Manuelinho's Automobile

Paul Melo e Castro is a lecturer in Portuguese at the University of Leeds, where he is currently undertaking a research project on Goan short fiction in Portuguese. A more detailed bio can be read here. His postdoctoral research has yielded two volumes of Goan short stories translated into English, entitled Lengthening Shadows, available at Broadway's Panjim.

José da Silva Coelho (b. Margão, 1889-1944) published several dozen satirical short stories in the Goan press of the 1920s and 1930s. Taken together his stories form a biting panorama of Goan society under the First Republic. This particular story was published in 'O Heraldo' in 1923.



‘He’s such a lucky so-and-so, you’d think he was born in Ireland,‘ said everyone about Manuelinho, an affable young lad from Mapuçá who lives in Bombay these days.

It was true, he had been fortunate when he quit his job in accounts at the Navegação, where he earned Rps. 28-04-07½ a month, and made for Bombay, where he immediately found work as a clerk in the accounting department of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway.

His monthly salary climbed to 150 rupees. But that wasn’t all.

In 1918 the Spanish Flu laid waste to his department. Manuelinho, who was bedridden for only three days and returned to work after a week, found himself thrust into the position of head clerk, earning 500 rupees a month.

He did such a good job, made such a good fist of things, that the delighted Superintendent of Accounts gave him a 100-rupee rise to offset the high cost of living.


Manuelinho Fernandes had a head for figures right from birth, in Mapuçá. With great patience, he would tot up and check through piles of sums as tall as the Sé in Velha Goa without ever once yawning with boredom. And so it was that – though ignorant of logarithms and equations – he developed such a way with algorisms that the Superintendent named Manuelinho deputy when the Englishman returned home on leave.

And if this honour wasn’t enough, the Superintendent ordered that his substitute receive his own wage of 1500 rupees a month in his absence, though the head clerk looked nothing like an Englishman and had the most Goan name of Manuelinho Fernandes. That exceptional son of Albion truly believed in fair play and democracy.

Nonetheless, this time round, something curious befell our Manuelinho:

Back when his wage was 600 rupees, he made do with 300 a month and deposited the rest with the Bombay Bank, where he kept his savings. When, however, he started to earn 1500 as interim superintendent, he felt that his life had been revolutionised. If at the beginning of each month he placed 300 rupees in the Bombay Bank and continued to spend 300, the 900 rupees left over were paid into a savings account at the Imperial Bank, which he labelled ‘extraordinary monies’. In order to round things up – and not to do so set his teeth on edge – he decided to salt away 1000 rupees a month in the Imperial Bank, which meant that Manuelinho had no other option than to reduce his monthly outgoings to 200 rupees.

His friends pointed out that, now his salary had rocketed to 1500 a month, he had become pretty stingy. But Manuelinho shot back:

‘Quite so, my friends, I was hoodwinked by the Superintendent. I should earn 1600 per month for the job I do.’

And, as an example, he would cite the fact that, back when he became head clerk, he had got 100 rupees extra to offset the high cost of living.


Six months later, his boss returned from England. To console Manuelinho for his reduced income, the Superintendent granted his subordinate six months leave to go down to Goa. And, displaying once more his proverbial generosity, he maintained Manuelinho’s salary of 600 rupees even though the Goan wouldn’t be working, to demonstrate his satisfaction with Manuelinho’s services.

This period of leave caused yet another disturbance to the head clerk Manuelinho’s methodical, thrifty life.

No more extraordinary savings of 1000 in the Imperial Bank, he thought, nor 300 in the Bombay Bank.

Only once he had returned to Goa and found that life in Mapuçá was relatively cheaper did Manulinho take heart and resolve to put away another 500 in savings and live on 100 rupees a month.

After taking this decision, the head clerk drew up a budget for his weekly expenditure in Goa. Therein he included petrol for an Overland car he had asked a friend to acquire for him in Bombay at the cost of 4,000 rupees.

But then he saw an advert in the papers from Altino Coelho:

‘Overland Automobile delivered to Mormugão for 3,900 rupees.’

‘Good’ he said. ‘Cars are going down in price.’ And he telegraphed his friend in Bombay to halt the purchase. The week after, another similarly promising advert appeared in the press.

It so happened that, as Manuelinho had mentioned the car bought in Bombay to his sister on several occasions, she now inquired after it every time they met. Manuelinho – realising that Overlands were no longer getting any cheaper – was crushed to see that for the first time in his life as head clerk he had made a miscalculation, and decided to hire a rental vehicle and pass it off to his sister as his own. So he headed down to the Companhia Fraternal, got a car and motored down to see his sister and brother-in-law in Ucassaim and take them out for a ride around the village.

This was on a Monday.

On the Tuesday and Saturday he didn’t show.

His sister got fed up waiting for him and his ride.

When, Monday next, Manuelinho hired another car and went to visit his sibling, she asked him sulkily:

‘Now you come in your motorcar? Did you forget about us? Why didn’t you come on Tuesday and Saturday?’

‘My reserves ran out’, Manuelinho answered flatly.

His sister thought that reserves were some automobile-related substance like gasoline or motor oil, something indispensable to the smooth running of the machine, and fell silent.

After they had gone for a spin, Manuelinho took his leave and didn’t appear again until the following Monday.

His sister had waited anxiously for him on Tuesday and Saturday. When he finally came on the first day of the week, she asked:

‘Only today?’

‘It’s just that my reserves ran out’, Manuelinho replied impassively.

‘Next time, remember to stock up‘, his sister warned.

Off they went for their usual jaunt. Manuelinho left and didn’t return either on the Tuesday or the Saturday. Only on Monday did they see him pull up in a motorcar hired from the Fraternal.

His sister, greatly put out, shrieked:

‘Didn’t I tell you to get in more reserves?’

‘I couldn’t’, Manuelinho replied with his head bowed. ‘There wasn’t enough left in my budget.’

‘But what kind of automobile has so little capacity that you go out for one day and then have to spend the rest of the week filling it up?!’

With great awkwardness, Manuelinho at last fessed up that the car was hired. That the rental cost six rupees, which were the reserves in his budget set aside for a weekly visit to his sister. If he used to visit three times a week before, it’s only because he came by bullock cart, which cost a mere two rupees.

His sister was hopping mad when she heard this confession:

‘A reserve of six rupees to come and visit me. Six paltry rupees and a hired vehicle!!’, she yawped, before turning down his ride in no uncertain terms.

Manuelinho was mortified. He wanted to dismiss the car, but when he tried to pay the fare the chauffeur would not accept the three rupees he was offering for half the trip and insisted on receiving the full six stipulated in the contract. So Manuelinho got in the car and went back to Mapuçá. From there he returned to his sister’s house by foot, brooding on the six rupees he had poured down the drain and muttering to himself:

‘Now I’ll have to trot down like a friar on Thursday and Friday…