Our American Guest-Selma Carvalho

ouramericanguest

Illustration by Famida Basha

Legend:

Comer, beber, foder: Eat, drink, fuck

Mae: Mother

Café blanco: café with milk

Praças: town square

Familias: families

Mana: sister (colloquial for dowdy woman)

Paklo/Paklem: White man or woman (of Portuguese origin)

Louco: crazy

Bom dia: Greeting, good day.

Herois do mar: a sort of Portuguese anthem singing of their heroic deeds as sailors (literally Heroes of the sea).

Caldo: soup

Minha querida: my darling

Tiu: uncle

Mestizo: of biracial stock (Portuguese and Goan)

Comer, beber, foder. The three things Goans were good at; eat, drink, fuck. At any rate, that’s what Chico Santimano believed. Chico himself was preoccupied with other things. Like the state of Goa’s economy, the men, women and children he saw, illiterate and starving (although everyone told him this was his fanciful imagination more than anything else) and the Portuguese government, who in 1952, he believed had overstayed its welcome.

‘Chico, listen to me my ignorant son, we are not a colony. We are a province. We are Portuguese,’ his mother, a woman with enormous breasts made more prominent by wearing stiff chiffon dresses, reminded him often.

‘When I checked the map, mae,’ Chico would reply indignantly, ‘Goa was on the west coast of India and the colour of your skin is brown. If it turns white, you can put on airs and believe we are Portuguese.’

His mother, ordinarily given to endless boasts about her son’s achievements, would shirk away knowing full well that nothing good could come of talk like this. But what could she do? Boys like Chico, sent to Lisbon to study, having whiled away their time drinking café blanco around Lisbon’s praças, keeping company with prostitutes and nationalist poets who, in their sober moments, would not volunteer so much as their underpants for the cause of freedom, would return to Goa filled with empty republican rhetoric.

If I’ve made Chico sound like a dull man given to quiet contemplation, that was not my intention. In fact, Chico at thirty-two, much like men of his generation, was a Goan grandee in the fashion of good old European grandees. He was lovely to look at; sun-kissed, tall, although lately, he had begun to stoop a little, always sporting a neatly trimmed French beard and well tailored suits, usually woollen or linen, the former most unsuited to the tropics but expected of sons, from  familias destined for greatness, which in Goa was usually the civil service or the priesthood. The more ambitious ones, of course, would train as doctors; the less ambitious would amble along as half-assed lawyers, who didn’t need a law degree to practice, just the good intentions of arbitrating family feuds and the guile to prolong them for as long as possible.

Chico’s only aberration to the genteel affectations of Grand Old Goan families was an interest in matters political and older women; wilted, spinsterly types with droopy eyes who beset with advancing age and melancholia would have taken to playing Chopin on their pianos and reading French romances, and hence be able to discuss with him some aspects of both. This, he found exhilarating, and because of it, he looked at Goan girls of marriageable age with the utmost disdain, or in his words fit for nothing more than breeding fat idiotic children and embroidering doilies. If Chico were really brave, he would have married one of his ageing lovelies, which he dutifully called mana, although I suspect his feelings towards them were anything but brotherly. But he was a timid man and a foolish man who, despite his protests to the contrary, cared a great deal about what other people thought of him.

So it was no surprise when he turned up for Easter lunch at our house with the American, Jean Donahue. I hated her immediately, but this was not borne out of any real malice toward Jean; rather it was the insane jealously I felt for anyone who managed to win Chico, my cousin and confidant’s affection.

Chico had taken one look at Jean’s lantern face and lean forty-year-old body and immediately fallen in love with the paklem, white woman (in this, he followed in the footsteps of uncles and cousins all heeding to Afonso Abuquerque’s call for miscegenation). Her loose limbs glided effortlessly directing a myriad of emotions as she talked; her pale, papery skin reddened at the slightest touch and the opaque grey eyes yielded nothing other than the present.

‘Bom dia Mrs Santimano,’ she greeted mother; standing at our doorway, sleek in slim slacks.

My mother, whose ideas on female emancipation came from the pages of Moda fashion catalogues, was wearing an outlandish blue taffeta dress better suited for the ballroom, and a thorny-looking hat. She was immediately unsettled by this new comer. She resented strangers who presented their hands in a handshake and then risked the familiarity of a kiss. That sort of intimacy was reserved for family and close friends and the impudence of a stranger attempting it infuriated her. Still, she was a paklem and it would be ill-mannered to refuse the kiss of a paklem.

Jean had slung, casually about her right shoulder, what seemed to be an expensive piece of equipment. Upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a camera. She was a photo journalist, here to document our lives for some American journal and Chico thought it a good idea for her to meet us.

‘But why Goa?’ Mother enquired leading the way to the dining hall.

Jean had learnt some Portuguese at college and Mother, on her part, had learnt a few words of English from Barbosa, our cook. The portly Barbosa had once been employed on board the British naval ship SS Southhampton and was rather fond of singing random verses of Rule Britannia at odd hours of the day.  This was Mother’s introduction to the English language. Mother and the American managed to converse with much bobbing of heads and flailing of hands.

‘Because the American people must decide pretty soon who they will back. India or Portugal?’

Mother clumsily adjusted her hat. I knew what Mother was thinking. She voiced her opinion on the subject often. Was this skinny woman louco? What was there to decide? Surely no one in their right mind could think that our future lay with those uncouth, arrogant, badly dressed Indians? Surely not. Barbarians, the lot of them.

It was uncle Domingos who welcomed Jean with all the enthusiasm of a frolicking puppy, for uncle believed every instance could be turned into an opportunity to ensure Portugal’s continued sovereignty over Goa. Uncle was cut in the cloth of an old General who had never actually seen war. He wore coats with shinny gold buttons and fancy epaulettes, which tapered down his slim waist and flared over an emaciated bottom. Like Chico, uncle had studied in Lisbon, but he belonged to an older generation devoted to Portugal, who sang Herois Do Mar just before falling off to sleep.

‘Come, sit, my dear,’ uncle took Jean’s arm and led her to the far end of the table. The longish room heaved heavily, weighed down by dark mahogany cupboards, tables and chairs; blue Chinese dragons danced on crockery from Macau. The several windows framed Panjim perfectly for our guest. The township sprawled sparsely with houses here and there and a few municipal buildings whose glory had waned from the days when sea captains disembarked onto the abandoned jetty to discuss spices and empire. Now they were the last bastion of bureaucrats, who sat around playing cards, bound by an incestuous allegiance, swapping faded family glories which they feared would obscure all together if the Indians came in and took over.

Domingos sat at the head of the table. Barbosa began by serving a chicken caldo cooked in its own broth which Jean politely declined.

‘Tell me, minha querida, what do the Americans think?’ Domingos asked Jean, sipping a rather good ruby red port wine. Domingos had never been able to resist having his port along with his meal when good manners dictated he do so after.

A summer sun had slid into the room making it irreverently bright and hot, and Jean perspired indelicately. She was not used to being interrogated.  Later, I would learn that she had grown up in the quiet prairies of Minnesota, where snow fell for the most part of the year muffling the earth in silence, and only a smoking chimney or the barking of a distant dog reminded one that life carried on. She had not encountered a black man until she moved to the city, Minneapolis, where in the run down part of town some blacks lived, fenced in by poor white families. When she was twenty, she had listened to a speech from the man, Indians called the Mahatma, broadcast to America with the help of Muriel Lester. She might have pursued Muriel to London, hoping to set up a pacifist, vegetarian commune, but the war interrupted everyone’s lives. It didn’t matter then if you were brown, black or white. What mattered was dealing a crushing blow to the oppressors of freedom.

Chico sat as close to her as possible without making it obvious that he wished to hold her hand; perhaps even kiss her deeply on her lips which thinned into a straight line when she was displeased. Every young man carries a small revolution in his heart, but Chico’s heart was empty of such revolutions. He had only ever wanted to find the woman with whom to share a life in companionable engagement. With this hope bubbling like effervescent champagne within him, he felt unduly aggressive and protective towards Jean.

‘Tiu Domingos, there is no need to…’

But Jean cut him off, ‘No Chico, I would like to tell Domingos what the American people think. We believe every human being should live in a democracy and have the freedom to decide their own fate.’

At this precise moment, Domingos looked at this woman Jean as if she were a child parroting ideas she had heard on the radio or at one of those progressive schools like the ones the British had introduced all over India and which routinely churned out graduates with regimented thoughts. He believed as much of all those who disagreed with him, and invariably he would try to disarm them, like any good army general would, of their misconceptions. Usually, this was done by appealing to their vanity; how inconceivable it was that someone as bright and well-read as his opponent could hold such opinions. But how did one appeal to the intellectual vanity of a woman?

Mother sensed the unease and called out to Barbosa to serve lunch. She hovered about the dinning room, nervously, as women who have lost their bloom and become invisible often do. In such small ways as arranging flowers and crockery and directing the lives of maids and cooks, they re-emerge as essential to the lives of those around them. And the people who comply with this charade, their children and their friends, see in them perhaps the same loss of power they are destined for eventually.

Domingos knew that Chico desired the American girl. Perhaps Chico had already imagined a few mestizo children running about. Domingos decided there were two things he had to do: rid Jean of her misconceptions about Goa and Chico.

Barbosa served lunch all at once; a sumptuous feast of pilaf rice cooked in chicken broth, chorizo fried, fish layered with peas, carrots and mayonnaise, pork stewed in red wine, home cured bacon tightly encased in small strips of beef, pumpkin diced and stewed, and a bountiful salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and shredded carrots drizzled with a light vinaigrette. What must Jean have made of us then? Mother, Chico, Domingos and me in this long room with a wooden table stretching almost its entire length flanked by pale yellow walls which carried the weight of our peerage in medals and portraits of bishops, soldier-doctors, musicians and failed writers. Suddenly the room was transformed, and instead of the bright sunlight, I saw dust everywhere of the kind that settles on wooden furniture, candelabra, chandeliers and books, and renders everything obsolete from disuse. Jean sitting amidst us had a newness about her untainted by the millennium of history which burdened us, Goans. History like that makes you doubt everything, question everything.

There was noise coming from downstairs, and Chico knew at once that it children romping about his car, banging on the hood and running around it in circles, as he had seen them do countless times when parked near our house. He excused himself to go and shoo them away. If Jean noticed Chico’s petty vanities, she didn’t say anything, but Domingos made capital of Chico’s absence.

Domingos turned to Jean, the port wine glass still in his hand.

‘Tell me, Jean, is it freedom to be part of a chaotic world? That is what India is to us.’

 ‘What do you mean?’

‘Hordes of people, who don’t think like us, who act nothing like us. They will insist we become like them. ’

‘How do you know that for sure?’

‘Look what has become of the East Indians and the Anglo-Indians.’

I saw in Domingos, for the first time, fear; not that of losing the privilege Portuguese colonisation had bestowed on indigenous elite families such as us but that of being submerged in a tidal wave of sameness.

Chico was back at the table and having overhead fragments of the conversation joined in.

‘What makes us so superior tiu-Domingos?’

 ‘Chico, what makes you think cultures are weightless?’

‘How do you measure cultures?’

‘If we put two different cultures on a scale will the value be zero?’

The room transformed itself once again; every horse-trading Arab, Kadamba king, water-weary Portuguese sailor, heavy cloaked Jesuit, fleeing Sephardic Jew, haggling slave-owner, loin-clothed sadhu, sunburnt general, pale woman, nose-ringed temple dancer, anxious mother, hard working father, and eager-eyed child who had walked the earth in Goa crowded around the table. On the table was a golden scale by which it was possible to measure the value of civilizations. An intricate circuitry of knobs and dials and mechanical wheels capable of computing time, space, and the variables of economies, geographies, histories, religions, cultures, languages, all sieved into a slot which would assign precise values to civilisations. And yet these distinct civilisations were not standing silently next to each other. They were mingling and merging, borrowing and adapting, forming and mutating and now in place of the scale was a huge chimaera on the table, with its heads, swishing and thrashing about, moving towards me, frightening me until a cold sweat broke about my spine and I thought I would faint. But then, gently it receded and blurred and disappeared.

Chico did not reply, in part because he knew the futility of arguing with Domingos. But Domingos was not done with him yet. He turned to Jean, his thin, fragile fingers expertly twirling his wine glass.

‘Jean what will union with India mean? Will we continue to have our excellent imported wines and cheeses?’

Jean laughed.

‘I should think not. India is a socialist country. There are sacrifices to be made if it wants to ensure equality to its teeming millions.’

‘And what about imported cars? Like Chico’s.’

‘Not. Imported cars will be the first thing to go.’

Chico’s face darkened for a brief second but long enough for Jean to notice and realise all of Chico’s impassioned, nationalist speeches were a rich boy’s empty abstractions.

Lunch over with, Domingos stood up. He seemed to have greyed considerably over the course of the afternoon. He said, addressing no one in particular, ‘First, they will convince you that the restrictions they impose serve the greater good. You will believe them. Then, you will realise that you are still colonised. You will object, agitate and yearn for the past. You will talk and write incessantly about how life used to be. The very things you think negate your existence now will come to define you. And you will fight to protect them.’

***

Jean left Goa two days later. She never saw Chico again. Nor did we ever receive a copy of the story she might have written. In 1961, the Indian army ended Portuguese colonial rule. America and Europe protested mildly but remained cold to Portugal’s entreaties for help. The time for colonial conquests was past. Chico left for Portugal soon after and married a Portuguese woman, a minor poet, several years older than him. He worked as a low-level clerk in a stuffy government department overseen by the dictator Salazar.

Selma Carvalho is an Indian-British writer and columnist, and the author of three non-fiction books documenting the presence of Goans in colonial East Africa. Her fiction work has been published in Muse India, Jaggery South Asian Literary Journal and Litro UK (India issue; ed. Shashi Tharoor). Her short stories have been long-listed for the TSS (UK) contest 2016, short-listed and published for the Almond Press (UK) contest 2015, and the DNA-Out of Print (India) contest, 2016.