Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tree & Leaf

In response to the cache of old photographs received from a cousin, Monica Rebello Gonsalves, this memoir, illustrated by a precious photograph lost to the family in a fire that consumed Asian Building, Bombay, in 1947, and now most wonderfully made available by Monica.


By Frederic Joseph Heredia

[extracts from Prologue]

Happily, my grand-uncle Julio da Costa’s ‘Personal Memoir’, an English translation of which was published in April 1981 for circulation to Manoel Agostinho’ s descendants, records nearly all that could be said about Manoel Agostinho’s personality and traits, by one who was his boyhood companion and later his uncle-in-law.

To one who knew him in his lifetime, my cousin Peter D’Souza, I am indebted for many details of Manoel Agostinho’s life in Bombay, that only he could have known or confirmed. For the rest, the facts must speak for themselves: a Goan physician who migrated from rustic surroundings with no resources other than his talents and his character, carved a notable niche for himself and his family in the commercial life of a great industrial city, and in its exclusive social milieu, without compromising his faith or his ideals.

[all parentheses in italics between square brackets are by FJH’s daughter EMRH]


Chapter I


Early photographs of Manoel Agostinho show him with a beard, neither trimmed nor full, but following somewhat closely the lines of his face, and apparently curly. In my earliest memory he had no beard, but wore a moustache of the fashion called ‘toothbrush’. His hair was cropped close to the head, and was brushed, not combed. For his times, when men’s average height was appreciably less than it is now, he must have been considered tall. His height was not less than 5’ 9", and he always held himself straight, so that he seemed taller.

A high forehead, aquiline nose, and deep-set but brilliant dark eyes could have made his countenance intimidating, but for a mobile mouth, and an unexpectedly sweet smile.

His broad, arched chest evidenced the vigorous physiology of a man given to walking fast over long distances. In the first few years of his stay in Bombay, he used to walk a great deal - three miles from home to dispensary, and thence on visits to patients (and they were many) who could not send a private carriage or a hack victoria to fetch him.

Weekdays, he left home after an early breakfast, to return at nightfall. During epidemic seasons of enteric fever, cholera, smallpox, plague, he would return even later, and then change into clean clothing before greeting his children. These would flock around him seeking his blessing - the bênção customarily sought in Goan homes, from parents and elders, usually after the evening ‘Angelus’ or after recital of the family rosary at nightfall.

Those of us children who were at school and college rarely saw him on weekdays. And on holidays other than Sundays and great feast days, the uncertainty of his return for a mid-day meal entailed our eating lunch separately. It was only in his declining years that he took an afternoon siesta on weekdays. Family gatherings were consequently possible only at dinner times.

It was at the dining table that he indulged his abiding interest in his children. Etiquette required children to keep silent and to speak only when addressed by a parent or an elder. So he would speak to each child, listen to their responses, and would draw upon his wide ranging knowledge of science, history and literature to foster their intellectual curiosity.

I never saw him moody or abstracted when dining en famille. He was ever lively in his conversation, sometimes gently teasing, and fond of humorous anecdotes over which he would laugh till tears came to his eyes.

Being prevented by the exigencies of his profession from joining his family in daily prayers, he would be all the more absorbed in his devotions at Mass on days of obligation and especially during Holy Week observances, which in those days were more taxing than they are now. He always carried a missal to church and followed the liturgy with unobtrusive devotion.

While it was Ángela Mericia [his wife] who taught the children to pray, to shun misbehaviour, and to know their catechism, it was from Manoel Agostinho’s deep faith that his descendants have gained some intimation of the treasures laid up in heaven for the believing Christian.

He dressed well, and without being dandified, cut a fine figure, especially in evening dress: only ‘tails and white tie’ in his time were worn for a ball at Government House, or for a night at the opera, usually one staged by an Italian company at what was then the ‘Royal’ Opera House. In summer, he wore cream tussar silk suits, with waistcoat, and in winter cashmere woollen suits. To daytime receptions such as a wedding or a garden party at Government House, he would wear morning dress - black cut-away tailcoat, ‘pepper and salt’ striped trousers, spats, and the regulation white sola topi.

On such occasions Ángela Mericia dressed in the height of fashion, sometimes in gowns ordered from Europe - from Au Bon Marché, and Oxendales. Nor were the daughters left out in the acquisition of finery; arrival of a parcel from France or England was greeted with cries of joy, and distribution of its contents with shrieks of delight. Doubtless, the sons also shared in the ‘goodies’, but not in my time!

Manoel Agostinho had a pleasant baritone voice, which was never raised in excitement or in anger. His English was fluent and grammatical, and spoken with a barely noticeable Continental accent. He spoke and wrote Portuguese better than most Portuguese, and was much at home in French, having absorbed most of his scientific, historical and literary education through French authors.

He had no hesitation in taking to the dance floor at balls and weddings. But he did not possess what is called ‘an ear for music’, and was probably an indifferent dancer. What he lacked in both respects was more than compensated by Ángela Mericia.

Manoel Agostinho the man was physically vigorous, mentally active, of equable temperament, ever inclined to the optimistic view, and open-hearted with all. Altogether a vital and attractive person. No wonder he had a very large circle of friends, besides being respected and adored by his children.

1 comment:

Monica said...

What a lovely commentary.