My paternal grandmother Maria Martha Apresentação Lobo e Dias (called Mãe by my brother Victor and me even though she was our grandmother), was around for just about four years of my existence from the age of three to six. But I remember her so well.
She had a sad life; she was widowed very young, aged just 41, when her husband Dr. Vítor Manuel Dias was in the prime of his life, and had to shoulder the burden of educating six young children, and had to suffer the pain of losing three of them in her own lifetime.
Just a few years after her husband’s death from a cerebral haemorrhage in 1949, she herself was paralysed by a series of strokes. When our family returned from Germany in 1970, she was wheelchair-bound, and needed help for basic bodily functions. But she still possessed the faculty of speech (which tragically yet another stroke took away about a year before her death in 1973), and was as doting a grandmother as her circumstances would allow her. I remember the Christmas bonbons that had to be elegantly wrapped just so, under her watchful eye, and they are still part of magical Christmas memories of my childhood.
Mãe taught my brother Victor and me our prayers, and Bible stories, and she would tell us bedtime stories as well. I was introduced to Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and so many others by her. We would listen, wide-eyed, as the stories unfolded and good ultimately triumphed over evil.
But I never ever learnt the ending of one story she told us, because we would nod off like clockwork after a few sentences: it was the story of Tall John and Short John. All I remembered through the sleepy haze was the eponymous characters, and something to do with a horse, but that was it.
I somehow assumed the story must be part of the standard fairytale repertoire, and through my later years I scoured through the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault but I had no luck. I tried speaking to a few old-timers, but that didn’t lead anywhere either. I tried a Google search for ‘Tall John and Short John’: nil results. So I guess I sort of called off the search and let the matter rest.
In 1996, I visited Lisbon for the first time, and met my first cousin Vítor’s daughter Marta, named after Mãe, all of four years old. Her own favourite story was Capuchinho Vermelho (Red Riding Hood), and she even had a smart red cape to match. I remember reading that same story to her from her storybook in my halting Portuguese, with her perched on my lap.
I didn’t meet Marta junior again until just a few days ago; she was in turn visiting Goa for the visit time. The toddler was now a grown young woman. We exchanged family stories and memories while poring over old family photo albums, and we spoke about bedtime stories. She remembered Capuchinho Vermelho, and I asked her about Tall and Short John, on the off-chance that the story might have survived through her own grandmother Lena (Mãe’s daughter). But she didn’t know of it.
Then, in a flash of inspiration, I decided to change the Google search to Portuguese. I typed ‘João Grande e João Pequeno’. And lo, the seventh hit among 1,34,00,000 results gave me the much-sought answer.
It is a blog post on a Portuguese sapo.pt blogging site, and I am still no wiser about the provenance of the story. But it seems to me that Mãe must have also known this story in the Portuguese, and translated it into English for the benefit of my brother and me. Having recently arrived from Germany, we were having a tough enough time with English and Konkani, so perhaps Portuguese would have seemed like language overload. But I can’t help wishing that we had been introduced much earlier to more languages. The early years are the best for this.
So: should I tell you the story of ‘O João Grande e o João Pequeno’ or might it have a soporific effect upon you as well?
It’s certainly a longwinded story, with many twists and turns. Basically, there were two Johns (or Joãos) in a certain parish, so they were distinguished and nicknamed by their vital stats: the tall and thin one was called ‘Grande’, and the short and stocky one ‘Pequeno’. Both lived alone (sozinho) with their respective grandmother. But JG was rich, and owned much land and horses (I knew there were horses in the story!) while JP was poor, with just a little land and a single horse.
One day JP borrows some of JG’s horses to plough his field, but when urging them on at the plough, calls them his own horses, which enrages JG. When repeated warnings are unheeded, JG kills JP’s lone horse. And so begins a cascade of tit-for-tat exchanges (involving further killing of horses, grandmothers and eventually JG himself), with JP being the more cunning, and therefore the victor. Considering that grandmothers don’t come off too well in the story, Mãe may have skipped that part of the story. Or perhaps there are several versions of the story. If anyone can shed further light on this story and its provenance, I’d be grateful to hear from you.
I remember the shock I got when, having come home from school, I was told that Mãe had passed away. Although she had been ailing for some time, bed-ridden and deprived of speech, it still was a big jolt, and the first time I had dealt with death up so close. Rest in peace, Mãe! Thanks for all the stories, the memories and the love.
(An edited version of this article was published on 16 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)