Keywords… and some key connections

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Frederick Noronha

This book jig-saw puzzle is getting even more interesting. Search for a book, and you could find it is connected with other unexpected books; or that its authors are linked up in unexpected ways. And one book you admired is surprisingly close to the one you didn’t even know exists.

Last week, I learnt of a new and recently-released book called ‘Keywords for India’. It is co-authored by Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Peter Ronald deSouza, who is a professor at the CSDS (Centre for the Study of the Developing Societies, New Delhi) and was earlier heading the political science department at the Goa University. More about the book itself later, which is inspired by Raymond Williams’ pioneering book ‘Keywords’.

(Williams’ ‘Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society’ drew a lot of attention since it first came out in 1976. It is a collection of short essays that are important to understanding our world.)

One is yet to see the ‘Keywords for India’. But its co-authors openly say their book is “inspired by Raymond Williams”. It “brings together more than 200 leading sub-continental scholars to form a polyphonic collective.” They compile a “diverse set of words” that try “to capture the soul” of India.

The book looks at what terms are “currently up for debate” in India. Have their meanings changed over time, and how? The keywords chosen are those from “everyday usage” and also in “scholarly contexts”.  Among its entries is one on that much-discussed, much-misunderstood word of ‘susegad’.

But, what’s also interesting to us perhaps is the book’s co-editors – Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Peter Ronald deSouza. With our usual biases and stereotypes, it might be easy to guess that Nair must be from some distant part of the country. She has been a professor of linguistics and English at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. In fact, her mother (Angela Soares) traces her roots to the village of Aldona, in Bardez.

Even more interesting is that Nair’s grandfather, Anthony Xavier Soares, was a professor of English at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. Given that we in Goa have largely forgotten our own history, the name might not particularly ring a bell. But cyberspace has a longer, and stronger, memory. Thanks to the archive.org site, we can find the full-text of Prof Soares’ book online. See https://bit.ly/dalgado

The book is called ‘Portuguese Vocables in Asiatic Languages’ and was originally published by the polymath Monsignor Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado. Dalgado was a priest, academic, university professor, theologian, linguist, etymologist, Konkani language scholar and Orientalist.

Because of his work and travel, he gained mastery over several languages. Among these languages were Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Sinhala and Bengali, besides having a deep knowledge of Sanskrit.

This book, originally in Portuguese by Monsignor Dalgado, came out in 1913 and is believed to have drawn a warm welcome from Orientalists across Europe who were interested in philological studies. But nobody seemed to have heard the author’s name even, in any part of India, other than Goa, as its translator wrote then.

What the book does is to look at how the Portuguese language has influenced many diverse languages of Asia. Dalgado’s case is that Portuguese has influenced many of the languages of Asia. He studies some 50 languages.

Dalgado sees Portuguese as having spoken in “pure or corrupted” former throughout India, in Malaysia, Pegu, Burma, Sian, Tonquin, Cochin-China, China, in Kamaran in Persia, in Basra of the “Turkish Vilayet” and in Mecca in Arabia. He makes his point of how Portuguese was not spoken by just Portuguese and their descendants, but by “Hindus, Mahommedans, Jews, Malays and Europeans of other nationalities in their intercourse with one another or with the indigenous people.”

But there are more bookish connections here. Soares’ wife (Bernice D’Sa) had Dalgado as her great uncle. Other members of Nair’s extended family, like the scholar Rowena Robinson, have also published well-received books on Goa of their own. Robinson has herself authored books like her first, the well-noticed ‘Conversion, Continuity and Change: Lived Christianity in Goa’, besides other books on Christianity in India.

Nair mentioned her deep interest in the Goan side of her heritage. This only reminds one of the untapped talent pool that Goa has outside its borders. Of course, it can be tough for the diasporic Goan to fit back in, or we here sometimes contribute to making it tough. But their potential – especially when well-intentioned – certainly does exist.