The phone keeps
ringing. Damodar Mauzo is taking a break after catching a 190-minute long
Turkish movie at the Kala Academy in Panaji as part of the International Film
Festival of India.
The short story writer and novelist answers his phone. After a quick conversation in Konkani, he says it was a newspaper wanting a quote on the farmers’ agitation in Delhi. Soon, there is another call, this time about a press statement on the Sabiramala agitation.
While Mauzo has been writing fiction since the 1970s , the Sahitya Akademi Award winning writer’s other calling is activism. Right from the days of the opinion poll in Goa after liberation, to the campaign for statehood and championing official language status for Konkani, Mauzo has never been hesitant to voice his opinion. “Writers are fighters,” he says.
Lately, he has taken on right-wing extremism in both speeches and writings. Earlier this year, investigations during the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh revealed that he was on the hit list of the Goa-based Sanathan Sanstha. Mauzo is now accompanied by security everywhere. But that doesn’t stop him from enjoying a film festival. Excerpts from an interview:
You have written a lot about your childhood. Can you explain how that has shaped you as a writer?
I was born in the
coastal village of Majorda in south Goa. I grew up among people from different
faiths. Majorda is in Salcete, predominantly Catholic. But I’m happy to say I never felt that
othering factor, while I lived there as a child or an adolescent or even now.
My parents were liberal-minded. When I was an infant, my mother was sick as she had a flu and could not breastfeed me. But a neighbour of ours had also delivered a child, around the same time. She was returning from church after mass and came to know that my mother, also her friend, was not keeping well. She entered the house just to say hello, and heard the baby (me) cry. She offered to breastfeed me.
I remember when I occasionally met her children, particularly her daughters, they would call me Doodh-bhau (milk brother). So this is the way there was coexistence during my childhood.
Later, when I went to college in Mumbai, I spent four years in a hostel where I came across Punjabis, Maharashtrians, and mainly Gujaratis. There were also some East Africans, so I came from a multicultural milieu. That added to my life experience.
I was a voracious reader as a child. My mother inculcated that habit probably because she wanted to read, but she was illiterate. So she made me read. When I returned from school, she would give me a small book and ask me to read it for her. Later, when I went to a school in Margao, I would spend time at the library. I got introduced to (V. S.) Khandekar of Marathi, Sarat Babu (Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay), Rabindranath Tagore, and Hindi writers like Premchand. I’m talking about the 1950s when I was in school. After liberation, I left Goa for Bombay. I continued reading—my interest was in literature rather than in academics. In college, I started writing.
How did you end up in a commerce college despite being interested in writing?
I had no option
because I belong to a business family. Our business was a village shop that
catered to almost all the needs and necessities of the villagers. My father
started it. After we lost him, my uncle continued. Naturally, they wanted me to
join the business. When I expressed my desire to study Arts, they said ‘No.
What will you do after Arts? After B.
A., you will go become a teacher. No, we want you in business’.
My family wanted me to join the science stream; I refused and was sent to a commerce college. I think I benefited by that because my interest was not in graduation. I invested my time in reading and writing. I always had a dream to become a writer.
But since I lived in this village where more than 90 per cent people were Catholics, my best friends are Catholics, I knew the problems they faced as Catholics. I knew about their lifestyle, their way of thinking and rituals and other things. This reflected in my writing.
How was the
reception to the first few stories that you published?
The first two stories
clicked. But my third story gave me confidence. It was during my college days,
I had come back home and it was a sunny summer. The story was set on a hot day
and it is absurd, about a water snake looking for water and its journey until
it is killed. “Waiting for death” is the title in English. That story was
translated into Marathi and English. Until then there was no story that went
from Konkani into other languages.
My first collection Gathon was published in 1971. In 1972 it won an award from the Kala Academy. That was the first time the award was instituted and among the few that won the award, my book was there.
Why did you choose to write short stories initially? Did writing about Catholic background come naturally to you?
Why I wrote short stories... I don’t know. It came to me. I did not make any attempt to write about the Catholic lifestyle or Catholic problems. But since I lived in this village where more than 90 per cent people were Catholics, my best friends are Catholics, I knew the problems they faced as Catholics. I knew about their lifestyle, their way of thinking and rituals and other things. This reflected in my writing.
That’s interesting—you, a Hindu, are one of the foremost chroniclers of Catholic Goan life.
That’s true. Not that
I have not written about Hindus. It comes naturally—it depends upon the demand
of the story. When I write a story on seafarers, we call them shippies. Those
who go aboard the ship or boat cruises are mainly Catholics. My story “The
Chastity Belt” is about a sailor afraid of his wife getting involved with some
other men because he himself had done so earlier, before going on the ship. So
these are typically Catholic problems.
Fortunately, my readers immediately took a liking for it because it was something different, not mainstream Indian writing. Even today very little is written about the Catholic lifestyle the way I write, except by some Malayalam writers like Paul Zachariah and others. In mainstream Indian literature, I stand out because of my writings on Christian lifestyle.
When I was being interviewed by Doordarshan in Delhi, the anchor passed a comment. I liked that comment. She said you are an honorary Catholic. I like how readers from across my state look at me because of my writings, as an honorary Catholic.
The Portuguese passed a law banning the use of Konkani in 1683. They banned it even in speech. A priest would not be ordained if he didn’t give up Konkani and speak only Portuguese. Christian marriages were not solemnised unless bride and groom spoke Portuguese. So it was made compulsory.
Were you still working at the shop while you were writing your stories?
Yes. I returned from Bombay after graduation in 1966. I lost my mother and I had to take over the shop from my uncle. In 1968, I got married. I started writing at night because I was busy at the shop from morning 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 or 9 p.m. So I would write late in the night after everybody was asleep. That is why my second collection is called Zagranna. It means late nights or sleepless nights. That was my second book.
There was a lacuna in Konkani literature. But there were people like Pundalik Naik, my contemporary, Meena Kakodkar, Sheela Naik Kolambkar. We together started short fiction in Konkani. The 70s were a golden period for Konkani because we provided excellent fiction. Since then Konkani has probably never looked back.
Why did you write in Konkani when most people around you were writing in Marathi? What was the Konkani literature scene at that time?
There was no
literature produced in Konkani until Goa was liberated apart from a few works,
except by Shenoi Goembab whom I call the father of modern Konkani literature.
The Portuguese passed a law banning the use of Konkani in 1683. They banned it even in speech. A priest would not be ordained if he didn’t give up Konkani and speak only Portuguese. Christian marriages were not solemnised unless bride and groom spoke Portuguese. So it was made compulsory. That is why we find that Portuguese became the language at home for many elite Christians but not Hindus. They preferred Marathi education.
When Portugal became a republic towards the late 19th century, they made the situation easy for us. More liberalism came to Goa and Marathi schools were allowed. We brought teachers from Maharashtra to teach at private primary schools. Government schools were necessarily Portuguese only.
Since Konkani was a language only restricted to speech, we had to heavily rely upon the religious material from the nearby states—Karnataka and Maharashtra. Kannada is an Indo-Dravidian language and we found it rather distinct from ours. Konkani belongs to the Indo-Aryan language family. Due to its proximity to Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi, we remained in touch with Indian mainstream literature. As a result, our writers and creative people opted to learn Marathi and write in Marathi. We (Konkanis) have provided excellent writers and poets like B. B. Borkar.
He was a poet of national stature. Though he did work in Konkani, he wrote profusely in Marathi because there was no Konkani readership here. Also because of his involvement in the freedom movement, he had to run away from Goa and live in Pune and Mumbai, where he came across Marathi literature and writers. I don’t think any Marathi poet has contributed to lyrical poetry to the extent Borkar has.
This was until the liberation of Goa. After Liberation, Konkani got a boost because we wanted to enter mainstream Indian literature. If Konkani writers can enrich other languages how about our own language?
By some accounts Konkani is an older language than Marathi.
Initially when the
linguist (George Abraham) Grierson conducted the first linguistic Survey of
India, he mentioned that Konkani was the first to branch off from Maharashtra
Prakrit, before Marathi. But Konkani lagged because of lack of political and
popular support. Marathi went on to develop quicker.
I have every reason to believe it. Saint Namdev, a Marathi poet, travelled all over India. And wherever he went, he wrote in different languages. When he came to Goa he wrote one Gowlan—a form of poetry—where when the young milkmaids are taking a bath, they have left the clothes on the banks and Krishna takes them away. Everyone knows this story. Namdev said all these milkmaids were given names. Ek Mussalmani, Ek Marathini, Ek Konkani, Ek Gujarini (A Muslim, a Marathi, a Konkani, and a Gujarati). Each of them sings in their language.
So the Marathini speaks in Marathi, Gujarini speaks in Gujarati, the Musslmani in Urdu and the Konkani in chaste Konkani. This was in the 13th century. So we have some documents to prove that it was the language prevalent among the people in during those times.
But let us forget about history. Konkani developed much later, towards the end of the 19th century. Shenoi Goembab is the father of modern Konkani literature. When he found that there was no Konkani literature, he began writing. He wrote poetry, he wrote fiction, he wrote history, he wrote astronomy, he wrote grammar. In every genre, he wrote extensively. Even today, I draw inspiration from Shenoi Goembab.
Going back to your writing, you’re talking about you running the shop. You were writing. At what point did you move away from your shop and take up writing as a full-time career.
I think most of the
stories started blooming late in the 70s. I wrote the most in that phase. Then
there was a novel in 1980. I wrote Karmelin which some people... (laughs)
call a classic. So when recently the Indian Novel Collective chose a list of
hundred novels from India, one of them was Karmelin. It is going to be
retranslated and published by this project.
It’s a very interesting novel because you wrote about the abuse of women who went to the Middle East to work as housemaids in 1980, much before the problem was visible.
Yes. That was the
problem I saw by staying behind the (shop) counter. Karmelin is about
people going to the Gulf. This was soon after liberation. Earlier, Goans used
to go to East Africa. I’m talking about Catholics. Hindus hardly went beyond
Bombay. They went there due to some compulsions or looking for greener
That was when there was a need to go abroad and it was a time when women went to the Gulf for such jobs—mainly as ayahs. They were doing very well. They were bringing a lot of money, so they were earning respect. They were becoming rich.
But I found people behind their backs taunting them or calling them in a derogatory manner. Villagers would praise them in to their faces but behind their backs taunt them. So I tried to go to the root of the problem.
After I wrote this novel, the family grew. I have three daughters and the business also grew. After the children settled, my wife gave me respite by taking over the responsibilities for the shop. So I had more time to spend on writing.
So far I’ve written 75 or 80 stories, three novels and three books of children’s stories. I write a lot of articles for magazines or essays on contemporary topics like demonetisation or right-wing dominance.
You witnessed the transition of Goa to Independent India. How was that experience?
I’m very lucky that I was born in a time when the Portuguese ruled. I have fond memories of the Portuguese. They were not cruel. I’m talking about Portuguese during the late 50s.
I, of course, remember very sadly how they ill-treated the black Africans who were part of their troops. At the time of liberation I was in Goa and I distinctly remember I woke up in the morning to the sound of an air raid. I live in Majorda which is less than 20 km from Dabolim airport which was shelled. So I was woken up by the noise of shelling and then we came to know that the (Indian) army’s entering.
I was so curious I went cycling to Margao. I was just 16 or 17 years old. And I saw how the Portuguese were running, vacating their posts at the police station. Then I was there to greet and welcome the army as they entered with the tanks.
And then I saw how the Indian military misbehaved with us. They came to our shop and emptied it. But it’s okay. It’s part of the game. The switchover was a bit difficult, you know. At the time India was Nehru, India was Congress. Soon after liberation, we thought we are independent and getting statehood. But states had already been formed on linguistic basis. It was a problem because Konkani was not included in the Eighth Schedule.
There was no Konkani state. We were demanding Sagari Pranth from Bombay to Karnataka, you can say the entire coastal area. It was not going to happen. So we had to content ourselves with Union Territory status.
Maharashtra was keen to get hold of Goa but there were objections. There were some Hindus who were for merger. There were some Hindus who were not. The Catholics en bloc were not for merger. So most of the deputations sent to administer Goa were from Maharashtra. We had a bad experience because they brought corruption with them. Until then there was no corruption in Goa. No robberies, we had no grilles to our windows. Sometimes we used to leave the doors open and walk out. So there were some, you know, hiccups of the transformation.
You took part in the opinion poll to decide on merging with Maharashtra.
There were Maharashtrians demanding merger of Goa with Maharashtra. Nehru had come to Goa and promised that we will maintain the identity of Goa. But once you merge with Maharashtra, how can you retain your identity?
Indira Gandhi was in power when finally it was decided that we will give Goa an opinion poll. There was a lot of gadbad as you know, at every election it happens. It was not a big margin but Goa managed to retain its identity. I volunteered to campaign. There was no party as such, so we were acting in groups. There were friends of mine like Uday Bhembre, a staunch protagonist of Konkani and Goa’s independent identity.
We all got involved in addressing meetings to convince people. In my village there was no problem because the entire village was against the merger. But other villages were very hostile because it became a conflict between Hindus and Christians too. It should not have been, but it got a taint of communalism. Many houses of those against merger were stoned and abused. We were not allowed to hold meetings in those areas. Now we have come to forget it. Now, we are all one.
How did the campaign for statehood happen?
After the government
decided it would not merge with Maharashtra, we found there was a lot of
interference from the Centre, so we decided to hold an agitation for three
things. First was official language status for Konkani. Second, statehood to
Goa, and third, was wanted the inclusion of Konkani in the Eighth Schedule. We
were on the streets. I was on the receiving end of more than one lathi charge.
Several times I came home with injuries on my leg or back, but that was part of
the game. We had to struggle. Finally we won. All three demands were achieved
after a long agitation—555 days precisely.
Over the last few years, you have been voicing your concerns on right-wing violence. How did that come about?
come to you as if you know what is going to happen in future, before the BJP
came to power. I wrote this story “Burger”, about one Hindu and one Catholic
girl. The two adolescent schoolgirls are friends. And then they go for a
picnic. They are voracious readers, and they exchange books and ideas. They
share their meals and the Catholic girl has brought a burger which the Hindu
girl likes very much. And she shares her pulao with her. The Hindu girl
says she liked the burger. “Just tell me who made it.”
“It is my mother.”
“So ask your mom how to make it. I want to try at home.”
The Catholic girl goes home and asks her mother. She asks why.
“Because she liked it.”
“You gave it to her!”
“Oh! It’s beef.”
These are innocent girls. She said now she Would be scolded by her father if her family came to know. Her mother says “Don’t give the recipe. Don’t tell her anything.”
So then there is mental torture this Catholic girl undergoes. She keeps thinking of it. So much so that she goes to the church to confess that she has committed a sin by giving her the beef. In the end everything’s okay, but then this story was written much before the attack on beef came.
I have another story about a boy from Karnataka coming to Goa with cattle to take to the butcher’s. His father has always been talking highly about Goa—the land where human beings live as human beings.
And they’re in Karnataka in their village, discriminated because they are Scheduled Caste. The boy comes to Goa enthusiastically—now he’s going to get married and he will get some money and go back and he plans to settle in Goa.
He climbs down the Ghats and enters Goa and is happy to see the greenery. He suddenly comes across a group of people who are Gaurakshaks in today’s sense. At that time they were just “animal lovers” and they find this person is taking cattle to the butcher’s. He gets a bashing.
He doesn’t know why and the cattle run away and the boy does not know or understand why it is so. And he’s wondering even during the bashing. “This is called the land of human beings!” That is the story, written much before the lynching started.
What I am trying to say is I did not think in terms of opposing the lynching or beef eating. It was within me. It was already coming out of me on paper. So I became, whether knowingly or unknowingly, part of this anti-right wing movement.
How did you end up in the crosshairs of the right wing?
Whenever there is some
curb on freedom of expression. I vehemently denounce it. So we started another
movement called the Dakshinayan movement, again to show the solidarity of
writers towards freedom of expression.
The first meeting was on January 30, Martyrs Day in Dandi. We decided to go en masse without funding—all came on their own. Even from Goa, about 15 writers participated. About 600 writers from all over the country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari were there.
I was given the opportunity to preside over the first panel meeting where Raj Mohan Gandhi was present. Martin MacWan was there, others like (Narendra) Dabholkar’s son, (Govind) Pansare’s daughter and many more. That was the time when investigations showed the involvement of Sanatan Sanstha in Goa, its headquarters.
There was a bomb blast in Margao where members of the Sanstha killed themselves accidentally. It was the first we came to know that Sanatan Sanstha was doing such work.
And then I spoke there and I said I was proud of Goa, known for its harmony. I am, at the same time, very sad. I feel sad and ashamed of Goa where Sanatan Sanstha is headquartered.
Whenever I go outside people ask me, you are from Goa. Is Sanatan Sanstha also from Goa? What do I answer? That was picked up by Sanatan Sanstha and their mouthpiece and even on the Internet they criticised me.
But you know, the best part is they cannot openly criticise me because people know my credentials. I am not a fundamentalist. They cannot come out that openly. That was the beginning and then it went on snowballing.
They have given us so many reasons to come out in the open to criticise them. In the name of language, for example, they wanted to impose Hindi. Why? You call Hindi national language. Ours is not an anti-national language.
I never thought that I would be on a hit list. I’m not, you know, as a writer or thinker, an intellectual, I’m not important enough. But so was not Gauri Lankesh.
There is what I stand for. And then I don’t like, you know, imposing one language or unique culture. Diversity is our strength. In Assam when I was a guest of honour at the inaugural session of the Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Prakash Javadekar, the HRD minister, was chief guest. I was to speak. So I said I see how hundreds of writers from across the country belonging to different languages writing different languages are expressing different ideas. This is the diversity we adore and in one voice we should denounce any move against that. That was another thing that probably embarrassed them. Javadekar himself when he rose up to speak, he answered me, that we are also for diversity. In a way, I succeeded. It came from the horse’s mouth. So I’m happy about it.
How have the last few months been, after it was revealed that you are on a hit list of the Sanathan Sanstha?
I never thought that I
would be on a hit list. I’m not, you know, as a writer or thinker, an
intellectual, I’m not important enough. But so was not Gauri Lankesh.
So after Gauri Lankesh was killed, the SIT arrested some people and found their diaries. In which on their hit list, there were names including mine. I have not seen it with my own eyes, but Girish Karnad and K. S. Bhagawan and other names are on it, too. I was told by the intelligence officer who contacted me to take care of myself, to remain alert everywhere I go. In particular, they advised me to avoid going to Karnataka and Maharashtra. To which I said, no. I don’t want any curbs on my movement because these are neighboring states. How can I not go there and go to other states?
I’m taking it in my stride. I’m happy that my security officers are good people. I’m provided protection at my residence also. I told them I don’t need them in Goa, but then they say they are also duty bound to give protection.
Any restrictions that you face in your daily life?
To some extent, yes.
Every time I go out, I can’t say don’t come. So they have to come. Wherever I
go they accompany me, but they are good people so I have no objection as such.
But, yes, you need some privacy. You need some private conversations you want
Leave aside that, even if I go to the market, I don’t like to ask somebody to go and get me some fish. I can go and choose what fish I want. I have to bargain for the fish and all that, which I can’t do now with them around. Anyway I have forgotten they are with me. They have become part of me now.