The genre of the pastoral has a distinguished ancestry, emerging recognizably in ancient Greece in the form of Theocritus’s Idylls, and in Roman times with Virgil’s Eclogues. These poems about bucolic shepherds lamenting the refusal of their ladyloves (for the most part, city-based) to heed their protestations of love had a country setting, and formed a lasting tradition that continues to this day, with varied re-inflections. We could trace parallel traditions in literatures across the world, where the idealization of country folk and their environs is marked, though in some of the most interesting pastoral poetry, a darker tone may prevail, as the countryside is itself revealed to have a canker eating at its soul. This may, in time, have provided the basis for anti-pastoral writing, often in prose form, which relentlessly debunks the easy romanticization of the idyllic rural ambience.1 Sadly, for many urban dwellers, Goa has become exactly that, a convenient repository of pastoral fantasies that are inevitably set up for a fall.
Goan residents have always known better, of course, and there is a rich vein of writing out of Goa that dismantles such stereotypes. To this stream of writing, we may add a novel which is sharply anti-pastoral in its treatment of contemporary Goa.
For Sudeep Chakravarti’s novel The Baptism of Tony Calangute has just been reissued with its original title restored, after an earlier release under the title Once Upon a Time in Aparanta (Aparanta, an ancient term for the Konkan region, and Goa are used interchangeably in the narrative). Chakravarti is a well-established journalist and political analyst, working in conflict zones such as the North East. He has tried his hand at fiction earlier, with the novels Tin Fish (about the life-world of students in a public school, Mayo College, Ajmer, where Chakravarti studied), and Avenue of Kings, which takes the bildungsroman motif further as his protagonist Brandy Ray experiences life in college in Delhi and the transition to adulthood in times of intense violence (the 1984 riots are the backdrop to this story). In this third novelistic outing, Chakravarti turns his attention to Goa, the State in which he currently resides. Today’s Goa becomes a vivid presence as the tale unfolds. The author has absorbed the history and contemporary crises afflicting the coastal State well, as he depicts flagrant encroachments on the Goan way of life by mining companies, land-sharks and mafiosos of various stripes, including the Russian and the local. Along the way, we get vivid descriptions of the changes brought about in Goa by the advent of unfettered commercialization and naked greed; the novel refrains from falling back on a nativist view of the Goan predicament.
Indeed, it is remarkable how the English language, as it is spoken in Goa, with elements of Portuguese and Konkani thrown into the mix, is captured incisively by Chakravarti, who brings in a much needed dimension of comic relief in some of the passages. ‘Everybody has the absolute freedom to be corrupt…Everybody has the absolute freedom to poison the land…. Goa is solid-f…d’ (p. 27) is an example of the ironic perspective brought to bear by his character Dionysus (Dino) Dantas, in the wake of Goa’s purported decolonization after the departure of the Portuguese. His chief local adversary is Winston Almeida, described as the ‘aspiring thug lord of Aparanta’ (p. 34), who is in cahoots with a Brazilian trans-sexual, a Russian drug boss and a corrupt Goan policeman, a crew of unadulterated fools and nasty pieces of work who are intent on despoiling the State’s resources.
The novel candidly depicts the conflict that results in a place where the uninitiated may least expect. Here, Goa is far from being the Arcadian retreat sought after by many tourists taken in by the clichés of sun and sand. Rather, a much darker portrait of an imperilled local culture and ecology emerges in Chakravarti’s account, where the few who challenge the planned ongoing assault on Goa’s heritage and resources are in danger of losing more than just their peace of mind. Such is the fate of Dino Dantas, the rather unlikely espouser of the aforementioned causes; his involvements lead to a (spoiler alert) disastrous conclusion. The activist figure is not overly romanticized (Dino initially spends a lot of time venting his anger at his friend Tony Calangute’s Happy Bar) and the complicity of administration, police force and eventually the members of the Save Goa Society supposed to protect Goa is well portrayed. The eponymous Tony Calangute’s point of view helps shape our understanding of Dino; he is the apolitical bar-owner, ultimately drawn into the fray as a result of the death of his friend in a veritable baptism of fire. He eventually comes to script a tiatr (Konkani play), Bhaxonn or ‘The Speech’, that recounts the tragic life and demise of Dino to popular acclaim.
If the author had delved further into the psychology of crime, and the reasons people fall into the moral abyss, the narrative might have been possibly steered clear of the somewhat overdone and melodramatic depiction of rape and evisceration of Dino by the sinister team of villains including Winston Almeida, the Brazilian trans-sexual femme fatale and the Russian mafioso, an expert on torture. While reading this section, I was reminded of Alok Rai’s criticism of the Progressive writers’ depiction of the Partition era riots as descending on occasion into a veritable ‘pornography of violence’.2 As Rai shows, the Progressives tended to revel at times in their evocation of blood and gore, despite good intentions. Perhaps the same caution and critical view of representations of violence should extend to the literature of conflict as a whole, and this specific rendering of the dashing of activist hopes in particular. For in its visceral dwelling on the extreme violence that accompanies Dino’s last moments, the novel risks descending into self-defeating voyeurism and salaciousness. Shocking the reader, in this era of snuff videos and the multiplication of sites devoted to the cult of the violent image is hardly enough (think of the critical depiction of such excesses in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic about man-made environmental catastrophe, Oryx and Crake).3 Perhaps greater attention could have been paid by the author to the genesis of modern forms of routinized violence that lead to the normalization of a culture of fear and complicity. Also, the international circuits that facilitate replications of ‘banal’ forms of violence in its contemporary and ‘rational’ forms could have been subjected to more intense scrutiny than we find here.
In the novel, it is telling that even Winston Almeida is sickened by the extent to which the Russian Sergei goes. Following this, the depiction of the candlelight procession mourning Dino’s passing does bring much needed respite, as the memory of Dino’s sacrifice precipitates real change among ordinary Goans. One can only hope that such martyrs are not always needed to crystallize actual transformation on the ground in situations where the threats here described may be all too real. The real-life contributions of figures like Claude Alvares and his Goa Foundation vis-à-vis unchecked mining and destructive development are testimony to the impact meticulous and well-planned advocacy can have, backed up by legal petitions and social campaigns (which may even entail getting arrested during protests—instead of those responsible for flouting the laws regulating mining), in the context of Goa.4 A final thought—just as Claude and Norma Alvares have renewed the language of social activism through their David-vs-Goliath initiatives and ‘symbolic’ protests, writers dealing with such subjects too might think further about how to reinvent the idiom of anti-pastoralism, even while avoiding the trap of aestheticizing violence.
Tarun K Saint is an independent scholar and writer. His research interests include the literature of the Partition and science fiction. He is the author of Witnessing Partition (2010), based on his doctoral dissertation. He edited Bruised Memories: Communal Violence and the Writer (2002) and co-edited (with Ravikant) Translating Partition (2001). His most recent co-edited volume is Looking Back: India’s Partition, 70 Years On (2017), with Rakhshanda Jalil and Debjani Sengupta.
1 See Vievee Francis’s poem ‘Anti-pastoral’ for an
instance in the poetic mode—https://womensvoicesforchange.org/poetry-sunday-anti-pastoral-by-vievee-francis.htm, accessed July 5th, 2018.
2 Alok Rai, ‘The Trauma of Independence: Some Aspects of Progressive Hindi Literature, 1945-47’ in Mushirul Hasan ed. Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics and the Partition of India, New Delhi: OUP, 2002, 351-71.
3 Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, 2003, rpt. London: Virago, 2013.
4 See https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/goa/goa-activist-claude-alvares-arrested-for-symbolic-protest-released-5243427/. Besides social activism, the more intangible domain of ideas and debate (and intra-NGO dialogue) has been kept alive through The Other India Bookstore, an initiative of Claude and his wife Norma Alvares; see https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/1P5V4SptPe1ZwGUQEi1zYL/Norma-Alvares—Claude-Alvares—The-power-of-two.html, accessed July 4th, 2018.