Review by Augusto Pinto
The illustrated novella Song Sung Blue, the fifth and latest offering of author, artist and academic Savia Viegas borrows its title from Neil Diamond’s 1972 number 1 hit song of the same name. In it Diamond sings: "Me and you are subject to the blues now and then / But when you take the blues and make a song / You sing them out again," suggesting that turning sadness into art can be cathartic.
Catharsis is a Greek word which means cleansing, but in the context of the arts is regarded as the purifying or purging of depressing emotions like pity and fear by creating art that is tragic. This is what Viegas’s writing and painting attempts to achieve in Song Sung Blue, the life-story of a Goan Catholic woman named Divina which spans a period from her childhood in the late 1950s (around the years marking Goa’s Liberation) until her pathetic death five decades later.
The colour blue dominates the book’s illustrations. In several cultures from ancient Egyptian times onwards and even in our times, blue has been associated with sadness. Song Sung Blue which tells a sad story (and tells it twice in fact) reinforces the effect with its blue artwork. Incidentally none of the figures who feature in the illustrations has a happy look on the face except arguably one: a caricature of a cobra.
The book is structured like a picaresque novel, which is to say that it does not have a complicated plot, and is narrated as a series of often unconnected episodes in the life of Divina who is born to a once well-to-do, upper caste Chardo bhatkar family from Carmona in Salcette that has fallen upon hard times.
Although Christianity does not conceive of caste, caste divisions among the Goan Catholic community dating back to their conversion are a reality. Conflicts emanating from caste resonate just below the surface of the book’s action and can be easily missed, as they aren’t always referred to explicitly but through allusions to tailor-boys and sailor-boys and toddy tappers, all of whom are looked down upon by Divina’s family.
Divina’s amorous entanglements with men from these other castes can be looked at as an allegory of the change in Goa’s caste dynamics as the old upper-caste dominated bhatkar-mundkar system that controlled Goan society before Liberation starts crumbling for reasons ranging from globalisation to the influx of migrants from other parts of India.
The book commences with a conversation between a student from London doing an assignment on post-colonial tiatr; and the old, eccentric and liquored up Divina who is narrating to her how her sister Maria do Ceu was born just as Goa was getting liberated on 19 December 1961.
The next episode ‘Boy in Girls Dorm’ jumps to 1972 in a girls school run by nuns in which a boy has been admitted as an exception. The boy who had witnessed the horrific gang rape of his mother, and the subsequent burning alive of his parents in Idi Amin’s Uganda, later ends up castrating himself. None of the characters in this episode appear again which is typical of the book.
Later episodes like ‘Hush Puppies’ and ‘Rossghollo and Iceghollo’ deal with Divina’s sexual awakening. The Rossghollo episode ends up with Divina getting seduced and impregnated by Jesse, a long-haired bus driver who in his spare time is a tiatrist who specializes in female roles, and who is discovered later to be bisexual. Jesse is to abandon Divina in favour of a gay French lover; and their child that she delivers is given away in adoption.
To make matters worse Divina’s family breaks up, with her father mysteriously disappearing; her mother joining a convent where she cuts herself off from the world; and her sister going away to become a nun.
Divina shuts her house and enters the world of employment in Vasco where she befriends a group of young women who are in a similar situation as her – hardly any realistic prospect of marriage but with a desire to live their life to the full. In the bargain they end up giving the go by to the values of a society in transition, values which yo-yo between the unrealistic and the hypocritical.
Later her nun sister, Maria do Ceu, is brutally gang raped and murdered in a village in North India where she is posted. While this episode points to the increasing tension Christians and other minorities in India are facing from right-wing lumpen elements, one aspect about which the book remains silent is the relationship between the Hindu and Christian communities within Goa itself.
Another twist in the story occurs when news comes to Divina that her house in Carmona has been encroached upon by some migrants. She does succeed in getting them evicted with the help of the village sarpanch Felipe who is the son of a toddy tapper. She gets emotionally involved and subsequently marries him. She delivers twins fathered by him but then Filipe gets involved with politics and bullfighting and their relationship flounders.
Her first love Jesse is one of the rare characters of the book who makes a reappearance but he has come back from France to die in Goa. In this relationship though, Divina does experience a sense of closure.
A series of bizarre occurrences follow which result in both her husband and her children meeting with unfortunate deaths. The final days of Divina’s life are witnessed by Divina’s daughter (from her liaison with Jesse). At the end of the book her entire tale is told once again but the perspective seems different perhaps because Divina’s life can now be viewed in its entirety.
As in her previous works Let Me Tell You About Quinta (Penguin, 2011) and Abha Nama (2012), Savia Viegas in Song Sung Blue creates a protagonist who, like her, is from Carmona, and who shares a background which has many similarities with the author’s life thereby suggesting that her tale dips heavily into her bank of memories. Her distinctive writing style is interspersed with words and concepts from Konkani, Hindi and Portuguese (although she does provide a glossary for most of these). The book’s editing is tight and resists entering many tempting by-lanes, thus keeping the narrative fairly terse.
If one sees Song Sung Blue as merely the sad story of a random individual then one might dismiss it as a meaningless tale. But when one sits back and reflects upon it, one realises that Divina’s story serves as a metaphor for the gradual disintegration of a once vibrant community of Catholic Goans; and also as a critique of the often undesirable changes that Goa has undergone, and is still undergoing in recent times.
Reading about them can be cathartic to the reader.
Augusto Pinto is a senior Associate Professor at S. S. Dempo College of Commerce and Economics' Department of English, Goa. Since 1986 he has been a translator from Konkani into English, his most recent work being a translation of Dr. Jayanti Naik's stories The Salt of the Earth (Goa 1556, 2017). He is currently translating the plays of the eminent Konkani playwright Pundalik Naik. He is also a freelance essayist, middle writer and book reviewer.
To order Song Sung Blue, please contact email@example.com.