Even after a very brief and cursory browsing of the new literature that is emerging in Konknni in the Roman script, one realizes that the authors or writers are deeply concerned with issues like the Goan identity or Goanness, the loss of the way of life that was once cherished, the influx of migrants (from other states) and the general corruption and sorry-state-of-affairs of the Goan political life. The realization at the end of the play/story/novel that good triumphs over evil and thus leading to a happy ending has been an enduring trope and one that needs to be critically analyzed by the writers as well as the readers.
The idea that the authors generally try to convey is that by reforming one’s own individual life and by walking the path of rectitude and righteousness, eventually, would lead to the betterment and happiness of society. James Fernandes’ Sopon, I would argue, falls somewhat (but not entirely) in this trend of Konknni literature in the Roman script.
A high-school teacher by profession, writing plays, it seems, have so far been a hobby of James Fernandes. The plays in this collection have been staged at various competitions and the title play, Sopon, has even been made into a short film by the Goa Doordarshan Kendr.
Throughout the pages of the book one would notice that a particular middle-class ethos resonate and echo: the characters have generally completed their graduation (BA of course!) but have trouble in finding a job because to get appointed to a job, one has to pay a hefty bribe which runs into lakhs of rupees to the government officials. The father on the other hand is the idealist – Gandhian almost – who is also worried about getting his rapidly ‘aging’ teenaged daughter married. This is the broad setting or context in which the first play Ekuch Sot is situated and such echoes and resonances can be heard or seen in the remaining nine plays. The onus is on the elderly male characters to guide the rest of the characters (and hence also the reader) to the path of righteousness. It is clear that James Fernandes is highly influenced by Gandhian ideas. But Gandhianism has proven to be highly problematic in the light of the recent Dalit critiques of it (especially the Poona Pact [see for instance this]) and the Anna Hazare movement (or more aptly a fiasco).
The influence of Gandhi and Anna Hazare is much more visible in his play Sopon. Hence what I would like to stress is that without a critical understanding of Gandhian ideas and politics, our own ideas which we base on Gandhian notions can potentially be problematic.
A teacher that he is, the first two plays give the impression that James Fernandes is essentially writing for children. In the play titled I Love You Daddy, James Fernandes tries to engage with caste. The protagonist of the play – a young boy named Willy – questions many bigoted and casteist assumptions. But this issue is not taken any further and gets lost, even subverted, in the binary oppositional logic of borem (good) and vaitt (bad) in the progression of the plot. Now since this particular play seems to be for children, even subtly broaching the issue of caste provides us with a lot of challenges. We need to think how not to make our children casteist bigots, that they (many of them) inevitably seem to become when they grow up. How to sensitize our children to the violence and oppression of caste is a question that needs serious consideration.
An interesting literary innovation (or should I say twist) that is found in the work of James Fernandes is the representation of Catholic and Hindu characters. Inasmuch as one can find Catholic drunkards, there are also a substantial number of Hindus, who take to the bottle. One can argue over here that this inversion of representation of Hindu characters is a response or reaction largely to the stereotypical representation of Catholics as it cannot be denied that the drunk is a ‘John’ or a woman of loose morals is always a ‘Sandra’. Let’s face it: alcohol consumption is not a religious specific habit or bad habit.
James Fernandes has written these plays so as to provoke or awaken our social conscience thereby leading or prodding us to positive social action. But he always locates the problem of a lack of social conscience in the individual. If the individual changes, the world would be a better place. To a certain extent this can be a truism. But excessive and deterministic focus on the individual can make us miss the larger picture which is the structures and processes that are a part of our social life which may be a much more malignant cause for the social ills. For instance, if we take the problem of plastic, it is not only the individual who needs to have civic sense but the larger system that we are a part of, needs to change as well.
Consider the following quote: “Kalljidar za. Tujer anit kel’lea dadleak, nitik ubo kor. Tuka nit mellomsor kaideachem dar dhaddai. Tuka nit mellop ho tuzo zolmacho hok’k.” [Be courageous. Make sure to take the man who oppressed you to the courts. You have to fight till you get justice for justice is your birth right].
Although the plots of James Fernandes do not have major or gaping holes, this book could have greatly benefitted if some of the loose ends were tied. Secondly, the technicalities of writing texts for the stage are not really found and which are very important in the production of the plays. Small but important details like indicating the use of props, the placement of props and the movement of the characters could have enriched the plays.
Browsing through the plays, the discerning amongst us would realize that James Fernandes has exposed himself to a variety of reading. There is a genuine and righteous anger in him that makes him write on the issues that are tackled in the book. Rather than giving a simplistic fare for his readers, James Fernandes must attempt to take his work to a higher level. He already has the tools with him: his immense reading and the sharpness of his thinking!
Sopon, 10 Nattkuleanchi Sankoll by James Fernandes (Panjim/Ponnje: Dalgado Konknni Akademi), 2010; pp. 116, Rs. 50/-; Phone: 91-0832-2221688 (Available at Dalgado Konknni Akademi, Panjim)
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: October 4, 2012).