Sisters

By Linken Fernandes

I saw the notice for the third anniversary mass two weeks too late. It stared at me from the newspaper wrapped around the savouries from the local Udipi. I couldn’t believe it: not just the fact that it was already three years since Greg had passed on, but to actually see a mass announced on his behalf.  I had not visited Greg’s home in Sonora even once after the condolence meeting, a secular one I might stress, which was held in Margao town soon after the news of his passing reached Goa. It was here that I had made the foolish promise to his sisters that I would drop in on them soon. Foolish because I made the promise provoked by the emotion of the moment rather than because it was expected of me; I barely knew Hannah and Sylvia.

I couldn’t but forego siesta now, and, an hour later, I was slowing down the scooter outside the gate at Greg’s. The creak of the iron gate as I pushed it open set off some whiny barking from the right corner of the veranda and a distant, heavier bass from deep within the house, perhaps from the backyard.  The roof-tiled house looked no different than when I had seen it almost a decade earlier. Some five or six glass-paned French windows looked upon a veranda and met in the middle in a largish, comfortable porch at least five feet above ground level. A cooling mango tree overhung the porch. I climbed up the semi-circular laterite steps and pressed the buzzer.

I turned round to face the paddy fields visible over the front wall and stretching towards the hills in the distance. Coconut trees swayed gently from the bunds now, but in the monsoons could be more reckless, at times even bending over dangerously in the wind. It was a porch, to watch the rain from, as also to shelter from the summer heat. I recalled sitting here, around noon sometimes, as Greg held forth on some current event or the other. He liked nothing better than some lively conversation, and if the topic matched with an issue close to his heart, it made his day. One pet project on which he expended a lot of oral energy, for instance, was how to resist authoritarianism, in whatever form it showed up. (This preoccupation may have owed to the Emergency of the late 1970s or to Goa’s colonial suppression for nearly five centuries). But he wasn’t too particular really. If the interaction was provocative and stimulating enough, anything under the sun held his interest.

A whole five minutes later, I pressed the buzzer again, a bit annoyed. A door creaked, almost in response, in the distant interior, over and above the racket the two dogs were making. The sound of a window being shut followed next and was succeeded by another door closing with a loud rap.  The sounds continued – this is no exaggeration – for almost a minute and kept getting louder. I guessed that a series of windows and doors were being shut for the night, one room at a time. Now the sound of sandals scraping the floor came from behind the French window to the left of the main door. One window was dragged inwards just a wee bit, and a greyer-haired version of a face I remembered as Hannah’s peered through the narrow opening and asked, none too amiably I thought, “Yes?”

“Hi! How are you?”

Her face was a blank. “Yes?”

“I’m Nicholas. I used to know Greg.”

She didn’t respond, but continued looking at me silently, quite obviously considering whether to open the door to me at all. Surely she ought to remember the couple of times we chatted as I waited for Greg in the porch, and the lift a friend and I gave her from Margao, during which she let us know about the myriad of obstacles she had overcome to start a pioneering counselling programme for school students in St. something in Bombay? Her mother had informed me that Hannah used to donate her teacher’s salary back to the school; the gesture had impressed me tremendously.

What struck me most about the face looking at me now, with such undisguised apprehension – did I really look like I would do her harm? – was her cheeks, which seemed firmer, and younger, than the rest of her face.

I said, “I saw the notice for the mass only today.”

At last the response, “Can you wait a minute? I’ll be out in a second.”

The second actually ran into some twenty minutes. The two dogs continued their harangue, as though I was a particularly unwelcome visitor, and gave an edge to the slight headache coming on from the skipped siesta and the ride in the afternoon sun. I guessed that the dunnish stray in the verandah and the unseen growler inside were primarily door alarms and were probably kept on small portions of food to keep them complaining. But they would hardly be much help against robbers if they were kept chained and as famished as the specimen in the verandah seemed to suggest.

I hoped Hannah wasn’t living alone. The closed doors and windows of a big house, and the absence of human movement about it, were bound to give ideas to any stray passer-by. To add to it were the overgrown ruins in the neighbouring plot on the right. Someone could creep into a seemingly uninhabited house but, taken by surprise by a solitary elderly occupant, a woman at that, end up doing much worse.

Of course, this wasn’t anything unusual. There were entire waddos of such houses in parts of Goa lying uninhabited, their owners settled elsewhere in the country, or abroad, and with no inclination to return to a life they considered too slow and backward for modern comfort. These houses were likely to collapse soon, if they already hadn’t, if some foreigner didn’t rescue them or a local builder raise new buildings in their place.

I wondered what would happen to the house eventually. That it would change hands was to be expected. Peter and James, both priests, and Hannah and Sylvia, both spinsters, were the last of the family now; the line would end with them. The family holdings, Greg had told his friends, would go to a trust, which would utilise it, I presumed, in a manner and for a purpose that he was sure to have specified, characteristically, in unambiguous and great detail. The people squatting in the backyard, too, would have been suitably accounted for, either legally persuaded to shift elsewhere or, if this didn’t work, tolerated on sufferance, as they were being now.

The front door opened at last, after much latch-rattling and door-scraping. Hannah, in a faded, pink nightie, was holding a sheaf of printed sheets in her right hand. Had I interrupted some reading she had been doing? She turned back into the entrance room and brought a chair into the porch and then went in again for another one for me. She seemed smaller than before, but surprisingly still quite sprightly.

When we were seated, I said, “So, how did the mass go?”

She said, “Joao Remeth came, and, of course, my sister Sylvia, and there were some other people too, neighbours mostly.”

Joao Remeth was the neighbour I had met chatting in the porch with Greg once or twice when I visited. I thought she would have mentioned Felix and Chico too, Greg’s closest friends, if they had attended.

“How is Sylvia?”

“She doesn’t live here. She’s got a flat in Margao. She comes on Saturdays.”

C’est la vie! Any number of spacious bedrooms in a big, comfy house to choose from, with a sister for company, but Sylvia preferred living by herself in a square, concrete box some distance away!

“So, why have you come?”

I told myself that she was not being rude, that she, perhaps, always spoke like this. “I told you, I saw the notice for the mass only today.”

“But the mass was two weeks ago.”

“I know. I’ve been meaning to visit for a long time, but with one thing and another... you know?”

A slight sparkle lit up her eyes for a moment, as though something had been confirmed or she had been proved right in some matter. “I know it is God who has sent you.”

She was asserting something very matter-of-factly. There was no change in tone or pitch, nor did she attempt to seek, through the slightest gesture, my agreement with her suggestion.

“You know, I just can’t believe how I managed to organise the mass! The whole week I was feeling so restless, remembering Greg, and thinking he was desperately asking me for something. I couldn’t put my finger on it, till I remembered, just in time, that the third anniversary was just two days away, and I had almost completely forgotten about it.”

I could understand her anxiety. Death anniversaries of family members are never to be taken lightly, and rightly so. From deep inside of me, where it had lain buried and suppressed for years, came a glimpse of Sister Linda telling us, in the fourth standard, with the pious, holy expression so characteristic of her, that we should never ever forget to pray for the souls of our loved ones. They could be in Purgatory, for all we knew, for some venial sin or the other, and if we didn’t remember to pray for them every night, they could suffer and burn, in that slow, excruciating fire, till Judgement Day.

Hannah woke up the day after she remembered the anniversary determined to complete the arrangements for the mass before noon, when who should turn up but the labourers come to turn the roof tiles! She was in a fix; she couldn’t ask them to come some other day because she was grateful that they had come at all. Placing herself in God’s hands, she decided to let them get on with the work. She stepped out of the gate, and she couldn’t believe her eyes: the motorcycle pilot was driving by! God had spared her the long walk to the church in the sun!

In the church office, though, she learned that the two daily masses had already been booked; she had come too late. She could still have use of the church after the second mass, though, but she would have to arrange for a priest from somewhere to say the mass. She grabbed at the offer, even though she knew it would take some doing to find a priest at such short notice.

Coming out of the office, she ran into the sacristan. He volunteered to arrange someone to spruce up the grave and cover it with flowers. Was this really happening to her, everything falling into place so effortlessly? From the church she headed, with the pilot, towards the advertising agent’s, to place a notice in the Herald. As they were returning home, she remembered that someone would have to be sent around the neighbourhood to spread word about the mass. She asked the pilot if he knew where the woman who usually performed this function, lived. He said, “There she is, bhaakanni!”

He pointed to a woman walking on the other side of the road and called out, “Remetine!”

There was no doubt in Hannah’s mind now: God himself was making sure she fulfilled her obligation. So, it was hardly any surprise to her, when she reached home, to find that Peter had just arrived all the way from Chennai for the anniversary! And yes, he would gladly say the mass!

“It’s simply a miracle the way God made everything possible!”

I had expected her to say that it was her beloved brother who had enabled all the astonishing happenings that morning.

Of course, whatever Hannah was doing on Greg’s behalf now was neither here nor there. The instructions to the sacristan to dress up the grave, for instance, seemed more a reflex, rather like hurriedly dusting the front room before the guests arrived than called for by Greg’s actually being buried there. Greg’s body had been cremated far away from Goa, in some town near the Himalayas, soon after his demise in a public hospital. (It had been known for some time among his friends that Greg would be heading for the mountains, in the style of ancient, and even modern, rishis, when he felt it was time, which happened, I was much surprised to discover later, when he was in just his mid-sixties).

I recalled the condolence meeting held in the office of the freedom fighters’ association soon after news of Greg’s passing reached Goa. I had wondered how the sisters were taking the news, as much of the death so far from home as of the cremation. Watching them, I had got the impression that they were holding up well enough, listening respectfully, and appearing visibly pleased, as Greg’s friends (two of them Hindu) paid glowing tributes to the social activist, and some wept openly.

I wondered, though, as to how the situation would have been handled had Greg died in Goa itself. Would he still have been cremated?  This didn’t seem likely to me; Greg would never have arranged to have something done that would discomfit his sisters, who were staunch believers. But even burial, towards which rite the sisters would have tended as a matter of course, may not have proved such a simple matter. An over-sensitive Church, still smarting over one or the other of Greg’s campaigns decades ago, which may have laid into it a bit, might have objected to his interment in the local cemetery.

There was a precedent for this, too: in the 1930s, the church had opposed the burial of Luis Menezes de Braganza in the cemetery in his native Chandor. The padres were then, perhaps, reacting to Braganza’s agnosticism and his anti-colonial journalism. But they had to relent when Braganza’s family invoked the point that burial is a municipal, or civic, not a religious, function. I remembered smiling gleefully at the thought that it may have been possible, if the need had arisen, to use the same argument in Greg’s case too!

But, what also puzzled me was Greg’s decision to go all the way to the Himalayas to pass on. It seemed like an atavism to me, a reversion to the ways of his Hindu ancestors. It certainly was strange, particularly coming from someone who had lived his mature years without the comfort of any religious belief whatsoever, at least so far as I knew. There was, of course, yet another possibility: could Greg have felt the need to take his final rest in the general vicinity of the place he believed his pre-Goan ancestors had come from? I had heard of one family which had actually traced its roots all the way back to 8th century Rajasthan. I wondered if a similar consideration had influenced Greg’s decision to head north.

I realised I could be reading too much into what had been just a simple wish to quit life from a nice, quiet place, one where the view was good, the air pure, and you were alone with yourself, and could, therefore, ponder, undisturbed, the significance of the few evanescent moments you had spent on earth, and perhaps, also muse on what was likely to come after. I regretted not having been in Goa when Greg left on his final journey; it would have been fun to explore (and rib him about) his exact reasons for leaving the people he had known all his life and going away to die alone, as far away from them as possible!

But now Hannah was saying, “I think God has sent you here for a reason.”

I didn’t see any harm in, again, going along with the suggestion, though I wondered what my particular role in the divine plan could be.

She rustled the papers in her hand. “I have three questions for you.”

I felt like a schoolboy about to be quizzed, by a particularly strict teacher, on something he was not prepared for. Three whole questions at that! I smiled weakly.

She said, “Did Greg believe in God?”

I shifted in my chair and bought time.  “I beg your pardon?”

Was she serious? Hadn’t Greg made his stand about his religious beliefs, or the lack of them, clear to his family at all?

“I said, do you know if Greg believed in God?”

“It’s funny you should ask that. The fact is, now that I think of it, we hardly ever spoke about this. But why do you ask?”

“Well, at the mass there was this chap from Poilo Waddo. He said that Greg had been a communist.”

“I see,” I smiled.

I frankly didn’t see any need for Hannah to take this depiction of her brother too seriously. Dubbing someone a communist is standard in Catholic communities the world over for anyone who does not take the local priest and his rituals as seriously as the rest of the faithful.

I said, “Greg was interested in many things, you know, philosophy, social causes, human rights... He liked to think that he was working to make the world a better place. It is people like Greg, people who wish to change social arrangements for the good of all, who get labelled as communists by people threatened by their activity. And most people tend to accept these labels at face value. What I would say is, Greg was actually more of a humanist, a leftist if you will…”

“What’s a leftist?”

The scooter key I was playing with fell out of my fingers to the floor. I bent to pick it up. I suspected Hannah was buying time, trying to have something confirmed, a doubt allayed. She would definitely have been aware of her brother’s major motivations in life. It would not have been possible for Greg to engage in the kind of activity that he did without debate and discussion in the house. Activity that could hardly be called conventional, and which even involved confronting the dreaded police now and then, would certainly have given the family pause for thought. Add to that Greg’s casual disregard for religious observances, surely a staple in a house with a couple of priests in it, and an uneasy ambivalence, not to say disquiet, about his preoccupations, was inevitable.

I played along. I said, “Leftists are, you know, people who believe in progressive ideas, like equality for all people, a fair wage for workers, the protection of women from male violence, the…”

But Hannah seemed to be looking past me, as I fumbled with what sounded like a totally inadequate profile of Greg. She said brusquely, almost annoyed, “What I want to know is, did he believe in God or no?”

She had raised her voice. I didn’t quite like this, though I realised what lay at the root of her concern, that is, if I was reading its source correctly. We tend to completely forget the terrors of our childhood once maturity has, so to say, removed the wool from our eyes. What agony did I myself not undergo, as an innocent kid of seven, over my eldest brother’s disdain for God? Only some eight years older than me, Francisco had stopped attending church, saying the Rosary, or even praying, anymore. He had also dropped out of school and was going about with fellows who drank, gambled and fought among themselves. But what was worse, he didn’t attend mass on Sundays – a mortal sin, for which the punishment was eternal damnation in Hell!

I, of course, never missed the Sabbath mass, and knew that my soul was never ever in danger. But this was little comfort to me, aware as I was, during the whole service, of Francisco fast asleep at home, totally unconcerned about the terrible fate that awaited him! With what anguish I pictured the whole family revelling in God’s loving company, while, down below, my unfortunate brother burned in Hell, now and then desperately reaching a hand out to us but we never ever managing to pull him to safety over the terrifying gulf between us!

I felt a sudden unease. It was a while now, well over ten years, since I had remembered my brother, who had died, as they say, unrepentant, in his forties. I thought it strange that, given my childhood agonies, his eternal fate hadn’t concerned me at all, either at the moment of his death or at any time thereafter. This may not have been because we had drifted apart or because, once of age, I had taken a leaf out of his book and stopped taking religion too seriously. It was probably just that I was too busy with other things to worry about the hereafter prematurely. You were also so busy you didn’t give a damn, the nasty suggestion came at me unbidden.

To be fair, no one around me seemed too concerned about life after earthly life either, not explicitly at least. The indifference of practising believers I could understand; a constant awareness of a life beyond is the bedrock of their faith and is too deeply embedded in the consciousness to have to be especially invoked. As for fellows like me, I suppose it’s like exams when you are a kid: you worry about them only when they get too close, if at all.

Greg, on the other hand, had given a great deal of thought to his death, and perhaps its aftermath, and had spent the last few years of his life in preparation for it. I can’t say exactly what he was preparing for, of course, because the question hardly ever came up, but one can speculate. It could have been for the cavalier nothing of atheists (dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return, so to say) which, if Greg did really expect it, would imply that he had been quite satisfied with life as he had lived it and didn’t hope for or expect anything more in another form, place or time. Or he had, perhaps, expected a deliverance from the cycle of births and rebirths and expected to gain moksha and thereby eternal reunion with the cosmic soul. As for the Catholic heaven of Hannah’s desperate hopes, it seemed to me that Greg had not included it in his calculations. Anyway, whatever he may have imagined would come after his life, he had certainly seemed to know what he was about and had acted accordingly.

I said, “I can’t say exactly what his religious beliefs were, Hannah, but Greg definitely cared a great deal about the fate of the unfortunate, the disadvantaged...”

I didn’t see why it had to be me who confirmed the bad news to Hannah!

She looked at me blankly, not committing herself to any expression that in any way acknowledged what I was saying. I braced myself for another irritated outburst. I was, therefore, quite surprised when her face lit up, her cheeks filled out and her voice became fuller, richer. “Ah!  I knew it! I just knew it! All creatures great and small, the Lord God made them all!”

I grappled with the, what seemed like a, non sequitur for just a microsecond, before the implication became clear.

But the ticking in my head had turned to the heavy blows of a sledgehammer now. A little tea would have helped immensely, but it would have to wait till after I left here. I needed to go visit my sisters soon; they had never stopped seeing Francisco in their dreams. I regretted not encouraging them too much when they wished to reminisce and, perhaps, express the hope that our elder brother was okay and in that one place their prayers must desperately wish all of us would reunite in eventually.

Thinking of my sisters, I wondered if the faithful ever, for just a half-second maybe, allow the thought into their minds that it is indeed the case, as even the Bible says, that we start from dust and end as dust, period. I couldn’t control a smile at the thought that I was thinking the impossible. The mental block to entertaining notions of anything beyond heaven and hell, much less of nothingness, would be insurmountable, even unthinkable. The thought would not make it past a vague discomfort in the mind before it was cut off and killed, unborn and unknown!

Get thee behind me, Satan!

But I stopped smiling, thinking of the very real pain my sisters must feel at my irreverence and I knew exactly what was behind the annoying query during every phone call, “Did you go to church on Sunday?”

I stood up. “Well, it was nice mee ...”

“Wait!” Hannah interrupted me. “Just a moment! I need to know something.”

This woman was starved for company, no question about it! But what was she doing to keep it when it came? Most people offer visitors tea, dear lady, or at least a glass of water!

I edged towards the steps. “I have things to do in Margao. I’ll drop in again the next time I pass this way.”

She looked at me with no change in expression. “That’s what they always say, but who comes? Only one more question. Just look at this page and tell me what you see.’’

Hannah held out a xeroxed sheet of paper with some black smudges on the top half of the page and some kind of a list, in two columns, under them. I leaned forward for a closer look at the writing, to see what it said, but she pulled the paper back.

“These are the people in the backyard,” she said, tapping the smudged, over-inked blobs. Her voice had gotten louder and she was addressing the world in general now, rather than just me. “They just wouldn’t look at the camera. They didn’t want to be photographed. I told them, why are you afraid of the light, why are you so afraid of the truth?”

She pointed to the two columns of text, “I’ve put it all down here, the two paths of life. The path of Jesus, which leads to perfection, and the path of the devil, to imperfection, the path of Jesus to sanity, and the path of the devil to insanity, the path of”… (she recited some more attributes of the two paths, which I don’t recall now). “I’ve given copies of this to the parish priest, the sarpanch and the police....”

As she detailed the two disparate paths, and with such ferocious intensity, I felt something wasn’t quite right. I imagined Hannah meeting the priest, the sarpanch and the police officer before me. I could see them listening to her, as I was doing now, initially with the courtesy due any visitor, and then, as she went on, with genuine bafflement, and then, as realisation settled in, with commiserative shakes of the head.

A trace of wetness showed in the corners of her lips now. I began to worry. What if she had a seizure, even a heart attack, just now, just when I was here? There was no question that she ought to have someone with her all the time, to calm her and to take care of her. It ought to be illegal for the elderly to be left alone after a certain age. Why didn’t Sylvia come live with her sister, instead of staying in a flat alone, far away, and among strangers?

I learned later that the matter of the squatters in the backyard, which was causing Hannah so much anguish now, was still in court, as it had been for some decades already. Some seventy-odd years earlier, Greg’s dad had permitted a desperate ancestor of the Arrodkars to take shelter, with his family, in the cowshed. But the latter’s descendants were now citing the land-to-the-tiller act to claim ownership of the house, which they had converted the shed to, and to some land around it.

I could understand how a betrayal of a kindness of this magnitude would rankle. It was also a natural reaction, I knew, to chafe at any intrusion in the very private space we consider home. But living day in and day out around people who made your blood boil couldn’t be very healthy for anyone, least of all a woman living alone in a big, empty house.

I thought I should change the mood a little before leaving. I asked, “Has Felix been here recently?”

“No.”

“What about Chico?”

“No.”

You had to ask, didn’t you, I chided myself. In any case, Felix and Chico had been Greg’s friends, and they were settled in faraway Delhi now. Why should anyone but Hannah’s own friends, if she had any, visit her?  A picture flashed in my mind of her engulfed in flames, and no one, not her family, not her friends, being able to do anything about it because they weren’t around.

I was on my second cup in the tea-shop in the marketplace when I noticed the cemetery across the road. On an impulse I walked across. A slab of black marble on a table-sized concrete tomb bore Greg’s dad’s name. A similar stone, leaning loose and unattached against the left side of the tomb, bore the dates of the birth and death of Greg’s mother. But Greg himself didn’t seem to be acknowledged anywhere, nor his other sister, Leticia, who had died a few years before him. This was puzzling. Could the fact that he wasn't actually buried here have something to do with the omission? But then what could explain the omission of Leticia’s name? I felt let down.

I walked onto the path leading out of the cemetery and turned round for one last look when I noticed the two plaques in white marble plastered into the rear of the tomb and dedicated simply to the “loving memory” of Greg and Leticia respectively. The relief I felt at the sight took me completely by surprise.

I could see Hannah coming and stopping here often, seeking God’s intercession for the souls of her beloved family members, especially that of her eldest brother. It was touching, though perhaps deluded, this hope, that a desperate wish, whispered earnestly, can influence events beyond this life. But, come to think of it, why not? At a time when people talk so casually of creating universes in the lab, and from absolutely nothing at that, who is to say that a few well-chosen words, or even a mere hope in the mind, couldn’t set off the ripple in space-time that delivers a heaven of humble human yearning, or even a merging of souls with the cosmic one, or just about any other scenario we draw up for life after life?   


Linken Fernandes.jpg

Linken Fernandes is a writer and journalist based in Chandor, Goa. His book, The Sun In Her Hair (A True Account) and Nine Short Stories, was published in April 2017 and can be purchased here.