Savia Viegas is a Fulbright scholar, artist, art curator and author of several books including Let Me Tell You About Quinta (Penguin, 2011). Here, in conversation with Selma Carvalho, she talks candidly about caste and culture in the village, as reflected in her new book Song Sung Blue (2019).
Selma Carvalho : Savia, thank you for taking the time to talk to the JRLJ. I’ve been a fan of your writing since the publication of Tales from the Attic (2007). Much of your writing is informed by a geographical specificity, the village of Carmona, as is your latest book, Song Sung Blue. When I read this book, I was struck by a similarity with Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist; a straight-forward story layered with undertones and a quiet profundity. The story begins with the birth of a daughter, Maria do Ceu, on the eve of Goa’s liberation. Was it your intention to tell an individual story or was the story always meant to be an extended metaphor for post-colonial Goa?
Savia Viegas : Thank you Selma. May JRLJ bloom and grow.
Carmona is the setting for most of my novels. As a sickly child brought up in a sheltered environment, I would often lie in bed imagining life in an Arcadian paradise. This was a serious obsession in childhood. When I began writing fiction in my forties, the hunt began for a place where I could posit my characters. The location had to have the rich density like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’, Macondo or R K Narayan’s, Malgudi. Unlike the above mentioned literary settings, however, Carmona was a nondescript village, but a living, breathing entity, a village with 1,000 homes. It was the setting I needed without the brahmin residences or stiff hierarchies. The village was a microcosm for Goa.
I set about visualising the framework for the narrative of Song Sung Blue in 2011, when the state was celebrating 50 years of liberation in full regalia. A protagonist as old as the state who would talk about the fifty years of her life parallel to the development of the state. I was fixated with this idea for some time till Divina as a character began to take life gasps of her own. Then I forgot about it and the framework of the story began to take its twists and turns.
In Song Sung Blue I wanted to capture lives of young people in the ensuing decades after liberation. I was curious to know what it meant to grow up in a modernising society within a traditional social structure. This also meant a conscious moving away from the nostalgia of the past - the Bhatkar/ Mundkar, issues of land and stories that revolved around the aura of the big house.
Strangely, this was a territory I fled from, for many years in my youth, wishing to immerse myself in a pan-Indian identity. Anything that was Goan was dunked in an amorphous, invisible river in my being making it disappear from my immediate consciousness. But now having drained that river and retrieved those memories, I realise I can write best when I write about Goa. In many ways, my going away in my formative years and coming back allowed me to condense memories and look back dispassionately. I feel privileged to understand the nuances of Konkani as the language is spoken. Goa is a pocketful of territory. If you have lived here, it is easy to pulse to its heartbeat. All through the years of my life, even when I have lived away from Goa, I have stayed connected with Goa thanks to my mother who made it a point to keep me updated on every little development that happened here. Every writer needs a notebook and an informer. She was my informer.
In my writing, I make a conscious effort to blur the gap between reality and fiction. Readers often come and tell me that stories from my books are the stories from their village. In Let me tell you about Quinta, I deliberately blurred the distance with my own identity and that of the characters in the book. Many readers believed that it was my story. So, also I play around with the tropes that hold dual meaning for my characters and the state.
Selma Carvalho: Early on in the book, you describe life in a boarding home. The boarders watch helplessly as one of the nuns drowns a litter of kittens. Later, one of the children engages in a horrific act of self-mutilation. Juxtaposed against the idyll of childhood, the savagery of the act, shocks the reader. What were your thought-processes in creating this effective juxtapositioning?
Savia Viegas: The common belief is that convent schools are quiet, idyllic places where children grow up sheltered from the real world. I have lived in a boarding house and am well aware of the tensions that erupt. I wanted to show how even children, impacted by the world of adults carry on acts of brutality. The irony of the situation is that, the uncle-priest believing Tino would be safe brings him to the convent and the unbelievable happens. Tino was psychologically impacted by the violence he had witnessed so when a situation erupts, he takes an extreme step.
Selma Carvalho: As a pubescent girl of maybe fourteen, the main protagonist, Divina, has a sexual encounter with an older boy of eighteen. Divina seems confused by the act and not entirely in control. In this moment in history, where pertinent questions are being raised about consent, and what constitutes informed consent on part of women, does Divina’s ambiguous response open the door to discussions about women’s safety when left in the custody of others or was it to present to the reader a nuanced understanding of adolescence, a crowding of unexplained emotions which in themselves are an essential part of growing into adulthood?
Savia Viegas: In my work, I see myself as a writer first. Fiction writing calls for the strictest attention to the real, whether writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I try to bring in an element of truth. Credulity is important for the reader to be engrossed in a story.
When creating a character, it is important to distance myself from my characters and to immerse them in a society where they will play out their lives. In the society and time that Divina grows up in, such situations are real though my beliefs about the safety of girl children may be different. Yes it is as you have aptly explained a crowding of unexplained emotions from which she retracts quickly as she is not in love.
Selma Carvalho: ‘Good girls need to stay away from temptations! From tailor sons and sailor son.’ This is Divina’s mother’s caste-conscious instruction to her daughters. The collapse of the old social order, where endogamy ensured marriage took placed only within the desired social and caste group, has meant a greater freedom. Despite this greater autonomy, Divina repeatedly choses unsuitable men – the bus driver cum tiatrist, the village sarpanch – all unsuitable for her in some way. Is this a reality for women in Goa, that there isn’t a wide pool of men who are educated or of the professional class, and the choice narrows down to the material comfort a foreign-exchange earner may be able to offer no matter how incompatible they are otherwise.
Savia Viegas: The guardians of society, the priest and the mother attempt to ensure that social hierarchies stay in place through moral diktats from the pulpit and the home. But Divina, (epitomising her generation) strays from old world values and seeks to trust her youth and its primal quest for love.
Much against the moral diktats of her mother, she chooses a man who first awakens love. He is a free spirit choosing freedom over bondage and faithfulness. But the greater consequences are for women, Divina realises as one thing leads to another.
In both her choices of men, Divina chooses men ‘unsuitable’ her. She is charmed by Jesse’s seduction and falls for him. Unlike her sister Ceu, she is a free spirit. I did a series of Creative Writing workshops for young people and I was shocked to learn that girls would have their the first effective crush in teenage years on the bus-conductor or the driver.
Her second serious relationship is with the sarpanch whom she marries. With him the immediate clincher is the fact that he is powerful in the village environment and can protect her thus she takes a pragmatic decision.
Goans are highly qualified doctors and engineers, but a larger number get into the shipping and tourism industry. Men leave school early and seek jobs in the shipping industry. The dollar incomes are so lucrative that jobs are chosen on this consideration alone. A friend who qualified for the IPS chose to opt for a sailing job as a tailor on an African ship because it was financially more lucrative. A musician earning modestly left for Aberdeen where he now works as a hospital orderly operating cleaning machines. There are myriad stories.
In the last fifteen years that I have lived here, I have seen an exodus which is unprecedented. Practically half the village of Carmona is empty, people having migrated to Scotland, Swindon and Switzerland. It is strange to me that people with high incomes, even good sailing jobs and property leave, surrendering their Indian documents and pulling out teenage children from schools. My neighbour did not even move into the new house she built but emigrated to the US. Movement of people John Berger opines in his book, The Seventh Man, is inevitable. People do move for jobs and better conditions of work but I have yet to find meaning for this kind of uprooting. I see members of families returning to bury their dead in graveyards of their villages. So their ties with Goa never break. The younger people are soon able to cover the gap and embrace the new cultures of the cities where they live. In a way, I find this heart-warming to find that they are able to circumvent the damning hierarchies of the past and grow in better environments.
Goa is becoming a state of locked houses. But people rent out the backyard storerooms to migrant families who have begun to create a new identity for the village. The empty houses are never rented out becoming mausoleums to nostalgia and memory. The Church school in the village has only migrant students. Carmona, when I was growing up was a village which had doctors, priest, lawyers, teachers and office-goers. Now, if you do an unofficial survey there are more carpenters, masons and maids.
Selma Carvalho: Divina steadily comes to terms with the wide gap between her and her husband, Filipe, the village sarpanch. Filipe, symbolises everything that is coarse about village life: a preoccupation with seedy politicians, the pursuit of vulgarian activities like bull-fighting, the constant companionship of other men, reinforcing male dominance within the public spaces of the village. Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, in his book, Notes on the Death of Culture (Faber, 2015) makes a clear distinction between high culture and low-brow spectacle, and offers a summary definition of culture as ‘exploration of new artistic and literary forms and of research in all areas of knowledge.’ Divina, your protagonist, feels deeply this loss of high culture, when she utters, ‘The old courtesies of the village had given way to this new brashness.’ The old village professor, music maestro, bhatcar with a library full of European books, are no more. Despite the limitations within that society, nothing has emerged, which adequately replaces those custodians of intellectual well-being. What are your views on the death of culture in Goan villages, which lie outside the periphery of the Panjim belt?
Savia Viegas: There is an unequal tussle between highbrow and popular culture. There are also tensions between old elite and emerging groups that are becoming powerful and socially articulate. A new neighbour having built her bungalow on returning from West Asia cryptically remarked in passing: ‘how come your old house is still standing when others of that vintage have fallen?’ The new terms of endearment for the social classes are not easy.
The new class (nouveau riche) in power who hold positions in the rural government or in the church bring in their class/caste attitudes in the interaction, functioning and relationships with the public. I often ask myself, ‘Is it enough to post a vicar, assistant and a sexton in the church and look after the registration of births, deaths and marriages?’ That’s why, within all institutionalised power you need services and mediation to reform, and make new beginnings. How does that happen if an institution itself does not recognise its weaknesses, and attempt to creating mediating dialogues?
Now if you do not tow the lines within these institution, you are thrust on the outside as you are seen to be breaking the doxa of the habitus.
The irony is that the genteel culture which was the hallmark of Goa’s villages is now no more. The brash culture that has succeeded it, has muscle and decibel power. Those that fear a confrontation move over to the main cities of Pangim and Margao where this brashness has less impact. The isolation of the villages is complete. Not only are the elites leaving but even other families are packing their bags. For Margao or for Europe. The old elites move to Pangim. The only vestige of the past that remains in the vast countryside is the architecture, a silent reminder of a homeland and the city, like Noah’s ark which saves all the precious species from the deluge.
Selma Carvalho: Filipe has an unwholesome relationship with an emerging politician. This, in many ways, speaks to the heart of darkness within Goan politics at the village level. This unholy nexus or bubbling cauldron of dirty politicians, gambling, bull-fighting, corruption and young men with few employment opportunities. It was poet Armando Menezes who had prophesied a ‘government by the least cultured section of our population.’ The old elite in Goa have been effectively disbanded. What are your thoughts on how to best channel the intellectual energies of the old elite in public life, outside of the halls of academia?
Savia Viegas: Those of us who could have made a difference have gone away, others who could have provided leadership have receded deep into our stately-yet-crumbling feudal mansions to be slumber-wrapped in patchwork quilts of the past.
Does it help to bemoan the unhappy liaisons that tentacle rural economies, and atrophy any possibilities of change to bud new beginnings? The new class that seeks to be in power is brash and without scruples. Self-interest mostly dominates any agenda. Yes, Armando Menezes’ prophecy has come true. I have no problem with that. It is a rule of nature that succession always destroys the old order before seizing power. You see that even in architecture. The new rises in opposition to the old and confronts it.
I am reminded of Old Stone, a Chinese film wherein an activist gets his bones broken by the stooges of the politician. In the hospital where he is being put into a cast to mend his bones, the politician is the first to turn up with an obscenely large bouquet of flowers and an equally large smirk. Today, the political links are so enmeshed and insidious that it is difficult to create a binary of offenders and defenders. Till such time that the public citizenry can discern the difference, the carnival will go on.
In my earlier book Let me tell you about Quinta, Robby one of the protagonists named after Rabindranath Tagore but baptised as Robby because his mother ‘did not catch the word correctly,’ becomes the successor in the village because he has a heart that beats for Goa, and places ‘village interest before self interest.’
When I first relocated to Goa in 2005, I would attend most public events to make sense of what was happening. At the Goan NRI conventions which were held in Goa, eminent NRGs would come and mourn what development was doing to ‘the Old Goa.’ It still happens. One gets the sense that NRGs would love to leave the state ‘in the interests of themselves and their children’ but would love to come back to a Goa unchanged from the memories of their past. One almost gets the feeling that indiscretion on their part is allowed, yet Goa must remain like a mistress faithful to the ones that went away.
We have to put greater efforts into education, in creating a civil culture among the young, and in restructuring our villages. It seems to be the immediate answer to the malaise that looms.
Selma Carvalho: The book is beautifully illustrated by you. You’ve chosen blue as the monochromatic colour to engage with, which reminds me of Picasso’s Blue period whose subject matter of drunks, beggars and prostitutes offers sombre reflection on the impoverishment of society. What was your motivation in choosing blue?
Savia Viegas: I chose blue thinking it would be cheaper to print. On experimenting, I loved the palette — the range is amazing. Indigo, Cerulean, Teal, Peacock, Prussian and Royal blue among others.
Personal suffering are refracted through the colour blue by many painters and filmmakers. Edvard Munch uses it in his painting ‘Melancholia’ with stunning effect. Vincent Van Gogh uses it in ‘Starry Night’. Krzysztof Kieslowski uses it in ‘Three Colours Blue’ as a recurring motif, reflecting Julie’s mood in various contexts. The best depths of blue are found in Moghul miniatures.
Picasso drew heavily in postures and gestures from Christian iconography to depict daily life and reality. Yes, Picasso’s oeuvre during this period did focus on social outsiders whether they were prisoners, beggars, circus people or the poor.
Having been raised in a conservative Roman Catholic household, the visual canon of Christian iconography is deeply embedded in the core of my creative being. These indexical signs may have been further reinforced during the long research on Angelo da Fonseca’s images. In a way, Song Sung Blue uses the prism of religion and social convention to refract light on its social ‘Others’. In this case, Divina who by her propensity or predisposition to break down pales of society and religion embroils herself into an outsider status. Images of suffering, motherhood and loss convey a panoply of inverted meanings and ideas in the flow of the novella.
Selma Carvalho: What is your next writing or artistic project?
Savia Viegas: I have to publish two books this year. One is my research on Goan family photographs which was funded by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. The other is on the works of Angelo da Fonseca which was researched under the aegis of a grant given by the India Foundation for the Arts. Both books have been simmering on the back-burner for a long time. I am working on a collection of short stories, looking at relationships within the family. There is the whisper of some fantastic creatures creating a din in my head asking to be taken seriously. But so far nothing has yet begun to obsess me. I am at peace with the world to concentrate on expanding my pre-primary initiative, ‘Saxttikids’ into a full-fledged ICSCE school.
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