In the early 16th century, when Albuquerque was conquering Goa and performing his extraordinary feats on and beyond the Konkan coasts and in the Arabian seas that bordered mainly the enemies of the Franks, as the Portuguese were called then, and an extraordinary priest, Fr Francis Xavier was preaching Christianity to those who lived therein, the kingdom of Adil Shah, the king of Persian descent, was to turn, first, to the strongest foothold in Asia of the Lusitanians, an exceptional seafaring people whose curiosity, warrior skills and desire to trade till farthest lands brought them to the Indies. Without such occidental encounter with the oriental, perhaps Goa would have remained another dot on the Konkans, but that wasn’t to be, and what we have is the land often exoticized in the writings of not only the bards such as Camões, but also closer in time, Graham Greene seeing ‘the silver stubble of the paddy fields, squared off by trees and hills, lay in a strong wash of moonlight’ and ‘sad old men sitting in almost empty rooms on carved Goan chairs regretting the past—the green and red wines of Portugal, the Scotch whisky at thirteen rupees a bottle which will cost now, if you are lucky to find a bottle, fifty or sixty’. It is this setting where Antonio Gomes chooses to base his novel, The Sting of Peppercorns telling the story of a Goa coming out of colonial rule and trying to adjust with the integration with a nation where it barely escapes being gorged by one of its monster-states. And from the very same fertile land and period, Maria Aurora Couto puts together a family history of her parents, grandparents and the people around them.
‘The conquistador chose his kingdom well. Goa is an area of great natural abundance, and the state is envied throughout India for its rich red soils and fertile paddy fields, its bittersweet mangoes and cool sea breezes’ declares Dalrymple. But here we have a story that isn’t a peek into the grandeur of the fidalgos from centuries gone by, nor into the filthy rich from African trade who had their seraglios to compete with zamindars in the then British India. Maria Aurora simply delves into the history of her parents and their parents to uncover a fascinating tale of Goa in early and mid-20th century. Indeed, Filomena’s ancestors didn’t choose Portugal’s terra ultramarina to be born into, they were simply born there, and had to face the consequences of earlier colonial developments as well as the impact of the developments in Portugal and British India. So, we have Filomena’s maternal grandfather working for A India Portuguesa, the newspaper of converts from Chardos putting him at odds with the brahmin converts who had their O Ultramar to speak for their interests. And this contradiction sets the beginning of the family history of Filomena, whose father João Crisologo, journalist and popular figure in theatre circles as per Dicionário de Literatura Goesa (Dictionary of Goan Literature) dispairs to raise five young children who end up as orphans, to be finally raised by their maternal grandmother. Filomena’s reply to many queries, bico fechado (My lips are sealed !) eggs Maria Aurora to find exactly those answers in newspapers stacked at Biblioteca Central de Goa, photographs and stories of many aquaintances.
The early 20th century was also the period when the Republic was established in Portugal unleashing hope in Goa of greater political autonomy for which the above mentioned newspapers also rallied, along with their parties—Partido Indiano and Partido Ultramarino, but in their own ways with various castes intermeshed in the power play and manipulated by the government. At the personal level, Crisologo’s allegiance to A India Portuguesa must have given him much stress and robbed him and his family of much needed clan support. Rebels’ families don’t usually enjoy financial security and comfort needed to meet urban aspirations.
So, Filomena and her siblings are brought up by avo (grandma), the elder two married early, and the youngest, Alzira to whom she related most, decides to become a nun after her heartthrob goes to Portugal for studies and turns away from the teenage beloved. One of the elder sisters moves to Africa after marriage, and the brother, serving in Portuguese civil service, meets with his death while abroad at twenty-six. Filomena is a double orphan not just because both parents died so young, but also because siblings too were too far to reach, except one, the oldest sister. But she was a great help to avo, in multiple tasks, being an outdoor girl. Thus she not only related to the rural environment of Raia, where her own mother had grown up but also learnt to adhere to faith, passion and pragmatism. Curiously, the same house is considered one of the best preserved examples of Indo-Portuguese architecture in Goa, and today visited by writers, poets and privileged tourists.
Aurora recounts how in 1567 the temple of Kamakshi was destroyed by the captain of Rachol, Diogo Rodrigues but the idol was smuggled across the river to Siroda village by a potter. Even though Nossa Senhora Saibin Mãe became the santa padroeira, patron saint of Raia, the Catholics of Raia continue to visit the temple across the river and attend the festival organized in her honour annually. It is the same village Siroda from where would come the dandy lad who’d sweep the young Filomena off her feet, and where she’d move to after marriage, to an equally large house.
Chico, the lad from Siroda, won the heart of the entire family by his youthfulness and persistence and finally Filomena’s hands. After completing his medical studies, he opens a clinic in town, but his heart was elsewhere: music. Chico even taught music at a school until a teacher with proper qualifications was found out, and composed and played music for his family and for important social occasions, even for visiting dignitaries. But fine tastes don’t feed a family, nor did those picturesque paddy fields and orchards yield enough for a big family. Antó-nio Caetano Pacheco, his grandfather had been quite a public figure, having earned the nickname Padre-Mestre das Communidades, Grand Master of the Communities. Catholic feasting suited Chico’s temperament, and he was a great organizer. But a poor earner he was and indeed rituals of luxury ceased and the family history takes us to unpleasant behaviour towards children and unfair attitude towards those who meant him well, including his elder brother, to whom he finally lost his ancestral home.
Hightened responsibility didn’t discipline Chico. Filomena, with little kids, finally moves to Dharwar, in British India, rents a place with the help of Goans working there, and makes ends meet by taking some lodgers and offering them meals. The life in Dharwar was that of great tribulation, the worst being away from her folks, not knowing English, Hindi or Kannada spoken there. As if that affliction wasn’t hard enough, Chico, never happy with this escape, keeps the pressure on Filomena to return, but not really meeting the financial demands of the family. He dies young, in Goa on one of his long visits. Filomena continues to stay in Dharwar to educate her children.
It is the time when Goa’s Liberation comes as a tectonic development. While some welcome it, some others are enticed to migrate to Portugal. Aurora’s own brother leaves for Brazil. Aurora’s academic achievements turn the fortunes, and provide much needed solace to family’s finances. She takes up school-teaching and then lecturership. Filomena travels back to Goa, but is unable to emotionally connect, and prefers to stay with another daughter in Poona. Aurora herself is swept off her feet by a Goan lad from Bombay, an Indian civil servant serving in Patna.
The family history traces the social and political history of Goa in the 20th century to situate the journey of Filomena. We are taken to witness the revolt for independence as well as to the excesses of conversion. It delights us with the religious and social resilence of the communities and the relationship of bhatkars with the rural elite. The journey is personal, Filomena’s. But history of Goa in transition accompanies you. A family history that you see through the windows of economic, social and political changes and wonder if the family’s plight and fortunes are exceptional or a mere product of the very same changes. Almost reminiscent of the transition of Bengal in 30s, Filomena’s Journeys is an exceptional tale of Goa’s rural elite who similarly loses bearing while its protagonist is fighting to reclaim her security, belongingness and dignity.
Ajay Prasad teaches at the Centre for European and Latin American Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.