BOOK REVIEW: The Tailor's Daughter by Ben Antao
Reviewed by Cornel DaCosta on www.goanet.org
Wed Oct 1
[To obtain a copy go to our Goan Books Section click here for the link]
Power and intrigue in personal relations in Goa. A review of Ben Antao's "The Tailor's Daughter" by Cornel DaCosta. Because of a substantial academic background in sociology and education, I have inevitably been drawn to issues relating to macro and micro power relations in societies. One aspect of this interest has focused on the Hindu caste system and how it has penetrated, to varied degrees, other religions like Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, and Roman Catholicism that essentially reject the concept and practice of caste. Consequently, I have written extensively, in cyberspace and elsewhere, about the significance of caste to caste adherents among Roman Catholics in Goa. Their caste hegemony has been effective for almost half a millennium, despite conversion to Catholicism in the period of Portuguese colonialism and beyond in Goa.
The key emphasis in my writings has been that Roman Catholic and Hindu caste beliefs are entirely incompatible as ideologies and religious belief systems and cannot be sustained simultaneously by individuals. Furthermore, at root there is no caste in Roman Catholicism. Notwithstanding this unassailable argument, the Catholic Church in Goa has been hand in glove with caste for generations. The existence of such hypocrisy is well known in the literature and everyday life in Goa.
The novel, The Tailor's Daughter by Ben Antao, is largely about the enigma of caste among those proclaiming to be Catholic practitioners in Goa. The story is primarily one of entangled human emotions but at a deeper end there is a profound exploration into the complexity of relationships between people separated by proclaimed caste differences. In this scenario, the dominant characters in the novel are the tailor's daughter, Eliza, who in Goan circles would be deemed to be of low caste, and Jorge, the son of a landowner, deemed to be of the upper caste. Nevertheless, accidental contact has led them to become romantically involved and there is much in the novel about intrigue and strategy within such a romantic association.
Eliza is quickly besotted with Jorge and sees him as a potential husband to be taken by her and her family to Nairobi, Kenya, to a new life there. In turn, Jorge appears to be fascinated by Eliza and there is a hint, even if given fleetingly, that a marriage on his part to Eliza is a consideration.
Fairly soon, however, the greater force of caste triumphs and Eliza is discarded, as are many of Jorge's previous romantic and sexual conquests of young lower caste Catholic women.
In the novel, Eliza travels to Goa from Nairobi where her parents run a flourishing tailoring business. That she should learn tailoring professionally does not seem surprising; she enrolls at a tailoring school in Margao, the commercial capital of Goa-a place known well to me. The tailoring school is run by Senhora Lopes, a kindly older lady who takes Eliza under her wing professionally but also as her mentor and landlady.
At this stage, Eliza is already romantically associated with Diogo in Nairobi who has been enamoured by her and writes to her in Goa for her hand in marriage on her return to Kenya within the year. Diogo's letter reaches Eliza at almost the same time that Jorge pays much attention to Eliza in Goa and takes her to a number of socials and introduces her to his many friends and acquaintances. Soon, Eliza feels convinced that Jorge loves her and they engage in pleasurable sex as often as possible. Indeed, she informs her parents in Nairobi that Jorge is now very much part of her life and likely to join her in Nairobi on her return to the city. To be sure, she has no hesitation in proclaiming her love for Jorge and, understandably, expects Jorge to reciprocate the sentiment. But she has to drag out his statement of love for her with much effort!In time, Eliza senses that Jorge is more interested in her sexually than emotionally and notes a certain cooling off in his ardour towards her. In turn, Jorge attributes minor and temporary setbacks in their relationship to the illness of his widowed father for whom he owes a duty of care. At first, Eliza accepts Jorge's story but after a while decides to meet Jorge's father and explore to what extent Jorge has been truthful.
She makes her way, unannounced, to Jorge's father's home. Neither Jorge nor his father is at home but she befriends and is befriended by the maid servant at the house. It soon becomes clear that the maid servant is keen to help Eliza with a view to eventually being taken by her to Nairobi to work in Eliza's and Jorge's household following a marriage.
When Jorge's ardour for Eliza clearly cools significantly and he finds many reasons not to meet her as often as he had done in the past, Eliza decides to propose marriage to him and indicates that her parents would help him financially to establish himself in Nairobi. However, it becomes clear that such a proposition is not immediately attractive to Jorge. His view is that his elderly father, in poor health, would need him in Goa for medical support but also to manage their productive agricultural lands and other properties that the family owned.
By now, Eliza realises that she has to use more drastic means of persuasion to win her man in Goa but without writing off Diogo in Nairobi. She writes a warm but non-committal reply to Diogo and proceeds to meet up with Jorge's allegedly sick father who, while being civil to her, makes it clear that he did not particularly welcome her overtures to Jorge nor her idea of taking him to Nairobi following a marriage. Earlier, Eliza had been alerted by Senhora Lopes and Silvia, a teacher and her roommate in Margao, to be careful about Jorge as someone who befriended girls like Eliza and then got rid of them, whilst also sexually satisfying a number of local women whose husbands were away at work on the high seas. Initially, Eliza rejects their advice, believing that the two women (Lopes and Silvia) are indeed jealous of her because of her 'success' with Jorge.
By now, Jorge is less demonstrative regarding his love for Eliza but nevertheless enjoys her body at every opportunity. This is when Eliza decides on the simple chicanery of saying that she had become pregnant by Jorge.
"I don't believe you're pregnant.""Perhaps I'll ask your father how he would like to have a bastard for a grandchild."The silence was deafening. Eliza knew she had him exactly where she wanted him. This time she was the bait on the hook and he the unsuspecting fish."I'll marry you," he said finally.
Although Jorge had been very careful in his sexual encounters with Eliza except for once or twice when he did not use a condom at Eliza's insistence, he is highly skeptical that Eliza is indeed pregnant. Thus, he formulates a scheme whereby he invites Eliza to his father's house to meet several of his friends. When Eliza arrives, on some pretext she is led to a quiet side room where Jorge's friends have her quickly spread-eagled on a bed and in next to no time, while her screams are silenced, a supposedly unqualified 'gynaecologist' draws out a range of surgical instruments to abort the said pregnancy. However, when he examines Eliza internally, he concludes and informs Jorge that Eliza is definitely not pregnant. This infuriates Jorge to no end and he effectively discards Eliza like an old rag that has no further use to him.
Eliza is now certain that her game is up with Jorge and, on completing her training, makes her way back to Nairobi where she is forced to disclose to her parents that there will be no Jorge in her life. She settles down to establish her independent tailoring business. It is at this point that the novel comes to an unforeseen dramatic end.
Diogo, now married to an upper-caste Goan woman like himself, visits Eliza at her shop in Nairobi and it becomes clear to the reader that Diogo and Eliza have an ongoing sexual relationship even though Diogo has a wife of his own.
As the novel ends, we note that Eliza is now in the kind of sexual relationship that Senhora Lopes had warned her about in Goa. Lopes had explicitly recounted to Eliza that Jorge's father, Nazarinho Pacheco had used her as his mistress, promised marriage to her on his widowhood but had failed to keep his promise whilst still enjoying Lopes sexually. The sins of the father with Lopes had thus clearly visited Eliza through his son Jorge.
Senhora Lopes' advice to Eliza was that upper caste men do not marry lower caste women but are happy to use them sexually for as long as possible.
"The bhatkar believes in elitism, Eliza. Jorge enjoys the status his position has given him. Don't think for one moment that he'll jeopardize that status by marrying someone from a lower caste. It's simply not done. He'll endeavour to enhance that status by marrying above his class for the sake of money and privilege. Jorge's father took this route and his progeny isn't going to reverse it. This is a caste-bound and class-conscious society, Eliza. The bhatkars will take whatever they can get and make you feel they're doing you a big favour by using and abusing you."In sum, the novel is a vivid account of Catholic Goan hypocrisy in which the upper castes will only marry their own kind but sow their wild oats with women whom they consider to be their social inferiors. There are exceptions to this situation, of course, but are generally much derided by the upper castes, for whom strict endogamy within a supposed pedigree is very much a creed.
This novel of 343 pages gripped my attention from start to finish. Clearly, Ben Antao is a wonderful and insightful storyteller who has infused much thought and imagination into this well-crafted novel that projects Goa in all its charming detail.
Here's an example of his writing style. "One day after the rain had ceased its merry dance, the sun broke through the clouds, as though it was reasserting its preeminence in the universe. The scene outside became iridescently beautiful, with the appearance of a multi-colored rainbow that seemed to be positioned directly over the boarding house. Eliza stood in the veranda, inhaling the fresh, tingling air that smelled of soggy earth. The petite coconut palms bordering the rectangle looked much greener than before, as though the monsoon had spilled chlorophyll over the flora to dazzle the viewer. The palms swung gently in the morning breeze, shedding drops of rainwater from their feathery ribs, and today, after a fortnight beneath an overcast sky, they basked under the golden sun."
I've also read and enjoyed his first two novels, Blood & Nemesis and Penance. It is, therefore, my hope that he will continue to produce other equally excellent novels that will increasingly reach a wide audience.
As an educational sociologist but well versed in reading and teaching about novels too, I was most pleased to see that the two modes of addressing social issues are not too dissimilar. Indeed, was it not Charles Dickens, the esteemed novelist, who wrote so illuminatingly about the conditions of the poor in London and who was later deemed to be an equally good sociologist of the time? In this respect, I applaud Ben Antao's skill and craftsmanship with the pen and key pad in writing so well and pleasing ever so many readers like myself.
Published by the Goan Observer in 2007, the novel is available in major bookstores (Rs.200) in Goa, and in North America ($25) from the author at ben.antao at rogers.com London, EnglandOctober 1, 2008 (Dr. DaCosta is an adjunct professor of education, Florida State University at the London, UK Centre. He is also a consultant on university education in the UK.)
Goanet A&E http://www.goanet.org
The Tailor's Daughter
By Ben Antao
Publisher: Goan Observer Private Ltd.
338 pages, Rs 300 (North America $25)
What happens when the beautiful, charming and ambitious Eliza Rodricks of Nairobi comes to study tailoring in Margao and falls in love with the local bhatkar? She doesn't think twice before giving away her heart and body to the arrogant seducer Jorger Pacheco.
This is a novel with an unusual theme that will leave readers spellbound and heartbroken. It's a story that takes a searing look at the hypocritical and traditionally caste-bound society of seemingly modern Goa.
The Tailor's Daughter is the Canada-based novelist's third novel. His previous two novels, Penance and Blood & Nemesis, received critical praise abroad and in India. The author, born and bred in Goa during the Portuguese colonial times, has an unerring memory of life in Goa before it was liberated in 1961.
The author can be contacted at:
Phone: +1 (416) 250-8885
Tailor?s Daughter probes Goan psyche shaped by caste, class and colonial mindset
Review from: http://www.goanet.org/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=780#Lino
Ben Antao?s third novel, The Tailor?s Daughter, is set in Margão, Goa, at the height of Salazar?s dictatorship during the 1950s. In this novel, Antao, through his characters, engages in exploring the mindsets of Goans who lived in the confines of a stratified society of that time.
Besides Antao, there are also some other Goan writers who have looked into this oppressive relationship that existed in Goa between landlords and serfs. Landlords, known as bhatkars, came mostly from upper caste and class; and serfs came from lower caste with no standing in the society; they were non-persons called mundkars.
A Goan writer, Orlando da Costa, in his novel O Signo da Ira, set in Goa of 1940-41, gives us an authentic picture of the exploitative relationship between bhatkar and mundkar in that colonial period. Another well known Goan writer, Prof. Lucio Rodrigues, exposes the sordid bond that existed between bhatkar-mundkar in his short story, It Happens. But Antao, in Tailor?s Daughter, probes into the Goan psyche sickened by caste and class of those colonial times.
Although the narrative in the novel spins around two leading characters, Eliza Rodricks and Jorge Pacheco, there are other minor characters in the novel that provide us with a view of a society that was kept in check through the supremacy of caste and class.