Book House

From “The Greatest Goan Stories Ever Told”: Read an excerpt from Jessica Faleiro’s story “On Sernabatim Beach”

Jessica Faleiro
  • The book “The Greatest Goan Stories Ever Told” has been edited by Manohar Shetty, and features some of the best short fiction to emerge from the pens of Goans living in India and abroad over the last century, in English and superbly translated from the Portuguese, Konkani, and Marathi.


  • The storytellers included range from eminent writers such as Laxmanrao Sardessai and Vimala Devi to contemporary writers like Damodar Mauzo, Ramnath Gajanan Gawade, Jessica Faleiro, and Derek Mascarenhas.


  • Goa threads these stories together—its varied characters from various communities and religions, its colourful people, its Portuguese colonial history, its picturesque landscape, and the general aura surrounding the place.


  • Read an excerpt from the book below.


Editor’s Note: The following excerpt has been taken from the story “On Sernabatim Beach” by Jessica Faleiro.

I’ve reached halfway back to shore when I see her standing by the water’s edge.

She’s pulling at her pigtail and chewing her lip. I lift my body out of the salt water and wipe the sting from my eyes. I avoid her stare, sit down hard on the sand, and wrap my arms loosely around my knees. I need to steady my breath and rest for a moment before I go in again.

I angle my chin to feel the splintering sunlight beat down on my face. To my left, a green Kingfisher pint bottle catches the sunlight and winks at me. Next to it is an empty bottle of Teacher’s whisky, half-buried in the sand. The sea has its addictions too. My fingernails automatically go to the edges of my teeth. I don’t even mind the taste of salt and grit. I spit, stare at the bitten-down nubs, and then at my sister’s straight, small back. She lifts her tiny, plump hands to her forehead to shade her unflinching stare out to sea, even in the noon heat. She’s afraid to look at me as much as I’m afraid to look at her, even though she’s too young to know for a fact what I already know.

*

It’s been two whole days since Mama left us tucked in our bed in Furtado’s guest house and went for a night walk on the beach. I knew about Mama’s fondness for the sea and after that last episode, it didn’t surprise me when she told my sister and I that we were going to Sernabatim beach for a short stay.

The guest house was basic but clean, with faded bed linen that smelt of detergent, bright yellow curtains that had seen better days, and fresh naphthalene balls placed on the bathroom drain. My sister and I tired ourselves out building sandcastle empires that first day we arrived. But I knew that Mama was distracted as I watched her from a distance, walking towards Benaulim, until she was a fine polka-dotted speck blending in with the other beach-goers. She kept looking out to sea, mumbling something to herself and then listening intently, as if in conversation with the waves. Even from a distance, I could feel her body wanting to merge with their endless drum roll. She didn’t flinch from the silver-edged swell that rushed in suddenly, wetting the hem of her dress.

My sister and I were raised on bedtime stories filled with vast oceans, meandering rivers, and damp jungles smothered in mist. She’d read us stories full of secret waterfalls and bloodthirsty pirates, of King Neptune and sultry sirens. Her life was immersed in water. Once, she said that her ancestors must have been seafaring captains or fishermen because the Indian Ocean thrummed in her blood.

If my mother was about water, then my father was of fire. He had always been a hard man. But after I turned twelve, things seemed to get more difficult around the house. Mama started to wear bright, halterneck dresses instead of long-sleeved ones, showing off the purple patches on her arms, as if on a dare. I’d only seen her wear those showy outfits in old photographs, from before when I was born. I’d never actually seen him hit her, but maybe that was his gift: controlled violence. He always seemed to hold himself in check around us, even after he came home stinking of beer and cigarette smoke. He had, what Mama called, a respectable job in a government office, managing a team of staff under him. But respect wasn’t a word I associated with him.

I can recall the names they called each other that morning we left. I was afraid the neighbours could hear them shouting but didn’t dare venture out of my room. When Anna stirred, I brought her to her ‘Hello Kitty’ themed dressing table, brushed her hair, and sang loudly to her, hoping to drown out the sounds of our parents’ verbal bullets fired at each other, all the time wishing someone would sing to me instead.

Papa drove off to work, slamming doors on his way out, and Mama locked herself in the bedroom for an hour. I listened outside the door and then, when Anna was hungry, sat her down at our dining table and poured cold milk over her Kellogg’s cornflakes. I’d just finished washing our plastic breakfast bowls when I heard the bedroom door open. Mama was wearing a flowery sundress and had a wide grin on her face that didn’t travel to her eyes. I couldn’t spot any signs of new weals on her arms.

‘We’re going to the beach,’ she said brightly in a voice that she reserved only for Anna and me.

She helped us pack a few clothes into her small, slightly worn American Tourister suitcase, and added two sundresses I hadn’t seen before, except in photographs of her on her honeymoon. One had polka dots, the other had bright red flowers on it. I had stolen one of those photos from an overburdened, tattered photo album nobody looked at any more, and occasionally took the photo out of my secret hidey-hole to stare at the two of them together. They had fixed smiles on their faces, but I could see that their eyes were full of laughter, maybe even love. They looked like strangers to me.

Excerpted with permission from The Greatest Goan Stories Ever Told, edited by Manohar Shetty, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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