By Selma Carvalho
We exist outside of ourselves. This moment of consciousness is the birth of literature – the ability to perceive ourselves and to give form to perception is what allows us to introspect and immortalise experience. It’s a profound loss to Goans, that we grow up exiled from our own literary legacy. Our collective sense of self cannot adequately heal as long as we remain estranged from our literature. And there is only an erasure of ourselves if we choose to ignore wide swathes of writing which is in, what we now consider to be a foreign language – Portuguese.
That Portuguese, as a language, remains inaccessible to many of us has been a problem. To this end, the group Pensando Goa, whose members are spread across the globe, has done much to breathe life into this dead lung of Goan literature by translating works into English, by reclaiming them as an essential part of Goan historiography, and by enriching us with meticulously researched author biographies.
One such splendid sketch biography of the writer Francisco Joao da Costa, emerges from the scholarship of Sandra Ataide Lobo, in the book Woven Palms: Colonial and Post-Colonial Goan Literature in Portuguese (UWP, 2019). Lobo holds a doctorate in History and Theory of Ideas from the University of Lisbon. She was born in Goa, the daughter of former judge, lawyer and writer, Jorge Ataide Lobo of Siolim.
Of Francisco Joao da Costa, who wrote under the pseudonym GIP from 1892, we know very little. Unlike their nineteenth-century European contemporaries, Goan writers did not lead public lives or leave behind detailed diaries which would open a window to their interior monologue. Lobo has had to rely on FJC’s own writings to flesh out his character, and a few impressions left behind by contemporary ‘celebrity’ writer Ismael Gracias, who although not quite his mentor, did much to champion FJC’s writings.
FJC was born in Margao on 28 December, 1859, the same year his uncle Bernardo Francisco da Costa founded O Ultramar, a newspaper whose checkered history of dodging Portuguese censorship would come to an end in 1941, when it was banned by Governor-General Jose Ricardo Cabral. This then, was the family, FJC was born into, a family of wealthy Catholic Brahmins, entrepreneurs who initiated the private press and manufacturing industry, many of whom had studied in Lisbon, had biracial marriages, and who although not quite political rebels – for the most part they allied with the Portuguese government – were not entirely obsequious in their views.
In his early thirties, he started writing Notas a Lapis in O Ultramar, and assumed the pseudonym GIP, which might have been an acronym. GIP was not a pseudonym in the strictest sense, everyone knew who the writer was within elite Margao society. But GIP grew either into an alter-ego, such as Graham Greene’s Maurice Bendrix or more likely fashioned into a heteronym after Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. (GIP preceded Pessoa and hence was seminal in this respect). GIP had a personality and history all of his own. Unfortunately, GIP as narrator cannot be relied on to provide clues about Francisco Joao da Costa’s history.
Lobo writes, ‘FJC and GIP were local writers who only rarely acknowledged the outside world. But that world, where things moved and events occurred, where intelligent life was possible and dreams mobilised those who believed in them; that world was a constant frame of reference in Notas a lapis, either directly mentioned or by means of literary allusion.’ So exactly which world did FJC and GIP inhabit? It is in FJC’s writings that we, for the first time, see a world suspended between a crumbling past and a yet to be realised modernity, between the East and West, between stymied ambitions and ungraceful affectation, between a powerlessness wrought by colonialism and a power enabled within the elite Catholic Goan community by the very same colonialism, which had created a chimera of sorts. FJC’s writings, the relentless parody of contemporary society, the satirised affectations and the imbroglios within families, provide us with perhaps the most insightful viewing of Goan society ever documented. No doubt, satire as technique deconstructed reality, but it also heightened and amplified all that was corroding society from within. In this respect, FJC’s choice of literary device, although not entirely unique as other Goan writers of the times were also known to use it, was brutally proficient.
In 2011, I had a personal tour of Margao by its one-time mayor and documentarian Valmiki Faleiro. He’d said to me, ‘To understand GIP you must understand Margao.’ Later, I visited the Loyola-Furtados and the Costas in their elegant homes; to understand GIP’s Margao, a town he fictionalised as Breda (possibly a reference to the Parisian quarter Breda, known for its prostitution), we must understand the opposing politics and rivalries between these two families, when in the wan days of the Portuguese monarchy and filled with the as yet unrealised dreams of Republicanism, Goans experienced a period of local political representation and franchise. This ignited disparate ambitions of indigenous power, giving rise to the Partido Indiano fronted by the Loyolas and the Partido Ultramarino supported by the Costas, which culminated with the tragic massacre outside the Margao Municipal Building on 21 September, 1890.
FJC was often accused of ridiculing known personalities and targeting particular families (the Loyolas perhaps), to which he protested that he had merely ‘created some types with vices and customs more in evidence in these families.’ Doubtless, the Goans, FJC caricatured, were influenced heavily by Metropolitan Portugal. Many of them studied in Lisbon and Paris, they read European authors, reacted European plays at the Harmonia theatre founded by the Costas, dined on imported European wines and delicacies, and they lived in houses which embraced Indo-Portuguese aesthetics. This was also the age of the literary journal, the reading club, and the cultural association which lent much impetus to the further European enculturation of Goans. But it was an enculturation, which to FJC, seemed anaemic, lacking in substance, and robbing Goan society of its vitality and progress.
Although a political undertone veined through FJC’s writings, Lobo contends it is ‘often a secondary consideration.’ This view is shared by academic Rochelle Pinto, in her excellent book Between Empires: Print and Politics in Goa (OUP, 2007). FJC’s reference to politics was oblique, the primary concern being societal intrigue. Pinto writes, ‘The relation of Goa to Portugal as a political or cultural entity, however, was not always oppositional or hierarchized.’
FJC was deeply aware of Goan society’s fondness for conspicuous consumption and the adverse effects this was having on its fragile economy. He understood, all too well, the inflationary tendencies of a consumption-driven economy (a condition which prevails even today) where real wealth is not created but a bubble keeps it afloat. To FJC, the chimera the Portuguese created was gauche, louche and given to frivolity rather than serious thought.
Although FJC’s focus was elite society, Lobo contests the implication that he was tone-deaf to the subaltern. In his short story, ‘Jacob e Carrapinho,’ for instance, he dramatizes the adverse effects of parochial rivalries on the common man. The prioritization of European culture above all else, meant native traditions had to be derided, and the subaltern had to be counselled into adopting the ways of the enlightened European. This ranking of cultures naturally discriminated against those not wealthy enough to be Europeanised.
As Rochelle Pinto notes, FJC used objects and rituals to underline displacement within Goan society. One such object was the piano as metaphor. FJC’s contention, that ‘the head of the family thinks of a son-in-law and a piano on the same day,’ underlines emphatically the place of the woman in society. This was a community regulated by stifling convention, where romantic love had to make way for monetary considerations, where a woman’s accomplishments were linked only to her marriageability, where her value was decorative, without allowing her to blossom in her own right. This had produced a society of women with a ‘defeated and lugubrious air,’ who spoke in monosyllables, their laughter suppressed, never interesting in themselves but only as channels to furthering patriarchal ambitions. FJC never married. It is possible, he found the women of ‘Breda’ to be anodyne creatures offering little by way of conversation. It is possible that FJC too was influenced by the European romance novels which were prescribed reading for young people in Goa, in which women were beginning to assert some agency.
FJC read in several languages; he employed language to satirise just how thin the veneer of European enculturation was in Goa, and that underlying it was the native language and native traditions which were strong enough to resist erasure. Perhaps his brief stay in Bombay (Lobo posits this period to be between 1883 and 1885) first made him aware of a dissonance in Goan society; but he never assumed the heavy burden of ‘identification or construction of a Goan tradition.’ (Pinto, p 217.)
It is unlikely, we will ever be able to explore with greater depth FJC’s personal life, although I do hold on to the hope that we will at some point access his birth records and fill in the gaps about his parentage. FJC, the man with a receding hairline, the man with a fondness for drink, the man who changed how we view Goan literature and Goan society, died in 1900, at the age of 41. Had he, Francisco Joao da Costa, been an early victim of that awful Portuguese disease – saudosismo?
Woven Palms: Colonial and Post-Colonial Goan Literature in Portuguese (UWP, 2019) can be purchased here.