A Karachi-born Indian’s Quest for a ‘Casa’ in Brazil

Love brought Joana from Karachi to Goa only to make her the first Indian immigrant in Sao Paulo, Brazil

5 min read
Joana Juliana Pinto Mascarenhas is probably the first Indian in the 20th century to have settled in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, in 1958.

“Life has come a long way from the simplicity of dal-chawal (lentil-rice) and chapati-pappad (Indian breads), hard iron beds, and hand-me-downs at my parents’ cozy home that nestled eleven chirpy siblings in British-India to my now empty nest in Brazil! My kids have flown away from my nest as I had once from my parents.” Joana’s tone is tinged with nostalgia as she recaps 84 years of her life.

Joana Juliana Pinto Mascarenhas is probably the first Indian in the 20th century to have settled in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, in 1958. Her destiny as an immigrant was an offshoot of the political upheaval in the mid-twentieth century when a new national order was set upon Asia.

 A Karachi-born Indian’s Quest for a ‘Casa’ in Brazil
Photo Courtesy: Joana Juliana Pinto Mascarenhas


Born in Karachi, Joana married Armando Mascarenhas, who she met at a Christmas ball in Goa, where she had come to visit her relatives. Armando belonged to one of the elite business families of Margão, Goa. Their love affair, Joana tells jauntily, ‘rocked the two cities of Karachi and Goa!’

The journey of Joana and Armando 
The journey of Joana and Armando 
Photo Courtesy: Joana Juliana Pinto Mascarenhas

Typical of fairytale romances, this one also had its adventures. When the frontiers were being closed in 1954 between India and Pakistan, twenty-one-year-old Joana traveled alone for her wedding from Karachi to Goa in a train full of soldiers. A man in her cabin mischievously suggested that she should sleep next to him if she were afraid! With her stomach in knots, she sat on the upper berth, telling the beads of her rosary all night.

Armando held a Portuguese Bilhete de Identidade (Identity card), issued by the Portuguese government to all those born in Goa before 1961. This came handy as a travel document. Besides, he had the benefit of being educated in the Portuguese language. From one overseas territory of Portugal in Asia, Joana and Armando landed up in another former Portuguese territory in Latin America, both very far from each other.

Joana’s Portuguese ID document
Joana’s Portuguese ID document
Photo Courtesy: Joana Juliana Pinto Mascarenhas

Beleza Brazil!

When Armando reached Portugal, leaving behind his wife and two-and-half-year-old son David, he was advised that Brazil was the place of the future. Joined shortly by his family, the three left for the distant shores of Latin America in August 1958. Coming from the land of Mahatma Gandhi, the two were bombarded with questions on the culture and spirituality of India during this journey.

Joana never forgets the incident of losing their suitcase on their first day in Rio de Janeiro. That they had lost the suitcase and that it was returned to the docks by an honest Brazilian was to be the symbol of difficulties they would face as immigrants and overcome with the help of the locals.

Armando was hired by a foreign company, and Joana, being convent-educated, found work as a secretary and English teacher in São Paulo. While her husband was fluent in Portuguese, Joana took inspiration to learn Portuguese from her unlettered mother who had somehow educated herself in English through the London Weekly. “My English language proficiency,” she says, “served me as a survival weapon in Brazil.” This is conspicuous because today language teaching is one of the lesser respected professions in Brazil.


Getting accustomed to greeting with kisses and embraces wasn’t easy for Joana, much as touching the feet of the elderly is unthinkable for Brazilians. However, it was in the comparatively liberal atmosphere of Brazil and under the demands of livelihood as an immigrant that she could discard the conservative codes of womanhood and grow into her own fiercely independent person.

Accounts of migration are often replete with loss and unhappiness, for which the Portuguese word is ‘saudade’. Joana could never meet her parents again; she lost her young son David to the shores of Bahia in eastern Brazil; the fairy tale romance from her life disappeared in the daily grind of life; and she became the breadwinner of her house eleven years before her husband died in 1980, raising her three children by herself.

But Joana doesn’t let her story take somber shades. She refuses to get into details of these difficulties. Instead, she digs out a rosary from her bag that was given to her mother by a midwife at the time of her birth at home, presses its beads between her fingers, and confides, “This rosary has been my mascot for decades, giving me strength at times of trouble.”

Imagining an Identity

Does anything bother Joana at present? Yes, the complicated political overlaps in her identity because of which her children can’t access their father’s house and land in Goa! Born in Karachi, a part of British India, she moved to several Indian cities. She reached her ancestral Goa after marriage, and then migrated to Brazil. Joana’s identity doesn’t fit into one easily defined national category.

The antagonism of those who label her ‘Pakistani’ hurts her — “I was born before the birth of these nation-states. And the Karachi that I fondly remember from my childhood was a part of British India. The bureaucracy complicates my identity!”

It is for Joana’s bond with India that she co-founded the Indian Association of São Paulo in the mid-1980s with Prakash Shedonker (the then manager of the soon folded State Bank of India in São Paulo) and a few more Indian families including the Dawars and the Nairs.

The Gift of ‘Arco Iris’

If something else bothers Joana, it is her age. “If the wrinkles of my experience show on me, it’s good. If they don’t, it’s even better,” she winks, “I feel 60 at 84 years of age.” Before I mistake it for her fondness of youthfulness, she suggests that one must eat and live healthily in order to age gracefully without becoming a burden on others.

Unsurprisingly, she works out, swims, drives, gives private tuitions, attends mass, reads and paints, and plans yet another trip – her sixth one – to India. Not only this, on her 80th birthday she gifted herself Arco Iris (The Rainbow), a book of her memoir-cum-short stories.

Joana with her memoir
Joana with her memoir
Photo Courtesy: Joana Juliana Pinto Mascarenhas

So much for a woman who was globalised in the mid-twentieth century when the world was becoming highly nationalised!

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