‘Every writer is an activist’: Damodar Mauzo

Damodar Mauzo, the outspoken Jnanpith Award-winning Konkani writer from Goa, remains unfazed by the threats to his life

Published - February 26, 2022 04:00 pm IST

Damodar Mauzo at the Kerala Literature Festival in 2019.

Damodar Mauzo at the Kerala Literature Festival in 2019. | Photo Credit: P.K. AJITH KUMAR

Goa’s Damodar Mauzo won the 57th Jnanpith Award in November, becoming the second Konkani writer to win India’s highest literary prize. The 77-year-old writer, who spent many years running a shop, has been a part of Goa’s contemporary roller-coaster history, having fought for its Statehood and the constitutional recognition of Konkani. Winner of several awards, including the Sahitya Akademi for his 1981 novel Karmelin, Mauzo has written two other novels, short stories, essays, criticisms and an award-winning script for a Konkani film. His stories are chiefly about people, the sea, and his predominantly Catholic village, all exuding a simple and realistic charm.

Mauzo has always stood for free speech — he had dashed off a letter to the Sahitya Akademi demanding zero tolerance to any threat to freedom of expression. Since 2018, he has been provided with police security following intelligence inputs about a threat to his life from the investigation team probing the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh. But he remains resolute in what he believes, famously saying, “No bullet can defeat a thought.” Mauzo is co-founder and co-curator of Goa Arts and Literature Festival. Excerpts from an interview:

What does the Jnanpith mean to you and for the Konkani language?

I never wrote for any award; this award will not change my style of writing or thinking or standing. Language is a major component of any culture. In a way, awards are very important for my language Konkani, which has suffered for centuries due to Portuguese rule.

Konkani acquired literary status in 1975, when it was recognised by the Sahitya Akademi. In less than 50 years, two Konkani writers have won the Jnanpith. It has given countrywide recognition to a local language. I hope this will encourage the younger generation to take up writing in Konkani.

This award came to you in the 60th year of Goa’s liberation. Is that a coincidence? Is it late in coming?

It is a coincidence because I am not sure the jury in Delhi was aware that 2021 was the 60th year. Personally, I am happy to get the award in this significant year, as it gives some meaning to Goa’s liberation. Frankly, I never expected the Jnanpith. Konkani has a small readership and there are so many good writers in India who deserve the award.

Are your stories based on real-life experiences?

What I write is realistic and based on reality. My characters are imaginary and I may twist stories a bit to make them believable, so in that sense it is fictionalised. After reading my novel Karmelin, readers realise this can happen. It is fiction based on reality.

What is the state of Konkani literature today?

It must be noted that Goa is the smallest state in India and Konkani speakers are spread across the north and south of Goa in neighbouring States. Ever since Konkani became the official language of Goa and was included in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution in 1992, Konkani literature has grown in quality and quantity. Writers across Goa’s borders are doing an excellent job in enriching Konkani literature. Sadly, their works are not translated and Konkani lacks popular and government support. But I am optimistic about the future.

Why has Konkani literature lagged behind in getting translated into other languages, especially English?

I think there is no conscious effort to reach out to a larger readership. The Goa Konkani Akademi should do more to publish, translate and promote Konkani literature. Also, major Indian publishers should undertake translations of Konkani writings.

You have championed many causes. Do you think writers should also be activists to influence people?

I firmly believe that every writer is an activist. In most of my stories, there’s something I draw attention to, whether environmental damage or social issues such as loneliness, old age, gender exploitation etc. You see activism in my stories.

As an activist, I have fought for many causes. Now I am championing the cause of freedom, of freedom of expression, which is a fundamental right that enhances our humaneness. It is especially important for writers and artists.

Have the threats to your life changed anything?

The only change is when I travel with my wife in a car, there is a third person in the name of security, invading our privacy. Otherwise, life goes on. I am not scared. People who threaten you are cowards — they can kill you but not your ideas, writings and courage. This is the failure of the killers.

Have you been inspired by any writers?

I am a writer today because I was a voracious reader once. I have read much, from the children’s Ramayana and Mahabharata to the Marathi writer Sane Guruji and modern writers such as Albert Camus, Márquez, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and several others. Many writers have influenced me collectively.

Can we expect another book soon?

A new book of mine, Jeev Diun Kai Chya Marun (Should I Kill Myself or Have a Cup of Tea) has just been translated into Kannada; the English version will be out soon. I am working on some more books.

The interviewer is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and writer.

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