Do you remember when you decided to be a writer?
It began when I came back from Bombay for the vacations after the first year of college. By that time, one or two magazines had started. I sent in a story and it got published. That was “Tu vochu naka” (“Don’t go away”).
It is about a young man who gets caught in the freedom struggle, goes to Mumbai and returns after Goa is liberated. By the time he gets off the train in Margao and takes the last bus and reaches his village near Cortalim, it is night. On the way, in the dark, he hears someone calling out to him: “Tomas”.
Even at that time the characters came into my mind as Catholics. That’s because, I think, I lived in this ambiance. They were my people. Anyway, to get back to the story.
Tomas turns to see who it is and discovers it is his lady love who has been waiting for him. She walks with him to her home. He knocks on the door. Her mother opens the door and says, “Is it you? She was waiting for you for so long.”
He says: “What do you mean? She’s here.” He turns to find her gone. The mother says sadly, “How can that be? She died two years ago.” He’s scared and runs back to his own home where the caretaker asks why he is so scared. He says that he saw the mother and the caretaker pales. “But the girl’s mother died last year!”
The story was well liked and translated into English. It was published in Eve’s Weekly and someone who worked in Vasco said to me, “Bhai, I liked your ghost story.” And that hit me. I decided right there that I would never write a ghost story again because I would not write about things in which I did not believe.
The vacations ended, I came back to Mumbai and I heard there was a competition and I heard about it. I wanted to write desperately, I wanted to take part and write a story. I had an idea but I was short on time. The exams were approaching and I was racing for time. I remember how swiftly I ended the story, mailed it and then went and sat for the exams.
If you read “Ashok” today, you see how hastily I brought it to the end. It was about a boy who was an artist but who was dismissed by the others as mad. He would not talk much but he would draw with chalk or charcoal, people admired them but they considered him a good for nothing. Then a famous painter takes a look at his work and sees his talent and provides him with canvases and asks him to paint. The boy continues and then one of his paintings is entered into a national competition and wins but when the painter comes to tell the boy the good news, he is on his death bed. It was okay.
But it was the story of a snake that caught the attention of the noted Goan litterateur Laxmanrao Sardessai, who, in an act of literary generosity, put together a series of notes on the young and up-coming Goan writers. He singled out a story about a water snake in the time of drought for its evocation of landscape and for its other-wordliness. Sardessai also took it upon himself to translate it into Marathi and published it.
That was the beginning and it’s still a path I am walking today. I knew from within, I don’t know how I knew but I knew that I was going to be a writer of short fiction. I was not ambitious but I wanted to write. I am still not ambitious but the genre itself is what keeps me going. I love the short story. It offers thousands of possibilities, it is inexhaustible.
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.
Why don’t you think of it as a novel?
To answer that I would have to have a definition of the novel as a form to hand. I don’t. But to me Karmelin in its design, in many of its features, bears the marks of a short story. And yes, the end. I remember the publisher said to me: “This is the ending of a short story.” He wanted me to write a few pages more but I refused.
Karmelin was devised as a pair of short stories. She would therefore bear some of the marks of her origin story. I told him, “Karmelin has taken hold of my hand and stopped my pen. She has said that this is where her story will end. Neither you nor I should disobey her.”
I remember you telling us about the beginning of Karmelin, the first time we were ever introduced to the world of those who went abroad to the Gulf to work.
I ran a shop. It was not my choice. But because my father ran it and then my uncle ran it and then he gave up, so I had to do it and I ran it for forty-plus years. I don’t know why but I loved to interact with my customers; they were my own people, my village people. They talked to me and often they would tell me things, confide in me, say things that they had not said to their spouses or to their children.
I remember one day, an old man came and told me to write an application to the old age home for him. He wanted to go there because his son and daughter-in-law were treating him badly so could I make this application on his behalf and not say a word to the young people. I listened to him and said I would write it but not that day. I suggested that first he should visit the old age home and talk to some of the people who lived there and then after that if he came back and wanted me to write the application I would.
After a month or two, he came to the shop. I didn’t raise the matter but then he simply said, “Thank you”. I understood that he had decided not to go.
One day I noticed this young girl who must have been about thirteen or so who was riding a new bicycle, a BSA. In those days, owning a new BSA was like having a motorbike. She was not good-looking but she was always well turned out and extremely sociable. She always had some money and she would spend it on chocolates or soft drinks. And if she had friends with her, she would offer them some as well. She would buy a big slab of Cadbury’s chocolate – which was a luxury in those days – and she would offer them pieces. I wondered how she could afford all this.
Then one day someone explained it to me: her mother was working in Kuwait, or somewhere in the Gulf. The word used was Kuwaitkaan, a term that was derogatory in its implications. I started hearing people talking about the women who went to the Gulf and at that time, it was only the women who went to the Gulf, and people believed that they were little better than prostitutes, sleeping with their Arab bosses. No one said any of this openly and certainly not to their faces but I did not care to deal in rumours.
Then for a while, the girl did not come to the shop. When she came back, I asked: Where were you? And she said, “Mae yeileli nhu? (My mother had come down). She’s gone now.” She told me all about the gifts her mother had brought her; she was a confiding thing and she was friendly with everyone.
Then I casually asked her, “Didn’t your mother ask you to come with her?” She said, “I told her that after the Matric, I will come to Kuwait too. But Mae shouted at me. She said, ‘You will never come to Kuwait.’” That was a passing comment and she went away but it left me with a question: Why would a mother be so adamant about not allowing her daughter to come to Kuwait when she herself had done so well there?
I began to ask questions and finally I found a woman, she was from the fishing community. She heard that I wanted to know about this life. She said, “Cholya, aamger yo.” Brahmin boys are called “chollo”; but I didn’t know that then or I would have objected. I went to her home at five in the evening. The house was full and busy so we went and sat on the beach and she began to talk.
She unfolded the whole of Kuwaiti life to me: how the Kuwaitis behave, how their women behave, how our people behave or misbehave there…she laid it out. I could see the church in Kuwait standing there and people flocking to it, I could see the Arab houses and how they lived. It grew dark but she talked on and I scribbled frantically in my notebook, hoping that I would be able to decipher what I had written the next day.
I had interviewed so many people, nearly fifty or so, but that night I was exuberant. I came home and told Shaila that I did not need to do any more interviewing, I had what I needed and in the next twenty days I finished the book.
What was the response like?
It was well received when it came out in the Devnagari script. Then Gurunath Kelekar, who was publishing a Konkani paper in the Roman script – he thought to bring people to Konkani literature by using the familiarity of the Roman script – decided to serialise it. Then came a couple of scenes which explored the sexual relationship between Karmelin and her boss and there was an outcry. Letters poured in condemning me, saying that I had no right to spoil the name of the Catholics, that kind of thing. The editorial staff succumbed to the pressures and stopped the serialisation.
Then Father Freddie D’Costa, a Roman Catholic priest, who ran a quality magazine in the Roman script Gulab, and at that time, he was also running a newspaper, Goencho Awaaz, he gave a challenge, he said he was going to serialise it, and they could come and try and stop him. He published the entire thing and by the end of it, most people realised they were wrong.
But this is not over. After my last novel came out, Jeev deeyoon ki chaai maaroon, some Catholics came up to me and said, “What do you think, our priests are suppliers of nurses and our women will try stunts with boys in crowded buses after returning from a wedding?” It pained me but I knew that they would forget and forgive. I do not believe I other my Christian characters; I don’t think I could.
When I was a baby and my mother was ill, I was breastfed by Anthony Gonsalves’s mother. When I was young and my mother wanted to start a cooking business, she asked if the neighbour could look after me. She was also a Christian lady, her name was June and I played around happily in her house and one day, I put my hand into one of the vessels and ate some kanji.
When June saw what I had done, she was appalled and took me home, weeping. My mother was quite startled to see her and asked what had happened. June said, “Your son ate some kanji from my house.” She thought my mother, as a brahmin, would object to my eating something at her house, but my mother only laughed heartily and told her to forget it. So I never felt that there were any differences.
I went to church also. I played on the church grounds. I knew of course that there were some differences in the way we worshipped and whom we worshipped but I had read so much about Jesus that I did not believe He belonged only to the Catholics.
But then there were also Hindu readers, some of whom are connoisseurs of literature, who say, “At his age, Bhai is writing such stuff!” Many of them do this in private but some have made public statements too. But this does not bother me. I don’t see sexuality as a separate compartment of life, to be left to the pornographers. I see sexuality as an essential part of life.
Vidya Pai on translating Damodar Mauzo
“My first encounter with Damodar (Bhai) Mauzo occurred sometime in 1995. I was so delighted with his story “Mhageli bhurgim tim” (“These are my children”), that appeared in the Diwali issue of the Konkani magazine Jaag, that I convinced myself it had to be taken to a wider audience; it had to feature among the “best” stories written in Indian languages in the course of that year, and I would take it there. Back in those days it meant that an English translation of the story should feature in the Katha Prize Stories volume produced by the publishing house Katha every year.
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Mauzo had already accepted another translator’s work and my typewritten script lies yellow and faded in my file, but a link was forged between a fledgling translator in distant Kolkata, far away from any Konkani influence, and one of the leading lights on the Goan literary scene. It led to my translation of Mauzo’s award-winning novel Karmelin in 2004 for the Sahitya Akademi; and, ten years later, to Mirage and other stories, a collection of five long stories from his Konkani book Rumadful.
This tenuous link has been strengthened by mutual trust and confidence over the last twenty five years, so, when Bhai’s “Tem moddem konalem?” (“Whose corpse is that?”), a gripping Covid-centric story appeared in Jaag in early 2021, I wasn’t shackled by the need to get permission, and could jump straight into the translation process, convinced that I would get his full support.
I was an “outsider” who spoke the “southern” Hindu dialect common around Mangalore, so getting acquainted with the Konkani language and traditions depicted in Goan creative writing was a difficult task. When translating Mauzo’s writing there was the added pressure of getting Goan Christian names correct, of understanding Church rituals and Christian religious and social mores and comprehending Konkani words of Portuguese descent which are so common in his work.
While translating Karmelin I would write to Bhai, sending him lists of difficult words and phrases with what I thought the word or phrase meant scribbled alongside. And Bhai would take time out of his busy schedule to correct and explain and send the list back.
I was an incorrigible letter-writer during my early years in the translation field, seeking information on books and writers and the Konkani literary world into which I’d stumbled, high on idealism but practically under-prepared. One of my prized possessions is a set of ageing letters in Bhai’s neat, precise hand, where he introduces me to Konkani writing, patiently answers my queries, and provides unstinted encouragement and advice.
These letters announce personal milestones like a daughter’s wedding and the arrival of a grandchild; they touch on his heart problem and emergency eye surgery and the tussle between his creative persona and the vexing need to tend to his business and solve issues of sales tax. They also convey his view that Konkani writers must be taken to a wider readership, that Konkani writing should be seen and evaluated alongside the work written in other Indian languages – only then can the language and its literature grow. Little wonder, then, that Damodar Mauzo ranks as the most translated writer in Konkani.
First part of the interview:‘I had no Konkani books to read. It was the language in which one laughed’: Damodar Mauzo