Friday, 29 June 2012

MOTHER AND MADNESS


Em and The Big Hoom is the debut novel of the Bombay-based journalist and litterateur Jerry Pinto, who has his roots in the village of Moira. A well-known figure in the journalistic circles, it came as no surprise when the imminent publication of his novel was much talked about in the press and what is more, an excerpt from the book wasalso published by a very prominent publication. This novel has received rave reviews in the national press, with the Indian Express calling it “insanely good” and such celebrity writers like Amitav Ghosh and Kiran Desai giving a huge thumbs-up for it. Following the release of the novel Jerry Pinto was featured in major national dailies, giving many interviews and never once failing to charm us by his wit and depth of thought. So when so much good stuff has been in the air about a novel that everybody says is good, I opened Em and The Big Hoom with a lot of premeditated ideas.
            The title of the book is at once enigmatic. It gives nothing away: the fact that it deals with a mentally ill protagonist, Imelda or Em and her dutiful and devoted husband Augustine or The Big Hoom. The couple has two children, Susan and a son: the narrator of the novel who curiously remains unnamed. The Narrator (let’s call him that) is on a quest to learn about the genesis of his mother’s illness; what was it that triggered it in the first place and why was his father standing rock-solid besides his mother despite everything. He tries to understand his mother and at the same time come to terms with his mother’s mental illness. Telling this story then becomes an act of catharsis for the Narrator. The novel describes the family, with all its eccentricities, laughter and tragedy.
            Jerry Pinto in his novel has tried to see the humane side of a Goan Catholic working-class family battling with mental illness. The family is dysfunctional. They live in a crowded and chaotic city – Bombay; in a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen flat. The Narrator has to endure these pressures, all the while dealing with his own adolescence as he ekes out a living for himself. Along with the story of his parents, the Narrator also tells about his frustrations, hopes and fears.
            This novel is dark and brutally honest, yet it is told with lively humour and has a host of colourful characters. Em is a lady who smokes a lot of beedis, has frequent bouts of mania and depression, and who tries many times to kill herself. She doesn’t hesitate to talk about her sex life with her children, much to the discomfort of the Narrator! The Big Hoom on the other hand, is a reserved person who is the rock of the family while Susan, the daughter, appears to be playing a less significant role. The Narrator has to construct the story from scratch as the details that he seeks have to be patiently obtained from Em. He has the daunting task of sifting through the enormous amounts of notes and letters that Em wrote, for she had this habit of jotting her musings and thoughts down on paper.
Jerry Pinto has written a delightful novel and there is no doubt about it. For a topic as serious as this, one breezes through the pages with effortless ease. His lilting prose provides this space for empathizing with the Mendes’ of Mahim, who are battling with mental illness in their family. The portrayal of the Catholic family is unlike the stereotypical rubbish that the film industry has been churning out over the years, and one that the rest of this country believes to be true. And since we are on the topic, novels like Em and The Big Hoom and Savia Viegas’ Let me tell you about Quinta, which are published by ‘big’ publishers, could go a long way in changing this perception about the Goan Catholic.
The novel also raises a few issues about the idea of motherhood. Em loves her children but she seems to be against the idea of motherhood. For she says that she didn’t wanted to be a “mudh-dha” [her inflected version of mother] and that she would be stuck “being someone whose definition isn’t even herself.” The portrayal of Em is not the regular romanticized, ever-loving-ever-giving mother but a more nuanced and a complex one. The son on the other hand seems to be torn between his love and duty towards his mother and trying to find his own independence and space away from his mentally ill mother. He also fears that his mother’s mental illness might be transmitted to him through the “genes”. Perhaps this is why the Narrator tries so hard to understand his mother and take care of her.
Jerry Pinto also attempts to paint a picture of the grind that mentally ill patients and their families have to go through: how patients are treated in hospitals as well as the attitudes of the doctors and society. Although there was space for a damning indictment of how the system operated during the times the novel was set in, Jerry Pinto does not channel much of his attention in this direction. Caste is briefly discussed in the novel, but the references are fleeting. The attitudes towards mental illness and the protagonist from a caste-based perspective could have been elaborated, especially when there are moments, brief ones they may be, when Jerry tries to suggest caste inequalities, but stops short for some reason. Although Jerry describes emotions and the suicide attempts by Em in raw detail, the dearth of descriptions of those cramped places (the setting for the novel) in which the people – and particularly the working-class – of Bombay negotiate their lives on a daily basis could have enriched the reading experience.
Jerry Pinto went through a grueling process of 27 drafts over a period of 25 years and this novel is worth every minute of your time. How one understands this book would be one’s own way to appreciate it. This is a novel that one has to connect or understand on a very personal level. Em and The Big Hoom will stay with me for quite some time.

Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company), 2012; pp. 235, Rs. 495/- [ISBN: 978-81-923280-2-7]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: June 30, 2012)

Friday, 22 June 2012

26 ONE-ACT SERMONS


Theater in Konknni is a form of art that is very popular in Goa. Of late, it is heartening to note that many manuscripts are being published and a decent corpus of tiatrs and plays are now available for the general reader. Of the many tiatrs and collections of short one-act plays, Arso: 26 Nattkuleancho Jhelo by Fr. Michael Fernandes is one such book. This collection under review, consist of twenty-six one-act plays and the novelty about this book is that the titles follow the sequence of the roman alphabets from A-Z.
            Fr. Michael Fernandes is a young priest hailing from Benaulim. He has published his writings in various Konknni newsmagazines like Jivit, Gulab, Goan Review, V.Ixtt and some periodicals published by the Church in Goa. An alumnus of the Saligão seminary, Fr. Michael had also contributed to the nagri Konknni daily Sunaparant in its Campus Reporter section. A versatile writer experimenting with such diverse forms of writing such as essays, stories, poems, lyrics and besides being a playwright Arso is Fr. Michael’s first book.
            If we take an overview of Fr. Michael’s collection, we would find that these plays are written to impart good moral values. The plots are simple and move in a direction that allows the author to end with a homily. Issues such as teenage love, respect for elders and parents, honesty, Christian values, concern for the environment etc are discussed in Arso. Fr. Michael also discusses issues like the Goan identity and heritage in the face of rampant changes due to external influences and the in-migration of people from other states. After reading the book, one gets this impression that the main purpose of the author is to impart a virtuous and moralistic message to the readers and the audience. A recurring feature of the book, that one notices, is the rapid change-of-heart to lead a good, moral life of the bad characters found in the book. The way these characters pledge to reform themselves sometimes appears to be too easily done and that the author has taken shelter in convenience. Given the time and space constraints of a one-act play, such brevity is however understandable.
            In Bãym or Well, Fr. Michael stresses the importance of our traditional wells and also the need to conserve water. The use of a particular Saxtti dialect in this play makes interesting reading. In fact there are a few other instances where Fr. Michael has also experimented with other dialects, which is quite a commendable task. In some of the plays, the dialogues for lay characters are written in a way a priest would preach a sermon (for instance in Advogad), which makes the scene being enacted seem unreal. Is there a need to use lofty examples from the Bible at every turn of the phrase?
            That we should care for our old parents is one message that runs throughout the book. The position that Fr. Michael takes on such an issue is not a new one and we have all heard such arguments at various platforms. Fr. Michael’s position will be clear from the following quote from Inam’ where Marcus, a character in the play says thus: “Dor eka putak ani dhuvek mhozo ulo – tumchim avoy-bapuy kitlim-i zanttim pasun zalear, tankam pois korum nakat, nhoi mhonn azilant-ui ghalum nakat. Kiteak, je tyag ani koxtt tumchim avoy-bapuy tumche khatir kaddtat te sonvsarantle her khuinchech monis kaddchenant.” [This is my call to every son and daughter. No matter how old and infirm your parents may be, do not turn away from them, nor admit them in an old-age home. For they have toiled for you like nobody else in this world]. Though in agreement that we should care for the people who love us, is it always practical and feasible to walk the path that Fr. Michael is suggesting?
            I would also like to single out another play that could have benefitted from some fresh thinking by a very young priest like Fr. Michael. In Maim (Mother), in return for a lakh of rupees which would secure Alroy a job, the idols of Mother Mary need to be destroyed and he has to proclaim that there is no use in believing in Mother Mary. Alroy does as he is required by “the group” and immediately he meets with an accident. Or in Tallnni or Temptation, which is a story about two brothers. Since their mother has to go out shopping, she tells her two boys to sincerely sit down and study for their exams which are fast approaching. One brother succumbs to temptation and goes out with his friends to play – only to drown in a river in an act of Devan khast layli (God has punished).
This idea of divine retribution should be abandoned by young priests like Fr. Michael. Rather than continuing with old and stale ideas, Fr. Michael could have infused his writings with a new spirit, one that celebrates life with all its faults and shortcomings. I shall stop here lest I begin to sound too preachy!
            Though many of the themes repeat and overlap in many of the plays, the collection does not seem to be a boring repetition. In other words, the plays are written in a way that sustains the interest of the reader. Arso is neatly printed and bound with almost zero typos. The cover illustration by Alvito D’Costa, though a bit clichéd, is artfully done. The only problem is that the name of the author deserved better visibility, for it seems to be lost in one corner of the cover. In summation, this book not only makes a good read but could come handy to schools looking for scripts of one-act plays to be staged during the annual gatherings. For it is only by encouraging young writers like Fr. Michael that more Konknni writings would blossom forth.

Arso: 26 Nattkuleancho Jhelo by Fr. Michael Fernandes (Benaulim/Bann’nnavle: Micferns Prokaxon), 2010; pp. IX+237, Rs. 100/-; Phone: 91-0832-2221688 (Available at Dalgado Konknni Akademi, Panjim)

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: June 23, 2012)

For the Konkani translation of this article see here

Sunday, 17 June 2012

‘ENFANT TERRIBLE’ OR GOA’S FOREMOST NATIONALIST


If there is one Goan, writing in Portuguese, who has enjoyed a decent literary corpus of translation into English and a steady stream of media and academic attention, it has to be José Inácio Candido de Loyola, more popularly known as Fanchu Loyola. In 2007, the journalist Alexandre Moniz Barbosa had translated and compiled a series of Fanchu Loyola’s essays titled Passionate and Unrestrained (See my review on GT: 21 July, 2010 ). Earlier, in 2000, another collection of his essays was also published. This collection, which is presently under review, is edited by the Jesuit Charles J. Borges and translated by Lino Leitão. This review will try to focus on the many introductory essays at the beginning of the book and also try to pose a few new questions vis-à-vis the writings of Fanchu Loyola.
          Besides the editor and the translator of the book, essays of Carmo D’Souza, Yona Loyola-Nazareth, Fanchu Loyola’s octogenarian daughter now based in Canada and Joseph Barros are also included. They familiarize us with the book as well as try to give an insight into the life and times of Fanchu Loyola. These introductory essays or notes are not critical of Loyola’s writings and his political ideologies; they do not go any deeper than providing a brief biographic sketch, thereby giving the impression that they are more like secular hagiographies. However, the short essay that the daughter of Fanchu Loyola wrote is remarkable.
Returning after an unsuccessful meeting with Nehru where Loyola tried to convince the Prime Minister to have a plebiscite in Goa, Yona Loyola-Nazareth recalls, “I never comprehended the depth of his love for Goa till he returned to Bombay in 1958. He returned from a visit to Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi quite defeated and disconsolate. I could not fathom his distress. He paced restlessly up and down the hallway, sighing until I could not bear it any longer. I questioned him. His answer puzzled me at that time, ‘My child, we have lost Goa. You and I have lost Goa.’ Lost Goa? In 1958? He then proceeded to tell me that although he had done his utmost to persuade Nehru to conduct a plebiscite in Goa, he was convinced that with Krishna Menon at the helm, a ‘military take-over’ of Goa was imminent.”
Fanchu Loyola was a nationalist, but not like the ones who were fighting for the inclusion of Goa into the Indian Union. He was opposed more to the dictatorial reign of Salazar and, as this book makes it amply clear; he never challenged the sovereignty of the Portuguese over its colonies in India.
Krishna Menon
The idea of Fanchu Loyola – the man – that this collection of writings provides is markedly different from the ones that the newer collection Passionate and Unrestrained provides. In the latter Loyola appears to be cautious and civil, though a fiercely outspoken man but in this collection under review, Loyola comes off as an enfant terrible (to borrow the words of Joseph Barros). He spoke critically and directly of the policies of the government and could be very caustic towards his intellectual rivals. Fanchu Loyola replying to one Pereira Batalha concluded his letter thus, “…I view my enemies as tiny frogs and you, Sir, among them is the tinniest, a very tiny ant and despicable. Giants like me crush them under their feet.”
Loyola constantly uses terms like “public” or “people” in this collection to indicate popular support to his views and policies and that his views and policies are in conjunction with the larger public. At this point we cannot forget that most of Loyola’s writings were published in the journal of his own party (India Portuguesa) as well as other journals he established and edited. As of now all we can say is that Loyola’s views were at best claims that need to be rigorously interrogated or tested. The question as to which class of people Fanchu Loyola and his party men were trying to woo, can shed new light on the dynamics of politics of those times.
Though a lawyer himself, it is interesting to note that Loyola never used the law or his legal acumen to discuss remedial measures for the social problems he was discussing. He would stress that the people had degraded morally and had become cowards and it stopped at that. Rather he waxed eloquent on the economic questions and ills of the state, like an economist using tabular data and statistics to argue his case. However, it must be said that he was an avid supporter of enacting and amending legislation to increase the economic productivity of the land. A case in point can be his advocacy of legislative measures to increase agricultural productivity rather than fertilizers and improved irrigation!
Charles Borges
Loyola was a believer in agriculture bringing economic prosperity to the land, with small-scale and cottage industries supplementing agriculture. This is one area where his idea of modernity is of much interest. Fanchu Loyola’s idea of modernity was, in a way, like that of Gandhi, which centered on the village as well as agriculture. Fanchu Loyola was no fan of industrialization and factories, like Nehru was and whose vision of modernity contrasted with that of Gandhi.
In a telling quote, Fanchu Loyola expounds why he did not believe in big factories and industrialization, “I want to propose a question. Why do we not process our coconuts, and start an industry of that nature? Let us not dream big dreams. Big dreams mean big factories, large capital, high technology, expert directors and a skilled working force. Given our modest means, my dear Luis Maria, we cannot afford to lay the foundation of big undertakings. But we can establish small-scale industries, and set them up in our villages. They do not require machinery, nor graduate technicians, nor capital that runs into five figures.”
There is no point in commenting on whether Fanchu Loyola could have written his essays in a better way or could have produced better nuanced arguments. The fact is that his writings can only be put to greater and deeper scrutiny. Excluding the essay that Yona Loyola-Nazareth wrote, the editor, translator and other contributors could have done a much more researched and informed job in evaluating the life and writings of Fanchu Loyola.

Goa’s Foremost Nationalist José Inácio Candido de Loyola: The Man and his Writings edited by Charles Borges, Trans. By Lino Leitão (New Delhi: Concept Publishing), 2000; pp. xlv+218, Rs. 400/- [ISBN: 81-7022-868-9]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times (Weekender), dt: June 17, 2012)

Monday, 11 June 2012

IDEALIZED PASTS: AN INTRODUCTION TO SALIGÃO


Fr. Nascimento J. Mascarenhas is a very well known priest in Goa. Apart from being a priest for many decades, he has also authored several books on the clergy of Goa and is also intimately associated with the Archdiocesan bulletin Renovação. Fr. Nascimento was and is actively involved in various online forums about the village of Saligão in particular and online Goan forums in general. And through contributing village-related articles and trivia on such forums, The Land of the Sal Tree was born, a book entirely devoted to the myths, history and people of Saligão.
            Fr. Nascimento’s project promises to be a very novel one as all those quaint traditions, superstitions and trivia of a uniquely Goan village are included in the book. This book – as the author is humble enough to claim – is not an individual effort. Fr. Nascimento had the earnest backing of many Saliganvkars, chief among them being the Canada-based illustrator of the book Mel D’Souza and Frederick Noronha. Mel D’Souza (who is also a journalist and author) is a genius in drawing and sketching and his lines enliven the text and take the reader to an altogether different experience. In Acknowledgements, we do find Fr. Nascimento honestly considering Mel to be the co-author of the book, and Mel in his “trademark modesty” asking his role to be “played down”.
            The book introduces us to the village of Saligão: its various wards or vaddes, the prominent houses and monuments of the villages, the well-known as well as the not-so-well-known village personalities and the various stories that Fr. Nascimento as a young boy had heard and which stayed with him for the rest of his life. Fr. Nascimento also reminisces about his boyhood that was spent in Saligão and the various people who shaped his personality. The book is a remarkable introduction to a small village of Goa and a project that has the potential for emulation by other villages as well. Dr. Olivinho Gomes’ Village Goa, a book on the village of Chandor can be mentioned inthis context. Though academic, it can help in guiding such projects.
            Fr. Nascimento’s account of the construction of the Mae de Deus church is truly illuminating. He has dug out a lot of facts from the archives. But the lengthy list of the costs and materials incurred to build the church (pp. 104-112) could have been included as an annexure as it mars the flow of the book. The Land of the Sal Tree is not connected by a single large, unifying narrative. It is rather a collection of diverse stories written with and viewed from the eyes of passionate nostalgia (or should I say saudades?). It gives us an idealized picture of Sailigão; a picture the younger generation will be in awe of, but one that they may not be able to relate to. This book presents a rather fossilized picture of the past and it seems to yearn for a veritable museum where all that was cherished will be preserved as it is
            Amongst the many interesting stories that Fr. Nascimento narrates, is one of a boy called Galdinho (related to Mel D’Souza apparently) who climbed the steeple of the Saligão church in a bid to impress a girl! But by far the most surprising and awesome story in the book is of Anthony de Mello, one of the luminaries of Saligão. Anthony de Mello was a great cricketer who put Indian cricket on the world map and was also instrumental in establishing the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The words of Vijay Merchant, another doyen of Indian cricket are produced here, as appearing in the book: “For sheer cricket administration capability, confidence and enthusiasm, there was never anyone to equal de Mello. He was the man who organized the Board of Control for Cricket in India, was its first Honorary Secretary, India’s cricket representative in international cricket conferences, and, finally, its President…His trump card was his bowling and tremendous enthusiasm…Anthony will always be remembered as the builder of stadiums without having anything in the bank to his credit…there will never be another Anthony de Mello in Indian cricket.” Surely now, Anthony de Mello rightfully deserves one of the stadiums of the Goa Cricket Association to be named after him.
            The book is neatly written with the quality of the language standing as a salient feature. But the various articles that have been collected in this book could have been edited further to avoid repetition and to maintain the focus on the theme that is the village of Saligão. Many of the traditions, superstitions and habits that are found in Saligão are also found in rest of Goa, such as the traditional games that were played and the way certain festivals are celebrated. Such commonly-occurring traditions and customs should not have been singled out for elaborate treatment.
            In tracing the history of the village and its people, Fr. Nascimento has done a commendable job. But one can’t help but notice some very problematic statements being made in this process. While categorically acknowledging that the legend of Parasurama “is just a myth” Fr. Nascimento when speaking about the migration of non-indigenous people states, “…the attractions of this land subjected it to an influx of various races in the course of human migration, resulting in the establishment of certain social patterns that evolved into a distinct Hindu culture. This civilization prevailed for thousands of years until the late 15th century when countries in Europe started seeking new lands to colonize or expand trade.” The term “race” is very problematic as the boundaries defining one “race” from another are vague and blurred due to miscegenation. Secondly, Fr. Nascimento sees such migration of people culminating into a distinct Hindu culture. This is not surprising as the colonial and the subsequent nationalist historiography, on which Fr. Nascimento draws quite substantially, has tried to conceptualize a pre-Portuguese past that is Hindu in its conception. But this is not so. Muslim or what is known as Islamicate and other identities have also shaped and influenced the culture of Goa and, sadly, they do not seem to have been included in Fr. Nascimento’s analysis.
            We all know how some Brahmin or “Indo-Aryan” settlers came to Goa in the dim and distant past from north India. Apparently many of them had settled in Saligão. Such families find mention in the book along with their genealogies after conversion to Christianity. These families had displaced the indigenous population. The way such a process is talked about is a matter of concern. Ages ago, the “upper-caste settlers” pushed the indigenous people to the fringes of Saligão and this is but a microcosmic reflection of how in our society today such indigenous or low-caste people are kept on the “fringes” and hence cannot be spoken in such idealized, conflict-free terms. Here’s what Fr. Nascimento says, “When the Indo-Aryan clans arrived in Goa, they took over the agricultural land and neighbourhoods from the indigenous people who were moved to the fringe of the villages. They divided the territory into malos (provinces), and sub-divided the malos into gãos (villages).”
           The Saligão project (if I may call this book) will hopefully inspire many such books focusing on Goan villages produced by the villagers themselves. But rather than the quaint and nostalgic account, we look forward to more critical engagement that would promise to go beyond our ideas of idealized pasts as well as saudades.
Land of the Sal Tree, Stories of the history, legends and traditions of Saligão, a typical Goan village by Fr. Nascimento J. Mascarenhas (Saligão, Goa: Goa 1556), 2012; pp. xix+290, Rs. 350/- [ISBN: 978-93-80739-35-9]
 
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: June 11, 2012)