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(Published in the Business Standard, March 2013)

Filomena’s Journeys: A portrait of a marriage, a family & a culture

Maria Aurora Couto

Aleph Book Company,

Rs 495, 290 pages

In the introduction to her book, The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr writes about the time her mother’s kitchen was retiled. Redoing a panel, the tile man finds a tile with an unlikely round hole in it—a bullet hole, he asks, joking.

Mary Karr’s mother, grey-haired, squints up from the pages of Marcus Aurelius, slides her glasses down her nose and confirms to her two daughters and the tile man that this is, indeed, where she shot at Larry (an old flame). ‘She wheeled to point at another wall, adding, “Over there’s where I shot at your daddy.”’

Karr wrote The Liar’s Club as a memoir for two good reasons: that kind of material is irresistible, and equally crucially, her mother didn’t mind her daughter writing about the number of times she’d got married (seven), got drunk (many), or wagged firearms at assorted husbands and lovers (reasonably often). In the years after The Liar’s Club was published, Karr learned that her clan was not unusual in the rich bizarreness of its family stories, and that telling and retelling your family narrative, however troubled, was the key to freedom for many.

The life of Maria Aurora Couto’s mother, Filomena, whose portrait on the cover is graceful, neat, strong, but quiet, was nothing like the home life of the Karrs. Nor did Couto grow up in a culture or a family where telling tales of one another’s lives was either normal or acceptable.

But the calmness of Couto’s tale is deceptive; under the even surface of Filomena’s life of graceful acceptance, the currents of change that saturated their family’s history were just as richly silted and turbulent, if in a less showy way, as Karr’s story.

Couto’s story of a woman who grew up in Goa, married a dashing musician, survived her husband’s troubled life, and manufactured grace and happiness out of thin cloth, just as filled with wisdom about surviving the inevitable upheavals of family life as more dramatic memoirs. (This is not a phenomenon limited to women writers; it is not a coincidence that Akhil Sharma’s new novel, which brims with drama and darkness, is called Family Life, a title that functions in the manner of a warning label.)

“I am the eldest of Filomena’s seven children, and the trajectory of her life has haunted me through my own journey, from young woman to wife, then mother and grandmother,” Couto writes. “I have tried to understand her endurance, her faith and compassion, her sense of humour and her poise.”

Filomena Borges, born in 1909, grew up in Raia, Goa. She was just three when her mother died, seven when her father died in tragic circumstances, moving into her eighth year when the five children left behind settled in Raia. The grace of the old house where her mother had grown up, and the old rhythms of a village life now increasingly under siege, held them together: “feasts and fairs, birthdays, christenings, weddings and funerals.” The late 18th century house was surrounded by orchards and coconut groves; there was prayer at dawn and prayer at dusk, and in between, Filomena, an outdoor girl, crept away to climb trees.

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Every woman writer who tackles the story of her family—or the history of her mother—has to find a way to giving themselves permission to research the people they knew best as though they were beloved strangers, and also to break through the classic taboos on sharing family secrets. In order to write about her mother, the writer Shivani, the author and translator Ira Pande had to break through the stubborn refusal of ‘Diddi’ to confront the darker corners of her past, or her family’s past. “Her sharp eyes saw the shadows,” Pande writes, though Diddi refused to remember the old unhappinesses, or bring the sadnesses of her life to light. “So she blotted out the sun by holding up a thumb.”

Pande became a kind of literary forensic expert in order to write Diddi, which remains one of the most beloved and most influential of contemporary family memoirs in India. Couto becomes a historian of her mother’s own life, and of Goa in that changing time, picking up some of the threads that she had followed in the illuminating Goa: A Daughter’s History.

But she also gives herself permission to follow Filomena and Chico’s chequered life by turning herself into a third-person character: Maria Aurora, who enters the book stealthily, asking questions about issues that her mother had preferred to address obliquely. Chico’s great charm, and his love for music, are not enough to compensate for a disastrous decision on family property. The restrictions of propriety and the stifling corsets of Old Goan family life prevent him from becoming a professional musician; drink plays its destructive role, and it is left to Filomena to move her family out of Goa to neighbouring Dharwar. Many years later, she has settled elsewhere with immense happiness, and she has triumphed, by bringing up her daughters in an atmosphere of calm and contentment–no small victories, these apparently commonplace things.

“How can I go back to Goa?” she had said to her daughters, gently but firmly. “I am used to this quiet space of my home and friends who live close by, church and markets I can walk to …a life that is inexpensive to maintain. I can dress as I please, very simply. I can go out in slippers if my foot is swollen. None of this is possible for me in Goa and you will not understand because you do not know that society, to which your father belonged and I did, after marriage.”

Filomena’s Journeys should not be read in isolation, but as a piece of the linked, interwoven and all too rarely shared stories of women across India (and indeed elsewhere). The quiet but powerful declaration of independence Filomena makes all through her life of endurance and love, is something common to Indian women across the barriers of region, class, and even the centuries.

These histories, and these revolutions, are rarely noisy or dramatic, but by the time Maria Aurora Couto finishes her book, she has made a journey just as powerful as the ones her mother undertook. It takes more courage to open the locked doors of family history than it does to sail across the world. As the old map legends had it, here be dragons; but here, also, are new continents for mothers and daughters to explore.