Excesses of the last Vasco
by Aditi Garg

Goa, and the Blue Mountains Or Six Months of Sick Leave
by Richard F. Burton. Penguin Books. Pages 240. Rs 250.

Goa, and the Blue Mountains Or Six Months of Sick LeaveThe allure of Goa is such that it draws local and foreign travellers in droves. It has long been the centre for merry making and the hub of Anglo-Indian cultural activities. Its Portuguese colonial past has lent it a distinct flavour that sets it apart from the other holiday spots. Ever since the Portuguese took over Goa on St Catherineís Day, nothing has been the same as before. They left their mark on the architecture, culture and language of the place and inbred with the local people, which made the population heterogeneous. Famous for its beaches and architecture, Goa makes a perfect theme for a travelogue.

Goa, and the Blue Mountains was the first printed book of Richard F. Burton. He was an explorer who had an insatiable curiosity. He knew about a dozen languages. Whenever he went to a new place, he learnt its language because he was not satisfied with mere translations or feeble cultural anecdotes given by the cr`E8me de la cr`E8me. He talked to the beggars and to the hoi polloi on the streets going about their usual business.

In this book, he talks mostly of his experiences in Goa and Ooty. He scrutinises the local population and the British officials with the same critical eyes. The general decay in the Goan society is attributed to Portuguese occupation. The introduction by Dane Kennedy is absorbing and tells a few things about Burton as a person, while exploring the possible reasons for his way of narration.

The author skilfully mixes anecdotes, history, topography and cultural nuances. Though the cocktail makes for a good reading, at times the constant shifting of topic gets jarring. He compares the Indian things and situations to the British ones to create a good effect; like say comparing a palanquin to a coffin. He broaches the topic of wife beating and equals it to the cruel process of converting a pig to pork. Often, he gets too derogatory in his remarks about the appearance of the natives, calling them the most ugly race around the world.

Though his knowledge of different Indian languages impresses, his literal translations get hilarious some times. An oft-used invective in Hindi is translated as "brother-in-law". Stories about the various British and Indian rulers, like the Generals whose names he keeps from the readers, Tipu Sultan and Rajah Cherooman keep the book going. Apart from Goa, he briefly discusses Calicut, Malbar and Ootacomund. The narrative of Malabar forces upon the readers the point wise inclusion of different forms of revenues at that time.

The book is a different kind of travelogue, interspersed with narration of personal encounters and hilarious escapades. The way he analyses things is witty and diligent at the same time. His style of writing is effervescent and he almost translates everything well. At times, his curiosity gets the better of him as he shifts from one topic to the other. Accounts of Calicut, Nilgiris and Bombay leave much to be desired.

Unwanted details of lineage and anthropology hamper the pace of the book. The author makes no pretence about the British being responsible for the ever-increasing divide between the ruler and the ruled. At the same time, he shares the arrogance and racist views of his fellowmen. The book offers valuable insight into the regionís culture during the 19th century.