By Edith Noronha Melo Furtado
She is delicately built, a will-o’-the-wisp, a kid already defining herself by a flair for writing. I looked at the little one’s words on the paper. She wouldn’t give me a break. I spelt out for her, one tough word after another and there it was, a finished product – plot, ending and all. Some joy and childish angst drew a little anxious crease on her slight forehead while she awaited my judgement of her piece. The child, her scrapbook, her imagination waiting to create, mould and give life. The Goan food we relished together, triggered a Proustian memory within my soul. Not only a gustatory memory but a surge of unfinished lines connected with people, events, sights and flavours, redolent of so much that was and that might have been.
It has been many years since I mentally revisited my soft bound note-book, with its brown half-torn cover. Why didn’t I preserve it? I ask myself. How could I? It became part of life’s lost cause, not emblematic of my life, but, put simply, the shelves were dusted off old stuff and so was my precious repository of an early writer’s awakenings. Had they been allowed to mature, they might perhaps have flourished. Or, merely dimmed. I was barely a teenager at the time, and I dared not share with anyone, absolutely no one all, my spontaneous outpouring of feelings.
My own personal world was, in retrospect, the “best of all possible worlds”. Innocence pervaded our lives, impishness without malice. Even the adult world seemed much more pure; simple lifestyles, sound relationships and less greed informed their lives. Studies were a pleasure. The school bag was light. Back from school, I looked forward to the after-lunch, post homework-hour, to dig out from the bag a couple of story books borrowed from a fair exchange system among classmates. The evening games by the roadside, facing the St Sebastian chapel of charming Fontainhas, where we lived many happy years, gave us the vigour, the energy, the fun friends, some of whom, sadly, I never saw again. Some evenings were meant to catch up with the aunties and the uncles, and the elderly cousins. Mother loved to visit them, and they were happy to welcome her and us children. We didn’t get bored, neither did we feel out of place. Showered with homemade empadinhas (pork pies), pasteis de figada (banana jam cookies), alle-belle (coconut and jaggery pancakes), and many other goodies prepared to perfection, while the adults engaged in pleasant conversation about all and sundry. The kids, momentarily forgotten, nestled in the depths of the old, carved armchairs, free to help ourselves to the coveted fare spread before us. This would go on, till Mother, during an inevitable conversational pause, would notice the nearly empty plates, that for the sake of our supposed good breeding should have been barely touched or just one at a time. A hard stare and we were back on track again.
Books were our constant companions, the launch pad of our ambitions, our dreams, and our romantic imagination. My parents loved to read and so did we. During the school summer holidays, Father took us to Livraria Singbal (among the oldest bookshops in Panjim) and left the choice up to us! Among my various picks, I prized Louise May Alcott’s Little Women. It stayed with me always and still does. I read the Diary of Anne Frank. That one too never left me. The connection between Anne and me was only one: we were both the same age. So, I read the diary with empathy and could never accept the denouement of the story. The Central Library, known then as the Biblioteca Central was headed by Aleixo Costa, the Library Director, our neighbour, distinguished in his knowledge and always well dressed in a dark suit, a legacy of the Portuguese past. His generosity and patience were immense. My siblings and I had an open invitation to the library. No tabs were kept on us. No tabs were required either. Honesty was indeed the best policy.
Holidays beyond the borders of Goa were unthinkable. The monthly income just managed to break even. Yet, large families were considered a blessing. Blessed were those whose grandparents lived outside of Panjim (re-baptised decades later as Panaji). Ours did. April and May were holiday months. I did not know the concept of holiday homework. A holiday was just what it was meant to be, but we were nonetheless ‘learned’. My paternal and maternal families were quite different from each other. My father’s house was in Salvador do Mundo, Bardez, not grand by the standards of colonial Goa, yet, surrounded by fruit-bearing trees and flowering plants. The trip across the Mandovi in a noisy ferry, past the picturesque Penha da França Church was already a preview of the much-awaited freedom the children enjoyed at our paternal grandmother’s. Not much of orderliness was expected from the kids, instead, garden picnics and plenty of singing filled our days under the care of single aunts whose focus was us, their brothers’ children. I never figured out why they were not married, even the one who was a competent teacher. Yet, marriage was a girl’s destiny and purpose in life. Perhaps, parents were less enterprising in those days about getting girls married. Were they more concerned in settling for the right daughter–in-law? Perhaps. Neighbours and friends would gather, and beautiful voices soared into the dark spaces of late moonlit evenings.
The palatial maternal house in Loutolim, Salcete, with its imposing façade reminded me of the book title The House of the Seven Gables, but ours was far nicer and oh, so unique! The aunts were much younger than the paternal aunts, so the bonding was at a different level. Good manners and behaviour were a given but with plenty of concessions as well. My mother, being the eldest child and the only married one for some time, enjoyed the privileges of being doted upon – she, our father, their much-respected son-in-law and us, their progeny. I learnt about loving family relationships, the give and take in daily life, about neighbours who were as good as family and a host of other values from my elders.
Nonetheless it was not a Utopian society. The Portuguese colonials were genial, yet, a subtle but pronounced authoritarianism pervaded the different echelons of society. Caste and class were inseparable from all social interaction. One had to be discriminating even when selecting playmates. That this, no longer exists, is the best part of the Liberation of Goa.
There was land but little money flowing. The young with some ambition, and strictly with parental approval, left for faraway shores. They studied, they toiled and never returned except on a rare holiday, every five years or so. My uncles left at 17 and 19, young and inexperienced about the more sophisticated western world. Their dreams kept them going. They excelled professionally but they rarely saw their parents. The latter waited for long months to read a solitary letter and long years to embrace their beloved and listen to them. At times, this never happened. The children could barely make it to the funeral. Not so good for the girls either. One young aunt, way back in 1962, at age 21, having never before stepped out much further than her village, left on a steamship bound for distant Africa, in the care of a well-known gentleman, to marry a man she barely knew. The incessant tears on her beautiful face as she waited to board the ship are a memory I don’t cherish. The family background of the groom, his financial position and the bride’s beauty and accomplishments assured future happiness. It did work most of the time, but the outcome was a gamble. Goa has changed in this aspect and is way ahead of the rest of the country.
I was ten and as I said at the beginning, I lived in the best possible world. Adult concerns did not filter down to the children. But the time came when they did. It was December 1961. The smooth flow of daily life was shaken by rumours of Goa being threatened by a war. The possibility was so remote in our childish imagination that when I saw my parents packing to leave temporarily for my grandmother’s ancestral house in Saligao where nearly thirty members of our family were seeking refuge, the scene was surreal. My father, being a highly placed government official, had to be ‘careful’. The fun it meant for us, to be amidst a large family gathered under one roof was overshadowed by the anxiety writ large on the faces of the adults. It was no holiday for them. My father was given the option of leaving immediately for Portugal. I don’t know how traumatic the dilemma was, but, perhaps for the first time, my mother’s opinion prevailed, and they decided that it was too adventurous to start life anew in a different country and with a large family in tow.
Almost overnight, life changed. It surely was tough to be an adult, to have acquired a high professional status in the Portuguese government and then to be expected to align with a new government, new rules, a different work culture and modes of social interaction. My father and heads of government departments were summoned immediately, post 19 December 1961, for an official meeting where they were told in no uncertain terms by the dignitary sent from Delhi that now “the beer drinking days in office” were over! Evidently, this was the outcome of total ignorance of ground realities. The officers had worked in an environment of discipline, honesty and above all courtesy. But wasn’t it Heraclitus who quipped: “Hide our ignorance as we will, an evening of wine soon reveals it”? I am not aware if this statement was made in the aftermath of this person’s experience of an evening of Goan spirits.
Days of uncertainty for the adults and years of careful treading followed. We learned English. My father spent months pouring over “Teach yourself English books”. Eventually, he mastered the written word. He produced elaborate official documents. But speaking good English was another story. Till then, we spoke only Portuguese and Konkani. French was taught from secondary school. Learning and speaking English opened up new vistas, hitherto unknown. My trips to the library now, were to pick up English literature classics. I was too young and my English too limited to understand them. I read with the help of an English-Portuguese dictionary and kept a note-book at hand. I learnt beautifully crafted sentences from Wren & Martin and noted them down. It was my reference guide to write school essays. I dreamed of being a writer. I ended up teaching languages. That too was beautiful. My English language teacher impacted my life and she remains more than just a memory. School teachers descended from various parts of the subcontinent. Some were Goans who had studied outside of Goa while others were from the neighbouring states. There was a marked difference between the teachers of the old regime and the new. Colonial discipline and a studied distance between teacher and pupil in most cases, the hoity-toity teacher in a well-tailored, personality defining suit, was replaced by teachers in shirt sleeves and sandals, cloth sling bags, and wavering language skills.
As students, we were between the ages of eleven and fifteen but sagacious enough to observe and grasp the significance of this marked difference. We understood that our new teachers had the necessary knowledge, but they came in a different hue. They were no longer on pedestals but on flat ground, we could talk to them, surreptitiously laugh at their ‘different’ ways but life at school was more relaxed. They were unassuming and more humane. Knowledge about India, the country to which we belonged but were never aware of, was imparted to us through the classroom. Beyond its boundaries, I observed and learnt, through my own self-study in anthropology that I, we, Goans were different. Neither here nor there. Neither Portuguese, nor the same as our Indian compatriots.
Decades have flown and I miss that old brown note-book. I remember it was written in Portuguese, and the sequel, in English. That was me. I enjoyed the discovery of new spellings and the mystery of new words. But what of all those who had populated my world and given meaning to the words? The sights, the tastes and the aroma? Remember Proust? “But when from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead , after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile and more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” The edifice of my childhood memories goes far beyond taste and smell. It is a sprawling mansion. Everyone in it is alive.
Edith Noronha Melo Furtado taught at the Department of French and Francophone Studies, Goa University. Her PhD thesis was on the Francophone Women Writers of Quebec (Canada). She has worked on Goan Writing in Portuguese and been a member of the academic project 'Pensando Goa.’ Her publications include The Works of Manohar Rai Sardessai: A meeting Point between India and France, written both in French and English. She was honoured by the French Government with the Palmes Académiques for her contribution to the promotion of the French Language and culture in Goa.