Friday, December 23, 2005

Goanet Reader: An imaginative story of Goa's turbulent time (Ben Antao's novel reviewed by Cornel DaCosta)

[A nice review from Cornel. -FN]


A review by Cornel DaCosta

On beginning to read this novel by a Goan author and set in Goa, my memory was drawn to a period between August and December 1961 that I spent in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, whilst temporarily away from my hometown of Mombasa. I had stayed at a relatively new up-market YMCA, made new friends, including fellow Goans, others from the Indian sub-continent, and a few Brits, Germans, Dutch and Danes.

One was a particularly jovial young Portuguese gentleman. Television was not yet available to us, but in the main, BBC radio kept us informed about news around the world.

On the morning of December 19, 1961, on radio, I heard the dramatic news that, after 461 years, the Portuguese rulers had been ousted from Goa by the Indian armed forces. I recall being quite elated by this news. I had always opposed colonialism in principle and felt happy over the removal of the colonial yoke in my ancestral homeland of Goa.

Over breakfast that morning, it became clear that most of my new friends were rather excited and seemingly pleased with the news. However, the Portuguese gentleman in our midst wept inconsolably. When he calmed down, he explained that it was not so much the news about the Indian "occupation" of Goa that really upset him. He felt that this would have occurred sooner or later, because of the obduracy of the Portuguese Prime Minister Salazar. Rather, it was the manifestation of joy in me and fellow Goans, that morning that upset him greatly.

"How", he asked, still in tears, "could you, my Portuguese brothers celebrate the Indian takeover of Goa?" He was pained even more when I told him, as gently as I could, that as a Goan, I was never pro-Portuguese as he had perhaps imagined but an Indian at heart.

On continuing with Ben Antao's recently-released novel 'Blood and Nemesis', it further struck me that, despite visiting Goa several times from my subsequent abode in England, I had not followed the political changes in Goa too closely over the years. Instead, I was strongly drawn to study the abomination of caste practice among significant numbers of Catholic Goans, and also, to explore the effects of mass tourism on the paradise that is Goa.

The novel, however, captured my attention to the dramatic events leading to the incorporation of Goa into the republic of India and the roles of many individuals there who were for, or against, the expulsion of the Portuguese from the territory of Goa.

We thus get a vivid account of many antagonisms and actions centred mainly in Goa, over a relatively short historical period, up to, and soon after December 1961. The Indian military action is presented in considerable detail and the many characters involved are very real in terms of the actual events of the time.

In this very absorbing story, we note the ever-vigilant police presence represented by Jovino Colaco and his immediate boss Gaspar Dias. Both are determined to suppress any Goan anti-Portuguese sentiments and political activity sympathetic to Indian nationalism.

They take it upon themselves, on behalf of the authoritarian Portuguese administration, to bait freedom fighters, capture them, physically abuse them and then incarcerate them in the infamous Aguada jail in Goa. Their particular quarry from May 1955 was a fellow Goan, Santan Barreto. They kept a close eye on him and on his friends who usually spent their leisure time at Bombay Cafe in the town centre of Margao in south Goa.

This cat and mouse strategy is captured brilliantly in the novel. It depicts Jovino, the policeman invariably on his motorbike, as a power-hungry individual, with a weakness for drink, gambling and prostitutes.

He is determined to amass wealth corruptly and to gain promotion at work, having been told by his superiors that his advancement would depend on his success in capturing Goan freedom fighters who operated clandestinely.

In contrast, Santan, fired by a powerful desire to rid Goa of the Portuguese presence becomes increasingly elusive but very active in the subversive underground political network. He surreptitiously outsmarts and frustrates Jovino for a long time. He also gets emboldened by minor skirmishes against the police, and with fellow conspirators, manages to attack isolated police posts to obtain firearms and ammunition. However, his luck eventually runs out. The vigilant Jovino strikes lucky late one night and Santan is captured, abused, and then summarily jailed. He survives the harsh treatment in prison for years and is eventually freed in 1961 during the rapid Indian military action.

Freedom for Santan Barreto and his fellow freedom fighters is sublime, but clearly, at a high cost of life and limb for many in the struggle. He eventually manages towards normal life and his fame as a freedom fighter and hero spreads rapidly with considerable adulation from the local people and also in Bombay. However, he is determined to find his former oppressor, Jovino. Thus the former hunter nowbecomes actively hunted.

Jovino had decided earlier, to continue to live in Goa, despite the available option from Gaspar Dias, to flee Goa by air for Portugal via Karachi in Pakistan.

Tracking Jovino proved to be more difficult than expected for Santan and his comrades as the canny policeman had hidden all traces of his whereabouts in Goa. Nevertheless, after much assiduous detective work of his own, Santan is able to find the final location of his Nemesis, Jovino, and has to then deal with a totally unexpected situation towards the end of this scintillating novel.

This is Ben Antao's first novel and seasoned readers of novels will detect features which are innovative in this genre in terms of the story line, its grounding in a specific historical period and in the presentational style.

For me, it absorbingly took me from my pre-independence Kenya experience, as described above, to the time of Goa's liberation in 1961. Whilst reading the novel, I also reflected on the continuing intellectual premise encapsulated by VS Naipaul, the famous novelist and Nobel laureate, and others, that fiction is dead, vanquished by our need for facts.

To my mind, this is highly debateable, but there is nevertheless, much on-going discussion on this theme and about those novels, which have, in their narrative, strong links to actual facts as in the case of Blood and Nemesis.

Clearly, we can have accurate historical accounts of actual events, but so too, the literary novel of the kind presented by Ben Antao, that stretches the reader's imagination in a way that a historical text may also do, but rather differently. In Antao's case, introspective imaginative storytelling has had the power to reveal underlying truths in highly turbulent and trying times.

On a related issue, today, there are those who have not accepted Goa as liberated but as under occupation by India. This novel zeroes in on the elements of this dilemma around the time of the military action in 1961.

Antao, who lived in Goa and Bombay for much of his life before eventually settling in Toronto, Canada, depicts this particularly well and insightfully. He has had other publications, one of which, available to me, was biographical in orientation. But I enjoyed Blood and Nemesis very much, despite what I thought was perhaps a bit of an abrupt ending.

Perhaps this specific comment stems from my desire to have wanted to read even more material in this particular novel. But in another sense, the novel has whetted my appetite for a welcome sequel that could take us from the dramatic events of 1961 to the present in Goa.

The particular conundrum whether Goa has been liberated or is an occupied territory in the eyes of some people living there, and in the Goan diaspora, is worthy of a follow-up by Antao. Hopefully, when readers convey their impressions of Blood and Nemesis to the author, he will be inspired to generate more pleasurable reading in his distinctive and inimitable style.

Blood & Nemesis By Ben Antao Goan Observer Private Ltd. 318 pages, Rs. 250 ($25 CN)

Blood & Nemesis was released on June 18, 2005, at International Centre, Goa, by freedom fighter and author James Fernandes.

For inquiries contact: Ben Antao (Toronto) 416 250 8885

Cornel DaCosta, PhD, author and specialist on University Education, is based in London, England.

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