Mangalorian names changed with each generation. They were once Portuguese: My great-grandparents included Ligouri and Appolina Coelho, Jao Lobo, Salvador Mathias. Babies were, unimaginatively, given the name of the Parish Priest or the saint of the day, no matter how outlandish or otherworldly: Thrasius, Pulcheria, Paschalia, Balthazar, Blasius, Callistus, Faustin, Custudio, Seraphine, Boniface, Bonaventure, Cajetan, Clothilda.
With the British Empire entrenched, Portuguese names faded, giving place to starchy Victorian ones; fanciful raids on Shakespeare, Chaucer, Greek mythology and poetry, yielded Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Leander, Griselda, Nympha, Christabel, Sybil and Nereus, the old man of the sea.
A set of war siblings were impartially named Adolph (Dolphie), Winston and Joseph. Some played a single string, Oswald, Oscar, Orville, Odile Domingo; or Denise, Danny, Diane, Douggie, Denzil, and David, children of Dougie and Daphne Diaz. Or rhymed: the triplets, Asha, Isha, Usha; or the Pintos–Gilbert, Albert, Humbert, Cuthbert, Egbert and Norbert. Another set of Mathiases named their children alphabetically, like hurricanes, reluctantly stopping at Quentin, their seventeenth.
Those were the days of prodigious families, mothers and children pregnant together, nephews older than uncles. My father’s neighbors, the P.G. D’Souzas (“the Blind Pig”) had seventeen children, interchangeable with the fourteen Mathias children. Spotting my uncle Joe at her dining table, Mrs. D’Souza said vaguely, “Joe! You must come and stay with us some time.” “I’ve been here for the last three days,” he said. Neither mother had noticed!
In independent India, Anglicized names, Melroy, Gerson, Flavia were passé. “Graveyard names!” my father groaned. Under Hindu hegemony, many families, discovering ancestral memories of being Brahmin before their conversion half a millennium ago, replaced their “prestigious” names, Coelho, Lobo, Saldahna, Gonsalves, Mascarenhas, Rebello with old Brahminical surnames, so that a Mangalorean Kamath or Prabhu, say, probably indicates a Catholic. (Oddly, an extraordinary number of Catholic families claim descent from Tippu Sultan, the last ruler of the princely state of Mysore, putative progeny of “hanky-panky” in barns while he fled from the British.)
Hindu first names or nicknames became popular. My sister and cousins are Shalini, Nirmala, Ashok, Malati, Premila, though each has a nickname, originating in parental endearments, so the inner circle knew that Popsy was Premila; Chicky was Malati; Chippy, “a chip off the old block,” was Michael, like his father, and Veronica was Buddie (old woman)–her father Sonny’s teasing nick-name when she was a gawky, gap-toothed six year old had lasted far longer than baby teeth.
Now, in the emigration generation, children mostly have “international names,” Indian, but transcultural: Tara, Rohan, Sheila, Maya, Neel, Natasha, Anita, and, thanks to the Waste Land, Shanti.
* * *
So we visited all the family and friends, loved or hated, with whom we were on speaking terms, arriving unannounced, like the Magi–as was considered good manners: calling ahead would put the onus of preparation on the unoffending host, whereas if you just showed up, you took their manger or mansion as you found it.
Like the Magi, we brought gifts–not frankincense, gold and myrrh, but halwa, pedas, and burfis. Someone was sure to be in. The people we visited lived on the income, generous or meager, from stocks, factories, or the ancestral terraced plantations of cashewnuts, pepper and coffee in the green hills around Mangalore on which the fortunes of several “old families” were built.
All morning, all evening, we ate neurios, coconut-stuffed pasties; chacklees, spicy gram flour deep-fried in bristly snail spirals; parthecums, pungent banana chips; kulkuls, fried sugary dough rolled into shells on the back of a comb, and Christmas fruit cake with marzipan icing as we sat opposite plastic trees, sparkling with neon orbs, wreathed with popcorn or cotton wool snow, celebrating the weather of England rather than Bethlehem.
And food, food, always food!
“Is your father Mangalorean?” a wedding hostess asked as I got him refills while he chuckled over the lyrics floating from the house where the bride was bathed in coconut milk for her roce, her wedding shower, while her friends sung the saddest, oddest dirges, until she burst into tears. This was supposed to bring good luck!
“Oh, you poor thing,” they sang. “That mother-in-law! When you visit her, she’ll be vegetarian; when she’s visits you, she’ll be “non-vegetarian.” Her visits will be almost eternal. When she leaves, so will your most precious possessions.”
“Good, he’s Mangalorean!” the hostess said, freely loading his plate. “Then he loves sarpatel,”–Mangalorean signature dish with chunks of pork beneath inches of fat and chewy, rubbery rind, simmered in a sauce of spices, wine and blood.
My near-vegetarian father nearly wailed. He eschewed pork: free-ranging, gutter-feeding, its tape-worm spreading meningitis, he said; its round worm causing the recent epidemic of encephalitis, he believed.
* * *
And we talked of many things. Of blue chips, prices, politics, people, a great continuing Ring. Rhinegold: “Your uncle Morris is Director of United Breweries in Singapore now. Did you see the newspaper article about how that secretive Lee Kuan Yew sends him on private missions to Bombay?” Valkyries: “Your friend Fran–I remember when her mother eloped with that Protestant, a Soanes, with only the clothes she had on. I even had to give her my blouses and petticoats.”
And in a conventionally lowered voice. “Your cousin Bernice’s youngest boy; he doesn’t resemble Hubert, have you noticed?” “Yeees.” “Her lover’s from a former princely family, she says. And poor Hubert’s off in the god-forsaken northeast.”
But, mostly, Gotterdamerung, crepuscular death, decay, doom. “I saw Debby, even weirder.” “Debby?” “Debby Coelho who married her first cousin, and had a breakdown on her honeymoon in Europe, after which she lived secluded on the family coffee estate in Conoor, to which he occasionally returned to get her, once more, pregnant, while she grew stranger, dreamier.”
“Belita miscarried. So sad, her mother-in-law forced her to scrub the bathroom floors while she was pregnant.” “S. has never recovered from his wife’s death. On their honeymoon! Stepped into the elevator, expecting to find it there; fell into the shaft, broke her neck.” “The Fathers have taken that drunken Willie in hand. Imagine, he beat up his sister after she gave Anita those old classics.”
“Francis Xavier just had a heart attack.” “Oh no! I’ll never forget how he passed out at his daughter’s grand engagement party–you know to that jerk from the States who dumped her. ‘Sugar!’ he called–he’s diabetic–and poured it into his mouth, straight from the bowl.”
“You know that druggie, Angelo. Goes to an ashram, declares himself a vegetarian, sits on his bed in some sort of trance; when he visited his aunt, Margaret, she, poor thing, took a plate of kichdi to him with just the tiniest bit of meat. He flung it on the floor, then continued staring at her with fixed, glassy eyes.”
Stories, stories, plots, whirring round me. I listened wild-eyed!
All this, good news, bad news, just news in English. Konkani–a hybrid of Portuguese and Marathi only spoken in Mangalore and Goa–is the nominal mother-tongue I neither speak nor understand; neither does my father. Since the nineteenth century, Catholic schools and universities have taught only in English; their students–everyone we visited–spoke it as, or almost as, a first language.
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—515 words a day
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 35—17548 (477 behind)