‘Shadow of the Palm Tree’, the debut book by journalist, editor and scriptwriter Vatsala Mendonca de Sousa is set in Goa, and is a story of identity and survival, love and sacrifice, forgotten history and cultural conflicts. An excerpt from the 2018 book
It was a soft, sensual sunset that gave way suddenly to a deep, dramatic night. Nature, temperamentally, had selected that evening to stage the awesome wonders of her repertoire and the sky was painted with the brilliant colours of her palette. The lone figure standing at the stained glass window of our family chapel, her fingers caressing the beads of an ivory rosary, was unmoved by nature’s theatrics. Even as her lips moved silently in prayer, she was listening for something, her body pregnant with expectation. A few moments later an obliging breeze brought my mother the message she was waiting for.
“Destino,” it said, the sibilant whisper stretching languidly to form an unending echo.
It was the oboe voice of the negra Imaculada that resonated through our home after a lapse of thirty-one years. She had been dead for over a hundred and seventy.
Turning from the window with a resigned smile, mãe dipped her right forefingers in the basin of holy water. She made the familiar sign of the cross, leaving delicate droplets on her forehead, chest and shoulders. Bending towards me as I sat playing on the floor of the chapel, she planted a kiss on my cheek. The dry imprint of her lips was instantly nourished by a damp caress. She then went to her bedroom to prepare for what she believed was her destino, her destiny.
She took out her wedding dress, a frothy lace confection, and laid it with time-honoured reverence on the bed. She then placed the gold jewellery set her parents had given her beside the dress. The only piece of jewellery she kept on was the one she had received from my father. It was her wedding band.
She picked up a leather-bound book. Holding it close to her heart, she walked out of the home dressed in her favourite dark green silk dress. It was the one that she used for countless village celebrations: weddings, christenings, anniversaries, feasts of the pantheon of saints the Portuguese had bequeathed to Goa. This time the celebration was hers alone.
As she walked out of the house, I trailed behind her pulled by the tendrils of unhappiness that snaked impotently from her. Claudinha, the family poskem or adopted daughter, fussed after her. She wanted her to stay in. It was getting dark. It was threatening to rain. She had no umbrella.
Mãe looked back. Claudinha was silenced. It was a look she instinctively recognised. Claudinha had been part of our family from the day she was born. She was nearly thirty years old now. Or so some estimated.
Claudinha was large: physically and emotionally. Over six feet tall and nearly 220 lbs, she was the delicious colour of the jambla, the dark purple fruit that grew on the sides of the muddy streets. The plants formed a dense hedge that acted as a wind breaker. Claudinha played a similar role in our family. She was always there, unobtrusively taking care of the needs of our family’s myriad members.
Claudinha was a descendant of Imaculada, who had been brought to Goa from Mozambique over two centuries ago. Claudinha had inherited all her ancestor’s mystical powers. As importantly, she had learnt the Abreu family history that had been passed down like a treasured, yet reviled, palimpsest. Though just a small drop of Claudinha’s gene pool was African, her Goan and Portuguese ancestries had been aggressively stamped out by her African one. And so when you looked at her all you saw was a tall, beautiful negra emotionally at home but physically out of place in her setting.
Claudinha was also my godmother. My father, in a public display of his democratic leanings, had made the family poskem my godmother. The Conde de Maem, a fidalgo or nobleman, was my godfather. He often chuckled when he recalled the Conde’s expression when he learnt, only after arriving at the village church, the identity of my other spiritual guardian. They made a strange sight as they stood at the baptismal font. The Conde: short, white, effete. Claudinha: tall, black, spirited.
Claudinha and I followed mãe, watching her apprehensively from a distance. She walked confidently to the gate of our ancestral home. She stopped for a minute to light a candle before the statue of St Anne, our family’s patron saint. The grandmother of Jesus had been frozen in a strange Trinitarian tableau. She held the young Mary in her arms, and Mary, in turn, held the infant Jesus.
The base of the grotto had been besieged by the relentless march of the monsoon moss. Moss, as Claudinha said, just did not know its place. It laid claim to cobbled stones. It lined the muddy streets. It climbed up trees. It even had the temerity to creep up St Annes’ grotto.
Since the day mãe entered her married home, she had paid a visit every morning to St Anne, the patron of unmarried women, housewives, women in labour, and grandmothers. It was only the last role that she would not get to play.