Did the Portuguese come to India for Pepper or for Christ? Interesting as this may be for the historian devoted to studying the Indo-Portuguese encounter, nonetheless this question has also been elusive. Whatever may be the case, one cannot deny the power of pepper. Those tiny, black, wrinkled orbs of fiery taste and potential were, five centuries ago, equal in value to gold (or perhaps even superseding it). With so much history-making and history-turning possibility, one cannot help but marvel at the wonder that is pepper.
The Sting of Peppercorns by Antonio Gomes, tries to explore the consequences and problems inflicted on the Goan population in general and a particular Catholic, upper-caste, landed family at the time of the liberation/invasion of Portuguese India by the Indian army. Needless to say, all the changes from 1961, in the world-view of the New York based professor of Medicine (Cardiology), were set in motion at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Linearity dictates the perception of time in the imagining of this novel. The problem with such a view is that it depends on old perceptions and understandings of history; Antonio Gomes says, “It was here, in Goa, on the heels of Afonso de Albuquerque, that spice met bland, East met West, in a violent struggle. Ultimately, societies and religions were crushed, powdered like the peppercorns themselves, and sprinkled like crushed pepper around the world – the universal landscape altered forever.” In this review, I shall try to juxtapose the view or perception of history of Antonio Gomes with other works that have dealt with the same theme (well, more-or-less!). By doing so, I shall try to point out how, despite new books being written, the imagination of our past is stuck in a medieval (and sometimes also ancient), upper-caste sensibility.
The plot centers on the Albuquerque family. The novel opens with Roberto, one of the sons, who is a successful doctor in the US, researching for a cure on AIDS, returning to Goa in the ’80s. Roberto is forced to come back to Goa, because his ayah mails him the diaries that his mother Dona Isabella had written: which means a few unanswered questions. On returning, Roberto finds his family house in an utter state of disrepair. The plot is set against the backdrop of a few events that were momentous in modern Goan history like the liberation/invasion, the Opinion Poll etc.
While reading the opening few pages, I could not help but notice the similarities with the Shyam Benegal-directed Trikal. Like the movie, Roberto’s house too is situated in Loutolim which the protagonist visits after many years and finds it in a state of neglect and decadence. Since this novel is basically about an upper-caste, landed, Catholic family who are caught unawares by that fateful year of 1961 and who have no idea how to react and adjust to a rapidly changing world, I shall propose that the village of Loutolim can be treated as a metaphor as well as a symbol for the power and hegemony being snatched away from the hands of the bhatkars.
Roberto starts to remember the fateful events in his family that led to heartbreaks, deaths and migration when he returns to Goa after nearly two decades. He recounts the frustration that eventually led to the death of Paulo as well as his sister Amanda, who falls in love with a man from the fisher-folk caste. Roberto comes out as a person who is unsure and utterly clueless, even after so many years, to come to terms with five centuries of history. He is starkly different from the protagonist of Skin, a novel by Margaret Mascarenhas. While Roberto finds it hard to reconcile his two worlds: the ancestral, traditional with the transnational and cosmopolitan, Pagan, the protagonist of Skin has no such difficulties. She, unlike Roberto is not burdened (or bothered) to maintain and nurture those age-old, perverted traditions like caste. Pagan wants to accept history and thereby also live unfettered by it; Roberto wants to reclaim and cannot let go of that ‘ancient’ and ‘medieval’ past. To further buttress my point, consider this quotation which describes the inner turmoil that Roberto feels when he leaves his house for the US, “As the Ambassador taxi left the driveway, the house recedes like a ship that pulls from the port and slowly vanishes into the horizon. Roberto was the ship. The house would remain like an overbearing aging mango tree, a decaying monument to colonial history. At the moment in time, a cycle of life was coming to an end, the end of Goa that Roberto had known, steeped in age-old Indo-Portuguese traditions, and, above all, an end of the Albuquerque family, his family; but somehow, he felt it would go on without him.”
Antonio Gomes does not seem to have been successful in engaging with history in any meaningful and insightful sense. Consider the following quote in a scene which unfolds in the Cidade de Goa: “‘My son,’ he [Roberto’s father] had said, ‘civilization is a rather complex undertaking when it is imposed on another culture by the force of arms; and here, in the name of religion, its architecture was once a chimera fed on blood and tears of the Muslim and our Hindu ancestors [emphasis added].” In other words, although there is, it seems a (grudging) approval of the Muslim heritage, only the Hindu ancestry is ours. Further Antonio Gomes writes, “Roberto pointed out the sculpture to Maria [eventually she becomes Roberto’s wife] who seemed somewhat surprised, as if she had heard for the first time about the conversion of their Hindu ancestors. Roberto explained to her that after colonization many Goans lost much of their Hindu heritage. Also gone were their political freedoms, and they ended absorbing the culture of the colonizers. Their ancestors were convinced perhaps forcefully about the superiority of the White man, their culture, their religion, and their language.”
The picture that Antonio Gomes paints of the village of Loutolim (which is the true setting of the novel) and the social composition of the village is in terms of two opposites: the landlords and the peasants (or more aptly the tenants). Although, I do not disagree with the categorization, my main problem here is with the politics of representation. The tenants, servants and peasants do not have any agency. They are part of the drama, but a drama that is scripted by the elites. It is as if, all the peasants and tenants can do nothing but take things lying down and never move away from the authority of their masters. What is even more surprising – and a bit distasteful in the novel – is that these tenants and peasants even touch the feet of their masters!
This novel is about the elites and only about the elites. I often complain about this direction or trend of books written on and about Goa. Once, I heard a counter-argument that the very value of such books lies in the fact that they are elitist, that they give us a sense and understanding about the elite world. Point taken. But if book after book, repeats the same thing and contributes nothing worthwhile, then, where is the worth? Can we move away from the self-congratulatory, self-obsessed writings of the Goan elites? Consider the following quote from Dona Isabella’s diary, for it is peculiar for its obsession with its own self, “I hurriedly placed the ring in the box and closed the drawer. I looked at myself in the mirror; the puffiness of my eyelids showed the strain of the last few days. I called out to Mari to fill the antique English porcelain basin with hot water. I washed my face, combed my waist length hair, which when let loose fell in waves now tinged with lines of gray. I opened the almirah, took out a light pink Macau robe and changed into it.”
Winnie, the lover and later the husband of Amanda joins the pro-merger MGP during the time of the Opinion Poll. Amanda is on the other side. Needless to say their relationship is strained. It is here that we find an insight that points towards the reasons for the division of the population during the Opinion Poll as well the aspiration across caste and class divides. Winnie vents outs, “‘Bravo,’ he said, clapping his hands. ‘That was a great quote from Othello. I should perhaps hire you to teach literature.’ And then angrily he piped: ‘Shit, Amanda! I’m not responsible for what’s happening to Goa, and so what if Goa is gobbled by Maharashtra? Weren’t you the privileged class during the Portuguese years? Your mother and your aunt and that priest still think I am no good for you. F**k it – at least once in four hundred and fifty one years you elite people, nobres as you like to call yourselves, need to have your ego blasted like they blast land for iron ore.’” They eventually get married and migrate to Australia.
The plot though predictable, has no loopholes in it. Now, since I claim that the imagination of Goa in such novels that are written from the ‘top-down’ has reached a cul-de-sac, the picture that they provide is dull, despite the glorious pretensions of great cultural innovations, syncretism etc. If we carefully observe some of these books written by the erstwhile bhatkars and bhatkarn’nis, the grand masters of Europe, such as Chopin and Bach, are always (without fail) depicted as being played in the halls of these elites. The unfortunate part is that it is assumed that it is normative for every Goan to indulge in such a useless pastime. Antonio Gomes’ novel tries hard to straddle many horses at the same time and as a result falls flat on its face, not so much for its literary value but due to its facile engagement with the history and politics of Goa.
Photos of book-jacket and author: Frederick Noronha and Edgar Silveira
The Sting of Peppercorns, A novel set in Goa by Antonio Gomes (Saligão and Panjim, Goa: Goa 1556 and Broadway Book Centre), 2010; pp. x+266, Rs. 395/- (PB)
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: December 15, 2012).