A House of Many Mansions

By Selma Carvalho


Think of Goans speaking Portuguese, and one thinks of bhatkars (landowning gentry) gathering on balcões, sipping port wine, and speaking in a language which sits squat in their mouths, the vowels all chewy and the words caught in their gums. Portuguese, nonetheless, was for centuries, Goa’s prime language: of instruction, transaction, cultural interaction, aspiration, and perhaps more importantly, of literature. The fact that literature has not yet found its rightful place in Goan historiography shows how miserably we have failed to understand its role. For literature presents us with a certain dynamism, a certain dichotomy, a certain oblique commentary not evident from more formal documentation.

To this end, A House of Many Mansions: Goan Literature in Portuguese (Peepal Tree; 2017) is one of the most influential books to emerge from Goa’s publishing houses. It comprises of a collection of essays, poems and translated novel extracts, collated by the project ‘Pensando Goa’, initiated by the São Paulo Research Foundation. This enterprising formation has sought, for quite some time, to excavate a literary heritage which post Goa’s liberation withered on the vine.

Goan literature in Portuguese saw its potential come to fruition at the turn of the last century. In 1910, Portugal, having deposed of a decadent monarchy, declared itself a republic, or what historian João Ameal called: “the crude euphoria of seamen and the mob.” When news of the First Republic reached Goa, there was jubilation in the streets with Europeans and indigenous Goans embracing each other, believing firmly, “Now we are all equals.” The Constitution of 1911, made Portuguese Indians (but not Portuguese Africans) equal citizens of Portugal. The euphoria would be short-lived. Just 22 years later, failing circumstances led to the rise of Portugal’s most controversial dictator Dr Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, and a stark reminder that Goans were in fact, little more than colonial subjects.

For a moment in history, the Goan fuelled by notions of equality however nominal, flourished. The advent of the republic coincided with the mushrooming of schools, and blossoming of literature and music. But while Europe of this epoch could boast of universities, libraries, publishing houses, literary journals and societies, Francisco João da Costa (GIP) writing from Margao was to lament that, ‘there exists districts like mine with a hundred thousand inhabitants without either a library or municipal reading room.’ Recalling St. Joseph’s School Arpora, in early 20th century Goa, the poet Armando Menezes wrote, ‘classes were held in jerry-built structures, more like cattle-stalls or warehouses than school rooms, open to the weather on two sides, and with a hard, rugged stone-paved floor.’

These shortcomings notwithstanding, Goans were steadily becoming conscious of their 'metropolitan' selves. Certainly by 1962, when Agostinho Fernandes’s Boddki was published, the rural becomes a counterpoint to the urban. The protagonist who has to take up employment at the border, moans, ‘Maxem wasn’t the place for me. Accustomed to cinema, balls and the theatre, I wouldn’t cope for long in such an isolated place where I’d be utterly alone … No leisure at all … No educated people to converse with.’ Yet when Boddki was re-released in 2014, and Agostinho Fernandes wrote a new introduction to it, he was to confess a more disheartening reality about Goa: that in 1962, there was no current of literary thinking (Lourdes 312).

This perhaps, spoke to the ebb and flow of a literary consciousness, for, a good century prior to the 1960s, Goans had not been without literary enterprise. Private libraries were stocked with books in French, Portuguese, English and Latin. Some elite Goans were home-schooled by tutors, where a great deal of emphasis was placed on the liberal arts, including languages. Luis Manuel Julio Gonçalves, in 1864, founded the Ilustração Goana, Goa's most influential literary magazine of its time, which carried much of his own output (Oliveira 56). Operating from the backrooms of sprawling mansions, were small presses, and their output was readily consumed by the reading public.

The fin-de-siècle was also a period of intense migration to British India’s growing cities of Bombay, Karachi and Calcutta, and further afield to the frontier townships of British East Africa’s Mombasa, Nairobi and Entebbe. These new influences of the Anglophone world percolated to Goa and fed into its consciousness, germinating seminal art forms such as tiatr.

By the 1920s, poet Joseph Furtado enjoyed renown far beyond the borders of Goa (Garmes 100-102). Furtado was born in 1872, in the village of Pilerne. He lived most of his adult life in various cities across British India, working for the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. His early oeuvres, published in poetry pamphlets, went largely ignored, but when in 1922, he published Lays of Goa and Lyrics of a Goan, it received acclaim as far as Britain and the United States. By the time, The Goan Fiddler, was released in 1925, Furtado was a major poet, and in 1929 when The Desterrado was published in Britain, it was reviewed by no less than the Times Literary Supplement. Although Furtado is best remembered as an English-language writer, he has left behind a fair output in Portuguese. The challenges of switching language for a poet would have required acute mental agility. While English language poets, of his era, instinctively turned lines using an iambic pentameter (because this is the natural breath of an English sentence), the same would not apply for the Portuguese verse.

Goans wrote mostly in the fashion of the Romantics styled after their European contemporaries, of which the French particularly held sway. But it was still a Romanticism sensitive to indigenous realities. The Goan writer embraced a certain saudosismo, not unlike Portuguese writers, poets and songwriters of the time; their hearts overflowing with a longing for the past, mourning ‘a vision of the past as lost.’ (Festino and Melo 20.)

Central to their writing was the ‘bhatkar mansion, the casa grande of the landowning Catholic gentry’ (Melo 45), from where waves of identity and counterpoint poured forth. The natural extension to the bhatkar’s mansion is the Goan village, which, on the face of it, is devoid of malevolence. No murderous rage or extreme emotion rests here. These lives are fissured only by their own petty vanities and Catholic moralities. Peopled by domineering patriarchs or matriarchs, put about by tainted bloodlines and tarnished legacies, often the antagonists fall on their own sword.

This consistent compulsion of the Goan Catholic writer to employ ‘home’ as the centripetal location has persisted post-Liberation; even as English has become Goa’s literary language. Mascarenhas’s Skin, Viegas’s Let me tell you about Quinta and Rangel-Ribeiro’s Tivolim retain the tradition of home, or a return to home as  the interlocking quoin of plot and characterization. Diasporic writers like Gonçalves’s Permanent Resident have shifted geographical locations of ‘home’ but have not transgressed the premise of home as hearth of identity. The underpinnings of the Goan Catholic writer, then, have flowed fluidly regardless of language employed.

With Goa as the pivot, writers clung either to a Goan exceptionalism, a Goa Dourado, a land distinct from India, ‘a tiny piece of Catholic Portugal transplanted onto tropical soil’ (Melo 48-49) or to the nationalism of a Goa Indica, where Goa is part of the evolving continuum of the Indian subcontinent. They reverted to Hindu iconography and drew inspiration from what they perceived to be indigenous cultures.

While Goa Indica is intimately bound with the nationalist aspirations of mainland India, a Goa Dourado is a conflicted identity, one which puts the Goan at odds with the rest of India, an ‘other’ to be investigated, perhaps with suspicion, perhaps with derision, or perhaps exoticized as ‘foreign’. This book, more than anything else, lends much to our understanding of what it means to be ‘Goan’ and that indeed the ‘foreign-ness’ of Goa is entrenched in deeper traditions which transcend its European influences. We owe a debt of gratitude to Melo, Festino et al, who have relentlessly sourced, translated and thereby resurrected a legacy which can enrich us, both by its literary merit and its interpretation of our historical past.

The banner picture is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. 

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A House of Many Mansions: Goan Literature in Portuguese (Peepal Tree; 2017) by Paul Melo e Castro, Cielo G. Festino et al. is the outcome of project 'Pensando Goa' initiated by the São Paulo Research Foundation, comprising of academics spread across the world, engaged with Goan literature. The book can be purchased at Dogears Bookstore Margao or online here.