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Goa’s forgotten tongue

Frederick Noronha

A few days ago, the postman brought in what seemed like a packed book that had travelled quite some distance. This took me a bit by surprise. Normally, when a book shows up, you’ve been already informed that it’s on the way. So, from whom was this unexpected, small packet?

On opening it, the first thing to strike me about the book that popped out was its academic demeanour and sober colours. One was not wrong: it was a book edited by Paul Melo e Castro, and published by the University of Wales Press.

Melo e Castro has had a deep fascination with Goan writing, especially that of the Portuguese era. With a British mum and a Portuguese dad, he seems to be the right person in the right place. He is a lecturer in Portuguese and Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow, teaching this and other subjects in Britain. Of relevance to us is his interest in Goa-related themes.

Over the years, he has been translating short stories from Portuguese into English, and has come out with some volumes already. That is clearly not an easy task, because these short stories aren’t just sitting around, in neatly packed volumes, waiting to be translated. In fact, one needs to find these stories out of dusty and old newspaper issues, some missing, scattered around libraries mostly in Goa but also elsewhere in the globe.

In the latest work he has compiled and edited, Woven Palms: Colonial and Post-Colonial Goan Literature in Portuguese (University of Wales Press, 2019), Melo e Castro brings forth some 13 essays, dealing with a subject we have almost completely forgotten back in Goa itself.

Melo e Castro starts by contesting V S Naipaul’s dismissive description of Goa “redolent of stereotypes about Goa peddled both in India and in Europe [that] is simply erroneous”. The introduction raises a number of interesting issues, from misunderstandings over Goan writing in Portuguese today (though small) and in the past, to the role of diverse languages in Goa. The book, he says, aims to reach out to those “interested in Goan writing in any language” and also “Lusitanists” whose centre of research is otherwise mainly centred around the Atlantic.

The volume itself looks at Goan writing in Portuguese from the late 19th century till the 1970s… a few later too. There are novels written which most of us here would not even have ever heard of – Os Brahmanes (1866) by Francisco Luis Gomes, Os Maharatas by Leopoldo Dias (1894), Jacob e Dulce (1896) by Francisco Joao Costa (or GIP), A Neta do Cozinheiro (1904) by Costantino Jose de Brito, Bodki (1962) by Agostinho Fernandes, and O Signo da Ira (1963) by Orlando da Costa.

Then, there is also a question of labels. Along with the Brazilian Helder Garmes, Melo e Castro debates how this form of writing should be termed. Is it Indo-Portuguese writing? Or Goan writing in Portuguese?

This book seems to be aimed at sharing, in English, a whole lot of information about Goan writing in Portuguese. No longer will someone who doesn’t know the language be able to simply dismiss the entire field, claim he doesn’t know it, or that it doesn’t amount to much anyway.

What is also interesting is that the writers in this text mostly manage to avoid being uncritically and excessively enthusiastic about all writers and all books, whether deserved or not. With the contributors to the volume coming from the UK, Brazil, the US, Portugal, Argentina and Goa (Edith Noronha Melo Furtado and priest-scholar Eufemiano Miranda) it would have been surprising if this wasn’t the case. Authors and even critics are criticised when those contributing to this volume see the need for it.

Putting together a work of this sort is not easy . The Portuguese used by some authors is not the pure, European variant. Some contributors have stressed that they had to check up words in Konkani and Portuguese with others.

Furtado’s overview of women’s writing from Goa is comprehensive and insightful. For a change, we get an insight into what a novel like Bodki, written by a Catholic doctor in the 1960s and set in the village of Mashem is all about. Professor K David Jackson of Yale does a good job of introducing the reader, via English, to the Goan poets writing in Portuguese between 1893 and 1973.Vimala Devi, the Goan writer who played a significant role in keeping the link with the Goan Portuguese literature alive, is looked at in three different chapters. Short stories and discussed too.

Melo e Castro makes a strong case of the need for more translations, and not just into English but from Konkani into Portuguese too. Or the other way around. He points out that even Lambert Mascarenhas’ Sorrowing Lies My Land still awaits a Portuguese translation, being a work which would obviously interest readers in that language elsewhere in the globe. “As even this tiny selection indicates, there exists in Marathi and Konkani a sizeable archive relating to Portuguese colonialism inaccessible to scholars lacking the requisite language skill,” he writes.

Melo e Castro argues that “Goan literature in Portuguese is the only significant Indian literature to have been written in a European language other than English and, as such, provides both a challenging point of comparison with anglophone Indian literature and a space to examine post-colonial theory often implicitly embedded in a British Indian colonial experience.”

Reading this work brought up mixed feelings for me. For one, it was fascinating to see the interest from distant lands in a literature linked to Goa’s past.

On the other hand, at the rate we’re going in forgetting it, time will be when the only experts on Goan writing in Portuguese could be based half-way round the world!

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