Of church bells and lights

by Fr. Nascimento Mascarenhas

In the old days, church bells ruled everyday life in the village of Saligao as in other parts of Goa. They announced marriages, births and deaths. Labourers woke up to the Angelus bells at dawn to start their daily chores.  At the midday Angelus bell, they stopped their work to have a meal followed by the mandatory siesta.  When the Angelus bell rang, all stood and prayed.  The Goa church bells rang again at sunset for the evening Angelus.  Well before this the domestic animals had been gathered and put into their stalls (gudd, gottó) for the night.  Children stopped play and came home running and the family gathered at the oratory.  Ponteos and candles were lit, and the Angelus was said.  After that, the mothers taught dotorn (catechism) to the children.  Kerosene lamps (dive) were substituted by chimney lamps, followed by Aladdin lamps and in some houses by petromax lamps.

Before electricity came to Goan villages, it used to be pitch-dark by eight o’clock, and everyone remained indoors. Latecomers returning home carried a lampianv (lantern) or burning chutteos (palm leaves grouped together) or a stump of a candle stuck in a kot’ti (half of a coconut shell) to shield it from the breeze.  Passersby on the road would greet each other saying boa noite (good night in Portuguese) or Dev Bori Rat Dium (May the Lord give you a good night, in Konkani). Some others carried a lit son (coconut husk) and in rhythmic movement of one hand made one’s way with light flashing around, which facilitated walking in Goa at night. Torches that worked on batteries came much later and were a big improvement.  The 8 o’clock Goa church bell would ring and people gathered around for Rosary at their oratories.

Lighting the way. Sketch by Mel D'Souza
Lighting the way. Sketch by Mel D’Souza

Back in 1956 in the village of Saligao, I remember a curious incident. At the time there was a blockade between Portuguese Goa and the Indian Union. The Portuguese army used to screen educational or politically-motivated movies in the Saligao church compound, and some of the villagers of Saligao would attend these screenings.

Meanwhile, the freedom struggle in Goa was gaining momentum and the Civil Disobedience Movement was in full swing. This movement had been triggered by the historic speech in Goa by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, a great Socialist leader of India, on 18 June 1946. It was a momentous occasion that triggered a forceful movement against the colonial regime, which had suppressed any nationalistic aspirations with a strong hand.

But the Portuguese rulers, not willing to recognise the signs of the times, dubbed the Civil Disobedience movement as movimento da rua (roadside agitation). The Civil Disobedience movement in Goa instilled a sense of boldness among the Goans and strengthened their moral fabric. It prompted numerous Goan patriots to jump into the vortex of the freedom struggle in Goa and outside in self-exile. I knew two freedom fighters from Cotula in Saligao–Alvinho Belarmino Coelho and Celina Olga Moniz.

So in 1956, while the movies were being screened regularly in the Saligao church compound, the Portuguese soldiers were on high alert in the ‘Estado da India’ as patriots would suddenly invade the territory propagating Lohia’s call for freedom and Civil Disobedience. The soldiers would diligently follow the movements of passersby. On one of these occasions a certain gentleman from Mollembhatt was on his way to the Saligao Church with a stump of a candle stuck to a kot’ti.  When he reached the aula a young Portuguese soldier stopped him and said in a strong voice “Senhor o que é isso!” (Mister, what is this). Feeling that he may be one of these insurrectionists, the soldier detained him. The gentleman was silent and trembling as he had no knowledge of Portuguese nor knew the reason for his detention. After a while another gentleman was proceeding in the same direction with a torch.  He was a Saligao Africander.  He too was stopped. In broken Portuguese he made the soldier understand that he was going for the movie in the Saligao church compound.  He noticed his petrified co-villager detained by the military men, who was pleading in Konkani for his release. The Africander explained that his co-villager was a bona fide person and that he too was going to see the movie.

Both of them were released with a stern warning, and on the way they saw more soldiers standing at attention. A certain fear gripped the already disconcerted Saligaokars, but no one did them any more harm. The torch helped both of them reach the church compound and they enjoyed the film entitled Por Mores Nunca Dantes Navegados based on the epic poem Os Lusiaados written by Luis de Camões, who had once visited Goa. And their fear turned into joy as they were in the company of the other ‘kole‘ of Saligao, heralding aloud their motto ‘Union is Strength’!

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