“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1929
In the present age of anxiety, the voice of dissent often expresses anger. However, unwavering resistance to oppression of any kind can succeed only through dialogue; one ingrained in empathy. Jnanpith awardee, short story writer Damodar Mauzo is a quintessential embodiment of that dialogic imagination. Born in Portuguese Goa, Mauzo studied in Bombay and returned to his hometown and to the family’s shop which he took over. Living among mostly Catholic Goans, he writes about them with his trademark empathy, which is not without critique. Yet that critique is held in a broader empathetic embrace.
Mauzo’s notable works include Ganthon (1971), Karmelin (1983), Tsunami Simon (1996), Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa (2014) and the latest translation of some of his short stories into English as The Wait and Other Stories, 2022. His stories are inspired by the everyday life of regular Goan men and women. His voice is fearless and kind, sharp and persuasive. In a career spanning more than sixty years, Mauzo has received numerous literary accolades. His works have been translated into more than fourteen languages. Mauzo was invited to the Hyderabad Literary Festival this year as the chief guest. ‘Konkani’ was the Indian language in focus at the festival.
I had the opportunity to spend an evening in Mauzo’s pleasant, gentle company and that of Shaila, his wife. Literary festivals are expended in a frenzy of talks, performances and readings. The nights are more relaxed. As Joyce Carol Oates puts it, at night, only the lamp lights the page of the book and the outside world becomes ‘deliciously small.’ In the sleepy wakefulness, words show what the day cannot. Thus, meeting an author under starlight was an assured route to a maningful conversation.
Mauzo’s engagement with my own writerly dilemmas was as gracious as it was frank. I told him about my poem ‘Under the Peepal Tree’ based on the experiences of Covid-19 patients who lay under peepal (fig ) trees believing that they would receive a constant and inexpensive flow of oxygen. I expressed my dilemma of balancing the purpose and aesthetic appeal of the poem. I invested hours trying to decipher if the poem was both artistic and effective enough to trouble the reader.
Mauzo’s advice was an emphatic dismissal of self-doubt. “One must say what one has to say,” he says. All work is ‘work-in-progress’ and a writer will eventually get there but there’s no point in continuously scrutinising one’s writing for the sake of the reader. Often, writers themselves are the biggest doubters of their own talent. Mauzo believes that one needs to swim out of the tides of disbelief and dedicate time to sustained writing habits, without expecting rewards. This is the only way a writer can produce his or her best work.
Would this mean a conscious dissociation from a salaried job or a business? A string of questions shaped my further conversation with Mauzo. Would it be possible to have a policy that would recognise writers and poets as full-time professionals? Would academic institutions open up posts for writers with a steady flow of scholarship or stipend? Mauzo, like all good writers, is hopeful. He believes that a healthy writing culture, including constructive literary criticism, will grow in the future. But his own practice combines running a store and writing. Indeed, his inspiration has come from the regulars who visit his store and then enter his stories.
Apart from being a prominent literary figure, Mauzo is also an activist. He has striven, for years, to preserve the cultural distinctiveness of Goa. His life as a public intellectual, a preserver and seeker of knowledge, revolves not only around literary personalities but common people at large. Whether it was the fight for statehood in Goa, to have Konkani recognised as an official language or, more recently, for free speech (which earned him death threats from the rightwing forces that have murdered many writers and free thinkers along the Western coast), Mauzo has stood firm in his belief that all writers are activists. Indeed, his most powerful activism is in his writing which deals with a range from the environmental issues that plague Goa as state to the lives of the benighted Catholic community in which he lives.
Shaila was kind in sharing details about their everyday life, their gradual transition from the fast-paced life of Mumbai to the relaxed spirit of Goa. I am often curious about the partner of a writer or an artist. How do they fit into the life of the writer? Shaila’s answer is simple, “I have always enjoyed my own routine; family, children and the shop.” She understands that her partner requires isolation. Hence, they both insist on spending quality time with each other, even if it is brief. This has been the key to their partnership. Their love for Goa and a home that smells like Goan fish curry may have been marred by security that Mauzo now has because of the death threats but Mauzo is unfazed and sticks to the quiet fundamentals both in his life and in his writing.
Mauzo does detailed research for his writing. For his classic novel, Karmelin, about a Catholic woman in the Gulf (many poor Goan Catholics migrated to the Gulf for work) for which he won the Sahitya Akademi award, he interviewed scores of people, took detailed notes. There is an ethnographic fidelity to his writing. He writes what he sees and what he hears and the quiet ironies of ordinary lives shine through. He chronicles the complexities of people’s lives, the contradictions, warts and all but it is with that gentle empathy. This is the world he grew up in, the life he has led and his account of it is bathed in love for it.
No theme or area is taboo for Mauzo. For example, he is unafraid to write about sexual pleasure or sexual abuse and he has been subjected to the outrage of offended Catholics in the past. But he is one of them and his empathy won them, and wins the reader, over in the end. Nothing is loud or posturing or for effect in his writing. He follows Ezra Pound’s poetic dictum of showing rather than telling and he does not fear the repercussions.
Mauzo’s quiet empathy, his firm, unwavering fidelity to the world around him and his refusal to shy away from positions when they need to be taken make him a most unusual writer in contemporary India.
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Energy of Empathy")
(Views expressed are personal)
Jhilam Chattaraj is an academic and a poet based in hyderabad