Antonio (J. Anthony) Gomes is a Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine of New York University. In between diagnosing and healing hearts,he spent long hours crafting a novel set in the 1960s in a Goa caught in the throes of transition.

His novel moves from Loutolim to Baga, from Pangim to other places we are all familiar with. It focuses on the lives of a Goan family around the last months of Portuguese rule.

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro, author of ‘Tivolem’ and ‘Loving Ayesha’ has commented on the book: “Love, lust, betrayal, ruin and redemption are the themes that run through Antonio

Gomes’ stirring novel of a prominent Goan family torn apart by divided loyalties prior to and following Portugal’s ouster by India in 1961…. The Sting of Peppercorns is a major contribution to the fictional literature on Goa.” Extracts of an interview with Frederick Noronha:

FN: It was a pleasure reading and working on your book. So could you fill me in on the background — how long did it take to write, how long was it buzzing in your mind?

Antonio Gomes: Thank you very much for your compliment. Writing a novel set in Goa occurred to me a long time ago, I think in 1982; but soon I realized I was not ready for it. I took it up again rather seriously sometime in 1998.

It is noteworthy that Joao da Veiga Coutinho, a respected friend, the brother of Fr. Lucio da Veiga Coutinho, and the author of ‘A Kind of Absence’, after reading the draft of the first three chapters encouraged me to complete the novel. It took me about a year and half to finish it. However, it was only a preliminary draft at the time.

The rest of the years until publication were spent in re-writing, seeking opinions from writers, editors, workshops and the like.

FN: So, what prompted you into writing it?

I really don’t have a good answer to your question. Perhaps it is an inner calling.

To give you a proper perspective however, I need to go back to my adolescent years in Goa. When in college, I wrote a few poems, that were shared with my close friend Nitant Kenkre [now a prominent name in theoretical condensed matter physics and statistical mechanics at the University of New Mexico]; but all that was given up after I entered Goa Medical College and subsequently immigrated to the USA immediately after graduation in 1970.

Until 1989, I was too preoccupied with Medicine, Cardiology, and Cardiac Electro-physiology, building my career, and had no time to read fiction or poetry, although I always dreamed of it. I did publish original scientific and review articles rather extensively in peer-reviewed journals.

In 1989, I suffered a great tragedy: the death from cancer of my wife, Marina, also originally from Goa. It was a very difficult time for me, and surprisingly I couldn’t find refuge in medicine despite the fact that my work in risk stratification for sudden death after heart attacks, and other areas of research in the field of heart arrhythmias, was highly acknowledged, and I was being invited to lecture all over the world.

One day, in December of 1990, I sat down and wrote a poem, an Ode to her. After that I immersed in writing on a regular basis in my free time, mostly in the evenings and at night or on weekends. I read extensively: works of Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tagore, Camoes, Goethe, Rilke, Neruda, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Gabriel Garcia Marquez among others.

I published a collection of poems in the US entitled ‘Visions from Grymes Hill’. Between 1992-1998 I wrote more poetry, but after that I felt it was time to move into fiction. Fiction

offered freedom and a new challenge. I subsequently graduated from an advanced fiction writing workshop at New York University a few months after completing the novel.

FN: I saw your current work as an allegory on Goa. One which touches history and politics. Would you agree? I think it also takes a ‘third way’ position between the perspectives that either Goa had nothing to gain from Portuguese rule, or that Portuguese rule was beneficial to Goa. Would you agree?

I entirely agree with your suppositions. It does touch on history and politics. There is always a ‘third way’ of looking at things. Indeed, on a particular given issue there will always be different and opposing perspectives.

Needless to say, we don’t know nor can we surmise or theorize what Goa might have been if not for 451 years of Portuguese rule. The fact of the matter is that Portugal had a profound effect on the Goan culture and psyche whether for good or bad; and history, to some extent, is the judge of all that.

Unlike in some colonized countries, where the indigenous culture was wiped out by the colonizers, in Goa, Hinduism, with its deep philosophical and cultural roots, and in its caste system, remained strong and survived, when faced by an aggressive onslaught by foreign invaders.

Unlike some who want to hold on to the past, I am a firm believer in the future, in democracy, and progress. Development, yes! But development has to be tempered with a

sense of the land: its environment, its needs, its culture, and a sense of individual responsibility. Otherwise, the future is bleak!

FN: Could you give a gist of your novel?

Indeed! Roberto Albuquerque, a prominent physician in New York, an AIDS expert, returns to his native Goa, India, with his wife Maria and his 12-year-old son. About a month before his return, he has received a package from Goa, which was sent by his old ayah, Carmina. The package contained his mother’s and sister’s diaries, and a police deposition, the contents of which, take him entirely by surprise.

Yet, after what he reads, and from what he knows, a large piece of a complex story seems to be missing. He decides to return back to Goa to speak to Carmina. As he lands in Goa in December of 1988, the image of the golden sandy beaches revive memories of the mysterious drowning of his brother Paulo, and the simultaneous near-drowning of his sister Amanda.

He visits his old home in the village of Loutolim where Carmina assures him that she will tell whatever secrets remain unearthed, and so begins the tale.

The story dwells into history, Goa’s integration into India after 451 years of Portuguese rule, the opinion poll to decide Goa’s merger into the neighboring state of Maharashtra, the descent of the hippies, the introduction of drugs into Goa, past and new found loves, conflicts of assimilation, the collapse of a feudal society epitomized by the Albuquerque family with legendary, but perhaps apocryphal links to the Portuguese conqueror.

FN: I am aware that prominent essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra rates your work well, as so does writer and novelist Victor Rangel-Ribeiro. Yet, those who write on a small (and often misunderstood) place like Goa, often fail to get acknowledgement for their work. Would you agree?

In the US, a novel needs to go through an agent, who then sends it to a publisher. To find an agent for material such as mine was no easy task to say the very least!

The agents in NY did not feel comfortable with the work because they simply couldn’t relate to it. Their comments were very laudable (for example: much to admire) as far as the writing and the plot, but they couldn’t relate to the characters and their dilemmas.

The novel however, was finally picked up by a Canadian agent. Unfortunately, he did not have much contact with NY-based publishers, and the Canadian publishers were unwilling to risk a debut of a writer from the US. A major Canadian publisher, Alfred Knopf, did not see a wide enough market for the novel in Canada.

Pankaj Mishra, who I did not know and who I had never met before, was kind enough to respond to an email and offered to read the entire novel. I was rather surprised at his offer; I still feel deeply indebted to him.

He got back to me after a couple months. He was very impressed with the novel. He had been to Loutolim, to Mario Miranda’s house, and could relate to it. His following comment was very encouraging indeed, and I quote: “I think you have a great book here — it took me to a world I didn’t know much about. I have been to the places you mention — could picturise the house you talk about in Loutolim. The Portuguese colonial world with its special rules and prohibitions and complexes hasn’t really been written about, and your story is gripping, the characters diverse and believable, the settings feel real.”

I obviously respected Pankaj’s opinion, and felt very encouraged. He suggested some changes in structure and subsequently recommended it to his editor at Picador in London. The editor took more than six months to respond; she liked it a lot; but then she summarily left the publishing world all together.

The next new editor had encouraging correspondence with me but finally she did not want to risk a debut in a very difficult fiction market in the West. I was momentarily destroyed. But when you believe in something, you just don’t give up!

FN: Do you think that fiction offers balm to the hurts of the past? We know that coping with 1961 was, and still is, a tough task in Goa….

Only a novel can capture a human story. In this regard when I looked back rather seriously at our rich history, and at our culture, I felt entirely lost. I felt I was ignorant of a lot of things that I had taken for granted or simply did not know.


What did our forefathers think of the Muslim rulers, the Portuguese conquest, the Inquisition, the Dutch blockade, the consequences of Portugal’s occupation by the Spanish, the British occupation of Goa? What were the feelings of our ancestors, their reaction? How much did they suffer? Did they simply retract inwards, and take it all in the chin? We simply don’t know. There are some written impressions of Goa of those early times, the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth centuries by European travellers. But that’s different: they don’t tell a human story! So our past remains an enigma to me — I cannot feel it in my bones, because it was not written in a fictional or non-fictional story; there was no written legacy, unlike in the Jewish, Russian and European traditions.

Besides our mother tongue, Konkani, was vehemently suppressed. Perhaps, it is a fact that ‘people of the Diaspora’, see an inner urge to understand their country of origin, their people. They tend to look at things in a different perspective, perhaps because they have the freedom to do so; and if they are writers, they usually write about their homeland to begin with. Consequently, I felt an inner need to explore, to write about that important time in Goa’s history, the 1960’s, and how it affected some lives.

FN: Cardiology and literature… how do these two fields mix?

They don’t really mix; however, although rare, it is not unusual to have artists of good caliber in the medical profession like writers, poets, and concert musicians.

Williams Carlos Williams an accomplished American poet was a physician. Granted it is perhaps rare to see a super-specialist, like an electro-physiologist, dabbling into fiction; however, I consider myself as a diagnostician and an analytical physician first, and the art of the practice of medicine does involve an element of mystery, psychology and character analysis, traits that can be helpful in fiction.

In the best and the worst moments of my life, I have sought refuge in literature, both reading and writing. Writing review articles or books in medicine is somewhat interesting, but somewhat boring as well. There is hardly any creative expression. I get easily bored if there is no creative element and freedom. I found it in fiction.

FN: Which writers on Goa — fiction or otherwise — would you look up to?

I want to give you an honest answer here, which I hope does not offend the people I don’t mention… this is simply because I am not privy to the works of many Goan writers particularly in Konkani. Besides, I have very little time if any to read without interruption. I earn a living not by writing, but by the practice of cardiovascular medicine.

Reading outside the area of medicine became even more difficult after the year 2000 when the field of cardiac electro-physiology exploded and took off in a big way in the United States. However, when I travel, I simply devour one to two novels on the plane ride, particularly if the plane ride is long.

I much admire the fiction of Victor Rangel Ribeiro and Margaret Mascarenhas; I have read the works of Lambert Mascarenhas, and Carmo de Souza a long while ago. I am keenly aware of the excellent writing of Peter Nazareth in fiction and as a critique, and that of Orlando da Costa.

I have read the nonfiction work of Maria Aurora Couto, for whom I have great deal of admiration. I learned a lot from reading her book. Of course, Joao da Veiga Coutinho whose ideas ‘In a Kind of Absence’ are unique and singularly original. Bakibab Borkar’s son was my friend and colleague, and when he visited NY, I had the opportunity to meet him and we connected instantly.

FN: After this what? By way of writing, I mean….

Well, I have nearly completed a collection of poems entitled: ‘Stars, Stripes, and Ragas,’ which I had set aside. Most of the poems in this collection were written in the 1990s; there are some poems on Goa, my travels and encounters, and about love and human suffering.

I have also completed my second novel, ‘Have a Heart’. It is a contemporary medical novel, all too human, dealing with the intertwined life of three individuals.

It is set in New York from 1998-2001, ending a few months after 9/11. The three main protagonists include: Dr. Ali, the head of the transplant program at a New York Medical Center; Anna, a famous Russian ballerina in need of a heart transplant, and Nancy, Ali’s wife who dies on 9/11.

It is a story of love, self-denial, hubris and the search for inner truth. Indeed, it is a sprawling novel about heart transplant, the political machinations of a major hospital, the political upheavals of our times, and a doctor’s struggle to find his soul.

FN: What’s the response to your work been received so far?

Those who read the novel, Goans, non-Goans, and Americans, have liked it. How well it will be received, I really cannot predict. I am quite sure it will create some controversy, and controversy is good for a book.