“…A Matter of Time,” as the blurb says, “at the first instance is a memoir – full of simple episodes that might have been experienced by any child who grew up in a Goan village in the 1980s. At another level, it gives a stark reality of how much the topography of the Goan village has changed over the last few decades…” Indeed, these points were also emphasized at the launch of this book, authored by the debutant Brenda Coutinho and thus, this review would try to critically analyze the main themes emerging from this book.
A Matter of Time is the story of five children Paula, Lucio, Mario, Xavier and Mandovi set in the fictional village of Benfica. The childhood reminisces are recounted by Paula, who is in her forties. Coutinho in this book, it must be said, brings out beautifully and in bold detail the memories of her childhood. The village life, the games she played with her friends and pretty much everything that she cherished about her childhood through her vivid and vibrant imagination.
The novel opens with Paula observing from her own balcão the demolition of the “palatial house” of the Mirandas – the Casa Miranda – “which once commanded the attention of the entire village called Benfica.” When Paula observes each little and beautiful facet of her village, it triggers childhood memories and this is the way the narrative of the book flows. The issue that appears to be at the heart of the book is one where land-grab takes place in the name of development – mostly for tourism related activity and how this process rapidly changes the topography of Goa. But for me there is a problem here because the way Coutinho presents her narrative to her readers, I would say that at the core of this lament for the changes that are seen in Goa, lies something else.
There is, I would claim, a lament for the loss of bhatkarponn or landlord-ness in demolition of a big, palatial house. I would suggest that the demolition of the palatial house is symbolic not of a changing Goa that affects us all, in the sense that all diverse people are included but only a certain, restricted segment of the Goan society who were privileged at the fag-end of Portuguese colonialism. Thus, to return to the main themes of A Matter of Time, how can this book, drawing from the experiences of what appears to be a very happy childhood claim to represent all the children of Goa? Would the childhood of Coutinho or her characters be the same of, say a Gavddi child? Would we ever mourn the loss, consciously or subconsciously, of the demolition of a khomptti (hut)? Indeed, if one carefully observes the cover of this book, it does not depict children playing traditional games or scenes of a by-gone era that children of yesterday cherish today, but an idealized palatial house that was owned by the privileged. Beautifully done (by Savio Rodrigues), though it may be!
Another quite disturbing facet of this book that I would like to point out is the frequent references to fair skin. It appears that many of the characters in this novel are beautiful, graceful because they are fair-skinned. Why is there a clear privileging of fair skin? What would a dark-skinned child feel as s/he reads through the book?
I have never been able to understand why middle-aged and old Goans always lament those ‘good old days’. What they do lament (and the symbolic house is very much a part of it) it appears is the last forty or fifty years of Portuguese colonialism, not the whole 450 years. But it is important for us to recognize as Dr. Robert S. Newman observes that, “The Portuguese succeeded in creating an artificial prosperity based on iron-ore exports, high salaries, and low prices for duty-free goods. Aimed at the politically-aware middle class and the intellectuals, however, the system offered little if anything to the vast majority of people – those engaged in agriculture and fishing.”
The problem that I have with such narratives like Coutinho’s is best brought out by Alito Siqueira of the Goa University. Speaking at a function at Goa Chitra in Benaulim in November 2013, Siqueira had this to say, “My concern for the moment is with our own loss. We are drawing our stories from a very small group of likeminded and like nurtured people and therefore the stories are remarkably similar too. If we look at the audience here today it should be painfully clear that we are a niche of English speaking Catholics with a few others thrown in for good measure and the artefacts [such as the work reviewed here] we produce are mostly those that talk to ourselves about ourselves. They are rather similar and predictable stories of Gaonkars or some such other versions of those who have dominated in the past. As writers, it seems that there are too many of us touting much the same point of view. It is sometimes a bit like looking at a wedding video. How far can such stories travel?”
I do not want to go into details such as what kind of games that the characters in this book played and what was the village life then. Such accounts are found, more recently in Fr. Nascimento J. Mascarenhas’ book on Saligão. I feel that the narratives that either Mascarenhas or Coutinho present are ‘idealized pasts’; their worth needs to be critically evaluated today.
While wishing Coutinho a long and fruitful literary journey, it is also my wish that she explores other stories that Goa – our beautiful Goa – has to offer. Otherwise our stories would be repetitively dull.
A Matter of Time: Vignettes of a Golden Childhood in Goa by Brenda Coutinho (Saligão, Goa: Goa 1556 and Golden Heart Emporium), 2013; pp. iv+123, Rs. 200/- [ISBN: 978-93-80739-58-8]
See Robert S. Newman, “Goa: The Transformation of an Indian Region.” Pacific Affairs 57, no. 3 (1984): 429–449.
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: August 17, 2013).