Dusk had fallen by the time the inaugural ceremonies of the Goa Arts and Literary Festival began on the lawns of the International Centre Goa in Dona Paula, Panaji, when the acclaimed Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo stood to deliver his remarks on behalf of the Goa Writers Group. “To my respected audience, welcome," Mauzo began in formal Konkani.

In the back row, there was a brief buzz. “Is that Marathi?" someone whispered.

In a state with a painful and well-recollected history of linguistic and political conflict, it was a remarkable mistake. But Mauzo, was all optimism in his remarks.

State of the arts: Goan literature reflects a culture keeping pace with change. Photo: Anoop Negi

For Goan writers, in Konkani as well as English, locals as well as diasporic Goans, the festival, which took place over the 50th anniversary commemorations of Goa’s liberation from colonial rule, was a place to meet and converse among themselves and with visitors. Goa is far from the centres of global publishing buzz, but its literary imagination is alive and well, and not just because writers of international fame holiday here.

Festival curator and writer Vivek Menezes wanted Goans to think about that when he put together this year’s festival, the second edition of an event begun last year. “This year’s historical context—19 December 1961—was paramount in our thinking about this festival," he says.

Goa’s mother tongue is a central talking point for the “reading, writing, thinking Goa", which the International Centre’s director Nandini Sahai said was the focus of the festival. Yet, perhaps uniquely in a situation like this, Konkani writers, from the venerable Mauzo—a warrior for his language—to young diasporic poets from Karnataka, spoke to their audiences largely in English, a language with fewer historical burdens for Goans than other Indians.

In the rest of India, there may be a tendency to think of Goa as a retreat for writers, but it is also the place from which writing comes— and a lot of it. Publisher Frederick Noronha estimates that every year 200-300 books each are produced in Konkani, English and Marathi. “It isn’t like the big publishing hubs in India, which produce a few major best-sellers every year to cover for the business," he explains. “These are often small productions, with print runs of about 500, and problems with distribution and publicity. But that is a big number for Goa."

Noronha sees a clear divide in the kind of work produced in each language. “Konkani and Marathi are the languages in which creative writing is produced, among other reasons because the government supports the arts in these languages financially." Hypothetically, “It’s not hard for you to get a grant of about 25,000-30,000, which should cover about a third of your printing costs. English publishing is more market-dependent, so you tend to see more non-fiction there."

It is not a market that produces excesses of money or fame, Noronha says. But “you know how Goans are about their villages," he laughs. “This pride in small things means that you write a book about one village and everyone there will read it." A case in point this year was Themistocles D’Silva’s Beyond the Beach: The Village of Arossim, Goa, in Historical Perspective, put out by Noronha’s publishing house Goa, 1556. “Arossim is so small, you could start walking through it and within 5 minutes have crossed out," Noronha says.

A look at the Goa, 1556 titles is a glimpse into the variety in Goa’s English-language publishing: From works of history like D’Silva’s, to Bernardo Elvino De Sousa’s The Last Prabhu: A Hunt for Roots—DNA, Ancient Documents and Migration in Goa, to Kornelia Santoro’s spleet-new cookbook, Goa’s second or third language is holding its own.

In Konkani, the great fiction writers still hold sway. Consider its news-makers: In the month before the festival, the Vimala V. Pai Vishwa Konkani Sahitya Puraskar prize, with an award amount of 1 lakh, went to the 67-year-old Mauzo for his novel Tsunami Simon. In the week of the festival, another Konkani stalwart, Pundalik Naik, made news by returning a lifetime achievement award from the Goa Konkani Akademi. Naik, said to have written the first major postcolonial Konkani novel, Acchev (The Upheaval, 1977), was protesting the state government’s decision to grant English-language schools funding equal to Konkani schools.

Both Naik and Mauzo are Sahitya Akademi awardees, but the length of their careers can obscure the relative newness of their style of fiction in Konkani. After a difficult history under the Portuguese, as poet Manohar Shetty writes in the introduction to Ferry Crossing: Short Stories from Goa, “the politics of language further divided and sidetracked many Konkani and Marathi writers of the region…the literatures can be said to have progressed only during the past decades."

“This has happened over the last few years," Noronha says. “It’s partly economic, and partly because there’s a pent-up need for it to happen." Technology has helped too: Now the small printing press in Bandra, Mumbai, or local assistance with desktop publishing, is not as far out of reach as it might have been even a decade ago.

The name of Noronha’s imprint, Goa, 1556, commemorates the date the first printing press in Asia arrived, via the Portuguese, in Goa. In that long and difficult history lie the roots of Goa’s relationship with writing, its resilience and hybridity. If, as Menezes says, Goa is a symbol of change in a changing India, Konkani, a language that is written in at least four different scripts (Devanagari, Roman, Kannada and Malayalam), lends itself to some reflection on how that change can be managed, and how it is still being negotiated.

Back at the opening session, Mauzo’s own optimism was carried forth—in English—by one of Goa’s more famous migrants, Amitav Ghosh. “Every so often friends will send me news reports about violence and drug running on the beaches, or about prostitution and the Russian mafia and so on. These reports are not of course without foundation. I know that there is crime and violence on the beaches of Goa," he said, and added, “...I go to the beach (and) see young urban Indians who look as though they’ve been freed of their fetters for the first time. I see vendors from Karnataka and Maharashtra. I come across workers and waiters from Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, and the North-East… I listen to coconut sellers from Siolim bargaining in the language of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev.

“All of this is new. I am not afraid of it. If there is one thing I would like to say to you, it is (to) let this be a day to celebrate the newness of Goa."