Monday, 11 March 2013

HAUNTING HISTORY AND ITS GOAN AFTERLIFE


It is said that in Goa everybody will have a ‘snake story’ to tell. But now we need to add a ‘ghost-story’ to the list whether we may or may not believe in ghosts. These stories may really be spooky or they may be a figment of our imagination that we think may be connected to the supernatural! But one thing can be claimed with certainty that ghost stories can be frightfully engaging; we are always eager to turn the what-will-happen-next page. Despite not believing in ghosts, this was exactly what I experienced when I read Jessica Faleiro’s Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa.
            Jessica Faleiro is described as a global nomad, who writes in between her travels. Currently based in Delhi, Jessica has an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University, UK and has contributed to The Times of India’s Crest edition. She hails from Margão.
            Afterlife is a collection of ghost stories that are narrated by the Fonseca family. This collection in the form of a novel has the structure of a short-stories compilation but in the end there is also a link that is provided to connect the various stories. The stories are all related to the Fonseca family and are deeply unsettling as the good name of the family is potentially under the threat of being destroyed due to the dark skeletons that are hidden in their closet. The revealing of the skeletons, however, does not form the “wicked twist” that the blurb of the book promises. I shall leave it to the reader to find out about this superb “wicked twist”!
            Savio Fonseca is the patriarch of the family and it is on the eve of his seventy-fifth birthday that his two daughters Carol, along with her American husband Sam and Joanna, the narrator come back to Goa. They are also joined by their uncle Eduardo, his wife auntie Marie and their two children – cousins to the narrator – Susheela and Jason. And then suddenly the lights go out as the rain pelts heavily on the roof of the house.
            Jessica Faleiro builds her stories and characters with fine detail. The texture of the novel, though spooky and frightening, has a distinctly Goan flavour to it; it is as if a bunch of your cousins and friends have gathered together and are swapping ghost stories, right in your own house! However, there are certain issues that we need to think about as Jessica Faleiro, on more occasions than one, uses the background of Goan history as a base to build her stories and narratives. In this review I shall select some aspects of the stories that resonate everywhere in the novel and try to interrogate the actions of the characters as well as the ideas of the author.
            It is obvious that the Fonseca family comes from a rich, landed, (upper-caste) background. However, on closer reading, this strand in the narration gets compounded as most of the women who get married into the Fonseca household come from families of humble-background. The author or the narrator tries to separate the parents from the children; the old from the new, in the sense that Savio is the one who is “…essentially upper middle-class” but the children are not bothered by such divisions as it does not matter due to their transnational and cosmopolitan locations. Carol the eldest seem not to believe in ghosts but Joanna, by virtue of  being a writer in the UK, seems to be very interested in them and wants to “explor[e] the postcolonial Other in the context of ghost stories.” It is also interesting to note how the narrator can balance her two worlds of the ‘transnational, cosmopolitan’ in the UK and the ‘traditional’ in Goa through the medium (pun intended) of ghost stories.
            But despite the tools available for balancing the two worlds, there is also a major problem: the racial hangover from colonialism. The narrator (it seems) craves for Whiteness. There is a certain subtle undercurrent of jealousy between the two siblings and Joanna thinks that Carol being the competitive one, “…secretly regarded Sam as just another award she’d aimed for and achieved: the unattainable dream of the Caucasian husband, that so many Indian women fantasized about [emphasis mine].” Throughout the book one finds references to light complexions and long, aquiline noses when the author describes her characters, which raises a few concerns whilst reading the book.
            Later in the book, it turns out that Lilian Fonseca comes from a humble family unlike her husband Savio. She is the one, it is made known to us, who is more attached to the family name than her husband or her children. The Fonseca family had its origins due to the illegitimate union of a Catholic priest and a Portuguese aristocratic lady during the time when the Inquisition  was about to be shut in Goa. Father Raoul Costa worked for the Inquisition and there comes a time when he falls in love with Dona Clarinda Fonseca. Lilian knows about this but is also troubled by this secret. For me, the problem is that I cannot figure out what is the purpose of bringing in the Inquisition and for so brief a time in the narrative. The aspect of the Inquisition and the illegitimate love does not blend as it should have. We need to think very hard as to how we are going to approach this history of the Inquisition despite the fact that only few primary sources are available to the historian. However, it must be conceded that Jessica Faleiro has made an earnest attempt to talk about the Inquisition, but a much more detailed and complex story would have done better justice to this short story.
            Secondly, the burdens of preserving the honour of the family name (and the secrets that come with it) are projected onto Lilian, who comes from a humble background (and by that it also means a lower-caste status). Despite knowing that Fr. Raoul Costa was an orphan who fathered the adam of his family, Savio Fonseca has no problem in identifying his lineage as “aristocratic” which further compounds our problem. How can a union between the so-called fidalgo and a commoner be “aristocratic”? This family seems to create it own ‘ghosts’ (though they are not aware of it) which they have to confront and thus while the elites can keep a safe distance from the torments of history, others (Post-colonial others?) have to be tormented by it.
            Many of the ghosts in the stories are bothered about family heirlooms and seem to be at peace after they have made sure that their worldly possessions are safe in the hands of persons they prefer. Some of the more familiar tropes of the Goan elites losing their power and clout do recur in the book, such as the exorcism that takes place in the village of Loutolim. 
            None can deny that Jessica Faleiro is a remarkable and gifted writer. Using the form of ghost-stories she has also pointed out to us how we can creatively and fruitfully embark on explorations of our history. Read the book if you would like to explore Goan life and history in myriad ways or read it simply for that creepy chill down your spine.           

Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa by Jessica Faleiro (New Delhi: Rupa), 2012; pp. 160, Rs. 150/- [ISBN: 9788129120823]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: March 11, 2013).

1 comment:

  1. Interesting all the way. I was in Goa all through the,70's. I had heard of Boring Bridge, a ghost story located in Chicalim and another one in Gomantak. All of them were so engaging that I haven't forgotten them yet. I was doing a search on Borim bridge just to check whether it really existed and that is how I came across The Valley of
    ..... Cheers!!

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