Dr. Gilbert Lawrence                   Maria Aurora Couto: GOA - A Daughter's Story

A book Review by Gilbert Lawrence

GOA - A Daughter's Story is an excellent review for anyone interested in taking a walk down Goa's memory lane. The 400-page volume should be of particular interest to all who call themselves Goans.  Hence, every Goan home, especially in the Diaspora, should have a copy.  It is not a mere coffee-table book but a great resource for those interested in "hard facts."  Even so, the onus is on the reader to separate the historical data from the author's extensive commentary.  

The book traces Goa's ancient and medieval history with the resulting influence on native society, personality, economy and way of life, as it entered a western colonial period in 1510 AD.  Tranquil farming and fishing villages were now frequently caught up in regional and international battles and religious events.  These forces transformed a once rigid and placid people into a dynamic society with wide and widespread disparities in power, wealth, religion, social standing, literary skills and moral values.  In this ever-changing region of Goa, now called Estado da India Portuguesa, there were many uncertainties and abuses, further complicated by internal intrigues and external military conflicts.  To contain these, the colonial government introduced military, civil and religious edicts during its 451-year rule.  Later, some of these restrictions were abolished and some re-introduced, depending on the precarious situation in the colony and politicians and events in Portugal and Europe.  The book lucidly and vividly recounts how these historical events impacted the thinking of the natives who by now were a mix of poor and uneducated (vast majority) or upper crust native ganvkars - Hindu and Catholic; mesticos, casticos and reinois all categorized as packles (whites). 

I was drawn to read this book hoping to learn from someone who had a "ring-side seat" during Goa’s evolution from colonialism to Union Territory to democracy and finally, Statehood.  The author was in a unique position because her husband, Alban Couto, was the highest ranking IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer in the Goa government for three years, starting in 1962 - a year after colonialism ended.  Unfortunately, the book does not give us an historical account of this period.  Perhaps the author is planning to write another book detailing her own role in bridging the divide between the old and new order, the native and the outsider, the interactions of the official native son and daughter and the non-native bureaucracy of post-colonial Goa.  The epilogue does present the author's commentary on contemporary Goa with its successes, challenges and opportunities.  

Ms. Couto is a product of modern education in independent India which shines through the writing style and is well displayed in the book.  Her prosaic recount of the “old families” - Hindu and Catholic, Brahmin and Chardo (castes) should have been different.  She has obviously conducted intensive research by meeting "families with lineage" in Goa, Bombay, the rest of India and Portugal.  But she dialogues with them without the modern perspective of life and social priorities.  Her interviews get side-tracked with details about nostalgic family documents, old photographs, hand-laced tablecloths and curtains, antique furniture, Macau china and the coats-of-arms that adorned the ancestral homes of these landed gentry.  The author fails to ask the tough questions such as: “What specifically was the contribution of various members of the gilded family tree in the progress of Goa and for the daily life of Goans?   What role did these illustrious families play during the episodic native uprisings against the colonists because of unbearable religious, racial or caste discrimination?  After reading the book, the answer very likely is, “Not Much!” 

As the author points out, several extended members of these feudal families lived in the manner of big landlords and had the luxury of time to debate and write philosophical articles in the native newspapers, magazines and books published in Margao, Panjim or Bombay.  These "benevolent landlords," the Goan fidalgos, did little beyond writing or espousing with a thinker's flair about the Goan soul and humanity as well as the God-given or Natural Right (depending on which European theorist was followed) to be free of colonial and religious domination.  While seeking freedoms for themselves, they did not release their own lower caste, tenant laborers from their near-slave-like bondage.   

The native lords left the pursuit of the community's social progress to the Catholic Church which they often despised or condemned.  Unlike the Hindu elites, these noble families were not generally patrons of their village’s primary and secondary schools, colleges, hospitals, asilos (nursing homes) etc.  Instead, the hallowed writers and non-writers chose to make long speeches characterized as "passionate polemics and stylized verbosity" in their salas (halls) or balcaos (porches) of their palatial homes or in public forums such as the legislative councils in Goa or parliament in Lisbon.  In continuing to write about the present families of a by-gone era in glowing terms, Ms. Couto praises the romanticism these families have for the more than two-century-old family laurels.  Yet in recent decades, many in their recent generations were content to embellish their feni and their sossegado lifestyle even while other ganvkars were being scattered throughout the world due to tough economic conditions at home.  In the details of these “landed families,” the author does exactly what she criticizes the tourist brochures for projecting. 

During the last century, the Diaspora Goans kept the economy afloat by their monthly remittances, or, as the author calls it, “the Money Order economy.”  The human impact of these intended and unintended socio-economic realities is poignantly brought home by the author in a personal way.  This touching facet of the book could only be presented by an educated, loving and loyal daughter.  Her experience was not the exception. 

In her next novel I hope Ms. Couto (and other authors) will research and give acclaim to the many self-made Goans of the last century.  In doing so, the author will find many Goans who were real movers and shakers of a lot more than idealized platitudes, or paddy fields and coconut groves.  These men and women pioneers in Goa and in the Diaspora made it on their own steam and against all odds.  They broke down professional and economic barriers for Goans and Indians, and will be the true legacy and pride of Goans as well as role-models for future generations who read her book in the next decade on the next century.  I will enjoy reading this version, just as I did “GOA - A Daughter's Story!”

Gilbert A. Lawrence

submitted by the author to TGF on Feb 4, 2006 (spelling of some Portuguese words spell-checked)

Dr Lawrence's photograph from : Faxton-St. Luke's Healthcare Regional Cancer Center

To Ben Antao's  Review of the above book.

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