Literary Review

Aditya Sudarshan on the revival of Goa’s storied past

Pages from Massacre in Margao, a graphic novel brought out by CinnamonTeal. Photo: Aditya Sudershan  

In 1510, Europe began its first sustained encounter with Asia from Goa, a land that continues to be called home by a variety of communities, with sometimes troubling fallouts. This undoubted paradise of beaches and resorts is, in its day-to-day existence, marked by insecurities of identity, language wars, and a suspicion of the outsider.

Simultaneously, its chequered history also makes Goa a repository of many rare texts (dating back to the very earliest in Asia), through which the encounters between Europe and Asia, Catholic and Hindu, and between languages, as well as local village histories might be traced and better understood. These papers are tucked away in seminaries, government libraries, and private collections, threatened by the tropical climate and the not-infrequent power cuts in the State. But their value is immense — not only for scholars, but perhaps more significantly, for Goans looking for foundations.

In 2013, the historian Ananya Chakravarti, then at the American University in Cairo, received a grant from the British Library to create a digital archive of early Indian Christian texts (as part of the library’s Endangered Archives programme). Chakravarti’s particular interest was the life and work of Thomas Stephens, a Jesuit missionary credited with the authorship, in a mix of Marathi and Konkani, of the Kristapurana, the life of Jesus Christ told in the epic poetic tradition of the Puranas. But her survey was not confined to Christian texts, and included, for example, the collected letters of the Goan historian Pandurang Pissurlenkar.

The two-year project culminated in the digitisation of hundreds of texts sourced from the Goa State Central Library, the Xavier Centre of Historical Research, the Pilar seminary and others, including private and family collections. These are now available online. Moreover, the digitisation equipment procured for the project remains in Goa; it was always Chakravarti’s hope that others might continue to open up Goa’s many histories.

Two such people who have been doing so for many years now are Leonard Fernandes and his wife Queenie, the founders of the well-known publishing house in Margao called CinnamonTeal, who had also partnered Chakravarti on her project.

By this time, CinnamonTeal was already known locally for its digitisation and archiving services, having published a facsimile edition of the first-ever book of Konkani grammar, Thomas Stephens’ The Arte Da Lingoa Canarim, dated 1640; a biography of Jivbadada Kerkar, a Goan soldier in the army of the Maharaja of Gwalior; and a collection of the Jesuit Miguel Almeida’s sermons, Jardim dos Pastores, which was first published in five volumes from 1658 to 1659.

Salvaging old texts apart, CinnamonTeal has also launched the Lest We Forget series of books, to showcase key moments of Goan history. Massacre in Margao was the first of these, a slim graphic-style novel that retold the events of September 21, 1890, when a protest for fair elections was brutally put down by the Portuguese rulers.

Another book in the works, as yet untitled, is on the year 1510, when Goa changed hands three times between the Muslim ruler Ismail Adil Shah, and the eventually triumphant, Portuguese admiral Alfonso du Albuquerque.

Goa’s beautiful villages, where the vast majority of the State lives, are storied places with rich histories. One of the great boons of bringing such archives to light would be to spur discussions over these stories. And perhaps it is ordinary individuals who have the best chance of accomplishing this.

The authorities, while not averse to a digital transformation of the archives, lack funds, imagination, institutional partners, and probably linguistic expertise as well (as many as 27 languages feature in the Goa State Central Library).

Scholars looking for texts are bound to encounter bureaucratic hurdles, as well as suspicions of slant and motive. On the other hand, as Professors Rochelle Pinto and Aparna Balachandran have argued in their monograph, Archives and Access, “where the passage of documents is viewed as between the holder and any eventual user… the fluidity of technology is most likely to be visible.” Therefore, “the more practical way of gaining entry [to the archives] is to find points of entry which maximize one’s invisibility and minimize agency as researcher, activist and writer.”

Certainly, Goa does not lack enterprising and inquisitive individuals who could, with the help of digitisation technology, open up access to the personal histories of homes and villages, thus over time creating little networks of accessible archival material. The website saligaoserenade.com, with essays on the history and customs of one Goan village, and authored primarily by the Saligao-born priest, Nascimento Mascarenhas, is an example of the energies on offer.

So while a great deal of contemporary Goan discourse revolves, unfortunately, around loss — of environment, of culture, and of space — Goans have every chance of regaining their history, thanks to the efforts of individuals like Chakravarti, Fernandes and others, and the technological opportunities of digitisation and the Internet.

Aditya Sudarshan is a novelist whose most recent book is The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi .


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