Goanet Reader: An imaginative story of Goa’s turbulent time (Ben Antao’s novel reviewed by Cornel DaCosta)

[A nice review from Cornel. -FN]


A review by Cornel DaCosta

On beginning to read this novel by a Goan author and set in
Goa, my memory was drawn to a period between August and
December 1961 that I spent in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya,
whilst temporarily away from my hometown of Mombasa. I had
stayed at a relatively new up-market YMCA, made new friends,
including fellow Goans, others from the Indian sub-continent,
and a few Brits, Germans, Dutch and Danes.

One was a particularly jovial young Portuguese gentleman.
Television was not yet available to us, but in the main, BBC
radio kept us informed about news around the world.

On the morning of December 19, 1961, on radio, I
heard the dramatic news that, after 461 years, the
Portuguese rulers had been ousted from Goa by the
Indian armed forces. I recall being quite elated by
this news. I had always opposed colonialism in
principle and felt happy over the removal of the
colonial yoke in my ancestral homeland of Goa.

Over breakfast that morning, it became clear that most of my
new friends were rather excited and seemingly pleased with
the news. However, the Portuguese gentleman in our midst wept
inconsolably. When he calmed down, he explained that it was
not so much the news about the Indian “occupation” of Goa
that really upset him. He felt that this would have occurred
sooner or later, because of the obduracy of the Portuguese
Prime Minister Salazar. Rather, it was the manifestation of
joy in me and fellow Goans, that morning that upset him

“How”, he asked, still in tears, “could you, my Portuguese
brothers celebrate the Indian takeover of Goa?” He was pained
even more when I told him, as gently as I could, that as a
Goan, I was never pro-Portuguese as he had perhaps imagined
but an Indian at heart.

On continuing with Ben Antao’s recently-released novel ‘Blood
and Nemesis’, it further struck me that, despite visiting Goa
several times from my subsequent abode in England, I had not
followed the political changes in Goa too closely over the
years. Instead, I was strongly drawn to study the abomination
of caste practice among significant numbers of Catholic
Goans, and also, to explore the effects of mass tourism on
the paradise that is Goa.

The novel, however, captured my attention to the dramatic
events leading to the incorporation of Goa into the republic
of India and the roles of many individuals there who were
for, or against, the expulsion of the Portuguese from the
territory of Goa.

We thus get a vivid account of many antagonisms and
actions centred mainly in Goa, over a relatively
short historical period, up to, and soon after
December 1961. The Indian military action is
presented in considerable detail and the many
characters involved are very real in terms of the
actual events of the time.

In this very absorbing story, we note the ever-vigilant
police presence represented by Jovino Colaco and his
immediate boss Gaspar Dias. Both are determined to suppress
any Goan anti-Portuguese sentiments and political activity
sympathetic to Indian nationalism.

They take it upon themselves, on behalf of the authoritarian
Portuguese administration, to bait freedom fighters, capture
them, physically abuse them and then incarcerate them in the
infamous Aguada jail in Goa. Their particular quarry from May
1955 was a fellow Goan, Santan Barreto. They kept a close eye
on him and on his friends who usually spent their leisure
time at Bombay Cafe in the town centre of Margao in south Goa.

This cat and mouse strategy is captured brilliantly in the
novel. It depicts Jovino, the policeman invariably on his
motorbike, as a power-hungry individual, with a weakness for
drink, gambling and prostitutes.

He is determined to amass wealth corruptly and to gain
promotion at work, having been told by his superiors that his
advancement would depend on his success in capturing Goan
freedom fighters who operated clandestinely.

In contrast, Santan, fired by a powerful desire to rid Goa of
the Portuguese presence becomes increasingly elusive but very
active in the subversive underground political network. He
surreptitiously outsmarts and frustrates Jovino for a long
time. He also gets emboldened by minor skirmishes against the
police, and with fellow conspirators, manages to attack
isolated police posts to obtain firearms and ammunition.
However, his luck eventually runs out. The vigilant Jovino
strikes lucky late one night and Santan is captured, abused,
and then summarily jailed. He survives the harsh treatment in
prison for years and is eventually freed in 1961 during the
rapid Indian military action.

Freedom for Santan Barreto and his fellow freedom
fighters is sublime, but clearly, at a high cost of
life and limb for many in the struggle. He
eventually manages towards normal life and his fame
as a freedom fighter and hero spreads rapidly with
considerable adulation from the local people and
also in Bombay. However, he is determined to find
his former oppressor, Jovino. Thus the former
hunter nowbecomes actively hunted.

Jovino had decided earlier, to continue to live in Goa,
despite the available option from Gaspar Dias, to flee Goa by
air for Portugal via Karachi in Pakistan.

Tracking Jovino proved to be more difficult than expected for
Santan and his comrades as the canny policeman had hidden all
traces of his whereabouts in Goa. Nevertheless, after much
assiduous detective work of his own, Santan is able to find
the final location of his Nemesis, Jovino, and has to then
deal with a totally unexpected situation towards the end of
this scintillating novel.

This is Ben Antao’s first novel and seasoned readers of
novels will detect features which are innovative in this
genre in terms of the story line, its grounding in a specific
historical period and in the presentational style.

For me, it absorbingly took me from my pre-independence Kenya
experience, as described above, to the time of Goa’s
liberation in 1961. Whilst reading the novel, I also
reflected on the continuing intellectual premise encapsulated
by VS Naipaul, the famous novelist and Nobel laureate, and
others, that fiction is dead, vanquished by our need for

To my mind, this is highly debateable, but there is
nevertheless, much on-going discussion on this theme and
about those novels, which have, in their narrative, strong
links to actual facts as in the case of Blood and Nemesis.

Clearly, we can have accurate historical accounts of actual
events, but so too, the literary novel of the kind presented
by Ben Antao, that stretches the reader’s imagination in a
way that a historical text may also do, but rather
differently. In Antao’s case, introspective imaginative
storytelling has had the power to reveal underlying truths in
highly turbulent and trying times.

On a related issue, today, there are those who have
not accepted Goa as liberated but as under
occupation by India. This novel zeroes in on the
elements of this dilemma around the time of the
military action in 1961.

Antao, who lived in Goa and Bombay for much of his life
before eventually settling in Toronto, Canada, depicts this
particularly well and insightfully. He has had other
publications, one of which, available to me, was biographical
in orientation. But I enjoyed Blood and Nemesis very much,
despite what I thought was perhaps a bit of an abrupt ending.

Perhaps this specific comment stems from my desire to have
wanted to read even more material in this particular novel.
But in another sense, the novel has whetted my appetite for a
welcome sequel that could take us from the dramatic events of
1961 to the present in Goa.

The particular conundrum whether Goa has been liberated or is
an occupied territory in the eyes of some people living
there, and in the Goan diaspora, is worthy of a follow-up by
Antao. Hopefully, when readers convey their impressions of
Blood and Nemesis to the author, he will be inspired to
generate more pleasurable reading in his distinctive and
inimitable style.

Blood & Nemesis
By Ben Antao
Goan Observer Private Ltd.
318 pages, Rs. 250 ($25 CN)

Blood & Nemesis was released on June 18, 2005, at
International Centre, Goa, by freedom fighter and author
James Fernandes.

For inquiries contact: Ben Antao (Toronto) 416 250 8885

Cornel DaCosta, PhD, author and specialist on University
Education, is based in London, England.


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