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The Secret Lives of Houses

The Secret Lives of Houses
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F N Souza was born in a small house between Arrarim and Sonarbhat of Saligao, and would grow up to be one of the most influential modernist artists of the twentieth century. But it is the house that holds secrets. Houses, like people, have stories to tell. They speak of generations past, of lives unfolding sometimes into perilous ruin and at other times into unexpected valour.

It was built some time prior to 1860. The grand neighbouring house, with a huge fresco of a beleaguered saint carrying the Infant Jesus painted just above its threshold, was built in 1860. The neighbour, Peter ‘Bobo’ D’Souza (now deceased), remembered the small house as predating his own. On 12 April, 1924, the house groaned with the misery of Lilia-Maria Cecilia Antunes’s birth pangs and Francis Newton Souza was born. He would spend his early childhood here, and Saligao would claim him as her own, relinquishing forever ties with his father’s family.

The house in its original form was possibly much smaller then it is today. Later, Lilia’s brother Cyril, after he started working in Abadan, Iran, remodelled it. In those early years, the family hovered between poverty and aspiration. Lilia’s father, Antonio Joao Antunes, as family lore has it, was a musician trained in playing the bassoon He toured as chef d’orchestra with British India ships entertaining royalty in the golden age of sailing. After his death, his widow Leopoldinha Saldanha, kept boarders to make ends meet. One such boarder was Jose Victor Piedade de Souza, teaching at the nearby Mater Dei school.

Walking through the house, intimate as it is, where a narrow reception room connects to what must have been a dining area or perhaps just a hallway to the bedroom and kitchen, it is easy to see how Jose and Lilia (or Lily as she was always known) became lovers. And for reasons unknown, although one may hazard a guess that class inhibitions had much to do with this, they became star-crossed lovers. Jose’s family severed links with Lilia, and in the words of one family member, ‘completely cut her off’. Whatever the discord, in the early months of 1922, a 24-year old Jose and a 19-year-old Lilia got married.

On 8 May, 1924, the family gathered at the Saligao Church, just as they had done fourteen months earlier for their daughter Zumera’s christening. Grandmother Leopoldinha Saldanha held Souza while Father Sebastiao Lobo poured water over his head and pronounced Leopoldinha as his Godmother.

Inside the century old Saligao Church, the small ochre coloured tiles fill up the nave. Churches such as these, with their incense-stifling interiors, both inspired and repulsed Souza. As a young boy he prayed fervently for intercession in front of the “candle-lit, flower-decked” oleographs of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Throughout his life, he would have an enduring but conflicted relationship with Christianity, churches, the crucifixion and the concept of God. Possibly Souza came to despise the sedate orderliness and stultification of colonial Catholicism, all the more damning in that it had failed to encourage local artists. Instead, it subscribed to European artists and imported from Europe a Jesus who was “an oily, blond, bearded, red-robed, bleary (supposedly meek), blue-eyed, Wagnerian operatic character. And Mary a pretty, greasy, blue-veiled, dark-eyed, blond creature.”

It was in this house, with its high roof beams and small rooms, that Souza’s life became increasingly crowded by women. There was his mother, grandmother (a fairly tall woman of ‘easy going’ disposition) and three aunts – Blanche, Matti and Bridgit. To Souza, their influence loomed large, and he found himself at odds with their busy world. In later years, he wrote, ‘there was nothing for me to do even among the women in Goa.’ The death of his father and sister, soon after he was born, plunged his mother into destitution and unimaginable despair. The absence of a male figure gave rise to a complex relationship with his mother. Living always in claustrophobic homes, first in Goa, then in Bombay, led to encounters bordering on the unseemly such as watching his mother bathe through a peephole. His father dying shortly after his birth had burdened Souza with an overwhelming Oedipal guilt of having inadvertently killed him. He dabbled with the  theme in sketches, exploring the sexual gaze of a boy-child over the looming, all-powerful naked figure of his mother. In the poem, Mother of God, he reflects on his relationship with his mother: ‘My body and mind took the shape of divinity but my act differed from the Mother-fucker Oedipus.’ Tragic loss of spouse replaced by a son is a familiar mythological theme: the new replacing the old, winter and spring, death and resurrection, and Souza was in the business of creating myths.

For over a century, the house in Saligao remained in the Antunes family, abandoned and fallen to ruin in later years. In 2006, Joaquim Mascarenhas, who grew up in Saligao was looking for a house when his father was alerted to the possibility of the Antunes house being up for sale. When Joaquim bought the house, he had no idea of the slice of history he was buying. People used to play cricket in the verandah and the kitchen had collapsed, he tells me, but it was a challenge he was willing to take on.

Joaquim has spent an enormous amount of money in restoring the house and has conserved many of its original features. This house, where so much history looms will pass from one generation to the next, unfolding new stories in the course of time.

This article first appeared in Timeline Goa Magazine Vol.1 Issue 2 (page 30).

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