Fr. Nascimento J. Mascarenhas is a very well known priest in Goa. Apart from being a priest for many decades, he has also authored several books on the clergy of Goa and is also intimately associated with the Archdiocesan bulletin Renovação. Fr. Nascimento was and is actively involved in various online forums about the village of Saligão in particular and online Goan forums in general. And through contributing village-related articles and trivia on such forums, The Land of the Sal Tree was born, a book entirely devoted to the myths, history and people of Saligão.
Fr. Nascimento’s project promises to be a very novel one as all those quaint traditions, superstitions and trivia of a uniquely Goan village are included in the book. This book – as the author is humble enough to claim – is not an individual effort. Fr. Nascimento had the earnest backing of many Saliganvkars, chief among them being the Canada-based illustrator of the book Mel D’Souza and Frederick Noronha. Mel D’Souza (who is also a journalist and author) is a genius in drawing and sketching and his lines enliven the text and take the reader to an altogether different experience. In Acknowledgements, we do find Fr. Nascimento honestly considering Mel to be the co-author of the book, and Mel in his “trademark modesty” asking his role to be “played down”.
The book introduces us to the village of Saligão: its various wards or vaddes, the prominent houses and monuments of the villages, the well-known as well as the not-so-well-known village personalities and the various stories that Fr. Nascimento as a young boy had heard and which stayed with him for the rest of his life. Fr. Nascimento also reminisces about his boyhood that was spent in Saligão and the various people who shaped his personality. The book is a remarkable introduction to a small village of Goa and a project that has the potential for emulation by other villages as well. Dr. Olivinho Gomes’ Village Goa, a book on the village of Chandor can be mentioned inthis context. Though academic, it can help in guiding such projects.
Fr. Nascimento’s account of the construction of the Mae de Deus church is truly illuminating. He has dug out a lot of facts from the archives. But the lengthy list of the costs and materials incurred to build the church (pp. 104-112) could have been included as an annexure as it mars the flow of the book. The Land of the Sal Tree is not connected by a single large, unifying narrative. It is rather a collection of diverse stories written with and viewed from the eyes of passionate nostalgia (or should I say saudades?). It gives us an idealized picture of Sailigão; a picture the younger generation will be in awe of, but one that they may not be able to relate to. This book presents a rather fossilized picture of the past and it seems to yearn for a veritable museum where all that was cherished will be preserved as it is.
Amongst the many interesting stories that Fr. Nascimento narrates, is one of a boy called Galdinho (related to Mel D’Souza apparently) who climbed the steeple of the Saligão church in a bid to impress a girl! But by far the most surprising and awesome story in the book is of Anthony de Mello, one of the luminaries of Saligão. Anthony de Mello was a great cricketer who put Indian cricket on the world map and was also instrumental in establishing the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The words of Vijay Merchant, another doyen of Indian cricket are produced here, as appearing in the book: “For sheer cricket administration capability, confidence and enthusiasm, there was never anyone to equal de Mello. He was the man who organized the Board of Control for Cricket in India, was its first Honorary Secretary, India’s cricket representative in international cricket conferences, and, finally, its President…His trump card was his bowling and tremendous enthusiasm…Anthony will always be remembered as the builder of stadiums without having anything in the bank to his credit…there will never be another Anthony de Mello in Indian cricket.” Surely now, Anthony de Mello rightfully deserves one of the stadiums of the Goa Cricket Association to be named after him.
The book is neatly written with the quality of the language standing as a salient feature. But the various articles that have been collected in this book could have been edited further to avoid repetition and to maintain the focus on the theme that is the village of Saligão. Many of the traditions, superstitions and habits that are found in Saligão are also found in rest of Goa, such as the traditional games that were played and the way certain festivals are celebrated. Such commonly-occurring traditions and customs should not have been singled out for elaborate treatment.
In tracing the history of the village and its people, Fr. Nascimento has done a commendable job. But one can’t help but notice some very problematic statements being made in this process. While categorically acknowledging that the legend of Parasurama “is just a myth” Fr. Nascimento when speaking about the migration of non-indigenous people states, “…the attractions of this land subjected it to an influx of various races in the course of human migration, resulting in the establishment of certain social patterns that evolved into a distinct Hindu culture. This civilization prevailed for thousands of years until the late 15th century when countries in Europe started seeking new lands to colonize or expand trade.” The term “race” is very problematic as the boundaries defining one “race” from another are vague and blurred due to miscegenation. Secondly, Fr. Nascimento sees such migration of people culminating into a distinct Hindu culture. This is not surprising as the colonial and the subsequent nationalist historiography, on which Fr. Nascimento draws quite substantially, has tried to conceptualize a pre-Portuguese past that is Hindu in its conception. But this is not so. Muslim or what is known as Islamicate and other identities have also shaped and influenced the culture of Goa and, sadly, they do not seem to have been included in Fr. Nascimento’s analysis.
We all know how some Brahmin or “Indo-Aryan” settlers came to Goa in the dim and distant past from north India. Apparently many of them had settled in Saligão. Such families find mention in the book along with their genealogies after conversion to Christianity. These families had displaced the indigenous population. The way such a process is talked about is a matter of concern. Ages ago, the “upper-caste settlers” pushed the indigenous people to the fringes of Saligão and this is but a microcosmic reflection of how in our society today such indigenous or low-caste people are kept on the “fringes” and hence cannot be spoken in such idealized, conflict-free terms. Here’s what Fr. Nascimento says, “When the Indo-Aryan clans arrived in Goa, they took over the agricultural land and neighbourhoods from the indigenous people who were moved to the fringe of the villages. They divided the territory into malos (provinces), and sub-divided the malos into gãos (villages).”
The Saligão project (if I may call this book) will hopefully inspire many such books focusing on Goan villages produced by the villagers themselves. But rather than the quaint and nostalgic account, we look forward to more critical engagement that would promise to go beyond our ideas of idealized pasts as well as saudades.
Land of the Sal Tree, Stories of the history, legends and traditions of Saligão, a typical Goan village by Fr. Nascimento J. Mascarenhas (Saligão, Goa: Goa 1556), 2012; pp. xix+290, Rs. 350/- [ISBN: 978-93-80739-35-9]
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: June 11, 2012)