Saturday, December 10, 2016

2016 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Shortlist: Selma Carvalho

Mand Goes To Church
Selma Carvalho

A chill wind blew as Mand looked down from the hill. The sky had darkened to a miserable blue; the leaves fluttered gently. In a short while, a hot rain would burst forth guided by a malevolent spirit who knew no mercy. For now, Mand stood still as he smelt the air of dung and dirt and flowers and fruit.

Mand watched the Catholic homes at the foothill as he had done since he was a child. They were thick, those houses, all clustered together in some sort of solidarity. How he longed to be part of their world, part of those homes with their pyramid roofs, tiled methodically, one tile and then the next and then the next, all neatly arranged with nothing left to chance, not one gaping hole which would let in the rodents or the rain. There were other houses, thatched to perfection in much the same way, except they were further away and they stood in a subservient semi-circle around those that were tiled. The larger houses had neat little vegetable patches at the back where pumpkin and okra grew in long rows, and some had green chillies and tomatoes and green vines latticed onto bamboo. In the front, were glorious gardens of bougainvillea blooming with wild abandon as if the good fortune of the house could be measured by the vibrancy of the bloom and a wilt would spell decrepitude. So they bloomed, willed on by sheer determination. There were roses which sprung up reluctantly and the best vigilance could not coax them to produce more than a few miserly petals which the mistress of the house would boast of with supreme conceit as if she had cultivated indeed a jewel, a pearl perhaps, and it grew not in her garden but on the crowned head of a maharaja. There were marigolds which grew with more success, beaming their little yellow heads up to the sky and flowering with a wanton lushness for they were native to the soil, unlike the roses.
Mand stroked his foot, which had grazed against the thorns. Just for a little bit, he told himself biting his lip, the pain lasts just for a little bit. He looked down at the village once again. O how the names of these Catholic households trickled down his tongue: the Almeidas, the Alfonsos, the Albuquerques and the Colacos, the Cardozos and the Carvalhos, the Fernandes and the de Souzas, the de Silvas and the Furtados, the Pintos and the Pinheiros. How he wanted a name just like that. 

His mother often said, ‘Mand, you have to be careful in choosing a Catholic name. It reveals things about the person, their past, their ancestors, their lineage, their right to property.’

Mand didn’t know much about things like that. He wasn’t allowed near the Catholic village.
Mother said, ‘You can’t go down there Mand. Promise me, you’ll never go down there.’
‘Why can’t I, Mother?’ he had asked.

‘Mand, I know how hard life has been for you. You’re all grown up now. Strong bones, spine like a rod and a breath that just smells of foul protest. But Mand, I’ve lived longer than you and I know things.’

‘What things, Mother?’

‘You’ll be chased away by their children and their old men who sit outside the taverns drinking from their bottles of local brew. Even their dogs dislike strangers and can smell one from a distance. Then, a merciless hunt will follow and the hapless stranger if caught in the tearing teeth of the local cur will not find reprieve. Crowds will gather and goad the dog into ever greater frenzy.’
A small air bubble grew on the inside of Mand’s heart and he felt its twinge as he thought some more of that Catholic village nestling down at the foothills, like a giant carelessly abandoned shoe and he wanted so much to go down the hill and be part of it all. 
He mustn’t go down, no matter what, for although the folks sometimes trekked up the hill to find his mother and buy her herbs and potions and incantations and curses, the sort of thing their padre vicar frowned upon and forbade, he could never go down. 

Mand lowered his pants and aiming at a bush sprinkled it with pee. Then, rubbing his hands on some nearby leaves, examined his penis. It was growing long and thick and he could feel it moving ceaselessly, his body feverish and building up into a knot of tension which often imploded without warning. 

The clouds had shifted. It might not rain after all. Mand now sat on a rock and resumed his watch, this time peering into the souls of the houses, illuminated by the white light of a sun drawn gently inwards through the many windows facing east and others to the west, so that no matter what time of day it was, there was always a light however faint or bright, in the rooms. The women in the kitchen through some sleight of hand were preforming feats of magic, a little austerity and a little indulgence, tempering seasoning and spice to produce breads, broths and brews; there was the fish gutted and shaved of its outer slivery scales until what remained were glistening eyes, fins and a fritter of a tail, all to be splashed in a sauce and fried in pig fat; there were sausage links looped around the wooden beams just above the open fire; there were ginger wines stored in their cold darkened pantries; pickles in huge jars, jams of mango and jackfruit, and bunches of banana and papaya and baskets of chikus collected over the season, now at season’s end, rotting and ruined. The women worked from the first light of morn, a life of kneading, grinding, gutting, shaving and serving and it seemed, if ever the heaving and huffing, the toing and froing were to be interrupted, then life itself would stand very still and silent. 

Mand thought he heard a noise coming from the bushes and hid behind a large tree. He mustn’t be caught watching the village like that; but it turned out to be a squirrel carrying away with it a tired-looking seed. Once, briefly, it strained its brown furry neck to look Mand in the eye before it scurried off. Mand, now climbed the tree which afforded him a better view and flattening his stomach on one of the thicker branches whose outer layer had cracked somewhat as if suffering from an undiagnosed skin condition, took up position. From here, he could hear conservations for not only did they carry upwind but the uneducated in the village had not yet learnt to modify their voices; they spoke often and loudly as if a fight were about to break out at any moment.

Perched comfortably, he could see into the rooms. Just a step-level above the kitchens were the bedrooms on either side, where privileged young men, on a Sunday afternoon, paced with great alacrity, examining this and that, a book perhaps or the chords of a violin. Those more fortunate, were cradling babies and teaching them to mouth words. These clean-shaven men, so fair of face, who had studied Latin and Portuguese faltered now while speaking their native tongue, almost forgotten and relegated to the kitchen, where their servants spoke it fluently. The men had scrubbed off their skins the very scent of their past and were made anew by colonisation and Catholicism. 

The older men sat out on the verandah waiting for someone to pass by, so that they could initiate conversations without the starch of substance. ‘Hey senor,’ they would call out, ‘are you returning from the market? Tell us, what the price of fish is today.’ And the passer-by, imposed upon by the rigours of convention and duty, would halt his Raleigh’s bicycle, tarry awhile and talk at length, ‘The mackerel are in full season now.’ ‘Delphin gave birth yesterday. A boy this time after three girls, a tiklo. He’ll bring them bad luck, that tiklo will.’
‘Philomena took ill last night. Had to be given her last rites.’

And in this way the village came alive to the men who had grown old but not in the way they thought they would; their bodies were not yet infirm and yet they were dried of desire, ambition and dissent, the things that really make one young.

Mand’s eyes gravitated towards one Catarina Maria Dias, who this morning was making her way to church. He knew her name, as he knew most of their names. Catarina was the only child of the village doctor. She must be not older than him, a pale looking creature with a long lantern face which drooped with a certain sadness, a slim, shapely body with small bud-like breasts pressing against the cotton dresses she wore. In other ways, she was no different from the young belles in the village; they were educated upto primary school, they prayed fervently for a good man, they were dutiful and graceful and musically accomplished, and not an unkind word passed through their delicate lips nor an act of kindness from their hearts which demonstrated curiosity or empathy with humanity. Their sole aspiration it seemed was to pass like ships from the safe harbour of the father’s house to that of their husband’s. They were as cold as the candles they lit at church and just as dull. But Mand loved Catarina. Other than his mother there wasn’t a single soul as important to him as Catarina.

Catarina’s sadness fused with his own loneliness and he wanted so much to hold her. 

Could he? 

What if he did? 

Would she laugh in his face? 

What if the village set their dogs on him? He was a creature of their past: pagan, savage, filthy, disgusting, dishonourable, a man-boy without a religion, without a caste, without even a surname. A boy that the nameless tribal woman living up in the hills had given birth to. 

Perhaps the padre would take him in and enrol him in at the chapel school. He would be amenable to instruction. He loved the essence of Catholicism; the towering edifice which was the church buttressed by massive columns and thick walls and stained-glass windows reflecting light perfectly to colour in squares and rectangles, a golden shade of yellow or a deep indigo blue or a pomegranate red, forming pictures which told tales of virgins and lambs and shepherds. He loved the pomp of pageantry, the processions, the golden chalice, the solar discs of wisdom around each martyred saints’ head. He could learn, quite easily, the rousing hymns, the ritual of prayer, so full of mystery. He could do all this willingly and with dedication. 

Except Mand believed in the glory of each moment. This moment, this moment in time was not predicated on the one that came before. A man riding a bicycle may stumble, he may fall or he may ride without incident. Each possibility lay only in the moment. The savage in him had refused to believe in the cold act of propitiation and an equally futile redemption. It was only this that set him apart from the Catholic village. And yet that gap seemed insurmountable. 

Perhaps today, he would learn to believe in propitiation; he would learn to propitiate and beg for help as their dogs converged on him. He would learn to scream for redemption. Perhaps this was the day, he would become Catholic and part of the village. 

Mand goes to church to find Catarina.

Selma Carvalho is a widely published Indian columnist and author of three non-fiction books on the history of Goans in East Africa. Between 2011 and 2015, she headed the UK Heritage Lottery Funded project 'Oral histories of British-Goans'. Her fiction work has been featured by Muse India, Jaggery and Litro in the issue guest edited by Shashi Tharoor. She was shortlisted for the 2015 Almond Press UK Short Story contest and her work anthologised.

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