Book Review by Ben Antao

The Sixth Night

By Silviano C. Barbosa

Goa Raj Books, 314 pages, 29.95.



LIKE THE REST of India, Goa is awash in myths and legends, fascinating stories flowing from its many rivers and tributaries, with the well-known Mandovi even celebrated in song by the late tiatrist Alfred Rose. And these stories are intricately woven into the fabric of Goan culture from the time of one’s birth until death do us part. One such legend has to do with the Sottvi Raat, the sixth night when the eponymous goddess presumably appears at midnight to foretell the destiny of the child.

I was not aware of this legend until Silviano Barbosa, the author of The Sixth Night, brought it to my attention a few years ago when he completed the first draft of his first novel. Silviano, 55, was born and grew up in the village of Cuncolim whereas I am from Velim and, although Assolna-Velim-Cuncolim are linked together as incorporating a common cultural heritage, Cuncolim from pre-Portuguese times has demonstrated more criminal tendencies in its behaviour than its hyphenated cousins. Furthermore, the Catholics of Cuncolim seemed to have outdone their cousins in imbibing the consciousness of Hinduism and absorbing its plethora of myths and legends, as if the Christian and Hindu trinities are a reflection of the same God or Brahma. This, incidentally, is the reason for the celebrated communal harmony of Goans.  

Interesting Blend

Naturally, I was more than curious to see how Barbosa would handle this theme, this karma, fate, or destiny that was prophesied for the baby girl on the sixth night, curious given that the girl named Linda is born and raised in a Catholic household.

The novel is a perfect form to explore such a theme. However, the Catholic author adroitly leaves the ending open-ended, as if the events that shape the life of his protagonist could have happened, despite and in spite of what the Sottvi goddess might have predicted. Such a conclusion becomes all the more imperative since the prophecies are not known at birth or knowable; they are only attributed to the goddess in hindsight, like a play in reverse angle, as if to say what has happened is what was foretold. Go ahead and smirk!

This novel is an interesting blend of fiction and non-fiction in the sense that most first novels tend to be autobiographical. If the reader wanted to sample a slice of life as lived in Portuguese Goa in the last 15 years of colonial rule, this novel has plenty to engage his interest. If the reader wanted to know what it’s like for an immigrant to fulfil his Canadian dream, this story has enough to satisfy his curiosity. Barbosa has handled, with enthusiasm, both these slices of the heroine’s life. If the story feels maudlin towards the end, it’s in the nature of such a genre to appear so. Tears and smiles are the stock-in-trade of the soap opera. Goans used to watching the Hindi soap operas on TV, while not being fully conversant in the language, will understand my point of view and enjoy this novel.

It’s a truism in fiction writing today that writers show the story, not tell it. This requires that the narrative be done in scenes with dramatized action, as if the reader is watching a movie. Barbosa is most effective where he has followed this dictum.

As a nine-year-old girl in 1953, Linda experiences the sting of caste, ironically in the church, during the Holy Week Passion service in Cuncolim. The pews were reserved for the upper caste Charddos (Kshatriyas) who also happened to be gaunkars. This scene where Linda, a lower caste Sudra, received a tongue-lashing from a Charddo woman highlights the ugly practice of caste among the Catholics, a practice still prevalent among Catholics in Goa today.

Does history repeat itself? Well, it certainly does in Cuncolim for as recently as twenty years ago, in the 80s, the Sudras and gaunkars were slugging it out again. I’ve heard reports of shocking incidents involving gaunkars who went on rampage defecating in the church and urinating in the chalice in full view of the congregation and the priest. Such were the abusive, appalling actions committed in the name of Christianity, sprinkled with obscene words of profanity to portray blasphemy and sacrilege.

Then, of course, there is the perennial disgruntlement among a segment of Charddo Catholics in Cuncolim, who want to undo the forcible conversions of the 16th century at the hands of the missionaries. The reader is probably aware of the massacres of priests by the Kshatriya Dessais of this period; many descendants of these conversions have decided to renounce their faith and offer puja instead at the temple of Shanta Durga, possibly in delayed atonement. Now some may see this as legitimate fallout of Liberation, but what is a modern writer to do with such material? Barbosa refrains from touching this hot potato.

This is not my story; yet as a writer I feel this caste monster needs to be wrestled down and thrashed to oblivion. Fat chance in a land of trishul-waving Hindutva fanatics, you say? Perhaps. To those who would go back to the pre-Portuguese era and take on Hindu names, I say think before you act.

If you look at the history of Goa before the Portuguese conquest, you’d note that from 1469 this region called Goa was in Muslim hands; after the conquest in 1510 there were inter-marriages between Portuguese soldiers and Muslim women, whose progeny were Catholic until conversions played a role in 1542 when St. Francis Xavier arrived. So we are now looking at a whole new generation of Catholic population with Muslim-blood antecedents. And yet a great many people in Goa today are brainwashed to believe that their ancestors before the Portuguese were Hindus!  I guess Abdullah, Mohammed and Khan are not fashionable names!

It seems to me the caste issue in Barbosa’s novel is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, if Goans are to live in peace and harmony. The recent VCD designed to whip up communal passions could never have been made if more and more Goans had studied their history carefully without a Hindutva bias and prejudice.

The novel in hard cover is published by Goa Raj Books, Toronto and distributed in Goa by the Other India Book Store, Mapusa.

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(This review by Ben Antao appeared on Goan Observer  March12-18, 2005)