‘Rescuing a River Breeze’: A joyful romp through mid-20th century Goa

It is not easy writing historical fiction. Histories are often contested, pivotal points in time viewed from entirely different loyalties lead to entirely different perspectives. It is almost an impossible task to weave these disparate threads into a single narrative, but Mrinalini Harchandrai’s novel Rescuing a River Breeze manages to navigate the minefield with grace and agility.

In December 1961, the Indian army advanced into Goa and claimed the territory as part of the Indian Republic. By then, Goa had been colonised by the Portuguese for four and half centuries and the long durée had produced a society caught been two worlds – that of Europe and South Asia. Much of Goan Catholic society had morphed into a hybrid that felt culturally distanced from heartland India. They had been severed by religion, by language, by their sense of loyalty to Portugal. They recognised very little in themselves as part of India. But it was not just Goan Catholics that had been transformed, there were other loyalties forged in the crucible of capitalist considerations. Mining leases granted by the Portuguese government had been taken up by dominant Hindu families, creating a creamy, privileged layer of Hindu Goans who felt their interests may better be served by Portugal.

The Quarachim family

Harchandrai’s novel visits these issues without becoming suffocatingly political. Its central focus is on the Quarachim family, caught up in the maelstrom of unfolding events. The father Deepak is arrested, either rightly or wrongly accused of malfeasance. The Quarachim have their own personal history, they are survivors of India’s partition and carry its trauma as muscle memory, their name a corruption of their native city Karachi, now rounded off with Portuguese vowels. Deepak owns a mine, he lives in Panjim with his wife and family, they rub shoulders with Panjim’s affluent set. He also owns Loja Mamtu selling all the imported foreign luxuries to which elite Goans have become addicted to “batteries and saris from Japan, scented talcum powders and tinned biscuits from England.” Much of the conversation in Goan homes revolved around how this life of luxury, which in reality very few Goans could afford, would vanish into the night if India invaded Goa. Wherever their personal sympathies lie, Deepak’s arrest by the dreaded Agente Monteiro tears apart the near-idyllic existence of the Quarachim family.

Despite being a precarious time, the eldest daughter Shirly is otherwise occupied. She is no longer Daddy’s little girl longing for ice cream, she is budding into a young woman, blushingly aware of the young men around her, one, in particular, the precocious João Araujo, brother of her friend Ana. In many ways, the Portuguese family Araujo provides a cultural counterpoint to the Quarachim family. Shirly is fascinated by their lifestyle, their love of music and entertaining. She finds her own guarded distance dissolving as her friendship with Ana deepens, her feelings for João grow in urgency, and her admiration for their mother Lisette blossoms. It is the sort of human bonding which transcends barriers.

The Araujos’ gardener, Mushu carrying the burden of caste, is also much in admiration of the Araujos, convinced, “the White people were not just good people, they were his angels. As long as they remained in Goa, there was hope yet.” This perhaps was the paradox many people besides Mushu faced at the time – a paradox which split Goan loyalties into three camps. A freedom movement emerging from Bombay’s docklands with nationalist sympathies that lay with the Indian National Congress, those who saw themselves as Portuguese and wished to remain so, and a faction who wished in earnest Goa would be allowed to hold a plebiscite and chart its own non-affiliated future.

Life in Goa

Harchandrai’s novel is a layered work. The first thing to strike the reader is the exquisite detail capturing the canvas of Goa’s cultural topography, the fisherwomen vending fish, the baker “holding out his wares in an open, cloth-lined basket,” descriptions of houses “lined up gloriously with their red-tiled roofs, shell-encrusted window shutters and lacy grill-work balcões”, “delicious afternoon siesta”, “purple and pink bougainvillaea” hedges, four-poster beds, convent schools and music recitals. One could turn to any page in the book and there will be a description which is intimate and derived from careful observation.

The other aspect which is extraordinary in its accuracy is the description of Goa’s topography, Panjim’s gridlines of main streets and arteries, the Mandovi River, the Idalcao palace, the Abbe Faria statue, then spreading outwards to Fort Aguada and further afield, the “neon paddy fields, hilly backgrounds, scattered villages, rivulets, mint-white crosses and bright, chalky churches,” leading to the iron-rich red earth of the mining belt.

Lastly, there is the history seamlessly absorbed into the narrative. Harchandrai’s research into the period is quite exhaustive. One example will suffice to illustrate the depth of her enquiry. Shirly and Ana’s school, Our Lady of the Ocean of Providence Convent School is housed in a villa converted by Franciscan nuns. This is exactly how schools sprung up in Goa, verandahs, spare rooms, or ruinous church halls, with the help of a benefactor or two became fledgling classrooms and then schools.

Largely, the book is a joyful romp through mid-20th century Goa. Harchandrai is an acclaimed poet and she deftly brings this to her prose, in the sentences she crafts, the exquisite details she renders, the emotions she evokes, and the characters she draws. Harchandrai’s love for Goa comes through every word of this novel, a reminder that there exists a Shirly across time who stands up to oppressors, be they military or environmental.

Selma Carvalho is the author of Sisterhood of Swans and Notes on a Marriage published by Speaking Tiger Books.

Rescuing a River Breeze, Mrinalini Harchandrai, Bloomsbury India.

Crime Today News | INDIA

Powered by Yes Mom Hosting

Crime Today News

Welcome to Crime Today News, your trusted source for timely and unbiased news coverage. Since our inception in 2014, we have been dedicated to delivering the latest updates to our valued readers and viewers across Telangana.

Related Posts