Goans often accuse each other of having crab mentalities. But Braz Menezes’s novel Just Matata suggests that, outside Goa at least, Goans did well for themselves because they were NOT like the crabs in a budkulo who drag the ones escaping their fate, back into the pot.
Set among the Goan Catholic community living in Kenya, and in the Goa of the 1950s, the story of young Orlando Menezes (Lando) his family and community is a charming smile generator.
The Swahili word in the title – Matata – means ‘trouble’ but the Goan community that is really its subject, are a docile people, as they are grateful for having escaped from the bucolic, stagnant early 20th century Goa to become the clerical buffer between British master and the African subjects.
The Matata saga begins in the 1920s when Chico Menezes and his brother and other cash strapped Goans were lured by a fake job recruiter into sailing to Mozambique on the promise of being given lucrative jobs there.
En route, after discovering they were conned, Chico manages to wangle a job with a British businessman when on shore at Mombasa while the ship he was travelling on was refitting. That’s how he lands in Kenya.
There he is welcomed with open arms. He remarks later: “Despite coming to this country alone, we were lucky in those days there was already an established Goan community to receive us and help us settle into our new homes. Their kindness made such a difference to us.”
After establishing himself he returns to Goa to be led into love with Anja ‘over a game of poker’, marries her and goes back to settle down in Kenya and raise a family of which Lando is the second child and through whose eyes one sees the action.
Lando’s viewpoint, memories and imagination take us through a variety of capers ranging from the guilt of committing ‘adultery’; to having his dog killed by robbers; to being shot at by racists when on Safari; to the sea journeys between Goa and Kenya; to being tempted into the priesthood in Goa … Let me not spoil the fun by telling it all beforehand.
Although it is a novel, each chapter is a self-contained story. So it reads very much like a collection of short stories. This structure allows Menezes to give us snapshots of Goan life in Kenya with little glimpses of other Indian communities, Africans and Europeans.
Just Matata is very readable and will be liked by youngsters, but it is not only for or about children.
Reading between the lines one gets an intimate feel of what life was like for the Goans in conditions of racial segregation.
Take for instance Lando’s little epiphany in Church, as he is looking at the paintings on the walls, while he is waiting for confession:
“Biblical scenes adorn the large stained glass windows, with the figures of God, the saints and assorted angels all glowing pink. Inspiration strikes! I have cracked the riddle of our faith! I finally understand why the front pews are reserved for Europeans, why white people always live in nice houses with big gardens and have luxurious clubs, why their children have fancy schools with big swimming pools, why brown people sometimes do not have regular running water, and black people have even less. God is white!”
Menezes does not see everything in black and white terms however, but through characters like Lando’s friends Jeep, Ahmed and Hardev; and Saboti the African girl who Lando has a crush for; and Jimmy his English friend, we get different shades of brown.
When barely a teen, Lando is sent back to Goa for an education, but his stay is not entirely pleasant as this was a period of food shortages.
To make matters worse missionaries zero in on him as a likely candidate for the priesthood as he has the right intelligence and caste. The description of how he escaped being drafted is interesting.
Quietly interwoven in the narrative are anecdotes of Kenyan club life; and Goan village life; of Goan legends like Dr Ribeiro; and tragedies like the Japanese torpedoing of the S. S. Tilawa that killed many Goans during W.W. II.
After Peter Nazareth’s caustic impressions of the Goans in Africa in the 70s in The General is Up and In a Brown Mantle we now get a more sympathetic view of the Goan diaspora.
In the process Menezes sweeps under the carpet some of the more unsavoury aspects of Goan life, like the way that the many clubs they formed in Kenya may have been fronts for their castes; or that they consciously or unconsciously colluded with the British in the subjugation of the Africans.
But maybe these aspects of life will be given greater attention in the subsequent volumes of the Matata trilogy.