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The Saligão Institute, at 90

Frederick Noronha

If there could be something like a second home, this was it. In our teenage years, those of us who were bookworms, read there. Others who were the sporty types, played a range of games, both indoor and outdoor. The card-sharpers were there too. Some lost their hearts there. I found a career here (in equal parts, also via an English teacher and a librarian).

Tucked away in one corner of my village is a middle-sized building. If it is closed, as it has often been in recent years, you could easily miss it from the outside. A friend from the neighbouring village of Pilerne who did his schooling here, said he had heard much about it, but never actually seen it.

Many would surely have passed through Saligão – and its other landmarks, the Gothic-styled church, the new Saligão circle and even its garbage dump which certainly hasn’t lived up to its many promises – without even hearing of this place. But this Sunday, August 11, the Saligão Institute will be 90 years young. It’s not just a personal debt that prompts this column, but a whole lot of somehow related issues.

Only after visiting the place for many years, sometimes daily, did I realise its background and setting. Or even its history, if you want to use a formal term. The Saligão Institute, or SI, was actually set up way back in 1929.

This was quite in the midst of a severe global recession. Records are few and far to come by, apart from stray references in some books written on the village. But, obviously, the money for setting up this place came from sons of the village who had made their name and fame (and money) in distant East Africa.

Local historian, the intrepid writer late priest Nascimento J Mascarenhas, acknowledges Vitorino Saldanha, Antonio Jose Cordeiro, and Rodolfo de Melo — all from the Arrarim locality of Saligão — as the founders. Saldanha owned grocery stores in Mombasa, Nairobi and Nakuru in East Africa. Melo was a doctor in Zanzibar. 1880-born Cordeiro moved to Muscat to run his late uncle’s business, and apparently faced some opposition from villagers when he planned the institute.

Imagine building a neat structure, the size of three or four average homes. Then running it collaboratively, and keeping it fairly open — at least to those who could pay a reasonable (by middle-class standards) monthly fee or who had the best chances of keeping it going.

Other villages have their own ‘clubs’. Aldona’s was set up in the 1960s. Moira’s is probably earlier. Calangute dates back to more recent times. There are others too. I could well be wrong, but Saligao’s is probably the oldest in Goa.

Goan community-based charity is not a new idea. In the Bombay of another era, there were the ‘kudds’ (sometimes called, a bit misleadingly, club-houses) or the networks like Goa Hindu Association. They pooled the money of those who could afford for the benefit of those who could use it; not entirely open to all, but a kind of primitive socialistic endeavour if you like.

We tend to today forget the pioneering role of Goans in emigration, in the diaspora, in a world of colonial enterprise and risk. Quite a few did extremely well in this initiative. The Goan doctor was one of these, and there are still trails of such achievement in various parts of Bardez.

Once, when I was no longer a reporter on politics, and after our antagonistic relationship thinned, I sat down with the late Wilfred de Souza for a series of interviews. He stressed the role of the Goan (particularly Bardez) emigrant to East Africa, how many were there from parts of villages like ours, and how every “second house” was connected to migration.

Willy’s own dad was a doctor in East Africa, in those early times. He spoke of the ‘shamba’ — a small subsistence farm for growing crops and fruit-bearing trees, often including the dwelling of the farmer. He also remembered the African chiefs, and their respect for the (sometimes Goan) medicine-man of the early era, who had a life-or-death hold over them.

The role of the Goan businessman — often shop owner and supplier — has also been written about. Money from professions like these helped build an institution which many of us forget today.

Much of the history of institutions like the SI is perhaps lost to white ants and the passing of elder generations. For all one can remember, the Saligao Institute was a rather active space since sometime in the 1960s. Our elders played their roles in keeping it so. They organised events, disagreed, partied, and somehow kept it going.

Without even realising it then, the late 1960s and early 1970s were bonus times for us in the Goan villages, or some of the villages. Africanisation in East Africa, plus Idi Amin, meant many talented, often young, expats returned home. After the emigration drain of the 1960s, brought on by both political changes and the inability of old elite to cope with changing times, suddenly there was a returning flood of talent.

Mostly English-speaking (a mixed blessing) expats, who understood the club life from another changing continent (Africa) returned home. For a while, the Saligão Institute too was awash with reading material, quizzes, debates, just-a-minute (BBC-inspired) contests, bridge and other card games, carom and other indoor and outdoor sport. There were events for ladies, youth and the elderly. Not surprisingly, many of that generation have happy memories from those times, even if they are a couple of continents away today.

Does this mean that all was fine, and hunky dory? Indeed not. As a student, I can recall unpleasant fights and hurt feelings, the type of things that go along with big or bruised egos. We can laugh about it today, but it was not funny when a couple of youngsters pulled the plug on the music being played (or something of the sort, one forgets the details) and began a long harangue over the price of an IC (integrated circuit) at an hour close to midnight in the midst of a party.

Even more seriously, like elsewhere in our frail human world, those who were already on board the train found the journey comfortable. They faced accusations of being elitist and keeping out those still on the platform, clamouring to get onto the train.

Whether this could be justified or not is another debate, but many years later, the once vibrant institute slowly but steadily turned inactive. New committees did their best to keep it going, but it was tough. “Many of Goa’s villages are emptying out,” as a friend told me. Friends and colleagues we grew up with are more likely to be in Brampton or Hanslough or Bundoora, rather than in D’Mellovaddo or Sonarbhat or Donvaddo.

In a way, the Goan out-migrant has been victims of their own success. Even while they were able to conquer new worlds, and lifestyles which Goa could never afford them, they have lost their connection with the land they mostly still call home. The grass is being cut from under their very feet.

In the old days, when the old elite still ruled some of our villages, we admittedly were not endeared to them. They came across as standoffish, class-conscious, and sticklers for propriety. Once they have been replaced by a new class, we find the incipient, wannabe elites to be crass, arrogant and maybe even corrupt with little respect for the rule of the law. The old timers, maybe seen with an extra dose of nostalgic hindsight, at least had a vision of taking care of their legacy, of maintaining the villages and its roads or drains and coconut tree-lined lanes, an approach which was not based on short-cuts, devious politics and exploiting nature.

A few from the migrant generation fell on bad days. Many did well for themselves financially, despite being expelled or edged out of Uganda or Kenya. Some lost their wealth and land, but many others lost their connect with home. The US-based great-grandaugher of one of the founders of the Saligão Institute was surprised recently to realise that she had “Indian” roots too. Another of their descendants represented the UK in the 1972 Olympics, in Hockey.

Back home, we forget our history. A collective amnesia means we need not care about how things were, how they changed, where we are better, where we’re going worse.

Somewhere in late July 2019, I ambled along for the general body meeting of the Saligão Institute. There was pessimism prevalent. Few were willing to take up charge. Then, there was even talk that it could be kept closed temporarily. Before we realised what was happening, some of us got drafted onto the committee. Here, it’s definitely not a question of winning ‘elections’, but rather the task of accepting a responsibility.

Our old forms of building social capital are fading away, becoming redundant or not working any more. Can we re-invent them and keep them going in new times? These are challenges before everyone.

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