The Survival Of Memory

Dharmanand Kosambi and other Goa saints
The Survival Of Memory
The Survival Of Memory

Sancoale seemed similar yet different from many other villages in Goa. Spread across a couple of hills, its traditional houses nestling near the edges of forested tracts were like those that grace the rural landscape elsewhere. Mercifully, because of its interior loc­ation, far from the sand and surf, the fluorescent yellow flats that have come up in many Goan villages were missing here.

Although, what has brought me to Sancoale had nothing to do with the pure physical beauty it incarnates. I came here because I had read that Dharmanand Kosambi was born in this village in 1876. It was from Sancoale that this self-taught scholar-sage scripted for himself ‘a trajectory of intellectual and ideological adventure’ that transported him in search of knowledge about Buddhism to various places in India, Nepal, Ceylon, Burma, Russia and America. Also, his historian son depicted Goa in his writings, from its village community to old churches. So, for people who dig history, Sancoale has a kind of incantatory resonance attached to its name. And the Kosambis are the main reason for that.

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Their old home is still standing, with a forest in its vicinity and a flat valley of fields in its frontage. I gazed at the surrounding vegetation, with the coconut trees particularly catching my sight; a reminder of the grove that Dharmanand had tended as a teenager. As a youngster, his main job there was ‘to protect the coconuts from monkeys and thieves’. Looking at the landscape of his childhood, it struck me that Dharmanand’s autobiography Nivedan could have been subtitled ‘From Coconut Groves to Wide(ne)r Vistas’. Dharmanand’s memoir shows us an astonishing transition, almost certainly without parallel in Indian academic life: a young village boy with no English education chasing away primates, growing to become the great Pali scholar of his days who edited Buddhaghosha’s Visuddhimagga in the environs of Harvard’s Widener Library.

Three other things struck me about the village of Sancoale and the remembrance of its people.

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First, there is no material pointer to the fact that the Kosambis used to live here. The house is now the Sancoale Ashram of the Sahaj Marg Spirituality Foundation, presumably given to it by a part of the Kosambi family. Neither the family nor the foundation has thought it was necessary to put up signage indicating: ‘Dharmanand was born and brought up here’. I am sure earlier academic pilgrims have felt saddened by this saintly forefather of ours having simply been forgotten in his own hometown; or will feel so if they visit.

Second, Sancoale actually produced two saints–the word saint being used here only as a figure of speech. Dharmanand’s predecessor in the holiness stakes was Joseph Vaz, born in the middle of the 17th century. Vaz is remembered for his travails and travels in Sri Lanka; he apparently saved the Christians from being persecuted by the Dutch and has long been regarded as a founding father of the Church in Sri Lanka. Many books have been written about him. In 1995, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Unlike Dharmanand, the first saint’s memory is alive and well in Sancoale. A big church was named after him, a small museum illustrates his life and a surviving room in the house he lived in carries the chronology of the man’s history. Judging by the story of the saints from Sancoale, it looks like in India, unless you’re a Tagore, a Gandhi or a Nehru, only religion will be enough to save you from the oblivion that will inevitably strike our collective memory.

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And third, Dharmanand, who connected to the work of Joseph Vaz, got his facts wrong. While speaking of his service to Roman Catholicism in Ceylon during the Portuguese colonial era, he said Vaz “could not have imagined that, at the time, a young aspirant from his native village would undergo ordeals to reach Ceylon to study the religion which he [Vaz] had taken such pains and endured such adversities to destroy”. Vaz’s mission had little to do with the Portuguese and his relationship with the Buddhist kingdom of Kandy, which is part of local lore there, was actually very cordial.

In more ways than one, when the remembrance of things past is juxtaposed with the dying memories that are left on the ground in Sancoale, the collapse of the bridge that fails to connect the bygone days to our modern times appears with an awkward and alarming clarity.

Historian Nayanjot Lahiri, who teaches at Delhi University, won the Infosys Prize, 2013, for Humanities (Archaeology)

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