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Alms and the man

by Fr. Nascimento Mascarenhas

As more and more people flock to Goa it is now becoming a common sight to see beggars all over the cities and towns of Goa as well as crowded and popular tourist spots in Goa like the beaches of Calangute and Baga in north Goa as well as Colva in south Goa.

But in the old days there were few mendicants in the villages of Goa. Those that did exist were neither professional beggars of the type one encounters in the cities of India today nor were they unknown vagrants. They were persons from the village, mainly from the labour class. Due to disability or old age, and having no close kin to support them, they were forced to seek alms for a living. Some of them had been rich, but after squandering their wealth in vice or due to some misfortune, were reduced to penury and begging and were an intrinsic part of village life in Goa.

In the villages of Goa, there was a day appointed for begging on which the beggars went round houses singly or in groups – in Saligao this happened every Thursday. Each Goan village household gave each of them a handful of rice, some eatables and articles they needed. On receiving their alms, the beggars prayed aloud for the welfare of their benefactors and for the departed souls of the house. The Christian mendicants would recite the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary”, and the Hindu mendicants would say “Bessaum ghal Saiba he ghorabeacher” (God bless the members of this household). Life in Goa was embellished with quaint customs and traditions, and on occasions such as engagements and weddings, the beggars were served a ‘Bikareanchem Jevonn’, a sumptuous meal of pork, rice, sambarrachi or samarachi koddi (curry made with aromatic spices, thick and brown, with dried mango pickle to enliven it), feni, and were also given gifts of utensils and clothes.

On feast days in the villages of Goa – Christmas, Easter and the village patron saint’s day – the Christian beggars went round with ol’li (a small container made of bamboo strips) in hand for collecting handouts on the festive occasion. On such feasts every Goan housewife planning the festive meal had in mind the number of village beggars (they did not exceed a dozen) and provided them with a share of san’na (rice cakes), vodde, sorpotel and, at Christmas, the sweet savoury known as neureô.

Some beggars came from other Goan  villages. One of the colourful ones was Artimiz (Artemisia). In his book Feasts, Feni and Firecrackers, Canada-based Saligao writer and artist Mel D’Souza vividly describes Artimiz: “She was from Assagao and quite a colourful character. In fact she was always very cheerful. Artemisia wore a hat of dried flowers resembling that of Hollywood’s Carmen Miranda in the 1940s. She always wore a dress. Her earthly belongings were wrapped in a bundle carried over her hip on which perched her scrawny cat. Tied around the cat’s neck was a thin leash of coir, the other end of which was tied around the wrist of Artemisia’s left hand. The right hand held a bamboo staff about four feet long. Artemisia was slightly bowlegged and wore canvas runners with no laces. Artemisia was a very sprightly Goan woman with a brisk walk. She would signal her approach with the rasping sound of her voice as she’d wave her right arm in the Sign of the Cross and blurt out blessings in Latin. It was very easy to strike up a conversation with Artemisia. If she wanted to take a break, she’d sit on the steps of the balcony, put down the bundle containing her belongings, and let her cat step off for a little stroll. When she was ready to leave she would put the bundle of belongings on her hip, pull sharply on the leash, and flip the cat from the ground right on to its perch on the bundle. It was sheer poetry in motion.”

Artimiz. Sketch by Mel D'Souza. Saligao Serenade

Another character that visited Saligao frequently was Jeron (Jeronimo) from Mapusa. I don’t recall ever giving him rice; rather it was always some money, slipped into my hands by my aunties. He gave me his blessing, muttering something in broken Latin. You could ask him to sing and he composed songs that he alone understood, although he did have a good voice. Like the other beggars of that era, he too was very honest and never stole anything though in the daylight hours the doors of our houses were wide open. Life in Goa was simple and trusting back then!

I remember another beggar. He was a Sasthikar (a man from Salcete) who resided in Socorro.  His name was Jose Maria.  He was nicknamed Juz Mari.  He had a 12-year-old son. He sang his way through the village, with his son too joining in for good measure. One song I remember was, “Ami bikari fore rezra bore amkam sodanch podd’tai chirnge” (We are beggars no doubt, good at prayers too but we always receive a ‘mug’ as alms). His son was taught the violin by Fr. Albano D’Souza (then on the staff at Socorro church). The boy earned a bit by playing the violin and later got a job as a tarvotti (seafarer) and did pretty well for himself; people began to refer to him as Accionista (Commune shareholder). He’s one enterprising gentleman in Goa who well and truly bid a firm farewell to alms!

Nonetheless, in the village of Saligao no beggar was ever turned away.  They were matter-of-factly treated as distressed members of society who were deserving of our compassion and very much accepted as part and parcel of life in Goa.

1 comment on Alms and the man

  • Antonio Menezes

    I would be interested in finding out a little more about Sacrula de Saligao. Do you remember him? I used to listen to him preach as a young boy of 12.
    Thank you in anticipation

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