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 Margão, 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, Avó!’ 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… vocês falam tão rápidamente, 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 of long 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 neighbor 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 avó 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 Avô 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.’
Researching these lives also clarifies the extent of interaction between British India and Goa when the railway made access easy and affordable. Christopher, for instance, married Julia who had grown up in Bhusaval where her father had an establishment then known as ‘Outfitters’ that handled every aspect of men’s fashion, from suits to shoes and ties to hats. Her uncle had a similar establishment in Nagpur (which was how the couple met). After generations of exposure to western modes of life, Goans had skills and knowledge that British India needed. They spread far beyond Bombay, Bangalore and Karachi, to the north, east, west and south, as musicians or owners of establishments that sold music equipment, as tailors and outfitters. Education in British India opened the world to the Goan who felt trapped in the last decades of Portuguese rule. Filomena was exposed to the English-speaking children holidaying in Raia from Nagpur. She often recalled the pranks of these children, their easy laughter, the absence of formality, the boisterous energy of their games – all so different from the quiet reticence and guarded formality inculcated in the youth of her time and society.
Of course, even within Goa, things had begun to change by the time Filomena was in her teens. The Annuário (Statistical Year Book) for 1929 records twenty-one English schools in Bardez and twenty-five in Salcete, besides seventeen in Margão. Many of these were run by the Hindu community who accessed British India through Marathi newspapers from Bombay and perhaps Poona. However, the first migrants and first to embrace the study of English were enterprising Goans from Bardez. They were less well off; the landlords here had smaller holdings. Low incomes and the economic need to migrate led to rapid growth of the English language in this area. Exposure to a wider world also led to important changes: the Bardezkars shed the straitlaced manners of the past and developed an open-minded approach to education, choices of profession and way of life. José Silva Coelho who wrote short stories for the O Heraldo in the 1920s and belongs to Margão pokes fun at the migrant stepping out in style and showing off with a few English phrases. By the mid 1930s the advertisements for English education had increased. Students travelled to British India for the Matric examination and later for the SSC, until 1961 when Goa formed its own SSC Examination Board.
Threatened by the spread of English, the Portuguese government banned the opening of new English language schools in the 1930s. But such was the growing demand for English that enterprising educationists even risked confrontation with the government. Gundu Sitaram Amonkar (whose son Suresh Amonkar would, after Liberation, work closely with Filomena’s son-in-law Alban Couto on educational reforms) was employed in Bombay, but returned to Goa to participate in the spread of an educational system that would benefit his society. He taught at the Sacred Heart School at Parra, among the first four schools started in Bardez. When he attempted to start his own school, he was faced with a law which prohibited the opening of English schools. He had to acquire a licence for an English school, an impossible task given the official policy of the time. Unwilling to be deterred, he found a way out: the government had not cancelled the licence of one particular school that was defunct. He lost no time in buying a licença or licence for Rs 5 from the principal of the school that had ceased to function – The Instituto Anglo-Português. Amonkar’s school opened in 1943, retaining its original name until 1962 when, after Liberation, it was renamed the New Goa High School. (…)
Dr. Maria Aurora Couto is an educationist and author. Her books include Graham Greene: On the Frontier, Politics and Religion in the Novels (Macmillan, London, 1986), Goa: A Daughter’s Story (Viking/Penguin, 2004), Ethnography of Goa, Daman and Diu (Viking, Penguin, 2008) (a translation of Etnografia da India Portuguesa by A.B. Braganza Pereira from the Portuguese) and Filomena’s Journeys: Portrait of a marriage, a family and a culture. (Aleph Book Company, 2013).
She is a well-known personality on the Goan culture scene, and has been associated with a variety of creative projects like the DD Kosambi Festival of Ideas and the Visiting Research Professor Programme of Goa University. She received the Padma Shri Award in 2010.