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Riddles: same language, another land

Frederick Noronha

One-third of this book is impossible for me to understand, it comes from perhaps 400 kilometres away, and was written almost forty years back. So, why should one be bothered at all with it?

Contrary to what it might seem, this partly Kannada-script book is relevant to Goa too. Hard-covered, bound with what looks like old sari cloth in a manner which suggests lack of resources, this is nonetheless a book indeed worth taking a look at.

‘Konkany Riddles – Konknni Huminnyom’, by CCA Pai SJ was published in 1981. I too would have missed noticing it, if a friend (probably Leroy) had not known of my bias for collecting old, Goa-related books, and had generously gifted it to me.

Published in Bengaluru, printed in Hubli and written by a Mangalorean priest, the book reminds us of how close (if forgotten) our links with our neighbours can be.

Alan Machado Prabhu, the Mangalorean-origin and Bengaluru-based author of another book, makes an interesting point. He has often pointed out that Goans talk repeatedly about their diasporas (or emigrant populations), but even more often forget about their “oldest, largest and among the earliest” diasporas.

Which one? Those who left Goa and went to Mangaluru, and other areas along the South Indian coast. They did so for a range of complex reasons – possibly including food insecurity, regional conflict and wars, and the skills they could use elsewhere, even though Portuguese religious intolerance is often blamed for this.

Today, both Goans and Mangaloreans mostly don’t acknowledge their connections with each other. They highlight the fact that their shared language is now often incomprehensible to one another. In migration-oriented centres, like Mumbai, where both communities have flocked to, they seem to be in rivalry with one another. Yet, the age-old connections nonetheless remain.

That’s where this book turns relevant. It’s a serious and lengthy study of Konkani riddles. The author credits his “boyhood friends” and “own relatives living in rural parts of South Kanara district” for this significant collection of riddles. This study spans 406 plus 340 pages, in two separate parts.

Of its two parts, the first offers an introduction to “Konkany” (the preferred spelling of the language’s name here), and the “historico-geographic situation” of the Mangalorean Christian community.

It might be worth pointing out briefly that the Mangaloreans mostly trace their roots to Goa, and after migrating, had a tough and hoary history. This included the “captivity” of a large part of that community by Tipu Sultan. They were taken some distance away to his capital of Srirangapattana and kept imprisoned for quite a few years. Obviously, this has strongly shaped the community, its determination to survive, and the tenacity with which it clings to identity and language.

The second part of the book looks at the Konkani riddles of the Mangalore Catholics, others from Goa, yet more in Konkani from Kerala too. Finally, the book ends with a listing of various definitions of riddles. Fr Pai credits RV Pandit and Shohsma Pandit for the collection of the riddles from Goa.

Given Konkani’s rich traditions as a language of the soil, the field and agricultural communities, the riddles of this lingo can sometimes be puzzling. Take this one: “Yeka dudiak bara xiro, xire kannkanni tis biyo”. You’re probably thinking of a pumpkin which has twelve pods, and each of which had 30 seeds. The actual answer? A year, which has 12 months and 30 days (roughly) in each!

But then, you asked for it! By definition (page 337, part II), a riddle refers to a puzzling question or “ambiguous proposition” which is meant to be solved by conjecture. Another of the many definitions tell us a “true riddle or the riddle in the strict sense compares an object to another entirely different object”.

Interestingly, the text of the book, which came before Goa’s Official Language Act (1987), is partly written in three scripts – Kannada, Devanagari, and Romi. For a geographically-divided linguistic group, this could have widened its readership. If, that is, it had been more widely noticed in Goa, and we ourselves here were more serious about reading.

Pai does an interesting job of understanding riddles from across the globe. For the Mangaloreans, riddles played the function “of passing time in a pleasant manner” (page 241, part I). And “it was mainly the children and the younger people who indulged in riddling”. Children took to riddles while helping with the household work, such as guarding over the coconut kernels put out to dry in September and December.

Riddles are connected with the human person. The human shadow is the subject of a “bunch of riddles” (page 249). Human kinship is the subject of others. The names of persons were also subject to riddles. The nobler parts of the human body – above the neck, such as the ears, eyes, eye lashes, forehead, tongue, teeth – are often subject to riddles too. There are also riddles related to generalities.

But then, riddles go on to deal with accoutrements (clothing and ornaments), food, kitchen equipment. Take, for example: “Our old woman keeps laughing, but never speaks” – a boiling rice pot. Or, “My granny goes into the sun and grumbles” – toddy. The list goes on.

There is an interesting discussion on the delayed reach of the printing press to Mangaluru (unlike Goa), and the rivalry between the Basel Mission Press, once believed to be one of the best in the country, and the Codiyalbail Press that came about later.

After this elaborate setting, the meat of the book comes about, in the form of the actual riddles.

Some brief examples: ‘Aplem ang apnaak disana (dollo)’ [You can’t see your own body (eye)]. ‘Apaddlear asa, palleunk gelear na (kaan) [If you touch it, it’s there; if you see it, it isn’t (ear)]. ‘Amcho kupa fatar fendd vonkta (sabu)’ [Clouds that vomit froth (soap)]. ‘Voddlear ulo marta, soddlear nidta (ghantt)’ [If you pull it, it talks; if you leave it, it falls asleep) (a bell). And so on…

Given in three scripts, this is a book worth reading. Unfortunately, or fortunately, there’s too much content to discuss here. So that would have not been a plot-spoiler; if only the book was available. Today, and here. Another good reason to pick up a regional book when you can, instead of repenting a generation later.

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