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Part III: The Marathi Poet of Goa

Not only did Father Thomas Stephens – an English Jesuit – spend his entire life in Goa, he also wrote the first Konkani grammar book and an epic 11,000-line Marathi poem, now regarded as a classic.

brunch Updated: Nov 26, 2011 19:50 IST
Text and Photos: Jonathan Gil Harris
Text and Photos: Jonathan Gil Harris
Hindustan Times

The inscription at the altar of the Bom Jesus Cathedral in Old Goa reads "Hi Mho Jhi Kudd" – Konkani for "this is my body." These are the words Jesus is said to have uttered at the Last Supper; they are ritually repeated during the Catholic Mass, when the wafer eaten by the faithful is translated into the body of Christ. But perhaps the Goan inscription hints at another, secular translation – the firangi body that has become Indian.

I first encountered Thomas Stephens as a passing reference in a travel narrative by the English merchant Ralph Fitch. In 1585, Fitch and three other English merchants had journeyed to India to see if they could break into Portugal’s lucrative trade with the orient. On reaching Goa, they were arrested and imprisoned. But Fitch and his companions were freed after the intervention of one "Father Stephens," a Goan Jesuit originally from England. Fitch tells us hardly anything about Stephens. But upon doing some cursory research, I learned a little more about him. Stephens came to Goa in 1579; he lived there until his death in 1619.

During his four decades in India, he not only became fully conversant in Portuguese (he was known in Goa by a Portuguese version of his name, Thomas Estêvão), he also become so fluent in the local languages that he wrote the first Konkani grammar book and, even more impressively, penned an epic 11,000-line poem in Marathi called the Kristapurana, now regarded as one of the classics of Marathi literature. This was more than enough to prick my interest. I am a professor of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English literature, yet I had never heard of the poem. And I was keen to visit Goa. So I resolved to track down the footsteps of this largely unsung firangi poet.

My friends were amused that I was headed to Goa to do research. "Nobody goes to Goa to work," they said. Admittedly, my "work" began in the stunning southern beach-resort town of Palolem. I had wanted to stay clear of the more built-up parts of northern Goa so I could better simulate what Stephens must have experienced upon his arrival in a land where the beaches were far less crowded, the palms more plentiful, and the population less Christianised than now. Shortly after reaching Goa in 1579, Stephens wrote a long letter to his father in England. He describes in detail what he experienced on his voyage: seeing flying fish in the Atlantic Ocean, succumbing to illness.

CoconutEvidently in the grip of culture shock, however, he offers only the briefest description of his new home in India. All he says is that the natives do not look like Ethiopians, and that the plants – especially the coconut trees – are completely different from anything he has seen before.

Perhaps those coconuts jolted Stephens in another way. The first thing I saw from my beachside hut in Palolem was a toddy-tapper, hauling himself rapidly up the palm tree next to me. I drank some of his brew the next morning; it had a zesty zing unlike anything I’d tasted before – nariyal paani with a punch. I also, for research purposes, sampled the coconut feni at a local restaurant. It was a leg-numbing tipple, but it tasted curiously good with my hot kishmur fish curry. Khana can’t get more desi than this, of course. Yet the spicy heat burning my mouth – an experience that Stephens probably knew well – was historically a firangi import. The Portuguese had brought chili peppers with them to India from their colonies in South America, and these quickly became part of the local cuisine because of their preservative qualities as much as their piquant taste.

Fish curryThe Portuguese also brought Catholicism with them. And so did Stephens. He was born in Wiltshire in 1549, in the midst of a wrenching period in English history. After the Protestant Reformation, when King Henry VIII broke with Rome because the Pope would not grant him a divorce, it was hard to be a Catholic in England. Some were burnt at the stake; others fled the country for the sanctuary of cities on the continent. Stephens was one of the latter. In 1575 he enrolled as a novitiate in Rome; by 1579, he had been granted permission to go to Goa to help the Jesuit mission there.

The Jesuit presence in Goa begins in 1542 with St Francis Xavier, the Basque priest whose name is commemorated by a thousand schools and colleges in India. But Francis Xavier’s brand of Catholicism was different from Stephens’. Francis Xavier was horrified by what he regarded as the idolatrousness of the Indians. He took little care to study their customs or learn their languages; his goal was simply to save souls. If Hindu temples needed to be destroyed to bring the word of God to the infidels, so be it. Perhaps because Stephens had himself been at the receiving end of religious oppression in England, he adopted a more moderate stand. Long before the second Vatican council of the 1960s finally permitted Catholic services to be conducted in vernacular languages and not just in Latin, Stephens also believed in translating Christian doctrine into local idioms.

The extent of his openness to indigenous languages was impressed on me when I visited the parish of Bardez in northern Goa, where the Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr is based. This research centre is devoted to the history of Konkani culture. It is a Jesuit institution, but it is interested – like the man for whom it is named – in cross-cultural conversation. Revealingly, as I entered it, I saw a Diwali lamp hanging above the front door. The centre’s tireless director, Father Pratap Naik, showed me some of the Stephens-related treasures in its archives. These include a record of a letter Stephens wrote to his brother Richard in 1583 praising local languages for the beauty of their linguistic structure, which to his ear was "allied to that of Greek and Latin."

Here I was also able to peruse copies of Stephens’ publications, including his masterpiece, the Kristapurana. After studying Marathi-language versions of the Hindu puranas – epic stories of creation, gods, and kings – Stephens decided to write his own, based on stories from the Old and New Testaments. He used indigenous forms, such as the ovi four-line stanza, and mixed poetic Marathi with some Konkani words and phrases. Most startlingly, he insisted his aim was not to "show that other scriptures are wrong and ours right," but simply to add Christian stories to the repertoire of tales available to Goan Indians. But the Kristapurana did far more than bring Christianity to the locals.

The poem also shows how much Stephens’ habits of thought were transformed by the new languages he spoke and composed in. He praises Marathi in memorable lines that evoke an Indian rather than a biblical landscape: "Zaissy puspa mazi puspa mogary/ Qui paramalla mazi casturi/ Taissy bhassa maizy saziry/ Marrathiya/ Paquiha madhe maioru/ Vriquiha madehe calpataru/ Bhasse madhe manu thoru/ Marrathiyessi (as the mogra among flowers, as musk among perfumes, so is the beauty of Marathi among languages; among birds the peacock, among trees the kalpa, so is Marathi among languages)." A passage like this suggests why the Kristapurana proved so enormously popular. Even after the Portuguese tried to ban non-European languages in Goa, the poem was recited for centuries by Malabari Catholics.

RacholThe Kristapurana was printed on a press at the Rachol seminary in southern Goa, where Stephens was rector from 1610. The press hasn’t survived. But the seminary has. I drove down to Rachol from Bardez, and was surprised to find it much as it was in Stephens’ time, though it is now administered by the Diocesan clergy. I asked the current rector, Father Dennis Fernandes, to show me parts of the seminary that Stephens would have known. Guiding me around cloisters decorated with old friezes and icons, he led me up a small staircase and flung open the doors. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next: a beautiful seventeenth-century Catholic church, in which Stephens doubtless preached – and maybe even read portions of his Kristapurana.

It’s tempting to dismiss Stephens as an agent of a European colonial power. After all, Christianity was often one of colonialism’s props. But a different perspective is suggested by the phrase I saw at the altar of the ancient Bom Jesus Cathedral in Old Goa: "Hi Mho Jhi Kudd," a Konkani translation of the formula of the Catholic Mass, "this is my body." The translation hints at Stephens’ legacy to Konkani-speaking Catholics. Yet it also captures something of his personal experience in Goa. For Stephens’ own firangi "kudd" (or self) was made Indian by his new environment – the coconut water he drank, the mogras he smelled, and the Marathi and Konkani in which he crafted his exquisite poetry.

Jonathan Gil Harris is Professor of English at George Washington University in Washington, DC. The author of five books on William Shakespeare’s plays and culture, he is currently spending a year in India researching a new book about European travellers to India in the time of Shakespeare

Next week: Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the Heera-Wallah of Golconda

From HT Brunch, November 27

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First Published: Nov 26, 2011 15:37 IST