To honour and remember one of India’s greatest poets, we must first keep his works in print.
There is no statue anywhere to mark the life of Joseph Furtado. That is a pity, for his patrician looks and his long flowing beard would have made a fine figure in stone. The house where he spent his childhood, in the north Goan town of Pilerne, is today in ruins. Only a handful of the oldest residents remember him, and hardly anyone knows that Furtado, who passed away in 1947 at the age of 75, was one of the finest Indian English poets of his time. Fortunately, many of his poems still survive – barely – in just one slim volume in the rare-books section of Goa’s Central Library.
It is curious that a boy from a literary backwater became a proficient poet, and writing in English at that. According to Philip Furtado, the poet’s son, his father’s early education after passing the primeiro grau – the Portuguese primary-school exam – and apart from a year at a Latin school in Saligao in north Goa, was conducted mainly at home. Perhaps this was a good thing, for Furtado was known to be a sensitive child, and the aesthetic tastes he was to develop could well have been crushed by the drudgery of a mechanical schooling. Konkani was his mother tongue, but Furtado also wrote in Portuguese, later switching to a third language after enrolling in an English-medium school.
In 1890, he found work with the Great Indian Peninsular Railway in Jubbulpore (as it was then spelled) in modern-day Madhya Pradesh. From there, he went on to become a draughtsman in the engineer’s office, a fairly important position. It was during this period that he began to read the classics of world literature, and subsequently began writing. Furtado published his first collection of poems in 1910. By 1927, when A Goan Fiddler was published in England, he already had four volumes of poetry to his credit. A Goan Fiddler had a preface by Edmund Gosse, then the most influential critic in England, and the book received warm reviews. Furtado subsequently published The Desterrado (1929), Songs of Exile (1938) and Selected Poems (1939), as well as a historical novel entitled Golden Goa! (1938). For a man writing in a third language, Furtado had a remarkable ear for the sounds of English. Take, for instance, “At Break of Day”:
At break of day
In pleasant spring
When on each spray
The blithe birds sing
While half awake
In bed you lie
And one kiss take
Of her close by …
A master of rhyme, rhythm and meter, Furtado was capable of transcribing the sounds emanating from his Indian environment into verse. In “The Brahmin Girl”, for instance, he observes:
Mohini sweet, Mohini neat
So maddening to behold
With kinning chinning round her feet
And fas fis of the fold. [emphasis added]
Keki N Daruwalla, in his introduction to the influential anthology of Indian English poetry Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, points out that Furtado was the first to see the potential of using Indian English in poetry. When using a pidgin or a patois, there is always the risk that the poet could end up sounding like an English-educated snob, sniggering at those struggling to use an alien language. Even Nissim Ezekiel, the doyen of Indian English poets, fell into this trap in his well-known “Goodbye Party to Miss Pushpa T.S.”, or in the following lines from his “The Professor”:
If you are coming again this side by chance
Visit please my humble residence also
I am living just on opposite house’s backside.
Furtado, however, avoids sounding condescending thanks to his ability to get under the skin of his dramatis personae, often using a technique called the ‘dramatic monologue’. For example, in “The Old Irani”, the speaker is ranting at his milk vendor, who has been watering down the milk:
Sly rogue, the old Irani
Has made a lakh they say
A lakh in land and money
By mixing milk and pani
What if she bolt away
The young Madame Irani
With all the fellow’s money
Beware now Abdul Gani
Beware of Kala Pani
And meddle not with money
Poet of exile
Like many a Goan, Furtado had to seek his fortune far from the land of his birth, with his railways job taking him on to Nagpur, Calcutta and Bombay among other places. But Mother Goa was always close to his heart, motivating professor Lucio Rodrigues to call him the ‘poet of exile’. Gosse, in his introduction to A Goan Fiddler, wrote, “I do not know where else to look for an expression of the landscape, the habits and the sentiments of that little known country Portuguese India.”
Certainly the poet writes of the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood with love. Figures such as Pedro the cowherd, Ruzai the tailor and Vishnulal the goldsmith come alive in his verses. But these sketches do not seem parochial or sentimental, due to the poet’s ability to see the essence of humanness in his subjects. Furtado’s verses also shed critical light on the society of his times. The irony of “The Presentation” gives the lie to the much-romanticised institution of the faithful family retainer as he ages. The poem depicts a mother depositing her young son with a landlady, where he is destined to remain a servant. Her pleas to the bhatkarni, to be considerate to her son, tell of how the landowners held sway over the lives of the lower classes during Portuguese times.
There’s the child, dear Mother, near
He comes not, lest Thou chide him,
He loves Thee all the same.
And gladly left off play
And came here all the way;
Poor boy, and none to guide him
None to shelter, but do Thee
A little corner give him
A child with gentle ways,
He will not trouble Thee
And naught will trouble me
Dear Mother, when I leave him.
Many of Furtado’s poems also have an autobiographical ring about them. During the 1920s, he came back to Goa to settle down, but became embroiled in a dispute over a village creek, where he championed the cause of the villagers of Pilerne. This made him the target of a brutal assault by some influential individuals. During the course of the attack, none of the neighbours came to his aid and, in disgust, Furtado left his village for good. This perhaps accounts for the undercurrent of bitterness in The Desterrado and Songs of Exile. In the poem “Birds and Neighbours”, he writes in an epigrammatic style that would have made Robert Frost proud:
When I was young and went all day Bird-nesting, oft would neighbours say
“Those birds will be his ruin”
‘Tis not with age my hair is grey
And well might birds now turn and say
“‘Tis all his neighbours’ doin’.”
The poet had a sharp eye for recording the ways of the world in an apparently naïve manner. “First Love” is one example of this, taking as it does a quiet but sarcastic swipe at the snobbery of society as it depicts a man who wants to see, once again, a girl with whom he was infatuated when he was young. But he had no plans to marry her, for he now realises she is lower down the social ladder than himself:
I could not but desire
To see for once the maid who could
A love so deep inspire
Not that I wished to wed her now
Such changes time had wrought
In me I durst not link my name
To one with such a blot
Since well I knew unheralded were
The riches of her house,
Her mother’s sister had besides
Profaned her marriage vows.
Furtado was especially critical, although often in a sly or humorous way, of patriarchal norms and the restrictions that different communities placed on women. This is particularly clear in such work as “The Brahmin Girl”, “The Mullah’s Daughter” and “The Pariah Girl”. Similarly, “Kismet” tells the story of a prostitute resigned to her fate, while “The Neglected Wife” explores the frustrations of a young wife left at home by a husband seeking employment far way – a Goan phenomenon prevalent to this day.
While his social concerns are apparent in his poetry, rarely is Furtado preachy. It is in his only novel, Golden Goa, that his social vision and political views became quite overt. The plot revolves around a love affair between a Christian and a Hindu during the decadent Portuguese rule of the 16th century. The story contrasts the good works of the Jesuit missionary and later saint Francis Xavier on the one hand, with the horrors of the Inquisition on the other. Here, Furtado takes a series of potshots against the foreign rulers. At one point, quoting the British civil servant Robert Sewell, he writes, “The Europeans seemed to think they had a divine right to the pillage, robbery and massacre of the natives of India. Not to mince matters their whole record is one of a series of atrocities.” He continues: “If humanity be a proof of civilisation Indians at that time were more civilized than the Portuguese.”
It would be a pity if the memory of this distinguished Goan literary artist were to disappear without a trace. As alluded to earlier, one way of honouring Joseph Furtado today could certainly be to erect a statue of him. But the poet himself would surely have appreciated it more if a fresh collection of his best works were published and made available to the public.