Translated from the Konkani by Pantaleao Fernandes
Subodh Kerkar, 2021
As the setting sun rushed to kiss the western horizon goodbye, shades of red, orange and yellow danced with tinges of gold, black and blue. Soon, in crept twilight and faded into dusk. Mesmerised by this heavenly spectacle were our guests from Nagpur – my brother-in-law, his wife, and their daughter Manjiri. She had just answered her tenth standard examinations.
We two and our two visited the beach off and on, and often enjoyed the colours as they painted the skies. I love the beach at Majorda – peaceful and serene, it is my favourite spot of repose. But Guru suggested we visit the Colva beach, and so we went.
Just as dusk spread its inky blanket, Sheela, my wife got ready to leave. Looking at the watch, she proposed, “Shouldn’t we move?’’
‘Wait man, let’s enjoy the cool breeze, just hang on for a little while,’ I replied.
But she was determined. ‘For you it’s easy to linger, but upon reaching home your hunger will make its demands. But what do we eat? I have to make chapattis.’
Seven of us squeezed into our small Maruti car like sardines packed in a can. Having to accommodate three persons on the front seat, I drove with great caution. Just as we were passing by the church at Colva, a tantalizing aroma invaded my nostrils and inadvertently, I reduced the pressure on the accelerator.
‘Wow, what an aroma!’ exclaimed my brother in-law.
The taste buds in my tongue were tickled.
‘Hold on, I’ll check it out.’ I parked the car, and, following the heady smell, located the bakery.
Baking of bread was in full swing while a few customers awaited their turn. I too joined the queue and soon stood facing the baker. He asked, ‘Which ones?’
I replied, ‘Formache pau (eight bread baked at a time in a tray).’
Since my wife had already cooked the vegetable curry, buying bread for dinner was a good option. Presuming that each of the seven would eat two, I asked for fifteen pieces of bread.
‘Bag?’ asked the baker.
Since I hadn’t carried one, I asked him to wrap them in paper.
Carefully carrying my package of steaming hot bread, I reached the car. The tantalizing aroma of the bread reached those waiting there even before the bread did. Sheela gratefully accepted the hot package, pleased that the job of making chapattis had been eliminated.
No sooner had I ignited the engine, I pleaded, ‘Pass me one bread please – I can’t wait, my mouth is watering.’
As soon as she had received the package, Sheela had grabbed one for herself and passed on the parcel to the rear seat. This delicious “oven fresh” required no butter, cheese or jam, one could simply eat it without accompaniments.
Not hearing a sound from behind, I guessed Guru must be still enjoying the aroma. The bread in my mouth disappeared even before we made it to the next village of Betalbatim. And soon I succumbed to the temptation to ask for one more.
‘I would advise you not to eat another… you will have no scope for dinner.’ But then she couldn’t stop herself from getting one, breaking it into two and handing over one half, saying, “Suffice with one half, I will eat the other.’’
About 8 o’ clock, I dropped them at the gate, parked the car, and going to the kitchen, pulled up a chair saying, ‘It’s a good thing we picked up the bread, one job of making chapattis avoided.’
‘That’s wishful thinking,’ she retorted and I noticed that she was ready with the flour, the platform and rolling pin, ready to roll.
‘After proper calculation, I had bought fifteen pieces…’
‘But only four had remained.’
‘Why don’t you take it easy and chat with your sister-in-law while I go buy some more bread?’
Guru, of course, was ever ready to accompany me. Manuel’s oven was just a stone’s throw away, a five-minute walk. Though the bread baked for the evening had been sold out, the flurry of activity continued for the next morning batch.
‘Manuel, can I have ten pieces of bread, please?’
‘You have come too late, my friend.’
Then he bent down to check his bread basket. ‘Ah, there are eight formache pau and two poie in the basket. Will that do?’
Carrying the eight pieces of bread and two poie returned unsold by the bread sellers who went around the villages with the bread-basket fastened to the cycle bracket, we began the short walk home.
Subodh Kerkar, 2021
As we passed by Vasu’s tavern, we noticed a migrant labourer staggering on his feet due to an overdose of liquor. We heard Vasu yelling, ‘Somebody hurry up to Manuel’s and fetch a bread please.’
‘Hey Vasu, Manuel has run out of bread, I have just emptied his basket. Here take this and feed him.’ I handed him a piece of soft bread, and, grasping the hand of a stunned Guru, continued walking.
‘What’s the logic of wasting a bread on that drunkard?’ protested Guru. ‘Don’t you know that the best method of sobering up a drunkard is to stuff his tummy with the soft part of the bread? Like a sponge, it soaks up the alcohol.’ I reported what I had heard elders say.
At dinner Guru commented, ‘These bread just cannot be compared with the earlier ones.’
‘That goes without saying. You see that bread was fermented with toddy, hence the heady fragrance.’
‘Sur? You mean sorro, liquor?’ inquired a surprised Manjiri. Though a smart girl, she was still undecided upon her future career though the father insisted on an engineering profession. By nature, she was an inquisitive girl.
Her father answered, ‘Sur is toddy-like nectar. It is used to ferment the dough. Bread fermented with sur is in demand for its authentic, traditional flavour. Unfortunately, sur is in short supply and expensive, and the substitute yeast has compromised on the original taste.’
‘Te firge gele, te unde gele, gone are those foreigners and gone is the bread,’ sighed Guru uttering an apt proverb.
‘Yes, the foreigners have quit but the Goan bakers and their bread are very much around, and in fact have become a symbol of Goan identity,’ I asserted.
‘Perhaps you are right, but you have to accept the fact that the good old days are gone forever. Let me narrate my friend’s experience…’ He went on, ‘Abdon was a childhood friend from Zuari whose father worked in Africa. After his mother’s demise, his father settled him at Dar-es-Salaam. Instead of appointing a formal caretaker for the house, Abdon entrusted it to his friend Subrai who was in need of a place to stay. Abdon’s career took him to England and then to Australia. Three decades later he returned only to discover with a shock that his house had simply vanished! A concrete structure stood in its place…the house was simply swallowed up!’
‘But wasn’t the property owned by your friend?’ I inquired.
‘Poor chap didn’t have his documents in place. An advocate informed him that the area belonged to the communidade (a traditional collective), and they had no recourse to law. The owner’s loss is another’s gain. In the process Abdon lost his fortune.’
‘So be it, let the baker from the South benefit,’ I replied.
‘What do you mean?’
‘There’s a saying in Konkani – if one’s fortune is written in another’s destiny, that’s where it is headed.’
A couple of pieces of bread were left behind.
‘You can toast them for my breakfast tomorrow. I love bread roasted over coals,’ I said.
‘Thank god for the tasty bhaji, these many pieces of bread got consumed,’ whispered my wife, ‘Or else you would have asked for bread sanzo .’
Yes, if a sufficient number of bread remained overnight, they were broken, sautéed with mustard, onions and chillies and the delicious sanzo – a treat for next day’s breakfast was ready. That night, many tales woven around bread were discussed. The children listened with rapt attention. As I dug deeper into the different aspects of bread, its connections with my childhood days surfaced –- the generous size of each bread, its taste enhanced by sur, and the availability of bread for a mere anna.
‘What’s the meaning of an Anna?’
I felt pity for the youngsters. ‘In those days, the rupee consisted of 16 Annas.’
‘Do you mean that one could buy 16 pieces of bread for a rupee?’ Manjiri asked flabbergasted.
That spurred me to narrate a boisterous incident from my childhood. During the Hindu month of Sravan, bhajans were sung in each school. By 11.30, the aroma of bread being baked in the khorn pervaded the neighbourhood. The market place housed two khorns – one belonged to Camil. The other was owned by Jack Piedade.
By 9.00 in the evening, he was seen kneading the dough with his feet, and then readying himself for the baking. Whenever the aroma drew me into his Khorn, I was rewarded with bread. Sometimes I would drop in with a group of friends, but he couldn’t afford to dole out free bread to all of us. And, in any case, our friends wouldn’t accept it. So, we would buy the bread with a couple of annas flicked from home. Eating this dry, hot bread had its own charm.
When Minu and Mithu were little children, I used to take the older one with me to buy bread and she would insist on buying kakna, the bangle-shaped bread.
Her memory, refreshed by this narrative, she exclaimed, ‘I would wear the kakna on my hands and dance all the way home before dunking them in tea and relishing them.’
Subodh Kerkar, 2021
Manjiri recollected that Nagpur’s tiny kiosks sold tasty vada pav, and pav bhaji too. ‘These are available here too, and many more like ros omelette pau, chouris pau and cafreal poie.’
The intricacies of Goan street food was delved into and how a tasty bhaji demanded more bread, or how the long poie was stuffed with chicken and relished.
I remembered an instance in Bombay when I was in college. The college mess served a variety of snacks, like sliced bread or puri-bhaji for breakfast. But I craved for Goan bread. One day I landed in an Irani restaurant and ordered maska bread – and to my surprise I was served with our own katri pau – a generously buttered bread. They called it the brun bread. After that, whenever I remembered our Goa, I hurried over at the Irani’s, to relish a maska pau – it satiated my longing for pau.
‘Pardon my curiosity, but when Goa had its own traditional cailodi, bhakri, polle and fulke, so many varieties of flat bread, how come this bread found a place in Goa? Were they introduced by the Portuguese?’
‘Of course, when the Portuguese arrived in Goa, they couldn’t do without their European bread. Goans began baking bread to cater to their palate. Does anybody know who the first man ever to bake bread in Goa in the sixteenth century was?’
‘Who was it?’ asked a chorus of voices.
My chest puffed with pride as I answered, ‘He was from this very village, from Majorda, and resided behind the church of Our Lady, Mother of God, in the ward known as Dongorim. The bread journeyed from Salcete to Bardez before spreading all over Goa and finally to the rest of India, followed by the continent of Asia.’
Subodh Kerkar, 2021
My brother-in-law said, ‘I read somewhere that Hindus from Pune, including Lokmanya Tilak, considered it taboo to eat bread. But surprisingly Goan Hindus easily assimilated bread onto their palate!’
‘Right at the onset, they too did not welcome bread. Not just bread, even the tomato, as meat balls were a taboo then. The bread was later accepted by the Hindus after much hesitation. In my childhood days, the Hindus in Margao would consume bread baked strictly by Hindu bakers. As far as I remember, one Krishna did bake bread in the ward of Comba and it was only from him that the Hindus from Margao bought bread. I used to find it rather funny.’
As the night progressed, and the children grew drowsy, Mithu stifled a yawn and reminisced, ‘Mummy, can you please sing us a lullaby, the one you lulled us to sleep with?’
“Dhol baye dhol, poderale boll, rock baby rock, baker’s bread so sweet.”
‘Do you think you are still babies for a lullaby?’
‘Please mummy, please…’
‘I don’t recall the words,’ said Sheela, but nonetheless made an effort. Dholl go baye dhol, poderan hadle boll, mharge tuge boll, porte ghevun chol… Rock my baby rock, baker’s bread so sweet, pricey the bread so sweet, and our pockets are not so deep.
Sure enough, the children were soon fast asleep.
‘Go on, you too go to bed,’ chided an exhausted Sheela , and we gladly obliged her.
Early in the morning, at six, I found Guru relaxing in the verandah. He said, he was usually up at five to welcome dawn.
‘I was lingering in bed awaiting the cockcrow, but finally rose with the baker’s ponk-ponk. “Hey man, those days are gone. Villagers have given up on raising animals like hens, pigs and cattle. No cockerels in the village to wake us up… these cycle-riding bread vendors whom you call bakers announce the dawn with their horns.’”
Subodh Kerkar, 2021
As we finished breakfast, the children began to ask for a story about the baker.
‘My dears, stories are meant for bedtime, please remind me then.’
Just then, Manuel the baker propped his cycle by the gate and walked in.
‘Man, last night you took ten bread and paid me fifty bucks. Here’s the balance.’ So saying he handed me a note of ten rupees, returning the change I had forgotten.
‘Why the great hurry, I would have stopped by tomorrow.’
‘Oh, I was on my way to the market, so I dropped in.’
I gave him a cup of tea and asked, ‘Manuel bab, if time permits, could you do me a favour? We have guests who are curious about the local bakers. Would you oblige?’
Looking at the keen children, Manuel immediately agreed. My brother-in-law too joined in.
In between sips of tea, Manuel dug into the workings of his profession right from the days of his father, who had built the khorn. He sweated there day and night, baking bread. And at the crack of dawn, he would don the kabai, a knee-length traditional gown, balance the bread-basket on his head, and set out. He carried a six-feet long staff – it had notches within which were attached tiny copper jingles. When the staff struck ground or any surface, it produced a loud metallic sound – chim…khul. This reverberating thumping drew the customers out of their homes to buy their daily bread – some bought pau, others poie, kakna or boll, sweet bread.
‘We refer to him as the “pauwala”, so how come you address him as poder?’
‘Poder is the Konkani term derived from the Portuguese padeiro. Undo is a Konkani term, but pau is derived from the Portuguese pão. The bakery was earlier referred to as padaria. In recent times, the Portuguese usage has given way to English. And in the process our Konkani has taken a beating.’ Manuel rose to go.
‘In case you are interested in checking out the forn, drop in at 4 this evening. The forn will be fired by afternoon. I will show you everything – forn, unde, pau, boll. So should I expect you then?’
After extracting their promise, Manuel left.
Before I could even finish my siesta, the children began pestering to go to the baker’s. Surprisingly, Manuel too was eagerly waiting for us. Half of the room was occupied by the two-meter high khorn. He explained how mud was plastered on the khorn and finished with the occasional coating of cow dung. He referred to the khorn as forn. Pointing to the wood, he explained that only particular trees could be used as fuel. The wood burnt without producing any smoke for three hours. After the wood converted into charcoal, the interior was cleaned. Next, he demonstrated how the formache pau, kakna and poie were baked. Even I hadn’t seen so many varieties of bread.
Subodh Kerkar, 2021
‘These formache pau are fast moving followed by unde which are crispier. Goans usually prefer unde – these have a characteristic cut on the top surface, enabling the bread to be well baked deep inside. Due to the cut, it is often referred to as katro, meaning “cut”. Then there are the kunsheache pau, also known as butterfly bread. Long bread or flat rolls are generally stuffed with chicken cafreal or dry mutton. These here are sweetened using jaggery – they just melt in the mouth.’
‘Your business seems to be flourishing, but do you derive satisfaction from your job?’ asked my brother- in-law.
‘Business is doing extremely well. But then,’ continued Manuel with hesitation, ‘In recent times, there is a greater demand for poie which requires wheat husk – not maida. Diabetic patients and health-conscious customers insist on poie. On the other hand, the demand for kakna is diminishing. In the olden days, fever or even typhoid convalescents were fed on a diet of kakna soup –but now people only chase medicines.’
‘It is heartening, though that you have not stopped baking kakna,’ said Guru.
‘There’s an uncertain future looming on the horizon… earlier we used to make goda pau.
These formed an essential part of the vojem (gifts) sent to the Christian bride’s place after the wedding, but we have discontinued it.’ ‘Doesn’t the vojem include the goda pau anymore?’
‘Oh, it does, without the goda pau the vojem is incomplete. But most of the bakers from Salcete have given up on goda pau. That gap is filled in by bakers from Mapuca. Goda pau is even featured in a soul stirring Konkani song which I can still fondly recall…
moga zalem tem zaum, mhuzo godacho pau,
mhaka sodshi tor jiv ditolo haum
(my love, let bygones be bygones, my sweetened bread, if you forsake me, I’ll give up my life). It would indeed be surprising if the peoples’ beloved pau did not feature in their love songs.’
Even as Manuel spoke, there came a bread vendor who used his motorbike to sell bread.
Mithu exclaimed, ‘Here comes another baker.’
Manuel was mildly hurt and said, ‘My dear girl, he is a bread vendor not a baker. I am a baker as I bake bread.’
‘This fellow goes about selling bread on a motorbike?’ asked my surprised brother-in-law.
‘Yes, some even use cars, supplying to star hotels. The cycle vendors roam the villages, and those catering to small hotels and shops use the motorbikes.’
‘What happens to the unsold bread?’
Manuel had a ready answer to this question too. ‘Nothing goes to waste. Whatever remains, is sliced and turned into toast which has its own demand.’
It was well after five and labourers returning home after a hard day’s work began showing up at the bakery. Most of them were migrant workers.
“It seems that these too have cultivated a taste for pau, like the Goans”, I said.
‘O no,’ Manuel, looking up briefly from the work he was engrossed in, ‘Keep in mind, that the Goans need bread to relish their food. These migrants go for bread as a cheap alternative to satisfy their hunger.’
By then, customers began queuing for the bread, and much obliged, we took our leave. Before parting, I picked up some hot, sweet-poie made with jaggery and coconut along with a few kakna too for the young ones.
As we unwound in the evening, my brother-in-law raised the topic again, ‘You mentioned that the first man to bake bread in the entire Asian continent was a son of Majorda. But prior to that, bread was certainly found in Europe. I wonder where the first bread was ever baked.’
‘I am told that in the Bible God told Adam and Eve, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread”. That, it is said to be, is the very first mention of bread. But I wonder – the bhakri or rotis in Goa, chapattis in India or the khabus in Arab countries – wasn’t that their bread?”
“And what about the bread that is placed on the tongues of Catholics during Holy Mass, which baker prepares it?” asked Guru.
‘Oh no, in the church during Holy Mass, the very flesh of Jesus is placed on the tongues in the form of transubstantiated bread – that bread being sacred is prepared in the church itself without using sur, yeast or maida. They are round wafers of wheat flour and referred to as particulam (hosts).’
Taking note of Manjiri’s keen interest, I continued, ‘Listen Manjiri, Jesus broke the bread and gave it to his disciples and in his memory, the priest gives bread to the devotees. In Goa this bread takes the form of host.’
After dinner, the kids pursued their demand for a story.
‘Which story can I tell you?’
Manjiri suggested the story of Jesus – how he broke bread and fed his disciples. Just then Sheela appeared on the scene.
‘Listen, your coat and other clothes stored in that old trunk, it has apparently been stolen last night.’
‘Never mind, it was meant to be donated, right? So be it. As the saying goes, “Sulche poderan khavu (let the baker from the South benefit),” I said , and that proverb brought to my mind a story written by the legendary writer Lucio Rodrigues.
‘Manjiri, you can read the story of Jesus in any book. I will tell you the story of sulcho poder, alright?’
‘What’s the meaning of sul?’ asked Guru, as if reading the minds of those present. ‘It is a term that’s derived from the Portuguese. Sul means South – Karwar, Mangalore, Cochin these cities lie to the south of Goa. Have you seen the roofing tiles of this house? They are called sulche nole (Mangalore tiles) so named as they were brought from Mangalore. Ok now please don’t interrupt.’
Everybody listened with rapt attention. ‘This is a tale of yore. There lived a very stingy Goan who owned a salt pan. To acquire more wealth, he would load his salt in patmari, the large boats, and ship it to the south. It was a profitable venture, but being miserly, he didn’t spend any money. His wife was a simpleton and the couple were not blessed with children. What do you think he did? He kept aside a meagre amount for regular expenses, spent the rest on gold coins and stored them in a tightly secured jar. Of and on he would empty the jar, count the coins and be pleased with himself.
Eventually, the jar was filled to the brim. That led him to worry that if anybody got wind of his treasure, they would plot to swindle him. One night he even dreamt that a thief had decamped with his gold. In panic, he jumped up from his bed, and checked on his treasure and to his relief, found it intact. He heaved a sigh of relief, but that relief was short-lived as he was constantly worried. What if someone swindled his simple wife? So, he decided to guard his treasure by staying put in the house. This worry left him all stressed up. Sleep evaded him, appetite took leave of him, and he lost his peace of mind. This healthy man began to shrink.
The concerned wife sent for a doctor. On examination, the doctor found nothing wrong with him. Did he have any worries or was he in debt? But he kept mum. The doctor advised the wife that so long as he held on to his stress, he would not recover. At last, the miser decided, why not let go of the jar of gold and reclaim my life? He let go of the attachment of the gold, but how could he dispose the gold? Charity never fit in the miser’s scheme of things, so that was ruled out. Then a thought struck him. Tightly fastening the mouth of the jar, he hid it in a bag of salt and loaded it amidst the other bags in the patmari, to find its own destiny.
A few days later, the patmari docked at Mangalore. Many of the residents there were Goan settlers who preferred Goan salt and bought the bags without much bargaining. The bag with the gold was picked up by a baker who soon discovered the jar with the gold coins. For a person who had never set eyes on such a hoard, he was exhilarated. But then he thought that probably there was some mistake, and for a few days remained alert for any inquiry. However, nobody turned up and the greed within him surfaced. He kept counting the gold coins and made up his mind to keep the gold, showered upon him by destiny.
But alas! His conscience began to prick him… the gold belongs to someone else… I have no rightful claim over it. But what do I do with it? Finally, he found a solution. He divided it into two, stuffed one half inside a beautiful cake and gifted it to the captain of the patmari. The captain loved the cake so much that he kept it in his glass showcase and showed it off to one and all. After a few weeks, the patmari voyaged between Goa and Mangalore.
One day, the captain noticed that the cake had mildewed and decided to dispose it into the sea. But then he had second thoughts and upon embarking at Mangalore, he gave it to a pitiable fisherman. The poor man was thrilled but then decided against eating it but rather selling it for a few bucks. That intention in mind, he landed at the bakery of the very person who had baked it. The astounded baker took the cake inside and cut it open… and there he found all the gold coins intact. His belief was now strengthened that the gold coins were destined for him alone. He rewarded the fisherman with a gold coin and judiciously spent the gold, living a life of bliss. From then this proverb took birth – Sulche poderan khavum’.
The story having ended, the children were soon snoring. And the first thing in the morning, Manjiri declared her decision – ‘I will complete my studies and become a baker!’
Subodh Kerkar, 2021
Absolutely stunning and layered with experience of food thought and language…
The illustrations are highly imaginative and creative. Kudos to Subodh.
Such wonderful stories nestled within stories, all heady with the aroma of freshly-baked bread! This was a most cosy, intimate read. Loved the illustrations too. But now I’m also very hungry!
Thanks for your blog, nice to read. Do not stop.