Book Review : Maria Aurora Couto
FILOMENA’S JOURNEYS: A PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE, A FAMILY & A CULTURE
Author: Maria Aurora Couto
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2014
Details: pp. 290; Price: Rs. 495
Filomena’s Journeys is a remarkable and touching biography of Filomena Borges, a redoubtable Goan lady, who was born in 1909. It is also a story of migration from a homeland and the return, although it works at many other levels too: as a feminist story; a social study of the times—Goa in the 1930s to ‘Liberation’; and, a family history embedded in a ‘portrait of a marriage’. It is also the memoir of an artiste, Chico Figueiredos—of his dreams and passions, angst and failures.
The historian Romilla Thapar aptly likens the biography to an installation of kinetic art, showcasing an intricate network of relationships, almost like living in a spider’s web. To deconstruct it would be to place it in the context of three vibrant characters; Filomena, Chico, and the locations of the book that, sotto voce, became the third.
To narrate an outline—Filomena, a gentle Goan girl, orphaned young, is brought up by her grandmother in Raia, her village, in South Goa. In 1935, when 26, she marries for love—the dashing and intemperate Chico, scion of one of Goa’s most prominent families, the Figueiredos. She moves from rural Goa to the buzzing, fashionable town of Margao, where the terms of engagement change dramatically.
Chico’s maternal grandfather, Joao Manuel Pacheco, or JM Sr., was the patriarch of Borda, a wealthy suburb of Margao, while his father’s landed family (Figueiredos) owned the splendid, ancestral ‘Casa Velha’, or the old house in the village Loutolim. Couto carefully details linkages with Konkan Goa when she mentions they were originally Podiyars from Sancoale before they moved to Loutolim around 1603–4, where they acquired the name, Figueiredo.
In these imposing, large homes, ‘observance of the rules of etiquette, deportment at the table, and interaction with elders were all carefully observed’. Thus, by birth, Chico’s social position was clearly circumscribed, for big houses then usually defined one’s social standing as well as one’s calling. For a young man, they also signified his eligibility to sustain and rear a family; he became a sought after groom in the marriage market. But what if his calling was else, something that Filomena soon realised. Although, like his older brother (JM Jr.), he trained as a doctor, he was a musician by calling.
From the time of his youth, music was in his blood. He was the life and soul of every family gathering, with the piano as its centerpiece. The way of Goan gentry was this—chapel and church feasts in the village, and large house parties for birthdays, weddings, engagements, christenings, with munificent kitchens overflowing to cater to such events.
The chapels and churches, built on hilltops with commanding views and with soaring spires, play an important role in Couto’s recreation of the life of Goa’s feudal elite, stressing its European artistic and religious influences. It was a time of Western cultural elitism all over India, where one’s own roots were oftener than not relegated to an inferior position. However, the borrowings, be they in music, architecture, or language, or the bonding between Catholics and Hindus, ended in mutual enrichment, a legacy she has more than ably captured.
Once married, Filomena discovered that Chico was a troubled man with a volatile temperament and little discipline. Although gifted, he could not command the success he craved. To be fair, music could at best be a pastime then, not a profession whereby one could sustain a life of reasonable privilege. Those who were full-time musicians were usually from the working classes, i.e., out of necessity, not choice.
Although Chico Figueiredos fathered seven children, the eldest being the author, he found it difficult to sustain his family as his share of harvest income from the dwindling family lands was not enough. At the turn of the 20th century, Moreso Goa witnessed the vanishing privileges of the gentry and the emergence of a new social order, where the Konkani-speaking populace was assertive of its cultural and economic space.
Soon after, Chico lost his job as a music teacher at the Liceu in Panjim. Depressed, he turned even more to drink. Straitened financial circumstances forced Filomena, in 1945, to find a cheaper place to live. Through a chance meeting, she heard of Dharwar in Karnataka as a pleasant but affordable town (with a ban on alcohol sales), and where a Goan community, lured by an English education, was domiciled. A cousin of Chico’s, the principal of Karnatak College, provided providential help. Filomena rented rooms to students and made a living that can be best described as genteel poverty. Here, in uncertain circumstances, the family grew up coping with Chico’s moods.
Soon, Chico’s condition worsened and he moved back to his beloved Goa, a broken man, while the family stayed on in Dharwar, a total of 27 years. He spent the last four years of his life in Goa before his death at the age of 53, leaving behind a traumatised family.
Filomena’s journey from Goa to Dharwar is the story of a woman’s struggle in a marriage, and as a provider. Chico’s failures as a father and husband admirably bring out her true grit. Raia, Margao, Loutolim, Panjim, Dharwar, and later Bombay and Poona, become the locales of Filomena’s courageous life, rearing her seven children, and later becoming the fond grandmother of 19 grandchildren.
Many incidents display the exemplary courage and tenacity of women like her who held their families together by tenuous links, and whose stories are often not told. Fortunately, Couto tells hers. Filomena ages gracefully, her inner beauty glowing through the pages. Even when the dice is loaded against her, such as the loss of the family house through a lottery between the two brothers, she, without a roof over her head, bears no rancour or bitterness against her brother-in- law. She just carries on.
This Goan family’s journey becomes a study of one of the most fascinating of the several hundred communities that enrich Indian culture. Couto’s use of Portuguese and Goan words, lend nuance and authenticity, which although a little confusing at first, become self-explanatory as one reads on. The families of Alvares, Pachecos, Correas, Noronhas and Colacos, intermingle and intertwine in the villages of Raia, Loutolim, Benaulim, and the more sophisticated towns of Margao and Panjim. From here, sons of the upper classes often found their way to Portuguese towns and colonies, such as Lisbon and Brazil, which appear contiguous with the Goan landscape. The sense of loss permeates the impressive casas; large families are torn asunder when professional growth for their sons also meant a life overseas and an abandoning of well- loved homes.
Sometimes, writers engaged in such dense and exhaustive work, wonder: will the work survive? Will it find a permanent place in the landscape it chooses to describe? Will anyone read them?
This well-researched book of the culture and social mores of Goa, embedded in Konkan geography and Portuguese conquest, will certainly find its way to the permanent archives that document those times. But, foremost, it will be remembered as a tribute of a daughter to a mother, and an elegiac remembrance of a father. Its essence can be best described as dukha, a Persian word for remembrance that we often also mistranslate as sadness.
Maria Aurora Couto is a woman of many parts—teacher, author, critic. Her own qualities enhance the multiple narratives in her work to lay bare the wounds of a family, and through it, of Goa. Couto explains her own outsider/insider relationship with Goa, for although Goan-born she has spent many years away. Her conversance with Konkanese, Portuguese and English, combined with her travels in India and abroad, give her an enhanced perspective of the land upon which she chooses to cast her inimitable imprint.