Thursday, 18 August 2011

A NOVEL FROM THE ATTIC


In 2007, Dr. Savia Viegas, a Senior Fulbright scholar, published her debut novel Tales from the Attic, a story set in the village of Carmona around the time when the last vestiges of the Portuguese colonialism in South Asia were about to come to an end. Self published under the banner of Saxtti Foundation, Savia’s novel was a welcome addition since not much fiction was published from Goa. But times have changed, it seems, for the better, with a lot of books, including fiction, being published and forums on the internet actively engaged in discussing various topics pertaining to the written word from Goa.
            The novel opens in a hospital, with the protagonist Marri (who was baptized as Maria Dominica Viegas) recollecting her past during a delayed return to consciousness after a surgery to remove her infected uterus. The story is written with gentle and subtle humour and wit. The eccentricities of the Goan catholic life are brought out in very broad and prominent outlines like the invocation of a plethora of saints by Marri’s Xamai, is one such example. 
              Marri was a child who was born after many years of marriage, and many prayers later, to Tito and Preciosa Viegas. Being the only child and falling frequently ill, she was pampered and could have her way any time and any how she pleased. Her Xamai, grand-aunt and Coincao, the maid were always ready to look after her every ailment and need.
Marri spends her entire childhood with the support of medicines. Due to her frequent illnesses, she is only dressed in petticoats (64 in all!). When Marri is around 10, a migrant family from Karnataka comes to Carmona. The migrants were lovers, who had eloped because the man was low caste and the woman the wife of a Brahmin. The priest and some villagers take it upon themselves to bring these non-believers into the Christian fold. Coincao, the maid, at the behest of the village priest, agrees to be a godparent to Jose, one of the children of the migrant couple.
            Jose is a young boy with a powerful physique and equally powerful sexual urges. In the course of games with Marri (as Marri had no company of children of her age), he molests her. Marri suffers in silence. Then a few years later, while cleaning the attic with Jose, Marri, tired of the abuse and unable to take it anymore, pushes him off the ladder, thus killing him. (Although, everybody thinks Jose slipped and fell off the ladder.)
            The Konknni and Portuguese words and phrases in this novel are not italicized or indicated in some other way. Why is this so? It is simply because this novel is written for the people who are already familiar with such words. This is a novel which Savia has written for her own people; which means for us! The text in some of the pages is arranged in a way that reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. For instance, on pp. 17-18, rather than the normal paragraph, a big list is given about the various diseases that plagued Marri. The narration is also as delightful as that of Arundhati’s novel.
            Marri is also a girl who is born with grey-green eyes. The question of the Aryan migration is discussed, one day, in her class. Marri feels that she too is an Aryan owing to her grey-green eyes, her fair-skin and aquiline nose. Shanta her friend gets were angry and says, “All Catholics come from the lower jatis. The pr-o-s-el-y-t-i-s-i-n-g priests gave land to the shudras and m-le-ch-h-a-s and converted them to Christianity.” The grey-green eyes, it is revealed, resulted from the miscegenation of a distant relative of Marri and an Arab trader who had grey-green eyes. When I had first read the book four years ago, it occurred to me that the genetic pool of Goans possibly may have many more influences than the Aryan and Dravidian and Portuguese.
            Turning around 20, Marri finds her parents’ ploy to marry her to a distant cousin of hers (the ‘Kissing Cousin Plot’). She refuses much to the chagrin of her father. The conflict and tension in her house makes her withdraw to the attic. Finally, she realizes that she has to get away from her house and everybody and everything. So she moves to Bombay where attending college she falls in love with Azad, a student involved in organizing unions for the working class. Azad flushes an idol of Ganapati in the commode to fully imbibe the ideology of the political party he is associated with. They get married and two kids later (Swapna and Suraj), Marri divorces Azad because she feels stuck in the marriage.
            It is in the final few chapters that the narration seems to end abruptly. I felt that Marri’s years in Bombay could have had more details thus augmenting the novel some 20 or 25 pages more. The decisions that Marri makes and the emotions that she experiences while in Bombay are not exactly explained, leaving the reader groping in the dark.
The attic in the novel is a symbol for the physical as well as the mental and/or emotional place. Just like the things that are stored in the attic, emotions and secrets too are tucked away in it. Whilst I was reading this novel a thought struck me. Since many of the details (social and religious) of catholic and village life are so well portrayed, this novel could well be made into a film. I guess a film on the lines of Poltoddcho Monis by Laxmikant Shetgaonkar on Savia’s novel will be a treat to watch!

Tales from the Attic by Savia Viegas (Carmona, Goa: Saxtti Foundation), 2007; pp. 129, Rs. 200/- [ISBN: 81-85569-74-6]
Web: www.otherindiabookstore.com, www.saviaviegas.in


(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: August 18, 2011)

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