Review: Ink of Dissent by Damodar Mauzo
Addressing the overflowing audience at last week’s launch of his first-ever compilation of English writings, Konkani literature’s icon Damodar Mauzo was characteristically self-effacing: “When any book is released in Goa, we usually see about 60 people. Since this one is by me, perhaps 100 could be expected. So many have come today that I have told our chief guest all the rest of you are here because of him.” But when the historian and Gandhi biographer, Ramachandra Guha took the microphone, he demurred, “I don’t know about anyone else, but the reason I am here is ‘Bhai’ (as Mauzo is affectionately called by everyone who knows him) and ‘Bhai’ alone.”
Mauzo stands out an unusual bridge figure in India’s diverse literary landscape, with his stature extending beyond the usual language and regional limitations. Amitav Ghosh, who recently became the first English writer to win the Jnanpith Award, told me via email, “There can be no doubt that Damodar is Goa’s most important literary voice, as well as its ambassador to the literary world. Not only is he a great story-teller himself, he has close connections with many writers across India and has helped to acquaint many of them with Goa’s culture and traditions. Being the warm, cultivated, congenial person that he is, he has shown the world a side of Goa that is very different from the usual stereotypes.”
In his writing career extending over five decades, spanning short stories, novels, criticism, journalism and screenplays, Mauzo has proven impossible to pigeonhole. Here’s a man whose most memorable characters are women, a Hindu whose works uncannily portray mostly the Catholic milieu, a soft-spoken and surpassingly gentle human being whose life is nonetheless imperilled by violent extremists. In July 2018, the 74-year-old’s name was found on the target list maintained by the murderers of Bengaluru journalist Gauri Lankesh, and he was compelled to accept 24-hour security from the state, an uncomfortable stricture which continues with no end in sight.
In his new ‘Ink of Dissent: Critical Writings on Language, Literature, and Freedom’ (Goa 1556, Rs. 200), Mauzo frankly assesses the situation, “No one had to tell me from where the threat originated. Though a fiction writer, I have consistently criticized the religious orthodoxy prevailing in our society, that tries to pseudo-rationalize mythical beliefs. I have voiced my agony over the lynching incidents in the country in the name of protection to cows. I am critical of the present dispensation for their silence over the injustice meted out to the Dalits and other minorities…I have been fighting tooth and nail the attempts by right wing outfits to promote a national mono-culture that denies inclusiveness.”
These may be familiar liberal concerns, but Mauzo is largely unique in his bravery in directly confronting religious extremists implicated in the murders of Dr Narendra Dabholkar in Pune in 2013, Govind Pansare in Kolhapur and Prof MM Kalburgi in Dharwad in 2015, as well as Lankesh in 2017.
Speaking out has increasingly preoccupied Mauzo in recent years. Back in 2009, he and I co-founded the Goa Arts + Literature Festival, and since then we have watched our home state’s open-minded pluralism under sustained assault. Amitav Ghosh says, “The reason that all of India flocks to Goa is that it is a haven of tolerance, not just for different religions but also for different lifestyles. In that sense Damodar perfectly represents the spirit of the place. As a writer, and a public personality, he has always upheld the multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious traditions of Goa. In more ways than one can count, he truly is both a representative of, and a spokesman for, the kind of human flourishing that occurs when people of different backgrounds and aspirations live harmoniously with each other. It is shocking that he should be placed on a hit list by religious extremists. It shows that a whole history, and a way of life, is under threat from a very narrow kind of majoritarianism.”
These perceptive insights remind us that when he first learned of the death threat, Mauzo boldly declared, “No bullet can stop the truth.” Yet, as Ganesh Devy points out in his foreword to Ink of Dissent, “In Mauzo’s case, the truth of things has a lot to do with being in a minority…A non-Catholic born in a predominantly Catholic neighbourhood in Majorda – his schooling was done in three languages: first Marathi and Portuguese, and then English; neither of which was really his own. His college education had to be done in a state that was not his own. He spent a lifetime in an occupation – running a modest shop – which was not really his calling…His life shows that he invariably chose to be a prophet of a minority but a poet of moderation, a rare combination that makes him widely loved and admired.”
Another big part of Mauzo’s singular appeal is his unyielding loyalty to Konkani. Ramachandra Guha told me, “Those who write in the language of the state/region have greater moral authority than those who write in English. Mahasweta Devi had far greater credibility when she spoke of tribal suffering than when Arundhati Roy spoke of the same subject; the latter might be quoted in the New York Times, whereas the former might even succeed in embarrass her State Government into remedial action. Bhai’s book reveals him to be a rooted cosmopolitan in the best sense of that term; deeply embedded in Goa, yet alert and alive to the rest of India and the wider world. He thus writes with great authority and insight on Konkani literature and folk culture; and also with empathy and understanding about places far distant like Assam. He travels widely, but also returns always to where he belongs.”
The Konkani laureate BB (Bakibab) Borkar used to talk about vegddench munisponn, the distinctly Goan humanism that comes along with independent thought, and indomitable spine to fight for what is right. That strength of character is evident throughout ‘Ink of Dissent’, where Mauzo writes “this is not the first threat to my life. I had my first massive heart attack in 1991; I survived it. After a gap of six years the second one caught me off guard. I had to rush to Mumbai for a bypass surgery when an angiography detected five major blocks. I survived that too. The next threat came my way in 2007 when cancer, the most dreaded disease, trained its guns at me. I came through that attack. And now yet another is knocking at my door. With security guards hovering around, like the doctors and nurses of earlier times, I have the same feeling of hospitalization. If all goes well, I should survive this threat as well.”
Vivek Menezes is a curator, photographer, writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival