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On a Bookshelf: 10 non-fiction writers' windows to Goa

Experience a different side of the state on the pages of these seminal books

Frederick Noronha

A book changes your life, they say. One book and one academic paper completely changed my perception of Goa — besides my plans and career (in part).

That sunny Goa University afternoon, in the mid-1980s, was a good time to steal 15 minutes from the mid-afternoon recess. A student there, one would often spend that time at the library's reading room. Entirely by chance, an issue of the journal Pacific Affairs showed up. Who would expect a journal with this name to include an article on Goa? To find it well written and insightful was even more surprising.

Like most returning expat Goans (despite having come ‘home’ as a child), one had been struggling to understand Goa. In those days, there was scant printed material in English in the region. Most was still in unfamiliar, Salazar-censored Portuguese.

Pacific Affairs contained the article Goa: The Transformation of an Indian Regio, written by a certain Dr Robert S Newman, then based in Melbourne. Filled with youthful exuberance, I dashed off to him an tightly-packed aerogramme letter full of observations and arguments; he politely wrote back with a three-page letter. It began saying: “You are the first person, Goan or otherwise, to respond to this article.” We became friends, and still are.

Here’s a list of some other books that offer a glimpse into Goa.

Newman's Goa

Dr Robert S Newman's writing on Goa is easy to read, charmingly narrated, and, in my view, offers great insights into a complex region. The fact that he's Jewish, an anthropologist, a speaker of Hindi and Japanese and Portuguese, and married to a North Indian lady, perhaps lends further to his ability to understand complexities and nuances.

His first paper on this place — and you should start here — is called Goa: The Transformation of an Indian Region. Three decades after first reading it, one's own understanding might differ somewhat from “Bob’s”. But you cannot deny that whatever he says he argues with conviction and style. Newman knows how to narrate the story. He turns what could be dry subjects in anthropology into very interesting ones to an average reader.

His work deals with language issues in Goa (Konkani), goddesses and dreams, Hindu religious festivals in places like Cuncolim, Catholics seeing visions in Velim and how could understand this, myths created about Goa, the multilingual nature of our state, and colonial writing on Goa.

If you thought that's a lot of ground to cover, Newman has another companion volume. It deals with zatras, carnaval, Goa at the movies (explaining Bollywood stereotypes), religious practice in an unrecognised Goan sect, Portuguese postage stamps, and even a comparison of Western tourists and Goan pilgrims! His two companion books called Goan Anthropology: Mothers, Miracles and Mythology and Goa Anthropology: Festivals, Films and Fish were published in 2019, and are easily available in larger bookshops in Goa. His earlier book is out of print.

Goan Literature Lives!

Even today, some will question whether “Goan writing” actually exists. Isn’t this a rather arbitrary category?

The answer to this came — sharp and strong — in the other text that influenced one hugely, Goan Literature: A Modern Reader (Asian Studies Centre, Michigan State University, 1983). Peter Nazareth was the first to have produced the evidence. His anthology — a non-fiction work about works mostly of fiction — offers deep understanding into the world of Goan writing.

He collates Goan writing in Portuguese, Konkani and English. His vision covers the genres of novels, essays, poems, short stories, and a one-act play. To navigate through the complex mix, he took the help of an Afro-American and a Brazilian.

Nazareth, who traces his roots to Moira (though he has called himself an ‘African writer’), is still teaching at The university in Iowa. His pioneering contribution in mapping the world of Goan writing is definitely something that deserves recognition. What is even more credible is that he compiled all this work in a world where email and the Internet was a distant thought.

Before Salman Rushdie drew global attention to Indian writing in English, here was a Goan expat scholar telling all willing to read that Goa indeed had its own complex, talented, multilingual and impressive literature. The book was re-published in Goa in 2010 as Modern Goan Literature.

Hartman's Eat Dust

Hartman de Souza’s Eat Dust: Mining and Greed in Goa (Harper Litmus, 2015) is noteworthy not only because of its very readable style of narration, but more because it highlights a crucial people’s issue that is easy to overlook in Goa.

For decades, mining has been earning big money for those in the business, while wreaking havoc on the reality of interior Goa. Because the devastation is caused far away from the coast, among mostly poorer people who can be divided by politicians and vested interests, this issue seldom gets noticed.

Hartman takes you from the charming Goa to the devastated small State, in the matter of pages. Some of his comments seem unbelievable to the visitor to ‘charming’ Goa. Except that he has documented it elaborately. At one point, the reader is reminded: “Souza saw a hill that he had struggled to climb in the 1990s literally disappear as mining operations ravaged it.” Easily available in local bookshops, online and in ebook editions too.

Taking about the politics of mining, it would be hard to overlook two recent books which are connected to the topic in unusual ways. Sadguru Patil and Mayabhushan Nagvenkar’s An Extraordinary Life: Manohar Parrikar (Penguin 2020) is an ambitious, unusual work. This biography of the late chief minister tries a balancing act between the hard-core supporters and the as-staunch critics of Parrikar. Probably pleasing neither, in the bargain. Parrikar was the man who highlighted “scams” over mining in Goa and was also accused of doing U-turns once in power.

The other recent book which has drawn praise by its supporters is Parag D Porobo's India's First Democratic Revolution: Dayanand Bandodkar and the Rise of Bahujan in Goa. Praise for politicians in Goa, has elsewhere, has come quick at times. Bandodkar, Goa's first chief minister, was himself a mine owner, incidentally.

Two cookbooks: from two eras

No serious housewife or gourmet in Goa could have not heard of Joyce Fernandes. She has penned a simple book on food, that went on to reach places.

There are stories — urban legends? — of how Fernandes (with family support) initially drew readers to her work by stocking the book at popular Panjim hairdressers' outlets. It is a modest book, but worth it. (There are others competing in the Goan food arena too, differently priced and some more elaborate. Historian Dr Fatima da Silva Gracias has focussed on the history and origins of Goan food, in more than one book, an interesting topic.)

Another in the same genre, but more ambitious in its scope, is Isidore Coelho's The Chef. After retiring from the Indian Telegraphs some two generations ago, he launched his hobby of writing cookery books. That was the beginning of a legend. The Chef has since been through at least 17 editions. It now has hundreds of recipes, literally. Eight editions back, it had a total of 1644 recipes. The book covers 566 pages. Very simple in design, its inside pages are not glamorous or snazzy, but packed with information instead. What is even more surprising is how a book of almost six hundred pages, that too hardbound, is sold at just Rs 300. The book has been ably kept in print by the Better Yourselves Books of Bandra, Mumbai.

For a region which has a rich and diverse variety of food — and takes its culinary traditions so seriously — this is indeed a useful book. Check out a copy at major bookstores and also the Daughters of St Paul's at 18th June Road. This is clearly a book that has stood the test of time.

If you're into food and beverage, another modest but useful title is the late Saligao-based Edwin Saldanha’s book on Goan Home Wines, available at Rajhauns, the publishers situated at the end of 18th June Road, Panjim.

Comprehending caste

Olivinho Gomes’ book Village Goa is interesting for a special reason. It was penned decades ago, in the 1980s, and is actually his PhD thesis. Set in the Salcete village of Chandor, it offers a good insight into rural Goa, caste and the local reality.

Another book offering an un-glamourised portrayal of Goa was (now no longer available except in libraries) is BG D'Souza's Goan Society in Transition. It took a very different approach to making sense of the Goan reality, perhaps due to the influence of the radical politics of the author's guide, sociologist Prof. AR Desai.

Music too

Music, and local skills in it, is another field that makes Goa special. Recently, going back through Mario Cabral e Sa Winds of Fire: The Music and Musicians of Goa (Promilla & Co. 1997) one was struck how much information was collated between its covers. With chapter titles like The Phallus and the Virgin, one might wonder what this book could offer. Between its covers, it offers a lot brought together from places one might find otherwise very difficult to access. Mixing history and sociology, Cabral e Sa pieces together the story of Goan music. Other contributors — ten more — to the book add value and diversity.

Meandering through centuries of Goan history, somewhere half-way through the book, it turns more interesting, when the book reaches more contemporary times. Of particular interest is Mario Rodrigues essay on Western Popular Music.

Names of popular musicians fly thick and fast — Leslie Godinho, "Jazzy" Joe, Anto Menezes, Leon de Souza, the (five) Monserrate Brothers, Chic Chocolate (the ‘Louis Armstrong of India’), Toni Pinto, Braz Gonsalves, Micky Correa, Bondo, Hanibal Castro, Remo Fernandes, among others. If lucky you might find this book online.

Incidentally, another book by Cabral e Sa is Location Goa, penned when the first IFFI (International Film Festival of India) was happening in Goa. It looks at Goa's often-overlooked connections with the world of films. Especially noteworthy is Deepa Gahlot’s essay on the many Bollywood films which stereotyped Goa terribly. Unfortunately, this book was published by the Government-run Department of Information and, as a result, hardly circulated and sold adequately. If really interested, you might still get a copy from the Department of Information near the Ferry Jetty in Panjim.

All about writers

Guess most would have never heard of Aleixo Manuel da Costa or his ambitious four-volume Dicionario de Literatura Goesa. That’s because this book was actually published in Macau, and only a few sets made its way to Goa. This is a detailed, painstaking listing of the bibliographies of Goan authors across countries, time periods and languages.

The author has made an impressive collection of some 11,000 publications by Goans, written in a total of 14 languages. He has compiled the bibliographical and biographical data of over 2000 Goan writers, representing the period from 1702 to 1961. Imagine that!

Penha da Franca-born Aleixo da Costa joined the old Biblioteca Nacional Vasco da Gama (later the Central Library, and presently the Krishnadas Shama Central Library) in 1930. He became the Curator in 1949 and retired in 1967 at the age of 58. His earlier three volumes were published back in 1997. Now, the fourth volume was released recently. It's available at Broadway’s and other outlets.

Costa’s book meticulously collates the background details (in a thumbnail, word sketch) of each writer from Goa. It lists his or her writings, whether books or major articles. It also lists details of some journals and periodicals of the period.

Two books from Portugal

Okay, let’s stretch the rules somewhat. These are two books not from Goa, but closely related. One is directly connected, and the other might seem remote. Yet, Joaquim Correia's book is titled A última dança em Goa offers unusual insights into the music of Goa, mainly of the 20th century.

Correia’s 208-page book is an interesting collation of people, groups, musical trends, and remembrances that is sure to bring back memories for those who lived in Goa of some decades past. He has built a scrap-book of facts, names, images and memories. The lavishly-illustrated black-and-white book is divided into three parts — one each on the musical scene in Goa till 1961; music in the diaspora and traditional music in Goa and Portugal; and ‘the new tempo’ in Goa after that landmark year of 1961.

Its first part (pp.20-119) contains the meat of the book, a detailed tracking of 20th century Goan musical trends. In doing so, Correia seems to have depended on every available piece of paper. From cartoons (Mario’s), to ads (one is Damodar Mangaljee's for a 1955 Chevrolet, another is a CMM ad for Jazz records), newspaper clippings, announcements for dances, old photos from colonial Goa, and much more.

There's another distant book which is also relevant to us. The First Global Village: How Portugal Changed the World is by Martin Page, 278-page 11th Edition. Published abroad, it's obviously hard to impossible to buy in Goa. This book is important to us because it helps us understand where tiny Goa fits into Portuguese-shaped global history. Of how a nation “about half the size of Florida ... that influenced the lives of the rest of us far more than many much larger and more powerful countries.”

As Page, himself a Briton, puts it, “In drawing upon foreign — and particularly English — accounts of Portugal’s history, I found, repeatedly, that caution is needed”. Starting with his very detailed Contents section, Page has a surprise on almost every page. For instance, a yet-to-be-successful Julius Caesar won the governorship of Portugal in a lottery. Caesar made his fortune there, helping him to “buy his way to power in Rome, and the conquest of France, Belgium and England”. And we thought electoral fraud was something very new!

The influence of Portugal on the rest of the world slowly unveils. Goa has already heard a lot about plants, linguistic influences, culinary hybrids, and even some racial intermingling. But this book reminds us of Christopher Columbus (Cristovao Colombo), the West African gold boom, Portuguese maps that reshaped our understanding of the planet, master Portuguese spies, how early Portuguese exploits shaped later European colonial powers including the British, the foundation of modern pharmacology, the Portuguese Jesuits' impact on Japan, Luso advances in science and even Portugal as “the only European nation not to persecute Jews”.

Page’s work is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand what shaped those who shaped Goa's recent past.


A word, in conclusion

This list is mainly of texts in English, with an exception or two. English is, in fact, a very ‘young’ language in Goa. It dates back only to the post-1961 era, when it took off here in a big way. Or, maybe a few decades earlier (around 1940s) which more English schools started. In the early 20th century the first English-medium schools started, mostly around Bardez — in Parra, Arpora and Saligao. A couple or so decades prior, migration to the English-ruled colonial world picked up in a big way from Goa.

But there are other languages which Goans have written in — primarily Konkani (often more an oral language), Portuguese and even Marathi. But that's a different topic altogether.

In today’s world, it’s not only books that garner and disseminate information. There’s the Net too, which has to be taken into account.

Sometimes, lists like these only remind us of what we’re lacking. For instance, if anyone asks for a comprehensive book on the history of Goa, there’s hardly an answer. Local historians have done a good job in highlighting different aspects of Goa; the point for comprehensive works notwithstanding.

In keeping with the aim of focusing on a wide range of books, a few chosen are by now out of print. Sorry to whet your appetite for some title; but such books have stood the test of time. (A way out of this could be to refer to the title at the Goa Central Library's fourth-floor, Goa books section, which has most books published in this region.)

In conclusion, let’s accept that a list of this nature cannot cover all deserving books. Or even be fair in its attempt.


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