Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Getting to Know Goa, Slowly

Though it is undoubtedly one of India's most popular tourist destinations, it might be surprising to readers that Goa most definitely is not being overrun with big-time real estate development projects. There are some large resorts around (the "Taj Exotica"), in both north and south Goa, and a really insistently Philistine foreign tourist could potentially stay in Goa and never leave one of those places. But Goa is not becoming another Dominican Republic or Jamaica, with mega-resorts so dominant they threaten to eclipse local populations and culture. The best beaches are still, by and large, open to the public, and while some are quite crowded (Calangute), many of the public beaches we've visited seem perfectly tranquil, with a mix of foreign (largely Russian) and Indian tourists enjoying the sun and sand.

It's also worth pointing out that the state has a substantial economic, industrial, and cultural life that has nothing at all to do with tourism. (To give just one example, Goa is apparently popular with pharmaceutical companies, because the low levels of pollution in the air and water make it easier for pharma factories to achive high levels of purity in manufacturing medicine. The local Cipla plant makes the Indian/generic version of AIDS cocktail drugs that are sent to sub-Saharan Africa, and delivered to patients at a cost of $1 a day.)

This resistance to outside money and mega-tourism projects is not for want of trying. This New York Times article from March 2007 is a good introduction to some of the debates over the direction of Goa. The short version is this: the state government was more than ready to implement a "regional plan" that would open doors to major development projects, but a popular "Save Goa" protest movement emerged in 2006-7 that forced them to drop the plan. As a result, you do see some pockets of new tourist development, but it is measured and limited. (The article foregrounds the story of an investor whose focus is on finding distinctive individual houses in Goan villages to renovate and then market in a limited way.)

The emergence of a movement to protect Goa's distinctively laid-back, but fluid cultural heritage does not come without some problems and dangers. Yesterday, we had the distinct privilege of meeting a local Goan writer and journalist named Vivek Menezes, who had a lot to tell us regarding both the history and current status of Goa.

One article Vivek published in 2006 details the tensions produced by the boom atmosphere that was prevalent at the time:

Chakravarti continued, "Piece of the action is ...driving Goa to the edge," and writes movingly about tears at his friend's funeral marking "a sense of loss for a Goa we pine after but can no longer recognise."

It's a sentiment that’s nearly universal in 2006. Long-stayers, relative newcomers and locals all describe a sensation of being under siege.

This feeling is particularly strong at the fringes of Goa's burgeoning tourism marketplace, in the decades-old long-staying communities that developed from the hippie phenomenon of previous decades. On the heels of a series of directives from the centre, officials from half a dozen different state agencies are turning up at people's doorsteps, checking the ownership and legal status of homes and businesses, and denying licences and permissions required
to et up shop in Goa. (link)

I would recommend reading the rest of Vivek's article, where there is some great material from people abroad who have come to the state not as tourists, but to live and settle here.

My preliminary outsider's sense is that the feeling of "crisis" Vivek was referring to in 2006 may be at least temporarily at bay with the collapse of the regional plan. Some people still seem to have a sense of nostalgia for the lost "old Goa," but in a region with history as rich as this one, it's not always clear whether they are talking about the 1990s (Goa NRG/rave culture), the 1970s ("Dum Maro Dum"; western hippies), the 1920s... or the 1570s.

Vivek lent me a book called Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa (edited by Jerry Pinto; Penguin India), in which I've been encountering some interesting essays that address some issues relating to Goa's earlier history. More about that below.

First, William Dalrymple has a great essay in the collection called "At Donna Georgina's," which was originally published in his book The Age of Kali. Here are two paragraphs that give an account of the rise and fall of Goa as a center-piece of the Portuguese commercial empire in the east:

In its earliest incarnation Old Goa was a grim fortress city, the headquarters of a string of fifty heavily armed artillery bastions stretching the length of the Indian littoral. But by 1600 the process that would transform the conquistdors into dandies had turned Old Goa from a fortified barracks into a thriving metropolis of seventy-five thousand people, the swaggering capital of the Portuguese Empire in the East. It was larger than contemporary Madrid, and virtually as populous as Lisbon, whose civic privileges it shared. The mangrove swamps were cleared, and in their place roses the walls and towers of Viceregal palaces, elegant townhouses, austere monasteries and elaborate baroque cathedrals.

With easy wealth cam a softening of the hard eges. The fops and dandies had no interest in war, and concentrated instead on their seraglios. Old Goa became more famous for its whores than for its cannons or cathedrals. According to the records of the Goan Royal Hopital, by the first quarter of the seventeenth century at least five hundred Portuguese a year were dying from syphilis and 'the effects of profligacy.' Althoug the ecclesiastical authorities issued edicts condmening the sexual 'laxity' of the marrie women who 'drugged their husbands the better toenjoy their lovers,' this did not stop the clerics themselves keeping whole harems of black slave-girls for their pleasure. In the 1590s the first Dutch galleons had begun defying the Portuguese monopoly: by 1638 Goa was being blockaded by Dutch warships. Sixty years later, in 1700, according to a Scottishsea captain, the city was a 'place of small Trade and most of its riches lay in the hands of indolent Country Gentlemen, who loiter away their days in East, Luxury, and Pride.

So it was to remain. The jungle crept back, leaving only a litter of superb baroque churches -- none of which would look out of place on the streets of Lisbon, Madrid or Rome--half strangled by the mangrove swamps.

I'm a little skeptical of this account, in part because there might be material factors leading to the decline of the Portuguese empire that outweigh the culture of extravagance and profligacy Dalrymple is describing here. (Admittedly, I haven't studied this in depth.)

Dalrymple goes on to give an account of an interview he had with a contemporary 'old Goan' -- a woman named Donna Georgina, who 30+ years after Goa's annexation by India, remained nostalgic for the time when Goa was still a Portuguese colony. In fact, there has traditionally been a small group of diehard Portuguese loyalists who agreed with Donna Georgina. But more numerous have been Goan writers and intellectuals with a strong pride in Goa's unique cultural identity and heritage, who also comfortably identify as Indians.

One example of the latter was Armando Menezes, who happens to be Vivek Menezes' grandfather. After Goa was liberated in 1961, there was a movement to absorb the state into Maharashtra; the state does contain a fair number of Marathi speakers alongside those who speak Konkani and Kannada. (There are also a significant number of Konkani speakers in Maharashtra.) In the same collection where I read Dalrymple's essay there is the text of a speech given by Menezes in 1965, just as the debate over the future status of Goa was underway. Menezes puts a great deal of weight on the Konkani language as a feature distinguishing Goa from Maharashtra, but also manages to offer a more general vision of Goa's cultural identity:

All that the Goans want is the freedom to choose. Ther are a few things which he cannot choose, but which have rather chosen him. This soil, this Goa, has chosen him; and wherever he lives and toils and dies, there is a corner of a foreign field which is forever Goa. His tongue has chosen him; it is metaphysical impossibility to chose another. One can choose one's wife; one cannot choose one's mother: that is why it is called the mother tongue. We must be the merest renegades, the merest waifs and strays blown about the streets, if we fil to recognize that. And one cannot choose one's history. Untold centuries, even long before the arrival of the Portuguese on Indian shores, have chiselled our souls to what we are; we have known the confluence of many cultures, the impact of many destinies. The Goan soul is woven of many strands and is, at bottom, a coat without seams--even in spite of the recent attempts to tear it to tatters.

I like this formulation because 1) it doesn't lean exclusively on the history of Portuguese colonialism (which would be merely another species of Raj nostalgia), and 2) it manages to be proud without being exclusivist. Goan culture has long been a composite formation, and needs to continue being such, if it is to continue to grow and develop.

British author Graham Greene also referred to the conundrum of Goan identity when he visited Goa at just around the time Armando Menezes gave the speech quoted above. Much of what he wrote in 1965, describing the style of living here, still seems somewhat salient:

There are few extremes of poverty and affluence: most houses, however small, are constructed of laterite blocks with brown tiles of great beauty. They were built by Goans, not by Portuguese (for the Portuguese lived only in the towns), often by Goans in exile, in Aden or in Africa, who hoped to return one day, for the far-ranging Goan has a loyalty to his village you seldom find elsewhere. It seemed the fiurst thing one Goan asked another--not in what city he worked but from what village he came, and in distant Bombay every Goan village has its club of exiles--350 clubs.

In the first Indian village outside Goa on the road to Bombay you are back to the mud huts and broken thatch which are almost a sign of affluence compared with the horrible little cabins made out of palm fronds and bits of canvas and any piece of old metal on the outskirts of Bombay. These are dwellings to escape from; how can their inhabitants feel loyalty to Mahrashtra--the huge amorphous member-State of the Indian Union neighbouring Goa, into which Goa must almost certainly be sooner or later submerged?

Without agreeing with Graham Greene's assessment of poverty in Maharashtra, one can be pleased that his prediction of Goa's inevitable cultural and political absorption has turned out not to be true.

(That's all for now; I might have more Goa posts as I continue to see and read more things. Happy New Year, everyone!)

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Four Talks in Three Days: North Carolina, New Hampshire

This was a busy week for me, as I did four talks in three days, over the course of visits to two different campuses, Catawba College and St. Anselm College.

The first visit was to Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Salisbury is a little town north of Charlotte, and Catawba is a small college with about 1200 students. It’s always nice to visit North Carolina in March, as the trees are already blossoming into life.

The main event was a talk on The Kite Runner, theoretically for the entire first-year class at the college. They put me up at an imposing guest house, which turned out to really be a small mansion decorated in fine southern style.

1. The talk on The Kite Runner is called “The Authenticity of The Kite Runner and the Problem of Cultural Translation.” It is a souped-up version of a general interest talk I’ve been doing at other places over the past year or so. The version I gave in Portland last year was perhaps still a little sketchy; this version was much closer to a fully-baked talk.

The students, generally, seemed to like it. But there's one thing I’ve noticed -- when you give talks about authenticity, even if you’re attacking the popular dependence on the concept of authenticity, people will wonder about your own ‘authenticity’ to speak. And every time I’ve talked about this, I’ve been asked something along the lines of “Are you an Afghan? Why are you doing this talk?”

On the one hand, as a literary critic I don’t feel any qualms whatsoever in saying, “well, I’ve studied it and thought about it, and that’s all the authority I need. Moreover, my point here is that authenticity is a value that readers cling to for the wrong reasons -– and insofar as they do cling to it, they’re probably going to be disappointed.” But even as I say that, I recognize that there is something to the idea that contemporary novelists are at their best when they’re writing about what they know, what they’ve personally lived through. (Interestingly, this wasn’t really true for writers like Dickens or Thackeray; perhaps “realism” has come to be defined in more exacting terms than it used to be.) Even if “authenticity” is a questionable concept for fiction, it is a concept that never entirely goes away. (Though it should still be said that the idea of an author's authenticity and a critic's connection to the subject she or he studies are two separate things.)

Critical authenticity or no, I am planning on rewriting this talk for one final time -- to turn it into a publishable (hopefully) essay –- on Afghan Expatriate Narratives (which will include a discussion of Nelofer Pazira’s book and films, Said Hyder Akbar, Saira Shah, Farah Ahmedi, and perhaps a couple of others).

2. At the same college I guest-lectured in a class on travel narratives, which was also fun. I could talk about my approach to teaching travel narratives at Lehigh, and build toward an argument that at the present moment of globalization it’s possible for writers to scramble the old codes and conventions of colonialist travel writing. As with much postcolonial literature in general, though, even as they aspire towards new forms, the legacy of the old forms is still in view. We’ve perhaps moved past the era of postcolonial revisions of colonialist classics (the Wide Sargasso Sea moment, if you will), but not entirely left it behind. One can’t entirely forget the Joseph Conrads and the Katherine Mayos even as one reads new work by people like Rattawut Lapcharoensap, whose Sightseeing is a form of ‘talking back’ to the conventions of western travel narratives, here with a focus on Thailand’s current status as a kind of sexual tourism destination.

I should also note that I enjoyed chatting with the faculty members I met at Catawba about diverse subjects, from the music Nitin Sawhney composed for the soundtrack of Mira Nair’s Namesake, to Lehigh’s famous advocate of Intelligent Design, Michael Behe. Despite the presence of superstar figures in the International Relations department and a top-ranked engineering college, the name most strongly associated with Lehigh –- especially down in Billy Graham country –- is still Dr. Behe’s.

3. On Friday morning I got on another plane and headed to St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire -– a state where the trees are still deep in winter mode, but the political season is fully in bloom. Here the college had arranged with a car service to take me to and from the college and a local hotel. And without exception, every driver I talked to had strong opinions on national politics, as well as specific political candidates. The college itself is also a bit of a political wonk’s paradise, which fairly regularly hosts debates amongst presidential candidates during the primaries. John Edwards, apparently, had come through last year, and in the same building where I gave my talk on Saturday morning (the New Hampshire Institute of Politics -– which has its own, in-house television studio), the New Hampshire Democratic Party was holding an internal election to determine its new leadership. Nearly every faculty member I talked to knew the names of the candidates for the internal leadership of the state Democratic Party. It’s a far cry from a state like Pennsylvania, where only hardcore wonks would really know the ins and outs of a political party’s internal structure.

Again, the main event was a talk on The Kite Runner, this time for a group of about 25 faculty members. Strangely, the talk I gave to first-year students, with only a few adjustments, seemed to work just as well for faculty. (Though it helped considerably that the faculty members were from a number of different disciplines –- everything from chemistry to theology to criminal justice. A talk just for the English Department would have needed to be entirely re-written.)

4. I also guest-lectured in a first-year composition class at St. Anselm. Here I was asked to talk about Sikhism, beginning with the early period, and including a perspective on the Sikh experience in the U.S., up to and after 9/11. And, since this talk was sponsored by the English department, I was also asked to give a brief discussion of modern, secular Sikh literature -– people like Khushwant Singh, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Ajeet Cour, and Kartar Singh Duggal.

Partly because my training is in literature rather than religion per se, I tend to find it awkward to discuss Sikhism in academic settings. Even simple questions like “what is the significance of the turban?” end up requiring rather complicated, nuanced answers. (The Sikh turban, or dastaar, is a central symbol of Sikhism that isn’t actually named in the Guru Granth Sahib, or the ‘Five Ks’ laid down by Guru Gobind Singh.)


Over the course of these various travels, several of my flights into and out of Philadelphia were delayed -– usually for purely administrative reasons –- and I was struck to find how many passengers around me were ready to recite their various travel horror stories. It seems the plague of delayed flights, long lines, non-working self check-in kiosks, and worst of all, missed connections, has made travel misery a central fact of life for anyone flying into and out of Philadelphia in recent months. The mood of air travel has gotten pretty grim; it makes me extremely glad that I’m not in a field like Consulting, which requires almost constant travel. How long before the hordes of disgruntled passengers start rebelling?


And that’s it -- back to daily life, grading papers and changing diapers.

(Not that I equate the two activities, not in the least…)

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Travelers: Ryszard Kapuscinski in The New Yorker

Last week's New Yorker had an intriguing travel narrative by a Polish journalist named Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski went to India for the first time in 1955, knowing no Hindi and little English. Arriving, he felt a little like he'd landed on the moon.

The most interesting part of the story, perhaps not surprisingly, has to do with Kapuscinski's attempt to learn both English while in India:

I walked around the city, copying down signs, the names of goods in stores, words overheard at bus stops. In movie theatres, I scribbled blindly, in darkness, the words on the screen; I noted the slogans on banners carried by demonstrators in the streets. I approached India not through images, sounds, and smells but through words; and not the words of the indigenous Hindi but those of a foreign, imposed tongue, which by then had so fully taken root there that it was for me an indispensable key to the country.

It's also intriguing that the book he was using as an entry point to the English language was Heminway's magnificently convoluted novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls.

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