portrait Interview with Victor Rangel-Ribeiro

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 53 ~ October, 2001

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro, born in Goa, India in 1925 when it was still a
Portuguese colony, is the author of Tivolem, published by
Milkweed Editions in 1999. The novel was awarded the Milkweed National
Fiction Prize, and Booklist, the influential journal of the American
Library Association, named Tivolem as “one of the twenty
notable first novels” of 1997-98.

Based on his childhood memories, Tivolem originally took shape
in the form of a series of short stories. Rangel-Ribeiro has a
forthcoming collection of short stories Loving Ayesha and
Other Tales from Near and Far
, scheduled for publication in the
spring of 2002.

Rangel-Ribeiro came to the United States in 1956 after earning a B.A.
from Bombay University, graduating from St. Xavier’s College with
Honors in English Language and Literature, and then working in
editorial positions with several newspapers, including the Indian
, Bombay, The Times of India, and Illustrated
Weekly of India.
He was also the first Indian to break through the
racial barrier and become copy chief at J. Walter Thompson, a position
previously held exclusively by Englishmen.

An accomplished writer, Rangel-Ribeiro has published nonfiction books,
including two about music, and has also had several short stories
appear in literary journals. Over the years, he has covered music
concerts and opera for the New York Times and for 10 years, ran
a specialized music shop in New York City.

Rangel-Ribeiro, who earned an M.A. at Teachers College at Columbia
University, is  a member of the American Mensa Society and is one of
the co-founders of the Goan Association in New York, and has also
served as Music Director of the Beethoven Society of New York, as well
as serving as the coordinator of the largest adult literacy site in
New York City.

Rangel-Ribeiro has resided in Queens, N.Y. for the past 44 years with
his wife, Lea. They have a son and a daughter, and five grandchildren,
and, as Rangel-Ribeiro adds, even that could change.

Derek Alger: Since you published your first novel,
, at the age of 72, I think you serve as an inspiration to
a lot of writers. Were you always aware that this novel was inside
you, waiting to get out?

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro: I do not believe that this particular
novel was waiting to get out, but I did get the feeling back in 1953,
that a quite different novel was waiting to get out — it dealt with a
traumatic experience I had just gone through, of having a fine
newspaper I had helped launch just shut down overnight, throwing
hundreds of people, myself included, out of work. I started on that
novel in ’53 itself, worked on it for several months, put it aside,
worked on it again in ’57, and ’59, and ’94, and now I’m working on it

DA: Tivolem evolved out of a short story.

VRR: Indeed it did. The story dealt with a village rapscallion
who graduates to being a petty thief, and is alternately accepted and
toughed up by his fellow villagers. Soon after the story appeared in
the Iowa Review I found strange invisible beings were intruding
in my life.

DA: Can you elaborate?

VRR: While sitting squeezed in between two people on the New
York City subway, for example, I’d find yet another person squeezing
in next to me, and this person would whisper in my ear, “Pssst! You’ve
written about the thief in our village, but why haven’t you written
about me?” And when I asked, “Who on earth are you?” the voice said,
“I’m Dona Esmeralda, the grand dame of the village. Shame on you. How
could you not know that?”

DA: What happened next?

VRR: I looked more closely, and the invisible person was indeed
Dona Esmeralda Grace de Menezes. How on earth could I not have known
that? It was most embarrassing. Next day I was in the shower when
another invisible person drew the curtain aside and stepped in. “Who
the devil are you?” I cried. “Watch your language!” a mellifluous
voice said. “Pax vobiscum! If you went to church more often, you’d
know I’m the vicar of Tivolem. You’ve written about the thief, you
should write about me, too, just to restore the balance in favor of
virtue.” And as the new characters presented themselves, so the novel
grew, and grew.

DA: The two main characters in Tivolem both return from
abroad. Were you conscious of this crossing back and forth of the
river of culture, so to speak?

VRR: Not in those terms, no. But in Goa people come and go, and
it has more to do with the economy than any differences in culture.

DA: The characters in the village of Tivolem gather around a
lone shortwave radio for news from Europe and even India. It’s an
interesting image; what did it mean for you?

VRR: Though Tivolem is set in the year 1933, the
shortwave radio in my native village became especially important in
1939, when we would listen anxiously to news from London about the
beginning of World War II.

DA: I’ve heard you say that you can be misunderstood in eight

VRR: India, with its multiplicity of languages, is much like
Europe in this respect — just being born there makes you
multilingual. Having been born in Goa, I grew up trilingual: Konkani,
Portuguese (because Goa was then a Portuguese colony) and English
(because my parents were cultured and belonged to a certain strata of
society) were all my mother tongues. When we migrated to Bombay, I
added Hindustani (which is a bazaar version of Hindi), and a
smattering of Hindi itself.

DA: And the others?

VRR: In college, since I had no professor to help me continue
my Portuguese studies, I took Spanish as a second language; my
interest in singing (light, reedy tenor, no range to speak of, but big
pretensions) led naturally to Italian; my knowledge of Portuguese,
Spanish, and Italian then made French accessible as a written
language, at least. In 1953 I spent nine months in Calcutta trying to
get an edition of The Times of India off the ground, and learnt
some Bengali, that I have now forgotten.

I also taught myself German. As a youth I disliked being idle. In
college, particularly, I was very active. I played cricket, soccer,
hockey, field hockey, that is, since there is not much ice in Bombay!
I ran five miles a day. I wanted to run in the intercollegiate mile.
Most days I also bicycled out fifteen miles each way to see my
sweetheart, who lived in a suburb. I was full of pep. One day I wasn’t
feeling well and the doctor said I had to stay in bed 14 days.
Fourteen days! For a mild fever? I thought the man was crazy.

“Why fourteen days?” I asked him.

“You have German Measles,” he said.

So I thought I’d put those fourteen days to good use and asked my
brother to pick me up a book I’d seen, called Teach Yourself
I can now read Heinrich Heine and Erich Maria Remarque in
the original, but much of Goethe, alas, is beyond me.

DA: Aside from sports and the German Measles, what memories do
you have of college?

VRR: I was in college from 1941 to 1945. I have memories of
wonderful professors who inspired me, including a Spanish Jesuit, a
renowned historian, who was blind with cataracts. I also have memories
of two bittersweet romances with two sisters, both of whom decided to
become nuns. Cause and effect? I was quite desolate, until years later
I met Lea.

DA: What sort of influence did the Jesuit professor have on

VRR: He left me with a lifelong involvement with Indian
history. It paid off in a strange way. After the Times of India
debacle in Calcutta in 1953, I was back in Bombay, and got an
irresistible urge to go to the old college. I walked into the old
Jesuit’s office and he said, “Victor, an angel sent you.” He turned
over to me part of the secret archives of the East India Company, from
1796 to 1803, that one of his professors was supposed to have worked
on, a stack on his desk eight or nine inches high.

DA: Sounds pretty overwhelming.

VRR: “The work has to be completed in three months,” he said.
“Can you do it?” I was under 30, unemployed, and stupid, so I said
yes. And I did it. The volume has since been published by the National
Archives, in Delhi. Naturally, my name is nowhere to be seen.

DA: Are you aware of yourself as being of a particular culture,
or more of an international man?

VRR: Only my innate modesty prevents me from describing myself
in those grandiose terms . . .

DA: Music is an international language.

VRR: So it is, and I should have added it to the mix, since I
“speak” music, too. Yehudi Menuhin, on one of his visits to India,
told us that in the villages he played unaccompanied Bach (the famous
Chaconne, for instance) for audiences that had gathered in the shade
of the largest tree to hear him, and they were always receptive to
this unfamiliar music, shaking and bobbing their heads appreciatively
whenever he came to a cadence.