Sem Flores, Nem Coroas: New Flowers, Old Wrangles

R. Benedito Ferrão is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at the College of William and Mary, Virginia, USA, and a member of Goa’s Al-Zulaij Collective. A writer of fiction, non-fiction, op-eds, and academic works, his work appears internationally. To read more, visit, or @nightchildnexus on Facebook.

No Flowers, No Wreaths (Goa 1556/Golden Heart Emporium; 2017) is available at the Golden Heart Emporium, Margoa.

By R. Benedito Ferrao

It would be difficult to read No Flowers, No Wreaths (2017), the new translation of Orlando da Costa’s play Sem Flores Nem Coroas (1967) without bearing in mind the event at which the book published by Goa 1556 and Golden Heart Emporium had its public release. As part of his visit to Goa, on 11 January, 2017, Portugal’s Prime Minister António Luís Santos da Costa attended a programme billed as a “Tribute by the Goan Civil Society”, which was held in his honour by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

That a civil society affair should be hosted by a league of business people may evidently speak to the neoliberal overtones of the Prime Minister’s Indian visit, but that it verged on obscuring a moment of historical and cultural import to Goa is also to be reflected upon. It would have seemed that the organizers of the felicitation, in their haste to lay the groundwork for future relations with Portugal, had forgotten the main reason for the gathering. Here, I do not mean that there was any amnesia about Goa’s colonial past, what with the reception occurring at the Palácio Idalcão. The lore surrounding the edifice includes its having possibly been an official residence of Adil Shah, ruler of Goa in the sixteenth century. This was the period in which the Portuguese conquered the region, making it theirs for nearly a half-millennium. Rather, the CII, more inclined toward the business of business, side-lined the fact that da Costa was to release the translated book that day, one that happens to be by his father.

So deep was this disregard for the cultural and literary legacy that ties the Prime Minister to his homeland, that the dais at the Palácio had seats only for the men who were to address the civilians in the crowd, and no room for the woman who had translated the play – Isabel de Santa Rita Vás. This is ironic, given the play’s centring of the rights of women against the backdrop of India’s conquest of Goa in 1961. Under the Portuguese, as early as the sixteenth century, women were accorded property rights, which were generally limited or completely non-existent, especially in the case of widows, as Fatima da Silva Gracias chronicles in Kaleidoscope of Women in Goa, 1510-1961 (1996).

In the play, as Goa faces its uncertain future on the night in 1961 that would bring to an end 451 years of Portuguese colonization, an old land-holding family comes to terms with its long-buried secrets. This is epitomized by the opening scene where “a group of unmoving figures stand around a grave; clods of mud, two spades, a trowel”. The scene is deliberately funereal, and the audience learns that the family are in mourning for Tia Leopoldina. Yet, even as the play unfolds to reveal how the late Leopoldina had traded in her happiness and a child to protect the family’s reputation, what is put into relief is the coincidence between familial patriarchy and that of the state. At the same time as the imperious Indian nation marches into the Portuguese enclave, Goa’s landed gentry face the end of an era. The Agricultural Tenancy Act, which was introduced in Goa in 1964, in the years between the annexation of 1961 and the publication of Sem Flores Nem Coroas in 1967, took steps to end the feudal relationship of bhatcars, or landlords, to their mundkars, or tenants, by granting ownership of agricultural lands to those who tilled them.

In da Costa’s play, the foreshadowing of these events are mirrored in Leopoldina’s dispossession by her brother, Saluzinho, whose patriarchal legacy is thereby secured. Salú, as he is sometimes referred to, bears a name that is in consonance with that of Portuguese dictator Salazar, further evoking the parallels between institutions of state and land-ownership. Viviane Madeira remarks in an essay for Muse India (January-February 2017), that the play includes in its cast “a member of the Portuguese forces sent by Salazar to ensure that Goa remains under Portuguese control”, and that he is directed to distribute flyers. Madeira says of :

The Salazarist flyer [that it] promises that [the Portuguese] will go on fighting against the invader … even if it means razing Goa to the ground. Here [da Costa] refers to orders from the Portuguese President to devastate Goa before surrendering to the Indians. This scorched earth policy was refused by General Manuel Antonio Vassalo e Silva (1899 – 1985) as “a useless sacrifice” given the superiority of the Indian forces.

The play’s preoccupation with land and legacy are underscored in these anxieties, though those that actually work the land are notably missing, their overlords being those taking centre-stage. Yet, as previously mentioned, the play begins with a tableau that literally signifies the tilling of land, the implements of such profession being the same ones used to dig gravesites. For the bhatcar family at the centre of the play, death comes in many forms, but none greater than the potential loss of status and continuity, for Leopoldina has cursed her brother with barrenness in the early years of his marriage.

No Flowers, No Wreaths opens and concludes with funerals. It is not only the mundkars who are absented from the stage, but also Leopoldina, whose demise has already occurred before the curtain rises (and, again, one may recall the absence of de Santa Rita Vás from the stage at the translation’s release). Nonetheless, the deceased woman’s phantom presence haunts the family as the weight of conscience, causing her brother to unburden his soul before the final curtain. These drapes, however, are not the furnishings of the stage, but the fabric of surrender. “Rid this house of all white cloth!” he orders of his family in a broken voice. “White cloth, white for the soldiers who file past with raised arms at the hour of my death… file past before a dead man who will have no grave!”.

As Indian troops march into Goa, Salú makes a final attempt at self-redemption by confessing his long-held secret to his wife, Angélica. As the Portuguese era of Goa’s history comes to a close, Salú is forced to witness his own legacy diminish. Simultaneously, he asks that the vanquished forces be equipped with the symbols of defeat – linens of white – so that they may not be harmed by the invaders. In their whiteness, these makeshift flags also signal the retrenchment of racial and class supremacy. Upon hearing his secret, Angélica does not forgive her husband. She informs him that his coffin’s exit from the family home will be accompanied “with no flowers, no wreaths”. As the old guard recedes, the play’s younger characters hope that the Goa they will inherit under the Indian regime will not “be destroyed”.

In this year of the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from the British, that a Portuguese Prime Minister of Goan origin should come to the land of his father’s origin to release a play about the Indian annexation of once Portuguese Goa reverberates in No Flowers, No Wreaths’ concerns about Goa’s future in the decolonial era. That Goa traded one colonialism for another, making it a colony of a post-colony, is a matter that bears recognition in how studies of post-colonialism ought to regard the difference of Goa from the rest of India. Works like this translation of da Costa’s play give Goa’s Lusophone literature a new lease on life while opening a window into the region’s past for a contemporary generation of readers. Had this publication included a listing of performances of the play, it would have been an added asset, especially for those who might use the text dramaturgically. And as for Prime Minister da Costa’s dramatic proclamation at the proceedings of the 14th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, during his Indian visit, that he is “a proud person of Indian origin”, one must see it as a performance on the stage of globalization. As Sem Flores Nem Coroas points out, legacies are as much acts of remembrance as of amnesia, and that the final curtain is only a prelude to uncertainty in times of precarity.