Goa’s dark secret
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Alda was 10 years old when she discovered she was different. While her six siblings went to school, she did the household chores. They ate from porcelain plates, while she ate in the kitchen with the servants. Alda was a poskem, much like Liana, Nascimento and Sita. These four characters make up Wendell Rodricks’ new novel, Poskem: Goans In The Shadows, which turns a fictional lens on an old Goan tradition. Poskem (pronounced poskay) referred to less fortunate children who were taken in by rich families to rear as their own, but were often treated as servants.
Rodricks, who has previously written Moda Goa: History & Style and The Green Room, wrote Poskem as an ode to the people who were forced to live on the fringes of Goan society. “My generation must be the last to experience this tradition. I did not want the word to be buried with the last poskem,” says the designer. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Goan heritage has always been personal to you. What led you to write about a tradition shrouded in secrecy?
The tradition of the poskim started 200 years ago, but Goans rarely discuss it because it is shameful and scandalous. When I was young, I often heard the words posko (male), poskem (female) and poskim (plural) and thought they simply meant servants, as they were treated in that manner. When I grew up, my mother told me what poskim meant and it horrified me. For the outside world, it seemed like they were treated with love and care despite not belonging to the family bloodline. In reality, they were treated as bonded labour, weren’t allowed to marry so they would be in servitude always, and were not given salaries or inheritance despite being given the family name. I felt it was high time the poskim people got an apology from this generation, and the respect they duly deserve.
You credit your late neighbour, Rosa, as the inspiration for the book.
Rosa was a poskem, and though I did interact with her, we never uttered the word poskem. It was taboo. I was fine with that because I didn’t want to open any wounds. I had seen poskim like her being mistreated in my mother’s village, so I knew it was something she or any other poskim would not like to talk about. In fact, after the book released, I got an email from a poskem telling me she would tell me her story anonymously, in return for help to procure a birth certificate. I am working on that now.
Take us through the research. Why did you fictionalize it?
I didn’t do any research on the tradition. I set the book against the 1930s to the 1970s, as that was the period my parents lived through. In the old days, we had no distractions like television. Our Goan village did not even have a library and stories were recounted almost daily. I have a sharp memory and recalled all the stories I heard about poskim when writing the book. Though the events are all true, fiction allowed for creative licence, taking away from the real horror. Incorporating magic realism (as in Alda’s story) was intentional, as I personally believe that to survive the way they did, the poskim must have created imaginary places of escape for themselves.
While Alda’s story is tragic, Liana, Nascimento and Sita were luckier and found good homes. Was this unusual?
I gave three poskim better lives to avoid making the book a dark, brooding read. In reality, it would have been the other way round; more were mistreated. (Actor) Lisa Ray recently put it very well when she said the book is about the human condition. The good gets balanced with the bad. Even though Nascimento, Liana and Sita end up lucky, they go through their tragic periods.
What went behind elements like Mario Miranda’s illustrations and the recipes that you wove into the narrative?
I don’t physically describe the surroundings, whether Goa, Pune, Lyon or Lisbon. When I tried to do so, the narrative lost its emotion and fluidity. That’s when my dear friend Mario Miranda’s illustrations became vital. Apart from adding beauty to the book, they provide the backdrop to the places in Poskem. Poskim are often good cooks as they are relegated to the kitchen. Here, the characters share a love for cooking and it becomes a thread in their gene pool. That’s why I incorporated the recipes.