Surreal Tête-à-Tête

It was one of those nights when at first it looks as if nothing out of the ordinary is going to happen; but then, when one is already dead to the world – and can’t possibly expect anything to happen – almost everything happens.

Avó Leonor at 85

Yes, in a dream anything can happen, triggered by a poignant scene witnessed earlier in the day, a gripping tale told or heard, or by interface of nostalgia and anticipation. For, as Eliot says in Four Quartets, “Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.”

The tête-à-tête I had on the second night of the New Year gave me the sense that “all time is eternally present, All time is unredeemable.” Time past and time present did get inextricably mixed when I was greeted by my grandmother Leonor (1900-1992), of happy and adorable memory.


While in real life it was grandma who waited for reports from the world of light, now it was my turn to seek news from beyond the tomb… about the Light of the World.

I was helping out at the funeral of a close relative when suddenly my Avó took centre stage. This was uncharacteristic of her, as like Mary in the Magnificat she always kept a low profile. In a coffin she lay – moved, quite oddly, to a busy commercial establishment at the Panjim church square, which was once called Largo das Flores, the Flower Square. But there were no flowers anywhere, no candles, no voices of mourning – only the din of the madding crowd and the motors outside.

It wasn’t an upsetting sight to behold, because the old lady herself was relaxed, seemingly waiting for a visitor to arrive. She had closed her eyes: I reckon she found no sense in doing otherwise after glaucoma had struck her blind in the last four years of her life.

My Brazilian friend Aluísio used to say, “When God sends you an illness, be sure He will also make the bed.” So it was for Avó, who had been blessed with an extra sense. She could literally feel the presence of a person in the room, although this time around she had mistaken me for Fernando, her firstborn and my father standing by her cradle. The cause of the confusion? Maybe my voice which sixteen years down the line has, so they say, grown closer to my father’s. But soon she said, radiantly, “Ah! It’s you, Oscar!”

The exclamation caused a gush of memories, like her grandchildren whom she always welcomed home – me in particular, every single day, after that gruelling journey to Quepem and back.

“Absolutely delighted to see you, Avó,” said I, feeling that sixteen years had telescoped into a day. While in real life it was grandma who waited for reports from the world of light, now it was my turn to seek news from beyond the tomb… about the Light of the World. I just could not wait and so, like a stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle, I fired a few questions:

“Avó, does God exist? Have you met Him? Spoken to Him? Where is He?”

That is when I noticed her standing upright. There was behind her a glass door as clear as crystal and sporting a red-and-yellow horizontal band; which opened onto the footpath. In stoic silence, with her eyes still shut and her smile withdrawn, she faced my inquiry. I thought briefly that my references to the divine had been brash, and was going to apologise; but the very next instant, perhaps misreading her stillness as endorsement of my momentary unbelief, I prodded her with more questions:

“Where is He? Up there, or down here? Were you there?”

An inquisitorial Pilate got no answers from Jesus, did he? The same here; and, in addition, I was woken up. In vain did I try to recover that magical ambience of suspended consciousness, by burying my face deep in my pillow! There was also that enigmatic lady in a green sari, who was babbling a few nothings in her bid to liaise between my grandmother and me; but again, to no avail.

Fled was that vision, the saving grace being the sound of music about my ears: later I identified it as “Jezu, Ballka Pritichea” (‘Our Dear Child Jesus’) – a solemn polyphonic composition by our very own Fr. Vasco do Rego. (On waking up I was divided between that hymn and Fr Peter Cardozo's vivacious "Zoi Jezu, Amcheá Raza", meaning 'Hail, O Christ, Our King!'')

By now the sparrows outside had begun their chirpy melody, while the inside of me thumped like a drum. Hailing that hymn as a sweet reply to my impatient musings, I realised that it was nearing the Angelus, a moment very close to Avó’s heart. I was gradually coming to terms with my intimate reality, confident that it had disturbed no one, but soon thereafter, pretty shaken up was I when my firstborn, Fernando Jr., waking up as usual at seven o’clock, asked quite matter-of-factly, “Papa, whose funeral did you attend yesterday?”

(Herald, 9 February 2009)