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'History is littered with religious conflict'

February 09, 2024 12:47 IST
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'The othering of religious groups inevitably leads to violence.'
'It is sadly a narrative that has echoed through the centuries since man first discovered God.'

IMAGE: The Se Cathedral at Old Goa, an example of Portuguese architecture, is one of the largest churches in Asia. Photograph: Kind courtesy Abhiomkar/ Commons

When God Died is a provocative title for a book. It is set in Goa in the early years of Portuguese rule, around the time of the inquisition in the province which targeted not only non-Christians but also new converts who were accused off continuing to practise their old religions.

The persecuted lost their liberty, their wealth, were often exiled and flogged other times. Some were even burnt at the stake.

Vatsala Mendonca's novel When God Died follows a young woman from Portugal who travels to Goa to marry. Tragedy accompanies her at every step.

"Despite a dark history there is a rich syncretism in Goa. You see this harmonious assimilation in the fact that respect and reverence is shown for all religions...Goans are Goans first and then Hindus or Christians or Muslims," Vatsala Mendonca tells Senior Contributor A Ganesh Nadar.

IMAGE: An 18th century French sketch showing a man condemned to be burnt alive during the Goa inquisition.
The stake is behind him to his left, the punishment is sketched on his shirt. Photograph: Kind courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Could you tell me something more about the inquisition in the early years of Portuguese rule in Goa?

The inquisition in Goa was one of the darkest periods of Portuguese colonial rule, a time when the fundamental principles of humanity were eviscerated.

It was a religious tribunal set up to suppress heresy and enforce Catholic orthodoxy.

It reached Goa's shores in 1560 and lasted for 250 years except for a hiatus of four years in the eighteenth century.

It was abolished only in 1820.

It was a weapon used primarily against those who had converted to Christianity. but were accused of still following their ancestral religions.

Sentences ranged from flogging to exile to working in the galleys. Some accused were even burned at the stake.

IMAGE: The Auto-da-fé procession of the Inquisition at Goa.
An annual event to publicly humiliate and punish the heretics, it shows the chief inquisitor, Dominican friars, Portuguese soldiers, as well as religious criminals condemned to be burnt in the procession. Photograph: Kind courtesy Wellcome Collection 43219i/

Do you feel that there is no drama in today's Goan life that you based your story in the 17th century?

Hahaha! That's not true! History fascinates me. Even my first novel Shadow Of The Palm Tree pivots around the presence of African slaves in Goa during the Portuguese era.

When I first learned about the inquisition I knew I had to write a story set in that time. Perhaps I find the drama of the past more interesting.

IMAGE: Vatsala Mendonca reading a chapter from When God Died at the book launch at the Bombay Yacht Club, January 17, 2024. Photograph: Hitesh Harisinghani/

Your book is filled with sorrow from end to end. Was there nothing positive about the Portuguese invasion of Goa?

I don't think there can ever be anything positive about invasion. But having said that I must also admit that of all the colonisers who came to India, the Portuguese were considered the most genial.

They sought to Lusitanise the natives. But unlike the British they lacked a broader colonial vision.

Whereas trade and defense flourished, agriculture and industry suffered. A paucity of opportunities catalysed the migration of hundreds of thousands to British India, British Africa and even the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola.

IMAGE: An illustration of the ruins of the headquarters of the Goa inquisition, from L'Homme et La Terre by Élisée Reclus (1905). Photograph: Kind courtesy Élisée Reclus/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Your book is set in the 17th century, but your audience is in the 21st century. Why have you used the language of that period which is archaic most times and sometimes incomprehensible?

I don't agree. I think the language I have used is universal.

In my novel God dies at the hand of the inquisition, a tribunal established to protect his word. The death of god is a metaphor for the loss of a universal moral truth. Unfortunately God continues to die every day.

The heroine is shown as being unlucky throughout the story.

Maria was a product of her times, a victim of a patriarchal fate. She was a so-called orphan of the king, a girl whose father had died in service to the crown and who was rewarded with the king's patronage.

She sails to Goa to marry a man selected for her by the Crown.

By sending these girls to the colonies the Crown helped settlers find Portuguese wives. The Crown rewarded the men with a handsome dowry.

Unfortunately for Maria her fiancé dies a few hours before the wedding and she is forced to marry a man who has no moral compass.

We are shown several episodes which display the villainy of the protagonist but we are never told why he became as such.

Peter, Maria's husband, is also a product of his times. He was a colonial subject whose family had converted to Christianity to protect their lands and lifestyle. He is also the son of a second son forced to live off the largesse of his uncle.

The two black women in the story are said to be extraordinarily beautiful. Were they supposed to be very good looking in those times?

Noor is a mulatto, the daughter of a Portuguese father and African mother. The coming together of different genes often creates the most exotic fruit! But, of course, there is no norm.

I just chose to make Noor and the other slave Jeremiah, who is pure African, good looking.

IMAGE: The Chapel of St Catherine, built during the Portuguese occupation in Old Goa. Photograph: Kind courtesy Soman/ Commons

On one hand we are told that the inquisition was particularly severe at that time and on the other hand we have the villain's sister living as Radha in his house, a well-known Hindu name.

Her Christian name was Ruth. Many people at that time had two names. The names they were given at birth and the names they were given when they converted.

Marco being destroyed by Peter using the inquisition seems understandable but he receiving his property seems improbable.

It may seem improbable, but it is a historical fact. The inquisition confiscated the property of the accused and a part of it was given as a reward to the person that exposed them.

It was to encourage people to rat out on their neighbours and friends and relatives.

IMAGE: The Hindu-Christianity Unity Memorial at Miramar beach, Goa. Photograph: Kind courtesy Nikhil Kulkarni/ Commons

Anyone reading your book will come away with a feeling of sorrow, deep sorrow. Do you expect them to recommend the book to anyone?

Yes! It will appeal to the serious reader. The subject is serious and so can't be handled lightly.

The Inquisition was a particularly dark period of our history that needs to be told and the knowledgeable reader will appreciate it.

How come the Portuguese never expanded beyond Goa?

They did go beyond Goa to Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Remember that Bombay belonged to the Portuguese till it was gifted to Charles Il as part of Catherine of Braganza's dowry.

Goa was the jewel in the Portuguese crown. Its ports enabled them to access the spices of the East and wrestle the trade monopoly away from their traditional enemies -- the Moors.

What is the message you are trying to give through your book?

History is littered with religious conflict. The othering of religious groups inevitably leads to violence. It is sadly a narrative that has echoed through the centuries since man first discovered God.

IMAGE: The Shantadurga temple in Goa. Photograph: Kind courtesy Nkodikal/ Commons

Goa attracts tourists from all over the World. Goans are known to be fun loving, lovers of music, dance and Feni.
How did they become like this after facing 250 years of Portuguese tyranny?

The Goans believe in Alegria or wellbeing more than they believe in Susegado or indolence.

Despite a dark history there is a rich syncretism in Goa. You see this harmonious assimilation in the fact that respect and reverence is shown for all religions.

Hindus revere St Francis Xavier and Christians Shantadurga.

Goans are Goans first and then Hindus or Christians or Muslims.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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