Francis, having just returned from lighting the firecrackers, stood below his balcony and glowered away. The Saibinn, the annual ceremony honouring the Queen of Angels, was under way inside the house, where the hall was packed so full with family and friends there wasn't even place to stand. A multitude of candles blazed on a little table that had been placed in front of the altar, and in the midst of those candles stood the statuette of the Pilgrim Virgin, serene in her intricately carved wooden case.
Francis' wife was on her knees in front of the Saibinn, uttering stacatto bursts of prayer. The neighbors gathered around her murmured in unison after her:
'…and Loving Mother…'
'…and Loving Mother…'
'…the time has come…'
'…the time has come…'
'for this holy moment……to see you……in our house……and to honour you……as one of our family…'
Francis had collected twelve chairs, two sofas and three stools from all over his house and his tavern and arranged them neatly in the living room. He had also borrowed seven chairs from his neighbour Gabru and kept those in the front balcony. Even so, a dozen or more persons had had to stand on the steps and the porch.
At seven thirty in the evening, singing 'Pau Maie…io Maie…' his neighbors had escorted the Pilgrim Lady into his home. As the little procession went in the front door, Francis had set off half the box of firecrackers he had bought for the occasion; he had then carefully placed the rest on the compound wall for the post-Saibinn celebration. Boiled gram, raisin cake and soft drinks were all spread out ready on the kitchen table.
And yet Francis stood there behind all the people looking quite troubled. His gaze travelled around the crowd that had overflowed onto the porch; when it returned to the five men standing on the lowest steps, his ears flushed with anger.
Not neighbors, outsiders. They stood there wearing muddy and grease-stained clothes on their coal black skin. Francis had seen them before, in his tavern, and had made a few enquiries. Gabru had said, 'They're working at Oliver's bungalow site… '
Oliver had made a good bundle in his five years on the P&O cruise ships; now he was building himself a massive bungalow, twenty-five lakhs worth, people said. The contractor was a Goan, but the workers were all from outside. Ghantti!
'How did it come to be……O Heavenly Lady……that you have come……to the home… …of such a humble……family like ours…'
'Damn!' Francis grumbled. 'These ghanttis are crawling all over Goa. On construction sites, in buses, at the marketplace …everywhere you go you see them. But today of all days, did the damned rogues have to turn up at my house, for my Saibinn!'
Two of the men wore shirts and pants; the others were dressed in lungis. One was scratching his back. One of the others coughed loudly and spat into the bushes.
Francis seethed in fury. In this vaddo, the village folk had begun to regard him as a respectable man. During Portuguese rule he had studied upto the Segundo Grau. After Goa's Liberation, he had worked aboard ship as a steward and built a house in his village. He was matched to a girl from Benaulim and within three years of marriage, he had fathered the same number of children. He spoke Konkani to his wife and kids, English when he went to collect his pension at the bank, and occasionally 'mais-mente' spoke Portuguese with Balthazar bhatkar.
Francis had built his house with great thought. He had installed two gates: a large one at the front that led to the balcony, and a smaller gate further back that led to a room he had built to the left of the house. This room had a door that opened outward; Francis had fitted the door with a rolling shutter, and had set up a tavern in the room. He had intended that his wife would run the bar when he was overseas, and he would man the tavern himself when he was home. But even now, his wife still ran the show; Francis would only sit at the tavern counter if the whim struck him.
Though Francis did not come from what they call a 'boa familia', a lot of decent and very respectable people visited him at his house. And for the Saibinn, those who had gathered included Balthazar-bab, Vicente-bhatkar, Professor Moraes, Padre Filipe Sousa, and others. When the Saibinn ended, it would be time for those present to kiss the statue, and then the filthy ghanttis would enter his house, mingle with all the great people, and kiss Our Lady's statue too! The thought appalled him. The horror and violation of it all!
'You come……among us……with both hands open……to lighten our sorrows……you come……to fill us……with blessing and favours……'
'The bloody government should have thrashed all these fellows and sent them back to their ghantti villages,' Francis thought darkly. 'Today they will enter the house on the pretext of kissing Our Lady's statue and tomorrow they will rape our wives and slit our children's throats.' The local media was still playing up a recent murder in Bardez.
'These rogues will finish us all,' Francis had complained to Gabru some days earlier.
'Ya ya, but you listen to me,' Gabru had said. 'Just last month the Margao Municipality had advertised for workers to clear rubbish from the streets. How many Goans came forward? Not a single chap. You see, we need these fellows for these jobs.'
'Maybe.' Francis shook his head. 'Keep them for those jobs. But the government must use a hard stick to keep them in place.'
As the Saibinn drew to a close, the rosary recital began.
Could these fellows possible be Christians, Francis wondered? If they were Hindu or Muslim, they probably would not enter the house.
He crept a little closer and looked them over out of the corner of his eye.
The man who had been scratching his back was now working on his buttocks. Another had inserted his finger into his nose and was busy housecleaning. Suddenly two of them raised their hands and made the sign of the cross.
Now Francis was truly vexed. These two must surely be Christian. Now what was he to do? How was he to drive them away? They would surely enter the house! It would be a terrible shame! The neighbours would talk…
'Francis' house is full of ghanttis!'
'All dirty stuff is going on there!'
'Their daughter Maria is moving around with ghanttis…Shi!'
Professor Moraes appeared before his eyes……'Que e isto, Senhor Francisco! Porque e que esta merde esta em sua casa!'
One of the five coughed again. He gurgled up a gob of phlegm and spat into the earth. Two others began talking to each other in the guttural tones of their alien language.
Francis finally lost it. He strode up to them in anger and said 'The Saibinn prayers are going on and you are chattering here and spitting! Keep quiet or get out of here!'
Two of the men turned around and began walking away toward the smaller side gate; the others continued standing there.
Francis felt better. With only three of them left, when the commotion began as people jostled to kiss the statue, he planned to give these fellows something to eat and drink and would then send them off, there and then! They simply would not be allowed to enter the house.
The rosary ended. Andrade mestre picked up his violin and everyone began to sing lustily 'Sam Fransis Xaviera…voddlea kunvra…'
Francis walked briskly to the compound wall and lit the remaining firecrackers. Some of the little children inside the hall covered their ears. Francis loved the hymn, and from where he stood he bellowed the words of the chorus. 'Besanv ghal saiba…Sharar Goenchea…' …St.Francis Xavier, O great prince, bless this land of ours, Goa, O lord…
And then he suddenly remembered the ghanttis and ran toward the house to cut them off.
Running and singing at the same time, Francis reached the balcony. To his shock they were not to be seen. He cast a terrified look inside the hall. They weren't inside either. The neighbors and his family were busy touching and kissing the statue. Where had the damn ghanttis gone!
As he looked around outside, he spotted one of them entering the tavern. He looked in the tavern window and saw all five of them inside.
Ai Saiba! Francis now understood what had happened. After finishing their day's work, these ghanttis had come for their regular drink at the bar. On finding the tavern unattended and on seeing the statuette being brought in the front gate, they had come to stand with the neighbors in front of the house.
There was still no one at the bar to serve them. His wife was busy serving boiled gram and cake to the Saibinn guests. Damn, thought Francis. This would be a loss of business for the tavern! Five of them would consume at least half a bottle of feni. He quickly entered the kitchen through the rear door and called out to his daughter, 'Maria, you go to the bar and give them what they want. I'll greet the guests and then come there.'
Balthazar-bab, Vicente-bab and Professor Moraes had already paid homage to the statue and were now having a chat. He heard Vicente the landlord say: 'During Portuguese rule, there were no such things as grilles for houses. Now there are thieves everywhere…our Sarpanch is a thief…our MLA is a thief…the Chief Minister is a thief…all thieves…'
Francis whispered in his wife's ear and sent her off to help Maria; he himself entered the hall. He opened a bottle of special Scotch whisky and placed it in front of the professor and the landlords. He too joined them in drinking. The conversation warmed up on the subject of thieves. Perhaps the clock too was affected by the heady fumes, for the hours ran past quickly. By a quarter to nine, all the guests had eaten their gram and cake and finished their drinks and risen to go home.
Francis let out a sigh of relief. The Saibinn had gone off quite perfectly. He kissed the Pilgrim Lady and carefully shoved a hundred rupee note through the coin slot at the base of the statuette. He then sauntered into the tavern to see how business was doing. His wife was now at the counter serving coconut feni and soda to the workers.
The Scotch whisky that Francis had imbibed now began affecting him. His mood softened. He saw the workers who had vexed him so much just a little while back and he felt a bit bad.
'Maria,' he called out. 'Just go and get some gram.'
Maria returned with two handfuls of boiled gram. Francis went to the workers and said to them, 'These are our Saibinn's grams. Take and eat.'
The workers had consumed almost two bottles of feni and they were quite sozzled. They staggered to their feet and stood there swaying. And then they bowed their heads and accepted the gram of the Saibinn with folded hands.