By Anthony Gomes
On 27 February 1950, the Government of India had asked the Portuguese government to open negotiations about the future of Portuguese colonies in India. Portugal asserted that its territory on the Indian subcontinent was not a colony but part of metropolitan Portugal and hence its transfer was non-negotiable; and that India had no rights to this territory since the Republic of India did not exist at the time when Goa came under Portuguese rule. When the Portuguese Government refused to respond to subsequent aide-mémoires in this regard, the Indian government, on 11 June 1953, withdrew its diplomatic mission from Lisbon. On 15 August 1955, 3000-5000 unarmed Indian activists (satyagrahis) attempted to enter Goa at six locations and were violently repulsed by Portuguese police officers, resulting in many deaths. The news of the firing built public opinion in India against the presence of the Portuguese in Goa, and on the 1st of September 1955, India shut its consul office in Goa, and exercised economic blockade of Portuguese Goa. The consequences of the economic blockade also included suspension of steamer and railway traffic to Bombay (now Mumbai) and travel from Goa to Bombay and vice-versa became a nightmare.
In 1956, we, high school students of St. Thomas High School in Aldona, had to go to Bombay to sit for the Secondary School Certificate examination (SSC), which was then, not administered in Goa. To go to Bombay involved travel by foot, bus, and canoe to Polem and Majali, and ultimately a ship ride from the Indian port of Karwar. All of this would take at least 48 hours to cover a distance of barely 300 miles. Our class consisted of about 30 students and we set out with our metal trunks of those days at about five in the morning in a chartered caminhão to the frontier. We were accompanied by Father Pinto, the Principal of St. Thomas High School. We arrived at the Indian Immigration cum Customs office in the afternoon. It consisted of a long shed with tables on which were strewn amidst all the clothes: jackfruits, mangoes, pickles and chutneys, and a rare bottle of Portuguese Maciera, or Johnnie Walker, which was readily confiscated, and an occasional cluster of gold ornaments hidden amidst all the clothes, or stitched into a pocket or in the trunk itself.
The anxiety and nervousness of the travellers was palpable on their faces and body posture except perhaps on those who had a couple of St. Pauli Girl beers in a bar on the Portuguese side of the frontier. After a thorough examination of each and every trunk, and our identity cards stamped, we were ready to proceed on our journey at about six in the evening. However, we had noticed one of the officers asking Father Pinto a lot of questions, after which he was escorted to a room, and the door shut. Father Pinto had made arrangements for a man he knew in the port town of Karwar to reserve our tickets for the steamer trip to Bombay. However, when he walked out of the room accompanied by a police officer, his face divulged a certain anxiety - an omen of things to come.
An entirely unexpected event occurred: the Indian authorities refused Fr. Pinto entry into India despite the pleadings, or the fact that he was chaperoning a whole class of students, who otherwise would have to fend for themselves. In this regard the inconsideration and harassment of the Indian immigration officials towards the Goans crossing into India was a well-known fact. Obviously, Father Pinto was persona non-grata for reasons unclear to us. What were the Indian authorities thinking? Was this 60-something year old priest going to start a revolution in Bombay? When Fr. Pinto gave us the bad news, it was devastating. There was nothing we could do but continue on our journey without a responsible custodian, and most of us were barely 15 years old. If we turned back, we would have to wait for another year to take the exam.
Summarily, Fr. Pinto appointed me the leader; not unexpectedly however, since I spoke English fluently, unlike the rest of the village boys having lived and schooled in Bombay from the age of 9 to 13, and besides, I was the Captain of the entire student body of the School. Nonetheless, this obviously was a tall task which placed a whole lot of responsibility on my shoulders. He told me to seek a Mr. Fernandes, who would be waiting in a tea shop at the ferry crossing in Karwar. After we walked to the bus stand and took a bus, then several canoes across a river and another bus, jolliness and a sense of adventure wiped out from our faces and replaced by anxiety and uncertainty, we finally arrived at Karwar at about 8 PM. With so much of responsibility on my shoulders I kept on wondering what I would do if I couldn’t locate Mr. Fernades. I, together with a colleague, immediately went looking for him. We didn’t find him at the tea shop but after a lot of inquiries, I finally located him by the side of a pharmacy nearby. I was struck dumb when he told us that all the tickets were sold out. I thought he was joking, pulling my leg after a jolly drink of illicit liquor? But he wasn’t! I became angry and at the same time despondent, but said nothing. It was his responsibility to reserve the tickets; the man was obviously not trustworthy!
'What do we do now?' I asked.
'Take a chance,' he said. 'I will put you’re all in a boat, and when you board the ship that was docked several hundred feet from the shore line, you will have to simply beg the Captain to let you stay.'
'And what happens if he refuses to let us stay?'
'We’ll think of something,' he said. I didn’t ask any more questions. I didn’t want to consider the alternative. He escorted us to a hostel with bunk beds and mattresses on the floor where we slept that night after a meager meal of rice, dhal and ambli pickle that I couldn’t stomach. I didn’t sleep the entire night thinking of the outcome of our ticketless adventure and the incessant bites from the bed-bugs. The next morning hundreds of students with their teachers and parents got into half-a-dozen or so boats, we amongst them, and docked by the side of the colossal steamer for Bombay. We boarded the ship at about 10 AM with no problems. I was surprised that nobody asked for our tickets, and thought that we had got away scot free. But within 15 minutes or so, I saw the ticket collector approach. I was drenched in sweat. I explained our situation and requested that the ticket collector take me to the Captain.
When I told the Captain, a burly sort of man with a fierce twirling moustache, all that had transpired with our Principal etc. and that we had no tickets but would pay our fare, the Captain exploded.
'Who permitted you to board the ship without tickets?' he yelled.
'Nobody asked for our tickets when we boarded,” I said. “I’m sorry Sir, but we had no choice.”
“There is no place on this ship. It is overcrowded! You and your classmates will have to disembark,' he said.
'But Sir, I beg you for mercy,' I said, tears welling in my eyes. 'We have come all the way from Goa. We are only students travelling all by ourselves without an elder. We will sit on the lower deck floor or just stand in one corner. Please, Sir, I beg of you, please, reconsider.' He just walked away.
'Sir, how will we go to Bombay to answer the exams?' I said.
'That is not my problem,' he snapped and went into his cabin.
Obviously, it was no easy task to disembark, since the ship was not docked on the port but remained anchored hundreds of feet away. But there were still a couple of boats arriving with passengers, and they could send us back in one of those. I just stood there near the Captain’s cabin, teary and biting my nails, praying for a miracle. I thought I would plead again, and knocked on the cabin door gently. There was no response. I went down the ladder, and relayed the bad news to my colleagues. 'What do we do now?' I said. Nobody had any suggestions. I was devastated; so were the other students. I leaned against the wall on the lower deck, hungry and thirsty, and about to faint. I sat on the floor, held my head in the palm of my hands, and prayed to St. Anthony.
After about 20 minutes or so, I decided to give it another try. Did I have a choice? I climbed the stairs and knocked on the Captain’s cabin with determination. He opened the door and came out.
'You again?' he said. 'I thought you had already left the ship.'
'Sir, please, you can’t send us back. Please show some compassion. Think of us as your children.'
He stood there in silence, staring at me as if he was struck by a lightning rod. I waited without demonstrating any emotion.
'Ok,' he said, finally without making eye contact. 'You can stay. Not a word to anybody! Or I’ll kick you off the ship.'
'No Sir,” I give you my word.'
'Go get the money.'
I don’t know what came over him. Perhaps the word ‘compassion’ or ‘his children’ struck a chord or perhaps all this was a show he was staging? Perhaps, my patron saint, St. Anthony had come to my rescue.
'More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams off,' said Lord Tennyson.
I immediately ran down, triumphant, and collected the money and handed it all to the Captain.
'Thank you, Sir!' I said, and left on the double. It did not bother me in the least if he pocketed the money, which I’m sure he did. I was still anxious and nervous until I heard the sirens of the ship blast into the far off distance announcing our departure to Bombay. I fell on my knees and prayed. Suddenly, I found myself hungry with a ravishing appetite, which I satisfied with the delicious rice and fish curry with ambli pickle served on board the ship.
Anthony Gomes, MD, FACC, FAHA, is a Professor of Medicine (Cardiology), and Director and Senior Consultant, Cardiac Electrophysiology Consultative Services at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. His literary works include two collected works of poems, Visions from Grymes Hill (Turn of River Press, 1994) Mirrored Reflections (Goa 1556, 2013), and the novel, The Sting of Peppercorns (Goa 1556, 2010) You can purchase Mirrored Reflections here.