When news of Goa’s Sahitya Akademi awardee, Konkani author Damodar Mauzo receiving the Jnanpith Award 2022 broke, Goa rejoiced. This recent accolade is not just a personal triumph for an exceptional author, but a celebration of Konkani, one of India’s smaller regional languages.
Mauzo claims the total number of speakers to be somewhere between 40 to 50 lakhs, though official records show 22.5 lakh spread across Goa and a few other states. He is the second one to receive the award after author Ravindra Kelekar in 2006. “The achievement will help Konkani grow and develop further,” he says.
This accolade is also a recognition of Mauzo’s long-standing activism in movements like the Opinion Poll and for Konkani, a language he deeply cares about. These days he’s busy with frequent invites for felicitations and calls from publishers. “Since it’s recent, everyone wants to invite me, and publishers want to publish my work. It’s a temporary phase,” he says. “But it hasn’t brought about a change in my lifestyle. It will not change me in any way. I’m waiting for this phase to get over, as I can’t concentrate on my writing,” he adds.
Mauzo’s latest accolade comes to an already decorated career. He received the 1983 Sahitya Akademi award for his novel, Karmelin, and his other collection of stories, Teresa’s Man, received a Frank O’Connor International Award nomination in 2015. Karmelin had 14 translations and some of his other stories were translated into English, Portuguese and French.
His widely-read work celebrates universal themes like friendship and love and he records the daily life and social conditions around him. Mauzo’s social commentary reminds one of the great English author, Charles Dickens who, too, highlighted the milieu of his time in his books. Director Simon Callow, writing about Dickens said, “From the moment he started to write, he spoke for the people, and the people loved him for it.” Such is the praise Mauzo’s readers have for his work as well.
His latest collection of short stories, The Wait and Other Stories, traverses India from the war-torn Himalayan peaks to bustling, cosmopolitan Mumbai, and abroad. The layers unfold with every read, and you are left amused by the Gentleman Thief or you are taken for a ride in the backseat of a dubious taxi driver in the story Yasin, Austin, Yatin. By the end of the story, the reader is left questioning his real identity.
As a mute spectator, Mauzo sets his character in real-life situations. In As the Ice Melts that’s based on the Kargil war, Captain Chander is exasperated with the caste system. To quote Chander, ‘With what caste-oriented baggage do these guys come here! Tomorrow if they die, will they search for separate places in the afterlife too?’
Mauzo treads a careful path in maintaining a non-biased view between his personal beliefs and his writing. “Every writer has his ideology, but they don’t directly reflect in the writings. They reach the people in a subtle manner,” he says.
Talking about his initial years, it was Mumbai that started his journey as an author and fuelled his pride in Konkani. “I always thought Konkani was not a literary language but a spoken language. Reading a book by Shenoy Goenbab during my college changed the course of my life. I began to write more seriously. I had written only one short story for Akashwani till then. I realised my language was deep and rich in expression,” he says. Growing up in a pre-liberation era, access to Konkani authors was limited. He read a great deal of Marathi writers, he says of his early days.
While his words carry hidden pertinent social messages, Mauzo has been a vocal activist on numerous occasions. He forayed into activism while attending R A Podar College of Commerce Economics in Mumbai. “With the Merger issue, I realised we had to fight for our identity and keep the entity of Goa independent. And I jumped into the fray,” he says. His first tryst with public speaking came during an anti-merger rally attended by hundreds of Goans in Mumbai in 1965-66.
He played a major role in the Konkani-Official Language movement back in Goa. “People don’t realize the importance of their language. It belongs to the soil, the Motherland,” he adds.
He finds that Goans now lack the zeal to fight the threat to their mother tongue. “Some say, ‘If we can do with English and Marathi, why do we need to develop a new language like Konkani? They want everything readymade,” he laments.
On the continuous tussle between the two scripts, Devanagari and Romi, he calls it a non-issue. “How can script give us identity? I don’t understand this concept. We seemed to have closed our minds. The instinct of pride for language is important,” he emphasises.
With Goa celebrating Liberation Day on December 19, does he feel we are truly liberated? He says, “Unless we have a liberated ambience around, we will not enjoy the independence we won. The major component of our culture is Konkani and it needs to be preserved and promoted.”
Mauzo has fought many battles. At 78, there are no signs of his slowing down and he is upfront about the future. “Unless I have better stories with different characters to write, I won’t write them. I don’t want to write the same type of stories. I can visualise the graph of my growth. It has risen since the day I started. I still find new ideas coming, and I’ll continue to write them down.”
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