What happened to Indian literature in Portuguese?


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WHAT has been called ‘Indo-Portuguese’ literature, the result of a four and a half century colonial presence of the Portuguese in India (1510-1961), is shrouded in some curious phenomena. First, is the fact that a language spoken by a minority1 is represented by a select corpus of literary works (these include poetry, short stories, novels, criticism and historiography). Second, it did not survive the process of decolonization, contrary to other literatures produced in a colonial context and written in the language of the colonizer. We can therefore count the number of important Goan authors that wrote in Portuguese after Goa was incorporated into the Indian Union in 1961.

Goan literature in the Portuguese language thus seems to be the only case that confirms the precipitated thesis (for obvious reasons) by Albert Memmi which was advanced in the late 1950s. According to this thesis, the literatures colonized by European languages were condemned to die, given the strength of the national liberation movements at that time. Indo-Portuguese literature, therefore, fits perfectly into the suggested causes for the disappearance of such literatures: the new generations born in an environment of freedom would spontaneously write in their new-found language or the authors would fully belong to the metropolitan literature.2

There was a revival of Konkani, the native language of Goa, after the Portuguese left in 1961, but the local writers in Portuguese always had difficulty in forming their own literary field because they produced their works within the sphere of Portuguese literature. The most significant Indo-Portuguese literary works were originally published in Portugal3 (where they actually had a better circulation than in India), and their authors, with a couple of exceptions, moved to the metropolis.


The figure of Orlando da Costa (poet, novelist and playwright), who is already comfortably installed in the history of ‘Portuguese’ literature as belonging to the last phase of the neo-realist movement, closes the cycle begun by Francisco Luís Gomes, the author of the first Indo-Portuguese novel. Both authors owed much more to Portuguese culture than Indian culture – as did any educated Goan in a Christian and European environment – despite the fact that they were ‘under the sign of a rupture’, to use the words of Eufemiano de Jesus Miranda, which defines quite well the condition of the Indo-Portuguese writer.4 This rupture is naturally explained by the delicate relationship that these Goans had with the ancestral Hindu universe.

It was not long ago that death surprised three short story writers, apparently the last Goan authors in the Portuguese language residing in Goa. However, there are still living authors such as Agostinho Fernandes, dwelling in Portugal, and Vimala Devi (a historian of Indo-Portuguese literature, but also and especially a poet and short story writer), who has lived in Barcelona for many years and continues to publish books which, nevertheless, do not reflect Goan or Indian themes. A surprise in 2008 was the launch of an autobiographical novel by the author of a fairly well-known study on religious confraternities in Goa.5 

And yet, we should start at the beginning. Indo-Portuguese literature was born in the Catholic convents in Goa. From the 15th to the 18th centuries, it was limited to texts of a religious and pedagogic nature, or approached problems related to the castes that were upheld within the Catholic milieu after the conversion of large sections of the Hindu population (with important differences in relation to the original system, be it in terms of its constitution or social implications). Nonetheless, this literature had to wait till the 19th century to see its first works of imagination emerge as a result of the introduction of Romanticism and Liberalism in Goa through the local press which began to develop in 1821.


The first novel in Goa is attributed to Francisco Luís Gomes (1829-1869). It was also one of the first novels in India when it was published in 1866.6 This work, titled The Brahmins,7 bears witness to the Goan writers’ (in Portuguese) general disregard in adapting European literary genres to Indian traditional literary forms or local sensibilities. This was what those who wrote in a vernacular language or English worried about most in other parts of India at the time of the ‘acclimatization’ of the European genre of the novel in that region of Asia, propelled by Bengali Renaissance (Bengal was governed by the English).


In any case, Francisco Luís Gomes, a great lover of parliamentary and French culture during Portugal’s 19th century ‘regenerator’ movement (liberal and progressive), wrote one of the most original texts from that period. His novel (theoretical and exotic at the same time) could be considered as being not only the first piece of fiction of modern literature that denounced the abuses of colonialism and ‘suggested’ the withdrawal of a foreign power from the soil it usurped, but also the first that openly attacked the Hindu caste system. Furthermore, the writer had the audacity to promote an inter-ethnic marriage in his book at the exact same time that theories of race began to appear in the West, or more specifically, soon after the Count of Gobineau launched his theory based on a supposed degeneration that resulted from a mixing of the races.8 

However, Gomes’s discourse contains some (important) problems: while revolting against the alleged superiority of the Europeans (or simply of the white man) over the other populations in the world that engendered colonialism, he also ends up legitimizing the colonial enterprise. If, in function of the perspective adopted by the writer in presenting a colonial fact, we can interpret The Brahmins as an ‘anti-colonialist’ novel, we should also take into account that it exalts the Portuguese colonialist model, where the ‘black beast’ in the book represents the British domain in northern India (the action takes place in the Muslim kingdom of Oudh, in the current state of Uttar Pradesh).


The question of colonial racism itself is problematic in the novel. The European is not capable of understanding that dark skin colour does not deprive those who have it of humanity, but the big moral values that are considered to be exclusive to the white man are shown in the novel as being the inherent attributes of a European female character in contrast to the portrait made of the Indian characters. Francisco Luís Gomes, despite his place of birth, also gives us a very common western image of India from that period, not to mention that he collaborates with that western style for ‘dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient’, as suggested by Edward W. Said (Orientalism, 1978).9 

Thirty years later, the novel Jacob and Dulce was published by Gip, a pseudonym of Francisco João da Costa (1864-1901), and it is also original but for other reasons. It already has the merit of situating the action in Goa itself. Jacob and Dulce is an imperfect novel (but a delicious and fun chronicle of customs), that offers ‘a Goan expression of criticism on the cultural dependence’10 by satirizing the middle class of Goan Catholics and Portuguese who were fairly slavish to Europe. Gip had even gone to school: his naturalist (and polemic) vein probably inspired José da Silva Coelho (1889-1944), a remarkable short story writer whose texts appeared regularly in local newspapers. As for Jacob and Dulce, another strong point is that the author uses expressions and constructions of dialectal Portuguese, an example that could have been followed by other writers with the aim of building a literature that was intrinsically Goan from the point of view of cultural hybridity.

Ananta Rau Sardessai (1910-?) seemed to follow the same direction as Gip with his short stories, and especially the radiophonic plays.11 During the post-colonial era that did not really change, it was preferable to set aside India’s multilingualism and the oral traditions of Goan folklore which could have been based on important literary sources, not to mention an emancipation from Portuguese literature. The vernacular signs are mainly found in the dialogues of the characters (which establish a hierarchy of language at the heart of the diegesis) or suffer from either gloss or translation.12 


The poets in turn are a different case. The much idealized ‘traditional’ or Hindu India was their main subject. The first Indo-Portuguese poets were imprisoned in the alienating trap of mimetic writings, much like all of the literatures from colonized societies, at the beginning. They were very connected to the themes of Portuguese lyricism, and in local magazines and newspapers they stood out for a poetry that mainly eulogizes Portuguese ultra-Romanticism. It was with poets such as Floriano Barreto (1877-1905), at the end of the 19th century, that local thematic elements began to arise with greater frequency, thus announcing the nativist fashion.


Three factors contributed to this fashion: the appearance of certain works about Hinduism in Goa in the 1840s, the dissolution of the local army in 1871 (a Luso-descendent stronghold that found itself weakened by the indigenous elites), and the possibility offered to the Hindus to access positions in the civil service after the proclamation of the Portuguese Republic in 1910. Catholic parents began to give their children Hindu names, certain families began to display Hindu ancestors, and Indian literatures, not particularly well-known in Christian circles, became widespread in magazines created for that purpose.

This is how myths, legends and customs from the Hindu world burst into Indo-Portuguese literature. The two most representative poets that attempted to indigenize the local literature in Portuguese were Paulino Dias (1874-1919) and Nascimento Mendonça (1884-1927). The latter authored the poem that follows, ‘Choir of dancers’.

Durga,13 the Serene,

Goddess of Death,

With your hyena eyes

And graceful air.

Durga, the Serene,

Master, Master!

Brings us Death

And is the mother of Love.


She does not come alone

Durga, the Serene,

Severe and harmful,

Like the hyena,

She does not come alone,

Master, Master!

Durga, the Serene,

Brings us love.


From your daggers,

Trickles the blood,

It rains in corals

In the grass that dies.

It rains in corals,

Master, Master!

The grass that dies

I see it in bloom.


And the dust, now,

Lo, it has changed,

Garden of dawn

All moistened.

And the dust, now,

Has become grass and flower

Lo, it has changed,

By the hand of Love.14 


However, if at the thematic level Goan nativism approximates its worries to that of other nativisms that arose out of the impulse of Romanticism, its advent was not accompanied by a conscious project of differentiation from the metropolis. ‘The search for thematic originality did not venture beyond the limits of the exotic,’15 and even though the writers ‘refused the European models proposed by Portugal’, they did not completely accept ‘the cultural traits of Indian tradition.’16 

However, there is a perceptible change with the poet Adeodato Barreto (1905-1937), who represents the evolution of Indo-Portuguese poetry despite the fact that he is the author of a single collection of poetry of irregular quality. Barreto was the first Goan to use free verse and it is also in his work that we find, as affirmed by romanticist Orlando da Costa, the embryo of a certain ‘Goanity’ that ‘recovered the roots of Hindu thought.’17 Poems like ‘Apoteose’, ‘Shivaji’ and ‘Redenção’ from his The Book of Life – Indian Hyms18 (published posthumously in 1940) explicitly deal with the theme of India’s autonomy, but both his structure and interconnection of motives suggest the occurrence of the notion of ‘eternal return’, which is present in Indian mythology since the Atharvaveda – one of the four sacred texts that gave rise to Hinduism.19 


Furthermore, the poet establishes an interesting dialogue with the Indian poetic tradition itself, since thirteen of the thirty-three poems from The Book of Life are either free adaptations of texts by Sarvajna, Pugliere Soma, Bhima-Khavi and Tagore, or were extracted from Kavarijamarga and Panchatantra. For example, in ‘A caste’ he recreates verses written in tripadi metre by the Kanarese poet Sarvajna (17th century):

When the sun enters the dark dwelling

and kisses in its wake the wretched pariah,

does its light, by chance, become less pure?


O! Do not speak of a ‘vulgar’ caste,

or ‘low’ or ‘high’ or ‘plebeian’ or ‘noble’:

High in the world is only he whom God covers

with his grace;

Big is only he whom is a son of God!


When Disgrace

knocks on the door, of ‘nobles’ and ‘plebeians’,

we all swallow the glass

of Bitterness;

When Fortune

happily and pleasantly greets us,

it does not choose among poor and rich;


When in the igneous pyre mortuary

the fire consumes us,

the heart of the pariah does not burn more!

The same source satiates our thirst,

the same plains fertilize the bread

that kills our hunger:


Tell me then,

those of you who in the varnashrama20 believe,

if God birthed us as equals,

how can there still be castes in his name?21 


Post-colonialism had reserved for us two pleasant surprises in poetry: Judit Beatriz de Souza (?) and Vimala Devi (1936), who perfectly assimilated the modernist tendencies of European literature and whose level of aesthetic quality greatly exceeded that of any other Goan poet in Portuguese. The first is the author of Destiny (1955) and Suspended Gesture (1962).22 The second, besides having co-written Indo-Portuguese Literature23 with her husband (having come to light in 1971 it is not up to date; however, it continues to be the main reference book that acquaints us with Indo-Portuguese literature as a whole), she also translated Portuguese and English authors into Catalan and published Súria (1962), Hologramas (1969) and Telepoemas (1970) in Portuguese. The poet, after having passed through Lisbon, Rio, Paris and London, has been living in Barcelona for more than forty years, and has published several collections of poetry in Catalan since the 1990s. Súria (name of the Vedic Sun God) is the only book of poems that addresses India. It combines the problem of identity during post-colonial times and attempts to speak for the ‘subaltern’ communities24 from Goa, such as in the poem ‘Chamdrîm’:

Come, sorcerer Chamdrîm,25 with your specific light,

Transform the houses of churtas26 into houses of silver,

And let the Farazes27 penetrate the hills

In search of bamboo from which they weave survival!


The Mandovi and Zuari,28 strings of salty tears,

Shelter the swarthy and humble gods,

Who in the dark nights return sad

With jellyfish in their nets and empty riverboats.


Come Chamdrîm, king of the nightly firmament,

Pearl with your magic paint,

The bare torsos of the Curumbins29 scorched by the sun

– Candles melting in the perennial midday!


Come tear apart the mystery of the dying villages

Where venomous serpents bite the night.

Death spies on the peasant farmers, returning from the plains,

Bathed in earthly sweat – with eyes on their feet!


Come Chamdrîm, illuminate wells and rills,

Where mainatos,30 bent over, fight against filth.

Without you, the tropical sun would burn skulls...

For that reason, Chamdrîm, you are the god of the poor!31 


Vimala Devi is also a short story writer. Monsoon (1963) and The Boars of Codval32 (1973) by Epitácio Pais (1928-2010) are two works that symbolize the maturity of the short story in Goa. The first is a description of both the Catholic and the Hindu universe of Portuguese India, not to mention the Goan diaspora across the world. The second, according to Manuel de Seabra’s preface of the book, reveals a writer who is ‘extremely worried about the life around him, and the fever for ore that assaulted Goa (...) with the consequent deterioration of the traditional type of human relations.’33 Epitácio Pais also had several unpublished short stories in book form and Vimala Devi published The City and the Days34 in 2008 (however, none of the stories from this collection take place in Goa).

As for the novel (the minority genre), ‘the first adult novel’35 from Indo-Portuguese literature is The Sign of Wrath36 (1961) by Orlando da Costa (1929-2006). As in Jacob and Dulce by Gip – and in contrast to The Brahmins by Francisco Luís Gomes – The Sign of Wrath addresses the reality of Goa, but unlike Gip, Costa prefers to speak about the lower social classes of the Goan population, which he does in a dramatic and poetic tone while it is irony and sarcasm that prevail in the first. Having moved to Lisbon at the age of 18 (the novelist was born in Mozambique and spent his childhood and adolescence in Goa), Costa became an activist of the left and a protester of the Estado Novo (1933-1975), António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorial regime.


An award-winning novel published by the Lisbon Academy of Sciences, The Sign of Wrath sold well in Portugal. It was reprinted a year later, but was quickly withdrawn from the libraries because of Salazar’s censorship. With a neo-realistic tradition, The Sign of Wrath approaches the life of the ‘curumbins’ (Christian caste of rural workers) and the Portuguese military in Goa. Costa published a total of nine titles (including poetry, novel and drama), but only The Sign of Wrath and two other works have Goa as a background: Without Flowers or Wreaths37 (1971) is a play that deals with the Portuguese state’s loss of India, and The Last Gaze of Manú Miranda38 (2000) is a novel that bears witness to the last decades of the Portuguese colonial period.

One year after The Sign of Wrath, Agostinho Fernandes, an author who also settled in Portugal, published Bodki. This novel narrates the experience of a young doctor (Fernandes himself) who went to work in a village and is confronted with the local superstitions there. These include, in particular, those that led to the marginalization of the bodki (‘woman with shaved head’ in Konkani, in other words, the Hindu widow), from whom the population escapes as they are accused of being responsible for all of the tragic events that take place in the community. Agostinho Fernandes continues to publish novels (the third should be launched shortly), but he has completely abandoned the Goan universe.


As previously mentioned, Goan writers in Portuguese have always had difficulty in building their own literary field, independent of the fact that many publications only circulated in Goa (their scope and impact still need to be thoroughly evaluated39 ). From an aesthetic point of view, there is no conscious project of a ‘literary decolonization’ with the authenticity of such literature limiting itself to the conditions of its emergence and the individual talent of a reduced number of authors in the representation of Goa and India. In general – notwithstanding the ‘aesthetic of resistance’40 that began to take shape with Jacob and Dulce by Gip – this literature was fairly timid in terms of the transgression of the general codes of western literature (something that could have been done if based on the classic and modern literature of India) and did not grant due importance to the dialectal Portuguese of Goa.

The contribution and originality of contemporary writers such as Orlando da Costa, Epitácio Pais and Vimala Devi lies in having bet on new themes and problems related to the ‘exoticized’ narratives of western tradition and in the point of view adopted from their status as peripheral authors. We add to this a dynamic reflection on identity and the societal division between Hindus and Catholics as well as a careful consideration of the local ‘subalterns’. We do not see, however, in their works – it is worth emphasizing again – that ‘harmonious conciliation between theme and form of expression’ of which Celso Cunha refers to concerning Brazilian literature,41 an assertion that is also applicable to Lusophone African literature as well as the most representative of Indian literature in English.


On the other hand, some clues should still be explored in relation to the aesthetics of these authors. The case of Orlando da Costa is particularly interesting, since in his last novel, The Last Gaze of Manú Miranda, he moves away from the aesthetic and ideological presuppositions of the second phase of Portuguese neo-realism that are present in his first novel, The Sign of Wrath. By doing so, he approaches, as Fortuna do Vale observes,42 the ‘marvellous realism’ of Latin America: the use of the myth and fable have allowed him an aesthetic elaboration capable of dealing with, all at once, Goan social identity and a literary identity that is less dependent on Europe. One should also look for the source of this project in modern Indian literature since the issue of the ‘marvellous’ in the construction of an authentically local novel had already been raised in the 19th century.43 


Another case, that of the short story writer Vimala Devi, is no less interesting, considering such stories as ‘Nâttak’ and ‘Tyâtr’ (in Monsoon) – from the name of two local theatres – as they seem to dialogue with certain codes from those traditions, not to mention that some of the heroines from this book of short stories reminds us of a certain Indian female character called the nâyikâ, the heroine of ancient Indian love poetry and drama for which it was necessary to respect certain conventions of style.

Unfortunately (although it is more of a challenge for researchers), at the same time that this literature begins to gain the attention of those working in Comparative, Lusitanian and Indian Studies in Portugal, India, France, Brazil and the United Kingdom, it begins to disappear mainly due to the fairly critical situation of the Portuguese language in Goa nowadays. The short story writers Maria Elsa da Rocha (Shared Experiences, 2005), Carmo de Noronha (Swimming Against the Tide, 1991; Excavating in Belga, 1993 and Tales and Narratives, 1997)44 and the previously mentioned Epitácio Pais, who all recently passed away, seemed to be the last survivors of Indo-Portuguese literature that actually resided in Goa.


* Translated from the Portuguese by Rui Vitorino Azevedo. A previous version of this article was published in Portuguese: ‘Vida, paixão e morte da literatura indo-portuguesa’, Encontros lusófonos, no. 12, 2010, Iberoamerican Institute of Sophia University, Tokyo.


1. According to a census taken in 1960, only 3.5% of the Goan population spoke Portuguese (this included the Portuguese living in the colony).

2. Cf. Albert Memmi, Portrait du colonisé (précédé de) Portrait du colonisateur, Gallimard, Paris, ‘Folio actuel’, 2006, p. 128. The original version is from 1957 (Coréa).

3. Except for Jacob e Dulce (Jacob and Dulce) by Gip, which I will address later in the article. The work met with great success in Goa, and was even translated into Konkani and English.

4. Eufemiano Miranda, Literatura indo-portuguesa dos séculos XIX e XX: um estudo de temas principais no contexto sócio-histórico, a doctoral dissertation in Letters (Portuguese), Universidade de Goa, Panjim, 1995, p. 247. Translator’s note: all translations into English are mine unless otherwise stated.

5. The novel is Casa grande e outras recordações de um velho goês (2008) and its author Leopoldo da Rocha (1932), had published As confrarias de Goa: conspec to histórico-jurídico in 1973 by the Lisbon Institute for Overseas Historical Studies.

6. Alaler Gharer Dulal (Spoilt Child of an Affluent Family), published in book form in 1858 by the Bengali Pyari Chand Mitra, is commonly considered to be the first Indian novel.

7. The original title is Os Brahamanes.

8. Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853-1855).

9. For a more detailed approached to the novel Os Brahamanes (The Brahmins), cf. my doctoral thesis: http://www.theses.paris4. sorbonne.fr/These-EVM.pdf

10. Rui Simões, ‘A literatura luso-indiana’, in Rosa Maria Perez, Susana Sardo, Joaquim Pais de Brito (eds.), Histórias de Goa, Museu Nacional de Etnologia, Lisboa, 1997, p. 163.

11. Sardessai along with R.V. Pandit (1917-1990) and Laxmanrao Sardessai (1904-1986) were the only Hindu authors to write in Portuguese.

12. I deal with that question in more detail in my talk, ‘Autopsie d’une littérature: le portugais des écrivains goannais’, presented at the XIII International Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History, University of Provence, March 2010.

13. A deity from the Hindu pantheon.

14. It appears in Vimala Devi and Manuel de Seabra, A Literatura Indo-Portuguesa, Junta de Investigações do Ultramar, Lisboa, 1971, t. 2, pp. 197-198.

15. Orlando da Costa, ‘A literatura indo-portuguesa contemporânea: antecedentes e percurso’, talk presented during the International Colloquium on Vasco da Gama and India, Paris, May 1998, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Policopied text provided by the author.

16. Rui Simões, ‘A literatura luso-indiana’, article quoted, p. 81.

17. Orlando da Costa, ‘A literatura indo-portuguesa contemporânea: antecedentes e percurso’, policopy of the cited text.

18. The original title is O Livro da vida – Cânticos indianos.

19. I analyze these poems in ‘Un exercice de mythocritique à partir d’un poète indo-portugais du XXe siècle’, in Danielle Buschinger (ed.), Mythes et Mythologies, Presses du Centre d’Etudes Médiévales de l’Université de Picardie-Jules Verne, 2009, pp. 154-158.

20. The system of Hindu castes.

21. Adeodato Barreto, Civilização hindu seguido de O Livro da vida (Cânticos Indianos), Hugin, Lisboa, 2000, pp. 336-337.

22. The original titles are Destino (1955) and Gesto Supenso (1962).

23. The original title is A Literatura Indo-portuguesa.

24. In the Gramscian sense of Subaltern Studies.

25. The Moon (in Konkani).

26. Palm leaves.

27. Lower caste servants.

28. Rivers in Goa.

29. Farmers (low caste).

30. Dhobi or washermen (low caste).

31. Vimala Devi, Súria, Agência-geral do Ultramar, Lisboa, 1962, pp. 11-12.

32. The original titles are Monção (1963) and Os javalis de Codval.

33. Cf. Epitácio Pais, Os Javalis de Codval, Lisboa, Futura, 1973, p. 9.

34. The original title is A Cidade e os Dias.

35. João Gaspar Simões, quoted by Vimala Devi and Manuel de Seabra, A Literatura Indo-portuguesa, op. cit., t. 1, p. 208.

36. The original title is O Signo da Ira.

37. The original title is Sem flores nem coroas.

38. The original title is O último olhar de Manú Miranda.

39. We must keep in mind the small number of Portuguese speakers in Goa: of the 3.5%, even if it refers to a late period in Goan history (a considerable proportion of Portuguese speakers had long since emigrated to other territories), how many literate people constituted a ‘real’ reading public?

40. For more on this topic, cf. Jean-Marc Moura, Littératures francophones et théorie postcoloniale, PUF, Paris, ‘Quadrige’, 2007, pp. 68-82.

41. Celso Cunha, Língua portuguesa e realidade brasileira, Sá da Costa, Lisbonne, ‘Livros Plural’, 1999, p. 15.

42. Regina Célia Fortuna do Vale, Poder colonial e literatura: as veredas da colonização portuguesa na ficção de Castro Soromenho e Orlando da Costa, doctoral thesis, FFLCH/USP, São Paulo, 2005.

43. For more on this topic, cf. Claudine Le Blanc, Histoire de la littérature de l’Inde moderne, Ellipses, Paris, 2006, pp. 16-20.

44. The original titles are Vivências Partilhadas, Contracorrente, Escavando na Belga, and Contos e Narrativas, respectively.