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INDIAN REVIEW OF BOOKS      47      16 MAY 2001 / 15 JULY 2001

 

 

Not without Blemishes    SKIN by Margaret Mascarenhas

(Penguin) pp. 257, Rs 250.00

 

 

 

 

W

hen Pagan, the spunky heroine of Margaret Mascarenhas first novel, Skin, flies across several continents, ostensibly to see her dying grandmother in Goa, and the intimidating matriarch asks her, Who are you?, we know we have the beginning of a promising novel. A chance encounter with an abusive, gun-totting drunk in a bar in Palo Alto, where she lives, sends the cross-cultural hybrid Pagan Miranda Flores, in search of her roots. She is not fobbed off by her aunts tepid story of their Saraswat Brahmin-Portuguese magnificent land-owning lineage. Neither is the reader, for there is the mysterious Alma who comes every night in Pagans dreams. For what we see is not what Pagan is.

            In the course of the book, through the events narrated by her old servant Esperanša, Pagan unravels her mysterious past, going back several generations. It is a most unedifying storyof an immense family fortune built on slave running, of bestial men and women of Amaxonian strength and breath-taking beauty, of dastardly deeds and horrific social inequities which a disregarded most casually in the larger interests of the family or the community, of genetic pools which extend beyond the Sarawat and the Castilian to embrace the African Angolan. Child of mixed parentage she is, but not legitimately of Francisco, her Indian Goan Roman Catholic father and Katie Ward, her White Southern Baptist mother, but stealthily of Lenadro, Franciscos brother and Saudade, daughter of the family retainer Esperanša, who is of Angolan extract. Pagan is fair-skinned and green-eyed, and can pass off easily for a white woman, the reader is told, her white skin is a veritable hair shirt which she is glad to shrug off.  It is with pride that she acknowledges her Indo-African roots. Buttressing this extremely involved family plot are detailed and very well recounted and fictionalized stand-alone accounts of the Portuguese conquest of Goa, their dubious trade connections that included African slave running, Angolan tribal lore, Hindu myths and much more.

            Mascarenhasgrasp over her characters is firm and in a book teeming with people, she manages to fix identities very firmly, with a fine sense of irony. So, Dona Gabriela, Pagans grandmother ,

 

could violate a trust and then, in a dazzling array of verbal feints cause the one who had been betrayed to feel foolish for making an issue of it.

 

There is the despicable but wholly credible Leandro, who not only seduces Pagans natural mother, but also her adoptive one, shielding eternally behind his mothers blind love for him, while robbing her of her possessions quite shamelessly.

 

            Every time Leandro came home to visit his parents, he would take something away. Pieces of the houseThey were all antiques, since there was nothing new in the three-hundred-year-old mansion. He never visited for free.

 

                Mascarenhas gathers her ingredients with care the problem lies in he mixing; the seamless blend of style and substance. As a writer, this is a question that engages me all the timehow to blend fact with fiction, what we know with what we feel, so that seams do not show.

 

Mascarenhas writes:

           

            Livia can tell Pagan is upset by her visit to the hospital. To distract her, she begins recounting the family history. She begins like a school teacher, with the conquest of the Goa by the Portuguese, led by Afonso de Albuquerque on 25 November 1510.

 

But the mitigating phrase like a school teacher is not enough. It does not absolve the writer of writing like a school text book. And she goes on to recount the story of the Hindu Sarawat Brahmin conversion to Catholocism. The book abounds such uncomfortable juxtapositions. Sister Magdalene arrives in Angola, is met by Father Gonsalves, he of the resonant voice and deep belly laugh and immediately the writer launches off into

           

            The province of Cabinda, an area of seven thousand square kilometers, lies at the north-eastern tip of Angola

 

and carries on in that geo graphical vein. We learn that Francisco will be coming to Paris for a seminar.

            He would be presenting a paper entitled, Mitochondria in DNAthe key to unlocking our collective memory. In it, he proposed that the double helix mitochondria , the life force and core of enzyme activity in the cell

 

                Which brings us to yet another problem of the first-time writerthe need to put all you have into your first novel, to blur your story with your pet causes. So that we have endlessly shifting narrative, so slippery in places that it seems pointless. Mascarenhas Africa-centric view of the world crowds out the need to be faithful to the logic of the narrative. The whole Katie and Mary Elizabeth Ward interlude, which is so well-written, is left high and dry. Is it because they are white and thus out of place with the vision of the book?

            What Mascarenhas would probably like to make of her heroine (and perhaps also of her book) is best summed up by this description

           

            an extraordinary blend of ingredientsa living bridge between races, between continents, between the physical plane and that of the spirit. She was the perfect conduit between the old ways and the new. A cultural hybrid who would fit anywhere and nowhere, forever suspended between worlds. Her liquid green cat eyes were the eyes of a dream traveler

 

                While Pagan may aspire to be all that, it is no less that she has ballast enough to anchor the demanding plot her creator weighs her down with. Mascarenhas ends neatly. The mysterious Alma is Pagans long-dead twin, Pagan proceeds to have children with her boyfriend, she divides her time between Goa and Brazil where the father of her twins lives, and in a teasingly aberrant genetic throw-back, her daughter has two lovely bouncing breastsbut only one nipple.

 

USHA KR

Writer and editor