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Paul Melo e Castro
Silva Coelho’s Portuguese Short Stories
Paul Castro

Musician. Painting by Vamona Navelcar

José da Silva Coelho’s Satirical Voice in the Context of the Portuguese-language Goan Short Story

José da Silva Coelho (1889-1944) was both the most prolific Goan short-story writer in Portuguese and, perhaps, the one to be most completely forgotten by posterity. In the 1920s, when he published around 50 of his short satirical narratives in the Goan press, mainly in a column entitled Contos Regionais [Regional Stories], Silva Coelho attained popularity and notoriety with his mordant takes on the social landscape of Goa under the First Republic. This period was a time of economic turbulence yet also a certain social dynamism and Silva Coelho’s stories remain today key documents to its tensions, mores and concerns.

Whilst these “Contos Regionais” stories caused a degree of shock amongst the reading public of its time (and, according to Portuguese critic Manuel de Seabra, inspired a slew of epigones), they did not appear out of the blue. By the time Silva Coelho came to short-story writing, Goan literature in Portuguese had developed the rudiments of a tradition that can be seen as having paved the way for the author’s appearance. In the nineteenth century, writers such as Júlio Gonçalves and Wenceslau Proença laid the foundation for the Lusophone Goan short story with narratives published in, respectively, the Ilustração Goana and A Índia Portuguesa in the 1860s. En passant, it should be said that the close connection that often exists between the short story and print (and later broadcast) media hold true for Goa, was established here and continued over the course of the colonial and immediate post-colonial period due to the territory’s weak literary system. Under the influence of European Romanticism, in particular, authors such as Alexandre Herculano and and Camilo Castelo-Branco, Gonçalves and Proença adopted a dramatic, often sensational, tone. In “O Fantasma” [The Ghost] Gonçalves tells a ghost story set partly upon the Ponte Conde de Linhares and in “O Menino do Monte” [The Boy from the Hill] he relates a case of child kidnap. Proença, in his turn, tells the case of a hoax in “O Marido da Mulher Casada” [The Married Woman’s Husband] and dishonour in “Uma Golfada de Sangue” [A Spurt of Blood]. The innovation of these writers was their turn to settings, figures and folklore drawn from and set in the local Goan scene.

Though this first wave of stories did at times have a critical edge, it was with the appearance of GIP, the penname of Francisco João da Costa (1864 –1901), and his writing influenced by the satiric realism of Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz, that a more oppositional strand of writing emerged. In his well-known work Jacob e Dulce (serialised between 1894 and 1895, published in book form in 1896), Costa, via the portrayal of an arranged marriage, critiqued the frippery and foibles of the Goan Catholic bourgeoisie in a manner that, according to the work’s English translator Álvaro da Costa, still has purchase today.

It is a moot point whether Silva Coelho was directly influenced by Costa or if he merely drew upon the shared example of Queiroz. Where Silva Coelho does decisively depart from his local predecessor is in the varied panorama of 1920s Goan society to be found in his fiction. Whereas Costa focuses on the Catholic bourgeoisie to which both writers belonged, Silva Coelho expands his range to include not only the lawyers, doctors, civil servants, councillors, primary school teachers, bhatkars and clergymen that formed what we might term upper-caste Indo-Portuguese society but also figures drawn from the English-speaking middle class, both in Goa and Bombay, as well as characters from the lower ranks, ayahs, fishwives, coachmen and temple dancers amongst others. Silva Coelho is notable for setting his stories not just in the Old Conquests (though, unlike Costa, whose Jacob e Dulce takes place in a thinly disguised Margão, Coelho never set any of his stories in that town), but also in the New Conquests, where he resided and worked as a notary.

According to Manuel de Seabra, Silva Coelho’s last short story dates from 1931. It is symbolic perhaps, for an author who depicted Goa under the First Republic so well, that the end of Silva Coelho’s writing career coincides with the rise of the Estado Novo. This period would prove to be particularly inimical to Portuguese-language literature in Goa. Practically the only writer of note in the short story genre to appear during these years was Ananta Rau Sar Dessai.

Sar Dessai (1910 - ?) was a doctor based in Mardol, a profession and a location that informed many of his narratives. One of the few Hindus to have used Portuguese as a medium for literary expression, Sar Dessai was mainly a radio playwright, but also a writer of short stories, some of which were broadcast over the radio or published in communist-leaning A Luta after 1961.

Unfortunately, as he was rarely published in the main Portuguese-langauge Goan papers, most of Sar Dessai’s texts have not been collected. He bears some comparison to Silva Coelho: both effect similar man-about-town, dandified narratorial personae, and in the work of both authors, under an occasionally frivolous surface, parallel sarcastic attacks on the conceit and injustice present in colonial Goan society can be detected. A good example is Sar Dessai’s “Vaxina, a mim também façam um pouco de Vaxina” [Vaxine, give me some Vaxine too]. It is a broadside against the attitudes of the Goan elite, dealing with caste division and the indifference of the powerful to the suffering of the poor. The main figure Fulú Gaudi, who has been exposed to cholera, desperately tries to find a doctor who will give her some “vaxina” but is shoed away at every turn. She dies, though not before needlessly infecting a number of other people. Alongside their hagiographic descriptions of the local doctors, the local Goan papers express the opinion that these men of medicine:

não podiam entreter-se ou divertir-se perdendo o seu precioso tempo nestas populações de analfabetos begarins ou proletários, pois tinham de salvar as vidas mais importantes que constituem a riqueza nacional em Cundaim, Marcaim, Priol e Velinga, aldeias cheias de ricos batcarás, muitos deles instruídos [couldn’t occupy or entertain themselves with wasting their precious time on this rabble of illiterate begarins or proletariats, for they had to save the more important lives that make up our national treasure in Cundaim, Marcaim, Priol and Velinga, villages full of rich bhatkars, many of whom are educated] (Sar Dessai, 1971: 286).

It is perhaps no surprise that Sar Dessai’s narratives were rarely accorded space in the principal Portuguese-language newspapers of Goa…

The demise of Portuguese rule in 1961 gave a fillip to the Portuguese-language short story, even as vast social changes in Goa led to the progressive disappearance of this language. In Portugal Vimala Devi was inspired to write Monção, which appeared in 1963. This short-story sequence, which is set in the pre-1961 world, shares José da Silva Coelho’s aim to portray not just the Catholic bourgeoisie but other Hindu and non-elite social echelons. It is, however, in the stories that feature the batcarato of the Old Conquests that Devi approximates Silva Coelho’s mordant style. The best example is perhaps “O Genro-Comensal”, which portrays the marriage between Franjoão, a middle-aged Brahmin who has returned penniless from Mozambique, a man of whom “não se podia dizer que fosse obeso, mas como era baixito e a calva tinha aumentado muito, parecia mais redonondo que na realidade” (Devi, 2003: 36) [you couldn’t say he was obese, but since he was rather short, and his hair had receded, he seemed rounder than he actually was] and Teodolinda, one of the spinsterish but wealthy Fonseca sisters of Margão, the others being the hatchet-faced eldest Soledade, Dejanira and Claudina “com quarenta anos feitos, magrita e anémica, toda ela suspiros, arrotos e ladainhas a Santo António” [forty-something, an anaemic bag of skin and bone, all signs, burps and litanies to Saint Anthony] (Devi, 2003: 31). The story pillories their haughty, castist attitudes, the manner in which “as velhas tradições continuam a manter-se, os orgulhos a alimentar-se, as prosápias a enaltacer-se” [their old traditions are still maintained, their pride still fed, their bumptiousness still exalted], and their way of life which they cleave to even as their respective family lines almost die out. Other writers in Portuguese, such as Maria Elsa da Rocha and Epitácio Pais, emerged in Goa at this time, and published their work either in what remained of the Portuguese-language press or via the Renascença programme of All-India Radio, but their tales, respectively, are more lyrical and dramatic than satiric.

The final writer to bear some comparison to José da Silva Coelho is Augusto do Rosário Rodrigues (1911- ?). Rosário Rodrigues wrote his stories in the 1970s and early 1980s, publishing some in the ailing Portuguese-language version of O Heraldo. Rosário Rodrigues’s stories were collected and published in 1987, under a title, “Contos Regionais”, that recalls Silva Coelho’s column in O Heraldo of sixty years previous. The author’s stories range back and forth across the last hundred and fifty years of colonial rule and are often more comic than condemnatory, though several do have a sharp satirical edge. Of course, if Silva Coelho, like GIP, had the aim that ‘ridendo castigat mores’ of contemporary society, what Rosário Rodrigues provides is a wry look at Goa’s past. A fine example is the story “O Capitão Tarimbeiro”, the story of a village boy’s rise through the ranks of the army until becoming captain in 1908 and then retiring to join the bourgeoisie of Pangim in what Rosário Rodrigues cheekily rebaptises the Bairro Alto dos Piratas (rather than Pilotos). Along the way, the author satirizes both local confusion and Portuguese provinciality, with the treatment of each theme hitting a variety of targets. When the protagonist Silveira joins the army and is unable to distinguish whether the metropolitan sergeant is saying “três” (three) or “treze“ (thirteen), and receives a kick to the backside for his misunderstanding, the “Luso-Goan” officer comforts him by saying “arê babá, té paclé burro pita sur, te soglé botaté”. Later, once Silveira speaks Portuguese and is more or less literate, he finds himself called upon to write a letter. He has no idea where to put commas and so asks “um furriel europeu, exímio guitarrista, autor de letras para fados, enfim a sumidade literária da tropa” [a European corporal, a fine guitar player and author of fado lyrics, in all the literary eminence amongst the troops] the who merely shrugs and replies: “Vosmecês, cá em Goa, ligam muito às gramáticas. Nós, na nossa terra, pômos no papel o que interessa e fechamos com uma ponto…” [You folks here in Goa get really het up about grammatics. In our land we just put the main things down on paper and put a full stop…]. In a story set in Silva Coelho’s world, it’s an exchange Silva Coelho himself could have written.

In the present volume of Muse India I present “To Love is To Suffer” of 1926. Unlike the majority of Silva Coelho’s texts it was published not in O Heraldo but in A Província (a republican paper founded in Angola in 1914 and transferred to Goa in 1920), perhaps due to its slightly risqué plot. As in all of Silva Coelho’s stories, there is in “To Love is to Suffer” an appraisal of contemporary Goan conditions. Here it is the world of Goa’s limited administrative autonomy, which was granted in 1914. Like the great Goan journalist Fanchu Loyola, Coelho does not take exception to the idea of autonomy, but its practice, its high taxes and spendthrift policies. Between the lines of “To Love is to Suffer” is critiqued a world of inefficient bureaucracy, a hierarchy that discourages merit, and a cadre for whom “getting on” is not a question of performing ever better in their work and being rewarded for it, but uncovering a cache of banknotes from the Banco Nacional Ultramarino in the folds of the skirt of their beloved….

Works Cited
Costa, Francisco João de (GIP). 1974, Jacob e Dulce: Scenas da Vida Indiana, 3~rd Edn., Goa, Tipografia Sandananda.

  • Devi, Vimala. 2003. Monção. 2nd Edn,, Lisbon: Editor.
  • Gonçalves, Júlio. 1971, ‘O Fantasma’ in A Literatura Indo-Portuguesa (eds. Vimala Devi and Manuel de Seabra), Junta de Investigações do Ultramar, Lisbon, pp.47-53.
  • Gonçalves, Júlio. 1971, ‘O Pequeno do Monte’ in A Literatura Indo-Portuguesa (eds. Vimala Devi and Manuel de Seabra), Junta de Investigações do Ultramar, Lisbon, pp.53-58.
  • Proença, Wenceslau. 1867, ‘Marido de Mulher Casada’ in A Índia Portuguesa, 16 Jan.
  • Proença, Wenceslau. 1867, ‘Uma Golfada de Sangue’ in A Índia Portuguesa, 16 and 30~ Oct.
  • Rosário Rodrigues, Augusto. 1982, ‘O Capitão Tarimbeiro’, O Heraldo, 17 Aug.
  • Sar Dessai, Ananta Rau. 1971, ‘Vaxina, a mim também façam um pouco de Vaxina’ in A Literatura Indo-Portuguesa (eds. Vimala Devi and Manuel de Seabra), Junta de Investigações do Ultramar, Lisbon, pp.280-290.
  • Silva Coelho, José da Silva. 1926, “Amar é Sofrer”. A Província


Issue 50 (Jul-Aug 2013)

focus Goan Literature
  • Editorial
    • Brian Mendonça : Editorial Comment
  • Article(s)
    • Akshata Bhatt : Damodar Mauzo’s Short Stories
    • Anita Pinto : For Children, Of Children, By Children
    • Ben Antao : Goan Literature in English
    • Isabel Vas : Theatre in English in Goa
    • Jessica Faleiro : 'Afterlife', a Journey in Writing
    • Kiran Budkuley : Modern Konkani Classics
    • Nafisa Oliveira : Ana Mhambro’s Comic Devices
    • Olivia Christine Lukes : Pagan’s Search for her Goan Roots
    • Paul Castro : Silva Coelho’s Portuguese Short Stories
    • R Benedito Ferrão : Thinking Goa Postcolonially
    • R Benedito Ferrão : Vamona Navelcar as Performance Artist
    • Rajan Barrett : Dalit and Muslim Goan Literature
    • Sudeshna Kar Barua : Joseph Furtado’s Poetry
    • Vidya Pai : Mahabaleshwar Sail’s 'Yug Sanvaar'
    • Vidya Pai : Translating Konkani
  • In Conversation
    • Damodar Mauzo : In Conversation
    • Margaret Mascarenhas : In Conversation
  • Perspective
    • Teresa Albuquerque
  • Short Fiction
    • Alexandre Moniz Barbosa : ‘Mangoes for Gabru’
    • Ben Antao : 'Star-crossed lovers'
    • Cordelia Francis : ‘In Limber Times’
    • José da Silva Coelho : ‘To Love Is To Suffer’ (1926)
    • Pundalik Naik : ‘The Palm Tree’
  • Poetry
    • Albertina Almeida
    • Brian Mendonça
    • Christal Ferrao
    • Ethel Da Costa
    • José Lourenço
    • Joseph Furtado
    • Margaret Mascarenhas
    • Mary Mendes
    • Tanya Mendonsa
    • Walter Menezes
  • Novels (Excerpts)
    • Belinda Viegas : Excerpts from 3 Novels
    • Savia Viegas : Excerpt from a Novel
  • Book Review(s)
    • Dale Luis Menezes : 'Handbag'
    • Sheela Jaywant : 'Stray Mango Branches ...'
  • Play
    • Isabel Vas : ‘Playing with the Eye of the Dragon’