review by Ben Antao
“There comes a time in every self-respecting, average-in-studies child, when he/she feels like running away from home. I was not at all different.”
That’s the opening of The Nearly Running Away in the book Musings by the Mumbai-born journalist Ashlesha Athavale, who has lived in Panjim, Goa from 1980 to 1990. Those early formative and impressionable years have provided her the raw material to craft the book, a combination of memoir and fictional short stories from which the above quote is taken.
Indeed, which child when growing up has not toyed with the idea of running away, to be free from studies, singing lessons, tuition, TV and even friends?
Written in the first person, the narrator, a girl of about 11 or 12 years, packs a sandwich and a water bottle, and walks from the promenade at Kala Academy, her intention being to cross the Mandovi bridge and head towards Porvorim, which she spells as Parvari, influenced by her Marathi-speaking parents. The skinny girl is soon tired and climbs a copper-pod tree because she loves to climb trees.
“I looked across at another tree about 40 feet away and nearly fell off my perch. Furtado kaka was sitting on one of its branches! I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Yes, it was him! He waved at me. I was suddenly embarrassed as if a great secret of mine had been laid bare.
‘Don’t tell anyone my secret!’ he yelled across. I managed a feeble smile and prepared to climb down. I didn’t want anyone to know I was running away. At least not until I had run away!”
Furtado kaka, known to her, gives her advice on how to prepare for walking, first by drinking milk to strengthen her limbs, then by practising walking an hour or two every day. From Kala Academy to Porvorim would take her four hours at least, so she needs to do it gradually. The author makes this story believable by introducing a recurring character like Furtado kaka who makes an appearance in another of her stories. The writer’s love for trees is on full display in I think I hear them…, which she begins thus:
“I wonder if trees remember. Do they know me, those trees in Panaji that I once passed every day? If they had memories, what would they say? What would these sentinels say of times they have seen and people that they know? Does a tree remember a father put a little girl on its branch and pretend to walk away, only to laugh and return a moment later, as she screamed? Does it remember a boy beating it with a stick while waiting for the school bus? Or a worried mother talking to herself about when she would reach home to her children, as she sheltered under its canopy of green solace from the rain? If a tree remembers, what would it say?”
This opening grabbed my attention because I remembered the pipal tree in Margao, and built a story around it in my memoir Images of Goa.
Here the author chooses to remember the trees around her Happy Kids primary school and Our Lady of the Rosary High School in the St Inez area.
“Perhaps one of the best memories of school is of the copper-pod trees in its compound, perched on which we ate our tiffins. From the tree, we could stare at the vast sea in the distance. Some of my friends would climb the trees very easily, and were quite at home on them, almost like monkeys!”
Then she talks about the pagoda flower (diwshi in Marathi) that she had seen only in Goa, “shaped like the huge lamps in Goan temples.” The red flowers of the pagoda plant are featured on the book’s cover.
But the memoir that delighted me most is Sunny in Goa. At first the title distracted me into thinking about hot and sunny days in Goa in the months of May and October. However, she was using Sunny as the nickname for Sunil Gavaskar, the great Test cricketer. As I’ve been away from Goa for over 50 years, I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the cricketer in action. The only memory I have is what my New Era high school friend in Margao, Dilip Sardesai, also a Test cricketer, had said about him, that Gavaskar was a perfect all-round cricketer.
Ashlesha who works as a chief copy editor at Mid-Day in Mumbai has written Sunny in Goa in a humourous manner showing a tinge of hero-worship, yet regret that she looked at the camera and not Sunil when she presented him the samai, a brass lamp, at the Dabolim airport.
She writes, “One afternoon, my father called the house to ask me to gather some friends. Sunil Gavaskar was dropping in at Gomantak’s office. No sooner had tai (my sister) kept the phone’s receiver down and announced this, my friends and I screamed in excitement!”
Later Gavaskar said he could not drop by and was going straight to the airport. The author’s father, editor-in-chief of the Marathi daily Gomantak, would not be discouraged. He rented two jeeps and had his photographer accompany Ashlesha’s friends to the airport. On the way the photographer told Ashlesha that he would take her picture with Gavaskar when she presented the samai.
“You present it to him and we will take your picture,” the reporter said.
“I still have the photograph. Sunil Gavaskar looking at me as I present him the samai, and me looking straight ahead, expressionless, and nervous, at the camera!”
Later she observes: “It’s a mixed feeling to meet achievers and get their signatures. But the craze lost a part of its magic for me when a singer friend told me she has two signatures, one for fans and one real. But I still have the autograph book.”
The author lived a charmed life in Goa, with her father as editor and her mother in charge of the Maharashtra Information Centre. Her Musings reveal a writer with a sensitive and caring voice. Her stories, both fiction and nonfiction, come alive because of the time lapse (more than 20 years) of when the events happened and when they were narrated. Distance in time gives perspective to perception as well as enchantment.
Ben Antao is a journalist, novelist and short story writer living in Toronto. His latest novel Money and Politics (2015) deals with post-Liberation events in Goa.
Musings (APK Publishers, 2018) is available for purchase here.