Image © Alaka Yeravadekar; a mixed media artist with a fondness for still-life, nature and watercolours.
This story was shortlisted in the Fundação Oriente Short Story Competition 2015, and first published in Monsoon Winds: Short Stories from Goa; Goa 1556 & Fundação Oriente. Available in bookstores in Goa. A brief glossary is available at the end of the story.
"f you were Red Riding Hood you had to know the wolf. If you knew the wolf, you had to know how to escape it. A road would open up somewhere, when the wolf turned his head – a street, a path...a light, a window, a door…"
by Rochelle Potkar
Isabelle’s eyes brimmed with the memory of Goa’s roads, vast green fields bordered with coconut trees, the church of St Francis Xavier…, but she yanked herself from her daydreams to concentrate on her chore.
With a yem-o-tem? yem-o-tem? yem-o-tem? drill, she picked the choicest packets of Bombay duck, Bombay tea powder, sukhi sungta, royal halwa bought from Bandra especially for Milagrin aunty, Teo uncle, nieces Delna and Emily, and bundled them into the folds of her cotton dresses.
Her bags were now bursting at their seams. She lifted them all to check if she could carry them without tiring.
Soon… just tomorrow, she would be standing at the altar of Milagres Saibinn at St Jerome’s Church, then sauntering in the Mapuça market for kokum solam, sausages, dried mango, coconut vinegar, feni, jackfruit. A bus ride later that familiar sea breeze would stab at her nostrils with its salty intoxicating smell. She could dip her rheumatic feet in the Morjim beach waters for her first salt water bath of the year. She would taste her Goya’s river-sweet and wholesome water… Isabelle’s mouth went dry now. Her humid home in Kalyan with its creaking ceiling fan felt unbearable, whereas her Siolim village home, nestled in jackfruit tree foliage, seemed to be waiting for her, calling out to her.
Isabelle counted her savings again, rubbing the notes to see that they didn’t stick together. She had saved enough – ten thousand rupees – for this month-long trip to her native place.
Six-year-old Sharon jumped up and down over the sofa. “Pai, khoim asa, mãe? He not coming?” she asked in her melodious baby-voice.
“Nam gho bai, his work is not finished,” said Isabelle, looking at her baby as she settled at the edge of the sofa with her half-chewed Marie biscuit.
Sharon was adopted.
Isabelle and Henry had waited for eleven years, praying to every saint in every church with votives and vows, until one night Isabelle had a divine dream of adoption.
A night later, Milagrin aunty called from Goa to say she was in possession of a newborn baby.
Sharon was born to a restless teenager who had gone to Lisbon to study, and had returned pregnant. The teenager’s parents hid her until the baby was born. It was fortunate that they trusted Milagrin and she in turn passed on the baby to someone who needed it the most.
Everyone was happy, and most of all Isabelle. She was finally a mother at forty-five. She loved her daughter more than anyone could have loved their own. Sharon was not just an answer to motherhood, but also to years and years of emptiness, and to everything in Isabelle’s imagination in a delicious Goan-Portuguese way. Sharon was the cause for Isabelle’s fountain of love to find way, to not stay engorged and stagnant, thereby suffocating her.
Love when it was too much had to flow somewhere.
Swishing around now in her silk dress with lace collars and puffed sleeves, Isabelle murmured three Ave Marias and Our Fathers. She crossed her heart in front of the house altar, then tugged Sharon along with their baggage, and locked the door. She left the keys with the neighbours for Henry, and set out to Thane station for the Netravati Express.
Henry would come home late. He couldn’t join them to Goa, nor see them off at the station. He had a new job as a waiter at the Taj Hotel, Colaba, and getting leave or leaving early was out of the question.
Selma Colaço stood on a red hillock in front of a big white bungalow overlooking the Anjuna river.
In her floral couture dress, her tresses talking to the wind, she looked like a goddess emerging from moist earth. Under her straw hat, her face was flushed pink. She could have passed for a European woman.
“Madam, great great river view,” said the broker, Mr Shah, “And the beach is nearby here only… at the backside. Have you ever come to Goa before? It is a paradise. Once people come, they never go.”
Selma rolled her eyes. She was Goan by heart, skin, bone, blood and dream. But she wasn’t about to illuminate this bloke. Twenty years ago, she had lost her ancestral house to an uncle who thought a building would look better on the land of her childhood, where mangoes fell to sand, where dragonflies buzzed over shrub, where cashew seeds were roasted to crisp skins in the backyard – all of it gone, eaten up by an ugly building.
Now all Selma wanted was a piece of land in her maides to safe-keep her memories. Wasn’t it so, that in one’s thirties one felt the urge to return to the womb of all first loves – the cravings and whirlpools of all things past?
From the hillock, Selma surveyed the mackerel clouds in a blue sky; motorists winding through the green roads; coconut, tamarind, and bamboo trees whispering in the bhat. She watched the Portuguese imprints still stenciled in villas around, in the architecture of distant churches – one saint at every mile, and in the commo perched atop every house. This land was not just sun, beach, sand, women, drinks and partying. Not just the timelessness in trees, where breathing slowed down naturally. It was culture, history, story, prayer, faith, language, labour, love and lore…
Selma watched red mud trickle down the hillock on which she stood, and held back an urge to grab some of it.
“If you want we can give you better location,” said Mr Shah.
“What could be better than this?” asked Selma. “It’s heaven in every corner, isn’t it?”
“These local people are dirty villagers,” mumbled Mr Shah, “…somewhere where we can give you beautiful beach view, sky view, river view, sea view.”
“What’s wrong with the local people again?” Selma stopped mid-way from gritting her teeth. But it wasn’t worth it. She turned away, saying: “I like this bungalow. It’s well within my budget. I shall tell you in a day or two.”
“Alright… madam, then will it be full down payment?”
“I will call you,” she nodded. Yes! Yes! Yes! Never mind the jerk, this bungalow befitted her dreams.
It had the gambol of the Anjuna river, a quaint tinto on the other side, and the neighbours’ homes in new bungalows and old houses with fowls, pigs, goats, and dogs strolling in sun-dappled courtyards.
She inhaled the newness of the bungalow’s cemented tiles, the gluggy smell of river water, the muskiness from the shell-windowed houses across the road. Things seemed just perfect.
She returned to her heritage homestay at Vagator and phoned Javier, her husband – a Frenchman, who was in love with all her obsessions, and hence in love with her.
“I’ll take a walk to this place one last time before finalising the deal,” said Selma, “I want to see how it looks in the night.”
Isabelle stood in her baggy swim-wear that had worn off its colours. It had been bought six years ago from Baga beach. She wore black leggings underneath.
“Mama! You look like a lollipop,” squealed Sharon.
“Why bai?” laughed Isabelle.
“Peach top, black legs,” said Sharon, giggling as her curls flew over her chubby face.
Mother and daughter ran around the waves, jumped over them, splashed, and slept in the sifting wet sands.
Then Sharon suddenly said, “Mama, potty.”
“Oh God! I told you no to make before leaving?”
Sharon looked at her mother anxiously.
“Come off now.”
Isabelle looked around. There were a row of huts in the distance with Restroom painted in bright red. It was near some make-shift restaurant shack. They trudged along hurriedly over the wet and dry sand mounds.
With Sharon ensconced in one of the Indian WCs, Isabelle shouted out, “Finished?”
Her question echoed in the small bathroom.
“Not coming,” sang Sharon.
Isabelle turned on the taps in the basin, then checked the taps in the other two toilets. “Saiba pau! Udokuch na! Let me find some water now! You make. I’ll come back.”
Isabelle went to the adjoining shack to find a mug, bottle, drum of water, anything…
“Hello! Konn asa re? Hello? Patrão khoim gelo?” She peered from the patio into the inner room that was veiled in darkness. “Hello? Konn haan? Patrão gharaan haan?” She nearly stepped into that dark room when its door suddenly banged shut against her face with so much force it couldn’t have been the wind.
The silence behind that door and from that room was eerie and unsettling. Isabelle’s skin gathered goose-pimples under the sand that stuck to it. Something was wrong… about this house… There was somebody inside, but nobody was answering, even though they had heard and seen her. Isabelle went back to the toilet.
“Bai, zaalem? Bai, you finished?”
Isabelle pushed open the door of the WC. No Sharon. She pushed open the other doors of the toilets – no Sharon there too.
She ran out looking around the shop and shack. The door of that house was still locked. Isabelle ran out on the beach, screaming, “Khuim gelem mhojem bai? Sharon! Sharon! Sharon! Bai! Baby!”
She ran far. “Oh my God!”
She ran back into the toilets. She screamed. She flung open the doors again. She looked for… a toy that bai was playing with. But did she have a toy in her hand today? A spade or that duckie? No, that was yesterday at the beach, wasn’t it? Isabelle looked around and around. Did she wear her vaanu?
Blue slippers or black? No, those were left at home, weren’t they?
“Where are you, bai? Sharon! Oh my Lord!”
What was she wearing? That pink dress? No, peach dress? Cream dress? Yellow dress?
Isabelle ran over to the house and banged the door hard, but there was no response. Surely Sharon has finished her job and gone out onto the beach to look for her. Isabelle ran toward the right of Morjim beach. “Hey, tuvem daktulea chedvak pollelam? She raised her hand up to her waist. “Edhem, edhem!?” Some drenched teenagers nodded. Isabelle looked as far as she could, on the road, in the narrow exit lanes of the beach. She mistook a dog in the distance for a little girl sitting. She ran in the other direction to the left of the beach. She ran back into the toilets, shouting, wailing, screaming…
After some caldo verde, spicy sausages, pomfret curry over steamed rice, squid fried in recheado and mighty gulps of wine, Selma strolled into the Mapuça market. She watched the shops lined with everything she would love to take back home and savour until her next visit.
She put packets of dodol, bebinca, pinagre, and doss into her shopping bag, and fought off thoughts on how much more luggage space she would need for extra packets of dried mango, solam, sausages, cashew seeds, port wine, toddy tapped coconut vinegar, Goan coconut oil, feni, and kokam juice. She stopped mid-way between all this to listen to the music flowing around her – Geh go bai, geh go bai ~~~ sovai ditam ~~~ unne kor, phadey gaal ~~~ tujer he sadi polleum murgot’tolo.
Konkani was her long-lost mother tongue – her baas; she would reclaim it now. Nothing would stop Goa from happening to her in its language as it flowed in customers’ bargaining, vendors’ yelling, women giggling… the bazaar filling out in its own karaoke.
Coming out of the market, Selma sighed at the fresh coconuts, mangoes, and pineapples. She would have to give them a miss. Until I have my own house, she thought.
The noon in her Vagator homestay room passed in a sossegado slumber by the rocking chair. Through the French windows, Selma watched the sway of coconut trees. This was home – place for the soul. She and Javier had no children, but all their infinite love was reserved for her homeland, motherland.
The sky had turned dim. The window frames burst with green and prickly-heat red in the hotel’s compound. Watching this lush contrast, Selma cried. She rushed outside to the verandah and grabbed a fistful of mud. Compressing it into her palm, she inhaled the clump. It drilled into her memories of her ancestral house in Nuvem...
The evening fell into the dark spell of night. Nostalgia was like an eternal drug. Years could pass by with it.
“Did you check on the house then?” asked Javier over the phone.
“No. But I went to the Mapuça market today. I bought a lot of things. I better go tonight,” she said.
Saying so, Selma set out of her room. She had been through the good and bad offices of realtors and by now knew what they sold and how. She had learned to discern through their sticky adjectives.
Goa was nothing but a whore to them. But Selma stuck to these realtors, because they were better in leading her to the property she wanted, better than those e-portals or word-of-mouth recommendations.
She now walked into the dark lanes of her soon-to-be white bungalow. Point noted: There are no street lamps. Second: The gravel is loose and shifty. I would have to bargain for a pukka road. Point 3: No dispensary, not even a pharmacy in the distance. Not a small grocery shop...
Point 4…, point 5…
Everything passed in a blur. She was in a bus and the windows were a blur. She could see Sharon in every little or older girl. Every person knew where her bai was.
“Encouraged by this thought, I implore you to obtain for me… Oh gentle and loving St. Anthony, my bai, my bai…,” she whispered in breathless repetitions.
Inspector Sushant Mapsekar was trying to calm Isabelle down at the police station.
“At least tell me what happened. Do you suspect anyone? Where are your relatives?”
Isabelle spoke with succinctness. A whir was surrounding her and the only way it would not get her was through her voice, which like an arrow would shoot out. The police were the bow strings. Her voice would reach Sharon. Isabelle told them all she knew. They set out in a police jeep. There was somebody who spoke from inside Isabelle using her voice in a smart, determined way. That was the only way they would find bai, Sharon.
They went to the beaches, invaded shacks and houses, asked a hundred questions, showed bai’s photo a million times. The countryside was blurring – only the jeep’s dashboard was in focus with the oncoming road.
The day stretched into a short afternoon, a long evening, and the evening into an eternity.
Much against her relatives’ wishes, force, pleading, Isabelle caved in, giving into her feelings – like a fortress to a hurricane. The evening had come, the darkness had too. Bai was scared of the dark. Wherever she was, if not anything else, this quiet was going to kill her. A jungle was unfurling.
Inspector Sushant dropped Isabelle at her Siolim home, “You rest a bit. We’re on a night-time crackdown. You’ll receive word in the morning. Take some rest.”
“Please find her, my bai, bai, bai,” Isabelle cried. Milagrin aunty, Teo uncle, Delna, and Emily held her as she looked up at the sky. The moon was full and round… so round it wasn’t even real.
Baby Sharon woke up on a large white bed. She was hungry. Her head was spinning.
She mumbled, “Mama. Mama. Mãe. Mãe. Pai?” Her eyes were sticky as if glued like paper in her craft class.
An uncle stood at the door. He had golden hair and no shirt, only pants with squares on it.
She sat up, “Where’s mãe? I want mama.”
The uncle switched on the lights. Everything was white and bright. Sharon blinked.
“Come let’s go for a bath. Take off your clothes,” the uncle said.
“Where’s mãe? Mãe khoim haan?” Sharon began to cry, rubbing the wet glue of her eyes.
The Uncle lunged over the bed and grabbed her by her arms. With tender force, he brought her down. “I have chocolates and ice cream for you. Come, remove your clothes. We should have a bath first. I like clean babies.”
The uncle sat on the bed, nodding. Sharon looked at him – his golden hair over his pink skin. She began removing her frock. Mãe had taught her to put on and remove her clothes like big people did.
“You’re a beautiful girl, you know. Lovely curls, black eyes, honey skin, tiny lips. Are you hungry? Do you want a lollipop? Want to suck on something?” the uncle asked.
Sharon stared at him from behind her tears. The uncle roamed his eyes over her body. He put out his little finger and smiled, “Come let’s bathe.”
He checked the nail of his middle finger. He had clipped it yesterday, so it should be okay for today.
Selma stood in the car park of her soon-to-be white bungalow. The Anjuna river cavorted far into the night in its dark fleshy ink. The moon shone, bleached and full-faced. It matched the patio tiles of the bungalow showering it with further gleaming pearl. “None of the night bulbs or tubes work,” muttered Selma. I have to tell the broker that too. What about the neighbours? Does anyone live in these bungalows… on the right and left?
It would be good to acquaint with them. Unlike the modern world that didn’t believe in neighbour-relationships, Selma always liked to know her neighbours.
She consulted her watch. 10 pm.
She walked onto the patio of the neighbouring black-tiled bungalow. Late, I know, she thought, but what if I had had an emergency now or in the middle of the night? When do neighbours come in handy?
The doorbell startled Raymond. Who the hell…?
He went to answer it, furious, peering through the peephole. A woman stood outside with gleaming honey-olive skin, chubby breasts. His resolve broke faster than the bolt on his door.
“Sorry babe, I had clearly told Martis not to send anyone without calling me first. I have three mobile phones. Of what use are they? I just can’t see anyone today.”
“Excuse me? I’m not…?” said Selma.
“I understand. How much?”
“Wait here… I’ll get the full amount. What’s your name? I would definitely like to see you again… I never trouble a lady, especially one as arousing as you, but this isn’t the right time.”
Selma shook her head in dread.
She had heard the woods were beautiful – the jungle. But as beautiful as they were, as full of the smells of earth and home, filled with good things and beings – fairies and angels, her mother would often tell her, it was also filled with beasts and wolves. If you were Red Riding Hood you had to know the wolf. If you knew the wolf, you had to know how to escape it. A road would open up somewhere when the wolf turned his head – a street, a path... a light, a window, a door…
“Mãe? Mãe. Mãe! Mãe! Mãe! Mãe! Mãe! Mãe!” and screaming at the top of her shrillest voice, in one clean and fast dash, Sharon ran from the bathroom straight into Selma who was turning to go away.
A brief glossary of Goan words
Yem-o-tem: This one or that one
Sukhi sungta: Dried prawns
Halwa: A sweetmeat
Saibinn: A custom where the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or ‘Our Lady’ is taken from one Goan Catholic home to another. The statue is kept at each home for a day or so, and prayers are held there, before it moves on to the next neighbour
Feni: A spirit produced exclusively in Goa. There are two types of feni, cashew feni and toddy palm feni, depending on the original ingredient
Commo: A clay cockerel installed on the roofs of houses
Bai: coll. Used to refer to a woman; used here for her daughter
Saiba pau! Udokuch na!: O Lord! There is no water!
Konn asa re?: Who’s there?
Patrão khoim gelo?: Has the owner gone somewhere?
Konn haan? Patrão gharaan haan?: Who is there? Is the owner at home?
Khuim gelem mhojem bai? Where has my daughter gone?
Tuvem daktulea chedvak pollelam? Have you seen a little girl anywhere around?
Edhem: That size
Recheado: A kind of spice mix, used to prepare a traditional Goan dish, made generally with fish
Sossegado: A word with many meanings. Here it could mean relaxed, peaceful