The beggars in the villages of Goa were never a nuisance. They abided by rules that were mutually accepted by the giver and the receiver of alms. Of the few beggars that called on us, I knew them all by name, and I considered them as fellow villagers, albeit of a lower social standing.
The rule in Saligão was that the day set aside for begging was Thursday, and sometimes on the annual chapel or church feast; but never on any other day of the week. The alms were in the form of either a fistful of rice grain or a paisa (the local penny). I don’t recall ever confronting a disgruntled beggar, and neither can I think of one who didn’t say “Dev borem korum” (God bless you) to the giver. In fact, some of them were quite colourful characters.
My favourite beggar was Artemisia. She was from the village of Assagão. Artemisia was the classic ‘bag lady’, except that she was always very cheerful. She was a brick short of a full load, for sure, but she was a lot of fun. Artemisia sported a hat of dried fruit and dried flowers that resembled the headgear of Hollywood’s Carmen Miranda in the 1940’s, and she always wore a dress; never a sari. Her earthly belongings were wrapped in a bundle carried over her left hip on which perched her scrawny cat. Tied around the cat’s neck was a thin leash of coir, the other end of which was tied around the wrist of Artemisia’s left hand. The right hand held a bamboo staff about four feet long. Artemisia was slightly bow legged and wore canvas runners with no laces.
Artemisia was a very sprightly woman with a brisk walk. She would signal her approach with the rasping sound of her voice as she’d wave her right arm in the sign of the cross and blurt out blessings in Latin.
It was very easy to strike up a conversation with Artemisia. If she wanted to take a break, she’d sit on the steps of the balcony, put down the bundle containing her belongings, and let her cat step off for a little stroll. When she was ready to leave, she would put the bundle of belongings on her hip, pull sharply on the leash, and flip the cat from the ground right on to its perch on the bundle. It was sheer poetry in motion!
The exception to the begging rule was the neighbourhood drunk. Ours was Philpa Irmão – brother Philip. He was rather tall, had a pronounced stoop, and always wore a tattered jacket and a kashti (the Goan thong). He would visit whenever he needed money to buy feni, and he would sit himself in a chair next to the front door where he would drool and strive to make conversation. My grandmother would usually give him a few annas for which he would thank her profusely and leave. At night we’d hear the wails of his spinster sister who he would beat up after he got drunk at the local tavern. I don’t recall ever giving him rice; it was always money. I guess his sister provided for his supper by begging from other neighbours.
A unique characteristic of Goa’s village beggars was their honesty. Despite the temptation to steal from homes where front doors were left wide open during daylight hours when the lady of the house would be working in the kitchen at the back, there were no thefts.
The villagers of Saligão were noted for their frugality, but we never turned a beggar away. They were not treated as freeloaders, but rather as distressed members of society who were deserving of our compassion.