Monday, 27 July 2015

Folklore: Our Fading Link to the Past

-Brian Mendonça

             When an old woman or man dies, a library burns to the ground.

When I signed up for Coursera’s online programme on ‘The American South: Its Stories, Music and Art,’ I had no idea that the course instructor would be a folklorist. After doing the 6 course hours at a stretch last Sunday as the rain pelted on my window I felt that it was an obvious choice. Only a folklorist would be able to painstakingly bring together the diverse ‘quilt’ of the stories, the music and the art of the American South.

Of course, Dr. William Ferris, the course host, is the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at UNC but it is from a tradition of folklore that his teaching emanates. As he oscillated between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement in America I was thinking how non-formal sources of knowledge provided so intimate a view of a people’s past.

Folklore is essential an oral source, i.e. which is told, sung or made. It was fascinating how he included and analyzed basket-weaving and quilt-making as art forms. The South, he said has to be seen through the prism of race, class and gender all of which are informed by oral narratives. The point is made starkly in  Kate Chopin’s chilling short story, ‘Desirée’s Baby’ (1893) set in Louisiana – the Creole state -- and William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ (1930) set in hometown Mississippi.

I was thinking why could such an initiative not be nurtured for Goa? There are so many stories waiting to be told – to someone who would only listen. When elders go away to the happy hunting grounds (a Lakota belief in the afterlife) we are bereft of all their lore, mostly undocumented.

I was recently invited to chair a session at Goa University (GU) featuring a paper by Tanvi Bambolkar titled, ‘Lore through the Lens: Integrating Technology in Folkloric Studies.’ I discovered that there is no separate department for folklore studies at GU. Tanvi was pursuing her research through the Department of English at GU. ‘Being a new science [folklore studies] opens up a new possibility in the field of humanities for folklore to be a technology-driven field,’ says Tanvi. While this speaks for the latitude of the Humanities this is no reason why the GU should not consider a full-fledged department for folklore studies.

I was gladdened when I read the establishment of a Folklore University in neighbouring Karnataka. Karnataka Folklore University (KFU) at Haveri offers a PG in folk tourism which trains students to appreciate folk art and culture of the region and showcase them to tourists including foreigners.

Goan Quest – an initiative of Goa Chitra, Benaulim, conducted on Sundays through the season -- provides a window to the folkloric traditions of Goa. The experience allows participants to view pottery, mat-weaving and cane-weaving on the premises. Supported by the Directorate of Art and Culture, Government of Goa, Goan Quest has provided the lead. Will others take the cue?

Published in Gomantak TimesWeekender , St. Inez, Goa on Sunday 26 July 2015; Pix source http://colvaholidayhomesgoa.blogspot(dot)in


-Brian Mendonça

It often happens as I drive down the road on my way to work, I see people at the side of the road. They are usually waiting for some transport to take them to their destination. Things being as they are in Goa, this is an everyday ordeal for most. Buses at peak hours in the morning are either jam-packed or non-existent. Frequency is poor and buses bound for the capital are far more in number than for other routes.

Add to this the woes of female travellers who have to face indignities in crowded buses. They can seldom raise their voices for fear of being silenced. The over-crowded Goan bus is a stock image of every cartoonist depicting Goa. But seriously, can we not offer a better public transport system in Goa rather than having a laugh and sweeping it under the carpet?

So when I drive down to work in the mornings I look out for people on my daily route that I can offer a lift to. Dad and mum always used to do so and the grateful thanks they received by the various passengers was recompense enough. I usually stop by the person if I know the person and am fairly certain the person is going my way.

What happens if you do not know the person and the person hitches a lift? Will you stop? I generally do not. There are various reasons for this. You could be set-up by the passenger if the intention is mala fide. Do you have the time? To pull over and stop you need to de-accelerate; get out of the way of the frantic traffic behind you; open the door politely – and worst of all, make small talk.

I make an exception for groups of students though. These days I see many of them in clumps outside Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) campus, Zuarinagar. They regularly hitch a ride with their upturned thumbs. These kids are down in Goa doing their internships at various places in Goa. Many of them are assigned plants in the Verna industrial area. They have come from the mother institution at BITS, Pilani, Rajasthan, but their homes are in other parts of India as well.

I ask them how they like Goa. I tell them that as a traveler-poet I visited Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Udaipur and they seem surprised. It cuts some ice on the brief ride. It’s the least I can do to repay a debt of gratitude for the many people who have given me a ride in my student days across the country.

One place I feel sorry for the wayside passengers is outside Goa Medical College (GMC), Bambolim. There is no shelter there, and not even a decent place to sit. There is never-ending roadwork on both sides of the road and almost always traffic snarls. As you drive past, in the dim light you cannot make out if there are any hitchers you know. . .
Inspired by the U.S. movie Hitcher (2007) directed by Dave Meyers about two college students who offer a ride to a hitcher who turns out to be a psychopath. It is set in New Mexico. Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday,19 July 2015. Pix courtesy ellenm(dot)

Monday, 13 July 2015

Copa América 2015

-Brian Mendonça

On the face of it Argentina should, in my view, have lifted the Copa América. But the dice was loaded against them. Though they were good on the ground they conceded defeat – and how (4-1)! – on penalties. Perhaps they were jittery playing on the home ground of their opponents. And yes, they were playing in Santiago, the capital of Chile.

I felt the Argentinians played like the Germans with their precision passing and generally restrained demeanour. The Chileans in comparison were florid and all over the place, with their heavy build. Messi was lucky to have escaped unscathed after Medel’s vicious blow to his solar plexus. Isn’t it always sad that despite the refereeing (or inspite of it) the beautiful game almost always degenerates to the mundane with its rough play.

I secretly wanted Chile to win though. Their performance in the World Cup has not been so eventful while Argentina have held centre stage with the media hype from day one. ‘The hand of God’ certainly helped them to a dubious victory in the 1986 FIFA World Cup against England. But successive reports of Maradona saw him losing out on life with his descent into drugs. Their spat with Britain over the Falklands in 1982 seemed to make them more European than Latin.

Chile came from the world of Neruda:

Night, snow and sand make up the form
of my thin country,
all silence lies in its long line,
all foam flows from its marine beard,
all coal covers it with mysterious kisses.
Gold burns in its fingers like an ember
and silver illuminates like a green moon
its thickened shadow of a sullen planet.

And how must we forget Borges, the great Argentine poet?:

My soul is in the streets
of Buenos Aires
Not the greedy streets
jostling with crowds and traffic,
but the neighbourhood streets where nothing is happening,
almost invisible by force of habit,
rendered eternal in the dim light of sunset,
and the ones even further out,
empty of comforting trees,
where austere little houses scarcely venture,
overwhelmed by deathless distances,
losing themselves in the deep expanse
of sky and plains.

There must be a winner and there must be a loser in the game of life. When the titans of South America clashed for the Copa América the finals were played out between two neighbouring countries, viz. Chile and Argentina. Though the former faces the Pacific, the latter the Atlantic their poets have bequeathed to us a poetry that is unmatched in any continent.

Chile did have an Argentine coach in Sampaoli. They managed to do what Brazil could not in front of their home crowd in the World Cup last year.

Football has changed today. Both Chile and Argentina played attacking football and employed negative tactics. But certainly poetry could unite them.
From ‘Discoverers of Chile’ by Pablo Neruda (1904-73) translated from the Spanish by Anthony Kerrigan; from ‘The Streets’ by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) translated from the Spanish by Stephen Kessler.

Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 12 July 2015. Pix of Copa America logo courtesy; pix of church of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile courtesy; pix of sunset over Buenos Aires courtesy 

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Palette is India

Many young voices are trying to find their own poetic idiom, rooted in their lived experience

Brian Mendonça

In our college days we studied Adil Jussawalla’s finely edited volume New Writing in India to know what Indian Writing in English (or IWE) was all about. Two inclusions in that volume stand out for some reason, viz. an excerpt from Bhalachandra Nemade’s Khosla translated from the Marathi as Cocoon and Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh’s lyrical poem 'Jaisalmer.'

What struck me at that time was the fact that Sheikh was a painter. After Kolatkar we felt compelled to visit Jejuri, curious to see how the life of a place in India could be breathed into ‘poetry.’ The rhythms of Indian poetry in English, compared to a diet of Shakespeare’s blank verse seemed so simple. So accessible. Almost like talking. Which is when I wrote my definitive poem 'Last Bus to Vasco' (1997) enroute from Panaji to Vasco in Goa. Poetry was something that wrote itself, to record the magic of the moment — 'Under the canopy of the evening sky/Everything dissolves / Places, smells, memories, distances...'

A poet needs to know what he or she is worth. A sheaf of poems I had pressed into Eunice D’Souza’s hand for her comments, when she breezed into the British Council, Delhi yielded no reply; Keki Daruwalla — though the coffee was good — felt there was no technique, and most of it, evacuation. That was when Jane Bhandari, who steers the Talking Poetry group called Loquations at the NCPA Mumbai, invited me in her cheery way to be the guest poet one Tuesday at the Chauraha. 'Thank you. So many languages, so many voices,' wrote Jussawala who was present at the reading.

It is the plenitude of these voices, which makes the poetry of India so rich today. We have a host of young writers trying to discover their own idiom of India with their intensity and freshness. They do not baulk at writing in their native languages, many are bilingual or even trilingual. They have a wide range of poetic experience, which reaches beyond the themes of the poets of Ezekiel’s generation; and are firmly located in India and experiencing her diversity. These are poets who have survived in the absence of guilds or established presses to sustain them. Despite sometimes humbling experiences. Sometime back, on a visit to a school to promote poetry, Bhandari was confronted by a small child who demanded to know who she was. 'I am a poet,' replied Bhandari. 'But you’re supposed to be dead!' was the incredulous response.

Many young poets have been successful in being published by newer publishers of poetry like Allied, Indialog and Yeti. Others have come together to support a volume or two like Harbour Line Press. These are poets who network intensely between cities and create spaces to write, read and listen to poetry. Special interest poetry groups like Caferati and Eos — the literary wing of NIFT, Delhi which recently hosted a free poetry recitation evening called Bardcode, support poetry and make it happen in cities where one may be forgiven to think everything is dehumanised.

Allied with Sahitya Akademi’s journal, Indian Literature, under the able stewardship of editor, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, are publications devoted entirely or in part to poetry, viz. Chandrabhaga edited by Jayanta Mahapatra, The Little Magazine edited by Antara Dev Sen and The Brown Critique edited by Gayatri Majumdar. The Asian Age incentive of Rs 1000 for the best poem of the month -- a selection of which is published on the first Sunday of the month -- is also another feather in the cap for the cause of poetry.

Fine translations of poetry written in Indian languages are available with the Sahitya Akademi. In one of these, Sanskritirani Desai writes,' Regularly / The guillotine of the horizon / chops down the day,/ and the sun,/a severed head, / tumbling, rolls away from the trunk' (translated from the Gujarati). The conviction is evident in the lines of Lekshmy Rajeev, a young poet who writes in English and Malayalam: 'I, your woman, a poet, calm you in your nights / I can write for you alone, on a wordless universe, and / make you feel like my god I can belong to, more than once.' Language itself (Avesta) breaks down in coming to terms with death and the Towers of Silence in Leeya Mehta’s first collection of poems: 'There are places/That I long to describe/In a language I do not know/ And the Towers, by our not being in them/that is our sacrifice...'

'There are times when inspiration flutters like wayward children / Disappearing with swift quickness before I capture them into cages of words. Walking the murky streets of your subconscious,' continues young poet Ethel Da Costa from Goa, Why is my voice hoarse, screaming the truth? But one doesn’t find many poems with a political zeal akin to contemporary Punjabi poet, Pash. Also, the younger poets seem shy of being inspired by Sanskrit love poetry. Priya Sarukkai is a happy exception: 'Yet in your passion, do not scar me/Do not split my lip, nor stifle speech/Do not force my cervix out of shape / Nor ram my individuality.' A poetic echo flutters in the lines of Ananya Sankar Guha: 'My body is a tree, shaken/by the marauding wind; winces / and like a poem hurts.'

What is heartening about young poets writing in India today is a rejection of superficial criteria of value. Makarande Paranjape said that, 'from being an exile the ie poet is now an NRI, a transnational artist, taking advantage of a world-wide English audience, very much a beneficiary of international print capitalism.' Poets writing in India are pariahs by this definition, and because they prefer to stay rooted in their nativisms are beyond the pale of the huge benefits which accrue to the ‘steam roller’ language, English. To write for everybody is to write for no one. At least not for an Indian.

'Indian literature is one, though written in many languages,' observed Dr S Radhakrishnan when he was Assistant Secretary, Sahitya Akademi. It is this plurality which is our essence. And our root. Perhaps we need to move out of a sense of onanism in our preoccupation of the self. The painterly eye is called upon to recuperate or salvage new idioms of poetry for the twenty-first century. Can the outer and the inner landscape be juxtaposed? What Sheikh and Nemade are doing is to point us back to the reservoir our own truth within a locus that is India. Our claim to write ‘Indian’ poetry is a commitment to the fidelity of lived experience of our Self in India. It is true that notions of the self and of space are porous but the palette must be India. And the brush must be a Hephaestus of words.
Published in Tehelka, New Delhi on 19 March 2005. Sourced from Tehelka archives at

Wednesday, 8 July 2015


Brian Mendonca

On Sunday mornings, me and baba sometimes go to see the ships anchored at Mormugao Port, Vasco.  Last Sunday we were intrigued to see a mountain of sand on the jetty. Next to it was the cargo ship CHIPOLBROK COSMOS HONGKONG. It was a new ship – a beauty, built in 2011. It had docked at ports all over the world. Some of these were Houston, Texas; Rotterdam, Netherlands; Cuxhaven, Germany; Busan, South Korea; Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and the Panama Canal. A tug was nudging the ship in alignment.

Chipolbrok (CP) is a Chinese-Polish joint stock shipping company established in 1961 by the governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Poland. Chipolbrok owns a fleet of 20 modern multipurpose vessels sailing across oceans between Asia, Europe, America and Africa. Chipolbrok is headquartered in Shanghai (China) with a branch office in Gdynia (Poland).

The reach of the sleeping dragon has to be admired for forging links between cultures so diverse and physically so far apart. Seeing such ships ferrying international cargo is a testimony to the efficacy of global understanding through global trade. The recent titter over the Chinese sub at Karachi is only one aspect of maritime traffic.

Yet China has trouble in its own backyard. Hong Kong, a former British colony which was returned to China in 1997, designated as a ‘Special Autonomous Region (SAR) (and where the ship is registered) sees no kinship with mainland China.  

Perched on a derelict boat baba was awed by what he saw. Amongst the numerous vessels of various sizes and shapes he pointed to one excitedly and exclaimed, ‘Baby boat!’  A bright red tug was nudging the nose of the enormous green Chipolbrok Cosmos towards the open waters away from the jetty. When I told baba we had to leave, he was most unwilling to do so. Close to our vantage point was a small nameless joint offering meals. We came away with a beef sukha.

Over the Sunday meal, my dad, reminisced of the time, in his working days. He said that it is the duty of the pilot to bring a liner or a ship to safe harbor as a captain on a foreign ship is unaware of local waters. However the overall responsibility rests with the captain. Similarly, the pilot leads the ship to the high seas after the operations are over. Once on a stormy afternoon in 1964 dad was on board the oil tanker, Desh Sewak pumping kerosene from ship to shore into the storage tanks at the oil installation.  Due to high velocity winds the ship broke its moorings and started drifting. In the course of disconnecting the hose there was spillage of kerosene. Luckily the engines were on and the ship headed out to sea.

What drew me to the Chipolbrok Cosmos was the artwork near the lettering on the hull. It appeared like some Warli figures dancing with a flute. I have yet to get closer for a good look.
Sources:;;; pix source: Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday 5 July 2015


-Brian Mendonça

There were three movies I saw recently almost back to back. There was Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Once Upon a Time in Mexico and then there was Ivide [Here].

The Mexican flick made in 2003 starring Antonio Banderas has the hero using his guitar as a machine gun to take out the bad guys. I was particularly spellbound when Mariachi (Antonio) asks the President what music to play at the banquet – after which he will be dispatched – and he answers ‘Malaguena.’ Too bad the haunting tune fades in the background to accommodate more pressing matters like machine gun fire. With the smouldering Salma Hayek having designs of her own, this is a roller coaster ride into the heart of Mexico.

Our desi Tanu Weds Manu Returns has Kangana Ranaut playing two women, the suave yet high strung, Blanche DuBois character, Tanu, and the other Datto a small town girl from Chandigarh. Both are hung up on the same man. The critics have been crowing over KR for her feat of stealing the show without a male lead the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan or Aamir Khan. This is great disservice to Madhavan and his understated performance. I quite liked him in Rang de Basanti (2006). The silly ending as if to restore the moral order is a slap in the face of Datto and reinforces the sacrosanct bond of a traditional marriage in India, no matter if the wife has her husband dumped into a lunatic asylum in London. The reprieve at a Kanpur is refreshing, and the scenes of no-nonsense Datto at D.U. (Delhi University) made me reminisce over my time there.

Indian language movies have been known to explore different themes, away from mainstream Hindi cinema. Tabarana Kathe (Kannada, 1986) by Girish Kasaravalli and Uttara (Bengali, 2000) by Buddhadev Dasgupta come to mind. Ivide (Malayalam) released this year may not be of the same ilk but it merits mention for its theme which though so disturbing has to my mind not been the subject of a mainstream film. The film takes up the issue of Indians being killed in the US, Atlanta to be precise. 

The loneliness of the lead character played by Prithviraj Sukumaran, the police inspector is very convincing. Separated from his wife and his daughter, facing reproach from his boss for barking up the wrong tree, the movie can only end with his death in one brave encounter.  While his arch rival the CEO of an IT firm (Nivin Pauly)marries his wife and brings her home to Kerala, Prithviraj gives up his life in gun battle to save the CEO who is being held hostage by a crazed American disgruntled about how the Indians are stealing all the jobs.

I was wishing there were more movies lie Ivide which brought out the searing angst of the everyday hell some of us live. But aren’t movies supposed to be an escape from reality, you may argue. I think that there are too many movies that provide this escape. ‘Humankind’ T.S. Eliot reminds us in Four Quartets ‘cannot bear very much reality.’

Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. inez, Goa on Sunday 28 June 2015; pix source imgres                                                                                           

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Poetry Enrichment for Teachers

                                                  Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School
                                                              Zuarinagar, Goa

                                                                23 June 2015

A day before San Joao feast (today) it rained ideas and inspiration at a workshop on poetry enrichment for school teachers which I mentored at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan school, a short distance away from Queenie Nagar on NH17B in Goa on a torrid Tuesday (yesterday)

The module was the brainchild of the dynamic Principal of Bhavans, Ms. Elizabeth Walsan whom I had met when we were judges at a debate competition at Kendriya Vidyalala 1, Varunapuri, Vasco last year. It is not everyday you come across a Principal who sees poetry as enrichment -- but that is what she resolutely had in mind -- and that is what (with the total participation of the teachers) it turned out to be.

As I sipped by ginger tea I was struck at the happy faces in the school, as the staff buzzed about with the logistics of the workshop. The enthusiasm was infectious and within no time the group of around 25 teachers, Mrs.Walsan included, were taking the road to poetryland.

My presentation was planned for a modest 2 hours (though I had my doubts it would be enough) between 9-11 a.m. As it turned out we were kicking poetry around till 1 p.m.! In the bargain we brought the mice on board as well singing to my accompaniment on guitar, in rounders, the traditional ditty 'Three Blind Mice'. We were inspired, as it were, by Rose Flyeman's delightful poem for Class 1 'I Think Mice are Rather Nice.'

Backed by a power-point presentation of 15 slides, which I had worked through the night till 5 a.m. of the day of the workshop, I set about unravelling poetry across the school life of a child.
My focus areas were three, viz.
Classes 1-2 (Lower Primary) - LEVEL 1
Classes 3-5 (Upper Primary) - LEVEL 2
Classes 6-8 (Middle School) - LEVEL 3

After having borrrowed a set of books the English teachers of the school were using across Classes 1-8, I supplemented it with poems from various ELT materials for the corresponding levels. Sets of these poems were photocopied by the school and made available before the session started. For good measure I also threw in a raft of poems from the Kingfisher Book of Comic Verse for children, selected by Roger McGough. As I arranged the material I chose separate coloured U-clips for each set to distinguish different groups by the colour. So I stepped into class confident of deploying group dynamics with the Blue house, the Green house, the Pink house, the White house and the Red house in attendance.

The teachers were off to a flying start and from the word go each group come up front and presented a poem in their own unique way. So they were actually practising teaching that poem in a class -- and we all became kids in the corresponding class! This enabled us to get into the shoes of a child and his/her learning experience or the absence of it. One of the groups used the cupboard in the room as a prop for Walter de la Mare's poem 'The Cupboard' for Class 2 which is so delightfully me-centric.

After we dealt with Level 1 we took a break around 10 a.m. Fortified by the breath of fresh air in the moody monsoon in Goa I then ramped up the pace by asking the teachers to become poets themselves because there were so few poems written by Indians for Indian children. I brought to their notice two of my poems written within an Indian context, viz. 'Barefoot Child' (Skyline Coursebook 4, published by Oxford University Press and on this blog elsewhere) and 'Hymn to Ravi' written on the Ravi river and about a boy by the same name in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh (Published in Friday Afternoon Comprehension Class 5 also by OUP).      

The fact is there is very little poetry to speak of in main coursebooks prescribed in school, maybe 2 poems and 11 prose units. This skewed scenario needs to be redressed, I told the teachers, by bringing in their own poems outside their 'syllabus' for learning is lifelong.

The features of each of the levels were discussed as poetry modulated from rhyme and rhythm in Level 1 through more complex sentences in Level 2 to Indian English poetry like 'Night of the Scorpion' by Nissim Ezekiel in Class 8 (which is also taught at the final year of the Bachelor of Arts course). The last level also made space to include African-American writer Lawrence Dunbar's poem 'Sympathy.' Kenn Nesbit's poem 'The Computer ate My Homework' brought in the use of humour in poetry (Class 7).

Inspired by all the action, the Hindi teachers took it upon themselves to present Harivansh Rai Bachchan's poem for Class 7 on the vehicle of the sun in Hindi. They were met with huge applause. As they spoke about a poem written in Hindi it came across as very culture friendly.

Since a number of poems emphasized the world as one family we ended singing 'We are the World' accompanied by 2 guitars -- the music teacher's and mine. It was a fitting riposte to the morning's intensity which tried to demystify poetry among teachers. A crucial factor which made it such an invigorating morning was the size of the class and the size of the classroom which was not too big and not too small. It was possible to 'be yourself' and and be swept away in the ecstasy of poetry.
Pix. The teachers having fun teaching a poem with Brian (right) looking on during the programme.