MAYA ROSE FERNANDES
Michelle Mendonca Bambawale is a professional educator, photographer and environmentalist with over 20 years of experience in international education and marketing communications. She has lived and worked in India, the UAE, Thailand and the UK.
Though she spent her early and college years in Pune and Mumbai, she and her husband always dreamed of living in Goa and took over her father’s ancestral property in Siolim.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your connection to Goa?
I was born and raised in Pune, but all my grandparents were from Goa. Growing up, most summers, I holidayed in Siolim and visited each of my four grandparents’ houses in Goa. It gave me a sense of belonging.
After graduating with a degree in Commerce, I moved to Mumbai for further study, then worked there. I got married in 1989 to my husband Bharat, and his career took us to Dubai, then Bangkok and London, but we always dreamed of living in Goa. So, we were thrilled when my father asked us if we were interested in his ancestral house in Siolim, which was originally built in 1859 by my grandfather, Jeronimo Mendonca. After a torturous planning and building process, part of which was managed remotely, the extensions and renovations were finally completed and we christened it Casa Mendonça in 2009.
Do you have any previous writing experience? Is this your first book?
After my son Kunal was born in 1991, I wrote for newspapers and magazines like the Times of India, Young Mother and Femina. When we moved to Dubai, I contributed to Khaleej Times and Gulf News, and later worked in marketing communications at Galileo Emirates, a division of Emirates Airline. In Bangkok, from 2004 to 2008, I worked in curriculum and technology in the International School Bangkok. I started blogging as part of my professional development, recording experiences in both my personal and professional life. When we moved to London in 2008, I got my Master’s in Education from the Institute of Education, University College London. That’s when I learned academic writing.
From 2017, I started spending extended periods of time in Goa, often documenting my life and travels. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed me to blog as I was looking for a way to process my emotions and to record this important time in history; the uncertainty of a pandemic on the one hand, and the solidity of reconnecting to my roots in Goa on the other. These reflections gave birth to my first book, Becoming Goan.
What is Becoming Goan about? What are its main themes?
It is a memoir, and the main thread of it presents a personal story of migration, of finding a community and a profound connection to the land. It also comments on the environmental and socio-cultural impact of unplanned tourism and construction in Goa.
I believe my story will resonate with those who have had to find ‘home’ in different places. I know I am lucky as after living in different countries as a global citizen, I have now found a community and a home in Goa, where my grandparents once lived.
What inspired you to write this book?
Over the last 20 years of working on our house, I’ve witnessed the expansion of construction and urbanisation in Goa. These exploded exponentially over the course of the pandemic. I wanted to record the Siolim I knew before it became a concrete jungle. My book is a time capsule of sorts. Many don’t realise the environmental impact of mass tourism and unplanned construction; the ecological damage, the lack of basic civic facilities in villages like public transport or even limited water and electricity supply, as well as water table pollution or river poisoning. You need to know the bigger picture of the reality of life in Goa. Also, there is so much more to Goan culture and heritage, beyond just the beach party stereotype.
Tell us about your writing process.
In April 2020, I started blogging about pandemic life and all of its strange phenomena like zoom parties and toilet paper crises. As lockdowns were lifted and mobility increased I noticed people moving into Goa from urban India, and many Goans looking to relocate out of Goa. I started writing about what it meant to be Goan to me, in Goa, today and ‘My Being Goan’ blog got attention from family and friends.
With their encouragement, I began to wonder if I could actually write a book and spoke to my Bandra neighbour and Scroll editor Naresh Fernandes sometime in late 2021 about the publishing process. During a lengthy process of contacting literary agents and getting rejected, I kept writing. By May 2022, I was determined to write my book, whether I found a publisher or not. Frederick Noronha encouraged me to persevere with finding an international literary agent and a publishing house and finally Jayapriya Vasudevan from Jacaranda agency took me on in July 2022. When Penguin Random House decided to publish Becoming Goan, I had completed 80 percent of it. I spent most of 2023 working, consumed with writing and editing the book.
Did you ever want to give up writing the memoir?
Yes, it is very hard to write a memoir. Writing the story of your life is deeply personal and makes you very vulnerable. Most nights I wake up with a knot in my stomach and a weight on my chest as writing a memoir makes you exposed. You will be judged and condemned in the court of public opinion. Identity is a complicated issue and more so in these times as we are all grappling with questions like where am I from, where is home, where do I belong?
What material did you draw from in order to put together this memoir?
This memoir includes my notes, observations made, for example while walking my labrador Haruki around the vaddo, and conversations with friends and neighbours in and around Siolim, among other things. I originally only wanted to record Siolim and Goa in a contemporary time frame over the last three years. Then for the narrative arc I realised that I needed to explain my connection to Goa, over my lifetime inheriting this house, so I needed to go back and record my summer holiday stories and also add a slice of history and geography to give context. I guess it’s true that you can’t talk about the present without referring to the past.
I looked up material online in newspapers, academic journals and books. For some archival material that was not available online I went to the Central Library in Panjim and to the Xavier Centre for Historical Research in Porvorim, but there is a long list of people I reached out to and spoke with, who helped with material and feedback in many ways. For example, Siolim legend Alexyz has done the caricatures for the chapter on Finding Siolim Stories and Legends.
What are the next steps for you? Any other books you’re working on?
Promoting this book is taking up all my time right now. I dabbled with the idea of writing a memoir of my whole life, I may even have chapter titles somewhere. If I am brave enough to write fiction it will be about women friendships over decades and across continents, bridging barriers of space, race and religion.
What advice would you give to newbie memoir writers?
Write an outline first, think of what you will cover in each chapter and start each chapter with an interesting anecdote. You don’t need to write down everything, but be creative with your storytelling. The writing does not have to be chronological. Find a balance between how much detail is required to paint the story you want to tell and overwriting, which may kill the mood.
Michelle will be discussing her book at Tea Trunk Fontainhas, Panjim at 4pm on 9th February, and at Champaca bookstore, Anjuna at 6pm on 2nd March 2024.