Over a decade-and-half ago, a Goan gent dropped in, introduced himself and got talking. In a little while, I learned that he was an Africander (ex-Africa-Goan expat) based in Canada, who traced his roots to the village of Saligao.
Mel D’Souza, that’s what his name was, had been writing and illustrating a lot of work for the Downhome magazine, published in Newfoundland – a region which, perhaps like the Goa of the past, is reputed as a friendly and warm large island of the Canadian east coast.
To cut a long story short, Mel said he wanted to use his sketching and writing skills to – finally – focus on Goa. Like most expat Goans, he had been out of this region for one or two generations, and was keen to re-learn about his roots.
What, he wanted to know, did one think of the idea? At that stage, I was clueless about book publishing myself. To encourage others – without having to pay the price – is easy. Go for it, I told him… without thinking twice myself.
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In a year or two, Mel was back at my place. Surprise of surprises: he already had with him a copy of his book ‘Feasts, Feni and Firecrackers’. Its longish but informative subtitle makes clear what it is all about: “Life of a Village Schoolboy in Portuguese Goa”. It struck me then as now as a neat, 166-page concise, informative and insightful book.
Today, as we talk about how our world is returning to the Goa of the past – with reduced noise, less vehicular clutter, restricted industries and not-so-busy lifestyles – this book also takes us back to another Goa. In pre-COVID-19 times.
So, what does this story of a Dar es Salaam-born Goan in Brampton, Ontario, tell us? Mel talks about his “sentimental attachment to the old country” and his “love for (the) rural life” which gets reflected in his many “amusing stories of his schooldays in a bygone era” of Goa.
The first thing that strikes one about Mel’s book is his many interesting illustrations. The author is also an artist, and a good one at that. With the bare minimum of unfussy lines, he depicts a Goa that most of us have forgotten. Yet, this existed till the 1960s or maybe even the 1970s.Some of his book is generic and relates to any part of Goa. In a section called ‘Memorable Moments’, he takes us to the village harvest feast, the school concert and “beans and sweet potatoes”.
For Mel’s sharp eyes, even topics like frogs’ legs, beans and sweet potatoes or the cinema of those times, makes for suitable themes. For instance, he tells us: “The movie house was a corrugated iron structure with rows of benches near the screen, and chairs at the rear. Admission to the rear section cost a little more than the forward section.” (pages 158-159)
Anacleto Lobo, the principal of one of Goa’s early English-language schools – which perhaps promoted a whole lot of Bardez migration to Bombay, Karachi and East Africa – is also remembered.
This book takes one back in time; even if you don’t read it, but just glance through the many pictures on its pages. There are farmers watering coconut palm-lined fields with water drawn from their traditional wells. School children enact something, or deliver a speech, from raised steps, which serve as a make-shift stage. Processions wend their way through mud roads. Or, encounter a three-man brass band.
The scenes of village lanes, with modest homes and ruined structures, are classic. In one image, Mel depicts the traditional torches of those times – a fistful of dried palm leaves (chut’ti); a chunk of fibrous coconut husk “that burned like tobacco”; or even a small candle in a coconut shell.
Besides his skill at sketching, Mel’s power of observation – though he perhaps visited Goa only on holidays – makes his writing stand out. He describes the clothes of those times, and the way Goans talked to their pets (something also discussed by the Anjuna-based Domnic PF Fernandes in ‘Domnic’s Goa’). For instance: “In Goan villages, domesticated animals were members of the community in that we all spoke the same language. As long as they responded to ‘bish’, ‘shuga’, ‘bil’, ‘bah’ or ‘yeh’, they were all one of us – like any Tom, Dick and ‘hiri’.” (page 136)
He explains the peculiarities of Goan names – formally long, but often shortened in daily use. And would Goa be complete without its music traditions? In the Goan Catholic world, he tells us, children learned four, not three, Rs. The fourth was the ‘rebec’, or violin (page 130).
Church bells, firecrackers, bull-fights and football, these are all grist for Mel’s descriptive and colourful text. The tiatr, and Calangute beach, till not long back the summer retreat for locals until the tourists took over, get special treatment here. As one could expect, the book has more of a focus on the Bardez areas of Goa, which is why a reader elsewhere in a Goa which changes every 50 kilometres, could find it unusual.
Some pages would ring a bell, but only for Goans of those times. Mel talks about the ‘Mocidade Portuguesa’, “a cadet corps that every school was required to organise as a show of patriotism and loyalty towards the Portuguese motherland”.
Village fountains, local games, swimming in the wells, removing the ‘evil eye’ (disht), and marriage proposals and weddings are described with intricate detail. What happened if the rains didn’t show up on time? Devotees would carry stones on their heads, and atone for their sins, to pray for the rain to San Antonio. Facts like these are what the current generation might hardly remember amidst Goa’s dying traditions.
Other forms of “workshop, weddings and witchcraft” are described too, though the last term might be a misnomer. This book does not forget a fast-dying tradition of another era – the village ‘sankov’ (culvert), where the ‘city’ fathers sat and exchanged the day’s news (or, seen another way, gossiped).
Goa would not be the same without feni, canoes and pigs – which also feature in words and images. Paddy fields, village craftsmen, the poder (baker) and “village oddballs” all get their space under the rustic sun.
Village beggars are scant today – and thankfully so, though disguised poverty remains till today. Doctors of those times seem to be more colourful characters than their counterparts today. Transportation in the Goa of the times was so different that it gets two small chapters.
In a chapter, Mel focuses on the odd village names of Saligao, and how each village was known. This listing is of value not just because today the sobriquets lie mostly forgotten, but also because some can sound rather unusual today (Dando – rod; Bodvo – angel; Arshekan – glazier; Sourac – bland curry).
When in doubt, don’t discourage anyone to undertake what might even seem like a tough task; you never know where they get the strength from. Mel D’Souza’s book will be surely liked by some who want to walk the road to Goa’s “good old days”. Even if we know that we usually tend to often unfairly romanticise the past.