The Bahujan in Fiction

By AMITA KANEKAR

Once in a way, there comes along a work of art which holds a mirror to reality, and not the obvious reality that is on our minds and in the media, but the most ignored corners of our society and culture. The recently published The Salt of the Earth: Stories from Rustic Goa by Jayanti Naik appears to be one such. Intending to challenge the prevailing image of Goa, as declared by the author in her Foreword, this anthology released by Goa 1556 and Golden Heart Emporium contains short stories published originally in Nagri Konkani and translated into English for this collection by Augusto Pinto.

As many in Goa would know, Jayanti Naik is a folklorist, Konkani scholar (with a PhD on the language from Goa University), and prolific writer of short stories. In my experience, short stories are a challenging form of creative writing, requiring a tautness in the telling of a story, right from the introduction of a cast of characters and the plot, to its development and dénouement, all in the space of a few turnings of the page. It requires great control, greater than in novels, over the plot, the pace, the descriptions, the dialogue, everything. It’s not easy.

Naik uses the form quite well. Besides having a rooted feel, her stories are both easy to read and gripping. As the anthology’s title would imply, most of them are about people from Goa’s bahujan communities and set in Goan villages. They could be said to fall into two broad categories. One is about the ending of tradition, seen in the demise of rituals—like the shigmo tradition in Naman: The Invocations, and the Basvo tradition of leading a sacred bull from house to house in Basvo: The Nandi Bull— or that of a lifestyle, as with the tribal lifestyle in The Victory, and the brahmanical lifestyle in The Fulfillment of a Desire. Most of these stories are notably sympathetic to tradition, with many protagonists being elderly and respected leaders of traditional practices, and with almost no mention of the oppression that was often part of traditional life.

The other category is about women, and the often-painful compromises between tradition and rebellion made by, or forced upon, today’s women. Biyantul sees a woman forced by her family to give up the man she loves, because of his poverty. Uma and the Human Sacrifice sees another, despite being educated and a feminist, agreeing to an arranged marriage with a widower who is a suspected wife-murderer. The Curse of Vozryo sees an old husband whose much younger second wife has eloped with another man, remembering and regretting how he had ill-treated her. Ramaa is a strange story of a young woman rebelling against her family to marry an old (and impotent) and much-respected Konkani scholar just to support him in his life’s work in developing the language, but unable to give up her desire to be a mother; she has a child outside marriage but does not survive its birth. But if tradition is not seen as woman-friendly, the contemporary world is suspect as well. An Account of Her Life is a startling story of a much-respected professor and feminist, beloved of her bahujan students, being exposed after death as a serial sexual predator whose behaviour was condoned by her victims because of the numerous benefits they received from her mentorship.

The stories are realistic and moving, with more greys than black and white. And, given Naik’s folklorist background, it is not surprising that they are also peppered with fascinating details of bahujan traditions, ideas, and practices, including food, religious rituals, deities, and so on.

However, fiction can both challenge myths and prejudices as well as reinforce them, and unfortunately some of these stories do the latter. Although all are apparently pro-bahujan, the conservative approach to traditional culture, seeing it as both ancient and righteous, is in fact very brahmanical. In her Foreword, Naik not only reiterates this idea of tradition as primordial and full of brotherhood, she also sees pre-Portuguese Goa as ‘Indian in culture’. This is not just ahistorical, it supports the brahmanical and nationalist myth of a glorious pre-colonial India, in a time when neither India nor Goa existed. The fact that traditions are not always great should be obvious from our many casteist and anti-bahujan ones; nor are they unchanging or always old, as pointed out by Eric Hobsbawm long ago (The Invention of Tradition, 1983) and Parag Parobo (India’s First Democratic Revolution…, 2015) in the context of Goa. It is an approach that does not convince, for it does injustice to bahujan struggles to transform the world, whether in the past or today. In fact, Naik’s most searing stories are not those on tradition and folklore, but the few about academics and litterateurs, a brahmanical world increasingly challenged by bahujans, a world that she knows personally right down to its ugly underbelly.

On the whole, the collection is a treat. It does, as it promises to, challenge the image of Goa, especially in the eyes of Indians, as a westernised party paradise.

And the translation by Augusto Pinto is very smooth, retaining many Konkani words and also language structure, which gives a distinct and authentic flavour to the dialogues. Pinto has also written an interesting Afterward, The Bahujan Writes Back, in which he mentions that Naik is beginning to write in ‘non-standard’ Konkani for her recent stories, i.e. closer to actual bahujan speech. This is good news. Freedom from the Nagri Konkani of the upper castes, or the Baman Bhas as the bahujan writer Ramnath Naik has called it, will only result in a better representation of Goa’s bahujans.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 9 March, 2017)

Can Upper Castes fight Brahmanism?

 By AMITA KANEKAR

fistWhile in Panjim’s Campal area the other day, I passed the Luis Francisco Gomes Garden. Now this old public park is a pleasant place, partly for its setting under shady rain trees planted around a hundred years ago, but also for its friendly design of low walls, plentiful seats, and bandstand. Campal was an elite residential locality at one time, whose residents probably were not very welcoming of ‘commoners’, but the garden design certainly was. The low broad walls are especially notable, inviting one to sit or even nap on them, or easily hop over them into the garden without bothering to locate the (many) gates.

Or rather, they used to be. Now however, the top of the walls is covered with closed-spaced sharp stone pieces, set vertically. Touch the walls at your own risk.

What kind of public attitude does this renovation betray? Only someone who belongs to the elite, with private resources for relaxation and a car to commute in, and who is infused with brahmanical ideas of treating non-elites shabbily, could have come up with such a heartless transformation of a user-friendly space—where a tired pedestrian passerby might take rest—into something that will injure you if you try. But this is the norm nowadays, with the ‘public’ in public parks referring more to funding than usage. Our new parks—with their high walls, forbidding gates, no shade, water-guzzling lawns adorned with ‘keep off the lawn’ signs, and commercial events for the spending classes—are clearly aimed at elite users who come in the evening with cars and jogging shoes. All that remains are fees and those pipe-benches which discourage seating for more than two minutes.

amitaThis unfriendliness of our public spaces may seem unimportant when compared to the big issues facing Goa today, from rampant land grab, the MoI fight, malignant casino tourism, the marginalisation of nonHindu cultures, shortage of decent jobs, and so on. But, in the event of the forthcoming elections, all these issues are linked together by a question: can parties led and dominated by upper castes really bring change to Goa? Brahmanism is at the root of why India has not been able to create a real democracy. Can we solve this with people of the same privileged, conservative and elitist background sitting at the helm? The Aam Aadmi Party and Goa Forward claim to be alternatives to the BJP and the Congress in Goa. Their leaders talk about the need for change, but can they really bring change when most of them come from the same caste and class?

Almost all the issues facing Goan bahujans today see them up against Goan elites. For example, as Raghuraman Trichur pointed out in a recent lecture, Goa is becoming the Florida of India, with wealthy Indians buying second homes or setting up businesses that cater to other wealthy outsiders, even as many locals are fast losing their first homes as well as livelihoods. But at the heart of the land-grab in the villages, and the rash of real-estate development over the plateaux, are Goan land-owners, business partners, developers and brokers, eagerly flogging every last bit of Goa to the highest bidder. What stand would any of the upper-caste-dominated parties take on this conflict, especially when so many of their leaders are connected to real estate and related businesses themselves?

Another example is the MoI issue, where parents of children in government schools are not being allowed to choose the medium of their children’s education, and where the future of bahujan Goans is being sacrificed at the altar of the baman-bhas, Nagri Konkani. All because of the desire of Goa’s bamans to proclaim an Indian language of their own, even while their own families study in private English-medium schools.  What change can we expect here, when GF’s leaders are known to be close to the Nagri Konkani lobby, while AAP’s Valmiki Naik claims to support both sides?

Corruption is always a buzzword for those speaking of change. But corruption is of many kinds. One often condemned by upper castes is freebies during elections. But seriously, is it such a problem if poor people are provided free transport to political rallies, or money/biryani before they vote? It is only the elites who believe that such gifts swing elections, who think that the poor do not have the sense to accept gifts—perhaps the only things that these politicians do for them—and still vote as they wish. To demonise these gifts is to continue the illegalising of the poor which upper caste politicians and media have always done.

But another kind of corruption rampant in Goa is the subversion of the reservation rules mandated by the Constitution of India, in which upper castes have been blithely usurping the jobs and educational seats meant for the most deprived sections of Goan society, viz. dalits, tribals, and OBCs. Will these upper-caste-led parties take up this huge corruption issue?

One thing seems certain: Bahujan Goans are not going to benefit from another upper-caste-dominated party in power. What we really need is a party that is not just led by dalit-bahujan-tribals, but which sees dalit-bahujan-tribal interests as primary. Only through this can we have a meaningful and inclusive democracy, and the potential of development reaching all.

(A version of this post was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 2 June, 2016)

Marathi and the Hindu Bahujans

By KAUSTUBH NAIK

The presence of Marathi in Goa is looked upon with suspicion by some for its links with the demand for Goa’s merger with Maharashtra from the period between 1961 until the Opinion Poll of 1967. In writing off Marathi as a Maharashtrian import, people often ignore the centuries-long historical presence of Marathi in Goa, as well as its current usage in the public sphere. Gauging by this usage, one can safely say that Marathi is as much a carrier ofthe Goan ethos as Konkani (both Romi and Nagari) and Portuguese.

The demand for Marathi as official language was largely made by the Hindu Bahujan Samaj of Goa initially, many of whom also identify with a Maratha identity. The Bahujan Samaj is a conglomeration of lower caste groups in Goa that was comprised of Kshatriya Maratha Samaj (Fisher communities), Gomantak Maratha Samaj (temple servants), Naik Bhandaris or Kshatriya Naik Marathas (toddy tappers), Kshatriya Komarpant Maratha (service caste) and Gaud Maratha (tribals). Following the rise of Maratha power in 17th century and Maratha invasions in Goa, Maratha identity had become a cultural resource through which lower castes imagined a modern identity, as Parag Parobo articulates in his book India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015). This reorganization of Hindu bahujan samaj in Goa around Maratha identity was aimed to contest brahminical hierarchy and social dominance.

The potency of the Maratha symbol for the bahujan samaj was further deepened in the course of the merger-language debates that dominated public discourse from the 1960s until their culmination in 1987. Recognizing that the pro-Konkani forces were in fact directed by Saraswat interests, the bahujan Hindus realized that the imposition of Nagari Konkani was a tool towards instituting Brahmin hegemony in Goa. It was for this reason that they chose to side with Marathi as their preferred language of expression. The political establishment in Goa was well aware of the emotional currency that Marathi carried for Hindu masses in Goa. Hence, there was a provision made to grant ‘equal status’ to Marathi in the Official Language Act of 1987 (OLA) and subsequently it was notified that Marathi would also be used in official purposes of the state government.

The suspicion of Marathi, especially among the Catholic communities in Goa, isn’t surprising. The merger with Indian union in 1961 implied the arrival of Indian nationalist discourse in Goan public sphere which meant a preferential bias towards Hindus while Catholics would be rendered as second class citizens. The animosity of Catholic communities towards Marathi is precisely because of this reason and the Marathi camp in Goa did not make any attempts to address this problem. Instead the Marathi supporters further validated the apprehension that Goan Catholics harbored towards them by fashioning their demands of merger with Maharashtra and official recognition for Marathi with Hindutva symbolism.

But much has changed since the passing of Official Language Act, 1987. The Official Language Act did not give any recognition to Romi Konkani despite the fact that the mass support in favour of Konkani emerged from those who desired the recognition of Romi Konkani. If the demand for Marathi was seen as suspect as a bow towards a Hindu majoritarianism in Goa, instituting Nagari Konkani as the sole official language proved that suspicion right. One of the recurring argument made by the Nagari leaders against Romi Konkani was that the Roman script is ‘western’ and not ‘Indian’, and hence unfit for any official recognition. Secondly, they argued that the adoption of Nagari Konkani will help bring the Goan Catholics into Indian mainstream. What these two arguments not so subtly implied is that the Catholics in Goa would have to adopt the modes of life set by upper caste Hindus while rejecting the peculiar history that the Goan Catholics were part of. It is about time that Goan masses realize the brahminical agenda operating in the name of Nagari Konkani. The recent debate over the Medium of Instruction (MoI) issue is a direct result of this agenda and the failure of subsequent governments to amend the Official Language Act in order to make it more inclusive by giving equal status to Romi Konkani and Marathi.

The current Marathi leadership, however, is not positioned against countering the brahminical agenda operating via the Nagari Konkani camp nor do they seem to be interested in addressing the issues of caste tied with the assertion of Marathi in Goa. To make matters worse, the leadership within the Marathi camp is assumed by upper caste individuals who have suspicious links with right wing groups such as the RSS and VHP. What they will end up doing is to push down a brahminical Hindutva agenda on Hindu Bahujans. Also, the current Marathi movement, especially the one led by Marathi Rajyabhasha Prasthapan Samiti, is geared to oppose the alleged onslaught of English in Goa. Such a stance will curtail the possibilities of upward mobility to Hindu bahujans in a world that is dominated by English. An ideal assertion for Marathi in Goa would be one that recognizes the bahujan position of Marathi in Goa as well as that which employs Marathi as a gateway to learn English and helps the Goan bahujans access a world view beyond regional parochialism of Goa or India.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 22 December, 2015)

Of Muthalik and Nagri Konkani

By KAUSTUBH NAIK

The ban on entry of Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene into Goa has now been extended till January 2016 by the Goa Government. Drawing attention to another sinister group engaged in cultural policing, last week, BJP MLA Vishnu Wagh urged the chief minister to impose a ban on Sanatan Sanstha for its alleged links with the murder of Govind Pansare in Kolhapur.  While Sanatan Sanstha was alleged to have been involved in the Margao blast case few years ago, Muthalik, who achieved national attention after his associates ransacked a pub in Mangalore in 2009, wanted to set up a Ram Sene branch in Goa.

Goa has been a target of these groups for the supposed ‘western’ outlook and character. Outfits like Ram Sene have stated their intentions to cleanse Goans of western influences. Such cultural imposition of right wing Hindu outfits must be resisted, though whether to ban them or not is a topic for another article. However, while it is important to be vigilant of these external forces altering plurality of Goan society, one must be aware of such culture police locally present within Goa. This local culture police might not be as formally organised as Ram Sene, but their larger project has similarities, i.e. to impose a singular identity by carefully erasing all cultural differences to ensure the hegemony of a dominant social group. It is also interesting to note that some of these individuals indulging in cultural policing are also active members of a Facebook group called “We Don’t Need Ram Sene in Goa”.

I am referring to the lobby that propagates Konkani as the authentic embodiment of Goan identity. The Official Language Act of 1987 instituted ‘Konkani written in Devnagari script’ as the sole official language of Goa. This Konkani, however, was not the extant and popular Concani. Rather, it was the dialect spoken largely by the Hindu Saraswats of Goa. By officially recognizing this Konkani as the only official language of Goa, the state excluded two major Goan communities i.e. the Catholic and Hindu Bahujan groups. The Catholics in Goa largely use the Roman script to write Concani. By specifically mentioning ‘Konkani written in Devnagari script’, the official language act slyly suggested that Devnagari script is the marker of ‘Indianness’ in Goa.

As Goan historian Parag Parobo suggests in his book India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015), the upsurge of Maratha power in 17th century had turned Maratha identity as a symbol of cultural resource. The lower caste Hindus in Portuguese Goa articulated  a modern identity through the Maratha symbol to escape caste oppression.  The potency of this symbol was further deepened in the course of the merger-language debates that dominated public discourse from the 1960s until their culmination in 1987. Recognising that the pro-Konkani forces were in fact directed by Saraswat interests, the bahujan realised that the imposition of Nagri Konkani was a tool towards instituting brahminical hegemony in Goa. It was for this reason that they chose to side with Marathi as their preferred language of expression.

The symbolic power attached to Nagri Konkani by its institutionalisation through the state apparatus has rendered Goan Catholics and Hindu Bahujans as ‘lesser’ Indians and Goans respectively. Instead, it frames the Nagri Konkani supporting Hindu as the ‘ideal’ representative of Goan identity. Such idealisation is in the interest of sustaining the caste hegemony of Saraswats in Goa. In the popular press or social media platforms, any demand for official status for Romi Konkani is vehemently opposed citing it as a representative of the colonial hangover of Goan Catholics. Similarly, even though the pursuit of merger is no longer feasible, the demand for official status for Marathi in Goa is held under suspicion as a step towards Goa’s merger with Maharashtra. Both these demands emerge out of a resistance to upper caste hegemony and are a call for accommodating the plurality of vernacular cultures in Goa. However, the ‘Nagri Konkani sena’ has time and again opposed such assertions by labeling them as a threat to “Goan identity”; implying that such identity should be expressed only through Nagri Konkani. Those demanding official status for Romi Konkani are asked to leave for Portugal. Similarly, those asserting a Marathi identity to resist Nagri Konkani hegemony are asked to settle in Maharashtra.

Muthalik and the Nagri Konkani lobby may have different organizational structures and modus operandi but they strive towards similar agenda. In the case of Muthalik, it is the militant imposition of Hinduism as the authentic Indian culture, by attacking cultures that challenge the idea of ‘Hindu rashtra’. In the case of the Nagri Konkani-wallahs, it is professing of Nagri Konkani as the sole vehicle of Goan identity. Any opposition to this is accused of being a ‘traitor’ to Goan and Indian society. Muthalik has often resorted to violent ways of propagating his claim while the Nagri lobby systematically executes its agenda through an equally violent, albeit insidious, state apparatus. Both consider themselves to be the guardians of monolithic identity formulations that are validated only by excluding the subaltern communities of the land. While there is no doubt that Goans need to be vigilant against the Ram Sene, there is clearly a need to challenge such locally present cultural policing as well.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 29 September, 2015)