ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Maria Aurora Couto (1937–2022) and Her Fifty–Fifty Nationalism

Maria Aurora Couto, the Goan littérateur and cultural activist who passed away on 14 January 2022, brought out the facets of her cosmopolitan outlook and her abiding faith in the synthetic traditions of Goan/Indian culture. She remained steeped in the cultural demands of high nationalism embodying the values of her times. 

Sometime in 2004 as the late Alito Siquera and I were waiting at the office of the vice chancellor of Goa University, I saw a woman climbing up the stairs of the building. She was panting, and without giving us a glance entered the vice chancellor’s chamber, as we discovered later, to join the experts as the chancellor’s nominee. Of course, Alito knew her well but decided to mention her as the famed author of Goa: A Dau­ghter’s Story (Penguin, 2004). The book was creating waves, and I was yet to read it. In my nervousness, I asked Alito to give me a gist of the book lest I get asked a few questions about it. He made me realise that I had committed a grave mistake by appearing so indiffe­rent to a great sociological work coming as a fiction from a native Goan. The conversation then turned into the follies of mainstream nationalism and how north Indians like me look at Goa just as a tiny dot in the larger map of India without feeling any need for serious intellectual engagement. Alito would never let an opportunity pass to remind us that we were the carriers of stereotypes about Goa, thanks to the Bollywood films and the images spawned by the tourism ­industry.

In any case, our interactions with the committee got over, and we got our res­pective promotions. Maria Couto just asked me one simple question if Maithili was my mother tongue. Later, I did borrow Maria’s book from the library and read it. In fact, it was my first serious reading about Goan society and culture save few stray sociological pieces. Subsequently, Alito and I wrote a joint piece for an edited volume concerning sociological practices in Goa, and he managed to get her comments on the draft paper. At Goa University, she was instrumental in conceptualising the Visiting Research Professors Programme commemorating Goan icons from varied fields like D D Kosambi, Dayanand Bandodkar, Baki-baab Borkar, Mario Miranda, Anth­ony Gonsalves, Nana Shirgaonkar, Sant Sohirobanath, and Joaquim Heliodoro da Cunha Rivara. The nomenclature of these chairs, and the attendant delineation of the fields, is a living testimony to the “fifty–fifty” nationalism that Maria Couto championed throughout her life: a conscious bridge-building across the perceived binaries of Hindu–Catholic, Marathi–Konkani, and Indian–Goan iden­tities. It called for a certain catholicity of vision and cosmopolitanism of approach to devote chairs to Marathi sant sahitya and Indo–Portuguese studies at the same time, as also to Hindustani and Western music. Those who are conversant with the looming threats of communal and linguistic polarisation in Goa can retrospectively appreciate the inclusiveness that was sought to be articulated through the very act of naming these chairs. It was an act of great intellectual courage to devote a chair to Marathi in the only university of a state whose dist­inctive­ness emanate from its growing political and cultural distancing from Maharashtra and Marathi. Likewise, it was not easy to have a chair in Indo–Portuguese studies in a rather apologetic context where the elite Catholic Goan is misperceived as the closet defender of Portuguese colonialism.

Be that as it may, I left Goa University for another job in Kolkata and Maria Couto ceased to be an active presence in my intellectual–institutional world, till I met her in Shimla in 2013. This was possible because another eminent Goan, Peter Ronald deSouza, who as the then director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla, had the uncanny talent to attract some of the best minds to the institute, and to facilitate conversations across a wide range of themes. He had succeeded in persuading Maria Couto to be a guest fellow at the IIAS for three months. I was a regular fellow there and thus our paths crossed once again.

Her husband Alban Couto served as the district collector of Gaya, and based on his experience had published a piece on the growing Hindu–Muslim polarisation in the district. Maria shared that piece with me. Thereafter, she would share reminiscences of her days in Patna, her husband’s great admiration for Shrikrishna Singh, the first chief minister of Bihar, and how he had relatively less regard for Jayaprakash Narayan. I would regularly meet Maria at the observatory guest house of IIAS, where she would sip her brandy with hot water. It is over these meetings that I learnt a great deal about her writings, her nationalist vision, her concerns for Goa and India, and her boundless warmth and generosity. She would often joke that it was Alban who had arranged from the heaven my company for her in Shimla. These conversations continued in Goa, where I worked for a decade, occ­asionally over lunch in her beautiful house in Aldona and, at times, in Mandovi hotel where everyone knew her personally.

In Shimla, Maria was putting together her second memoir—Filomina’s Journeys: A Portrait of a Marriage, a Family and a Culture (Aleph, 2013). The work focused more on her mother, as a woman of immense grit and sagacity. It was around this time when she was giving finishing touches to her book, she laughingly told me about her being a fifty–­fifty nationalist. As she would explain gently that most of her relatives find her a fifty–fifty person, and even laugh behind her back: half Goan-half Indian, half Catholic-half Hindu. Since she had not lived in Goa consistently before she moved there in 2000, her Goanness was suspect in their eyes. Because of her stay in Dharwad, Delhi, Patna, London, Che­nnai, she had acquired a long list of “Indian” friends whose first port of call was her house in Aldona. Also, for any occasion of some importance, she would purposely don a sari and a mangalsutra. That would annoy her relatives as they would read this as an attempt to appear half-Hindu. But then, Maria would not miss a single Sunday mass in Shimla which I could never understand. Her choice of Indian first names for her children was a conscious one: Veena, Vinay, and Vivek. And every now and then, she would bring in the lost world of Goan village both Hindu and Catholic, its fra­gile ecology, the growing threats to its value system, and the violent modern world of mining and tourism. After a formal presentation, I had asked her that question: if her writings could be seen as nostalgic remembrance of a lost world. She vehemently denied that and did indicate about retrieving the elements of harmony and togetherness in that world to construct a blueprint for a desirable complementarity of Goan and Indian identities. Genteel and graceful to a fault, she would often talk of natural confluence of different worlds as it happened in her case because of her sojourns in Dharwad and Delhi.

Without being explicitly political, she would lament about the unnecessary nat­ionalistic test that Indians with non-Hindu names are expected to pass these days. She firmly believed that Nehru­vian India had created possibilities where a Veena Couto would appear as normal as a Veena Sardesai, and where an Aurora Couto from a distant Goa could feel as comfortable in a household in Patna full of Maithili/Bhojpuri-speaking cooks and helps. Maria Couto represented that world and that vision. It is easy for us to simply proclaim alas! That world is disappearing, and disappearing fast! A true tribute to Maria Couto would be to ask some of the most difficult questions about our nationalism that she herself hesitated to ask. I would often tease her by saying that her fifty–fifty nationalism could be sustained because of a host of favourable factors—she being an upper-class Bammon Catholic so what if she had an alcoholic father, she having met a Bombay-based Goan IAS officer as husband, her husband’s posting in London at a time when access to foreign shores was severely constrained, in short, her membership of an upwardly mobile English-speaking class that Nehruvian India had helped create. That India really served her well, so naturally she would be all praise for it.

She would gently refute my assertion by saying that she equally contributed to that India by learning English (and not Portuguese, which anyway she was fluent in) and teaching the language at colleges in Goa and Delhi. More generally, she would say, people of her class did help select elements of varied regional cultures to create a national one that a newly independent India was in earnest need of. Here, she would talk of different types of academies and art institutions that were created in the 1950s and the 1960s. She would invoke the contributions of her friend Girish Karnad and allude to Gangubai Hangal’s recognition as a national icon. She would frequently draw upon Alban’s work in Goa as development commissioner in the aftermath of liberation in 1961, and underline the way Alban Indianised things there. Her another favourite topic would be her sari. She would talk of different weaves and the way they were sourced from diff­erent parts of the country, and the way it had come to stand for a kind of nationalist dress for women in India without demeaning her trousers and shirts that she would wear to the church. She wanted that India where she could frequently switch between a church and a temple, a sari and a dress, Konkani and Portuguese, English and Hindi without any duress.

But then, why do we find it difficult to sustain an India that Maria lived in and also wished for us? It is not fair to look for an answer in her oeuvre. With all her literary greatness, Maria Couto was no political theorist. May be successes of Maria’s India have unleashed forces which are undermining her vision. The vernacularisation of Indian democracy has created a political class which did not have the privilege of getting groomed in the composite traditions of the Karnads and Coutos as they belong to different structures of opportunities. The high ideals of nationalism did give everyone an overall sense of anticipated emancipation from the life of drudgery and indignity. Without concrete gains for the multitudes over the past seven decades after independence, those ideals themselves appear sectoral and exclusive. An aspirational India without the requisite avenues of upward mobility for her millions will always remain explosive and vulnerable to multifarious appeals of identity politics. Maria did have an intuitive sense of all that, but did not wish to venture in that direction. In that sense, she belonged to a group of people who always looked at things with great affection, warmth, care, and love but inadvertently end up giving us too sanitised and too gentle a view of the world—a world bereft of its conflicts and its materiality.


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Updated On : 23rd Jul, 2022
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