By Fatima M Noronha
December 24, 1962
A woman sits sewing by candlelight, which throws a warm glow on her fair face. Rembrandt? Millet? McGregor? Timeless in a time well remembered, my mother sits sewing near the one candle in the room.
The picture, a hiccup in modernity, remains with me. Our years of working by candlelight in Goa would come later. Born in Lisbon, and never having travelled far from it, that was the first power failure I ever saw. I did not know it, but the coldest European winter since 1740 had just begun. Christmas Eve, not St Agnes’, but ah, bitter chill it was!
Mamã is hemming a mint-green woollen dress she tailored, treadling her trusty Singer in spurts last week, a low-waisted dress with two green bows on the belt. Only the wearer will know the secret: behind the belt are hidden pockets. Two pockets, what more can a dress offer?! It is my Christmas dress, or maybe Noémia’s: Mamã always makes us clothes which are identical except for the sizes. I am twice as old as my sister and therefore taller, though she is plump and I am skinny.
It is Monday, and we are all on vacation. Even my parents have four days off. So it is quite unusual that Mamã has not yet finished sewing our dresses, which we shall wear tonight to midnight Mass. She likes to be ahead of time. But, of course, she has been busy making fruit cake, filling the house with the scent of burning caramel which she stirs with a long, narrow spoon in the fervedor, the one-handled one-litre boiler. Des and I help to deseed the sultanas, and then we get a fistful as payment. His fist is bigger than mine because he is eight. In any case, he is Mamã’s pet and gets a little more, but I don’t mind. After midnight Mass we shall eat all the cake we want, along with our yearly tot of port.
Everyone has been busy today. Oscar, our grown-up cousin who lives with us, made the crib. On the kitchen floor, right up to where Mamã and the strong ladies chop and stir and wash, he spread out big sheets of brown paper. Then he dipped an old sock in green paint and quickly made a mess of all the papers. Another sock went into red paint and another into yellow. He hung out the papers to dry on the long clothesline near the row of windows. All the windows in the house are closed these days because of Mamã’s greatest enemy, the draught. But – would you believe it? – there was sunshine all morning in the row of kitchen windows. There are no curtains on that side, which is all glass from the sill to the ceiling, but the glass is thick and knobbly so you can’t see clearly through. When the painted papers were almost dry, Oscar crumpled them and made them into the hills of Bethlehem, with a cave for the animals and Mother Mary and Joseph. The Menino will come tonight.
By tea-time it is already night and there are no lights. We knew the lights would not come on when we pressed the switch, because Mamã’s neat little room heater has been a cold metal box for a while now. She calls out to the strong ladies. Maria do Rosário and Maria Amélia Gorda (fat), who weighs a hundred kilos, have lived with us for years, but we love Rosário more because she tells us such crazy stories while we eat, and she is great fun. When Mamã calls, Rosário says, “Minha senhora?” and comes running in from the kitchen, and then I go with her back to the kitchen and we pull out the sink drawer and stir the paper bags and bottle openers and rolls of string till we find a candle and a matchbox, and come back here to the foyer – the sala is closed till midnight.
There were other times we children were not allowed into the parlour. The doorway of the sala is one of my early memories. 1959? 1960? We wanted to see what was happening in there, but the door would open only a crack because a very big instrument – a double-bass as I saw it but more likely a cello – was very near it. The room was full of runaway Goans, mostly men in their twenties, all of them talented musicians, including Fortunato and Salvador Figueiredo, and the later famous pianist Noel Flores. They were rehearsing Sonsar Charuch-re Disancho for a recording.
There were many such rehearsals. Those were warm, even stuffy, evenings, nothing like this Christmas Eve.
Except for my father, who cannot sit for long – he is the one who struck the match and lit the candle, he is the one who lit that monster of a kerosene radiator which hisses and hums in the corridor – all of us are sitting around Mamã, not around the radiator: Desmond, Noémia, Oscar, Maria Amélia, Maria do Rosário and I. Every little while, Dadá pulls back the beige curtains and looks out of the French windows at small skies on both sides of the unlit building across Rua Conde de Sabugosa. Though we live on the sixth floor, under the clouds, we can only see the big sky when we are out on our terrace, where we play futebol and Rosário makes sure we stay away from the railing. Till April, Mamã will not let us step onto the terrace. She fears we might catch our death of cold.
For Des and me, that was the last Christmas of our childhood, we with our parents, all of us warm together in that coldest winter. The very next Christmas my father would spend alone in that house, unable to bring himself to listen to our recorded messages and carols. We would not spend Christmas together until 1968 in Goa, and our way to Goa was long and winding.
1961 had sorted my parents, and us children with them, into the box marked enemies of Goa. But Goa was where they had planned to live eventually. Meanwhile, my mother had not seen her parents in Bombay for many years, nor had they seen their daughter’s progeny, except for Des as a baby. In the summer of 1963, my parents went to London to do the paperwork, as Lisbon and Delhi were not on talking terms. Our livid Mamã was obliged to apply to a British officer, as she said, ‘for a visa to enter my own country.’ Leaving our Dadá in Lisbon in December that year, the four of us boarded a returning chartered plane which had ferried a payload of Goans from Karachi to Lisbon. The visa did not come in time for Christmas in Bombay, so we spent it in Karachi at the home of Mamã’s sister Leah and her husband Patrick. ‘Mamã_!’ bleated Uncle Pat, imitating us. There was little we could say in reply, since we spoke only Portuguese. For Des, Noémia and me, Pakistan was our first taste of India.
But Christmas night 1962 we were still together and Lisboa was home. Downtown, in the Praça do Rossio, the flower vendors – peasant women in scarves and thick black shawls – lit a fire on the cobbles to survive that midnight when business was certain, despite the weather. It just got colder and colder until it was a fraction of a degree from zero. Zero in Lisbon, can you imagine? But it did not rain, so we went dry-shod to midnight Mass. My parents never owned a car, and we were possibly born walking, but as long as we lived in Lisbon we went to Mass in a Merc. Lisbon taxis were made by Mercedes Benz – still are.
We lived in a northern suburb where everything was available – open spaces for evening walks, parks with swings, schools, markets, an airport, and two modern churches to choose from. For impractical reasons of their own, maybe to pretend they were home in Goa at Christmas, for midnight Mass our parents opted to take us right across the city, almost down to the Tagus (o Tejo, o Tejo!), to the Baroque Igreja de São Roque, the earliest Jesuit church in Portuguese territory, a tough old pile which survived the earthquake of 1755. Plain on the outside, its interior is said to be the most beautiful of any church in Portugal. It is certainly more highly decorated than a field marshal. There is a special chapel there dedicated to St Francis Xavier, a favourite saint in Goa. Every year, on the third of December, homesick Goans in Lisbon would organise a Mass at São Roque, so it was there that I first heard that most Goan of all Konkani hymns, San Franciscu Xaviera, belted forth with ardour and punctuated with sniffles. My father’s eyes would moisten too, and I would wonder what the fuss was about. He was not shy, but he did not tell us his grandfather Raimundo composed the hymn.
Christmas Eve 1962 at night, wearing our new outfits and old overcoats, we were packed into a Mercedes. We three children sat on three adult laps, and Des favoured an adult in a window seat. He got to look out, and also to make free with a whole frosted windowpane – etching hearts and crossing them out, coração, rabiscos, heart, squiggles. We loved the night ride, but somewhat less than a daytime one. We reached São Roque just before midnight, in time to hear a children’s choir sing Vinde, Jesus Menino, Come, Little Boy Jesus!
“Christmas in Council Time” – linking the Council’s keynote hope to the Christmas hope – was the message Lisbon’s new Cardinal, José da Costa Nunes, broadcast that night. Two months earlier, in Rome, the Second Vatican Council had begun. It is possible the preacher at Igreja de São Roque mentioned something of the sort too, but I have no mental record. My eyes followed the dull floorboards (so unlike the parquetry of our humble abode which Maria do Rosário waxed and polished to mirror point) between our pew and the next, and the strange old railing along the side aisle, and the flickering candles. Then they closed.
We were all wide awake when we reached home after midnight Mass. The familiar ceremony in the parlour, which had been out of bounds to us children all that day, was the high point of our feliz Natal. In the corner nearest the window, Dadá and Oscar had set up a beautiful Nativity scene, and a Christmas tree, and below the tree were heaps of presents – Dadá never did things by halves. Among the toys he had bought for Noémia was a yellow duck too large to be wrapped. Portuguese toys were works of art. That pato was the only open gift, so we all saw it right away, and my sister could not take her eyes off it. The rule was that we first sang Adeste Fideles and kissed the toes of the baby in the manger, and only then could we attack our presents. It therefore went like this:
All (in solemn unison): Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes…
Noémia (breathless): Um pato!
All (grinning in unison): Venite, venite in Bethlehem!
Fatima M Noronha’s work has been featured in national and regional publications in India and overseas, online and on air. Having called many places home, she has returned to her roots in Goa. She is the author of Stray Mango Branches (Goa 1556; 2013) a collection of vignettes of life in Goa. Fatima can be contacted at email@example.com