Reading Pessoa

This is no critical take on Pessoa. I have not even read him exhaustively but I am increasingly falling in love with his writing so much that I want to expedite my Portuguese learning and read him in Portuguese. While I was in Lisbon (mandatory bragging for Europe travel), I would read his poems on the internet while sitting in a café or at a bar. Since the Lisbon trip materialised rather at the last moment, I couldn’t pick up his Lisbon: What the tourist should see beforehand, nor I was inclined to read it while I was there. But I managed to read some of his poems. After coming back, I have been occasionally reading his The Book of Disquiet (TBOD), as and when I find spare time. I think TBOD is a book I want/ed to write. It is deeply internal, incisive and arresting. Just thoughts, with no compulsions of narrative, linearity or structure and is inviting. And the format too, of short musings is something I myself have been writing. And in my mind, I thought I was making a breakthrough in the literature scene by experimenting with this form, until I came across Ravish Kumar’s LaPreK and finally Pessoa’s TBOQ. Nevertheless, now that I’ve learnt Pessoa has already written what I have been deferring to write, I am planning to gift copies of TBOQ to friends.

I usually read it on my way to the university or before sleeping. In it, Pessoa writes about mundane reflections that are simultaneously existential. Apart from its beautifully flowing prose, I also relate to the subjective position that Pessoa has assumed as a first person narrator in the book, that of a quiet observer of himself and everything else in the chaos of everyday. Every now and then, Pessoa throws in some of the most brilliant one liners and metaphors. Consider

To express something is to conserve its virtue and take away its terror.

Or

Everything was sleeping as if the universe were a mistake.

And what is interesting is the book is as much about Lisbon as it is about Pessoa. He doesn’t fetishize the city yet brings out Lisbon in his writing in most evocative ways. Growing up in Ponda- a small town of Goa, and having lived in Pune and Delhi, I have always wondered if I could locate myself in a cityscape (in a broader sense). I can perhaps write about Goa that nobody wants to read. I am repulsed by Delhi these days and I spend my time here as if I am doing a favour on the city. Pune is the only place I have desired to go back to but I am not sure if I will like it either. In that sense, TBOQ is a great example about how to write about a city without giving it any extra emphasis. I started reading TBOQ to regain my momentum in reading fiction but it is becoming a primer for me on how to write.

The Woman and the Doctor

(A poem from Sudirsukta by Vishnu Wagh. Translated by me with help from Preeti Nangal)
 
 
Doctor,
It’s been four months now…
Oh that’s a good news!
God has blessed you
You are pregnant and
You shall be a mother soon
 
But doctor
We don’t even have a house
 
The world is your abode
Claim any corner
Bear the pain
Lighten your womb
And let the funis be buried there
Don’t worry keep calm
You shall be a mother soon
 
Both of us are unemployed
We do menial jobs
He labors in farms
While I do the dishes
Earth pierces our stomachs when we sleep
Pray tell us how would we raise a kid?
 
You fulfilled your desires
And had your share of fun
Why are you worried now
About feeding your son?
Hunger shall be satiated
One way or the other
Son will grow up
And look after the mother
 
Doctor, with rising inflation
It is expensive to even survive
 
Agreed that death is cheaper
But has the world come to an end?
Your significance in this world
Lady you do not understand
 
I do not understand you, doctor
 
Let me explain
The nation needs workers
To do its labor
To operate the machines
We need daily wagers
And nation needs voices
To sing its praise
God gave you a belly
To satisfy the nation’s hunger
He blessed women with motherhood
So you may produce well in number
Your womb is but a factory
That’ll breed workers for nation
Bear this burden and stay mute
For you are going to be a mother soon
 
Doctor
To bear this life even
Is impossible now
Where living itself is undesired
How do I borrow the strength to bear the child?
 
Why do you lose hope?
Darwin said that a man survives
despite adversities
You must concede
For the mother earth is calling you
You give birth to a child
To sons that shall shoulder the earth
Live happily ever after
Keep breeding future workers
The nation will get its workers
Our machines shall run
Our fields will blossom
While your body will be satisfied too
Go lady….
Let your first motherhood
Be happy and prosperous
Let the nation progress
And may you be a mother
Over and over again!

D.D. Kosambi Fellowship

Premise: I have been awarded the D.D. Kosambi Research Fellowship by the Directorate of Art and Culture, Government of Goa for the year 2016-2018. Under this fellowship, I will be researching the genealogies of Maratha and Marathi identities in 20th century Portuguese Goa.

The assertion and presence of Marathi in Goa has always been looked at with certain degree of suspicion. The popularity of Marathi in Goa was the basis on which Goa’s merger with Maharashtra was argued in sixties. The debate was laid to rest following a referendum, popularly known as the ‘Opinion Poll’, wherein majority of the Goans voted to remain as an independent union territory instead of merging with Maharashtra. Goa’s affinity towards Marathi was further seen in the official language movement where Konkani (written in Devnagari script) was instituted as the official language of Goa and Marathi was approved for official purpose.

Goa’s relationship with Marathi is deeply linked to the peculiar networks of caste and colonialism that marked the early 20th century Goa. Several Goan Hindu communities were engaging with Maratha history and/or Marathi language to make space for themselves in the upward mobility race. There were several lower caste communities that adopted a Maratha past and identity. This adoption was as an assertion of a certain caste consciousness. Marathi had a strong presence in the vernacular print as well, alongwith the Romi Konkani, in Goa and Bombay. From the late 19th century till 1961, there were around 82 Marathi periodicals that were started either in Goa or by Goans in British and Independent India. Another major factor that fostered the popularity of Marathi and Maratha history in Goa was Marathi theatre. Goa was part of the larger circuit in which Marathi theatre that was produced in British India was being performed. But more importantly, Goa has had a long standing tradition of Marathi theatre that was at its peak for the major period of the 20th century. These plays were staged in the temple premises itself since the majority of the temples in Goa extend into performing spaces. The themes were predominantly mythological or based on the life and times of the Maratha king Shivaji Bhosale. Marathi also was, and still is, the language of spirituality and worship among the Goan Hindu communities.

‘Region’ exists as a notional construct and not merely as a geographical terrain contained within arbitrary boundaries. Thus, if regions too exist as ‘imagined communities‘, it is imperative to reiterate Partha Chatterjee’s emphasis to define the locus of these imaginations. Goa is site whose histories not only can offer fresh perspectives on colonial empires in South Asia, but also highlight the imperial manner in which post-colonial nations operate at the impulses of its ruling and elite class. This project is driven by the pursuit to locate these genealogies in general, and those that claimed Goa as an extension of Maharashtra in particular.

Bahujan leaders, not Bahujan faces

bapsa

The student union elections at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi recently concluded with the Left Unity Panel, a political alliance between Student Federation of India and All India Student’s Association, winning all the four posts on the student panel. The student politics at the JNU campus has always been a closely watched affair and following the national attention that JNU had garnered after controversial slogans raising events in February this year. In this election, both left and right wing parties on the JNU campus jostled to capture the field after the highly acrimonious and divisive scenes following the state’s crackdown on JNU in response to the aforementioned events in February.

While these two factions battled for their dominance on the JNU campus, the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (BAPSA) emerged as the show stealer, despite not being able to win any of the central panel posts. BAPSA was the single largest party to be voted in the JNU student union polls. BAPSA gave a clarion call for the unity of the oppressed, ensuring that Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, Muslim students came together to consolidate a formidable opposition not only to the Hindutva forces on the campus, but also to the leftist political outfits that otherwise claim to be in solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed.

BAPSA positioned itself as a political force of the minoritised sections of the students, with opposition to caste as a fundamental basis on which its politics was founded. The rise of BAPSA in JNU is in tune with the various caste based movements emerging from different parts of India, such as the resistance of the Dalit communities in Gujarat under the leadership of Jignesh Mewani, or the nationwide movement that was spurred after the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad. These political uprisings are indicative of a pattern wherein Dalit-Bahujan and minoritised communities are altering not only the narrative of the Indian politics, but its grammar too.

One manner in which BAPSA has been able to do this is to launch a vocal critique of the Indian leftist political outfitswhich, for decades, have been positioning themselves as the vanguards of secular and liberal politics in India. However, these left political outfits are very much plagued by the caste hierarchy with upper castes holding (onto) key political positions. Moreover, the anti-reservation stance of these leftist groups during the implementation of the Mandal commission report or even their unfounded critique of Ambedkar and Ambedkarism is also indicative of their outlook towards caste politics. The newer Dalit bahujan political outfits, such as the BAPSA, have been consistently highlighting the inherent casteism within the left parties, arguing that they are no different from their right wing counterparts.

In this context, the takeaways from BAPSA’s politics offer some interesting insights to rethink bahujan politics in Goa. The bahujan communities within Hindu and Catholic communities, have played a crucial role in shaping Goa’s political scenario. All parties field bahujan candidates to ensure maximum success. However, this representation of Bahujans within the political outfits in Goa has often, if not always, been reduced into mere tokenistic representation.A look at the recent political outfits that are gearing up for the upcoming assembly elections in Goa would tell you that though all these parties are promising assured representation of bahujan and minoritised communities, their supreme leaders are predominantly upper caste individuals. Most of the parties have their bahujan faces in cadre that does the groundwork but when it comes to assuming leadership positions, it has always been dominated by the upper caste leaders of these parties.

big_wagh_parrikarThe implications of such usurping of positions of power by upper caste leaders are many. Firstly, while most of the parties will claim that they represent interests of all communities, the interests of the upper caste communities get preference by the virtue of them being led by the upper caste members themselves. Secondly, it renders the bahujan leadership within the party ineffective; the bahujan leaders lack the power to counter the assertion of upper caste interests because they understandably try not to rock the boat so as to maintain whatever position of influence they have within the party. Thus, the bahujan leaders are rendered as baits to garner bahujan support while the upper caste power structure does not allow them to safeguard political interests of the bahujan communities.

BAPSA’s act of distancing itself from the left parties on JNU campus is precisely to overcome such usurping of power. BAPSA has no qualms about clearly indicating whose interests they are representing and remain committed to foregrounding the struggles of the oppressed communities. Similarly, Goan bahujan politics needs to be reinvented to distance itself from the political outfits that operate not in the bahujan interest, but to serve upper caste interests disguised as those representing a cross section section of the Goan society. Instead, a bahujan alliance that brings together both, the Hindu and Catholic bahujan communities in agreement of sharing power can go long way in changing the fate of bahujan communities in Goa. Otherwise the upper caste leaders will continue to remain in positions of power, not only through the support of aforementioned bahujan faces but also at the cost of bahujan communities’ access to social and political empowerment.

This article was first published in The Goan on 22nd Sept 2016. 

Unburdening the language from motherhood

The debate over Goa’s language issue continues because the conflict is far from being resolved. The passing of the much controversial Official Language Act (OLA) in 1987 did anything but resolve it. In my previous columns, I have argued that the passing of the OLA was an act to impose Hindu Saraswat hegemony onto the Goan people, particularly the Hindu and the Catholic bahujan communities. In a book published in 2004, bahujan activist Ramnath Naik termed Nagari Konkani as ‘Bamani’, indicating the caste location from which the Nagari Konkani assertion emerged and is sustained till today. BJP MLA Vishnu Surya Wagh, in his op-ed article in a Marathi daily few weeks ago, also made a similar assertion, attracting sharp reactions from the Nagari Konkani camp.

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 1.32.23 PMEvery time the legitimacy of Nagari Konkani as an all encompassing cultural marker for Goans is challenged by Romi Konkani and Marathi supporters in Goa, its proponents religiously argue against it. Instead, they assert that Konkani as the sole Goan language since it is widely spoken in Goa. They would put forth the idea of Goa as the ‘mother’land and Konkani being the ‘mother’tongue of all Goans. By Konkani, they of course mean Nagri Konkani.  What distinctly marks the responses of the Nagari Konkani proponents is the manner in which they cover their defense with seeming emotional overtones, when in fact they are solidly reasoned out to assert their cultural supremacy. To nuance these conversations, one needs to undo a lot of generalized assumption about Goan history and language politics.

It is crucial to remember that there’s nothing natural about the languages we speak, contrary to what is often believed. We pick up languages that are being spoken in our environment. If speaking ‘a’ specific language was as natural as having a biological mother, we would have been hardcoded into speaking only the language that our mother would speak, irrespective of the social context that one would be born in. In a multilingual environment such as South Asia, one is bound to know more than one language with equal ease and proficiency. Further, this patriarchal fixation with defining languages as ‘mother tongue’ needs to be critically scrutinized. Characterizing language with the chaste figure of a mother, as something which needs to be protected is a pattern often observed in proto-nationalist movements. Such political movements not only restrict the role of woman as a passive symbol of political discourses which are largely driven by men, but their underlying masculine nature often tends along the lines of fascism.

deleuzeguattari1French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, in their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987), argue that “there is no mother tongue [but] only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity”. This is to imply that the project to naturalize languages (and script) as ‘mother tongue’ is essentially an attempt in fixing the language of the most dominant social group as the sole vehicle for cultural identity for those under subjugation. So, when Naik or Wagh refer to Nagari Konkani as Bamani, they are not merely hinting at the specific caste location of ‘official’ Konkani but also targeting the resultant fixing of the Hindu Saraswats in Goa as the ideal bearers of Goan identity, by the virtue of their dialect of Konkani being the official language binding onto the entire state.

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 3.15.41 PM
Bharat was a bilingual weekly (Marathi and Portuguese) published from Portuguese Goa. In early 1920s, it also started a supplement in Romi Konkani. Govind Pundalik Hegde Desai, also known as Bharatkar Hegde Desai, was the editor of Bharat.

It also needs to be emphasized that contrary to the claims of existence of one single Konkani since antiquity, history indicates otherwise. As Jason Keith Fernandes has argued there could have been several proto-Marathi and proto-Kannada dialects in use prior to the arrival of Portuguese. These dialects must have been largely confined to speech and associated with various caste communities. One must also remember that the access to knowledge was a privilege available only to the upper castes. Thus, even if there existed any tradition of writing in proto-Konkani prior to the arrival of Portuguese, it wasn’t a democratic tradition to begin with. A transition of a dialect to language is marked by its dissemination and popularization through networks of circulation. In Goa too, as argued by Fernandes and recently by Wagh, it was the work done by Catholic missionaries in codifying and disseminating Konkani through the Church that enabled the emergence of Konkani as a language. It is imperative to note that this version of Konkani predominantly used the Roman script. Rochelle Pinto’s Between Empires (2008), an inquiry of print and politics in nineteenth century Goa, also hints at the glaring absence of Nagari Konkani in the networks of print circulation while Romi Konkani, Marathi and Portuguese were thriving in Goa as well as in colonial Bombay. Thus, this false assumption that Nagari Konkani as a language was always present in Goa – even before the arrival of the Portuguese – has no basis in history.

Languages do not operate solely on impulses of emotions or identity, especially for communities which are displaced to the margins.  Rather, people adopt languages that will provide them opportunities and social mobility. Multi-lingual practices are important to facilitate social mobility in a caste and class setting that would diligently deny this mobility. Marathi, Romi Konkani and Portuguese have historically played that role for various Goan communities and therefore are very much the languages of the peoples of Goa.

Tiatr and the Goan Public Sphere

The emergence and evolution of the Goan public sphere has received very sparse attention, despite its potential to nuance the larger debate over public sphere, owing to the multicultural stratifications that are observed in the Goan polity. The Goan public sphere was being conceptualized not only from Goa but from colonial Bombay too. These attempts started consolidating towards the end of nineteenth century and early twentieth century owing to the resurgence of print. But print was not the only medium through which these publics were being consolidated. Often, studies on public sphere base their analysis on the emergence of print culture. As Janelle Reinelt has argued, in her article Rethinking Public Sphere for the Global Age (2011), studies on public sphere focused mainly on print cultures run the risk of eliding the presence of multiple channels of communication that employ aurality and visuality.

Nancy Fraser, in her essay ‘Rethinking Public Sphere’ (1990), has put forth the idea of a subaltern counterpublic. Subaltern counterpublics are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, ie the discourse that challenge the dominant discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs. Subaltern counterpublics have a dual character. On the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases for agitational activities directed toward wider publics. It is precisely in the relationship between these two functions that their emancipatory potential resides. This dialectic enables subaltern counterpublics partially to intervene the unjust participatory privileges enjoyed by members of dominant social groups in stratified societies.

Tiatr has been a mode to disseminate counterdiscourse, that challenge the dominant discourses originating from mainstream public spheres populated largely by socially dominant groups. Thus, tiatr has been influential in consolidating a subaltern counterpublic. In colonial Bombay, tiatr was a mode of contesting the shaming of the bahujan Goan Catholic communities by the Goan Catholic elites. The attempt was to build a positive identity through tiatr. In post-colonial Goa, the major function that tiatr has played is to create discourse asserting the differences of the Goan Catholic communities as a Catholic populace in a polity that is majorly dominated and governed by Hindus. Let me elaborate.

Francis de Tuem’s kantar in his tiatr Reporter (2015) begins with eulogizing Mother Teresa for her charity work and ends with a critique of ‘Ghar Wapsi’. Tuem’s kantar was in response to the statements made by Mohan Bhagwat in June 2015 where Bhagwat had said that Mother Teresa’s work was motivated by a desire to convert Indians to Christianity. This statement by Bhagwat was made around the same time that  ‘Ghar Wapsi’, a series of religious conversion activities were being carried by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in various part of India. The prime objective of ‘Ghar Wapsi’ was to convert Dalits and Muslim Dalits into Hinduism and had become a topic for emotionally charged public debate. Tuem begins his kantar elaborating the work that Mother Teresa has done for the orphans, refuting charges of ulterior motive laid on her by them.  To the RSS and VHP, who sought to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism, Tuem asks, ‘we are Kunbi Catholics! Will you convert us to Bamon Hindus? The Bamons do not allow lower caste Hindus to enter their temples, will you allow us [the Catholics] in your temples?’ He ends the kantar on a note that says ‘my forefather might have been converted by Portuguese but I have become a Catholic by my own choice. I guarantee that all Catholics in Goa will die but as Catholics’.

This is a very crucial counter that Tuem poses to the narrative of ‘Ghar Wapasi’. It emanates from the daily shaming of the Goan Catholic communities as ‘living under a colonial hangover’ or as ‘anti-nationals’ by those who claim affinity to Hindu nationalist rhetoric. The presence of Catholics in Goa is always seen through the frame of religious conversions that were carried out in late 16th and 17th century. What needs to be highlighted here is that the conversions are predominantly believed to be ‘forced’ onto the natives by the Portuguese missionaries. However, there is enough evidence to contest such rhetoric by exploring other possible reasons that initiated the native residents to convert to Catholicism. Tuem’s kantar not only reclaims agency from a lower caste Catholic identity, but also refutes the narrative that essentially renders Catholic communities as disenfranchised population in Goa.

These counterdiscourses that make their way into the public imagination through tiatr operate at a scale where they have the potential to make or break governments and mobilise mass support to influence policy decisions. Tiatr does not merely act a mediator between the state and the public but also as a ombudsman. Thus, there have been attempts to stifle the tiatr artists for their sharp and incisive critique on the state. Reinelt argues that counterpublics change the face of the socio-political representation of the nation and its citizens and therefore create new sites for democratic struggle. Tiatr exemplifies creation of such ‘sites’ for a consistent struggle, and perhaps embodies the promise of a true democracy.

The Myth of ‘Unity in Diversity’

This campaign emphasizes unity among all Indians by employing a rhetorical strategy that erodes the contradictions in imagining India as a singular nation.

The phrase ‘Unity in Diversity’ is periodically invoked to express the spirit of post-colonial Indian nationalism. What this phrase seeks to assert is that irrespective of varied religions, ethnicities, linguistic affiliations and other such differences, India and Indians stand united. Following Ernest Renan’s argument that ‘unity [in the context of nations] is always brutally established’, the Indian narrative of ‘Unity in Diversity’ too needs to be critically scrutinized. In post-colonial India, several policies and programs have been formulated that seek to emotionally invoke the idea of ‘Unity in Diversity’ among people in India. In the wake of recent events that have sparked off debates over ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ in India, I was reminded of the national integration campaign Miley Sur Mera Tumhara, produced in 1986, that still evokes a feeling of a unified Indian nation.

Mile Sur Mera Tumhara was a campaign produced by the Council for Public Service Commission, an undertaking of Government of India, and promoted by Doordarshan, the state-owned television at that time. This video is intended to represent the true Indian spirit: the diversity in Indian languages, costumes, regions, religions, ethnicities, and celebrities. It starts with a slow Hindustani classical rendering by vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, then picks up speed and moves across many languages, cultures, and musical variations, fading at the end into a harmony with the final notes of India’s national anthem. All the participants sing Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, Toh Sur Bane Humara, meaning, if my tune synchronizes with yours, then the tune becomes ours, making it indistinguishable.

The Indian nation, in its post-colonial avatar, was confronted with the immediacy to address the linguistic differences across different regions in India. A Committee for Emotional Integration with a mandate to ‘‘study the role of education in strengthening and promoting the processes of emotional integration in national life”. This committee was responsible to introduce Hindi in school curriculum so that it becomes a common medium of communication binding the whole country together. This imposition of Hindi has received severe criticism as it imposed North Indian norms onto the rest of the regions, inorder to discipline them into nation-subjects. This song too starts with a Hindi couplet first, thus establishing that the ‘Mera’, or the first person privilege within the Indian polity is for the Hindi speaking community while ‘Tumhara’, or the ‘othered’ ones are communities with regional languages. What must be noted is how the Hindi language here is elevated to an all-encompassing representational category, embodying the ‘Indian’ nation, while other languages are reduced to categories that merely represent India’s regional ethos.

What is interesting to note here is how two regions, Goa and the states in the North East of India have been shown in this campaign video. While all other regions are represented through individuals singing the Mile Sur… couplet in their respective languages, the sections where Goa and the North Eastern states feature only have background music and no words. For the North Eastern region, the camera pans over a group of people holding each other by their waist. The video provides no other markers apart from their racial features and costumes to suggest that this group represents the North Eastern states of India. Similarly, for Goa, one can see people waving their hands and a family descending down the stairs of an old house with Indo-Portuguese architecture. The scene closes with noted Goan cartoonist Mario Miranda in the frame sketching a boat, fishermen, and coconut trees. There is something peculiar about this muting of voices from Goa and the North Eastern regions of India. It shows the discomfort that the narrative of Indian nationalism encountered to integrate these regions, with their own distinct histories, into its fold.

This campaign overtly emphasizes unity among all Indians by employing a rhetorical strategy that erodes the contradictions and cultural diversity inherent in the idea of a singular India as imagined by the Indian political dispensation. The trap in Mile Sur… is that it seeks to essentialise all differences within the Indian polity through languages and its regions. But it is a well known fact that regionalism and mutli-lingualism are not the only premises of difference that mark the social realities in India. The differences of caste, religion, color, race, ethnicities or even sovereignties often transcend the narrow and artificial regional-linguistic boundaries, and in fact, often challenge the very idea of India as a single unified nation. The campaign can be said to assert the Indian state’s version of imagining India as a post-colonial nation and does not necessarily reflect its lived realities. Just two years before Mile Sur… was released in 1986, India witnessed the state sponsored anti-Sikh riots, in response to Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguard. The polarization within the Indian polity has increased thereon, after the implementation of Mandal commission and the infamous Babri Masjid demolition in early nineties to the recent killings in Dadri and the overall political atmosphere in India that celebrates the masculine Hindutva rhetoric. The crisis, thus, as reflected in Mile Sur… is that of the ever increasing gap between Indian state’s projection of itself as a unified nation and its social realities that indicates otherwise.

Sairat and the banality of violence

What makes ‘Sairat’ realistic is the forthright manner in which it highlights the routine violence of caste and patriarchy.

Have we ever bothered to think why the tragedies of Delta Meghwals and Rohith Vemulas fail to enter the mainstream public imagination? What discourse constructs our world of realities where the inhuman tragedies that continue to perpetrate the horrors of caste and gender violence fail to even attract sympathy, let alone bringing those involved in committing these heinous crimes to punishment? Rather, the mainstream public sphere is characterized by a consistent invisibilizing and negation of the violence that emanates from caste and patriarchal structures. Nagraj Manjule’s latest film, Sairat, is a cinematic intervention against such constructions of reality and compels us to look beyond what meets the eye.

Those who have seen Manjule’s debut film Fandry would remember the iconic climax where the protagonist Jabya flings a stone with full vigor towards the camera, as if it were aimed at the audience. Sairat is perhaps a reminder that the stone that Jabya threw at us in Fandry is not sufficient to demolish the structures of caste and patriarchy. Sairat highlights that fact that incidents of caste and gender atrocities are recurring events and a reality that one often chooses to ignore, consciously or otherwise.

Archi- Sairat’s female protagonist- is a daughter of the local MLA and her access to the pleasures of affluence are made abundantly visible through her powerfully crafted character. Archi’s character transgresses the norm of the submissive, shy ‘heroines’ in mainstream Indian films. Manjule, while circumventing these clichés, gives a great deal of agency to Archi’s character and boldly marks her desires. Manjule also highlights that the bravado that Archi exhibits is not accessible to other female characters in the film. Archi’s ability to transgress into a strong female character is enabled by a patriarchal structure of power that she inhibits as a daughter of the local MLA belonging to the dominant caste. In a scene where Archi drives a tractor and stops at the male protagonist Parshya’s house, Parshya’s mother looks at Archi and says, “You drive tractor like a man”. Upon looking at Archi, Parshya’s mother’s face is marked by an expression that is simultaneously in awe of Archi for driving a tractor and aware of the realities that confine her or her daughter within the boundaries of their lower caste female subjecthood. This moment reminded me of the gruesome events that took place in Khairlanji a decade ago where four members of the Bhotmange family belonging to a Dalit caste were murdered by the members of politically dominant Kunbi caste. The women of the family, Surekha and Priyanka, were paraded naked in public and later hacked to death by mutilating their bodies. One of the many things that had attracted the ire of the Kunbis was the fact that Priyanka dared to ride a bicycle to school while her mother Surekha had fought for retaining the ownership of her own piece of land. It is the same unholy collusion of patriarchy and caste that ‘allows’ Archi to ride a Royal Enfield while simultaneously  making Priyanka Bhotmange a victim of caste violence in Khairlanji for riding a bicycle. Manjule’s brilliance lies in how routinely he highlights this difference just by the subtle expression on the mother’s face, bereft of any melodrama that one has come to associate with mainstream Indian cinema.

In a scene towards the second half of the film, Manjule crafts another such moment that succinctly captures the core of the film. Archi’s father has to surrender his candidature to Sonal Tai, a female colleague in his party. This surrender on the father’s part, as we are made to understand, is a result of the ‘shame’ that Archi has brought to him and his family by eloping with a boy from lower caste. Earlier in an opening sequence, the father is shown criticizing the opposition contestant suggesting that since the opposition leaders cannot ‘control’ the ladies of their own family they are unfit to rule the constituency. One can not help but notice the blow his male ego has received from two women with aspirations, his daughter Archi, and Sonal Tai. The shot closes with a decisive look on the father’s face that is linked with the climax of the film that, like in Fandry, leaves the viewer shaken and speechless.

The daily violence of caste and patriarchy is often invisiblised in the mainstream public discourse, including films. Manjule’s films, inspired by the Ambedkarite discourse, forcefully draw attention to these routine acts of violence in a layered manner compelling the audience to take note of the same. Underneath Sairat’s narrative as an epic love story lie the banal realities of violence of both caste and patriarchy. Sairat, and Fandry are reminders that we need to open ourselves to these lived realities of the society that we inhibit, whose denial otherwise validates our comfort zones.

This was first published in The Goan on 9 May 2016. 

Cantaram as political dissent

Earlier this month, Goa Government’s Department of Information and Publicity held a ‘Konkani Kantaram Utsav’, a cantaram singing competition in which the participants were asked to sing about the achievements of the current Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government. This competition attracted a lot of criticism, noticeably from the tiatr community, questioning the government’s intentions behind organizing such a competition. Cantaram competitions are usually held without any pre-decided themes and certainly not with a rule that prohibits participants from criticizing the government. On the contrary, one of the several requirements of a cantar and cantorist is that of political sharpness. Cantoristsranging from Conception-Nelson-Anthony (famously known as the Trio kings) and William de Curtorim in the past, to the current sensation Francis de Tuem, have been famous for their radical political positions.Cantaram carry a huge affective magnitude for the Goan Catholic communities and it has played a key role in influencing public opinion at various historical junctures in post-colonial Goa.  The concerned department, in its official press release, stated that “[s]ong and drama is one of the medium used to propagating various policies, programmes and the schemes of the Government [sic]”. While using traditional cultural practices to propagate government schemes is not unheard of, there is more to the said cantaram competition than meets the eye.

11754510_905717512811034_6447163134040975280_oCantaram are an indispensable part of the tiatr, a theatre form that is popular largely among the bahujan Catholic communities in Goa. Audio CDs of cantars have brisk sales across Goa and is one of the most consumed form of Konkani music. In digital space too, acantar shared on YouTube would have an average of 25,000-30,000hits, a popularity that no other Goan cultural form enjoys. But the potency of cantar form lies in how, over the years, it has become a medium of formulating a discourse about the Catholic communities in Goa, wherein they retain their own agency.Cantaram, beyond its appeal as a form of entertainment, are employed to narrate and remember Goa’s history from the perspective of bahujan Goan Catholics. For instance, it would be helpful to look at two Goan political leaders, Dr. Jack Sequeira and Dayanand Bandodkar and their respective portrayal in cantaramand popular history. The popular narrative of Goan history escalates Bandodkar as a leader of masses while Sequeira’s role in Goan politics is inadequately discussed. But in cantaram, one finds an inversion of this narrative where Sequeira is celebrated for his definitive role during the Opinion Poll in 1967 while Bandodkar is subjected to sharp criticism for wanting to merge Goa with Maharashtra.

Such popular commentary on the state of Goa, emerging from a marginalized community poses a significant discursive threat to the regimes in power. Almost a year ago, the current BJP led government was exploring possibilities of setting up a censor board on tiatrs. However, the popularity that tiatrenjoys in Goa is far too powerful for the censors. Following a backlash over this move, the BJP government had to retract its decision. Having burnt their fingers once, this time the BJP led government saw it fit to organize a cantaram competition, with a clause that no adverse remarks could be made on the government, effectively imposing the censorship.

While the BJP draws its support largely from its anti-minority rhetoric in rest of the India, such stance hasn’t proven to be a success in Goa. In fact, any political outfit in Goa cannot afford to neglect the bahujan Catholic voters that until recently, could make or break governments. This is not to reduce the bahujan Catholic communities in Goa merely to a vote bank but to point to their acute political awareness, which marks them distinctly from the rest of the Goan population. The manner in which the Indian state has been rendering the Goan Catholic communities as dispossessed citizens, for example, by the denial of official recognition to Romi Konkani or the recent uproar over state grants to English medium primary school, makes them confront the state machinery in a manner which often proves to be litmus tests of Indian democracy in Goa. Cantaram and tiatr are central to the production and distribution of the discourse that makes this political awareness among the bahujan Catholic communities possible. By organizing the Cantaram Utsav, the BJP government precisely wanted to seek control of that discourse.

However, the tiatr community almost boycotted this event as a mark of protest. A collective that identifies itself as “Musical Warriors” gave a clarion call to Tiatrist and cantorists to gather outside the competition venue for a parallel cantar singing competition. This competition aimed at bringing forth the truth about the last four years of BJP governance and their anti-people policies and schemes. Singers Francis de Tuem, Lawry Travasso, Marcus Vaz among others, gathered outside the competition venue and singing critiques of the BJP-led Goa government in a sharply satirical cantar titled ‘Acche Din Aane Waale Hai’. This performative protest was sheer brilliance on the part of these singers to indicate that they will not compromise their political position for state patronage. While one fears that cantaramwould lose its radical potential owing to attempts of appropriation by the state such as the said Kantaram Utsav, the tiatr community, through this protest kept alive the tradition of political dissent.

Opinion Poll: Choice or Compromise?

We need a nuanced historical analysis to understand the preconditions and after-effects of the Opinion poll.

A series of events are being planned to commemorate the historic Opinion Poll whose  50th anniversary was marked last week on 16th January. Second to the territory’s merger into the Indian Union, the Opinion Poll is perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of post-colonial Goa. The Opinion Poll was a referendum held to decide whether to retain the Union territory status of Goa or merge it with the neighboring state of Maharashtra. The majority of Goans voted against the merger and thus Goa retained its status as a Union territory, putting an end to any possibility of the merger with Maharashtra.

Current tellings of the history of the Opinion Poll are centered around two prominent figures, Dayanand Bandodkar, the then chief minister, and Dr. Jack de Sequeira, the leader of opposition. While on the one hand it was Bandodkar’s Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) that rooted for the merger with Maharashtra in post-colonial Goa, on the other it was Dr. Sequeira and the United Goans Democratic Party (UGDP) who mobilized the anti-merger sentiments successfully. But such a reductive understanding of a complex historical moment ensures that the grey areas that marked Goa’s history and the reasons which prompted as well as averted the possibilities of merger are obscured. Recent historical analysis, such as that contained in Parag Parobo’s book India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015), hint  that Bandodkar was not keen on merger after he tasted political success. Also, the initial demand for merger dates back to late 40s, much before Bandodkar came onto the political scene. Hence to nuance our understanding of the Opinion Poll, we need to shift away from the sources that only emphasize Bandodkar and Sequeira, and write a history from below.

I was recently recounted an anecdote of a volunteer conducting the proceedings of Opinion Poll in Curtorim. After the polling ended in the evening, the said volunteer visited a nearby cafe where he overheard a conversation between two Catholic gentlemen. One of them reportedly proclaimed that “if Goa gets merged with Maharashtra, I will not stay in Goa anymore. I will move to Bombay”.

It might seem ironic that, in order to escape the threatened merger with Maharashtra, he wanted to escape to a city that was now claimed to be an integral part of Maharashtra. The city of Bombay had become the capital of the newly formed state of Maharashtra in 1960. However, if we assume that it was not so much the merger with Maharashtra that the gentlemen wanted to escape, but the possibility of further marginalization in a Hindu dominated polity his claim begins to make more sense. For him, the cosmopolitan big city would have perhaps offered hope to escape Hindu dominance. But since the late ’60s, spurred by the logic of linguistic nationalism that organized Maharasthra as a Marathi state cosmopolitan Bombay was also transforming to become the migrant hating ‘Mumbai’ claimed by the far right Hindu outfit Shiv Sena.

This situation illustrates how marginalized groups are compelled to compromise in order to negotiate their existence with a larger dominant community. Such compromises often come in the guise of political choices wherein, despite making a choice, the marginalized is destined to suffer. The Opinion Poll was one such compromise disguised as a ‘choice’. Whether to merge with Maharashtra or to remain as a Union territory were restricting choices. The Indian union never offered Goan citizens the possibilities of self determination. Instead, it obliged them to negotiate their political future within the narrow frames of Indian nationalism. This nationalism, which in hindsight has revealed itself as, in fact, Hindu nationalism has steadily led to the disenfranchisement of Goan Catholics as legitimate subjects of the republic. The recent berating of Catholics as lacking in Indianness due to their leadership of the demand for grants to English medium schools is evidence of such disenfranchisement

If the Goan Catholics wanted to escape Hindutva by voting against the merger, the Hindu bahujans wanted to escape Brahminical dominance by opting for the merger. In retrospect we realize that just as evading merger wasn’t a remedy to escape Hindu majoritarianism, merging with Maharashtra wasn’t a solution to escape the Brahminical dominance. To escape either of these evils, one must challenge the dominant discourse of Indian nationalism which is inherently infused with Brahminical Hindu notions.

It is only in hindsight that one can feel relieved that Goa did not merge with Maharashtra and was saved from being party to the hyper-masculine Maratha nationalism. However, Goa is far from escaping the ills of Hindu majoritarianism and has seen several native forms of Hindu majoritarianism breeding in the state. One can cite the movement for the official recognition of Konkani wherein the cultural legitimacy of Romi Konkani and the Catholic communities which utilized this script were systematically marginalized as lacking in Indianness as an instance of Hindu majoritarianism at work.

The Opinion Poll could be seen as a mixed blessing; a choice for freedom and independence that was structured upon narrow linguistic nationalism – thus restricting the very freedom and independence that it promised. While we celebrate Opinion poll as a triumph, we should also be aware that it restricted the lives of many Goans.