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A Kind of Absence (Author: João da Veiga Coutinho)

A Kind of Absence (Author: João da Veiga Coutinho)

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The author is of Goan origin, a former Jesuit and since long settled in USA.
Full text of the book may be downloaded from:
http://bit.ly/xkrsI
(courtesy Ralph Nazareth of the Yuganta Press)
The author is of Goan origin, a former Jesuit and since long settled in USA.
Full text of the book may be downloaded from:
http://bit.ly/xkrsI
(courtesy Ralph Nazareth of the Yuganta Press)

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Published by: Teotonio R. de Souza on Sep 25, 2009
Direitos Autorais:Attribution Non-commercial

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01/30/2014

A KIND OF ABSENCE (Book Review) http://tinyurl.

com/yc6fq6u As childhood is so central and problematic concept of this book, written ostensibly for assisting the author to come to grips with his extended childhood(?) (p.76), it draws my first response. I wish the author had provided a date that could enable the readers to have a "measurable birth-rebirth cycle". That would also do justice to author's concern about a kind of history that he finds missing in the Indian tradition. Instead he too reflects the traditional Indian weakness, namely the "difficulty in dealing with time". Furthermore, in keeping with good Indian tradition, he too seems to be fit to be a poet, rather than an historian (pp.7-8). "Struggling with the past"(p.23) and "Life in the shadow of History" (subtitle), are these contradictory or complementary theses of João da Veiga Coutinho? Do we have the first as a generous advice peddled to others, and then a shady (in the best possible senses) shelter for himself? Otherwise, how is it that About the Author skips over a phase of life that could not have been insignificant in shaping author's personality ? We find no mention of any Jesuit interlude beyond a mere reference to "college in Bombay". So much modesty can deprive the readers from details about author's personal background that could help them assess better "whom" they are reading. Would that be really inconsequential to comprehend and appreciate the treatment of Goan society presented in this book? Before reading history know your historian, is a primary rule of historiography. João da Veiga Coutinho claims he is not writing history, but has stuffed what I would classify as his "psycho-history" with loaded comments on Goa's past and how some historians have handled it, or others have failed to meet author's best criteria. He has even reduced them all to three neat versions. If I did not have some idea about who the author was, I may have been left imagining someone with a touch of Nietzschean brilliance, a schizo-mix of varying doses of presumption and condescension, cynicism and derision, piety and rationalism, euphoria and melancholy, etc., but all in all, not substantially different or remote from the "advanced stage of disarray or decomposition" (pp. 46, 100) which he discovered in India "as a personal affront" (pp.48-49). Author's "Conversations with the Dead" raise a series of questions: Why the dead and not the living historians? Good manners call on us to be kind to the dead ("De mortuis nil nisi bonum"), but here they are taking boa porrada ( to adopt author's style of lacing his literary salad with Portuguese oil), a good beating. None of them are in a position to rise up in their self-defence and to refuse to be identified with the caricatures of themselves. Bento Graciano de Souza is probably alive to declare himself out of the chapter for the dead, and to explain that his «singularly unhistorical manner» (p. 32) is due to the fact that he wrote the cited work as a dissertation for a degree in Sociology. Claude Saldanha, who died in my arms at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research (Porvorim) seven years ago, has left some of his conversations with me on tape. I can still hear him proclaiming the uniqueness of the Goans, but his definition of Goans was far more inclusive than the one of this author. Incidentally, let me illustrate this with a recent incident: Following Goa's integration in India, a "deputationist" who took charge of the Historical Archives was Dr. V.T.Gune, an historian of the Marathas, an orthodox brahmin from Pune. When he retired, he decided to settle down in Goa. As he was familiar with the trade of jyotishi he assisted the devotees of the Mangueshi temple. However, when I met him a couple of years later, he announced to me that he had decided to pack up and leave Goa. He surprised me when he explained: "These Goan Hindus are very strange"! They had failed his tests of orthodoxy! It dawned on me forcefully that we (Goan Christians) tend to see how

different we are from the Goan Hindus, not how similar we are! There is another feature of the book that catches one's attention. It looks for human traces to define valid history. Goa's embankments, palm-groves, etc (p.87) are rightly seen as human achievements. But it looks as if they too appeared when the Portuguese arrived and Goa's history began! Only Christian Goans or Goenkar are the privileged subjects of his history. Others, the majority of indistinguishable Konknne are condemned to "absence" in this book (pp. 117-118). There is more than one kind of absence in this book. The very name of Goa is absent from the cover. Perhaps the picture of a Church and the malevolent tree (without name) of poisonous nuts are sufficient visual identifiers of the uniqueness of Goa to the readers who may fail to grasp the mystical or poetic depths of the text? What about the exquisite pre-Portuguese architectural remains in Goa? And many that are described in the contemporary missionary records as having been brutally destroyed five centuries ago, and some by previous invaders? Are they worthy of a classified past? (p.74). Recent research has revealed that Goa had its own version of Ramayana, and Goa University has sponsored the publication of its text a year ago. Inscriptions that have survived are not negligible. But have we to be so dependent on "written documents", with all pieces connected, and with visible heroes to lead us on? The cultural alienation of the author (and of those he may represent) may explain why the western cultural standards are more significant and appealing. Not many Goans (including thousands of Goenkar like me) ever felt a crying need of being enthusiastic about the Portuguese epic (p.74), and majority of Goans remained satisfied with their puranas and traditional gods, while they could not help watching the Christian feasts and processions with curiosity, and availed of the opportunities to make some profits by producing images for Christian worship, or by selling ladu, khajim, kaddio-boddio to assist the Goan Christians to complete the material component of their feasts. The author has focused the stage-lights upon Christians, particularly those who imbibed some firangi bhas. Much space is devoted to liturgy, feasts and saints. The saints even appear with their copes, crowns and dogs, but different from Salman Rushdie's "kabbabed saints and tandooried martyrs" that characterise the "traditional Lusophilia of persons of Goan extraction". One wishes our author had taken on Rushdie's "hotchpotch universe" (p. 13), instead of flogging dead historians. Rushdie sees the Indo-Portuguese identity as a cultural and genetic hotchpotch which he chooses to ridicule in his The Moor's Last Sigh, his "satanic" evocation of the Portuguese Discoveries, with Prince Henry the Navigator as a homosexual, Aires da Gama as inventor of Gama rays of theophysics, and a brother Camoens da Gama, who became a nationalist radical and an admirer of Lenin, proclaiming revolution in Indian idioms, including Konkani! The central figure, Moraes Zogoiby (the Moor), a cultural and genetic misfit, who suffered from a congenital disease that rushed him away from childhood without tasting childishness, and Vasco Miranda from Loutulim, who painted cartoons, drank "vinho verde", and sang "Viva Mother Portugoose" to come out of the depression of Goa's "liberation." This book is likely to warm the hearts of some Goenkars of a dying generation, at least dying of nostalgia for the good old days of Pax Lusitana, when Goans could sleep carefree during day or night with no fear of burglaries (never mind if there was nothing much to be robbed in those days, or if there was no street lighting for the few daring robbers to avoid heading in the dark for a village well). Those sharing author's angst of Absence could well join the triumphant cries of the early Christian martyrs in Rome: "Ave Caesar! Morituri tibi salutant!" (Hail Cesar! We, who are about to die, salute you!) Sorry, I may be forgetting author's distinguished clan with legitimate right to feel proud of this latter day literary

testimony to its family lore. Many others of other generations, including the ones to come, may find this book inspiring. The politics of multiculturalism in USA, Canada, and Australia, to mention only some of the fertile grounds for all sorts of gimmicks of cultural recuperation of the ethnic minorities, may more than justify the initiative and efforts of the present author. «E não só», the Portuguese would say. For the Portuguese who are distressed these days with the wet blanket thrown by the Indian authorities upon their celebrations of Discoveries in India, this book should come as a pleasant and timely arrival. The citations from Mário Sá Carneiro and Fernando Pessoa, sixty and odd references to Portugal and the Portuguese in this mini-book, besides numerous other contextual references, author's efforts to search out Camões in the godowns of the Archeological Survey in Old Goa, his visit to Algarve from where Henry the Navigator dared the oceans, and the "Revolution of Carnations" thrown in for a good measure, all make for a generous repayment of "childhood" debts in this quincentenary of the Portuguese Discoveries. To conclude, A kind of Absence is likely to reach beyond its author's intended meanings, as it happens with any human production. I may have read more into such unintended meanings. João da Veiga Coutinho may call it a «revelation of hearts», as he suggested (in a posting to Goa-net after my first reaction to the book appeared there) like the good old Simeon of the Bible after beholding the baby Jesus. Despite my expressions of criticism, I have no doubt that this little book can greatly assist the emigrant Goans (Christian) who do not have much more than sorpotel and mando to present to their sophisticated western hosts as their distinctive cultural wealth. But I doubt it will impress the worshippers of Ganapati in Goa, or the Goenkar who get along well with the ghantta boil or can conduct their lives with Perpet Sucor, Vailankani, and Sai Baba rubbing shoulders. There are also Goenkar like me in pilgrimage, but to my relief the author was kind to reveal at least at the very end of his book that " there is no single way of being Goan" (p.126) Teotónio R. de Souza Lisbon, Portugal 1999

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