Cartography of Memories

Cashews, Carnivals and Saint Claus

Nilofar Shamim Haja

When I turned five, my government banker dad and homemaker mom promised my elder brother and me a long vacation in a city which had a fraternal history comparable to Mumbai: Goa.

The city-state was a revelation! Piercing sunlight, sweet and tangy jackfruits, plump and happy people, and cotton-candy like sand under your feet – too many generalizations, well it’s all true. The raw, sandpaper scent of the sea always lingered in every neighborhood we visited.

The city gave me two enduring legacies: belief in Santa Claus (and fairy tales) and the power of the sea to absorb everything. Mumbai’s commerce and film oriented compass meant that Father Christmas was never really in vogue back in the early 80s when we were growing up. The scene was radically magical in Goa: midnight candlelit masses, churches swelling with hymns and choirs, stern nuns in their starched habits, and benevolent priests with their canes and candy. It was otherworldly for me, like I had landed straight into the sets of Omen before all the evil stuff began.

My papa took me to lotus ponds and jumped in to pluck giant stalks; we would explore cashew nut trees, and pilfered the cashew fruit from roadside estates; we went scootering to village squares and town markets for the best deal of the day: fish, hats, spades, shells. There would be festivals and fairs at the Catholic convent school I studied at; weekend visits to the more than 100 beaches (yes, I am exaggerating here, clearly, I love the idea of a Goa that is more sea than land) and tinkering with the tools in the garage shop located at the entrance to our apartment building. We had plenty of mud, trees, shrubbery, cotton seed insects, dogs, pebbles, spiders, and sundry tiny creatures and objects to play around with in the space below our apartment. We made mud pies (literally, from mud), decorated them with indigo-colored leaves, made up ghost stories, listened to drums thumping in the midst of night, and stayed up to watch the horror-thriller serial Kille Ka Rahasya on Doordarshan.

I learnt what a landlady was, my drawing teacher at school also happened to own the apartment and land where we stayed. We learnt that hunting was a profession and you could pick up rabbit feet, squirrel tail, peacock feathers, and fascinating other body parts when you hunt in the forest. These weren’t tales from the books father read to us every night, but real adventures experienced by the local folk. I witnessed my first carnival at Panjim, masked men jiving on streets and mad-hatter tattooed on the head of another, with music pervading my senses. The meaning of gayness – abandoned joy – became known to me at 5.

Maggie and cup noodles was the first exotic thing I ever tasted, outside of home cooked dosa, idli, sambar. We had tons of these, slurping in joy as we enjoyed watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in what we dubbed “Chinese films”. I tasted my first sip of root beer and spat it out the next instant. I remember being disappointed during my 6th birthday party when the helper who worked in our house bought me a giant bar of Cadbury’s: I didn’t understand class difference, didn’t get what being poor meant, and couldn’t understand why she didn’t bring me a toy. Christmas week was the best! I helped bake chocolates and cookies in the shape of Santa Claus and decked up the Christmas tree in my neighbor’s home. Clearly nothing was off bounds, nothing was taboo, and nothing too unconventional to enjoy and internalize. Except pork of course, it was forbidden. That was the first I imbibed cultural markers of differentiation based on religion and ethnicity.

In school, we were taught to jot down musical notations and sing La Bamba, A Hundred Miles and Happy Woodpecker Song. A visit to the church meant knowing your hymns by heart (my favorite was All to Jesus I Surrender, the soaring chorus would send goosebumps down my spine). I also learned how to build sand-castles at Colva beach and collect giant shells from Mandolim beach. My love for gardening originated in the butterfly, dragon-fly and moth-fly ridden gardens that mother maintained. My first experience of being onstage and participating in a song-and-dance routine had me playing an earnest gardener, singing about watering plans and shrinking under the harsh spotlights.

These swatches of remembered retellings are magnified bits of childhood memories. We indulge in nostalgia when something close to our hearts is beyond reaching…what I share about the city that gave me fairy tales is as legible as the lines that marks my palms. I think when you grow up on fairy stories, you tend to conflate fact and fiction, myth and meaning making into tangible spindles of life’s narrative. For me, Goa will always remain a sunlit faraway land filled with exploration, discovery and adventure. I left behind traces of spools that would someday allow me to pick up the threads of my past, of my dreams, of who I thought I was, and life’s possibilities. The cartography of memories is a place that’s as close and accessible to you, even after you have grown up. Discovery is within reach, just look for the thread.

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