Thursday, 29 December 2011

FROM THE ATTIC TO THE MANSION


Tales from the Attic was the debut novel of the Carmona based writer, Savia Viegas. One may recall the review I had done of the same in this very newspaper a few months ago. Five years after her first novel, Savia Viegas has returned with another novel called Let me tell you about Quinta. The rigors and travails of self publishing, it seems, has taught an unforgettable lesson to Savia as her first book did reflect a certain rawness in its binding and printing. But her second book is published by a multi-national publisher is neatly packaged. Publishing matters apart, Let me tell you about Quinta would be welcomed by all the Goan bookworms!
            Savia’s second book on some levels seems to be a sequel to the first and at other times gives the impression of being a prequel. Call it a sequel, a prequel or whatever; this novel fills in the many gaps from the previous one. Tales from the Attic, it was noticed, ended abruptly. Quinta seems to be making up for every detail that was left out in the first book.
            In the true sense of the term, there is no protagonist in the story. Mari (spelt Marri in the first book) is no longer the main character (which is why I doubt this book is a sequel). Some parts of her second novel will only be understood clearly if the reader has acquainted him/herself with Savia’s first book. However, a sprawling mansion called ‘Quinta’ is where the whole story unfolds. If one may be permitted to expand the scope of the definition of ‘protagonist’, then Quinta, in a way, becomes the ‘protagonist’. It is an old, dilapidated house that is mired in litigation for many years. Yet the crumbling edifice does not lose its monetary value for there are repeated attempts to buy/appropriate the property.
             The book opens with the arrival of California, Mari’s son Suraj’s Russian-American wife, to Carmona. In connivance with Suraj (or Sun as he is known), she arrives with a hope to usurp Quinta along with the property, which Queirozito (same as Tito of the previous book) had so painfully won through litigation. The role of California just seems to be a very short one being that of a usurper with no major consequence on the overall story. Since she fails in circumventing the alert Queirozito, she flies back to America empty-handed.
            In this novel, the genealogy of the maternal and paternal family of Mari is explored in greater detail. Quinta brings all the skeletons in the cupboard and sins of the landed family in the open. The conflict between the bhatkars and the mundkars is a theme that is constantly running through the novel. Although attempts are being made to bring this theme to life, enough, it is felt, is not done by the narrative. A critique of the position that the bhatkars and the mundkars occupied could have been woven in the narrative. Tish Ximeao, a bhatkar, laments about the mundkars not tilling their lands and going off to the Gulf to clean the “…toilets of Arabs.” We all hear such tirades, in one form or the other against the migrating Goans, a major chunk of who were presumably from the lower-caste Catholics. And this resentment could be located to emanate from this class of landed, upper-caste bhatkars. This binary division of a village society into a landed class and a non-landed, tilling class leaves out the caste factor that influenced (historically speaking) the acquisition – or rather – the usurpation of land in the first place. It is this caste equation that had the scope of being discussed in this novel.
            There are a host of lovable and quirky characters in this book – some continuing from the old book and others newly introduced. It is when Savia constructs the characters of this novel and while describing the natural beauty and features of the village of Carmona that the writer is at her literary best. The book is actually a series of sections where the biography of each major character is discussed and there are these moments (just a few!) when one cannot help but notice some raw spots in the book. But because Savia has a way with words, one does not feel that the narrative drags or falls short in the literary department.
            This novel also touches upon all the major political events that occurred in the last hundred or so years. There is the mention of Fanchu Loyola, the ‘nationalist’ who fought for Goa’s independence from Salazar’s dictatorship, the liberation of Goa, the Tenancy Act whereby the landed class lost its power and finally to more recent times: the land grabbing by the rich and fat builders from the north and the metros. It is only the elite characters who are seen reacting to these political changes. But to me, the illnesses and eccentricities of the characters is what takes the novel forward rather than the immense political changes providing the reader with subtle, humorous moments.
            At the end of the novel, Robby the son of Piedade who was a mesti├žo orphan brought by Mari’s maternal grand-mother from an orphanage, returns back to Carmona, takes active part in local politics and goes on to win (with the ardent help of Preciosa, the mother of Mari) the panchayat polls! Robby is faced with conflicting situations where he is expected to check the many irregularities that take place in the village and comes out as a deeply disturbed and confused person. It is in the last few pages the author seems to lose her grip on some of the characters and their actions become hard to understand.          
But, all said and done, I enjoyed reading Let me tell you about Quinta for the way it is written. The prose and tasteful descriptions of the picturesque village can be an added incentive for a lazy Sunday afternoon.                                                                                                         

Let me tell you about Quinta by Savia Viegas (New Delhi: Penguin), 2011; pp. 254, Rs. 299/- [ISBN: 9781-0-143-41522-0] Web: www.penguinbooksindia.com 

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: December 30, 2011)

Monday, 26 December 2011

RAMAYANAS, RAMANUJAN AND ENGROSSING NARRATIVES


Succumbing to political pressures for allegedly hurting religious sentiments, the Delhi University scrapped an essay by A. K. Ramanujan from its undergraduate history syllabus a month or so ago. This move sparked widespread protests not only from Universities in Delhi, but also elsewhere. The essay in question was titled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples andThree Thoughts on Translation. As the title suggests Ramanujan discusses the various versions of the Ramayana, which he likes to call ‘tellings’, as well as the issues that crop up when this particular text is translated so many times.
             Ramanujan was a versatile scholar, donning the hat of author, poet, translator and folklorist. Initially teaching at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda for eight years, he later moved to the U. S. 
 The whole trend and culture of banning/censoring books, film, paintings etc. that we witness in India – of which the Ramanujan fiasco is only the latest – has demonstrated how the precarious condition of the ideal of Free Speech is standing on shaky ground and also a gloomy future is facing not only the students of history (like my self) but to the whole country at large. The reason why I am deeply disturbed after the fiasco at Delhi University is because an attempt is being made to suppress the many voices of history, which in a way implies that there is only one possible way to interpret history in the world.
            The news of the removal of the essay made me curious andurged me to explore the nature and content of the essay as well the politics ofbanning/censoring. I was skeptical whether I could locate a digital copy on the internet. But as luck had it, I could find it very easily. Talk about asking a child not to play with fire!  In this essay, easily downloadable via the internet, Ramanujan tries “...to sort out for myself, and hope for others, how these hundreds of tellings of a story in different cultures, languages and religious traditions relate to each other: what gets translated, transplanted and transposed (italics mine).” Ramanujan prefers the term ‘tellings’ because in his opinion there is no such thing as an original Ramayana and the use of terms like ‘versions’ and ‘variants’ imply that there is an original text from which all subsequent texts emanated.
            Kumkum Roy, a historian of Ancient India at the Jawarharlal Nehru University, writing for the Economic and Political Weekly says that “Ramanujan is an engrossing writer, drawing attention to a range of narratives related to the epic from Sanskrit to Kannada and Thai. Most importantly, he uses the different tellings of the Rama story as cultural artifacts that shape and are in turn shaped by our daily existence. Why then should young adult learners be prevented from learning about them?”
             Ramanujan’s mastery over words as well as the subject over which he is elaborating, draws the reader immediately into the text. For instance, citing the example of Jain traditions, Ramanujan says, “When we enter the world of Jain tellings, the Rama story no longer carries Hindu values. Indeed the Jain text expresses the feeling that the Hindus, especially the brahmans, have maligned Ravana, made him into a villain.” When the Jains tell the Rama story therefore, Ravana comes off as a tragic hero, moving us to sympathy.
            At this point it would be worthwhile to recall the animated movie Sita Sings the Blues. In this film, the narrative of Ramayana is woven with the personal story of Nina Paley, the artist who made the film (which can be downloaded for free). Like the unfortunately fateful essay of Ramanujan, Nina Paley’s delightful movie too had the spectre of ‘banning’ hanging over its head initiated by radical Hindu groups.
            One thing that would strike anybody who has or will watch the movie is the brilliant animation to the accompaniment of jazz music. Like Ramanujan’s essay, this film too, engrosses the viewer in its narrative. What was striking about this film was the depth with which it interrogated the actions of the characters in the Ramayana. Questions that have no easy answers, not because they are entrenched in some profound and deep metaphysics, but simply because the contemporary political ramifications can be ugly. It was the only movie (as far as I know), where, at the end of the credits a list of recommended readings scrolled up one’s screen!
          Kumkum Roy gets it right when she says, “If anything, young adult learners (the average undergraduate students) need to be encouraged to understand and appreciate these differences rather than be prevented from learning about them. The dangers of suppressing the text in particular and the implications of a policy of suppression of dissent in general are far more threatening than any comments Ramanujan makes about Indra and Hanuman.”
            If the sole intention of banning the essay was to make students – particularly of the arts – read, then kudos to the fundamentalists! But clearly this is not the issue. The issue is about control. What is sickening is to note that, not only is an attempt made to control what we do or say, but also what and how we ‘think’. For the control of the mind is the easiest way to subjugate the masses. We can’t allow ourselves to be passive dupes who would accept anything that dominant ideologues and groups tell us to believe.

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: December 27, 2011)