The Goan Portuguese Novel

The plot is built around Leo’s meandering through the streets of his Goan coastal village and his encounter with the local people, friends, hippies, merchants... (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

Cielo G. Festino holds a PhD in Indian Literature in English from Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil (2005). She also attended a post-doctoral program on the teaching of literatures in English at Universidade de São Paulo (2007-2009/FAPESP), and a second post-doctoral program on Post-colonial literary genres at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil (2011-2012). She teaches English at Universidade Paulista, São Paulo Brazil and collaborates with the Master´s programme at Universidade Federal de Tocantins, Porto Nacional, Brazil. She is a member of the thematic project “Thinking Goa. A Singular Library in Portuguese” ((USP/FAPESP).  She has different publications on Indian literature in English and in the bhashas.

By Cielo G. Festino

Goa’s literary tradition in Portuguese has recently received a highly innovative narrative within its fold -  the posthumously published novel Preia Mar in Portuguese, by the Goan writer Epitácio Pais (1929-2010); edited by Paul Melo e Castro and Hélder Garmes. Preia-Mar is a novel set in the 1970s, soon after Goa’s integration into the Indian Union. It deals with a critical moment in Goan history, precisely when the old colonial regime has come to an end and a new social, political and economic order is emerging. 

Pais’s novel comes at a time when this corpus of narratives is being studied in order to bring attention to the vast Goan literary production in Portuguese, and explores the possibility that Portuguese language literature instead of becoming defunct has been transformed into narratives in the other languages of Goa - Konkani, Marathi, English. This relocation, both linguistic and geographical, is not new to Goan literature and culture. It  has traditionally been one of its main characteristics since Goa is plurilingual and has been a place of transit marked, at some point of its history, by the arrival of the Portuguese, and later on, by Goans migrating to other parts of the world. Goans come and go, and so do their narratives.

The novel is a privileged literary genre, allowing its audience to think about the cultural identity of a people, in this case, the Goan identity. This is why history is one of the main tropes of postcolonial novels, as is the case of Preia-Mar. Reflecting on their own social and political history is typical of communities that underwent the colonial experience. It is a way to legitimize their own values. Considered all together, the corpus of novels in Portuguese reads like an autobiography of the community - both political and literary.

The Goan novel in Portuguese appears in the second half of the nineteenth century narrating its twin affiliation with the Portuguese and Indian cultures. Then, as it evolves,  it looks at Goan society in terms of its private sphere. In the second half of the twentieth century, it deals with the passage from the colonial regime to the postcolonial situation. Preia-Mar, a novel whose fictional time takes place in the 1970s, right after Goa’s integration into the Indian Union, follows the tradition of other Goan novels in Portuguese considered as milestones of Goa’s political and social history. These novels  helped affirm the Goan identity, particularly in its desire to mark its cultural difference: Os Brahamanes (1866) by Francisco Luis Gomes, takes place in the Muslim Kingdom of Oude (present day Uttar Pradesh) and deals  with the English and Portuguese colonial regimes as counterpoint, as well as caste issues; Os Maharatas (Paisagens Indianas) (1894) by Leopoldo Dias, is an unfinished novel on the Marathas’ War against the Portuguese; Jacob e Dulce—Cenas da Vida Indiana (1896) by Francisco João da Costa, is a satirical novel highlighting the mannerisms of the Goan Catholic elite and their dependence on Portuguese culture. Orlando da Cosa published O Signo a Ira (1961) which, in its intent to recreate the plight of the curumbins (more commonly called Kunbis, Goa’s lowest caste of Christian rural workers) has been compared by Devi and Seabra to the literature of Brazilian writers Jorge Amado and Graciliano Ramos, and Erskine Caldwell and John Steinback in the American tradition. More recently in 2000, Orlando da Costa also published O Último Olhar de Manú Miranda, a memoir on Portuguese colonial history in Goa.

Devi e Seabra noted back in 1971, that although India is the land of the epic it is not the land of the novel. Its feudal structure and a meagre bourgeoisie class did not allow the genre to flourish as it did in Europe.

The origins of the genre in Goa in terms of its affiliation both to Europe and to the rest of the Indian continent can be seen in relational terms. Rather than a weakness, this dialogue between cultures, languages and styles is the strongest feature of the Goan novel. The fact that it developed in a new terrain, abreast a plurality of cultures which shared the same or neighboring spaces and therefore influenced each other, led to the renewal of the genre both in form and content. Hence, the novel in Goa was reformulated not in terms of some essential quality imported from Europe or British India but in terms of the characteristics of its own local context. As Everton Machado observes, there was a process of indigenization of European literary forms to suit the Asian scene, and the novel is one of its best examples.

The novelists from Goa, when trying to recreate the causality of the events being narrated, problematized the formal aspects of the genre so that this literary style would accommodate the political and social events of their community like the need to adopt simultaneously, different cultural identities, in different languages but that are part of the same context of enunciation and social ethos. These indigenous cultural features, adapted to the novel, contributed in creating a bond between the Goan novel in Portuguese and its reading public.  Even if they were small in number and looked to other traditions for support, when these Goan novelists imagined their community in their novels, they rewrote the sense of the Western word imagination and they tinged it with their local colors.

By extension, the novel in India and Goa in particular, became a revolutionary genre. It brought new ideas to the center of the narrative. It came to question the status quo of the community as it discussed some of its main issues like the caste system, the colonial conflict, the life of the Catholic gentry and its relationship with Goan society, the rising Goan bourgeoisie and, at the time of Epitácio Pais, the decay of the old colonial system and the rise of the new order.

Therefore, hybridity is one of the main tropes of this form that can be seen as the result of the collision between the colonial imagination and subaltern reason.  In Preia-Mar  this hybrid quality can be perceived, first, in the choice of words and syntax that illustrates the confrontation between the Portuguese language and the local languages, and the desire to affirm Goan linguistic difference through the vernacularizing of Portuguese words, to articulate the Goan experience.  Also, if heteroglossia (the presence of two different expressed view points in a single text) is one of the main features of the novel, the narrative takes the shape of the local voices it is trying to convey. In this case, the main characters of Pais’s novel are representatives of two distinctive Goan social classes and castes. While Leo, the main character, is a member of the decadent Catholic gentry, whose family is trying to survive clinging to the values of the past, Amy, from a family of fishermen, is an honest woman with simple but clear values and principles that guide her life.

This new Goa that Pais illustrates contains traces of the discourses of both worlds not in isolation but deeply intertwined. Leo and Amy reach out to each other across, what seems like insurmountable differences of class, caste and languages at a moment in time when Goan society is trying to accommodate itself to the new social scenario marked by the coming of the hippies and mass tourism, when the colonial regime is already in the past, and is only to be perceived in the novel in a marginal way. In other words, the fictional time of the novel marks the moment when metaphorically, the social and political tide is going up, as the title given to the novel by Melo e Castro and Gármes suggests,  and the social scene is in a state of transformation.

Hybridity is also perceived in the style of Preia-Mar. The novel’s linearity and progression, which puts the ordinary man and woman’s predicament at its center, helps a communityto see itself in perspective, and both affirm and criticize its own cultural and social practices. Preia-Mar follows this pattern. The plot is built around Leo’s meandering through the streets of his Goan coastal village and his encounter with the local people, friends, hippies, merchants, smugglers, as he tries to do, whatever comes handy, to be successful in life, except working as a civilservant, as the people of his class had traditionally done. It is through Leo’s interaction with these characters that Pais reflects on Goan society after 1961.

Leo finally settles down by becoming a fisherman (perhaps carrying  on with smuggling on the side) and marrying a fisherman’s daughter, thus going against the expectations of his own class and caste.

Very much in the tradition of a Jane Austen novel, Preia-Mar ends with the day of their wedding, implicitly imprinting upon the narrative the tone of the romance.  The wedding party, in Leo’s deteriorating family home, is structured as  a one-act play, in the style of  a tiatr.  It depicts this unusual event of an inter-caste marriage, through a series of scenes, that show how the different members of the community feel about it: from the priest, who says he is very much in favour of doing away with differences of caste, to the impoverished but aristocratic relatives of the groom, who are rather skeptical about this kind of union, to the newly rich friends of the bride who have made their fortune in the Gulf and have come to affirm the new social order. Their speech is spiked with comments on caste and democracy, pointing to the inauguration of a new era in Goa.

Pais, however, gives the last bit of advice, not to the old timers of the community but to the young couple sitting on a deserted beach, at the end of the season with the monsoon approaching, the hotels closing and the tourists gone. He has a vision of a deserted Goa, a promising scenario to start a new life:

(Translated from the Portuguese by Paul Melo e Castro)

With the hotel and summerhouses shut, the homes of the fishermen shielded with palm leaves against the enraged monsoon’s cruel, lashing winds, which never seemed to end, and the last bold vacationers fleeing before a roar that echoed miles inland and which sounded like the unfolding of some awful catastrophe, the beach seemed as hostile now as it had been attractive in the months of heat and holidays. The shops, bric-a-brac stalls and clothes stands had closed. Their owners would sit yawning for three months, warming benches and seats. Mouldering food, taverns with only locals, buses slinking emptily along, informal guides deprived of tips and drinks. On the escarpment, by the chapel, the fizzing waves had begun their assault, attempting to subdue mythical adamastors, to pierce their guts with furious howls. The bleak gloom that was to last four months stretched out over the landscape. But, in the all-embracing darkness, each felt a sun rise in the other’s gaze.

To better contextualize Preia-Mar, one should bear in mind thatthe best narratives, in whichever genre or language, are not the ones that try to keep themselves pure but are the ones that are not afraid of crossing all sorts of barriers imprinting new forms on the genre. Goans’ reconsideration of the novel in terms of their own singular cultural situation and literary imagination, turned the genre into a space that allowed them to rethink the plight of their culture, as it went through the colonial and postcolonial experience. Little by little the Portuguese novel from Goa, as it conversed with other languages and literary genres, produced some very relevant narratives, and it can be said that it has found in Epitácio Pais’s Preia-Mar one of its best exponents.