Portrait of a Lady

The biography of a Goan woman reveals its culture and history.

Published: January 25, 2014 4:13:38 am

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro

Maria Aurora Couto, having covered her father’s life and world in her exhaustively researched Goa: A Daughter’s Story, has turned her attention to her mother’s greatly troubled and yet successful trajectory in Filomena’s Journeys.

Though Filomena Borges was born in 1909 into a fairly well-to-do landed family, her early years could have marked her as a bad-luck kid. Her mother died giving birth to a stillborn child when Filomena was just three. Her father, Joaquim Crisologo Borges, died in unexplained circumstances when she was seven. Filomena, the fourth in a line of girls, was raised by a doting grandmother, and, while in her early twenties, fell in love with the charming second son in a highly placed family. The attraction was mutual, but Antonio Caetano Francisco Figueiredo, known as Chico, soon gave evidence of erratic and feckless behaviour. Filomena, however, very much in love, went ahead with plans for an engagement and eventual marriage, eyes wide closed.

Chico had trained to be a doctor but after a half-hearted attempt at establishing a clinic, he took up music instead. He left a job as a music teacher soon, and did not seek another, preferring to live on his land. Unfortunately, Chico’s properties did not yield enough income to sustain his growing family, but this did not seem to perturb him at all; he continued his wasteful ways. It seemed to Filomena that he lived in a state of perpetual denial. If she approached him for the solution to a problem, rather than discuss it, he would whistle, or hum a tune, and waltz away from her. He preferred the company of friends, and was always ready to entertain them. He was the soul of every social occasion, but never the man of his own house.

Because of Chico’s erratic behavior and outbursts of temper, the author’s childhood and that of her siblings was a troubled one. She remembers as a five-year-old cowering in a corner of a verandah as her father picked up flowerpots and hurled them into the garden. In time, he managed to alienate several friends and relatives, among them the influential Pacheco Figueiredo branch of the family.

Finding the family’s social and financial situation in Goa becoming increasingly uncomfortable, Filomena sought for a way out, and was advised to migrate to Dharwad, where they could start life afresh. The idea did not sit well with Chico. When preparations for the move began, “there was always tumult at home, angry voices, plates crashing.” Things got worse as moving day got nearer; the trunks had to be packed only while Chico was out of the house. Eventually Chico did go to Dharwad with the family; but he was increasingly restless there, and made frequent trips to Goa. Finally, he went to Goa one more time never to return.

Though mother and seven children were left to their own devices in Dharwad as they had been in Goa, Filomena coped. She found herself marooned in a city whose people spoke a welter of languages — English, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada — but she flourished. The children no longer were subjected to Chico’s harsh discipline and angry tirades. Maria Couto puts it this way: “The mother grew along with the children.”

In the course of putting together as accurate an account of her parents’ lives as possible, Maria Aurora Couto has gone to a number of octogenarians and nonagenarians who knew her parents and remember them well. The book, therefore, is well researched. To prevent it from being dry as dust, Couto has from time to time borrowed a novelist’s technique of fictionalising the details of their lives. Filomena’s Journeys may have begun its life as a biography, but it has ended up being much more than that. The subtitle claims that it is also a portrait of a marriage, a family, and a culture; and in this it succeeds admirably.

Victor Rangel-Ribeiro is the author of Tivolem.

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