Mai, whose son am I?
Two months after receiving the news of the fortune bestowed upon him by the Braganca family, Abel (aka Shorty) boarded the SS Karanja at Mombasa for the voyage to Bombay and then by bus to Goa. The first part of the journey, from Nairobi to Mombasa, was by train belonging to the East African Railways and Harbours. The pioneering Mombasa to Kampala, Uganda, railway was nicknamed “The Lunatic Express”. Its history is worthy of several volumes for another time, another place. Suffice to say, travelling third class was no dream come true and they said in those days “it is, what it is”. Fortunately, Abel had the three seater bench all to himself and the help of some clothing for a pillow he slept through most of journey until they arrived in Mombasa the next morning.
WHEN colonial powers ruled over the whole of the Eastern African coast, the British India Steam Navigation linked India and Pakistan with Kenya, Tanganyika, Mozambique, South Africa and the Seychelles islands. Operating one of the largest fleets in the world, BI also had ships that plied from India to the Middle East, Australia and the Far East.
Two of the most popular (it would seem) steam ships to ferry passengers between East Africa and Karachi and Bombay were the SS Karanja the SS Kampala. Each of the ships accommodated 60 passengers in First Class, 180 in Second Class and 825 in Third Class.
According to one BI brochure: “Each of the twin ocean liners offered a covered open promenade wrapping around the public rooms, beginning with the First class music room and veranda cafe, followed by a cocktail lounge, card room and library. Second class public rooms were aft, and the dining rooms were just below. First and Second class shared blocks of interchangeable cabins, while Third class bunks were completely separate. There was no air-conditioning, but only forced-air ventilation, which was fine while the ships were underway, but could be stifling in port.
“Entertainment was typical of the times, consisting of afternoon teas with violin music and perhaps dancing to an Indian band or a film or quiz in one of the public rooms. But what could be more enjoyable and relaxing than a day simply spent on deck reading and watching the sea go by?”
When the author was at primary school, a friend, Emil de Santiago, wrote about his own experience on another ship:
Besides the S.S. Amra there were the S.S. Kampala and the S.S. Karanja ships that plied to Bombay, Goa and Mombasa and down south to Mozambique. The ships also made the journey to England for the home sick British settlers who longed for their rainy country.
There were two gangplanks leading to the ship separated widely apart. The one on the left was for first class travellers where the ships’ officers welcomed you wearing white gloves. There was no second class. The riff-raff of society like us travelled on deck. There was no one to welcome us on the gangplank.
The wiry coolie lifted the large, heavy, metallic trunk perching it on his head with comparative ease and made his way on the gangplank to the hold of the ship claiming a place on the bunks for my mother, brother and me. The second coolie carried the two thin beddings of bedsheets and pillows all rolled separately. These were placed on the bunk beds assuring our stay across the Indian Ocean.
The next task for my mother was to arrange for food for the seven-day journey. This was easily arranged with one the ship’s Goan cooks for a price. The meals were excellent Goan cuisine but for the first two days, the thought food was revolting. Sea-sickness created waves of turmoil in the stomach that you had to run to the deck and stay there empting your stomach into the ocean from the rail. There was no cure for sea-sickness but my mother gave us hot water to drink the eternal cure for Goan ailments.
The bunk area was not very airy. It smelled of human sweat and other ships’ dank odours mingled with the continuous noise of the ship's engines. My brother and I shared a bunk bed – we were seven and nine years old. The only solace we got from the sleeping quarter was that the ships’ porthole was in line with our bunk bed. It was a relief to see the ocean and a close-up of flying fish as the ship sliced through the water.
While on deck, it was strange to see a white man on the upper deck point a gadget with his eyes glued to it at the people on deck. On the gadget, clearly visible in white letters read BBC.
I assumed they were the man’s initials.
After the seasickness, it was a smooth journey. Like kids, we ran and played with other kids on the deck while the man with the BBC letters continued looking at us.
Finally, it was home – Goa.
From the very first day he had woken up after Ferdinando Braganca had given him the tumultuous news, Abel kept reminding himself: If I tell anyone how I came by this fortune, I will lose it (No questions, Braganca had told him). At least, he thought, I will get to know more after I see the advocate in Panjim. No need to worry, he reassured himself. However, it seemed with each new morning the burden of what was supposed to be great fortune continued to weigh heavily upon. Normally, a pretty jolly fellow who enjoyed the company of his fellow bachelors in Nairobi, the other Goans he met at various people’s homes and at church. He enjoyed the company of any Goan… any that would talk to him, that is.
On the Karanja he would meet many Goans sailing home on annual leave. There would also be a number of members of the crew specially the stewards, porters, waiters, barmen and, most important of all, the cooks. He would spend much of the even in the galley-kitchen where he would lunch and dine on Goan cuisine especially freshly caught fish curry and rice and large variety of Goan pickles: Prawn balchao, prawn mole (as the name suggests, prawn pickles in hots spices and Goa vinegar), a variety of mango pickles, lime, and other vegetables. There was also lots of the favourite dried mackerel pickle called parra. There was also a bakery full of Goan sweets, you name, and the crew had, originally brought from Goa or cooked or baked in the ship’s kitchen. Most important of all, there was also a little of Goa’s own special “holy water”: cashew feni, distilled from the fermentation of the cashew apple. It is the favourite tipple of virtually every adult in Goa. There is another version distilled from coconuts but cashew is still the favourite. If you drink too much of it, there is a tendency for the liquor to exit your body through the pores in your skin thus living you smelling of feni all day and sometimes all night and, of course, with the mother of all hangovers.
If he wanted to, Abel could have also dined roast pork, beef or lamb or any of the other dishes meant for First Class passengers. His mates were always happy to allow him a taste of the “European menu”. On the Karanja, there were many members of the crew that he had known for quite some time now since this would be his fifth voyage.
During the day, he would mingle with other Goans on a part of the deck that was set aside for the passengers from third class. Sometimes, that upper deck sounded a bit like the old Margao fish market with sound of a thousand tongues all talking at the same time. But there was much laughter just as there were plenty of jokes. Sometimes, the jokes were aimed at the Goan civil servants and their families who travelled in the much posher Second Class. Goans are not immune to envy. On the other hand, there were many who still managed to simply sit and enjoy the rolling sea, the gentle sea breeze or read a book or magazine. Some of the women caught up on their knitting, or crocheting or other needlework. The children did what little children do everywhere, simply have a ball.
So there would be much to keep Abel’s mind occupied with things other than the detective work he had embarked upon. The thing that he looked most forward to was the card games in the evening. He played with some of the crew and one or two other passengers who were probably related to someone in the kitchen galley or service crew. They played a variety of games, always accompanied by the divine feni.
By the time he alighted in Bombay some 10 days later, he was somewhat exhausted and invigorated at the same time because when he arrived in Goa he could not wait to visit the advocate in Panjim. He took a taxi to North Goa and went to Padrino’s Hotel and Restaurant in Porvorim, which was owned by a family friend, Mathias D’Silva and the family welcomed him with open arms. The two families had known each other for a long time. Abel’s father was a much respected carpenter especially for his work on religious objects and furniture. As a wood carver, he was quite exquisite with the little chisels.
Abel’s first stop was at the home of Justin Pereira, a country cousin whose family also hailed from Velsao. The Pereiras still lived in Candolim and he was considered a pretty well-to-do gentleman. Justin, who was now well into his late sixties, also worked for the Bragancas as did the rest of his family. However, he had left the employ many years ago and had gone into business for himself by first opening a bar on the main road to Calangute. He now owned several bars and restaurants as well as residential property. Although he flew under the radar so-to-speak he was quite influential. It was Abel’s father who had recommended Justin to the Bragancas and nurtured the young man for many years. It was really due to Abel’s father that so many Velsaocars came to work for the Bragancas. As an adult, Justin was noted for his discretion as well as his expertise in various aspects of the running of the estate the business. When he went out on his own it was with the encouragement of his employers and their financial help. It was the patron who had sowed the seeds of going into business, in Abel, for himself in the first place.
The problem was: Abel could not ask Justin the direct questions that were burning inside of him. His heart was on fire … or it felt as if it was. So when he turned up at the Pereira residence, after first having made an appointment, the two men sat in the cool of the veranda. On the eastern side there was a very large paddy field, in north an assortment of fruit trees, in west a vegetable garden with a few coconut palms and in the south the coconut palms reached the edge of the beach. Pereira wanted to know all about Africa and Abel wanted to know all about the Bragancas.
By the time India gained independence in July 1947, the Bragancas had sold lock stock and barrel, sub-divided their lands, made generous arrangements for the workers that had remained with them until then and transferred their investments and money almost equally between Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro. The old man had a hunch that it would not be long before the mighty India would march into Goa and claim its sovereignty. He thought it better to get out while the going was good. Besides, his health was failing. He was having trouble with his kidneys, as a result he had to cope with high blood pressure (and other issues including diabetes) which had to be kept in check with medication. He did not feel at all healthy. He thought he had better get to Europe where the medicine was much better. His wife, the magnificent Dona Isabella, continued to age gracefully. Their love for each other, as they realised the twilight hour of their life together, was even stronger. She wanted to get him to the best European medicine as quickly as possible. Adeus Goa.
Pereira explained that the Bragancas assisted both north Goans and south Goans who wanted to continue living in North Goa. They also assisted those south Goans who wanted to return to their ancestral homes. Most of the Braganca workforce had maintained the links with their home villages and homes and returning home was quite easy, really. There children and their families had moved on to other parts.
Sadly for Abel, Pereira did not touch on any aspect of what was eating him up inside. So, although there was a smile of sorts on his face, his heart was heavy as he left the Pereira residence. He did tell Pereira his good fortune but all Pereira said was congratulations and wished every success as a businessman in Candolim and told Abel his door would always be open if he needed any advice or help. That seemed to lighten the load a bit.
That night, Abel had a vision. No, a dream. No, something anyway. Someone or something whispered in his ear: “Go and talk to Father Ignacio Pacheco,” (who had been the chaplain in the Braganca chapel for nearly 60 years. “Ask him the burning questions in the sanctity and confidentiality of the confessional.” But what if Father Pacheco should contact the Bragancas and tell them Abel was asking questions? But the confessional is sacred, he cannot do that, Abel told himself.
Why did the Bragancas not tell him why they had made him a virtual nobleman overnight?
What was the secret they were hiding?
Am I a Braganca? An illegitimate son? Who is my father? Who is my mother?
The next morning, he went to see Malachy Monteiro who also used to work for the Bragancas but had left to assist his father in their various business enterprises, particularly the motor car, scooter and motocycle hire shop. There were only two cars, both Austin A16s (the limousine of India). Abel was lucky enough to find one of the cars available for hire.
He drove down the Calangute road and, when he came to the Saligao crossroads, he turned right. After he had driven 400 metres he came to a road on the left-hand side with a sign that said: “Loreto Convent Girls School.” Abel remembered a Noronha family lived in a yellow ancestral home here.
He continued to the next left turn and took it. He had seen the sign with an arrow pointed left which said St Anthony’s chapel and residence for priests. Father Pacheco had retired and was no living in this retirement home of sorts. He was still busy with some of the priestly duties and he was beaming ear to ear when they told him that Abellino Gomes was calling on him.
After a long chat about Africa, Abel’s parents and the Bragancas (“those were the good old days”), Abel enthusiastically asked Fr Pacheco if he would hear his confession and the priest agreed, pointing to the chapel as they got up from their chairs in the garden.
After going through the formalities (Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been X weeks, months, years since my last confession), Abel asked:
“Father you with the Bragancas for nearly 60 years. You know more than anyone else whatever happened there…?
“Yes my son what is troubling you?”
“Father whose son am I? “Who is my real mother?” “Who is my real father?”
“Your father and mother are your parents. They have raised you.”
“Then why have the Bragancas given me a fortune?”
“Why have told me to keep quiet and not ask any questions?”
“For God’s sake. Don’t lie. Tell me the truth, Father,” Abel pleaded.
“If I tell you what I know, what are you going do with it? Are you going to go and burden your poor old parents who are guilty of doing nothing wrong by raising a son and that as a good Christian?”
“I have to know the truth. I have to honour my real mother and father.”
“There is no secret I can tell. Put your faith in God and be grateful that the Bragancas have chosen to honour you with their land.”
“For your sins, say three Hail Marys every morning and evening and forget all this nonsense about your so called real parents.”
With that he blessed Abel and the two got out of the confessional almost together but their eyes did not meet and they did not acknowledge each other. Abel was convinced Fr Pacheco harboured a secret.
The next day, he hopped into the car and headed for Panjim. For a moment, he thought about the conversation he had had with Ferdinando. Suddenly he hit his forehead with the palm of his right hand. He had told Ferdinando that “his family were still staying in the old house and it had become our ancestral home.” True, his two brothers and their families were living there but his mother and father had returned to their ancestral home in Velsao. On his return to Candolim he would visit his brothers, he told himself.
Advogado George Soares de Simoes had a suite of offices on the top floor of the Figueiredo Towers on the southern banks of the Mandovi River two blocks south of the world famous Mandovi Hotel, a favourite with most visiting Goans. Within minutes of his arrival at the solicitor’s offices, he was ushered into a large room. The very large ornate table immediately caught one’s followed by the lesser man seated at the table.
“I see you are admiring my desk,” Mr Simoes said as they shook hands. “It is wonderful work by your father. Everyone loves it.”
What Mr Simoes said next was a series of “sign here”, “sign here,” and “here” around ten or twelve times. Thank God I learnt to read and write a little English, Abel told himself. “Especially my signature” (which was really nothing more than a scribble). When they had finished, Mr Simoes said: “You don’t have to worry. I will take care of everything that needs to be done.”
Over the next four weeks, Mr Simoes would take care of everything, running the legal gauntlet through a maze of land transfer courts, the local government, local councils, and God knows what else. Really, it was a miracle that every dot, comma and full stop, signature, initial and this and that was all accomplished within six months, a task that normally takes months, even several years to achieve. However, it had been at three years since the Bragancas at initiated the legal work to make Abel their special beneficiary.
By the way, all of Abel’s conversations in Goa were conducted in Konkani. I tried my best to do justice to the translation.
At the end of it all, following meetings with the bank and the various local people of importance, they met for a kind of “successful end of this business” lunch. Before they said their goodbyes, Abel asked him: “How much do I owe you?”
“I have already been paid in advance … in fact I will remain your advogado for another two years, until you are on your feet, so to speak,” a smiling Mr Simoes told him.
In between meetings with Mr Simoes, Abel visited his brothers Arcanjo and Loresinio and respective families at the old family home on the Braganca estate. He took the two outside and went for a walk around familiar old places. When they arrived at a disused well, he leaned against its upper wall and said this to his brothers: “My dear loving brothers. There must be a lot of questions you have asked yourselves, Mai and Pai, and which you want to ask me about the good fortune God and the Braganca family has blessed me with. One of the conditions of this gift is that I had to swear an oath on the Holy Bible not talk about it or, particularly, ask Why? If I broke the vow everything would return to the family. I took the oath yesterday and it was recorded by advogado Simoes. I also signed the deed of oath only yesterday. I really do not know anything and I am just as shocked and bewildered as you two or the rest of our family. So, from this moment on, let us swear to each other never to bring up the subject amongst ourselves or with anyone else.” They agreed, knelt, joined their hands over Arcanjo’s rosary beads, raised their heads to the heavens with their eyes closed and repeated after Abel: “We three brothers swear to Holy Christian God, Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit, never to talk about Abel’s good fortune amongst ourselves, with our members of our families or with anyone else, if I do, I surrender my soul.” When they had finished, they wiped the tears from their faces with their hands and in turn dried their hands on their shorts, front and back.
The two brothers were now in business for themselves growing vegetables for the local market. They were looking to expand and were on the look-out for land. During one of his visits, Abel sub-let his paddy field to the brothers and soon a deal was signed, sealed and delivered. Arcanjo also promised to find someone to manage the coconut grove in the short-term. Abel told them it would take him a few months before he developed his own plans for his property.
The two brothers wanted to ask him why he had been so blessed by the Bragancas but they bit their respective lip and erred on side of discretion. There would be plenty of time for that. It was not only the brothers who wanted to know “why”, it was the whole of Candolim and soon it would be the whole of North Goa. It would not be long before Goan envy, the evil eye, the gossip, and the priest would be required to exorcise everything, the fields, the coconuts, the house, everything including Abel, his brothers and their respective families. Masses would be offered for the warding off of evil spirits for every day, a year in advance. The local priest would be a regular visitor to Gomes homes in Candolim.
And, of course, there would be a regular procession of match makers and family members known to the Gomeses who would be making a beeline to their homes with the hope that they could marry off Abel. The same thing would be happening at their ancestral home in Velsao where is mother and father would have their patience worn thin by every proposal.
Talking about his parents, after he finished all his initial business in North Goa, Abel headed south. It had been many years since he had been to the family home. When he was a very young boy, his parents took him there regularly. Each year, his father made some improvement to the home: modernising the bathrooms and the kitchens, cementing the floors, cut stone to the exterior walls. Today, the house looked quite posh with its four huge bedrooms, a dining room (which was for special occasions), a sitting room for visitors and a large family room that included dining facilities and adjoined the kitchen. In fact, there were two kitchens. In one there was a gas cooker and in the other a traditional wood or charcoal fire where most of the cooking was done. The interior and exterior woodwork was unbelievable. A work of art it was of the highest quality. The hand carved three wooden doors at the front of the house were a stunning entre as was the veranda railing around the house. The house stood three feet off the ground to mitigate any flooding issues. Under the houses, drains led the seasonal run-off to nearby paddy fields. This was now a substantial property.
On returning home, Mr Gomes had tried to start a carpentry business but it was hard to attract young people so he continued doing small commissions in the little workshop attached to his home. He was kept very busy and yet he was deliberately slowing down.
When Abel arrived at his father’s house, the two servants began running around like chooks that had had their heads chopped, all in absolute delight of course and in search of the master and mistress. When they did arrive, their very large smiles shone through the tears of joy that followed. Goans don’t hug or kill, instead Abel bowed his head, joined his hands in prayer and awaited his parents blessing and welcome home. Over the next three days, Abel had long chats about all that been since his last visit to Goa. When his father raised the question of his good fortune, Abel suggested that they talk about it another time. Abel had already made up his mind that he would first ask his mother about it. She could keep a secret, except from her husband.
Velsao Church, as it is called locally, is in fact Our Lady of the Assumption Church. It was built in 1634. It was given the status of a parish the following year.
Quite a long way from the Velsao Church, high up on Cuelim hill, stands the more famous Three Kings Church (sometimes called a chapel). It is here that a large colourful procession with lots of singing and music culminates to celebrate the feast of the Three Kings on January 6, thus marking the end of the Christmas season. The procession is led by three local men dressed as kings on horseback. The strange thing about it is that nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of “three kings”. They are, however, statues of the three kings carrying the legendary gold, frankincense and myrrh have a prominent place in millions of recreations of the manger around the world each year. The Bible does, however, does explicitly refer to three wise men.
The local folk say the little church is haunted and anyone who enters the church on the night of the feast of the three kings is ever seen again. Yet, it is a drawcard for tourists. The view of the surrounding area is stunning as is watching the sun set from this hill. Just brilliant.
So, one of the first things that Abel did was visit the Velsao Church where he spent some time in meditation and prayed for his God’s help in finding peace with the situation he found himself in. He particularly prayed that his mother or father would solve the mystery of his current predicament. Later that afternoon, he headed for the Church of the Three Kings. He went part of the way on the back of a friend’s scooter and arranged to be picked up at around 5 pm. He wanted to bring his mother with him but the climb would have been difficult for her.
He spent a somewhat blissful afternoon on Cuelim hill. It was his good fortune that Father Francisco Agnelo Costa Bir was there to supervise workers doing some repairs. Thus, Abel had the chance to sit in the chapel for a little while. It was also a good chance to talk to Fr Costa Bir about local matters and the big feast. He found the priest a very gentle and pious man. Abel thought he recognised an aura of piety around the man and was mesmerised by his entire persona. Abel asked if the priest would bless him and pray for him. The priest led him back into the chapel and he did just that. Before he finished the blessing, the priest said: “Dear God the Almighty, help this poor soul, the lamb who seems to be lost, who appears to be weighed down quite heavily by something or things that appear to burden his mind. Let your light shine into his heart and mind and make him a happy and contented soul in the service of the Church and Your Son Jesus Christ. I bless you in the Name of the Father, of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace for your God is with you.”
As he walked down the hill, Abel looked like a new man. The frown was gone and its place a beaming smile lit up his face. He felt at ease and truly blessed. It was as if Fr Costa Bir had unburdened him of all his cares and worries. He was afraid of nothing. I am with my God, and my God is with me, he told himself.
So, by the time he went for a walk with mother the next day, it was a very relaxed, calm and gentle son who said to his mother: “Mai. I have taken a sacred oath not discuss what I am about to with you. Before I do that you must swear that you will not discuss it with anyone else, not even my father.
“Do you swear by the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit?”
“I do.” She said knowing exactly what was coming.
“Mai, whose son am I?”
“Mai, do not be afraid to tell me the truth.”
“I am telling you the truth. You are my son and your father’s son. What is this nonsense you asking?”
“Why have the Bragancas given me this fortune? Because I look like one of them? Am I an illegitimate son?”
“Oh my God, Oh my God. Please help me son because he is going mad. Help him Our Lady of the Assumption, St Francis Xavier and all the saints, please help my son who is going mad…” she begged with a sobbing heart and tears rolling down her face.
“Mai, Mai, I am not going mad. If you know something please tell me.”
“Be grateful to God that he has chosen to bless you. Enjoy the fruits of his love for you. If you still doubt me, seek God’s guidance and if you still have doubts after that, talk to Pai.”
“Okay, Mai. I believe you and I will never raise the subject with you ever again. I will talk to Pai, because he is my father.”
Several days later after having been further invigorated by the talk with his mother and her assurances that he was “her son”, Abel joined his father for the usual evening drink of feni before dinner. It was the custom of many Goans to have a drink before dinner or supper and none after that. Perhaps, that is one explanation why Goans eat so late.
It was a rather confident and self-assured Abel who looked his father in eye and said: “Pai, Mai has spoken to you about what had been troubling me …
“Yes, yes. Let anyone say you are not me son and I will kill him with my own hands. You are my son. That is all I have to say on the matter. The Bragancas have given you this fortune because I told them to. They were going to give it to me and I told them I was too old to handle it all. ‘Abel is young and intelligent, he will do a good job for the whole family’, I told the patron. Let us talk about something else.”
With that Abel would keep the oath and his mouth shut for the rest of his life, even when he was provoked by envy and the evil that men and women do to another human.
Later that as, as Mai and Pai were about to fall asleep, Pai said: “My dear, I hope we are not going to burn in hell.”