‘When the going gets tough, it is the tough who gets going’. For Victoria DeSouza, life was a roller coaster ride - from riches to rags to riches. From a child labourer to an officer of the Italian Consulate, Kolkata, her life was full of surprises. Hailing from an affluent family in Dibrugarh, Victoria witnessed the family fortune dwindle due to her father’s illness. Her siblings were too young then. The responsibility fell on her tiny shoulders to fend for her family. After her parents died within a gap of one year, she stepped into the role of a parent looking after her siblings at the age of eleven. Thereafter it was a long, tough journey. She calls it ‘the journey of faith’.
When your parents died, you were about 11 years old, your sisters were 3 and 2 years old and your brother was 8 months old. What inspired you to not give them up for adoption?
I still remember that day. My mother was dead within a few months after my father passed away. I took my siblings to the priest-in-charge of a parish in Dibrugarh. My brother (just 8 months old) was in my arms. My two sisters (2 and 3 years old) were on my either side clinging on to my dress. The first thing the priest told me on seeing us was, ‘Don’t worry Victoria, we will put your siblings in the orphanage. They will be well looked after.’ Somehow I did not like the idea. I immediately replied, ‘They are not orphans Father; I will take care of them.’ It was a spontaneous reply. I was just 11 years old then and I feared losing them. I understood that if I allowed them to go to the orphanage then we will never know each other. We might even lose each other.
I was compelled to earn for my family from age of 9 because my father was very sick and we had sold all our belongings for his treatment. I started off as a helper in one grocery shop run by a Marwari near my house in Dibrugarh. I would help them weigh potatoes, onion, dal, rice, oil etc. They would give me 8 annas for the day. It gave me great joy to think that I could bring home some food. Once I managed to save enough I decided to open little shop just in front of my house at the side of the main road. I sold pan, bidi, cigarette, sliced coconut. During the monsoon I would close down my shop two days in a week and would catch drifted logs in the Brahmaputra. The great river was just behind my house. I would cut the wood into pieces for firewood and once they were dried I would make them into bundles and sell them for 1 anna.
But I had to close down my little shop around 4 pm since it would get dark and dangerous. My shop was on the side of the Grand Trunk Road on which huge trucks ply enroot to Tinsukia. One day I went to the manager of the movie hall, near my house, and asked him to give me a job, since I was free in the evenings. He refused as I was too young. But I never gave up. Finally the manager asked me what I can do. I said I could show seat to the audience when they enter the hall. So the manager gave me the job of an usher and for some time I also sold ticket in the ladies counter of the same movie hall.
Then when my daddy died, the Sr. Superior of Little Flower School called me and told me to work in the convent. I did not like it because I had to give up my freedom. I was already a little business girl, and was mistress of myself. But they were concerned about my ‘soul’ and insisted on working in the convent. So then I worked as a servant in the convent, cooking and washing the dishes, doing the laundry.
Did you feel deprived on missing out on formal education?
I was somehow convinced that I should take care of my family. Being the eldest and I never gave much thought about myself. Time went by. At the age of 16, I felt that I should somehow do my matriculation exam and with much difficulties and sheer determination I managed to pass the exam when I was 19 years old. Then I did my secretarial course in Kolkata. I became very proficient in short-hand and typing.
Tell us how your job at the Italian Consulate came about?
After I got married, I decided not to work anymore. But since money was a crunch I was told by a nun that the then Italian Consul General Dr. Gerardo Zampaglione was writing a book and he need someone to take dictation and type the manuscript. I agreed to the job because it was a part-time job. While I was on this job Dr. Zampaglione would insist that I should apply for a job at the Italian Consulate. I would refuse because I wanted to focus on my family but he kept on insisting. One day he came with the application and told me to sign them as a favour. I did so. Then I gave the interview. The two Italian candidates failed to turn up for the interview and I got the job.
Tell us how you adopted three more children into your family.
This was after my children grew up. Once I went to Shillong. I saw a little girl crying all alone on the road. She was the younger sister of my sister-in-law. I understood that her mother was busy in her work and was unable to attend to her. I was worried about her. So the next day I went to speak to her mother. I understood the difficulties the mother was going through to raise her kids. I asked the mother if I could take her. Her mother agreed and I adopted her. A few months later her older brother called from Shillong and asked me if I could keep him too. I welcomed him and both of them became a part of my family.
Some years later I got the news that a friend of mine in Shillong was shot dead. He left behind three little children. I rushed there and picked up all the three kids and came to Kolkata. I felt they needed to come away from that environment. So there were 5 kids in my home for some years. After some years their grandmother came and took the two sons. The daughter continued to live with me.
How supportive was your husband to your decisions? How did you deal with disagreements?
My husband was not particularly pleased with my decisions, but he would not go against me. So I believe if he is not against me, then he is for me. In the end he accepted my decisions.
You had 3 siblings, 2 of your own children and 3 adopted children, did you ever have to worry about finances to run such a large family?
Finance is not important. It is the quality of life that one should aim for. When we were young we used to have puffed rice (murmura) and water before going to bed every day for days. We did not die. It is important to have human values and pass on the values to the children. I wanted them to be good citizens. I believe if you want to do anything worthwhile you will have to make sacrifices. With your extras you cannot do anything. I have personally experienced that God provides. So I have never worried about finances.
You have worked as a child labour, a domestic servant and today you are a retired officer from the Italian Consulate, you have travelled the world, met important people in your life – how would you evaluate your life?
I think everything that has happened to me is the plan of God. At different stages of my life I met people who have been very instrumental in building me and guiding me. I could have messed up my life if you see the circumstances I was in. Starting from the nun who insisted I work in the convent, to the boy I was madly in love with and who did not take advantage of me, to the Registrar of the Dibrugarh University who gave me my first formal job and defended me in front of the union, to the Italian Consul General Dr. Gerardo who insisted I take the job in the Consulate, I experienced God’s protection at all times. I wanted to make everyone happy and it was not easy but today I understand I was in the plan of God, so I was not too rebellious. I accepted things as they came up and everything eventually turned out for my good.