‘God gives every river its own characteristic smell. The taste of its water, the quality of the soil in which it flows, the body odour of the animals that live in it, the essence of the flora around it – all of this contributes to it. It is this smell that makes the rivers dear and familiar to us. But look at the fate of our beloved Tejo. It has lost its original smell and is now heavy with the heady reek of Indian spices. It took us all of five years to bring this upon a river that has been holding onto its own smell for thousands of years. Da Gama finding a way to India has spelt the doom for our dear Tejo.’
Bella’s thoughts were always a riddle to Gabriel. When everyone went one way, she had to go the other. The whole world was celebrating Vasco da Gama’s arduous journey across mighty oceans and his successful discovery of a route to India. They were saying that the spice merchants of Venice, Cairo and Persia were worried about their future owing to this development. They feared that the European market had slipped out of their hands. It is only natural that the hearts of its enemies thudded jealously at the sight of this sudden river of wealth flowing in the streets of Lisbon. And of what value were these spices?
The people in town spoke about how the spices arriving in ships had brought in sixty times the money that King Manuel had invested in them. The king’s glory had grown so much that Queen Isabella of Spain was referring to him as ‘the condiment king’.
These words contained her envy as well as her disappointment that despite great efforts, her country was unsuccessful in finding a route to India. They had pumped in great amounts of money and sent Columbus on an explorative journey but all he had ended up discovering was some useless uninhabited landmass. And now, he was trying hard to prove that it is India. How can any wealth be made there? Apart from a few ruddy-faced slaves they had hauled over, the expedition had yielded little profit for Queen Isabella. All the wealth was in India. Success lay in finding a route to it and not to other countries.
The Portuguese people were beginning to realize that the merchants of Venice, the Moors of Morocco and the merchants of Cairo had been swindling them over the price of spices all along. They had been charging them twenty times the original price. No amount of haggling made them reduce their rates.
They were arrogant in their belief that they had the Portuguese by their noses. But look at them now! The merchants of Lisbon were ruling the roost in the spice trade. They were also selling spices to the neighbouring states of Spain, Aragon and Lyon. Lisbon was being called ‘little Venice’ now. Portuguese households had started using spices in all their meals.
With this being the new present, what was Gabriel to make of Bella’s scornful words for the spice trade? Bella refused to go to the riverbank in the city. They had established spice silos there. Hundreds of little boats sailed on the river. The ships were anchored a short distance away in Belém as the Tejo was not big enough for them to sail through. Their cargo was loaded onto small boats and brought into Lisbon through the estuary. This work continued for months on end. Men ferrying the goods on their shoulders from the boats to the silos was the only sight one saw on the bank.
Spices can be tied up in bags. But can one tie up their fragrance? Although bigger in size and strength, in the matter of smell, the river loses to the small grains of spice. God must have made a rule that says no matter how big one is, one must learn humility by losing to smaller things in their lives. How else would the people of India, a huge country so far away, be frightened into selling their ware for lower prices to a few hundred Portuguese sailors arriving on a ship?
They said the Persians and Arabs have monopoly over the trade in that country. A special bond was formed between these countries owing to hundreds of years of trade relations. In that, it was no small feat that the Portuguese people fought them and won the upper hand of the trade. And that too with only a handful of soldiers.
The Tejo also flowed through the forest outside the city. A private spot on its banks there was Bella’s favourite place. She insisted the secret place was perfect for lovers. There, the Tejo flowed more slowly, like it was telling them a story. Bella turned emotional when she claimed the river knew hundreds of stories. The same river was known to flow in the country where she had played as a little child. But she said that in her old country, it lacked the thunderous roar of its rendezvous with the sea.
The Portuguese were an aggressive people, she claimed, and the Tejo matched their temperament in Lisbon. Gabriel didn’t think that their meeting place was entirely free of the smell of spices, however. Sometimes a breeze coming in from the city carried the aroma of spices with it: sometimes cinnamon, sometimes pepper, sometimes clove, and at other times a mixture of everything. He drew in deep breaths dramatically.
‘I smell spices!’ he teased Bella who knew how to respond to it.
‘You have a Portuguese nose! Your people followed the scent of spices for thousands of miles across the seas all the way to India. What are a mere couple of miles from Lisbon’s riverbank to you?’ she teased him back. Her eyes sparkled with a strange light when she challenged him like this, and her words melted his heart. He bent down and placed tender kisses on her eyes. There was a reason for Bella calling them ‘your people’.
Unlike Gabriel, she was not born in Portugal. She was born in a Jewish family in the neighbouring kingdom of Castile as Spain was called then. Ten years ago, Isabella, the queen of Spain began to feel rather strongly that the Jews were sinners. Europe was rife with whispers that the Jews sacrificed Christian children in their mysterious rituals, and her Christian subjects were pressing her to expel them. So, she decided that the Christ-killers ought not to live in her kingdom anymore and passed a decree asking all Jews to leave immediately.
Now, where would thousands of Jewish families go overnight? All the neighbouring kingdoms
were Christian. The Muslim kingdoms of the world didn’t like them either. Where does one go when one is hated by everyone? Back then, Portugal was ruled by the senior King Joao who was the cousin of the current King Manuel. This clever man invited the Jews of Spain to come to Portugal. His Christian subjects were extremely unhappy with this decision. ‘Inviting sinners into our home is summoning our doom,’ was the word on the streets. Losing their tender babies to Jewish demonic practices was a loudly uttered rumour. But no one dared voice their opinion to the king. ‘Hasn’t the Lord asked us to love our enemies?’ he had said in justification of his actions. Someone had sent word of this development to the Pope in Rome. But it would be a month or so for a response to arrive from there.
In the meanwhile, the Jews had established their own colonies in Lisbon and its surrounding towns. Joao had even allowed them to build a synagogue in the capital. The Jews built their houses close together. They were mostly business people; they ran carpentry shops or bakeries or butcher shops or vegetable shops for a living. Owing to this, a thriving market had emerged beside their residential quarters.
Excerpted with permission from Tejo Tungabhadra: Tributaries Of Time, Vasudhendra, translated from the Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor, Penguin.