Tuesday, 6 January 2015

THE MIGRATION MYTH AND THE KONKANI ACTIVIST



Eric Ozario, the noted Konkani language activist from Mangalore, is perhaps one of the few and fortunate activists to have his biography written while still alive. Titled Eric Ozario: The Indefatigable Crusader, Ozario’s biography is written by the Mangalore-based engineer Royston Fernandes. The biography is a no-holds-barred account of his life as a child growing up in the Jeppu compound, a ghetto for the depressed caste groups of Mangalore who had converted to Catholicism, his days as a trade union leader, and lastly his life as an activist of the Konkani language.

Ozario’s biography reproduces a popular and status quo narrative of the history of the Konkani language: of widespread religious suppression and oppression, with a concomitant loss of the Konkani language and culture, in the wake of the arrival of the Portuguese. Most of Konkani language activism, especially one that is driven by upper-caste interests, situates itself within this narrative. Ozario’s biography allows us to see how this narrative operates in Konkani activism, even if this activism emerges from a location outside that of the upper-caste. Though it reads like a hagiography rather than an objective narrative, the value of Ozario’s biography lies not only in its no-holds-barred revelations, but also in what it can tell us about Konkani activists and activism.

Life for those in the Jeppu compound was as hard as it was pathetic. There was poverty and caste discrimination and Ozario’s childhood was spent in such harsh conditions. His parents originally were Tulu-speakers, but they made their children speak in Konkani. This was because despite Latin being the liturgical language of the Catholic church until the mid 1960s, Konkani reigned as the non-liturgical language. We are also told that Ozario’s parents were devout Catholics and raised their children as such. Yet, for Ozario, the story of the adoption of Konkani by the inhabitants of the Jeppu compound is a story of absolute suppression and loss of cultural identity. He states that the inhabitants of the Jeppu compound “were not only religiously converted, but were forcibly culturally uprooted. A new language (Konkani) was thrust on them in place of their mother tongue Tulu. No efforts were made to teach them the new language”. Ozario does not tell us what this culture that was lost on conversion was. The assumption here is that whatever was lost was good, thus glossing over the fact of the entrenchment of these cultural practices in caste.

Ozario’s appraisal of the conditions of the Jeppu compound as a total suppression of culture of its inhabitants occupies an uneasy position with his tacit acknowledgement of conversion to Christianity as a way out of poverty and caste. Though Christianity provided a way out of caste, the discrimination based on caste never stopped. Thus, the root of the problem which is located in the structure of caste is seen solely as a problem of conversion (forced or otherwise). It becomes clear that what Ozario understands today as an absolute loss of culture was not similarly understood by his parents who had converted to Christianity and had, as a result, adopted the Konkani language.

Yet, one cannot downplay the shame and humiliation that the young Ozario had to undergo for being “forced to speak a horribly grammarless and accented ‘Konkani’ during his entire childhood” and the various conflicts that he has with the church authorities. Thus, he stayed as far away from Konkani language and culture in his youth as possible.  Though not comparable in an equal measure with the humiliation that Roman script-users and tiatrists face for not knowing ‘proper’ Konkani, Ozario’s childhood experiences are not isolated from many other Konkani-speaking groups.

Rather than recognize this fact and use the childhood experiences to tell the story of his Konkani activism, Ozario plugs his life and engagement with the Konkani language into the popular and dominant narrative of forced conversions, migrations, suppression, and a loss of culture. For instance, while discussing his project of reviving the tradition of playing gumott among the Mangalorean Catholics, Ozario falls back on the story of how the Portuguese state and the Inquisition had suppressed the playing of the gumott. But the migration of “[o]ur forefathers” from Goa during this time allowed the gumott to be played without restrictions in areas of Mangalore.

The problem with this kind of understanding is the fact that Ozario’s parents did not migrate from Portuguese-controlled Goa. Further, such a narrative of migration wherein there are only pure victims and pure oppressors is one that is largely peddled by upper-caste groups across the Konkan and Malabar. While this history of oppression may be true for these upper-caste Hindu groups, the same cannot be said for the Christian groups in Kanara or for later converts to Catholicism. One can ask as to how Ozario – and his life and activism – fits into this migration narrative given that Ozario’s family was not converted during the first few centuries of Portuguese rule. Ozario is not the first to uncritically repeat the persecution and migration myth. More recently, Gopalkrishna Pai, the Cochin-based author of the Kannada novel Swapna Saraswat, asserted at the Goa Arts and Literature Fest, 2014 that nearly 22,000 Hindu families fled Goa after conversions began.

The question here is why does Ozario’s story shift from a personal experience of shame and humiliation due to Konkani in the Jeppu compound to an impersonal experience of persecution of Konkani-speaking migrants from Goa? Why does the blame shift entirely on Portuguese colonialism (something ‘external’) rather than also seriously thinking about how the violence of casteism operated within the Konkani society? The answer to this lies not so much in the history of Portuguese religious policies but in the manner in which individuals exert themselves to escape shame and humiliation. One can either distance oneself from the object of shame and humiliation (like Ozario did in his youth by distancing himself from Konkani) or try to be recognized within the structures that cause this shame and humiliation as Ozario’s subsequent Konkani activism indicates.

Ozario’s biography indicates to us not just the problems in uncritically using the persecution and migration narrative, but it also tells us how the very narrative is not challenged adequately by activists of the Konkani language. Challenging this narrative would allow us to see that within the Konkani language there are multiple ways of being and living. That the experiences of the Jeppu compound, the Roman script, and the tiatrists, to name a few, are legitimately part of the history of Konkani, despite the fact of not fitting into the ‘persecution-migration’ narrative. Confining to the popular and dominant narrative would mean to define the politics and vision for the Konkani language in narrow terms.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 7 January, 2015)

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