Tuesday, March 20, 2012

SCRIPTING A NEW FUTURE: Towards an Inclusive Progress of Konkani

The two-day national seminar organized by Jagotik Konkani Songhotton (Global Konkani Organization) – JKS for short - at Kalaangann, Mangalore last week on ‘Scripts & Languages of Modern India, with Special Reference to Konkani’ brought into sharp focus the issue of nagri hegemony over other Konkani scripts (Roman, Kannada, Malayalam and Perso-Arabic) and the realization that positive political actions would only be forthcoming if the strategies were changed. Held on 10th and 11th March, 2012, the seminar was organized to gain from intellectuals and academics while trying to situate the unique problem of Konkani in a wider context of study areas such as linguistics, literature, linguistic politics, power, dominance and justice.
Led by dynamic JKS leaders such as Tomazinho Cardozo (also the president of the Tiatr Academy of Goa) and Eric Ozario (also the Gurukar of the Mangalore-based Mandd Sobhann)  the seminar had an impressive line-up of academics: Mangalore’s very own Dr. Valerian Rodrigues, professor at the Centre of Political Studies, Jawarharlal Nehru University (JNU) was the chairperson while other resource persons included Dr. Anvita Abbi, professor of linguistics, JNU, Dr. Alok Rai, professor of English, Delhi University, Dr. Asha Sarangi, also from JNU, Dr. Pratap Naik, the former director of Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr and Dr. Madhavi Sardesai, professor of Konkani, Goa University.
            In his signature style of being brief, clear and to-the-point, Eric Ozario made five assertions at the beginning of the seminar. Some of the key elements of these assertions are: a) The issue of ‘dialect’ is directly linked with the issue of ‘script. b) Many a time, while attempting to impose a particular script, what is really sought to be imposed is a particular dialect. c) A firm belief that unity among any people (including Konkani) can be achieved only by respecting all varieties and not by imposing one and destroying other. d) The slogan – ‘ek bhas, ek lipi, ek sahitya, ek samaz…’ smacks of fascism and is very dangerous for the future of Konkani.
Dr. Valerian Rodrigues
             The well-organized and well-attended seminar did prove to give a lot of insights and food for thought. During the discussions, one got the impression that the issue of scripts had caused a lot of hurt and resentment among the Konkanivadis who were not of the nagri camp. Time and again the chicanery of the Official Language Act and the back-stabbing indulged in by the nagri lobby came to the fore. Ironically, nobody from the ‘nagri camp’ attended the seminar. We sent invitations, reminded Eric bab who went one step further and said that there was nothing ‘godly’ about devnagri and that ‘dev’ was only added to give a false sanctification and halo to this script.
            Delivering his keynote address, Dr. Rodrigues said, “Script issue or script controversy is not confined to Konkani alone. It’s a much larger issue. It bedevils several languages and script communities.” Trying to view the script issue through the lenses of power, dominance and policy formation, the political scientist from JNU stated, “The script controversy is deeply mired in political contentions. The Saraswats, Gaud Saraswats and a section of the Catholics have come to believe that their genealogical roots lie at the banks of the Saraswati river in the north. The Sangh Parivar is a major presence in the entire Konkani-speaking belt today, particularly in Goa and Karnataka coast. The devnagri script reinforces a specific kind of dominance…” The script issue should also force us to think about what kind of India we wanted, he stressed, in the sense of a nation-state.
            Dr. Anvita Abbi (Script and Language: Relationship and Contention), amongst others, raised the issue of rendering people illiterate overnight if they were forced to switch from one script to another or an entirely new script was invented. She argued that Brahmi is the progenitor of all the contemporary Indian scripts and hence nagri was better suited to represent the sounds of Konkani. But her argument ultimately appeared to boil down to ‘purity and pollution’ where what is perceived to be Indian is considered ‘pure’ and what is perceived to be foreign is relegated to second-class position.
Dr. Alok Rai
          Dr. Alok Rai (Language, Script and Dominance in India), who used the analogy of the Urdu-Hindi controversy, an area where he has worked extensively and wrote his classic book Hindi Nationalism, asked some pointed questions: what happens when (a) a language and (b) a script dies and (c) What is killed when a script is killed. (Interestingly, in the discussion, Dr. Abbi put forth the view that scripts never die, but are always killed). He also shifted our focus from the factors that are visible for the scripts controversy to the ones that are not, saying that we need to focus on those factors that really drive the movement forward. Similarly, Dr. Asha Sarangi (Language and Territory: Issues of Rights and Identities) argued that along with viewing scripts and languages aiding the production of literature, we should also include the production of knowledge in the sense of social sciences.
            Though Dr. Madhavi Sardesai (The Case for a Single Script for Konkani) could not make it to the seminar for health reasons, her paper was nevertheless read in her absence and discussed. She made four main arguments (as summed up by the chairperson), which were debunked by some of the participants as well as Dr. Pratap Naik who presented the next paper. Dr. Sardesai argued that from the late 19th century there has been a strong advocacy of the nagri script by stalwarts of Konkani. Such resolutions were passed in the numerous Parishads or Conferences before and after the Liberation of Goa. It was however counter-argued that such conferences were only attended by the nagri lobbyists and those sympathetic to the nagri cause and hence there was no democratic representation. Secondly, Dr. Sardesai felt that since Konkani in nagri could produce books on scientific topics, it was better developed. Frederick Noronha from Goa challenged this assertion saying that the number of such books were not significant and that Konkani – whether in romi or nagri – was not able to produce any original ideas so far.
            Using nagri, Dr. Sardesai further said, would enable Konkani speakers to acquire language skills in other languages that use nagri, such as Marathi and Hindi. If this be true, then why restrict us to nagri alone, why not Kannada and other south Indian scripts? Multiple scripts have also hindered the emergence of literary criticism, asserted Dr. Sardesai. But as Frederick Noronha pointed out, by making such an argument we were only barking up the wrong tree. Literary criticism can happen in any language. Personally I feel, English can be a good option as the issue of script, dialect etc. is circumvented and the required intellectual rigor can also be inculcated in the same.
Dr. (Fr.) Pratap Naik
             Dr. Pratap Naik stuck to the bare facts and debunked myth after myth that the protagonists of one-script-one-language had created and so lovingly tended to all these years. Since Dr. Madhavi Sardesai made a case for a single script for Konkani, Dr. Pratap Naik felt the need to argue otherwise (The Case for Multi-Scripts for Konkani). Using his personal experiences as well as his vast knowledge on matters of Konkani literature and linguistics Dr. Pratap accused the one-script protagonists as “…only interested in…power and money.”
            Though the seminar had no speaker to analyze all the issues mentioned above in a purely historical context and try to theorize about the problems from the archival material and other published material, the seminar nonetheless was a success. There was a tiny bit of detail that I could not overlook during the two-day long seminar. The backdrop on the stage had a vast banner that had Romi, Nagri and Kannada scripts but no Malayalam and Perso-Arabic, thus in a way not giving these scripts the deserved representation. The challenge from here on is to create a discourse that is all inclusive and also to systematically generate arguments that would deconstruct the nagri hegemony over the production of Konkani writings as well as the access to resources that become available to the speakers of a particular language.

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: March 21, 2012)

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Peter Nazareth, the African writer of Goan origin is well known as a novelist and a literary critic. He has written several essays and book reviews in leading international journals and has also edited a few anthologies. In a Brown Mantle was his first novel. Peter Nazareth was one of the earliest Goan-origin writers from Africa to have written novels in English. This review will focus on his second novel The General is Up. Published by Writers Workshop and hand-bound by Tulamiah Mohiuddeen with cotton handloom sari cloth, the review will try to place his work in a wider post-colonial world with its changing politics, issues of domination, emancipation and alienation and the hopes and aspirations of a diasporic Goan community that seems to be forever on the move.
            The General is Up is set in the fictitious country of Damibia at a time when a despotic military General comes to power with the help of vested Western interests and orders all the East Indians (Indians and Goans) to leave the country by “the next moon”. Peter Nazareth obviously is making an allusion to the real country of Uganda when Idi Amin drove out most of the Indians from that country. One wonders why Peter Nazareth chose to churn out a fictitious country rather than make a direct reference to Uganda itself, especially because a disclaimer to that effect is also issued by the author. Peter Nazareth describes the plight and pathos of the Indian community and most importantly the Goan community facing deportation. Interestingly as one reads the novel, one realizes that although most of the characters face deportation, they have no other country to enter as refugees.
            Much of the novel is unfolds in the Goan club where all Goans come to unwind and enjoy the company of fellow Goans after a hard day of work. Through gossip and political discussions, Peter Nazareth shows how the club becomes a meeting place for a diasporic community as well as a symbol through which a collective identity that is different from the larger society is asserted. The club becomes the nerve center of the political life of the Goan community, because as the times change, a native Damibian is elected the Vice-President of the Goan club setting aside the taboo of racial intermingling.
            David D’Costa, a high profile civil servant, emerges as a protagonist of the novel. But because of the transfer of power from the British to the native Damibian, David has problems in proving his citizenship of Damibia, though in his heart he feels very much like a Damibian citizen. David has to run from pillar to post to secure citizenship for himself, his wife and his children but due to several bureaucratic hurdles and red-tapism in the concerned Damibian ministry, he has to leave the country and migrate to Canada. Apparently, no other country (including India) apart from Canada is ready to accept these new stateless people. Of course, Canada’s generosity is not motivated by a humanitarian spirit but to selfishly gain from the ample pool of efficient and trained civil servants, doctors, lawyers, etc that the crisis in Damibia creates. The whole novel takes place in an environment of suspicion – by the British, Damibian and Indian governments – and as such owning a passport not only means affluence and international mobility but also having a state and a government to protect you.
            We can see the work of Peter Nazareth as a comment (or perhaps even critique) on the effects of colonialism and the consequences of the process of decolonization and also how colonialism in a somewhat modified form is still persisting in “post-colonial” societies. For instance, observe this brief excerpt: “Only a fool, a simple, brutal, childish fool would not have known that the presence of the East Indians in Damibia was part of the game. To imagine that the colonial rulers would be willing to just hand over independence! Hah! After all, their entire economies had been built up out of their empires. No, they were far-sighted. Wherever they went, they brought in a buffer, scapegoat middle-class, usually from another part of the empire. So when Independence came, the people would be made in a thousand ways to blame these foreign scapegoats as the real cause of the continued problems facing the people…When the price of clothing went up, let the people blame the Indian shopkeeper – the people would not know that the European-owned banks had raised the overdraft charges.” (pp. 78-9)
            Though politically most of the world is freed from colonialism, the vested interests of the white Western world still dictate terms to the “underdeveloped” third world. In this regard, I recall the noteworthy essay that Anne McClintock wrote. Titled “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism”, she argues that for a lot of countries and people there is nothing ‘post’ about the term “Post-Colonialism”. She goes a step further in criticizing the usage of the term itself: “…‘post-colonialism’ is arguably more palatable and less foreign-sounding to sceptical deans than ‘Third World Studies.’ It also has a less accusatory ring than ‘Studies In Neocolonialism,’ say, or ‘Fighting Two Colonialisms.’ It is more global, and less fuddy-duddy, than ‘Commonwealth Studies’,” she notes.
            The book ends in America where one of the characters who had migrated to Canada and then the US ends up leaving the manuscript of his novel about Africa to the person who gave him a lift to New York. The American (ironically a son of a Lebanese immigrant) says that an “exotic” novel about Africa was left behind by the hitchhiker. Though the word exotic is used, there is no elaborate description about the beauty and rawness of the African landscape, a feature abundantly common in the books and colour-saturated films produced by the West about Africa. In admiring nature and beauty we very often forget that humans are the ones who are suffering and secondly, by not describing in detail the African wilds, Peter Nazareth has refused to accept and repeat the same old orientalist clich├ęs about African exotica.
            Peter Nazareth does discuss the racial segregation and feeling of superiority which exist among all the races and tribes of Damibia. One native tribe cannot sit at the same table amicably with another native tribe; similarly Goans considered themselves separate from other Indian communities and the native Africans. How the black Damibian natives react to the racist attitudes of the East Indian community is not really seen in the book, though many of the Goan characters are known to patronize and sleep with black women and prostitutes. Black African characters do not play a major role. This seems to be a drawback as this novel is not exclusively about the Goan/Indian community but about all the population of Damibia. What exactly drives this racism is a question that could have been probed in much detail.
            Another issue that comes up when we talk about the Goan communities in Africa is that of their interaction with caste. Though one of the reasons why people migrated to East Africa was to escape the torture of the caste system, we find that the caste hierarchy in Africa – and particularly in the clubs – was very rigid. To read the suffering and discrimination propagated by caste – and race - can be a good political strategy and force us to ask new questions about the exploitation. Peter does not include caste in his overall narrative and analysis. To be fair, the Goan community had only about a week to leave the country and in such circumstances, an institution like caste may be cast in the background by people in such testing times to forge togetherness and support-systems.
            The novel ends with the General getting assassinated by his rivals and a majority of the East Indian community either migrating to Canada or India. An uneasy void of power is created in the wake of the General’s assassination. But though the novel ends, it seems that the story has just begun for a migration-prone community that has been shifted to another locale by the fateful hand of history.

The General is Up, by Peter Nazareth (Calcutta: Writers Workshop), 1984; pp. 190, Rs. 150

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: March 16, 2012)

Monday, March 5, 2012


SNAKE! This monosyllabic word has the capacity to send terror and a bolt of electricity down our spines. I am sure all of us, one way or another, have encountered these creepy crawlers. We detest any type of snake – poisonous and non-poisonous – as much as we fear them. But despite our fear, it is said that in Goa everybody has a snake story – whether fictitious or real – to tell. (I remember Venita Coelho once remarking about the same in the Indian Express). As a boy, any news about a snake in the vicinity of where I lived would fill me with fear. (I don’t like to accept it, but they still terrify me…just a bit!).
Rahul Alvares, the author of Free From School, has come out with a collection of stories – or rather reminisces – about his various stories that involve catching and rescuing snakes called The Call of the Snake. “No two snake calls are alike. Some end up funny. Some even end up sad. Almost every call holds a surprise. This is a reason why I am always willing to drop whatever I am doing, get into my jeans and boots, grab the snake stick and the zippered bag – my tools of trade, as it were – and rush out to answer the call. If only people knew that the call of the snake is more irresistible than their anxiety-ridden phone calls, they really wouldn’t have to lie so often,” says Rahul in the Introduction, explaining why he gets so excited in receiving any distressed snake calls.
            Rahul’s stories are told in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek and relaxed manner. Surely he enjoys doing what he does and hence the narration flows very smoothly. It seems that Rahul was not only meant to catch snakes and rescue them but also write about his myriad adventures with the easy flourish of a mature writer. As much as Rahul can easily hop on and off roofs, climb down wells and rummage through heaps of rubble and junk to locate the snakes, he can also sit down and write about them.
            But in writing down his experiences and reminisces, Rahul is also trying to make a case for the protection of snakes and also to allay the unnecessary fears that the generic public have about snakes: “Thanks to the false portrayal of snakes by movie makers – intentionally done to add action and drama to a film – as well as the inexplicable willingness on the part of educated people to deliberately keep themselves in ignorance about these creatures, the public by and large continue to believe that snakes are waiting to attack them, that they are always revengeful and perpetually spoiling for a fight. Nothing is further from the truth. The simple fact is that snakes are cowards and would much rather run away than attack a person, any person, big or small.”
            One chapter is solely dedicated to bust the many myths about snakes that cloud and clutter our minds. In doing so, this book tries to create a discourse about how shabbily we misunderstand these reptiles. For instance, while talking about snake-charmers, Rahul enlightens, “Some snake charmers – to add excitement – have a mongoose at hand as well. The mongoose is the natural enemy of the snake. The animal is made to fight the same cobra at every show. The teeth of the mongoose are broken as well, but the cobra obviously does not know this. All the while it believes that it is about to be attacked by its mortal enemy and therefore remains in an agitated and alert state of self defence. But the cobra has no fangs either. Does this sound charming to anyone at all?”
            However, one of the most amazing and exciting story of all is found in Getting Bitten. Luke, a friend of Rahul, accidently gets bitten by a Russell’s viper (a very poisonous snake). How Rahul and another friend, Aaron run from pillar to post to get the antivenin that is required for healing their poisoned friend makes interesting reading. What is also worth marveling at is the manner in which Rahul, Aaron and even Luke handle the situation during such a time of crisis.
            Rahul’s experience in learning to catch the King cobra also makes interesting reading. King cobra is the largest venomous snake in the world and nowhere in India is the King cobra antivenin produced, so a bite could effectively prove to be fatal. Of course Rahul learnt to catch the King not in India but in Malaysia and Thailand. The thrill, exhilaration and fear that Rahul felt while handling the King for the first time, is beautifully brought out in recounting this memory.
            Mention also needs to be made of the illustrator who has designed the cover as well as provided the lively and colorful sketches to the book. So kudos to Nicky Thomas for a job well done!
           At the end of the book there are appendices of useful information regarding snakes and also some easy-to-take precautions. For instance: How to avoid getting bitten by snakes, how to prevent snakes from entering your house and how to deal with a snake bite. A list of public health centers which stock antivenin is also given along with the contact details of many snake-catchers and protectors across Goa.
            I would like to wrap up this review by reproducing a reassuring quote from Rahul, “Always remember that snake bites give you plenty of time to get to a hospital. And that antivenin can always save your life. More important, Goa’s hospitals and PHCs have enough stocks of the antidote.”

The Call of the Snake: Real life stories by a young snake catcher from Goa, 2nd edn by Rahul Alvares (Mapusa: Other India Press), 2006; pp. xii + 153, Rs. 125 [ISBN: 81-85569-57-6]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: March 6, 2012)