Darkness and Shades of Grey

My godchild in the US turned 21 a few months ago this year. As a mutual acquaintance happened to be visiting and offered to take something for her, and because I know she loves reading about history, I scoured Broadway bookstore for something appropriate. And my gaze alighted on Shashi Tharoor’s latest book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India”.

Era of Darkness

As this year also marks the 70th anniversary of our Independence and of the end of British rule in India, it seemed a timely gift. I remember watching, and being hugely impressed by what is known today as Tharoor’s “Oxford speech” in 2015, which deservedly went viral; even political rivals conceded to the brilliance of his argument and congratulated him for his speech. When Tharoor mentioned in the preface that this book followed on from that speech, I was sold.

We all studied Indian history in school, but the scale of the loot (a loan-word from India, Tharoor reminds us, like so many other words that pepper the English language) and plunder of our country, the siphoning of our wealth and resources, and the sheer barbarity and inhumanity on the part of the British Raj towards our people while simultaneously and perversely feeling sanctimonious about being a “civilizing” influence, had never hit home quite as clearly or as hard as after  reading this wonderfully-written and researched book, helped along by Tharoor’s sparkling wit and turn of phrase.

Several things come to mind after reading “An Era of Darkness”. The chapter “Divide et Impera” (Divide and Rule) is in some ways the most thought-provoking. The seeds of discord of communal disharmony leading up to Partition, and of rigidly compartmentalizing us based on religion, caste (“caste reified by colonialism”, as Tharoor’s subheading puts it), language, so-called “criminal tribes”, and other absurd divisions, under the guise of collecting census data or cartography, were sown by the British; and by continuing to let these rifts fester and dictate our internal politics and foreign policy, we in the whole subcontinent are still, unwittingly or not, playing into the hands of those that planted those seeds over a century and a half ago. A South Asian region whose energy is dissipated by internal unrest and whose capital is diverted towards border tensions and disputes rather than on true welfare and progress only benefits those who profit from it, whether trade competitors or those who sell weapons to all warring nations in the region. Seventy years on, it is time for all of us to stop being pawns in an obsolete “Great Game.” Indeed, all three post-Partition siblings (although Bangladesh was ‘born’ later, also traumatically, but also as a far-reaching result of the same ‘Divide et Impera’) would be ‘anti-national’ if we persisted in squabbling rather than beginning to genuinely and peacefully co-operate.

Tharoor is scathing when he writes about the Partition at the end of this chapter: “Finally, what political unity [he is responding to the oft-repeated British claim that the Raj had the benevolent side-effect of ‘unifying’ India] can we celebrate when the horrors of Partition were the direct result of the deliberate policy of divide and rule that fomented religious antagonisms to facilitate continued imperial rule? If Britain’s greatest accomplishment was the creation of a single political unit called India, fulfilling the aspirations of visionary emperors from Ashoka to Akbar, then its greatest failure must be the shambles of that original Brexit –– cutting and running from the land they claimed to rule for its betterment, leaving behind a million dead, thirteen million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land. No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than in the tragic manner of its ending.”

He touches upon the teaching of history as well. It is shocking how little is taught in the British curriculum about the excesses of the Raj. This deliberate infliction of collective amnesia is deeply dangerous, in many ways to the British themselves, than to us. Tharoor’s last sentence in his book applies just as much to them, as to us, as to any people: “In looking to understand the forces that have made us and nearly unmade us, and in hoping to recognize possible future sources of conflict in the new millennium, we have to realize that sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror.”

This removal of the rear-view mirror at home, in airbrushing the Mughal legacy from our children’s history textbooks, and the Nehru-bashing, for example, is therefore extremely worrying, and in fact counterproductive. In the internet age, even a child can fact-check what s/he reads or is told; and when our children realize they are being fed untruths, partial truths, distortions of the truth, or to put it in today’s parlance, ‘alternative facts’, it will erode any shred of trust they might have in what is being taught to them. Why are our leaders and policy-makers so frightened of the truth, of an unbiased balanced account of history?

The other thing that struck me (and this has been remarked upon before) is, how despite such a prolonged, sustained, extensive legacy of harm perpetrated by the British towards us in terms of geographic area and population numbers affected, we have excellent diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, love cricket, speak, write and think in English, whereas in Goa, the reaction to anything Portuguese, be it a visit from a dignitary, or a celebration of Portuguese culture or of the language, still draws suspicion of a dilution of ‘Indianness’, whatever that might mean.  But playing and following cricket, and going to a Bollywood film that has more English in even its title than Hindi, doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, and is not at all a conflict of loyalty. The English language and cricket have been Indianised somehow, given honorary Indian citizenship, an permanent Aadhar card without even being asked. But the língua Portuguesa, fado and bacalhau are still ‘bandeiras vermelhas’ to some self-styled ‘nationalist’ ‘touros’.

Lastly: if the colonial experience has been (justly) termed an Era of Darkness, what shades of grey have we been living in, in post-1947 India and post-1961 Goa? What is our current swatch of grey? Darker or lighter than even a few decades before? We owe it to our children and generations after them, if not to ourselves as well, to strive tirelessly towards an Era of Light, with no place for hatred, violence or discrimination. Utopia or attainable realistic endeavour? You tell me.

(An edited version of this article was published on 13 August 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


How should we Listen?

How should we Listen

An article I was reading recently mentioned in passing, by way of illustrating quite another point, the change in the way audiences listened to music over time.

It argued that up until the eighteenth century, concerts “functioned as a pleasant soundtrack for aristocratic soirees”, and at concert halls and opera houses and the ballet, “the nobility would canoodle in their boxes, only half paying attention to the performers.”

This changed with the Industrial Revolution and “a rising capitalist class”: a shift occurred from entertainment to education. Audiences now sat still and silently concentrated on nothing but the music, stifling sneezes and coughs and any extraneous noises lest it break anyone’s concentration. The Germans of the time even invented a word ‘Sitzfleisch’ (‘sitting flesh’) “to describe the muscle control required for sitting absolutely still during a concert performance.”

It brought into focus something that’s been on my mind for a long time, and that I’ve been meaning to write about: how should we, collectively as an audience, here, and today listen to a concert? By this, I refer to a western classical music concert.

One hears two extremes if one speaks to a cross-section of people. On the one hand, I have been reminded of precisely this evolution of music performance and listening, and a fervent argument is made for going back to the ‘anything goes’ attitude that seems to have prevailed centuries ago, as some sort of historical validation. Going back to an imagined past seems to be trendy on so many levels in India, and it is true here too. Why not let people just be themselves, and abandon the whole stuffed-shirt image that classical music has undoubtedly acquired? Notch up a victory for freedom of expression!

The other extreme is the ‘Sitzfleisch’ brigade to the power of infinity. Sit perfectly still and become part of the furniture. And not just that; the cardinal sin of clapping between movements (sections) of a piece of music is to be countered by rounding upon the unfortunate blunderer with a Medusa glare that will petrify him/her for eternity.

The Naxos Record label specialising in classical music has an Education section on its website, with advice on how to enjoy a live concert, and has a whole section on ‘Coping with Snobs.’

And what does it say about them? It starts by saying that “snobs are everywhere, in every field”, but that “classical music snobs can be some of the snobbiest snobs of all. They assert their superiority by showing off their knowledge and declaiming opinions. Often their snobbery masquerades as helpfulness, but snobs have a way of making ignorance appear to be shameful.”

Which brings us back to the original question: how do we listen to a classical concert today? I think the answer comes down to sheer common sense. We would do well to comport ourselves in a way that 1. allows us to be at as attentive and concentrated as we can; and 2. is not distracting to those around us. Everything else follows from these two fundamental principles.

We derive the maximum benefit and enjoyment (yes, entertainment, even) and education from a good concert performance if we give it all our attention. True, some music was written for entertainment; divertimenti, serenades, cassations are good examples. But even here, attentive listening will reap further rewards.

The operative words for us are attention and concentration. In a world of texts, tweets, and emoticons, attention spans have shrunk considerably. All too often, our phones themselves are the biggest culprits, distracting us and those around us.

Attention spans have even affected concert programming. If one looks at concert programme lengths from even about a century ago, three hours or longer were not unusual. Today a concert exceeding 90 minutes might seem interminable. There are other considerations that affect concert lengths today, like factoring in commuting time for audiences after the concert. Without becoming a Sitzfleisch advocate, it is to our advantage to make the most of the hour or so of an average concert by savouring the moment. This involves, apart from sitting attentively, either switching off or silencing our devices so they neither distract us nor others around us. Rustling plastic bags or other items are a no-no too. This is not being fussy, but acknowledging the fact that in classical music especially, the notes and the music need the contrast of the quiet and the silences to be at their most eloquent. Composers like John Cage might well celebrate and bring ambient noise to centre-stage in some compositions, but for the vast majority of music, the silence is quite necessary. To quote Debussy, “music is the silence between the notes.” Mozart had made the same point even earlier.

What if we get bored in places during a concert? It happens. It helps to focus also on the visual element of a live concert. It could be the intensity of emotion on the faces of the musicians as they play or sing, or the way a theme, motif or melody is passed from one instrument or section of instrument to another. Or it could be the cues and baton technique of the conductor.

Cameras and camera-phones to record concerts have become a modern bane. Not only does one lose the live moment, but it distracts others, often including the performers themselves. SLR cameras, video-cameras, and several phones make clicking, whirring and beeping noises, further adding to the distraction. Add to that the flash element, and it becomes an audio-visual invasive intrusion. Furthermore, the recorded material is almost invariably terribly unfaithful to what your ears would hear and eyes would see in real-time. And lastly, it raises huge copyright infringement issues and many performers get terribly upset by this, and if they remember in advance, often explicitly forbid this.

At Child’s Play concerts featuring our children (our monsoon and Christmas concerts), we do try to avoid this, barring a videographer/photographer sometimes, and as unobtrusively as possible, to get archival footage necessary for our website, social media, and publicity purposes.

As for the clapping-between-movements police: many musicians do not really mind that much; I know quite a few who feel reassured that the feedback means the audience is being appreciative (and awake?). There are other musicians who do mind, and they often make it known in advance of the performance. Having a concert programme can help an audience ‘track’ the progress of the concert, and such concerts often find their applauses at the ‘right’ moments. Programme notes, or even better, a brief introduction by the musicians themselves, explaining the background to the work, and what to listen for, can immeasurably heighten the engagement and enjoyment of a concert.

(An edited version of this article was published on 6 August 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

My review of Domenico Cimarosa’s opera buffa Il Matrimonio Segreto at Royal Opera House Mumbai

In October 2016, I covered the reopening of the Royal Opera House Mumbai ROHM (after a hiatus of 23 years) for the national and international press. Although the newly restored and refurbished gem of a venue now suddenly opened up fresh exciting possibilities in India’s financial and cultural capital, I must confess I scarcely imagined a full-length Italian opera would grace its stage in less than a year.

Read the rest of the review here

Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company (UK) in Goa

Ever since the beginning of Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music charity working to instil positive values and social empowerment to underprivileged children in India that is now in its seventh year, we are on the radar of young musicians worldwide who want to work in this sector.

In December 2015, we were contacted by Abi Heath from England, a member of the Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company, a children’s musical theatre company, made up of a group of creative people, musicians, singers, actors and technicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), London. “We come together to create pieces of children’s musical theatre and then take our shows to developing countries, where we perform to children in schools, hospitals, orphanages and slums, or anywhere we can find them! We then work with the children, showing them the instruments and giving them the chance to experience live music, an opportunity many have never had before”, she wrote in her email to us. And about a week later I got a supporting email from our friend in London, Goan-origin pianist-pedagogue at Trinity Laban Karl Lutchmayer.

Thus began a chain of correspondence that led to their performing for our Child’s Play children in addition to other locations in Goa in August last year. The quality of their performance was so good that it seemed a shame that more children (and adults!) couldn’t have the experience. So when the Wind-Up Theatre Company got in touch again this year regarding a return visit, I resolved to have their performance in a more public, larger venue. And so their performance will be at Caritas Conference Hall St. Inez on 31 July 2017 at 6 pm.

I interviewed Elisabeth Swedlund for this article: “The Wind-Up Penguin theatre company was founded in 2012 by myself and my classmate at the Guildhall School from Romania, Ioana Macovei-Vlascceanu. I’d been running a summer camp for children in a very poor, very isolated village in Romania for the past 5 years, and had always profoundly wished to be able to bring something more artistic to children who lived in places where they have practically no access to culture, art, and multiculturalism – often in less affluent parts of the world. By fortunate coincidence, Ioana’s parents run a school which is in contact with many charities, and they organised our whole first project – performing in hospitals, orphanages, and rural schools around Bucharest. The experience was life-changing for the nine students involved – we went back to Romania (with eight extra Guildhall students, so seventeen of us), the next winter. Our university – and therefore Penguin – is very international. During our second project, Bozhana, from Bulgaria, offered to organise a project in Bulgaria – same with Carlos, our Colombian friend. Once we’d realised it was relatively easy, in this day and age of internet communication, to arrange performances around the world, we started to extrapolate to countries we really wanted to work/perform in. Five years later, after 13 projects, and over 10000 children performed to in more than 150 different places, we’re still going strong!”

Wind Up Penguin Theatre Company

The Wind-Up Penguin theatre company has so far visited Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Lebanon, India, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. They create professional-standard musical theatre performances which they have then taken into refugee camps in Europe resulting from the current crisis in the Middle East, and to hospitals, schools, orphanages and special needs centres in the countries they have visited.

Swedlund talks in particular about the children in the refugee camps: “We very much can tell that the refugee children we perform to have witnessed violence and severe insecurity. They have extraordinarily high energies, and often people who work with them find it difficult to get them to learn, understand, behave. Artistic experiences, I feel, are crucial at this point: in our workshops, we use games and music/singing to channel children’s energy, enabling them to run, shout, play, in a safe space, all through being creative (which they often very much are).”

Any experiences that stand out it Swedlund’s memory? “I’ve had so many! At the time of this interview, we were performing in Victoria Square, a Square in Athens where many Syrian children play with their parents. A few children ran up to us and asked us about ‘the boy’ (the puppet we’d been performing with in our previous show). They also remembered ALL of the songs we’d taught them three months ago. It very much reminded me that, what I sometimes feel might be a ‘normal’ performance, can inspire children and stay with them, hopefully, in difficult moments.”

The troupe also has this endorsement from the Head of Music at the Guildhall School, Jonathan Vaughan: “The Wind-Up Penguin are a group of highly motivated students who are really interested in charity work. They produce really dazzling and colourful productions to entertain children throughout the world.”

How does Wind-Up Penguin choose its members? Swedlund explained “As the founder, for me, Penguin combines two equally important aspects: to bring professional-quality music and theatre to children in parts of the world where they don’t have access to art, and to inspire music and drama students to use their skills and training in an altruistic and world-focused way. We specifically advertise our projects to students from the Guildhall School and a few other performance universities of similar high level around London. The project leader (often myself) interviews the members – we make no distinction artistically, as we know that anyone studying in these universities automatically has a high musical/theatrical level. What we mainly look for is an interest and enthusiasm about discovering the world and helping others through art, and a willingness to work and live alongside a group of other eccentric artists for a couple of weeks!”

At their performance tour of India in July-August, last year, in addition to Goa, the Wind-Up theatre company also visited Mumbai, Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Tiruvannamalai and Chennai, logging in 31 shows and theatre workshops to over 5000 children.

So what will their performance involve? “It’s a cross arts show, incorporating a cappella singing, musicians, comedy theatre, balloons and puppets. It’s very interactive with the kids. All colourful and fun.”

“For me, Penguin is about inspiring artists, who often are on their way to a highly successful career, to perform with an altruistic view on the world. And of course – for children, through music, theatre, and laughter, to get inspiring, very much out-of-the-ordinary, and hopefully memorable experiences,” says Swedlund.

(An edited version of this article was published on 30 July 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

My article on Il Matrimonio Segreto at the Royal Opera House Mumbai in Scroll.in!

Less than a year after the Royal Opera House Mumbai reopened its doors to the public, the first full-length opera will grace its stage this month, with four performances (27 and 28 July at 7 pm, and 29 July matinee at 4 pm, and final performance at 7.30 pm) of Domenico Cimarosa’s 1792 comedy Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage). This is also the first full opera ever to be performed at the ROH Mumbai in its history.

The opera is being produced by Giving Voice Society, headed by Mumbai-origin soprano Patricia Rozario (who also sang at the gala reopening ceremony of the ROH Mumbai last October), Professor of Voice at the Royal College of Music London, and her pianist-husband Mark Troop.


Read the whole article here.

Secret marriage rehearsal photo 2

South of the Border, down Mangalore way

I guess it is inevitable that from having hardly ever been to Mangalore (I had made a trip by bus just once, in my junior doctor years, in the 1990s, to visit a colleague at his workplace), I would begin to visit much more often after marrying a Mangalorean.

Technically, it’s not Mangalore proper that we visit; rather it is a little village on its outskirts, Kinnigoli, where my wife’s family has a sprawling farm estate, with paddy fields, arecanut plantations, and an abundance of coconut, tadgola, mango and jackfruit trees. It becomes the extended family’s annual, sometimes bi- or even tri-annual, bolthole escape from urban life, literally out of earshot of any traffic, and just the sounds of nature: peacocks, frogs, and crickets instead. It is a birdwatcher’s paradise.

Although we’ve travelled there by air a few times, I love the train journey the most, because the route takes you through some really breathtakingly picturesque coast-hugging tracts of our southern neighbour Karnataka.

This was in stark contrast to the muddy mayhem we would pass through on our way out of Goa, particularly at Loliem, where mining activity is back in full swing, with hundreds of trucks back and forth in columns of dust, like so many worker-ants in an ant-hill.

The first few times, the intervening stations between Margão and Mangalore (Canacona; Balli; Karwar; Ankola; Gokarna Road; Kumta; Honnavar; Murdeshwar; Bhatkal; Byndoor; Kundapura; Barkur; Udupi; Mulki; Surathkal) would seem a confusing blur. But over time, especially as I began to delve more and more into Goan history, the connections with several place-names became apparent.

South of the Border

It would be impossible to do justice to so much history in a column, but we could take a whistle-stop tour as we progress toward Mangalore.

Take the port city of Karwar (also called Chitrakul; or Cintacora by the Portuguese) for starters. It was noted for its shipbuilding, and much coveted through history for its favourable, safe-harbour port and for its access to the pepper markets as well as other spices such as cardamom; and to muslin. In 1510, the Portuguese ransacked and burnt its fort, described in their records as Forte de Piro due to the presence of the dargah of a Sufi saint (pir) there.

Aggressive demands by the British for the cession of the port to them prompted the king of Sonda to seek the protection of the Estado da Índia in 1697, becoming its tributary. The Sonda kingdom eventually capitulated to the British demand to establish a factory in Karwar, whereupon the Marquis of Távora captured the Sonda strongholds of Cabo de Rama and Karwar between 1752 and 1754. The French (notably Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix) also coveted Karwar, as they had an inferior port in Mahé, but desisted as it would upset the Portuguese, whose friendship they needed.

Honnavar, Bhatkal, Kundapura and Barkur all find mention in our history. According to one account (Oriente Conquistado, by António de Sousa), Muslims from Honnavar (Onor in Portuguese chronicles) sought refuge in Goa, then under the Bahmani rule, to escape the wrath of the Vijayanagar empire after a massacre of 10,000 there.

Although there is much historical confusion about Timoja (or Timayya), the controversial figure who colluded with the Portuguese in their conquest of Goa in 1510, Padre M.J. Gabriel de Saldanha in his História de Goa (Política e Arqueológica) refers to him as ‘Soberano de Onor’ (sovereign of Honnavar).

Some historical accounts state that Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagar Empire permitted the Portuguese to build a fort at Bhatkal in 1510. Prior to that, in 1502, Vasco da Gama torched its port. Luís Vaz de Camões in the final instalment of his epic Os Lusíadas (Canto X, stanza 66) waxes jingoistic about ‘Baticala’: ‘Having cleared India of enemies, he [Dom Martim Affonso de Sousa, viceroy of Estado da Índia 1542-45] will take up the viceroy’s sceptre, With no opposition, nor any danger; For all fear him and none complain, Except Baticala, which brings on itself the pains Beadala [a southern port near Rameshwaram captured in 1538 by Affonso de Sousa] already suffered’.

[Here is the text in the original Portuguese, of Camões’ Os Lusíadas (Canto X, stanza 66):

Tendo assi limpa a Índia dos inimigos,
Virá depois com cetro a govern-la,
Sem que ache resistência nem perigos,
Que todos tremem dêle e nenhum fala.
Só quis provar os áspersos castigos
Baticalá, que vira já Beadala:
De sangue e corpos mortos ficou cheia,
E de fogo e trovões desfeita e feia.

Mangalore fell into Portuguese hands in 1524, and Honnavar and Kundapura in 1569. But links between Goa and Kanara pre-dated the Portuguese era as well, with migrations in both directions due to trade, or the ravages of pestilence and famine. The history of the Estado da Índia is marked by its heavy reliance on imports of rice from the rich paddy fields of Kanara and the Províncias do Norte for its sustenance. Annual tribute was received from Honnavar, Bhatkal and Basrur (Barcelor) in Kundapur district in the form of thousands of bags of rice.

Persecution added to the reasons many Goans, both Hindu and Catholic, migrated to Kanara, as is still evident from many surnames one encounters there. And in the reverse direction, we still encounter surnames here that are in fact place-names there: Mundkur, Padubidri, Kumta, Mulki, Uchil.

In the failed 1787 revolt (Conjuração dos Pintos) in Goa against the Portuguese, the outside assistance sought of ‘200 Muslims’ from beyond the Estado would probably have been of Kanara origin.

Mangalore brought to mind the wonderful ethnography ‘In an Antique Land’ written in narrative form by Amitav Ghosh, which I was reading at the time of our last trip. In it, he traces the history of a 12th century Jewish merchant Abraham Ben Yiju, and his slaves Ashu and Bomma, using documents from the Cairo Genizah, Jewish manuscript fragments spanning a millennium, in the genizah (store-room) of Ben Ezra synagogue, Cairo. Blowing the centuries of dust off the trail of Bomma from India to the Middle East, and of Ben Yiju in the reverse direction, Ghosh devotes a whole chapter to Mangalore. Its allure, as he puts it, was that it was “one of the premier ports of an extremely wealthy hinterland: a region that was well endowed with industrial crafts, apart from being one of the richest spice-producing territories of the medieval world.”

It was inevitable that ports like Mangalore and others along the Kanara coast should have strong links with Goa, another key port, borne out by travellers through history.

As in Goa, the past in Karnataka is simultaneously obscured, but also manifest in other ways. For instance, Portuguese is hardly spoken or understood on the city streets and in the villages today. But what do my son Manuel and his cousin, (and the rest of us), say to their great-grandmother, the family doyenne, at the end of the pre-bedtime rosary (ruzar)? “Bessao (Benção) di, Mãe!” There are two Portuguese loan-words in that three-word sentence.

(An edited version of this article was published on 23 July 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

My article on Maria Badstue in Scroll.in!

A Danish opera star discovered her origins in a briefcase – they led to a holy city in Maharashtra

The Royal Opera House in Mumbai is poised to stage its first full-length Italian opera, Domenico Cimarosa’s comedy Il Matrimonio Segreto, with a run of four performances from July 27 to 29. The opera’s conductor Maria Badstue has a heartwarming connection to India – she was adopted from here by a Danish family at five months of age and is returning to the country for the first time in 35 years.

Read my account of her wonderful story here in Scroll.in.

This resonated strongly within me as founder and project director of Child’s Play India Foundation, a music education charity working with underprivileged children. Our whole ethos rests on the untapped potential of India’s disadvantaged children and the transformative power of music in their lives.

Get tickets to see her in action here.

Laudato Si and Goa

In my half-century as a baptised Roman Catholic, these current years with Pope Francis at the helm are easily the most exciting time to be part of the faith. I used to feel that during the John Paul II era as well, but this Pope has gone beyond all before him in reaching out to others, pushing boundaries and breaking stereotypes.

When he was elected, and the news mentioned that he was the first Jesuit Pope in Papal history, I remember finding this odd, as the Jesuits are unquestionably a leading order among the various clerical orders within the Roman Catholic faith. I was thinking further about this at the recent, well-organised and extremely illuminating and thought-provoking conference “Towards a history of the Jesuits in South Asia: Post-Restoration Period” at the Xavier Centre for Historical Research, Porvorim at the end of last month.

Given that the Jesuit order began in 1540, and there was a long suppression, beginning in 1773 and ending in their Restoration only in 1814, with their re-emergence in many parts of the world even later for logistic reasons, it made more sense.

But it also dawned on me that Pope Francis’ path-breaking, hard-hitting ‘Laudato Si (Praise Be to You): On Care of Our Common Home’, his 2015 encyclical on the environment and climate change, is a logical extension of “Finding God in all things” which is at the core of the spirituality of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus; indeed this idea is contained in the very beginning of the spiritual awakening of Saint Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, composed by him before he had even become a priest.

Laudato Si Goa

Although the encyclical gets its title from and begins with a quote from the beautiful canticle ‘Laudato si, mi Signore’ (Praise be to You, my Lord) of St. Francis of Assisi (whose name this Pope took as his “guide and inspiration when elected Bishop of Rome”) and refers to him extensively, the influence of St. Ignatius seems evident as well.

In addressing climate change head-on in the very first chapter (‘What is happening to our Common Home’), Pope Francis effectively rebukes those (for example the Evangelical far-Right in the US) who use the bogey of religion as a spurious argument against the very notion or existence of climate change as an entity and a major problem facing our world today.

Laudato Si is a lengthy read, but just a few pages into it one can easily understand why Fr. Bismarque Dias was so excited when the encyclical was released, barely a few months before his brutal murder in November 2015.

In it, Pope Francis lashes out against the evil effects of mining projects, “which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture” (Chapter Four, ‘Integral Ecology’). Even earlier, in the first chapter, under the subheading ‘The Issue of Water’, he refers to the threat of pollution to underwater sources due to mining, “especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls.”

Just as pertinent, with the Damocles sword of the disastrous Mormugão Port Trust plans for a coal hub hanging uncomfortably over our heads (like the ominous black cloud of soot that blew over Panjim across from MPT during a particularly stormy gale some weeks ago; it is a harbinger of much worse to come if the coal hub becomes reality), Pope Francis in Chapter Five ‘Lines of Approach and Action’ reminds us of the redundancy of coal as an energy source in the 21st century: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels –especially coal, but also oil, and to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

This is the great Goan paradox: while the world media lauds India for cancelling plans to build nearly 14 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations due to solar energy prices falling to record low levels, we in Goa seem to be in reverse gear, with a coal hub being foisted on us even as the rest of the country wipes its hands clean of coal.

Isn’t it bizarre that at the same time that some £6.9 billion-worth of existing coal power plants at Mundra in Gujarat are deemed “no longer viable because of the prohibitively high cost of imported coal” and when investors the world over are showing interest in India’s burgeoning solar energy sector, that a regressive coal hub is proposed in our backyard? Daal mein kuchch kaala hai, and it is likely to be the highly polluting kaala patthar and everything that comes with it.

It has been two years since ‘Laudato Si’ was published, but it is my view that we the faithful have collectively not taken the time to read it, meditate upon its many messages and transform our own thinking, actions and way of life.

For instance, in Chapter Six (‘Ecological Education and Spirituality’), Pope Francis writes under the subheading ‘Educating for the Covenant between Humanity and the Environment’: “There is a nobility in the duty of care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights and appliances…All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.”

Further along, he says something which to me is the most profound in the whole encyclical: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.”

If we bear in mind just this message, we will not cut a hill; and think well before cutting a tree, or depleting our earth and water and air through mining; we will not pollute our oceans, rivers and lakes; we will not allow air, water and soil to be polluted by coal or any other pollutant; we will shun plastic. And we will not harm or allow harm to those less fortunate or more vulnerable than us. For we will see God in all beings and in all things.

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 July 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The great Patriotism tug-of-war

The 2002 FIFA World Cup was special for me as it was the first time I was following it all away from home, and in England. Football mania was everywhere, and support for the home team was running high.

At the St. Albans high street weekend market, there was a stall selling outrageously oversized flags of what seemed like every nation on earth, the sort that would be draped by fans over the side of stadium balconies to cheer their team on.

On an impulse, I asked the man if he had the Indian tricolour. Yes, he had. Before I knew it, money had changed hands and I was walking away with an outrageously oversized Indian flag and not a clue what I was going to do with it.

I decided to fly it from the top of my hospital digs, directly above me. A few hospital officials looked at it and me with bemusement at first, but they left me and the flag alone. Even my Pakistani colleagues took it in good humour, and local cabbies told me it had become a convenient landmark in the maze that NHS accommodation can often be (“Take the second right after you pass the tricolour”). It has fluttered at other UK destinations that NHS subsequently chose to send me, each patch of land each time becoming “forever a piece of India” in spirit, well, at least for the duration of my stint there.

Two years before that, when I came home to bury my father in St. Inez, I draped the fresh earth over him in three bands, of marigolds of orange and white, and palm fronds, because I felt it would be a fitting thing to do, as the idea of India meant so much to him.

indian tricolour flowers

I still have a sheaf of letters in my possession, from Tristão de Bragança Cunha (1891-1958) to him from the 1940s and 50s, my dad’s Bombay years, that can attest to this. My parents even chose Independence Day as their marriage date, although for my mother the feast of Our Lady on that day as well made it a welcome additional bonus.

When I came back to India to set up Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) and after the inception of our ensemble, Camerata Child’s Play India in 2013, the first piece I arranged for it was our national anthem, motivated not just by patriotic fervour, but because I felt that a good four-part harmony arrangement of the Jana Gana Mana was sorely needed. Many of you who have been to our concerts will have heard it, as we have begun so many concerts with it. The timing of our monsoon and Christmas concerts makes it appropriate as they fall fairly close to Independence Day and Liberation Day respectively.

When my son came of kindergarten age, one of the first songs he learnt to sing was the anthem, and when we went to the cinema, he would sing it with gusto (and I with him) before the main feature began. And we still do, whether at the cinema, or at our balcony watching the flag-hoisting at the Post Office on national holidays (as did my father with us as children).

Where am I going with this? All the above examples of outpourings of patriotic spirit were spontaneous, motivated by a genuine, deep-felt love for our country. There was no diktat from above, or from anywhere, no arm-twisting “do this or else”.

To put it simply, we were being driven by an innate love, not by external coercion. And this love had absolutely nothing to do with fear. It had even less to do with hatred. It was certainly not measured by how much one hated anyone else, whether a historic enemy or enemies across our borders, or anyone even within our borders that a ruling dispensation might deem ‘anti-national’, or a recasting of historical figures from the past, again because a ruling dispensation felt it suited a certain narrative better.

This is why the current political and social scenario is so disappointing, disheartening and soul-draining. A handful of people have become self-appointed custodians of that sacred entity called patriotism. A deft sleight-of-hand by them can turn a vested interest into artificial matters of burning national importance.

The atmosphere is so charged and the climate so fraught with fear that one has to weigh every sentence, every word, lest some bigot find even an imaginary whiff of ‘anti-national’ sentiment or sedition within it. It is the anti-thesis of the country that Tagore envisioned “Where the mind is without fear, where the head is held high.” On the contrary, ‘keep your head down and your mouth shut’ seems to be the order of the day.

Where does one even start to cite examples? There are so many. But the alarming pattern of public lynching of members of a minority community by self-appointed vigilantes and guardians and rakshaks of culture and morality in different corners of the country, the flagrant hate speech and calls for public hangings of people over food choices, the moral policing, is getting more and more entrenched, while the government and law-and-order machinery is either mute spectator or at best offers wishy-washy comments (“We have to look at both sides.” Really? Isn’t the public beating to death of a citizen by a mob an unequivocal crime? What “other side” can there possibly be?) that only embolden and shield the perpetrators. Too few in the media and in society are speaking out.

Any criticism of, or objections to projects that seem to be motivated more by corporate self-interest and greed rather than the public good are condemned as “anti-national.” It seems a handy rug under which any annoying public dissent can easily be swept, no questions asked.

One is reminded of Arundhati Roy’s recent article “My Seditious Heart” in Caravan magazine. Instead of being compelled to submit to a rigid, austere, authoritarian, straitjacketed, oppressive, singular vision of what it means to be Indian, she asks: “What if some of us dream instead of creating a society to which people long to belong? What if some of us dream of living in a society that people are not forced to be part of? What if some of us don’t have colonialist, imperialist dreams? What if some of us dream instead of justice? Is it a criminal offence?”

The India I want to belong to has no place for hatred and violence. Let there be love instead, for our country and for every one of her citizens, regardless of background, gender, faith or any other consideration. Amen.

(An edited version of this article was published on 02 July 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)