This happened at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, on the occasion when Wendell Rodricks was launching his book Moda Goa. I sneaked in a few moments late. I had spent the better part of an hour leafing through the book on the stall run by one of Goa’s two independent bookstores: was it Literati that year or was it Dogears?
Indie guys know how to treat a customer, as if she’s real and not a wallet with a life attached by mistake. I had been looking for what my family called “widow’s bangles”. My paternal grandmother had a pair and I was intrigued by the notion that there should be ornaments with such a name.
This must have been some kind of concession to in-betweenness, a way of signalling that the community did not strip a widow of all ornamentation but did acknowledge however, that there should be some difference between what a woman who had a living husband wore and what a widow wore.
During the question-and-answer session, I asked Wendell if he had heard of this and he said he hadn’t.
I said perhaps he might want to ask someone who would know about these things, perhaps someone like Maria Aurora Couto.
And then a pair of slender bare wrists were raised above the heads of the audience and a quiet voice said, “This widow wears no bangles.”
A matter of temperament
I wondered if she had taken offence but when we met later, she was as she had ever been: pleasant, warm and just slightly aloof. I didn’t mind. We were very different, she and I. She seemed to belong effortlessly to the aristocracy of Goa, her back straight, her hair silvered, her saris the classic cotton of the woman who knows the power and value of the understatement.
I admired her book, Goa: A Daughter’s Story for its clear-eyed and incisive analysis of Goa’s history and its present. She belongs to an old and aristocratic family and she makes no bones about it. She tells you her baptismal name in full at one point: “Maria Aurora Filomena Borges de Figueiredo to which I would like to add Couto.”
Later, there’s another line: “Mario de Miranda, Dr Adelia da Costa and Dona Rosa da Costa, Eurico da Santana Silva, Dona Ada Menezes-Braganςa, Max Loyola Furtado, Gerson da Cunha and the Pintos of Candolim – these are a few of the families and houses from a similar history I am aware of apart from those of my own extended family, yet each has a different story to tell.”
I smiled at that line. It must be a burden, I thought, to have to look back on so many monographs about one’s great-great-great grandfather, and then to reconcile with the present and its fatigues.
Maria Aurora Couto told her life story in Filomena’s Journeys: A portrait of a family, a marriage and a culture, which Ravi Singh, now Editor and Publisher at Speaking Tiger, midwifed. He said: “I first met her in 1998 or ’99, as a somewhat awkward editor commissioning only his third or fourth book. I couldn’t have inspired much confidence, but within 10 or 15 minutes we were speaking as equals – she was genuinely interested in people and as willing to share her learning as she was to learn from every small experience, every person she met. And if you were a bigot or a fool, she would suffer you politely but also make it quite clear that you were in need of correction, and then she had no problem at all being imperious. I saw that on a couple of occasions and it was quite remarkable.
“Anyway, I came away from that first meeting convinced that a very good book would emerge. But I hadn’t expected anything as extraordinary as the manuscript she finally delivered. In Goa: A Daughter’s Story (2004), she produced a tremendous book – deeply and robustly political even as it was heartbreakingly and bravely personal. Nine years later I had the privilege of publishing Filomena’s Journeys and it had the same qualities, although the narrative was more intimate.
“That was her defining quality as a writer and thinker – everything was equally political and personal, always both particular and universal. She was deeply rooted in her culture – she had clearly made a very conscious decision to be so, and visibly so. But she realised too how limiting and dangerous this can be unless you also simultaneously immerse yourself in other cultures and experiences, and while you may be most comfortable in the culture of your birth, you won’t privilege it more than any other.
“In fact she was just as clear-eyed about the good and bad that India had done to Goa as she was about the fault lines in Goan society. I always felt Mrs Couto, in her confident yet understated cosmopolitanism and eclecticism was what India has always needed, and needs even more today.
“Elegance and warmth are not words you’d normally use when you’re describing a formidable intellect. But when I think of Maria Aurora – always Mrs Couto to me – these are the words that come to mind before any other. It’s a cliché to say that someone wears her scholarship and wisdom lightly, but in Mrs Couto’s case nothing you can say about her will have meaning unless this quality is acknowledged above all.
“I don’t think it was something she cultivated, it was how she was temperamentally. Many people have called her the grand dame of Goan culture, but if she was an aristocrat, it was in the only manner in which anyone can justifiably be one – she had the aristocracy of the generous heart and the generous mind.”
She does not interrogate her privilege enough, some young privileged Goans have said to me. To which the only answer is: She was not born to it. If she has told the story of her family, you would need to read between the lines. A friend of hers, the novelist Shashi Deshpande spoke of the young Maria Aurora as, “always dignified, always ladylike. I as a bit of a jungli but Aurora never had a hair out of place.”
Another family friend from the time, Ada Ribeiro, has memories of a young friend with whom she sang in the choir. “She reminded me that we would go after Mass on Sunday to a nearby restaurant and I would let her order whatever she wanted. It was an old friendship. When she and Alban went to England, we were not in touch but when she came back to Goa, we would meet in Panjim for a coffee or a meal, depending on the time. When she fell and hurt her leg, I began to visit her in Aldona.”
Others told me stories of how she had to give “tuitions” and had to miss class but passed the examinations with “flying colours” because of the committed tutoring of the professors of the college. I would have liked to speak to Chandra Hoskote, the poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote’s mother.
“Aurora would introduce me to friends and colleagues in Goa as ‘my friend Chandra’s son’,” Ranjit Hoskote said. “This beautiful gesture brought back to mind deep connections to the Dharwad that had shaped Aurora, as well as her fellow students at Karnatak College, among whom were Girish Karnad and Shashi Deshpande (née Adya). To me, Aurora was the last link to that ethos of the Hubli-Dharwad of the 1950s, where idealistic young people were nurtured by amazing teachers such as the literary scholars Armando Menezes and VK Gokak, the novelist VM Inamdar, and the philosopher KJ Shah. Aurora carried the liberal values of that ethos – its emphasis on intellectual inquiry and moral courage – with her, throughout her life.
“Those early and formative years left their impress on Aurora’s prose – which combined a historian’s attention to fact, nuance and detail with a storyteller’s feeling for the emotional temperature of a narrative, the rhythm of the everyday and the epiphanic that carries us through life. While she wrote in English, her multilingual upbringing gave her access, also, to the cadences and reserves of Konkani and Portuguese, as well as, by extension and through translation, the Kannada and Marathi in which the litterateurs of polyglot Dharwad wrote. This multilingualism brought an exquisite versatility and a robust elegance to her prose – which could shift registers, within a matter of sentences, from historiography to folklore to memoir, never losing sight of the subject at hand; and, indeed, bringing it alive in multiple dimensions.
“Her books, Goa: A Daughter’s Story and Filomena’s Journeys are classics. And while her writing re-animated previous centuries and the milieux of previous generations for us, she never romanticised the past or slipped into uncritical nostalgia. Whether she was engaged with the differences between the architecture of a Catholic and a Hindu house in the Estado da India, or dwelling on the accoutrements that a lady of her mother’s generation might possess; whether she evoked the grandeur and entitlement of the landowning Catholic Brahmin elite’s way of life or bravely wrote of her mother’s struggle to bring up her family, Aurora always focused on questions of equity and representation, social justice and gender rights.
“Proud as she was of Goa’s confluential and syncretic traditions, its gift for straddling historically fraught differences and dissonances, she was also critical of the Goan tendency towards exceptionalism and insularity – just as she was critical of the lenses of misunderstanding and cliché, ignorance and arrogance through which many Indians regard Goa’s complex history and culture. She always saw herself as an insider/outsider, someone who could negotiate and mediate between Goa and India, in the interests of a productive mutual understanding. It was a difficult balancing act. This, in fact, is the key theme of the book of essays she had written, and on which I was working with her, along with Devika Sequeira and Manohar Shetty, over the last year.”
After her marriage to Alban Couto who was in the Indian Administrative Service, Maria Aurora Couto began to travel. She taught English at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, where she had a devoted fan following. “When she went to England with my father, it was the time before The Empire Writes Back,” says her son Vivek Couto, Executive Director and Co-founder of Media Partners Asia, a Singapore-based consultancy. “She did a lot of good work, reviewing Indian writing for The Times Literary Supplement.”
To me this was what set Maria Aurora Couto apart. She was a good writer but she did not become one at the expense of being a good human being. She used her position and her contacts to help others. I was once asked to preside over a prize distribution at the Fundação Oriente; it was a no-brainer. I got to go to Goa and hand out a couple of prizes. When I saw the schedule, I realised I was handing out the first Alban Couto prize.
Ines Figueira, the head of the Fundação, said that they were so happy to be doing this and hoped it would continue in the future. At which Maria Aurora Couto’s nostrils flared a little.
“Indeed, it will continue as long as I am here,” she said. “And when I am gone, my heirs will take over.”
One of the perils of going to the Goa Arts and Literary Festival is that Sujata Noronha, the powerhouse founder and director of Bookworm, will manage to convince me to talk to the students she has bussed in to listen to authors talk about their books. After one of these occasions, I insisted that she owed me lunch and we were talking about how Bookworm was doing.
“You won’t believe this, Jerry,” said Noronha looking excited and sheepish all at once, “but we have a corpus now.”
I am not a big fan of corpus culture. I know it does give the institution a shot at longevity but if it does achieve longevity, the corpus becomes nearly irrelevant. If you have ten lakhs today, I think you should use it to do the work you want to, ten lakhs of it, ten lakhs of books or mobile vans or whatever, rather than eighty thousand rupees of interest and a corpus being nibbled away by inflation.
Sujata Noronha’s plan was to take libraries and books to children in Goa.
“So my friend, Alito Siqueira of the Goa University, once said to me, ‘I say, you’re always saying you need money for these libraries of yours, why don’t you go and meet Maria Aurora?’” Noronha wrote to me.
The day after the two women met, a cheque was signed and a library project for the village of Aldona began.
“Like that! So every year, I would go and remind her and this year, she said, ‘This is ridiculous. You must have a corpus.’ And she wrote an email to some of her friends and she helped raise more money than I have ever managed in my life.”
This is what I tell my students at SCM Sophia most of whom, like me, have been born with varying degrees of privilege. You can’t help your backstory. But you can use your privilege to help others. I reached out to Noronha on an email and she wrote back in characteristic fashion”
“Don’t work so hard.”
“It will be all right.”
“Pray for me.”
“How can I help?”
“Should I write a cheque?”
“Are you back?”
“Nothing urgent, wanted to talk to you.”
“These are some of the messages, familiarly repeated on our text chats,” Noronha said. “Aurora easily accepted that I was not on WhatsApp – she was an ardent and frequent texter, and the morning hour before 8 am was our favourite. She never questioned a single decision I made, professionally or personally – always accepted me for who I am, what I am and perhaps what I may become and loved me and my work. She listened, laughed and shared with utmost trust and perhaps that was the foundation of what bound us together.
“I know I was blessed in this unique and particular friendship that came to us only a little over a decade ago and yet it was a deep relationship. I was so resistant to the idea of a corpus at Bookworm, but Aurora was firm. Her contribution and her asking others to contribute was to provide us with sustenance and continued support.
“She would delight at every small act in the Alban Couto Community Library and thank, comment on every update/report/message that was sent to her. No one attended to the detail of our work the way Aurora did but always with a larger vision for the library outreach in her mind.
“She blessed us and our work and we must simply go on.. I know nothing would honour her more than ensuring that more children read , think and most importantly ask questions.”
Vivek Menezes, author and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival, remembers a woman who helped with the founding of the lectures honouring DD Kosambi and also her work at the Goa University. The architect Arminio Ribeiro remembers her help with the Charles Correa Foundation’s events. His wife was deeply moved at the death of the elegant lady who had given her so many heirloom saris.
Those heirloom saris, the mangalsutra, the translation work, the voice on the phone, cool, complaining that her long essays were taking much more effort than she thought they would, the concern with the state of Goa and the state of India, the fluent Portuguese and Konkani and English, the quiet dignity and the knowledge of one’s position in life…
I once referred to her as the Duchess of Aldona. She heard and when we met next, she said, “You should make a leg.”
I bowed as elegantly as I could which was not very elegantly. She curtseyed. “It’s the least you can do for a Duchess,” she said but there was twinkle in her eye.