Sunday, 26 May 2019

Invincible Spirits/ Dipika Mukherjee



I have no language in Itaparica, for I speak very little Portuguese, yet less than two months on this Brazilian island on a Sacatar Foundation Fellowship and I'm already feeling at home

My face is a template on which people write ethnicity. In this small island too, I look local, and a translator in Salvador asks whether I feel the discrimination because I look indigenous. In Malaysia, Tamilians think I’m too proud to speak Tamil, in Texas a Mexican woman once berated me outside a Houston megastore for not speaking Spanish; I have a face and coloring that blends into many places, but here the island smiles easily.

Cecília Meireles, the Brazilian poet who visited India in 1953, wrote: As far as Indian life is concerned, I confess it seems as familiar to me as if I had always lived here. She published a book-length collection of impressionistic poems titled, Poemas Escritos na India on Indian cities (including Calcutta) and Indian personalities, and wrote chronicles about her trip to India. I am channeling Meireles in reverse, feeling this sense of déjà vu she felt, so far away from the home. 

I am housed in a large beachside mansion with tall gates and resident guards but when I open the gate to go outside, the destitution of this island is evident in the half-built structures, and large families living together in small tenements. If it weren’t for the bahian statues placed on windows -- a female form gazing into the distance, waiting -- I would think I was in back in the crumbling much-beloved parts of old Calcutta coexisting with the new.

This island has the same invincibility of spirit, and simmers with the same multiplicity of stories and oral storytellers. The stories may be factual, or fabulous, or magical, but they are all woven through the breeze and the sand of this land and have persisted through the centuries of slavery and colonialism and unbearable loss.

Thus is this land is permeated with heft of saudade, a quintessential Portuguese word that is both nostalgia or profound melancholy, often with the subliminal knowledge that what is lost may never return. English translates it as “missingness”, but that does not convey a recollection of feelings which once brought intense joy, and even in memory, still triggers the senses. It is not Pamuk's hüzün of Istanbul, for it goes beyond a communal melancholy; it has no synonym in any of my four languages. Saudade is a state simultaneously evoking happiness for what was, and the sadness that it is now past, and Brazil commemorates the day of Saudade on January 30th.

I came here to write my third novel but, steeped in this sense of saudade, I found myself working on my first book of creative nonfiction instead. I found Calcutta at every corner, and although the Portuguese settled in Bandel in Bengal for some time, it is Goa, which was a Portuguese colony until 1961, where there is still a street named Rua de Saudades. Here, in Itaparica, I find Calcutta everywhere.

The 2017 Oxfam report details the huge gap between the country’s richest and the rest of the population: Brazil’s six richest men have the same wealth as poorest 50 percent of the population of around 100 million people and the country's richest 5 percent have the same income as the remaining 95 percent. Brazil feels like India, with the same colorism, and wealth jostling with poverty. And as in the City of Joy, there is the great effervescence of community spirit in celebrating the spiritual.

Itaparica’s most famous writer is João Ubaldo Ribeiro, a homegrown hero who has a street named after him, as well as educational institutions. An Invincible Memory, published in English in 1989, is 504 pages of a family saga that spans 400 years. Brazil’s history of cannibalism, murder, slavery, whaling, colonialism and much more is detailed in a lyricism that is gorgeous, but also feels weighty. He uses history and magic realism, and is described as a cross between Melville and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (The author's bilingualism is remarkable as he wrote this book in a year, then translated it into English himself, a process that took another three years).

This book is an excellent gateway into Brazilian literature, for as I soon discovered, there is a paucity of Brazilian books in translation. An Invincible Memory is the story of a 19th century paterfamilias and conman, long-suffering passive-aggressive wives, priests and poets and soldiers and slaves and leaders, and some vivid native characters and sorcerers and bandit queens. A bestseller in Brazil, the novel is still relevant to the understanding of the the terrible cruelty inflicted by whites on blacks, mulattos and Indians, although the multiplicity of voices can get wearying for the foreign reader.

As much as fiction can hold up a mirror to the reality of Brazil, this book opens doors to an unfamiliar world in a criollismo style, offering snapshots of deep prejudices as well as archetypes:

They were sorcerers, that’s what they were, witches of the night, wizardly as can be, people versed in the secrets of the Crystal Stone, of the power of souls and of the deities brought over from Africa under the worst conditions, people adept at using wild plants to infuse the most terrible poisonous philters and the most irresistible love potions, at sewing and binding spirits through all kinds of sortileges, at seeing the future in all kinds of presages, at seeing the magical side of all things. (109)


This island stills holds the ruins of an ancient church from the times Ribeiro writes about, for Our Lord Of Vera Cruz was built by Jesuits in 1560. It is now cleaved through by a gameleira tree, sacred to the religion of candomblé. This tree possibly keeps the ruin erect, an ironic fusion of the Jesuit faith and the Afro-Brazilian religion that the current authorities are still trying to ban. There is the heft of history in the candomblé tradition that continues to flourish even as it is under siege, but amidst the beauty of these ruins, under the canopy of leaves that soars like a nave into the sky, there is also sadness. The susurration of the wind through the gameleira leaves, passing through the ancient cemetery bordering the ruins, drizzles bereavement.

I attended two candomblé celebrations, one to honour Exú, and the other Xangô. Then I interviewed a House Mother for Iansã; she ended our meeting by casting cowrie shells into an enchanted circle of beads and reading my fortune. 

Paulo Coelho is the best-selling Brazilian novelist of all time, and his sentimental books offer an easy band-aid for modern angst. But I wanted to find the Brazilians who write eviscerating political literature. I found, Garopaba mon amour, published in the book Pedras de Calcutta (1977) by the writer Caio Fernando Abreu, and there it was again: Calcutta. I swallowed this story whole in one reading. Abreu writes about resistance to state violence and residual trauma at a time when a dictatorial government ruled Brazil, and I discovered his work, translated beautifully by Jennifer Alexander, in Becoming Brazilfeaturing the works of two dozen Brazilian writers published as an edition of Mānoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing.


Brazil has fired my imagination in ways I did not anticipate. In the almost two months here, I have worked on three pieces of non-fiction, written a couple of poems, and had a short story accepted for Chicago Quarterly Review’s 25th anniversary issue. 

And finally, the work I came here for: I have 81188 words of my manuscript. These are raw unedited words, chapters as placeholders, thoughts rambling and unfocused. Certainly one third or much more will be excised in rewrites. But it feels like I have accomplished what I came here to do, and I have been listening to Bengali poetry being sung through the breezy Itaparican nights while writing. I will leave enriched by a list of Brazilian books to be read. I wish there was more available in translation from this fascinating country for I am as intoxicated as the madman in Salgado Maranhão’s poem (translated by Alexis Levitin)Delirica X:

A madman sniffing
at the moon
captures instances of you.
And everywhere, forever,
fire, water, time, and breath
exclaim.




Dipika Mukherjee’s work, focusing on the politics of modern Asian societies, includes the novels Shambala Junction (which won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction), and Ode to Broken Things (longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize as Thunder Demons). She has been mentoring Southeast Asian writers for over two decades and has edited five anthologies of Southeast Asian fiction. She lives in Chicago and is affiliated to the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University and is Core Faculty at Story Studio Chicago. She is currently a Sacatar Foundation Fellow.

3 comments:

Umberto Tosi said...

Your passionate literary exploration of Bahia brings the soul of its indigenous culture to life and frames the works you cite in global perspectives. The result is breathtaking and much appreciate by this less tutored writer (despite part of my heritage being South American). I've put "An Invincible Memory" on my to-read, short-list - just the kind of writing that sends me! Thank you, and good luck with the novel-in-progress, which I also look forward to reading when it emerges (along with your CQR story!)

julia jones said...

Really fascinating, deeply thought and beautifully written post. Sitting here in Essex (England) I can feel a sense of a wider world. Thank you

Dipika Mukherjee said...

Thank you Umberto and Julia! This country is richer in inspiration than I had expected it to be...just fascinating stories everywhere!