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A migrants' trail along the Indian west coast in proverbs (Book Review)

By Frederick Noronha, Book: Socio-Cultural Background of the Gowda Saraswat Brahmin Community as Reflected in the Konkani Proverbs; Author: L. Suneetha Bai; Publisher: Sukrtindra Oriental Research Institute, Kochi (sukrtindra@gmail.com); Pages: 176; Price: Rs.150 in India, USD 15 elsewhere


Konkani is one of the smaller Indian languages, spoken mainly on the Western coast of India. Its speakers are scattered far and wide in a regional diaspora of sorts. Konkani proverbs have a certain charm about them.

They reflect the reality of the region and also take us back to another time - when the regional the language is spoken in - Goa and beyond - was an agrarian and rustic and even more of a gender and class-dominated society.

This book comes from Kerala, an area where Konkani speakers are located. It is written in English and Devanagari-script Konkani. The author says at the start itself: "The Konkani-speaking people include various communities such as the Gowda Saraswat Brahmins, Vaisyas, Kudumbis, Christians and Muslims. The present study is restricted to the Gowda Saraswat Brahmin community."

Unlike earlier books on sayings, this one doesn't comprise of neatly laid-out, topic-wise lists. Instead, it has a large number of Konkani sayings, all woven into a wider theory that the author builds to paint the socio-cultural background of the Konkani-speaking Gowda (or Gaud) Saraswat Brahmins (GSBs).

Page after page is, however, also peppered with a lot of sayings from the past amidst explanations of the social context. So that makes for an interesting read, whether one is interested in the wider point or not. It recreates the visions of the past, through sayings like: "A look at the courtyard will tell you about the quality of the house" (p 2) or "He who eats salt will [sooner or later] drink water." (p 99)

This content is scattered within five different chapters, and a conclusion. To begin, aptly, is an overview of Konkani proverbs. Next, proverbs are linked to the social structure and the history of the GSBs. Further chapters look at the relevance of proverbs to customs, manners, dharma and values.

Dr Bai initially tackles proverbs related to society ("The bridegroom looks at the bride's face, the priest looks for his dakshina." "He never gave food to his father when he was alive; after death he offered him rice balls.")

She suggests that the proverbs reflect "the true picture" of different relationships among members of society. Grandfathers, sons-in-laws, daughters-in-law, mothers-in-law, and others are commented on.

Coming from those times, one occasionally even runs into an interesting and forward-looking perspective: "Don't be sad that a girl is born to you, she will grind the coconut for you; and don't be happy that a son is born to you, he will torture you in many ways.")

There are other hints of changing power equations. The mother-in-law, at times, looked upon her son's wife as a slave. On the other hand, the elderly woman also lived in constant dread of her daughter-in-law. The sometimes adverse position of a newly-wed in the husband's home is also alluded to in some sayings. So are marital relations touched on: "If the husband and wife agree with each other, they can sleep even on a tamarind leaf."

Some proverbs from the philosophical arena sound too idealistic. For instance: "The wealth you receive is proportionate to your work." And: "If you commit a sin today, you will answer for it tomorrow." Life can be much more harsh!

But some proverbs (related to moral and ethics) really sound insightful. "Anger is the cause of self-destruction and happiness is the cause of the destruction of others." Or, "If you lie you will gain a coconut shell (a mark of poverty)."

Given the agrarian background of Goa and its background, where these proverbs come from, it's not surprising to see the number of sayings connected with birds and animals: crows, pigeons, parrots, cocks, hens, cuckoos, elephants, dogs, cows, buffaloes, cats, tigers, donkeys and jackals! Here's an unusual one: "How much does the rat excrete and how many cakes are made from the excretement?"

There are others on trees, plants and even cereals! Some proverbs deal with the history of the GSBs.

Also interesting is the reflection of caste in proverbs. The potter comes in ("The potter has no unbreakable pots.") So do goldsmiths, barbers, carpenters, fishermen, the basket-weaving mahars.

There's material for a sociologist here. Family relationships are studied. Father-son, mother-son, children in the family, daughters, daughters-in-law, husbands-and-wives, and widowhood are touched on in some detail.

The book ends with a section on ethical values.

(19.09.2013 - Frederick Noronha can be contacted at fredericknoronha@gmail.com)

--IANS (Posted on 19-09-2013)

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