By FATIMA M NORONHA
THE GUN, if that is what it was, was held to my third thoracic vertebra. I did not have the curiosity to look round into the gunman’s face. He may have noticed my heirloom earrings swinging rhythmically as I walked briskly ahead of him, but he made no attempt to snatch them. His attention was elsewhere.
That is how you may yet see me, on very special occasions, sporting my grandmother Luisa’s filigree earrings. Exquisitely worked gold chrysanthemum petals surround a tiny sapphire in the open flower which dangles an inch below the delicate bud on the lobe.
Nowadays even my middle class friends and relations go in for diamonds and platinum and bank lockers, but a few decades ago we all believed in gold: gold with pearls, gold with cameos, gold with corals, gold with the ubiquitous green stone, gold toned down with silver and revved up with marcasite chips. Goans have always been particular about their jewellery. Workmanship counts for much more than the material. It is not as elsewhere in India, “The dowry was three kilograms of gold.” Thanks to the brilliant Marquis of Pombal, women in Goa inherit a share of family land, so gold is almost only decorative.
In those days I was so fond of the metal that I carried my entire hoard of it on my only visit to my brother in California. Two delicate bracelets, the harp-shaped studs my musical Aunty Ninette gave me, my parents’ gift of thick gypsy rings, Avòzinha’s sapphire-punctuated danglers, all accompanied me around the Wild West.
“Twenty-two carat, wow!” raved our American friends. “Here it’s all fourteen carat.” Many of the women wanted to know more about my gypsy earrings with the embossed money plant round the edges. They asked about the traditions that produced such ornaments. They wanted to know how much such jewellery cost. How would I know? Gold was always a gift, its price unknown. Like a jet black dress, it was always classy, regardless of price.
On weekends my brother drove me around the magical countryside or to a musical performance in San Francisco. During the week our lifestyle was austere. Since Des worked late at the lab, I used the Santa Clara County transit system and got to know Palo Alto and Stanford on my own. I admired the efficiency of the bus drivers who could count the fare as each passenger dropped coins into the transparent box, and hand out a ticket and a greeting without missing a beat.
It was cold and sometimes scary walking home from the bus stop those winter evenings. My way led down a bright street lined with pretty houses and gardens, then over a humped bridge across a creek and suddenly along a darkened lane. Struggling students and petty criminals could afford the rents in those apartment blocks on our side of the creek.
One evening it was so cold I wrapped my black cashmere shawl round my head and shoulders. A car followed me over the dark humped bridge. The brakes screeched.
“Ma’am! Ma’am!” yelled a panicky voice. “With that black thing over your head you can’t be seen! I almost hit you!”
To think that I had carefully dressed all in black, considering it fashionable!
Even so, that Saturday, when we went to the guitar concert, I wore my black ensemble again, including the new square-toed shoes — like a prison warden’s, a friend told me later. From the typewriter ribbon box which served for coffer, I took out the filigree earrings, although gypsy rings might have gone better with acoustic guitars. Our friend Annie wore a Dracula cape. Des wore the one jacket he owned. Our dandy cousin Ian was with us for the weekend and his red scarf was the only colourful touch to our foursome. Off we drove to San Francisco to see and hear Al di Meola, John McLaughlin and the newcomer Paco de Lucia who turned out to be the most impressive of the three.
It was so chill and gusty when we came out of The Warfield Theatre that we ran along the three streets that separated us from the little silver Fiesta in the parking lot. Des was taken aback to find a window open. He quickly searched the car for ominous signs but, reassured that the music system and glove compartment were intact, he said, “Thieves don’t come in through an open window but through a double-locked door.”
Immediately all of us had thieves on our minds. That very afternoon the postman had seen a tall dark man in blue jeans — “I said howareyadoin’ to someone of that description I met yesterday on our staircase,” said Des — climbing out of the apartment manager’s ground floor window.
Being Indian, I never could understand the logic of American windows: even when closed they are all glass, not a single grille or bar to deter thieves. Despite incidents in the locality and protests from her friends, Ed, our nearest neighbour, used to keep her windows wide open for her cat’s convenience.
All the residents of the apartment complex were informed of the postman’s sighting and advised to shut any windows that gave onto the open passageways. Des was confident that we were safe, his being an upstairs corner flat with nothing but the front door opening into the common veranda. As Ian, Des and I left the house that evening, we listened for the click when I pulled the door shut.
On our way home, each one contributed their mite of thrills and chills. Everyone knew someone whose house had been burgled. Someone’s friend had found a stranger in her wardrobe. After a vacation, someone had come home to a house which had been emptied of just about everything.
Of course, outside the car windows, there was a yellow fog till we were well out of San Francisco. Annie was definitely uneasy:
“Are you sure you closed all the windows at home? And the door?”
“Only a ghost can pass through that door,” Des laughed.
Naturally, I first thought he was joking when I saw him standing at the said door shortly afterward, jerking his thumb towards it to indicate there was someone inside. I had not brought my latchkey, so it was he who, for once, reached the door before me.
A moment later I grasped my brother’s tense alertness. I hurried towards him. Ian paused on the landing. Annie, who was waiting for a ride home, came out of the car and watched from the driveway.
The door of the apartment was ajar.
“They’re inside,” Des repeated.
Suddenly, he pushed the door fully open, switched on the lights and called out, “Who’s there?”
The door of the unlit bedroom closed halfway. Something glinted in the gap. A rich baritone voice said, “I’m here and I’ve got a gun.”
Of the thirty-six alternatives, we fled.
But ‘fled’ is a way of saying. Des, who had won a few athletics prizes at school, sprinted to the landing, where he and Ian, feeling constrained to wait for me, stood staring balefully at me and at the three tall dark men behind me, while I did my best to walk swiftly down the veranda. The two-and-a-half-inch heels of my warden shoes, coupled with my zero-trophy athletics track record, made it inadvisable to run, so I walked at a healthy pace. What we believed was a gun moved at the same pace, at the elevation of my third thoracic vertebra. When I got within reach, Des grabbed my arm and propelled me towards the staircase.
While the three of us clomped downstairs, the other three, their woollen mufflers hiding their mouths, made a dash for the fire escape across the landing. Clearly experienced, they had unlocked that door in advance and left it open. We never saw them or their booty again.
The police came within three minutes. The landlord came. Heidi, the apartment manager, came. Annie came upstairs, as her ride home was indefinitely delayed. I made a round of coffee for everyone except the policemen who dutifully declined.
Ian sat back in an armchair. Slowly the stunned expression left him and he began to giggle. He said to me, “You were in danger of death, my dear, and there you were, walking sedately along the veranda and down the steps!”
Des chimed in, “I didn’t know whether to give you a push or no. If you’d fallen downstairs you could have broken a bone. You’re not insured! But what if that guy had lost patience and pulled the trigger?”
Jack, the landlord, woke up from his reverie. “Yesterday morning, that guy who sneaked into Heidi’s house in all probability took a print of the master key.”
“And I was singing in the bath while the thief was right in my house. Ouch!” Heidi, all flustered, clapped her hands to her red cheeks and talked rapidly to no one in particular, pausing repeatedly to sigh aloud.
The policeman who was writing his report wanted figures in dollars to describe our separate and combined losses. The three tall dark men in blue jeans, it was agreed, took my camera from the table, cash from Ian’s suitcase, nothing of my brother’s, and the little Kores box with all the gold I had ever owned except for the heirloom filigree earrings on me. As a token, the thieves left us the stub of a Camel Light in the toilet bowl. No fingerprints anywhere.
There followed involved discussions on how much the rupee — eight rupees bought a dollar then — could actually buy, and how many rupees, hence dollars, I would have to pay to buy gypsy earrings of unknown weight at unknown prices. We had to settle for an arbitrary value, as none of us had the vaguest idea how much my bits of 22-carat jewellery were worth.
I took the event as a sign that gold would not play a crucial role in my life. There would certainly be no dowry to hide in lockers. That did not stop me from borrowing my mother’s jewellery now and then, upon my return to Goa. Those were gentler days. Young women wearing a gleaming choker and matching earrings — as I often did to a wedding, music recital or village feast — could without anxiety travel in buses, ferry-boats and shared taxis, or even, in twos, hitch a ride in the cabin of a petrol tanker.
A pretty pair of Mum’s earrings sufficed on the occasion of our class reunion a few weeks after my American jaunt. The more vocal young men cornered the hunk of the class and gave him an ultimatum. They recalled my undying and unrequited love for him during our school years and insisted on a yes or no within thirty minutes. At the appointed time, the handsome, smart, successful entrepreneur leaned towards me and whispered, “How much dowry?”
“Oh, none at all,” I confessed, “Even the earrings I’m wearing are borrowed.”
“Then I have to say no. I’m a businessman at heart.”
Thus did three Californian gold diggers set me free from my callow crushes — the guy and the gold — and set me on course for true love. No jewellery was bought for my marriage. I have never again owned harp-shaped gold studs or gypsy rings, but I do remember gratefully that, when relatives cautiously asked my father what he thought of the man I had chosen, he replied, “Pure gold.”
This extract is from Fatima Noronha’s book ‘Stray Mango Branches and Other Tales With Goan Sap’, to be released at Regina Mundi, Chicalim on May 8, 2013 at 5.30 pm. Published by Goa,1556.