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Of quaint Goan culture

Payel Dutta Choudhury, Mar 04, 2012 : 18:13 IST
Savia Viegas’ second book, Let me tell you about Quinta, represents Goan life and culture which has evolved over generations and centuries of varied histories.

As Wessex in Hardy’s novels, Malgudi in R K Narayan, the Lake District in Wordsworth, so is Goa in Viegas’ novels — the place comes alive by the author’s lively description of people, their culture and way of life and the flavour of the local language.

Closely connected to her first book, Tales from the Attic, Viegas takes up loose ends from Tales to make up for every detail in Quinta. A reader who is not acquainted with the first book may be at a loss to understand certain sections in Quinta.

The book follows three generations of the Viegas family in Carmona — Mariquinha Viegas, the matriarch of the family, fights vehemently in the colonial era to claim ownership of their ancestral house ‘Quinta’ after her husband’s death. Years later in contemporary times, her prodigal son Queirozito (Tito) strives to stake claim to the house after long legal battles. However, the sense of family pride and belonging towards the house ends with the second generation; Tito’s grandson Suraj, who is settled abroad, is interested in the house only for its financial worth.

The novel opens with Suraj’s Russian-American wife, California, arriving at Carmona with the desire to usurp the property, only to return empty-handed. Most of the story is based on the conflict between the elite Bhatkars and the Mundkars, a representation of the feudal society in many pockets of our country.

The resentment of the upper-caste Bhatkars against their tenant labourers mainly arose post-1961, when many Mundkars finally managed to disassociate themselves from the land due to many protective legislative measures against feudalism. This relieved the Mundkars, who left Goa for good to high paying jobs abroad resulting in much anger in the minds of the Goan landowners, who found it very difficult to adjust to the new system.

Viegas, however, takes an unprejudiced view of the Bhatkars; no doubt it is not possible to forget their cruelty, but on the other hand, they are the ones to cause self-sufficiency in terms of agriculture to the region by taming the river with bunds. Viegas juxtaposes the conflict between the two classes with the backdrop of the story; Mariquinha Viegas fights her claim to the house in the colonial days when the Bhatkars were ruling over the Mundkars, whereas Tito struggles with the litigation in today’s Goa where the money and power equations have changed and the Bhatkars have no special place in the new power dynamics.

The quaint cultures of the land are brought out throughout the novel. Apart from the representation of the feudal system — the conflict between the Bhatkars and the Mundkars — many other features of Goan life, cultures and political events abound in the book. Viegas is clearly inspired by stories that she had heard, “stories that connected family history of the elite classes of Goa.” The small village of Carmona in south Goa brings alive the culture and history of the place spanning the late 1800s to 1961, the year Goa was liberated from the Portuguese rule.

The novel highlights the traditional Goan agrarian culture set against the modern technologically developed one. Viegas portrays the traditional conservative beliefs of the people in the inhabitants of Quinta receiving visions in their dreams; omens and superstitions are part and parcel of their lives and when disregarded, they cause dreadful consequences. Such beliefs are common to the traditional Goan mindset and bring out their Catholic piety as well as the inherited beliefs from the Africans as well as the Arabs.

Goa is probably the only place which is associated with the African diaspora in
India and has a history of slaves, who mostly came as a part of the Arab trade in the country. The author uses history to bring authenticity to her portrayal of the beliefs and value system of the characters in the book. Viegas, in line with the traditional story-telling culture of Goa, weaves her story with an aura of mystery concerning the family history. It is a protected family history, preserved and passed on from generation to generation.

The author, in fact, takes her readers on a journey – an enlightening one – which begins in present-day Goa and then travels back in time to the Goa in the colonial rule, set amidst the backdrop of the feudal system. The flavour of the local language does not go unnoticed by the readers too. There are repeated words and phrases in Konkani and Portuguese throughout the novel, which bring out Goa’s rich and varied linguistic culture. However, readers unfamiliar with the language may, at times, be at a loss to comprehend the meaning of what ‘bebinca’ or ‘nachni’ really means.

The narrative also requires constant references to the diagrammatic genealogy — the family tree — without which the reader may tend to lose track. However, these slight discomforts do not let story-lovers stop midway; Quinta scores as an interesting read due to Viegas’ mastery over the language, her vivid characterisation and sense of humour.

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