Savia Viegas, the author of two previous novels Tales from the Attic (2007, Saxtti) and Let Me Tell You about Quinta (2011, Penguin) has recently self published two graphic novels, Eddi & Diddi and Abha Nama. The latter, which deals with the life of a Goan Catholic college lecturer in the big and mean city of Bombay, is under review here.
For those of us who have previously enjoyed, what I have called elsewhere, her quaint portrayal of an eccentric Goan Catholic household, are in for a double treat, as we now can more intimately familiarize with the painter that Savia Viegas is along with her writing. This book is crafted on the lines of the namas that were produced, with much ornate finesse in the Mughal kitabkhana (royal atelier). Though its primary template is borrowed from the namas, Abha Nama goes in to reinvent the form and structure of the modern-day graphic novel (though the author claims that her work is not a graphic novel), much like Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability. With its thick and crude lines complementing bold, solid colours, Abha Nama can be considered to provide two different yet mutually dependent narratives.
Let me focus first on the text. The story opens with the protagonist suffering from a heart attack and trying to stay alive in her crumbling old house as “[t]hat is all a cretin on the edge of life could do!” She is delusional and sees the images of her younger self, at which point the story takes off. A young and rebellious girl, wanting to escape from her overbearing parents, Abha Dias decides to move to Bombay. To keep body and soul together as well as pay for her education, she is forced to do part-time jobs as her mother could not forever pawn her jewellery to meet her expenses.
Abha then gets a teaching position at the Raisingani College – first as a temp and later full-time. It is here that the young (and what appears to be an idealist) Abha gets exposed to petty and parochial staff-room politics. Abha also has to negotiate and tread carefully due to the larger political currents that were being ushered in the Indian economy post-1990, a time in which this novel is set. Savia Viegas briefly hints at the commodification of education and a large part of the novel deals with how a red-carpet welcome was given to foreign exchange programmes for some believed that the “new G and L buzzwords” would “shake the portals of education.”
Abha is reduced to a frustrated teacher, whose idealism is time and again defeated by a lackadaisical administration and disinterested students. In fact the system is so messed-up that Abha has to teach Ancient Indian History to commerce students, who naturally don’t give a damn. Abha’s repeated attempts to infuse fresh ideas into the courses she offers are being frustrated by one entity or another. Thus, the irony of Abha’s personal and professional life is beautifully brought out by Savia Viegas, “I had left home because my father was overbearing, my mother rigid. I had believed in a kind of freedom but had wound up in a work situation that was not offering much. I ended up making all sorts of compromises.”
Despite the odds, she perseveres and gets a modicum of institutional rewards and hence also has to deal with the fact of her Catholic identity coming under discrimination (“I don’t know where they come from all these Catholics – beef and pork eaters, who snivel their way up through bedrooms and boardrooms.”).
When one thinks that students are the only ones who suffer due to the ‘system’, Abha Nama provides an alternate view: that we are both in this together. Abha has to always assess thousand-odd answer books in 10-15 days and as a result some errors crop-up in her mark-lists. Abha is asked to explain herself in writing. With the letter in her hand and burdened by loneliness in a big, bad city, she climbs the flight of stairs and fifteen years of devoted teaching comes to an abrupt end with a massive heart attack.
Savia Viegas does not tell us why a Catholic lady lecturer from Goa, who is trained in Indology decides to tell her story in a markedly Islamicate pictorial idiom. I claim that this work needs to be viewed in a larger context of Savia Viegas’ interests where her work tries not to imagine Goa through a brahmanical framework. Indeed, when I had read her first novel I realized for the first time that Goa could have a ‘Muslim’ past (with her skilful use of those “green eyes”). Hence, one can also argue that this work is a Goan Catholic claim on their Islamicate past.
Abha Nama, resplendent with illustrations, though engaging, also provides the texture for the gloomy setting of the novel. The colours change as per the emotional crests and troughs of Abha. Sometimes, the lines become so chaotic and hackneyed that one is unable to make sense of the illustrations – compelling the reader to build his/her own narrative, for there surely is a method in this madness! This Abha Nama was produced in a kitabkhana situated in the lovely and sleepy village of Carmona, Goa – Savia’s residence. Hence the narrative of the novel situated in a metropolitan setting is also, at the same time, not a metropolitan one.
Abha Nama brings many periods of history together – the ancient, the medieval and even the modern. Perhaps, her illustrations with the chaos and rough edges might hide a metaphor for thinking about our history.
Abha Nama by Savia Viegas (Carmona, Goa: Saxtti Foundation), 2012; pp. 128, Rs. 250/- [ISBN: 9788190398540]
(A version of this article appeared on THE BOOK REVIEW, Vol. XXXVII, No. 6, June 2013)