Marked for life

Damodar Mauzo’s novel would have been a penetrating study of loneliness had it not been so unevenly constructed.

Published : May 16, 2024 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Mauzo is striking in his presentation of Vipin’s desolation.

Mauzo is striking in his presentation of Vipin’s desolation. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock 

There is something odd about stories centring on young adults written by older people. The author tends to extrapolate the feelings and thoughts of a grown person on the young characters, making them seem stiff and contrived. I had this feeling while reading Boy, Unloved, by the Jnanpith Award-winning Konkani novelist Damodar Mauzo.

This bildungsroman about a Konkani boy growing up lonesome in a coastal Goan village is appealing at the outset. Perhaps more so in the English translation of Jerry Pinto, whose coming-of-age novel, The Education of Yuri, had appealed to me greatly. Mauzo’s descriptions of Goan life—its daily routines, cuisine, names, houses, lifestyle—are significantly different from the touristy picture of Goa we encounter in popular media. This difference strikes one forcefully at the beginning of the novel.

Boy, Unloved
By Damodar Mauzo, translated by Jerry Pinto
Speaking Tiger
Pages: 360
Price: Rs.499

At the start, the protagonist Vipin Parob is about 5 years old. He belongs to a family that hardly ever interacts with the outside world. As he grows up friendless, we are transported to the place he inhabits—to the stifling household with a cruel father and an uncaring mother; to the world outside, which, with its lazy, inexorable rhythms, seems as indifferent; to Vipin’s mind, which is scarred by negligence. The story is told almost in real time, following Vipin as he grows up.

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The first half of the book is emotionally wrenching, with Vipin’s naiveté and childish innocence constantly being undercut by reality checks from his parents. Mauzo is striking in his presentation of Vipin’s desolation: as a young boy, he is unable to look beyond what he has been taught and told at home, and home is an unhealthy, scary place. He finds refuge in books but cannot share his passion for reading with anybody around him. Vipin’s heartbreaks are relentless; they make you feel with him, for him.

Vipin and the world

The first glitch occurs at what is supposed to be the turning point in the novel. As Vipin enrols in junior college, he accidentally befriends two girls, Fatima and Chitra. Before he knows it, the three are a gang, and Vipin suddenly has people in his life. They tease each other, share their pains, ask each other for help; the camaraderie is good for Vipin but not convincing enough for the reader. The three sound artificial: Fatima and Chitra are caricatures of teenaged girls even if Vipin is more convincing, given what we already know about his childhood and background. Teenagers are notoriously difficult to write about, and Mauzo seems to falter in depicting them.

Cover of Boy, Unloved

Cover of Boy, Unloved | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The book trips badly when it starts dabbling in emotions, which are experienced very differently by younger and older adults. The passion and rawness of emotions that should have been felt by the three are reduced to the way middle-aged people consider marriage or divorce: everything is too precise, calculated. When the characters are together in a scene, it is almost impossible to distinguish one from the other.

Boy, Unloved works best when it explores Vipin’s relationship with the world and the people in it, when it allows us to look at others as Vipin looks at them. Vipin being overwhelmed by the affection shown by a neighbour, Vipin finding companionship in a young boy with whom he plays marbles, Vipin meeting the teacher who would define his life—these are the moments that impress with their honesty. Vipin’s relationship with others is defined by his own fractured one with his parents, and Mauzo’s insight into the way childhood traumas shape an adult is incisive.

Defined by loneliness

Mauzo’s novel can be read as a study of loneliness. Vipin is lonely, and his aloneness is what defines him even when he is among company. He might have found friends in Fatima and Chitra, but the ending implies that he might go back to being on his own once again.

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Boy, Unloved should have allowed Vipin more time and space to grow. While more than half of the book is spent getting him to his teens, the second half speeds through time and life too quickly for the reader to be properly invested in the arc of Vipin’s development. But the novel still works because its crux is getting to realise who one really is, warts and all. We would have loved to have spent more time with Vipin as he stumbled towards self-knowledge.

Debasmita Bhowmik is a writer and editor based out of New Delhi.

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