‘‘A Woman’s Fate’ by Epitácio Pais | Translated by Paul Melo e Castro
António da Veiga made his way out from the vast railway station. Hardly had he emerged onto the avenue when a stranger approached and inquired if he needed accommodation.
Not quite middle-aged, the man wore a pair of smartly pressed trousers, an immaculate shirt and shoes that gleamed like polished mirrors. Around his wrist was a deluxe watch, his small moustache was neatly trimmed, and his hair had been carefully slicked back.
Veiga replied that his usual hotel was not far off. But as the man insisted on one close by at a reasonable rate, clean bed, freshly washed sheets, fan and mosquito net provided, hot water too, he resolved to pay this new establishment a visit.
Afterwards, the man asked whether he was satisfied, produced a gold cigarette case and announced his commission to be twenty rupees. A little steep. On his way out, the man recommended his own eating house in Jambul Wadi, renowned for Goan delicacies that drew their countrymen in from all over the city. He had other lines of business too. Palm and cashew liquor shipped in from home that sold like hot cakes. Well then, God bless, a pleasant evening to you.
That man’s life wasn’t bad, Veiga thought to himself, better than idling around, borrowing money and not paying it back, making promises and then breaking them. It seemed everything was going swimmingly for him.
A warm bath having washed away the fatigue of his journey, Veiga decided on a walk around that city which dazzled with bright advertisements and rang with the cries of street hawkers. He could then try that Goan place, maybe have some sorportel, a tasty dish that tantalised his stomach now he was so far from his native soil.
He found the restaurant in a side alley, its almost illegible sign blackened by smoke, four wooden steps leading up to a cubicle where eight tables and a sink by a stove filled the entire space. At that hour It was deserted but for a lone woman stirring pots.
Veiga asked her for a Goan speciality, didn’t matter which. Iscas? Sure. Chouriço? No problem. Sorportel? Why not. He left the choice up to her.
She brought him a steaming dish of delicious smelling food. As he ate he looked at the woman from the corner of his eye. She had obviously once been attractive. A vague tristesse emanated from her gaunt form, though broad hips confessed her fertility. Veiga said that he’d just met her husband, who had recommended this place to eat. She replied that by now he must be at the Ashtray Bar drinking with friends and would only be back for dinner. She worked alone because they couldn’t afford a cook, though the man made a good living. She told him she was from Goa without mentioning her native village. Her five children who were asleep in the loft had to rise early for school.
It seemed to Veiga there was something familiar about the woman, something that welled up in a swirl of half-forgotten memories. Those almost black eyes now with bags underneath, that gait from which all trace of elegance had not been entirely erased, that dark hair now intermixed with threads of grey, it was all was bound up with Veiga’s confused recollections. Where? Where? he demanded. But his memory refused to comply, stalling with every effort. Now the image of the man who must surely be her husband returned to mind, slipping in between a muddle of disconnected facts that seemed poised to converge before finally eluding his grasp. Veiga asked the woman why the restaurant was empty. She replied that it only began to fill around ten after the evening shift at the local workshops. Then she scarcely got a second to breathe and had to rush around serving customers until midnight before finally collapsing exhausted into bed, her head ringing with the yells, curses and foul language of the clientele. She asked if he was from Goa and what brought him to Bombay. Veiga replied he was there on family business and that thanks to her husband he had found a decent billet. For the first time she looked him squarely in the face and blushed.
Veiga returned to the hotel. His head weighed heavy and his eyes burnt with exhaustion. But once he gained his room and heaved himself into bed he was unable to sleep. The image of the woman from the restaurant cloaked in mystery wouldn’t give him any peace, appearing again and again in the darkened room until he was shattered. It was thus, his nerves shot to pieces, that he finally passed out.
But morning brought everything to light. The hazy enigma around the woman melted away, and every detail relating to that figure now passed clearly before his mind’s eye like a film, narrating her life from girlhood to adolescence, from innocence to a turbid whirlpool dragging her down into a fate she had only wanted to escape when it was no longer possible.
Time was Veiga had seen her childish figure cross the river each morning clutching a satchel full of books, returning home by the same route at the end of the day. Afterwards, when she was already an adolescent, he would see her grave-faced and wary, indifferent to the comments and catcalls of passers-by.
Sometime later, now mature in body and mind, she had continued to shun male advances.
Schooling complete, her family had wished to find her a good match in fine society. But she kept putting off any decision. She wanted to study further, to find an important role for herself locally or at a national level, to rout those so-called heroes, oh so callow in thought, who spouted platitudes at political rallies. Only then would she render up her hand to any prince charming who might come her way.
One day this prince charming inevitably appeared, elegantly attired, with a pencil moustache and the honeyed blandishments of a leading man. He followed her around like a puppy dog, many little strokes fell great oaks. The man had a restaurant in the big city, a favoured haunt of the crème de la crème whose society could raise her to the level of her dreams, allow her to rub shoulders with the great and good.
She let herself be taken in by these promises that sweetly caressed ambitions she had nursed for years. And one fine day she upped and left with her suitor, without a word to her mother, father or anyone else. They married before hired witnesses on Woodhouse Road before a brief honeymoon.
Now there she was, stuck in that Goan hash house in Jambul Wadi, four wooden steps leading up to a blackened cave, hunched over those pots beside a sink slopping over with dishwater.
Paul Melo e Castro is a lecturer in Portuguese and Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. He has long-standing rearch interests in Portuguese-language fiction and intellectual production from Goa and has been a regular translator of this writing into English. His latest book-length translation is Vimala Devi’s Monsoon (Seagull, 2019). He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Epitácio Pais (1924-2009) was a Goan short story writer. He contributed short stories to the Portuguese-language newspapers and radio during Portuguese rule and in the decade following 1961. A collection of his stories entitled Os javalis de Codval (‘The Boars of Codval’) appeared in Lisbon in 1973 and a novel unpublished during his lifetime, Preia-Mar, was published in 2016 in Goa by the Goa, 1556 publishing house.