Desiree Fernandes that’s me . Much desired by my parents Agnelo and Marietta originally from Saligaon but officially from “The Nest”, 12/4 Colaba Post Office, Colaba, Mumbai 400005 . At least that’s what is recorded on my parents’ Ration Card.
So how did a young couple from Saligaon land up in the southern most tip of Bombay? My mother always used to say that it was the Hand of God. Why did she happen to be to her Aunty Glory’s house when Lucy Machado had come back from Bombay? Marietta never really went to her Aunty Glory’s house on her own but that week she was staying with her because her mother was admitted to the big hospital in Panjim. ” Aunty Glory will look after you,” said her mother to a bristling Marietta who at 17, definitely didn’t need any looking after. But her mother knew better. At 17, Marietta was young and desirable and she didn’t want all the village Romeo’s make a beeline to their house. She had already noticed the glint in Pascal’s eye every time they passed him on the way. And the way Savio, blushed every time. Yes, she thought, it was better that she stays with her sister in Saligao. So Marietta was packed off to Aunty Glory’s house. There, it so happened that Lucy Machado, Uncle Benny’s oldest sister came visiting from Bombay and when she saw Marietta, her eyes lit up.
“My madam is looking for a new girl to help in the kitchen, ” she told Glory. ” Why doesn’t Marietta come with me? I promise I will look after her well, ” she said clutching on to her fat hand bag. ” And it will be a good idea for her to learn some housekeeping as well as earn a dowry.”
Aunty Glory was quite taken in with the idea but said she’d have to check with her sister and before she knew it, Marietta was sleeping beside Lucy Machado on the top deck of the ferry to Bombay.
” Then of course I met Agnelo, the understudy to Mrs. Manekji’s old Boy ” Marietta would say with a sigh and I was left to imagine the love that blossomed between the two young Goans who were working in Mrs. Manekji’s household. ” And then, you came along, ” she used to say with a flourish and clasping her hands to her bosom, “a sweet little angel from God. Mrs. Manekji who had even come to our wedding was smitten by you and told me that we had to call you Desiree, after her favourite heroine.
“Desiree was Napoleon’s first love and became a Queen! The only one whose descendants are still Swedish Royalty! You are destined to be a Queen, Desiree, ” Marietta used to tell me and I never tired of hearing the story of how I got my name for the hundredth, or may be millionth time.
Mrs. Manekji was true to her word – she looked after me like her own daughter and brought me up to be a Queen. She sent me off to study in the convent nearby and also made sure I had piano lessons each week from Mrs. Braganza, the best teacher in town. She enrolled me in a Speech and Drama Class and would have made me learn tennis at the MSLTA but didn’t want to make it embarrassing for Marietta who would have had to wait for me at the servants’ enclosure. Over the years I went for Ikebana classes, learnt tailoring at Mrs. Grant’s and even learnt the most sophisticated desserts and confectioneries at the YWCA cookery classes.
I wore the prettiest dresses from Marks & Spencer’s that Mrs. Manekji used to get every summer from London and all the girls in school used to be really jealous of me. I often thought that she’d take me with her on holiday one day but she told me, “Desiree, I can’t let you be too different from your parents or you will abandon them and that is a crime. So I will give you everything but you must still be able to live with your parents.”
I never really understood her logic till Ramu, the dhobi’s son was pulled out of private school suddenly. “Mrs. Mehta’s son stopped paying the fees after Mrs. Mehta died, ” Marietta told me. ” Now the poor boy has to stop going to school and go back to being a dhobi’s boy and finish his matriculation in the Municipal School. Poor chap got so shattered! Thank God, Mrs. Manekji is not raising you to live beyond your station in life, ” she used to say and cross herself lest Mrs. Manekji had a change of heart and bring me up in a way that would alienate me from my parents.
But Mrs. Manekji knew the pain of losing a child, as she had lost her only son to America. She had sent him there to study for four years but he stayed on forever. In the beginning he used to come back for holidays but gradually, his visits became few and far between. The last time he had come was before my parents got married so I had never seen him till Mrs. Mankeji passed away.
” I should have never let him become American, Desiree, ” she used to tell me, looking at his photo in the silver frame . ” See this is his wife and my grandson. Even he is married now. But they never come home. They call me to stay with them but how can I leave this place? See, he has changed so much that he can no longer connect with me. I can’t do this to Marietta and Agnelo.” And that is why Mrs. Manekji brought me up like a queen but still let me be a daughter to my own parents.
I never really knew how old Mrs. Manekji was but she looked at least a hundred so when she died, I wasn’t really shocked. But what shocked me was how Jeh Manekji turned up 24 hours after poor Mrs. Manekji lay in the cold freezing morgue. After all these years, he suddenly seemed to have the time to come for his mother’s last rites.
He also seemed to have the time to find a lawyer to contest the will that left “The Nest” to me – Desiree Fernandes. And he had the time to keep coming back every now and then to “look after” his property!
Yes,it was not HIS property: it was MINE . Mrs. Manekji had fulfilled her dream and promise to me and bequeathed her house, a quaint little cottage at Colaba Post Office to me : Desiree Fernandes, an 18 year old, FY BA student of English and French at Elphinstone College.
But Jeh Mankeji was convinced that Marietta and Agnelo had “worked ” on his mother to leave the property to their daughter. He fought tooth and nail for what he claimed was his rightful property and the litigation went on for 20 years. It would have gone on for more and everyone says that I have a good chance but honestly, now I am really tired.
After twenty years of flying with Gulf Air, it is time now to retire. And I want to go back to Saligao, to my own little cottage that I made there with my Mikey. Our very own home which we used to visit every summer with the children. I want to retire there now and enjoy the peace of the coconut trees and the sea. Colaba is no longer what it was and “The Nest” is lost amidst the trees of skyscrapers around it.
I look up at the house one last time as I turn to get into my car. “Come Desiree,” says Mikey helping me in. “It’s time to say a final good bye to this Palace of Illusions.”
This week’s WOW prompt is – ‘Books And Titles’
Desiree by Annemarie Selinko is a fictionalised version of Napoleon’s first love and has been cherished by three generations of women in my family – my mother, myself and my daughters. I am hoping my grand daughter will enjoy this much handled paperback in her own time.
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is Draupadi’s perspective of the Mahabharata. My daughters and I loved the story though my mother didn’t care too much for it.
Of course there are many many more books that I can count among my favourites but if I have to trace a thread that defines my taste, it would be fictional or semi-fictional stories about women and families with a historic or mythological background.
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it.