Sunday, January 20, 2013


We may have heard a lot of stories about the seafarers. These men, generally from a Goan Catholic extraction, work for nine months of the year and spend the next three months on leave. While the representation, it can be claimed, has so far been centered on the trials and travails as well as the scandals of the tarvotti, the stories of their wives have not been told as much as they should have been. Also, it must be borne in mind that the stories of the wives of the seafarers may have been featured in the Romi novels called romanxis; these, however, have died a sudden death due to Machiavellian machinations and hence been wiped off from public memory.
Having said so, I do not think that these romanxis were ever successful in providing a strong woman’s perspective in this tarvotti narrative. In the recent spurt of Romi Konknni novels, I claim that we have exactly this woman’s perspective in the form of Sharon R. Fernandes e Soares’ debut novel, Handbag, recipient of the 2012 Konknni Martir Florian Vaz Award instituted by the Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr. Her novel, for me, becomes very interesting as to a large extent it reflects the reality of the wives or spouses of the seafarers: their fears, their insecurities, their pathos and their joys. In this review, I shall compare and assess the work of Sharon Soares with a mini-ethnographic study that researched and reported on the lives of women living in Bombay and Goa and whose husbands were seafarers. This study is by Helen Sampson, titled “Left High and Dry? The Lives of Women Married to Seafarers in Goa and Mumbai” [Ethnography 6, no. 1 (March 1, 2005): 61 – 85].
The novel opens with Lisa, the protagonist, narrating her own life as well as the lives of three other women of whom we come to know through the agency of Lisa. These three women incidentally happen to live close to each other. Veronica is the contemporary of Lisa, with a very young daughter. Flory is an old woman well past her prime and Helen is a single woman, who, upon her transfer, comes to the village of Raia as a bank manager. In due course of time these four women develop a deep friendship that not only provides company for leisure but also becomes their support group.
Barring Helen, all the other three women are married to seafarers. Flory is married to Bosco who is now retired and spends most of his time at the local tavern and beats up his wife regularly. Lisa is married to Russel and Veronica is the wife of Edmund. If we closely observe the characters of Lisa and Veronica, we find that both these ladies despite having loving husbands and pleasant in-laws still yearn for domesticity and the ideal family structure to be completed. In a way these characters convey the hardships of women who have to look after the household in the absence of their husbands. This particular response can be seen in Sharon Soares’ novel. However, the abovementioned study by Sampson has shown that there can be another response: that of women taking charge of the household. This response is much more complex as such women “…had learned to manage finances; deal with mechanics, electricians, and plumbers; change light bulbs; pay bills; negotiate with bank managers; and generally undertake a whole range of traditionally masculine roles. Whilst some told me that they made efforts to revert to their ‘feminine’ role in the intermittent periods when their husbands returned home on leave, many others explained that they were unable to do so or chose not to do so. Regardless of their response to their husband’s return, all women living independently from their in-laws described living lives in which their social networks and contact with the outside world had expanded as a result of establishing single family households. Nevertheless many said that they remained conscious of the continued pressure from their communities to conform with traditional gender roles.”
            Another issue that is tackled in this novel is of the (alleged) promiscuity and extra-marital affairs. It was one of Lisa’s fears that her own father who worked in Kuwait was having an extra-marital affair and this she believed had caused her mother’s death when she (Lisa) was very young. When such a similar situation is faced by Veronica, where she dreams that her husband is cavorting with another woman, it is the support group that holds Veronica together during such difficult times. There are some tense moments before Veronica realizes that her husband is indeed faithful to her and that when he would return home, it would be for good. Such a support group, Lisa feels, could have stopped her mother’s death as her mother was helpless against the onslaught of wagging tongues in her village. Sharon Soares beautifully handles this situation in her novel as even in the study quoted above, the women “…described being conscious of the poor image of seafaring in terms of its popular association with promiscuity and drunkenness and felt that their own reputations were particularly vulnerable as a result of the image of their husbands’ occupation. In discussion of the image of seafarers, women were particularly conscious of issues of promiscuity.”
            Helen, the independent and single woman is the catalyst in awakening the other three women. However, in this novel, what is portrayed is not a violent and overt subversion of patriarchy but a subtle strategy where there is collaboration and support – both from men and women – where the idealized, traditional structure of the family becomes a much more egalitarian space. This may not mean that patriarchal structures are done away with but within these said structures women can negotiate for their own aspirations to be realized.
            Although I feel that this novel had the scope of portraying much more complex responses to the issues (as I have tried to indicate by juxtaposing the novel with the study of seafarers’ wives), it cannot be denied that Sharon Soares’ novel is of the utmost literary value. She has ably demonstrated her prowess by the ease with which she moves from one scene to another, with characters that are well thought of and deftly handled and how minute symbolism gets infused in the larger narrative (such as the object and symbol of the ‘handbag’) to produce a serious yet delightful 100-plus pages of fiction. Finally, there is a need for a talented writer like Sharon Soares to engage with the broader realm of Romi literature as she can provide, very forcefully, the much needed and critical woman’s perspective. After all, what is the point of asking for justice for Romi Konknni if this Konknni is inadequately represented by women writers and critics?
            With its tight editing and a beautifully executed cover by Milan Khanolkar, this book cannot be missed by enthusiasts of Konknni literature as well as academics and students of anthropology and sociology who want to further study the conditions of women whose husbands are seafarers.

Handbag by Sharon Fernandes e Soares (Panjim/Ponnji: Dalgado Konknni Akademi), 2012; pp. 120, Rs. 100/-; Phone: 91-0832-2221688 (Available at Dalgado Konknni Akademi, Panjim)

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: January 20, 2013).

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dale

    I found your review interesting and I'd like to see that study that you quoted. I also read this novel and had also found it different from the older Romans that you wrote about. I had meant to write about it but forgot about it until I read your review.

    You are quite right about the Romans. Although I have elsewhere praised the Romans, they have an atavistic feel about them. They engage you at the level of the story and plot and keep you asking - 'What happens next?' as E M Forster had mentioned in his classic Aspects of the Novel.

    From the point of view of character or psychology or its relevance to society the Romans tended to be shallow, and if one was to study them it would involve finding out what they hid, not so much what they revealed if one is to find significance in them. So although like the fairy tale they can be quite entertaining, at the same time it is necessary to grow up after a while and sample other fare.

    Coming to Sharon's story, it is narrated in the first person by Liza, alter ego of the author it seems, and this allows the author to take over our minds and make us see the world through a woman's point of view. This is not any new device, but I at least haven't seen it used often by Konkani writers who prefer to use an omniscient point of view, which often results in their Romans or novel sounding preachy and moralistic.

    Apart from the characters being realistically portrayed, Liza, Flory, Veronica and Helen also seem to slightly different kinds of value systems. While Liza's mother and Flory are clearly the representatives of an older culture while Helen is the embodiment of the modern working woman, who take in their stride the modern working world who can get transferred from place to place without being fazed. However she also happens to be unmarried and this again suggests a different orientation to life than the conventional family oriented one.

    However there are some things that are irritating: just because she has named the book 'handbag' (a word which is used to derogatorily describe a man's girlfriend or wife) she tries to constantly force the word into the novelette or novella (for that is what this 120 page book should better be called) to symbolically describe different aspects of womanhood.

    Also although the book is well structured, I think the copy editing could have been a lot better. It gives the impression that it was completed hurriedly for the DKA novel competition, and afterwards she didn't think of revising it (I wonder if there are professional Konkani copy editors). I think that Konkani writers would do well to study works of Victor Rangel-Ribeiro or Jerry Pinto (just to mention some fellow Goans) to understand how better editing can enhance a book.