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Just as the Azan at dawn and dusk calls out to prayer from every devout Muslim, this ubiquitous Ponk! Ponk! sound is the traditional Goan’s very own Azan – announcing the arrival of a new day and then once again in the evening, announcing dusk and the impending supper time.
Twice a day, every morning and evening generations of Goans have woken up to the unmistakable sound of the bulb horn, that heralds the arrival of their daily bread right at their doorstep from their local poder (traditional baker). Fresh from the oven and available in multiple forms.
The Poders of Goa (derived from the word “padaria” meaning bakery in Portugese and “padeiros” meaning bakers) belong to the five century old institution, whose traditional occupation is baking or bread-making to be more precise. Introduced to the craft during the Portuguese colonisation of Goa during the 16th Century, mainly by the Jesuit missionaries who trained new Christian converts in the art of bread making, this craft has since been passed down from generation to generation. During the colonial rule, every village in Goa gave birth to a Padaria (or two), that became the primary source of bread for the entire village.
All of these bakeries typically operated right out of the baker’s home with enormous wood-fired clay ovens set up in the back of their house. More often than not, all members of the family pitched in and they proceeded to serve up fresh bread to anyone that walked in through the door. These bakeries would not even have a name registered against it, simply known as ‘Joe’s bakery” or “ de silva’s bakery” and such, firmly interweaving the identity of the baker with his occupation.
As much as bread is one of the staple foods all over India, in no other state is it worshipped in as many unique forms as it is in Goa. Commonly referred to as “Fornachi pao” what makes the bread in Goa inimitable is the wood-fired clay oven – the “forn” – that gives the bread here it’s distinct taste. And it comes in multiple varieties, flavours and textures. Spoilt for choice, the traditional Goan gets to choose his daily intake of bread from the basic pao – square pieces of bread crusty on the outside and soft, fluffy inside, Cuniachi poi – whole wheat pouches of bread that has immense dietary value and especially suited for diabetics, Katrichi pao – scissored square bread where the dough is shaped with scissors, sweet Cuniachi poi for the non-diabetics, Kakon or kakna – rings of crusty bread akin to the bagels of the West and the Pokshe ( slit at the centre). The Bol is another unique form of sweet bread made of wheat flour, toddy. coconut, jaggery and ginger – a rich speciality bread made for weddings.
All this ( except for bol ) delivered twice a day fresh from the oven right to your doorstep by way of the extremely organised and adept distribution system of all poders – the humble bicycle. Ras omelette-pao, Bhaji- pao. Choriz-pao – are just a few examples of the the numerous ways these breads are enjoyed by the locals.The standardised & packaged sliced bread available in the urban bakeries and supermarkets of today seems like a distant and poor cousin paling under the weight of the comparison to the rich traditions and history of bread-making in Goa.
However, it is increasingly apparent that the modern fixation with cultural homogenisation along with the ever changing socio-economic conditions are threatening the very existence of this gloriously diverse traditional occupation today. Escalating costs of the core ingredients, changing food habits of traditional Goans, a largely unreliable work force combined with easy access and availability of the convenient, albeit soulless, sliced bread sold by multinational companies – ‘fortified’ by minerals and vitamins as the ads promise – all of these factors are contributing to the slow demise of the traditional padaria, as the Goans know it.
To begin with, the actual bakeries themselves, most of them still housed in the same home as the first generation of poders is today a space that is extremely hazardous, unkempt and dilapidated. For sure, they exude a lot of character and they are wrapped in this aura of history and age-old traditions being carried out. But with absolutely no safety and hazard control rules established or followed, it is a space that translates to less than idyllic working conditions for everyone involved. The individual poder already over-burdened with the numerous challenges of simply surviving, seems to turn a blind eye to it as well and this does not bode well for the already precarious future of this traditional occupation. The health hazards alone, that arise from being next to a massive fire all day long, inhaling zillions of dust and flour particles floating in the air are enough to make the poder want to forget about traditions and legacy.
To compound matters, what was once an integral part of the unique, twice-a-day distribution system of having a member of the work force go out on his bicycle into the village, sell door-to-door is currently under a huge threat as well. It is not uncommon these days for the worker – often a poor migrant from the neighbouring towns of Karwar/ Belgaum – to simply disappear with the bicycle and along with it, all of the day’s earnings. The bakery then, is left trying to recover from the triple losses of the money, the bicycle loaned to him and the tiresome task of finding his replacement.
As Sebastio & Grace Sequeira, fourth- generation bakers, lament “ nobody wants to put in the hard work that goes hand in hand with working in a padaria these days and you cannot trust anybody”. A traditional bakery was originally intended to be a wholly family enterprise – this was however easier to implement. when the family unit was large and all the brothers, sisters, cousins etc all worked together in harmony. But just like everywhere else in the country today, a nuclear family is the norm of the day, leaving the responsibility of the entire bakery on the last standing family member, who is buckling under the weight of this humongous task.
The direct and most tangible shift as a result of these manifold issues, is that this occupation which was the strong-hold of the Christian community in Goa and synonymous with family enterprise is now being relinquished to Hindu families who have been waiting on the sidelines to take over. In many cases, the migrant work force as well is taking over after having trained under the hawk-eye of the traditional poder. “The Outsiders” – as Sebastio puts it. The competition between these outsiders is now so fierce that it is killing the traditional industry and the original flavour of the “Fornachi pao” as the Goans know it, is completely missing.
The current generation of bakers speak of this fact with disappointment and sadness, but at the same time they seem determined to save their children from the hardships and trials of the reality of their life. So they are ensuring that all of their kids are educated and trained in other skills – anything but baking. They themselves, are both physically and mentally preparing to hand over the reigns of the family bakery to the next available person. This is true of most of the remaining poders in the state today. Scores of families, especially from Salcette area – a taluk in South Goa widely believed to be the origin point of this traditional occupation – have already passed on their oven mittens and now live easier, presumably healthier, retired lives in UK, Portugal & elsewhere in Europe.
The government seems to do little or nothing to help stem the rapid decline of this occupation. The local authorities were supposed to devise ways to bring stability to the traditional bakery unit by way of subsidiaries, two wheelers for distribution, etc. Firewood, which is the most expensive ( and critical) raw material is in short supply and the biggest need of the hour is for the government to make firewood accessible easily and at reasonable rates. Two years back, they introduced a scheme under which subsidy was granted on all the raw material and would help stabilise the price of bread. Sadly, none of the bakeries I spoke to for this purpose for this research were availing of this subsidy, citing too many complications – from the way the subsidy was dispersed to substandard quality of the raw material and to insufficient allocation of quotas. The scheme seems more like a perfunctory move on the part of the government rather than a genuine concern and acknowledgement of the issues besieging this traditional occupation.
However, local cultural organisations are doing their bit to keep bring attention to this occupation. Marius Fernandes. a cultural activist with Succoro Village cultural association in North Goa is the man behind organising the first edition of “Poderanchem Fest” or Baker’s Festival which focusses on bakers selling both new and traditional varieties of bread & also to enable a meeting ground for all the bakers in the state to discuss their issues & exchange notes on how to keep this tradition from becoming truly extinct. Whether these individual efforts work or not, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile for Wilma, a third generation baker in Caranzalem who inherited the bakery from her grandfather – it is just another day at work. As always, her day begins at 4 am, overseeing the kneading of the dough, to the mixing of the ingredients for all the different forms of the bread, to the baking of the bread, to the distribution system and finally to the at-home sales counter. All of this between 4 am – 2pm. Barely managing to squeeze in a quick lunch and a power nap, she is back on her feet @3pm to start the second shift of baking for the (3.30 – 9pm) for the evening round of bread. And on it goes. 7 days a week. 365 days a year. Whatever the future of this traditional occupation is and whatever the politics are “People still have to eat, no?” she says, in a matter of fact tone.
No argument there. I buy myself some wholesome poi ( a personal favorite) on that note and I leave Wilma to her hardworking day.