This is a special issue dedicated to the Goan and Mangalorean experience.
It is a mix of non-fiction, fiction and poetry.
Read all the eight pieces below or separately by clicking on each link.
‘Where are the chicks, men?’ said Teenu. He looked impatient, his eyes darted about. He was wearing a fitted T-shirt and cargos with more pockets than he could be bothered to count or use. Using copious amount of gel (his tongue sticking out between his teeth in front of the mirror) he had shaped his hair into a little peak over his forehead.
‘Chill, re,’ said Gavin, ‘They’ll come. If the horse doesn’t go to the water, where else will it go?’ He grinned, lovingly caressing the stud on his right ear.
Jason said, ‘Good one, Fadder.’
Barbara, or Babs, as she insisted on being called, was totally into him. (‘Barbara is so old-fashioned, yaar. Like a nun walled up in some sixteenth-century convent. God alone knows what my parents were thinking!’ she would whisper to him on the phone a few days later; he changed the name he had her number saved under after that conversation.) He could tell. From the sly looks she kept shooting him as they stood huddled together on the last day of the youth fest, the social. He was feeling a little light-headed. Two cigarettes on an empty stomach. It had left him with a funny feeling. But he had been bored. Gavin had continued blabbering, on his own trip, until finally Jason gave a clap: ‘Der, der, now da party’ll start.’
‘You’re come new here? I never seen you before.’
He took a puff, inhaled. Her dress had a short skirt. He was finding it difficult to keep his eyes off her thighs. She twirled a lock of hair around her finger.
He blew out a modest cloud of smoke.
‘I stay in Gavin’s building.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Teenu,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ she said, mysteriously.
The music was playing loudly. The dancers were silhouettes against the cloth that enclosed the ground. If only there had been alcohol…
Maka paos, they called them. Kadlik.
Those credulous ones whose faith had been contaminated by deviously planted rolls of fluffy bread. If so, then they had always been easy, gullible.
They had better be! Teenu’s hormones were well nearly killing him. Up in his bed some nights, he thought his balls would burst from so much pent-up tension and energy.
He was well aware of his weaknesses: he wasn’t much of a talker; he was gangly; he had a somewhat awkward gait (his legs were bent slightly inward at the knees and his feet were splayed). Still, he was learning how to cope. He practised brooding looks in front of the mirror (after he had styled his hair to his satisfaction); he started gymming; he was doing exercises to narrow the conspicuous gap between his feet.
Also, he wanted a bike.
But his father, a branch manager with a private bank, newly retired, would not hear of it. He spent his days tinkering with his old sedan, his clothes stained with oil and grease, so that newcomers to their building (for instance, Babs, on her eventual visit) could be forgiven for taking him for a mechanic.
He reached the head of the queue at last when the woman at the counter was relieved by another: and who should her substitute be but old Griselda from the second floor, with her grim, shrivelled face, her short hair and gaudy-coloured silky skirts and blouses that she supposedly stitched herself. Who lived with her ailing parents and supplied pickles and spice mixes to the bazaar stores. Who was always found dragging her stumpy legs up and down, to market, to church and social work.
‘Rest, no, little while, Jessie. I’ll manage.’
Cursed witch, sure she would! thought Teenu.
She smiled knowingly at him, dumping two big spoonfuls of vegetable pulao onto his paper plate. But when it came to the spicy, vinegary vindaloo, with its floating meaty bits of pork and ground red chillies…she hesitated.
‘You eat pork, Teenu?’ she asked, peering at him over the tops of her thick lenses.
‘What, Auntie Grizzy,’ said Gavin, over his shoulder, laughing. ‘He’s one pig himself! He’ll eat anything!’
She served him, but her heart clearly wasn’t in it, and he got just a measly splotch or two of gravy with a few chunks of meat.
Even as he moved away from the table, he could hear her muttering something under her breath.
In the end, Babs had given him quite a hard time, and not the kind he’d fancied. He had wooed over her several dinners and movies, but nothing much came out of them, except for some playful touching and feeling. She rammed her fist playfully into his chest; he squeezed her hand, which she slowly but firmly shook free.
He spent and ran out of money. He resorted to filching from his father, who was thankfully preoccupied at that time with his car’s gear box. (‘It gets stuck,’ he announced one night at dinner, ‘the movement is not…is not…completely free. This clicking sound starts when you shift gears. I cannot tell you how annoying it is. I think I can even hear it in my sleep,’ while his mother, without comment, ladled that day’s vegetable and daal into their plates.)
So much money, so much time, so much effort…and all for…! He almost got to thinking that maybe, just maybe, the simpler pleasures were, after all, the better ones in life.
Yet Babs, he said. Babez, he pleaded. Till finally she yielded.
He watched her from the terrace. She was wearing shorts and a tank top. It was past seven, dark. Her bare shoulders, her perky breasts! It was all he could do to control himself!
She entered the lobby, marching confidently, chewing gum, pouting.
He heard a metallic crash below; his father, he assumed, crawling deep down below, slipping beneath and out from under the undercarriage, a supine rock climber; probably dropped his spanner or screw driver, or the whole damn tool box. Good, let him keep on fumbling there, thought Teenu.
Getting the keys to the terrace had been a cinch: his father was the secretary. People rarely came up there, so they were guaranteed privacy. In a far corner, he noticed some innocuous-looking items laid out on a cloth weighted down by stones, but he was too distracted to inspect these or pay them much attention. To be safe, he removed the bulb from the only socket that had one not far from the door. The latch from the inside was broken, so the door had to be left open, but there was no helping that. No plan was ever foolproof. Even Gavin, who was probably gaming the evening away at this moment, wreaking havoc in some virtual city, showering some virtual stripper with looted dollars, would vouch for that. As would Gavin’s mudder and grand-mudder—as Jason, His crucified God bless him, would put it.
She was sitting in his lap, facing him, curling her hair, giggling.
He had his arms around her waist.
Getting her there had been no mean feat!
When first she arrived she had wanted to talk. And talk. And talk.
‘You can’t see anything, ya. Not a single star up there. So sad. So unromantic. These city lights are so bright, they shine on top of everything.’ And then about her day, and her close friend, Althea, who was mean but that was okay because she looked ugly and had a terrible fashion sense.
He had waited. She was a faint outline, far from him. Moving close, feeling the warmth of her, near him at last, alone, he had listened, breathlessly.
Until the talk turned to more favourable ground. And all his senses began to prickle. And then they were both silent.
She ran her hands through his hair, mussed it, squashing his carefully sculpted cockscomb.
‘Hey!’ he protested, drawing her close.
She laughed, but her laughter was broken by the sound of the terrace door being thrown open. Which was followed by the sound of rubber slippers cautiously slapping against the floor.
The blood drained from him. He broke into a terrible sweat.
Then the fumbling for the switch, which went on/off, on/off without illuminating, to whatever degree, the corner beyond the pipes and below the water tank, where Teenu and Babs were presently nestled.
‘What’s with the light? It’s do difficult to see anything here.’
And he knew who it was.
Calm all this while, leaning close to him, at the sound of the voice, Babs panicked. She gave out a scream and ran to the terrace wall.
‘Is somebody there?’ Griselda called, turning toward them, shuffling. ‘The door was open…’
He got up, he could still save the day. He thought quickly. Babs would not be visible where she was. He was here alone, thinking by himself.
What did the witch want?
He was angry now, rather than guilty or ashamed. What business had she, coming up here at this hour, being nosy? With each step he grew more impatient. He reached the water pipes that ran along the floor and up the wall and to the tank, a few feet from the terrace door. He landed one leg over them and onto the other side.
‘Who’s there? It’s me, Griselda. Come to take the masala I kept for drying.’
Then, even as he lifted the other leg, his curved foot hit the pipe. He tripped and went flying right into Griselda. Almost instinctively, she had spread open her arms, like a Bollywood heart-throb thrilled at being reunited with his long-separated and presently charging lover.
Having landed smack against the woman’s bosom, she seemed to Teenu larger somehow, larger than usual, larger than life, smug, self-righteous, wicked, hateful.
Before he could recover his senses and disengage himself, she gave him a hard whack across his head, without caring to think about who he was and how he had reached where he had.
She smelled funny, of her house, when he raced past it down the stairs, the door open sometimes, her parents mummified on their armchairs in the front of the blaring TV; a strange sweet-stale smell.
Memories stirred inside him: how she’d slapped him as a boy when his reckless shot on a full toss shattered her window pane. And why even so very recently, the reluctance, the hatred, with which she’d dished out the vindaloo to him.
Without thinking, in a fit of lusty rage, he bit on her nightie-covered and sagging breast.
* * *
through hurried hosannas
we slip the boxes
as if worried
at any moment
the organ and hymning will stop
we will be caught
the sentry at the altar
commanding us to perform
some ungodly penalty
* * *
Back then in the 80’s, I had just one lover. My beauty could afford only that much. Malaika’s beauty afforded her many lovers. We lived as paying guests then, when jobs were scarce and the pay low, unlike now at these call centers where you get everything.
Malaika was a charmer. At that time, a dinner was a grand outing and her boyfriends always took her out. She would come home and lay her gifts on the bed and we would talk about this and that, examining the gifts, toying with them in blissful trance. Sometimes she would get perfumes that smelled like heaven, other times books with lovey-dovey words on all their pages, or greeting cards with pumped-up hearts, silver jewelry, or ornate candle stands. One guy even had the cheek to gift a polka-dotted panty. We had laughed the whole night making silly jokes around it.
The sex wasn’t great, she said, compared to the precautions she needed to take and the anxiety she faced before each period.
I went around with the one and only Glen.
He was a pious churchgoer, and had a strong sense of marriage and family. He watched Sunday TV and preferred the parks, museums, and sea-sides to the discotheques and movie halls. We would watch the waves jump to our feet every Saturday as we sat at the beachside promenade sucking onto our ice-cream cones or watching the cars go by. There were Ambassadors and Fiats in those days.
His gifts were nothing like polka-dotted panties or blueberry-scented makeup boxes, rather a favorite book that he wanted me to read or a free pass to a science convention. He was a diploma engineer or something like that.
We made love, though Glen had told me that if I got pregnant, he wouldn’t support an abortion; we would have to get married.
Meanwhile Malaika had moved out of our shared accommodation into a women’s hostel, which she relayed, served delicious pork roast and mutton soup on Sundays. I would have followed her if it was not for the rent, which was too high. Besides, Glen and I had decided to marry.
Malaika came for our wedding with a new man wrapped around her arm, Derek—tall, dark with attractive eyes. But she dodged the question on marriage when I asked her. Malaika had many lovers while I just one. But I dreamed of her lovers—Derek, Vishal, Bobby, Prem, Sylvester, Dilip, and Anil—each time I made love to Glen. It was my way of equaling the scores, besides having a secret harem of male lovers at my disposal.
This was until I met Satyawati, our maid and a runaway prostitute from the village, who told me how she dreamt of her beloved Jagmohan each time she was forced upon by various men.
* * *
It was during a school break one afternoon, in grade seven when the thing between my sister, Janet and me first took shape.
I was revising a history lesson, ‘The Siege of Leningrad. September 1941.1944. Germans bombarding their target city by planes and artillery...’ when a clatter sounded off the far floor. I tiptoed to the place of rising voices. My parents didn’t know I was home. Assuming they were sleeping, I had slipped into the house with an alternate key to study during the lunch hour, readying myself to slip out equally fast and back to school for extra class.
“How long can we live on just 2000 rupees? We have girls to feed and educate. You have no sense of responsibility at all.” It was Ma.
A chair scratched its hoofs over the floor and Pa, bare-chested, in worn out shorts, stood facing her. His fingers were painted in rice and curry as he raised his hand, “One more word and…” and Ma ducked.
Pa worked in a pharmaceutical factory in dodgy second and third shifts. Ma was a housewife. And if it wasn’t for my friend Sandra and her bet of scoring high in the upcoming exams, I wouldn’t have been at home at this hour studying and would have missed this completely. I retraced my steps, grabbed my textbook and left.
As Sandra and I walked back to school, I recounted the long nights of muffled noises behind closed doors, under closed eyelids… that disembodied distraught and trailed into my sleep. But somehow it didn’t feel as disturbing then as it was today. How long had they been up to this? Why had I never noticed this, this acutely? Did they do it only when we weren’t around?
“Hey! How’s our challenge?” Sandra’s said, “I’ve been wondering if even Saika can score a cent percent this time. The Hindi lessons are really tough!”
Do your parents fight, Sandra? I wanted to ask her.
One late evening, Janet and I were curled on the settee, studying. I was reading the Second World War: ‘Allies opposing the Axis powers. The United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States who emerged in the latter half of the war…’
“I have told you never to interfere!”
We both looked up at each other.
“Keep lending money to your worthless friends on high interest until they can return nothing!” Steel utensils clanked. It followed with some eerie, stomach-wrenching quiet. Ma’s voice broke and grew louder. When you cannot see something, you only pirouette over fearing for the worse. We both rushed to the dining room. Ma was heaped on the floor, blood dripping from her nose, her measly cotton dress covered in a map of mercurial red. Pa kicked her in the stomach as she caved further into herself. Then with a balled fist, he boxed her eye and ear. We stood frozen like wood near the frame of the door until the bedroom door slammed.
Then we were by her side, collecting her, joining our hands over the slouch of her back. A raw maroon circle gathered around her eye the next day and she wore dark glasses to hide it. It made her look stylish, somehow. Ma wouldn’t talk about this and I was not sure what I could say.
We fidgeted with exchanges over the inane. Food, TV, books, exams, night, light, alarm clock, breakfast… school.
And when it was unbearable, I got back to my books. ‘Holocaust – the violent deaths of a large number of people. The total number of Jewish victims persecuted in stages estimated at six million.’
There was a month left for the interim exams. Over the next few nights, my revisions were rigorous. I intended to, at least, do well in history if not any other subject.
...The World War II was an enormously trying situation for Russia,..
“It is your job to mop up when the water spills!”
“You could have easily switched on the valve at 8:30 when the society pumps water!”
…a country that was not ready either economically or military-wise…
“And what makes you think I will wait for that?”
. ..to defend itself against the Germans.
“It’s a notice given to everybody. Why do you have to go against everything?”
“This is my tank. I am not going to wait for your society to tell me what to do. When it overflows, you will mop.”
A stir had begun in the pit of my stomach.
“Call one of your worthless friends to do it for you.”
The first sentences in a textbook not only anchor paragraphs into place, but also act as lifebuoys. I just had to find one easy paragraph where refuge could be sought. Once found, I read it again and again.
“What’s going on?” Janet asked, entering the drawing room and squinting against the light, her hair tossed in a black cloud. Reading my eyes and perhaps the look on my face, she sighed. We tiptoed towards the dining room. An unfinished plate with finger marks running through in curry lay on the table. Ma stood in one corner against the shaft of a thick knife in Pa’s hand.
“One more word and I will kill you.”
“What else can you do? If you were man enough you would have lived like one. I cannot live with a pauper like you.”
I willed Ma to quietness, digging my fingernails into the flesh of my palms, prising open the beginnings of a timely prayer that could avoid this nightmare. Should I say something? Should I go in between them? How? I was aware of Pa’s unconditional wrath. Once when a visiting aunt had interfered, she was hit by an iron stool flung at her head by him. Receiving a cut to her forehead, she had bled and had to be rushed to the doctor. She came back plastered, a white crown, aborting her month-long stay to two days until fit enough to journey back.
“I will cut you to pieces. No one leaves me,” snarled Pa now.
A flurry of flaying spindly legs curved into sharp-angled knee kicks into the body of Ma. I crouched down and held the doorframe. When I looked behind, Janet wasn’t there. She had gone to sleep leaving me alone to witness all this.
In happier times, Pa had showed us how his knife unguarded from its sheath could be used on robbers and trespassers, for our safety. Highly amused, I had not bothered to think then that homes with sparse second-hand furniture were rarely burgled nor did a knife crusted in rust, kill. It could hardly squish an overripe tomato.
Over the weekend, I put my textbooks aside.
“Who do you think is right?” I asked Janet.
“Of course Ma! What’s wrong with you even to ask such a thing!”
“What about Pa? Why does she always nag him?”
“How can you say this? He beats her. I can’t believe you are siding with him when Ma takes such good care of us.”
“So does he, in his way, doesn’t he?” Didn’t that amount to anything?
“I don’t want to talk about this. Anymore.”
Janet and I did not speak for two weeks, sharing the same room like strangers. The day she broke the spell, she asked, “Are you on his side because you’ve done something you don’t want Ma to know of?”
“Why does she fight when he’s drunk?” I said, “Why not wait to talk to him when he’s sober. She should know by now when to speak and when to stay silent! She could save herself. Unless there is a better option…”
“You are stupid to think like that,” she said.
I grabbed her tube of fairness cream that I had gifted her on her birthday and applied its content over my legs. “Now go tell Ma. But I won’t give this back to you!”
Her eyes brimmed as she watched the cream pulp out of the tube and dry over my shin. I mimicked her frog-like contorted face and threw the almost empty tube on the loft above, where the water storage tank lay – one of the favourite topics over which our parents had most of their arguments.
I once volunteered to fill Janet’s fountain pens. She was running late for an exam and was grateful for any help as she hurriedly pushed herself into her beige and brown school pinafore.
But when she came home after the exam, she was livid. “You filled those pens with water! How could you? I had to ask around for a pen right in the middle of the examination, wasting 10 minutes of my time …just waiting!”
I felt bad but only for a moment, not used to keeping too much emotion with me lest it trickle unceremoniously across my face when least expected, betraying the steel of strength I was learning to cultivate.
Sometimes I caught Ma goofing up. Like on a warm afternoon when she wrapped food and placed it into the far corner of the fridge.
“What are you doing, Ma?”
“I am teaching your father a lesson. Let him come home and find all the food finished. Serves him right when he doesn’t give much money for expenses.”
Once I saw Pa examining his knife. “I have got many people killed with this,” he said, “What does she think… I can’t finish her? Wait and watch, if she thinks she can leave me, she will go to her grave in pieces…”
Ma had moved into our bedroom now, sharing Janet’s bed and Pa slept alone in their room.
The academic year was over. I scored the highest in History and had achieved our best-friends’ mission, in part. Sandra stood second in the class. Saika, the quintessential topper, was yet again first.
The month of May, the season of holidays and mangoes, slipped upon us as I set to relish the smell of orange mangoes – Alphonsos, also devouring in the aroma of freshly bound notebooks bought from the local supplier for the new academic year. I always managed to get a new History textbook even if I borrowed the rest from older friends who graciously handed them down. Ma, in turn, kept my textbooks for Janet hoping each year that the syllabus wouldn’t change.
A feeling of pure good luck followed me – the rain dancing, its intoxicating muddy smells on earth, mixing her translucent colour and cleansing the dust off tree leaves. Everyone wiggled their noses. The sky covered itself in a scramble of swollen grey cloud-herds as far as the eye could see and furious visitations of wind brought in more rain. Frogs, crickets, insects groused endlessly outside our balconies.
There had been quiet for some days. I was flipping through my new books reading a random page from history, The Indian Rebellion of 1857, Sepoy Mutiny, the British East India Company... when a thought occurred to me: What if my parents were born in the times of great war and struggle? Would they have used their brute force for something like, say, the Mutiny or the ‘42’s Quit India movement? Would they, with the spite that raged inside them, have risen against the Nazis?
“Why do you think both are wrong? First it was him, then her and now you say both are. I think you are against Ma because she makes you do more housework, and against Pa because he doesn’t give pocket money,” said Janet.
“You are so dumb to think so.”
Janet and I did not speak again for days, exchanging only nods or grunts for essential decisions like the colour of a newly shared bathing soap or regulating the fan speed for the night or the appropriate time for turning off the night lamp. Ma did sense something amiss.
It was those days that Janet and I were not only joined by our polarity of opinions, but also by boys.
She fancied Michael, a guy we ran into frequently at church. He had been my dance partner for one of the events.
“I can bet he hasn’t even looked at you,” I said.
“And you think he likes you?”
“I never said that.”
“You think only you are beautiful.”
“And you think you are?”
We sprang to the mirror darting eyes over the confluence of our cheeks, the bridges of our nose, the continent of our chin, eyebrows, eyelashes, forehead.
“I look better.”
“No, it’s me.”
“So then let Michael decide,” I finally said.
We gave our challenge a week’s time.
Now Michael was a school dropout who worked with cycles in a hire-and-repair shop. He did not have the stress of Maths tests and Chemistry equations over his face and this added to his enchantment. Frisky blonde hair, fair-skinned with a dimple on an angular face, he did not have a trace of his boiled-faced black-haired parents in him. “When you don’t oil your hair, it becomes like that. Like hay.” Ma told us.
Janet took the morning and noon slots on her way to and from school and I, the evenings on the way back from tuitions. It was only talk in those days. No one could have expected more. I don’t know what Janet did, but I invented topics and spoke of as many things as possible.
Empty laughs would follow as we shared the setting of many-an-evening sun over the rows of trees and four-storeyed buildings, of our town. It went on like this for seven gruelling days. And as it turned out, Michael chose me. Janet had to accept defeat and that I was more beautiful. From then on, she was more agreeable.
But I had to keep a distance from the spoils of my victory. There was only one idea haunting Michael after that – an eventual marriage! And I wasn’t much into cycles.
There was never another instance when we fancied the same guy, but we had come to agree that we were different.
We had begun college now and Ma and Pa’s fights had reduced to a trickle. It perhaps wasn’t fashionable to fight in front of young women like it had been in front of impressionable children. Also, their themes got poorer. How long could one fight over the number of fish pieces in a curry or if a certain relative was welcome in our house or not?
My father’s blunt knife lay forgotten under his pillow, cold from disuse, but warming its curved place there.
It was our silences that took over now as it went on for days, once going up to even six months. We differed from those who had their poison out, at least, by nightfall. We kept ours in for longer, with more dignity.
When my first relationship ended and I stayed home, Janet did not stop the circuits of her phone chatting or movie-watching with friends, or frenzied outings with boyfriends.
When Ma was against her fancying a boy from another religion (“You are not to see him again!”), she called me at work; I was a part-time librarian now.
“If you tell Ma about us, she might think differently. You know Yusuf. He isn’t that bad and not as bad as she thinks.”
I didn’t say a word in reply, and of course didn’t speak to Ma about anything.
Once college got over I left for the city. I had, by then, given up on History, no longer charmed by the legacy and chronology of things dead and past. I would walk through the roads of the town and go on and on feeling like if I kept at it, I could eventually reach the end of the world.
I returned a year later after yet another breakup to find Janet claim our room all for herself, Ma having moved back into Pa’s room.
I would sit resting my chin over folded arm in our balcony for hours. It was so good to be home after long. Our parents came to us for words and support buoyed by aging-related aches and pains for which they wouldn’t see a doctor.
One day Ma came to sit beside me at the window. It was the eve of my new job as a drummer at a local pub. “What is really going on between the two of you?” she asked in a low voice.
“Nothing!” I said startled by the account I was now supposed to give her of something that had started so long ago. “Really, Ma, you need to ask her.” It had been some time since I had looked her squarely in her face. Their fights had left cruel marks, crisscrossing bruise stitches across her forehead, a small squinted eye and a slightly crooked nose.
One day our parents suggested we claim our share of Ma’s gold and the property, meaning the house. “You would both get an exact half.”
“But why now? We are still living in it and we are not waiting for you to die or something…” I said.
“I would like to inherit that part of the house… in which I stay, whenever that is,” said Janet.
“No. You will not. That’s my side.” I said. Our words hung like bodies in a mutton shop, our eyes meeting in cold, hard gaze.
“How could you both fight on something that is yours anyway?” said Pa. He had grown into a brooding caved man, retired from the factory, now killing his time over long evening walks. His burnt earth features carved out a mask of what he once was. “This is all so petty, so silly!” He said in disbelief.
But his voice trailed off.
With the fresh, raw nerve of a new fight ticking in, Janet and I weren’t listening.
* * *
This is an excerpt from Borges’ novel ‘Bombay Balchao (Tranquebar, 2019)
On her twenty-first birthday, Annette Coutinho— daughter of Karen and Alfred Sebastiano Coutinho and sister of Michael—the most sought-after belle in Cavel, was finally getting engaged to her beau of three years, Joe Crasto.
Every living person in the neighbourhood, those known to the family and even otherwise, had been invited to join the celebrations at the famed Goan Catholic Club of Pius House, not very far from Pope’s Colony. Annette’s parents, though, weren’t convinced about their daughter’s choice of husband. Reason: Joe was from Mangalore, in Mysore state, which was later renamed Karnataka. Aside from sharing a border with Portuguese-ruled Goa, as well as what the Coutinhos considered a ‘lamentable’ version of Konkani, the Catholics of Mangalore had nothing in common with Goans.
The Catholics of Bombay, for all practical purposes, were a team. They belonged to the same church, were blessed by the same Pope and worshipped the same Lord. What separated them was community—each one with its own history. In pockets like Cavel, community also determined where you stood in the realm of class.
Here, it was the East Indian Catholics, the sons and daughters of the city’s soil, who were the self-appointed cream of the neighbourhood. Most East Indians traced their ancestry to the earliest settlers who dwelled on the islands of Bombay and neighbouring Salsette. The arrival of the Portuguese and their evangelical brigade had led to the proliferation of a new group of native converts, who settled in rural pockets like Cavel where churches were being erected. One doesn’t know how and when this village was christened Cavel, but the inspiration for the name is said to have come from the local fisherfolk, the Kolis, who fished in the expansive seas not too far from here. When the British gained control of the islands of Bombay, the economy boomed and thousands of Christian immigrants from the Portuguese state of Goa started making inroads here and in other neighbourhoods, in search of jobs. Overwhelmed by this massive wave of immigrants who often shared the same surnames as them, the native Christians across the islands chose to call themselves East Indians. This new identity had little to do with geography—Bombay was on the western belt of India—and more with polity. Naming themselves after the British East India Company perhaps associated them with the Europeans.
For a very long time, the East Indians of Cavel discouraged marriages outside their community. In the church, the first few rows were always reserved for the East Indians and if a Goan dared to sit there during mass, they’d throw them ugly stares before complaining to the parish priest. Things took a turn for the better when Ursula, the daughter of the Misquittas, the richest and proudest East Indians, lost her heart to a Goan baker in the area and eloped with him. This act of defiance may have earned her a bad name, making her a recurring figure in Cavel folklore even sixty years after her death, but the walls had crumbled, and it wasn’t long before Goan–East Indian marriages started becoming commonplace.
Newer walls were built when Mangalorean Catholic families, just a handful, moved into Cavel. Now it was time for the Goans to make the most of their new-found snobbery. Most Mangaloreans, as history documented, had once shared the same land as the Christian Goans. Their partition story went back centuries ago, to the time when the Catholic missionaries forced them to adopt a new god. While many Goan natives hadn’t shown resistance to conversion, some were still deeply entrenched in Hindu customs. And so, when the Tribunal of Inquisition was set up by the Portuguese in Goa in 1560, its autocratic policy of discouraging the Hindu way of life and the persecution that followed thereafter, along with the high taxes that were being arbitrarily imposed, didn’t win favour among several locals. Worried that they were getting a raw deal, several Christians and Hindus fled southwards, resettling in regions like Mangalore. The epidemics that plagued Goa during this time, only emboldened them.
The price they paid for that flight of freedom had been brutal, especially after Tipu Sultan gained control of South Canara in the late 1700s and issued orders to seize the estates of the Mangalorean Catholics and hold the people captive. Thousands were killed during this time. But the Goans were too preoccupied with their own lives to concern themselves with those who had ‘abandoned’ them. They had started absorbing foreignness into their system—dressing, eating and sounding like the Latins. The Mangaloreans, proud rebels that they were, saw this life of convenience that their cousins had chosen for themselves as far too easy. Even centuries on, this backstory forgotten, the resentment continued.
In Bombay, Mangaloreans—the Mangis—had earned themselves the distinction of being too shrewd for their own good, while the Goans—the susegaads—became infamous for their laid-back attitude. None of this was true. This pigeonholing was the machination of part love, part hate and a lot of envy.
Like many others, Karen and Alfred weren’t aware of this shared, complicated history that went back over four hundred years. All they knew was that the two most prominently represented Catholic communities in Bombay—apart from the East Indians—had separated, never to come together again.
‘But he’s Roman Catholic, mama,’ Annette had argued, when Karen had bluntly refused to consider the alliance.
‘Are you nuts, Anna? Do you think there’s a short supply of good-looking boys in Cavel or what?’ Karen asked.
‘Yes! Name one decent man in Cavel.’
‘Aye, I can name a hundred, including that Benjamin boy. Why don’t you fall in love with him, Anna?’ her mum pleaded.
‘Your Joe and his family are different from us, men.’ ‘But Joe loves sorpotel and chorizo, just like us,’ said Annette.
‘He’s still Mangalorean,’ Alfred echoed his wife’s sentiments.
‘What’s the difference, papa?’ Annette asked.
To this, the Coutinhos could never supply a good answer.
‘Mangaloreans, I tell you, cunning people,’ Karen pointed out.
* * *
Under coconut trees
swaying like dandelions in the sky,
red earth and stones and dirt
absorb my shadow.
I am testing out
this new identity.
Embracing my Goan-ness
in ways that aren’t as obvious.
I roast cashews on an open flame,
unsure of when they will be done.
I smell my fingers, it is my only reward,
as the charred cashews turn to dust.
There are many lessons here,
but the biggest one is to pause.
Is the cliché about the sussegado lifestyle
that I am both offended by and grateful for.
I am undecided of how to fit
into this new box, these new dreams,
this home –
that has been handed down to me.
* * *
As she snapped off the roots of the red amaranthus, Gulab wondered how her husband could undergo such a drastic transformation at this age. Since his retirement as a peon at the local bank where he had worked for thirty years, all he did was read the newspaper; his glasses perched up on his nose, his head bobbing gently with the part of the paper he was reading, his body held comfortably on the wide chair he used for this ritual. She simply could not understand. He was never fond of reading newspapers before. How could one develop such habits out of the blue. It just made no sense, and that was not a feeling she liked.
Sometimes he read out something loud, more for himself and less for her. As much as she did not care for ‘news’ of any kind, this bothered her. She secretly wished he would make her a part of it. It was also a matter of insecurity because though she had briefly attended school as a grumpy 5 year old, it had never made sense to her, and so she had picked a tantrum so strong to not go back there again, her father had relented. She had never learned to read or write after that. The husband on the other hand had finished seven whole years of school and the report cards for all these years lovingly stored in the only cupboard in the house. And what made it even worse was that man could even write his name and many other things in English, he could even greet the foreigners loitering the streets of Agonda, in English, with words like ‘Good morning’, ‘Have a good day’, all of whose meanings he had explained, but made no sense to her nonetheless.
As her last amaranth shoot was chopped and added to the heap, she watched her husband, partly touched and partly annoyed.
“Whole day newspaper, whole day newspaper. Go buy chicken for today’s lunch. You were going to buy it last Sunday and just whiled away all the time. And then all I could cook was those stale mackerels that Asha brings.”
Her husband did not say anything, but the way his shoulders stiffened she knew he had heard her.
“Go now. What new hobbies you have taken in this old age.”
He put the newspaper down, and looked at her, his face frozen into something like shock.
“Stupid woman. Do you even know what is happening around you? Get your head out of the mackerels and chicken and all that. Do you know cows in Calangute and Colva are now eating chicken? Cows are becoming like dogs now, eating anything.”
Her mouth only opened lightly, even as she had heard him loud and clear. He could have joked, or insulted her like he often did these days, or he could have just genuinely told her that cows in Calangute and Colva had begun to eat chicken like dogs!
“What horrible times we are living in. The hotel owners throw all waste together, vegetables, rice, chicken, fish, and these cows eat all of it, turning meat eaters! What next. Humans eating humans?”
Her jaw dropped fully now. Cows in faraway Calangute were eating chicken. And many years ago before, cows had eaten meat in Latur. She remembered the kindly Maharashtrian woman staying on rent in the house next door telling her that. Such unnatural things happened only if something was terribly wrong, the woman had said to her. Clear signs of God’s fury. Signs of an impending disaster. In Latur it had been an earthquake. What would it be here?
Her husband not getting any responses from her, had gone back to the newspaper. Gulab was too occupied to notice or be bothered by that. All she could think of was of an imaginary image of a cow gnawing away at the bones of a hen, and suddenly she was sick, very sick.
For a very long time, she had been very afraid of dying. As a child, the prospects seemed bleak. As an adult and then a married woman, the fears were somewhat tackled by the presence of a husband who she presumed would somehow protect her. And the hours he wasn’t around were occupied with the drudgery of day to day existence, and long afternoon naps. They had no children, and neither of them were bothered by that. At best, the children around them were either nuisance or good for nothing adults, sucking up the energies of their old parents. But with old age, the same childlessness and her husband’s increasingly distant behavior, only left her more insecure about her safety. It was clear she did not want to die, not yet. Despite its minor disappointments, she liked the world and inhabiting it. She liked how the sun rose every morning without fail and how her body seemed to jolt out of the stupor caused by sleep with it. She liked the little elephants printed on the saree she wore for any visits to temples or any religious functions. She liked the smell of champa, and she liked how the little thorns on a rose stem led to the most beautiful and most fragrant flower. She did not want to leave all of this behind, at least not yet.
When her husband did buy half kilo of chicken for her, she asked him to throw it away at first, but then went on to cook it anyway. Only, she was unable to put any of it into her mouth. Her husband, ever the meat lover – he secretly eat pork chorizos without her knowledge – gladly ate up the extra pieces, undeterred by his inability to digest them all. Gulab could only swallow some of the rice soaked in the xacuti, feeling terrified, feeling like a meal like this could be her last meal. She felt herself shaking, and her fingers could barely get themselves to her mouth.
“What is wrong with you,” her husband asked her, and despite everything Gulab felt herself feel so much relief that she could finally tell someone what was wrong with her, what was wrong with the world.
“You have finally lost your mind. I always suspected that was going to happen someday,” her husband said as he chewed onto a bone. The smile on his face indicated that he was joking and clearly did not think anything was wrong with Gulab, or him, or any of the news items he had read in the morning. But Gulab was stunned at the graveness of his words, the cruelty they conveyed. Her husband might have been indifferent, but he was never mean to her.
“Stop shaking like that you fool. Eat your food, her husband said as he moved onto another bone. On another day, Gulab would have sensed that rare warmth and affection in her husband’s tone, the one he displayed only on rare occasions that also completely took her by surprise. But today, all she heard was that her husband called her a fool.
“I am not a fool,” she cried, and then took the plate and walked out towards the door. Her husband’s mouth only opened. For a second he wondered, if she indeed had lost her mind.
What Gulab had not considered was that her terror would simply not subside. Even as her husband’s days continued to be spent in an idyllic stupor, she found herself obsessing over every small thing that had the capacity to startle her. Dogs barking in the middle of the night left her sleepless and sweating right till the morning, and when she encountered one on the road, she felt her heart pounding, and her eyes refusing to look away from her tormentor. But the worst was when her husband put forth the chopped pieces of chicken in front of her, pieces that were still coated with blood that smelt surprisingly fresh. After she threw up her morning breakfast for three consecutive Sunday mornings in a row, her husband stopped having lunch at home on Sundays. And every time he returned home, he watched his wife with an expression that indicated anger, incomprehension, disappointment and many other things she thought she saw but did not understand.
Gradually, she lost the ability to sleep in the nights and often did not realize when she’d doze off in the middle of the day. Sometimes while taking a bath, sometimes while putting the clothes out to dry on the clothes line, sometimes while chopping off the vegetables, and one time much to her severe embarrassment, in the midst of defecation. Her husband had by now concluded she had lost her mind. He suggested they visit a doctor, and if he had forced, she’d have gone too; but he never materialized the suggestion into anything else. Instead, he had began purchasing one more newspaper for himself , and also purchased a pocket radio that stayed on all the times. Gulab watched him with disgust most of the times, the disgust a reflection of what she was feeling herself.
And so one day she decided to throw the radio away, so that her husband would react in some way. She’d skipped her lunch, and instead had a little nap. Now, with her stomach growling for food, and her head slightly clear with the aftermath of the sound one hour of sleep, she saw herself casually walking to the pocket radio and lifting it up. Her husband had fallen asleep over one of his newspapers. Gulab opened the door and then locked it from outside. She felt a strange sense of joy, like no disaster would affect her, if all she had do to was step out of the house and lock her husband inside it. She had no idea where she was headed, but the streets were familiar to her, and so was their assumed emptiness at that hour of the day. There was a light breeze that brushed against different parts of her body as she continued to walk, the pocket radio held tight against her chest.
A biker drove past her just then. He did not acknowledge her presence, but Gulab’s eyes followed him till he had turned into a egg sized dot that then suddenly disappeared. Gulab wished she drove a bike too, and imagined her legs spread out on the machine and her hands commanding it. Her chest expanded on its own at the power of the imagery. She clutched the pocket radio harder and then threw it down. It landed on the road with a thud. Gulab stomped on it, as hard as as her aging, tired body would allow, and then decided to turn back home. The sense of perpetual dread had returned. If someone would tell her that the sky would break open and a rush of clouds would crash on her, she’d instantly believe.
Just when she was about to turn though, she heard a cry. It seemed distant, but the anguish in it unmistakable. Gulab strained herself to find out where it came from, and soon enough she could see the apparition, approaching her slowly. The anguished cry got closer and closer, till Gulab could see it in its full glory. A missing calf perhaps, Gulab concluded from the slightly plump udders on the cow. The cow noticed Gulab too, and Gulab was sure she saw some sign of recognition in those big, agitated eyes. Gulab’s heartbeat rose rapidly. She was terrified. The catastrophe was here, and she wasn’t prepared.
She followed the cow, suddenly a part of her desperation. The cow’s cries got more frantic with every passing step, and Gulab felt like her own child were missing. Along the way, she picked up the attention of two curious onlookers, and coaxed them to join her mission. By now, the cow had become “her cow” and not a random bovine she had met just a few minutes back. The four of them trawled through the streets asking random people if anyone had seen a calf. But the afternoon turned to evening and there was no sign of a calf. The two men with Gulab by now tired and in desperate need of any kind of alcohol, quickly separated themselves from the search crew, as Gulab was left with the still very agitated cow. Gulab felt herself close to tears as she gently tapped the cow’s forehead and told her they would find the calf. The cow shivered slightly under her touch and then jerked her head with such force that Gulab’s hand was swung in the air with so much violence, she felt a spasm of pain shoot through it. She stepped back from the cow, now convinced that this is how she would die, brought down by a grieving cow she had only tried to help. She turned around, not sure if she was ready to accept death yet, and began running away from the mad animal, only to realize the cow was following her, but hardly with an intention that seemed she was out to cause any harm. Gulab slowed down after a while, and let the cow match steps with her. Together they found their way back to Gulab’s house.
When Gulab opened the door, she found her husband pacing around the room, more terrified than angry. She walked straight to the kitchen and poured the leftover rice and curry on a plate. Her husband followed her out of the house where he noticed the cow, now seated on the ground in comfortable rumination.
The cow sniffed the food a few times and then as if making up her mind, gently began lifting the grains into her mouth. Gulab watched her with tears in her eyes. For today, she had averted the catastrophe.
* * *
It’s 1am, pouring heavily on an overcast monsoon night, and I’ve been waiting to talk to Sebastiao Frias for almost two hours. But he’s still elbow-deep in his work, dusted from brow to toes in wheat flour, and moving with the distinctive balletic grace that master craftsmen acquire after decades of practice.
A seemingly endless series of trays are lined up next to his hip, to become filled at full speed with little nubs of steadily ‘proving’ dough (each snipped off by feel alone, yet minutely identical to the next), then set aside to await their pre-dawn turn in the massive, ancient oven which dominates the largest room in this old house in Panjim, the pocket-sized capital city of India’s smallest state.
Frias began his evening’s labours as he always does, like generations of his forefathers before him, by preparing thousands of unde for baking. These palm-sized, egg-shaped loaves of crusty bread are the addictive favourite of Ponnjekars, the residents of this pleasant riverside city, where pão bhaji has to be accompanied by an undo or it is not considered the genuine article. Here, almost everyone’s daily routines begin with the ritual purchase of the morning’s supply from a horn-honking deliveryman who brings the bread right to the front door of every household (the evening’s supply comes separately, in another round of deliveries).
The clock keeps ticking, and I find myself mesmerized by Frias’s swift, efficient movements, the dough rolled out in table-top sized slabs, then kneaded into cables and ropes and knots, then back again across the counter. By now, he has moved on the katre, the squarish, flat loaves that give shape to the sandwiches in innumerable tiffins across the state, with little toasted corners small children love to chew on. These are a refined taste amongst Frias’s neighborhood clientele, so he will lay out less than half the loaves-to-be than he did with the unde. In full flow, it takes no more than 25 minutes, the baker’s hands ablur in the shadows cast by the tube light on the wall behind him. And now he acknowledges my presence for the first time since he started work hours ago, He nods towards the dough at his fingertips – it’s finally time to lay out the iconic poee, the pita-like, whole-wheat bread that’s laced with fresh palm toddy.
Generations of Goans have grown up on robust, toothsome poee, but the demand for its old-fashioned charms is dwindling. Frias now makes just a few dozen every day for his older clients, who count on his bakery just as their parents and grandparents did in previous decades. The revenue from this effort is now relatively insignificant, but he keeps producing ‘poee’ because it’s a way of life, just like every other aspect of his laborious existence, nothing much changed from generations of baking Friases past, stretching all the way back to the first decades after the establishment of the Estado da India in 1510.
We all know that the Portuguese had food on their mind from the moment that they arrived in India – after all it was the scent of spices that lured them across the oceans in the first place. From Roman times and even before, exotic aromatics from the East were prized across Europe as preservatives and for their ability to transform bland staples into desirable delicacies. But these came at an extraordinarily heavy price, comparable to gold. A chain of traders was required to shift the precious goods via Malaya and China to the ports of India, and then the Arabs took over, moving them by ship to Africa, whence they came overland to the Mediterranean to be retailed by Venetian and Genoan traders who kept a near-monopoly going for centuries.
So when Columbus sailed off in 1492, the main reason was to try and break this centuries-old monopoly, to access the fabled spice markets of the Indies without having to go through middlemen. Thus began the so-called Age of Discovery, which remade the world, with Columbus crossing the Atlantic to the New World, and Vasco da Gama finally making the crucial breakthrough to sail right around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope to wind up in the sheltered bay of Calicut in May, 1498.
It was not a very grand arrival, contrary to European expectations. The befuddled Iberians were immediately greeted in their own language. And then the Zamorin and his court were comprehensively unimpressed by the gifts that were presented to them: a dozen coats, six hats, a bale of sugar and four barrels of butter and honey. But da Gama had brought coin along as well, and the multinational traders of Calicut accepted it with alacrity. The Portuguese captail managed to fill his ship with tens of thousands of kilos of black pepper, bought for 3 ducats the hundredweight. Back in Lisbon, he found the price holding steady at 22 ducats – da Gama and his crew became rich overnight, and the royal court immediately began to pay close attention. Less than three years later, Lopo Soares was back in Calicut with 9 ships in his flotilla. This time, the Portuguese shipped back more than a million kilos of pepper, and thousands of kilos each of ginger, cinnamon and cardamom. The captain and his entire crew became fabulously wealthy, and now there was no stopping the interest of the members of the court, and the sovereign himself.
In 1510, Alfonso da Albquerque moved stealthily up the western coastline of India towards Goa, alerted to the possibility of an easy takeover by local Saraswat Hindu chieftains who were tiring of the Adil Shah’s onerous tax regime. He finally took the entrepôt after a brief, bloody battle. Just 20 years later, the entire trading routes across the Arabian Sea were controlled by the Portuguese, who had already arrayed a string of 50 forts to control their monopoly, with further military outposts in Bengal and the Coromandel coast, and 100 fast ships devoted to cutting off and killing any competition that might arise.
By the dawn of the 17th century, the Cidade de Goa, the sprawling port city on the Mandovi River whose ruins are now known as ‘Old Goa’, had grown far larger than London or Paris in the same era, and become one of the most important marketplaces in the history of globalization.
It is here that Asia and Europe met, traded, and mingled on a large and sustained scale for the first time, with profound results that have changed the world since then. Goa became the locus of intense cultural exchange and technology transfer: the home of the first printing press in Asia, the first modern lighthouse, the first public library, the first universal civil code, ad infinitum. Right alongside, the diet of the subcontinent changed permanently: potatoes were introduced (India is now the world’s largest producer); chilies came in for the first time. Corn, cashews, guavas, pineapples, custard-apples, papayas, all came into the Indian diet via the Estado da India.
But it was bread that came in for special emphasis by colonial authorities, who found no substitute in India’s panoply of unleavened chapattis and rotis, thin dosas and appams, soft breads made from ground rice and lentils. Wheat bread did not merely signify subsistence to the Europeans, it was required for the celebration of Mass. The early Portuguese presence in India was missionary-heavy, and they made bakeries and baking into a priority. It was missionaries who trained a large number of converts from the Chardo caste (of Kshatriyas), from South Goa in the arduous art of baking bread in wood-fired clay ovens, and found an alternative to yeast in fresh coconut toddy. In time, the Poders of Goa became ubiquitous, and constituted a powerful caste-based union that played an outsized role in state politics right into the 20th century.
The last Poees are ready for the oven, and Frias indicates that he will be ready to talk after he cleans up a bit. I retreat to the tiny balcony overlooking the front yard, and watch the rain crash down in sheets on this small cluster of traditional houses, tucked invisibly into a clump of trees at the base of the Altinho hill that dominates the centre of Panjim. This ancient bakery is named after the nearby spring that gives it its name (Boca da Vaca = Mouth of the Cow). The modern flat that I live in with my family is just a kilometer south down the riverfront, but the scene I am looking out on feels part of a village world far different from what an Indian state capital is supposed to look like in the twenty-first century.
In fact, the Padaria Boca da Vaca had been a revelation to me when I found it a couple of years ago, having never stumbled across it while criss-crossing the city on foot since childhood, despite the fact that Panjim is by far the smallest state capital in the subcontinent (and not even close to the largest city in Goa, either). The main commercial drag of the city – 18th June Road – is probably less than 150 metres away from the Frias establishment, but a universe apart nonetheless. Each step away from blocks of unremarkable apartment buildings, and up a tiny by-lane lined with bougainvillea, takes you further towards a small stand of soaring, old coconut trees, until you’re completely out of sight of the city, and the countryside atmosphere pervades.
But long before I visited Padaria Boca da Vaca, I had surely eaten its bread. Like every other traditional bakery in Goa, its bicycle salesmen fan out across the neighborhood and beyond, honking insistently on bulb horns that set Goan households salivating at first earshot. ‘Phonk phonk, phonk’ and you know bread is on its way in a fabulously democratic exercise where every home in the state – mansion, hovel, in-between – is served by the network, and everyone buys the same article for the same price: the government-mandated Rs. 4 per undo, katre or poee. It’s beyond a daily staple, and more like a basic human right: if every Goan doesn’t get his fresh daily pao, every politician knows that the government will fall immediately.
Similar thoughts turn out to occupy the mind of Sebastiao Frias, when he finally settles down in the comfortable gloom of his balcao a little past two in the morning, with moonlight breaking though the rain clouds overhead. “I think you are probably educated,” he says, peering at me rather doubtfully, “so I don’t have to tell you what bread is, what it means to the people.” Now his eyes start to shine with excitement, “bread is not just food to me, bread is not just money to me, bread is life, man.” The baker sits back with a sigh, “Poder means respectable, honest, trustworthy. We always deliver, we are known for never cheating. This is what my family tradition means to me – we have been bakers for more than 300 years!”
The broad-shouldered poder gestured his world to me with his hands – the small hotel he owned in Majorda, the bank account that had grown enough to give him enough interest to live on without having to bother with the odd-hours and endless physical labour of the bakery profession. But, “I was born in this,” he says, with a shrug of acceptance and finality, “and there is no doubt that I feel a big gap in my life when I am way from the bakery, and the smell of my pao.”
An earlier version of this essay was published at 3QuarksDaily.com