Konkani totters as warring camps threaten to put Goa’s official language to pasture

On Good Friday, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant inadvertently touched upon an interesting linguistic irony prevailing in Goa.

“Goa is known for four languages. We speak in Konkani, we prefer to read Marathi newspapers, we prefer to watch films in Hindi, and while writing we prefer English. This is a state which is always known for four languages,” the Chief Minister told an international Hindi conference here.

The underlying takeaway in the Chief Minister’s comment is the increasing marginalisation of the Konkani language in the state of its origin.

Konkani appears to be losing the popular edge to Hindi in Goa’s increasingly cosmopolitan coastline and urban centres, but the state’s official language is still the go-to lingo in the state’s rurales.

However, the key to the wallowing status of Konkani lies in the battle for the perfect script, which has been playing out in scholarly circles as well as Goa’s power corridors for decades now.

It took the death of six ‘language activists’ in 1987 during a protest for Konkani to be recognised as the state’s official language. But the twist in the tale emerged in the drafting of the state Official Languages Act, which granted official status to Konkani written only in Devanagari script.

Devanagari Konkani has backers largely among the Hindu elite, while Konkani written in the Roman script, referred to as ‘Romi Konkani’, has a following among the Catholic community in the state, which accounts for nearly 26 per cent of Goa’s population.

Fausto V. DaCosta, editor of ‘Gulab’, a barely surviving Romi Konkani magazine, explains the plight of the Romi realm using a ‘deadly’ metaphor.

“Even after 100 Romi Konkani speakers die, we do not even get three new (Romi Konkani) readers. When I go on the first (of every month) for distribution, instead of visiting booksellers, I should visit cemeteries instead,” says DaCosta about the dwindling readership of the script, whose first set of grammatical rules were devised and published by Oxford scholar and a Jesuit priest, Thomas Stephens, in 1640.

“There is no sale of novels and periodicals. There is not a single book outlet where our books are being sold,” he rued.

Thanks to official patronage, Devanagri continues to do marginally better, however.

“Counter sales of books published in Devanagari Konkani are better than Marathi,” says Sanjiv Verenkar, well-known Konkani poet who was a part of the Konkani agitation.

The same logic, however, does not appear to apply to the vernacular news media scene in Goa, where Konkani readership is negligible as compared to the voluminous sale of Marathi newspapers.

Pandurang Gaonkar, who has worked in the only two Devanagari Konkani newspapers of note over the last two decades, the Sunaparant (which wound up some years back) and Bhaangarbhuin (as an editor in the latter), suggests a way ahead for the vehement backers of both languages, who keep taking potshots at the other.

“Both camps should come together. Romi literature should be translated into Devanagari, and Devanagari literature should be translated into Konkani. Readers will be able to understand both languages better then,” Gaonkar says.

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