Love in the Time of Conquest
Alban Couto
LOVE AND SAMSARA by Eusebio L. Rodrigues New Academic Publishing, 2008, 611 pp., price not stated
July 2008, volume 32, No 7

Love and Samsara is a historical novel set in the sixteenth century. It explores the consequences of the discovery by Vasco da Gama of the sea route from Europe to India.The importance of this discovery has been a subject of revision since the fifties; the quinquennial celebrations of his landing in Calicut were deemed politically incorrect and had to be abandoned.The discovery did initiate the era of imperialism; its end and the decline of Eurocentrism in academia have prompted studies for a balanced and nuanced assessment.These take into account the socio-economic and cultural implications of the encounters between West and East and the changes in the lives in the Indian subcontinent and in the communities on the periphery of the Indian Ocean. The scholar and historian, Ashin Das Gupta (1922–1998) in a follow up of Fernand Braudel’s studies of the Mediterranean, has revealed a distinctive society of trading families that existed and the interactions between merchants in the Indian Ocean from Malabar to Surat that transcended the political boundaries of the hinterland states.

Another important consequence that changed the life of the region was the establishment of the sea-borne Portuguese empire, a unique exercise of sovereign power from control points around the seas. In the first half of the sixteenth century, Portuguese India—the Estado da India of Goa, Daman, and Diu—with Goa as capital, radiated from seaports in Asia and Africa. Though geographically inchoate in terms of land mass, yet it controlled the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. Sanjay Subramanian and Luis Filipe Thomas, refer to its operations from ‘a complex of territories, establishments, goods, persons, and administrative interests in Asia and East Africa’

There were cultural implications as well. Prior to the invasive nature of culture and religion by the Portuguese in the wake of the discovery, there prevailed in the region of the Indian Ocean a harmonization of Buddhist and Jain influences transmitted in cultural and trade exchanges in the Arab controlled routes through Asia and Africa into Europe. An examplar is the Arabian Nights, a collection of stories, whose tales of Sindbad the Sailor, Aladdin, and Ali Baba, now form a part of western folklore and are set in a timeless universe. Did Vasco da Gama herald a culture of violence, proselytization, and power that vitiated the cultural homogeneity and delicate balance of Indo-Islamic civilization? Did the Judeo-Christian concept of time and history introduce reality into the ocean of illusion? These issues are debated and discussed in Love and Samsara, with the author Eusebio Rodrigues holding forth on an array of historical characters and personalities, that are given body and voice in events that were turning points in the lives of communities and countries that fringed the Indian Ocean.

The personal story of the protagonist, Ahmad ibn Majid, the Arab master navigator who showed Vasco da Gama the sea route to India is set within this frame. Was he a traitor, an Arab Muslim paving the way to the destruction of the Islamic civilization in the East? Guilt ridden, he consoled himself with the reflection that he was merely performing his duty, a professional service paid for strictly by the scheduled rates. But it is his world that is on the brink of destruction. ‘The circle of my universe’ says Ahmad, ‘began at Sofala in East Africa, and went on to Mogadishu, to Aden, to Hormuz, around to Diu, to Chaul and to Calicut in India, and then to the region that stretches below the wind, the worlds of cinnamon and cloves that lies beyond Cape Comorin, and ends at Melaka.’

Camões in his epic poem of that time, The Lusiads, does not specify the nationality of the navigator who showed da Gama the sea route to India, but places him in Malinda near Mombassa in East Africa, referring to an act of friendship by the sultan who is grateful for the help of the Portuguese in battling the neighboring principalities, offered the services of master navigator to Vasco da Gama. Some historians make the navigator a Gujarati Hindu who knew the monsoon routes, an interpretation consistent with Hindu resistance seeking allies against Muslim invaders. Rodrigues however uses the historic figure to give significance to the narrative and the plot.

Historically the objective of the sea route to India was to destroy Islamic power. The Portuguese did come to India, in the words of Vasco da Gama, for spices and souls; both economics and religion determined that the principal enemy was Islam. The direct route between Europe and India was blocked by the Arab conquest of Egypt and Persia in the seventh century, all Indian wares had to pass through Muslim hands, until these reached Venice, the entrepot for Europe. The source of spices in India was the south, which the Portuguese commandeered by stages from Calicut, to Cochin, and Cannanore. With the control of the seas of the western part of the Indian Ocean the trade from India was soon in their hands.

The Portuguese used their superior gunnery and ships to good effect, aided by diplomatic and strategic skills in playing off one potentate against the other, and also taking advantage of the interstate wars in India between the Bahamani and Vijayanagar kingdoms in the south, the breakup of the Mughal Empire in the north, and beyond India, the defeat of the Mameluks of Egypt by the Turks. Against the disintegrating Mughal Empire, Gujarat in the strong hands of Mahmud Bigara remained a bastion of Islamic power against the marauding Portuguese. Gujarat formed a strong alliance with the sultan of Egypt and the zamorin of Calicut. An Egyptian fleet assembled at Suez reached India in 1507, where it was joined by Indian ships led by Malik Ayaz. The combined force defeated the Portuguese at Chaul where the son of the Portuguese Viceroy was also killed. It is at this point that the novel begins with the doom-laden premonition of the return of the Portuguese with a stronger fleet and artillery that two years later was to annihilate the Muslim alliance at Diu in 1509

From Diu the narrative in Love and Samsara moves into four sequences in time and space backwards and forwards: The arrival of the Portuguese, via the sea route, at Calicut in May 1498 leading to the subjugation of the centres of the spice trade in south India; the Portuguese playing off the Hindu rajas against each other; the usurpation of Arab control of trade from India to the West with control of the entrepots on the shores of West Africa, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, and finally Diu in Gujarat in 1509; the transformation in 1510 by Afonso de Albuquerque of trading posts around the Indian Ocean into the unique sea-borne Portruguese empire with its capital Goa which was wrested from Adil Shah of the Bahamani dynasty; the dreams of Afonso de Albuquerque for access to China and Japan by the acquisition of the Moluccas in the Malay Peninsula, that were realized after his death in 1515.

Interwoven in the historical narrative is the personal story of Ahmad’s fateful relationships with Vasco da Gama and Afonso de Albuquerque and of his two infidelities in betraying Islam—one in his showing the monsoonal secrets that would bring the Portuguese to Calicut, and the second when he treated the wounded Afonso de Albuquerque with the arcane medicines of the Unani school and disclosed to him the strategic routes that would lead to the capture of Goa. His story has an elegiac refrain in his recollections of his tragic love for Usha, of a Jain family in Diu which ends with her murder on the beach of Anjuna in Goa, in retribution for a violation of the code that prohibits inter-communal marriage. The novel ends with Ahmad alone and desolate, estranged from his son who is left to the care of Layla the maid.

The interweaving provides for a parade of characters partly historical and partly fictional. They have their moments of relevance and add zest to the narrative and tragic comic confusion of values and purposes, though the unification of opposites does sometimes strain the bounds of credulity. Jan Mirza, a Portuguese adventurer, dissolute, and in every sense a degrado, was a good Catholic, aspiring to be a theologian in the University of Paris, and also disciple of the humanist Erasmus, but who gives up the faith on being disillusioned with the senseless wars of Christendom between Reformation and Counter-Reformation groups. Jan becomes a Muslim and is a good friend, loyal to Ahmad, an unquestioning handmaid to his enterprises that ends one world and brings into being another.

There is the bania of Surat whose sole purpose in life is making money; who believes that loyalties are ephemeral and to be subordinated to good business. Then there are Catholic priests who preach the message of love and charity but cannot rid themselves of a kind of fundamentalism which is to convert, though in a land where all faiths and beliefs are acceptable, conversion is meaningless. These priests profess celibacy and austerity, yet succumb to drink and temptation to lascivious women. Another character, Father Luis, a presiding spirit throughout the book, is given his own medicine when he is about to be forcibly converted to Islam. He is rescued by the Gujarat Sultan whom he has saved from an assassination attempt by Islamic fundamentalists. His sermons on love and charity fall on deaf ears that are more attuned to the Bhakti and Sufi cults that were gaining popularity at that time.

The cameos of the historical characters of Vasco da Gama, of Sultan Mahmud of Gujarat, and Krishna Deva Raya of Vijayanagar, and of Afonso de Albuquerque are deftly drawn. So also the lesser characters who play a crucial role in history: Timoja the admiral of the Vijayanagar fleet who persuades Albuquerque to drive the Muslims out of Goa and then restore the Hindu dynasty in the South, is a counterpoint to Majid the traitor. The difference is Timoja who keeps to his faith by his act of infidelity in inviting a foreign power to invade Goa and thereby save Hinduism.

As behoves a professor of English Literature of several years in the Bombay University and later for many more years at the University of Georgetown, Rodrigues keeps firmly to the classic unities of plot, space, and time, with touches of hubris and guilt, and Proust-like evocations of lost time and lost love. This is a narrative of chiseled prose recorded like a palimpsest chronicle interspersed with intertextual interventions from subsidiary characters. There are no quotation marks for speech but the cadences of the spoken word resonate throughout.

The philosophical arguments and debate on Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam do sound ineffectual and sterile and one is not quite sure as to whether they are meant to be a part of Samsara, the grand ocean of nothingness. But there is no denying the literary flavour of the book which is replete with significant colourful detail of cuisine, customs, dance, music, and literature of both East and West. References to western theologians and to Islamic and Hindu philosophers abound; the net is stretched far and wide to catch Duns Scotus, the Vaishnavite Madhava, and the philosopher singer, Purandaradasa of the Vijayanagar court. There are graphic descriptions of festivals and drama recitals, with insertions of play within a play in the narrative, and the sprinkling of words in the original languages which are explained by the further reading of the text.

Some devices serve to good effect for the unity of opposites: the Portuguese who for centuries were under Moorish occupation use the Moorish imperatives of jihad to extirpate them; they themselves wreak vengeance with unparalled cruelty killing women and children in the ships that take them for the Haj pilgrimage; their fundamentalism and zeal to convert has an Islamic character without its compassion and brotherhood. Some of the tragic comic confusion is described with some relevance as for instance the play for the entertainment of the Sultan of Gujarat where the Portuguese in the early part of their explorations are symbolized in the character of a stunted dwarf, the object of ridicule and laughter from those who are soon to be destroyed by the triumphant Portuguese; the confounding by Vasco da Gama and his crew of a deity in the temple in Calicut with the Virgin Mary of the Christian church; the Portuguese search for the mythical Christian king, Prester John, in Kerala but finding to their dismay the more real and enduring Thomas Christians instead, and the unresolved mystery as to who killed whom when the Sultan of Gujarat was invited by the Portuguese Governor of Diu to a friendly meeting but both losing their lives in a sudden skirmish.

Love and Samsara is a vade-mecum and literary tour de force that explores in picturesque and poignant detail the events that shaped the lives and fortunes of communities of the Indian Ocean at a turning point in history when their ethos was shattered by the technology and power of the West. The invasive influence was aided by native intermediaries and agents who shared in the power and greed of the imperialists. The gory details of the terror, the bloodshed, the massacres, are dissolved in the great ocean of illusion. The enduring frame of reference is the Arabian Nights, the Arabic Alf Layla va Layla (a thousand nights and one night). In Love and Samsara, Layla is the custodian of Ahmad’s son; she is spared from the fate that killed Usha so that she can carry on with the serial of the life giving narrative. Ahmad is the archetype Sindbad who makes an appearance in the novel. He is like Ahmed a master navigator, a poet, and a spinner of tales. The novel concludes with a promise of another story which must be narrated as Scherazade did to atone for human infidelity and to ward off execution and death. When will the endless narrative of sequels between Diu and Anjuna, the ancestral village of Rodrigues in Goa, reach the denouement publicized in tourist guides of Samsara in Diu and hallucinogenic nothingness on the wide white sands of Anjuna?

Love and Samsara is a good must read full of colourful and tantalizing details grounded in history. It brings to life the heroes and anti-heroes, their societies and communities, their experiences and aspirations, the cultural interactions, the conflicts, the tragedies, the successes, and the rise and fall of hegemonies and empires at a turning point in world history.

Alban Couto is a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service. He lives in his ancestral village, Aldona, Goa and writes on social, economic and cultural issues. 

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