Review by Selma Carvalho
Life is not a passage of random events; it is the constant and conscious creating and culling of culture, and in that cull, how do we retain parts of ourselves?
Love ‘n Share It (2018) by Bennet Paes is, on the face of it, a fictional love story set in Paes’s beloved Sashti (roughly south) Goa, but within its many folds is the memory of a Goa lost or at any rate fading. Paes is not unique in being preoccupied with the past. In fact, writers, particularly of fiction, from Evelyn Waugh to George Orwell, seem unusually taken by the idea that nostalgia needs to be curated. Paes comes from Assolna; deeply rooted in village life, wanting to capture, in his own words, that ‘ancestral past.’
The story opens with Jose Floriano (Jeff) and Maria Joana (Jo) orbiting each other’s lives, albeit peripherally, for they belong to different social stratas. Jeff’s father is a ‘tarvotti’ who perished in the sinking of the MV Dara a few miles off the Dubai coast, while Jo’s father is a doctor. The narrative closely follows the lives of these two lead characters, the many twists and turns of their individual choices, which in the case of Jeff is a stint in Kuwait and then London, and for Jo, a short-lived marriage.
What is interesting about Paes’s book is the observational precision with which he narrates village life. To anyone even remotely acquainted with Goa’s bucolic vistas, the cultural terrain and characters are immediately recognisable. The exactitude with which Paes records even the most minor of foibles and functions is not only impressive but entertaining as well. For instance, it is a well-known fact that in south Goa villages, chardos (the natural enemies of bamons and second in the dubious pecking order of the caste system) act as small-time money lenders. Jo’s mother Rosalinda Fernandes, the grasping wife of doctor Luciano, plays pawnbroker to ‘people in the village.’ It was often the case, that these hapless villagers, blighted by bad harvests or some other downturns in their fortune, would pawn their much-coveted jewellery to such pawnbrokers, who in the event of default to repay the loan would confiscate the collateral, adding to their coffers of ill-gotten gains. Not wanting to strike too strident a note on village faux nobility, it must be said, noblesse oblige, sometimes saw them forgiving these loans or accepting non-monetary favours in return.
Rightly enough, after Liberation in 1961, the decade which coincided with the discovery of oil in the Arabian Gulf region, meant a reversal of fortunes. Many Goans previously tied to the yoke of mundkarponn (tenanted agricultural labour), sought employment in the Gulf, becoming almost overnight, petro-dollar royalty, while the rentier class struggled to re-invent themselves in post-colonial Goa. Jeff, the protagonist, considered ill-suited to marry Jo because of his lowly status, betters himself through a job in Kuwait, and a correspondence course, followed by a job in London.
Meanwhile, Jo’s marriage to the ageing James Gomes, propped up at the altar because of his class and caste status, fails to live up to its promise in the bedroom, and five years on, sees no heirs to that questionable lineage of chardoponn. A frustrated Jo who had curled up many a night ‘with the wide empty space between them,’ seeks an annulment, having in any case, kept alive the flames with her grand amour, Jeff.
Paes provides minor asides to the main narrative by giving us descriptions of the caste system, the ladhin (sung litany), the Goan botler (butler on the high seas) and the ‘kuhr’ among other things. The kuhr or kudd is uniquely Goan, a sort of halfway house set up in Bombay, to assist new arrivals into the city, or transiting out of Bombay. Paes tells us how, often, the kudds themselves became gatekeepers of the caste system besides being gender-segregated, and he notes, that eventually women set up their own ‘bailancho-kuhr.’
Another endearing character in the book is Xenkor, the taxi-driver, who ‘always sprinkled his conversation with Attic salt (sharp wit), and radiated an air of a lovable Labrador.’ The great Goan pastoral, includes this character as a permanent fixture in the lives of the modestly wealthy. He is that one constant at every meaningful life event, the only reliable ambulance, the broker and negotiator of small deals, the errand man, and the family friend. He will ply his customers with witty anecdotes about all things trivial through out the journey, and at the tail-end tot up the account, and whisper a sum, which although might take one by surprise, is paid with gratitude for having such a dependable man on hand. Xenor weaves in and out of this story at opportune moments, playing a crucial role at the end.
Paes crafts an entertaining tale buttressed by sub-plots which lend much to the intrigue and suspense of the narrative. But at its core, this is a story about life in a Goan village, central to which are its cast of instantly recognisable characters.
Bennet Paes was born and raised in Assolna, Goa. He has travelled extensively, and now writes for pleasure. His first book was Simply My Way (2011). Love ‘n Share it can be purchased here.