REVIEW By Stanley Coutinho
Goa is a mirage for the angst-filled, self-exiled Goan; a collage for others – of beaches and bars and some Portuguese-sounding names, with hippies and other lotus-eaters, with, in recent decades, crimes that hit national news headlines and remain plastered in the memory of the sub-continent. As do the images of mid-20th century 'Goanese' of Bombay. All adding up to a fertile ground for intriguing tales.
Sudeep Chakravarti goes lyrical describing Goa with words that could warm – and sadden – the heart of any true Goan: where winds wash through the fields, cleansing, reviving and preparing for the dark; where farmland and forest yield to land-sharks and peddlers of trance; where concrete robs the sunset, the smell of the sea and the breeze; where mining wounds abound; and where devastation persists, encouraged by government bodies and driven by need or greed or abandoned estates ... spelling bounty for few and curse for many. Chakravarti, though, may touch a raw nerve when he says that when we are at home, our bellies are filled with pride; when we are not, we do anything to fill ourselves. He adds a touch of ground-level thinking through Fernandes, the police officer, who 'derided the well-bred families' as they can 'do nutting, no? because ... Portuguese-type peoples no more bluddy-fucks rule Goa, no? So how you can, men?' It is an Eden, says Chakravarti, of half-eaten apples where we try so very hard to let other people be as they wish to be; but, in the process, we have probably sold our soul.
The story develops in and around a village called Socorro do Mundo, (Help of The World?) shortened by the author to: “Sodomo” – suspiciously similar to the biblical town destroyed by God for want of 'even ten righteous people.' Perhaps Chakravarti is making an inadvertent point here. It’s a place of 'timelessness' – an euphemistic alternative to the proverbial laid-backness that is a backdrop for the aforementioned collage. We have the police and a land-shark/political-aspirant symbolised by Winston Almeida – a name thinly disguised! Drug-mafia from overseas completes the picture along with a host of citizens with Niemöllerian indifference. And they all live together in this creaking paradise.
Unfortunately, Chakravarti has all Goans, educated or not, speaking mongrel English. In his attempt at providing local colour, Chakravarti only succeeds in producing a pathetic facetiousness that would irritate any Goan. The purpose of using this language therefore boils down to the half-informed Bollywood productions with their Keshto Mukerjees and others. One cannot help but recall Maria Aurora Couto’s observation in her 2005 book (Goa – A Daughter’s Story):
'The Goan is now compelled to travesty and caricature. He performs for the neo-colonizing gaze of the mainland, abetted by Goans themselves, to entertain the outsider, with elements of crude voyeurism.'
Attempts at humour in the book are undignified. When Winston, wanting to imitate England's war hero Churchill, decides that Romeo y Julieta cigars would complete his adopted personality, a minion presents him with a copy of Romeo and Juliet, which Winston pushes down his throat permanently curing him of tonsillitis. When a lady loses her husband and father in-law on the same day, her hair suddenly turning white, Chakravarti writes: [She] 'looked almost relieved ... that she would not have to grieve twice over.' If this is humour, it’s of a rather strange variety.
Chakravarti also refers to the lineage of one character 'that could be traced back to the dalliances' of Albuquerque and his officers “with fair skinned widows and daughters of Moorish occupiers” of Goa. Albuquerque pursued the Portuguese government’s policy of encouraging its officers in all its colonies to marry local women – unlike the situation in the East India Company where the Bengali Kalikata-Gobindapur-Sutanuti combine merged into British Calcutta.
Reference is made to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour as 'Mummy of the Son of God' which smacks further of Chakravarti's facetiousness. No English-speaking Durga-worshipper refers to the goddess or to Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s 'Mother' as Mummy.
Later while referring to land raped by mining houses, he observes, 'Such is the way of nature. Such is the Saibinn's way.' The mention of Saibinn here is an obvious attempt at adding local colour through peasant beliefs, qua Thomas Hardy, and fares rather poorly. Irreverence is certainly not adding local colour. At a wedding, he writes, 'they had taken their vows in front of a tortured Christ.' When Winston’s wife secretly decides to get a tubectomy, she hopes 'Jesus, his mummy – a strong woman by all accounts – his daddy and their church would surely understand and forgive her this trespass.' This is ridicule, not humour. Then again, the catholic police-officer’s comparison of Dino with Jesus (referring to the miracles as 'magic and all') is highly improbable.
Antonio (one of the protagonists) fails to hold together as a believable character. Least understood are his meaningless conversations with the ghost of Albuquerque. Dionysus Dantas, (Dino, for short) the other protagonist, is too naïve a character to be accepted as real. By the time he makes his appearance, he has made enemies of the local police, the politicians, and the land-sharks and thugs. His wife has left their 'unglamorous' marriage under the improbable advice of a Catholic priest to get pregnant with the help of any lover. It’s a pity that Chakravarti has failed to read up on the Church’s stand on marriage. Later, the priest is portrayed in a rather ridiculous situation, once again, during a funeral.
Dino’s mother, Ida, is a surprise though. While Dino was struggling with his beliefs, she didn’t show any interest in his cause. But suddenly (in a kind of PTSD) she joins his Save Goa Society and wins several international awards 'in rapid succession'. Says Chakravarti, every adventure ... “miraculously”, turns out successful, drawing people from the cities and villages, old and young, to rid the land of waste ... and all that Dino had fought for. 'Miraculously' – another jibe?
One is reminded, though, of the many 'men of Indostan' who come to Goa and are fascinated by the elephant’s tail – with the consequences of exposure to its rear-end. Many such men who, in the words of Norman Dantas (in his Introduction to The Transforming of Goa, 1999), thump [their] chest and declaim proudly, 'Hanv Goenkar!' but as Dantas continues, 'where there are two Goans there are three opinions ... about who or what is a Goan.' The novel is said to be a kind of tribute to Norman Dantas, but the tragic protagonist here is a poor replica of the one who the historian, late Father Nascimento Mascarenhas called 'one of [Goa’s] finest thinkers.'
Of course, the distant Hindustan Times calls the book: 'Damn Good.' It is rather a poor reincarnation deserving of relegation to that unfortunate collage which now signifies Goa.
Stanley Coutinho was born in Goa and grew up in Bombay. He joined the Civil Services and retired as Dy. Director-General, Dept of Defence Production. At 20, he published his first short story in the Times of India. He is the author of The Faceless Resource, an account of the plight of contract workers in India, and has reviewed over a 1,000 books in leading publications.
The Baptism of Tony Calangute (Aleph, 2018) can be purchased here.