The fortunate son
Over the next few days, Shorty (real name Abellino Valerian Gomes from the Salcete, Goa, village of Velsao) often found his mind travelling into the fanciful, especially that bit about travelling in a real limousine as a guest of His Excellency Senor Ferdinando e Sousa Braganca, one of the highest-born Portuguese he had come to know while he worked on the Braganca estate and empire in the northern Goa village of Candolim. Abel had jet black hair but he was fair skinned. In fact, he was the only fair skinned member of his family. There were whispers about his parentage but his mother and father would not tolerate any nonsense from anyone.
He day-dreamed about seating in the back seat, feeling the luxury of the soft leather seats and the sheer exhilaration of actually driving in a car. Wait a minute, he told himself, I have never actually sat in a white man’s car, or a brown man’s car or any man’s car for that matter. The nearest I have come to a car is seating in a wooden bench at the back of a Kenya bus. A bolt of reality struck him and he quickly jumped out of his fanciful dream but he could not really stop himself … at least a white man will drive the car, he told his fanciful self.
When the driver, Joseph Kamau, did arrive one evening he was as black as the night. He had gone to Baboos and the owner, H.R. Shah commonly called Baboo, had directed him up the flight of stairs. Ethelvina herself had opened the door and shooed him away, telling him in her broken Swahili, that she did not need anything that day and had quietly shut the door. Kamau knocked again and again Ethelvina opened the door and tried to shoo him away. This time, however, Kamau said: “Bwana Gomesi.”
Ethelvina: Gomesi nani? (Who is Gomesi)
Kamau: Gomesi ametumwa kwa na Bwana Braganca (Gomesi has been sent for by Mr Braganca)
Ethelvina: Braganza hapa iko hapa (there is no Braganza here).
Kamau: Mimi kuchukua Gomesi kwa Bwana Braganca ( I am to take Gomesi to Bwana Braganca).
Ethelvina: Hapana jua weh weh no sema nini ... Kariukiiiiii, kuja kuja hapa pesi pesi (I don’t know what you are saying .... Kariuki, come, come quick.)
Kariuki, Ethelvina’s man-about-the-house (aka cleaner, cook, washer upper, a general dogsbody who did anything that was required under Ethelvina’s supervision and a policing eye) told Ethelvina what his fellow Kikuyu tribesman wanted. Kamau waited downstairs.
When Abel in his only three-piece blue serge wedding suit with the regulation white handkerchief in the jacket’s breast pocket, met up with Kamau on pavement downstairs, he asked: Wapi motor car? (where is the motor car)
Kamau signalled for Abel to follow him. When they had walked some 20 yards, Kamau climbed aboard the driver’s seat and held out a welcoming arm for Abel to join him in front and only seat. Abel did so with a reluctance that bordered on pure disdain but certainly on gross disappointment and heart break. You see, the engine was donkey and the “car” was a cart. It was 6 o’clock on Thursday night.
As the cart hobbled its way along River Road, past the Khoja Jamat khana on the corner of Victoria and Government Roads and on to Ngara Road, it was a quite a pleasant sort of journey, albeit a slow one but few people noticed that in that day and age. The night was lit by a joyous full moon rendering the two candle-lit lamps on either side of the cart quiet useless. Conversation was difficult as Abel’s Swahili was as bad as Kamau non-existent English. When Abel asked Kamau where they were going (via sign language), Kamau pointed forward and said: Hapa tu, hapa tu, karibu sana (here only, here only, close by). That “hapa tu” took two hours to get to the destination after they had travelled along Ngara Road, turned left in the road that led to the maternity home, right by the Kenya Museum, past Salisbury Hotel and its beautiful swimming pool, the almost secretive Santa Cruz Goan Club, and a final right turn to the “Gym”.
Kamau dropped of Abel and headed of home somewhere in the dark of the night. Abel climbed the stairway to the Gym’s main entrance. There he was met by the club’s unofficial gatekeeper, Kario Bangi, whose job it was to ensure that only members entered the club and the riff raff and blow-ins were kept out. Kario had a fantastic photographic memory. He knew every member and their families. When “non-member” Abellino Gomes stood in front of him and told in his somewhat broken English mixed with broken Swahili that he was a guest of Mr Ferdinando Braganza, Kario quietly informed him that Mr Braganza was himself a guest and could not sign in other guests. Gomes, he said, was to remain outside while Kario informed the club’s General Secretary, Mr Santimano de Araujo.
A few minutes later, de Araujo came and greeted Abel in Konkani (the Goan mother tongue, while Gomes spoke the southern Goan version, de Araujo spoke the northern version, but they had no difficulty in understanding each other).
Abel had to wait a few more minutes outside, de Araujo told him and proceeded indoors and pulled together the club president Reginaldo do Fonseca and club treasurer Raoldao de Nazerath. “He is a tailor, we can’t let him in. It is against the rules,” de Araujo told his two senior colleagues and they agreed noddingly. “But we cannot say that to Mr Braganca,” do Fonseca said quite sternly. “We can’t ask Braganca to leave and take his low-caste would-be guest with him.”
Nazerath agreed and suggested: “Why don’t we explain to Braganca and put the ball in his court?”
They agreed and not too far from the main doorway searched the club for a sighting of Braganca, the very special visitor to the club. In the far right hand corner, there was a game flush (three-card brag) in full swing. Ben Almeida was obviously in good spirits and perhaps in the winning ... he was doing his usual “attireh foreh” or words that sounded like that, were supposed to be Portuguese but no one could tell.
On the other side of the room, the rummy game was also in full swing but this was a rather quiet and sedate affair.
In the middle of the hall, there was a group seated around a large table, each with a book or newspaper in hand. This was the “reading room” or more correctly the “reading group”. Around the rest of the club, there were groups of men seated at tables, quietly sipping away at their beers. Now and again, someone would boisterously raise the volume of his voice and he would be quickly shooed down.
In the background, almost non-existent to the trained ear, the much loved Konkani songs of stage and cinema by some of the most loved singers and musicians serenaded familiar ears.
Lucy Delgado simply loved the club. Being a young teenager, she and her friends had an absolute ball (pardon the pun) with the sports (the girls especially enjoyed the badminton and tennis) and the many, many social functions. One of the largest and exclusive feasts celebrated at the club each year was the Saligao Feast. Some of those who attended often told me it was almost as if it was liking spending a day at the Mae De Deus Church and in the village of Saligao, Goa. Mae De Deus was always one of the prettiest churches in Goa. Most of its interior in the front of the church, especially around the high altar, was decorated with gold leaf. The upkeep of the church was maintained by Saligao villagers individually and from funds raised at the annual feast. The day was usually sold out because the food, singing, music and the Mass were so good.
Mae De Deus usually boasted one of the best choirs in Goa. They were always up-to-date with their musical instruments, public address systems and their Masses usually stood out with a mix of grand tradition and a pinch of modernity. Like most churches in Goa, there was one setback: priests tend to talk, very loudly, table thumping, bible bashing and more often than not very boringly, especially to visiting ears.
It was not long before our intrepid officious trio spotted the “very special guest” Mr Braganca.
“But I only want to sit down and have a quick chat with him,” Braganca told them.
“With sincere apologies, Mr Braganca we cannot allow that to happen. It is against our rules. Gomes is a tailor. Uneducated. Does not speak proper English. He is of a vastly lower caste and is exactly the kind of person we have to keep out of the club,” do Fonseca told him. “You cannot afford to be seen to be socialising with his type,” he added.
“If we let him on to the premises, our members are likel to revolt and abuse the club committee in public and every opportunity, even in public. It would not surprise me if someone like Luis Castellino and his hardline Portuguese rightwingers complained to the Governor,” de Araujo said with the greatest of misgivings.
“Could I not just have a conversation with him in one of your rooms?” Braganca appeared to plead with the trio of club henchmen.
“No!” they said firmly in one voice.
“Well, I won’t be coming back here again,” Braganca said.
“Don’t. If you must,” de Araujo said as a matter factly.
Braganca went back to the people he was with, made his apologies and headed for the exit.
Outside, Braganca and Abel greeted each other like long lost brothers. They had not seen each other for more than 15 years. They had played as children on the estate. Much later Braganca and his brother had gone to St Paul’s School in Belgaum. Abel had remained behind helping his father as a farm labourer. In between, he had found time to learn tailoring both men’s and women’s. In Nairobi, he chose the more lucrative men’s clothing industry. After exchanging little bits of news of Goa, Abel was guided to the car. As his hand reached for the passenger’s side door, Braganca guided him to the back of the car, lifted open the boot and guided a shocked and stunned Abel inside and then shut the boot with a sturdy thump. Before closing the boot (or trunk as the Americans call it), Braganca had told Abel he would explain everything in a few minutes. Just as the Gym officials were putting their foot down about not letting Abel into the club, Braganca also very quickly remembered the Governor’s words about not socialising with people who were not of his race. He felt relieved that he would not be visiting the Gym again in the near future.
Abel had been looking forward to riding in a big car. This was that big car. But, in the boot? That is ridiculous, he told himself. What to do? He thought, somewhat surrendered to his predicament.
Braganca drove to the Portuguese consulate, parked the car and let Abel out from the boot. He knocked on the door and the Consul-General let them in. After greetings and introductions, Braganca took Abel into the Consul-General’s office.
“I must apologise for having put you through this uncomfortable experience,” Braganca told Abel.
“Why did I have to hide?” asked the quizzical Abel.
“You know what the colour bar is. I work with the Governor and we are not allowed to socialise with anyone except Europeans,” he said.
“Isn’t that coming to an end ... they are removing the ‘Europeans Only’ signs.”
“Yes, yes. But it will take time.”
Abel wanted to know more about Goa and the estate, his parents, his brothers and sisters and all the other people that once worked and lived on the estate.
“Everything has already been sold. Many of our people were given their own plots to build or cultivate. Many still live in and around Candolim. Some have gone back to their ancestral villages in South Goa. It is no longer the place of my childhood although the great house is still there but with a new family,” Braganca explained.
“Yes, I know. I have been back several times. It is not the same but my two brothers and their families are still there and live in the same old house which has now become their ancestral home. Your family was kind enough to give it to us,” Abel said gratefully.
Roque Antao who works at the consulate as a clerk was called in to translate:
This is what Braganca told Abel:
“That is what I want to talk to you about. I am going to give you two official letters. You are to take both letters to my family’s former advocate (advogado), I think he was called in the past).
“Our family has decided to bestow upon you a coconut plantation, a paddy field, a large piece of land with a big house and fruit trees, all very close to Candolim Beach. In fact, the coconut palms are on the beach itself. There is also some money that has been left for you at the State Bank of Goa in Panjim.
“There is, however, one condition: we, as a family, will not entertain any questions. Is that clear?”
“Do you accept?”
“Sign here...” he had already opened the document at the appropriate page.
“When you present the documents to the advocate, he will make sure everything is taken care of. I wish you a great and prosperous future. May you always be blessed, dear Abel.”
Abel joined his, as if in prayer, and bowed his head several times in thanks.
Braganca asked Antao to drop Abel home. Moments later, Braganca joined the Consul-General for a well-deserved single malt scotch.
THE NEXT DAY
Braganca is sitting in his office at Government House, Nairobi. He is listening to a variety of birdlife that frequents the gardens. He is also admiring the manicured lawns. Just outside his window, there are rows and rows of rose bushes and the scent is quite intoxicating. Twenty four men and women work full-time to keep all of the gardens at their Chelsea Flower Show best.
phone rings. He sort of reluctantly picks up the receiver. At the other end of the line is de Araujo from the Goan Gymkhana. For a moment, after the first hellos, the line is silent. Braganca is convinced that there will be a very humble apology forthcoming. Instead, de Araujo asks: “What was the date yesterday?”
Braganca is taken aback. Why? He is perplexed and reaches for his diary and there it is … April 1 … There is a half-hearted laugh before the line goes dead.