Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr is a Jesuit-run centre for the Konkani language, one of India's smallest 'national' languages spoken by an estimated 2-5 million speakers, mainly along the west coast of the country. This academy researches the Konkani language, literature and culture. It teaches the language in the Roman (Latin), Devanagari and Kannada scripts. It was set up on land donated by Jesuit priest Claude Saldanha, and partly purchased. The project cost Rs 12.5 million (Rs 1.25 crore), including its landscape cost. Both the TSKK, and its neighbouring Xavier Centre for Historical Research, another Jesuit-run institution, have a joint campus of about 33,000 square metres.
But things were different in the Jesuit provinces of Bombay, Poona, and Goa, he has said in an interview. "Here the learning of local languages wasn't given too much importance (in recent times) in spite of the general feeling that priests must learn the local language." Over the past two-and-half decades, change slowly crept in among the Jesuits, he has argued.
TSKK, the institution he currently heads, has been named after Thomas Stevens, the sixteenth century English Jesuit who came to India in 1579 and lived in this region till his death. Stevens excelled in the study of Konkani, was set up.
TSKK was registered in 1982 as a society, and began in January 1986 from its former premises at Loyola Hall in Miramar, Goa, which is itself a centre for training young men wanting to become Jesuit priests.
The Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr (TSKK) focuses on education and research in the Konkani language, literature and culture. "We are not limiting ourselves only to Goa, but wherever Konkani is spoken. Shortly, we are going to study Siddi Konkani, spoken by a community of former slaves who were once located in Goa, and are now based in Yellapur in Konkani. For this we are collaborating with two Brazilian professors," Naik has said.
Given the lack of Konkani-learning possibilities, specially outside of Goa where a large number of expats whose mother tongue was once Konkani are located, Naik says: "It's a bit difficult. Distance education is more for information. Learning certain language skills has to be done through intensive contact programs.Short courses could be offered to attain language proficiency."
He wants to grow one of every fruit-bearing tree that grows in this former Portuguese colony that happens to be, not coincidentally, rich in plant diversity. This richness is thanks in significant part to plant exchanges by the former rulers who centuries back controlled international sea-ways and had an empire straddling the continents.
Many months of hard work has seen Naik piece together a well-maintained and neatly-labelled botanical garden. You can read the local names in Konkani, the botanical names, their English names. Elsewhere, he keeps a list of the original native countries of these Goa-adopted plants.
In one corner you can find the 'ainno madd' (the Fan Palm in English, or 'Livistona rotundifolia' as it's known by its botanical name). It comes from tropical America. There's the 'ambaddo', dismissively perhaps called the hog-plum (Spondias pinnata) that traces its origins to India itself. The 'ambor' (mulberry, or Morus alba) has Chinese origins. Kalljirem (black cumin, Nigella sativa) is again of Indian origin.
Kiraitem (canscora in English, or Canscora decussata) is from India, but the zaifoll (nutmeg, Mystica fragans) comes from the Moluccas, the so-called Spice Islands of past centuries, in the Far East. Gazgo (the 'fever nut' or Caesalpinia bonduc) is, again, of Indian origin.
By now, Naik has already found the names of 325 species from among the 329 he planted. "Some don't have names in Konkani (the local language)," says he, obliviously because of their exotic origins. Naik cites the advice given by Alain Richert, a self-educated French botanist, who advised him to give names to plants which don't have local ones.
"It started off as a hobby, but has now become a way of life," explains the priest. "When you get up in the morning, the whole compound is filled with music (of birds both reared and wild ones attracted by the plants). It starts from 4 am onwards," says he. There are still a few trees that he's looking out for -- wit local names like 'xiranttam' and 'bhuim chamfo'.
Naik has purchased plants costing as little as five rupees. Costly species go up to Rs 700-1000 a piece. "Palms are very expensive," says he. Naik now has more than 15 varieties of mango, the king of fruits that is popular in this part of India too, and where scores of varieties have been created by grafting techniques believed to have been brought in by missionary priests centuries ago.
"From the beginning, Jesuits have been specialists. In almost all subjects, except medicine," says Naik, not without a tinge of pride about the religious order he's part of. He points to their work in astronomy including in the Vatican observatory, and in physics.
"Botany has been a tradition, specially in areas like Madurai's Sacred Heart College, outside Dindigul. For instance, the late Fr Louis Anglade, a French Jesuit who worked in Tamil Nadu, was a known environmentalist in times when even the term was not fashionable. There's a museum named after him at the Sacred Heart College," says he.
Fr K M Mathew was capable of identifying almost any fern in South India. Late Santapau, a Spanish Jesuit who worked in Mumbai (or Bombay as it was then known), collected over hundred thousand specimens and was an internationally recognised authority on plant-taxonomy
"Late Cecil Saldanha, from the Karnataka Jesuit Province, was a Jesuit botanist connected with the Western Ghats -- as the hilly tract across coastal western India is known -- while Fr Leo D'Souza of St Aloysius College in Mangalore is considered an expert in biotechnology," says Naik.