Goan writing in English and all that…


A phone call this morning from a journalist colleague reminded me to put down a recent experience: trying to understand the depth of Goan writing in English. A hopelessly difficult job, given that one’s own journalistic perspective does not make for the detailed examination that such a subject, more than any other, requires.

Alice (Barnetto) D’Cruz, a college classmate now heading the English Department at St Xaviers (Mapusa), had some weeks back phoned to mention plans for a program to discuss this theme. Being out of any form of academic activity for ages, and having lost pretensions about continuing research years ago (journalism is too much of instant fun, anyway!) maybe this diarist was not the best person to be approached.

Anyway, journalists, like donkeys, have one positive trait. By mere fact of rubbing shoulders (and exchanging ideas) with a whole lot of others, they tend to almost sound knowledgeable (sometimes). Anyway, Goan writing in English was a subject that had fascinated me long back. If one had carried on slogging for an additional title, a possible once-thought-of theme for research would have been ‘The Image of Goa In Writing in English’.

So, we rather willingly got drawn into the program.

On the eve of the day it was to be held, a late evening phone call reminded me that I had done precious nothing to prepare myself. So, the old collection of Goa books — some 600 in all, nothing compared to Goan Voice UK’s Eddie Fernandes’ Goa books collection of 2000+ — came to one’s rescue.

Alice came as expected and picked up the hastily picked-up 63 books related to creative writing in English by Goans. (There probably were more in one’s bookshelves, which are cluttered and in a mess. But the time was limited.) If anyone thought that this genre didn’t exist, the quantity (the question of quality is another debate) would quickly convince them otherwise….

It worked.

In the morning session, Margaret Mascarenhas, the author of ‘Skin’, and Dr Olivinho Gomes, recently-retired head of Goa University’s Konkani department, spoke. So did Carmo D’Souza, the law college prof who almost seems happier writing rather than lecturing.

One’s own views are that Goan writing in English is unfortunately too scattered and dispersed a field to be adequately studied. Goa’s press does, at best, a poor job in reviewing new books. Added to this, most books are self-published. When published, very few learn that there’s a new book in town. By the time potential readers go looking for it, the
title is mostly out of print or unavailable.

By some quirk of fate, organisations like Fundacao Orient have given a filip to book publishing here, by offering writers a subsidy of a few thousand rupees for each title. No, this is not only for Lusostalgic books related to Portuguese themes, but for just about any Goa book.

(Konkani writing and Marathi writing has benefitted from government subsidies, but this is another matter.)

For some reason, Goan writing has thrown up a large number of biographies, verse and history-related themes. Fiction, on the other hand, while not non-existant, is less visible. There are a decent number of children’s stories. But certain outlets, including the Calcutta/Kolkata-based Writer’s Workshop, have contributed greatly to help new Goan writers get a break. Unfortunately we have very few, if any, publishers catering to this small and scattered market of Goan writing in English.

Prof Edward DeLima, author of a simple book on teaching yourself Konkani which incidentally sold out all the thousand copies printed as he mentioned, gave a good backgrounder on writing in English, which dates back to the nineteenth century and the Pilerne-based poet Joseph Furtado of Furtadovaddo (b 1872). Prof DeLima is himself doing his PhD on Armando Menezes.

Mayabhushan Nagvenkar, a Xavier’s alumni and now one of the reporters-with-a-difference at Panjim, who is waiting to have his book of short short-stories published, gave another perspective. So did young students, children of the Goan diaspora, struggling to find their roots back home and unsure of where to learn about them.

Goan writing in English comprises of fiction and non-fiction, writings from the Goan diaspora (quite a bit) and within Goa itself, those self-published or brought out by publishing houses (rather limited in number). It’s not just Goans who write about Goa, of course. There are books like Elwyn Chamberlain’s ‘Gates of Fire’ which deploy Goa just as a backdrop and touch on this place only tangentially. Others like the late Dr Cleo Odzer’s ‘Goa Freaks’ tell, with amazing insights, the story of hippies in Goa in the 1970s.

It’s perhaps difficult to buy the Goa-related book you want. Norma Alvare’s little-known-in-Goa Other India Bookstore (it’s tucked away in one corner of Mapusa, and most of its business is via mail-order) is one exception with its two shelves full of Goa-related books. It desperately tries to keep up with new titles published on Goa, even if this is a task doomed to failure.

By some coincidence, at the program, two of this diarist’s other classmates — now both teaching in colleges — Lucy James and Sandhya Bhandare-Sequeira were also present. We did miss another of our classmates, Augusto Pinto of Moira, who has translated a number of Konkani short stories into English.

Needless to say, people like Prof Peter Nazareth have done an interesting job in putting their anthology of Goan writing (‘Journal of South Asian Literature, Michigan State University’ Goan Literature: A Modern Reader, Winter-Spring 1983 Vol XVIII, Number 1). It was this book together with Dr Robert S Newman’s 1983 Pacific Affairs essay (‘Goa: The Transformation of an Indian Region’), more than any other, that convinced me as a young college student, that Goan writing in English was a fascinating field.

Nazareth, who has incidentally been a Goanetter, says somewhere that Goans have written in as many as thirteen languages! I hope this short note could nudge a few others in this direction. Maybe a starting point could be building a database of all known published material. By the time one was leaving Mapusa’s college that day, it was a pleasant surprise to find the granddaughter of poet and writer Manuel C Rodrigues (Songs in Exile, 1934, Homeward, 1939, Selected Poems, 1978) present a copy of her granddad’s book called ‘Still-Life and Other Stories’ (1984, Rs 23).

Let’s hope that Xavier’s, which is showing an increasing interest in connecting with real-life concerns that could help the students in later years, would take some more initiatives on this front. (23JUL2003)

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