Claws of invasion

Claws of invasion

lead review

Claws of invasion

Those who set out to win the world cannot afford to be patient. They don’t have the time." In the early 16th-century Hindu Goa, a Portuguese Viceroy, Constantin Braganza, rebukes the persuasive Padre Simao Peres, who converts through love, not force. But the King of Portugal would rather Christianise conquered territories by intimidation. And the gentle, agrarian, and god-fearing Goans are the target.

The viceroy’s words feel so familiar to the 21st century reader. The present world's rulers are also in a tearing hurry — to overturn, force forward a generation their way. Also familiar is the spectacle of lower-caste Hindus preferring Christianity as a way out of caste humiliations.

Mahabaleshwar Sail’s original Konkani tome, Yug Sanvaar (2004), is now available as a shorter streamlined work in English, a piece of historical fiction called Age of Frenzy. Vidya Pai’s translation brings the turbulent 16th century alive, as the Portuguese arrive in their ships, circa 1510, "armed with a crucifix in one hand and a sword in the other."

These white-skinned foreigners strike terror in Goan hearts, as they swagger around with their swords and guns, bullying the populace, initially sneakily lenient, then displaying an iron fist; total acceptance of Christianity and its lifestyle, being the only option, or the horrors of the infamous Order of the Inquisition (1560-1812) await.

Age of Frenzy relates through a parade of fictional characters, residents of the fictional village of Adolshi, the very real story of how Goa’s Hindus were forced to give up their own deeply rooted religion, temples, clothes, culture, lands, food, taboos, habits — all that mattered.

Interestingly, it was the Brahmins who were proud of their Hindu religious roots — unlike the unsure lower castes with their extra baggage of tribal gods. Naturally, it was easier to convert a Mhar rather than a Shenai. But eventually, all would need to be brought into the Christian fold, by force, stealth or love, as attempted by genial Padre Simao Peres, a man forever at odds with the rest of the proselytising band of Jesuit priests and their harsh, intimidating ways.

Poor heroic, noble Peres eventually pays the price for his arguing, questioning rational talk. He tells the more militant Padre Colaso, "You cannot spread Christianity by simply erecting a stone cross. The cross must be engraved in men’s hearts."

Thus, we have a gentle boy, Annu, devoted to Padre Peres, eventually converting after a period of waiting. But most others are tricked or forced into accepting Christianity — and giving up their Hindu past totally.

First in line is Sukhdo Nayak, a kshatriya impoverished enough to be tempted by the Portuguese offer of confiscated land for the converted. He and his reluctant family become the first Christian converts from Adolshi. Expectedly, they become outcasts to the furious and contemptuous neighbours.

And, as the invaders start their routine of bringing down temples and erecting churches and crosses in their place, local resistance is not found wanting. A brave and enraged Guna Nayak (aided by two friends) brings down a gleaming cross from atop a hill. This crime pushes him into hiding and eventual escape from the village.

Disturbingly, the practice of Sati seems to have been imported into Goa by a group of émigrés from North India. Padre Simao Peres watches helplessly, a gruesome teenage Sati in action. Luckily, another Sati victim escapes her fate when her father helps the girl run away from her in-laws and into the waiting arms of a Christian convent refuge.

Various tricks are used to lead the reluctant towards Christianity. A new discriminatory law is promulgated ­­— that landowners should also be tillers, else they would need to convert in order to farm their land.

Brahmins do not till their lands because of the belief that only a kshatriya could touch the plough. And so, the feisty Brahmin wife Durga pioneers the idea of a Brahmin couple labouring on their own land.

Ultimately, Brahmins, like the Shenais, the Durga family and some others, do leave the village with their gods and possessions. Some do not make it, victim to opportunistic looters, while many reach other parts of the Western Ghats, start afresh — enabling the Konkani language, religion and customs to be preserved for posterity.

It’s noteworthy that Sail, a self-confessed agnostic, is careful in his handling of the book’s sensitive theme — religious conflict. Never does he demonise one religion over the other, preferring to philosophise about the positive points.

And there are bits of humour lightening the seriousness. A priest promises that Jesus would give new sight to the converted; a squint-eyed lady is especially happy.

The afterword section sees the author and the translator speaking about the information and research that facilitated this fresh look at Indian history. A must-read, despite its non-linear structural density.


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