Saturday, March 8, 2014

Capturing colonial history of Goa with a personal family portrait— in fine print


Colonisation of India by the Portuguese, French, Dutch and British are divided by imperceptible differences in sensitivities that each colonizing nation brought to the honey-milk Indies — a land they had coveted, imagined and ascribed magical geographical and culture nuances in the realms of their wandering mindscapes. While the British treated India as “commercial colony” — geared to producing raw material to be exported to England and imported back as finished products benefitting the colonizing country rather than the colony. “The idea was creation of poverty by economic drain,” says eminent Indian historian Romila Thapar.

But this doesn’t seem to have happened with Portugal. “One does not hear of Portugal taking back goods and bringing back finished products to India,” Thapar says.  It probably left Goa richer than many of its counterpart colonial “settlements” elsewhere.

 These fine and distinctive layers of colonization – the transition of India into a nation state from a colonial state and the chaotic saga of Goa — which was under Portuguese rule till 1961 under its last ruler Antonio de Oliviera Salazar — are the socio-political themes that scholar, teacher and writer Maria Aurora Couto  plays on in her new novel, “Filomena’s Journey” to redraw the journey of her parents, Filomena  and Chico, from the heart of Goa to Dharwad in Karnataka, where Filomena fled with her family of seven children — to seek refuge from her stormy  marriage. Chico, an unusually gifted musician failed to rise above “the decadence of a colonial elite culture”; his frustration destroying the fragile filial mosaic— with “arguments, brawls and binges of extravagance that terrified the children”.  

Filomena  gave her “children the best of opportunities with a meager income from her estates back home in Goa”— and a semblance of tranquility, Couto recalled.  

The novel that the writer Couto describes as a “tribute to her mother— an extraordinarily resilient and strong woman” is also an exploration of Goa’s evolution and integration into the country’s cultural and linguistic centre-stage from a Portuguese and Konkani speaking coastal paradise.

“As a Goan, I feel a lot of things should not have happened. For instance, English was imposed on the state in 24 hours instead of the Portuguese in 1961. When the Portuguese left, instead of employing Goans, officers were brought in from Maharashtra. It was as if one lot of rulers had left and a new lot had come in…” Couto said, picking up the leaves of “the historical debates around the modern Goan identity and history” from her previous book, “Goa: A Daughter’s Story”.  

The stream of indignant alienation runs through the novel reflecting in the clash of cultural ideologies between rural and urban Goa— in the union between the simple, practical and the committed Filomena from her grandmother’s village, Raia, where her “avo” (grandmother) took care of the orphaned Borges (Filomena’s family) brood and the “refined” Chico, from a affluent family in Margao, an old elite settlement  where life flowed to the beat of a classical pre-war Europe.  The couple found it hard to reconcile to their conflicting aspirations to stability, fame, luxurious living and the ensuing “failure”. The alienation is also apparent to the way Goa relates to the rest of India, to faraway Portugal and “post-transition” from the rest of the country – despite being a part of the Indian Union. It is emblematic of an essential dilemma that assailed several colonies at the cusp of de-colonisation— which in Goa arrived nearly two decades after the Indian Independence in 1947. 

“The problem was the intransigence of the Portuguese dictator— who adopted a scotch and burn strategy to destroy everything that Portuguese were behind. Coupled with this was the sudden imposition of English — that gives the people an insecure identity in mainstream India, particularly now with the influx of labour from neighbouring states as an investment. Goa is being ruled by powers from beyond the border. It has a large money order economy (from abroad) and the small captive Goan population in the Union Territory might soon become a minority… Goans have a unique individuality and personality — a society where women have equal rights,” Couto told this writer in an interview.

“People call it neo-colonisation of Goa”, the writer pointed out— grounded at some point in a deep sense of alienation and uncertainty about identity. Couto contexts her narrative in these contrasts — “the feudal culture of my parents in which the elites prospered, the villages  and the transition… Now Goa has immense upward mobility,” the writer explains. 

In the process, the canvas of the family becomes the broad story of the new Goan society. “I did not want to be judgmental in the process of exploration of the tragedy of my father’s life, courage and faith of my mother,” Couto said.  The seeds of the narrative were planted in the three years of transition (1962-1964) when Couto returned to homeland as the wife of senior Indian 

Administrative Service officer Alban Couto to oversee the “change” of Goa from a Portuguese colony to an Indian Union Territory- like Hyderabad. “I was living in the history of the moment”, she said.

Couto had access to “every world” as and IAS spouse – “the Catholic relatives in the villages, the Hindu world of Dharwad in Karnataka where she grew up and the world outside where she lived with her husband – both in the country and abroad”. As a lecturer of English at the Lady Shriram College in New Delhi for 15 years, she was exposed to world literature, creative devices and “historical resources” in archives around the world including Portugal, where she spent time researching from “old Portuguese publications” of the times like the “Dicionario de Literatura Goesa” and “O Ultramar”.

“I realized that newspapers could be a rich source of political history,” Couto said.    

The fact that Couto is one of the last “surviving” few of her multi-lingual generation, who speaks and reads Portuguese, Konkani and English helped her “put together evidence to back her narrative” as a “legitimate history of modern Goa in memory”.

Her real life research began from the period of “transition to the pre-war says of the 1920s and 1930s Goa to dig up family archives”. The events were tumultuous and “cinematic”.

The story begins with the death of Folimena’s mother Lilia at the birth of her fifth child at Raia village on a stormy night followed by the death of her father. It moves ahead with Filomena’s languid “growing up years that flits like expected shadows amid the farms, rivers, orchards, rain and the fields in the village, the Church, festivals, community, cousins and family celebrations” in concert with the passage of seasons, temporality and natural harvesting cycles— set in motion for hundreds of years ago.

At 26, Folimena is swept off her feet by Chico – whom she marries for love in upscale Margao - the dream town. The narrative from the point of Filomena and Chico’s wedding “becomes narrower focusing on the couple’s relationship” till Filomena shifts home to Dharwad with her seven children.
The telling divided into four “segments”  is detailed — like a painting so vivid with colours, events, emotions and exchanges that at times it is difficult to believe that “the story is resurrection of history from documented and memory archives”. She uses “a third person” narrative device — which hides the narrator (the author) from the glare of reader’s consciousness. The “I” factor creeps in occasionally  but Couto is present there constantly — prodding the reader to travel with the story of Goa’s modern history in a language that sheds light on Couto’s “cultural” positioning in a postcolonial India — old world yet lucid.

“I imagined my parents’ courtship. There are passages that read like fiction. I call it a combination of resource and creativity,” Couto said.    

-Madhusree Chatterjee   

(The novel, “Filomena’s Journey: A Portrait of a Marriage, A Family & Culture”, has been published by Aleph Book Company)

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