Sunday, 27 July 2014

Independence Day

-Brian Mendonca

July is the month when many countries celebrate their Independence Day, viz.  Canada, Burundi, Rwanda (1 July); United States of America (4 July); Venezuela (5 July) to name a few. An independence day signifies freedom of a nation from a foreign yoke. It is a time of happiness for the people as they take their future in their own hands and move towards self-determination. When we commemorate a country’s Independence Day we partake of this defining moment in their history.

So I thought.  Since American Studies is one of the papers for the B.A. degree, students decided to observe the Independence Day of America. Informative power-point presentations were made covering American colonial history, literature, fashion and music. Hotdogs made by students followed, laced with chips and the all-American Coke. Dressed in red, white and blue --the colours of the flag.

Some felt the event was glorifying America. ‘Would the Americans stand up for our National anthem?!’ Students held their ground saying that their intention was not to glorify a culture, since both literature and the colonial push were critiqued in the presentations. It was pointed out that the anthem refers to a historical event, i.e. the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia by British ships of the Royal Navy in 1812. If you don’t play the anthem on a nation’s Independence Day when do you play it?

Rising to one’s feet for a national anthem is the respect you give to a nation.  As one student put it, ‘Just because one American does not rise for our anthem, it does not mean I should do the same for his.’ It has been my constant belief that literature fosters a humanistic society. Cross-cultural studies seek to foster an understanding of peoples and to counter prejudice. My takeaways from this were: 1. When criticized, keep communication lines open 2. Involve the stakeholders 3. Trust your belief system.

Columbia celebrates its Independence Day on 20th July. It marks protests in Bogotá against Spanish rule in 1810. Maldives is a younger nation having achieved its independence from the British on 26 July 1965. Similarly Algeria celebrates its Independence from the French in 1963 on 5th July. An openness to different cultures and literatures (with their contemporary spin) makes life more colourful --witness Americanah by Nigerian woman novelist Chimamanda Adichie. There is so much to learn!

New Delhi being the hub of almost all the embassies, every nation’s Independence day used to be celebrated. Those in diplomatic circles used to be invited for all these events. It gave us an unmatched weltanschauung / world-view of tolerance and indeed revelry in all cultures.

Ultimately wherever we live we are one people. On 9th July Greg Hindy (22) completed a one year journey walking 8000 miles across America from New Hampshire to Los Angeles. This was to photograph simple American folk. That he did it in silence suggests we need to listen more to other voices than criticize them.

Published in Gomantak Times Weekender St. Inez. Goa on Sunday 27 July 2014; Pix. Independence Day, Maldives. Courtesy Kishore.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Cloud Messenger


-Brian Mendonça

On Sao Joao, i.e. 24th June, I set my students the task of making a group presentation on the festival. All the groups made a brave attempt – but the main character was missing. There was no rain. Neither was there any rain last year. We may choose to ignore all this in our revelry but the writing is on the wall. Something drastic has happened to our weather system.  We also know that many of our wells don’t have water and when they do it is contaminated.

In 1800 when the President of the USA wanted to buy out the Red Indians from their land, Chief Seattle of the Indians replied, ‘If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?’

We have read also that heavy rains have swept manganese from uncovered mining dumps into the waters of the Selaulim dam. The river Sal cries out for redemption. Tar balls curse our shores and seas. ‘The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancesters,’ the Chief reminds us. 

I feel like a fool these days taking my umbrella to work. It’s quite a feat to juggle my water bottle, my bag of books, my snack-box and my needless umbrella. I also feel a bit stupid reciting my rain poems when there is no rain. In an epic attempt to drum up some rain fever, Vasco Watch, our neighbourhood newspaper organized a programme called ‘Meghdoot’ last Sunday inspired by Kalidasa’s work where a cloud is entrusted to carry a message of love to a beloved.  ‘YOU are the Cloud Messenger’was the inspiring slogan for the morning where children and parents downed deliciouspuri bhaji and then danced to feel-good music while the angry sea raged metres away.

So what did you do on the feast of San Joao? Did you go to a starred hotel and get wasted, grinding away for all you are worth? And did you splash in a private pool and invoke the blessings of St. John. Climate change induced by large scale hill-felling, and unplanned development is taking a toll on us. ‘The end of living, the beginning of survival,’ Chief Seattle said.  ‘Faleam Khaim Mevonam’  as the San Joao song goes.

Let’s heed the VW call to be cloud messengers. Bring difference and change where we are. It may be very small but we can start. At my work place, on a rainy day, a number of wet umbrellas were kept on the floor at the entrance to the room where we sat. As each one stepped in, the sea of umbrellas virtually blocked the way for others. Mid-morning, the umbrellas were dry. Rather than wait for each person to appreciate the wisdom of folding their umbrellas I folded each of them and placed them on a side table. Seeing me do this people hastily came across and claimed their umbrellas. The way was cleared – remains so. 
Pix source: 'Ode to Chief Seattle' by Jaune Quick-To-See Smith,; Published in Gomantak Times Weekender St. Inez, Goa on Sunday 29 June 2014.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Sea in the Sky

This morning, once more I read my poem 'May Queen,' (2004) this time at the Bogmallo Beach Resort. The superb setting created some awesome sound effects specially as 'waves crash[ed] over the angry sea.' The poem appears in my blogpost link below and is also reproduced at the end of this post.

The venue was the 'Coconut Grove' at the far end of the hotel, almost in a cove in the sea. 10 years on the spectacle was the same. Listeners, which included children and parents, nodded vigorously as I read out some of the lines from the poems self-published in my debut volume Last Bus to Vasco: Poems from Goa (2006).

I began with 'Sea in the Sky' (2004) -- a compilation of smses, also from the same volume. Hovering between Delhi and Goa, I shot off an sms to friends in both places seeking advice while I was back home in Vasco on a break from my job in Delhi:                                                                                                      
Sea in the Sky

'M watching the ships
sail from the river to the sea
into the sunset
Where is my destiny --
Delhi or Goa?'

'GOA!! I hope you enjoy staying there! See U soon!'
'That sounds very nostalgic. I am sailing in the same boat.'
'Don't know where my destiny lies.'
'I can only NVU'
'Goa Brian Goa! I have no doubts on that issue'
'Destiny comes to the place you lead her, lure her, coax her, or drag her to Brian . . . Ask of her and she will come hither . . .'
'Unanswerable questions persist . . .'

The brief poetry reading touched a chord in the listeners. One lady came up to me and told me that my poems were very evocative of Goa.  She pressed into her hand a volume of her own poems.                      

Vasco Watch, the organizers of the event mentioned that they had taken a video recording of the reading which would be uploaded on their site.  This was part of a programme called 'Meghdoot -- YOU are the poet, the singer, the artist, the dancer, You are the Cloud Messenger.'  Delicious breakfast was provided at the venue.  Though there wasn't a drop of rain today, Kalidasa's message reinterpreted for our times, brought a burst of energy to an otherwise mundane Sunday.  Commander Narayanan (Retd.) and his wife Janani, whose brainchild this was were all over the place ensuring things went well.  They had the courtesy to invite us a week back and when I offered to contribute my mite Commander fiercely refused. It was he who launched me as a poet with a poetry reading in Vasco in a small room above Teles Medical store, near Roy's petrol pump in Vasco on 12 September 2004. Mum slipped away two months later.      

May Queen

brian mendonca

The warm rush of water at Hollant
And Copacabana holding court
To scores of children shrieking with delight
Luscious Mancurada mangoes
yield way to the Totapuri,
Xinanio, teesrio, bhangde reixaddo
Caldeen, Hisson, Chicken Xacuti
Beef patties, potato cutlets with Mirinda bread
As waves crash over the angry sea
Castles in the sand –Ful-na-pakli
Venha mais vezes
, says Mrs Noronha
Gulmohar, Copper pods, the drumstick, the jamun
Survey the kaner, the emissary of the North
Mum tells her beads for the family rosary
As the koel cries on the heels of rain.

Glossary: Hollant beach, Vasco, Goa, 2004. Copacabana: name of restaurant at Hollant; Xinanio: (Konk.) oysters;teesrio: (Konk.) mussels; bangde reixaddo: (Konk.) fried mackeral stuffed with masala; Caldeen: (Konk.) fish curry prepared in coconut juice; Hisson (Konk.) kingfish; Xacuti (Konk.) Chicken Xacuti prepared with roasted coconut and spices; Ful-na-pakli: (Konk.) If you cannot be a flower (ful), be a petal (pakli); Venha mais vezes: (Port.) Come again often; kaner: short tree with yellow flowers that open at daybreak and close at sundown                             

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Tom Yum Gai

-Brian Mendonca

Apart from some enterprising in-laws who have actually been to Bangkok, and maybe Singapore, Southeast Asia remains largely unchartered terrain. Shrouded behind a curtain of secrecy imposed by ruling regimes visitors have usually been felled by the ‘night life’ touted in glossy tourism brochures about Pataya or Phuket -- felled, because sex tourism is only one way of knowing a country (or a state).

Cuisine is another. There was no way we could miss the Thai food festival organized in town. We began with Dragon Mounglet  --  prawns wrapped in steak chicken, for starters. These were pretty much like chicken momos you could pick up in Kathmandu. For soup we chose Tom Yum Gai which had diced chicken, glass noodles, mushrooms, chilli peppers and sprigs of lemon grass. Queenie calls it ‘fire water.’ Go to for the recipe. The piece de resistance was the main course, the traditional Gaeng Garee which was modso cooked in a yellow curry with coconut milk. That with a dollop of steamed rice – exquisite! A date pancake with ice cream brought up the rear.

At the same time I was being treated to a panoramic sweep of Southeast Asia reading The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. From the glass palace in Mandalay, the seat of King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat of erstwhile Burma (now Myanmar) we are transported via Ratnagari (where the King and Queen are exiled) to Malaysia, Rangoon and Calcutta. The theatres of war play out as English and Japanese occupying forces push to overcome and consolidate their overseas territories. 

Thailand which means ‘land of the free’ is now under military rule with the recent coup pushing aside former Thai Prime Minister Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra last month. Adverse comments about the deposed PM online, cost Miss Universe Thailand, Weluree Ditsayabut, her crown weeks back forcing her to relinquish it. It shows what a small place the world is and how public opinion can change one’s fortunes.

In neighbouring Burma, opposition leader Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for almost 15 years from 1989 until she was released in 2010. The Glass Palace ends with a description of one of her meetings with the people, ‘The year 1996 marked the sixth year of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.’Further East Flowers of Hell a collection of poems by Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien was smuggled out of Hanoi in 1979 after the poet gate-crashed the British embassy there and pressed his sheaf of poems into the hands of one of the officials.

Circuits of publishing with their own agendas decree that we hardly seen any Thai novels, poetry or literature on the book racks of book shops. It seems like an alien country waiting to be discovered. One definition of rape is ‘crash landing in thigh land.’  The proposed Chinese rail line from Kunming to Singapore via Laos and Bangkok will unite South East Asia like never before. Are we ready? 
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez. Goa, on Sunday 15 June 2014. Pix courtesy:

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Glass Palace

Faced with a novel of over 550 pages what do you do? That's right. You don't do anything.  So I was constantly deferring the reading of The Glass Place until things changed. Who would want to know about Burma? And Mandalay, where was that?! It was the alien-ness of the location of the novel which put me off. With one week to go before college resumed I decided to have a go at it. Since Siam (modern day Thailand) featured in the novel, I tried to drum up some interest by setting off for the Thai food festival in town. I think I was put off by the lazy drawl of the first line, 'There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the the Irrawady, to the western wall of Mandalay's fort.' The writer presupposed an intimate understanding by the reader of the topography of the place he was describing and my general knowledge in that area left much to be desired.

Having read the novel, I feel like reading it again -- so that what seemed incoherent to me can now come together in majestic similitude like a huge canvas of history -- which it is. The vistas of South East Asia come alive in the descriptions in the Amitav Ghosh's novel, the pace at which he tells it being like the sampan negotiating the Burmese rivers in the late 19th century. The tale of the progeny of Rajkumar Raha and Dolly Sein is the stuff of this book. The one is Indian and the other Burmese -- she, a part of the royal entourage of Queen Supalayat, the haughty preferred consort of the deposed Thebaw, King of Burma. If one focuses on these two characters alone, among all the others milling around them, one realizes the massive scope of the novel and its intricate narrative hinging.

The novel opens with the momentum of the impish boy Rajkumar eager to find his way in the world. However this drive is not sustained throughout the novel and he dies alone --a shadow of his former self. In the last years of his life Dolly leaves him to renounce the world and become a nun at the monastery at Sagaing. Work as a teak wood merchant in Rangoon at their Kemendine House has riven Rajkumar apart from Dolly. Even their children Neel and Dinu fail to give them a reason to be together. Neel, dies when the teak logs roll over and crush him after the site is bombarded by Japanese fighter planes. So much like Nanu's death in Pundalik Naik's Acchev, Rajkumar and Manju (Neel's wife) grieve over their loss which is partly of their own making. In their greed to subdue the surroundings they fall prey to a terrible retribution. Manju drowns herself in the river, giving up on life -- and her baby Jaya:
  By this time Manju's behaviour had become very erratic: Dolly and Rajkumar decided that she had to be taken home [to Lankasuka, Calcutta]. They elected to make one last effort to reach India.
       An ox cart took them to the river - Manju, Dolly, Rajkumar and the baby. They found a boat that took them upriver, through Meiktila, past Mandalay to the tiny town of Mawlaik, on the Chindwin river. They were confronted by a stupefying spectacle: some thirty thousand refugees were squatting along the river- bank, waiting to move on towards the densely forested mountain-ranges that lay ahead. (page 468)

Arjun of the 1/1 Jats regiment, despite his rhetoric of being a British army officer -- one of the first Indian's to do so, and his dalliance with Alison -- has no real place in the scheme of things in the novel. He seems to be there to spout the metaphysical dilemmas of war and suffering. His killing of his batman Kishan Singh on flimsy grounds of honour is deeply disturbing. As is the description of the decapitation of the senile Saya John by the Japanese occupation forces as they retreat from Morningside House, Malaya. Alison's valiant fightback and suicide to avoid attack leaves one like Manju earlier railing at the forces of destiny. So much promise, and her life with Dinu, lie wasted.

Finally it is Dinu who sets up his photographer's studio and calls it the Glass Palace, who lives at the end to complete the circle of life to Jaya. Like Arjun of the Mahabharata who is always questioning the necessity and purpose of war, Jaya is the only one who seems to be victorious with the war behind her and a new life ahead. The closing pages give us a preview of the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Ki addressing a gathering in 1996 after being under house arrest for 6 years. This fast forward to the late 20th century jerks the reader into the present somewhat reluctantly. The Glass Palace at Mandalay, Burma 500 pages earlier metamorphoses into a site of lenses in Dinu's studio in Rangoon -- not very much further -- to filter the past.
Pix courtesy: bookstome(dot)

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Last Samurai

Viewing the film The Last Samurai on HBO my mind went back to the blog I did on China. Here were the Japanese who fiercely defended their traditions, their lands and their ways of life. The custodians of their culture were the samurai - the dreaded warrior clan.

The epic battle in 1877 between the samurai and the forces of the imperial Japanese army is commemorated in the movie. Tom Cruise an American captain is captured by the samurai chief Katsumoto and is taken prisoner. During his confinement he has the opportunity to observe the ways of life of the samurai. He is struck by their discipline, their reverence of the Buddha and most of all by the hospitality of the family whose head he has killed.

I just checked Wiki and was interested to note that the movie starts in 1876 with Tom (as Nathen Algren) emerging traumatized from the butchering of the Native Americans in the Indian Wars where he has served. He is approached to serve the Japanese imperial army to subdue the samurai. In return for American participation in this effort Japan will grant America exclusive rights to supply arms to the Japanese government.

Tom then is a mercenery but his loyalties change after his stay at the samurai camp. In the final battle he dons the samurai warrior's clothing of the man he has killed and goes out to fight not against the samurai but alongside them. The movie provides for this volte face with great ecomony though at times the narrative lags specially at the camp. Stunning views of the courtryside offer a glimpse of Japan (though the movie is shot in New Zealand).

The movie is a study of Japanese culture and there seems a wisp of Pearl S. Buck's understanding of the Japanese people and their sense of loyalty in her novel Patriot. There is a dialogue right out of its pages as it were. When Tom apologizes to Taka the young woman whose husband he has killed and who is Katsumoto's sisiter, she says, 'He did his duty. You did yours.' In another instance Western and Oriental notions of language collide. When the samurai chief  (Ken Watanabe) wants to draw Nathen into a sharing of views, he says, 'I said "Good morning", you said "Good morning". Thank you for the conversastion'!

The sensitivity with which the issue is handled is impressive. It throws into crisis fixed notions of loyalties fixed and fleeting. Tom evolves into a sentient being showing the utmost respect for universal human values. A modern day Asoka he eschews the horror of war and killing and turns to Buddhism to cure him of his alcoholism and past. This is a very different role from a fighter pilot making out with the blonde Kelly McGillis to the mesmeric music of Berlin in Top Gun (1986).

The final hopeless charge of the samurai who fall to the stacatto of the Gatling gun recalls Hamlet and the tragedy at the end when all die.It is Nathan who helps Takamoto to commit harakiri at the end. Today terms such as 'social harakiri' are used to indicate an improper ensemble of clothing.
The Last Samurai. (2003) Dir. Edward Zwick. Starring Tom Cruise, Sam Watanabe, Koyuki; pix courtesy film posters

Sunday, 1 June 2014


-Brian Mendonca

What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than to watch a tiatr? The feast of options available during this season leaves one spoilt for choice. Tiatr is vibrant in South Goa. Banner headlines greet you in the newspaper with colourful ads heralding the tiatrs which are to be performed.

 Margao is blessed with Gomant Vidya Niketan’s AC hall and Pai Tiatrist AC hall at Ravindra Bhawan. An ad announcing the last show of Utram written and directed by comedian Ambe made us wait back in Margao last Sunday to take in the 3.30 p.m. show at GVN. This was after a leisurely lunch at a beach resort at Colva by the sea.

What we liked best was that it started on time and wound up by 6.10 after an intermission of 10 minutes. The social ‘message’ was simple. Utram / ‘Words’ showed how the words we use affect the lives of those around us.  The old and the handicapped are often chided with harsh words for no fault of theirs and feel unloved and unwanted.  What we prefer doing is throwing flowers in the river in memory of the dead but fail to show our concern and care for them when they are living with us.

The 2½ hours sped by. The tiatrists provided a gleeful take on current happenings and endowed it with heaps of satire and wit. With political satire; buffoonery; laying of bets where the loser always loses; slapstick comedy; soulful songs; crisp dialogue; dazzling and often outrageous costumes -- it was a spectacular affair. Though we reached an hour earlier we preferred the back row (Queenie suggested ‘Q’ row) where we could scuttle out anytime we wanted. But we stayed right till the end, with baba braving the AC and attempting (unsuccessfully) to get some sleep.

Here was creativity at its best -- without too much sexual innuendo -- offering family fun with even a few ‘ghost’ scenes thrown in.  The ghosts raid the kitchen every time they make an appearance and once disrobe the tattler (aptly called Aadhar Card-ozo) to teach her a lesson! Saxtti Konkani had us in splits with the cameo of the frustrated music director taking auditions -- dejected that there are no singers worth their salt in Konkani. Hopeful singers screech their songs in Hindi, Tamil and English to no avail—except for an assault on the ears! The lungi dance is performed with a Goan twist.

Numerous Goans vacationing in Goa at this time soak in their mai-bhas /’mother tongue’, brush up their Konkani, and get acquainted with local issues. Alternately, tiatrists travel within the country and abroad to present their tiatrs.

It is interesting to simply sit and watch the crowd who attend the tiatrs.  There was a person who could not walk – he ‘climbed down’ the staircase on his buttocks. An enormous lady could hardly sit. Both of them, despite their severe bodily limitations, came anyway to watch the tiatr. The appeal of tiatr remains undiminished to tiatr-lovers. See one today!
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender on Sunday, 1 June 2014; also see 'Comedy's Ambe-saddor' by Daniel de Souza in The Goan, 28 September 2013 at; pix source;