What strikes one immediately on reading the Goan-Norwegian author Ivo de Figueiredo’s memoir, A Stranger at My Table, is the beauty in its narration. This 321-page account of a man’s search for his father – and, in turn, discovering his own community – is rich in some of the finest, very lovingly crafted passages I have read lately.
Figueiredo starts one of the chapters in his book with these lines:
“Where does dad’s story begin? Where does mine begin? The truth is that no story has an absolute beginning; all we can do is clutch randomly at the tangle of threads that lead from ourselves and back in time, generation upon generation, until they vanish into the vast darkness from which we all once issued.”
As I mulled over this passage and its depth so lucidly stated, underlining it and also flagging the page to make a convenient revisit, it suddenly came to my mind that I was not reading a book written originally in English. Figueiredo wrote A Stranger at My Table in Norwegian, its original title being En fremmed ved mitt bord, published in 2016.
The edition I was holding in my hands was the English translation by Deborah Dawkin – and this further made me marvel at the movement of beauty between languages and how an outstanding translation can not only open the doors of a work to a wider audience, but also inspire a certain curiosity among that audience towards other works written in that original language, other works written by that particular author, and other works written on that particular theme.
In search of a family
The stranger in Figueiredo’s title is his father, Xavier Hugo Ian Peter de Figueiredo, “born in East Africa in an Arab Sultanate under British rule”, having “both English and Portuguese names”, “baptised into the Catholic faith”, and having “a complexion that [bore] witness to his Indian subcontinent roots”. The book is judiciously illustrated with photographs of Figueiredo’s parents and other family members and ancestors alongside the texts that mention them, and the first photograph in the book is that of a young Xavier de Figueiredo outside a “workshop in Bamble [in Norway]…[an] Indian in the Norwegian snow.”
The photograph of snow and Figueiredo’s words in the introduction are symbolic of something – perhaps a coldness in the relationship between the son and the father. Figueiredo had not “seen or talked to [his father] for over five years” – one reason he is called a stranger – and had to chart the journey of his father’s life “before everything [froze] again.” However, in this deeply researched book the writer doesn’t just “travel in [his father’s] footsteps”; he actually makes the journey that the Goan diaspora made, negotiating several homes and identities.
The story of Figueiredo’s ancestors began in the village of Saligão in Goa, “a place [Figueiredo’s dad] had never seen and knew only in his dreams.” To this village and his Brahmin Catholic background, Figueiredo’s great grandfather returns to find himself a second bride, one who could return with him to Pemba in Zanzibar.
Following the trail
Figueiredo himself is Norwegian, and he came to India, to Goa, only in 2011, at the age of 45, when he started researching this book. Nevertheless, he shows an informed understanding of caste and class issues in India. Figueiredo writes about the myth of Parashuram shooting an arrow off India’s coast to “reveal the landmass that became Goa” and establishing the hegemony of Brahmins in the region.
This myth allowed Brahmins to claim superiority, which was something that the Portuguese encouraged when they set up their colony in Goa, supporting the ganvkar system that favoured Brahmins, many of whom had converted to Catholicism. Figueiredo tries to enter the ganvkar system in Goa as his ancestors belonged to it. He, however, is turned down by a Ganvkar as he is a foreigner.
Figueiredo calls Zanzibar, where his father grew up, “a land of bell jars”, with each community living under one. Their caste and religions had followed the Indians to the country – Hindus, Ismaelite Khojas, Bohras, Memons, Sunnis, Zoroastrian Parsis, Christian Goans – who all lived “separate lives…largely among their own kind.” In this social structure, “[marrying] into a lower caste was unheard of” and “separate Christmas [parties] were held for the children of tailors and other low caste families.”
The bell jar follows Xavier Figueiredo to England, where he falls in love with a Norwegian woman – whom he would eventually marry – but even that was unthinkable as “[in] East Africa he would never have formed a relationship with [even] an Indian Hindu or Muslim.” And while his family in Zanzibar was engaged in more pressing concerns about the impending independence of East Africa and their losing a national identity, Xavier Figueiredo was consumed with doubts like whether the Norwegian Protestant woman he loved would convert to Catholicism after marrying him.
Written to be remembered
It goes without saying that Figueiredo’s writing is highly engaging, and so is Dawkin’s translation. In a book about one’s family and ancestors, there might be chances of exaggeration or even simply going overboard with emotions. Figueiredo’s writing, however, is balanced, and yet he does not miss an opportunity to tug at the heartstrings when he can. Reading this passage –
“I have no idea where Dad’s story begins, or mine. But is it true that Dad never talked about my great grandparents? Might it be that I didn’t listen?”
– made me wonder if I myself had been able to speak enough with my own grandparents when they had been alive. This is one passage that, I felt, underlined the ephemerality of life in a terse and stabbing way. Figueiredo’s knowledge about his great grandparents comes from their funeral cards and, in a moving passage about funeral cards, he writes:
“Why were these funeral cards so carefully preserved? So many letters and pictures were lost over the years, but these survived. Could it be that it is only after a funeral that we realize that death visits twice; once when the loved one breathes their last, and then a second time when the dead are slowly eradicated from the memory of those who live on?”
Figueiredo had never seen his grandmother, Herminia Sequeira, for she was in Nairobi while Xavier Figueiredo was in Norway with his wife and children. In her letters Herminia sent descriptions of Christmas-time sorpotel, instructions to her daughter-in-law to “rub [baby Figueiredo’s nose] in position with a little oil every morning”, and instructions to her son to “start talking to Baby [Figueiredo] in English, right away” and not in “Norge”. About Herminia’s grave in Langata Cemetery in Nairobi, where she was buried in November 1967, Figueiredo writes:
“When the stones crumble, memories crumble with them, only then is the life we have lived truly gone. And right now, I need something solid to hold on to, and in the absence of anything else, this grave would allow me to feel closer to Herminia. The woman who was destined never to leave this land.”
Ivo de Figueiredo’s memoir, A Stranger at My Table, raises crucial issues of identity, nationality, religion, class differences, racism, and the position of women, as well as personal ones like love, isolation, estrangement, age, grief, and helplessness. In other words everything that matters to us today.
A Stranger at My Table, Ivo de Figueiredo, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, DoppelHouse Press.