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.
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).