Elsa's Doll

By Alexandre Moniz Barbosa
 

“Who could this Melvyn be?” Elsa turned from the desktop computer and looked at her husband Mario who was propped up against some pillows on the bed, reading a magazine.

“Mario,” she said, raising her voice. “Just put that down and listen to what I am saying.”

“I heard you. You are wondering yet again who Melvyn could be. We have had that conversation for weeks and got no closer to finding out anything about him.”

“How can you not be worried? Your daughter is planning on getting married to one Melvyn D’Souza and you don’t want to know anything about him?”

“And if we do get to know something about him? What then?”

Instead of answering the question, Elsa said, “But you can at least show some interest and find out who he is. When she phones you, chat for a minute or two and then hand over the phone to me. Ask her who is this Melvyn, where is he from?”

“Bombay, she’s already told us.”

Elsa stood up and took the few steps to the bed before speaking. “Living in Bombay,” she stressed, pulling out the magazine from Mario’s hands and putting it aside. “He is from Goa, at least try to find out from where.”

Mario took off his reading glasses, kept them on the bedside table and turned to Elsa. “When we allowed Boneca to go to Dubai, we had to be prepared to accept a lot of things. One was her meeting and falling in love with some boy, any boy, that she would meet there.”

Elsa sat on the edge of the bed, facing her husband. “I am not going to stop her from marrying this boy, if she wants to, it is okay with me. But I want to know more about him. His family must be in Goa. We could meet them, get to know them.”

“Meet them, get to know them?” Mario raised his eyebrows and then shook his head. “Elsa, you are wondering what family he comes from, what village he come from. That is what is gnawing at you. This is the modern world; forget this family and village stuff that our parents worried about. It doesn’t matter to our daughter; it should not matter to us.” He patted her on the lap.

Elsa scowled, “I would still like to know where my daughter is getting married.”

“And you will. Boneca is arriving in two days time, and Melvyn is coming a week later. So then you can ask him every question you want, whether he likes it or not.”

“There is one thing I am worried about. Why is Boneca not telling us which village in Goa he comes from?”

Mario tapped Elsa’s lap again. “Maybe she didn’t ask him.”

“I told her to and she said she would, but after that she has not said anything else about it.”

Mario looked her straight in the eye. “Is this why you don’t sleep well at night? Wondering who this boy could be?” He paused. “Boneca is not a child any longer. She is a grown woman and not the boneca you once cradled in your arms.”

Elsa pushed away her husband’s hand, stood up and walked to the computer, logged off and came to the bed. To her, Marilyn would always be a boneca, her little doll, whatever anybody else said.

Mario switched off the bedside lamp and closed his eyes.

 

*

 

Bhatkani,” the voice came from the gate by the roadside. Maria Augusta Pereira, seated in the balcão on a recliner, peered through her thick glasses to see who was calling out to her. She saw a woman walk up to the house, and looked more closely.

Bhatkani, how are you?”

“It’s Pedrinha, isn’t it?” Maria Augusta said looking at the woman walking up the steps to the balcão.

“When did you return?”

“I reached yesterday evening. I came by plane. I can no longer travel by bus and my daughter would just not allow me to travel by train,” Pedrinha said, pulling the loosely wrapped sari around her and seating herself on one of the stone seats in the balcão.

Maria Augusta didn’t say anything, but thought to herself, how a few years ago none of the mundkars would dare sit before the bhatkar or any member of the family. Now times had changed. Some mundkars were wealthier than the bhatkars and didn’t lose any opportunity to make that fact known.

“How is your daughter? Sarah isn’t she?” Maria Augusta asked.

“She and her husband are doing well. Their eldest son is in Dubai, working in a big company. They will be coming in a few days. I came ahead to clean up the house and keep everything ready.”

The phone rang, and Maria Augusta picked up the cordless set that had been placed on a table next to her. She spoke for a few moments in Portuguese and then turned to Pedrinha.

“That was my daughter Elsa. She lives in Panjim. She called to say that her daughter, who also works in Dubai, will be arriving tomorrow and they would all be coming to Benaulim for the weekend.”

“Dubai? Then she may know my grandson,” Pedrinha said.

Maria Augusta looked at her and wrinkled her nose. “I don’t think so,” she said. “You see Dubai is a big city. Not a small village like Benaulim, where everybody knows each other. It is like Bombay, where even neighbours don’t know each other.” And she thought to herself, though she didn’t say it out aloud, why would her granddaughter ever want to make acquaintances with boys of the type of Pedrinha’s grandson? They just wouldn’t move in the same circles.

 

*

 

Summer in Benaulim is the best time of the year, or so Mario thought. It was the time when he could swim in the warm Arabian Sea even before the sun could rise and tuck into some of the best mangoes Goa has to offer. He had already been to the beach in the morning, gone for a long swim and, this he was happy about, picked up a large tamso fresh from the nets of the fishermen. It had still been flapping its tail, when he had picked it up. Now he was seated in the balcão of his mother-in-law’s house, sucking the seed of a ripe musarada mango that the old land had kept aside for him. There was another when he had finished this mango. The fernandin variety was not ripe yet, so he would have to wait another two weeks for them. In the meantime he was feasting on these fleshy mangoes and looking forward to the fried fillets of the tamso for lunch, along with the curry that would be made from the fish head.

They had arrived late the previous night, in time for dinner. Elsa had preferred to hear the anticipated Sunday mass in Panjim, and then drive to Benaulim, that way they had the entire Sunday free to relax. Boneca was lounging on the balcão scrolling down and reading her messages on the phone. On the road outside people were passing by, returning home from mass. Mario smiled to himself.

“What are you laughing at?” Boneca looked up from her phone.

“Remembering that when I first got married and came to Benaulim, I would sit her on Sunday, with Mama and your Avô and Avó and everybody passing by after mass would stop to wish them.”

“Everybody would stop?”

“Yes,” Mario nodded, taking a break from sucking the mango seed. “Everybody used to walk, in those days. Now nobody walks. All drive around in cars and bikes, so nobody stops to say hello.”

“Times change, Papa,” Boneca said.

“Yes, good for them, and good for Goa.”

“What is good for Goa?” Elsa came to the balcão and sat on a recliner next to her husband.

Boneca smiled. “Papa was saying it is good that all the people have a better life now than before. Everybody is earning and can afford the comforts of life.”

“Your Papa always thinks like that. He doesn’t see how all this has affected us and our lands. We are now bhatkars only in name.”

Boneca saw an old woman walking on the road. “Papa, there is at least one person who doesn’t have a vehicle. There she is walking.”

Mario, who had started on the second mango, looked up from his plate. Elsa craned her neck. “That is Pedrinha, our mundkarn she lives in Bombay with her daughter. All these people who live in Bombay come down once a year in the month of May and show off in the villages. When we were children, her daughter, Sarah, used to come to play with me. Now she will probably pretend she doesn’t know us so as to not address me as Bai.”

Mario looked up from his mango, he was on the second fruit now, and saw Pedrinha stop in front of the gate and look towards them. He turned to look at Elsa; she had creases on her forehead.

“Now she will come here and talk to us. Thieves, eating out of our property, but never doing anything for us, not even showing any respect,” Elsa muttered.

Bai, how are you? Bhatkani had told me you would be coming. When did you come?” Pedrinha walked up the step to the balcão and sat down.

“We came yesterday night,” Elsa replied.

“Will you be staying?”

“No we will leave tonight. We have jobs in Panjim.”

“Is this your daughter?” Pedrinha reached out and touched Boneca. “The one working in Dubai?”

Elsa said yes and Boneca smiled at the old woman.

“How are you?

“I am fine. And how are you?”

“I am living in Bombay with my daughter. She too has a son who is in Dubai.”

Elsa stiffened in her chair.

“You may know him. His name is Melvyn,” the old woman continued, just as Mario bit into the piece of mango. It suddenly didn’t taste so delicious any more.

 

*

 

The thick fried fillets of the tamso that Mario had picked up that morning lay almost untouched on the table. The fish was fresh and tasty, but lunch had been a silent affair, with little eaten and even less said. The maid clearing the table asked whether she should take the fish back and Elsa nodded in response.

“How could you do this to us?” Elsa asked her daughter, after the maid had left the dining room.

“I didn’t do anything. What are you accusing me of?”

“You fall in love with that fisherwoman’s grandson and want to marry him, that is what you have done.”

“And you think I did it deliberately?”

“Do you know what the whole village will be talking about for the next few months? It will be the topic in every house that Augusta Bhatkani’s granddaughter is marrying her mundkar’s grandson.”

“Is that what you are worried about? What people will talk?”

“Do you realise how this will affect Avó? What this will do to her? What will my brother and his family say? How am I to go to their house and tell them that my daughter, my Boneca, is marrying Pedrinha’s grandson?”

“How was I to know whose grandson he is? All I knew is that he was from Cavelossim and he knew that I was from Saligao. We didn’t really discuss where our mothers were from.”

“But he must have known much more. He must have sought you out from the thousands of girls in Dubai.”

“Mama, we work in the same company. He was already there when I joined. In that case his parents will accuse me of searching him out.”

“You don’t understand. They can never say that. We are the landlords, the bhatkars, they are living on our land, they are our mundkars. I can’t allow you to marry this boy.”

“What?”

Mario, put down the glass of water he was holding. “Elsa, I think you are overreacting.”

“I am not overreacting. See how that fisherwoman came to our house and threw it at our face, about her grandson and our daughter.”

“I don’t think Pedrinha knew anything,” Mario said. “She left confused at our reaction to her grandson’s name.”

Elsa tightened her fists and pressed them against the table top. “Don’t defend Marilyn. If you can’t support what I am saying, just keep quiet.”

“Marilyn? You are suddenly calling our boneca by her given name? What has come over you? Calm down. I am not defending Boneca or anybody else. I am as shocked as you are. But I will not accuse our daughter of deliberately falling in love with a boy to spite her parents and grandmother. That I won’t do. The woman who called you Bai, even this morning, is the grandmother of the boy that our daughter wants to marry. We have to accept that. You spoke of people talking, if that’s what you are worried about, any attempts to stop the marriage or turn our backs on the boy, will fuel the gossip. Besides, within days people will forget it and get on to another topic.”

Elsa placed her elbows on the table, her hands up held together and rested her forehead on them, looking down at the ground. For a long minute nobody said anything. Then Elsa sighed and looked up at her daughter. “Your father’s right. I cannot stop you, but that doesn’t mean I am happy about this. Marry him if you want. But I am worried about Avó. She has been lying on the bed since we told her about you and tha … Melvyn. Had we known it earlier we could have broken it to her differently, instead of all of a sudden.”

Just at that moment Maria Augusta entered the room and slowly sat down on the straight backed armchair reserved for her at the head of the table. Nobody else dared to sit on it. “Boneca, what happened is something that none of us expected. At another point of time I would have joined your mother in trying to make you change your mind, but now I think I will just spend my last few years in peace. Everything is changing, the world is changing. When your mother was young, our kind of people didn’t go to the Gulf for jobs. They stayed in Goa or went to Bombay as doctors, engineers and lawyers. Now, all that has changed. Everybody goes to Dubai, London, Canada and anybody marries anybody. I pray that this boy makes you happy.”

Boneca went to her grandmother and gave the old lady a tight hug.

 

*

 

The wedding was held at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, in Panjim, the parish of the bride, as the groom’s parish was in Bombay, and both families wanted a wedding in Goa. The two grandmothers were seated on opposite sides of the aisle, one in a dark blue silk dress and stockings, her hair cut short, the other is a shiny purple chiffon sari, her hair tied up in a bun. They looked at each other and smiled. They had lived through a revolution of sorts in the 80 years they had already spent on this earth. Benaulim had been transformed from a fishing village to a major tourism hub, and so had Goa, and with it had changed the social equations. Family backgrounds did not matter to the younger generation.

The Church organ struck a note and the choir began singing the perennial favourite at weddings around the world, ‘Here Comes the Bride’. The congregation rose to welcome the bridal couple.

Ahead walked Melvyn between his parents Sarah and Peter, behind was the bride with her parents. Maria Augusta turned to look at them and smiled, remembering the time when Sarah used to come to the house to play with Elsa’s dolls. They would play all evening, but Elsa would never let Sarah take a single doll home, though the little girl longed to have one of her own. The years passed, Elsa went to a convent school in Margao and then college, Sarah to the parish school in Benaulim, then a shorthand and typing course, and the childhood friendship was erased from memory. That was a long time ago, Maria Augusta thought, today, decades later Sarah would finally be taking Elsa’s only doll, her dearest Boneca, home.

Glossary
Bhatkar:  landlord
Mundkar:  tenanted labour living on the landlord's land.  
Boneca: doll, often used as a pet name
Tamso: red snapper
Balcão: verandah of the house

Banner image of 'Dolls' painting by Witold Wojkiewicz, National Museum, Warsaw, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


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Alexandre Moniz Barbosa is a writer and journalist living in Goa. He has authored various books including the novels Raw Earth (Broadway; 2016) and Touched By The Toe (Palavra Publications; 2004). He is the recipient of the Alban Couto Prize in the Goan Short Story competition 2013. His book Raw Earth can be purchased here.