(A sneak preview of the next Momentum column)
“In the name of the Father…” Aloysius raises his right hand to his forehead, and beckons to me to do the same, “…and the Son and the Holy Spirit…” He completes the sign of the cross and holds up a small plastic bottle of holy water, “Amen.”
“Dear Lord, please bless Ulrike and her cycle. Protect them and keep them safe as they travel the roads of Goa, and Lord – keep Goa safe from them” He aims the bottle and me and my newly-purchased, made-in-India Atlas one-speed and…squirts!
Uncle Aloysius, myself and my freshly-blessed bicycle are on the front verandah of a modest two-bedroom home in Porvorim, a small town in the state of Goa, India. It’s the house that Angelo (“Anju”) D’Souza built and that his son – Aloysius – has kindly invited me to call home for the next five months.
We first made contact seven years ago after I received news of Anju’s passing. “Forgive my ignorance,” I emailed Aloysius, “But how are we related, exactly?” I signed the message “Ulrike Bemvinda Rodrigues” and that was all he needed.
“Bemvinda,” he wrote in the first of many emails from Mumbai, was his aunt and my grandmother; and Anju was his father. Bemvinda married her musician cousin Vincente and they started a family in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) when it was still part of British India.
Many Goans moved to Rangoon at the beginning of the century to start a new life, wrote Aloysius, and apparently, life was good. Burma was known for its kind people, diverse geography and a climate that responded generously to agricultural efforts. Rangoon was its cultural hub and the Goans – known for their cooking and musical skills – fed and entertained its international visitors.
It all came to a thundering halt when – just a couple of weeks after they bombed Pearl Harbour – the Japanese delivered “Christmas presents by air” (as Aloysius put it) to Rangoon’s families: bombs and gunfire. Some Indians escaped by trekking overland, many dying enroute. Others – like my and Aloysius’s family – fled by sea. They returned to their ancestral houses in Goan villages such as Aldona, Olaulim, and Porvorim.
I didn’t connect with my family’s Goan history growing up for a number of reasons. I became a teenager in the 1970’s where – if you looked East Indian – you were labelled a greasy “Paki” and shunned. I felt embarrassed to be seen with my sari-wearing aunts, and “the old days” was a volatile topic with my father in an already estranged relationship.
Now I find myself and my bicycle finally in India, receiving a D.Y.I. blessing from an uncle who bears a good resemblance to my deceased father. But unlike my father, his is kind, open-minded, encouraging and light-hearted. He loves to share family stories, he thinks a bicycle is a wonderful way to explore Goa, and he’s warned all my distant cousins, aunties and uncles that I’ll be dropping by for a masala chai.
I’ve been here more than a month and have glimpsed Goa’s famous beaches just once – as a background to prawn masala, chicken XACUTI, and Kingfisher beer shared with three aunts and a range of cousins who’d just inspected their boarded-up ancestral home in Curtolim.
I know I’ll be able to “go tourist” in a few days when Aloysius leaves me to return to his place in Mumbai. Until then, I’m happy to lounge around the house in my salwar kumeez, listen to Aloysius’s take on family history, local politics, and Konkan culture; and write down his suggestions on where to ride my blessed bike.