A few minutes before the scheduled interview, Damodar Mauzo answered a phone call in an undertone. “It was the policeman,” he later told me. “They want to know my location and where I plan to go.” This scene, that could have been straight out of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (Mauzo smiles at the comparison), is now the reality of the Konkani author’s life. While questioning the alleged culprits in the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, investigation agencies discovered that Mauzo’s name figured in a “hit list” of a right-wing organisation headquartered in Goa. State police protection was soon to follow. The affable 74-year-old writer was unmoved by the threats. According to media reports, he later called Sanatan Sanstha a “cancer” that needs to be removed immediately for peaceful life in Goa. “I am not scared by the threats, far from it,” he says.
Mauzo is one of the most renowned Konkani authors of his generation. His 1991 novel Karmelin, of an orphaned girl’s tribulations while working in Kuwait, won the Sahitya Akademi award. Even more prolific was Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa, a diverse short story collection that included the Coinsnav’s Cattle, a tender tale of a family considering giving away their beloved cows, and the wickedly entertaining A Writer’s Tale. In In the Land of Humans, a dalit cattle herder tries to cross into Goa to sell them to a butcher, but is faced with an irate mob of “animal lovers”. “Looking back at it objectively,” muses Mauzo, “it does seem very prophetic, given the spate of lynchings that are happening now across the country.”
Excerpts from an interview at the Kerala Literature Festival, organised by DC Books:
What was the first thing that went through your mind after you heard that you were a target?
I was a little surprised that it was me. There were many others who were more vocal than me, more active. I hail from Goa, and Sanstha is headquartered in the state. Their existence did not matter for the people of Goa until the Diwali bomb blast in Margao . I was not scared at all. When the intelligence contacted me, they were a little apprehensive that I would be scared. I started laughing. I was told that after the culprits in the Gauri Lankesh case were arrested, there was a hit list and that my name featured in it. They told me that I should stop visiting Karnataka and Maharashtra in particular. I said no. I would not take any curbs on freedom of movement.
I feel there is derangement in the soul of Goa. There is the outside perception of sandy beaches and glittering rave parties, a lived experience of harmonious co-existence, and smack dab in the midst of all this are the roots of an organisation that you likened to 'cancer'.
It is very paradoxical. In 2015, we had a symbolic Dandi march, mainly 500-600 writers, artists and filmmakers. Addressing the crowd, I said: I am proud of my state for the exemplary harmony that prevails, but I am also ashamed that an organisation like Sanatan Sanstha has its roots there.
The history of Goa is the history of Konkani [the state language]. It has gone through so many tribulations—a ban during Portuguese inquisition, a hugely fractured diaspora, and is currently the only language in India written in five different scripts (Devanagari, Roman, Kannada, Malayalam and Persian).
It is true. Let us take the history of Konkani: [George Abraham] Grierson who conducted the first linguistic survey of India said that Konkani was the first language to branch off Maharashtri Prakrit, even before Marathi. He wrote: “In my opinion, it stopped growing because of historical and geographical reasons. The homeland of Konkani is Goa.” Present Goa has political boundaries. If I talk about a Konkani state, it goes up to Ratnagiri and more. The reason: After Portuguese colonisation and threats of conversion, people left the shores and landed in Mangalore, Cochin, parts of Maharashtra and beyond. When they landed in Karnataka, they took the language with them. The next generation learned Kannada, and they adopted Kannada script to their speech. The same for Muslims in Bhatkal, who wrote in Perso-Arabic. I write in Devanagari script. Catholics in Goa write in Roman script.
I have heard an anecdote that your translator [Xavier Kota, from Konkani to English] could not understand the Devanagari script and you had to read out and record what you had written.
It happens. He had difficulty in reading, so he would record, note down and translate. The biggest issue here is that, since we have so many scripts, our readership gets affected. One day, we will have to come to a unified script.
It is hard to locate Goa, geographically, in some of your stories. Instead, you rediscover your home state in characters that are thousands of kilometres away, say in the middle of the Arabian desert [Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa].
I do not want to restrict my works to Goa alone. If I conceive any story, it can be set in any place, in any location. If you want to look for Goa in my stories, there is [short story] Teresa’s Man, and there are others in which I speak about the people and their lives.
You do not see pictorial Goa in my stories. You have to look out for Goa in my works. I do not want to describe sceneries, or any locations. The beauty of a short story lies in its precision, its brevity. I do not have to make an outward effort to project Goa and its people in my works, it comes automatically.
Goa and Kerala are, in a way, very similar. Be it the geography, history of diversity, mixed demography, the migration connect to West Asia [Arabic countries], high literacy rate and more. But its current political realities are so very different.
I think it has something to do with the history. In Goa, lives ran parallel to each other. The Catholics live a lifestyle that is very Westernised. The Hindus, though they now follow the same path, were generally traditional. Politically, we were naïve until Goa was liberated. After the Portuguese left, it took some time for us to face that reality.
Then, there were many expansionist forces in Maharashtra who wanted to make Goa a part of their state. When the referendum came , we had to convince almost 70 per cent of the population that Goa would lose its distinct identity. We won it by a narrow margin.
You have written from the perspective of Catholic families in Goa. It seems a testament to how intertwined your lives were. Ten years down the line, with the kind of polarisation we are witnessing now, and societies shrinking into silos, will the mutual understanding cease to exist? Can/would a Hindu write as a Catholic or vice-versa.
There is a story I heard in my childhood. I was a baby and my mother had fallen ill with high temperature. My Catholic neighbour who was passing by, who also had a son four days younger than me, heard about it. I was crying because I was not breastfed. She did it for me.
Yes, polarisation is happening in the state. If there is majoritarianism on one part, a minority communalisation is sprouting up as a reaction. That should not be.