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The Gift Of The Holy Cross

Written by n/a for Herald Insight on no date provided

LIKE MANY GOANS of the diaspora, Lino Leitao is hardly known back in his home state. That doesn’t prevent him from saying: ‘I was born in Goa, brought up in Goa and my soul is Goan.’ Yet, while swearing by Goa, Leitao is a writer who has been influenced by the best of the written word from Asia, Africa, North America and beyond. His novel (The Gift of the Holy Cross, 1999, Peepal Tree Press, Leeds) was written in Canada, published in Britain and has for its backdrop colonial Cavelossim and Carmona. Varca-born Leitao takes us back decades, and gives us the fragrance of feiras exploding with firecrackers, the dancing harmonies of the violin bandes, the aromas of roasting gram and sorpatel, the spectacle of the tiatr and the processions of the saints. One-time literature student FREDERICK NORONHA - who was never ever good at studying the subject - was curious enough to interview the author via e-mail. Below are extracts:

What prompted you to write this novel The Gift of the Holy Cross?

I always used to write. In my younger days, I used to write in Konkani, mostly poetry. Some of my poems were published in Azad Goem, or was it Azad Gomataki? I don’t remember now. It was a newspaper committed to making colonised Goans understand exploitation and subservience under colonialism. It was edited by Evagrio Jorge. At that time I wrote a novel in Konkani. Some of my friends liked it. Late Tony Fernandes, a friend of mine, who rose up to be a minister in D.B. Bandodkar’s administration, was interested in publishing it. But in the end, nothing came about it. I also wrote poetry in Soth, a newspaper, edited by Felicio Cardoso soon after the liberation. So, I think I always wanted to write, write just to understand mankind and myself.

But what about this novel? In many ways it seems to be a strong statement about twentieth century Goa...

Well, I was born in Goa, brought up in Goa and my soul is Goan. The soul of Goans of my generation was not a free soul. It was controlled and locked up in various cages. And within me there was always an urge to understand the various confinements that the Goan soul was put in.

So, in highlighting the many issues that still haunt Goans today, what were the main concerns that you had when writing?

Social issues that haunt Goans today, are no different from the ills that wrecked the Goan society in the colonial times. If one reads the literary works of Prof. Lucio Rodrigues, or for that matter, the works of earlier thinkers like that of Francisco Luis Gomes, Menezes Braganga and Fanchu Loyola, you’ll see that Goan psyche is shaped by the hierarchical caste rigidities, feudal attitudes, religious orthodoxy, religious loyalties and colonial supremacy.

In the collected works of Menezes Braganga, Prosas Dispèrsas (1965), he often writes about ‘o servisilimo mental’ - the mental servitude or mind control. And, in Fanchu Loyola’s work, shortly to be released by Concept Publications, researched by Dr Carmo de Sousa, translated from the Portuguese by me, and the final editing done by Dr Charles Borges, Fanchu Loyola writes on many social issues of his times, mostly about the iniquities inherited in the fabric of Goan society. But in his book, Panoramas Economicos da India Portuguesa, which is included in his collected work, he investigates into the economic plight of Portuguese India. So the social woes of the past are still haunting the present Goan society. And you know why?

Why Lino?

Because the new generation of Goans though they aren’t illiterate like their forefathers, they haven’t taken pains to understand their own history! If the present generation of Goans pay no heed to their own contributors to various aspects of their history, the future will elude them. ‘A man with no past has no future,’ said Isaac Bashevis Singer, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. And Peter Nazareth, the Goan diaspora writer, in one of his essays says, ‘Without knowing history, Goans seem doomed to reinvent the wheel.’ The old grudges and hatred are still there, fragmenting the present Goan society. One of the cases in point is the present caste feud that is going on in the village of Cuncolim. In this book too, these kinds of caste feuds are also addressed, though in a fictional martyr, exposing the rigid caste mentalities during the colonial times.

Coming back to your concerns while writing...

Okay, in the 1950s during my student days in Belgaum, many Goan students, including myself, debated the issues that had confined Goans not beyond the horizons of caste, religion and so on. Many of us hoped to shape a better future, and contributed their might towards the freedom movement. Issues debated during my student days, and also analysed by the Goan thinkers, and my experiences and observations, all that was absorbed within me, I wanted to wring that out from my system. So you see, this became my matter of interest while writing this book.

Just for some background, could you tell us something about your earlier literary work?

I mentioned the novel Konkani that never got published. Joe Viegas, a freedom fighter now living in Cuncolim, typed the manuscript for me. But when I went to Uganda to teach, and that was in 60s, I submitted a short story to the Afro-Asian Quarterly, their editorial office was based in Egypt, and they accepted my story. It was my first story in print. I was very excited. But unfortunately I lost that magazine that had published my first story, while coming to Canada as a refugee from Uganda. Recently, the poems that were published in Soth were republished in Goencho Ava - 1999. While I was in Uganda, I also sent stories to Goa Today. And Lambert Mascarenhas, who was the editor, published my stories. Those stories were about the Goan expatriates of East Africa, mostly portraying their psyche, from the author’s perspective. When published, some of my stories created a kind of stir in the Goan community of Uganda. My first book of short stories, Collected Short Tales (only four stories), came out the year I arrived in Canada.

When was that?

I think that was in 1972. I showed some of my unpublished stories to Bluebell Steward Phillips, then president of the Montreal branch of the Canada Writer’s Association. She liked them. When a small publication in Canada, Vesta Publication, accepted the manuscript of Goan Tales, she wrote an Introduction to it. Vesta also published another short stories collection, Six Tales. Mostly, I wrote short stories; and still I do. So, my stories got published in Journal of Asian Literature (Michigan State University), Massachusetts Review, Short Story International (New York), The Toronto South Asian Review, New Canadian Review, and Pacific Quarterly (New Zealand). Goa Today, Gomantak Times and Gulab also published my stories. In my short stories, or earlier work, I try to bring to the fore the various idiosyncracies of Goan nature that was shaped by the supremacy of caste colonialism, and religious zealotry.

Internationally known critic Peter Nazareth says, ‘Leitao is a fine story teller with a satirical political consciousness and spiritual vision of people’s awakening.’ What went into the shaping of the writing skills?

I am quite flattered Peter saying that about my writing. I read a lot, and I still do. I read literatures of different cultures besides my own. During my student days I liked to read Mulk Raj Anand. I also read Portuguese literature. In Uganda I read Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan writer. I read Somerset Maugham a lot, I enjoyed his short stories. But actually, I cannot pinpoint out what went into shaping my writing skills. Maybe the writers that I read had an influence on me. That’s all I can say.

Who would you rate to be among the better Goan fiction writers today? And in the past too?

I am not the right person to answer this question. I haven’t read too many Goan fiction writers today and besides I live in a totally different environment. But I have read short stories of Chandrakant Keni and Mauzo and they are fine writers. Their fiction that I’ve read so far dwells upon the essential nature of today’s Goans. Uday Bhembre, though I haven’t read him, it is said that he writes prose so beautifully, like poetry as it were. I read the short stories of Felicio Cardoso, and some of them I translated into English and I also read his play Amcheamni Monis Zaun leta. In his fiction Felicio presents the picture of Goan mores and mental attitudes of colonial times. He’s a fine writer, but I don’t think he writes fiction any more. I also read Freddy D’Costa’s stories Mongreancho Poll. That was long ago, and I remember enjoying them. There are so many Goan writers who are the pillars of the modern Goan literature like the poet Manohar Sardesai, whose poetry I read before, and still read, that come in Gulab sometimes.

I also read Angela’s Goan Identity by Camo D’Souza. I liked the novel and reviewed it. It is a novel about the Goan mores in transition. Everybody in Goa must have read Sorrowing Lies My Land by Lambert Mascarenhas. I read it three times, that was when I was younger. It was the first novel that I read written by a Goan in English. The novel touched me deeply, maybe because he depicted the world that I was brought up in. I also read his play, The Greater Tragedy or The Death of a Nationalist. The play ponders on the betrayal of the liberated Goa by the new breed of liberated Goan politicians.

In my younger days I also appreciated the plays of Miguel Rod, and I saw almost all of his plays. Plays like Gochem Questao, Africarachi Bail and so on. In my opinion, I think, he was one of the great theatrists of his time who brought to the fore the emotions and feelings of Goan Catholics. I do not know if the Konkani Academy has ever published his plays. The Brahmas by Francisco Gomes, a novel that belongs to the past is set in North India. It is based on the injustices of class and caste system. I think Francisco Lums Gomes was the first liberal-minded Goan of his time.

How do you rate these writers?

I cannot rate these writers. But I can say they are all good writers and they know the depths of the Goan soul. Rating, I think, is a North American concept.

What are you trying to say to the Goans of today through your fiction? Is it only entertainment, or is there a common message running through your work?

Most of my short stories bring to the fore the foibles of Goan human nature, a nature that was shaped by various elements. So I think, my stories are entertaining, and at the same time, I think, they make the reader understand Goan traits. Of course, there’s a common message in my work, which comes out of this book. Change in Goa should come through the people, according to the needs of the people, and not through the leaders. The avid greed of the leaders is devastating the state. Mario, the main charcter in my novel, says, ‘Don’t think you’re free and liberated just because democracy has been introduced in Goa. Far from it. Our leaders will talk honeyed words and promise heaven on earth; moneyed people will use honeyed words and promise material rewards. But they will all have ulterior motives. In the name of religion, they’ll speak against your brothers and sisters and massacre them, and call themselves holy.

‘There will be so many voices toiling to destroy your innate morality and trying to corrupt you.’ In another place Mario says, ‘Listen you poor of Goa, poor of India and poor of the world, the rich and powerful will always keep you poor. Know their ways but do not tread their path, for they walk the road of greed.’

One last question, what about your future plans?

I have another manuscript with the same publisher. It is called The Story of Rosin, based in Goa, after liberation. I’m also collecting my short stories that are spread in various magazines and I am writing another novel about the diaspora Goans. That’s it so far.

This is a review of The Gift Of The Holy Cross

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