Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A TALE OF TWO (AND MORE) ‘CHURCHES’



Many would have heard of the horrific incidents of vandalism involving two churches in Delhi in the last few weeks. While the first church was clearly a victim of full-fledged arson, the second had some of its window panes stoned. Being in Delhi at the time of these two incidents, I was very upset. What was also appalling and egregious to note was that the ‘national’ media and public intellectuals were slow in reporting and condemning the incidents. I naïvely expected ‘national’ outrage. But, as we know, nothing of that sort happened.

Fortunately, the Archbishop of the Delhi Diocese, Fr. Anil Couto, minced no words. To quote from a news report, “Archbishop Couto said that the arson in St. Sebastian’s church was condemnable not just because it was an act of sacrilege and hate against the community and its faith, but [because] it could happen in the national Capital which is recovering from a series of communal incidents. Also distressing is the sense of police impunity [that is, impunity seen in police inaction]. Long hours were lost, and possible evidence destroyed, before the police finally came”.

Once I reached Goa after the winter break had commenced at my University, I declared to my friends on Facebook that while I was glad to be back in Goa, I was also relieved to be away from a city that burns and stones its churches. Kaustubh Naik, one of my friends, pointed out quite astutely that although I was away from a city where churches were being burnt and stoned, I had come back to a place where people were happily signing petitions against the church. He was referring to an online petition asking the Prime Minister of India to send the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier back to Portugal (as if Xavier had been a native of Portugal) and the exposition stopped permanently, for it constituted a grave insult to the Indian nation. The petition rather uncritically linked Xavier with “inhuman crimes” of the Inquisition, and further argued that India had always preached and practiced ahimsa. I realized that the relief I had felt in being back in Goa was rather misguided.

To be very honest, it did not occur to me even then that these two episodes, in Delhi and Goa, were linked. To me the people who drafted the petition and those few who signed it were at best angry at the loss of Hindu cultural purity. Thinking about these events now, I am convinced that they are intimately linked. In fact, we need to view the arson in Delhi and the petition in Goa as a continuum that includes other events of the last three or four weeks involving Christians and Muslims in various parts of India.

Hindutva has of late stepped up its attacks on Adivasi, Christian, Dalit, and Muslim communities. Starting from November, the online news portal scroll.in reported how VHP and Bajrang Dal workers under the garb of ‘ghar wapasi’ were working hard to forcibly convert the Adivasis of Bastar in Chhasttisgarh. These Adivasi communities would frequent evangelical churches in the hope of spiritual healing. These evangelical churches or ‘prayer groups’ provide other amenities such as health care and education that successive governments there had failed to provide. What is important here is to note that originally these communities were never Hindu, but followed various different Adivasi faiths.

In December, the RSS presided over the ‘ghar wapasi’ of some 57 Muslim families and also threatened that come Christmas day, they would also (forcibly) convert 5000more Muslims and Christians. As if this was not enough, there was more salt waiting to be rubbed on the wounds of communities like the Muslims and Christians. The central government just a week or so before Christmas issued a circular to CBSE (and all its affiliated schools) to observe Christmas day as ‘good governance day’ in order to celebrate the birthdays of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Hindu Mahasabha leader Madan Mohan Malaviya. Students were required to attend school on Christmas, the circular demanded. Although the circular was retracted soon, following some outrage in the press, the message conveyed was very clear: non-Hindu and ‘western’ practices are not welcome here. To put it very simply, they wanted to take away Christmas from all people of India, irrespective of religion.

The link in this whole tale of two and more ‘churches’ in various parts of India is the problem that Indian nationhood has with conversion. I would like to go a step further and suggest that if there is a rapid increase in vandalizing churches and oppressing shudra and untouchable Christian and Muslim communities in India, it is due to the failure of the secular-liberals in understanding the history and potential of conversion. Throughout the history of modern India and particularly the national freedom movement, conversion to Christianity and Islam was viewed as violating the very soul of the Indian nation. One does not need to go far, but look at the rhetoric that animated the Konkani language agitation and the MoI controversies. Always lurking beneath the surface was the accusation that Christianity was illegitimately westernizing people. It is this understanding that today legitimizes violent acts like the ‘ghar wapasi’. After all, the RSS and its affiliates claim that ‘ghar wapasi’ is necessary to wean people away from non-Indian cultural practices.

Throughout the last few decades the secular-liberals failed to see that Christianity and Islam had an innate promise of allowing one an escape from caste, whereas rituals like the ‘ghar wapasi’ tries to extend the stranglehold of caste. While I acknowledge that caste persists in both Islam and Christianity in India, what needs to be recognized is that the theological systems of these faiths uphold the equality of believers in principle. Thus, even though caste prejudice may exist, these prejudices can be attacked from within the theological framework of these faiths, unlike Hinduism. At the risk of stretching my argument ad absurdum, I think part of the problem of why the Delhi churches were vandalized, and why the response of the ‘national’ media and public intellectuals to this was slow, might lie in the faulty understanding of conversion to Christianity and Islam. Secular-liberals in India have never given any serious thought to how churches and mosques (and even dargahs) could pose an effective challenge to the power of Hindutva.

So, on Christmas eve, let us sincerely hope and pray that in the years to come fewer and fewer Adivasis, Christians, Dalits, and Muslims are oppressed in India and the emancipatory potential, both from caste and Hindutva, that these structures represent be recognized.

Have a joyous and blessed Christmas!

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 24 December, 2014)

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

READING REGINALD: EDGAR WALLACE AND JESUIT SAVANTS



In my very first review of Reginald Fernandes’ writings, I had made the suggestion that to know what animated the works of writers like Reginald one had to know the range of influences on them. In this article I will discuss one such influence on Reginald with reference to his novel Sat Chavieancho Darvontto (1964).

When translated, the title indicates that the novel is about a door that can be opened by seven keys. A quick Google search revealed the existence of an English crime fiction novel named The Door with Seven Locks (1926) by Edgar Wallace. This was later made into an English movie called Chamber of Horrors (1940), followed by a German remake in 1962. Wallace is also credited with being the co-creator of King Kong, providing the screenplay and story for the film. Reginald’s title which appears to be an exact translation of Wallace’s, would make us think that Reginald had lifted the plot wholesale from the prolific British crime fiction writer. However, upon comparing Wallace’s book and the movie that was subsequently made, one can say with certainty that as far as Sat Chavieancho Darvontto is concerned, only the motif of the door with seven locks and the dead man’s tomb can be noticed in both the works.

Reginald’s Sat Chavieancho Darvontto rather than being in the mould of a regular crime fiction novel, shows more similarities with the structure of his previous writings. There is Rudolfo, who is a doctor/scientist by profession and who has the ambition of inventing a drug that would bring the dead back to life. To that extent, he spends long hours in his laboratory. This experiment, however, goes horribly wrong. The drug that he manages to create causes others to be poisoned if they come in contact with Rudolfo. Soon Rudolfo’s daughter, Inez is also ‘poisoned’ in a similar manner. Inez is in love with Valento, who is aspiring to be a doctor and has returned after spending five years in Europe. He decides to find a cure or an antidote to the ‘poison’ that is now coursing through the veins of Rudolfo and his beloved Inez.

When Valento decides to take it upon himself to find a cure for Rudolfo and Inez the story takes an interesting turn and Reginald introduces the Jesuits and their College of St. Paul that was operating from Old Goa. The link in the novel is that since the Jesuits were known for their extensive knowledge on various matters, they would best be in a position to help Valento to find an antidote. Accordingly, a Jesuit and a much learned man, Fr. Vasco Amorin directs Valento to the forest of Colem. There is also another way Reginald makes use of history. He tells Valento that the Cadanbas, who were in Goa before the Portuguese, had devoted themselves to finding cures and antidotes. Thus, Valento sets off on his quest, armed with the knowledge provided by Fr. Amorin.


What is significant here is that Reginald is not inventing a simple yarn, but is drawing from known historical facts. It is a well-known fact that the Jesuits had devoted themselves in reporting about the flora and fauna, as well as the customs and manners of the people amongst whom they worked. Their letters today are a major source for historians working on the period that roughly stretches from 1540s-1800s. The Jesuits had access to knowledge about curing diseases and providing antidotes against poisons and this is the reason why many of them based in Old Goa were in demand in the courts of the neighbouring polities.


Further, I would suggest that when Reginald uses a term like the “Cadanbas” (which is very close to Kadambas) as well as the Muslim presence in Goa, he is probably drawing on a history that places the role of treachery in the transfer of political power at the center of its narrative. This ‘treachery’ actually is the horror that is locked behind the Sat Chavieancho Darvontto. Apparently, an ancestor of Rudolfo and Inez belonging to the Cadanbas had committed treason against his Goa “ganv” (homeland or kingdom) by selling it to the neighbouring king who happens to be a moor (or moir zaticho). Thus, a curse is placed on this particular ancestor and it now comes to haunt Rudolfo and Inez. This use of ‘treachery’ as a trope to bind the stories of the Cadanbas, moors, and Portuguese  with an afterlife of this  ‘treachery’ allows us to see how history writing influenced the writing of Romi Konkani novel in general and Reginald’s corpus in particular. Interestingly, the moors are not the ones who commit this treachery being the usual suspects, as it were. Nonetheless, such strands in Reginald’s works need to be carefully and critically studied.


So in the end, how much can we say that Reginald borrowed from the work of Wallace? In my view, only the motif of the door with seven locks can be clearly seen as borrowed either from the book, or the movies, or both. This is because the cemetery or the tomb, or the resting place of the dead is very much part of Reginald’s plot and imagination. Further, the miracles or magic that is produced by special plants and the almost mythical, dense and dark space of the forest is part and parcel of Reginald’s corpus. The bringing of the dead to life and the fear that is associated with it is something that Reginald time and again exploits. So what now emerges is that, a Reginald romans has (obviously) romance, it has magic (or the willing suspension of disbelief), it has crime and adventure, it evokes fear, it has life and afterlife, it borrows from other sources and reworks it in a Goan cultural milieu, and at the end there is a ‘happy ending’ in vaguely keeping with norms of Christian morality. Where else do we find so much packed in one small book?

 For more Reading Reginald, click here.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 10 December, 2014)

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)