Monday, February 4, 2013



Zemanuel


         Esmeralda had become a problem. Her spinster sister had died leaving her alone. She had stopped cooking for herself and the only other occupant of the old house, a dog. The house was located on one of those locked in properties at Anjuna, accessed only by narrow winding footpaths. She stopped cooking and she ceased to clean the house as well. Probably the only clean spot in the entire dust choked abode was the dog's dish, a dented old steel plate which was well polished after every meal.
         She had fallen into the habit of making visits to the neighbors who initially offered a cup of tea and snacks and eventually fell into the obligation of feeding her meals twice a day. But almost all of them had wisened up and doors began to creak shut as she approached their gates. Only Margarita entertained her now.

         Mario, her grand-nephew drove down and visited her regularly. He lived in a palatial house in Fontainhas, the 'Latin quarter' of Panjim. Mario considered himself a writer of great potential. He would write a bestselling novel someday. Besides Esmeralda and her deceased sister Esther, he had another aunt in Curtorim in Salcete to take care of. He was the only male descendant of the family and he cursed the lack of other male heirs. But there was an advantage to this situation. The old houses at Anjuna and Curtorim would be his someday. He was damned if he would allow the government or any encroachers to usurp the family property.

         The house had fallen into decay. An emaciated coconut tree towered tall near the entrance, like Jack's beanstalk, threatening to fall any day. An ambaddo tree spread its branches like tentacles around and over the low roof of the kitchen and even running low, inches above the ground. The sunlight peeped curiously through the cracked roof tiles. If they were not repaired before the coming monsoons, the rains would not just peep, but pour through those cracks.
         Dust slept in all the rooms. On the altar in the hall, encrusting the crucifix and statuettes within, some of ivory and others of plaster-of-paris. The boxes in the bedroom, the debris in the store room, the green bottles and rusted tins in the kitchen, dust wrapped them all in a cocoon of timelessness.
         The dog was of indeterminate breed, a plain creature with a smooth black coat. He must have had the blood of a hundred different fathers but had eventually bred into a healthy and tough ordinariness. But the dog had a rare trait. Zemanuel, whose full name was Jose Manuel, understood commands only in Portuguese. He probably knew more than just orders in that language, given the long monologues that Esmeralda often subjected him to.
         Zemanuel lived in the house with Esmeralda. The pigs and hens lived in the backyard, grunting and clucking in a symphony completed by the cawing of the crows who also partook of the food waste that Esmeralda poured into a hollowed out stone trough.

        'Come quickly,' Margarita telephoned Mario one day. 'A pig has died and the whole vaddo is stinking.'
         Mario called on Vasudeo. Vasudeo was the panch of that area - member of the local panchayat, a staunch supporter of the ruling Congress party and a supplier of sand and stone to the thriving construction business of Anjuna and other coastal villages. He also undertook minor building jobs. He had grown up with Esmeralda and was almost as old as her. He had admired Esmeralda's alabaster beauty in her youth and now he wanted to see her comfortable in old age. Dressed in a faded white kurta and a two-day stubble on his face, he turned up at the house to assist Mario.
         Over the day the offending carcass was buried. The other pigs were given away. By evening the grunting had stopped and only the occasional clucking and scratching of the hens could be heard. Mario and Vasudeo waited at the entrance of the house for its mistress who had been away the whole day on her circuitous sojourns.
         Esmeralda came around shortly, holding a fallen mango with the faithful Zemanuel at her heels. Mario handed her the package of soap, biscuits and Horlicks that he had been ritually giving her on every visit.
         'Enough of this, Tia Emma,' said Mario. 'I'm moving you to an old age home.'
         'I am not going anywhere,' she replied. 'I will stay in my house.'
         'You are troubling the neighbors. They keep calling me up,' said Mario.
         'I don't go to anyone's house.'
         'Margarita says she feeds you every day.'
         'Margarita is lying.'
         Margarita had appeared at the house by now.
         'My God, look at her talk! I feel sorry for her and give her food and see what she says!'
         'I have never eaten anything of yours. All lies!'
         'Alright,' said Mario as he walked into the house. 'Show me what you have cooked today.' He checked the desolate kitchen and returned to the balcony where everyone was gathered.
         'I haven't cooked today,' she preempted him.
         'I don't think you cook at all,' he said. 'This is the last time, Tia. I don't want any pigs around. I've buried the dead one and given the rest away. And you better not disturb the neighbors.'

         Mario and Vasudeo had discussed the problem. Esmeralda was getting old. If she had to injure herself or get bedridden, the old age home would be reluctant to accept her. She had to be admitted now when she was coherent and active. Mario had planned to repair the house and rent it out to the foreign tourists who paid well for such old houses in Goa. That would cover Emma's costs at the old age home, leaving something extra for Mario.
         But Esmeralda simply refused to move out of her house.
      She continued going around to Margarita's house at mealtimes. Most of the food was consumed by the dog. Zemanuel grew healthier and sturdier, his coat shone and his bark sharpened. If any neighbor had to raise his voice at his mistress, the dog would snarl ferociously.

         One day Margarita's husband lost his temper at Esmeralda's continued visits and slapped his wife.
         'I can't take this anymore,' Margarita pleaded with Mario. 'Please come and take her.'
         The entire cast assembled again at the entrance of Emma's house. Mario, Vasudeo and Margarita, all facing Esmeralda who sat at the top of the few steps that led from the balcao to the ground.
         'I don't go to anyone's house,' maintained Esmeralda.
         'You ungrateful woman,' moaned Margarita, 'I get slapped because of you and you still lie!'
         'You have to move now, Tia Emma,' warned Mario.
         'I am not going anywhere,' came the adamant reply.
         'The police are coming to take you,' said Mario, trying a different ploy.
         'Why will the police come, I have done nothing wrong.' She was a baffling case of senile denial one moment and sharp wits the next.
         'Arre, Mario, your house has to be repaired, otherwise it will leak like Dudhsagar in the rains,' added Vasudeo. 'Emma bai will have to move out of the house when the workers come.'
         'No need, they can work in parts, room by room. Esther and I had done it that way some years ago,' countered Emma. 'I am not moving out of my house.' She turned with a smile to her dog, 'Morgado Zemanuel, quero por bolashe?…'
         Mario was getting desperate. Could he possibly get the people from the old age home to physically lift her and take her? Could he stage a visit by the cops to scare her? He wasn't particularly fond of Tia Emma though he faintly remembered that she and Tia-Esther would fuss a lot over him when he was a child. But this was a matter of family pride and he could not allow his aunt to degenerate like this. And he didn't really have the time to keep coming to Anjuna. It kept him away from writing his Great Novel.
         Vasudeo tried to cajole her in innovative ways, but wasn't getting anywhere.
         'Vasu baba, I was born in this house and I will die in this house,' proclaimed Emma, striking a defiant figure sitting at the door of her abode. Her hair was fully white and she had a long nose which gave her a queenly, aristocratic air. The dirty, faded dress she wore and her mud encrusted feet struck discordance with that once noble visage.
         Mario walked around the house and probed each room. He could not risk keeping anything valuable around here. He found hundreds of plastic bags piled on a bed in one room and wondered where they came from. A cupboard in another room yielded around twenty unopened soap cakes. A trunk in her bedroom contained dozens of dresses in immaculate condition along with cases of make-up and other assorted items which seemed to belong to a young girl from a different era. Time had stood still in that trunk and Mario, sensing his own intrusion, quickly closed it. He decided to take a couple of antique jars back home to Panjim. And he decided to fake toughness with Emma.
         'You will not trouble Margarita anymore, Emma, I'm warning you. The police said they are coming tomorrow to arrest you. I will not be able to stop them. So you come with me right now to the Home,' he said as he advanced sternly toward her.
         He had not accounted for Zemanuel who sensing a threat to his mistress leapt forward between the two and bared his teeth, viciously emitting a low growl. Mario was taken aback, the dog had never snarled at him before. He realised it would not be possible for anyone to even touch Emma for as long as Zemanuel was around.
         'Sente, Zemanuel, vem aqui, pequeno!' she commanded. The dog retreated to her heels, but kept a wary eye on Mario who also backed off slowly. This wasn't going to be easy.
         He parleyed with Vasudeo outside the house. Vasudeo had been thinking. He wanted to get to work quickly on the contract for the house repair and renovation. The tourist season was almost here. Mario would surely give him a good commission on every guest he brought.
         'Bab, there's one thing we can do,' he proposed. 'She is very attached to the dog. She feeds him, he goes everywhere with her. If we get rid of him, our job will be easier,' said Vasudeo conspiratorially.
         'God, no!' exclaimed Mario. He had three dogs of his own at the Panjim house and he knew how close they were to him. But after a moment's thought, he wavered. Vasu had a point there.
         'Can't we put him in some animal shelter?' he wondered aloud.
         'Don't worry about that, Mario-bab. I'll take care of everything,' assured Vasudeo as they moved away.
         'No, no! I don't want anything to do with the dog,' Mario shook his head as he washed his hands off Vasudeo's plans.
          They moved off after walking around the property for some time. Dusk had fallen and Esmeralda closed the door, retreating into the house with Zemanuel.

         The next afternoon, Vasudeo and Jaki, the village sharpshooter stealthily entered Emma's backyard. The whole village slept through a collective siesta as the duo carefully opened the kitchen door and stepped in. Just as the reclining Zemanuel was moving to his feet to alert his mistress, a sharp report cracked the air and a .22 bore bullet ripped through the dog's skull and embedded itself in the adjacent wall. Blood splattered across the floor as the dog shuddered and collapsed near his steel plate. The plate, freshly polished at lunch, now held a slowly growing pool of blood.
         Esmeralda heard the shot and came running into the kitchen, still wearing yesterday's faded dress. The anguished scream that surged from her throat rose above the house and the coconut trees and fled through the far corners of the village. She fell to the floor and hugged Zemanuel's lifeless body, sobbing and talking to him, coaxing him to get up.
Vasudeo went over to Margarita's house and asked her to attend to Emma. He then telephoned Mario.

         That evening a small procession wound its way from Esmeralda's house to the main road where a car was waiting. Mario and Vasudeo led the way, followed by Margarita whose hand supported Esmeralda's frail figure. The old lady seemed hollow and indifferent as she walked down the few steps at the entrance. She then paused and slowly turned back to look at the house. But Esmeralda seemed to have forgotten what she was looking for and with a dazed countenance she hobbled weakly away.


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Your comments are welcome. - Jose