By Sameer Khan
In the month of January with the dawn of the New Year in the short spell of Mumbai winter, I finally got my act together to fulfill my long overdue visit to the town of Alibaugh near Mumbai in India. After struggling to get up early in the morning, I managed to catch the early morning local train to reach VT and board the Gate of India ferry towards Alibaugh.
By the time I reached Alibaugh, it was noon and the sun was shining right over my head. It took me more than an hour and a change of couple of auto rickshaws besides crossing of few bridges across Chaul to reach Korlai village that was situated by the Arabian Sea near the mouth of Kundalika River. The village is the home to a small Catholic hamlet which is the last remaining small community where a Portuguese Creole, also known as Kristi, which in Marathi language means Christian, is spoken.
Korlai village homes
It was mid afternoon when I reached the Catholic village. A crucifix greeted me in the center of a small hamlet that consisted of homes painted in many colors, distinct from any of the other houses that I had witnessed on my way. Few local elderly men and women looked at me with intrigue and many questions in their eyes. I wished to speak to some natives and hear them speak the Portuguese Creole but struggled to find a host. I continued to walk through while gazing at the old fashioned neighborhood, that consisted of bullock carts and few decrepit homes whose wheels of times appeared to be moving slower than the rest.
Crucifix in the middle of the village
The village didn’t consist of many homes and in no time I realized that I had reached the sea front and end of the village. On the shores I found some boys flying kites and playfully talking to each other in a strange language that appeared completely alien to me and did not resemble any of the local dialects of languages.
Korlai village children on the beach
It was highly amusing to hear the bunch of children talk to each other in an unfamiliar language. The eldest in the group of children was a young boy named Clisten who handed over his flying kite to his friend and came forward to speak to me. I asked him a few questions about the language spoken in their village. He concurred that they were indeed speaking the Portuguese Creole.
When I asked young Clisten further questions, he volunteered to take me to father Francis D’souza, a young catholic preacher of the local church who he said would be the right person to answer my questions. By the time I reached the Church, I was exhausted, extremely hungry and wondering if I would find a restaurant to eat lunch in a rural place like Korlai. To my relief and good fortune, Father Francis was kind to offer me a delectable Konkani fish meal.
We continued our conversation over the lunch. The young priest was friendly and expressed surprise over the fact that I had taken the trouble of coming all the way from Mumbai to their little known village. I described my interest in the village and Portuguese Creole being spoken by its inhabitants.
Father Francis offered me a local Kokum juice and explained that the tiny Catholic village of Korlai actually consists of the descendants of Portuguese, which ruled Korlai and Chaul (Alibaug) from 1510 to 1740. The Portuguese ruled the region for more than 200 years before they finally lost to the Marathas in 1740. A reminder of that history is the nearby historic Korlai fort that has Portuguese emblems and royal insignias to this day.
Boundary of Korlai Fort
As we walked inside the 15th century church where Father Francis preaches, he pointed to an Old Portuguese plaque that stood inside the corner of the church and explained that the Portuguese Creole is spoken by the 250 families that consist of just around 1000 people. He also explained that the reason why the Creole has survived over the years is because the village was situated on an island and it was only in the year 1986 that a bridge was built across the river giving people of Korlai access to mainland.
Portuguese hand-made painting in church
Father Francis brought to my notice the uniquely painted image of Jesus Christ’s Last Supper inside the church and added that it’s an old image that was common in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and cannot be found in any of the contemporary churches across India. He further added that the local church service used to be performed in Portuguese language till around 1960s but that was changed to the predominant local language, Marathi, because of the non-availability of Portuguese speaking priests.
Painted wall in Korlai village home
The Portuguese Creole spoken by the Catholic residents of Korlai has also changed and evolved over the years with increasing usage and addition of local Marathi language words to its vocabulary. The locals understand the Portuguese language but for someone from Portugal heartland or those that speak proper Portuguese language may struggle to fully understand the form of Portuguese Creole spoken by the Korlai inhabitants.
Korlai girl with distinct features
As we walked through the village, much to the amusement of locals, Father Francis pointed to some of the playing children that had distinct brown eyes, a legacy of their Portuguese ancestry.
The day was moving fast and I also had to check on the nearby historic Portuguese fort before I returned to Mumbai. I asked the priest about the poverty, backwardness of the village and the local community. Father informed me that there was no proper connectivity between the village and the nearest town of Alibaugh where most of the colleges and educational institutes are located.
It takes the locals more than an hour to reach Alibaug by auto rickshaw. There is no regular public transport that can take the children of Korlai village to the towns; hence many of the children drop out after finishing tenth grade from the local school.
I asked him if the Portuguese or the Indian government have come forward to help the community. Father Francis lamented that there has been no help from any quarter and there’s a real fear of the culture and language of Korlai being completely absorbed by the larger neighborhoods and other dominant languages. He lowered his voice an octave and informed that some years ago a huge industrial project was launched near the seabed that gave jobs to the locals but the plant has also been shut down abruptly, leaving many of the villagers jobless.
Before leaving the village, I thanked Father Francis and young Clisten for their kind help and wondered how long the Korlai Portuguese Creole language, that has strived to stay afloat for centuries, would manage to survive in future.
Sameer Khan is an Independent writer and author. He tweets at @samkhan999
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