Our home in Saligão did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. The kerosene lamp was our light source, and water was drawn from a well that was shared by seven neighbouring households. Five of these homes, including ours, clustered around a tiny courtyard

Like many rural areas at that point in time, Saligão did not have indoor flush toilets. Instead, our throne was in an outhouse at one corner of the back yard.

Now, walking to the outhouse was no problem during the day. But it was a different story at night; our having to contend with the likes of snakes and ghosts and rain and strong winds that could blow out the candle in the cotti flashlight. So, the alternative was the chamber pot or ungnel chamber pot.

The ungnel was made of red clay, and it was usually kept in the corner of a spare room in the house where we could go pee during the night.

To get to the ungnel, we would light our way with a ponti which was a small kerosene-filled glass bottle with a wick in the cap.

Whenever I wanted to go pee, my mother would accompany me with ponti in hand to reassure me against any lurking ghosts or snakes.

43rukusOne night, mom was so tired that she lit the ponti and told me to go potty alone. It was sometime in September after the monsoons when the harvested rice grain would have been stored in the spare room in a bathaso kodo – a bamboo mat rolled up like a silo.

Well, I held the ponti in my right hand, lowered my pyjamas with my left hand, and sat on the potty with great trepidation. Just as I was done – and beginning to overcome my fear of ghosts, snakes and any other demons – a large rat caught in the act of gnawing a hole through the bamboo silo decided to escape by scurrying between my feet and the potty. I raised both feet and let out a piercing scream that not only reverberated through our small house, but was heard by Eudocina, the elderly next-door neighbour who lived alone in her home. She panicked… and that’s when all hell broke loose.

Eudocina dashed out of her house screaming “Pau, reh, pau reh, pau reh…” (“Help! Help! Help!…”) without knowing why. This woke up the neighbouhood. Eudocina’s screams were heard by Marequina, a simple-minded elderly spinster who lived down the lane. Terrified, she ran out of her house, frantically scratching both her scrawny legs as she hopped from one foot to the other, and spontaneously relayed the call for help in a shrill voice… without knowing why either. The screams woke up my mother who, not knowing what was going on, just sat petrified in bed with her legs convulsing under the blanket.

In less than a minute, neighbours gathered outside our house curious to know what all the commotion was about. Since there was no sign of burglary or any other criminal activity, an agitated Marequina speculated that I must have seen a ghost. She weaved her way through the gathered neighbours like a weasel, suggesting that a mass should be offered to exorcise the evil spirit

Meanwhile, my unflappable grandmother, Mãe, who was partially paralysed from a stroke, slowly got off her bed, grabbed her bamboo staff and shuffled over to my bedroom. She put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and said “Baba, tell me what happened”. And I replied softly “I saw a coindeer  (rat)”. That just cracked her up. She broke out into uncontrollable laughter for at least one whole minute, with tears rolling down her cheeks, while Marequina and the group of neighbours waited in rapt anticipation for her to compose herself and give them the official version.

Still chuckling as she wiped the tears from her eyes with the tip of her sari, Mãe told them what actually happened while I stood by her side looking pretty sheepish.

As the neigbours headed back to their homes, I could hear Eudocina and Marequina justify their alarm by speculating what would have happened if, instead of a rat, it was a burglar or an evil person trying to kill the little fellow.     Later, I went back to bed and slept it out until the next morning when I went to mass at the chapel just to reassure my neighbours that I was back to normal.

As for my grandmother, she taught me a lesson in the importance of keeping one’s composure in a crisis – a lesson that has stood me in good stead in my adult life.