Sunday, January 20, 2008

Being Bhatkar

The problems typical to Gaud Saraswat Brahmins [GSBs] are rather typical to every small caste confined to a small area. Everyone knows everyone, everyone knows the livelihood of everyone’s forefathers, and so there is never a dearth of material with which to get people down. As a result, or perhaps incidentally, GSBs never hesitate from using such illogical arguments.

GSBs, and for that matter, all Goans, are divided into the classes of the “Had” and “Had Nots”. The wealth and standing of a family is usually more contingent on what they could claim to have had rather than what they have now. I don’t really know why this strange class distinction exists. But it has deep roots in Goan Society.

I was sitting around at Dad’s office the other day when a young man and his father who walked into his office one fine morning. The father wore a thin cotton shirt, light brown with white faint checks, and trousers, slightly frayed at the ankles. The boy wore an FCUK (China Bazaar near Hotel Rajdhani, Panaji, 99 bucks) t shirt which betrayed a slight paunch. The soft spoken middle aged gentleman had an offer for my father – he had heard that Dad had spent a huge amount of money for a plot in a certain area.

“So?” asked Dad’s silence while he surveyed the pair.

“So, we were wondering if you wanted to buy a part of the adjoining plot.”

More silence.

After a pause, visibly dejected by my father’s lack of enthusiastic questioning, the old man laid his cards on the table.

Apparently he owned the adjoining plot, which was worth 3 crores at current market value, and situated as it was close to the upcoming international airport, it was just going to go through the roof. After a few queries and initial title inspection (Dad wasn’t about to accept the offer. He had to make sure that this land was not being acquired for the airport, which is exactly the fear that had brought the men into the office that day) it was time for a round of personal questioning. The father had just taken VRS from his Nationalized Bank Job. Dad then looked at the son.

“So, what do you do? Are you studying?”

The son looked appalled at the question.

Haav Bhatkar”, he replied, defensively.

Proclaiming “Haav Bhatkar” or I am a bhatkar [landlord], is still considered to be a career option among Goans. Thanks to elitist schools ICSE private schools, there are now Bhatkars who can appreciate Shakespeare, so it’s not like all is lost. As my father, who has moved from Professional to Bhatkar will argue, however, sometimes, being a Bhatkar isn’t a professional. It’s a frame of mind.

Bhatkar superiority, which, like all angst between the proletariat and aristocratic classes, can be traced back to the times of strife, like during World War II, when provisions in the Portuguese Colony of Goa were limited in the open market. Bhatkars owned the land and the produce of the land, and so were self sufficient, and there were some things even money couldn’t buy, as most moneyed individuals in Goa, like mineowners and Sashtikars (shop owners) were learning to find out. Bhatkars got money from sales of produce and other means but amazingly never had to spend their money, except of course, for their daughters weddings. The money could be out to good use often, for instance, for lending.

Smaller land owners would offer their plots as collateral for moneylending to bigger bhatkars, the only source of financial stability, the loan sharks of the pre banking era. The money would go unpaid at times and the land would remain with the big bhatkar, making him an even bigger bhatkar, and provide fodder for tales for further generations – how one cruel moneylender ‘ate up’ the land of another, or how one patriarch mortgaged his land and blew up all the loan money on gambling, depending on whose side you were on. Bhatkar families have rosters of all the people who once came to their “daar” (door) for help to be pulled out in times of need – whose grandfather had come to whose grandfather’s door and never repaid the money but hey, hey, we are all mature adults here and all that is way behind us. These stories are particularly popular while playing the Devil’s Advocate during arranged marriages.

Maintaining your Bhatkar stamp was crucial. All over Goa, dozens of people have entered into fruitless litigations just to establish themselves to be Bhatkars, litigations which have been going on for decades at Civil Courts. But for some reason, even such a ridiculous tag has still commanded so much of respect in the Community. Bhatkars did everything differently. A bhatkar bride would receive the heavy gold bangles – ghot and patli, by her family for her wedding, and in turn her mother in law would adorn her with a surgawaisar, or gold braid, to wrap around her hair bun, and a bazuband on her arm.

The ultimate test of social status in Goa is the fish market. Secretly, everyone has an eye on what everyone else is buying. Bhatkars ate only certain fish – nouveau delicacies like flounder, squid and tuna are still looked down upon in most families, despite their spiraling prices in 5 stars – my mother is often not even offered availability of these species, and as a bhatkarni she is expected to pick up kingfish, pomfrets and mackerels instead. A bhatkar forced to buy cheaper fish, whether out of taste or financial constraints, would meekly ask, “Give me a few sardines for my cat” and not maintain eye contact with any of the other bhatkars examining the gills of Snappers.

Concepts like Naxalism don’t really perturb the common Bhatkar. There is unending faith in the strength of custom, family honour, a bottle of beer and a plate of prawns. Susegado, or ‘chilling’, was never the prerogative of the landed, and perhaps that is what kept the lopsided societal arrangement intact.

Till then, I sip my Bacardi breezer and await my lunch of clams and prawns :)

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