Absence: what a Goan writer finds when he embarks on a journey (Review by Eusebio L. Rodrigues)

Eusebio L. Rodrigues, who has been at Georgetown University’s English Department, takes a closer look at Joao da Veiga Coutinho’s “A Kind of Absence: Life in the Shadows of History” (Yuganta Press, Connecticut, 1997), and finds the author’s  search has taught him many things. Including the lesson that there is no single way of being a Goan. And that Goans were among the first to experience a dislocating sense of exile that is modern; and that Goans must learn to live without roots, and replace roots with horizons in order to see a world of infinite possibility. Says the reviewer: “I hope this review will trigger questions about what it means to be a Goan.”

Eusebio L. Rodrigues

Joao da Veiga Coutinho, a Goan whose inner depths have been disturbed by mysterious eruptions, writes ‘A Kind of Absence: Life in the Shadows of History’ to understand what is happening to him. He undertakes a painful return to the self he was, so that the act of writing becomes an invitation to a voyage of discovery. A shy sensitive seeker he will exhume his buried self, not to tell all, but to toss out bits and pieces that his reader has to put together before meanings can emerge.

These emerge reluctantly in spurts of meditations, comments, musings. They erupt out of a life that is deliberately not channeled into autobiography — that would be just a construct — but as an erratic, bubbling flow, a random quest crowded with questions.

It is a two fold quest. That of a writer who begins a search for he knows not what, one who sets forth to understand his Goanness, and who insists also that his reader come along with him on a parallel quest. He talks to his reader, but keeps him at the distance proper to art. He offers the reader insights but no explanations, compels him to experience his own hesitancies, his broodings, his speculations. Treats the reader as a kinsman, a Goan frPre, capable of sharing the experience and of understanding its meaning.

The journey opens with a meditation on history in general and on Goan history in particular. No generalizations on history are offered, for the writer will not trap himself in a definition. History, an ongoing process, involves time, and time never stops, it flows. Our writer is a Bakhtinian with a dialogical imagination.

He begins with the Portuguese intrusion, as he calls it, out of which both reader and writer have sprung, a traumatic episode in the life of Goa, of India, and indeed in the history of the world. He refuses to elaborate at this stage, trusting that his reader will remember traumatic events like the fall of Constantinople in 1453. But he will not refer to this fall.

Instead, he leaps into texts that have sketched Goan history hoping for answers to his questions. He will not describe these writings either, six or seven of them, written mostly by Goans, nor will he attack their views. They, like him, were fellow Goans after all, they were searching for something.

So he has exchanges with them.

With an old French missionary, whose book, its title, alas, forgotten, had made Old Goa come alive for the writer’s father who used to make the little boy accompany him on his rambles through the Old City.

With José Nicolau da Fonseca whose book on Goa, based on cold statistical facts, was a solid contribution to the British Imperial Gazetteer of India.

With Gerson da Cunha who felt completely at home in the British colonial world, and quite uneasy about his Goanness.

With Father Gabriel Saldanha who willingly assumed a Portuguese identity.

With Socrates da Costa who lived comfortably in the shadow of the Portuguese.

With Claude Saldanha who was convinced that Goa was a distinct separate country

With Peregrino da Costa and Bento de Souza who praise the absorptive quality of Goans that allowed them to enter the modern world.

With A. K. Priolkar for whom the coming of the Portuguese was a mere stain on Indian history to be wiped away and forgotten.

A marvelous compression of observations on the Goan self this chapter, with its enigmatic title, Conversations with the Dead. Pleasant conversations, unlike the quarrels at a gathering of immigrants in America mentioned in the opening chapter, where a cynical Goan observes, Goans are like coconuts, brown on the outside, white inside.

In this chapter, Goan writers and their books are tossed out casually, no explanatory footnotes are offered. For the writer expects his reader to know the Goan texts and be familiar with them. They are handled lightly, only their essence is revealed. They allow the writer to present earlier dated views of Goanness, ones that do not satisfy his Goan sensibility. He does not want to quarrel with them, just wants to talk to them and about them.

But these talks are, as the chapter title states, conversations with the dead. The word “dead” sends forth subtle vibrations of double meaning for the sensitive reader, who begins to be aware of the writer’s literary skills.

The reference to the dialogical imagination and to the phrase “archaeological site” (33) for a Goan points to the writer’s familiarity with the terms of modern literary criticism. He makes use of the devices of the French symbolists like Baudelaire, tries out the organizational techniques of T. S. Eliot, the breaks, the jumps, the allusions. Introduces moments of epiphany. As when, on a visit to a wall-less ruined church in Bassein, he rushes up a naked flight of stairs to gaze on an emptiness, a nowhere, an absence: “I found myself before a sort of mirror, face to face with myself, my world (17).”

Above all, our writer is highly conscious of language. Of two languages really. There is a later Portuguese version of the book, based on the English one, slightly longer, packed with vowels, syllables, nasals, making us aware of the writer’s two languages, the one he studied when he was in Goa, and the one he learned when he moved away. Language is integral, he realizes, to being, to his becoming, to the self. Is inextricably involved with land, with motherland, with his homeland, with home. His own written language is nuanced
  • with Konkani songs and phrases of his childhood,
  • with the Portuguese he studied in school,
  • with the Latin of Lent and the Holy Week,
  • with the French of the symbolists.

Later, he remembers what the Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke had taught him, the supreme human need for language in order to exist. Perhaps he needs to discover his true language.

Memories make him jump to Madhya Pradesh where a chicken farm has been “sliced” (a powerful verb) into rooms for a new seminary to which he has been sent to devise a curriculum. He felt an alien here, unmoved by the ancestral presences in river and on the land, alienated from the language and from the land, especially when he listens to a baptismal ceremony performed in Hindi which the whole congregation, but not he, could understand. Another jump, this time a leap of insight.

He thinks about Goa and about 16th century baptisms conducted in Latin.

Goans have had their language and the sacred presences in their soil torn out of their being. Horrified missionaries banned heathen rites. Churches were erected on the smashed ruins of temples, just as mosques in India were often built out of temple stones. The black and white picture photo on the front cover presents the hieratic encounter of two sacred forces seared into the writer’s memory: “In the middle of the square facing the church, next to the cruzeiro, the white stuccoed monument surmounted by a black cross, stands a tree. It is said to be there since before the church, a silent witness to the sacredness of the site and to ceremonies once performed in honor of the exiled divinity (43).”

Yet another leap, an actual one this time, on to a plane bound via Delhi to Goa, “that uncertain homeland,” which he had left he knew not why and to which he feels compelled to return, why he knows not: “An unbearable sense of absence colors everything he sees. He begins a search for he knows not what (73).”

The reader has to be aware of two kinds of search, an outer and an inner, that merge and dissolve. And use two sets of eyes. One, for the physical realities of the world the writer had left a long time ago which has greatly changed. The other will function only after readjustment, after he has slowed down his senses and reordered his stunned being, for it involves vision and memory.

His eye aches as the mind notes erosions in his once familiar world. Notes: that the ancestral house has aged and gathered dust; that the old school house looks ill; that the houses on the street are occupied by strangers; that a whole generation he had known has vanished into the past.

But this pain, this loss, slowly eases away. It is not the mind but the senses that have to create his homeland, his world, the taste and smell of things.  He does not see the land but can smell its faint fragrance. His being is filled with memories of the past, with the lost density of his childhood where his becoming began. But he will not indulge in nostalgia.  He begins to do zazen (76), to sit and meditate. And re-create his lost world by writing Genesis.

A daring chapter this, the last and longest one, into which the writer packs his being and his becoming. The Biblical announcement of the title makes the fifty pages reverberate, and trumpet forth meanings that jostle and crowd together. It’s messy this birth, his rebirth, so don’t expect a neat ordered whole. For different awarenesses, sensations, thoughts, flood the chapter, so that meanings bubble up like the smells of Goan paddy fields after the monsoon rains.

The structural order of A Kind of Absence is a fusion of music and poetry, that of a fado heard in a night club in the Alfama that senses the lacrimae rerum.

The smells of memory, of the seasons, begin. Memories of the past and the reality of the present blend together. The rains revive and generate the smells of the land of his childhood. And the writer longingly evokes the past seasons, as if the air is thick with smells and colors of the sacred land. “This is the time the earth chooses to put out its boldest colors. The gulmohur catches fire. The pink, the yellow and brown cassia, the occasional jacaranda hallucinate in the shimmering air (86).” It is spring that pervades the air: “One knows that the cashew and the mango are in bloom but the blossoms are almost invisible, only specks or a touch of red among the foliage (87).”

A scene out of his past in America bubbles out — a visit to the university health center (100) wanting to talk about the emptiness within him, a sense of absence, the feeling that there is nowhere to go, no country he belongs to.

He talks to someone called Jones (significantly, the name is of Freud’s English disciple) who suggests he write, a cure the writer has prescribed for himself a long time ago, not as therapy but as a form of spiritual exercise: And he knows why he has to: “To find the proper human posture, the posture appropriate to one’s lot and situation. To be restored to childhood. To still the inner uproar and eventually achieve silence and with luck perhaps song or laughter (76).”

He proceeds to write.

History and the history of Goa provide the musical background to his account, vivid, imagistic and impressionistic, not burdened with factual detail. Europe, as Fernando Pessoa saw it, gazing across the ocean with greedy eyes on the East at the beginning of the 16th century.

Tiny Portugal as the first intruder, thirsty for wealth, drunk with the will to power, armed with naos and bombards, grabbing a piece of the Indian coast in order to exercise control over it.  Three experiments: the casados (married men) of Albuquerque which failed; the unsuccessful ‘Portuguesing’ of the subjects; and the christianization of the territory, not achieved through pure evangelization (as was the daring but limited mode of Roberto de Nobili and of Matteo Ricci) but by having the land’s “space and time symbols changed, its language and sacred ecology transformed, the yearly calendar and seasonal celebrations altered (106).”

The Portuguese introduced a new culture, a new life, into Goa, ecclesiastical, spun around the city and the church. The city was not significant to the writer as a child, except when he absorbed it on his rambles through Old Goa with his father and the book of the French missionary.

What he passionately observed and absorbed were the celebrations and activities of the parish, his home and the church that left a deep impress on the little one’s sensibilities.

Some were personal, like the celebration of Father’s birthday. Others took place in the warm atmosphere of the home: the response to the Angelus bell, the daily reciting of the Rosary. Many events revolved around the church — the feast of the Sacred Heart, the rites on Passion Sunday and the rituals of Holy Week. It is all lovingly recalled, these events enacted in Christian space, and lovingly set down so that they will always be present, and the writer will never suffer a kind of absence. It is a certain way of always being there, of being a Goan, for himself as a Goan.

The search has taught him many things: that there is no single way of being a Goan; that we are no longer the tribe he referred to at the beginning, one with a collective identity; that we Goans were among the first to experience a dislocating          sense of exile that is modern; that Goans must learn to live without roots, and that we must replace roots with horizons in order to see a world of infinite possibility; that what we Goans do have is a sense of freedom.

Dawn is near. Life must go on. The fado will end but its echoes will linger, for it speaks of universal human longing. We step out into the dawn with a sense of loss, and yet of possibility, with a sense of sadness that reaches out to joy. Reconciled to the human condition, knowing that the search is over, the writer sings softly to himself about his feeling of freedom:

Another winter is over. I went out for my first long walk after the months of confinement and saw the harbinger crocuses. In the fields behind the house flocks of mallardsare resting before the homeward flight. Scattered heaps of snow from the          last storm are fast melting, the creeks is filling with the small noise of tumbling waters. The sound that set me dreaming in my youth now invites me to remember. (126-27)


1. Joao da Veiga Coutinho, A Kind of Absence: Life in the Shadows of History, Yuganta Press, Connecticut, 1997.

2. Joao da Veiga Coutinho, Uma espécie de ausLncia, Cotovia, Fundacao Oriente, Lisboa, 2000.


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