It’s 1510. The Portuguese arrive in Goa armed with guns, swords and crucifixes to the agricultural village of Adolshi, where Hindus have been living peacefully. A sense of foreboding fills them as tigers prowl, cow bones appear in wells, chariot wheels break on festival day. The Portuguese king has licensed Jesuits to take over and staunch white men move about preaching the word of the Son of God. Land is seized, families broken. But Padre Simao Peres is convinced that love and not force will bring about a change of heart. With the Inquisition looming like an axe over everyone’s heads, a saga of choice plays out for the people of the village.
Recounting a history forgotten to most people now, Mahabaleshwar Sail’s epic novel, Age of Frenzy, documents a turbulent past of religious rifts, caste hierarchies and power shifts which changed the ethos of a significant part of the western coastline of India forever.
Here’s Vidya Pai, translator, in conversation with Mahabaleshwar Sail:
Could you tell us a bit about your background?
I hail from a family of farmers in the Karwar region of northern Karnataka, so my early years were spent in tending cows and working in the fields. I started school at the age of six and dropped out in the eighth standard. When I turned eighteen, I joined the Indian Army and served on the battle front during the Indo–Pak war of 1965 and had a stint with the UN Peacekeeping force in Egypt and Israel. I have also served in the police force and worked a supervisor in a project of the Forest Department. I then joined the Post and Telegraph department where I served till my retirement.
How did you start your literary career?
I believe that a writer’s ability to create literature is an intrinsic part of his personality, it is a gift that he is born with. My formal education ended in the eighth standard and I had no access to books, nor had I read much literature at that time. But I was very sensitive to all that was happening around me and would try to answer the questions that arose in my mind. The urge to create something new was a constant factor in my life.
The first story I wrote was during a lull in the battle after the Tashkent ceasefire. My literary career took off after my stint in the Army ended and I was transferred to Pune.
I wrote short stories for many years. I used to write in Marathi and my stories were published in leading magazines in Pune and Mumbai. But I always felt that I was translating my experiences into Marathi. It was only after I started writing in Konkani that I could express what I wanted to say in a natural manner. Writing in Marathi and getting published in leading Marathi magazines at that stage of my career gave me a chance to examine my talents, to see where I stood in the larger Marathi literary world. It gave me immense confidence and this proved beneficial in the long run.
Do you see yourself as a short story writer or as a novelist?
I started as a short story writer and have published four collections of Konkani stories. I received the Sahitya Akademi award for my short story collection Tarangam in 1993.
I am more comfortable with the space that a novel offers, because it gives me the freedom to develop my plot and characters. The only problem is that short stories can be published easily while getting a novel published is a difficult task.
My first novel Kali Ganga, which dealt with the lives of the farming community on the banks of the Kali River in Karwar, was published in 1996. This was followed by two novellas Adrusht and Aranyakand. A Konkani film was made on Adrusht and it received the Critic’s Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Yug Sanvar, Khol Khol Moolam, Vikhar Vilkho and Havthan, which focuses on the lives of a potter’s community, are the other novels I have written.
What made you write Yug Sanvar?
I had heard many stories about religious conversion since my childhood, in fact there were a few Christian families in our village who followed the tenets of both religions. It was only after I read Sri Uday Bhembre’s article on the Goan Inquisition in the Konkani daily Sunaparant in 1991 that my interest was aroused. My imagination was fired by the unwritten stories, the drama and conflict and pain lurking in the gaps in documented history available about that period. I realized that religious conversion, the migration of communities and the Inquisition would provide enough material for a piece of creative writing. But this was an issue that concerned men’s faiths, so I was hesitant for a very long time.
What were the reasons for your hesitation? How did you overcome them?
I believe that there are two sides to any conflict, and no one side can be totally right.
I believe in God but not in any organized religion; by confining God within the framework of organized religion we breed intolerance of other faiths. So, my God, who is present in the whole universe, does not need temples or rituals or priests.
But this was a very delicate, sensitive theme. It would have to be handled with maturity and restraint. If the balance were upset in any way religious sentiments would be hurt and that was not my intent.
Besides these moral and ethical issues I would have to study the sociological and historical accounts of the period. Much of this material was available in the Central Library in Panaji, but I lived and worked in Canacona, which was 70 km away.
I thought about these issues for a long time and only then did I start work on the novel.
Could you describe the research that went into the novel?
There are many legends and myths and folk tales dealing with this period of religious conversion but there are few written records. Much of the historical material available is in Portuguese, but I do not know that language. My friend, Vasant Desai, who knows that language well, would accompany me to the Central library and help me take notes. I consulted material written in Konkani and in English too.
It took me two years to gather all the material I would need for my book. Research had to be conducted at the social and cultural level as well the religious and political one. I had to study the social structure of villages, the rituals and superstitions and folk religion that prevailed around that time. I visited the areas where the fictional village Adolshi would be located and where the rest of the action would unfold.
Can Yug Sanvar be called a historical novel?
I would prefer to call Yug Sanvar a piece of creative writing that is based on historical events. My role is that of a narrator and I have attempted to create a piece of literary fiction based in this historical period drawing upon my imagination, my knowledge of Indian culture and my experience of the agrarian social structure prevalent in this region.
When a writer decides on a theme, he looks at the dramatic potential in the subject, he tries to see if there is any scope for creative writing. He is not interested in merely recording history. History, imagination and creativity appear in varying degrees in this text.
How was Yug Sanvar received?
Yug Sanvar was published by Asmitai Prakashan in April 2004. At 424 pages, it was one of the biggest novels published in the Konkani language, and it received a good response. It was short-listed for the Saraswati Samman.
Since Konkani readership is very limited, I wanted this novel to reach a wider audience so I translated it into Marathi and Tandav was published by Rajhans, a reputed publishing house in Pune. As the author and translator, I have exercised considerable freedom with Tandav, editing sections and adding new portions. This translation received many awards, including one from the Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad.
Age of Frenzy, the English translation of Yug Sanvar, was held up for many years because of its length. Every writer believes that what he has written is complete and should not be tampered with. Practical considerations, however, compelled me to edit and condense Yug Sanvar for this translation, though I have ensured that no characters have been left out and the flow of the story remains the same.
This interview appears in the P.S. section of the book, Age of Frenzy, translated from the Konkani to English by Vidya Pai, and written by Mahabaleshwar Sail. You can buy the book here: http://amzn.to/2k5U1te