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Goa beyond tourists and those clichés

Maria Aurora Couto's book, Goa — A Daughter's Story, looks beyond the sunny beaches and wild parties



FOLLOWING DESTINYMaria Couto: `Stereotypes were first created by British historians Photo: K. GopiNathan

What's Goa all about? Sunny beaches and trance parties. Pan-Indian glitterati at New Year dos. Wendell Rodricks and Remo. Church spires, feni and sorpotel. These are the clichés that capture the tourism boom State.

Against this backdrop, Maria Aurora Couto's book, Goa — A Daughter's Story, acts as a welcome sea breeze, blowing away musty notions and potted history. Goa-born, Dharwar-bred, Maria's life as a teacher of literature was enhanced by her long stint at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, followed by 14 culturally vital years in London, primarily within the seminar scene. Her doctoral thesis was on Graham Greene, whose books spoke to her "politically, socially and spiritually." Her husband Alban, an IAS officer, was part of Goa's first post-liberation administration from 1962.

During a reading/ discussion of her 1994-launched Penguin Viking book at Opus recently, organised by the Karnataka Goan Association, Maria sits alongside her Dharwad college mate Girish Karnad and schoolmate Shashi Deshpande. By degrees, she demystifies key issues about a state often perceived as not quite India.

Why did Aurora Figueiredo of Dharwad, now redefined as Maria Aurora Couto, seek herself within a daughter's quest for her Goan father, through memoirs interwoven into social history? Some answers surface during a conversation at a five-star coffee shop:

What impelled this challenging, sensitive book?

Penguin didn't give me a subject. Perhaps it was my destiny to write this book, which was done in three years flat, though I've been thinking about it all my life.

There is so much ignorance, so much disinformation, about Goa. When I did a paper on Goa for an Oxford conference, I realised how stereotypes were first created by British historians, who were snooty about the Portuguese. I felt the need to deal with all this.

I feel we need to state the importance of human experience and memory. History's not about mere facts. Yet some Goan history departments would probably discount this.

How did you choose your starting point?

I couldn't start with the Portuguese conquest because I didn't know 1510. So, I started with conversions, though I was under pressure from my liberal Hindu friends not to. I began writing in Chennai during the heyday of the Sangh Parivar.

On my way to Portugal for six weeks of research, I left these chapters with Girish in London for his feedback. He said: "It's the first honest piece on conversion I've read. Don't change a word."

How has your interpretation been received?

Total strangers, moved by the story, found ways of communicating this to me. Goan priests were very happy that conversions are discussed. When I wrote an article after the Staines killings, my point was similar. Indian Christians should have the confidence to state who we are within the Indian nation. Don't you think so?

Within the literary overview, where would you place your personal friends like Salman Rushdie and A.K. Ramanujan?

Probably within a paper on world literature. I wouldn't pigeonhole them into Indian, diasporic or Commonwealth writing.

How did you meet Rushdie?

Mine was probably the first review of Midnight's Children to hit India. I did it for my yearlong London Notebook in the Indian Express. Later, Salman and I became very good friends.

What did London mean to you?

It opened up a whole world of cultural activity, an awareness of geopolitics, that I'd never experienced before. I remember listening to Nelson Mandela and Samora Machel there. And lectures by (West Indian social critic/ revolutionary) C.L.R. James, then interviewing him. After the Brixton and Southall riots, I remember James asking me: "What's a respectably-dressed, dignified lady like you doing with these (street) guys?"

Once, I was asked to organise a lunch for 14 writers whom Greene may not have met. I didn't invite a single English writer. It was extraordinary! Many of the invitees went on to win the Booker Prize — Ben Okri and Michael Ondaatje among them. Looking at a photograph of the occasion, I can't believe I knew them all personally.

ADITI DE

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