Of mother, among other things
Through her upcoming memoir, Padma Shri-winning author Maria Aurora Couto is essentially trying to find the source of her mother's endurance, faith and her parents' place in Goa's complex social milieu. She tells Kareena N Gianani about why her community is locked in the past and how the personal is always political
Why do you tell stories, and when did you first know that you wanted to tell them?
I started writing quite late in life. Writing happened out of circumstance and desperation rather than choice in the sense that I had to resign from my teaching job to accompany my husband to London. My first book was purely English Literature on Graham Greene. I also wrote a series of columns, Letter from London, for the Indian Express for about a year.
Your previous book, Goa: A Daughter’s Story is well-known for its attention to detail, painstaking research and breaking stereotypes that are associated with Goa and its people. What did you set out to achieve while writing Filomena’s Journey?
I wanted to understand my mother’s strength of character, her endurance and her faith. Her ability to laugh in the face of great adversity. Hers is an epic journey whose depths still leave me fumbling for words. She moved from a society into which she was born to a society which was almost alien since she was not familiar with the languages, nor the dominant religion. In fact, she was moving in a sense between what were then two different colonial cultures Portuguese and British. I have tried to comprehend the complex cultural, social and political worlds in which my parents lived. Though from the same community, their milieu, social and environmental, differed and made them into the individuals they became. My father remained trapped in the confines of his birth, a victim of privilege. It is also a way of understanding how the personal is always political. For me it is saddening to see so many in my community unable to deal with social and political change, who remain locked in the past.
Could you tell us about the challenges of writing about a subject (a memoir, in particular) and a place one is as close to as you are to Goa, its history, memories, eccentricities and day-to-day life?
I did not approach the subject of Goa at all for 25 years until a publisher’s contract tempted me. Hence the first book (2004). For this tribute to my mother, there were moments of panic when I almost abandoned the project. I did not write in the first person because I could not. The necessary distance was impossible when thinking ‘my mother/my father’. In fact I could not even start. The book was written after much persuasion over many years by friends and later by readers of Goa: A Daughter’s Story. Many asked why so little was said about my mother in the book, and my explanation was that my father exemplified the culture I was writing about. The book was about Goa and not about my family. I found it amazing how many strangers responded to the brief references to my parents in that first book.
It was my editor, Ravi Singh, who suggested that it should be narrated in the third person. This strategy released the flow.
I was fortunate to find support and information from extended family and friends on both sides. Sometimes they were snippets of information from 80-year-olds with good memory. Imagine finding a cousin who recalled my mother on her wedding day in 1935! Until then I had thought that her grandmother who raised her had died, and that she had left as a bride from her maternal uncle’s home in Margao. But no, I was told, she left from her grandmother’s home in Raia, and her grandmother was alive and well.
Filomena’s Journey has been described as an “exploration of Goan society and culture in the last century”. Could you tell us about this exploration, the research that went into this book, the people you spoke to, and other significant details?
Although I did not grow up in Goa I had several stretches of time, years or months when I lived there. Both Konkani and Portuguese were the languages my parents kept alive while we were growing up in Dharwar in Karnataka. That was crucial for me. In a sense it gave me the perspective of an insider and yet the distance. My research consisted of newspapers of the 1920s and 1930s. They contained reports of social life of the time. Advertisements, decriptions of the latest consumer goods, fashions. I found reports of the marriage of my parents, the deaths of grand parents, details of family weddings. Fascinating stuff.
My mother grew up in the village, my father in a town which was both fashionable and perceived as a bastion of high culture at the time. Perhaps my description of his world is an unsparing assessment of a section of Goan society which I knew intimately through the lives of my parents.
Filomena’s Journey: Portrait of a Marriage, a Family and a Culture, published by Aleph Book Company will be released at Tata Literature Live on November 17 at the NCPA, Nariman Point
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