The villages of Goa, long ignored by tourists and outsiders, yet much-discovered in recent times by the owners of second homes and by artists in residence, remain secretive places. Stone lions perch beside the gates of so-called Portugese villas, which are set back in overgrown gardens, with their tiled roofs pulled over their heads. Dogs bark at passing strangers, who are nevertheless likely to find the scenes enchanting, and the ubiquity of the pets a sign of warmth and homeliness.

Later, however, they might hear stories of maggots festering in untended wounds, of animals tied to chains all day, because they have been kept for a purpose, and little else. It is difficult to reconcile such things with the outward beauty of the village houses; the smiling, if wary, people; and the abounding festivity of the villages themselves. But they are all aspects of Goan reality.

Fashion designer and writer Wendell Rodricks, who, in the early 1990s, anticipated a trend by being one of the first well-travelled and urbanised Goans to move back to his village home, is well-placed to bring its secrets to light. He explains that his friendship with his Goan neighbour, Rosa, prompted him to write this book, as a kind of tribute-cum-apology for what she had endured.

Rosa was a poskem, the Konkani word for “adopted child”, but one laden with pejorative and discriminatory connotations. For these abandoned children, taken in by well-off families, were then brought up as servants. “For the outside world”, says Rodricks elsewhere, “it seemed like they were treated with love and care despite not belonging to the family bloodline. In reality, they were treated as bonded labour, weren’t allowed to marry so they would be in servitude always, and were not given salaries or inheritance despite being given the family name.”

With its subtitle, Goans in the Shadows, and its rich, dark cover photograph – of a lavish interior with many empty tables and chairs, doorways and windows – this book primes the reader for a journey into secret psychologies. As it turns out, that promise is never fulfilled, and the brooding atmosphere is more undercut than entered into. Nevertheless, through an enduring suggestiveness, Poskem avoids being a disappointment.

Distinctive differences

Rodricks has written about four poskim, whose stories are distinct, intersecting only in time and place. Of these four, two, Liana and Nascimento, are not poskim at all, strictly speaking, being brought up as perfectly beloved children. Of course, in the course of their lives they have their share of troubles: Liana’s marriage to a Portugese soldier is complicated by the Indian Army’s liberation of Goa, and Nascimento, who migrates to Bombay to work as a chef, meets a personal tragedy there. But these misfortunes have nothing to do with their being adopted. No doubt the author was keen to clarify that not all adopted children in Goa were treated badly. But it is strange for a book to devote so much of itself to a disclaimer.

Even odder, in the manner of its telling, is a third story, Sita’s. This too is a tale of a happily adopted child, cared for and shielded from village gossip. But clearly something is amiss – because she is sleeping with her brother. It would seem, therefore, that Sita was never really integrated into the family, or that the family itself is badly damaged by insularity. Rodricks does make these suggestions, putting them in the mouth of the sibling’s aunt. “She was waiting to confront her nephew about a malaise that is often kept secret in Goa. Uncles marrying nieces. Young men of the home sleeping with poskim.” But no more is said of this, because two wrongs are quickly allowed to make a right. Sita, once outed as a poskim, is rendered legally free to marry her brother, and that is the last we hear of what was surely the defining element of her story.

Veiled truths

But one story, that of Alda of Camurlim village, does take on the darkness of the poskem tradition. Alda is discriminated against, made to do chores while her siblings go to school, and abused both verbally and sexually. Conveniently, she is labelled mad – pishem poskem. Yet here too, the reader will find no direct confrontation of her situation. Rodricks chooses to indulge the fantasy that Alda turns into a witch, and spins out episodes of revenge that, though evocative and finely written, also serve to obscure social and psychological truths, shrouding them, as it were, in “the inky blackness of Goan village nights.” The result is a fairy tale, weighed down by a social issue; not exactly satisfying.

It will be clear, from what has been said so far, that Poskem is a strange book. Indeed, it wears its unconventionality on its sleeve. Illustrations by the famous Mario Miranda are included throughout; scenes from Goa, Mumbai, Lisbon and Lyon, presented in his signature cartoon style. These drawings, often cheery, sometimes haunting, do not merely add to the reading experience; they also substitute for gaps in the writing.

Even more unusual than the use of illustrations, however, is the inclusion of whole recipes in the body of the text. Time and again, dramatic moments or meditative interludes that would ordinarily culminate in some revelation or insight, instead segue into detailed cooking sessions. The theoretical justification for this is that poskem were good in the kitchen. Practically, they introduce yet another dodge in the narrative, albeit a charming one.

Yet for all it lacks in analysis, Poskem remains a stimulating read. Perhaps this is because it makes apparent its textual shortcomings, and is upfront about its evasiveness, rather like someone communicating in sign language because they cannot talk openly. The sympathetic reader will not be too put off, realising that the book is drawing attention to the overwhelming power of subtle exclusion and small-town secrecy, which operate even today. But the greater work of “healing wounds” which Rodricks had hoped for certainly cannot be accomplished unless this power is first overcome and daylight brought to bear on shame.

Poskem: Goans in the Shadows, Wendell Rodricks, Om Books.