No writer better represents the stunning retrieval and renaissance of Konkani – the central pillar of Goan identity - than Damodar Mauzo, whose acceptance of the 57th Jnanpith Award yesterday at Raj Bhavan was an historic milestone in the story of the Goans.
It is a great individual honour for the laureate of our literature, and also an impressive tribute to the strength and power of his beloved language, which has managed to survive almost unprecedented tribulations to begin to flourish anew.
The Jnanpith citation correctly identifies some important aspects of the 78-year-old master’s great literary worth: “[He] is the most prolific contemporary Konkani writer. For over the last fifty years, he has footprints in many genres, including short stories, novels, criticism, and children’s literature. The themes of Mauzo’s stories are bold and many are women-centric; his narratives are unconventional and even philosophical at times. He speaks about human relations, social change, male chauvinism, caste, religion, and other facets of humanity in his creations. Although his creations are mostly set in Konkani frames, the ideas gained him pan-Indian appreciation.”
All that is true, but only one facet of Mauzo’s impact and legacy. For some decades, he has been the foremost beacon and ambassador for “the better angels” of our many-layered culture and identity, the unique native humanism described by Bakibab Borkar as vegllench munisponn. The way he embodies it – utterly humane but entirely indomitable at the same time – is irresistible to readers and the general public alike. Everyone feels instantly close to their ‘Bhaiee’ which is why literary communities in several states rejoiced unreservedly when this latest honour was announced, and the jubilation in Goa has been across the board like nothing in recent memory.
Just how unique is Bhaiee? Let me count the ways! He is a litterateur of lofty attainment, but also an unshakeable man of the people who is firmly integrated into the working-class fabric of his ancestral village after decades serving community needs as the proprietor of their one-stop general store. Then, he is incomparably eloquent in Konkani and Marathi and Hindi and English, to a degree that no one else I have met can match. To add to that, in an atmosphere of increasing polarization, and the rampant radicalization of his co-religionists, this is one Hindu whose (almost) entire corpus of writing effortlessly inhabits the lifeworld of Catholics, and firmly holds the line against the politics of division despite becoming increasingly isolated in that position. In this regard, Mauzo is absolutely lion-hearted, and I especially love his persistent reminders that another icon from Majorda – the late musician and composer Anthony Gonsalves – is his literal dudh bhau, because both were nursed by the latter’s mother.
As we know very well in Goa, many things are becoming unsayable in our fraught, desperate times, where – in grotesque irony – the unspeakable has instead become public routine. This is where Mauzo stands alone, with immense individual bravery and heroism that sets him completely apart for standing up for what everyone knows is right. And here is another grotesque irony: in our entire span of history since he was born in the old Estado da India, it has never been quite so lonely – all the way through the freedom struggle until decolonization, the Opinion Poll era where the state fended off being merged with Maharashtra, to the stirring Konkani language agitations and Goa’s ongoing struggles for self-determination.
In all of those cases, there was an unmistakable popular outpouring of sentiment for the forces of liberation, justice, equality and freedom, but in our disgracefully degraded times all that has been almost extinguished.
Now vultures command the heights, with attack dogs of intolerance baying for blood in every public arena, and the state itself turned craven, contorting into ever-more-cowardly paeans of appeasement to the extremist fringe. In this shameful scenario, it’s perfectly rational to be afraid, and the public stays uncomfortably mum. But not Mauzo, who calmly continues to name names, and call out the obvious, which is why this surpassingly gentle man and thorough gentleman is now compelled to go everywhere with an armed bodyguard provided by the government.
For himself, Bhaiee could care less about government approval. Nonetheless, it is a matter of considerable shame for Goa that our state has never awarded this great litterateur anything like his just due, or even pursued what he has always richly deserved (such as the long overdue Padma award). Make no mistake, this is appalling negligence. Any other part of India with responsible governance would have long since taken advantage of this man’s calibre, and entrusted him with responsibility for some of our vital cultural institutions that are being driven directly to ruin by incompetence.
Martin Luther King memorably declared that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That promise seems unlikely in today’s Goa, where the collective plea is more akin to Juvenal’s conundrum, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This is why we are deeply grateful, and offer heartfelt collective thanks to the Bharatiya Jnanpith for discerning the literary and cultural greatness of our icon, in a profound validation for our language, which is still in the course of rejuvenation after suffering greatly in the initial phases of the 451-year colonial period. The cataclysm following Portuguese conquest scattered our people so widely that Konkani is now the only language in the world in daily use in an incredible five different scripts (Devnagiri, Malayalam, Kannada, Perso-Arabic and Roman). In all five, our sentiment is the same today. Deu borem korum.
(Vivek Menezes is a writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival)