When I visited Maria Couto at her home outside Aldona in North Goa last December, she was worried about a series of essays she hoped she had ready for publication. She was finishing Christophe Jaffrelot’s new book, and worried about his forecasts for India. Above all, as the 60th anniversary of liberation approached, she reflected on Goa’s past and worried about its future: the integrity of its land, water and languages, its “goenkaponnor cultural ecology, and itsmunxapon», his unique humanism.
Maria didn’t spend any of those evenings worrying about herself, despite the physical frailty that was beginning to overwhelm her. She remained a living source of literary and cultural insights – acquired over a lifetime of reading and writing in English, Konkani and Portuguese – and an exemplary trustee of the heritage of Goa, which she knew as both an insider and a stranger to this unique province. .
Maria cemented her place as Goa’s grand dame of arts and letters through her work as a memoirist, translator and educator; his shared life with Alban Couto, a key Goa administrator after liberation; and his widespread friendships with writers from state, country and the world, most notably Graham Greene.
Her four books trace the main contours of her life as an initiate and a foreigner in Goa. Born in Salcete in 1935, she grew up in Dharwad – across what was then a border between Portuguese Goa and the Bombay Presidency. His memoirs Filomena’s Travels: A Portrait of a Marriage, a Family and a Culture (Aleph: 2013) tells the story of his father, “Chico” Figueiredo, an unstable musician plagued by alcoholism and seeking a cure during prohibition-era Dharwad, and his stoic mother, Filomena Borges, who “seemed to live with and yet float above the harsh realities from which she protected her young children.
As an older child, Maria was privileged to take solo journeys over the Ghats, through Customs – the earliest version of the crossings that would define her relationship with Goa. In Margao, she belonged to an elite class of Catholics, fluent in Portuguese and established in the colonial bureaucracy for generations. In Dharwad, her family struggled to maintain a middle class life. Aurora learned shorthand, hoping to work as a secretary, before a scholarship paved her way to Karnatak College in Dharwad.
The college was at its peak, with a faculty including the Jnanpith-award-winning poet V. K. Gokak and fellow students all steeped in Indian languages but energized by Western modernism. Among these students were the future novelist Shashi Deshpande and my father, the future playwright and actor Girish Karnad. They remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
His mother’s move to Dharwad, she wrote later, was one of the greatest gifts of his life. It was the place where she “woke up to Carnatic music emanating from the neighbor’s house, rushed to morning mass to sing Gregorian chant and, later, to listen to Hindustani classics. sung…by a niece of Gangubai Hangal”, not the place where MM Kalburgi might be killed on his doorstep. Dharwar’s pedha, she wrote decades later, was her Proustian madeleine.
In 1960, during a chance visit to Bombay, Maria was persuaded to attend the New Year’s Ball at the Bombay Catholic Gymkhana. There she meets Alban Couto, a young IAS officer stationed in Patna, who begins a conversation that touches “music, literature, history and above all the love of Goa”. The band stopped playing at 4am, but the conversation continued. They married, and her life as a companion opened up new cultural vistas of traditional Indian society – starting with Patna (where Maria claimed she had to give up calling herself “Aurora” because she wouldn’t be heard than as “Arora”), later Madras and Delhi. Alban would serve in Bihar during the hottest years of the JP movement and finish his tenure as Gaya district collector there. They had three children, Veena, Vinay and Vivek.
Before most of that, however, came his next rendezvous with Goa: on the heels of his liberation in December 1961. As a member of the IAS, Alban Couto had been barred from entering Portuguese Goa for a decade. Now he was especially valuable there, as Goa transitioned from a 450-year-old colonial state (ending under the Salazar dictatorship) to a period of Indian military rule and then to regular civilian administration in 1962. Alban would Goa’s first development commissioner released, as well as secretary to the lieutenant governor. For Maria, it would be “three years of excitement and heartbreak…of memorable intensity and complexity”, as she recorded in Goa: A Girl’s Journey. “In the wake of freedom had come dreams and ambitions; yet, for many in Goa, their very sense of self seemed to be challenged.
Maria was propelled from the heartland of Hindi to her so-called homeland and, as Alban’s companion, into the very center of Goa’s emerging political establishment. Her own social ease and fluency in Konkani and Portuguese were an equal asset to her husband’s sensitive role. Later, his experience of this tense and bristling moment would form the centerpiece of Goa: A Girl’s Journey, his 2004 magnum opus, a memoir that is also a scholarly account of Goa’s sociology and colonial past.
Among many other topics, the book confronted the history of the conversion of Goa and the violence of the Portuguese inquisition, as events of its own cultural ancestry. It was a decision not everyone liked – the communal forces of Goa would be happy to exploit it – but one that highlighted Maria’s standards as an intellectual and a memoirist.
The year 1963 was also when author Graham Greene visited Goa, on a mission for the Sunday time account for the historical transition. Maria, who had read and struggled with Greene’s novels since college, was asked to host. Greene would write an incisive essay on a place where houses were “godly built to last”, but would not easily resist the pressures and appetites of India: “you cannot hang a skull at the entrance to Goa like you can on a mango tree to divert the envious eye.
Years later, that encounter would inspire a doctoral dissertation on Greene — “to get him out of my system” — and a lasting bond with the world-renowned novelist, involving many letters, dinner parties and a memorable moment. series of interviews in a hotel with a sea view on the Côte d’Azur. This culminated in Maria’s first book, in 1988, Graham Greene: On the Border, Politics and Religion in Novels.
At that time, Maria was living in London, where Alban held a post at the Commonwealth Secretariat. Maria would come to view their travels as a kind of fieldwork – whether at the Bankipur Club on the banks of the Ganges, in the tribal villages of the Chota Nagpur Plateau or at Harrod’s – gathering knowledge of society, writing and music, and from each new place, a new perspective on home. The subtle and deliberate plural she placed in the title of Filomena’s travels would have equal importance in his.
In the year 2000, they returned to Goa and settled in his ancestral village, Aldona. In her house with exposed beams, Maria’s writing really began. She was encouraged by Alban, who was her intellectual touchstone until his death in 2009, and after. Included between A Girl’s Journey and Filomena’s travels, Maria translated a striking sociology of Goa, AB Braganza Pereira encyclopedic Ethnography of Goa, Daman and Diu, from Portuguese to English. This work informed his firm and unbiased view of class and land relations, beliefs and traditions of Goa. In 2010, she received the Padma Shri.
Many of the children of his early friends would in turn become his friends – like me, or the curator and poet Ranjit Hoskote. “I grew up hearing about the dazzling Maria Aurora Figueiredo, as she then was, from my mother,” he wrote to me today. “Meeting her in person, years later, marked both a reunion and the start of a new friendship. Aurora was a liberal who was at home in many worlds, an accomplished cultural historian, a memoirist and literary critic, she embodied the values of a confluent and cross-cultural Goa, and the inclusive and non-sectarian confidence of Nehruvian India.
His home in Aldona was a haven of old style and modern thought, in a state and country where these increasingly seemed to have been reversed. The hill sloped to the rear of the house, so that guests on its veranda were surrounded by the treetops, visited by birds of sunshine and in the right season, wowed by heaps of lavender flowers spilling a garlic vine. In the long wake of Graham Greene, many writers, artists, academics and eminences found their place on this veranda, among them Damodar Mauzo, Umberto Eco, Orhan Pamuk and Katherine Boo. Many trips to Goa ended in his company. Thanks to his writing, many journeys also begin there.