I don’t take to strangers immediately. And I definitely don’t take to social small talkers, the `air kissing’ junta, the`hi darling’ brigade that now throngs Goa (likewise Mumbai) at most social do’s. Nevertheless, like my daughter says with wisdom beyond her teenage years, `Honesty finds best friends.’ Goa could do with more people who stand by her with every ounce of genuine passion in their bones.
One such hurried day, rushing to South Goa on a work errand, braving a balmy, humid, hot afternoon I travelled into the quaint sleepy countryside of Loutolim. Endless patches of fields rushed by, the Zuari river followed our winding road as hillsides wore a coat of green trees and pubescent fields. My brain tingled anxiously (all work and no play, I rationalised), the texture of the air changed, old forgotten memories swelled up from the subconscious. Some happy, some sad…Simple village folks directed us onward to our destination as the car sped head-on into a still frame of old world charm….Like a sepia flashback I had stepped into a time capsule, and then suddenly time itself wound its hands still… I was face to face with the magnificent, awe inspiring, ancestral mansion of the Figueiredo family, sitting like a jewel along a serpentine unkempt road. Solitude,serenity and commanding immense grace and stature. Sirens were blaring in my head by now. An old habit which refuses to break whenever my spirit and instincts sense a moment of immense value or significance. The world I had come from had melted away to embrace a feeling of pride.This is where my heart was: GOA.
Climbing up the long corridor of stone steps,a bell rang noiselessly somewhere in the endless number of rooms and muffled footsteps. That’s when Maria de Lourdes Figueiredo and Georgina (her sister) stepped out as if from a renaissance painting into real life flesh and blood. My brain had been jangling for a reason, I guessed. The instant connection happened when Lourdes grabbed my hand and enthusiastically pumped it with a strength that defied her well-heeled years. “We finally meet,” she smiled broadly (turns out she had been reading my socio-political columns religiously in the Sunday OHerald). A woman with a sharp mind to match, Dona Lourdes minced no words in prolonged pleasantries getting straight to the point of her efforts to keep the family heritage in step with the 21st century. “You have to think young to keep your heart young,” she retorted in defiance.
Those privy to Dona Lourdes hospitality will know that the Figueiredo Mansion is oldest that the Taj Mahal itself, dating back to 1590, and is one of the finest heritage homes in Goa. The Figueiredo family has contributed immensely to the State with family members who were lawyers, diplomats, ambassadors, members of the Portuguese parliament and of Goa’s legislature. Several large rooms of antique furniture flow into each other with chandeliers of Belgian crystal, fine porcelain, perfectly preserved ancestral artifacts, antique china, exquisite hand carved furniture, waxed wooden floors, family paintings and portraits and a collection of old Portuguese books. Those who also know Lourdes and Georgina will vouch their right arm and teeth for their cooking. A highlight in the Figueiredo itinerary which goes un-escaped, irrespective of dignitary or layman.
But that’s not why Dona Lourdes and Georgina figure in this narrative of life and the few people who make a difference to Goa. It is their spirit, especially Lourdes’ spirit, not to give in to the forces of `quick money’ and heritage hawkers, which endears me to women who hold on to a part of their lives without `selling short’ their value or ancestry. “Goans are fast forgetting their roots,” Lourdes confessed. “And they are suspicious when you try to make them think otherwise.” She should know. Opposed vehemently to insensitive greed of a quarter of Goan society selling home and property for the lure of `easy come, easy go money,’ Lourdes has been single-handedly campaigning to owners of heritage houses to re-think their re-adaptive use. “Why can’t we have a tour of art galleries set up in these homes, or mini museums of heritage, blend the old with the modern so that they can earn something for the upkeep of their houses? At the same time, we can ensure that we work to bring the focus back on a part of Goa’s history which is fast eroding. Goa’s old houses need new ideas for their survival. Goa’s young blood must take the path forward, instead of running abroad to seek jobs and sell their houses. Who will work here then? Are we going to give everything away?” Lourdes made an emphatic point, stubbornly holding on to her history, which people would rather choose to ignore in exchange for material gain and status.
The lady who keeps pace with the times is also a smart cookie (And I know Dona Lourdes will agree with me) converting a section of the mansion into the`The Old Heritage Inn’ combining élan and business acumen as fit a savvy entrepreneur. A section of the house morphs into a vintage, heritage inn with a dose of gracious Goan-Portuguese hospitality, old Portuguese architectural charm along with modern amenities and out-of-this-world cooking from the Figueiredo kitchen. Lourdes has the encores coming from all over the world. She laughed heartedly showing me a beautifully shot Raymond campaign in the 1980s, which apparently scored instant popularity points for the Figueiredo sisters’ in Goa’s early society circles. “Eduardo Faleiro teased us endlessly about it,” Dona Lourdes girlishly joked.
Later during the curated fashion show at her residence to the sounds of violins and mandolins, the Figueiredo sisters were hospitality personified. Gracious, charming, representing guardians of a cultural ethos so rare, it was goosebumps worthy. Dona Lourdes could teach a few deserving lessons to the upstarts who believe speaking your mind for what you believe, is the language of defeat. This is one lady who has no intention of stopping. Way to go, lady!!
Footnote 2017: I am so happy to see Dona Lourdes efforts finally pay off with the recent milestone she achieved putting her beloved Figueiredo mansion on the heritage map of the world.
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Photographs courtesy: Google/Airbnb