Friday, March 17, 2017
Saturday, August 3, 2013
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Within days of leaving the Lane, I realized most of the rest of India was not like it nor headed in that direction. It also became apparent that cosmopolitan Bombay itself was slowly being transformed into the hapless Mumbai about that time.
Friday, June 29, 2012
Confusing consumerism with modernity
Thursday, July 14, 2011
So here we go again. Language chauvinists in Goa have launched disruptive protests against the state government’s proposal that will allow primary and secondary schools to offer English as a medium of instruction. This is in addition to Marathi and Konkani.
A bunch of rabble, associated with the Hindutva forces, stopped traffic in Panjim and threatened to hold the state hostage to their misbegotten worldview. It’s not just about Goa, it’s all over India. Same people who protested against the screening of the film Slumdog Millionaire; same people who assaulted women coming out of a bar in Mangalore; same people who renamed the airport and the railway terminus in Bombay; same people who renamed Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.
English, both the language and our cultural heritage, is a convenient horse to flog. Increasingly, though, the burgeoning middle class is embracing it as the key to success in a modernizing country. Thus, while politicians go on renaming sprees, “Indianizing” names of city streets and entire cities, real estate developers across the country sell their projects with Western-sounding names such as “Provence,” “Belvedere” and what have you. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, I have actually seen commercial and residential properties called “Manhattan” or “White House.”
Coming back to the Goa language disturbances, even the normally rational Manohar Parrikar, opposition leader and erstwhile chief minister, backed the obscurantist protest. He said if children are educated in English, they look down on their parents who don’t speak the language. He is right.
The problem with the English language is it subversive. To accept it is to accept the cultural and philosophical worldview of the Enlightenment. For example: reason, courtesy, egalitarianism and dissent. In the Hindutva worldview, these are not values that are accepted. Instead the focus is on superstition, indulgence, exclusivity and conformism. Children schooled in the English language do not easily buy into backwardness.
If you look around today, journeyman classes that offer students English-language proficiency are burgeoning everywhere. Parents and their children know that to make their way in the world, English is essential. They have no time for chauvinist arguments against the language. They just want their children to get ahead and like all solid middle class Indians place their faith in education.
This is why the Goa government’s bold move is admirable. Clearly, the state government understands that people want the choice to choose English as a medium of instruction. Given the state’s high level of literacy and per capita income, the pro-English segment is sizable and has rallied behind the government.
English has always been an Indian language. In recent years, the number of people who use English as the lingua franca has increased exponentially. A new form of the language has taken shape that incorporates Indian idioms. We are like this only. And it is increasingly accepted. R K Narayan is an early example; Salman Rushdie thrived on it.
Today global literary salons celebrate Indian writers in English bringing Indian cultural flavours to the world. I can name at least a dozen and their number is probably in the hundreds. So it is bit of madness for people in India to dismiss English as a foreign language. Supreme Court judgments are in English as are government policies. They may be translated into various languages but in the first draft they are written in English.
Vernacular chauvinists, who disparage the use of English in India, are products of a feudal mindset that portrays India as a long-suffering victim of colonial oppression. They draw inspiration from the jingoist ranting of M S Golwalkar in his aptly titled book, “Bunch of Thoughts” and amazingly enough also from the Luddite fulminations of Mohandas Gandhi in “Hind Swaraj.” Their India is a closed and diffident victim of unchaste foreigners. Today, such postures appear ridiculous and out of touch with the new, resurgent India.
Protests like the one in Goa flare up now and again, led by fringe groups that are communal and chauvinist. But they fly in the face of what citizens want. The protestors assume that the vast majority of the Indian population has no use for English. They are right; only a small section of the population use English in their lives. However, English is the language of aspirations. Even a semi-literate family in the rural areas knows that for their children to get out of the rut, the passport is proficiency in English.
Unlike yesteryear, when the language of Milton and Shakespeare was a mark of elite status, in the new India, English is the language of upward mobility. As such, it has captured the imagination of a new dynamic and youthful generation that values merit and effort as determinants of success. Its importance is gauged not from numbers but from its grip on the imagination of the burgeoning middle class.
English was introduced as a medium of instruction nearly two centuries ago by British liberals, hoping to “instruct” generations of Indian youth so they could become adequate civil servants in service of the Crown. Many young people from traditional upper caste families eagerly embraced English and parlayed it into a comfortable livelihood with steady incomes and various privileges.
As India enters a new phase, going from a uniquely-won independence to global recognition, English is again the agent of aspiration and change. And it gives me pause to think about just how prescient Thomas Babington Macaulay was when he said in his “Minute on Education:”
“Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.”
Curiously, today’s chauvinists who protest the use of English reserve their worst for those who celebrate it as a dynamic Indian language. They call us the children of Macaulay; one of several “M’s” they hate including Marx, Modernity and Muslims.
An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, July 2011.
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Panjim: The beginning is mundane. You arrive at a jetty on this capital city’s iconic waterfront, tumble out of the car, make an awkward climb to a floating jetty and jump into the boat. After that, it is a liberating experience.
Within minutes, the speedboat set off to explore the Mandovi River and its backwaters. We flitted in and out of waterways and their littorals, the mangroves that seemed to eat into the river as our boat maneuvered past overhanging branches through the twisting, winding backwaters. A calm descended on us; the outside word ceased to exist.
For a fleeting moment of schadenfreude, we thought about friends in Delhi and Bombay, stuck in traffic jams and all manner of urban discomfiture. As we floated through the backwaters, it seemed to me we had chanced upon an undiscovered world. And as we emerged from this mysterious water world back into the mainstream, we were confronted by sweeping vistas on offer by the mighty Mandovi.
Rivers play an important role in the life of India. They are considered sacred but modern India treats them as sewers, dumping waste and poisons in them. Most rivers in India are dirty and dying. The Mandovi is, in stark contrast, clean and is used for commerce and transport. Now, it is being increasingly used for pleasure.
And so it was for pleasure that we found ourselves rolling on the river. With the wind upon our faces and wonder in our eyes, we floated in the waters and saw a Goa that is mind-boggling; away from the beaches and the tourist spots. Time stood still here and the two hours stretched to an eternity.
The Mandovi tidal basin is an intricate system of wetlands, marshes and paddy fields, intersected by canals, dykes, bays, lagoons and creeks. The river and the backwaters are governed by regular tides that reach up to 20 miles upstream.
Our two-hour long experience on the Mandovi filled us with reverence for the majesty of nature. The river seems eternal; I use the word “seems” because it is impossible to grasp and define eternity in terms of years, centuries or millennia. And understanding this, the use of “seems,” puts you face to face with spirituality and its temporal offshoots: faith and communion.
Herman Hesse in his book Siddhartha wrote about “the restless departures and the search for stillness at home; the diversity of experience and the harmony of a unifying spirit; the security of religious dogma and the anxiety of freedom."
Over the years, I have come to celebrate diversity, to value harmony. Now I am concerned about religion and its effect on, “the anxiety of freedom.” These imponderables have occupied my thoughts. I have often wondered, wouldn’t it be so much simpler to be a man of faith?
But where do you place your faith?
Of all the religions, I have always been intrigued by Catholicism and its celebration of faith and communion, week after week; generation after generation; across communities, nations and cultures. Each Sunday, believers go to church and reaffirm the dogma that Christ was born of Immaculate Conception; He was crucified and rose from the dead. This they call proclaiming the mystery of faith. They receive the wafer and wine believing them to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which they call the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the thanksgiving.
That afternoon on the boat, contemplating the majesty of the river and its various branched waterways, I began to get a glimmer of the spirituality of faith and the mystery of communion.
And no, I have not found religion. I still remain firmly a skeptic. But that experience on the Mandovi will make me a tad slower to challenge matters of faith. Call it the anxiety of freedom.
On our way back to the dock, we stopped midstream for a libation and a view of Panjim as the lights came on. It was a spectacular sight; the neat laidback city on the estuary came alive with its nocturnal personality. It was not Manhattan or Chicago but from the darkness enveloping the river, it was a sign of civilization. In the end, despite the majesty of nature, the lights of Panjim were comforting, a sign that in the end, civilization is what this world is about.
As we returned to shore, we were forced to contemplate mundane problems like where to have dinner. We settled on a restaurant in Candolim, the hip and happening place in north Goa. When we reached there, a solo singer was in attendance.
When we walked in, he launched into the Louis Armstrong 1968 classic vocal that celebrates nature, humanity, eternity: the wondrous mystery of life: What a wonderful world...yeah!
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011
Thursday, January 6, 2011
It Was Easy Because We Tried
Goa: Think about it for a minute. It’s New Year’s Eve at our house, Imagine. It’s easy if you try. And because we’re dreamers, our daughters and our entire extended family deigned to spend the evening with us. It was about 20 degrees Celsius officially but in the village where we live it was a little colder. Actually, we’ve rarely seen Goa as cold as to need sweaters. Anyway, we let it out and let it in with mirth and merriment; we made our world a little warmer. We shrugged off the cares that were upon our shoulder and sang and danced as though this eve was forever and a day.
We gave little thought that night to the busy years that had gone rushing by us because we still had our starry notions. And spending the end of the first decade of the millennium with the extended family was a treat that all in the world would devoutly wish. Though many who came were friends, the operative thing was they were all family: from New York, London, Zurich, Washington, Bombay, Ahmedabad and of course locally in Goa. It was a global celebration in a village that does not even appear in any map of this haven.
Arriving here on December 29 on an afternoon flight on our favorite IndiGo Airlines, we drove straight home and landed up at our favorite Cavala restaurant and rocked for many hours to the band Abracadabra into the wee hours of the night. There was this little girl Jessica, not even 10 years old, who jived with her father to the old time rock and roll. She was so good, I asked for her autograph, which she shyly wrote on a coaster. I will treasure forever despite the fact I may never see her again.
Tell me: how can you beat this anywhere else in nerve-wracking India? Is it any wonder that I believed it when a guy, who runs a beach shack in Morjim in the northern part of Goa, told me that nearly 250,000 people were expected in Goa on December 31? For the record, the population of Goa is just 1.5 million.
Goa lives and dies on tourism. This year because of the bad weather in Europe (few Americans come), many charter flights were canceled. The slack has been taken up by free-spending Indians. As such, the Goan tourism infrastructure that is geared to low-level European tourists is trying to adjust to domestic tourists, who demand what they can get in Thailand or Malaysia. Local demand will improve infrastructure in Goa. In the end, as in America, domestic demand makes for a more egalitarian economy.
Indian tourists are known worldwide to be big spenders. You now see in Goa the big Indian brands like Fabindia and hotels like Vivanta and Fortune that cater to the new middle class. They are better and more professional than the cramped little resorts that cater to British truck drivers in Calangute or the illegal purple, green and yellow resorts for Russian mafia and drug dealers in Morjim. In the end, the growth of high-end domestic tourism may be the savior of this gorgeous haven. Again for the record, there is no McDonald’s outlet in Goa.
The fear in Goa is that domestic tourists will bring the Indian sickness to their home, spitting paan, urinating in public, driving rashly and recklessly. Also the new thrust of domestic tourism is a more affluent class of tourists. The question remains: are hippies and backpackers, dubious Israelis and Russians better than high-end Indians from Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore?
Meanwhile, as I sit in my verandah outside my bedroom in our house, annoyed at the buzz of crickets and cicadas late at night, I realize it is all an academic wonder for now. These problems are all about the beaches and the “happening” strips. I’m happy to stay in my house and imagine ours is a haven; to be with family is very heaven.
Love, indeed, is all you need. And the love of family and friends is a treasure.
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011
Thursday, July 15, 2010
The Monsoon Magnificence
You’ve got to be a hardy soul to come to
We arrived in
In the rain-lashed season,
We’ve had a place here since the turn of the century. More important, this is my sasural; my wife’s family is from
We struck up a conversation in this diner called Starlight and he was insistent to take us to his house in Parra, a suburb of Mapuca. It turned out to be a gorgeous place, slick and breathing of wealth. He showed us around and when we left after 15 minutes, we drove away impressed. In the end, we marvelled that something like this could happen in such an impromptu fashion. But that’s
That’s the social part of
My friend Aasif, an architect, who lives here, having come from 30-plus years in
Aasif can identify bird calls, butterflies and constellations in the sky. He lived for 30 years a busy life in
So you live and you learn. When all’s said and done, you can be alone in Goa in the rains and have the soothing and disturbing sounds of the falling water to keep you company. Soothing because it lulls; disturbing because in a 250-year-old house, you never know where water will drip. You simply feel at the mercy of nature. So we look at the bounteous aspect: green, blue and grey.
We all know from the news media that Goan politics is all about rent money; corruption is rampant and crime starts in the cabinet. And so it is everywhere else in
Sometimes, I think we should just move here and be done with the chaos of the rest of
Saturday, January 2, 2010
A Family Celebration
Breathes there the man with soul so dead whose children are alienated from him? When the hurly burly’s done, my daughters seem actually to enjoy time spent with me. Nothing is more fulfilling; nothing so soulful.
And so it was on New Year’s Eve in
Noise somehow seems to be directly proportional to the fun you are having. And our noise started before even the first glass was poured. If a bunch of stone-cold sober people can stir up the pot, what happens after a couple of bottles of champagne?
Answer: it does not get maudlin or sentimental or nostalgic, only much more fun as people yell and smile and nod at each other to communicate over the loud music, without really hearing what anyone’s saying. They happily pour themselves that extra glass of champagne that teeters between enhancement of reality and oblivion.
So what’s the big deal about this particular midnight? I think it is a generic birthday celebration when we all get older by the calendar year, never mind specific birthdays. It’s not as though human existence can be subsumed by accurate accounting: no, I’ll be 50 only in March; or 65 in September or 21 in July and 40 in April.
On January 1, everyone is a year older, give or take 365 days.
New Year’s Eve is a communitarian birthday celebration and as such egalitarian. Random strangers come up and wish you with a smile in their eyes and good cheer in their heart. And you think to yourself, what a wonderful world! You think about new beginnings, rather than endings; of spring, not fall. The key message is renewal, not decay.
There’s no denying, for many of us, more such celebrations are behind rather than ahead of us. Growing older is a complicated process. At once, you are wiser, more sure of yourself. You realize clearly you will never run a four-minute mile or do a breakdance. The real issue is whether you find value in your life or moan the years that have flown
My wish for New Year’s Eve is we will continue to have fun with family and friends, not just on mankind’s common birthday but on every occasion we can grab.
Happy New Year!
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010
Monday, June 29, 2009
Sitting on Goa’s northern
Entranced, he gaped at the scene: steel grey skies pregnant with black water-laden clouds lit up by jags of lightning; thundering brown water bearing down on the beach with giant whitecaps and a compelling surround-sound roar of thunder and angry thumping water that eclipsed the soaring Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Sometimes called “a memorable page in universal culture,” this masterful last movement celebrates the human spirit and exhorts man to higher achievement. But the Monsoon tableau on display that morning made any achievement of man look and feel shallow. It was an epiphany, a darshana, a terrifying revelation of divinity.
The drama that unfolded before his eyes would not let him be a mere spectator; he was commandeered as a participant. The pounding surf, the ominous thunder and the streaky lightning compelled him to acknowledge the sinister majesty of Nature; sinister because violence was its central core.
For a moment, he thought he’d go into the roiling water. Just then, the rain started pelting down and he stood petrified. The rain disrupted his trance, luckily as it turns out, for to have ventured into the ferocious sea could have been fatal.
Beating viciously on every surface in sight and beyond, the downpour blurred his vision. The incessant sound of the rain and the breakers mixed rhythm and melody like the jazz drummer Max Roach. As the rain came down, he looked around and debated running back to the shelter of his car, decided against it and simply sat there, transfixed.
The man could do no more than to surrender to the storm. Stretching his arms out, he turned his head skyward and let the rain beat down on his face and his body. He seemed to be shouting, not that there was anyone there to hear him. He was the only person on the beach; it was him and the Monsoon, an atavistic one-on-one encounter.
His clothes, his body, his very insides were drenched. But he was like a child, shouting to be heard over the storm. Still the rain kept pouring, and like Credence Clearwater Revival, he wondered if anyone could stop the rain, even God. He felt helpless and yet strangely, deliriously happy. This was sheer abandon: unprecedented, sensual, liberating, joyful, glorious and magnificent. To succumb to the majesty of Nature like he did that morning on
But we have fast-forwarded the story by about 50 years. What was the man doing at
So let’s pause and go back to the 1950s. We are in
His friends were Goan Catholics. They could be found in the city’s cosmopolitan, culturally diverse neighborhoods. The middle classes tended to cluster in the western suburbs of Bandra and
The verandah on which Marco stood was part of a large and airy apartment on the second floor of Court Royal, an apartment building in
Named after the school it abutted,
(For the record, the
The neighborhood was home to
At day’s end, his Goan Catholic friends would go home to be in time for the family prayer. Then they would sit at the dining table and have a convivial evening meal. Marco found it comforting that the family came together every evening to pray and to dine and to talk. Sundays, they dressed in their best and drove in the family car to church and returned to have lunch together.
In the summer vacation, they all set off in a ship from
A picture of this wondrous place that was at that time not part of
Embroiled in this vivacious diversity, Marco began to believe that all of
And so it came about that on a warm April evening, Marco stood on a train doorway, teary-eyed and desperately unhappy, waving goodbye to his close friends, bound for an unknown future
Plucked from the crucible of cultural diversity, he struggled to grow up in a milieu of moffusil values and suffocating conformity. His teenage years were turbulent as the reality of the hinterland began to cow him down; the comfortable middle class milieu of
Last year, I made my first trip to
One morning, I took time off to cruise the northern beaches. Ominous dark clouds were gathering low in the sky. As I wandered up and down the coast, I finally settled on Morjim to watch the fury of the sea. Virtually hypnotized by the tableau, my mind floated back to the first time I came to
My wife and I, along with our infant daughter stayed with her family at their house in north Goa. They introduced me to the place that was just a notion in my head for all the years I had spent with my friends in
I still remember vividly my first visit. As we came out of the (still) chaotic Dabholim airport, Goa burst upon us with sweeping vistas of the Arabian Sea and the mighty
What adds to the visual experience is the promise of time snatched from the world to luxuriate in the serene green of Goa: long drawn out days in which the major decisions you are called on to make include mostly sensual delights: whether to have prawns or fish for a meal; beer or some other aperitif, perhaps even a slug of Goa’s lethal cashew feni, which can stay in your system for days
Goans call the experience sussegad; a state of mind in which each morsel of fish and every sip of beer is an eternity. There is impermanence about sussegad; it is an altered state of consciousness in which time is stretched to make every nanosecond count.
Given my wife’s umbilical bond and my own fascination with the place, we got our own house in
Every now and then, when the day’s hurly burly’s done, we repair to a small café on the backwaters of the
Sometimes we head off to Panjim, the capital, at the mouth of the expansive
To many Goans, this restful capital is the big, bad and stressful place. So in what havens do they live? For one thing, there’s our small village that is less than ten minutes away from the busy National Highway 17 from
Nestled between river-riven paddy fields and a picturesque hill, our village does not feature on a local map of
It is an appealing scene. We don’t participate in it but simply in observing it and waving to the people as we drive past the plaza, we feel part of it. In a vicarious way, we feel we belong there. That is the attraction of
The reason I was in
We had a traditional Goan Catholic wedding with Goan cuisine, band, dance and cocktails at our house. The event represented my traverse of a full circle from the pre-teen years when I first encountered Goan Catholics in central Bombay’s Byculla Bridge neighborhood and the end of my teen years when I met my wife, also a Goan Catholic to my part Goan daughter’s nuptials last year.
The trip to
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2008