Takeaway

Life out of order in Goa

Rupleena Bose | Updated on April 24, 2020 Published on April 24, 2020

Line of control: ‘By mid-March, every conversation was about the virus, which seemed to be unleashing itself with a fury unknown to post-technology humankind’   -  ATISH POMFURFEKAR

A Goa resident reflects on how the lockdown has robbed her village of familiar faces, conversations and comfort zones

    * Volunteers gather to feed migrant workers at construction sites

      * Goa sees long queues at local stores for supplies

        Till a month ago, I would end my evening walk, baby stroller in tow, at a quadrangle that connects Aldona with Olaulim, the smallest village in Goa. The quadrangle had two regulars — Pascal D’Souza and Albert Fernandes, retired men who discussed football almost every evening until the setting sun told them it was time to go home. The quadrangle walk, a few steps from their houses, was their only little outing apart from doctor visits and the weekly mass at the Aldona Church.

        Not many people passed the quadrangle. All those who did were known faces — women workers (mostly from Karnataka) returning to their cluster after cleaning homes and gardens around the village vaddo (village ward). They didn’t know me but they knew my toddler, who waved at them during her stroller walks. These wiry women with strong arms protected my daughter from notorious neighbourhood dogs. The toddler responded to their Kannada chit-chat in her own language of animated hand gestures and gurgles.

        Around sunset, a van ferrying young daily wage-earners stopped at the junction next to the quadrangle. These men worked at the carefully hidden construction sites that have sprung up along the fields and empty patches of land in Aldona. They disappeared just as quickly as they alighted from the van, behind the deceptive lush green of the village.

        We, too, would leave before it was dark; Fernandes and D’Souza took slow, careful steps to make their way back home. Their daily outing was usually followed by watching a football match on TV — a ritual that gave them fodder for the next quadrangle chat. Back in the day, D’Souza, I heard, had set up a football team in Mumbai and had scouted rural talent from the neighbouring vaddos and other villages of north Goa.

        In early March, as the spring-summer breeze blew through the village, I thought that the quadrangle was the best thing for the very young and the very old who did not have the access or the means to do what the young, rich and free could do. Like an aside complete with irony befitting a Shakespearean play, this thought soon became a distant but happy memory.

        Lockdown love: ‘I envied the young and the free, perfectly turned out in summer kaftans, who drove around the sea state discovering romance in queuing up for essentials’   -  ATISH POMBURFEKAR

         

        By mid-March, every conversation was about the virus, which seemed to be unleashing itself with fury unknown to post-technology humankind. On March 21, rumours of a food shortage floated through WhatsApp forwards. The neighbourhood grocery store, the only one within walking distance, became more crowded than I had seen in the past few years. Daily wage workers (unfamiliar faces in a locality where faces repeat themselves at fixed times of the day) started queuing up for the limited number of items the small shop had: Rice, wheat, milk and dal.

        Suspecting nothing, I bought one packet each of rice and wheat and ended my walk at the empty quadrangle. Fernandes had bid his goodbyes before leaving for Indore to attend a family function. I caught a glimpse of D’Souza, who lived alone, standing at his doorstep and looking at the quadrangle. He asked me about my father, an ex-footballer (a member of Raisina Sporting in his youth) who joined their quadrangle outings for a week when he visited us. I replied that my father reached Kolkata, alone, with my mother staying back to spend more time with the grandchild. He smiled knowingly and slowly climbed the steps to his apartment, one of the many to have sprung up in the area. His only outing was now out of bounds to him.

        *******

        By the next morning, Goa had announced an extension of the one-day Janata Curfew, leaving shops empty and our kitchens emptier. Before we knew it, a lockdown of 21 days was announced. The next few mornings were spent trying to dodge authority and looking for the most basic of foodstuff — potatoes, rice, dal and eggs. Every market trip was war for us, followed by a disinfecting routine, especially in our currently multi-generational household where all the high-risk factors of co-morbidity (hypertension, diabetes and so on) were ticked. I envied the young and free, perfectly turned out in summer kaftans, who drove around the sea state discovering romance in queuing up — in defiance of social distancing — for essential supplies. Bread was a luxury and friends in other cities talking about raspberries, cheese and meat, and chocolate biscuits seemed like a rude joke. New parents scrambled for the essentials — milk and bananas — except that they were not available. Pet parents braved the police, humiliated by their lathis, and begged and borrowed food for their non-human companions. We were lucky because my husband had stocked up on pet food, just in time, for our multi-cat household. A week later, a neighbour who barely knew us gave us bananas for the baby. Soon enough, because we the privileged don’t starve, WhatsApp groups were abuzz with updates on food availability, so that people could share resources and even practise barter. My husband found an evening ritual of walking over to Maria’s, braving feral night dogs, for a bottle of cow milk. On the way there, he waved out to Cyril, whose liquor shop, even with downed shutters, attracted thirsty souls. And then there was Manuel, the man who ran the bar at the Aldona Institute, who sat in the balcao (balcony) waiting for a familiar face to pass by. Maria, a schoolteacher, had kindly agreed to give us a daily bottle of milk for the baby. We now had a regular supply of eggs, potatoes, rice and milk.

        But the wiry women had disappeared; they no longer crossed our house in the morning. In fact, nobody did after watching videos of police beating up vendors looking for ways to sell perishables and hungry poor men roaming the streets in search of food. Just as news of migrants starving at construction sites spread across villages, little groups of people started getting together in order to help others. Goa Humanitarian Helpline, which was started to help the vulnerable (such as senior citizens living alone), became a lifeline for the stranded workers who had been forgotten by the state. Niyati, a part of Rosto Go, a road safety group, along with Aldona volunteers of the Goa Humanitarian Helpline, provided meals to nearly 500 such workers in the Aldona area itself. The migrants didn’t understand the disease but they knew that home was far away and hunger imminent. The young volunteers of such groups urged landlords to forego the rent while they also coached migrant workers on their right to food and shelter. The workers, however, didn’t want anything more than being remembered.

        ********

        Sometime ago, when the virus still seemed distant, my daughter turned one. Her grandparents flew in from Kolkata. We decorated the house with festoons and stars, invited friends and threw a sundowner party. As I looked through the photos from that evening on my computer, it seemed like an excess, an extravagance from another time, suited to the world the way it was. There was cake, more than what we needed, ample food, more than what we could have eaten, and almost everyone took back doggie bags. That party, our last social event before the lockdown, had babies and toddlers who haven’t been outdoors since. The evening walks around the birthday saw my toddler handing toffees and chocolates to those working women from Karnataka.

        As things changed irrevocably, we braced ourselves. My father, who flew back after the baby’s birthday, was now living alone, cooking, cleaning and battling silence and loneliness. He has chronic pulmonary disease and a year-round cough; well-wishers have advised him to stay in, lest he gets lynched as a Covid-19 suspect. There have been reports of such instances. My father fondly recalled the week discussing football at the quadrangle. I told him I hadn’t been there for a month and that Fernandes was still stuck in Indore amidst rising cases in that area.

        Prejudices at the core of Indian society were now being vocalised. Migrant workers from Jharkhand and Bengal were being pushed to the end of the line for food rations.

        Speaking of the 20th century and the beginnings of modernism, Virginia Woolf had said that “on or around December 1910 human character changed”.

        Maybe we will say something like this later when we remember the early months of 2020. The lockdown has just been extended, people are being discriminatory, unkind and secretive. The narrative of the disease is just about beginning.

        Closer home, yesterday, I took my masked self alone to see the quadrangle. It was empty and clean ,just like I expected it to be. But what I didn’t expect was the feeling that came with the evening breeze. There were no football matches anywhere in the world and there was no sound of floating conversations in the village. The virus seemed to have wiped off the years of conversations in the quadrangle, leaving us with memories of a different world and fear of a kind we still haven’t found the language for.

        Rupleena Bose teaches English literature. She also writes fiction and screenplays

        Published on April 24, 2020
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