Given his energy levels and zest for life, you wouldn’t guess Victor Rangel-Ribeiro is an octogenarian. If he’s not mentoring young writers and egging them on, he’s spending long hours perfecting sheaves of manuscript pages or taking a keen interest in his love of music.
Born in 1925 in the village of Porvorim, he lived his life in the shadow of his father, who, he says, could do almost anything not just well but with panache. Victor Rangel-Ribeiro has had two careers — one first in Bombay, and the second in the United States. And they have encompassed several fields.
In education, he was a high school teacher in Mumbai, and in New York a teacher of illiterates, a teacher of the poor and disadvantaged both young and old, a teacher of university students, and for a very short time a “teacher of pampered teenagers whose parents were so rich they did not give a damn about getting a good education”.
As a journalist, he has been a reporter, subeditor, and assistant editor in Mumbai, and has then written for the New York papers as well. In advertising, he became the first Indian to be copy chief with J. Walter Thompson Co. in Mumbai, and was also the first Indian to be copy chief with a very small advertising agency in New York.
In music, Rangel-Ribeiro was a music critic with the Times and the Express in Bombay, and in New York he wrote music criticism for The New York Times. The International Chamber Orchestra, funded by the Ford Foundation in the 1960s, chose him as their first conductor and he led the group in its inaugural season.
In the late 1970s he was appointed music director of New York’s Beethoven Society and under his guidance they were invited to become a member of the very prestigious Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts. VRR began writing at a very early age, and his efforts were encouraged by both parents and siblings.
At St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, he started a writers’ club and a typewritten magazine. Late John Correia Afonso, the Indo-Portuguese historian, was a member; prominent ad man Gerson da Cunha joined later. His short stories began to appear in the Illustrated Weekly, and they were illustrated by Mario Miranda.
In New York, he stopped writing fiction for a while but began again in 1988 after meeting in Bombay with Mulk Raj Anand. He also began editing manuscripts professionally, and edited some forty nonfiction books for such publishers like Macmillans. On the personal front, he adds: “In 1954, I married the very talented and beautiful young pianist Lea Vaz. Our partnership has endured and has enriched our lives. We have a daughter, Eva, and a son, Eric, and five grandchildren.”
Frederick “FN” Noronha took advantage of his current visit to Goa, where he’s actively egging on a GoaWriters’ group among other things, to pick Rangel-Ribeiro’s experiences and put issues linked to Goan achievements and shortcomings in context. Excerpts:
Mentoring writers back in Goa seems to be a priority for you at this stage of your career. Am I right? If so, why?
Back in 1988, when the great pioneering novelist Mulk Raj Anand was slightly older than I am now and was also frightfully busy, he spent three whole days talking to me about the craft of writing, and the advice he gave me then proved to be invaluable. If he could spend so much time mentoring someone who was quite unknown, as I was then, merely because I had reached out to him, I felt I too should extend a helping hand to those who reach out to me.
I have made mentoring writers in Goa a priority because I see how much talent we have here, how much eagerness to write and to be published; I see also how little professional guidance is available.
What do you see as the potential of the young Goan writer both back at home and in the diaspora?
Young Goan writers have the same potential that young non-Goan writers have, but what they achieve will depend strictly on the inner drive they feel, the training they receive, the skills they develop, the amount of effort they are willing to put in, and their willingness to cope with failure before they achieve true success.
My experience has been that many young Goans have the drive to write, but lack the willingness to put in the very hard effort that is needed to first master the English language, and then to master their craft.
What in your view are the three main strengths and weaknesses that the Goan writer-in-the making has, and suffers from?
The first strength is that our writers are multicultural by inheritance and almost by nature; the second is that they are probably also multilingual; the third is that, by nature, they are also wanderers. Thus, a Goan writer is at home almost anywhere in the world, and is as likely to succeed in the United States as in Brazil, or Portugal or England or Australia, or — much closer to home — in Mumbai.
The first weakness that young Goan writers suffer from is the fact that it is difficult for them to get a true sense of the quality of their own writing, when they are in fact fish swimming around in a very small pond. The second weakness is that, surrounded as they are by so much mediocre writing, they tend to be easily satisfied. This leads to the third weakness: since they are satisfied with their very first efforts, they don’t bother to revise, to rewrite, to polish to the nth degree. To paraphrase the Bible, it is in the sweat of our brow that we must earn our writing credits.
How do you see Goans, as a community, succeeding globally in terms of two specific creative talents — writing and music? Could you give some prominent examples?
Goans have long enjoyed a reputation of being successful in music, and indeed recently some have made their mark internationally.
Gavin Martin, Noel Flores, and Marialena Fernandes come to mind as pianists. Patricia Rosario in England has achieved star status as a singer. Many others have achieved modest success in foreign lands. In every case, success came as the result of additional high-quality training overseas, and very hard work on the part of each individual. I speak now only of practitioners of Western classical music; I know nothing of other fields.
I am not sure that any Goans have achieved global success as writers. The late Orlando da Costa and I have enjoyed some recognition, and so has Margaret Mascarenhas. Dom Moraes, who passed away recently, made waves as a brilliant young poet; but he never visited Goa, regarded himself as a Brit, and would perhaps have taken it amiss if the rest of us Goans tried to bask in his reflected glory.
Why do more Goans among the diaspora seem to be making it, as compared to writers back home? What’s going wrong here? The lack of publishing firms, the lack of quality, the lack of competition….
Goan writers in the diaspora soon find themselves enrolled, willy-nilly, in the school of hard knocks. They have to compete with writers who are tops in their field, and are often of world class; to compete, the Goan must work very hard at his craft, and he does.
For an answer as to why Goan writers find it difficult to succeed in Goa, see my answer earlier, where we discuss weaknesses.
What do you rate as your best writing achievement in your lifetime?
Perhaps it is my book on the performance of Baroque music, which was really a pioneering book that took me ten years to research and write. From studying countless pieces of ancient music and books written by old masters I had to figure out how such music was played two hundred years before I was born.
When it was published, my book helped to change the way even top musicians performed and recorded old music, and it was highly praised by Yehudi Menuhin and other world class performers.
In fiction, I am proud of my novel Tivolem, which won an award in the USA and helped place Goa on the literary map. But I am also proud of my translations into English of some twenty poems by late 19th century French poets; they were published by Dover in a collection of songs by Ernest Chausson.
Some decades later, when we’re gone, what would you like to be remembered as?
I very much doubt that, even a few decades after I am gone, I will be remembered for anything. If I’m going to be remembered at all, I would like to be remembered as a compassionate human being, who wanted peace and justice for all.
Among the many roles you played across the continents, which do you see as the most challenging?
The most challenging task I ever undertook was in education, working at different age levels with disadvantaged Blacks and Hispanics in New York. For a while I taught teenagers in a special school in Harlem; most of them had been on drugs, and some of them still were; all had been expelled from their previous schools and were all rebellious.
It took weeks and months to change their attitude, but eventually they became my friends and began to learn.
At another point I worked with adult illiterates; as soon as they began to learn, I set them to work teaching others. In a section of Brooklyn known as the drug capital of the United States, I worked with senior citizens who had quit school in the second and third standard and helped them get their matriculation equivalency diploma in from two to six months. It was challenging, but it was a labour of love.
If there were three things you would like to leave for Goaand her people, what would these be?
A sense of discipline. A feeling of brotherhood. A thirst for ethical values.
At a time when many Goans would have just given up, you’re still working exceedingly hard. Can you tell us what an average VRR day is like, and what drives you?
What drives me is that I wake up each morning and give thanks for the gift of another beautiful day.
Back in the States we normally breakfast at seven, but I sometimes start the writing day before then. Chores and errands take up part of the day itself; I read or do some research in the afternoon and write again in the evening and often late into the night — it all depends on what I am working on and how the ideas are flowing. Quite often I will find myself working on several writing projects at the same time.
For much of the day, I listen to classical music while writing or doing other chores, but when my wife begins to play the piano, I turn the radio off. In the States I spend about an hour a day studying music. Music brought Lea and me together almost sixty years ago, and music continues to be an inspiring and energizing factor in our life.
On some evenings we socialize. After dinner we watch TV comedies for an hour and catch up on the late news. Then there’s more reading and writing to do until bedtime.
Way back in 1941, when I had just joined St. Xavier’s College in what was then Bombay, Fr. Coyne (the principal) used to spend a couple of hours a week advising me. He hoped, I think, that I would become a Jesuit. One bit of advice he gave me has stayed with me all these years.
He said: “Every night, before you go to bed, ask yourself these three questions: How have I touched today the life of someone I know? How have I touched today the life of someone I do not know? How have I improved today on the talents that God has given me? “If you cannot answer any of these questions with a ‘yes’, do not go to sleep until you have set that right.”
Now that I think of it, that piece of advice is what really drives me.
FOOTNOTE: Victor Rangel-Ribeiro can be contacted at <vrangel…@yahoo.com> and you can expect a helpful reply in your writing quest, provided you’re willing to put in your part of the work.