Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Aguada and History in the Unmaking" in THE GOAN EVERYDAY (21 August 2016)

The GTDC plans to turn Aguada Jail into a tourist attraction, but will this imprison its history?

A prison is not an amusement park. And while the Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC) may not seek to convert the Central Jail Aguada, which formerly existed at the same site as the seventeenth century Aguada Fort, into a funfair per se, its recently announced plans to makeover the location sound rather Disneyfied. 

Consider GTDC’s proposal to turn the fort and the jail into a tourist attraction by having a sound and light show, activity zones, and more at the location. Ostensibly, the purpose of the intended phantasmagoria is to pay tribute to Goa’s freedom fighters. The connection to the historical spot is that it is famously known as one where agitators against Portuguese rule were incarcerated. Yes, the changes GTDC wishes to make have an educational element in that the proposed show will give tourists the opportunity to learn about Goa’s anti-colonial legacy. However, one must be suspicious of the motives of this scheme which seeks to fold Goan history into a general understanding of the region as part and parcel of India. As these things go, it can be expected that the ‘teaching’ imparted through the edutainment will be anti-Portuguese while also being hyper-nationalist.

For example, according to a 7 August, 2016 news report, GTDC has expressly stated that it wishes “to restore and revive the history and heritage of the jail in line with the concept at the British-built Dhagshai Jail in Himachal Pradesh and Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands”. In other words, the plan is to make Aguada get in step with the rest of the nation’s colonial history, even though Goa was not a British colony. In turn, this then leads one to believe that any attempt to render Goa’s freedom struggle in the spectacle GTDC hopes to produce at the jail will link it, predictably, to that of formerly British India.

While there were strands of Goa’s complex anti-colonial movement that aligned themselves with Indian nationalism, even these elements foresaw liberation from the Portuguese as being rather different from its outcome. In his 2012 essay on “O Barco da √Āfrica/The Africa Boat” (1964), a short story by Laxmanrao Sardessai (1904-1986), Paul Melo e Castro explains that though Sardessai was an “active campaigner against Portuguese rule”, his fight was not against the Portuguese language or culture (pp. 129-30). As proof of this, Melo e Castro points to the fact that it was not until Sardessai’s post-Liberation return to Goa from political exile that he began writing in Portuguese, having hitherto written largely in Marathi. The impetus for this, Melo e Castro gathers, was the political moment that ensued with the ousting of the Portuguese and Goa’s uneasy transition into the Indian fold. 

“Sardessai’s writing was explicitly in the service of supporting cultural and political autonomy for his society”, Melo e Castro observes, and goes on to argue that “Sardessai’s turn to writing in Portuguese (and Konkani) after a lifetime of renown as a Marathi writer must also be seen as a response to de-specify Goa…” (p. 130). Published in separate Portuguese and Marathi versions, Sardessai’s “The Africa Boat” is also instructive for the discussion at hand, for it too is set against the backdrop of Aguada Jail. 

Evidently, Sardessai must have drawn from his own life experience in writing the short story, having served time as a political prisoner. In the tale, which takes place during the Portuguese era, an unnamed Goan prisoner, incarcerated for his involvement in the anti-colonial struggle, strikes up a friendship with his jailor, who is African. In depicting a kind of Portuguese multiculturality, Sardessai also captures a moment in Goan history when soldiers from Portugal’s African colonies were brought to Goa to quell uprisings. Not only does this demonstrate the particularities of the Goan milieu at the time at which the story is set, but the short piece is also remarkable in that it depicts Portuguese culture in the absence of any white Portuguese characters. While this is made apparent in the language in which the story is written, Portuguese would also have been the only tongue common to both the Goan prisoner and the African guard. 

It is with scepticism, then, that one regards the ability of GTDC’s planned sound and light show to capture such nuance in depicting Aguada’s legacy to tourists, especially when nationalism is high on the agenda. But what is also of concern is how the making of Aguada Jail into yet another badly thought out tourist trap will obscure such issues as prison reform. 

Transitioning from being the carceral space that once held anti-colonialists to then becoming a jail after Liberation, Aguada now no longer serves that function, with the prison having been relocated to Colvale. While it was a prison, the Central Jail attracted attention for the poor conditions in which inmates were kept, there being reports of food poisoning, and even a 2013 death as a result. Thanks to the efforts of prison reformers such as the late Sister Mary Jane Pinto (1941-2016), Aguada’s prisoners were not entirely forgotten. Her efforts in teaching them a trade, gave credence to the notion that reformation is an alternative to unredemptive carcerality. By turning Aguada into an amusement site, not only is its history at risk of being mangled, but so also empathy for the incarcerated and the need to rethink prisons. As the jail will now symbolise the idea of national and personal freedom, where tourists can frolic, its nuanced past will be held hostage instead.    

From The Goan.

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