There had been a rather long gap after my last book Walking with Angels and friends were wondering what I was working on. How could I be so blunt as to tell them all I was working on was trying to keep my mother alive? So instead of being morbid I would keep an eye on care giving, instructing her ayahs, keeping relatives and family posted on her health status on a daily basis and setting up my desk in the verandah by the door from where I could watch her and “doing my writing”. In other words, trying to keep myself from going crazy with worry.
“Why don’t you write about the Parsi buildings in Bombay?” suggested a friend. I mumbled that for that I would have to leave the house and go out and see the buildings, sit for long hours in libraries and pore over literature on both the Parsis and the Parsi buildings of Bombay. It was a clear “can’t do” project in the situation I was in. So I started writing about myself, my relationship with my mother and what it was like growing up in Baroda. For that I would not need to go out of the house. It was a book that was just sitting in my head.
“But aren’t you too young to be writing your memoirs?” cried another friend from all the way in the south of France. How young or old does one have to be, I thought. Of one thing I had absolutely no doubt. It was a subject I knew best. As I began writing, recollections began pouring in, some funny and pleasant and a lot of them painful. Will I upset this one if I say this, I wondered but kept writing on anyway. I would write it as it happened and then perhaps delete it all, I said to myself.
“Everyone thinks their life is extraordinary,” remarked another friend who read the first flush of writing with some boredom underlaid. So I am not writing this to create a sensation, to startle readers out of their seats, to make people think I was extraordinary. I had a life outside of the one that most people knew about and I wanted to share that. I suppose it happens to everyone. People know you for the work you do, for the brand image that you have carefully worked on so that you can get the attention you need for the results you want to achieve.
An architect for example will project herself using the buildings she has designed and built. She is then known for her contributions to the cityscape. How many of us will see how she juggles her personal and family life? How many of us will see how she looked after an ailing parent-in-law, dropped the kids off to school, organized a family wedding with a smile and also had the time to sit down and design benches for a school run by a charity? There are many facets to us, many lives all rolled into one, many stories to share.
I came to Goa from the tea gardens of Munnar in Kerala in the monsoon of 1995. Not many people knew me then but when I began my advocacy on heritage conservation and preservation, started the Goa Heritage Action Group with architects Poonam Verma Mascarenhas and Raya Shankhwalker my branding had begun. How we started the group, how people reacted to us and supported us is a long and interesting story. It is a story of trials, tribulations, celebrations and commentary. “Who is she and how dare she tell us what to do?” said some people who did not agree with us. The fact that I had worked in Kerala before I had landed here in Goa was also a thorn in the side for some.
I would use my book on Kerala as a calling card thinking that would establish my credentials. I learnt really fast that it was absolutely the wrong move. My being a Parsi from Bombay, instead, saved the day and I had to forget about making any references to Kerala. But that is my past, which is my personal history. That I was India’s first woman tea planter, that I worked in the tea gardens, that I learnt how to ride a motorcycle there and it was a biking accident that put an end to my tea garden career is all part of my personality. I kept the tea garden past quiet because I wanted to make headway into the preservation movement in Goa. If that is how it works here, so be it, I said to myself. People will see what they want to see.
When I was writing this book, however, I did not hold anything back. I have put down everything and anything I felt like writing. I was telling my story, the parts that no one knew about, the parts that did not fit into their idea of my personality. I’ve come a long way since those first few years when I had to struggle to make people aware of the value of their own heritage. Those days all my writing had a purpose, a purpose of creating awareness. My books, however beautiful and glossy, were all designed with a serious, nuts and bolts mission in mind. Creating those books, writing out those articles and making those presentations gave me immense pleasure but right through I had my eyes and ears peeled for an encouraging word, a supportive pat on the back, and a push forward for the cause.
There’s more to life than a house in Goa set me free! I began writing it to not just share my stories but also to liberate myself from the purpose of writing. Here I was telling my story and “dancing like no one was watching”. Perhaps that is why you can pick up any chapter and start reading about that phase. It is perhaps that is why that you wonder, like my friend Wendell Rodricks, if all these stories come from this one single person. Lots of people have said a lot of things about the book. The strangest remark came from someone I met recently when she said, “Autobiography is it? Aha, then it must be fiction?” Clearly, there’s more to life than a life’s story.