Wednesday , 18 September 2019
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Hype… and the book

Frederick Noronha

On the weekend just over, our state played host to another Goa Arts and Literature Festival at the International Centre Goa at Dona Paula. At one level, a lit fest is a fine occasion, a chance to meet up with big names, plus the opportunity of listening to interesting speakers. Best of all, there is no charge to join one of the many, and a growing number of, literary festivals across India. In a country which sees a lit fest about every two days (140-150 in a calendar year), but with most struggling to find audiences, it almost seems as if there indeed is something like a free meal.

Really?

There is scope to question the way lit fests are organised. Recently, Mangalore or Mangaluru held a one which was an only very thinly disguised mirror for the ideology of India’s currently dominant politics. My own critique of the Goa Lit Fest has been voiced earlier, and most of it does stand still [see, for instance, https://bit.ly/2BXbvTb]

Be that as it may, there are other critical questions that need to be raised. For instance, the hype apart, what is the actual situation in Goa over its much-vaunted achievements in the field of literature, books and libraries? There has been a lot of talk over these; it also makes the news often. Much money has been poured into building up these sectors. But like attempts to grow sugarcane in Goa, and mechanise fishing (supposedly to enhance local protein intake), the results seem to have gone awry.

The most obvious is the state of Goa’s libraries. We have a couple of excellent show-pieces at Patto and Navelim. But the rest of the network is in shambles. Goa’s excellent-on-paper library act (Goa Public Libraries Act, 1993 and Rules, google for it) is mostly lying unimplemented. When the government could not sustain a network of rural libraries, it handed these over to “NGOs”. But that too seems mostly a non-starter.

About the state of Goa’s (sometimes well attended) municipal libraries and rural libraries, the less said the better.

Journalist Avinash Tavares recently highlighted the state of affairs at the Margao municipality’s historic 108-year-old library. He pointed out it lacked a head, those not functioning at the municipality were transferred to the library, and only two out of eight working there have passed their SSC. A sweeper issues books; some staff are not ready to do any work and the children’s section lacks staff. Often, government offices complain about having inadequate staff when their actual problem is mismanagement or appointing the wrong staff in the first place. Out of `5 lakhs budget each year, 60 per cent goes for paying salaries, and just `2 lakhs goes to buy books. What can one get in this budget? There is no copying facility at this centre; and crucial old newspapers are not archived. This library is not kept open on holidays.

Evaluating literature is, of course, a more subjective task. Yet, just because small Goa can claim the numbers in terms of books produced, it doesn’t necessarily follow that quality is emerging.

Subsidies poured into ‘official’ languages seem to have only brought in lethargy, infighting and the death of volunteering into those fields, both Konkani and Marathi. Media reports have already often covered these issues. On various pretexts, translations are not encouraged. If you’re not a resident of Goa, your work is not seen as deserving of encouragement, regardless of how meritorious and relevant to Goa it might be. So, those producing work in the diaspora, presently among the finest being produced, are disowned and not recognised as “Goan”. They can claim no share of state awards or support.

But it is the field of books where the hidden pressures are felt the strongest. As someone who often and closely interacts with bookshops, one can say this is a barely known story. Bookshops are focused on in good times, but there’s nobody to discuss their woes.

In short, the foot-falls in the bookshop are on sharply the decline. Online book sales (through the Flipkarts and the Amazons of our times) might give the reader better pricing and more shopping convenience. But it really cuts into the neighbourhood bookstore.

Some bookshops have also permanently downed their shutters in recent times. This is happening due to many diverse reasons, from the decline of the reading habit, to unhelpful government policies (GST at 12 per cent on printing which is like a tax on knowledge leading to higher book prices; demonetisation; delays in issuing something as simple as ISBN numbers, etc); and other official policies which are meant to help the sector, but really don’t.

At the end of the day, books are not just any product. You cannot compare them to, say, typewriters, which technology and proliferation of computers have suddenly made obsolete.

Books need to be seen as a social product. Without these, any society is definitely poorer. More so, outlier regions like Goa, which have their own issues and their own concerns that can’t always be fulfilled by the national market, just like the local newspapers here have their own flavour. Books promote creativity, diversity and equal access to knowledge, as the UNESCO points out. This form remains about the cheapest means of spreading information and knowledge in our times.

Goa lacks the library movements of states like Kerala, spearheaded by individuals like P N Panicker (search the web for more on his work) or the reading culture in a handful of other regions. But unless we start somewhere, we will remain only in the realm of hype.

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