Reprise Books

‘Goa: A Daughter’s Story’ by Maria Aurora Couto

Lively: Goan women at a traditional carnival in Panjim
Sudipta DattaJanuary 29, 2022 16:00 IST
Updated: January 28, 2022 12:48 IST

The Goa that lies beyond tourist brochures finds expression in the works of Maria Aurora Couto

There’s a Goa beyond picture postcard images of white beaches, lush fields and palm trees. It finds expression in the works of memoirist, teacher and writer Maria Aurora Couto, whom we lost recently. Steeped in history, her oeuvre includes in its sweep the fractious present and anxieties about the future of Goa. In her books, especially Goa: A Daughter’s Story and Filomena’s Journeys: A Portrait of a Marriage, a Family & a Culture , she chronicled the history of her community and the transformations within Goan — never Goanese — society after the arrival of the Portuguese in 1510.

From her father Dr. Francisco de Figueiredo, popularly known as Chico, who traded medicine for music and taught at the Portuguese Lyceum before the family moved to Dharwad in 1945, she inherited the Goan soul or alma — “which may literally mean soul but... is also meant to communicate passion.” In Filomena’s Journeys, her mother Filomena Borges comes across as both serene and strong. Couto taught English literature (having hosted Graham Greene in Goa, she wrote a book on his work) and travelled extensively, staying in Panjim for three years after Goa’s liberation, before finally settling down in her husband’s ancestral village, Aldona.

Composite identity

“Contradiction and paradox best describe the extraordinary experience of my life in Goa in those first years after Liberation,” she recalls in Goa: A Daughter’s Story . “I was Maria, wife of the first development commissioner of Goa, Alban Couto… And I was Aurora, Chico’s daughter. Aurora, the daughter coming home, wrestled with Maria, now wife of an officer in the new dispensation.”

But Goans, she writes, are very conscious of a “composite identity”, which is an Indian identity with deep European influences. Many are fluent in at least three languages — Konkani, English and Portuguese (though, after liberation, the use of the coloniser’s tongue was discouraged, unlike English in the mainland). Couto establishes the links which developed in response to conversion and colonisation in Goa. She explains how, in spite of being divided along religious lines by Portuguese colonial policies, Goan society retained communal harmony, thanks to a strong sense of community.

Arrivals and departures

There were waves of changes, brought on by centuries of Christianisation, invasions by Marathas, revolts of villagers, uprisings of Goan clerics and Hindu feudal lords against Portuguese policies. Responding to the challenge of living as a Christian in India and as a Catholic in Goa, Couto stresses on the “tradition of India, which allows for fantastic inclusiveness.” Goa is a state of mind, says Couto. “It is life lived without feeling circumscribed by geography or by time.”

The first settlers here were the Gauddes, who migrated from Southeast Asia, before the Aryans (Saraswat Brahmins), Dravidians, Mauryas, Rashtrakutas, the Muslim Bahmanis and the Portuguese arrived. For the Goan, writes Couto, the spirit of the place is embodied in the village, its red earth and pouring rain, its rivers (Mandovi, Zuari and others), forests, birds, trees and stones. “It is personified in the deities in the prayer rooms and the altars at homes, in roadside shrines, and in the churches and temples.” Goa’s history is layered with arrivals and departures, victory and defeat, colonisers and settlers, and Couto narrates it through the prism of an insider-outsider (having lived away for years before heading home). Goan homes illustrate “the blending of urban and rural, of civilisation, culture and the wilderness of nature, the sense of a continuing narrative, a story that has evolved in time.”

It is possible to hear young men singing the mando and dulpod (sung after the mando in quick rhythm, typically describing everyday Goan life, especially of Christians) in Konkani; and then listen to the soulful, anguished voice of the fado in Portuguese, a musical expression of man’s inner being — poetic, lyrical and tragic in its intensity. “The Goan loves a peaceful enjoyment of leisure. Work is important. So is leisure and a life whose every moment is to be savoured” — a susegad or laidback attitude to life. Through her writing, Couto communicates a feeling of socego (a sense of peace and tranquillity unique to the Goan) that lingers despite all the struggles of existence.

But Goa is no longer a tranquil garden. Couto was particularly worried about its fragile environment, which has not been shielded against invasive tourists, and the lack of a sense of history and heritage. Will Goans be able to protect their unique Goemkarponn ? It’s up to them, says Couto, to wake up to the realities and fight for the survival of what remains.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.