Thursday, May 8, 2014

Beyond Nostalgia: The Prescriptions of Maria Aurora Couto

There are some who would charge the works of Maria Aurora Couto of being guilty of the sin of nostalgia. This charge would be extended to her latest book Filomena’s Journeys. While nostalgia trips are often been celebrated for reason of the bitter sweet memories of the past that they deliver, this emotion has for some time now come under critical attack. Nostalgia is attacked because all too often it is an unabashed reminiscing about the past engaged in by former elites who mourn the existence of more egalitarian present. More recently, however, literary critics have pointed out that nostalgia can also be engaged in by persons who were oppressed in the past, and their nostalgia should be read, not as a validation of the past, but as the critique of the present, where they continue to be the butt of oppression.

I believe the charge of nostalgia that is leveled against Couto’s books was very effectively dealt by Ranjit Hoskote, the art critic and literary theorist. Speaking at the release of Filomena’s Journeys Hoskote suggested that Couto’s books were not in fact about nostalgia but were in fact of a prescriptive nature. The books were prescribing a route for the future of Goan society. Couto’s response was sadly disappointing given that she brushed off the suggestion, perhaps embarrassed by the idea that she was presuming to prescribe for Goa. Hoskote, however, may have been on to something.

There is an edge along which Filomena’s Journey walks. On the one hand it does indulge in an exercise that one may call nostalgic. There is a loving detailing of the lives of the bhatcar class and a lament for the loss of this past. At some point, one gets the feeling that Couto is engaging in that fond exercise of the South Asian upper caste, of asserting that the well born are never poor, they have only fallen onto bad days. Left to itself this nostalgia and what Dale Luis Menezes calls “The Lament for ‘Bhatcarponn’” is definitely problematic. On the other hand, however, given that she is speaking about the alcoholism of her father and the way it impinged on the otherwise privileged background of his wife, his children and himself, this personal narrative is definitely not engaging in a nostalgic romp into the past. It is seeking to figure out what went wrong and brings out into the open the fact that the lives of Goa’s elite were not merely charming stories. This text points out that the bhatcar was not necessarily the personification of benevolence. Indeed, it suggests that this benevolence may have been the exception rather than the rule.

The question before us, then, is how do we read this edge along which Couto’s narrative travels? I believe that Hoskote’s suggestion that this book is a prescription for the Goan future is an ideal way to interpret her narrative. In exploring the dark side of her family’s history Couto is laying bare the problems that underlay Goan society. She may not be evaluating the story entirely, and indeed there is no need for her to do so. In collecting the narrative from various members of her family and the segment of society that she belongs to, she is offering a personal memory for public scrutiny. Future scholars of Goan society will be able to read her text and offer the kind of reading that her proximity to the narrative and her social location prevent her from offering. They will be able to ask if the problems that underlay this family, that is representative of other families that have not had a similar courage to come out, was not the result of living a life of leisure sustained by the hard labours of others. And it is on this question that Couto’s questions have relevance for even though Goa’s bhatcarial system has become a thing of the past, the rentier lifestyles of the Goan elite continue.  The youth from this background in particular are happy to merely live off the income from the family name and assets, and whether we like it or not, the bhatcar seems to be a cultural model for most upwardly mobile Goans.

The Dr. Francisco Luis Gomes District Library, Margão

It is to the pernicious effect of this lifestyle that Couto offers prescription, especially in her earlier book Goa: A Daughter’s Story. One of the aspects of Goan society that Couto does seek to lionize is the impact of the intellectuals from the very same bhatcar class on Goan society.  The point she seeks to make is that these men were able to impact on the political lives and imaginations of all Goans precisely because they used their incomes to read. In so doing, they engaged with a larger world and lived, what she calls, “a life of the mind”. If there is one call that resounds through both books, then it is the call to Goan society to live the life of the mind. Where libraries in Goa were once available only to a privileged few, the public library is an asset available to every growing numbers of Goans. Couto’s silent prescription is to call for more Goans to exploit these resources, expand the boundaries of what we think is possible, and increase the list of social relations that we think are unacceptable. Couto’s book, therefore, is not merely about her father’s ailment and the consequent suffering of her family. It is also a tale about the value of an investment in education and the support that social networks can provide.  It is a suggestion as to the manner in which the material wealth generated can be spent. To this extent the narrative pays equal attention to both the individual as well as to society. One is only as strong as the other and asks that we turn towards investment in the social not merely on the conspicuous consumption that marks our days.

In sum then, Filomena’s Journey is a cautionary tale to Goans of the present. This is a tale of caution that is not directed merely to the Goan upper castes and traditional elite groups. It contains a warning to a society that has amassed a sizable amount of material wealth, but has not as yet begun investing in a robust life of the mind. It suggests that should we not learn from the bitter memories of our immediate past, we may well be forced to repeat them.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 9 May 2014)

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