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The incredible journey of Maria Aurora Couto

🔴 Vivek Menezes writes: In the 1980s, the writer was the champion of Indian writing in some of the most hallowed literary publications of the Anglophone west

Written by Vivek Menezes |
Updated: January 18, 2022 9:36:36 am
Maria Aurora Couto. (Photo: Frederick Noronha)

At the age of 43, several separate factors came together in the life of Maria Aurora Couto, with considerable impact on the trajectory of Indian literature. The late author, who passed away at 84 on January 14, is being widely — and justifiably — eulogised as the grande dame who reigned over the cultural affairs of Goa after retiring to her husband’s ancestral home some 20 years ago. But that is only one part of her story. Earlier chapters are even more significant.

Those unacknowledged contributions came after the game-changing year of 1980, starting with Couto being awarded her doctorate from the Centre of French Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (her thesis was entitled François Mauriac et Graham Greene: Étudie comparée (la thème de la humanisme religieux)). The very next month, she moved to London with her husband Alban — an IAS officer deputed to the Commonwealth secretariat to work under Shridath Ramphal — and embarked on a remarkable journalistic career far ahead of its time.

Right until the Coutos left again, for Chennai in 1994, Maria, who added back her original childhood name of Aurora two decades ago, served as the pre-eminent champion of Indian writing in some of the most hallowed literary publications of the Anglophone west, like Times Literary Supplement and Encounter. She also appeared regularly to talk about books on BBC television, and wrote vividly for readers back home in Economic and Political Weekly and Sunday Express (where her weekly Letter from London column was commissioned by Dom Moraes).

Couto’s voice in development was intriguingly different from her eventual magisterial ex cathedra. In essays like To be Black and in Brixton (EPW, May 9, 1981) and Voice of the Unheard (EPW, July 11, 1981), she is veritably Naipaulesque (but leaning to the Nobelist’s more humane brother, Shiva), as she probes the same issues raised anew by Black Lives Matter: “The intransigence of the young towards structures of leadership is a sign of their understanding of their power. For them the riots presented not hope of change but an awareness of their own capacity to affect their circumstances and environment.”

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That richly promising vein was unfortunately closed after Alban Couto, in a pattern that persisted with declining force in the following decades, felt that his wife should not risk being outspoken, in this case citing their status as diplomatic residents in the UK. Happily, the literary criticism did continue, with breakthroughs like the first review of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children for Indian readers.

From our 2022 perspective, after many Indian writers have written international bestsellers, it seems almost surreal to recall the 1980s. Our novelists weren’t celebrities. Advances were meagre. The western establishment offered mostly radio silence. In that vacuum of attention, Couto was an invaluable lodestone of support, who would argue passionately for — and just as often, with — their books.

Here, Midnight’s Children and Parents: The Search for Indo-British Identity (Encounter, 1982) makes for especially fascinating reading. Salman Rushdie had already won the Booker, but Couto makes the case — no less impressive for being wrong — that his novel fails significantly, due to the author’s “inability to encompass the contradictions in modern India”. By this point, of course, the two were good friends, and in 1995, the novelist’s superb The Moor’s Last Sigh featured Aurora Zogoiby as one of its main characters.

Couto’s culminating avatar as the cultural eminence of Goa will be remembered for two fine memoirs, Goa — A Daughter’s Story (2004) and Filomena’s Journeys: A portrait of a marriage, a family & a culture (2013). Unlike her best writing from London, these are easily classifiable.

As the late historian Teotonio de Souza pointed out in his perceptive, characteristically elliptical 2005 review in EPW, they belong to the well-established Goan tradition of polemical histories (including his own excellent 1994 Goa to Me) that weave broader analysis with “lived experience of situations of anguish and opportunities [that] most other sons and daughters of Goa have gone through at different periods and contexts of history”.

Even if the form is centuries-old, Couto’s writing stayed singular in one crucial aspect. Unlike other prominent examples of this genre — including de Souza’s book and Dharmanand Kosambi’s classic Nivedan — her writing is absent of rancour. Others settled scores. She sought to understand.

In itself, that is an impressive legacy and tribute to Couto’s tenacity. She imbibed an idealistic Indian identity under difficult childhood circumstances in Dharwad (where she made lifelong friends like Shashi Deshpande and Girish Karnad), and never backed off celebrating those pluralistic underpinnings. None of this is exactly unique — indeed Deshpande and Karnad are no different — but hers was certainly an unforgettable presence, with an uncommon capacity for dazzling polyglot charm. In later years, Couto’s focus shifted home, where she perceived multiple threats. In 2015, she warned that “Goa’s legendary secular ethos” was being subverted by “ugly polarisation between Goa’s two major communities”.

Regrettably, she never regained optimism. In what is now poignant posthumous reading, Couto ended her last published essay (Scroll.in, March 2021) with this lament: “The darkness falls on my verandah. It is very quiet here. I am shielded by the verdant greenery that surrounds my house, a protective carapace of peace and repose in the dwindling light. But night brings with it the immensity of sorrow, the grief of loss. Decades ago, [Graham] Greene presciently said that the human factor would not last in our Goa, in its villages and towns. How had he foreseen this? I am only glad that he is not here to witness the unbearable truth of his acuity.”

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 18, 2022 under the title ‘Journeys of Maria Aurora Couto’. The writer is co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.

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