In her study of print politics in nineteenth and twentieth century Goa, Between Empires: Print and Politics in Goa, Rochelle Pinto observes that “[i]f there was a single dominant perspective through which Goa’s Catholic elite viewed their nineteenth century, it was as a condition to be mourned.” These elites, through newspapers, novels, pamphlets, and books gave vent to this sentiment and, thereby, also produced a “prolific output [that] not only served as a critique of the Portuguese colonial state, but it also stapled the nineteenth century into historical and cultural frameworks that would outlast their moment of origin, to become resilient filters through which the century and its aftermath would be received.” Pinto’s observation is crucial in understanding Maria Aurora Couto’s latest book Filomena’s Journeys: A Portrait of a Marriage, a Family and a Culture.
Couto is no stranger to Goans, as her writings and her persona are well known and celebrated. In 2010, the Government of India also honoured her with a Padma Shri for her contributions in literature and education. This book is a biography of her parents – Francisco (Chico) Figueiredo and Filomena Borges – making it as much a ‘daughter’s story’ as her first book, Goa: A Daughter’s Story.
If her first book on Goa was a cultural history of the elites, suggesting in the process that this elite culture embodied Goa in all its diversity, her second book has a much more restricted focus. Filomena’s Journeys does not actually set out to reconstruct the entire historical milieu in which the story of Couto’s parents is situated. The literary flourish with which Couto reconstructs not just the life of her parents, but also the social and cultural interactions of the elite class is remarkable, her prose matchless, and the book reads like a well-crafted novel. While recognizing the privileged location of her parents, Couto also dwells on the ill-effects of the selfsame privilege on the class of landed Catholic elites as well as the tenant class. Because of her ability to create a vivid picture before the eyes of her readers, Couto’s book will be immensely helpful for students of Goan history in understanding the society of the elites, particularly of Margão and Panjim. Yet, the overarching metanarrative and texture of Filomena’s Journeys is one of a world that was lost, a world much loved, and cherished by Goa’s Catholic elites.
Although Filomena and Chico came from a bhatkar (landed), Catholic family, later circumstances, especially Chico’s alcoholism, brought hard times on the family. Thus, despite Chico’s resistance and protest, Filomena decides to move the family to distant Dharwar in Karnataka. Chico’s inability to adjust to changing times and his frustration at not finding any outlet for his musical talents, though he taught music at the Lyceum in Panjim for a few months, only makes matters worse. Chico struggled to make a mark in the field of music and his anguish at not finding his dream fulfilled forms a major and important part of Filomena’s Journeys. During these difficult times, it is the patience and perseverance of Filomena – the eponymous protagonist of the book – that keeps the family together.
It is clear that Chico’s untimely death caused great suffering for the whole family consisting of seven children. It was Filomena who made ends meet, took great risks, and was always the rock of the family. Couto’s aim appears to depict the brave and strong woman that Filomena was, one that is captured on the snapshot of the cover: strong, determined, gazing out with a steely resolve through a grainy, monochromatic picture. But one cannot help but notice that Filomena, for most of the book, remains in the shadows; the whole story is told in a manner that treats the father as central. Indeed, it is Chico who emerges in boldly etched and sharply defined detail.
It can be suggested that the reason why Filomena gets pushed into the background may be because of the fact that Couto preferred to keep a distance from the narrative and the story, as the memory of her father’s eventual death was painful for Couto, as suggested by the third-person narrative. This distance seems odd at times as the author, who is herself a very crucial element in the story, refers to herself in the third-person: “Maria Aurora remembers his [her father’s] capacity for self-absorption, moments when his gentleness was lost to despair and frustration, and she wishes her father had been able to step out of himself more often than he did.”
Filomena’s Journeys depends on the memories of the author as well as the recollections of friends and family. To that extent, one finds it a bit difficult to separate the life of Filomena and Chico, and the details, feelings, and emotions that Couto adds as a writer. To reconstruct a narrative from memories also involves research and understanding of the cultural and social history of a bygone time. The issue of memory and research brings us to the question of historical interpretations and perceptions that Couto makes or suggests to her readers. However, like her previous book, this book too does not seem to have been able to shake off brahmanical frames of reference in perceiving and understanding the past milieu, a milieu in which both her parents were born, raised, married, and had a family of their own. The wider intellectual thought from which Couto draws is apparent in the manner in which Couto discusses the “historic importance” of Raia, her mother’s village. The pre-Portuguese dynasties such as the Kadambas and the Vijayanagar kings (who are allegedly believed to have protected Hinduism against Muslim onslaught) are invoked, along with the “Muslim rulers” as impacting the history of Raia. Similarly, Hindu and Christian traditions, for Couto, create a syncretic religious identity by the fusing of the mother goddess cults with that of the Virgin Mary. “Filomena may have been aware of the history…only in a subliminal way, as a woman who found strength in female deities – Santa Filomena, Santa Teresinha, the Blessed Virgin… [and] the spirit of Kamakshi, the mother goddess of ancient times…,” Couto suggests. This pre-Portuguese past is erroneously assumed to be Hindu in various discourses of Catholic and Hindu elites of Goa, and is not just confined to Couto’s work.
Couto also idealizes the village and the tenants with whom her mother shared a mutually-respectful relationship; the tenants “thought they had never seen any bhatkar’s wife who looked so kind.” But what Couto does not factor in is that, much throughout the history of Goa, as in other parts of South Asia, the village was (and is) a site of caste-based humiliation and oppression. Instead, Couto asserts, “It was a feudal lifestyle, but greatly blunted in close-knit rural society, for there was warmth and affection all round.” During the course of writing this book, Couto visits her mother’s former tenants, who fondly remember Filomena spending the night in their houses when she would come to collect “the family’s share of the produce.” Couto feels happy at the prosperity of her family’s former tenants. Filomena may have indeed been a generous and sensitive landlady towards her tenants and her tenants may have truly remembered her as such, yet the tenants get represented as humble beings recalling with fond nostalgia the past which was filled with hardships overseen by the benevolent bhatkar. The fact that Couto recognizes the oppression by the bhatkar class, but at the same time upholds a certain imagination consisting of the benevolent bhatkar and the humble tenants, negates the possibility of a radical critique of acts of omissions and commissions of the landed as well as the tenant class.
The women in Filomena’s Journeys can be viewed as simultaneously negotiating and subverting the strictures and mores of the elite society. While the women were subordinate in a patriarchal system they still could in many ways benefit from the same. Take the case of Propercia, who was Chico’s cousin. Couto’s celebration of Propercia, who through her writings advocated “the importance of the Konkani language [and] the Indian woman,” does not take into consideration the conflation of ‘Indian’ and ‘Hindu’, as an undifferentiated historical and conceptual category. While noting the importance and uniqueness of Propercia’s role as a woman public intellectual, her support “of the importance of the mother tongue, Konkani, in primary education,” suggests more than meets the eye. Education in Konkani was advocated to maintain a hold on the labouring Goan Catholics, as Pinto notes in her book.
Couto’s portrait of Filomena tries to establish the singular and herculean feat that her mother accomplished. While it is clear that Filomena certainly faced challenges in moving her family to Dharwar which she was unfamiliar with, she does seem to rely on such resources like caste and family networks to aid the remarkable move. While this does not diminish the issues Filomena faced, it reveals that she was able to take stock of her situation in such a manner that allowed her to effect change while also maintaining her ties with a privileged system.
This book could have benefitted greatly with a family-tree as the numerous names of aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, granduncles, etc. become confusing. Though beautifully written, Filomena’s Journeys struggles to make peace with the the past, with history, and with memories that deeply unsettle.
Filomena’s Journeys: A Portrait of a Marriage, a Family & a Culture, by Maria Aurora Couto (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company), 2013; pp. 290, Rs. 495/- [ISBN: 978-93-82277-04-0]
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times (Weekender), dt: February 2, 2014)