Wednesday, 22 June 2016

SAVIORS, TAMASHA, AND DESPERATION: A VICIOUS CIRCLE



The commencement of the monsoons about a week ago seems to have caught the authorities and public works departments napping. The pathetic manner in which public amenities and resources are (mis)managed add to the frustration and desperation that the citizens of Goa feel, and have felt for a long time. The water-clogged streets of Panjim, Mapusa, and Margao are a manifestation of mismanaged governance. If such incidents happen time after time, year after year, then one wouldn’t be off the mark in categorically stating that Goa is a failed State – in the sense of an administrative and political entity. It has been failing for a long time now.

Since the State fails repeatedly in its duties no matter which political party is in power, it could be suggested that Goan politics has been stuck in a vicious circle for some time now. The vicious circle begins with the repeated failure of the State regardless of the political party at the helm of governance and the ensuing frustration and desperation of the citizens. This leader of a political party or of a social movement – often a charismatic figure – emerges as a figure whose leadership provides the momentum for the change in political fortunes. This leader, invariably as he, is presented as the only savior who can bring about radical and revolutionary changes. Often this charismatic leader gains visibility through the successful staging of ‘spectacles’ such as protest marches or massive rallies at election times.

The argument here is that contemporary Goan politics is about the mobilization of people – in a metaphorical sense – from desperation to hope, and back to the cesspit of desperation. The fundamental and structural problems in Indian politics – be they of caste, language, region, gender, governance, unemployment – are left unaddressed. Problems that drive people into the vicious circle of desperation – hope – desperation in the first place.

While the vicious circle of desperation – hope – desperation may oppress us, to counter it we see the emergence of activists groups and movements, small and large, that attempt to correct the failing State. They are concerned with giving more power to the ordinary citizens in the process of governance. For instance, if there are massive irregularities in land sale across villages, we see many citizen groups emerging that attempt to stop it. They petition the State or they drag them to the court in order to stop the irregularities. So far such movements, though numerous, have had a very limited impact on the functioning of the State and its bureaucracy because their access to state machinery is limited. Such movements have to depend on the goodwill of the political bosses and the bureaucratic machinery to legislate laws that will work in their favor.

Since the activism route does not really work, one has to go back to electoral politics to gain access to the bureaucratic machinery. The only way one can do it is by organizing spectacular rallies. For instance, the case of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Goa is quite illustrative. Members of AAP campaigned vigorously door-to-door before their massive public rally at Campal. Thus, the massive rally was a key moment both for the self-image of an outfit like AAP and also for others to take them seriously.

With Arvvind Kejriwal projected as a savior and the Goan State riddled with scams and corruption, AAP appears to be ideally positioned to give hope to the Goan masses. In Kejriwal, AAP has the ideal person who emerges from the bureaucratic system which has repeatedly failed the people, and who postures himself as someone who can run it efficiently; indeed, someone who can deliver basic amenities. Additionally he is also the activist who was frustrated by the bureaucratic system. The interesting thing about the AAP is that it acknowledges the problems existing in the State/bureaucratic machinery but emphasizes only the mismanagement and corruption of previous political parties. But this does not account for the fact that it is the state machinery that has seldom worked in the favor of the masses. Political parties come into power and then they are kicked out after a slew of controversies and scams, but the mechanisms of the state are longer-lasting. Bureaucratic machinery is more resilient than the fortunes of a political party.

It is necessary, however, to suggest that there is no point in indulging in utopian visions. There is a value to these visions as long as one also recognizes the urgent necessity of having options in politics; of having a cushion to fall back on in case grand political mobilizations fall flat on their faces. What is meant by having options in politics is akin to having dual citizenship (in the Goan context) allowing us to infuse Goan politics with regimes based on legal rights and also contribute meaningfully to the political systems that uphold these rights.

The word ‘tamasha’ in the title was used specifically for apart from highlighting the problematic role of spectacles, to also play on the two meanings of the word in many South Asian languages. In the first instance, a ‘tamasha’ could mean a performance for entertainment; in the second it could mean talk or actions devoid of any intrinsic meaning. Without recognizing that the State has failed on several counts and the people in Goa have no choice but to be stuck in a vicious circle, Goan politics will forever be a ‘tamasha’. The vicious circle, of course, may never be broken.

(A shorter version of this article was published in O Heraldo, dt: 22 June, 2016)

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

READING REGINALD: PULP FICTION OR NOT?



Anniversaries are good occasions to contemplate and reflect on personalities. As the 102nd birth anniversary of the Konkani writer Reginald Fernandes approaches (14 June, 1914 – 13 November, 1994) reflecting on how his books and writings have been perceived and understood thus far would seem fitting for the occasion.

Reginald’s writing, due to a lack of attention by literary scholars and writers in Goa, is assumed to be in the genre of ‘pulp fiction’. This is largely due to the want of a better term to describe cheaply-produced, pocket-sized fiction for mass consumption, and the fact that ‘pulp fiction’ is understood to be literature of low caliber. Within the Romi Konkani readership, the term romans is used to refer to such fiction – to the extent that ‘novel’ is synonymous with romans. With the formation of Goa’s statehood and the official recognition of nagri-scripted Konkani, one could observe not only a shift of modes of literary production from the organic (romans) to an artificial (kadombori, a term believed to be more Indian in its register), but also a rejection of the very form of the romans for a more modern and literary form of writing based on sanskritic culture.

Apart from linguistic politics, scholars of literature point out, the fuzzy boundaries between ‘pulp fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ are due to practical causes as well. The immediate criterion used to classify a book as ‘pulp’ or not is its appearance and pricing. Reginald’s books fit this criterion as his books were published on cheaply available paper and these were modestly priced around 50 years ago at 2 rupees and a few paisas. But even by such a criterion, some books by famous novelists such as R. K. Narayan were published in cheap and affordable editions that had the appearance of ‘pulp’. Thus, the idea that books printed on cheap and coarse paper can be termed as ‘pulp’ can at times be misleading. Moreover, in the case of Reginald, the cheap and coarse print quality – almost lurid – can be explained by the fact that the author and publishers experienced financial difficulties with the rising prices, and hence these books had to be affordably priced.

‘Pulp fiction’ is mass-produced. The cheap pricing is meant to attract a reading demographic across economic divisions. It is largely aimed at making fiction accessible to lower income groups, such as the working class Goan population in Bombay. In this sense, Reginald’s books can be qualified as ‘pulp’, especially since 5000 copies would sell like hot cakes in no time. This mass production of ‘pulp fiction’ is not just confined to the print-run but also extends to the number of books an author churns out in his/her lifetime or career. If one looks at the authors who wrote ‘pulp fiction’ in Hindi and Tamil for instance, then the sheer number of books written would strike one as mind-boggling. Reginald’s oeuvre consisting well over one hundred books can easily qualify as ‘pulp’ in this respect.

Qualitatively speaking, ‘pulp fiction’ is supposed to be ‘bad literature’. Pulp follows a formula, the story-line is simple and straightforward, and is written in an effortless and accessible language. Scholars point out that many ‘good’ literary works (such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm) are also written in a simple and accessible manner. On the surface of it, Reginald’s writings, although simple and formulaic, make use of the Konkani language in novel and creative ways. Reginald’s descriptions of the scenes invoking the natural beauty of Goa have a poetic quality to them, and his descriptions of the fantastic and the marvelous leads him to use known words in many different ways.


One reason why writers such as Reginald were and are viewed in contemporary Goa as not literary enough is due to the cultural and political marginalization of the Romi script. Any literary production in the Romi script was viewed as lacking in literary standard by the dominant nagri establishment. One cannot deny that in order to make nagri Konkani the official language of Goa, the vibrancy of the Romi script productions were denied state recognition, apparently for a greater good. In such circumstances, referring to the oeuvre of writers like Reginald as ‘pulp’ may end up justifying such an attitude of ignoring the cultural vibrancy of the Romi script.

Considering the fuzzy boundaries between ‘literary’ and ‘pulp’ fiction, Tabish Khair, a writer, poet, and critic, attempts to define ‘pulp fiction’ in the Indian context: “[P]ulp fiction is fiction that used largely fixed generic features to satisfy the largely fixed reading expectations of as large a market as possible”. Even if in certain respects Reginald’s corpus of writings can be seen as ‘pulp’, one has to be careful given the fraught nature of language politics in Goa. So is there any alternative category that can be used to denote and understand the writings of those like Reginald? The alternative, I think, has been staring us in the face: romans.

Apart from the fact that romans is an organic term used in the context of Romi writings and has a legitimate tradition and history, it also helps us to do away with the artificial distinction between what constitutes literature and what doesn’t. In many languages the novel developed from a tradition of romance literature, so much so that a novel is synonymous with ‘romance’. Moreover, through the route of romans the pulp-esque features of writers like Reginald need not be entirely rejected. This will also allow us to escape the confusion that results from re-labeling romans as kadombori. In the end we can provide a provisional answer to the question in the title: not ‘pulp’ because we have a better alternative in romans.

For more Reading Reginald, click here.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 8 June, 2016)