Friday, 16 August 2013

OF HOUSES AND CHILDHOOD NOSTALGIA



“…A Matter of Time,” as the blurb says, “at the first instance is a memoir – full of simple episodes that might have been experienced by any child who grew up in a Goan village in the 1980s. At another level, it gives a stark reality of how much the topography of the Goan village has changed over the last few decades…” Indeed, these points were also emphasized at the launch of this book, authored by the debutant Brenda Coutinho and thus, this review would try to critically analyze the main themes emerging from this book.
            A Matter of Time is the story of five children Paula, Lucio, Mario, Xavier and Mandovi set in the fictional village of Benfica. The childhood reminisces are recounted by Paula, who is in her forties. Coutinho in this book, it must be said, brings out beautifully and in bold detail the memories of her childhood. The village life, the games she played with her friends and pretty much everything that she cherished about her childhood through her vivid and vibrant imagination.           


            The novel opens with Paula observing from her own balcão the demolition of the “palatial house” of the Mirandas – the Casa Miranda – “which once commanded the attention of the entire village called Benfica.” When Paula observes each little and beautiful facet of her village, it triggers childhood memories and this is the way the narrative of the book flows. The issue that appears to be at the heart of the book is one where land-grab takes place in the name of development – mostly for tourism related activity and how this process rapidly changes the topography of Goa. But for me there is a problem here because the way Coutinho presents her narrative to her readers, I would say that at the core of this lament for the changes that are seen in Goa, lies something else.

            There is, I would claim, a lament for the loss of bhatkarponn or landlord-ness in demolition of a big, palatial house. I would suggest that the demolition of the palatial house is symbolic not of a changing Goa that affects us all, in the sense that all diverse people are included but only a certain, restricted segment of the Goan society who were privileged at the fag-end of Portuguese colonialism. Thus, to return to the main themes of A Matter of Time, how can this book, drawing from the experiences of what appears to be a very happy childhood claim to represent all the children of Goa? Would the childhood of Coutinho or her characters be the same of, say a Gavddi child? Would we ever mourn the loss, consciously or subconsciously, of the demolition of a khomptti (hut)? Indeed, if one carefully observes the cover of this book, it does not depict children playing traditional games or scenes of a by-gone era that children of yesterday cherish today, but an idealized palatial house that was owned by the privileged. Beautifully done (by Savio Rodrigues), though it may be!
            Another quite disturbing facet of this book that I would like to point out is the frequent references to fair skin. It appears that many of the characters in this novel are beautiful, graceful because they are fair-skinned. Why is there a clear privileging of fair skin? What would a dark-skinned child feel as s/he reads through the book?
            I have never been able to understand why middle-aged and old Goans always lament those ‘good old days’. What they do lament (and the symbolic house is very much a part of it) it appears is the last forty or fifty years of Portuguese colonialism, not the whole 450 years. But it is important for us to recognize as Dr. Robert S. Newman observes that, “The Portuguese succeeded in creating an artificial prosperity based on iron-ore exports, high salaries, and low prices for duty-free goods. Aimed at the politically-aware middle class and the intellectuals, however, the system offered little if anything to the vast majority of people – those engaged in agriculture and fishing.”
            The problem that I have with such narratives like Coutinho’s is best brought out by Alito Siqueira of the Goa University. Speaking at a function at Goa Chitra in Benaulim in November 2013, Siqueira had this to say, “My concern for the moment is with our own loss. We are drawing our stories from a very small group of likeminded and like nurtured people and therefore the stories are remarkably similar too. If we look at the audience here today it should be painfully clear that we are a niche of English speaking Catholics with a few others thrown in for good measure and the artefacts [such as the work reviewed here] we produce are mostly those that talk to ourselves about ourselves. They are rather similar and predictable stories of Gaonkars or some such other versions of those who have dominated in the past. As writers, it seems that there are too many of us touting much the same point of view. It is sometimes a bit like looking at a wedding video. How far can such stories travel?”
            I do not want to go into details such as what kind of games that the characters in this book played and what was the village life then. Such accounts are found, more recently in Fr. Nascimento J. Mascarenhas’ book on Saligão. I feel that the narratives that either Mascarenhas or Coutinho present are ‘idealized pasts’; their worth needs to be critically evaluated today.
            While wishing Coutinho a long and fruitful literary journey, it is also my wish that she explores other stories that Goa – our beautiful Goa – has to offer. Otherwise our stories would be repetitively dull.
           
A Matter of Time: Vignettes of a Golden Childhood in Goa by Brenda Coutinho (Saligão, Goa: Goa 1556 and Golden Heart Emporium), 2013; pp. iv+123, Rs. 200/- [ISBN: 978-93-80739-58-8]


(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: August 17, 2013).

7 comments:

  1. As you very well observed Dale, there is a paucity of writings by people of the lower socio economic class. But we cant fault the writer for writing something she knows so well.The question is, who should tell the story of the other side, the people who really live that life or people like us who will only be able to speculate what it is and what it should be

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  2. You have a complex

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  3. I was flabbergasted and astounded by your review article that appeared in the Gomantak Times on 17 th August 2013. Whatever followed “But for me there is a problem here because the way Coutinho presents her narrative to her readers…………” is nothing but a gross misrepresentation of factual details and an extremely exaggerated account based on what I would call your flimsy attempt to extrapolate the theme and blow things out of proportion.
    To start with, let me first concede that Ms. Coutinho’s work may not be an extraordinary piece of literature that would stimulate the senses of readers. Nevertheless, the simple and lucid manner in which she has seamlessly integrated beautiful and cherished memories (without unnecessarily resorting to sad events) into the period of transition that led to the beginning of the destruction of our ecosystem is indeed commendable.
    Now let me systematically point out why your review is not obviously based on a well-researched effort:
    1. Based on the reference to demolition, you have mentioned ‘bhatkarponn’ or land-lordness. Nobody has claimed and in particular in the book, that the demolition of the same alone by itself signifies or represents the changing demography or cultural values in Goa.
    To tell a story, as you may be aware, an author has to adopt a theme and setting, and your feeble attempt to bring in the caste angle is clearly an effort to polarize the society. Nowhere in the book has the author belittled any community nor has she resorted to glorifying the elite. In fact your opinion reflects your eagerness to paint everyone with the same brush which I perfectly understand since you appear to be a desperate individual trying to make a mark by creating issues out of nothing.
    Secondly, it is well known that some of the traditions still exist in Goan culture and to say that it is a bygone era or idealized is laughable.
    2. You have mentioned about the author ‘privileging’ the fair skin. Looks like you have not read the book Mr. Dale (please refer to pages 4 and 6 in the book). In fact the main protagonist Paula has a wheatish complexion and the same goes for Mario and is certainly not described as graceful (quite the contrary). A critical review requires patience and understanding. You certainly seem to lack on both those fronts.
    3. You have said that the experiences of Ms. Coutinho appear to correspond to a happy childhood. How can you make such an assumption???? Can I therefore go by the nature of your article and make a stray remark by assuming that your childhood appears to be a troubled one?
    4. As far as the ‘predictability’ or ‘dullness’ of the work is concerned, as long any story is said in a simple, sincere and light-hearted manner it provides some light reading for the readers. It is quite obvious that you consider yourself a creative intellectual and your attempt to trivialize peoples work, especially debutants, indicates your loaded attitude. Ironically, this is the first time I have read your article.
    To summarize your review article on Ms. Coutinhos work is naive and not researched, immature and not intellectual, judgmental and not factual. Considering the arbitrary nature of your writing, I suggest you be more accurate with your facts and inferences and refrain from making personal references in the public domain.
    In conclusion there is no doubt in my mind that your article is offensive to the author and misleading for the readers community. I sincerely hope that the current crop of budding critics doesn’t comprise of half-baked intolerant individuals.
    I also hope that printed media scrutinizes such potentially inflammatory articles written by individuals with a skewed line of thought before publishing them.
    Therefore to quote your own words, we sensible readers wish you a ‘long and fruitful’ journey……as a reviewer try to be constructive and fair.

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    1. Mr / Ms Anonymous,

      when you critiqued the critique, didn"t you deem it fit to atleast give mention your name? It is indeed ironical that if this is the first article that you have read, that u make the assumption that the reviewer paints everyone with the same brush.

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  4. Mr/Ms Cindy,

    1. In the present context, names are irrelevant in my opinion. In fact isnt it better than using an alias or false name.

    2. As far as the assumption that I made is concerned, I totally agree with you and hope that Mr Dale also recognizes this point with reference to his criticism of Ms Coutinho.

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  5. Dear Anonymous,

    You seem to have taken my review very personally and to that extent have grossly misunderstood the arguments and points I have tried to make! Let me categorically state at the outset that in none of my reviews I have anything personal with the authors. A lot of what you wrote is baseless, unfounded and requires no response. Still, I am responsible for what I write and therefore I shall respond to some points that remotely make sense. I shall not respond to the personal vituperation that is directed at me since two of us can play this game and I refuse to stoop down to your level.

    You say that I have not got my facts right and proceed with some arrogance to advise me to rectify it. Allow me with all humility to disagree with you and thus let's talk facts. You raised the point about "fair" skin and pointed to me to read page 4 and 6. Let me counter-quote you and direct you to page 1, paragraph 2 where there IS a reference to "fair" skin. It is funny that you have skipped page 1 to read page 4 and 6! You need to understand that I am not giving my personal and arbitrary opinion here. I am drawing on works of scholars such as the anthropologist Dr. Robert Newman and the anthropologist-sociologist Prof. Alito Siqueira whose scholarly credentials are well established (And I have given proper references to their work cited herein). But you don't seem to have properly noticed and understood them. I have also acknowledged that Coutinho has a good penmanship and imagination (and I sincerely believe that)...but of course you have chosen to overlook it!

    Dear Anonymous, it is important for you to understand (and not to misunderstand me!) that I am trying to make a larger historical and sociological point over here that narratives such as Coutinho's imagine Goa (knowingly or unknowingly) in elitist idioms where the self that gets represented is of the upper-caste and -class. Now, obviously there is a huge problem here because the rest of us are excluded and not being aware of this and obstinately not recognizing it is a great misfortune for Goa. What you also need to seriously realize and understand (and not necessarily in the context of Coutinho's book) is the normalized racism and casteism in Goan society (Note as an aside how the Gavddas are referred condescendingly as 'British' in our everyday life). In fact it is so normalized that nobody seems to be aware of it. My pointed question to you would be that do we ever mourn the loss of a 'khomptti' (hut)? Do we not privilege fair skin? If the book is ostensibly dealing with a theme of ecological disturbance then why is this childhood nostalgia intertwined with a certain class privilege, of which the 'house' is a symbolic and iconic part? Let me reiterate, I am not giving my arbitrary opinion but making a theoretical point drawing on the work of other scholars.

    If it is your choice to hide behind the cloak of anonymity...then it is your choice. But let me tell you something, only a spineless coward would hide behind anonymity and it is such a pity that you would like to justify your anonymous vituperation. If you have noticed I haven't written an anonymous review! I consider your response as lacking in substance because, a day after you commented you retracted on your position that I only criticize all books (that too after reading only one of my many reviews and I have taken due note of your "irony"!).
    It is my humble plea to you, to not only give a patient reading to my review but also to carefully read "A Matter of Time" again.

    I stand by my review.

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    1. So you admit that you have a complex where u state "... problem here because the rest of us are excluded " Ha Ha

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