Ben Antao's Book Review: Goa - A Daughter’s Story (Maria Aurora Couto)

IS AURORA’S ALMA AT PEACE NOW ?

by Ben Antao


Aurora Couto falters at the point of discovery and meanders wittingly into more research, foraging into the graves of the past. Alas! Is this any way to come out of the wood? Will her alma be at peace now, muses BEN ANTAO, after reading her book Goa, "A Daughter's Story" .

AFTER READING Goa A Daughter’s Story, I’m left with the unmistakable feeling that Aurora Couto has failed to resolve her internal conflict. As a protagonist of her story, she ponders the dark night of her soul, her alma, her atma, and yet refuses to give voice to what she and the reader know to be the truth, as if the scars of her psychological predicament are beyond healing. She comes across as a sensitive, intelligent, and perceptive woman who must appreciate the pitfalls of oral research. As in a broken telephone communication, the end message may be anything but what was said in the beginning. Still, I wished she would have given utterance to her mixed feelings and thus cleansed her alma of vanity and elitism.

Instead I see a Goa-born girl coming into womanhood, becoming wife and mother, and seemingly at unease. She ranges deep into the forests of the past in pursuit of meaning of Goan culture and identity, as if her researched version of Goa’s history, its myths and legends, would expiate her psychological inability and unwillingness to put her sentiment and presentiment on the line. The flaw in the protagonist’s character becomes progressively magnified and consequently more unbelievable, for in this narrative she enters the dark wood of life as a mature woman, one who set out on this journey ostensibly to seek truth. And what does she do upon finding it? She falters at the point of discovery and meanders wittingly into more research, foraging into the graves of the past. Alas! Is this any way to come out of the wood? Will her alma be at peace now, I wonder.

As I read through the first chapter, I asked myself: Who is the audience for this story? If the audience is the author’s generation (and mine) will they be interested in reading another warmed-up version of Goa’s past? Haven’t we read enough about Goa of Portuguese colonial days and are sick of it? If the audience is the present generation of 25-45 year-olds, I’ll be surprised if this educated generation will have the time or inclination to plough through a 400-page plus book filled with research of specious interpretation and written by ‘a daughter of the elite.’ The caste factor alone will put off many potential readers. And if the audience is future generation, it seems such a waste. Since the past is dead and gone and irrecoverable, this story too will seem like yesterday’s dream in the future. Sigh!

When I first heard about this book, my interest peaked as I looked forward to a story of contemporary Goa set in the timeframe of the author’s chronological years and told from a viewpoint of one who was a close witness to the early years of post-Liberation. Indeed, Aurora writes that her three years in Goa (1962-65) have been the most memorable of her life. I believe her for as the young, newly married wife of the first development commissioner, Alban Couto, she must have had a glorious time, being wined and dined by the elite business class, moving from one moveable feast to another. I would have read not 400, but 800 pages of those three memorable years if she’d chosen to write of that period in novelistic detail. Since that hasn’t happened, I’ll restrict my commentary to her narrative of direct experience and only incidentally to her understanding of Goa’s historical past.

In the Prologue, she writes of the “most illuminating discussion” she’d had with Dr. Xencora Camotim, a lawyer based in Lisbon. Camotim threw an existential curve at her by asking: “Why is there religious persecution in India now when there are no colonizers around?”

I looked in vain for a hint of her attitude to that rhetorical question. Camotim appears again towards the end of her story, but I found no ray of illumination. As one who has also lived in mainstream India—Dharwar, Patna, Delhi, Chennai—the author’s silence on the issue of religious persecution in recent memory of post-independent India is mystifying. What’s she afraid of - being controversial, unladylike? Diplomacy is fine and dandy, but to be candid is to pursue truth.

In tracing the provenance of Goa, Aurora writes of the myth of Parashuram as if it were a fact. Her basic research is correct as to Gauddes and Khunbis being the aboriginal tribes. However, she glosses over the position of Kshatriyas (Chardos) in the caste system as it came to be passed down the centuries. I state here for the record that Kshatriya kings were the first on the totem pole, whose position was usurped by the stay-at-home (sussegad?), opportunistic Brahmin priests. And the Saraswat Brahmins of Goa have continued in that tradition. Why admit to the truth when legends and myths are more interesting?

In post-Liberation Goa the mine owners—Dempos, Salgaocars, Chowgules, Timblos—have contributed to the state’s economic development. “But none of them could be called pro-Portuguese,” says the author.

This is an astonishing statement from one who wasn’t in Goa during the mining boom of the early 50’s, yet has duly noted (bless her alma!) the degradation caused to the environment through mining pollution, namely, “open cast mining in the midst of agricultural land, the need to rehabilitate mountains of waste, the encroachment of slurry which destroys paddy fields during the monsoon, the pollution of rivers destroying fish.”

Earlier this year I had visited the mining areas in Bicholim. I discussed with a journalist friend the health hazards stemming from mining waste. “I have brought this to the attention of Dempo,” he said, “told him how people are dying from TB in the mining areas. You know what he told me?”

“Show me the proof. Bring one person who has had TB and I’ll believe you,” Dempo told him.

In that answer lies the arrogance that stems from the pit of power and money. Who can bring up such proof in the corrupt state of Goa today? Go ahead and smile. I did too!

Aurora admits she’s had no direct experience of the absence of civil rights in pre-Liberation Goa since she only visited the place from Dharwar on annual holidays. The admission helps the reader to understand why she often felt like a stranger on homecoming. It also serves to explain some of the anguish she felt after her doctor-turned-musician father, Chico, abandoned the family and fled to Goa in 1955. Those four years until he died in 1959—and only in his 50s too—seared the growing consciousness of a teenaged daughter.

Seeing that she writes about this phase of her life as a woman in her 60s, from hindsight and in retrospect, I couldn’t help wondering why she didn’t seize the opportunity to imagine and reflect upon the lives of Goan men who’ve toiled on ships for generations upon generations. Such a reflection might have helped her to understand the anguish of separation from family that thousands of Goans have had to endure over the ages. For in putting ourselves into the shoes of others, less privileged than us, we do diminish our pain, cope better and become one with humanity.

As the poet Francis Thompson has observed, “We are born in others pain but perish in our own.”

On returning to Goa in 1962, the author makes an insightful remark by asking, “Would freedom bring an end to domination by the upper castes?” It was the time of the first democratic elections and I too felt the people of Goa had a great chance to experience joy that springs from a sense of social equality, that the stigmas of caste strictures would be consigned to the dustbins of history, that the generations now being born would grow up in a climate of equal opportunity.

As it turned out, the first elections in 1963 were fought on communal lines, with Catholics and Hindus aligned to separate political destinies. For this, the first Chief Minister Dayanand Bandodkar must be blamed. It was he who being brainwashed by his Maharashtra cohorts played the anti-Brahmin caste card and narrowly won the election. The rest was a piece of cake—throw money at the disadvantaged and fill up the civil service with Marathi-and-Maharashtra supporters. The author’s husband must have watched all this with equanimity as becomes an IAS officer. So the seeds of corruption and communal dissension sown at this time have borne fruit today. And Aurora, as if blocked by an unconscious memory loss, chooses to hearken back to the ancient past and ‘research’ her Saraswat Brahmin roots and how life was lived in that never-never land in peace and communal harmony. As the cliché goes, give me a break!

The author says that the retention of caste distinctions among Catholics is an aberration. I can understand why this happened at the time of conversions. But why does it continue today? Aurora provides no answer. Perhaps she’ll write another book about the practice of casteism among Catholics. I shall have to wait until that happens.

In two pages of Acknowledgements, the author thanks over a 100 people for their assistance in editing and proofreading. Thus I find the following errors egregious.

1. “Outraged by the absence of civil liberties, impatient with the quiet charkha spinning of local Gandhians, Lohia (Dr. Ram Manohar) spontaneously called for direct action and addressed a meeting on 18 June 1946 in Panjim.” Not Panjim, Aurora, but in your own hometown of Margao.

2. “Morarji Desai, the prime minister of bilingual Bombay State at that time, (1954) felt that Goans should fight for their own freedom.” Not prime minister, but chief minister. He was prime minister of India, though, after the general elections in 1977.

There is an amusing detail about the Coutos’ hospitality upon arriving in Goa in 1962. “My overcautious husband gave himself a reputation, which the locals found even more distasteful. Liquor became taboo and friends and visitors were served nimbu pani until his mother and mine arrived to end this betrayal of Goan hospitality!” she writes.

I remember Alban Couto telling me in the Secretariat in 1964 that he didn’t drink foreign liquor anymore. “I drink the Goan feni; it’s very good.” I suggested that he try feni with orange juice.

Talking about feni, the author writes about being host to the English novelist Graham Greene during the Christmas week of 1963. Lush with feni on Christmas Eve, Greene had insisted on going to Old Goa for the midnight Mass.

“He gazed in amazement at the grandeur of the cathedral, then stepped out to peer at the vastness of the dimly lit square whose outer reaches were flanked by ruined churches, convents and occasional stretches of crumbling walls, which told a ghostly tale of the rise and decline of power,” she writes.

At another time Greene had gone to Loutolim to see the grand mansions. His piece appeared in the Sunday Times of London. His descriptions of Goa seemed to me to have been written under the influence, as though seen through the haze of the feni glass.

Finally, I feel Aurora should have listened to her husband who had told her, “Please don’t ever write about Goa. The pain will destroy your equilibrium.”

But the rebel daughter of Chico had to go out and do it anyway and her way. Pray her alma is at peace now. If not, que sera sera!

Goa A Daughter’s Story
By Maria Aurora Couto

Penguin India, 436 pages, Rs.495.

Ben Antao
submitted to TGF on
December 2, 2004

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