Review by TX Lobo

A Handful of Grams: Goan Proverbs

Edited by damian lopes and Dominic Lopes

A friend of mine who is well read in South Asian literature, seeing this book on my desk, picked it up, thumbed through a few pages, and then took it home with him. When I asked him a few days later what he thought, he told me that, more than many novels he had read about India, this slim volume of ‘quirky and profound’ proverbs succeeded in dislocating him and drawing him into a distant culture.

The truth about human life is always local, always tied to a specific place at a specific moment, and it is folk literature such as this, with its everyday turns of phrase and concrete, down-to-earth images, that really gives us a chance to get inside that place at that moment.

The proverbs in A Handful of Grams come from Goa, the tiny former Portuguese colony on the coast south of Bombay. Most of them started out in Konkani, some in Portuguese, and the flavour of both languages comes through clearly in English. Like proverbs everywhere, they address universal problems: mortgages, marriage, snooping neighbours, the ministrations of concerned government (as in ‘The service of the government is like a lamp on the head of a cat’). Some deal with matters of theological importance (‘The blind man asks for one eye and god gives him two’). Others reflect the colonial experience, in a lighthearted way (as in ‘His manners are too Portuguese – he leaves meat on the bones’). But all embody values and employ metaphors that can come only from India.

Reading through a book like this it becomes obvious at once how difficult it must be to arrange two or three hundred brief sayings in a way that doesn’t dampen their spirit. After all, proverbs are laced throughout daily speech, not rattled off one after another. At first I thought they should have been arranged by subject matter, but then I realized that six consecutive proverbs about the wisdom of saving for a rainy day equals no proverbs at all. And a random selection would have been just as bad.

The editors of A Handful of Grams have hit upon an ingenious solution (one of them told me the inspiration came from A. K. Ramanujan’s translations of Shaivite devotional poetry). On each pair of pages proverbs have been selected that play off, comment upon, or undermine each other. For example ‘Picking lice from your loincloth won’t make it lighter’ is echoed on the next page by ‘Stepmother hunted lice by moonshine’ (an image no wicked stepmother in Disney can beat). The hunting theme is picked up on the same page by ‘The ghost has hidden the exorcist’ and ‘You need a looking glass to see your bangles?’ These all give solidity, depth and colour to the platitude, ‘There’s no witness
like the conscience.’

The book comes with a witty and evocative foreword and a glossary of words the editors have chosen not to translate into English. (‘Grams’ are defined as ‘chick peas or garbanzo beans eaten roasted and spiced as a snack food.’) Like many books published by small presses, it is beautifully designed and printed. As my friend remarked, it deserves a place on the bookshelf of everyone interested in Indian culture or literature.

– TX Lobo, Toronto, 1996

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