I first met Damodar Mauzo through his novel Karmelin, translated into English by Vidya Pai. It was a strange meeting, reading a Konkani novel in English with all the attendant feelings of inadequacy I felt as a monolingual reader – for that was how I was for most of my young life – with the additional guilt that this was the language of my state of origin, one of my many mother tongues.
Once I got stuck into the book, I felt almost immediately the reality of this world, and I felt equally strongly the artistry that it took to make the world real. I did not know the man at all but he seemed to have crawled easily into the skin of this middle-aged woman, this doughty fighter who would do whatever it took to keep her daughter from knowing the kind of want she had endured. I remembered later talking about Karmelin to Abhay Sardesai, poet and editor of The Art India Magazine when we were travelling home in a Mumbai local. He emailed me some memories of his experience of reading the book.
“I read Karmelin in 1987,” he says, “when I was in my teens. It was one of the first novels in Konkani that I read and I remember being struck by its landscape of contrasts – between the slow-moving village in a naturally bountiful Goa and the modern desert city in the arid Middle East. Here was a working class Roman Catholic woman and her lover, the entitled Arab Nissar. Here was a maid and her master; the migrant and her employer. As a study of exploitation that gets us to understand the anatomy of the compromise, so to say, the novel throws light on the unequal traffic of labour that marks globalisation.
“Nothing prepared me, however, for the way the novel opened out to probe the multiple possibilities of human desire. Prior to Karmelin, one had read stirring erotic passages in the works of writers like DH Lawrence and Anais Nin. There was a delicate touch to the sensuous accounts in Karmelin and some of it was movingly atmospheric. This was yet another occasion to recognise how decidedly different the erotic in literature was from the uber-graphic stuff one read in the English, Marathi and Hindi pornographic books picked from the pavement bookshops at Fountain.
“I was also struck by how effortlessly the writer had modulated the narratival flow and guided the descriptive pace in different scenes – Karmelin’s confrontation with her abusive husband and later with her adolescent daughter; her heightening auto-erotic awareness while bathing in the stream; and the full on bump and grind with Nissar when his wife is away. I had not met Bhai then but when I did a few years later, I was impressed by another set of contrasts – between the personality of the writer and the personalities of his characters. Bhai comes across as a clear-headed creative spirit marked by courage, an abiding generosity and gentleness; his hard-earned wisdom is complemented by an enviable sense of composure. Most of his characters, on the other hand, often lead deeply divided lives and seem pulled in different directions.
“As Karmelin’s story draws closer to its end, you realise the different stages you have traversed – from being an attentive reader to being a voyeur, from being involved to being implicated. In his novels and stories, Mauzo explores pathos, one of our great Indian obsessions, with lightness and care – his works walk the tightrope very well and almost always check themselves from slipping into sentimentality. I admire the way Bhai looks ambiguity in the eye. The hapless protagonist hitting his cattle inconsolably in Koinsanvali Gorvan, for instance, reveals the intense conflict that he finds himself in the middle of – his helplessness at wanting to sell his cherished animals at the fair, the desperate anger at not finding any buyers but also the hopeless relief at not parting with them.”
I quote Sardesai at length here because there’s a family tradition of Mauzo appreciation. One of the first critics to examine Mauzo’s work was Laxmanrao Sardessai, one of the finest of Goa’s short story writers, who, in an act of extraordinary literary generosity, wrote Kathashilpa, in which he surveyed the literary landscape of Goa and pointed out young writers of note.
I would only meet Bhai, as Mauzo has been known since childhood, in 2010 when I began attending the Goa Arts and Literary Festival which he directed with Vivek Menezes. I relaxed almost immediately, as if I knew somewhere deep inside that I had found a friend, an ally. We have known each other for more than a dozen years and I have never had a moment of doubt about that first encounter.
Vivek Menezes has had the good fortune of interacting with Bhai for the ten years that they directed GALF and turned it into the kind of unique, intimate space of encounter that it was, at its best.
“Far more than his contemporaries, Bhai is indispensable because he has retained those most precious humane qualities that mark the Goan. It is in the tradition of Bakibab Borkar an uncanny Goan humanism which means that you can be greater than anyone in the room, a more accomplished and awarded writer, a better known one, but you can still relate to everyone with a gentle, non-confrontational spirit. When he stands up to speak, there’s a quiet moral authority that comes from him which few people have; and we have had some geniuses at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival but none of them commands the same place that Bhai has.
“But I have found that Bhai is loved much more in other parts of the country where they can see what a treasure he is. What an outpouring of love there has been from every part of the country. I have had people writing in to me from Assam to Kerala to Srinagar and they have all been rejoicing. Amitav Ghosh was delighted at the news.”
As indeed he was. Over email, last year’s Jnanpith awardee Amitav Ghosh said: “Damodar (Bhai) Mauzo represents the very best of Goa’s cosmopolitan traditions. His work presents Goa in all its richness and variety, as a meeting place of cultures, civilisations and religious traditions. His work is remarkable also for addressing issues like migration and environmental disaster. Bhai is a great writer, a brave soul, a wonderful human being, and a dear friend – I am truly delighted that the Jnanpith Foundation has chosen to recognise his remarkable contributions.”
Menezes echoes Ghosh’s sentiments, explaining, “Bhai is precious because he is a brilliant writer but he is also precious because he represents all that is best in the composite culture of Goa. He is also ferociously brave. He is the only person in Goa to have confront the Sanatan Sanstha and he never backed down. He has had police protection ever since but he has not hesitated to call them a cancer in our society.”
When Bhai sent me Teresa’s Man and Other Stories, translated by Xavier Cota, I was moved by the manuscript. I send it to Ravi Singh who immediately saw the value of these stories. He was then with Aleph. Now Editor and Publisher at Speaking Tiger, Ravi says, “I’ve met Damodar twice – at quiet literary meets, one in Goa and the other in Arunachal, and on both occasions it was as if I was meeting an old familiar. He was warm and accessible and had the reassuring air of someone who is deeply connected with all life. Just before the Arunachal festival it was found that he was on the hit list of the men who’d killed Gauri Lankesh. The local police in Itanagar had provided security and Damodar was always anxious about the guard – had he eaten on time, was he bored or tired – and only wanted to send him back home. When I first read Damodar’s stories in translation I was reminded of Zola and Balzac, the great humanists and realists who were in the world and of it, celebrating what is good and vital in humanity. Then I met him and I could see it came from his living. As in his writing, so in his life. That’s very rare.”
When I called Bhai to congratulate him, he was subdued because it was the day when the army had gunned down civilians in Nagaland in what seemed like a terrible mistake, the kind that can be made when impunity is assured. He was a little embarrassed about the attention: the Chief Minister of Goa was to visit later that day. But eventually, we settled down to a conversation. Excerpts from the interview:
Do you remember your first encounters with the world of the story?
I remember my mother telling me stories when I was a child. They were drawn from the epics, there were folktales, there were talking animals of course, but even the trees spoke. She was my primary storyteller. The first books I remember as a child came into my life when I was laid up in bed with typhoid. My father returned from Margao with two books, a Ramayana and a Mahabharata for children.
My mother was illiterate but her vocabulary was large so I would readout the words I did not know and she would tell me what they meant. Both the books were in Marathi and I remember devouring them. I read them and re-read them until they were ragged. Oh and here I want to add one thing: my mother eventually taught herself to read, by sounding out letters and then words.
After finishing four years of education in a private school in Marathi first and the mandatory fourth class in Portuguese, after the public examination called Segundo Grao, I went to an English medium school which was so far from my home that I had to take a train every day. The train left at eight am and returned at 12:30. School began at 9 and ended at 1:30. The next train was at six in the evening and so I had the afternoon to myself. I could play football or I could go to the library. I did both and at the library I read everything they had.
Oddly enough I started with literary Marathi and only when I had run out of books by Vi Sa Khandilkar, naa Si Phadke and the likes did I start reading Marathi detective stories. I knew that they were trashy but I had to have something to read and so I read them anyway.
Earlier than that, I had discovered the works of Sane Guruji and those were transformative. They had an actual physical effect on me, an emotional effect. They changed the way I looked at my mother, who was a widow. My father who was a school-teacher died when I was twelve. Of course, we lived in a joint family but my uncle was twelve years younger than my mother and it was she who made all the decisions. She was a strong woman, I think, one who could make difficult decisions when she saw that they benefited her child.
I failed my SSCE because I detested mathematics and science. I was warned after the preliminary examinations that if I didn’t buck up, I would not pass the year. But somehow that didn’t seem to have much effect on me and I did fail. That was a terrible shock to my system and so I buckled down and did my best. Eventually I scored 88 in Mathematics and similar high marks, a distinction, in science. But I had no love of it.
I wanted to go to college and I wanted to study arts but the family was dead against that. My guardians and other friends of my father asked: “Will you become a schoolmaster?” they asked as if it were something no one should aspire to. And so I opted for commerce because I was certainly not going to study science. There were no colleges in Goa at the time; one had to come to Bombay to study and so I got admission to R A Podar College for commerce.
I much admired her for allowing me to go to a big city all alone. On the day I was departing, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia was coming to Goa. The time of the train was near but I waited until he arrived and he got down at our door and greeted all of us and then I set out for Bombay.
Oddly enough, I found that the college professors there – and here I must mention that Padmanabh Tole, Principal Palekar and BG Bapat understood me and my ambitions to be a writer. They encouraged me to read, they pointed me in the direction of the books that they loved. I read all kinds of books including Alberto Moravia, James Hadley Chase and Harold Robbins, but I also read Stefan Zweig (in English translation) and everything from Shakespeare to Somerset Maugham. Yes, and Mama Warerkar’s Marathi translations of Saratchandra.
So if my childhood was filled with Sane Guruji, my adolescence was dominated by Saratbabu. I remember writing a play that was broadcast on All India Radio. It was a play about dowry; it’s a family discussing the return of their son from Bombay. They are making plans to get him married and thinking about how much dowry they will get and then at the end, their son turns up with his girlfriend.
There was nothing special about it but the writing; the dialogues were in chaste Konkani and so it became popular. It was broadcast several times but I no longer have a script. AIR had some remuneration and offered to make the payment in my name. I said that it had been a college production all along and so the payment should be made in the college’s name. I think the Principal and my teachers were rather surprised by this. Earlier students who had been honoured in this manner had accepted the payments themselves.
From what I am hearing you didn’t seem to be reading much Konkani.
There were no Konkani books to read. Konkani was spoken at home and I remember that there was a programme late in the evening, Bhurgeanlya Aanganaat, addressed to children. Until the Liberation of Goa, I thought of Konkani as a dialect of Marathi. Then one of my seniors lent me a book by Shenoi Goembab, which was in Konkani. It was the first serious reading material I encountered in Konkani.
Until then Konkani had seemed to be the language in which one laughed, the language of children and comics, street plays and tiatr. This was a book of grammar, Konkanichi Vyakarini Bandavoll, which does not sound like an auspicious start, but it was for me because I have always been fascinated by etymology and the deep structures of language. When I learn a new word, I like to try and figure out how it originated. That book was a revelation. The language I had grown up with and had neglected seemed like a deep well, rich with life.
But then it was a time of complete disruption when the city of Mumbai was challenging all the assumptions I had made about it. I had thought that I would be speaking Marathi most of the time. When we Goan boys spoke Marathi, the Marathi speakers of the city laughed at us because our Marathi sounded bookish and Sanskritised. I was being educated in English. My roommate was a Gujarati in the hostel. There was Hindi everywhere. It seemed like the whole of my three years in the city were a series of experiments in language.
You left Goa at an inflection point in its history. You started studying in Bombay in 1962 and returned in April 1966. Do you remember much about Liberation?
It was expected. We knew it was coming but we just didn’t know when. I think the first inkling I got of it was on the morning of the 17th when I woke up to the sound of glass breaking. I thought it must be a cat and went to check the front door which was made of glass and wood. It seemed intact so I went back to bed when I heard a rattle. I thought it was just my mind playing tricks but then it came again.
I opened the door and it was my uncle who was there. He said, “Bhai, don’t worry, the action has started.” The sounds I had been hearing was the bombing of the airport by the Indian Air Force. This was very exciting and I wanted to go to Margao.
My mother was not terribly keen because others were saying that I was so obviously delighted that if the Portuguese police were to see me they would shoot me. But my mother was a brave woman and I suppose she could see that it was an important moment in our history and so she agreed to let me go as long as I took someone with me. The general feeling then was one of uncertainty.
Professor Camotim was the Principal of the Escola Primaria and he was terrified at the change because he had always thought of the Portuguese as wonderful and as the best thing that happened to us. He did not know how he would fit into the new dispensation. And as he went home that day, shaking with fear, who should he meet but Felicio Cardozo, a man of the masses, a writer and an anti-colonialist?
Felicio was a wonderful fellow, hail fellow well met, and he was cycling to Margao when suddenly Professor Camotim hailed him with “Meu amigo.” Cardozo must have been surprised at this but he took one look at poor Professor Camotim, and probably saw how terrified he was and he said, “Kaa’im bhiyenaka, zaatolem tem borem zaatolem,” (Don’t worry. Whatever happens will happen for the best.)
How I love this: a Christian common man telling a Hindu elite not to fear. He calls him friend, he reassures him in Portuguese and Konkani. I think those who were close to the Portuguese were scared, they did not know what life would be like under the Indian government. I remember cycling into Margao to the Municipal Garden which I knew would be the centre of things.
I remember seeing the police station across from it where the white-skinned police officials were in a panic; they were scuttling about, obviously terrified. Some of them took off their uniforms and took off into the woods and hid. People kept talking about how brave the Europeans were and such a warlike race; I saw a different side that day. I saw how scared they were. This was so different from their usual commanding and authoritarian personalities.
Just a few days earlier, the family truck had broken down. We owned a truck which was contracted by the mines. My uncle sent me with the driver to Margao to get the truck repaired We were on our way to Navelim when we were stopped by a Portuguese policeman who told me to get down. When I asked him why, he took hold of my shirt and I thought it was best to obey. They impounded the truck and the driver went with it to the police station.
I didn’t know what to do, so I went off to find the son of my father’s friend PG Virjinkar. He was in the business of importing cars and was a great favourite with the Portuguese officials. Each night, he would host a party of them at Longuinho’s and other places. People would look on him as drunkard. So I went and found him and luckily, he was in and recognised me.
We had purchased the truck from him. He took my hand and we went to the police station and he spoke to the Chef while I waited outside. I don’t know what he said but we were allowed to take the truck back. Again we were stopped by the police but we explained that we’d already been through this and the Chef had let us go. Later, I heard that the Portuguese had some plan of filling trucks with gelatin explosives to blow up the bridges and halt the advance of the Indian troops.
But on the 18th, things were different. I remember the energy and the excitement of it. On the 18th, some people took it on themselves to raise the Indian flag at the police head quarters. As trucks came from Canacona, they would be interrogated by people who wanted to know what was going. I spent the morning there and returned home for lunch.
However I was too restless to stay at home and on the evening of the 18th I was back.
And when the tanks rolled in, there must have been fifty tanks or more, by the same road, the one that ran past the Municipal Garden, the population of Goa spilled out on to the streets. Everyone was there to welcome the Indian Army, Hindus and Christians alike. The troops were so surprised, they did not expect it.
We had a shop in Majorda with a licence to sell liquor. It was well stocked with brandy, we called it Conhaco then, which was what people drank those days. We also had cases of Heineken beer and other foreign alcohols. The Indian Army bought us out within a day; they paid for all that they had bought but out of a sense of patriotism we even gave them discounts. We were fools; other shopkeepers were wiser; they held back their stocks and in the next few weeks sold them at huge margins.
The strong women in my novels are no accident, I think. Most of them are based on my mother or draw from her. She was widowed early and had to manage her life in a patriarchy set in a colonial world. But she was brave and did not stand in my way when I wanted to go to Bombay to study.
Coming up next, part two: ‘Even Karmelin began as two short stories. Then I found that there was something similar, something common between the two and I began to work them out as a larger idea, of the world of the Gulf and the world of the village in Goa. People call it a novel but I’m not so sure. If you go by the length, then it is a novel, that’s all.’