Saturday, November 23, 2019
Manu and the coconut thief in Saligao
From a booklet by Melwyn
Every ward in Saligao seemed to have at least one teenager who had earned the notoriety of being a rascal. They were either loners, or outgoing kids with a mischievous look in their eyes that seemed to attract an accusing finger whenever something untoward happened in their ward. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I would say that those kids were smarter and far more creative than most of their peers but were constrained from displaying their creativity by the staid and proper Catholic society that pervaded their formative years. I often wonder what ever happened to some of these characters, one of whom was a loner name Euric (Yo-rick) who was in his late teens. He had a slight hunch, and he walked with a loping stride, his hands close to his pant pockets, and his head raised forward that gave him the appearance of a human camel.
Euric had the reputation of being a thief of ‘tender coconuts’ - a coconut before it ripens and acquires a dried grey husk. Whenever tender coconuts were found to be missing from a tree, the finger of suspicion would invariably point towards Euric. However, nobody would dare challenge him openly, simply because no evidence could ever be found to link him to the theft. But if Euric was indeed the culprit - and the twinkle in his eye seemed to confirm it - he certainly earned my admiration for committing these petty crimes with a finesse that was beyond the capability of most Goan mortals. Now, the sweet milky fluid of a tender coconut and the soft fleshy kernel were a great tropical delight. And like all great delights, they were hard to come by, simply because the ripened coconut, a Goan staple, was too valuable to be sacrificed in its tender stage merely to satisfy the discriminating palate of a bona fide Goan.
To obtain a tender coconut, one would normally have to place an order with a toddy tapper who would deliver a few to your home. Sometimes, a stranger would show up in the market with a bunch of tender coconuts that were probably stolen from another village; and they would be bought without anyone questioning the source of the merchandise. As long as we claimed to be unaware of buying stolen property, we had one less sin to confess, and a few less Hail Mary’s to recite as penance at our next confession.
One year, however, on a hot summer’s day, I aided and abetted a thief in stealing a couple of tender coconuts. And the thief was none other than Euric! It was around noon when we had just finished erecting the bamboo bandstand for the Mae de Deus church salve that was assigned to the Cruz Vaddo section of Arrarim that evening. Our leader was a medical student, Manuel “Manu” D’Cruz, home on holiday from his college in Bombay. Every year he’d organize the young boys into groups to look after various salve-related activities such as soliciting funds door-to-door, making the lanterns and buntings, and stealing bamboo poles for the bandstand, while he managed the funds to pay for all expenses, including the band … and the bhajias (lentil fritters) for the team of volunteers at the conclusion of the salve. Well, it being a hot and humid day, Manu felt we should be treated to some sharop (strawberry or orange flavoured soda). But he didn’t have any spare funds to cover this purchase. Meanwhile, as luck would have it, Euric happened to be passing by. Manu called out to him and asked if he could pluck a couple of tender coconuts from the trees just outside the church boundary wall.
Euric agreed, but was concerned about being caught by the curate, Pde. Roberto Vaz, reading his breviary as he sat by the window of his study. What would have alerted the priest would be the loud thud of the coconuts hitting the ground from a height of about forty feet. But Euric had an idea. He made two cone-shaped mounds of sand about 18 inches in diameter and about nine inches high at the foot of a coconut tree. He asked Manu to stand near the bandstand in full view of the curate and got a few of us kids to stand near the two mounds, blocked from the view of the curate by the boundary wall. He told us that he would climb up the coconut tree and pluck two tender coconuts which would be dropped in quick succession, one on each mound.
At the precise moment the first coconut hit the mound, we were instructed to yell “Manu”, and “Yeh, reh” (come here, man) as the second one landed. Euric then climbed the tree, twisted the first tender coconut off the bunch, and dropped it right on the peak of the first sand mound as we yelled “Manu” to drown the muffled thud of its landing. And two seconds later, he aimed another coconut right on target as we yelled “Yeh, reh” in perfect sync. Manu responded by calmly stepping away from the stage as if to find out what was going on.
The curate looked up from his breviary when he heard our call, and seeing Manu walking calmly towards us, returned to his meditation, convinced that Manu had everything under control. Euric deftly husked the two coconuts with a coitho (a machete shaped like a parrot’s beak), cut a hole in each one for us to take a swig of coconut milk, and then split the nut to scoop the kernel. Like many of his ilk, Euric indulged in petty mischief just for the fun of it rather than monetary gain. And if offered payment for his dubious services, I’m sure he would have refused to accept any money, citing his good Catholic upbringing and his own interpretation of the old adage that “crime does not pay.”
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