‘Kam zalem, voiz melo’ is perhaps one of the most well-known of Konkani aphorisms. Its popularity might lie in the fact that this maxim is used to describe the ungratefulness of those who have received favors. But if one looks closely at the saying, one would realize that in itself the aphorism means nothing. Such idiomatic expressions have a meaning that is handed-down to us, but it can also be the case that over time new meanings get attached to them. While considering the original or attached meanings, I would like to think differently about wit and wisdom that is handed down to us.
There are two aspects of this aphorism that I would like to discuss. The first is its protagonist: the voiz. A quick search revealed that the word in fact has origins in the Turkish language. Though in its original Turkish the word means a preacher and one who gives sermons, in Konkani the term is always used for someone who offers medical cures. In fact, if one consults old dictionaries such as that of Sebastião Rudolpho Dalgado (1905), the Konkani synonym of the Portuguese médico is variously given as voiz, vaidya, and even hakim. Rather than being a native or indigenous term, the word voiz apparently comes through Islamicate influences. This is not surprising as vast areas of South Asia – including Goa – have immense influences from the Islamicate worlds.
The voiz could be a doctor with a medical degree, trained in Western medicine, or he could be a practitioner of herbal remedies or zhadpalyacho voiz, as Dalgado notes in his dictionary. Further, a woman could also be a practitioner of herbal remedies and was appropriately known as a voizinn. In fact, being a voiz/voizinn is regarded as one of Goa’s traditional occupations. As such, what this aphorism does is to recognize the importance of cure-work. With or without formal medical training, the aphorism recognizes the voiz as an important institution in the Goan landscape. However, it can be also pointed out that while it recognizes the value of cure-work, the aphorism clearly privileges the voiz alone, and not the voizinn.
This brings me to the second aspect of the aphorism. While cure-work is recognized, many other types of work and equally important forms of labor are not accorded the same sort of privilege as the voiz. This is also a comment on how Goan society treats the importance of labor, and the inadequate remuneration that such forms of labor receive. Why is it that only the voiz is at the receiving end of alleged ungratefulness? If at all any voiz and voizinn will be at the receiving end of ungratefulness, then it has to be the traditional practitioners from the bahujan classes who have to also battle other forms of oppression, for the Western medicine-trained voiz was invariably of the elite classes right from the colonial times.
It would be obvious to anyone who has been even marginally familiar with the history, economics, and sociology of Goa that it has actually been the working-classes (cutting across castes), or the vauraddi masses, that have been at the receiving end of so many instances of ‘ungratefulness’ from those who wield power. For instance, the bhatkar-mundkar land relations were never a bed of roses for the laboring tenant. The laboring classes hardly got a share of whatever little economic development was initiated towards the end of Portuguese colonialism by the Portuguese state. New research, such as that of Raghuraman Trichur in Refiguring Goa (2013), on the Goan economy in the colonial and post-colonial times has revealed that this trend has not altered much in post-colonial Goa.
That much of what Goa is today is due to the labor of its working class is expressed in the song Auraddi from the hit Konkani film of yesteryears Nirmonn (1966): “Pul te bandleai kunnem – Auraddeanim/Min ustilam kunnem – Auraddeanim/Ranamchim xar keleaim – Auraddeanim/Gaum sudraileai – Auraddeanim” (Who built the bridges – the workers/Who dug the mines – the workers/Who turned forests into cities – the workers/Who transformed the surroundings – the workers). Granted that the video accompanying this song only shows laborers smiling from ear-to-ear and actually enjoying the back-breaking labor, or, in other words, the film creates a romanticization of back-breaking labor. Though I would like to argue that this romanticization is produced by the imagination of the elites, the song does make a very important claim of giving due credit to those who built or made Goa through their labor. What the song does not tell you is how this back-breaking labor has not been appropriately and adequately compensated throughout the recent history of Goa.
So, if we look at the historical and sociological contexts of ‘Kam zalem, voiz melo’, then it surely seems like the voiz is not the only person to be at the receiving end of ingratitude. Certainly not the voiz with a medical degree, with the financial and social means at his disposal to gain a higher education, whether in Goa or abroad. I am sure there were many women cure-workers and people who provide other forms of labor have not received their due share of recognition and remuneration. So why would we collectively think that it was the voiz who was at the receiving end of ungratefulness? Hidden within the well known meaning of the aphorism, is there also a recognition that many other types of wokers or vauraddi have been at the receiving end of ungratefulness? If indeed this is the case then is this Konkani aphorism also conveying a clever irony?
Why the voiz dies, I am afraid, will remain a mystery. But thinking about such maxims and aphorisms could enable us to think about Goan society a little differently. Thus, we as a society would need an inventiveness of language or new aphorisms. Perhaps, now we need to occasionally slip into our conversation kam zalem, vauraddi mele.
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 24 June, 2015)