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The Goan diaspora's Arabian nights and desert dreams

The Goan diaspora, part of the first great migration to the Arabian Gulf, created a new modernity sewn on to the hem of old traditions

A Christmas tree at Al-Wasl Dome at Expo 2020 in Dubai. Photo: AFP
A Christmas tree at Al-Wasl Dome at Expo 2020 in Dubai. Photo: AFP

Perhaps it’s strange that my first memory of a Christmas gift is that of a Hawaiian hula girl on top of a music box. It was a present from Santa, my father told me, which was also very strange because we lived in the desert then, and without snow it would have been quite impossible for Santa to arrive on his sleigh with reindeers in tow. Such is the magic of childhood that all practicalities can be dispensed with and reality suspended.

My father has no recollection of this Christmas. His former self should reside somewhere but it doesn’t. Occasionally a memory filters through, like a fog lamp in the blur of dementia, which momentarily brings him back to us. My father, Joao Roque Cardoso, is 90. He was born into a somewhat impoverished family in the south of Goa. I say somewhat impoverished because it was not a poverty of landlessness, unemployment and malnutrition. 

It was a self-sufficient life, living off the bounty of the land and sea, which yielded an abundance of fruit, rice, poultry and fish. It was, however, a life devoid of aspiration, or, rather, a life filled with aspirations which found no means to bring them to fruition. So, in the late 1960s, my father and mother made the journey to Dubai. What greeted them was an “endless sea of sand”.

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This sea of sand had no harbour, no cinema halls, parks or communal public spaces. But there was a Catholic church, built largely by the efforts of Father Eusebio Daveri. Today, St Mary’s Church is at the centre of a heaving metropolis but back then, the location felt remote, miles away from the lonely buildings and fish market straggling off the salt-water creek, where most Goans lived. Nonetheless, being devout Catholics, they gathered every Sunday to celebrate mass, and there a fellowship grew, letting slide the scales of caste which often plague Catholic Goans.

In what might otherwise have been a bleak existence, the coming together of families meant Christmas at least could have some of its traditions preserved and celebrated in much the same way as they were in Goa. By early December, we saw the dark molasses of toffee swirl in mother’s small kitchen, golden pastry puff for neuros and kulkuls, and the pale yellow batter of doce turn into diamond-shaped delights. Soon the sweetness of cinnamon, cloves, green cardamoms and coconut wafted through the house. But it was always the fruit cake, for which store-bought fruit peel would have been soaked in brandy at least a month ahead, that took centre stage.

The nights were bitterly cold, cloudy with mist, the sky a bottomless black. It did little to deter us from attending the midnight mass Father Eusebio held outdoors to accommodate the growing numbers. There, near the grotto of the Virgin Mary with her blue mantle, outstretched hands and downcast gaze, my family and I huddled, bathed by the half-light of a bare bulb, braving the wintry winds to watch Baby Jesus being welcomed as the church bells rang out and the choir sang Joy To The World, The Lord Is Come. After mass, the air heavily perfumed with the tart smell of eucalyptus trees, we greeted friends before hurrying home to drink a glass of port wine and eat a slice of fruit cake.

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If there were old traditions being preserved, there were new ones being birthed. A sudden if modest prosperity meant we could afford to roast a fowl, and the advent of the freezer meant a frozen English or Danish turkey could arrive in Dubai well in time for Christmas. After a few dismal failures and near misses, mother eventually perfected the art of roasting turkey, and although she served its succulent meat with a runny gravy, no Yorkshire puddings, potatoes, parsnips or carrots made their way on to our dinner table as accompaniments. It was always served alongside steamed pulao and sorpotel, or a roulade, bacon wrapped in strips of tender beef. Food had done what it always does to tradition, it had absorbed something entirely new and claimed it as its own, until the newness of it wore off, and the time before it existed blurred. What emerged then was the type of syncretism which since time immemorial has made it possible for humans to embrace the otherness of cultures.

The days following Christmas were the long dark nights of winter spent visiting our Goan friends, a short stay of about 20 minutes at each house where we would be served the many-coloured sweets they had prepared, and a whisky-soda for the grown-ups. There was one year, however, when Goans muted their celebrations—the year a lorry took away the young life of one from the community. A pall fell over us that winter. The death of a young person is always a senseless loss, its mourning loud, its grief unbearable, its despair insoluble, for it reminds us of the indiscriminate nature of life.

By then, the buildings around the creek had grown, the covered markets now glittered with gold shops, the silhouette of a rising skyline shadowed the waters gently drifting, carrying its age-old abras (taxi boats) back and forth. The creek had been central to our lives and from there the limbs of the city grew out. In so many ways, the history of the creek was the history of Dubai; the road that ran alongside, palely lit with streetlamps, was its main artery, linking us to our past and future. That coming of the future was celebrated with aplomb every New Year’s Eve.

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The old guard of Goan families, gathered in their finest clothes, would bring in the New Year by popping open bottles of champagne, spraying each other with it, and then consuming it in copious amounts. It was still not a time of plenty, that would come in the 1980s and 1990s, when the dirham soared and the rupee fell disastrously, but it was a time of community, when children delighted over their gifts and the women and men, still young, still beautiful, knew they were part of a new, exciting and slightly more egalitarian world. These parties my father dubbed “champagne parties”, redolent of his life in its prime, and he would recount them to everyone who would listen, until he remembered them no more.

Who knows if my own memories of the past are reliable? Perhaps they are as unreliable as my father’s, perhaps all the anxiety of rising rents, arbitrary visa rules and blatant racism directed at South Asians has been airbrushed out of them, perhaps all those Christmases with plastic trees and mall Santas, the rise of a consumeristic and transient society, the replacement of caste consciousness with class hubris, shouldn’t be remembered with rose-tinted glasses unwilling to interrogate its effects on us. But our past comes to us, not always as a distinct memory but rather as a feeling, and my feeling is always one of being cared for, of being loved, of being prepared by my parents to lead a life of dignity. The lives of our parents, the first great migration to the Arabian Gulf, charted the geography of our aspirations, they became the incantations to invoke our dreams, they created a new modernity sewn on to the hem of old traditions.

Selma Carvalho is a British-Asian writer. Her latest publication is the novel Sisterhood Of Swans (Speaking Tiger, 2021). She lives in London.

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