The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 7, 2002

When the magic of Goa does not enrapture
Aradhika Sekhon

Elsa’s Joint and other Goan Characters
by Remigo Botelho Published by Rupa Price Rs 150.

Elsa’s Joint and other Goan CharactersGOA is evocative of the sun, sea, music, carnival and colour. For films and books that wish to deal effectively with Goa and Goans, it is imperative that they convey the atmosphere that belongs particularly to this part of India. There is something about the place that is flamboyant, to a certain extent, glamorous, and to use a colloquy, bindaas. Goa has an attitude and an ambience, which, perhaps because of the lingering Portuguese influence there, is not quite Indian somehow. One has come to expect from the Goans, a certain degree of Epicureanism and the laid-back acceptance of minor human vices like the indulgence in wine, quite natural in the land of Feni and Port. Romance, again, is natural to a land of music and serenade, which also makes it the accepted choice of tourists and honeymooners.

It is with a sense of anticipation, then that one reaches for the book Elsa’s Joint. One readies oneself to savour the flavours of Goa as one gets involved in the lives of the characters. After all, the author does promise on the cover that Elsa’s joint deals with ‘some other Goan characters’. A few pages into the book, hoping that ethnic Goa with its fishing boats, coconut groves, wooded hills and post-card pretty villages would be presented soon or that urban Goa would be proffered presently, and one disappointedly concludes that the book is not at all what seems to be promised. In totality, in fact, the book fails to enthuse interest.


The main drawback of the book is that it meanders. The reader cannot connect with any situation because the context keeps shifting and thus the reader never really knows where he’s located. It’s a little bit like standing on the beach and trying to grab a foothold on the shifting sands

The story begins when Mr. Fernandes loses his German-made umbrella in a church, where he is invited to give a lecture on Panjim’s history. This is an earth-shattering event in his life and the trigger of the story that never really fires off. The focus of the action is a taverna run by the woman, Elsa. This is the place where the male gentry of Panjim meet and interact. They exchange information about the petty travails and troubles that mark their lives. Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t manage to rise above the pettiness. The reader finds himself in a state of ennui as he plods through the unexciting lives of the characters.

The cast of characters include the ‘pivotal’ character of Elsa, whose chief claim to fame, or notoriety, is that she owns the ‘taverna’ or the ‘joint’. Then there is John, the scholar, whose source of livelihood is the translation of Portuguese documents into the Queen’s language. John is a drifter and sometimes the paramour of Elsa and sometimes of Rosy, and sometimes a whole parade of women. Rosy is the married maid who works for John’s parents and who wants to marry John but in a night of love, John has promised marriage to Elsa when actually, he feels that it would be expedient for him to marry the grocer’s daughter. There is also Pedro, the smuggler and Mr. Fernandes who was fathered by a priest; and Dona Branca, the cantankerous old woman who opposes any change of the old school. Botelho, has in fact, managed to put together quite a range of characters, but they remain unidimensional and flat. As for those special features that are the right of every character, major or minor, in any novel, one is left groping in the dark to find them in Elsa’s Tavern and other Goan characters. Painted in dull colours, there is no vibrancy about them at all as they plod through a life made dreary by the author.

Unexpectedly, however, there are some flashes of humour in the book as when the parish priest expresses his concern about his flock’s sense of priorities. " We’re trying to find an umbrella or a coat or to publish a book, when actually we should first think of saving our soul. And I think we should start with Elsa’s joint…a total change in our way of thinking is called for and we must start by changing the taverna."

" I agree with you Father", Pedro said, "… We could translate the name into English and call it a bar". But these tongue-in-cheek samples of humour are but flashes-in-the pan, easily missed as you grab forty winks over the book.

From the time Mr. Fernandes loses his umbrella till the time he finds it in an unexpected place in the end, the story meanders through a series of non-happenings like the grocer’s wife standing for the municipal elections at St. Anne’s ward to John’s dilemma about marrying the grocer’s daughter to Elsa’s becoming a widow to Rosy’s becoming a political figure in the ward with a strong female vote-bank. The reader goes through it all without missing a pulse-beat, without empathising or getting involved at any level and finally, when the book is over, casts it aside with a yawn.