BOOK REVIEW: Maria Aurora Couto’s Goa: A Daughter’s Story (Reviewer: Dr Teotonio R de Souza)

Goa: An ‘Aurorised’ Story

Goa: A Daughter’s Story,
by Maria Aurora Couto;
Penguin Books,
New Delhi, 2005; pp 436, Rs 350, (pb).

Teotonio R de Souza

Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh (Vintage, 1994) depicts Aurora,
as the last of the Gamas and a daughter of Camões, playing the perfect
granddaughter to Epifânia da Gama, whom she wishes to murder. We are
told that Epifânia had developed a healthy respect for the British, but
her heart belonged to Portugal, as she dreamt of walking beside the
Tagus, the Douro, sashaying through the streets of Lisbon on the arm of
a grandee. Aurora’s grandfather, Francisco da Gama, had fallen prey to
Annie Besant’s theosophy and propounded a theory of ‘transformational
fields of conscience’, but his playing with Gama rays finished him off,
after provoking cruel and satirical editorial comments in The Hindu.
Those who are familiar with this “Aurorised” version of Rushdie’s novel
(do not miss Chapter 13 of the novel) will find in the present book,
another Aurorised version, Chico’s daughter and Alban Couto’s wife, a
soulful, or to use her father’s “alma”-discourse, a passionate and
emotion-charged reconstruction of Goa. ‘The Sunday Magazine’ of The
Hindu of April 4, 2004 had reviewed this book under the caption
‘Apparent Divide, Actual Bridges’, relating Goa to south Asia’s
macro-level processes, without leaving it isolated as a dazzling but
inexplicable pendant on Asia’s hippie and tourist routes. It should not
surprise the reader if a large part of the book is devoted to the Goan
musical tradition, which serves to link and also bind the Bhakti cult
with Goan Christianity, Goan “kudds” with Bollywood, a
lawyer-politician-freedom fighter of Orlim with a Souza lady born to a
music merchant in Karachi and trained by an Italian maestro in Bombay
and speaking English at home in a predominantly Portuguese influenced
Salcete subculture. Even a rat frequented occasionally (p 270) the music
classes of Father Philip Soares in the Dharwar parish of Aurora.
Perhaps, he mistook the Goan music for the “laddus” of Lord Ganesha.

A New Approach

Couto follows neither the tourist brochure approach that goes little
beyond describing the sun and sands of Goa, nor does she take up the
stance of the academic historian, who in this book will have to bear
with absence of their preference for footnoted erudition. Aurora prefers
rather to “imagine and interpret” the process of conversion, subversion
and compromise (pp 240-49) to which the population and the land were
subjected since its occupation by Afonso de Albquerque in 1510. She
prefers to build her “story of Goa” on the basis of her own choice of
sources, giving the pride of place to family reminiscences and other
kinds of oral traditions and F N Souza’s canvases, but above all to the
two major rivers of Goa. Maria Aurora believes that the “view from the
river is dramatically different”. This river-borne perspective would
certainly make Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha keen to come to Goa, even
though Aurora does not extend her view to the Buddhist or any
other phase of pre-Portuguese Goa. Unlike Rushdie’s Epifânia, his
Aurora’s grandmother, here we find an Aurora who reveals a sound respect
for the Portuguese, but whose heart belongs to a greater India. The
Portuguese get almost off the hook of most academic historians: they are
presented as non-aggressive as a rule and without delusions of
superiority. We are told that their coercion did not mean
violence against human person, but only the violation of right to
practise Hinduism, or that the citizenship granted to Goans was not
matched with the right to highest positions of power, particularly
in the church hierarchy and during the dictatorship of Salazar.

I cannot but feel deep empathy for the exercise performed by Maria
Aurora Couto. My own Goa to Me (Concept Publishers, Delhi,1994) was a
somewhat similar exercise of weaving the history of Goa with my own
lived experience of situations of anguish and opportunities, not very
different from what Couto and most other sons and daughters of Goa have
gone through at different periods and contexts of Goa’s history. I see
Goa – A Daughter’s Story as yet another worthy attempt to piece together
one’s own lived experience with the help of the life-performances of
many others, at all levels of the Goan community, whose common umbilical
bond with Goa makes them all, individually and collectively, the makers
of Goan history. Couto does not hide her belief in the role of the
elite, but also presents history in tune with Pareto’s “cemetery of
elite”. The book seems to have provided an opportunity for catharsis by
seeking to unveil the main causes of the declining and dying feudal
elite to which a large part of her ancestry belonged.

Through Maria Couto’s account, researchers like the present reviewer
will perhaps find a wider readership for research on Goa’s agrarian
economy and the baroque style of Christianity introduced by the
Portuguese (p 158), the imposition in Goa Portuguesa of a “xendy” tax
along the Mughal “jizya” model (p 200), the Mhamays of Goa, the debt
owed by Jesuits to Bhagvatiny Camotiny at the time of their suppression,
and African slavery in Goa (p 219), Lam Jaku’s (the reviewer’s
grandfather) tirades against the pants-wearing (“calção-kar”) rulers and
their native lackeys (p 239), the Jesuit impact upon the Goan
agriculture and culture (p 251), the native Oratorians of Goa (p 319),
the Pinto Revolt (p 324), and many other bits and pieces of information
that do not always carry overt indication of their source. Maria Couto’s
wide and rich survey of oral traditions and her encyclopaedic readings
also validate many of my research conclusions, including the fact that
Portuguese colonialism was sustained with the active collaboration of
Hindu artisans, traders and diplomats (p 263). I can recall having
chatted with Couto during her visit to Portugal and also during my
visits to Goa. I remember having conveyed to her my conviction that with
her socio-political background she was better placed than the scholars
born and bred exclusively in Goa to present Goa on a larger canvas. That
seems to have happened and a comparison of the book reviews at the local
and national level bear witness to it.

Couto discovered in her genealogical lists a great-great-grandfather
Antonio Caetano Pacheco, who has a road named after him in Margão. In
1955, the postal services of Portuguese India issued a stamp with his
picture and name, to commemorate 450 years of the foundation of the
“Estado Português da India”, to which he was elected as MP to serve in
the Portuguese parliament in 1839. Had Couto gone beyond oral tradition,
listening only to Priti Camotim, and “senhoras” Hira Sardessai and Hira
Sakhardando in Lisbon, and found time to glance at the records of the
Portuguese parliament (many of them can now be consulted online), she
could have traced interesting details about her ancestor’s capacity to
draft legislative projects in the company of Bernardo Peres da Silva. He
was back in the Portuguese parliament after suffering exile from Goa in
1832 and after an aborted attempt by his relative and opium-baron
Rogerio de Faria in 1835 to bring him back to power to serve his own
business ambitions by ousting the Portuguese through a naval expedition
he planned from Bombay, but which landed on the rocks of Vengurlá due to
little attention paid to the announcements of early arrival of the
monsoon that year (p 366), Bernardo Peres da Silva continued to be
re-elected as MP for Goa till his death. He continued his political
harangues on behalf of his land and his people in the Portuguese
parliament, even when no minister in government cared to listen or
respond to his demands. Silva did not relent till the end and earned for
himself a mausoleum in Lisbon’s glamorous “Cemitério dos Prazeres”, a
kind of open-air museum erected by the liberalism and secularism of the
mid-19th century that took the burial grounds away from the medieval
Catholic church precincts.

The Old Aristocracy

If I have pointed out in some detail the above cases, it is meant as an
indirect comment on Couto’s lamentations and frustrations of the Goan
feudal “bhatkars”, affecting significantly the destinies of her
ancestry, including her beloved father (p 356) and inspirer of this
book. They found little or no scope for idealism and creativity in the
prevailing economic constraints that followed the British grip over
Portuguese Indian economy (p 292) and after Salazar’s grip over the
native political ambitions (pp 386-87). It is true that Couto cites the
case of some young Goans, like Telo Mascarenhas, Adeodato Barreto and
Lucio Miranda, who founded a “Partido Nacional Indiano” in the
university city of Coimbra, in Portugal, or some visionary Hindu
reformers in Goa, such as Hegdo Dessai, who led single handedly a press
campaign through his newspaper Bharat, when some of his influential
correligionaries had been co-opted to serve and toe the line of the
administration. I am left with the impression that, while filial and
human sensitivity makes Couto seek to mitigate the personal culpability
of Goans who drowned their frustrations in alcoholism, she seems to be
at a loss to explain how several others could resist and act within the
same socio-political context with an intense sense of mission. Should we
believe that most Goans, and many of the elite, like her cherished
father could only find sublimation in faith and “alma”-driven music? If
so, are we to conclude that the Portuguese “violence-free” colonialism
did very well through the strategic promotion of a “lamb of God” or
“suffering servant of Yahweh” theology with Lenten motets and what
Salman Rusdie calls “kababed saints and tandooried martyrs”? Did music
truly liberate the Christian soul (p 237)? Did it not rather lull and
dull the pains and sufferings under the colonial rule, preventing an
adequate political response of the masses?

Couto’s preliminary disavowal of academic history left me with some
misgivings, but as I reached the end of the book, I could not help
recalling the 16th century Portuguese adventurer in Asia and author of
his world-famous Peregrinação. Till very recently, the literary critics
believed that Fernão Mendes Pinto was lying or exaggerating most of the
incidents he was narrating. Now it is admitted by serious researchers
that he was truthful even in most details, but was forced to put into
the mouths of others whatever he himself wanted to say about the
Portuguese atrocities and opportunistic behaviour in Asia. The
Portuguese Inquisition would not let him publish his book had he said
those things as personal testimony. He had devised a literary style.
Maria Aurora Couto seems to have laboured under some kind of
self-inquisitorial pressures and done a superb job of making many
others, including the present reviewer, say whatever could go counter to
her determination to avoid extreme positions.

Just as I cherish Jawaharlal Nehru’s approach to Indian and World
History through his well known The Discovery of India and Glimpses of
World History, I have no doubts that Maria Aurora’s Goa – A Daughter’s
Story will go a long way in presenting the social and cultural (which is
always political, as the author admits in one place) in a language that
is both polished and passionate, conveying deep love and the
“Indian-ness of pluralism” as another reviewer has summed up in his
conclusions of the book. Despite my whole-hearted concurrence, I fear
that the “mestiços” who are presented as the real enemies, feared and
hated by Goans from both communities (p 193), may feel themselves at the
receiving end of this otherwise suave treatment of Goan cultural
pluralism. The recently published second edition of a massive three
volume listing of Os luso-descendentes da India Portuguesa by Jorge
Forjaz could provide much powder for commemorative salvos, if not for
more provocative exercises, as the fifth centenary of the conquest of
Goa and Afonso de Albuquerque’s policy and politics of miscegenation
nears. Could the “mesticos” or their descendants be brushed aside in
Couto’s account of Goa Portuguesa? Were they dismissed summarily (pp
134-35) to avoid getting sucked into less pleasant reflections and
interpretations? How about Goan natives, men and women, who sought
matrimonial alliances with the white Portuguese, and are now integrated
on either side of the present-day political geography divide? Where do
they figure in the evolution of Goan identity as presented in Goa A
Daughter’s Story? While it is easy to present the mestiços as enemies in
the context of the liberal politics and pre-liberation conflicts of the
Goan society, a more systematic treatment of their long-lasting presence
in Goan identity could surely enrich our understanding of Goa’s cultural

Contrary to general belief, more white blood transfusion may have
entered the Goan society through white females who married propertied
and influential Goan “ganvkars” than through Portuguese males for whom
native taboos made it difficult to find high caste native mates. These
are just some provocations, hoping that Couto will accept the challenge
and answer some of these questions in the near future by delving little
deeper into the feats and adventures of the “gente muito fina,… tao
delicadas, tão bonitas” (very refined people, very courteous and
beautiful) about whom Couto’s mother used to reminisce (p 330). Why
limit and stop the influences on the character of Goan women (and
perhaps men as well?) with Dravidian matrilinealism, Buddhist philosophy
and Kadamba queens (p 51)? This is not applicable only to the Christian
community. If we are to go by oral tradition, the choice of D Bandodkar
as the first elected chief minister of post-liberation Goa permitted a
smooth transition for Goa, less politically than genetically! Hopefully,
the Muslims who were left out from the present Aurorised version will
also find some place in future versions. It was among them that Afonso
de Albuquerque found the “mulheres castas e alvas” (chaste and fair
women) to reproduce the “casados” and to forge a new identity for Goa


To conclude, I wished the paperback edition that is reviewed here had
made accessible this magnum opus of Maria Aurora Couto, not just for
less price, but also with less misspellings of Portuguese words. Goans
need not be made more “socegado” than they seem to be by replacing “ss”
with one “c”, or made less braggarts by taking away one “r” from
“fanfarrão” (braggart)! (p 360). Many missing Portuguese accent marks
change the meanings of words, particularly in some phrases that are not
accompanied by English translation. The archaic Portuguese orthography
could have been modernised as most research historians usually do
nowadays. But these are minor complaints. I would add on a lighter note
that, if Aurora continues copying dutifully and affectionately the
Portuguese texts of her father without fearing his knocks (p 260), she
will certainly have all the spellings right very soon and in time for
the future editions.



One thought on “BOOK REVIEW: Maria Aurora Couto’s Goa: A Daughter’s Story (Reviewer: Dr Teotonio R de Souza)

  1. Dear Sir,

    After reading the Book and going through your review, a question comes to my mind as to whether the Goans who had moved out of Goa to protect their way of life, has any place in Goan history. Nobody seems to remember that one of largest movement of refugees took place from Goa during the dark period of its history and even after so many centuries these migrants still hold on to their Goan traditions, language and life style. A true history of Goa cannot be complete without studying the lifes these Goans.

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