It was late evening when Claudia returned from the fields with Gormai. Something was different at home. Father was sitting sober and dressed in clean clothes. He had that rare look on, the one that came to his face only under special conditions; this was usually when he abstained from alcohol for a day or even a few hours, if he had a fever or was attending someone’s funeral or wedding nuptials, or if it was Good Friday. Since it was none of the above events, Claudia tiptoed inside, curious to know what was going on, but anxious too.
Mother was pouring out tea carefully in the porcelain mugs; the greatly prized and one of the only remaining wedding gifts Claudia’s parents had received. The mugs, apart from the exquisite jewellery box with the dancing ballerina were the only things that Father had not bartered for liquor. The mugs were draped in an old dress and hidden under the clothes in Mother’s wooden almirah and were taken out only when guests were at home. It was common within the neighbourhood to have special crockery which was taken out only when there were guests.
Jakin was arranging butter biscuits in a plate, Bula munching bits of them greedily, biscuits not usually available at home. Guests! At our home! Claudia exclaimed in her mind. But who could they be? Relatives and neighbours hardly came to visit them, unless it was some sort of a matchmaking visit. Curious to find, she leaned closer towards the old curtain that separated the kitchen and the sitting place.
The clothing of the visitors was not really familiar to the Goan or Portuguese way of dressing. Some of them wore cloth caps; the language they spoke was strange too.
Mother said it was Hindustani. Claudia strained her ears to listen to their talks. They spoke of civil liberties, freedom for Goans that was long overdue, jobs, Bombay. From the sound of it all, it seemed less of a matchmaking talk and more of something pro-war. Anti-Portuguese! Could they be the same Indians, rumoured to soon drive away the Portuguese? Perhaps! Those were the same men that Sankistao had been telling her about. But why would they visit Father? She couldn’t wait to find out.
Claudia often asked Sankistao about the political situation, especially after Damiáno Bab told her about censorship laws concerning the press and publishing which she was not fully able to understand. That’s when Sankistao explained to her that after India’s independence from British Raj, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru began to work on a diplomatic solution to liberate Goa from the Portuguese colonisation. He explained that while Nehru’s argument was that the people of Goa were Indians, the Portuguese Prime Minister, António de Oliveira Salazar argued that Goa was a Portuguese province and an integral part of Portugal. Also, he said, according to Salazar, Goans did not consider themselves as Indians but Portuguese and while the debate between them continued, India, motivated by Gandhian philosophies of non violence, pursued “the Goa liberation movement , urging Goans to fight for liberation from the Portuguese colonisation. Sankistao also explained how, perhaps not wanting the opposition party publicising stories across Europe that the Portuguese were not treating the Goans well, António de Oliveira Salazar was strict about the censorship laws concerning publishing any material or news, even about holding public meetings.
Could that be the reason this little group of people wanted to meet secretly in her house? Claudia wondered.
“Sorry my dear, you must be Bula. Did I hurt you? I was coming inside to greet your mother.” The man who had walked through like a headless chicken said apologetically. Not looking at what was ahead, he had failed to notice Claudia behind the curtain separating the sitting place and the kitchen. It hurt badly for a moment when the man’s head dashed into Claudia’s.
“No Santu, that’s not Bula, that’s Claudia, our youngest one.” Mother corrected the visitor, her tone friendly and calm.
“Busha! How are you, my dear? Been long. More than five years, isn’t it?”
“Much more than that, Santu, almost ten. You forgot that we are alive.”
“Oh Busha, if I forgot I wouldn’t be here. It is my love that brings me here. Do you have any idea how much I have missed your family and my dear friend, your husband? Come on,” the man said, giving Mother a warm hug.
“Jakin, Bula, Claudia, do you remember Ti Gomes...Santu Gomes?” Mother had a wide smile that stretched her face and lit up her eyes.
“Father’s best friend. Isn’t it?” Jakin acknowledged.
“He was,” Mother teased.
“Busha. Busha, there you go again. I am still your father’s best friend, girls, don’t get misled by your mother. Back in those days, your father and I sparked quite some fireworks in our village.” Gomes chuckled at his own statement.
So this was him, the best friend that moved to Bombay and never bothered visiting Father, even though he visited the village during most summers. Mother, Gormai, Jakin, Bula and some other neighbours had mentioned him often. He is more than a brother, Father would say about him. They both were behind organising tiatr and events in Oroshim, back in those days. Claudia remembered hearing about the man; Santu Gomes.
‘Ti, Aren’t those men Indians, why are they here?” Claudia questioned, disturbed by the men’s presence in her house.
“Dear! They just wanted a place to discuss some issues. I bumped into your father the other day at Matil Mashen’s tavern and asked him if I can bring them along. They will leave soon,” Ti Gomes answered, taken aback a bit by Claudia’s question.
“Will there be a war?” Claudia asked.
“No. The Nehru government is not in favour of war. It is not an option, unless we are attacked by the opposition. Panditji himself has mentioned that the government thinks Goa has a distinct individuality. The government will preserve our culture, religion, language. Everything. Our Goa will continue to have its independent presence under the Indian Government. Non-violence was Bapuji’s success. Look at India now, a free India, a happy India, free from colonialism and oppression. Panditji has been with Bapuji, he knows what’s best.”
Claudia didn’t understand much of what he said, but she was sure she wouldn’t like any men that came to drive the Portuguese away. Coming closer to all of them in the kitchen, Santu Gomes lowered his voice almost to a whisper. “The situation outside is not favourable for them to meet openly, they needed a secure place. That’s all. Nothing to worry. If these men meant any harm, would I bring them close to you all? Never. Your family is my family. You girls were too small to know the special bond that I and your father shared.”
“What have the Portuguese done to them, why are they trying to send them away?” Claudia persisted.
“Sshhh,” Mother tried to stop her.
“Wait Busha, let the child speak. Let them know the truth. What’s your name baby?”
“Hm. Claudia. Wouldn’t you like a good job for Father? These men are trying to make it happen for us, for the Goans, for our Oroshim people. Soon our situation will get better.”
“Haven’t the Portuguese already made our situation better? They gave us clothes to wear, food, money, work, so much! All of it comes from Paklin Bai.”
“True! But it’s not the food and clothes that will free our people, dear. Freedom is not filling our stomachs only; but to help us stand on our feet to buy our own food and take care of our families.”
“But a full stomach is what we had needed; we would not have enough food in the house, we slept hungry many times, until we started working for Paklin Bai’s family. Mother and I are very happy to work there. Aren’t we Mother?”
“Of course, dear. I am sure you and Mother are happy to work for Paklin Bai. They are not saying your Paklin Bai is bad. It’s not that the Indians hate the Portuguese people. It is about civil rights, about liberation. The Portuguese are occupying a part of India as if it’s a part of them, and that needs to be dealt with. You are still young to understand civil rights, of course, we do not understand it all at this point of time, and that’s fine, but there is going to be a great change, in time we all will understand.”
Excerpted with permission from Claudia, Sophia Lorena Benjamin, Niyogi Books.