A night at either of my grandmothers' houses was always magical, not the least due to the absence of electricity in Goan villages. One or two powerful petromaxes were lit in the main hall and dining room, and kerosene lamps all around the house, but usually not in the front veranda.
When we sat there in the darkness at a certain time of the year, pirilampos or fireflies would light up the night. Father would trap some and show them to me (without harming them in the least), in a white handkerchief rolled like a balloon until it looked like a flickering greenish electric light bulb. Of course, he would free them in the garden after a few illuminated minutes.
Tonight the oil lamps, and even the powerful ever-hissing petromaxes inside the house were not bright enough to dispel the gloom and anxiety everyone was feeling in the lampless veranda. 'Guerra!' screamed the darkness. 'Guerra!' screamed the sinister silhouettes of the coconut trees against the cold, starry December sky. 'Guerra!' screamed the bats flying blindly around the fruit trees. But the soft worried whispers of the adults around me screamed the loudest of all.
The next morning we woke up to the sound of distant explosions. Somehow they were more bearable, but still ominous, in the bright daylight of the village than they would have been the night before. The explosions were few and far between. There was no means of knowing what exactly they signified; I think the one and only local Portuguese radio station, Emissora de Goa, had been silenced by the Indian Army. Telephones only existed in the cities, and might have been silenced too. Here in Parra one banked on someone passing by on his way back from Mapusa for news. But on this day there was no one outdoors. We could only imagine the fierce, bloody fighting that was going on far away between the Portuguese and Indian armies. Who was winning? Who was losing?
I think it was in the late afternoon that the explosions stopped.
We learnt later that the bombs were not signs of fighting at all. That the Portuguese, totally outnumbered, had fled at the very first sight of the immense and well-equipped Indian Army. The explosions we heard were the Portuguese blowing up bridges behind them as they retreated, to try and prevent the Indian Army from catching up.
Legend goes that (Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio) Salazar, who was rumoured never to have set foot outside Portugal, and therefore never to have had personal contact with (or love for) any of its numerous colonies, had ordered the then Portuguese Governor General of Goa, Manuel Antonio Vassalo e Silva, to follow a 'scorched earth policy' and raze Goa to the ground, and to fight to the death rather than surrender. "What a mean, treacherous man!" said indignant Goans who had hitherto been loyal to the Portuguese. "Like a spoilt brat who can't play with a toy, and would rather smash it than return it to the owner!"
Vassalo e Silva, who had developed a great love and fondness for Goa and Goans during his years of governance here, for once disobeyed his dictatorial master and saved Goa from fire and damnation. And so, upon his repatriation to Portugal, Salazar promptly court-martialled and jailed him.
When the Salazar regime finally fell twelve long years later, and diplomatic relations between Portugal and India were resumed, one of the first things the freshly-released Vassalo e Silva did was to return to his beloved Goa as a state guest of the Government of India. Besides a warm welcoming committee, made up of people who knew what he had stood up against for the sake of Goa, a few politically misguided elements received the old man of eighty with black banners and protests at the airport. If they only knew that he had saved Goa from total destruction, and had paid for it with twelve years in jail… But ignorance is always at the root of all hatred and intolerance.
Driving back to Panjim from Parra a few days after the 'war' was a lesson in relief. If we had feared we would see the city war-ravaged, or even transformed a bit because it was now under Indian rule, we had feared in vain: there was no change whatsoever. I, who had secretly hoped that our school had been bombed, was most disappointed to find out it hadn't.
However, there was something to be awed by and to marvel at after all: the huge tanks, guns and war vehicles which the Indian Army paraded regularly around the capital, making our houses tremble with their rumble. And my first sighting of a Sikh soldier. I had never seen men so big, long-bearded and turbaned. They fascinated me, even though they caused apprehension in the beginning. They were after all the 'enemy' whom we had dreaded for so long before D-Day.
After the first one smiled at me and my worries were laid to rest, I joined the rest of the kids in my neighbourhood in competing for who would shake hands with the biggest number of Indian soldiers in a day as they patrolled in front of our houses.