Born in Goa, India, Ben Antao began his writing career as a journalist. In 1966 he won a journalism fellowship awarded by the World Press Institute to study and travel in the US for a year. Upon immigrating to Canada in 1967, he worked as a reporter and editor for a few years in Toronto, then switched to teaching English in high school. Following retirement in 1998, he began writing fiction and has published six novels and several short stories.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Ben. Tell us something about yourself that not many people are aware of.
Ben Antao: Not many people may be aware that I am a certified financial planner, now retired, except for doing income tax work. In addition to writing and editing, I am engrossed in the stock market and watch the CNBC TV business channel every day like an addict. I find the world of investments and the global markets as fascinating as creating a new work of fiction.
Vinita Kinra: What inspired you to become a writer?
Ben Antao: In my 20s the inspiration came from journalism and the desire to change and shape the world, if I could. After doing journalism for many years, I came to a point when I realized that the freedom of expression that I had always valued, was tied to strings—that is, write what the editor or newspaper wants. In midlife, I switched to fiction, where the writer has control over the material s/he produces. Still, the need to inform and entertain the reader continues to inspire me.
Vinita Kinra: How much is your native Goa a part of your writings?
Ben Antao: The fact that my roots spring from Goa has fueled my fiction, both short stories and novels. I grew up and lived in Goa—a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of India—for the first 30 years of my life. I’ve lived in Toronto for another 48 years or so. I’d say 50 percent of my fiction is rooted in Goa where I continue to interact online through the Goa Writers group, and the younger generation of Goans teaching in colleges of the Goa University.
Vinita Kinra: What does the art of the written word do for you on personal level?
Ben Antao: Writing helps me practise the art of thinking, which, if done daily, can become a boon during the creative process. It aids the imagination to discover newer perspectives on the human condition as one grows in age. It helps me focus both on the craft and the art of writing.
Vinita Kinra: You have explored many genres. Do you have a favourite?
Ben Antao: Yes, I have written and published poetry, nonfiction and fiction. In nonfiction, I have done memoirs and travelogues. Each genre comes with its own landscape that compels the writer to respect its form. I find the sonnet form most useful in distilling truth in the fewest words. But the human condition is wide and deep, which sometimes requires a novel or short story treatment for exploration and reflection. So I don’t really have a favourite.
Vinita Kinra: Of all the books you have written so far, which is the closest to your heart and why?
Ben Antao: This is like asking a parent which one of her three children she loves the most. Every child is unique and so are my books of fiction and nonfiction. But since you ask, I’ll say that my novel Blood & Nemesis comes closest to my heart. This novel is about the freedom struggle from the Portuguese rule in Goa liberated by India in 1961. I was a close witness and participant in that freedom movement, and knew that I could write that story truthfully, objectively and engagingly.
Vinita Kinra: What inspired you to write sonnets for your book, Love Triangle?
Ben Antao: Well, I had decided to render one of my novels, Penance, into poetic form of Dante’s terza rima. After completing it, I felt I should publish it, but it ran to only about 70 pages. So I decided to write sonnets in the Shakespearean form, and midway through it, thought I should write more than 154, the number attributed to the great Bard of Avon. So I published 160 sonnets along with the Love Triangle, a novel in terza rima.
Vinita Kinra: Give us a brief synopsis of your short story collection, The Concubine.
Ben Antao: The Concubine is a title story in the collection of twenty stories, about half set in Goa and half in Toronto. The title story explores the life of a young woman belonging to a family involved in concubinage during the Portuguese rule of Goa. I knew this young woman in school and wondered why she chose to abandon her marriage and become a concubine. It’s an exploration of feminism and freedom.
Vinita Kinra: You have been a journalist and teacher. Do you think writing books was a natural progression?
Ben Antao: In my case, it’s been a natural progression. Both journalism and teaching are a form of writing, in that one is involved in informing, delighting and educating the world of students and the general reader. Besides, there’s the innate need for the journalist to record his contemporary times for the benefit of posterity.
Vinita Kinra: If you were marooned on an island with just one book, which would it be and why?
Ben Antao: I’ll say the works of Shakespeare, his plays and his sonnets. The Shakespearean world is so vast and varied in attitudes and perspectives that a play like Hamlet could never bore a writer even after reading it again and again. His sonnet 18 Shall I compare you to a summer’s day? will throw up new meaning with each reading.
Vinita Kinra: What is your work in progress?
Ben Antao: I’ve just completed a new novel titled Money and Politics, about Goa’s turbulent times following its Liberation from the Portuguese rule in 1961. It focuses on two principal protagonists, Dayanand Bandodkar and Jack de Sequeira, and their newly formed political parties spanning the time frame from December 1961 to January 1967.
Vinita Kinra: Our readers would like to sample an excerpt from your latest book.
On the sunny morning of December 20, 1961, the day after the Portuguese forces surrendered to the Indian army, two ambitious Goans of property and means woke up to count their blessings. Yes, the little 44-hour war had both victims and victors: the victims of course happened to be the colonial rulers of Portugal that had invaded this little island way back in 1510, towards the end of the Medieval period in fact. It seemed extraordinary, even astonishing that the Portuguese could hang on for that length of time—we are talking centuries here—but the stranglehold of power whether political or the other kind can only be broken by seizing it.
And who were the victors? The people of course, long inured, like creatures of habit, to habits of mind ingrained by military force and dictatorship. For some it would take years, even a generation or two, to wake up to the democratic way of doing things; others may never understand democratic politics or even want to get their hands dirty by mixing with the common folks. Changes by their very nature are irksome. Still the people, victims and victors, have to deal with them. Among the victors were two businessmen who, not surprisingly, liked to play on both sides of the fence—a mine owner from Ponda and an import-export franchisee from Panjim.
Ben Antao can be reached via email: email@example.com
Vinita Kinra is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for Times of India.