What must be contended with in uncovering one’s family’s history is how to deal with what surfaces. This is the mission and the lesson of Maria Aurora Couto’s new offering: Filomena’s Journeys (Aleph, 2013).
It would be difficult not to compare Journeys to Couto’s earlier Goa: A Daughter’s Story (Penguin (India), 2004). Though Journeys is also a daughter’s story, it is not a sequel. The eponymous subject of Couto’s new tome is her mother Filomena, but the author’s father, Francisco de Figueiredo – Chico – is a key figure, too. What sets Journeys apart from its predecessor is its consideration of the agency of a woman who, though married and a mother of seven, was “[a]lways clear-sighted [...], she knew the world and herself [...].” The discovery of their mother’s self-determination comes as a surprise to Filomena’s own children and is a departure from A Daughter’s Story where the depiction of women in often highlighted, as the title itself indicates, through familial and marital relations. Born in 1909, and living her life through colonial and postcolonial periods, a journey that traverses Portuguese, British, and decolonised India, Filomena is not just daughter, wife, and mother, but a person whose individuality evolves throughout the narrative, even as the gendered constraints of her times are made plain.
Nearly a decade after A Daughter’s Story, Couto’s new book grapples with some of the criticism the earlier work received. In Journeys, there is a hyper awareness of caste and class privilege, discomfort at times, but this is not to suggest that the naming of eliteness is necessarily capable of providing for its own undoing. Rather, what the author presents through the telling of her family history, by relying primarily upon the difference between her parents who were, both, of the landed classes, is the debilitating effects of privilege on those to the manner born. “It was Filomena’s triumph that she could escape the worst effects of this lifestyle, and her tragedy that Chico could not,” the reader learns as circumstances take their toll on a man unable to overcome the strictures of his heritage. The family legacy led him to take on the study of medicine, as might be expected of someone of his stature, while limiting him from following his true passion – music. What results is the protracted decline of a once confident man in the midst of a change in fortunes. Filomena is forced to take charge of her family’s wellbeing with a dramatic move to Dharwar in British India.
In the backdrop, Goa itself changes. Couto comments on the “[p]aternalism that accompanied the feudal structure of Goan society [which was] masked exploitation.” It gave Chico “a stable, indeed idyllic, childhood without [him] being aware [...] of hardship and deprivation in [his] very backyard.” By the 1950s, social relations were altered with the emergence of new economic opportunities, such as mining, which “attracted many of the remaining mundkars who could now escape [...] difficult relations with the bhatkars.” Therein, Couto includes her father.
Surprisingly, between centring the history of an elite Catholic family and, simultaneously, bringing scrutiny to the deleterious effects of entrenched privilege, Journeys sometimes relies on mythology as if to give credence to a Brahmanical primordiality of Goanness. For instance, in acknowledging Filomena’s devotion to Catholic icons like Santa Filomena, her namesake, and the Virgin Mary, the conjecture arises that these traditions could be linked to the worship of “the spirit of Kamakshi, the mother goddess of ancient times who had presided over Raia [...].” This is at odds with the recognition that Raia, where Filomena grew up, was the place of the final defeat of Adil Shah by the Portuguese in 1570, intimating a Muslim past.
Still, there is much that Filomena’s Journeys offers in prescribing how memory work might function in helping Goans chronicle their complex histories by making use of legends, research, and community. In referring to herself in the third person throughout the book, Couto creates an authorial remove while still being part of this social history and family memoir. The use of that narrative device intimates that the journey of knowing is as much about painful recall as it is of catharsis.
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