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Blending compassion with toughness

by Mel D’Souza

During my last two years in high school, I had a new friend – Gerry Lopes.

Gerry had done all his early schooling at the Portuguese Liceum College in Go’s capital Panjim until his dad, Aquino Lopes, decided to move him to the English medium. As a result, Gerry was enrolled in Mater Dei Institution in Saligao, and was assigned a seat in class next to me. Since Gerry was not very fluent in English, it was felt that I could help him under the buddy system.

During our school holidays, we would have sleep-ins at our respective homes. When Gerry slept over at my place, it wasn’t that much fun because my home was very small; small rooms, floor of dried cow dung, and nothing to amuse us other than our mutual interest in whittling models of airplanes and sailing ships. However, sleeping over at Gerry’s was a great experience for several reasons.

Gerry lived in a large house with a large sala (living room), tiled floors, spacious bedrooms, and all the other comforts of an old-style Portuguese home. He had two charming sisters, Gloria and Amanda (the latter just about my age), and wonderful parents.

The home of Aquino Lopes

The house of Aquino Lopes in Saligao, Goa

His mother was a very gentle, soft-spoken lady with an angelic smile. His dad was an outgoing individual, who did everything unhurriedly and with great confidence. He was short in stature, and always had a smile on his face. But under that genial exterior was a man of steel who blended his toughness with great compassion.

During the day, Gerry and I would spend most of our time whittling models of airplanes and sailing ships which we would then paint and mount on stands.

In the evening, Gerry’s dad would gather us around the piano that was in a study across from the sala, and he would then get us to sing along as he played the piano. Sometimes he’d wince as he sang – or hit a wrong note – uncharacteristic of a person who otherwise played the piano flawlessly. When I commented about this to Gerry many years later, I was told that his father had a serious stomach ailment that would bring on spasms of great pain, but he wouldn’t tell anyone about it. His way of coping with the pain was to get his family around the piano and have a rousing sing-along. Mr. Lopes eventually succumbed to his ailment. 

Before retiring in Saligao, Aquino Lopes lived in Pemba, the island north of Zanzibar on the East African coast. His pet was a full-grown wild boar, and he once showed me a photograph of himself in a striped sports jacket and cream-coloured slacks, kneeling next to the animal with his arm over its shoulder.

Soft heart

Despite that macho image, Mr Lopes had a very soft heart. I remember the first time I saw him take his daily stroll with a two-year-old neighbour along the bund (raised causeway) that ran through paddy fields to the Mae de Deus Church. The little boy wore only a tattered vest that came down to his buttocks, his legs covered in dust, and his right hand in the clasp of Mr. Lopes’ left hand. The picture didn’t seem right; a neatly dressed gentleman with a scruffy urchin!

When Mr. Lopes came home, I asked him why he strolled with that kid every evening. His reply: “Mel, I don’t know what that boy will be like when he grows up. If he turns out to be good, I will have a good neighbour. But if he turns out to be evil, he will remember the days I held his hand, and will, hopefully, not harm me.” He then added a word of advice: “Remember,” he said, “It costs nothing to offer somebody your hand.”

Prankster

Aquino Lopes was also a practical joker in his teens.  He once told me about a prank he played on a neighbour, an elderly woman who pretended to have had a good schooling although she was in fact illiterate. At church, she would pull out a prayer book with illustrations of various stages of the mass facing pages of prayers and responses that would be read at a particular stage. She’d flip a page of the prayer book, and when the scene at the altar matched the illustration, she would twitch her lips and pretend to read the text so as to impress those around her.

Well, one Saturday, young Aquino decided to let the cat out of the bag. He sneaked into her home and set the stage for the joke that was to be played out the next day. 

Come Sunday morning, the old lady sat in her usual prominent spot in church, waiting for the mass to begin. When the priest came up to the altar, she glanced at the women sitting next to her to draw their attention. She then reached into her purse, pulled out her prayer book and held it open in front of her. But there were no illustrations. Instead, folded to the exact shape of the prayer book, was a chapati (unleavened bread). The lady was so embarrassed that she never used her prayer book again. From then on, she went back to the ubiquitous rosary.

Shortly after this prank, Aquino was nearly killed by lightning. He was walking to a friend’s place along a palm-fringed causeway through open paddy fields when lightning struck a nearby coconut tree. The shock knocked him off his feet into a pool of water where he lay on his back stunned for a few minutes. When he came round, he was so scared that he ran as fast as he could to his friend’s home. When he got there, soaked to his skin, he discovered that he was missing some of his precious pocket money. He turned around and ran back in the raging thunderstorm to the site of the lightning strike and recovered every missing coin.

Feast dance

Another story that Gerry’s dad Aquino told me was of the only time he threw a punch in anger. It all started when Aquino decided to host the Mae de Deus Feast’s gala dance at his spacious home, and booked Goa’s finest dance band, Johnson and His Jolly Boys.

This upset a well-known local dance promoter, a bachelor named Vincent de Souza, who had earned himself the nickname “dans addi” (bringer of dances) and who began to spread falsehoods about the upcoming gala dance. But it wasn’t long before Aquino struck a blow, literally, putting an end to the rumours.

One Friday, around noon, when the bar in the neigbouring town of Mapuca was crowded with retirees (who had dropped in for a beer after cashing their pension cheques at the nearby Banco Naçional), Aquino Lopes walked up slowly to the table where Vincent was seated. The bar room went silent. Then, in a voice that was clearly heard across the room, he asked Vincent to repeat the lies he had been telling the villagers about the gala dance. The unconvincing denial that was met with snickers from the patrons is all that Aquino wanted to hear. “I threw a punch,” he said, “that sent Vincent sprawling across the floor. I then signaled the barman to bring Vincent a beer on my account, and I walked out of the bar.”  

As I said earlier, although Aquino Lopes was small in stature, he stood tall, and was a man who combined immense toughness with immense compassion!

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