Religion pervaded almost every aspect of village life, but it was more obvious in the Catholic community that was in the majority at the time, the minority being Hindu.
Signs of religious fervour could be evidenced everywhere at any time of day. When traveling by bus or ox-drawn “matchbox”, most older women passengers would have a rosary in hand, their pouted lips twitching in silent prayer as they’d gaze out the window in a blank stare. At sunset, when the aimori bell sounded, Catholic villagers would cease all activities – in the fields, in the playgrounds, in their homes – and face the church while reciting the ‘angelus’ (an evening prayer) for about thirty seconds. And before supper, all the members of a family would get together and recite the rosary followed by a lengthy litany and prayers to various saints to invoke special blessings.
Back in school, we were required to go to confession at least once a month, and we had to prove it by getting the priest to initial a chart in our ‘calendar’ that was reviewed every month by Father Lobo, the brother of the school principal. Failure to go to confession and communion resulted in a visit to the principal’s office for a cane across the palm. (The ‘calendar’ was a student’s manual containing information about classroom periods, holiday and examination dates, and our trimester report cards that were filled in manually by our classroom teacher).
Now, all this emphasis on religion would seemingly convey the impression that village life was dreary. But it wasn’t so, at least not for us kids. Although some church services were boring, church and chapel feasts and many other religious customs were a lot of fun. One such custom was Saibin, in veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, it did not involve going to church; instead, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary would be carried from home to home for an overnight stay until the entire ward was covered and the statue returned to the church from where it would begin the rounds in another ward.
The statue was about eighteen inches tall displayed in a glass-sided case. It would be carried in procession to the host home and set down on a makeshift altar in the sitting room. The altar was a table fully draped in a white sheet topped by a pedestal – usually a low wooden stool under a lace table mat, surrounded by two candlesticks, a couple of flower vases, and a terracotta oil lamp.
After a recitation of the rosary and the chanting of the ladainha (Litany), a hymn would be sung to end the half-hour-long ceremony. Then the guests would be served tea and the traditional soné (boiled chic peas with thin slices of coconut). Sometimes we’d be served sharop (strawberry or orange flavoured syrup with soda water), our favourite soft drink.
The fun part of this custom was that we got to enjoy some local treats for a week or two until the statue moved out of our immediate neighbourhood. And the ceremonies were short enough to give us ample time to get in a game of soccer or a game of marbles before the Angelus bell rang to tell us to go home.