Tuesday, 25 November 2014

ST. FRANCIS XAVIER AND THE HEALTH OF THE PORTUGUESE EMPIRE



The symbolic importance of St. Francis Xavier to the people of Goa need not be repeated every time we discuss his miracles, or every ten years when his mortal remains are thrown open for public veneration and display. Venerated as Goencho Saib, the importance of his incorruptible body for the colonial as well as the post-colonial administration of Goa (for purposes of tourism) can also be clearly seen.

His importance as someone who watches over Goa, has clearly outlived the colonial times. As I write this column, the preparations for this year’s Exposition seem to be slowly progressing: hopefully, from Old Goa looking like a “war zone”, in the words of a friend, to being orderly and organized. While many of the stories surrounding the miracles of Xavier are fairly commonly known in Goa with more emphasis placed on the religious and spiritual efficacy, they are rarely told as stories that had a particular historical context. What else, other than the healing and efficacious powers of the saint, can these miracles tell us?

While dwelling upon the symbolic importance of Xavier through time, let me refer to Pamila Gupta’s essay, “‘Signs of Wonder’: The Postmortem Travels of Francis Xavier in the Indian Ocean,” to locate the miraculous powers of Xavier in a particular historical context. Through her reading of biographies and/or hagiographies of Xavier written by his fellow Jesuits, largely around the time when the drive for his canonization was gaining momentum, Gupta argues that these ‘signs of wonder’ or miracles (in common parlance) associated with the remains of Xavier tell us about alternate networks of circulation of trade and colonialism in Portuguese Asia.  As such these networks of circulation and stories associated with Xavier’s incorruptible body were not directly linked to imperialism and colonialism emerging from European centers. Rather, they opened up new experiences of colonialism through travel by sea, Christianization, and the patterns of monsoon winds.

Gupta broadens her field of analysis to view Xavier’s incorruptible body as simultaneously “a commodity, a gift, a relic, a person, and a thing” that allows her to see how the mortal remains were treated in Sancian, Malacca, and Goa against the backdrop of the reach of Portuguese commercial and political power, and the success of Jesuit missionary activities in these regions. These three places are not simply associated with the mortal remains in Xavier’s postmortem travels, but they were also actively part of his travels and missionary activities while he was alive.

After Xavier’s death in Sancian, his mortal remains could not be fully appreciated there “because of the limits of Portuguese statehood – Sancian was less a colonial outpost than a temporary safe haven for commercial traffic at this time” that necessitated the transfer of his incorruptible body to Malacca. Though, Xavier’s mortal remains did show miraculous signs in Sancian, the Portuguese settlers there failed to honor him with a proper burial. Moreover, though there was an absence of a “sustained church and state activity”, Xavier still exhibited numerous signs of incorruptness and sanctity.

In Malacca, however, Xavier’s mortal remains were received with a greater honour. His mortal remains were taken out in a procession in that city, where immediately some people were healed. Xavier also rid Malacca of an ongoing plague, his sanctity “rubbing off onto this colonial outpost [that is, Malacca] in a way reminiscent of European relics which often acted to protect and secure its new community”. But during the five months that Xavier’s mortal remains were kept in Malacca, they were damaged yet again due to the grave being too small. Moreover, the burial in Malacca happens in the absence of his fellow Jesuits (like in Sancian) and the Governor of Malacca, suggesting an absence of the powers of the church and the state. Gupta states that “in the end, Xavier’s poor treatment during his internment here exposes the vulnerabilities of church, state, and [Portuguese] public, thus prompting his subsequent removal from Malacca”.

The city of Goa being the capital of the Portuguese presence in Asia, and a place whose importance is not just confined to the political and commercial, but also encompasses the symbolic, receives the would-be saint with much honour and celebration. Gupta makes a fine observation in this regard: “Unlike both Sancian and Malacca, where his corpse was intermittently valued and poorly treated, Xavier is fully appreciated in Goa. Moreover, the elaborately ritualized reception of Xavier’s holy relic in Velha Goa will be unlike either of the events that were staged in Sancian and Malacca; that Xavier intercedes in exposing a perfect balance of church, state, and public at this valued site also explains why his postmortem travels end here”.

If we try to reflect on Gupta’s view of the telling of Xavier’s remarkable story of postmortem travels as an act that bestows a different value on the object of the story – Xavier and his incorruptible body – we can appreciate how Xavier was simply not a missionary who wanted to convert people to Christianity, but as in life and death somebody who ‘performed’ miracles and exhibited ‘signs of wonder’ within a specific and definite historical context. In life and in death, Xavier emerges as a person who struggled against the Portuguese administration in Asia. Like Xavier, the Portuguese administration also struggled to maintain the health of its Empire.

Miracles do happen – perhaps even on an everyday basis – but it is important to also see them within a historical framework and not outside of it.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 26 November, 2014)

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

FOOTBALL AND ALL THAT TRASH



While the performance of FC Goa in the inaugural Indian Super League on the pitch is offering little cheer to its fans in Goa, off the pitch these fans seem to have won many hearts. Reference is made to the cleaning drive by a handful of young fans which began soon after FC Goa’s second home game against Atlético de Kolkata and who posted pictures of their activities online. The post having gone viral on Facebook, the next home game against Delhi Dynamos saw a crowd of more than fifty joining in the efforts to clean the Fatorda stadium of the trash. While some linked it to the story of the efforts of Japanese fans cleaning up after the game during the World Cup in Brazil, and the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign recently launched, this ‘shot’ at cleaning received good press coverage in Goa as well as national and online portals.

Amongst many of the photos that were posted online, there is one that particularly caught my eye. This was a picture showing a large portion of the trash that was accumulated. Consisting largely of FC Goa banners and festoons, and soft drink cups, this picture gave a sense of how much trash was generated at Fatorda during the match against Delhi Dynamos. This image will be the basis on which I shall proceed in my reflections. While it is no doubt commendable and laudable that a handful of youngsters (like me) have taken leadership and indeed made others also join them in their efforts for cleanliness, the celebration  and reassurances that followed the drive tend to overlook crucial issues that are very much related to the issue of cleanliness and civic sense. This column would like to draw attention to some of these issues in the hope that a better understanding may be achieved.

What I would like to point out is that such an act of individual sacrifices, though useful in some ways, only goes to reassure us that something is being done to address a larger systemic problem. The issue of garbage is not simply about one person littering and hence the problem cannot be approached from a position of guilt: I litter therefore I am responsible for my trash and also that of others. The systemic problem that I refer to can best be represented by the picture that I discussed above. The question that needs to be asked generally of cleaning drives is where will all this trash go? It is by asking such a question that we can confront the obstinate problem of effective garbage management and disposal. The reassurances that such cleaning drives allow us to feel, now are exposed for the problems that they hold within them.

As with many of the cleanliness drives, including the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign, what missed the mark yet again were the people or workers who actually dispose our garbage. To their credit, the youngsters at Fatorda did try to empathize with the plight of the workers there, after they realized how backbreaking and thankless their job was. The stark reality is that these workers are ill-paid. Most likely the workers engaged in managing garbage are hired on contract basis which allows for the most vulgar flouting of labour laws. The worst form of such violations can be seen in the manner in which manual scavenging is allowed with impunity in India. Ill-paid and stigmatized due to the caste-based occupation, these workers sometimes pay a hefty price, either with their actual lives, or through life-long suffering from diseases such as TB. So while we applaud the persons who took it upon themselves to clean the stadium at Fatorda, the debate never goes any further to secure the rights of workers who actually have to deal with trash on a daily basis.

Apart from the game against Delhi Dynamos, the amount of trash also generated after the game against Atlético de Kolkata was sizeable, “at least half a truck full of garbage” in the words of one of the members of this group. This brings me to the next issue of how the very things that we enjoy – largely driven by an excessively consumerist logic – itself is generating so much trash. Rather than thinking of ways to clean the trash that gets generated everyday (though it is also very important), one needs to also seriously think about how to reduce the very generation of this trash on a daily basis. Ultimately, no matter how much we clean our houses, our neighbourhoods, our streets, and our stadiums, there is absolutely no mechanism to deal with the accumulated trash except to dump it in a garbage dump to rot.

This should ideally raise the question of what types or kinds of actions taken in relation to the problem of garbage should reassure us as a society. To be honest, very little has been done.  The problem is that the debate in Goa hardly ever goes beyond demanding cleanliness either from the individual or the civic authorities, or blaming the defunct garbage disposal technology in various landfills in Goa. We fail to recognize that this systemic malaise has a variety of people involved it in, not confined to a middle-class, urban, and upper-caste demographic. If our society feels that an occasional, well-intentioned act of cleaning by people who are not engaged in the occupation of cleaning be celebrated, this is adding insult to injury to the millions who toil everyday without getting any recognition.

In trying to attempt something well-intentioned like cleaning the stadium at Fatorda, there is the fear that we might end up understanding the problem divorced from its specific context and realities. Rather than suggesting that some kind of high-end machinery be immediately set up to deal with the systemic failures of garbage management, we should first think about putting in place worker-friendly labour laws. Laws that are sensitive to issues of caste, gender, health care, insurance, and other benefits for people engaged in garbage disposal and management. Perhaps the good folks who lent a hand to the workers at Fatorda could also lend their voice to this.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 12 November, 2014)