There have been wonderful and moving tributes to Maria Aurora Couto in blog posts, on Twitter, and in newspaper obituaries. They are all so true. They capture some aspects of her rich and varied personality. She was indeed the grand dame of letters and culture of Goa. She was the elegant lady who portrayed in her being the attractive confluence of cultures of this precious land. Indeed, she lived between three concentric circles (her own words) of the Indian, the Goan, the Catholic.

I am not sure, when one says this, if one is moving from the particular to the universal or the other way around. She was the perfect companion to Alban, her husband, the attentive mother to her children, the scintillating conversationalist at official parties, the admired teacher at Lady Shri Ram College for women, the accomplished literary scholar and writer, the affectionate “primo” to all of us relatives, the embodied veglench munxaponn (unique humanism) of the Goan poet Bakibab Borkar, and the anguished native who suffered when she thought of the betrayal of Goa by the political class.

All these descriptions are true. They say much about her, about her life and times. And yet they do not say enough. More needs to be said.

'Filomena's Journeys', by Maria Aurora Couto.

I knew her well. I met her every time I was in the neighbourhood. I shared notes with her about Goa’s past and future and we both agonised over the question of whether our laments were not the laments of a class that has lost power or whether they were, in fact, perceptive and valid observations. I even invited her as a guest scholar to the IIAS in Shimla where she charmed all the fellows at the Institute. I read one of her draft manuscripts and often urged her to write about the period of Goa’s history that she and Alban made, and that she had the privilege to witness first-hand.

In her passing we, in Goa, have lost many things. But most of all we have lost a memory of a world of the elite Catholic Goan that must be encountered, explored, criticised and, I daresay, defended. It was real, warts and all. It is, and was, there and hence cannot be erased from the notebook of history as is being done by the regime today. It must receive an honest appraisal.

Aurora could offer such an appraisal. She was one of the few who had the good fortune to belong to Goa’s many worlds and even more the goodwill to sustain a conversation with the other worlds to which she did not belong. Some say she embodied “goenkarponn”. I am not so sure. To agree would be to freeze a cultural space that defies such freezing.

“Goenkarponn” is like the face behind the gossamer veil which you can see in outline but cannot ever see all of. Aurora was certainly the most attractive exponent of it. I did not, however, know her well enough to answer in the affirmative that she was this, to describe her quintessential being, and so must rely on three clues that she has left us in interviews and writings.

'Goa: A Daughter's Diary', by Maria Aurora Couto.

The first comes from her book Goa: A Daughter’s Story. In a review I had done many years ago, I had described the book as a dialogue between Maria and Aurora. The first person, Maria, is the nationalist who believed in building an India that had been dreamed of by the Nehruvian generation, the ones who wanted to see a plural India invested in the scientific temper, an India that was democratic and governed by the rule of law.

The second person, Aurora, was the elite Catholic Goan who had to live in the existential space of a post-colonial Goa and to work out its conundrums while she spoke in Portuguese, Konkani, and Hindi. This conversation that she staged in her book, between Maria and Aurora, she did with great honesty and sensitivity. One can and should see her life as an interminable dialogue between Maria and Aurora.

Maria Couto and Graham Greene at the dinner table.

The second is her fascination with Graham Greene. In this she reminds me of Pico Iyer, who wrote the novel The Man Within My Head, where he confesses his obsession with Greene. Maybe it was the struggles within Greene’s soul that attracted her, all those ethical issues about truth and justice and guilt. He was, after all, a writer who had converted to Catholicism in 1926. Maybe it was the themes he chose which enticed her.

There is no denying the fact that Greene was the man inside her head. In an inscription to The Human Factor, Greene’s book that Alban had bought her, he tellingly wrote, “Tired of sharing you with him”. In Aurora’s life of the mind Greene indeed had a prominent place.

Maria Couto's book on Graham Greene.

The third clue comes from an argument Alban had with Greene when he disputed the use of the word “creolisation” by Greene to describe Goa. Aurora, it seems, subscribed to the same view as Alban. One is not sure if this was out of a sense of loyalty to her lifelong companion, or out of a fierce defence of Goa’s unique culture, or out of a post-colonial standpoint, or out of the arrogance of the elite Catholic, or out of a desire to distinguish Goa from the countries of the West Indies, as she said in her essay in May 2021.

It is a coded position. We will never know the answer to these questions now that she has gone. Yet we need to answer them ourselves. She has given us the material we need. Dev Borem Korum Aurorabai.

Peter Ronald deSouza is the DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University.