Tuesday 16 Aug 2022

Rice in the desert

Of Goa and Kuwait in the 1970s: reminiscing about the first taste of paddy rice, swathes of endless desert sand, and seeing Jesus on the beach

R. Benedito Ferrão | SEPTEMBER 04, 2016, 12:00 AM IST


BIO: R. Benedito Ferrão is a writer and academic. Connect with him at thenightchild.blogspot.com, or on Facebook at The Nightchild Nexus


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. 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. “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.


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

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