At 19, I was obsessed with a man I did not know. Graham Greene’s novels were among the works prescribed for my Master’s degree. My admiration for Greene’s writing was clouded by irritation with critical assessments that labelled Greene a “Catholic” novelist (along with Evelyn Waugh). These analyses, often misguided, I believed, by highly structured theological arguments, diminished and even erased the tragic dimensions of our lives and world.

Greene’s skills as a novelist were underpinned by his deep sense of the human condition even in novels he labelled “entertainments”. The dogmas of Catholicism emphasised moral choices to govern our lives. Sin, guilt and redemption – a package unequivocally central to a Catholic view of the world – helped focus on reality: extreme poverty, persecution, love and its betrayal, capitalism, political leaders and their misuse of power. “Where do these critics live?” he once asked, perhaps referring to Pinkie in Brighton Rock.

The world of literary criticism had not yet woken, it seemed, to life, its choices and the desperate struggles which later were blithely termed “the third world”, a description Greene shunned all his life. But I had to pass my exams and play the game, however unpleasant.

Graham Greene’s arrival

The year was 1963. Goa after Liberation. My husband Alban Couto was chosen by the Central Government to help with the transition from Salazar’s dictatorship to a modern democratic state. It was an extraordinary time, personally and professionally. His work was eulogised decades later: “He planned and executed the transition from the Portuguese to the Indian systems of administration in a manner characterised by equanimity and prudence. It was the smoothest transition ever from a dictatorial free-economy regime to a democratic order. He was, at that point in time, a firm believer in guided economy.”

This eulogy did not describe the disruption in the lives of the population. While Alban was immersed in complex administrative issues which streamed into political and personal problems, I had to deal with the social side as he was at first also Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor, in addition to his main designation as Development Commissioner.

Those years from 1962 to 1965 were for me a complex mix – floating on an extraordinary variety of experience, new friendships which extended beyond the Catholic, the South Goa cocoon of my childhood, and balancing it all with the flow of visitors from Delhi, senior officials (often with long shopping lists), a social whirl, which meant ferry crossings when INS Vikrant docked, or for the many other naval functions.

The comfort of languages sustained me. I was both in and out of these worlds, a new entrant, baffled, trying to maintain an equipoise.

Alban welcomed all challenges and set many for me. One morning, the post brought him a request from his friend Eusebio Rodrigues, then a Professor of English Literature at Bombay University. He had just completed his thesis on Graham Greene. He was coming to Goa with Greene; apparently, Greene planned to assess the situation in Goa after Liberation for the Sunday Times.

They had planned a week in Panjim and a week in Eusebio’s village, Anjuna.“Where should we stay?” asked Eusebio. Alban enthusiastically decided we should host them. Having immersed myself in Greene’s work only four years earlier, and still brooding over sin and redemption, good and evil, faith expressed in action, I thought this would be god at my table. Indeed it was.

Greene on Goa

We sat on our terrace late into the night. Feni dispelled the reserve and revealed Greene’s passion for travel across multiple frontiers, his desire – and capacity – to understand rather than judge. Alban disputed Greene’s use of the term “Creolisation” with reference to Goa. “We are not the West Indies, but are deeply rooted in an ancient civilisation.”

Greene maintained that he was not judging the people, let alone finding them wanting. He was merely describing the social, linguistic and cultural influences that seemed to have become so inextricably woven in the Goa he perceived. Greene’s political instincts, insights and ability to predict trouble spots and revolutions are well known. In his essay in the Times following that brief time in Goa, he described the special qualities of “Goa, the Unique”; the innocence, the deep faith of life in our villages, and what he intuited during his encounters in Panjim. He also predicted the fall from grace, gradual, unstoppable and destructive “developments” that have followed in these decades.

“Outside Goa one is aware all the time of the interminable repetition of the ramshackle, the enormous pressure of poverty, flowing, branching, extending like flood water. This is not a question of religion: the Goan Hindu village can be distinguished as easily from the Hindu village of India as the Christian, and there is little need to drive the point home at the boundary with placards. The houses in the Goan village were built with piety to last.”

Yet his sharp eye perceives fault lines during brief encounters:

“Indeed there is more than a hint of the worldly Babylon which shocked Camoens. Serenaders played their guitars at night to a young woman who had arrived in town for Christmas, at a party I found myself handed as a matter of course a Benzedrine tablet at four in the morning, naked bathing parties take place at a secluded beach…”

“Industrialisation is bound to come, a tourist department has opened in Panjim, and there are great beaches waiting for great hotels…But you cannot hang a skull at the entrance of Goa as you can on a mango tree to avert the envious eye.”

Maria Couto and Graham Greene at the dinner table.

Maria on Graham

His essay shocked Goans at home and elsewhere. Where had he been? What had he seen? The flood gates had not opened. That happened decades later when Goa’s uniqueness was (entirely wrongly) redefined as a “paradise for sensual pleasures”, or, more latterly, as an escape from the grim pressures – and viruses – of urban India.

Greene wrote to us. He sent us an autographed limited edition short story published at the time. Then we lost touch. But my obsession with Greene’s insights into the human condition, and my ire at the constant misrepresentation of themes in his works, finally found release when I had to choose a topic for my PhD. Alban suggested I work on Greene – “to get him out of my system”.

Greene had just published The Human Factor, set in South Africa. Alban inscribed the copy he bought for me: “Tired of sharing you with him, I hope this is his last.” Years later, Greene signed a number of his books for my children. I had forgotten Alban’s inscription when I presented a whole lot for him to sign. “ It is not,” he wrote in his absurdly tiny script. “But the next one will be.” This was in 1987.

By now, Alban was working in London. I had reconnected with Greene when I registered for my Ph D. I sent him copies of my 1978 reviews of The Human Factor in the Times of India and India International Quarterly. To my surprise, I received a three-page handwritten reply pointing out errors in each review, but also signifying approval.

“The Maria of the International Quarterly should read The Nuclear Axis by Cervenka and Rogers, which came out after my novel was published – with the help of secret information, where it is clear that the West German part of Uncle Remus is already in action. The UK and USSR share seems to be inevitable however for strategic and economic reasons. The West can’t afford to see South Africa go down the drain. The news that apartheid in employment is being abolished will make it easier for the West to join Uncle Remus.”

My thesis was a comparison with the novels of Francois Mauriac. Greene’s response in this same letter:

“Your book sounds excellent. Remember Mauriac was genuinely a Jansenist. The same can’t be said for me – Hell doesn’t figure in my theology and Grace is not confined to an elite. Pinkie may believe in Hell, but the priest at the end certainly questions its existence.”

In 1980, Alban’s work had brought us to London. During this time, I decided to write on my obsessive reading of Greene’s work as a political novelist. (“I am more a political writer than a Catholic writer. But I prefer to be called a writer who happens to be a Catholic.” 1968.) I knew he regularly shot off letters to The Times critical of British support of American foreign policy.

He gave me access to his archives held by his sister Elizabeth Dennys in Brighton. Several trips; many conversations; I felt privileged to be included in a trusted inner circle. Letters with queries were never ignored. When I requested an interview, he booked a room at a sea view hotel in Antibes after ensuring I could afford it. In an extraordinary gesture of concern, he was at the airport – “You might have got lost,” he said, and anxiously rushed us out to meet Yvonne Cloetta, his long-time companion, who was circling around unable to find parking space.

We met each morning for about two hours on two days of work, and on the third took time to drive to Nice. We walked to his favourite fish restaurant. The chef led us to an array of fresh fish from which to choose for an unforgettable meunière, copious amounts of cold white wine, and more conversation. It seemed to me later that what had drawn me to his work decades earlier was life itself, from my time in Dharwar, cultural and spiritual values, and the universality of these enabled a lifelong conversation.

Thirty years have passed. Sitting on my verandah in Aldona, a village where Alban and several of his maternal ancestors were born, I have opened the sheaf of letters from Greene. They are crinkled and yellowed with age, but the memories are still vivid. I see again that he he had read my book, corrected and disputed some conclusions, approved others and thought it was the best book written on his work – a comment which no one, least of all I, can take seriously.

Graham Greene On the Frontier, Politics and Religion in the Novels (Macmillan, London 1988) was released by Shridath Rampal, then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat, at a function hosted jointly by the publisher and Alban. There was lots of food and lots of wine. Elizabeth Dennys and her husband attended. To my astonishment, the book was reviewed by Anthony Burgess and Terry Eagleton. However, in my view, the best review was by Vrinda Nabar, then Professor, later Head, of the English Department, Bombay University.

Maria Couto's book on Graham Greene.

Meeting in London

The connection did not end there. Dr Davidson Nicol of Sierra Leone, a young student when Greene lived there and who had remained in touch with him, requested me to host a lunch on Graham’s behalf. The instructions were specific. The host, Graham; the venue: The Oxford and Cambridge Club, a venerable institution among many such, usually admitting “men only” at St James, Pall Mall, London; a sit-down meal for 12 writers from Commonwealth countries, no spouses.

The sheer weight of it was too much. It robbed me of sleep. The guest list was anxiety itself. Alban was decidedly miffed at being excluded. But he was very much part of the guest list selection. It ran like this: Merle Collins, a distinguished poet and short story writer from Grenada; Mongane Wally Serote, a South African poet in exile, who returned home after the ANC was unbanned in 1990; South Africa’s National poet in 2018, Michael Ondaatje; Ben Okri; Salman Rushdie and his then wife Marianne Wiggins who qualified as an American novelist, and acclaimed Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh, among others. Greene wrote:

“To my astonishment, because I am not addicted to large parties, I really enjoyed the lunch the other day. I liked particularly Rushdie’s wife and the nice poet from Grenada, but everyone was charming.”

These were years when President Gorbachev’s détente was in full flow. Greene, an admirer, wrote that he would be visiting Russia, would stop in London on the way back and could he dine with us. The date was set. We peered through windows of our second floor flat to await the arrival of the taxi. It came into view, then slowed to a crawl, and then sped off. We were baffled. About 15 minutes later, it returned.

Graham explained with a wink that he felt his taxi was being followed, so the driver whisked him off into by-lanes for a while. After all, he said, I am just back from Moscow. He listened carefully to each of us. We drove him back to where he was staying, the Ritz. He offered to take my daughter on a tour of its first floor. He wrote later that too much wine, good food and excellent conversation, especially with Alban and the “verbose historian” (my seventeen-year-old son), had prevented him from thanking us adequately. He did eat well, including most of the crème brȗlee, which my children loved and had hoped to save for leftovers.

Two days later, Alban and I drove to York where he had a conference to attend. Late that afternoon, our son called to say there had been a break-in, every wardrobe opened, but he could not comment on what was missing. We rushed back and called the police, who obviously wanted a list of missing items. Nothing, we said, except a credit card Alban had carelessly left in a drawer. We discovered only 200 pounds had been debited. No self-respecting thief would be so generous, said the police. What else? Well, the drafts of my chapters, and all my notes and books, lay strewn on the floor. What were they searching for? Graham was here, so we should tell him. “Be careful,” he said.

Greene had responded to Goa in 1963, its pristine natural beauty and innocence, the faith in village communities whether Hindu or Catholic, the human factor that ran so deep in the Goan psyche that our great poet Bakibab Borkar said that what made Goa special was “veglench munxaponn”, unique humanism. Back in Goa, I do believe that it is this very human condition that kept the friendship alive. That concern with, and for, “the human factor” shines through his work.

The darkness falls on my verandah. It is very quiet here. I am shielded by the verdant greenery that surrounds my house, a protective carapace of peace and repose in the dwindling light. But night brings with it the immensity of sorrow, the grief of loss. Decades ago, Greene presciently said that the human factor would not last in our Goa, in its villages and towns. How had he foreseen this? I am only glad that he is not here to witness the unbearable truth of his acuity.