BOOK REVIEW: The Tailor's Daughter by Ben Antao
Reviewed by Cornel DaCosta on
Wed Oct 1
[To obtain a copy go to our Goan Books Section
click here for the link]
and intrigue in personal relations in Goa. A review of
Ben Antao's "The Tailor's Daughter" by Cornel DaCosta.
Because of a substantial academic background in
sociology and education, I have inevitably been drawn
to issues relating to macro and micro power relations
in societies. One aspect of this interest has focused
on the Hindu caste system and how it has penetrated,
to varied degrees, other religions like Buddhism,
Sikhism, Islam, and Roman Catholicism that essentially
reject the concept and practice of caste.
Consequently, I have written extensively, in
cyberspace and elsewhere, about the significance of
caste to caste adherents among Roman Catholics in Goa.
Their caste hegemony has been effective for almost
half a millennium, despite conversion to Catholicism
in the period of Portuguese colonialism and beyond in
The key emphasis in my writings has been that Roman
Catholic and Hindu caste beliefs are entirely
incompatible as ideologies and religious belief
systems and cannot be sustained simultaneously by
individuals. Furthermore, at root there is no caste in
Roman Catholicism. Notwithstanding this unassailable
argument, the Catholic Church in Goa has been hand in
glove with caste for generations. The existence of
such hypocrisy is well known in the literature and
everyday life in Goa.
The novel, The Tailor's Daughter by Ben Antao, is
largely about the enigma of caste among those
proclaiming to be Catholic practitioners in Goa. The
story is primarily one of entangled human emotions but
at a deeper end there is a profound exploration into
the complexity of relationships between people
separated by proclaimed caste differences. In this
scenario, the dominant characters in the novel are the
tailor's daughter, Eliza, who in Goan circles would be
deemed to be of low caste, and Jorge, the son of a
landowner, deemed to be of the upper caste.
Nevertheless, accidental contact has led them to
become romantically involved and there is much in the
novel about intrigue and strategy within such a
Eliza is quickly besotted with Jorge and sees him as a
potential husband to be taken by her and her family to
Nairobi, Kenya, to a new life there. In turn, Jorge
appears to be fascinated by Eliza and there is a hint,
even if given fleetingly, that a marriage on his part
to Eliza is a consideration.
Fairly soon, however, the greater force of caste
triumphs and Eliza is discarded, as are many of
Jorge's previous romantic and sexual conquests of
young lower caste Catholic women.
In the novel, Eliza travels to Goa from Nairobi where
her parents run a flourishing tailoring business. That
she should learn tailoring professionally does not
seem surprising; she enrolls at a tailoring school in
Margao, the commercial capital of Goa-a place known
well to me. The tailoring school is run by Senhora
Lopes, a kindly older lady who takes Eliza under her
wing professionally but also as her mentor and
At this stage, Eliza is already romantically
associated with Diogo in Nairobi who has been
enamoured by her and writes to her in Goa for her hand
in marriage on her return to Kenya within the year.
Diogo's letter reaches Eliza at almost the same time
that Jorge pays much attention to Eliza in Goa and
takes her to a number of socials and introduces her to
his many friends and acquaintances. Soon, Eliza feels
convinced that Jorge loves her and they engage in
pleasurable sex as often as possible. Indeed, she
informs her parents in Nairobi that Jorge is now very
much part of her life and likely to join her in
Nairobi on her return to the city. To be sure, she has
no hesitation in proclaiming her love for Jorge and,
understandably, expects Jorge to reciprocate the
sentiment. But she has to drag out his statement of
love for her with much effort!In time, Eliza senses
that Jorge is more interested in her sexually than
emotionally and notes a certain cooling off in his
ardour towards her. In turn, Jorge attributes minor
and temporary setbacks in their relationship to the
illness of his widowed father for whom he owes a duty
of care. At first, Eliza accepts Jorge's story but
after a while decides to meet Jorge's father and
explore to what extent Jorge has been truthful.
She makes her way, unannounced, to Jorge's father's
home. Neither Jorge nor his father is at home but she
befriends and is befriended by the maid servant at the
house. It soon becomes clear that the maid servant is
keen to help Eliza with a view to eventually being
taken by her to Nairobi to work in Eliza's and Jorge's
household following a marriage.
When Jorge's ardour for Eliza clearly cools
significantly and he finds many reasons not to meet
her as often as he had done in the past, Eliza decides
to propose marriage to him and indicates that her
parents would help him financially to establish
himself in Nairobi. However, it becomes clear that
such a proposition is not immediately attractive to
Jorge. His view is that his elderly father, in poor
health, would need him in Goa for medical support but
also to manage their productive agricultural lands and
other properties that the family owned.
By now, Eliza realises that she has to use more
drastic means of persuasion to win her man in Goa but
without writing off Diogo in Nairobi. She writes a
warm but non-committal reply to Diogo and proceeds to
meet up with Jorge's allegedly sick father who, while
being civil to her, makes it clear that he did not
particularly welcome her overtures to Jorge nor her
idea of taking him to Nairobi following a marriage.
Earlier, Eliza had been alerted by Senhora Lopes and
Silvia, a teacher and her roommate in Margao, to be
careful about Jorge as someone who befriended girls
like Eliza and then got rid of them, whilst also
sexually satisfying a number of local women whose
husbands were away at work on the high seas.
Initially, Eliza rejects their advice, believing that
the two women (Lopes and Silvia) are indeed jealous of
her because of her 'success' with Jorge.
By now, Jorge is less demonstrative regarding his love
for Eliza but nevertheless enjoys her body at every
opportunity. This is when Eliza decides on the simple
chicanery of saying that she had become pregnant by
"I don't believe you're pregnant.""Perhaps I'll ask
your father how he would like to have a bastard for a
grandchild."The silence was deafening. Eliza knew she
had him exactly where she wanted him. This time she
was the bait on the hook and he the unsuspecting
fish."I'll marry you," he said finally.
Although Jorge had been very careful in his sexual
encounters with Eliza except for once or twice when he
did not use a condom at Eliza's insistence, he is
highly skeptical that Eliza is indeed pregnant. Thus,
he formulates a scheme whereby he invites Eliza to his
father's house to meet several of his friends. When
Eliza arrives, on some pretext she is led to a quiet
side room where Jorge's friends have her quickly
spread-eagled on a bed and in next to no time, while
her screams are silenced, a supposedly unqualified 'gynaecologist'
draws out a range of surgical instruments to abort the
said pregnancy. However, when he examines Eliza
internally, he concludes and informs Jorge that Eliza
is definitely not pregnant. This infuriates Jorge to
no end and he effectively discards Eliza like an old
rag that has no further use to him.
Eliza is now certain that her game is up with Jorge
and, on completing her training, makes her way back to
Nairobi where she is forced to disclose to her parents
that there will be no Jorge in her life. She settles
down to establish her independent tailoring business.
It is at this point that the novel comes to an
unforeseen dramatic end.
Diogo, now married to an upper-caste Goan woman like
himself, visits Eliza at her shop in Nairobi and it
becomes clear to the reader that Diogo and Eliza have
an ongoing sexual relationship even though Diogo has a
wife of his own.
As the novel ends, we note that Eliza is now in the
kind of sexual relationship that Senhora Lopes had
warned her about in Goa. Lopes had explicitly
recounted to Eliza that Jorge's father, Nazarinho
Pacheco had used her as his mistress, promised
marriage to her on his widowhood but had failed to
keep his promise whilst still enjoying Lopes sexually.
The sins of the father with Lopes had thus clearly
visited Eliza through his son Jorge.
Senhora Lopes' advice to Eliza was that upper caste
men do not marry lower caste women but are happy to
use them sexually for as long as possible.
"The bhatkar believes in elitism, Eliza. Jorge enjoys
the status his position has given him. Don't think for
one moment that he'll jeopardize that status by
marrying someone from a lower caste. It's simply not
done. He'll endeavour to enhance that status by
marrying above his class for the sake of money and
privilege. Jorge's father took this route and his
progeny isn't going to reverse it. This is a
caste-bound and class-conscious society, Eliza. The
bhatkars will take whatever they can get and make you
feel they're doing you a big favour by using and
abusing you."In sum, the novel is a vivid account of
Catholic Goan hypocrisy in which the upper castes will
only marry their own kind but sow their wild oats with
women whom they consider to be their social inferiors.
There are exceptions to this situation, of course, but
are generally much derided by the upper castes, for
whom strict endogamy within a supposed pedigree is
very much a creed.
This novel of 343 pages gripped my attention from
start to finish. Clearly, Ben Antao is a wonderful and
insightful storyteller who has infused much thought
and imagination into this well-crafted novel that
projects Goa in all its charming detail.
Here's an example of his writing style. "One day after
the rain had ceased its merry dance, the sun broke
through the clouds, as though it was reasserting its
preeminence in the universe. The scene outside became
iridescently beautiful, with the appearance of a
multi-colored rainbow that seemed to be positioned
directly over the boarding house. Eliza stood in the
veranda, inhaling the fresh, tingling air that smelled
of soggy earth. The petite coconut palms bordering the
rectangle looked much greener than before, as though
the monsoon had spilled chlorophyll over the flora to
dazzle the viewer. The palms swung gently in the
morning breeze, shedding drops of rainwater from their
feathery ribs, and today, after a fortnight beneath an
overcast sky, they basked under the golden sun."
I've also read and enjoyed his first two novels, Blood
& Nemesis and Penance. It is, therefore, my hope that
he will continue to produce other equally excellent
novels that will increasingly reach a wide audience.
As an educational sociologist but well versed in
reading and teaching about novels too, I was most
pleased to see that the two modes of addressing social
issues are not too dissimilar. Indeed, was it not
Charles Dickens, the esteemed novelist, who wrote so
illuminatingly about the conditions of the poor in
London and who was later deemed to be an equally good
sociologist of the time? In this respect, I applaud
Ben Antao's skill and craftsmanship with the pen and
key pad in writing so well and pleasing ever so many
readers like myself.
Published by the Goan Observer in 2007, the novel is
available in major bookstores (Rs.200) in Goa, and in
North America ($25) from the author at ben.antao at
rogers.com London, EnglandOctober 1, 2008 (Dr. DaCosta
is an adjunct professor of education, Florida State
University at the London, UK Centre. He is also a
consultant on university education in the UK.)
The Tailor's Daughter
By Ben Antao
Publisher: Goan Observer Private Ltd.
338 pages, Rs 300 (North America $25)
What happens when the beautiful, charming and
ambitious Eliza Rodricks of Nairobi comes to study
tailoring in Margao and falls in love with the local
bhatkar? She doesn't think twice before giving away
her heart and body to the arrogant seducer Jorger
This is a novel with an unusual theme that will leave
readers spellbound and heartbroken. It's a story that
takes a searing look at the hypocritical and
traditionally caste-bound society of seemingly modern
The Tailor's Daughter is the Canada-based novelist's
third novel. His previous two novels, Penance and
Blood & Nemesis, received critical praise abroad and
in India. The author, born and bred in Goa during the
Portuguese colonial times, has an unerring memory of
life in Goa before it was liberated in 1961.
The author can be contacted
Phone: +1 (416)
Tailor’s Daughter probes Goan psyche shaped by
caste, class and colonial mindset
Ben Antao’s third novel, The Tailor’s Daughter, is set
in Margão, Goa, at the height of Salazar’s
dictatorship during the 1950s. In this novel, Antao,
through his characters, engages in exploring the
mindsets of Goans who lived in the confines of a
stratified society of that time.
Besides Antao, there are also some other Goan writers
who have looked into this oppressive relationship that
existed in Goa between landlords and serfs. Landlords,
known as bhatkars, came mostly from upper caste and
class; and serfs came from lower caste with no
standing in the society; they were non-persons called
A Goan writer, Orlando da Costa, in his novel O Signo
da Ira, set in Goa of 1940-41, gives us an authentic
picture of the exploitative relationship between
bhatkar and mundkar in that colonial period. Another
well known Goan writer, Prof. Lucio Rodrigues, exposes
the sordid bond that existed between bhatkar-mundkar
in his short story, It Happens. But Antao, in Tailor’s
Daughter, probes into the Goan psyche sickened by
caste and class of those colonial times.
Although the narrative in the novel spins around two
leading characters, Eliza Rodricks and Jorge Pacheco,
there are other minor characters in the novel that
provide us with a view of a society that was kept in
check through the supremacy of caste and class.