After pioneering multiple heritage awareness and action movements in Mumbai, activist and writer Heta Pandit has been living in Goa for over two decades now. In 2002, she co-founded the Goa Heritage Action Group with architects Raya Shankhwalker and Poonam Verma Mascarenhas for the advocacy of preservation, conservation and restoration of Goa’s natural, built, and cultural heritage.

Pandit’s book Houses of Goa was published in 1999. Since then she has written 10 books that explore Goa through the lenses of domestic and monumental architecture, oral history, and traditional art. Her forthcoming book, Stories from Goan Houses, documents the stories of families who have helped shape the state, played important roles, rebuilt and renovated Goan houses, and the local legends, stories and myths that make Goa a unique melting pot of tradition and modernity.

Pandit spoke to about her books, the need to preserve the state’s architectural and natural assets, and how Goa Heritage Action Group is advocating for this preservation. Excerpts from the conversation:

You have assisted Jane Goodall in chimpanzee research on Tanzania and today you are one of the leading voices of Goan culture. What was the journey from Tanzania to Goa like and what can you tell us about this journey?
When I returned from Tanzania, the first thing I did was to look for work in similar research. I literally went from pillar to post meeting other people in animal research and asking for work. Unfortunately, at that time, organisations were only looking for people with academic qualifications in the subject or experience in India, neither of which I had. I was even asked to get trained in martial arts as field research was considered dangerous for a woman in India in those days.

All this was most discouraging until I met Shyam Chainani and I began to work with the Bombay Environmental Action Group, an NGO that had dedicated itself to environmental protection in and around Bombay. One thing let to another and when Shyam found that the monumental buildings in Bombay were being as neglected as its natural environment, he roped me in to campaign for the protection of heritage buildings in the city. Later, we ran campaigns to protect neighbouring areas like Nhava, Murud-Janjira and so on.

What sparked your interest in Goan heritage, specifically domestic architecture?
Their sheer beauty and grandeur! When I first came to Goa in 1981, I thought I had landed in paradise; that there was no room for protection of the beautiful houses and monumental buildings in Goa. I soon realised how mistaken I was! Architects Poonam Verma Mascarenhas and Raya Shankhwalker brought the neglect of this vital part of the heritage of the state to everyone’s notice and we formed the Goa Heritage Action Group in September 2000. The first few baby steps were taken with writing about the houses of Goa in the Navhind Times. Then came the opportunity to research and write about houses and how they were capsules of the culture of the state.

Can you tell me briefly about establishing Goa Heritage Action Group – for instance, its early goals, grassroot campaigns, community involvement?
We at the GHAG have always believed that dialogue and discussions, awareness exercises like holding festivals, talks and lectures to spread awareness and love for Goa’s heritage is the key to protection. One person or one organisation cannot be held to ransom to protect our heritage. It has to be every individual who will put their best foot forward to save, document and protect what is of value to the community. To save something, you have to love it and to love it, you have to be aware of its value. That is all we are doing. Making people aware of the value of what they are custodians of.

Members of the Goa Action Heritage Group at the ruins of a Jain Temple in Kudnem, Goa.

You have written 11 books about Goan houses, and in Stories from Goan Houses you document the very personal relationship that the residents share with their homes. What prompted you to write from this perspective?
Well, most of the books have been about the architecture, the bones and sinews of the houses of Goa. There is one book, though, that speaks intimately about the people that inhabit these houses and that book was an anthology of short fiction titled Dust & Other Short Stories From Goa. What is the value of the architecture without us talking about the people that inhabit these houses? Their struggles, challenges and the care they bestow upon these houses and in turn, how the houses have rewarded them – all this had to be documented.

How did Stories from Goan Houses set into motion? What is the thread that binds these houses together?
Once the decision was taken to document the stories from the houses, it all just fell into place. One story, one house, led to another and if you look at all these stories together, you will see a pattern emerge. That pattern is a map of the physical struggles and challenges faced by the house owners; the sheer joy that one gets from the admiration and appreciation after the houses are restored and; the inspiration that other houses get from seeing one house repaired and put back on its feet.

There’s no denying that rapid urbanisation is a menace and Goa is no longer a stranger to it. How grave do you think the danger is to Goa’s traditional houses and urban planning?
In the line of work we are in, there is bound to be some impact of the rapid urbanisation that is rampant all over the world. The danger to Goan houses is indeed serious and has to be tackled on a daily basis by homeowners and urban planners. One wishes that the establishment would be a little more sensitive to the havoc that rapid urbanisation and unchecked development inflict on both natural and the man-made environment. One tries. One is not against development per se, they are against ad hoc permissions being granted just about anywhere with no thought given to the impact of the intervention on the heritage, environment, peoples’ lives, and the social and cultural fabric of the land.

I am an incorrigible optimist. I know that there will be enough pressure from homeowners and their sons and daughters to save the natural environment and the built assets of the state.

What does ‘home’ mean to you and in what ways does your house represent the idea of Goa?
To me personally, home is a soul spot. It does not have to be grand or ostentatious. It can be the smallest, most modest house in the neighbourhood but it is the people who inhabit these houses that really matter. It is their ethics, their firm beliefs in their traditions and their deeply rooted value systems that will finally save Goa from complete obliteration.

My house in Saligao was built in 1936. I bought it and restored it in 2008. Like my personality, the house too is open and free flowing. It allows people to come and go through it. There is a fluidity that the house offers any visitor and many guests have noticed this. They often describe the house as having “good vibes” or having a “calming effect” but I know in a word that the house is, like other Goan houses, a warm embrace.