We all love the mango. The sweet and succulent meat of the King of Fruits is hard to resist. So when a book titled Mango Mood was spotted in a bookshop in distant Baroda (Gujarat), which contained satirical articles that discussed Goa and which claimed to be like the soft flesh on the outside with a hard core within, it proved very hard for me to resist purchasing it. Though, it took me a few months to actually open and read it!
Sharmila Kamat, the author of the book, is a very established writer having published in major national and international mastheads as well as Goan publications. But most importantly she is an astrophysicist who “studies the constitution of the Universe, particularly what makes the hidden mass we call dark matter.” Reading through the book, more than the actual essays, I felt I should rather dwell at length on the two introductions to the first and second editions of this book. For one feels that these two introductions can be much more useful to understand Sharmila and her writings than the actual ‘pieces’ themselves.
Sharmila earnestly tries to move us away from the whole sun-sand-surf-fenni-bikini-hedonism Goa, and as such a major chunk of her book is taken up in discussing tourism. The next major theme is the local politics: the horse-trading that Goa became known for post ’90s as well as the communalism that has seeped in contemporary political life and the docking of the casinos.
One major problem that I have with everyone and anyone who claim to take us away from the tourism brochure-produced image of Goa is that they themselves, in the bargain, reinforce this image. For instance, Sharmila starts her first edition introduction and many of the essays with the oft-repeated sun-kissed beaches, palm-trees, natural beauty, paradise and such blah-blah-blah. The cover of her book uses a picture of a “sun-kissed” seashore. In other print spaces, the columns and features which try to do the same are, ironically, named “Beachside” or would have pictures of white men and women accompanying the text. Now I do understand that not everything is in the hands of the author, especially when national and multi-national publishers and newsmagazines are concerned where one’s work needs to pass through the hands of many editors. But I digress…
In this long introduction, Sharmila makes some statements and comments that on one level could have been done away with (or at least written in a smarter way) and at other times these statements and comments could prove highly politically problematic and shows the author’s inability to assess the political situations that she is commenting on. In trying to retell the story (or rather the history) of Goa, Sharmila not surprisingly falls back on the Lord Parashurama myth. I am not comfortable when the authority of brahmanical texts is invoked (even in a lighter vein) and passed as history for the simple reason that they are myths having their own elitist agenda and by no stretch of imagination can they be called history.
And then, in this retelling of history we come to the time of the Portuguese. “Like all colonial rulers,” Sharmila says, “the Portuguese came uninvited, and then proceeded to dig themselves into the woodwork for the next 451 years.” Nothing could be further away from the truth! Sharmila fails to recognize the complicity of the native upper-caste elite in the colonial projects; be they British or Portuguese. It is through statements like these that the reading and retelling of Goa’s history (which the blurb call pièce de résistance) by Sharmila is very facile. Clearly Sharmila’s book has reached a wider audience than a paper or book on Goan history can ever hope to enjoy such readership. In repeating the same old clichés, myths and images we are not really moving away from a conception and idea of Goa that is very upper-caste, orientalist and biased.
In the introduction to the second edition, Sharmila talks about the linguistic politics surrounding Konkani. “Around the time of the first edition of the book, they [Goans] were out on the streets protesting against the second-class treatment meted out to the mother tongue of most Goans – Konkani. No sooner was this grave error rectified than the protestors were back on the streets – to hyperventilate over the first class treatment meted out to Konkani,” she says. Again, the issue here is too simplified and too watered down. Protagonists of Konkani (or Konknni/Concani) in the Roman script (who are sometimes branded as anti-nationals, agents of the Portuguese etc. by extremists of the one-script-one-language persuasion) are protesting against the step-motherly treatment meted out to “their” Konkani. Are these the same people who are “hyperventilating” against the “first class treatment meted out to Konkani” or are they somebody else? Whether they are the same people or not, the issue about the complexity and diversity of the linguistic politics of Goa is something that is not reflected in the understanding and conception of Sharmila’s Goa.
There is one article that I really enjoyed titled “Special Topics in Calamity Physics”. Being a big fan of the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, and enjoying to the core the remarkably funny moments produced by the use of physical and other scientific references to portray the life of four nerds, I found in the abovementioned article, moments when one could say that the astrophysicist in Sharmila is now really speaking! Coming back to the cover, apart from my complaint that it reinforced the whole “sun-sand-surf…hedonism narrative” of Goa, it is also badly done.So henceforth when we talk about Goa – anything about Goa – what do we look for and what do we give our readers and audience? Certainly not the old, anachronistic rubbish. How about something new, something that is – even if we are trying to be funny – boldly iconoclastic?
Mango Mood, 2nd edn. by Sharmila Kamat (New Delhi: Rupa & Co.), 2011; pp. xli + 166, Rs. 195/- [ISBN: 978-81-291-1722-9]
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: January 31, 2012)