Antonio Moraes (played by Abhijit Bhor) doesn’t necessarily believe everything people say about his island in Goa. A bhaktar landlord living a rather comfortable life in his imposing home, he multiplies time into a thousand eternities yet never feels any desire for the city he inhabits. The island that contained him as a young man has also gradually made him wiser. And it has been there probably since the beginning of time or so the humble home — the one single entity on stage — suggests. It&’s like arriving there in one&’s youth and basking in the familiar breeze that has soothed the spent souls of the toddy tappers, the bakers and the fish mongers for so long that years seem go by in the blink of an eye. 

Thus went director Sunil Shanbag&’s play Loretta, which was rich with possibilities, far beyond those available through typical social science analyses. He communicated the nuances of lives, people and tribulations, daily errands and the island largely through the desires and fear of language. It was staged in Kolkata at the Sangeet Kala Mandir recently in association with Aadyam as part of its initiative Festival of Plays.  

The play has its heart in a foreigner, Loretta (played by Rozzlin Pereira), an Anglo-Indian by birth, who calls English her mother tongue but falls in love with Antonio&’s island on her first visit. Her lover, Antonio&’s son Rafael, however, doesn’t harbour the same sentiment. A native of the island, he has forcefully removed himself from the milieu and is happily detached from his cradle. Educated in modern Mumbai, Rafael doesn’t share his father&’s fierce love for the island or Konkani, its language, and life for him is better spent beyond the confines of the “un-progressive” age-old trees. Loretta, for whom life has always been about finding homes in stranger lands, feels the need for roots. Rafael teaches her tits-bits of Konkani to impress Antonio but that doesn’t assure her acceptance into the culture.  

In the backdrop is an unpretentious house in an island in Goa — the kind that screams innocence, a more pristine way of living. One in which people have time for each other, to share a smile, divide their sorrows or just diminish the distance between the sea and the self by listening to the trappings of the waves that dictate their livelihoods. 

As Loretta beholds the house, a song comes floating from the toddy tappers’ lips — a welcome for outsiders visiting their abode. Foreign to the language, she at once recognises the familiar tune of homecoming sung in countries far and wide. As she tries to impress Pai (the father), he authoritatively declares, “English is the original sin,” and the island will speak the language he decides. Loretta expresses her desire to learn the language of the land but asserts that English being her mother tongue, she loves it the most. 

The witty exchange of dialogues between the so-called foreigner and the native puts the concept of language in society and its power to create social constructs in the forefront. While the patriarch of the land sees any other language as an infringement, Loretta is more accommodative and accepting of the new. But Antonio&’s only dream is that Goans recognise the importance of Konkani and it gets some form of validation from the government. 

Then Caitu arrives (Danish Husain), the household&’s Man Friday, who breaks into faulty English the moment he sees Loretta. He loves his Babush (Rafael), and immediately accepts Loretta into the family, regardless of Antonio&’s hesitation  Caitu is more than elated that he has someone to brush up his English language skills with since Loretta comes across as someone who is non-judgmental having already realised she has more to learn than teach.

Caitu makes her realise that the land doesn’t tell its past but contains it grains of sand and the musings of trees that are written in narrow corners of the lanes for there are no big roads. The lullabies of the fisher-folk that constitute the rumblings of the vast sea form their roots and the sea is the only route to their civilization. 

As Caitu familiarises Loretta to the island and Antonio discovers that his son has come back for a Portuguese passport as that will open the doors of Europe for him, the live band on stage plays the familiar trappings of the music. That was one of the highest points of the play as the music enlivened and heightened the political innuendoes, which were delivered in a very straight forward manner every time the curtain — a giant screen of paper cut-outs pronouncing the fight for a language — came down. 

Kolkata was the third city to see the play and as is typical of the Titr (Portuguese word for theatre), the dialogues were rendered keeping in mind local situations — from the Jadavpur University turmoil to the Singur incident and the long drawn out decision of changing the name of the state. Those side shows change as the play moves to different cities, wearing the political contours of the situation there. Shanbag said that unlike the recent bout of censorship on practically everything, he has been able to stage the play without any cuts and it has delivered the message he wanted to. 

The island that he depicted, with minimal props, is shaped by its language and that is the main protagonist of the play. While on one hand, language represents the more conservative Antonio, who doesn’t want change even in the form of a bridge knowing well that will reduce the mishaps on sea, it also represents the lesser locals — the baker Pedro (Shailesh Hejmadi), the today tapper Miguel (Kailash Wagmare) and the fishmonger Audu (Shilpa Sane), for whom Konkani is their only voice. It is their only resource to reality, grim or glad, so much so that Audu can’t understand, “Why a fish born in Goa will have an English name?”

As Loretta takes up the challenge of learning Konkani in three weeks, she goes picking books and visits the greatest minds in Konkani only to realise that the language will remain undiscovered for her. While Caitu takes up the arduous task of teaching Konkani to her, Miguel, Pedro and Audu free the language from the tyranny of conventional forms for Loretta. Blissfully uneducated, they teach the language of the land through its succession of trees, the groan of pots over the oven, smell of local spices, habitual bickering of fish sellers, irritating bitching of women who live in poor houses along the streets. 

Loretta realises the place she has come to love so much is like a honeycomb and in its multifarious cells, she places the things she wants to remember. They extend beyond any language police or great scholar — the vegetables with local names, the classification of spices, clouds (as Antonio says, “They will shelter you, you don’t need an umbrella”), the proud moustache of Miguel, the sweet nonsense of Audu, the innocent glee of Pedro and Caitu, who is the conscience of the script. 

True to Goa, the play is colourful — from the clothes characters don to the language it throws at the world. Interestingly, none of the actors were Konkani but they inhabited the characters so well that viewers were set thinking that language is a universal space. As someone in the play quotes from Italo Calvino&’s Invisible Cities, one is a part of language “and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content.”