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The Gift Of The Holy Cross

Written by Evelyne Delgado Norris for n/a on no date provided

In contrast to the tropical and exotic images of Goa as a popular beach resort and refuge for many First World tourists in search of spiritual escape, Lino Leitao takes the reader on a what he views ‘a fictional’ journey about the everyday struggles of the Goan people under colonial Portuguese and later Indian rule. As we follow the coming of age and the development of the political consciousness of the main character Mario Jaques, we are also following the bourgeoning of a Goan nationalist movement and its fight for freedom and self-autonomy. The complexities of Goan society with its caste system as well as the hierarchies brought by the Portuguese influence and commercialism (educated elite, wealthy merchants, and the Church) are also unveiled as we witness class and caste struggles which end in the privileged taking over and ‘putting the mask of neo-colonialism’, to use a Fanonian term, after Goan ‘liberation’ and inclusion into India. Mario Jaques’ tragic fate must not be viewed as the decline of the movement into ‘utopian mysticism’, but rather as the crude exposure of the incoming regime’s technologies of violence and will to suppress the voice of the people. With Mario’s death emerges the hope of the rebirth of a movement and the transformation of ‘old’ nationalisms into what Mario Jaques envisioned as a more humane and just order.

Book I and II of Leitao’s novel deal with the birth and childhood of the hero, Mario Jaques.
As many heroes in epics and tales, the birth and coming of age of the protagonist are surrounded by what is viewed as supernatural and extraordinary circumstances. Among these, the hero’s mother bearing a child after most had thought of her as barren, the end of a severe drought at the moment of the hero’s birth, and Mario’s miraculous recovery after a life-threatening illness. The first two books also offer a glimpse of Goan society under the Portuguese colonial regime and stress the many inequities that exist among the classes and castes due to economic, political, and religious allegiances. Cavelossim appears as a microcosm of the complex makeup of Goan society, a blend of Hindu influences with the survival of the caste system and Portuguese hierarchies brought by privilege (members of the Church and administrators), education and wealth (Goan notables and landowners). The ‘making’ of Mario is of prime importance in the second book of Leitao’s work. Mario is described as ‘difficult to school’. Colonial education, described by Leitao, is synonymous with ‘violence’ and ‘regimentation’ as Mario is ‘bent’ to the grammar of the Portuguese language and, symbolically, to a world and a way of thinking that are imposed on him. Education is used as a powerful tool of assimilation by the colonial powers and Mario’s rebellion foretells his opposition to the regime in place. Under his new tutor, Apolinario, Mario encounters success and education takes on a new meaning: ‘colonial education will just be a stepping stone, will open your eyes wider, and then your mind will blaze with visions and dreams’ (59).

In Book III, Mario’s dreams and visions take shape as he matures and comes into contact with the writings and the ideas of Goan activists who spoke against the colonial regime and fought for civil liberties. Leitao stresses in his novel the power of the pen and of the word in political activism. It is through the pamphlet Portugal E Colonias that Mario’s political consciousness is awakened. It is by writing an article to denounce the violence committed against local women by Portuguese soldiers that the perpetrators are disciplined and Mario himself emerges as a leader in the community. It is by hearing and reading the speeches of Evagrio Jorge in Konkani (the local language) that Mario feels the urge to reconnect with his culture and his past and begin to build a vision of a new society based on the wisdom and the deep human values of his people. Mario’s message emerges as one of love and acceptance of all individuals regardless of caste or class, one that promotes a multi-religious and tolerant society and aims to fill the immense gap between privileged and non-privileged. Progressively marginalized from anti-colonial Goan groups in India (to which he fled), whose message and practices radically diverge in the protagonist’s eyes, Mario returns to Goa where he is arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the Portuguese authorities.

Book IV recounts the end of Portuguese rule in Goa and the state’s incorporation into India. In this last part, Leitao retraces in many ways the process of decolonization and the ‘pitfalls’ of sterile nationalism so well described by Frantz Fanon in the Wretched of the Earth. Decolonization and the ascent to power of an educated bourgeois elite often pose the problem of the continued and deepening marginalization of the masses who gain nothing in this process. Mario’s vision of liberation and rehabilitation of the masses is not shared by the ruling class and the hero finds himself on the fringes of society once again, preaching his message of love in the wilderness. But Mario Jaques’ untimely death must not be read as a failure or the impossible viability of his message, but rather as an open window to the future. As Mario Jaques becomes a martyr and a symbol of resistance, the individual or what Barthélémy Kotchy N’Guessan terms ‘le moi étroit’ dies to give birth to collective consciousness and action.

Lino Leitao’s novel offers important insights into a colonial and post-colonial society and unveils the complex dynamics of power at play. His novel is a cry for a new order in society, the transformation of nationalism and other liberation ideologies into a new humanism rooted in love and respect for the other. The struggles Leitao describes can be found in many formerly colonized regions of the Third World as they too search for an equilibrium after decolonization, giving his work universal appeal. Finally, Leitao shows a deep understanding of Goan society and culture. He was born in Goa himself and gives the reader a look from the inside of this fascinating society where so many influences converge. Leitao also intersperses the text with words and expressions in Konkani and Portuguese, giving a more direct and colorful picture of everyday life. A glossary at the end of the novel would have been helpful for the non-Konkani and non-Portuguese speaker. Nevertheless, The Gift of the Holy Cross constitutes a pleasant read with a glimpse into colonial Goan history and a call to end oppressive regimes of any kind.

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