By Sheela Jaywant
Runner-up jrlj best in fiction 2018 award
Botanists call the tree Garcinia indica.
In Maharashtra the fruit is called kokum, by which name it is now sold in health-conscious stores, to make ‘a refreshing organic drink.’ When coconut-milk is added to the extract and seasoned with mustard seeds and curry-leaves, or garlic-paste, it becomes soal-kadhi, which is had with steamed rice and fried fish. At crowded, tarpaulin roofed tin-sheds near petrol-pumps, the highly sweetened, syrupy liquid extract is sold in half-litre plastic jerry-cans. The labels suggest that a diluted version of its contents can ‘naturally’ cure indigestion, infertility, baldness, cancer, paralysis …
Vijaya, who speaks only Konkani, calls the fruit birndam soallam (pronounced bir-hin-dam sohw-lam where the ‘m’ at the end of both words is silent. It indicates the nasal sound to the preceding syllables). The short-form of the fresh fruit is birndam. The short-form of the sun-dried version is soallam.
Vijaya sells the soallam by the roadside in the months of May and June at the Friday Market and at the Purmentam-che-Fest or the premonsoon, annual bazaar at Mapusa. Vijaya sources birndam from the hillocks that run parallel to the Chogm Road in Sangolda, a small village in between Porvorim and Saligao, about 6 kms from the tourist infested Calangute-Candolim beach-belt. Few know that Chogm stands for Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The narrow road that was built in 1984 to link the airport via Panaji to the Taj, where the heads of state stayed, is now broad, lined with fancy shops, and accident-prone. Family after family in the neighbourhoods of Porvorim, Pilerne and Saligao have sold ancestral homes, mango-orchards and rice-fields to builders. Estate agents have earned as much in commission on a single deal as their parents made in a lifetime. Bhaille or non-Goans from outside the State outnumber the locals here; the local language is pidgin-Hindi, not Konkani.
Vijaya isn’t bothered about those things.
‘They’ve cut so many of the tall brindam trees in the jungle on the hill,’ she tells her invalid husband. ‘Where will I get the fruit from?’
She voices another worry: ‘Our boys are finding it difficult to repay the loans they’ve taken to buy taxis. I’m afraid we will sink from being poor to being very poor.’
Her daughters-in-law have jobs in local shops as sales-girls. They keep the choola burning. There are squabbles, fisticuffs even, in the mud-walled, two-room hut that they live in, over medicine bills; sometimes, even over the kind of fish bought. (He thinks he’s a baman? He bought four bangde for a hundred rupees; he could have bargained or got ten tarle instead.)
Once, Vijaya’s eldest son beat her up because she wouldn’t part with the small bundle of rupees she had on her. The others intervened; the son and his family walked out, vowing never to return.
She was relieved: ‘Fewer mouths to feed.’
So far, the family has kept starvation at bay, worn new clothes at Chavat, the Ganapati festival, and bought school-uniforms and textbooks for their children. She persuades her 11-year-old grandson, Mayank, to accompany her into the jungle up the slope. It takes them a couple of false starts and ten minutes to cross through the unending traffic on Chogm Road. There are no pavements. The road’s edges fall steeply to the sides and are covered with loose gravel. Vijaya and Mayank walk through the shrubs carrying six black, crumpled but sturdy polythene bags and a long wooden stick, keeping their eyes down to watch out for human faeces along the way.
Read the full story in our print anthology ‘The Brave New World of Goan Writing 2018.’ Buy the anthology here.
Sheela Jaywant is a humour columnist, travel-writer and some of her stories have won international prizes. Widely anthologised, her single-author anthologies include, Quilted: Stories of Middleclass India (2003) and The Liftman and Other Stories (2009).