In her small Catholic neighborhood at Bandra, Jacinta Gomes was quite popular. Everyone had her number on speed dial. She was the go-to person for all occasions, happy or sad.
There’s a wedding coming up? Call Jacinta for the church booking, the emcee, the band, even the place from where to get wedding favors. There’s a funeral? Oh, Jacinta will know the undertakers. Get in touch with her; she’ll even get you a fantastic deal on the coffin. And what? You are not getting a woman? Jacinta knows all the eligible unmarried girls in the city, maybe even the country. We don’t want any matchmaker!
At 22, she had achieved what most other Mangalorean Christian women had not—an enviable position within the Catholic community. Heck, she even knew all the Konkani roce songs!
She was the pride of her parents, Francis and Merita, and why shouldn’t she be? She knew her Bible as well as her analytical chemistry. She could handle a rosary just as easily as she could handle the accounts of their family frozen foods shop. She gave freely to all charities but she could also bargain with the fisherwomen. She was as much at home teaching her Sunday School students as she was in making the elder folk around her feel at ease.
She was a gem. And that is why her parents proudly flaunted her wherever they went. They had begun to forget who some of their relatives were, but they could always depend on Jacinta to scoop them out of sticky situations. It would be a sad day when she would leave to make another house. Her mother Merita felt that often, but with whom could she share her worries?
It was a Saturday evening, the day when sorpotel was cooked in the house. Jacinta had now taken over that tradition from her mother. She commenced with the cooking as soon as she returned from her college at 4, removing the pork from the freezer first, cleaning all the vessels required, readying the spices in their right proportions and proceeding with the preparation. Merita chatted with the neighboring aunts outside their old cottage house and Francis was at their deli. Rolston, her tenth-grade brother, sat at his study desk waging his own little war with trigonometry.
Merita called Jacinta out once to ask her where they had purchased their sungtan balchao from, for the neighboring Aunt Martha wanted to know. Jacinta quickly obliged them and returned to her cooking. Rolston kept coming up to her whenever the LHS and RHS of his problems did not match. And there were several calls on the landline, which she answered. But, despite everything, she did not miss a beat in her cooking. The aroma of deliciously cooked sorpotel began wafting through the house, when the sun outside began to go down.
Leaving the pot to simmer for its stipulated time, she went into her room to dress up for her Saturday evening obligation. She was to lead the choir group today, and she needed to be on time. The Lenten season was just around the corner; everyone needed to be on the top of their game. When she saw her friend Frida hurry to the church from her kitchen window, she knew she had to leave too.
As she was leaving, her mother called out behind her, “Wai go Jessie, you have not taken your phone?”
“Let it be, mumma,” Jacinta replied from the doorstep. “It’s just a five-minute walk to the church, and I will have to keep the phone on silent there anyway. If anyone calls, just take the message. And put the gas off after twenty minutes.”
She walked out in a hurry. She took the shortcut to reach the church, which meant that she had to walk through hens and ducks and geese and other forms of poultry outside people’s homes, smelling the gutter water, and slow down when the stray dogs stared at her. She did not want to trouble the animals unnecessarily. When the narrow lane opened out to the larger road, she saw her father at the Astin’s Wine Shop buying his weekend fix.
But she hurried on. She was getting late. The wine shop owner, Uncle Maurice, saw her hurrying along and told Francis, who turned and waved to his daughter. She waved back.
They were already waiting at the church when she reached. It was a huge church with a larger East Indian Christian crowd, but right now the Saturday mass had ended and people were walking out. She walked through the Saturday crowd of churchgoers buying their homemade chicken and mutton goodies from the stalls outside the church and talking animatedly with each other and entered the church. Dipping her fingers cursorily into the holy water, she made the sign of the cross as she entered.
The choir boys and girls sat noiselessly on the front two pews near the mike-stand accompanied by a group of adults. As soon as they spotted her, there was a flurry of action.
Once the choir practice began, she was in her element. She could become engrossed in her singing and conducting, but at the same time, she could be quite alert to any slipup in her little coterie. With merry composure, she checked all the goofs, and the organ-player Harry who had started playing when he was 12 and now was the father of a 12 year old, kept nodding at her appreciatively.
Choir practice got over on dot at 7:30. She had to hurry home and finish the cooking. But she could not do that without first sharing polite acknowledgements with the people around her. She went up and spoke to Frida, asking her about her bedridden grandfather, and commiserated with his paralytic stroke, and she went up to Harry as he was packing up his Casio and asked him about his son’s problems with studies and suggested a tutor, and then she went up to the smart middle-aged man seated at the last pew who had been staring unabashedly at her all the time.
She went and sat right next to him, and he immediately placed his arm around her slender waist.
“Not now, Uncle Soares,” she admonished him. “We are in a church.”
“Oh, Jesus knows about us!” he said.
“Do not take his name in vain!” Jacinta looked at him with such a glare that he slowly retreated his arm. But he kept smiling through his bushy mustache and adjusted his spectacles to look better at her.
“Why do you still call me Uncle?” he said.
She chose not to answer that. “How is Aunt Ellie?” she asked, mostly to change the topic.
“She is fine,” he said. “She is already off to bed, Jess. That’s how my life is. I am just 35, for God’s sake.”
She again glared at him.
“Sorry,” he said. “But you know. When will we be really happy, Jess?”
She looked down. The choir people had all dispersed; she was now alone in the church with this man.
“You have made up your mind, right?” he asked.
Jacinta nodded. The nod was slight. It indicated her affirmation but not her confirmation.
“Please Jess,” he urged. “Let’s do it. Tomorrow. After mass. As we decided. I will be waiting for you at the cemetery.”
She nodded again. “Where will we go?” she asked.
“Somewhere far from here. I have a friend’s house in Vasai. We will stay there for a few days. I have already started looking for a rental apartment there.”
“What about your job?”
“I will just stop going. It’s not like they had a contract or anything. Don’t worry about the money. I have a lot saved up, even a bank account that no one else knows about.”
He held her hands in his.
“I have been saving for this day, Jess.” There seemed to be true meaning in his eyes. “I only want you to be with me, nothing else matters. But I’ll keep you happy; I really will. You just come along. Leave everything and come.”
The sacristy door opened. The altar boys would come out soon to prepare the church for the next day’s Sunday mass.
“I am leaving now,” he said urgently. “But tomorrow after the 8 o’clock mass. We will do it.”
Jacinta smiled at him. He hurried out of the pew and out of the church. She kept sitting there, looking at the big crucifix above the altar.