Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"The Difference between Deserts and Beaches: Sands of a Goan Childhood" - SEMANA DE CULTURA (Goa - 2013)

“Hindi! Hindi! HINDI!” he kept saying, his voice escalating with each utterance. The Arab lad was, at most, a year or two older than me. I was sitting on a chair, hands firmly gripping its sides, paralysed. I was not scared. Even now, I know that what I felt course through my four-year-old body, like a red hot fever, was shame. The boy ran out of the store when the adults entered. I felt a wave of relief wash over me as I saw my father come in with the proprietor. But something changed for me that day, and there was no going back. On the ride home, I did not utter a word of what had happened. I was different. And different was not good.

I would accompany my dad on his work visits to the little shops and grocery stores around Kuwait City, on occasion. He worked for an American company that would send him out to service cash registers around town. I would have to go along if I had the day off from school. There were times when it was fun: the shopkeepers would bestow a fistful of candy on me. Other times, my dad would instruct me to sit still while he finished his work. I would be bored out of my skull, waiting and waiting for him to wrap up the repairs. Playing outside in the scorching heat and away from parental supervision was out of the question. It was the 1970s. There was not then the plethora of digital paraphernalia to keep a middle class child occupied, and I was yet to discover the joy of books.
At Carmel School, I was one of hundreds of Goan children. It described itself as an Indian Catholic institution, and was run by nuns. My teachers were of various South Asian ethnicities, including Malayali, Singhalese, and Goan. The only non-subcontinental instructor I can recall having was my first Arabic teacher. Sure, there were other communities that made up Kuwait’s large international work force where the natives themselves were a minority. Paths crossed in personal interactions, but they were the exception. It could have been segregation by design, or sticking close to the familiarity of one’s own while trying to get by in a foreign land. Or both. 

Mom knew a Filipina seamstress whom she had sew a pink dress for my sister’s birthday, one year. When she came by to make alterations, she would fill my mother in on the latest goings on among her circle of friends. Some of them were maids in dire circumstances. They were looking for new employers, because they were unhappy with their current situation and could not stay in the country without a sponsor. Did my mom know if one of her Kuwaiti bosses was looking to hire, she would ask. There was the Yemeni caretaker responsible for the upkeep of the complex we lived in. He had a small room outside our building, which was one of a pair of twin blocks of flats. My parents once requested him to have me wait at his place after school because they would both be late from work. He sat me down on the rugs on the floor in his room among his friends, and I felt rather grown up as we sipped hot black tea from petite glasses in which sugar cubes, piled high, were slowly dissolving. From video footage my cousin shot on his visit to Kuwait last year, I was surprised to see that the flats in which I had spent my childhood still stood. They were dwarfed by tall skyscrapers of glass that blindingly reflected the sun.

Surrounded by Kuwait’s diversity, I knew I was Goan, because what else could I be ensconced as I was within a cocoon of community institutions in the tiny Arabian desert kingdom. A liberal dose of prejudice also helped craft my burgeoning cultural insularity. No, you’re not like Nabil (the boy who lived next door); yes, Nabil’s family are Christian, but they’re not Catholic and they’re Pakistani, I was instructed. Maria is Goan, true, but she’s a maid; yes, Filipinas are Catholics as well but, no, a Goan maid would be a better employee, I was taught to decipher. Mangaloreans were a tricky lot, I came to learn, what with their ‘Goan Catholic’ names and Konkani-speaking ability but, no, they were also not like us... Between being surrounded by Goan classmates at school and attending Catechism classes with some of those same little people at Holy Family Church on Fridays, which is when Sabbath services were held to coincide with the weekly holiday, being Goan in Kuwait was just about as commonplace as hating the fact that there was but a brief hour of cartoons to watch on television. 

There was only one channel. Because it carried programming in Arabic, English, and the occasional screening of a Bollywood film, there was no guarantee that even that hour of children’s programming was sacrosanct, as it was sometimes interrupted by the call to prayer or breaking news. Sandstorms periodically wreaked havoc on transmissions, delivering static instead of Tom and Jerry. Having waited all day for it, there was one time when I was so disappointed at my favourite show being suspended because of a signal failure that I attacked the television with a long-handled broomstick. It was a good thing that our miniscule black and white CRT set had a glass screen as thick as Sheldon Cooper’s sarcasm – both inescapably bad television.

That scarring moment in the shop when my difference was pointed out to me so unforgettably must have informed my realization that the hole at the top of my nose was something I was not supposed to have. I asked my father about it. Pointing to the space between my eyes, I whined, “Why do I have this? No one else does. I don’t want it.” He stopped working on the kitchen cabinet he was fixing, and smiled. “It’s so that if you got lost, and we have to describe to people how to find you, we’ll be able to say: ‘He’s the only boy in the entire world with a hole on his nose!’” No one else in the world, I mused... But my wonderment was short-lived, and my angst struck again with a vengeance. Looking at a photograph of myself, I saw the hole again as if for the first time. It was staring back at me – dead centre like a third eye between the other two. This time, I went to my mother.

She looked stricken at my query. “It’s because I was sewing when I was pregnant with you. They told me not to, but I did anyway. They said that for the first born I should go home to have the baby. There was an eclipse, and I pricked myself by accident.” I took in this information with horror. “You mean you poked me with a needle while I was still inside of you?” I nearly shouted in disbelief. From the look in her eyes, I realized my mother had never revealed this incident to anyone else before. 

It took me many years to understand what the guilt I saw on my mother’s face was really about – why she had forced herself to believe it was the eclipse that had caused me to be marked. What home would she have chosen to have her first born? Her father had died in Merces, and her mother in Mombasa. In fact, my grandfather had returned to Goa, knowing that his end was near. He brought his youngest, my mother, with him. The British Africa she was born in had now been relegated to the chapters of colonial history, and having taken up my father’s citizenship after they were married in Kuwait, she was no longer a Kenyan national. And so her children would be born not in her place of birth, nor in Goa where their father was from, but in yet another alien land.

Often unintentionally, my parents recreated the Goa they knew in our modest flat in Kuwait. An indescribable smell accosted my olfactory sense, one day, as I walked in the door after having been dropped off by the school bus. “What is that?” I enquired of my parents, my nose crinkling at the unfamiliar stench. “Rice. Goa rice,” they said proudly, my mother ladling a spoon of the characteristically husk-stained grains onto a plate for me. Not even that combined look of hurt and horror – like they had been hit in the gut – could compete with my revulsion. “I don’t want any!” I said before turning on my heel. My parents let their firstborn brat be hungry that afternoon in retribution for his cultural betrayal. Even now, when I picture Goa, it is as the verdant paddy rice fields tended by my grandmother in her village in Aldona, a breeze caressing the tops of grain-laden stems that sway as stark white egrets take wing. It makes it all the more peculiar why I still have no palate for rice and fish curry – that staple diet of my ancestors.

It is a mystery to me how my folks came into possession of paddy rice so far away from its origin. But my guess would be that they acquired it from one of those many ‘uncles’ whom I came to see as part of my extended family. Mostly in working class professions, they might have been from my father’s village, or friends of friends. There were ‘shippies,’ or tarvoti, like Uncle John who travelled frequently between Goa, Kuwait, and other places, stopping by our home while in transit to drop off some contraband, rice included I suppose. John, who was very fond of me, stands out in my mind as a kind man who bore more than a passing resemblance to the then Crown Prince. Sheikh Saad of the Al-Sabah dynasty, rumour had it, was of mixed race birth. My parents tried to explain to me that I would no longer see John after we went to visit him in the hospital after many weeks of him having not come by. I could tell he was in pain though he put on a bright smile when he saw me. Whenever I saw Prince Saad on the news, thereafter, I secretly hoped that it was really John who had gone on to assume his alter ego full time. But I could not square away seeing his mother, clad in black and tearful, being commiserated with by my parents on the steps outside Holy Family.  

My family was part of the Kuwait Goans Association whose activities included charitable work and annual events, like the Christmas shindig. More informally, there were house parties and picnics. Of the latter, one that sticks out was an excursion that involved a long ride by bus. It was hot and the flies were merciless, but there was much merriment as songs were sung, sandwiches divvied up, and cups of cola passed around into which had been swirled miniscule amounts of precious bootleg liquor. When we arrived at our destination, I was grateful for the opportunity to finally stretch my legs. The sight that greeted me was less welcome. For as far I could see, there was nothing but sand. “What is this?” I interrogated, quite incredulous that this wasteland could be any one’s idea for a good place to have a picnic. “This is Kuwait,” my father responded cryptically. I had long given up on trying to understand why adults could never give it to you straight (except for when you had done something wrong and got caught, and then there was no stopping their verbosity...). 

“Look, look!” another man standing nearby exclaimed. A few others came over, further restricting my view of what they were looking at beyond the dunes. “Ah, yes,” someone said. “Bedouins.” Though I craned my neck, I saw nothing. As I imagine it now, here were two tribes regarding each other from across the desert sand: the natives of Kuwait on one end, the Goan migrants on the other. “The day will come when all this will be a city,” speculated one of the onlookers, breaking the silence. “Our children will drive on the roads they build through here,” a woman added. Another pregnant pause followed as I wondered if the adults were experiencing a collective mirage. Slowly, people peeled away and busied themselves with setting up for the picnic: tents, food, games, and more. It ended up being a much better time than I had expected.

A picnic is also what I recollect as my first memory of Goa at the tail end of the seventies. I want to say it was on my first visit, but my mother tells me she had brought me to Goa as an infant, previously. No matter – this was my first memory of a place that I had heard so much of, but never knew, so it might as well have been my first time. I remember that family outing to the beach, with several of our relatives, so well, because I saw a familiar figure lounging on the sand. Long blond locks, blue eyes, and a loin cloth. I was awestruck. “Mom, mom!” I gushed. “It’s Jesus!” My mother, simultaneously embarrassed and amused, joined the party in giggling as she shushed me. The young hippie who was in earshot laughed too. I was puzzled about what all the fuss was over.


Just before I turned nine, my parents sent me to St. Peter’s School in the hills of Panchgani, Maharashtra. It had been the European Boys School, formerly. Attending the institution was my first experience of an India outside Goa. Having planned an eventual return to their roots, my parents had probably thought it prudent to culturally acclimate their son beforehand. But the boarding school was trapped in its own post-Independence identity crisis. It needed to be British enough to retain the caché of elitism that attracted the well-heeled to have their children schooled there, but desi enough to cater to the nostalgic requirements of parents from the diaspora. At the risk of making the comparison, I cannot help but ponder if the Zanzibar-born Parsi rock star Freddie Mercury, who also went to St. Peter’s, felt just as out of place there as I did. 

My school holidays were spent either in Kuwait, or with my grandmother in Aldona. I completed high school in Goa in 1990, joining my family who, by then, had repatriated from Kuwait. Other than when they had been on vacation, this was their first time back as fulltime residents after leaving Goa
in the sixties, shortly upon the transfer of power of the enclave from Portugal to India. The discovery of oil in the Middle East, during that same period, had led to a large demand for foreign labour to transform the various emirates into modern urban oases. Goans were among those who heeded the call in large numbers. About a year after my parents returned voluntarily, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait brought several people I had grown up with ‘back’ to Goa. We were the lost generation: Goans our entire lives, suddenly plunged into a foreign place called home. For some, there was no getting over the culture shock. Like many other ‘Gulfie Goans’ of my generation, I went abroad to continue my college education. My journey to California called for a change of planes in a country I thought I would never see again. My non-Kuwaiti blood having disbarred me from being a citizen, I was only permitted to view my birthplace from the airport. There was war damage that was still being repaired. In the window, looking out onto Kuwait, I caught a reflection of the t-shirt I had decided to wear for the trip. It said GOA.

While in college in California, I visited a thrift shop where I rummaged through the used books section and found a copy of The Rape of Kuwait. I paid twenty five cents for the book – diminutive in size despite its heavy title. In one go, I consumed it in its entirety: tales of the marauding invaders who pulled babies out of incubators and who plundered the land of my beginnings with all the restraint of comic book villains, until the gallant Americans came to the rescue. Reading about the atrocities, I felt something course through my teenaged body that I had never felt before – the red hot fever of nationalism. Jean Sasson’s hastily written book, I learned later, was part of a huge public relations effort that had been orchestrated to drum up support for the Persian Gulf War in the United States and around the world. I believe I ended up donating the book back to the thrift shop.

Last year, I was awarded a doctoral degree by the University of London for my thesis on Goan characters in postcolonial and diasporic fiction about displacement. My academic pursuit, clearly, has mirrored my personal trajectory and that of my family’s. Often, I think about the confrontation from my childhood in that shop in Kuwait and of the shame I felt that day. I mull over whether that boy might still be where I left him. As for the hole on the bridge of my nose – no bigger than a grain of sand – it is still there but, now, I enjoy it because it is different.

Semana de Cultura (2013) is currently only available in print. This piece also appears in the Winter 2015 issue of Mizna, and an excerpt can be read in The Goan.


  1. Good, simple writing. I enjoyed it immensely.

    1. Thanks very much for this, and I am glad you enjoyed the piece.

      the nightchild

  2. Enjoyed reading this especially the reference to the two sands. The Goans in middle-east liked to have picnics in the dessert sands because the folks wanted to believe they are on the sea-shore, while in Goa Gulfie Goans get to the shore, because it also reminds them of the sands of the desert. The two sides long for one another.
    Its a poetically a perfect match.

    1. Thanks for that sensitive reading!
      the nightchild