The first thing that strikes you on visiting the renovated, reconstructed, restored (call it what you want) Aguada jail is a sense of incredulity. Was this really a jail? Was this really the place where hundreds of freedom fighters were kept under lock and key? Because it now looks like a five-star place. And the cynical thought that creeps into one’s mind as one walks through the complex is that the view is worth dying or killing for.
The ‘new’ Aguada jail was inaugurated by the Prime Minister on Liberation Day 2021, but I had the opportunity to visit it a few days back.
As one climbs the steps (now lined with shining black granite) to the jail quarters and peers through one of its windows, one cannot help thinking that the inmates probably had the best view of the Arabian Sea and the Goan coastline. Tourists pay a huge sum for such a view while the inmates got it for free. Not really free, they had to commit a crime to be lodged there.
There isn’t a doubt that the Rs 22 crore spent to reconstruct this erstwhile central jail, has turned it into an attraction. The only way to get tourists into ancient places, especially a jail, is to make it look nice, pleasant and enduring. You can’t possibly fall in love with a jail if it truly reflects the horrors of its past. In that sense, the architect has succeeded.
The premises looks brand new, like it was constructed yesterday. There is a long line of cannons, a lot of laterite, cement, whitewash, brand new and brilliantly polished wood, metal sheets for roofing, polished granite and one or two figures in the cells which are spotlessly clean.
With Rs 22 crore, it is possible to change a jail into a fun place where tourists click pictures of themselves behind bars. Of course, there is an area with names of freedom fighters emblazoned on granite. Who they really are, or what they did is not mentioned and hence this area is rarely a background for pics to be posted on the internet.
If there is one thing the architect succeeded in doing with Rs 22 crore, it is cleansing the stain of colonialism. So it is difficult to understand how this reconstructed jail can be a monument to freedom fighters who were jailed there during the last days of Portuguese rule in Goa.
The line between colonialism and self-rule got blurred when the facility was converted into a central jail to house convicts. This was when the stories of freedom fighters and common criminals got entwined and over the years it was the stories of escapes that held sway as the time span between Liberation and the present started getting extended.
There is an interesting chapter in the Hunchback of Notre Dame where Victor Hugo explains how the printing press killed the building. Prior to that man expressed himself and wrote his story through buildings. What we call heritage today is essentially history through buildings.
What the Portuguese truly robbed us of, was our chance to write our story through buildings. As a result, we have been forced to accept their story as our own and embrace their buildings as our heritage.
The Aguada jail was a place for incarcerating political prisoners who believed in freedom and the right of every nation to chart its own course. If the intention behind the renovation of the jail was to remind every generation of the sacrifice made by those freedom fighters, it is an utter failure.
Now it’s just a great place for a picnic.
(The writer is a former editor who believes old school journalism isn’t dead, yet)