Sunday, 24 June 2018

Song of the Volga Boatmen

Brian Mendonça

As the barges float along
To the sun we sing our song.
Volga Volga our pride
Mighty stream so deep and wide.

           -Song of the Volga Boatmen

The world held its breath when Russian soprano Aida Garifullina joined British pop star Robbie Williams for the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on 14 June.

However the media (and Robbie) were not so charitable. While Robbie hogged the headlines in the press, Aida seemed like Giuseppi Verdi’s imprisoned princess in his opera by the same name (First performed in Cairo in 1871). Aida Garifullina stood in the shadows. She was upstaged by an ageing icon in an outrageous shimmering red suit. Aida had to play second fiddle, if at all, on her own soil.

Never mind that Robbie also gestured at the crowd obscenely. The media were lapping it up. It seemed a capitulation of Russian pride to the West.

Aida is a Russian operatic soprano of Tatar origin. She is seen as one of the most exciting young sopranos worldwide. Yet she had only a two-bit role in an opening cameo featuring a song composed two decades ago, viz. ‘I’m loving Angels instead.’ In fact, a much younger (and soulful) Robbie’s black and white vevo music video of the song is far better.

The cultural politics of the media unfolds when you see a classically trained female vocalist of international repute given short shrift to a cheesy pop vocalist playing to the gallery. The fact that she was a Russian gem should have been highlighted since she was performing and representing the host country Russia. Never mind World Music Day on 21 June.

The brooding melancholy of Russian music is brought home in the traditional ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ collected by Mily Balakirev and published in his book of folk songs in 1866. The piece is also arranged for classical guitar for studies on the 5th string (A) to teach the bass notes.

Spanish composer Manuel de Falla wrote an arrangement of the song titled ‘Canto de los remeros del Volga’ in 1922. The arrangement was done at the request of diplomat Ricardo Baeza of the League of Nations to provide monetary assistance for more than two million Russian refugees who had been displaced and imprisoned during World War I. All proceeds from the song’s publication were donated to this effort. Pianist Azumi Nishizawa’s recent interpretation of the piece is particularly compelling on YouTube (Granada, 2011).

The Volga is the biggest river in Europe. It is located in the Russian North West. The length of the Volga is 3530 kilometres. People crisscross the river on barges. While doing their work they sing songs. The song of the Volga boatmen is one such folk song.

Russian classical music is a genre in its own right. From the lyrical Tchaikovsky in the nineteenth century, to the dissonant Prokofiev and the strident Stravinsky in the twentieth, we have several musical idioms of the Russian psyche.
---------------------------------------------------------------------  Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday 24 June 2018. Pix of Aida from Wikipedia entry on her; pix of painting by Russian realist painter Ilya Refimovich Repin titled 'Barge haulers of the Volga.' (1870-73)

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Resources for ELT

As I entered the multipurpose hall of Bhavan's school, all the curtains had been drawn and the windows were closed. I immediately requested the teachers to draw the curtains and open the windows. The transformation was palpable. The fresh air invigorated the participants. We were on the third floor and the hall offered spectacular views of the lush green countryside in the monsoon. I drove home the point that the energy you create in a space is very important. It affects one's performance as a teacher.

I asked the teachers to recap what they had learnt in the earlier session I had with them in May 2018 on LSRW skills. They remembered how we sang, Simon and Garfunkel's 'Sound of Silence' which I had played for them on the guitar. The song adeptly touched on listening, and speaking and how an absence of both kills society. They recalled how they had to read from newspaper reports and summarize the ideas to the group.

This time I brought along several ELT books for the teachers to examine. The books included Adrian Doff's Meaning into Words, Cambridge Business English, Murphy's Intermediate English GrammarPhrasal Verbs, and Vocabulary in Use. I also threw in Keki Daruwalla's book of poems titled Fire Sermon.  The poem by the Queen of Persia to the marauding King caught my eye. The pithy poem would serve nicely for a listening exercise. Yet ELT materials could and should not be used indiscriminately. Teachers have to weed out culturally inappropriate usages.

A look at the Bhavan's ELT library showed that the ELT text books were not being referred to. The librarian helpfully brought a raft of these to the hall for me to urge the teachers to peruse them.

Samosas and steaming cups of chai signalled the break. It gave me a window to change tack and speak about skill development.  I offered a survey of all the kinds of writing teachers can do. This included letters to the editor, short articles and poems, reports, interviews and book reviews.  To provide examples I shared some of my articles written as far back as 1987 when I was in college.  More recent articles like 'Nishte Zai Go' and  'Undra Mhojea Mama' drew chuckles for their local content. I brandished my book of poems A Peace of India: Poems in Transit. It felt nice when the librarian approached me to buy one for the school library.

With 15 minutes to go I encouraged the teachers to do some free writing. To help them along I suggested 10 topics. They racked their brains and surprised themselves with their original sallies in verse. One even composed a poem on how it is a joy to study LSRW. Another spoke of how blessed we all are. A third was inspired by the cup of tea and the joy it gives her when shared with family. The Hindi teacher came up with a fine poem on the dog (whose barking punctuated the session at times). She hailed its services sans salary. The sports teacher was inspired to do a poem on the workshop and how effectively it was conducted.

The Principal Ms.Valsan graced the group with her presence. Teachers were invited to offer a feedback on the course. One said that we took LSRW to level 2. They also observed how the workshop was very well-attended by the teachers. The session gave many diffident teachers the confidence to come up and share their work. The vote of thanks was spontaneous and appreciative.

A WhatsApp forward on how jargon in English is misconstrued kept the audience in splits.
Pix taken at workshop on 'Resources for English Language Teaching' conducted by Dr. Brian Mendonca for the Teacher Enrichment Programme at Bhavan's school, Zuarinagar, Goa on 22 June 2018. The Principal Ms. Elizabeth Valsan is seated to Brian's right.

Jeevan Dhara – people helping people

-Brian Mendonça


The words above appear on a pamphlet of Jeevan Dhara which Gene D’Silva, the founder, pressed into my hands at his home in Mazgaon, Mumbai.

We had just made a survey of the delicacies in the midnight streets of Mohammed Ali road. Gene had procured the bara-handi  (12 handis) - a signature offering of the season. ‘It is a combination of 4 dals and beef, mutton, paya and nalli or bone marrow. Being Ramzan, barra handi is served by 6 p.m. and gets over by 6.30 p.m.,’ read Gene’s message when he invited us over for dinner.  For good measure he added, ‘There is also an Arab dish you get only during Ramzan. Beef is cooked in pure milk with tikki, lavang and pepper.’ Indeed, the way he waxed eloquent about the dishes, it felt as though it was an observance of his own community.

As he bustled about in the kitchen helping his wife Shobha - who eats only vegetarian food -  I marvelled at the syncretism of India. Their daughter Sasha kept my son amused on her Tab.

In their silent way, Gene and Shobha who is director of Jeevan Dhara are powering social change in India.  Twenty years ago a start was made by providing food grains to 350 widows and their families in Chita camp, Trombay, Chembur -- Asia’s second largest slum community. 

Jeevan Dhara is registered as a society and public charitable trust.* Its volunteers run a football academy, conduct balwadis (pre-school) vocational training, and adult literacy and study classes.  A major focus is a rehabilitation and de-addiction programme for slum children dependent on drugs and alcohol. Child sexual abuse is another.

Gene’s commitment stemmed from a strong faith, a trust in providence, and his own journey from being drug dependent to the beacon of inspiration he is now. Along the way he met Shobha and he decided to ‘dive into’ marriage when he was 42. It was then that both of them registered Jeevan Dhara  in 2005.

Gene lost his dad when he was 17. When his mother left him to work in Bahrain, he felt all the more lonely and depressed. The downward spiral led him to substance abuse and alcohol. Gene found his calling when he cared for a woman and her children in a slum. They had been ostracized by their own community for contracting AIDS unknowingly from the woman’s husband.  Gene discovered he wanted to work for the poorest of the poor.

Jeevan Dhara has a de-addiction centre at Lonavla. Their work has slowly become internationally recognized. When last we spoke he was preparing for the arrival of Swiss students from Geneva who are interning with his NGO.  Overwhelmed by their experiences on the field the students offer their testimonies about how volunteering has transformed their lives.
*     Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 17 June 2018.  Pix taken with Gene and family on Sunday, 20th May 2018 at Mazgaon, Mumbai.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Morjim shuts down for the rains

-Brian Mendonça

As the rains kick in over Goa in June, the best thing is to drive into those off-beat places which you have always wanted to visit.

Paying a call to Siolim, we took the road up North planning to have our lunch at Morjim beach, Pernem. The winding roads took us over the bridge over the Chapora river. The view was breathtaking - both while going as well as while returning. The broad swathe of the river as it demurely ran its course was a sight to behold. Picturesque coconut trees lined the rim of the waterfront.

As we proceeded on our journey the signs read ‘Chopdem.’ The jetty for the river was on our left. My friends come fishing here. Next time I am going to join them.

The greenery all round us rejuvenated us. Though it was not raining, the sky seemed overcast. It made our journey in the afternoon very pleasant.

The first destination we typed on our GPS was Golden Eye beach shack at Morjim. After a long drive we reached the spot and got out of the car with bated breath. The place had received good reviews about its food. Imagine our exasperation when despite the bevy of white taxis stationed at the parking, we were informed that the restaurant was closed for the rains. (A note in says November to April).

What do these guys do for the remaining half of the year?

We could see the lip of the sea in the distance. To view it more closely we would have to take the track around the restaurant.  The only problem was that the path now seemed stolidly occupied by grazing cows.  We decided against the adventure.

As we looked around we saw most of the shops and restaurants were shut for the impending monsoon. The stretch from Morjm to Ashwem was in some places like a ghost town. Most of the signs were in Russian.  We drove on aimlessly past 3 p.m. The online restaurant reviews were useless now.  At our wits end we decided to inquire at Tahira Beach resort, Ashwem, if they served lunch. The receptionist jerked a finger at the back.

We walked the somewhat precarious stepping and emerged almost onto the beach to Arabian Sea restaurant. None of this could be seen from the road. It was open because it was contracted by OYO which had acquired the property nearby. They required a restaurant to cater to the needs of the guests. The waiters spoke Bengali.

We tucked into our prawn curry (somewhat marred by the wedges of tomato) and rice, as the waves crashed in front of us. We remembered the members of the D’Souza family from Immaculate Conception colony, Borivali who were wiped out in the waters of Aarey-Ware beach, Ratnagari last Sunday.

As we walked back to our car we noticed workmen assiduously putting huge plastic sheets over the roofs of the cottages at Tahira beach resort.
Pix taken by the author on Morjim beach, Goa on 5th June 2018. Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 10 June 2018.

Mala Jau Dya Na Ghari

-Brian Mendonça

As I write this we are in Pune.  We zipped in from Kharghar (Navi Mumbai) to Kondwa (Pune) in an Uber in two and a half hours flat. The damages were Rs. 1750 plus the toll tax.

Forty winks after a regal repast can do wonders to your soul. As I wait for the family to troop in for the family get-together (sister’s side), I am charmed by the graces of Pune. It’s always good to be back after my stint in Pune to submit my MPhil thesis to Poona University  in 1993.

Lunch was an elaborate affair. My sister Vanessa and her husband Felix took us to the legendary Durvankur dining hall, at Sadashiv Peth. The traditional Maharashtrian fare was served in gleaming stainless steel thalis with about seven empty vatis. It consisted of unlimited quantities of thali peeth (a chapatti of mixed flours), aam-ras, shrikand,dahi wada, kadi, cuchumber, cabbage bhaji, soya vegetable, beans (wet), potato vada, bajra ka roti, makhi ka roti, bhakri, chapatti, varun bhat (without fodni), rice, dal-bhat and papad. Accompaniments in a platter were chengdana chutney, salt, lemon, tilache chutney, ghee.

An unlimited thali cost Rs. 300. A beautiful incentive to deter wastage is that if you lick your thali clean you get Rs. 30 off.  All six of us – with two kids to boot – egged each other not to waste a grain of rice. The steward had no hesitation to give us the discount. Each of us had our fill for Rs. 270. The two children were given a half thali for Rs. 150. Everywhere stern placards admonished eaters not to waste food, and enticed them with the discount. The food was not oily, nor heavy. Eating just what you could consume, did not make you over eat. No fizzy soft drinks were served in case they killed the appetite. 

The previous day we had Iftar dinner at Sharief, Kausar Baugh, Pune. The platter included crispy chicken, chicken cutlets with seviyan, mutton roll with egg, kadi-gosht (chicken), kadi-ghost (beef), chicken kebabs, fried surmai fish, and mutton samosa. We followed it up with mutton biryani topped by falooda. After dinner I pleaded to be taken around the mosque in the vicinity. The mosque had an ethereal quality. Watching its minarets soar into the sky reminded me of no less than the Qutb Minar of Delhi.

I watched a WhatsApp video of a lavani performance at a Dance India Dance show.  After enthralling the judges with all the gyrations possible, the performer ended with a flourish. When the judge asked the performer her name, he said he was Shivam Wankhede from Jalgaon. He had dressed up as a woman for the performance. Dancing to the suggestive lyrics of ‘Mala Jau Dya Na Ghari’ [Oh, let me go home now], the singer castigates her paramour for delaying her, as it is midnight. The verve with which s/he danced is awesome. It is normal for lavani dancers to crossdress.

With this kind of fare, culinary and cultural, one wonders where is ‘home.’
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday 3 June 2018. Pix of thalis at Durvankur taken in Pune on 29 May 2018. Bottom pix taken by author at Sharief, Pune on 28 May 2018.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Gorai calling

-Brian Mendonça

Gorai was always on the backburner when we were in Mumbai.  I was also nostalgic that my brother-in-law in Mumbai had offered to take us there -- but he reached the pearly gates before that.

So, last weekend in May we decided to just get up and go.  We were in Kharghar.  Borivali West was 68 kms. away.  However, all the three nieces – my brother-in-law’s children – were free that Saturday.

We ditched the harbour line train service and took an Uber right up to B. Henriques Beach Resort, Gorai beach (via Bhayander). Farrys  Resort, which had a swimming pool – was full.

An attendant was sent to receive us.  As we walked behind him, the East Indian locals were murmuring, ‘High tide.’ The guide led us virtually into the mouth of the sea. There were shrieks of delight all around. We carefully made our way atop the steps nearby and clambered on to the resort property. The waves were licking the wall of the resort. The vast infinity of the sea lay in the background.

We kept our things at the quaint cottage which was our accommodation for the night. Seated on a stone table which seemed from Stonehenge, we strummed Konkani dulpods on the guitar.

Lunch comprised of Bombay ducks, fried fish (Mandeli), fish curry, rice, dal and salad. A stray cat and dog were pestering us for some scraps of food. The food was served on a raised platform, like an observation deck, which looked out on to the sea. In the distance we saw the boats bringing in their catch. As they neared land, they jettisoned their sacks of fish overboard. The boats then turned back to sea. They seemed to be avoiding something near the land.
After lunch we sipped port wine and played Rummy.

Around 5 p.m. the tide started receding. What emerged was a long strip of land like an arrow jutting out into the sea. This was what the boats were avoiding.

The idyllic afternoon gave way to the insistencies of the evening.  Car after car came onto the seashore and parked near the handcart sellers who had descended there as well. Fisherwomen sold fresh fish.

It was time for a swim. We played with the gentle waves and watched the sun ebb to rest surrounded in a haze in the distance. One of us was moved to write a poem. The elaichi chai was very good.

On the way back after dinner I enquired about the refuse left on the sea shore by the evening’s indulgences.  ‘The high tide will come and take it,’ I was told.

As we headed back next morning to civilization, a group of boys were still playing beach football with abandon.

This year the East Indian Mahotsav 2018 was held at the shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni at Uttan (9 kms. from Gorai) on 22 May 2018. The Mahotsav is a rallying point for East Indians and for those who have lost their ancestral lands here for infrastructural projects.
Published in Gomantak Times, Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 27 May 2018. Pix of us taken at the waterfront, Henriques Beach Resort, Gorai on Saturday, 19 May 2019.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Woes of Paradise

Dr. Brian Mendonca moderating a panel discussion on Goa titled, 'The Woes of Paradise' in the studio at AIR, Panaji on 15 May 2018.  The panelists seated from left to right are Hartman de Souza, journalist; Tallulah D'Silva, architect; and  Ralph De Souza, entrepreneur. Cynthia Rego, Programme Executive, AIR, Panaji is seen standing.

The presentation by AIR, Panaji was conceptualized by Naveen K. Gupta, PEX, AIR, Delhi to commemorate World Day for Biodiversity on 22 May 2018. It was broadcast on that day by AIR, Delhi, on the National Programme of talks at 9.30 p.m. on the Mhadei channel and FM local stations.  Pix courtesy AIR, Panaji.