Farewell Madame

BY DR KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA

FAREWELL MADAME MARIA AURORA COUTO: PERSONAL TRIBUTE FROM A YOUNG ADMIRER

An article arrived in my smartphone newsfeed on Ms. Maria Aurora Couto and there was an instant excitement at the prospect of sharing it with her on WhatsApp, which I had done in the past until I read those devastating words ‘passed away’.  At which point the excitement turned into shock and grief.  There was complete freezing of thoughts, emotions and then plunging into sadness that this time the article can’t be shared with those proverbial lines ‘Madam Look what I have found..you have been written about…’. I had to read it all on my own, reminiscing on my brief but enriching encounter with Ms. Couto. She passed away on January 14, 2022, from a pneumonia infection. As I scrolled through the old messages, I found her last one was Christmas Greetings and read ‘Prayers for Peace’.  It’s time for my Prayers for Peace…Rest in Peace Ms. Maria Aurora Couto!!

Maria Aurora Couto was the epitome of literary scholarship, traditional Goan aesthetics and a refined genteel sense of history, not a history of facts and anecdotes but something organic, living, breathing with a life of its own.  She has been rightly termed as the Grande Dame of Goan Arts and Culture. There are a plethora of obituaries, tributes and recollections celebrating the legendary scholar, writer Ms. Couto in the media.  My tribute here is a simple heartfelt one which is more a celebration of the humane, compassionate, warm and generous person Ms. Couto I had known. I had the good fortune of coming in touch with her and being blessed with her knowledge and compassion, for instance, she would always send an encouraging congratulatory note whenever I sent one of my published articles which was very touching and precious for me given her stature. She was awarded the Padma Shree, one of the highest civilian awards and yes one can say a ‘decorated intellectual’.

I had the privilege of meeting only once Ms. Couto in her grand manorial residence located outside Aldona in Northern Goa with its manicured garden and imposing façade. The villa steeped in history was surrounded by green trees and one was serenaded with the chirping of birds. I had the honour of chatting with her on the verandah energized by warm cups of green tea and delicious tea cakes.

As I pen this tribute, I recollect vividly the warmth and the animated smile with which I was greeted on first meeting her in the verandah. Ms. Couto was unfortunately physically debilitated by a wrong surgery to treat an unexpected fall during a morning walk and had to endure extensive physiotherapy sessions. Notwithstanding the health issues, her indomitable spirit and intellectual curiosity kept her connected with the wider world.

My encounter with her as an author happened during a trip to Kolkata about 4 years back when I picked up a discounted copy of her memoir ‘Filomena’s Journeys: A Portrait of a Marriage, a Family & a Culture (Aleph: 2013)’ at a bookstore in a clearance sale.  The book kept me engrossed through the entire trip since this was the first profound insight into the history of Goa as narrated through the life and experience of Maria Aurora Couto, a kind of intertwining of personal life story with the larger story of Goa. 

Born in Salcete in 1935 to an old and aristocratic family fluent in Portuguese with strong established links to the colonial ruling elite for a few generations with her full name being “Maria Aurora Filomena Borges de Figueiredo to which I would like to add Couto”. There was a certain understated elegance and an awareness of the Custodianship of the rich legacy she has inherited from her ancestors which explained her passionate love and interest in Goa and its cultural heritage. As exemplified by this extract line from one of her books, “Mario de Miranda, Dr Adelia da Costa and Dona Rosa da Costa, Eurico da Santana Silva, Dona Ada Menezes-Braganςa, Max Loyola Furtado, Gerson da Cunha and the Pintos of Candolim – these are a few of the families and houses from a similar history I am aware of apart from those of my own extended family, yet each has a different story to tell.” In Ms. Couto one saw the exemplary spirit of Aristocratic generosity and a sense of responsible custodianship and not just a matter of privilege of birth and ancestry.

Maria Aurora Couto spent her formative young years in Dharwad, a town located across the border of Portuguese Goa and the Bombay Presidency. Filomena’s Journeys is a poignant tale of her highly talented musician father “Chico” Figueiredo struggling with alcoholism and her resolute strong mother Filomena Borges who establishes the household in Dharwad.  The childhood story as told in the book is one of trials and tribulations with new friendships being forged and belonging to the wider community in Dharwad. She attended the Karnatak College in Dharwad where the atmosphere was inspired by Western modernity, post-Independence Indian idealism and love of literature and a talented faculty which included the Jnanpith-awardee V. K. Gokak. It’s here that she forged lifelong friendships with India’s preeminent playwright Girish Karnad and the acclaimed novelist Shashi Deshpande.  She learnt in Dharwad to appreciate the niceties and subtleties of Carnatic Classical music. Maria Aurora Couto pursued studies in English literature at Karnatak University and held a PhD degree with the thesis being about religious humanism in the works of Francois Mauriac.  Later in life, she lectured at the Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi where she earned plaudits as a teacher and was widely admired by her students as evident from the pouring tributes.  As a matter of fact, when we first spoke over the phone, I mentioned that the book brought back memories of being a doctoral student where one scans for analytical ‘categories’ while reading a literary text and that the book is an excellent research resource for Social and Cultural History of Goa.  The academic inclination and interest in scholarly research was very much alive and she was very pleased with my assessment, and she engaged in a long attentive telecon ‘deconstructing’ the book as a researcher.

The next magnum opus of Maria Aurora Couto was ‘Goa: A Daughter’s Story’ where she chronicles her experiences of being the young wife of a civil servant living through the transition from Portuguese rule to that of the Indian state.  Maria Aurora Couto was married to a highly successful IAS officer Mr. Alban Couto whom she met at a dance ball on a trip to Mumbai at the Gymkhana Club. Mr. Alban Couto was part of the elite corps of administrators who steered and managed the integration of Goa into the Indian state. She recounts in detail and with a certain matured insight incidents and anecdotes of the interface of the fledgling Indian administrative elite with the native Goan population.  One of the more memorable instances was that of a tall, lanky, bespectacled, rebellious local Goan leader who prided on having slapped the Governor-General.  Shortly after her marriage, she spent her early nuptial years in Patna where she has some very hilarious incidents of interacting with the old guard ICS officers and the wider population. There is one anecdote which I would like to narrate; the young brides of IAS officers would be introduced to the old crusty haw-haw ICS officers puffing their pipes at the Bankipore Club in Patna and it was natural for one particular member of the ICS species to ask the young brides the question. ‘What was your specialization at the University?’, but the young bride never dared to ask back.  In the case of Maria Aurora Couto, she turned around and asked this gentleman ICS ‘What was your specialization at the University?’ which startled him and he turned around and asked in a baritone emphatic tone ‘My specialization’ and needless to add this didn’t certainly amuse Mr. Alban Couto. Maria Aurora Couto recounts her experiences of living in different parts of India while her husband Mr. Alban Couto was transferred in different postings including such disparate locations as Chennai and New Delhi.  Apart from her personal narrative in ‘Goa: A Daughters Story’ she chronicled with precision and astute sensibility the colonial conquest of Goa by the Portuguese and expressed concern at the rising corruption in public life and environmental degradation.  In the course of which she touched upon sensitive topics of religious conversions by the Portuguese of caste, faith and identity.

The next profound contribution of Maria Aurora Couto to the repertoire of Goan history and sociology was her seminal translation of A. B. Braganza Pereira’s encyclopaedic Ethnography of Goa, Daman and Diu into English.

Amidst the pandemic, while battling isolation and solitude, I picked up a weighty dense tome, the biography of Graham Greene, authored by Richard Greene ‘The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene’ published in 2021. Here I learnt about the cultural encounter of Graham Greene with colonial Goa and about his interactions with Maria Aurora Couto.  Mr. Alban Couto, then a senior official, played host to Graham Greene in his residence in 1963 when he visited as a Sunday Times reporter to capture the significant transition which fostered long conversations, discussions with the Maria Aurora Couto. Her interactions and friendship with Graham Greene eventually metamorphosed into a book in 1998, titled ‘Graham Greene: On the Frontier, Politics and Religion in the Novels’.  I exchanged a few notes with her about her impressions and work on Graham Greene and again it was disciplined scholarly and rigorous exposition.

During our last meeting and visit to her residence, Maria Aurora Couto expressed concern at the rising brand of identity politics, the appearance of ugly old prejudices, withering away of the Indian global cosmopolitanism in the sphere of scholarship and environmental degradation. I engaged in a candid conversation where I expressed my convoluted, unfashionable idea that we need to develop a Conservative idiom to preserve liberal values which we cherish. I articulated that often we ignore the need of a Custodian Elite endowed with certain Patrician airs and graces to uphold and defend pluralism, cosmopolitanism, respect for diversity rather than placard-carrying protesters and angry activists. Surely, we need the activists and protesters but they are not adequate enough to deliver pluralism in a democratic milieu of electoral politics. I mentioned that we too often rely upon the emergence of a natural equilibrium for a peaceful social order and cohesion which is highly challenging especially in an era of sectarian identity conflictual politics both in the Left and Right. This argument was ridden with contradictions of political ideologies of a Conservative Elitist approach for preserving a liberal treasure and Maria Aurora Couto found it esoteric and eccentric with some merit.  She found me a confirmed eccentric with the choice of anecdotes from her books which usually would be drawing unusual and colourful characters. I am grateful that despite my eccentricity she indulged me and exchanged knowledge. As I bid adieu with a heavy heart to Ms. Maria Aurora Couto, on her onward journey after a splendid, enriching and an elegant life of scholarship and literary pursuits, I just wish to seek her blessings for the newly launched Country Squire Indian Edition. Country Squire India Edition wishes to preserve, in a modest way, the literary, cultural cosmopolitanism and celebrate the Anglophone India 2.0 which she so dearly loved.

Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London, entrepreneur and an Anglosphere enthusiast.