‘Age Of Frenzy’ By Mahabaleshwar Sail Speaks Of A Turbulent Time In Goa’s History

If you’re interested in reading Konkani literature, this is a great book to begin with.
A scene from the Portuguese Inquisition at Goa in the 17th century. 
A scene from the Portuguese Inquisition at Goa in the 17th century. 

The Goa Inquisition, which began in the middle of the 16th century and lasted nearly 300 years, changed the literary landscape of Goa. Books written in local languages were destroyed, leaving virtually no records of Konkani literature written before the arrival of the Portuguese. In 1684, the Portuguese Viceroy issued a decree that banned the use of Konkani, but the language travelled with Goans who migrated to regions in modern-day Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala to avoid religious persecution.

Although just over 2 million people speak Konkani as their first language in India, the variation in its usage reflects its complex socio-cultural history. It is written in five scripts: Devanagari, Roman, Kannada, Malayalam and Perso-Arabic. Konkani literature saw a resurgence in the first half of the 20th century, but the literary scene flourished only after it was made the official language of Goa after the liberation in 1961, and the inclusion of the language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in 1992

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As many Indians take a renewed interest in regional identities and histories, there is a growing demand for translated literature in India. Publishers—both mainstream and independent—have increased their focus on translations, a welcome development for Indian literature. An example of this is the Perennial imprint from HarperCollins India, which publishes translations from Indian languages into English, in accessible editions.

However, in the larger context of Indian writing, Konkani literature, in both the original and in English translation, is often overlooked and remains relatively unknown. The first Konkani novel was translated to English only in 2002—Pundalik Naik’s The Upheaval, translated by Vidya Pai. For Pai, a Kolkata-based Mangalorean, translation was a way of discovering her identity and reconnecting with her mother tongue. Her prolific output includes Damodar Mauzo’s Karmelin and all of bilingual writer Mahabaleshwar Sail’s novels that have been translated to English.

Sail, a retired Army officer, began his literary career writing short stories in Marathi but switched to Konkani as he felt he could express himself more naturally in the language he grew up speaking. His short stories and novels have always been inspired by social issues in rural communities. His first novel, Kali Ganga, dealt with the lives of farmers who live along the eponymously named river in Uttara Kannada, Aranyakand: Forest Saga is the story of a difficult journey undertaken by a group of persecuted labourers, The Kiln addresses the uncertain future of a small community of potters in South Goa.

But his masterpiece is often considered to be Age of Frenzy, set in the fictional village of Adolshi in 16th-century Goa. While the English translation was first published in 2017, Perennial brought out a new edition earlier this year.

The book details a turbulent—and rarely discussed—period in Goan history. It’s 1510, and the Portuguese arrive to find a society divided by caste, rituals, and food customs — the Brahmins from Raigali are distinct from the Nayaks from Shirvaddo. The lower caste Mhars populate the periphery of the village “like pre-historic figures from the Dandakaranya forests, human only in body and spirit, shrinking into themselves, lest their shadows fall on the ‘big people’.”

““We were Brahmins amongst the Hindus, why won’t we be Brahmins amongst the Christians?”)”

Padre Simao Peres, who operates independently from the Jesuit priests, believes in spreading Christianity through peaceful methods. At first, the villagers who have heard rumours of the destruction of temples and forced conversions are wary of him, but over time, Padre Peres attracts the marginalised — the young orphaned Annu, the Mhars, a young widow who wants to escape the sati ritual — who are drawn by the egalitarian principles of Christianity.

The Portuguese administration, impatient with Padre Peres’ pace of conversion, resorts to violence: “The religious leaders held crucifixes while the administrators clutched their swords and over them all loomed the shadow of the Inquisition.” They introduce high taxes and land ownership laws that favour Christians. Old structures are dismantled — both literally and figuratively: members of the privileged castes and classes convert to keep their land, temples are razed to the ground and churches are built on their ruins, old caste lines diminish briefly but do not vanish (“We were Brahmins amongst the Hindus, why won’t we be Brahmins amongst the Christians?”). Those who refuse to convert escape the village at night; the boats that carry them out of Goa push through the unremitting darkness into the unknown.

Sail is interested in the rigidness of religious practice: Hindus who have mistakenly eaten forbidden food or prepared food at a hearth used by Christian families are branded “outcastes” and are forced to convert. Hindus cannot enter the homes of their relatives who have converted, nor can they share food with them. The Inquisition demands absolute loyalty to a draconian version of Christianity that Padre Peres does not practice, and he is placed under arrest for his lack of adherence to the establishment.

When the senile grandparent of a man who has migrated out of the village moves into the now Christian Adolshi, claiming he is Christian, the villagers do not believe him. After he dies, the villagers cannot enter his house or cremate his body: his body is left in the forest and the villagers burn the dry wild grass around it in a symbolic attempt to fulfil the last rites.

Sail’s language is lyrical; his descriptions of local details are vivid: “A vile black shadow hung over the area, as though the heat of the blazing pyre had swallowed the sun’s light, and an eclipse had begun.”

For the most part, Pai’s translation effectively communicates the distinctive cadences of Konkani; there are some anachronistic clichés and her lexical and stylistic choices may seem unusual at times and come across as inelegant in English (“Change the ornaments, remove the nath and put on a mokan, but the nose is the same!”), but this is a translation that retains the flavour of the Konkani original.

For those who left Goa, their sense of loss was tied to their separation from their homeland. For those who stayed behind and converted, whether for land or power, their loss was less tangible: “These were a people caught in that troubled half-light between two religions, seeking to quench their spiritual hunger and conquer the fear in their souls.”