuesday, 19 August 2014

READING REGINALD: INSIDE AFRICA



The last time I had written about the Konkani novelist Reginald Fernandes, I had suggested that to understand such writings as romans (and even tiatrs) we would have to think anew and look more closely into these writings. Accordingly, I had hinted that the way Reginald Fernandes understood and conceptualized ‘dignidad’ could be one of the many ways to understand the corpus of writings written in the Roman script. In response to my article, many felt (through social media) that Fernandes’ books should be put back in circulation. Though such an initiative would be welcome, this was not the point I was trying to make. Rather, what I wanted to do was to initiate critical discussion on the possibilities that are available in Fernandes’ writings.

To further explore this possibility, this column would like to look at Fernandes’ Khoddop Rannim (1955) which has Valentino Vaz as its main protagonist. The novel opens with Valentino’s mother on her death-bed, who tells him the importance of being humble, for humility would allow Valentino to succeed in life. Valentino’s mother worked as a randpinn or cook, whose husband, a seaman, was dead when Valentino was a mere infant. Thus, facing impending poverty and with no family support base in Goa, Valentino packs his bags for Africa. There he finds employment with a great Goan trader of ivory called Robin Saukar. It is here that Robin Saukar’s daughter Thelma and Valentino fall in love with each other. Valentino initially was uncomfortable as he was a mere servant of her father’s and according to him Thelma was placed higher as far as ‘dignidad’ was concerned. However, it is Thelma who insists that they should not believe in such things.

The twist in the novel occurs when, to procure ivory Robin Saukar takes Valentino and another employee Martin Monteiro, in the African jungle. Because Monteiro wants to make Robin Saukar’s wealth his own as well as marry Thelma, he deliberately misguides Valentino into the dense and dangerous jungle. Here, the element of magic as a device for the progression of the plot comes into play, both for good and bad. Monteiro chances upon a witch-doctor who gives him some magical fruits that would turn the hearts and minds of Robin Saukar and Thelma in his favour, when in fact the preferred person was Valentino. On the other hand while Valentino survives his ordeal, he also meets certain persons who direct him to a particular kingdom which is situated inside a huge rock, shaped like a human head. The astonishing fact of this kingdom is that its queen has lived for more than 2000 years, for she has access to “Jivitachem Udok” or the elixir of youth.

As it turns out, this queen or Khoddop Rannim owned a very large diamond that is lodged in the temple that belongs to her family. It was, apparently, the largest in the world. And because Valentino refuses the advances of the queen, who madly falls in love with him, he is made a prisoner. Valentino now has to escape this make-believe world, if he wants to maintain any hope of being united with his beloved Thelma.

What should also be discussed at length about this novel is the way Africa and blacks are represented in Khoddop Rannim. Africa was a part of the Goan diaspora and as such it was part of the Goan imagination as well. Fernandes is not the first or only person to write stories set in Africa. Indeed, many of the romi writers following the 1950s (or, perhaps even earlier) did train their literary lens on Africa. The scenes that are set in the dense and dangerous jungle of Africa would obviously involve the depiction of peoples living in the forest. The language or the collective nouns that are used to refer to these peoples would definitely qualify to be racist by our standards. The point that I am trying to make is not that Fernandes is consciously being racist, but for readers today, to be aware and be sensitive to this issue while ‘Reading Reginald’ (and also other writers who set their stories in Africa).

Though love between social un-equals is part of the story, however it is not a preoccupation of the author in this novel. Although the images of the African jungle that are displayed to us draw on colonial accounts of adventure and exploration that were definitely circulating during his time, the African jungle also becomes a site of struggle for achieving ‘dignidad’. Whatever Valentino achieves or manages to make his own, he can only do it by fighting for it. Though magic may have helped Valentino’s pursuits, yet his human capabilities and strengths seems to have sailed him through rough waters in this novel. But magic does play a vital part in keeping the reader engrossed in the novel.

As a setting, if Africa is given deeper reflection in novels or stories written in Konkani then it also points out to the complexities and diversity of interactions and influences that Goa had with the larger world. One could also profitably look at how the Portuguese colonial world – just before formal decolonization – featured in Konkani literary space. The fact that Africa had formed the setting of so many stories written in Konkani in the Roman script, suggests deeper connections not just of travel and migration but also of the movement of stories and colonial fantasies.

By keeping in mind certain vital components that went into the making of a Reginald romans, we now have some basic markers to understand the thought behind his novels, apart from enjoying them the way we do with any good novel.

For more of 'Reading Reginald' see here.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 20 August, 2014)

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

THE ‘DOUBLE BIND’ OF MINORITY IDENTITY



Regular viewers of prime time national news would remember the recent incident where India’s tennis star Sania Mirza broke down on live television, following some legislators from Telangana questioning her right to be the brand ambassador of the newly formed state of Telangana. In an exclusive interview given to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, Mirza said that it was “Extremely hurtful” that she has to “keep justifying our Indianness, keep asserting our Indianness again and again, and time and again…I don’t know why…” On her part, Dutt tried to brush aside the controversy claiming it to be “unnecessary”, “petty”, “absurd”, and “an aberration”.

However, to her credit, Dutt did broach Mirza’s Muslim identity as perhaps causing the said controversy. But Mirza still maintained that she did not know why. This column is in agreement with Dutt and Mirza that the nature of the comments made were indeed sexist and patriarchal. However, if we also factor in the ‘patriotism’ that both Dutt and Mirza defended – indeed asserted – as a way out of the unholy mess that was created, reality appears to be much more complex. That the identity of a ‘woman’ and an ‘Indian’ took precedence over Mirza’s Muslim identity allows us to analyze minority identity politics afresh.

Mirza’s interview allows us to approach the problem of a ‘double bind’ that minorities have to face in India. This ‘double bind’ holds the loyalty of the Indian Muslim as suspect (being anti-national) on the one hand; while on the other, the Indian Muslim is simultaneously called upon to actively participate in the workings of the secular nation-state, by asserting themselves as Muslims. But the problem gets further complicated as such participation can only happen by consciously sidetracking one’s Muslim identity. So in other words, one is damned if one does participate and damned if one doesn’t. The historian Ayesha Jalal, in her essay ‘Exploding Communalism: The Politics of Muslim Identity in South Asia’, puts the matter in a longer historical context when she says, “The original sin of being communalist for the most part have been reserved for the [Indian] subcontinent’s Muslims”. Further, Jalal also echoes the argument that has been made by other scholars as well when she says, “The tolerant secularist and the bigoted Hindu are really after the same pound of flesh – Muslims have to stop drawing upon the religious and cultural strands of their identity if they want complete integration in the secular and democratic framework of the Indian nation-state”.

The abovementioned interview provides another perspective for those of us who are worried about the growing communalization in Goa to understand the problem. We should recognize that the predicament that the Muslims find themselves in is not very different from that which the Catholics in Goa experience. On the one hand the Catholic cultural practices informed and inflected by the Portuguese presence were and are used to define Goa to a larger Indian imagination (via the manner in which tourism is marketed, for instance), and on the other hand any political demands that are perceived to come from a Catholic location (though the reality may suggest otherwise) exposes Catholics in Goa to charges of being communal and anti-national. In other words, the loyalty of the Goan Catholic to Goa (as well as India) is held suspect, a point that Fr. Victor Ferrao makes in his Being a Goan Christian.

Recognizing the similar ways in which Muslims and Catholics have to negotiate a tricky dance with the working of the nation-state one can see how particular lines can or cannot be crossed by certain persons. Thus in September 2013 when the Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar had erroneously asserted that a Goan Catholic is culturally Hindu, it had resulted in a national controversy. Cut to 2014, when the Deputy Chief Minister, Francis D’Souza asserted that he is a “Christian-Hindu”, it also resulted in a controversy at the national level. But here is a twist that I would like to draw attention to: bowing to intense pressure and criticism, D’Souza retracted his statement and apologized for it, maintaining that it was his personal opinion and he was not wrong to make such a statement. Parrikar, on the other hand, did not withdraw his statement and neither did he apologize for it. It must be noted that D’Souza’s statement, in essence, is no different from Parrikar’s. The asymmetry that exists in the two incidents is clearly visible. An asymmetry that exists, I suspect, due to this selfsame ‘double bind’ of minority identity in India.

The controversy that D’Souza raked up was followed by predictable assertions of ‘Goanness’ and ‘Indianness’ on social media. Indeed some even went to the extent of suggesting that if we consider ourselves ‘humans’ first and foremost, it would be enough. Well, clearly it is not enough. Making such overarching, ‘national’ assertions only obscures the complexity of identity politics. In the case of Goa, the observable fact is that one cannot participate in Goan political, public, and cultural life by simply being Catholic; one has to also give in to certain notions of ‘Hinduness’.

Linking the predicament of Muslims in India to that of the Catholics in Goa may seem like a long shot to some. However, I would like to suggest that by juxtaposing the problems of the Muslims and Catholics with each other, one can broaden one’s understanding of how minority identity and the concomitant politics works in India. Though the comments referred to above were made in seemingly different contexts, yet recognizing the similarity of the politics and power structures that drive the visions behind them, can allow us to think about ourselves in new ways. The drive towards asserting one  identity, but remaining willfully blind to other identities – even suppressing them – will only allow inequalities to thrive.

Thanks to Shahrukh Alam and Rubina Jasani.
  
(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 6 August, 2014)