The Bomoicar Life
Joanna Lobo looks back at Goa in the ‘80s- an idyllic life of church feasts, village gossip, enthusiastic priests and the ever-present allure of Bombay Goans, Bomoicars.
Her name was Louelle. We bonded over a shared name – her birth one and my middle one, and convent-educated English accents. As a shy and misunderstood teenager awkwardly dealing with growing pains, I admired L’s confidence. We were the same age but she had maturity on her side. And she had poise, she carried herself with a pride that reflected in good posture, her fashion sense wasn’t conservative or understated. She spoke well too, each word serving its purpose and with no unnecessary fillers. Her English was the cultured kind, one that hinted at a good education, better opportunities and life experience. She embodied the confidence and freedom that I, a village girl, had only encountered between the pages of books and in English serials.
I think I had a crush on her. It wasn’t anything romantic, I wanted to be her.
I grew up in a tiny village, Camurlim, in the north of Goa. It was far from the beaches or nightlife that gives this little state its badge of popularity. I had a normal childhood. Though I was born in Pune and my parents lived in Dubai for a brief while, my childhood was in that village.
We went for long walks through muddy fields, jostled for space in crowded and creaking buses, stole fruit from trees, and spent our evenings doing homework in our verandahs. My house was old – we had a big garden, a telephone that didn’t always work, a spotty Doordarshan connection, and a cramped library. This was the time before the Internet and cable TV, our connection to the outside word was through school and bazaar visits. We got our entertainment and news the old-fashioned way, through evening gossip sessions at home and on visits to the church. As a joint family of proud Catholics, the village church was our playground, our temple, our hangout spot, our school and our entertainment. There were Catechism classes, plays, weekly children's meetings, picnics, feasts: enthusiastic priests did their best to keep us youngsters involved with the church.
The biggest religious celebration of the year was the feast of our patron saint, St Rita, celebrated in May. As children home for summer holidays, it meant we could be a part of all the celebrations. It was also the time we welcomed, with much enthusiasm, that rare species from out-of-town, the Bomoicars.
In the 80’s, Goa had a lot of outbound migrations, to Africa, to Portugal, to the Gulf and on many ships/cruises. People left in search of better opportunities and possibly, a better or different life. Many went to the neighbouring state, to the city that welcomes all migrants, Bombay. The distance was shorter, and there were steamers that carried people back and forth. Their exodus back home usually happened in the summer holidays, and for the Goan Catholics, the village feast. In my village, these two events coincided.
These Bombay Goans or Bomoicars stood out among us seemingly poorer country cousins. They were unlike the perfumed, fair, and accented relatives who lived abroad and returned with gifts of duty-free items. They were different because they were like us in many ways but had 'city ways’. They dressed differently – the latest fashion always made it to church, they spoke about jobs and businesses, they led exciting city lives (or so we imagined), they interacted with people from different cultures and communities. To us kids, they represented a sense of freedom we could only aspire towards achieving. It was a freedom devoid of the neighbours’ prying eyes and the church’s restrictions.
Louelle was a Bomoicar. I wanted to be her. Two decades later, I achieved that dream. Work got me to Bombay. I became a Bomoicar and, I hated it.
The Bombay I had heard stories about and created a vivid picture of didn’t match up at first sight. It was dirty, crowded, polluted, and didn’t have character. The first two years in the city, I was homesick. I craved home-cooked food, afternoon naps, Konkani songs and just the pace of life I had grown up with. I didn’t know anyone at church, I missed my family and school-friends and I quickly learned the value of space – I had swapped a big house for a cramped flat. I went home practically every week.
But eventually, the city grew on me and I slowly started shedding my Goan skin. I have now adjusted to living in a tiny home, travelling by locals and endless traffic jams, my food isn’t restricted by cuisine, and work has become a big aspect of my life. I’ve embraced the fast pace of life, and discovered that bad first impressions aside, the city has personality. Bombay has made me more street smart, worldly-wise, liberal; and made me a feminist. It has given me friends, family and a pet dog; it has opened up new worlds and adventures; and it’s made me independent.
As my love for the city grew, so did my desire to keep my Goan roots intact. In my 11 years here, I have always sought out things that remind me of my childhood home. Some of my closest friends are Goan, and we share stories of our good old days and a simpler time. We use social media to talk about #BeingGoan. I’ve attended more tiatrs and concerts here, a particularly memorable one being watching Lorna perform live. I seek out excuses to write about Goa, Goans. I eat Goan food wherever possible, hunting for the few places that serve it here or smuggling back kilos of it during my every trip home (yes, I’ve carried back fried fish, roasts, croquettes, cutlets, local rice). Work has introduced to many a fine cuisine but Goan food is still a comforting favourite. I’ve visited kudds (clubs for migrant Catholic workers) and interviewed an author who wrote a book on Bomoicars. When the first cruise launched connecting the city and Goa, I was on it.
If I had to explain it: Goa is my first and most precious love. Bombay is that love-hate relationship that affects your body and possesses your mind.
In Bombay, I am a proud Goan. In Goa, I am a Bomoicar. The Bomoicars of today are different from those of my childhood. They don’t have as much sway or value. I know I am different, in the way Louelle was different. The only difference between me as a Bomoicar and the ones I met as a child is that I no longer attend church feasts back at my village. I compensate by attending feasts here in the city, revelling in the music of the brass bands, sampling all the festive food that makes an appearance on the day and mainly, soaking in the sense of community. It feeds my nostalgia for my other home. Life as a Bomoicar has taught me that the difference isn’t a bad thing. It helps me comfortably straddle the dichotomy of having two homes.
I’m a Goan at heart. Bombay is just the skin I wear at the moment.
Joanna Lobo is a journalist who makes a living by reading, travelling, eating, and talking to people.