In “Filomena’s Journeys”, Maria Aurora Couto paints as much a portrait of her mother’s life as of Goa’s feudal elite

Really, there are still so many of our own stories to be told to the world! Stories that have the pangs of India’s birth.

Well-known Goa-based author Maria Aurora Couto’s latest, “Filomena’s Journeys”, is one such instance. As much her own story as it is the world’s. Ours!

Through nearly 300 pages of the book published recently by Aleph, the Padma Shri writer sketches her mother Filomena Borges’ life trajectory by stitching together strands of memories largely drawn from family and situates the story against the backdrop of a life led by Goa’s dying Catholic elite, a feature seldom seen in Indian writing in English. Beautifully, the author elicits the personal and connects it to the shifting social reality of a Portuguese Goa to British India, and thereafter it’s Liberation in 1961.

Maria, though writing books for the last 25 years, says the story has been with her for a long time. “It was very difficult (to write being it is as much her own story), hence I put if off for a long time.”

She couldn’t write her first book on her State, “Goa: A Daughter’s Story”, without entering the story herself. “My parents appear in that book, particularly my father, since he was a good example of the culture I was writing about. But this book is so personal that I had to keep myself out. I wrote it in the third person, found it impossible to write it in the first person,” she says in an email interview from Aldona, a village in North Goa where she resides.

The author was attempting “a no-holds barred examination” of her mother’s life. Being in Goa, it was not easy though. “It was a struggle all the way, different kinds of struggle. We are a conservative society despite appearances to the contrary. It might have been easier to write if I was away from Goa,” she says.

People prefer to keep family tales hidden. Her mother too is quoted in the book saying, “Too much prying into the past does no one any good.” When a little Filomena, having lost her father at age 7 and mother at 3, would ask her elder sisters about father, they “stopped talking, exchanged conspiratorial glances.” Years later, when Maria would ask Filomena about her grandfather, she too never spoke of him “except to say that he was a gifted writer.”

But “determined to be absolutely honest,” she tries seeing through a peephole, peels the layers of her mother’s life — “a heroic but unassuming woman,” married to a gifted man who couldn’t however rise above the limitations of the vanishing privilege of Goa’s Catholic elite in the 20th Century and dies frustrated.

Filomena takes a leap into the unknown, moves to Dharwar in Karnataka bordering Goa, “accomplishing the miracle of raising alone seven children against long years of insecurity and hardship.”

Maria was but clear, no nostalgia trip this should become.

Social history

“It is a critique of that culture through the lives of my parents, my mother who overcame its limitations against all odds; my father who, in a sense, became its victim. Also of interest is the span of my mother’s life and her physical journey from Portuguese Goa to British India, her life in mainstream India after Independence and her return to Goa after Liberation. The journeys are also metaphorical since her life is truly an odyssey. In her quiet way she negotiated and subverted the strictures and mores of her society,” she states.

Filomena’s life also has the smatterings of the reality of women in India. “She was fortunate in having had a very supportive extended family which is not always the case. My friends who read the early drafts in fact commented on the fact that such support is rarely the norm!”

Ever since this former Delhi University lecturer began writing, (about Graham Greene in 1986), her writer friends from Dharwar used to urge her “to give up on English literature” and explore the life of her parents instead.

“In Goa, noted writers Manohar Rai Sardessai and Kashinath Mahale would also urge me to write about Goa and Goans, our story. I finally set out to do just that. Hence, for me, the larger story of Goa, the context of my parents’ lives, is as important as their intimate, personal lives. Social history has been an important component — the life of a dying feudal elite, their relationship with the land and the tenants who worked the land — a world that was lost, a world much loved, and cherished by Goa’s Catholic elite. I have tried to recreate the social and cultural interactions of this class through the book.”

Like any other writer, Maria too is happy that Filomena has journeyed out of her pen to public view now but about moving on to her next, she quips, “No plans, no ideas. Not yet, anyway!”