I wish I could go back to my school days in Don Bosco Panjim. In particular, I wish I could be back in biology class with ‘Sir’ Matanhy Saldanha as our teacher. It is hard to put into words what he meant to us. This was our teacher, but he was in the news, at the forefront of morchas, had courted arrest more than a few times. There was no other teacher quite the fire-brand like him. No other school had a kick-ass teacher like him.
Biology lessons would start with him drawing for example the life cycle of the frog on the blackboard, but very quickly digress into the perils of over-fishing, and the differences between age-old traditional fishing methods and the purse-seiners that had made an appearance off our shores. I didn’t know what a purse-seiner was until he used the word, and drew a diagram on our blackboard to explain it to us. With ‘Sir’ Matanhy, the textbook was a springboard for a much, much wider discussion which always connected with current affairs, be it in Goa or India or the wider world. We found it entertaining at the time, but I realise now that this is what an education ought to have been all along.
It is from him that I learnt to “question everything”; not to accept anything as true just because we read it in the newspaper or heard it on the radio, or an “authority figure” was proclaiming it. I am sure so many of us who were taught by him had this ingrained into us as well. It is such an important lesson, and I am ever so grateful to him for it.
Whenever Goa plunges into yet another ecological crisis (and we seem to be courting disaster on a daily basis thanks to the havoc wrought by the politician-corporate romance), I find myself wondering what ‘Sir’ Matanhy would have had to say to us about it, back in that classroom. If, as was often the case, biology was the first ‘period’ or session of the day, we’d have Matanhy pacing up and down along the aisles of the classroom as the news headlines were being read out over the school intercom, and his sardonic reactions to them were funny, but also an education in themselves. What would he have said, how would he have reacted to the ludicrous resolution passed by the Goa government to “declassify”, to “demote” the proud coconut tree from a tree to “grass”?
Growing up in the 1970s meant that even though we were city kids, we still had trees to climb. There were trees in school, and even on the way to and from school, there were quite a few trees which have sadly vanished. Plucking tamarind, boram and mangoes depending on the time of year were part of the whole going-to-school routine. These were gathered usually by stone-throwing, but if necessary by tree-climbing. I’ll readily admit to being on the more timid side of the spectrum when it came to tree-climbing, but even I could get up to the first one or two tiers of branches from the ground, albeit with a little help from my friends. My nimbler colleagues went right to the top. But there was one tree we city kids just couldn’t climb, and that was the coconut tree. I know just one schoolmate who could climb it with agility, while we gaped open-mouthed.
We did try, though. I remember some of us lashing our leather trouser-belt around our ankles and trying to scale the coconut tree near the Don Bosco refectory area. We did not even get high enough to have a respectable bruise to show for it when we tumbled off it. Coconut tree-climbing and coconut-plucking are not for the faint-hearted or the altophobic.
I realise now that the reason for our difficulty in scaling it (the absence of branches to enable a more secure grip or foothold) is unfortunately the very premise that has condemned it to non-tree status or “grass” today.
However, coconut-plucking is among the many traditional occupations of Goa under threat listed in Pantaleão Fernandes’ wonderful coffee-table book. The number of coconut-pluckers (padekar) is certainly dwindling, due to the risks involved and the allure of other alternative means of livelihood. An enterprising young man Suprajit Raikar has an online site padekar.com and Facebook page that allows one to book the services of a padekar. Many more such innovative ideas are needed to help keep our traditions alive.
It was interesting to learn at the recent talk in the city by Portuguese researcher Roger Lee de Jesus about the governorship of Dom João de Castro, that when he allotted land in Goa to those who found favour with his regime (1545-48), that the measure of a value of the plots was estimated by the number of coconut trees on them. That coconut trees actually add value to the land is something everyone living here has grasped through the ages. Everyone but our current legislators, obviously.
The initiative by Armando Gonsalves’ Goa ForGiving, with the support of Claude Alvares, Prajal Sakhardande, Prasad Pankar, Alexyz and so many others to celebrate Valentine’s Day as ‘Coconut Valentine’ is therefore extremely laudable.
Just as “a kiss is still a kiss” to borrow the lyrics from the romantic film Casablanca’s song “As Time Goes By”, a tree is still a tree. A coconut tree will always be a coconut tree. The fundamental things apply, As Time Goes By, as the song goes.
The coconut tree will be ever dear to the hearts of every Goenkar, and indeed to everyone all along our country’s coastal belt. No pathetic, deplorable tampering with nomenclature will ever change this.
(An edited version of this article was published on 14 February 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)