Tuesday, 3 February 2015

READING REGINALD: FLIGHT FROM AFRICA



In my previous engagements with Reginald Fernandes’ works of fiction, I had mentioned that Africa occupied a very important place in the imagination of writers like Reginald. This was largely because of the nineteenth-century migration of many Goans to places in Africa like Kenya and Tanzania. Thus, to understand the importance of Africa for writers like Reginald, one would essentially need to think of the circulation of influences as a network where stories about Africa circulated through different means and modes and were then used by writers like Reginald to write their romans. How this circulation worked is something that needs to be charted in greater detail in the future through meticulous research.

Like many of the orientalist novels from the nineteenth-century, for writers like Reginald, Africa was simultaneously a place that was utterly unknown and a place of many mysteries, riches, and adventures. While it is true that writers like Reginald were drawing on such orientalist and colonial fantasies, it is still interesting to see how romi writers engaged with these stories, and indeed re-worked them for a Goan cultural milieu. Today, we rightly acknowledge people like Peter Nazareth (of the General is Up fame) as writers who wrote about Goanness in an African location, but we seldom think of romi Konkani writers as engaging with Goanness and Africa. In the same breath allow me to also note that the depiction of Africa within the romi Konkani writings may share a problematic relationship with colonial engagements with Africa.

Like Khoddop Ranni (1955), Africa occupies an important place in Bhirancull Barrabas (1962) though one cannot say that in this novel Africa is central to the plot. The novel depicts the love story of Raul and Clotilda. While Raul does not seem to hail from a lower social position, his family falling on bad days becomes the pretext for Clotilda’s father to refuse to bless their union. To make matters worse, the government office that Raul works in is headed by Clotilda’s father, and as such the question of whether Raul can match the ‘dignidad’ of Clotilda’s family arises. Thus, economic reasons rather than one’s location within a social hierarchy become the cause of much heartburn.

Unable to bear the insult to his high position, Clotilda’s father hatches a plan to falsely accuse Raul of theft. The plan being successful, Raul is first sent to the Aguada prison and when an attempt to escape from there fails, Raul is deported to a high-security prison in Mozambique. Sailing on the high seas, Raul finally manages to escape and ends up drifting on an island: The Nameless Island. Though this island is not endowed with any magical qualities, Raul comes across a large palatial building. Though The Nameless Island is deserted, Raul soon learns that only two persons live there: a woman named Rebecca and Dr. Barrabas.

Magic is introduced into the novel to bring about bad and good deeds. Like many of Reginald’s novels, Bhirancull Barrabas too has a love triangle. Since the other man who seeks the love of Clotilda cannot convince her, he resorts to magic to confound her. On The Nameless Island, Raul learns about the three secrets of Dr. Barrabas: that he has a potion that can bring the dead back to life, that he has a magic mirror that can project images about the person whom one wishes to see, and that Dr. Barrabas possesses a mechanical contraption that is shaped like a giant bat. The machine eventually helps Raul to escape from The Nameless Island.

While trying to survive the evil Dr. Barrabas, Raul also learns of a treasure of gold bars and three very valuable diamonds. Raul manages to bring back with him many bars of gold and the three precious diamonds. The problematic relationship that such a genre of Konkani writings may have with Africa, as alluded to earlier, comes to the fore when the story takes this turn. Though the treasure of gold and diamonds was acquired by Dr. Barrabas through not-so-honest means, yet Raul seems to spare no thought when taking some of it with him. Here the relationship seems to be a peculiar one, wherein one person from a colonized context (in a way) loots riches from another colonized context. But as far as Reginald is concerned it might be more to do in keeping with the idea that love and wealth is deserved after an arduous struggle, an idea that animates many of his novels. Though we do not come across any Africans, and the identity of either Dr. Barrabas or Rebecca is left vague at best, yet one cannot help but think of Africa as a place of simultaneous danger and riches. Raul finally manages to exonerate himself from the crime he did not commit and also succeeds in marrying Clotilda, whose beauty and character is matchless.


Reginald and other writers like him frequently mentioning Africa also allows us to link trajectories of Konkani literature to a larger African world. While making this point I am falling back on the argument of Isabel Hofmeyr who in the context of South African literature argues that Hindi should be seen as a language of South African literature as many texts in Hindi are available from the twentieth-century that speak of South Africa. Can we make a similar claim that the productions of romi Konkani can also be seen as part of the African literary landscape? Though, I cannot help but emphasize the critical distance that one would need to understand the problematic relationship.

Though many of the writers – including Reginald – did not have the benefit of post-colonial critiques of racism and orientalism in Africa, nonetheless their engagement does point to a certain complex network of the flow of stories from Goa to Africa and back. Perhaps, it points to the skewed understanding that Goans had (and still do) of Africa in general, and issues of race and racism in particular. By trying to understand this genre of literary imagination within romi Konkani literature we might arrive at a better understanding of Goa and Goanness.

For more Reading Reginald, click here.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 4 February, 2015)

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