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The Gift Of The Holy Cross

Written by Benegal Pereira for Goan Overseas Digest on no date provided

Lino Leitao was born in Goa and studied at Karnataka University in India. He was involved in Goa’s freedom struggle. His earlier works include Collected Tales, Goan Tales and Six Tales. His stories have been published by Goa Today, Gulab, Gomantak Times (Goa); Afro-Asian Quarterly, Journal of Asian Literature (Michigan State University), The Toronto South Asian Review, Pacific Quarterly (New Zealand), New Canadian Review, Short Story International (New York), The Antigonish Review and others. Lino lived in Uganda in the 60s and taught in schools there. He is now resident in Canada. The Gift of the Holy Cross is his first novel.

Leitao’ s novel draws on recent Goan colonial history for its backdrop. When India seized Goa in 1961 from the Portuguese, the reaction of the Goan people was mixed. While many hailed the take-over as liberation, others, mostly beneficiaries of Portuguese rule, viewed it as a hostile act. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, reminded the people that Goa was geographically an integral part of India. Portugal’s Premier Antonio de Salazar, on the other hand, refused to recognise the take-over and insisted that as Goa was culturally akin to Europe, it had a right to maintain its separate identity. Whatever the truth in these positions, Goans found their loyalties divided.

Leitao writes with passion of that period. The story revolves round the tragic figure of Mario Jaques, alias Mario-Bab - a village leader who seeks to salvage the best of the old world values but finds himself isolated by his own mysticism and overwhelmed by the forces unleashed by the new political order.

The story opens with a devastating drought in the village. As villagers pray devoutly for the rains, the preacher throws up a challenge from the pulpit, ‘I ask of you women, who among you will give a son to the Holy Cross? Who? Who?... God wants your sons... Will you not give your son to the Holy Cross?’ Rosa (wife of Senhor Brito Jaques) who is with child vows that if she has a son, ‘I’ll present him as a gift to the Holy Cross.’ The rains arrive and so does a son to Rosa, an event taken by the people to be miraculous. To Rosa, it is also a portentous event - her son, Mario-Bab, has to be delivered back to the Cross, a sacrificial lamb in adulthood. A Messiah-like person, Mario-Bab becomes the object of vindictiveness, a convenient scapegoat and is dogged by misfortune all his life. His childhood is arduous. His love affair with Nirmala was taboo - he was a Catholic Chaddo while she was a Saraswat Hindu Brahmin. A self-imposed exile to Bombay leads to an awakening of a nationalistic consciousness. He returns to Goa only to face the ultimate humiliation - death on the cross, no less, for alleged crimes.

Or as the blurb of the book puts it, ‘Leitao’s novel brings alive the vanished world of colonial Goa, a hybrid creation of Portuguese Catholicism and the Hindu caste system. From its beginnings in village rivalries… the sleeping dragon of Goan Nationalism awakes’.

The story unfolds a cast of colorful characters: the unforgettable Oji-Mai Concentin who had delivered Mario-Bab, Hut-Joao their mundcar, Jozin-Bab the centenarian of Cavelossim, Senhor Tolentino, a staunch village patriot who will not bow to any colonial official, Tar Menin, Plough Francis, Petu-Bab and several others. (Note the sobriquets prefixing some of the names.) The characters are all endowed with traits and eccentricities that one can realistically associate with Goenkars.

Leitao convincingly brings out the manner in which the mundcars, bhatcars and village elite unwittingly created the conditions ripe for revolution. The deep-seated bigotry, caste intolerance and discrimination are identified as the root cause of the social upheavals that triggered nationalist fervor, culminating in the expulsion of the Portuguese from Goa. Yet nationalists like Mario-Bab had to endure much grief at the hands of the village elite who viewed him as a visionary come to destroy the existing order. He had no staunch band of supporters, just some sympathizers whose loyalty wavered.

I found myself drawn to the story. It was easy enough to sympathise with Mario whose suffering haunts your imagination. But I also felt a sense of kinship with him because his life reminded me of my own father’s struggles. Like Mario, he was a nationalist and had to confront a world riddled with similar feudal oppression and superstitious ignorance.

Leitao has gifted us with a resonant narrative. We are lured into the era when Goa was ‘Rome of the East’ and ‘Queen of the Orient’ inhabited by historic figures like Vasco da Gama, Duarte Pacheco, Afonso de Albuquerque, Francis Xavier who have left a lasting legacy. We are also treated to lively sketches of community life - complete with village feasts, church processions, firecrackers and violins, gram and sorpatel, and the teatr.

The nationalists had sought to dismantle the feudal system which privileged the few. The Goan people through the nationalists had succeeded in expelling their colonial masters but the victory turned out to be hollow. The unique culture moulded by the long Portuguese presence is swamped as Goa is absorbed into India. The people soon find themselves dominated by a new commercial elite - a world of brutal competition in which only the corrupt rise to the top. Mario had warned prophetically: ‘Throwing off the colonial yoke makes no difference if we don’t liberate ourselves. We will step from one tyranny to another’

Leitao strikes a chord in his readers: was a kind of karma making the people pay the price for rejecting Mario, a true son of Goa, who had struggled selflessly in their best interests? Leitao’s fictional story becomes an invaluable tool for the historian to examine the tragedy that afflicted the Goan homeland. Leitao has skillfully blended humor, romance, suspense and tragedy, while maintaining a moving story line on Mario-Bab. (I found parallels with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things which received the Booker prize for Fiction. Here too we have social upheavals, including the breaking of caste taboos.)

Eloquently written and with apt colloquialisms, Leitao’s story is bound to tug at your heart strings and stir your emotions. Allow him to transport you to a world you won’t soon forget - a world of nostalgic memories, of nature’s beauty and grandeur, the sweet innocence of childhood, the nurturing power of love and friendship.

The book is a compelling read. I recommend it highly.

This is a review of The Gift Of The Holy Cross

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