Damodar Mauzo: I am fond of the smell of printed books

Soon after winning the Jnanpith Award for 2021, renowned Konkani author Damodar Mauzo speaks to Charmiane Alexander about the importance of the award for Konkani language, his writerly life and need for literary translations

23 Feb 2022 | By PrintWeek Team

Damodar Mauzo: The Jnanpith is important, as it proves the stature of literature

PrintWeek (PW): Congratulations on the Jnanpith Award. What was your first reaction after winning the award?
Damodar Mauzo (DM):
I was not expecting the award, so it came as a surprise to me. The first reaction was, of course, of happiness. I was told that I was the unanimous choice of the jury and I immediately thought of so many people who are so renowned and have my respect because of their literature. I felt that a minimum of 100 writers of India are worthy of this award. It came my way because the jury considered me to be the best among these equals. So, my first reaction was, I was delighted.

My wife was almost in tears of joy when she got to know. Even after I had received the call from the chairperson of the jury, I wasn’t sure yet, so I waited for it to be aired for confirmation. Unfortunately, as I put on the TV, the news I came across was very saddening. The kin of those killed in the Nagaland shooting incident as a result of the mistaken identity, were howling over the dead bodies. My spirits were dampened by that view. What a paradox! On the one hand, I was exuberant and the other, I heard the cries of these ill-fated victims. Later, I did steady myself. In the next few days, I felt overwhelmed by the response I received from within and out of Goa, after winning the award.

PW: You are the second Konkani writer to win the Jnanpith, after Ravindra Kelekar, who won the award in 2006. How important is the award for Konkani language and literature?
: I believe the Jnanpith Award is important for all languages, because it proves the stature of the language and literature. Jnanpith has an aura of its own, it has a huge fallout over the country. The Konkani-speaking community is numerically leaner than many. For historical reasons, and also for geographical ones, Konkani was a late entrant in the mainstream languages. The Jnanpith to Konkani will serve the people as a morale booster and will further encourage writers to strive to give their best. I hope it will help our younger generation, especially from the diasporic communities, to take to writing and reading.

PW: A lot of younger generation is not reading, what kind of quality of writing would you expect in future?
Writing is secondary. It is a by-product of one’s reading as it provides the raw material. I don’t think that the younger generation is running away from reading, they might not be reading printed books, but they read on their mobiles, laptops and on other devices. I would say they are abreast of modern technology and as such, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have different kinds of literature to offer.

Yes, my generation, I in particular, am fond of the smell of the printed books. What you say is a passing phase, the medium might switch, but there is no running away from literature. Our generation’s reading was limited to their own languages, but today the situation is different. Readers have easy access to any literature in the world.

PW: How important is translation when it comes to writing?
In order to cross linguistic borders, literature needs to get translated. You get a larger readership, and this benefits not only writers, but also the languages. A writer’s thought-provoking ideas have a wide outreach through translations. One may accept or reject it, but new ideas or original thoughts will provoke readers to think differently. There are many writers who make me ponder over, and every time I read their works, I find something new in it. Unfortunately, back in the days, due to the lack of facilities, the important works could not get translated. Even Ravindra Kelkar’s work was not translated for a very long time. I believe he deserved the Jnanpith Award way before. But since his work was not translated earlier, people could not recognise the quality of his essays. By the way, I must mention here, Ravindra Kelekar is so far the only essayist to bag the Jnanpith Award.

Translations can create miracles. Some fifteen years back, I received a call from Prof UR Ananthamurthy just to tell me how much he liked my novel. I was flabbergasted. He had read it in translation. This is the magic of translation. I have myself experienced how people come forward to ask me if they could translate my work. I could see how much they liked reading the work. Some have even translated it first and then asked me for my permission. I am always happy when someone wants to translate because it means they have liked my work.

PW: Which, according to you, is your best work? And why?
It is difficult to rate your own works. But there are some stories which have better outreach. These Are My Children, Chastity Belt, Teresa’s Man, Mingel’s Kin, Writer’s Tale are some of the stories that stand out. My novel Karmelin is close to my heart because it gave me my first break. But I would rather refrain from rating one above the other. All are dear to me because I write stories only when I am inspired to. The labour pain is the same. 

I have a habit of writing stories in one go. For that, it is important that I should have time at my disposal. If someone gives me a deadline and tells me to write a story of 1,500 words, I might not be able to deliver. Sometimes, I don’t write a single story for a whole year and then there are times when I can file three stories in a week. It all depends on my inspiration. When I am inspired, nobody can stop me. And, if you stop, then that’s about it. I have quite a few aborted or incomplete ones.

Damodar Mauzo: People are proud of their regional languages, We should make efforts to keep them vibrant

PW: Tell us a bit about your writerly life. When did you start writing?
I was born during the Portuguese regime, when we faced bans of many kinds, including freedom of expression. Censorship was stringent. So, it was difficult to cope up with that. Many creative writers had to flee to the neighbouring states. There was paucity of Indian literature. I had limited resources to read in my village. I would go to the city library and read or borrow books. At one point, I had almost finished reading all the books in the library.

I started writing about 60 years ago. My first short story came out in 1963. It might have taken a long time for my work to get translated and reach out to other Indian readers, but I still find myself lucky in comparison to others because my work did get translated into English, French, Portuguese besides many Indian languages. My first voluminous novel Karmelin, which was written in 1979 and published in 1981 is to-date translated into as many as 14 languages. And I think it became instrumental in taking me to a wider readership across the country.

For some writers and poets, what happens is, by the time their work gets translated, they might have stopped writing. So, there is no more impetus in that. Also, in India, I believe it is difficult for a writer to make a living only by writing. Well, I didn’t make a living out of writing. It has been a passion for me. I was a voracious reader and that prompted me to take to writing. I am not a prolific writer. In total, I hardly have 25 books. I have only four novels and about six collections of stories besides other books. Of course, there are many on the way of publication.

PW: How did your family shape your writerly life?
Soon after my graduation in Mumbai, I returned to Goa to run my family shop. Soon thereafter, I got married. My shop demanded nine to ten hours a day of hard work. My wife, Shaila, realising that I was getting suffocated, started to attend to the shop and took a lot of burden off my shoulders, which gave me the time to write. During the early years, I would sit at night to write, particularly when everybody was asleep. My village wasn’t electrified then. So, I would write by lighting a kerosene lamp. I would complete a story in three to five hours. I completed Karmelin in a span of 20 days. At that time, I was away from home due to a health condition and Shaila supported me. She took care of the shop, the kids and brought me food. When I came back home, I had almost completed Karmelin.

PW: Can you give us a basic overview of modern Konkani literature? The major publications? Major authors, movements? You wrote a book on the subject.
Konkani literature is predominantly written in four scripts: Roman, Devanagari, Malayalam and Kannada. One good thing about Konkani writers is that they are abreast of the state of literature in India and abroad. Earlier, during the Portuguese regime, Goan writers had access to the best of Portuguese literature. Portuguese language literature was not up to the mark by the European standards, but the best of European literature was translated into Portuguese. For example, Stefan Zweig, the Austrian short story writer, was read by Goans long before he was read in India. Also, books in Marathi would reach our libraries where books from other Indian languages were available in translation. So, Goans were in touch with the best of literature. I read Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali books in Marathi. But that was when I was young.

Now, those Konkani writers who are in Karnataka, read the best in Kannada literature, those in Kerala read Malayalam and so they know what the latest trends in literature are. I find works of writers like Melvyn Rodrigues, HM Pernal, Antony Barkur, and many such writers to be very good. Unfortunately, their works are not widely translated. Many writers write in Konkani but in Kannada script. Similarly in Goa, my fellow writers like Mahabaleshwar Sail (who won the Saraswati Samman a few years ago), playwright Pundalik Naik, poet Madhav Borkar and many others who are my contemporary are the trendsetters in Konkani literature. Besides, young writers like Prakash Pariekar, Paresh Kamat, etc are out to prove their mettle.

There hasn’t been any particular literary movement as such. All Konkani writers are progressive-minded. They know the ongoing trends. They have been experimenting with their works. Writers like Mahabaleshwar Sail, Madhav Borkar and Pundalik Naik have played vital roles as trendsetters and their contributions are commendable.

PW: Can you give us a sense of the readership for the Konkani language?
Konkani has its own limitations and people are fully-aware of it. Goa was liberated in 1961. While the territory of Goa can be perceived as the body, the language can be its soul. The territory was liberated by and annexed to India, but the soul was kept out. The language needed to get its due. So, we had to struggle for it. There was victory at the end of the long struggle, all the credit for which goes to the writers. The government did not give the encouragement required. On the contrary, the language was suppressed because of the political ambitions of the neighbouring states. Maharashtra claimed Goa to be part of theirs as Konkani, to them, was a dialect of Marathi. We opposed the move and the language got its recognition as an independent literary language in 1975 and got included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India in 1992.

Once a language gets recognised, it is on par with the rest of the official languages, then you get an opportunity to prove yourself. This is the second Jnanpith Award for Konkani in the span of 30 years. Jnanpith might not be the criteria to evaluate the importance of the language literature, but it is significant for the language and its literature as it helps to craft a niche for itself. In such circumstances setting the bar high becomes vital when the writing is taken cognisance of at the national level.

In 1684, Konkani was completely banned by the Portuguese, even in speech. They passed a decree making the use of the Portuguese mandatory. As a result, Goans did not develop literature in Konkani. The penal actions against those who refuted the order were harsh. Marriages were not solemnised nor priesthood was ordained, no jobs nor education to those who did not speak Portuguese at home. It is to the credit of the people who kept the language alive, both Hindus and Catholics. Today, though Konkani is a lingua franca and de facto the official language of Goa, it is yet to get its rightful place in the administration and in the schools.

PW: What is the average print-run of a Konkani book? On an average how many books in Konkani are published in a year? 
My book, Karmelin, had a run of 1,100 copies, all sold. It was not reprinted. Today, on an average a print run is of 500 to 1,000, depending upon the writer and the genre. I believe about 250 books are being published annually now. Besides, many more are published in other scripts.

PW: We have seen this in regional languages across states that the younger generation can speak, but cannot read and write in the local language. It doesn’t bode well for the future of the language. In this context, how is Konkani faring?
It is a sad situation and there are several movements going on to save the languages, not only for Konkani but other languages like Malayalam as well. People are proud of their regional languages and we should make efforts to keep them vibrant. Talking about Malayalam, the number of Malayalam readers in our country is very high. An average Malayali might not read books, but he reads newspapers or magazines like Malayalam Manorama. Despite this state of affairs, there are some apprehensions about the future, because the English medium schools are running to their full strength and the number of students going to Malayalam medium schools is declining. The situation in Goa is even worse. It is unfortunate, but it is true.

PW: The government bodies and the publishers also have a role in promoting the local language. Is it happening in Konkani?
A vehement no. The government is not taking big steps to do what’s necessary. They only give lip service.

PW: Your works predominantly feature the Catholic community in Goa, including Karmelin, which won the Sahitya Akademi in 1983. Any specific reason?
I think every writer is influenced by his own place. The characters you find in my stories come from my neighbourhood or people who have an appeal for me. I live in Majorda, which is a predominantly Catholic area. I have grown and played with my Catholic friends, not because they are Catholic, but because they’re my friends. So, for me, they’re my people. And, if my story demands a character, I should provide the given ambiance. When I start writing a story, I only know the end since it is pre-conceived. And then I’ll start from the beginning.

I struggle with how to begin the story. It is similar to a bus journey I am taking. When I enter the bus, I know the destination, but I might not be aware of what’s to come in between. As the story progresses, the characters enter the stories and the story is taken to a logical end. The characters in the story might be inspired by someone whom I met, it might not be one person as a whole, but different traits of different people. It all depends on the requirements of the story. Because I am familiar with the lifestyle of the Christians around me, they appear in my stories inadvertently or as the need of the story.

PW: Were you critiqued any time for writing about a particular community?
Yes, it has happened a couple of times. It is unfortunate, but then the critics have been proved wrong by their own people. When Karmelin was being serialised in a periodical, a section of readers thought the Catholics were shown in a bad light because of the depiction of sexuality. Under the pressure, the publishers stopped serialising. But that was not to be. Later that year, a progressive-minded Catholic priest challenged them. He published the entire novel in his periodical. Later, the people realised their folly.

PW: In a recent interview, you mentioned that you pay attention to detail and try to be as perfect as possible. Please explain.
: I don’t mind leaving the story to the reader’s imagination. I like giving readers a scope so that they interpret the story in the right way. I won’t directly give them the plotline. I like ambiguity, but at the same time, I would not like to misguide them. For that, I must be well-equipped with all the details, only then I can be perfect. I let the readers draw their conclusion independently. I believe it is a trait of a good writer. 

PW: Your favourite books?
Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s Rajlakshmi; Vishwas Patil’s Zadazadati. I also enjoy reading Haruki Murakami’s work. I like the surrealism in his literature.

PW: What’s next?
Well, I will not stop. So, I don’t know for now. But recently, I have developed a habit of jotting down whenever I get some genesis. I have seeds for quite a few stories. I also plan to write a novel depicting the life of gays.  

PW: The Indian pantheon absorbs the cultures of others, and is a perfect metaphor for diversity today. The clash in this country is with mono-culturalists, and nationalists, who say they are defending their civilisation. How can writers combat this kind of fake news and hatred?
My activism itself is an answer to it. I do not tolerate any nonsense. One needs to voice against it. It is the duty of a writer to voice his thoughts and speak out. One should have a sense of conviction first.  
I think in India, we are not in that bad a situation. The pantheon is for inclusivity. It’s unfortunate that the media and some writers fall prey and prefer to keep mum. Writers’ duty is to point out the wrongs in society. You don’t have to hurt someone for that.

Freedom of speech needs to be cherished and we need to work hard in order to protect it. This situation does not prevail only in India, but across the world. See the conditions in our neighborhood Afghanistan, Myanmar, China, and Ukraine. Time will heal things, and things will change for better. I am hopeful about the future. I have full faith in our Constitution that has awarded us the four basic fundamental rights: to Justice, to Liberty, to Equality and to Fraternity. Let us adhere to them.