Goa, The Fonseca family is gathered in Savio’s house on the eve of his seventy-fifth birthday. It starts raining heavily, the electricity, and in the darkness, family members narrate their encounters with the supernatural.
As the night advance, many stories-deeply unsettling, for they are all connected to the Fonseca name- come tumbling out. An ominous bird visits the family matriarch on her deathbed, a young boy is possessed by an older man’s spirit, and a deceased uncle sends an urgent message from beyond the grave. Startling family secrets are revealed, as is an ancient curse that forever binds the family.
Jessica Faleiro has an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University, UK, and has written travel articles for The Times of India, Crest edition. She is a global nomad who spends her time writing, in between her travel. This is her first novel.
I watched Carol pick at the food on her plate while her husband, Sam, devoured every morsel of his dinner. They sat opposite ne at the dining tables, across the steaming dishes of chicken cafreal and peas pulao. Mama came out of the kitchen for a brief respite from running back and forth with the dishes, and sat down at the head of the table, opposite my father. Her face fell as she spotted Carol’s plate, still full, with scraps of her meal leaving a trail of green gravy around her dish.
‘Don’t tell me you’re going to eat like this at the party tomorrow,’ she said, frowning at my sister.
‘I have no appetite.’
‘It must be the jetlag,’ Sam’s Boston accent drawled out in Carol’s defence.
‘Jet-lag, shmet-leg, you’d better be in top from tomorrow,’ countered Mama. ‘You’re giving the opening toast at your father’s seventy-fifth birthday celebration and I don’t want you fainting in front of two hundred guests.’
‘Will there still be a party if it keeps raining like this? Carol gestured outside, towards the garden, where the late September monsoon was pelting down.
‘Yes , of course! I’ve learnt from Granny’s fiftieth-wedding-anniversary disaster. That was an outdoor event without a marquee. You were too young to remember, Carol, but it was late October, after the monsoon. We were surprised when a thunderstorm suddenly drenched us all. The food was completely ruined. This time, we’re having it indoors, at the Carvalho mansion.
Mama turned to me. ‘Joanna, you must remember it? It’s the large two-storeyed mansion that your friend Anna hired for her wedding reception?’
I cringed inwardly. Mama was the only one who insisted on calling me by my full name. Everyone else just called me Jo. I nodded. ‘I remember, it’s a nice place-spacious, with a beautiful lawn.’
Mama continues, ‘And they cater too. Anyway, the monsoons are almost over and we might even have a clear shy tomorrow.’
‘And what if the electricity goes off?’ asked Carol, in that high-and-mighty tone that revealed her foul mood.
‘I checked. They have a generator. We’re not that backward in Goa!’
Mama was unfazed when it came to organizing parties, or for that matter, getting on most things. She strategized like a military general at war to accomplish her goals. It was one of the things I loved most about her. After all, it was because of her that I had managed to escape Goa. Mama had refused to speak to Pops-or cook any of his favourite dishes-until he caved in and agreed to send me, a seventeen-years-old at the time, halfway across the world to England to study on my own. Ten years later, I had settled into London’s urban rhythm of life, but occasionally, I missed my family and the steady heartbeat of Goan living. Pop’s birthday celebration had provided a much-needed break, and I had flown in from London last night for the family reunion.
I looked over at the senior birthday boy, brushing back his peppered curls with one hand, as he scraped the last bit of cafreal on his fork and moved it towards his mouth in a familiar motion. Pops looked older, the skin under his neck sagged a little, and a slight stoop had formed on those sturdy broad shoulders that had taken me piggyback riding in my childhood. I realized then just how conventional than Mama when it came to sending his daughters abroad, he still wanted only the best for us. Carol and I were both settled abroad, far away from our parents. I couldn’t help wondering if he ever regretted the independence he had given us by sending us abroad to study and eventually, live.
Everyone at the table started as the ringtone on Pop’s phone yelled out, ‘Are you deaf? Pick up the phone! Can’t you hear it ringing?’ over and over again, at maximum volume. Mama groaned. ‘Savio, I’ve told you a hundred times to lower the volume of that stupid ringtone at the dining table!’
Pops gave her a naughty grin. ‘But then I won’t hear it.’
He squinted at the flashing number on the phone’s screen.
‘Hello? Yes, all arrived safely this afternoon. Carol and Sam caught a morning flight from Baston. Jo met them at Mumbai International, and they flew down to Goa together.’ He paused as he listened to a voice on the end of the line. ‘No of course you won’t be disturbing us. You can come over now.’
Mama raise and enquiring eyebrow at him. She had still retained her creamy complexion, and her dark hair had only a smidgen of white around the temples. Her deep brown almond-shaped eyes were bright, with no signs of the dullness of age that creeps up on people over time. At sixty-six, my mother was still every bit as beautiful, elegant and poised a lady as I’d known her to be when I was a child. Even now, sitting at the dining table, she looked charming, in a simple white cotton blouse trucked into her pencil skirt.
‘Five minutes,’ he said, snapping the phone shut.
Mama shovelled the last two spoonfuls of pulao into her mouth. ‘Thank goodness I made fresh behinca.’
‘Who’s coming over, Pops?’ I asked.
‘Auntie Marie and Uncle Eduardo, with your cousins, Susheela and Jason.’
Carol groaned. ‘Can’t we just see them tomorrow?’
‘With two hundred people there, you’ll be lucky if you do more than kiss them hello,’ said Mama, ‘They’re driving over from the other end of town to see you in spite of the rain. Be nice. Joanna, help me clear the table and lay out the dessert plates.’
‘Sure thing, Mama,’ I replied. I was excited at the thought of seeing my aunt and uncle again, not to mention my cousin Susheela, who was closest to my age, and the only member of the family whom I knew relatively well and could get along with.
Eduardo Fonseca was my father’s paternal cousin. They had grown up together in the same village. Though eight years apart, the age difference didn’t seem to matter to them and sometimes, I felt as if Uncle Eduardo was closer to my father than his own brothers. Uncle Eduardo had started off as a shopkeeper, and now managed two superstores in town. Though he was busy, he always had time for us, and his good-humoured attitude towards life was one of his most attractive qualities-he was the life of the party wherever he went, and his stories were famous. One of his favourites was how he had snagged my Auntie Marie. ‘I was short, fat and bald even then, so it must have been my sense of humour she was after.’
When I came out with the plates and the dessert forks, the rain was beating down even harder outside. Pops was texting; Sam was watching CNN; and Carol, the skirt of her blue wrap-around summer dress laid carefully around her, was curled up next to him trying to make out the colour of Christiane Amanpour’s lipstick.
‘Jo, I say its red, Sam thinks it’s orange. Your vote’s the tiebreaker.’
I came over with the plates and stared at Amanpour’s moving lips, taljing about the deployment of more US troops into Afghanisan.
‘Hmm…’ I turned to them and grinned, ‘definitely violer.’
Carol looked exasperated.
‘Why do you always have to contradict me?’ she whined. Although she was two years older, she often behaved like the younger one.
‘Then stop baiting me and drawing me into your silly competitions,’ I had promised myself: no sibling squabbles this time. They just sapped my energy and ended up driving Mama mad. I wanted our parents to have at least a few evenings of sanity before Carol inevitably goaded me into saying something I’d later regret.
We heard the sound of a car engine coming to a halt in the driveway just outside the entrance to our house. Pops opened the front door and a tall woman with ample curves, an aquiline nose and full, rounded lips walked into our living room. Auntie Marie was covered from head to toe in a dripping wet pink raincoat with huge red polka-dots. She beamed at me, but as I rushed forward to hug her, she raised her hand. ‘Don’t even think of hugging me until I peel off every layer. I’M soaked to the bone,’ she said, with that refined lilt to her voice that I loved so well.
There was a time when Auntie Marie had a shot at being a professional singer with that velvety voice of hers. Thought she had won many soloist competitions at the All-India level, she never did make a career out of her talent. And I’d never asked her why she hadn’t pursued that dream.
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