Filomena’s Journeys is a daughter’s moving tribute to the mother who held her world, and that of her six siblings, together through long years of insecurity and hardship. It is also an often heartbreaking attempt to come to terms with the painful memories of her father.
In 1935, Filomena Borges, aged twenty-six, married for love and moved from her grandmother’s village, Raia-where she had arrived as an orphaned child-to one of Goa’s most prominent and fashionable towns to the time, Margao. This move, from rural peace and simplicity to urban buzz and formality, from a modest landowning family to one of formidable eminence, was to transform her life, but in ways she could not have imagined. Chico, the man who had charmed her with his wit and intelligence, turned out to be as trouble as he was passionate. An unusually gifted musician, he lacked the discipline and conviction to rise above the limitations of great but vanishing privilege that was the bane of Goa’s Catholic elite in the twentieth century. The frustration broke Chico, and his decline threatened to destroy his family. Until Filomena took a leap into the unknown and moved with her young children to Dharwar, a town across the border, in Karnataka. Here, in unfamiliar surroundings , with no source of income apart form a share of the harvest from dwindling family lands back in Goa and rent from students whom she took in as lodgers, Filomena raised her seven children, shielding them from tragedy, and gave them the best opportunities to fashion secure futures for themselves. In her last year, when they were all settled the period of her quiet triumph she chose to live alone, sustained till the end by the qualities she had absorbed as a young girl from her grandmother: pragmatism, faith, compassion, love of family, and a strong connection with the land and Goa’s ancient traditions.
A compelling family memoir, Filomena’s Journeys is also a revealing examination of Goan society and culture. And like all enduring stories, this testament to resilience and hope makes the particular universal.
Maria Aurora Couto was born in Goa and studied in Dharwar and New Delhi (where she later taught English literature at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University). She is the author of the widely acclaimed Goa: A Daughter’s Story and Grabam Greene: On the Frontier, and has translated, from Portuguese, A. B. Braganza Pereira’s Ethnography of Goa, Daman and Diu. In 2010 the Government of India honoured her with the Padma Shri for her contributions in literature and education.
She lives in Aldona, a village in North Goa.
Picture her, aged seventy, standing at the heavily curtained window of an apartment in North London on a winter evening. She marvels at the Edwardian furniture which her daughter has tried to transform into something less formal and European with touches of handloom, bamboo, bidri and mirror work. But Filomena loves the original period look. It reminds her of the graceful antique furniture of her homes in Raia and Margao, a long time ago. Several worlds away. Earlier in the afternoon she had marvelled at the stately chestnut trees, at eye level from the second-floor window- the breathtaking sight of autumn yellow merging with rust and red. She has never seen anything like it. The trees she remembers best are the trees of her childhood, which she climbed for fruit, or merely for adventure. But those were always green, many shades of green. 'Look at them long and hard,' her grandchildren laugh, when she tells them about the strange colours of the English trees. 'The leaves will soon be a carpet for you to walk on. We'll take you down and you can pick up the leaves to take back. Though they may rot and stink in the suitcase, be careful, Avo!'
The three children chatter around her in English, which she understands but speaks with some difficulty. 'Talk slowly, and not all of you together. Help me to learn, you silly children ... voces falam tam rapidamente, eu Sou velha baba,' she laughs. They love her laugh. It is quick and spontaneous, childlike, and full of pleasure. It makes them feel she is one of them.
There are times when she is cooking something special for her grandchildren and her mind wanders to Dharwar, where she raised her seven children. She recalls the tiny kitchen there and her sighs oflong ago as she crouched, in ways to which she was not used, to blow at the firewood, squinting through the smoke that rose when the wood burnt badly. She fiddles with the knobs of the electric stove in her daughter's London kitchen and marvels at the ease, the comfort. Back in Dharwar, she had often found solace in memories of her life in Raia, in a childhood and an effortless security lost forever.
'Tell us about Raia,' her grandchildren urge her. 'How can I explain to you when you have never seen a village?' she says to them. 'Even now it is so different from your life-and in those days we had no electricity, no cars, no telephones. We did not even have a radio.' The children gasp at this. 'But how much we sang!' she continues. 'We made music in church, at home, while walking in the fields or sitting by the river in the evening. At home there was a piano; we had friends who played the violin and one neighbour who liked to play the trumpet and another who pretended to be a drummer while beating a wooden box with a stick! This was when I was about ten years old. My avo sang very well. She taught us songs for church and songs for our games ... It was all so long ago, but I remember it as if it was yesterday. And I feel sad because I rarely hear anyone sing here. All you children want is your tape recorders and TV and a lot of noise ... '
She delights in her grandchildren. She can talk to them for hours. But then they ask about their grandfather and her words dry up. 'Tell us about Avo Chico, please.' 'Not now,' she says. 'Some other time. He loved music. He was strict with the children, very strict. No more questions now, don't you know I'm old? Old people need to sleep early.’
The life of my mother, Filomena Borges, born in 1909, is legendary among people whose lives she touched and transformed, and among those who witnessed her graceful acceptance of her destiny and her quiet resolve to rise above it. Novices who were trained to be priests at the Rachol Seminary, near Raia, used to pause in prayer, distracted by her inner grace. She was a woman of rare substance, who drew strength from ancient traditions and family and was yet an independent spirit. She triumphed, and yet nothing was ever a personal victory.
I am the eldest of Filomena's seven children, and the trajectory of her life has haunted me through my own journey, from young woman to wife, then mother and grandmother. I have tried to understand her endurance, her faith and compassion, her sense of humour and her poise. From experiences that could have broken her, she emerged stronger, and yet, even as she held things together with heroic effort, she seemed fragile, though never vulnerable. What storms did she weather in her heart? I can only guess, for she never spoke of them. She was our anchor. With her, life was lived wholly, encompassing family, prayer, the rituals of births, marriages and funerals, and the celebrations of feasts and festivals. This, then, was the miracle: Filomena seemed to live with and yet float above the dire realities from which she protected her young children. There is an old saying in Konkani, that sons when they grow old become like their fathers and daughters like their mothers. Freudian contraries get resolved in old age. Is this true for my mother and me? I'm not sure. I have been seeking for years the space that my mother inhabited. We, her children, took a lot from her, but she had a capacity for joy that we still seek, long after she has passed away.
I live in a village in North Goa, more than fifty miles away from Raia in South Goa where Filomena grew up. Yet, each day the smell of rain-washed earth, birdsong from rafters, windowsills and beyond, the croaking of frogs and the cry of the peacock, the chapel bell and the greetings of fishermen as I walk to the river, connect me to Filomena, to her struggle and her serenity. Rummaging through old photographs I find a little handmade card, four inches by four, with the words 'Choicest Blessings' and a little flower painted in one corner. Filomena's sister, a nun, used to send these for her to use. It slips out now, the only piece of paper in a sheaf of old photographs. I read: 'My very dear Aurora, I am proud of you. I pray that your book will be completed soon and bring honour to me and our family.' Filomena wrote this note, dated 1981, when I was working on my first book, on Graham Greene. Yet I take it as a sign, some thirty years later, as I try to understand my mother and tell her story.
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