29 Years
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A sweet homecoming

Monday, December 23, 2013
By Carol Andrade

In 1945, a still young woman with seven children left the secure environs of colonial Goa and turned her face resolutely to Dharwar. Filomena Figuereido was accompanied by her charming, weak, alcoholic, intemperate, impractical and reluctant husband Chico, as she turned to a new town in desperation to make some kind of life for herself and her family.

They were leaving behind the older privileged existence that the landed gentry enjoyed during the time of the Portuguese, when fields were tilled for a share in the produce, the mansions blazed with light and music and a life of leisure was not something to aspire to but to be born into.

It did not help that Chico, himself a doctor, had lost his share in the family home at Borda and resented having to make shift to support himself and his family. Caught in a time warp that was intensified by his inability to accept that the old way of life was rapidly vanishing, he responded by resolutely turning his face away from the needs of his family. Filomena, like most women caught in a similar predicament, did not have that luxury. It was she who, by carefully husbanding the tiny sums of money that still accrued from their share of land in Goa, and taking in lodgers, by practicing the most stringent economies and swallowing humiliation, managed to bring up her large family who went on to be achievers in their own right.

For Filomena had one great bulwark against the despair engendered by real poverty and fear for the future. She believed in God, and it would appear that God did not fail her.

In 1962, barely six months after Liberation, Filomena’s eldest daughter Maria Aurora, named for the austerely sophisticated mother of Chico, returned to the land of her ancestors where little or nothing remained of her patrimony. It was as the wife of the first Development Commissioner of Goa and by then a personage in her own right, a prominent figure in academics as well as in society. The book makes it quite clear that that was a sweet homecoming indeed . For here was a member of that branch of the family sadly written off by the rest as a bitter chapter on which it might not be prudent to brood too long, not just successful but positively flourishing. As was, thankfully, Filomena herself, with most of her children well-settled, having been blessed with good sense, brains and the ability to make the most of what they received.

This is an attempt to tell the story of Filomena’s life and the distance she travelled in the 90 years that she lived. Interestingly, her life itself holds a mirror to the forces in society that shaped both her and her husband, and in consequence the children they bore. Filomena may have been born into a family whose culture, unlike that of Chico’s, was a sturdy blend of rural tradition and religious fervor, but this imparted to her the strength and unswerving acceptance that enabled her to shield her children when everything seemed lost. Throughout, she remained a devoted wife, loving, coaxing, using gentle means to turn away the wrath that rove a wedge between Chico and his children and made him a shadow of the once gay young blade that he was. Like many women of the time, Filomena would never hear a word against him, even when he finally left to return to Goa when she would not, dying there in hospital in the late 1950’s, weary, spent, seemingly at peace.

This is a brave book that is not afraid to hold up to public scrutiny aspects of a family memoir that must have been painful to write at times. But it is a task that Couto does not shy away from, bring to bear upon the task of “outing” her mother all the rigour of research that a work of this nature requires.

Needless to say, the language is mellifluous, the style impeccably suited to the pictures it paints and the era and times it seeks to evoke.

For in Goa of the Portuguese, among the landed gentry, family was the open sesame to life itself, and fiercely guarded complete with tradition for the next generation. Filomena lost it all through no fault of her own, and yet grimly set her face against despair. Perhaps ”grim” is not a word to describe a woman pictured by her writer-daughter as a lot of things a mother should be, with serenity reigning over all.

The bonus in the book are the pictures from family albums, most of which have been lost and are so reminiscent of a time when Goa was a cultural hub (if also an outpost) for an old European civilization that drew its best practices from a 500-year-old tradition of sussegad, before the word came to mean old Pascoal snoring off his fish curry-rice and feni lunch under a coconut tree. It must have been wonderful.

That Filomena left it all behind and set out to make another life for herself and her children is even more wonderful.

  • Filomena’s Journeys:
    A portrait of a marriage, a family & a culture
    By Maria Aurora Couto.
    Published by Aleph
    290 pages. Price Rs 495.
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