Friday, 28 December 2012

MIND AND HEART OVER MATTER


It has been demonstrated time and again that the human mind is capable of producing innovations and solutions that can be considered as almost miracles. Every once in a while, in every field and walk of life, there comes a person whose talent, intelligence and ingenuity produces results that can leave a lasting impression on the world. This profound spirit that drives breakthroughs in innovations is the subject of a recent Konkani novel, Kallzache Kholayek Thaun by Epifanio Valadares.
            Epifanio Valadares is a Gulf-based engineer, who took to writing because he had a lot of free time or leisure. Punching the keys on his laptop, Epifanio Valadares says that slowly the pages accumulated into a full-fledged novel. Kallzache Kholayek Thaun is conceived as a tale of a boy from humble origins who goes on to do many great things – some nothing short of a miracle. Kudov, the protagonist, is a person whose innovations and inventions take him across the Indian sub-continent as a fugitive on the run from the arms of law. Kudov is the pet name of the protagonist given by his villagers – as it happens in many Goan villages – after a bird which never stays in one place.
            Losing his parents very early in life, Kudov is forced to fend for himself. The characterization of Kudov can be paralleled to those heroes from folklore stories. I am specifically referring to the Goan folklore where the boy of a poor and humble background goes on to perform many heroic feats and in the bargain, also winning a fair maiden (generally of a wealthy and powerful king or person). Sometime these heroic feats are solely meant to win the fair maiden. Hence, it can be claimed that Epifanio Valadares’ novel is folkloric in its aspirations.
            Just like a folk-hero can receive a magic mantra or any other such charms, Kudov has the immense ability to acquire knowledge and use it to invent technology that could possibly change the face of the world. He invents a cure for a very deadly disease that is poised to wipe out the whole population of his village. Next, he invents a thermo-dynamic engine which can run on water. When he elopes with his lover – who later becomes his wife – to Bombay and reaches the Taj hotel, it is that fateful day when this hotel is attacked by terrorists. Kudov and his wife were on a run from the police (and also on their honeymoon) and in the crossfire of the security forces and the terrorists, Anushka, his wife meets an untimely death. This moves Kudov to invent a device that would detect the locations of explosives that could potentially pose a threat to national security. Kudov anonymously tips-off the police about the whereabouts of terrorists. Since Kudov is unwilling to share the secrets of his innovations and because such innovations can be deadly in wrong hands, the security forces are constantly on the lookout for him. As a result, Kudov is on the run again and he lands up in Nepal. It is here in Nepal that he finally gets arrested and is brought down to Goa.
            The plot has many twists and turns and these do not seem to be forced or out of place. There is an easy flow to the novel. However, the innovations that the protagonist of this novel comes up with need an elaborate comment. Epifanio Valadares portrays these innovations as being based on scientific knowledge and reasoning. It is here that the novel suffers, becoming a bit tenuous and laboured. In order to explain the scientific base of the innovations of his protagonist (and hence make them credible or authentic), Epifanio Valadares goes to great lengths to make them believable and this exercise leads to oversimplifications. For instance, this ovixkar or innovation about a vehicle or an engine, that can run on water. This idea has been floating around our world for quite sometime. Using hydrogen as combustion fuel has its own problems and if it was as easy as Epifanio Valadares makes it to be then surely our own vehicles would be running on water by now!
            What I want to emphasize is such imagination and its integration into a novel is not silly in its conception but the way in which it is portrayed – with its apparent emphasis on scientific rigor – deny the reader a possibly delightful reading experience. One is writing a novel and not a paper for a scientific journal and hence other ways could have been used to make this idea work. By way of a suggestion, I would like to propose that the use of the literary device of magic realism, which took its birth in Indian literature in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children could have been useful. For instance, when Kudov tries to stop terrorism he invents a device which displays the locations of terrorist hide-outs and activity. This section of the novel could have been effectively done, again, on the lines of how the midnight’s children across India could communicate through their own minds. My emphasis on this point is for the only reason that the innovations of Kudov form the linchpin for constructing the plot of the novel and there needed a serious consideration of whether the current way in which it is portrayed really worked for holding the novel together.
            As a young writer with his debut novel, Epifanio Valadares has clearly demonstrated that he is capable of stretching his imagination to unknown territories. He is definitely cut-out for this craft of novel-writing which, in my opinion, will be further enriched with a deeper engagement with a wider literary world. As his introduction states, Epifanio Valadares has ample leisure or “mekllo vell” (and by that implication no work related pressures!) to carry on his writing. In such a happy and almost-utopian state of existence, Epifanio Valadares should seriously consider writing another novel, one better than what he has come up with.

Kallzache Kholayek Thaun by Epifanio Valadares (Penha de Franca: Happyfun Prokaxon), 2012; pp. 239, Rs. 100/-; Phone: 91-0832-2221688 (Available at Dalgado Konknni Akademi, Panjim)

 (A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: December 29, 2012).

Friday, 14 December 2012

MATTERS OF TASTE AND THE GOAN ELITE


Did the Portuguese come to India for Pepper or for Christ? Interesting as this may be for the historian devoted to studying the Indo-Portuguese encounter, nonetheless this question has also been elusive. Whatever may be the case, one cannot deny the power of pepper. Those tiny, black, wrinkled orbs of fiery taste and potential were, five centuries ago, equal in value to gold (or perhaps even superseding it). With so much history-making and history-turning possibility, one cannot help but marvel at the wonder that is pepper.
            The Sting of Peppercorns by Antonio Gomes, tries to explore the consequences and problems inflicted on the Goan population in general and a particular Catholic, upper-caste, landed family at the time of the liberation/invasion of Portuguese India by the Indian army. Needless to say, all the changes from 1961, in the world-view of the New York based professor of Medicine (Cardiology), were set in motion at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Linearity dictates the perception of time in the imagining of this novel. The problem with such a view is that it depends on old perceptions and understandings of history; Antonio Gomes says, “It was here, in Goa, on the heels of Afonso de Albuquerque, that spice met bland, East met West, in a violent struggle. Ultimately, societies and religions were crushed, powdered like the peppercorns themselves, and sprinkled like crushed pepper around the world – the universal landscape altered forever.” In this review, I shall try to juxtapose the view or perception of history of Antonio Gomes with other works that have dealt with the same theme (well, more-or-less!). By doing so, I shall try to point out how, despite new books being written, the imagination of our past is stuck in a medieval (and sometimes also ancient), upper-caste sensibility.
            The plot centers on the Albuquerque family. The novel opens with Roberto, one of the sons, who is a successful doctor in the US, researching for a cure on AIDS, returning to Goa in the ’80s. Roberto is forced to come back to Goa, because his ayah mails him the diaries that his mother Dona Isabella had written: which means a few unanswered questions. On returning, Roberto finds his family house in an utter state of disrepair. The plot is set against the backdrop of a few events that were momentous in modern Goan history like the liberation/invasion, the Opinion Poll etc.
            While reading the opening few pages, I could not help but notice the similarities with the Shyam Benegal-directed Trikal. Like the movie, Roberto’s house too is situated in Loutolim which the protagonist visits after many years and finds it in a state of neglect and decadence. Since this novel is basically about an upper-caste, landed, Catholic family who are caught unawares by that fateful year of 1961 and who have no idea how to react and adjust to a rapidly changing world, I shall propose that the village of Loutolim can be treated as a metaphor as well as a symbol for the power and hegemony being snatched away from the hands of the bhatkars.
            Roberto starts to remember the fateful events in his family that led to heartbreaks, deaths and migration when he returns to Goa after nearly two decades. He recounts the frustration that eventually led to the death of Paulo as well as his sister Amanda, who falls in love with a man from the fisher-folk caste. Roberto comes out as a person who is unsure and utterly clueless, even after so many years, to come to terms with five centuries of history. He is starkly different from the protagonist of Skin, a novel by Margaret Mascarenhas. While Roberto finds it hard to reconcile his two worlds: the ancestral, traditional with the transnational and cosmopolitan, Pagan, the protagonist of Skin has no such difficulties. She, unlike Roberto is not burdened (or bothered) to maintain and nurture those age-old, perverted traditions like caste. Pagan wants to accept history and thereby also live unfettered by it; Roberto wants to reclaim and cannot let go of that ‘ancient’ and ‘medieval’ past. To further buttress my point, consider this quotation which describes the inner turmoil that Roberto feels when he leaves his house for the US, “As the Ambassador taxi left the driveway, the house recedes like a ship that pulls from the port and slowly vanishes into the horizon. Roberto was the ship. The house would remain like an overbearing aging mango tree, a decaying monument to colonial history. At the moment in time, a cycle of life was coming to an end, the end of Goa that Roberto had known, steeped in age-old Indo-Portuguese traditions, and, above all, an end of the Albuquerque family, his family; but somehow, he felt it would go on without him.”
            Antonio Gomes does not seem to have been successful in engaging with history in any meaningful and insightful sense. Consider the following quote in a scene which unfolds in the Cidade de Goa: “‘My son,’ he [Roberto’s father] had said, ‘civilization is a rather complex undertaking when it is imposed on another culture by the force of arms; and here, in the name of religion, its architecture was once a chimera fed on blood and tears of the Muslim and our Hindu ancestors [emphasis added].” In other words, although there is, it seems a (grudging) approval of the Muslim heritage, only the Hindu ancestry is ours. Further Antonio Gomes writes, “Roberto pointed out the sculpture to Maria [eventually she becomes Roberto’s wife] who seemed somewhat surprised, as if she had heard for the first time about the conversion of their Hindu ancestors. Roberto explained to her that after colonization many Goans lost much of their Hindu heritage. Also gone were their political freedoms, and they ended absorbing the culture of the colonizers. Their ancestors were convinced perhaps forcefully about the superiority of the White man, their culture, their religion, and their language.”
            The picture that Antonio Gomes paints of the village of Loutolim (which is the true setting of the novel) and the social composition of the village is in terms of two opposites: the landlords and the peasants (or more aptly the tenants). Although, I do not disagree with the categorization, my main problem here is with the politics of representation. The tenants, servants and peasants do not have any agency. They are part of the drama, but a drama that is scripted by the elites. It is as if, all the peasants and tenants can do nothing but take things lying down and never move away from the authority of their masters. What is even more surprising – and a bit distasteful in the novel – is that these tenants and peasants even touch the feet of their masters!
            This novel is about the elites and only about the elites. I often complain about this direction or trend of books written on and about Goa. Once, I heard a counter-argument that the very value of such books lies in the fact that they are elitist, that they give us a sense and understanding about the elite world. Point taken. But if book after book, repeats the same thing and contributes nothing worthwhile, then, where is the worth? Can we move away from the self-congratulatory, self-obsessed writings of the Goan elites? Consider the following quote from Dona Isabella’s diary, for it is peculiar for its obsession with its own self, “I hurriedly placed the ring in the box and closed the drawer. I looked at myself in the mirror; the puffiness of my eyelids showed the strain of the last few days. I called out to Mari to fill the antique English porcelain basin with hot water. I washed my face, combed my waist length hair, which when let loose fell in waves now tinged with lines of gray. I opened the almirah, took out a light pink Macau robe and changed into it.”
            Winnie, the lover and later the husband of Amanda joins the pro-merger MGP during the time of the Opinion Poll. Amanda is on the other side. Needless to say their relationship is strained. It is here that we find an insight that points towards the reasons for the division of the population during the Opinion Poll as well the aspiration across caste and class divides. Winnie vents outs, “‘Bravo,’ he said, clapping his hands. ‘That was a great quote from Othello. I should perhaps hire you to teach literature.’ And then angrily he piped: ‘Shit, Amanda! I’m not responsible for what’s happening to Goa, and so what if Goa is gobbled by Maharashtra? Weren’t you the privileged class during the Portuguese years? Your mother and your aunt and that priest still think I am no good for you. F**k it – at least once in four hundred and fifty one years you elite people, nobres  as you like to call yourselves, need to have your ego blasted like they blast land for iron ore.’” They eventually get married and migrate to Australia.
            The plot though predictable, has no loopholes in it. Now, since I claim that the imagination of Goa in such novels that are written from the ‘top-down’ has reached a cul-de-sac, the picture that they provide is dull, despite the glorious pretensions of great cultural innovations, syncretism etc. If we carefully observe some of these books written by the erstwhile bhatkars and bhatkarn’nis, the grand masters of Europe, such as Chopin and Bach, are always (without fail) depicted as being played in the halls of these elites. The unfortunate part is that it is assumed that it is normative for every Goan to indulge in such a useless pastime. Antonio Gomes’ novel tries hard to straddle many horses at the same time and as a result falls flat on its face, not so much for its literary value but due to its facile engagement with the history and politics of Goa.


Photos of book-jacket and author: Frederick Noronha and Edgar Silveira


The Sting of Peppercorns, A novel set in Goa by Antonio Gomes (Salig√£o and Panjim, Goa: Goa 1556 and Broadway Book Centre), 2010; pp. x+266, Rs. 395/- (PB) 
[ISBN: 9788190568296]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: December 15, 2012).