Saturday, 19 January 2013

FOUR WOMEN AND A NOVEL OF SUBSTANCE


We may have heard a lot of stories about the seafarers. These men, generally from a Goan Catholic extraction, work for nine months of the year and spend the next three months on leave. While the representation, it can be claimed, has so far been centered on the trials and travails as well as the scandals of the tarvotti, the stories of their wives have not been told as much as they should have been. Also, it must be borne in mind that the stories of the wives of the seafarers may have been featured in the Romi novels called romanxis; these, however, have died a sudden death due to Machiavellian machinations and hence been wiped off from public memory.
Having said so, I do not think that these romanxis were ever successful in providing a strong woman’s perspective in this tarvotti narrative. In the recent spurt of Romi Konknni novels, I claim that we have exactly this woman’s perspective in the form of Sharon R. Fernandes e Soares’ debut novel, Handbag, recipient of the 2012 Konknni Martir Florian Vaz Award instituted by the Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr. Her novel, for me, becomes very interesting as to a large extent it reflects the reality of the wives or spouses of the seafarers: their fears, their insecurities, their pathos and their joys. In this review, I shall compare and assess the work of Sharon Soares with a mini-ethnographic study that researched and reported on the lives of women living in Bombay and Goa and whose husbands were seafarers. This study is by Helen Sampson, titled “Left High and Dry? The Lives of Women Married to Seafarers in Goa and Mumbai” [Ethnography 6, no. 1 (March 1, 2005): 61 – 85].
The novel opens with Lisa, the protagonist, narrating her own life as well as the lives of three other women of whom we come to know through the agency of Lisa. These three women incidentally happen to live close to each other. Veronica is the contemporary of Lisa, with a very young daughter. Flory is an old woman well past her prime and Helen is a single woman, who, upon her transfer, comes to the village of Raia as a bank manager. In due course of time these four women develop a deep friendship that not only provides company for leisure but also becomes their support group.
Barring Helen, all the other three women are married to seafarers. Flory is married to Bosco who is now retired and spends most of his time at the local tavern and beats up his wife regularly. Lisa is married to Russel and Veronica is the wife of Edmund. If we closely observe the characters of Lisa and Veronica, we find that both these ladies despite having loving husbands and pleasant in-laws still yearn for domesticity and the ideal family structure to be completed. In a way these characters convey the hardships of women who have to look after the household in the absence of their husbands. This particular response can be seen in Sharon Soares’ novel. However, the abovementioned study by Sampson has shown that there can be another response: that of women taking charge of the household. This response is much more complex as such women “…had learned to manage finances; deal with mechanics, electricians, and plumbers; change light bulbs; pay bills; negotiate with bank managers; and generally undertake a whole range of traditionally masculine roles. Whilst some told me that they made efforts to revert to their ‘feminine’ role in the intermittent periods when their husbands returned home on leave, many others explained that they were unable to do so or chose not to do so. Regardless of their response to their husband’s return, all women living independently from their in-laws described living lives in which their social networks and contact with the outside world had expanded as a result of establishing single family households. Nevertheless many said that they remained conscious of the continued pressure from their communities to conform with traditional gender roles.”
            Another issue that is tackled in this novel is of the (alleged) promiscuity and extra-marital affairs. It was one of Lisa’s fears that her own father who worked in Kuwait was having an extra-marital affair and this she believed had caused her mother’s death when she (Lisa) was very young. When such a similar situation is faced by Veronica, where she dreams that her husband is cavorting with another woman, it is the support group that holds Veronica together during such difficult times. There are some tense moments before Veronica realizes that her husband is indeed faithful to her and that when he would return home, it would be for good. Such a support group, Lisa feels, could have stopped her mother’s death as her mother was helpless against the onslaught of wagging tongues in her village. Sharon Soares beautifully handles this situation in her novel as even in the study quoted above, the women “…described being conscious of the poor image of seafaring in terms of its popular association with promiscuity and drunkenness and felt that their own reputations were particularly vulnerable as a result of the image of their husbands’ occupation. In discussion of the image of seafarers, women were particularly conscious of issues of promiscuity.”
            Helen, the independent and single woman is the catalyst in awakening the other three women. However, in this novel, what is portrayed is not a violent and overt subversion of patriarchy but a subtle strategy where there is collaboration and support – both from men and women – where the idealized, traditional structure of the family becomes a much more egalitarian space. This may not mean that patriarchal structures are done away with but within these said structures women can negotiate for their own aspirations to be realized.
            Although I feel that this novel had the scope of portraying much more complex responses to the issues (as I have tried to indicate by juxtaposing the novel with the study of seafarers’ wives), it cannot be denied that Sharon Soares’ novel is of the utmost literary value. She has ably demonstrated her prowess by the ease with which she moves from one scene to another, with characters that are well thought of and deftly handled and how minute symbolism gets infused in the larger narrative (such as the object and symbol of the ‘handbag’) to produce a serious yet delightful 100-plus pages of fiction. Finally, there is a need for a talented writer like Sharon Soares to engage with the broader realm of Romi literature as she can provide, very forcefully, the much needed and critical woman’s perspective. After all, what is the point of asking for justice for Romi Konknni if this Konknni is inadequately represented by women writers and critics?
            With its tight editing and a beautifully executed cover by Milan Khanolkar, this book cannot be missed by enthusiasts of Konknni literature as well as academics and students of anthropology and sociology who want to further study the conditions of women whose husbands are seafarers.

Handbag by Sharon Fernandes e Soares (Panjim/Ponnji: Dalgado Konknni Akademi), 2012; pp. 120, Rs. 100/-; Phone: 91-0832-2221688 (Available at Dalgado Konknni Akademi, Panjim)

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: January 20, 2013).

Saturday, 5 January 2013

GOAN GAZE, WONDERLANDS AND WANDERLUST


Once upon a time, travelling for pleasure was a privilege that was reserved only for the wealthy. And hence such kind of travel was always viewed as being exotic. With the turning of the tides and time, the opportunity to travel became available to the middle-class and as one can observe, it is this class of people that make a large chunk of ‘holidayers’ in any destination. The production of travelogues is an interesting genre of literature, for often such travelogues are a dialogue and engagement with the land travelled to with the land that the traveller hails from. There is always a comparison between the geography, history and politics and it is this comparison that can possibly give insights into various aspects of the destination as well as of the traveller.
            With such a frame of mind, I opened Brenda Rodrigues’ travelogue My Journey Through Wonderlands. Brenda and her husband, Joe are vastly travelled persons. The list of their travels becomes mind-boggling when compiled: USA, Scotland, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Africa, China, Southeast Asia, Canada, Northeast India and many, many more. Careers of travel spanning 40-odd years, Brenda and Joe Rodrigues have seen it all! A passionate writer and a keen observer, Brenda would write short travelogues which were then sent to friends and family as newsletters. These newsletters are now the backbone of this book, spanning 400-odd pages!
            Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the book, an interesting detail which one gets to know about this globe-trotting couple is the amazing and brilliant network that they have established of friends (that also includes priests) and family across India and the world. After reading the book, I must say that Brenda and Joe Rodrigues have made clever use of such a network. In this aspect they must be seen as immensely lucky too, as they have friends and family who “insist” and pester them to visit their native countries or regions, offering sometimes even free air tickets. How I envy them!
            Turning our attention to the book: the first and foremost aspect of My Journey Through Wonderlands that needs commenting is the structure that the author has chosen. Brenda Rodrigues has decided to follow a chronological structure rather than a thematic or geography-centric arrangement of her writings. Now this gives rise to a problem because Brenda Rodrigues has travelled to one destination many times over a period of many years and because there is an over-emphasis in maintaining the chronological structure of the narrative, many sections seem to be repetitions or read like staccato notes of a faithful court reporter. The author’s aim seems to be to report everything that she has seen and this need diverts the author’s attention from a deeper engagement with the history, geography and politics of the lands she visits. She tries hard to produce comments on the things and places she has seen, but with description being central to her reporting, the stray one-line comments that we find seem to be digressions and out-of-place.
            Such details that one can easily find using the internet need not be repeated in a travelogue which could be unique (or in a sense is unique) for a very Goan gaze that it provides. Because of our peculiar location as the ‘Orient’, we need to know exactly how Brenda Rodrigues as a person (as well as a woman) engages with the history, the people and the politics of the places she has travelled to. Hence, the author in the humble opinion of this reviewer should have asked herself, when she had set out to compile her writings for a wider audience, as to what unique insights she could have brought to her writing that would be different from so much literature that has already been produced about all these places. The author has travelled to the regular tourist spots and even those less-travelled ones but fails to provide insights regarding the people and the places. A great opportunity seems to have been lost despite the availability of an amazing network of well-wishing friends and family.
            The reason why I consider travelogues interesting and take them extremely seriously is because they represent the Other for the Self. In this sense, I feel that the travelogue of Brenda Rodrigues has not been able to shake off some of the colonial imageries and metaphors. For instance, she perceives herself as travelling to “wonderlands” as the title suggests and through her book there is a conscious or unconscious acceptance of the lens of colonial exoticization through which she views the Other. This way, what is disappointing is that even Goa becomes an exotic land. A further parallel with the colonial imageries and metaphors is that having spent her entire life in Bombay (apart from the globe-trotting!), after retirement Brenda and Joe Rodrigues  decided to buy a second home in Goa in Chorão, and hence one whole chapter is dedicated in the description of this island (for this also forms part of the “wonderland” narrative).
            Chorão is also the place where one of the earliest conversions to Christianity had taken place and the comments of the author regarding this history needs critiquing. Brenda Rodrigues discloses that she felt “…ashamed to think of how terribly the Hindus were made to suffer at the hands of religious fanatics who believed they were doing God’s work.” First, Catholics of today do not need to feel ashamed of the past as buying into this discourse of ‘shame’ automatically places the Catholics of today in a second-class-citizenship position and secondly, we need to also recognize that many who converted were themselves suffering under various types of oppressions; a possibility that needs to be also considered.  While I do not hold Brenda Rodrigues responsible for this ‘shame’, her short but insensitive parenthetical comment which asks, “(Is it poetic justice that today the tables have been turned?)” (p. 410), needs to be distanced from. I will strongly point out that there is no justice as well as poesy in such kind of thinking and imaginings.
            The unique way in which we are positioned in this space of Luso-Goano or Indo-Portuguese history and culture, there is an immense potential in rethinking and breaking new ground when we travel to other places. This means that we can reinvent the other as well as the self with a deeper engagement with the Indo-Portuguese history and culture. When for the first time Brenda Rodrigues and her family landed in Portugal, they “…were happy to be visiting the ‘land of our ancestors’ – so to say!”. Despite the inverted quotes the idea that Portugal is our fatherland, in a genetic sense of origin, should be done away with. And when they found the food in Portugal so similar to “our own”, Brenda Rodrigues hurriedly concludes that “…most of our recipes have come to us through the Portuguese.”
            In focusing on the examples of Goa and Portugal, what I hope to bring out is the need to produce a rigorous assessment of the history, culture and politics by a traveller whose journey originates from our side of the world. This journey may be to a wonderland or a promised land, but it must be undertaken in a spirit of not being impervious to the ground realities.

My Journey Through Wonderlands by Brenda Rodrigues (Saligão, Goa: Goa 1556), 2012; pp. xvi+420, Rs. 450/- [ISBN: 9789380739373]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: January 5, 2013).