Vimala Devi, Monção and Me

Whatever its faults, one great boon of my article is that word of it reached the author and led me to meet her and her husband in Lisbon. Their life together is a fascinating as their literary endeavours and their idiosyncratic, protean careers deserve fuller recognition in both Portugal and Goa. How many Goan writers, for example, have self and co-translated their work into Esperanto and Catalan as Devi has?
 

By Paul Melo e Crasto


My first encounter with Vimala Devi’s Monção was sometime in the mid 2000’s. I had just finished a PhD in Portuguese – on Lisbon as represented in literature, film and photography – and badly needed a busman’s holiday. Like many tyro academics I was heartily sick of my thesis but also in a temporary teaching position and needing desperately to produce some, any publishable research to hopefully land a permanent job. What could I do that was new and different but still related to my field? My father’s background is in Goa and I’d grown up with family stories about their past there, which had always piqued my interest. I was aware that an increasing amount of work was being done on literature from Portuguese-speaking Africa, not to mention Macau and East Timor. Here was a gap, surely. Had anything been published in Goa in Portuguese? I’d never heard of anything. But after a little rummaging about I discovered in my own university library a copy of Vimala Devi and Manuel de Seabra’s A Literatura Indo-Portuguesa, a two-volume essay and anthology on Goan writing. If Goa’s literary heritage in Portuguese survives, and if it is still an object of study today, it’s in large measure down to Devi and Seabra’s efforts. I certainly would have never got started without their work.

The most promising lead in A Literatura Indo-Portuguese was a book of short stories entitled Monção, penned by the essay’s co-author Vimala Devi, a copy of which I eventually tracked down to a state library in Lisbon. I enjoyed the collection immensely then and still do today. Indeed, with every subsequent reading I have found something new to ponder. I ended up writing an article about Monção for Portuguese Studies and I’ve worked on Goan literature on and off ever since. While I stand by the general ideas this first article contains, looking at it now I’m a little embarrassed by the various errors of fact. Perhaps they are excusable in one making his way alone in a subject little studied in his immediate context. Perhaps not. After all, if scholarship isn’t rigorous it isn’t anything. But a quick mental comparison between the dearth of easily accessible references at that time and the easy availability today of a wealth of Goan writing both academic and creative (to which the JRLJ itself is ample testimony) shows just how much the landscape has changed for the better in a relatively short time. Fortunately – or unfortunately for me – a scholar entering the field today would have little excuse for my solecisms.

Whatever its faults, one great boon of my article is that word of it reached the author and led me to meet her and her husband in Lisbon. Their life together is a fascinating as their literary endeavours and their idiosyncratic, protean careers deserve fuller recognition in both Portugal and Goa. How many Goan writers, for example, have self and co-translated their work into Esperanto and Catalan as Devi has? Rarely can a Goan author have reached so far-flung and disparate an audience.  After that meeting I kept up an infrequent correspondence with Devi and Seabra (who sadly passed away in 2018). They have been endlessly generous to me with their time, their archives and eventually their copyright — my translation of Monção will come out with Seagull Books at the end of the year. If what I have written so far piques anyone else’s interest in Devi’s work, a couple of individual translations can be found here:

Job’s Children by Vimala Devi’, The AALITRA Review, 3 (2011), pp.20-35

The Future and the Past by Vimala Devi

Here, focusing on reception rather than text, I present Seabra’s introduction to the second edition of Monção and the selection of critical snippets that accompanied it. My first article on Devi was greatly influenced by Seabra’s ideas, but as I have read and re-read Monção, and my ideas have developed and I think I’d demur from some of his points. Is it not too hasty to see religion as the central rift in Goa? In any case, my translation of his preface and the titbits of reviews here serves to present Devi’s stories but also stands as a historical document. The critical responses come from three periods: the initial Portuguese publication (1963), the Esperanto edition (2000, attributed to Manuel de Seabra) and the Catalan translation (2002, attributed solely to Devi). These critical responses show both the acclaim Devi’s work achieved and, perhaps, also some of the difficulty that exists in representing Goa and Goan culture to outsiders. Where Seabra’s response is coloured by personal history, the Esperanto and Catalan-speaking critiques display a friendly unfamiliarity with the context of Devi’s stories. Their various responses touch off an urgent question: how might a small culture like Goa project itself beyond its borders – an important part of its affirmation and necessary in these globalised times – yet not lose itself in this projection, its uniqueness cashed out into half-remembered stereotypes?

Monção received high praise from Portugal’s most reputed critics. António Quadros, for example, wrote that ‘depicting the reality of Goa is not an objective in itself for the author, rather we might call it a means by which she reveals for us a marvellous face of the human adventure’.

Manuel de Seabra, ‘Introduction to the Second Edition’ (2003)

When these short stories were released in Lisbon, in 1963, Vimala Devi had but a single volume of poetry to her name, about which João Gaspar Simões had written in the Diário de Notícias that ‘one might call it the work of a Camilo Pessanha[1] who has read Fernando Pessoa’. The publication of Monção, however, opened up a new world for Portuguese readers. Goa had been occupied by the army of the Republic of India two years previously and was beginning inevitably to fade from public consciousness. All of a sudden Vimala appeared with a work where practically all of Goa’s social groups were candidly depicted: we are shown the historical backwardness perpetuating the existence of mundkars (a sort of quasi-medieval serf obliged to provide goods and services to his landlord) and bhatkars (rural landowners with the right to free goods and services from the workers living on their property), the existence of castes crossed with classes (which Vimala in her stories presents with great subtlety) and of the descendants of Portuguese from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who kept themselves as a clearly defined social group, as well as, naturally, the religious divisions of the time. Back then the population of Goa was split roughly down the middle between Christians and Hindus, who lived in almost impermeable communities with only very superficial contact between them. Yet Vimala Devi (who belonged to the Christian community) had the mettle to do three courageous and unprecedented things: use a Hindu pseudonym (her actual Christian name is Teresa da Piedade de Baptista Almeida); give literary treatment to certain sectors of the Hindu community, demonstrating an uncommonly universalist sensibility; and publish a work that went against the interests of her class. 

Monção received high praise from Portugal’s most reputed critics. António Quadros, for example, wrote that ‘depicting the reality of Goa is not an objective in itself for the author, rather we might call it a means by which she reveals for us a marvellous face of the human adventure’.

Besides the original edition in Portuguese, many of these short stories have been translated and published in diverse languages. They were translated into Konkani by Evágrio Jorge and published in the Goan daily Uzvadd[2]; they appeared in Esperanto in various magazines and, under the title Musono, were published in book form by Al-Fab-et-o of Sweden; Penguin Books of New Delhi included the story ‘Esperança’ [Hope] in the anthology Ferry Crossing: Short Stories from Goa, which was edited by Manohar Shetty; the story ‘Nâttak’ [Nâttak, ein Schauspiel] was translated into German and published by the Franz Steiner Verlag in the volume Südasian-Anthologie: 44 Übersetzungen aus Südasiatischen Literaturen, edited by Profs. Günter D. Sontheimer and Helma Werny of the University of Heidelberg.

At the end of 2002, under the title Monsó, a complete edition translated by the author into Catalan was launched in Barcelona by El Cep e la Nansa of Vilanova i la Getrú. Critics described Monção as the literary portrait of a universe containing a thousand shades of human existence and characters that, though unknown, have familiar resonances for the Western reader, and established a very interesting parallel between the stories of Monção and those of James Joyce’s Dubliners. The publication of Monsó received much coverage in the press with extensive articles on the work and the holding of various symposia featuring important Catalan intellectuals. A roundtable was even held at the Barcelona Athenaeum with the title ‘A Historical Approach to the Society and Culture of Colonial Goa, on the occasion of the release of Vimala Devi’s Monsó’.

 

Monção [Monsoon] and the Critics 

            Here is a writer who knows how to capture and interpret the feelings of the Goan soul, in all its exotic enchantment, with impressive ease […] Her stories possess such communicative power, a style so clear in its syntheses and happy in its images, that we can but acknowledge the presence before us of a true storyteller.

J.A.M
In Diário do Alentejo – 19.3.1963

 

            It is the new world that Vimala Devi opens up for us, and the simple, unaffected way in which she proffers this Monção, that draw our attention and curiosity amid the alluvium of acclaimed, complicated and attention-seeking books, as well as its true literary value […]

 

Armando Ferreira
In Jornal de Comércio – 6.4.1963

 

Representing the reality of Goa is not an objective in itself for the author: rather it is a means by which she reveals yet another marvellous facet of the human adventure.  In so doing, she adopts the oldest, most traditional structure for her tales, short stories that briefly lift the veil shrouding the fantastic reality in which we live and which lives in us. Vimala Devi’s literature is written for Westerners but could only have been written by an Oriental. It is a crucible where apparently disparate tendencies are gathered and harmonised. It reveals various aspects of the Indian soul, seeking to convey the psychological and cultural substratum of the caste system, now in isolation, now in the dialectic of social relations, showing the respective influences of dissimilar religions and cultures on identical echelons. At times Vimala Devi is ironic, as in ‘o Genro-Comensal’ [The House Husband], at other times she is profoundly lyrical, in her understanding of the purity and beauty of the old traditions, as in ‘Dhruva’ or ‘Fidelidade’ [Fidelity], at yet others she reaches a dramatic pitch, focusing on the decadence of the ancient castes, in ‘Ocaso’ [Decline], the plight of the lower castes in ‘Os Filhos de Job’ [Job’s Children], or the irreducible distance between men and women of different faiths, in ‘A Droga’ [The Cure]. One of the most expressive and touching stories in the collection shows the delicate, difficult relations between the European and Indian races (‘Padimini’), while in ‘A Subvenção’ [The Subsidy] an experience that had deep, even if ludicrous effects, is treated with deft humour.

 

            For the beauty and simplicity of her style, for her understanding of the psychology of people and situations (from this point of view, ‘Nâttak’ might well be the story in which the author exploits her talents to the fullest), for the sure-handedness with which she endows her narratives with symbolic structures, the Goan writer Vimala Devi seems to me to have a bright future within Portuguese literature.

António Quadros
In Diário Popular (Lisbon) – 29.08.1963

 

From the fusion of that inheritance (Hindu poetry) with the Portuguese spirit was born the rich originality and modernity Vimala Devi reveals in her poems and short stories

 

Miquel Dolç
In Las Provincias (Valencia) – 05.01.1964

 

She depicts a society that, it seems, has already disappeared. This work is de facto the document by which the reader can know how one lived in Goa during the colonial period… Her stories represent the lives of ordinary people with feeling and poetic realism. The contrast between tradition and modernity, Orient and Occident, are patent in every narrative.

Jacques Le Puil
In LKK (Thaumiers, France) – 08.2000

 

Each of the stories paints in clear, beautiful language an extremely rich picture of a fascinating society that is apparently on its way to extinction.

 Garbhan MacAoidh
In Monato (Antwerp) – 8.2000

 

The stories of Vimala Devi radiate a deep humanity. The author, besides knowing all these issues and life itself, knows how to describe them with realism.


Julian Modest
In Literatura Foiro (Vraca, Bulgaria) – 12.2000

 

These sad, cruel yet also tender stories open up unknown regions to us, both geographic and psychological.

Silvia Moritz
In La Gazeto (Metz, France) – 15.6.2001

I myself wouldn’t be able to find Goa on a map, and before reading Monção hadn’t the slightest interest in its teeming human microcosm – ignorance fosters disinterest – but now I feel a strange complicity with a set of human impulses radically distant from my own. And suddenly the rough lives of those semi-slaves, who work the land of the eternal landowners with no homeland not already occupied by the powers that be, are part of my own.

…beautiful and pungent at the same time, a flame firing the rough clay of existence. I myself wouldn’t be able to find Goa on a map, and before reading Monção hadn’t the slightest interest in its teeming human microcosm – ignorance fosters disinterest – but now I feel a strange complicity with a set of human impulses radically distant from my own. And suddenly the rough lives of those semi-slaves, who work the land of the eternal landowners with no homeland not already occupied by the powers that be, are part of my own. I share in the life of the girl forced into marriage who develops a subtle love for her husband or of the impoverished man who resolves the celibacy of three rich sisters or of the dirt-poor fisherman who fears the doctor more than death. The doctor who speaks to him of rights… Or the duality between a far-off, mythical Portugal and an India approaching at unstoppable speed: two worlds that shake Goa to the core. I wouldn’t be able to say exactly why, but Monção, like all excellent books, leaves our ears cocked, our eyes fixed on distant horizons, our soul agitated yet also strangely calm, and what is written on its pages becomes a small part of our own lives. Becomes part of us.


Pilar Rahola
In Avui (Barcelona) – 12.12.2002

 

Monção shows the rifts produced by a society of traditional castes and classes, the hypocrisies and prejudices that co-exist with new inequalities, the submission of the weak and of women, above all the submission of women, the appearances, prejudices and conventions of a stale society dominated by traditional beliefs and religion, whether ancestral or imported, it doesn’t matter. With deeply human characters […] Read this book by Vimala Devi and allow yourselves to be filled by her Monção. What you’ll find is a testimony of life that sweeps us away.

 

Antoni Munné-Jordà
Presentation in the Foment Vilanoví (Barcelona) – 14.12.2002

 

This mix of cultures and religions has been treated with great sensitivity by the author, who turns real cases that she witnessed into fiction: impossible love affairs between different castes; social conventions that obliged the woman to marry because it was frowned upon to remain single, which led to marriages of convenience and parents running up debts to pay for dowries; social conflicts on rural estates… Although Monção is intimist in its general tone, one also discerns in it a denunciation.

Rosa Maria Piñol
In La Vanguardia (Barcelona) – 30.12.2002 

As if existence were an inescapably rough river that one must learn to contemplate with a certain stoicism, yet with a critical eye […] It is of all this, the thousand faces of humanity, that Vimala Devi speaks in a book that caresses us, refuses to let us remain uninvolved.

The freshness with which we today read these pages conceived forty years ago is the best proof of their timeless value. And the irrefutable understanding that to reach the heart of things and transmit them to the reader, good literature prioritises the local, the particular, the intimate. In this case, the vehicle is simple language, precise in its observations, but not simple at all in its literary organisation. Monção combines different voices, alternates between spatio-temporal planes to achieve the maximum emotional effect. And this emotion doesn’t take long to arrive, under cover of a certain placidity, of a gaze that contemplates drama, even tragedy, without histrionics. As if existence were an inescapably rough river that one must learn to contemplate with a certain stoicism, yet with a critical eye […] It is of all this, the thousand faces of humanity, that Vimala Devi speaks in a book that caresses us, refuses to let us remain uninvolved.


Isidre Grau
In Villanovadigital – 31.2.2002
In L’Hora/El Punt – 3.1.2003

 

The stories of Monção, now translated into Catalan by Vimala Devi herself, are like a glass of fresh water that slakes our thirst: fresh, inspired, genuine...


Teresa Costa-Gramunt
In L’Eco de Sitges (Barcelona) – 4.1.2003

 

Vimala Devi, whom Catalan readers knew already as a poet, has now offered us a true surprise: Monção, a fine narrative work that has been carefully translated into her adopted Catalan, with three new stories that were absent from the Portuguese original[3]. The author speaks to us of her native Goa, the colonial Goa in which she was born and raised, of the conflict between the civilisations that divide it into two worlds separated by religion, language, castes, habits… perverted by the colonial system, but where, nevertheless, there are always men and women who maintain their dignity and long for tolerance, delicately sketched characters who appear over the course of these fifteen short stories – or should I say the fifteen chapters of this novel?

 

August Boyer
Presentation in Santiago Russinyol Library, Sitges (Barcelona) – 10.10.200


[1] Portuguese Symbolist poet, long-term resident in Macau. Pessanha (1867-1926) was actually an influence on Pessoa (1888-1935). By inverting the known historical current of influence, Simões presumably meant that Devi continues Pessanha’s ‘orientalism’ but after absorbing the modernism of Pessoa.

[2] If these translations are retrievable, a ready-made edition of Monção in Konkani is there for the taking.

[3] Absent from the first 1963 edition. Not the second 2002 edition.


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Paul Melo e Castro is an academic and lecturer in Comparative Literature and Portuguese at the University of Glasgow. His publications include Lengthening Shadows: An Anthology of Goan Short Stories translated from the Portuguese Volume I and II (Goa 1556, 2016). He is also the author of Shades of Grey: 1960s Lisbon in Novel, Film and Photography (London: MHRA Texts and Dissertations, 2011). His latest book is Woven Palms: Colonial and Post-Colonial Goan Literature in Portuguese (UWP, 2019). You can find out more information on his translation of Vimala Devi’s book Monsoon (Seagull, 2019) here.