Why Writer Maria Aurora Couto (1937-2022) Was Goa’s Grande Dame of Literature and Culture
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 certain aspects of his rich and varied personality. She was indeed the great lady of letters and culture of Goa. She was the elegant lady who portrayed in her the alluring confluence of cultures of this precious land. Indeed, she lived between three concentric circles (in her own words) of Indian, Goan, Catholic.
I don’t know, when we say that, if we go from the particular to the universal or the reverse. She was Alban’s perfect companion, her husband, the caring mother to her children, the scintillating loveseat at official parties, the admired teacher at Lady Shri Ram’s College for women, the literary scholar and accomplished writer, the “primo “loving everyone. of us parents, the incarnate veglench munxaponn (unique humanism) of the Goanese poet Bakibab Borkar, and the anguished native who suffered thinking of the betrayal of Goa by the political class.
All of these descriptions are true. They say a lot about her, her life and her times. And yet, they don’t say enough. More needs to be said.
I knew her well. I met her whenever I was in the neighborhood. I shared notes with her on Goa’s past and future and we both tormented over whether our laments were not the laments of a class that lost power or whether they were, in fact, insightful and valid observations. I even invited her as a guest researcher at the IIAS in Shimla where she charmed all the scholarship holders of the Institute. I have read one of her manuscript drafts and often urged her to write about the period of Goan history which she and Alban made, and which she had the privilege of witnessing first hand.
When he passed away, we in Goa lost a lot. But above all, we have lost the memory of a world of the Catholic elite of Goa which must be encountered, explored, criticized and, I dare say, defended. It was real, warts and all. It is, and was, there and therefore cannot be erased from history as the regime is doing today. He must receive an honest evaluation.
Aurora could offer such an assessment. She was one of the few who had the good fortune to belong to the many worlds of Goa and more so the goodwill to carry on a conversation with the other worlds to which she did not belong. Some say she embodied “goenkarponn”. I’m not so sure. To accept would be to freeze a cultural space that defies such freezing.
“Goenkarponn” is like the face behind the gauze veil whose outlines you can see but never fully see. Aurora was certainly its most alluring exponent. However, I did not know her well enough to answer in the affirmative that she was that, to describe her being par excellence, and therefore I must rely on three clues that she left us in interviews and writings .
The first comes from his book Goa: A Girl’s Story. In a review I did many years ago, I described the book as a dialogue between Maria and Aurora. The first person, Maria, is the nationalist who believed in building an India that the Nehruvian generation dreamed of, the one who wanted to see a plural India invested in the scientific temperament, an India democratic and governed by the rule of law.
The second person, Aurora, was the Catholic elite of Goa who had to live in the existential space of a post-colonial Goa and solve its puzzles while speaking in Portuguese, Konkani and Hindi. This conversation that she staged in her book, between Maria and Aurora, she did with great honesty and sensitivity. We can and we must see his life as an endless dialogue between Maria and Aurore.
The second is his fascination with Graham Greene. In this she reminds me of Pico Iyer, who wrote the novel The man in my head, where he confesses his obsession with Greene. Maybe it was the struggles in Greene’s soul that drew her in, all those ethical questions about truth, justice and guilt. He was, after all, a writer who converted to Catholicism in 1926. Perhaps it was the themes he chose that appealed to her.
There’s no denying the fact that Greene was the man in her head. In an entry for The human factor, Greene’s book that Alban had bought him, he wrote tellingly, “Tired of sharing you with him.” In the life of Aurora’s spirit, Greene indeed loomed large.
The third clue comes from an argument Alban had with Greene when he challenged Greene’s use of the word “creolization” to describe Goa. Aurora, it seems, adheres to the same point of view as Alban. It is unclear whether this was out of a sense of loyalty to his lifelong companion, or a fierce defense of Goa’s unique culture, or a post-colonial point of view, or the arrogance of the Catholic elite. , or by a desire to distinguish Goa from the countries of the Antilles, as she said in her May 2021 essay.
It is a coded position. We will never know the answer to these questions now that she is gone. Yet we must answer them ourselves. She gave us the materials we needed. Dev Borem Korum aurorabai.
Peter Ronald deSouza is DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at the University of Goa.