Wednesday , 27 March 2019

Agostinho Fernandes: The forgotten man of letters

By Maria de Lourdes Bravo da Costa Rodrigues

The demise of Agostinho Fernandes on June 29 in Portugal brings down the curtain on Goan men of letters of the past, who wrote in Portuguese. Fernandes became famous with his first novel ‘Bodki’ published in 1962 in Portugal. A lot of appreciation was bestowed on the book and he was honoured with references featuring in Who’s Who in the World (6th edition), Marquis Publication Board and Who’s Who in the Western World and also in Five Thousand Personalities of the World. A great honour indeed!

‘Bodki’ was written without much literary training as Agostinho was trained in medical sciences. ‘Literatura Indo-Portuguesa’ authored by Vimala Devi and Manuel Seabra, which discusses various Goan writers, throws light on the social life of Goa of the time. According to them the only imperfection in the book is Agostinho’s literary style. Nevertheless, the same critics say: “He is a born writer, who lived and wrote spontaneously, away from influences and “literary men”. From there the feeling of freshness and fluidity that his novel communicates to us, further enhances its value.” About the book, Bodki is certainly a novel well written and one of the few Portuguese literary works getting vast international readership on its own merit.

In the explanatory note titled ‘Palavras prévias (a meio século de distância…)’ in the second edition of ‘Bodki’ Fernandes states that in the sixties, which is when the book was written, a time when literary schools were unheard of and non-existent, any train of literary thinking in Portuguese could be used as a guide. However, there were groups of individuals dedicated to writing who contributed to school magazines and others of the like. Fernandes says that his writing began in one of such group based at the students guest house ‘Lar de Estudantes’ situated at Altinho, Panaji, which was managed by Francisco Monteiro (Padre Chico). They used to publish a paper, which would be typed and circulated from person to person. It was called ‘A Cortina’ (The Curtain). However, before this paper, there was ‘O Chicote’ (The Whip) and its Konkani edition in Bombay to which he contributed. He ends the note by saying that it was through individual efforts that works were published.

The central theme of the novel is the fight against ignorance, superstition, traditions and prejudices against certain persons. It talks about the need to increase the cultural level of people who can make it possible to win in this fight. The author’s narrative in this regard is well presented. It is written in first person, with the author as the main character of the novel.

What led him to write the novel? The author was not selected for a post as health officer in Murdi, in spite of being better qualified than his colleague, who was selected as he had a cousin in the office of the administration of concelho. Upset, he decided to practice in a village. His father was told that the village of Maxem in Canacona was a good place to start the practice as there were no doctors in the area within a thirty kilometre radius. He decided to go to Maxem and survey the place. It was during this journey, seated in the bus ‘Chitrapur’, that he thought of writing a novel.

What made him select Maxem? He knew the topography of the village well, having been there for a picnic when he was ten. It so happened that they lost contact with the second group of the picnic and the search took them around the village.

Though the novel is in first person, Agostinho tells us that he never practiced in Goa, because soon after his visit to Maxem he was informed by the University of Coimbra that he was admitted for medical studies and he left Goa. Most of the novel is imaginary, though there are a few real life happenings, like his feelings when he was seated next to a young girl or the stories his mother narrated to him and his father’s sickness. The rest was imaginary and not his experience as a doctor in the village.

The impression that he creates in the minds of people after he successfully helps deliver a baby puts him in good stead with people from the village, especially those from the poorer section. The book’s plot is centred on the fight against ignorance and superstition. Over the central plot is the shadow of the mysterious ‘bodki’, a bad omen to the villagers to the extent that the poor woman has to leave the village and all those related to her are also considered to be cursed. She is the target of hatred and frustration of the people of the village. There is also a ‘ghadi’ in the village to whom people would go to solve their problems.

But who is ‘bodki’? It is important to know to understand the book, especially for those who are not familiar with Indian culture. ‘Bodki’ can be considered to be a substitute of sati (now banned), the sacrifice of a widow on the funeral pyre. They would shave their heads, adorn a white sari and move out of the village, and were considered bad omen. They were deemed to be cursed by the goddess Agni, (the goddess of fire) whom they had failed to obey.

Bodkis’s daughter Kamala, and the son of a batcar Dinvas, fall in love. The father objects to the relationship and Dinvas ends his life in an isolated, abandoned and ruined structure. The people set ‘bodki’s’ hut alight and the woman is burnt to death. Kamala has an intimate relationship with a man called Singh, and gets pregnant. Unfortunately for her, he dies.  So as to not suffer like her mother and become yet another ‘bodki’, she jumps on the pyre and dies. The doctor unfortunately is unable to save her.

Born in forlorn Quepem on July 2, 1932, he studied at the Liceu Nacional Afonso de Albuquerque (Lyceum). He joined the Escola Medica Cirurgica de Goa (Goa Medical College) where he concluded his course. He went to Portugal and joined the Universidade de Coimbra to revalidate his degree. He started his medical career in the African colony of Angola where he was the director of the campaign against sleeping disease from 1960 to 1962. Later, after returning to Portugal, he joined as Medico Cardiologista do Centro Hospitalar das Caldas da Rainha, Portugal from 1974 to 1982. He also worked in other hospitals as a cardiologist including Hospital de Santa Maria in Lisbon. He was the Member of Sociedade Portuguesa de Cardiologia and of the Sociedade Europeia de Cardiologia. He collaborated in the newspapers of Angola and Portugal. According to Aleixo Manuel da Costa in Dicionário de Literatura Goesa, he has a number of plays written in Konkani, which are unpublished and also a book of poems ‘Os Meus proprios pedaços’. Another book titled ‘Por alem do alem’ was published in 2007 and a reprint of ‘Bodki’ was released in 2014. Probably writing came naturally to him and it runs in the family, with his younger brother John Claro Fernandes being a well known ‘tiatr’ writer and director, most remembered and famous for ‘Portuguez Colvont’.

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