Wednesday 18 September 2019

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Society | Diaspora

Goans settled abroad will come searching for Konkani

 

Sheela Kolambkar (Photo: Rajendra Gawankar | DNA)

There is a self-assuredness about Konkani writer Sheela Kolambkar that instantly puts people at ease. I first met Kolambkar in Kochi, where she was one of the seven regional writers to receive the 2012 Tagore Literature Award, given out by Samsung and Sahitya Akademi.

She almost whooped with delight when I spoke to her in Marathi. “It’s good to hear a familiar language so far down south,” she said.

She had to rush on to the stage for the ceremony, but I promised to catch up with her back home in Mumbai.

A week later I made my way to her home in Mulund. “I wore a nice sari, since you were getting a photographer,” Kolambkar says, laughing irreverently.

Her own point of view       
As we settle down to talk about her work, she tells me that she was surrounded by books while growing up in Portuguese-ruled Goa. Whether at home, school or at the Central Library in Panaji, “I read anything I could get my hands on — novels, short stories, essays”.

She especially enjoyed the translated works of Bengali writer Shankar. “I was impressed by Chaurangi, which is so close to real life.”

Kolambkar says she was encouraged to write by one of her professors in college. “He told us that writing is like looking through a kaleidoscope. Shift your position and the view changes. He stressed on developing a personal point of view.”

This is a maxim Kolambkar follows to this day.

Guerra, the short story that brought her under the spotlight, gives a view of Goa when the Portuguese were withdrawing. Overnight, several friendships were broken as some Christian families chose to leave for Portugal. This forms the basis for her story.

In other stories, she brings to the fore women’s issues. In Hanv Vanjud Nhai (I Am Not Barren), Kolambkar has fictionalised a true story of a girl who was married to a man, but not allowed to sleep with him because a local guru recommends that the couple shouldn’t bear a child for the first two years of their marriage.

‘No substitute for certain words’
Kolambkar first started writing in Marathi. “Under the Portuguese rule, Konkani was considered a servant’s language. Though I spoke Konkani, it never occurred to me to write in the language.”

While writing one of her stories, Kolambkar found herself describing a scene in Goa where a character says ‘Aitar Fulailo’ (I had a great Sunday). “It’s a phrase that’s so uniquely Konkani, I couldn’t find any words in Marathi. That’s when it struck me that my thoughts were Konkani. I gave up writing stories in Marathi that day.”

Writing in Konkani has been the key to expressing herself in the truest sense, says Kolambkar. “The Konkani word ‘Othambe’ — droplets that fall off tree leaves and roofs after the rain has stopped — has no substitute in Marathi or any other language. Then are the local trees and fish, which have only Konkani names.”

“I realised then that the attempt to preserve regional languages isn’t about something abstract like culture. It’s about preserving words that are used to describe real things that may not have a substitute in more popular languages.”

The language with five scripts
While the impact of English’s popularity on regional languages is often highlighted, the dominance of major regional languages over dialects, especially in literature, is lesser known.

Konkani, which was recognised as a major Indian regional language only in 1992, is written in five scripts — Devnagri, Kannada, Malayalam, Arabic and Roman. (Devnagri is recognised as the official Konkani script by the Sahitya Akademi.)

“During the Portuguese inquisition, Goans spread out of the state. They spoke Konkani in the kitchen and adopted whatever local language was spoken outside. As a result, there are Konkani stories written in Malayalam script, which readers in Goa have no clue of. And the Konkani spoken in Gujarat seems frozen in time. It has so many Portuguese terms. In Goa, the Portuguese terms have faded away from popular use.”

But Kolambkar is surprisingly positive about regional languages.

“People keep saying that regional languages will die out. But I don’t think that is going to happen. Those who learn English get degrees and go abroad for better prospects. In the West, knowing your roots is so important. One day, all those who have settled abroad will want to know more about where they originally hail from. And when that day comes, we need to make sure we have written enough good stories to keep them hooked.”

(Courtesy: DNA, Mumbai)






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