August 27, 2006

A Late Afternoon in Fontainhas

Each time I step off the street in Fontainhas and walk into Percival Noronha’s house, I leave time behind.

And, each time I pass the Victoria lamp on the wall behind the door where the stairs wind their way up, passing among other artifacts statues of Hindu deities, and a steering wheel of a ship, I cannot help but wonder about the horse that drew the Victoria carriage along quiet roads in the light of the lamp. Sometime ago the lamp cracked, and a thin line now snakes along its length. But the glow of the bulb it houses is undiminished, like the spirit of the man who put it up there. Percival Noronha turned 83 last month.

The landing, covered by red carpet and lit up by light from the window that Percival Noronha uses to peer out to check on visitors ringing his door bell in the street below, opens into a sitting room. A brass-lamp stands in the corner by the door, and another hangs from the wall above it. Inside the room, intricately carved furniture wear their Portuguese influence in the same easy manner that Fontainhas, Goa’s Latin Quarter, wears its Portuguese identity in the heart of Panjim, its Indian context inextricable from its Portuguese past. Then, as always, after looking around the room I rest my eyes on the black and white pictures of his parents framed on the wall.

I let my eyes drop to the glow from the two lamps under the framed photographs as it reaches up, and crawls across the wall, casting memories in the shade of the wall, green. Monsoons got through the coat of paint, and green paint flakes in a corner by the window flanking the photographs. ‘Not everything green is coloured green’, I remember thinking while A looked around the room, running her eyes over the mantle pieces and wall pieces that Percival Noronha picked up over the years on his travels across the world, lecturing on Goan heritage and architecture in universities overseas. He had excused himself to answer the phone in the adjoining room where, under a framed map of Goa rendered in a Portolan style reminiscent of maps that sailors centuries ago used in navigating the seas by compass bearings, a vintage telephone receiver rests regally in a matching rest. I hear him talking to someone on the phone. His voice rings out from the room in clear tones. I find this tonal quality of voice unique to old Goan houses, particularly those home to Goan Christian families.

Seeing the map again later that day reminded me of the first time I saw it on my visit to his house in 1998. We were in the middle of a conversation about the quality of workmanship in the years gone by when Percival got up from his chair and said, "Come, I'll show you what I mean by quality of craftsmanship." I followed him into the adjoining room where he keeps the telephone. There, he pointed to the map on the wall and said, "This is Budkuley's creation. Budkuley was a master draughtsman, the best I ever saw. He did all this by hand." I watched him stand there, his hands folded behind his back, admiring the map. It was brilliantly crafted.

"Budkuley was thin, his wrists barely the size of two fingers put together," Percival said. "The last time I saw him was eight years ago. He was ill, down with fever and barely able to get up." Percival got him medical help and he got better.

We wait in the hall while he answers the phone in the other room. I picture him standing by the window overlooking the narrow street, the map facing him. Eventually, I turn my face up to look at the picture of his mother, Aurora Vital e Noronha (1896-1980). She was from S. Matias in Mallar (Divar), an island near Panjim that I last visited with A. K. Sahay three years ago, and where Percival Noronha once found a piece of meterorite years ago as it crashed down near where he stood in the countryside. He showed it to me sometime back. I doubt if he remembers where it is now. It must have passed hands, and ‘disappeared’. His mother has a kindly face. Light from the verandah to the back of the house streams in through the open door where his cat sits watching us, and reflects candle-like off the spot where her collar bones meet. I hear his cat purr. Not too long ago, the cat knocked a large vase off its rest, breaking it. Later in the evening as we prepared to take leave of him I asked him the name of the cat. He smiled and said, "One of the students named the kitten Priti taking it to be a female. As the cat grew up I realised it was a male, so I changed its name to Pritam."

Standing there and looking around, it’s like nothing has changed in the years since I first met him when I was in college, starting out in life. I’m still starting out. Percival Noronha has grown older, and so have I. Once in a while I go to Fontainhas to visit him, and we spend time talking. And each time, I leave his place amazed at the energy and enthusiasm he brings to bear in our conversations.

His father, Antonio Jose de Noronha (1884-1962) came from Loutolim, a sleepy village near Borim where Mario Miranda, the legendary Goan cartoonist, has his home. Antonio Jose left Goa for Uganda in search of work, bringing up young Percival in the African country. In 1929, the year Percival Noronha turned seven, the family returned to Goa, and Percival went to Lyceum to complete his schooling. That he did not is another story, and it probably helped him be his own person. In 1961, India reclaimed Goa from the Portuguese. At the time Percival Noronha was the Chief Information Officer and reported to the last Portuguese Governor General of Goa, Vassalo da Silva, a man Percival describes as 'efficient, and very energetic'. Talking of his time working in the Portuguese administration, he said, "Each Saturday morning, I accompanied the Portuguese Governor General to Daman by plane."

"The Governor General used to check on the progress of development projects, and attend to routine administrative work before traveling to Diu to check on the same. Sometimes, we flew to Diu directly before traveling to Daman. In the evening we returned to Goa," Percival said. Goa, Daman and Diu, along with Dadra and Nagar Haveli were part of Portuguese India for over 460 years. After India drove the Portuguese out in 1961, Goa, Daman and Diu were administered as a single union territory before Goa was granted statehood in 1987.

Percival's house dates back a long way as do most houses in Fontainhas. Its fa├žade is painted deep red, the colour of red oxide. “When I was renovating it in 1987, I found a corroded beam that was marked 1884. I asked the carpenter to cut out the dated portion of the beam and save it. The rest, I asked him to dispose off,” he told me recently over the phone, his voice betraying disappointment as he continued, “and that carpenter, dunno what he did, disposed off the whole lot.” His voice trailed off.

In the other room I hear him return the receiver to the telephone stand. Footsteps sound in the room behind the wall as he walks in through the door, hair askew on his head from the breeze blowing in through the door that opens into a balcony. He pats the few strands down and smiles. He leads us through the door to the dining room that functions as his study. Piles of books and papers are scattered across the large wooden table. Its legs end in finely carved lions. I pull a chair back and sit down, taking care not to place my feet near the lions.

Light streams in through the balcony in the corridor behind us and bounces off a book on the table before glinting in his spectacles, lighting up the book in his hand. It is late afternoon in Fontainhas. His fingers turn the pages in the book where his paper titled Old Goa in the context of Indian Heritage is published in the anthology Goa and Portugal: Their Cultural Links. He presented the paper at the International Symposium on Inter-cultural Relations: Portugal and Goa organized by the University of Cologne in 1996. The book is a collection of 21 papers presented by scholars attending the symposium. Silence settles in the room. I catch sight of the cat siddling to its food bowl in the verandah. As I sit there waiting for him to turn to the page, I take in the smell of wood, books, and life, and it feels good. It's been a long time.

"Ah, here it is,” he says, his eyes lighting up as he holds the book, Goa and Portugal: Their Cultural Links, out to me. I bend forward to read the title on the page: Old Goa in the context of Indian Heritage. Behind me, another cat joins the first one at the food bowl, and the first cat, Pritam, is not amused.

August 17, 2006

A Temple Chariot

A temple chariot made of wood parked outside a Goan temple. I waited until the last of the group of canines made way before taking this picture. Behind the chariot, houses lined the narrow road on either side. Two roadside inns were open to public, and served tea and fresh pao-bhaji. A provision store lay across the road. There were not many people about the place when I went near the chariot for a closer look.

The chariot was being readied for the annual rath yatra in Chaitra Purnima (March-April) when the temple deity is taken in a procession through the village. The temple is decorated and stalls selling traditional sweets are set up in the space around the temple while flower sellers, usually old women, sit with their baskets of flowers on either side of the steps leading into the temple complex, holding flowers in outstretched hands, and entreating worshippers to buy them to offer to the deity. Many people do.

Families from all over the state of Goa, and beyond, whose ancestors hail from the village where the temple is located, travel long distances to partake of the festivities, and participate in the rituals. Each temple deity in Goa is family deity to people whose ancestors hail from the village, and also to those from nearby villages who’ve offered prayers at the temple and taken blessings on all auspicious occasions like marriages, thread ceremonies, and the like in their families.

In olden days when there were fewer instances of people migrating from their village of origin in search of jobs, celebrations drew the entire village to the temple. You can still see the devotion, and involvement, but as with all geographical communities, the new generation of people from families that’re longtime inhabitants of the village, migrated in search of livelihood and better prospects, weakening to some extent the continuity in participation that has existed over the years. But, many of them travel long distances in Chaitra Purnima when it is time for the chariot to be led out from its resting place to carry the deity in a procession around the village.

Then it is time for the breeze to carry the holy chants in its folds and deposit it in the air and the trees, and in the souls of villagers, renewing their ties with the land that bore them to the light of day.

August 11, 2006

The Road Taken

When Philip suggested Kaskond, I readily agreed. What drew me in were the leopards. “It’s good to have you along,” he said. “Last time I went this way alone and heard a leopard growling nearby. It was scary.” As much as I feared meeting one in the jungle, for I’m no Tarzan to tame a wild cat, the opportunity to see one on our trek led me on, and I agreed.

The Bhagwan Mahavir wildlife sanctuary in Mollem, Goa, is known for its big cat. But, hunting, loss of habitat, and aggressive eco-tourism have reduced their numbers and those that remain are elusive, whether out of compulsion born of fear of humans or out of an ingrained nature I cannot be very sure.

After we entered Kaskond by a side entrance along the highway 4A that runs on through Anmod in the Western Ghats mountain ranges, to Belgaum in Karnataka, I stopped and held my breath. Ahead lay a jungle path covered with leaves. Silence hung in the air. No wind stirred in the trees, and the birds were quiet. The sun had kept out that morning and low light had turned the atmosphere surreal. The shadows the jungle threw fell weakly along the leafy path, and the thought that a leopard might be lurking round the corner heightened my anticipation. We stood side by side, and I took the picture posted above.

As I stood there, staring at the leaves that covered the road that narrowed further on, and the bends hidden from view in the undergrowth and bamboo, I knew I must take this road, and so we walked, passing leopard droppings by the dozen, and 'bumping' into Giant Wood Spiders' webs that stretched across our path. Though it wasn’t until much further that the road diverged, we kept up on this one. The leaves were moist from the morning dew, and lay silent, in peace from prying feet. As we walked on the road, stepping lightly on the leaves, they whispered jungle secrets and tempted me with what the bends in the road ahead might reveal, and I hoped the road would never end. Looking down at the leaves as we walked in silence I was reminded of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken . . .

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.