HELTER SKELTER BEFORE THE MONSOONS IN GOA
BY ARMAND RODRIGUES
In Goa, monsoons provide a welcome respite from the opulent heat and stifling dust of summer. From June to September, torrential rain, ferocious winds, thunder and lightning are a constant. The dust settles, the air is cleansed, the parched land becomes a huge sponge, the drying wells, river-beds and ponds are replenished, the life-giving waters are garnered in rice paddy fields. The thunder and lightning chase away evil spirits lurking in the shadows and are the stuff for spooky grandmothers’ tales for kids. Other than inescapable work in the paddy fields, a sense of semi-hibernation envelops the populace, as outdoor pursuits become subject to the vagaries of the weather, or as occupations linked to tourism come to a seasonal ebb.
Take a walk back in time to appreciate what people had to go through before the advent of the drenching downpours. Remember that it rains in the same measure on the lands of the poor as the rich. So, all stripes of Goans had to girth their loins and scramble. Imagine life without electricity: No refrigerator to store food, no stoves, no electrical appliances. Paraffin lamps and open cooking fires were the order of the day.
One of the first things that had to be attended to was waterproofing the house. Broken Mangalore or Sanvordem tiles that had succumbed to errant coconuts, had to be replaced. Roman tiles had to be re-arranged after leaves and other debris had been cleared from the “gutters” between the tiles. The roofs of out-houses, chicken coops and the pig’s sty had to be re-thatched with palm fronds. Since most homes were built of clay, the exposed walls had to be protected on the outside, with upright or plaited palm leaves fastened to a bamboo frame leaning against the walls. Drains had to be made to divert water away from the house. Coconut leaves, -shells, -husks and any firewood had to be piled up in a dry place. It was not uncommon for people to hang coconut leaves, in pairs, astride a horizontal tree branch. With one layer upon another, the outer layers kept the ones below dry, for use in the kitchen.
Provisions had to receive critical attention. Coconut kernels had to be dried in the scorching sun, to make copra which was expressed for oil. Large batches of paddy had to be boiled in huge copper pots, then dried on a bamboo mat, before being taken to a mill, in a basket on a person’s head, for de-husking. The copra residue and the rice husks were saved for adding to the pig’s daily ration of swill. Kerosene (paraffin) for lighting, in six-litre tin cans, was a must Rice was stored in large clay urns or copper pots and rat-proofed. Plenty of sea-salt was always on hand. Sugar was kept in an earthenware vessel placed in a small moat to keep ants at bay. A good supply of home-made sausages was suspended from the rafters in the kitchen, alongside onions and chillies.
Pickled mangoes, berries and fish, plus an assortment of dried fish, were necessary staples. Coconuts and a slew of spices, including dried sour-mango slivers, were must-have items. Salted pork was stored in thick clay pails, with a weighted wooden cover as a precaution against rats. Stored blankets were examined for moth holes. A supply of cashew nuts in the shell, or jackfruit seeds, was useful for roasting and exuding warmth on cold and dreary nights.
Woe betide those who forgot to stock up on any of these essentials. They had to depend on the generosity of their neighbours and their limited supplies.
Finally, umbrellas were checked for broken ribs, followed by a triumphant shout of : “Bring on the rain”!
And, let us not forget a monsoon ritual of bygone days. June 24 happens to be the feast of St. John The Baptist. Men and boys, drenched in the torrential rains, with their crown jewels draped in their best “khastis”, indulged in the religious tradition of “Sao Joao” and jumped into narrow neighbourhood wells. A”ghumot” egged them on. Their reward was a treat and a big swig of fluid fortification (“feni”) provided by the homeowner. Then on to the next house and the next and on and on………. The effects of the alcohol seemed to dissipate with each jump. Thereafter, any chapel or crucifix was a pit-stop for a thanksgiving prayer to “Sao Joao” for deliverance in one piece, from their risky dives.