Tiatr, derived from the Portuguese word “teatro”, is a form of musical theatre popular in Goa. Typically, a tiatr consists of four to seven pordde (literally meaning curtains) or acts to which songs serve as an interlude. Two, three or more songs are performed between the acts while the set, costume and makeup are changed behind the main curtain.
Song Sung Blue by Savia Viegas is narrated like a tiatr, comprising 14 acts – only, the songs have been replaced in the book by artwork. The opening act of the book, only two paintings and one page of text, sets the context for what is to come: the protagonist, Divina, is narrating her life story to a young student on an assignment on “post-colonial tiatr”. Though Divina claims to have nothing to do with tiatr (her only tangible connection being her long-haired lover, a tiatrist from Benaulim who played female roles), she is going to tell the student her story, which, the reader will discover, is told in acts that demarcate the chapters of her life.
Broadly classified as comedy or tragi-comedy, a tiatr is social drama dealing with issues facing Goan society at large. Song Sung Blue, on the other hand, is a tragedy. Divina, the protagonist and the first-person narrator of the story, the older of two sisters, grows up in an old house in a village called Carmona in South Goa. Set against the humdrum routine life in a village locked in a conflict between tradition and modernity, her personal life is marked by extraordinary misfortunes brought on by those very conflicts. The novella takes the reader through the various events of her life, from her days at a missionary day boarding, through her sexual awakening and her stenography training, to her marriage, while one mishap piles up on her after another.
Reading Song Sung Blue feels like spending time in Goa – not the one with tourists and parties, but one where men go to sea and women wait (and, while waiting, have an affair or two), where life is organised around novenas and feasts, and where food means sausage pulao and chourico pao. The book captures the languor and pace of daily life in a Goan village beautifully in the first few chapters.
The author, who lives in Carmona herself, provides skilful descriptions of backyard piglets being neutered and sewn back, bumpy bus rides with aunties traveling to Old Goa for the novenas of St Francis Xavier, and illegal bullfights. Colourful characters feature in the book in miss-and-blink roles: a sausage maker who is an expert at neutering and slaughtering pigs, a poacher of turtle eggs, a vendor who trades juna purana mal for new glassware, a tailor’s son who comes home from a voyage with a trunk full of lacy lingerie. But these characters are part of the everyday – mundane, unimportant, and relegated to the margins of the book.
What takes centrestage instead are stark, momentous incidents that are strewn around lavishly, involving, among other things, a young boy shipped to a boarding school in Goa after his parents were burnt alive in Uganda by Idi Amin’s soldiers, an unwanted pregnancy, the gruesome murder of a nun, a bullfight gone awry, and a horrific road accident.
Dark but dispassionate
The entirety of Divina’s life is told in terse, straightforward chapters or acts, which, while packing a punch, also render a rushed, breathless quality to the prose. When devastating, life-altering events are presented in a few crisp sentences, it leaves the reader needing a respite.
But the author isn’t interested in dwelling upon the events or their emotional repercussions on the characters; she goes for a dispassionate telling of Divina’s life where a new adversity presents itself even before she (and the reader) has recovered from the last one. While Viegas prepares the readers for the bleakness of the tale in the very dedication “To all lovers of dark stories”, its impassive rendering might leave them dissatisfied for two reasons.
First, the material Viegas is working with is so rich and the setting so lush that it is difficult for the reader to settle for less. What I am referring to here are the elements that are present in the novella but remain under-utilised: the rustic backdrop, the vibrant characters, and their quotidian life that I would have liked to read more about.
It is the mundane nature of life that makes the exceptional stand out. For a tragedy to hit home, the reader must also spend time with the protagonist when life is commonplace. Besides, a fuller picture of the context in which the protagonist is situated in (which Viegas gives a promising glimpse of in the initial chapters) would have provided some breathing space in order for her misfortunes to affect the reader.
Second, it is hard to feel for a first-person narrator who is so detached from her own life, so disengaged from her own love and loss. While such a narrator does not necessarily have to feel or think overly in order to take the reader along, she may let her in on her inner world through other means, such as her observations. Here, Divina goes through her life as though she is living it for somebody else, barely voicing her own desires and dreams, heartbreak and anguish. She just narrates everything matter-of-factly. As the chapters progress, Viegas becomes increasingly economical with words.
What is, however, interesting is the characters’ preoccupation with sexuality in the book – whether as a dictum or a transgression. Divina grows up in a household where virtue is valorised: “there were more saints in our house than living people”. Her mother tells her that as a good Chardo (upper caste) girl all she needs to read are the Bible and Almanac de Parede (a local calendar) and warns her repeatedly that the worst fate that can befall her is an alliance with a sailor boy or a tailor boy. The premise has been set for Divina to do all kinds of unimaginable things with her body – which she sort of does – but the flat narration does not let the reader experience the thrill.
The graphic novel that wasn’t
In her acknowledgements, Viegas writes that the paintings used in the book were exhibited at three different venues. On her website, she says that she paints to “give release to the images that build up as she works on her fiction”. So the paintings do not complement the story, they are the story. They are delectable visual treats as pictorial representations of the prose – simple, accessible, and charming in their own right – and provide a much-needed counterpoint to the unrelenting bleakness of the story. But they do not add much to the text, and sometimes even disorient, as you see a plot twist in the painting that you have yet to read.
The terse prose and the luxuriant paintings, however, begin to make sense when you get a taste of what Song Sung Blue would have read like as a graphic novel. Spoiler alert: the last quarter of the book tells the story again as a graphic novel! This self-published book is an experiment by a writer looking to merge her love for painting with writing. Not that Viegas is a novice in this experimental genre – her last two books also were works of illustrated fiction. This is undoubtedly an interesting and welcome experiment, but in this case, it only works partially.
Song Sung Blue, Savia Viegas.