A village Dies: East Indians, Goans and Mangaloreans

Ivan Arthur is a three-time winner of the WPP international Atticus Award for original writing and the former Area Creative Director of JWT. A Village Dies: Your Invitation to a Memorable Funeral (Speaking Tree; 2016) is available for purchase here.

Goan Pioneers in Bombay (Goa 1556; 2012) can be purchased at Broadway's Panjim.

By Selma Carvalho

Imagine that man with nothing to lose; imagine his life. What does he do, when all about him is disillusionment and despair? Mostly, he emigrates. And what of his life then? Ivan Arthur’s book A Village Dies: Your Invitation to a Funeral might help the reader understand just such a life.

In 1878, Britain negotiated with Portugal one of its most disruptive treaties. What came to be known as the Goa Treaty decimated Goa’s salt industry by allowing the British oversight and control, and destabilised the local economy. Meanwhile, the greater significance of the treaty was the building of the West India Portuguese Railway which linked Goa to India, and which greatly facilitated the emigration of impoverished Goans to Bombay. By 1888, roughly one sixth of Goa’s population had emigrated.

What became of these Goans once they got to Bombay? Teresa Albuquerque in Goan Pioneers In Bombay (Goa 1556; 2012) gives us a good historical perspective. They arrived mostly penniless and once there, headed to the enclave of Dhobi Talao. Some kept going until they got to the native town, a filthy outpost ‘swarming with men and scavenger pigs’ on whose north-easterly border lay Cavel. So closely is Bombay associated with British imperial might, that we forget it was once part of the Portuguese dominions in the east. Cavel was settled by a curious indigenous population: some the light-skinned off-spring of Portuguese fildalgos and local women but most were of the Koli fishing community and early converts to Portuguese Catholicism. Later, when Bombay was gifted to the British by the Portuguese, this community allied with the British East India Company and preferred to call themselves East Indians.

Young Ivan Arthur on the violin. His father is playing the guitar while his brothers play various other instruments and the women join in the singing.  Courtesy Ivan Arthur.

Young Ivan Arthur on the violin. His father is playing the guitar while his brothers play various other instruments and the women join in the singing. Courtesy Ivan Arthur.

The author of A Village Dies fleshes out the lives of this ‘salad bowl’ of East Indians, Goans and Mangaloreans that came to co-exist, in a way that is both personal and intimate. The novel is set in the adjoining villages of Amboli and Kevni (Andheri), where the author grew up. The story unfolds from Kitty's point of view, the daughter of an erudite Keralite man George Thomas and a provincial Mangalorean woman Cecilia whose limited understanding of Kitty’s changing world is tempered by the love she has for her daughter. Arthur himself is a Mangalorean, a community he describes as less Portuguese than the Goans and East Indians, the ‘Lusitanian hue of their pre-Tullu days painted over with Tippu's sword and the dark Dravidian tongue’. Mangaloreans and Goans were the ‘outsiders’ in this world dominated by East Indians, existing on the fringes of acceptability, the ‘junglees who come here to spoil our village, to distil liquor and spoil our husbands…more and more are coming…like cockroaches.’

Arthur gives us an account of the living quarters of these ‘junglees’.

Each chawl was a line of about eight to ten small 10ft x 10ft one-room homes. A bamboo wall separated one home from another, permitting you the favour of just visual privacy: your bedroom whispers, broadcast across to at least two families on either side of your home, enabled your neighbours to predict your wife’s delivery date even before your gynaecologist. Truly these walls had ears. The floors were smeared with cowdung, which they were told had antiseptic properties, kept mosquitoes and flies away and were good for the family health. Within each room there was a 2ft x 2ft cemented space which could be used for washing clothes, scrubbing vessels and for a bath if you could enclose the space with a curtain and if you could manage enough water for the purpose. There usually was a common outdoor tap for all the tenants and one or two shared outdoor lavatories.

Caesar Road 'that asphalt artery that ran from Amboli'  (1947) as remembered and reproduced on charcoal by Ivan Arthur.

Caesar Road 'that asphalt artery that ran from Amboli'  (1947) as remembered and reproduced on charcoal by Ivan Arthur.

These were ‘chawl’ hutments Goans would have occupied before they moved in to one-room chawls in buildings, an equally dehumanising living arrangement which marked most of twentieth century life in Bombay.

Although Arthur does not set out to narrate the social history of the Christians of Bombay, he does this rather successfully, through his chief flaneur and observer of funerals, Kitty. Through Kitty we become acquainted with the cultural topography of this fairly insular community, initially suspicious even within its fold, but brought into ever closer union through the connective tissue of religion, music, sports and an emphasis on education as a means to an honourable living. Eventually, as the title of the book alludes to, the community dissipates, their ties to their enclaves threatened by usurpation of land and migration.

Of particular interest is the Christian charity which binds this community. Arthur’s characters are either living off the generosity of ‘the sartorial discards of the Misquittas, Gomeses, Pereiras and the other kind ladies who donated to the St. Vincent de Paul Society’ or being its munificent benefactors, such as the punctilious Blaise Misquitta, ‘as prominent member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and in his own capacity, he doled out the money for many a family’s rations, clothes and occasionally groceries.’

The abject misery wrought by a largely working class emigration to Bombay, was marginally alleviated by the golden age of private philanthropy of the professional class – the doctors, lawyers and clerks living amongst them. Moved by the destitution, they set up the Goanna de Muto Auxilio Ltd (1885) and the Uniao Goanna (1903). An auxiliary concern of the Catholic intelligentsia at the time was schooling. Allying closely with the Jesuits in Bombay, they fostered educational institutions, and from this wellspring of initiative emerged the St. Xavier’s College.

Arthur is a writer with a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humour which immediately endears him to his audience. He is totally in command of his writing style which never veers from its jocular path until the very end when it turns to reportage. At every turn, Arthur artfully animates his narrative: white priestly robes rustle up the stairs, the ‘improvisational notes of jazz and the syncopated rhythms of Dixieland’ fill up homes, diligent teachers exercise ‘rough peasant tongues’ unfamiliar with the ‘precipitous edges of a language that was not really theirs’, and budding lovers ‘press their bodies into one; hands moving to caress; fingers ruffling through hair and, when assured of sufficient privacy, a hurried meeting of the lips’.  

Arthur treats corporal punishment of the young in the same light vein as he does funerals and dance floor brawls. This is not unusual. Most people look back on that aspect of their lives with relief for having survived it and emerged into adulthood unscathed. But given what we know today of these often brutal beatings bordering on sado-eroticism for those wielding power and authority, it is difficult not to wince at young boys being belted by their fathers or at the receiving end of regular canning at Catholic schools. These were not good men who in their misguided zeal were doing bad things. This was a grave injustice done to the young and vulnerable while in their custodial care. And some form of atonement and apology must be forthcoming, particularly from the church under whose directions these schools operated.

Arthur’s book joins that small but important body of work which chronicles a community whose sense of solidarity emerges against a backdrop of a shared culture. In recent years, it has also come to include the dwindling populations of the Anglo-India community. Some effort must be made within the community to investigate its connection with Parses of early twentieth century India. We can only hope that more fiction, memoir and historical narrative follows from formidable pens such as Arthur’s.