THE HARVEST FEAST
Every August, there took place a feast to celebrate the rice paddy harvest. Just one household in Saligão would be picked on a rotation basis to orchestrate the celebration, and the opportunity came only once in a lifetime. One year, it was the turn of our household.
My paternal grandmother loved any celebration, and she wasn’t going to pass on this one just because it could stretch our budget. She persuaded my mother to take on the feast, and I got to be ‘president’ when I was about ten years old.
The ceremony involved the ‘president’ carrying a sheaf of harvested paddy on his shoulders and leading a small procession from his home to the village church. The sheaf would then to be placed at the foot of the main altar to be blessed by the Vicar at the start of Mass.
Now, in that year, we had a poor monsoon. Our rice crop was maturing at a slower pace, and the paddy fields in our village had not yet sprouted heads of rice grain on their stalks. But it was a different story in the neighbouring village of Calangute. The shortage of rain was not a problem to their farmers because they had a backup of water from a nearby river. Consequently, their fields sported thick heads of grain
A couple of days before the feast, we had a visit from the Vicar, Pde Antonio Melo, who wanted to go over all the details concerning the big day. The evening was always an opportune time for a priest to make a house call because he stood a good chance of being offered a drink, usually Portuguese port wine. My mother offered him a glass of wine, and he started going through the checklist.
Everything was taken care of, except for the sheaf of rice stalks from our paddy field that looked like a clump of plain overgrown grass. My grandmother expressed her predicament to the vicar and wondered aloud if she could beg, borrow or steal a sheaf from a farmer in Calangute. “Good idea” said the vicar, with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ll get Menino, my sacristan, to steal some”. “But won’t he be committing a sin?” asked grandmother. “Oh yes he will” replied the vicar, “but I’ll get him to come to confession the next day and I’ll absolve him of his sin”. He then gulped down his drink, thanked us for the wine, said goodbye and strode briskly back to the church to get Menino to go to Calangute that night.
On the day of the feast, I was woken at the break of dawn by the sound of a bugle outside my bedroom window. There were three musicians from Marvod – Pascu, Menino and Zuzulo – on cornet, trumpet and drums, playing the beautiful Portuguese alvorado.. The alvorado was a medley of four traditional Portuguese tunes, some melancholy and some joyful, played at daybreak at the home of a person celebrating a significant event like, say, a wedding. It would also be played on a feast day at the home of the ‘president’ celebrating the village church feast. My grandmother had arranged for the musicians to start the celebration with traditional fanfare to honour her little ‘president’.
As soon as they had completed the first set of tunes, my grandmother handed them a bottle of ‘feni’ of which each of them took a large swig in lieu of coffee. That was all they needed to get them going until the sun made its appearance.
Meanwhile, the alvorado had attracted a few neighbours to our house to enjoy the music and have a cup of tea. But since this was a special occasion, my mother served our visitors African coffee that my dad had sent us from Dar es Salaam. In lieu of fresh milk that was in short supply, we used condensed milk from a can.
Now, it was my job to puncture the two holes in the top of the can to allow for the condensed milk to be poured into a cup. I held the pointed end of a can opener over the rim of the can and gave it a sharp blow with my right hand. As soon as the can was pierced, a small blob of condensed milk spurted out from the opening. And before it could drip over the side of the can, I lowered my mouth over the opening and took a swig of the sweet stuff.
When it came time to leave for church, I donned my opmus (surplice) with a red cape… as did the bugler, the cornet player, the drummer, and a handful of other men. I put the sheaf of stolen rice stalks on my shoulder and walked in the procession led by the intoxicated musicians and the other men, and followed by my mother, grandmother, and a few women. Just then it dawned upon me that I would not be able to receive Holy Communion. By taking that swig of condensed milk, I had broken the then mandatory fast that one receiving Communion had to observe after midnight.
Upon arriving in church, I placed the sheaf of paddy at the high altar and knelt in a rather prominent place befitting the ‘president’. When the time came for the vicar to serve Communion, I didn’t go up to the communion rail. The vicar, noticing my absence, turned to me and cocked his head as if to ask if I was going to receive Communion. I shook my head to signify a “no”, and looked down at the floor a split second after I saw him grimace with disgust.
The vicar continued to offer Communion to the rest of the congregation, and ended the Mass with the usual blessing. But I don’t recall him congratulating me at the end of the church service. Perhaps it was because I left the church in a hurry to avoid any further embarrassment.
I remember walking home feeling terrible about not being able to receive Holy Communion on a day that comes only once in a lifetime. But then, I’ve always done many other silly things that come only once in a lifetime. They have helped make my life all that more interesting!