The Serendipity Arts Festival has become a regular fixture on our cultural calendar. For emotional reasons, my own years and those of so many generations in the family in those corridors and what were once hospital wards, operation theatres, centres of learning and healing for certainly a century and a half, I find myself drawn to the “old GMC” Panjim, as the heritage building is today called in SMS-speak. And this year, the “old GMC” Ribandar was also part of the festival as a last-minute resort, apparently. This year being the 175th anniversary of the declaration of Panjim as capital (of which Ribandar was and is considered a part, for historic reasons), celebrated so beautifully in the “old PWD” by the festival, you’d have thought it the perfect opportunity for its planners to showcase the city’s medical past and legacy at both these hallowed venues. Indeed, the Escola Médica de Goa, established in 1842, is barely a year older. Sadly, they let it slip through their fingers.
A portion of the former surgery ward literally had a heap of trash piled in a corner, and passed off as art, with some slick yet unconvincing captioning. Another room, once a private room that I myself was admitted in for a minor operation in the 1980s, had a video loop of a sleepy old man nodding off in a chair.
Going up the imposing marble staircase, again in a former surgery ward, were a bank of flat television screens, each displaying the back of a man or woman staring out at the ocean as waves came relentlessly crashing in. There were yet more explanatory paragraphs for one to ‘get the message.’ But what caught my attention, for old time’s sake, was not part of the exhibit but nevertheless seemed to make a powerful statement.
It was the profile (left) of a man, bearded and moustached in the way that only someone from the 1800s could be, looking ruefully towards the heart of what had been his stamping-ground. It was cast in bronze, but you wouldn’t know it from the way it had been looked after. A lick of paint had been slap-dashed on the walls and spilled onto the edges of the memorial. But what was more shocking and hurtful, were the flecks, nay intentional dabs of paint on the distinguished gentleman’s ear, nasal orifices and picking out ‘teeth’ or ‘fangs’ along the line of his mouth, to give a him ghoulish appearance. Someone’s idea of a practical joke? Common decency won’t let me compound the indignity by sharing the picture. But I have pictures of the outrage. I hope the powers-that-be have corrected this by now.
To be fair, this painter’s devil prank may not be the fault of the Serendipity festival organisers, but the carelessness of the administration that oversees the building maintenance, but don’t realise the full import of their responsibility. The amnesia had already begun even when I studied and worked there: few knew (or cared) who the plaque was honouring.
Who was this man? The plaque reads below: “AO DR F A WOLFANGO DA SILVA, HOMENAGEM DOS SEUS ADMIRADORES”.“To Dr F A Wolfango da Silva, in homage from his admirers.”
My father sang the praises of the great men and women of yesteryear (and we as children would only half-listen, sadly) but in that litany of fame was this man. After my dad’s death, I have to look elsewhere for information. So I quote largely from data gleaned from Aleixo Manuel da Costa’s ‘Dicionário de Literatura Goesa’.
Francisco António Wolfango da Silva, doctor, pharmacologist and former Director of Health Services, was born in Nova Goa (July 18, 1864) and died in the same city, (December 12, 1947), son of distinguished doctor Bernardo Wolfango da Silva and Leopoldina Deodata Barreto. He graduated in medicine and pharmacology at Escola Médica Goa, where he defended theses respectively, ‘Considerations on a case of cardiomyopathy’ (1887) and ‘The New Pharmaceutical Code’ (1888). He repeated his medical studies at Escola Médica-Cirúrgica de Lisboa, with a thesis on ‘Cardiac medications’ (1890).
In 1891, he was nominated faculty of the Health Department in Angola and also sent to Cabo Verde to combat a smallpox epidemic, then transferred in 1892 to India. He rose rapidly: capitão-médico (1902); major-médico (1906); tenente-coronel (1909); and coronel-médico (1914).
He was knighted to the order of Aviz, with a silver medallion from the Queen, D Amélia in 1895. During several governor regimes he was Member of the Governing Council, in which he impressed with his knowledge, intelligence, dedication and zeal which defined his career.
If I’ve translated correctly, he performed the first laparotomy operations for strangulated hernia in Goa. He was responsible for solving many of Panjim’s sanitation issues during his tenure in the health services, described by a contemporary as “one of the greatest stars in the brilliant constellation of the greatest thinkers who sparkled so much light among us with the clarity of his knowledge.”
Panjim will remember him gratefully (although they may not know it) for his decision in 1931 to have the walls of the entrance of the Instituto Vasco da Gama (today Institute Menezes Braganza) decorated with the glorious azulejo panels by the artist Jorge Colaço (1935), containing five episodes from the epic poem ‘Os Lusíadas’ by Luís de Camões.
I could be mistaken, but I seem to recall my father telling me that it was also his decision to line the Campal promenade with the beautiful tree-cover we have today.
He was an eloquent orator and writer in all the journals and periodicals of the day.
In that old surgery ward with a 21st-century technologically-savvy ‘smart’ art installation, a 20th-century bronze plaque (installed in his lifetime, in 1931) celebrating a man whose prime had been in the century before, although defaced, nevertheless still had the quiet dignity he must have exuded in his lifetime.
Thanks to public-spirited individuals like Vasco Pinho, we have a repository of information of a Pangim that once was, but no longer exists. In his recent book ‘Meu Pangim Inesquecível’ (My Unforgettable Panjim), he cites an episode I had long forgotten: in the iconoclasm that followed Goa’s Liberation, a frenzied mob tried to smash the bust of my great-grandfather Lt Col Gen Miguel Caetano Dias (1854-1936, incidentally a friend of Wolfango da Silva, and whose bust once also graced the old Panjim GMC), thinking he was Portuguese. Fortunately the local population prevented this. More recently, a long-standing Panaji MLA publicly confessed he also thought it was the bust of someone Portuguese, not native Goan.
Our city fathers have no link with the past, and are custodians of a heritage they have no knowledge of, or interest in, any more. If someday, sledgehammer-wielding ‘todd-fodd’ mobs come a-calling, will there be any public memory, consciousness or conscience that will dissuade them from smashing this or that? Today is the feast of the Epiphany. May we all have an epiphany about our history, heritage, and our duty to uphold and protect it.