February 16, 2019. I readied the usual ingredients for a book launch: drafting a media release; inviting a guest to release my latest book, Song Sung Blue; preparing festoons from the novel’s paintings to decorate the rather sombre Black Box auditorium of the Ravindra Bhavan, Margao, Goa; wrapping the copies to be released in jute; baking the carrot cake and ordering tea. Since 2007, this had become the sole means of promoting my books. Self-publish, self-launch, self-sell – or give up writing.
It happened to be the day of a major traffic disturbance. So we setup shop and waited nervously. The chief guest was already in attendance but the 100-seater Black Box was forlorn and empty. Finally, some thirty minutes after the scheduled time, people began to walk in. Just before the end of the formal book release, someone among the 35-odd guests suggested that Margao city in South Goa should have its own Book Club.
Everyone present seconded the suggestion. Soon the attendees regrouped, phone numbers were shared, and the first book-reading date for Song Sung Blue was finalised. The signatories comprised surgeons, college professors, lawyers, IT professionals, journalists, bankers and students. It seemed a stroke of destiny that such an eclectic bunch had come together.
There were other reasons too. Every event of importance in Goa is primarily held in and around the capital city of Panaji in North Goa – be it film festivals, music concerts, literary gatherings or cultural shows. In contrast, Margao – Goa’s second-largest city and the state’s commercial capital – and its peripheries, the wealthy and well-settled villages, suffer from extreme paucity of cultural entertainment. No wonder people in South Goa liken Panaji to the Biblical Noah’s Ark – all the best aspects of Goa seem to have been saved there, the rest were left to the deluge.
The birth of the Margao Book Club was instantaneous, voluntary and sincere. I didn’t like the name initially, but gave in to a democratic consensus eventually. The logic was simple. “Appropriate the city and develop its reading culture.” While many other such clubs operate as offshoots of bookshops, this one was people-driven, and therefore something special and altogether rare.
We began to meet once in four weeks at the Black Box. The foyers of this elegant South Goa auditorium were always buzzing with tiatr lovers – men in white shirts and black trousers walking with a slow gait with gold chains around their necks, and housewives and older women in short satin frocks with colourful handbags and rotund figures – ever-eager to watch the best in Konkani theatre. Like an endangered plant, the MBC thrived, largely unseen and unnoticed by tiatr lovers.
The book discussions were in-depth, insightful and intense. We read The Liberation of Sita by Volga, a translation from the Telugu, followed by Sita Valles: A Revolutionary Until Death, by Portuguese writer Leonor Figueiredo, and translated DA Smith. While Volga’s was a fresh retelling of the mythological figure from a feminist perspective, the Portuguese Sita chronicled the life a firebrand Goan who courted Marxism and participated in Angola’s liberation struggle.
Among the classics, we read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. To add colour and depth to the discussion, I made 23 paintings highlighting the theme in each chapter. It was a pleasure to visualise one of the world’s greatest novels for an appreciative audience, never mind the sleepless nights I spent with Crayola water-brushes. I also devised a quiz on the novel.
For Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman, one of our members, Srinivasan Subramaniam, gave us a lively account of some of the religious rituals of Hinduism, particularly in and around Tamil Nadu. Srinivasan is very familiar with the writer and the landscape of the text, more so because his aunt, M Vijayalakshmi, has translated some Tamil authors into English.
With more books being read and discussed over the following months, MBC began to make waves locally. We had discussed nine books so far, and interest was growing. We had an invitees’ list of 70, of which at least a third participated in our monthly sessions. Each book discussion was piloted by a different coordinator, which lent diversity and led to a range of views being explored.
But none of us had the slightest inclination that the beast called Covid-19 was rearing its ugly head. Soon the lockdowns were announced, and we too retreated behind locked doors, wearing masks and avoiding social contact. The Black Box where we met and the canteen of Ravindra Bhavan, Margao, where we ordered our tea, stopped functioning.
I stopped baking carrot cake and put the tin and silver foil away. It was time to sew masks and help migrants trapped in Goa to board trains home.
Goa’s sizeable community of sailors dispersed across the world began to send pleas to return home. Many of our members, part of the medical fraternity, were pulled into the vortex of running makeshift hospitals and quarantine centres.
We heard that our friends and well-wishers, Leonard and Queenie Fernandes of Dogears Bookshop in Margao, who bulk-ordered books for us, were facing incessant delays in procuring them now. The whole chain of order and delivery from Delhi and Mumbai had broken. But having vowed to support small bookshops, we soldiered on.
The city was forlorn and mostly shut, except for the supply of essentials medicines, vegetables and meats. Returning sailors and office-goers compulsorily sequestered in their homes had taken to cultivating kitchen gardens and planting rice in fields that had lain fallow for years.
Still, MBC members continue to share readings and occasionally engaged in online conversations. However, Covid fatigue had set in within a couple of months. Eyes tired of social distancing and lips behind masks had begun to get restless. So, as a founder-coordinator, I decided to call up Rahul Chandavarkar, a friend and a journalist.
“Do you think MBC can go online and have virtual book discussions?” I asked. Rahul agreed to host MBC’s online sessions from his Zoom account. He invited author and journalist Annie Zaidi for a discussion on her book Love Stories# 1 To 14 for MBC’s maiden attempt to enter the virtual world, which was a huge success.
However, some of the members who used to participate regularly in our physical meetings were not as amenable to the idea of virtual sessions. They still aren’t. But a regrouping with new faces has helped sustain the lively discussions. Most of our members focused on our online chats and discussions and continued to watch and comment on the sessions hosted on YouTube.
The following month, we invited Jerry Pinto, who enthralled the group with his wit and wisdom. The discussion on his bestselling novel, Em and the Big Hoom, was led by Rujuta Borkar, a young professor from Margao.
At this time, one of the authors of An Extraordinary Life: A Biography of Manohar Parrikar called up to ask if MBC would consider discussing the book. I mulled over this on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The four-time chief minister, who and had risen to become Union Minister of Defence, was one politician whom people either loved or hated. The book had received some interesting reviews.
I proposed the book to the club, and even suggested the name of a well-known city lawyer to chair the session. A section of our members wanted to stick to the founding brief that we limit our discussions to fiction. Some felt that everyone should have been consulted before a decision on a “controversial” book was taken.
Curiously, everyone presumed I had okayed the book “under pressure” from the publishers, which also led to an interesting debate, after which one of our members wrote a long message to the group, defending the right to read books even if they were controversial. Slowly, the dissent died, but it left me a little shaken. We still hope to include the book in the 2021 reading list.
After taking up four books in row by Goan authors, of which three were rooted in Goa, some of us began wondering if the club was veering towards becoming a “Goan-Writers-Only” affair; others were already cheering its ‘direction’, and wanted more of Goan literature to be discussed. It was obvious that MBC had reached a crucial juncture. After all, it was created to celebrate good literature from any part of the world and in any language.
So, I decided to make the choice of books absolutely democratic and voluntary. I requested each and every member of MBC to list FFF books, where FFF stands for “Five Favourite Fiction”. The response from a populace behind bolted doors was instantaneous, rich and varied. Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things, which many of MBC members had not read previously, emerged from the peoples’ list.
The discussion on the novel had a large attendance on Zoom, and the meeting was made expecially memorable by the presence of two Portuguese academics: Professor Teresa Casal and researcher Margarida Martins from the University of Lisbon. While Casal has translated the novel into Portuguese, Martins has written her doctoral thesis on it.
For now, while MBC’s online sessions will continue, we are striving to meet once every quarter, so as to make our club a mix of the virtual and the actual. Currently, our peoples’ list comprises hundreds of books, classic and contemporary, which will be taken up for discussion along with newly-published books, in due course. We’re wishing ourselves luck.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.