Margaret Mascarenhas lives in a 150-year-old house in Goa with dogs Che, Oliver and Max, and a cat she picked up from the market–Delilah–who presides over them all. Getting to her house is quite an adventure. It is raining heavily, and my friends and I, who have made the trek from South to North Goa, are hopelessly lost in Aldona’s crepuscular lanes. Mascarenhas, who has to stand under a particular coconut tree for mobile phone reception, manages to contact and rescue us. “Don’t worry about it,” she says. “Whenever I have people over, I leave the keys in the ignition. No one ever finds me the first time around.”
Mascarenhas is the only writer I’ve met who describes the process of writing fiction as “relaxing.” Having grown up in a family of storytellers, she says, it comes naturally to her. But writing, she insists, is just one of the things she does. She also cooks, teaches, rides horses, sings jazz, restores houses, and runs Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts. As director of the centre, one of the things she’s been involved with is the Blue Shores Silent Prison project, which she set up with Swatee Kotwal Nair. The idea was to teach inmates of Aguada Central Jail to paint, write and perform. “We were interested in examining and documenting the effect, sparking creative process has, on the incarcerated.” Some of the paintings produced were so good they were sold in an exhibition. On the downside, some of the inmates, after serving out their sentences, showed up at the Centre asking for Margaret. Clearly, a more pressing issue than thinking up plotlines.
Stories come to Mascarenhas, dream-style. At least, the beginnings and endings do. She keeps a pen and paper by her bedside, and when the dreams arrive, she writes fervently for a few days. “Then I take four years to fill in the middle bits,” she laughs. Her first novel, Skin, was written in 2000 while she was bedridden in Goa, recovering from an illness. Relaxing is an optimistic way of looking at it, but nevertheless, it coincided with her decision to plant roots in Goa. Up until then, she was the archetypical wanderer–dividing her time between places, and owning nothing that couldn’t fit into two suitcases. Now she has a home, pets, furniture and books.
When it comes to books, Mascarenhas says she’s an old-fashioned girl. “I like the feel of an actual book in my hands, the smell of its pages.” Her tastes are eclectic, but having grown up in Venezuela, she is partial to South American writers: Vargas Llosa, Borges, Neruda and the Portuguese, Saramago. There are also the constants of art and music in her life. She received her initial Indian art education under Saryu Doshi while working as her assistant at Marg, where she was exposed to contemporary painters such as Souza, Raza and Tyeb Mehta. And while she claims she doesn’t love it enough to go professional, sources tell me Mascarenhas is an amazing jazz singer. She admits to having put herself through UC Berkeley by singing at piano bars, and she is still keen on jam sessions.
Perhaps the greatest of all her inspirations is that twin-turbo of memory and imagination. “When I reach into myself in an effort to grab onto that which is quintessential, what I come up with are memories, sights, sounds, smells, feelings, dreams, notions… This is not so unusual or surprising, or even unique to myself, since memory, whether collective or individual, much like identity and culture, is never static.”
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist