Age of Frenzy by Mahabaleshwar Sail

Age of Frenzy (Harper Perrenial; 2015) can be purchase here.

review By Mohammad Farhan

Medieval India became the victim of colonial brutality when Portuguese troops attacked the Muslim ruler, Ismail Adil Shah in Goa. The colonisers feigned favouring indigenous populations, while at the same time curtailing their freedom and exploiting the natural sources of fertile lands. And Goa was to pay a high price for this dark time of invasion. This stirring history is fertile ground for works of fiction. Many Indian novelists especially in postcolonial times have attempted to explore the fault lines between the cultures of colonisers and indigenous people. One such example is Age of Frenzy (Harper Perrenial; 2015), a historical novel by Mahabaleshwar Sail which lets us travel to the Portuguese invaded Goa of 1510. Though not known as a high priest of Indian literature, Sail writes in Konkani, the official language of Goa. But almost all his works have been translated into English including the Age of Frenzy. Sail has collected these experiences from a motley of professions that possibly provided him with substantial ideas for his writing. He served in the Indian Army during the Indo-Pak war of 1965, worked in the police force, and then as a forest guard, finally becoming a postmaster in Goa. He was crowned with the prestigious Indian literary honour, the Sahitya Academy Award in 1993 for his short story collection Tarangam.

Age of Frenzy draws on the narrative of a coercive Portuguese invasion of Goa leading to the destruction of indigenous culture, religious practices and traditions. This tome, plied with historical facts unfolds the story of how, on the pretext of religious piousness, the colonisers ensnare the indigenous populations and schismatically divide them to strengthen their own position on this foreign land. The invaders have two apparent agendas: to rapidly fortify their economy by taking hold of agricultural production and spread Christianity even forcibly- and they fulfil their goals with cruel atrocities.

The novel opens in Shirvaddo, a village in Goa where the Nayak community lives. Horrible times descend upon them; a condition they perceive to be the result of their impious ways, and as consequence their deities have cursed them. Now Venku Nayak’s family has been singled out to perform the rituals. They’re consumed by religious fervour. For instance, when Danaba, a young lad from the neighbouring village, Divade is brutally beaten up and expelled from his village for eating “thick bread” and “meat” given by the Christian settlers. He escapes to Shirvaddo to save his life. Unfortunately such sin is also not tolerated in Shirvaddo where “eight or ten men with big sticks in their hands chased the young man across the embankment of the river and past the stream into the low lying fields, the khazan by the river. Early the next morning the corpse was found floating in the little pool”. The clearly visible leitmotif of the book, besides throwing light on how colonialism interrupted the lives of medieval Goa, is to expose the illiberal practices of medieval Goan agrarian society - untouchability, class-struggle, superstition and overriding blind casteism. The novel affords us the pleasure of reading a book of history but for a votary of fantastical fiction, it may suffer from the pitfall of obliterating the joy of reading a piece of pure fiction.

Inevitably, the tale veers to the vicious acts of the Portuguese invaders, “the race of fearful demons” who defeated Adil Shah and snatched Goa from him. At the inception, they trick the indigenous population into committing blasphemous acts strictly prohibited in Hinduism like eating beef, killing cows and failing to perform the prayer in the temple. As a consequence, those committing such unpardonable acts are ostracised from Hindu society, and have to convert to Christianity. The novel depicts the brutality of colonialism in their zeal to exploit land and use religion as a powerful weapon.

The novel is peopled with a myriad of characters but the characters seem as indistinguishable from each other as their sufferings. Sometimes in the midst of the book it is difficult to discern who the character is, and what they have said in the earlier pages. But managing a tight plot is not really child’s play. In the main, Age of Frenzy has a good plot but for its slight abruptions. As the novel is originally written in Konkani, the translator also deserves a worthy mention- Vidya Pai has so adeptly translated it that the reader may not have a feel when reading it that it’s a translated work. Simple and flawless in language, the novel sustains a fine motion of reading till its end. It will certainly be a good read for a devotee of historical fiction.