First read: Namita Gokhale’s ambitious saga intertwining women, history and the Himalayas

‘The stories of my life and my grandmother’s and my great-grandmothers, says the writer of her new novel.

Life changed for Tilottama too, that year, without her ever realising it. On the first day of Chaitra, in the new Samvatsar, her husband was to set off from Almora to rejoin work at the headquarters of the Trigonometrical Survey of India in Dehra Doon, two days’ journey away from Almora.

Nain Chand Joshi was distantly related to the line of the famous pundits who had travelled as spies to track the path to the roof of the world, and helped map and locate Lhasa. His mother’s cousin, the legendary Nain Singh Rawat of Milam, had single-mindedly trudged across the length of the Himalayan arc to help the British sarkar fill in the blanks in the mountain atlas.

It was this lineage that had got him his coveted and well-paid post with the Trigonometrical Survey. It was an inexplicable aberration for a high-born Brahmin to have ties with a clan that inter-dined with Tibetans and wore leather boots, but a renegade uncle had taken a cousin of Nain Singh as his second wife.

The weather was uncertain when Nain Chand received the note from Colonel Walker, summoning him back to the headquarters. The March winds were racing with habitual abandon, flailing the red rhododendron blossoms. It was cold and bright, and unsure clouds broke the sunshine only to wander off again.

Tilottama had persuaded him to wear the thick, woollen Tibetan socks he had brought back from his last journey into the high mountains. “They don’t look silly at all,” she had protested, against his assertions to the contrary.

The thin cotton dhoti draped ankle length around his muscular calves was an absurd protection against the cold, anyone would argue, but the multicoloured harlequin design on the Tibetan knee socks only served to further highlight this inadequacy. He left the house feeling foolish, imposed upon and slightly forlorn.

This sky was the colour of lapis lazuli. It was a relief to be away from Tilottama’s overpowering presence, to return to his work and to the rational order of the Trigonometrical Survey. Tilottama overwhelmed him. Yes, he had hit a six, but he had been bullied into marrying her by Saruli, who was distantly related to him through her mother’s family.

Tilottama had always been intimidating, for she had a temperament that well understood the tricks of power.

She managed her Almora cousins, as she had ruled her aged uncle and aunt, with a whimsical brand of tyranny. And she was still testing tactics with her husband, although his relative equanimity continued to baffle her.

Nain Chand was a traveller, and in his wanderings he had encountered many women. He was not a sensualist, but he had his needs and had perforce taken his pleasures in many places, discreetly and with temperance. He had known the sweet passions of many a Kathmandu brothel and the cold comfort of a long liaison with a certain lady of Lhasa.

Her name was Lobsang Rampa. She was tall and of stately bearing and wore an exquisite necklace of lapis lazuli interwoven with amber beads. She wore lapis in her ears as well – long earrings which she took off before they embarked on their lovemaking – and a lapis lazuli ring, set in gold, which she declared she would never remove from her person, not until she died.

He had known passion with whores and been generous with them, and also cautious, for he was on a secret mission, and it was in places like this that men let down their guard and usually lived to repent it, if they lived to tell the tale.

But Lobsang Rampa had been different.

There was something in her gently hooded eyes – her black, opaque eyes which seldom blinked – before which he had surrendered, yielded some part of his carefully constructed defences. She was proud and self-sufficient, yet dexterous and gentle between the sheets. She never submitted to him, held back a quiet and unmoving part of herself. There had been something between them, between him and Lobsang Rampa, which he could not define, which he had never left behind.

He remembered her now because the colour of the sky reminded him of her creamy neck and the lapis lazuli necklace which draped it and which she always wore except when they were naked together, the cast-iron bukhari struggling to warm the small room while the cold air whistled in from the cracks in the window. He thought of Lobsang Rampa standing straight and tall before a carved doorway when he had last said goodbye to her and the prayer flags waving in the breeze in a sky the colour of the sky today.

And he thought then of his wife, of her strangeness, her awkwardness, her pitiable lack of grace. Tilottama was not like a woman, somehow – she had a core of brute strength surrounded by an almost endearing naivety, as though the gods had mixed up the ingredients while she was forming in her widowed mother’s womb. But he was away, back on his journeys, and she would learn in time to grow up, to become more like a woman.

Tilottama watched Nain Chand leave with very little feeling.

Her eyes followed his departure down the hill until the very last turn in the winding road. Then she returned to the dark, smoky kitchen and made herself a cup of strong banar leaf tea. She stoked the straggling embers in the hearth, blowing into them through the long iron flue pipe until she felt her lungs would burst.

The flames came to life, and she let the milk and water boil in the copper kettle. To this she added a lump of jaggery and let it boil some more. Although her husband was not a noisy man, she relished the silence of his absence.

“Tilottama,” she murmured reflectively. “Now what sort of name is that? Wife of Meghnad‚ the son of King Ravana who was the abductor of Sita devi. Now why couldn’t I have been married to Ravana? He was a fine man, I’m sure…”

“Or I should have been born a man,” she continued, twirling an imaginary moustache, “a son for my mother. She might not have drowned herself then. She might have been alive still, had I been a son rather than a daughter. I would have taught you a thing or two then, Nain Chand Joshi! Had I not been born a mere woman…”

“What’s wrong with daughters?” Tilottama wondered aloud next. “I intend to bear you many, many daughters. So watch out, Mister Nain Chand Joshi!”

She wandered into his study, picking over his things carelessly. Nain Chand was a meticulous man and in the habit of diligently checking the temperature on the hour. Tilottama admired this practice, for it seemed a grand sort of thing to do.

An overseas visitor to the Trigonometrical Survey had gifted her husband an expensive modern barometer with a built-in thermometer, a Schatz Precision model in chromed brass, which occupied pride of place on a table in the veranda. Her husband had forbidden her from ever handling it. “This is a scientific instrument, not a toy,” he had explained reproachfully, when she had ventured to pick it up.

Nain Chand’s logbook lay beside the barometer, with painstaking notings to keep track of diurnal variations, maintained in his small, meticulous handwriting. She studied the logbook with intense concentration, struggling to make sense of Nain Chand’s handiwork. The curlicued F, to indicate Fahrenheit, was a particular favourite. It was a triumph to decode the notings, as she would learn to do. Until then, it was satisfying to even guess and pretend.

Satisfied with her efforts, Tilottama got down to drinking her banar tea, appreciating the smoky flavour with each sip. She felt giddy with unfulfilled purpose. She ran on an impulse to the fireplace and extracted a still-warm wood coal, flinging it upon the stone-flagged floor to cool.

Then she searched for her husband’s shaving mirror, which he kept on the far corner of the windowsill, and propped it up on the table. She admired herself critically, a look of deep concentration settling upon her face. Her hair was much too curly, she decided. The eyes were large, a deep brown colour she was entirely satisfied with. A small, inquisitive nose, with a habitual twitch aggravated by excitement and a golden nose ring glittering provocatively on its edge. The lips full and red, encircling a perfect set of strong, sparkling teeth.

She smiled critically at herself and then drew a large, full moustache against her fair upper lip with the charred coal.

It looked very black against her pale skin. Dissatisfied with the effect, she got to work again and sketched in a thick pair of sideburns on her cheeks and then, heady with excitement, a full, curly beard.

She pulled out a tin trunk from under the bed and unpacked it. Swiftly throwing off her woollen Pahari-style plaid skirt, Tilottama slipped into Nain Chand’s spare pair of trousers, bequeathed to him by Colonel Walker. Her husband’s pants were too long for her, but she rolled them up carefully from below in two neat folds. Her waist was too slender to hold them up, so she took a length of thick black cord and wound it around her until the trousers were shaped into compliance around her well-formed hips.

She didn’t bother with the shirt and jumped impatiently into the woollen coat and buttoned it up. There was no full-length mirror in the house, so she had to content herself with the hand mirror, which she held up at various angles to build up a composite image of how she looked. The artist in her discovered a flaw, and she tucked her unruly braid under a feathered alpine hat, another precious gift from Colonel Walker.

“So you see, Nain Chand Joshi, you silly cuckoo, that’s the kind of man I wanted to marry!” she exclaimed aloud, then tittered at her own audacity.

Not satisfied with her transformation, Tilottama rooted through a wooden box where Nain Chand Joshi kept his papers. She knew he sometimes hid a pack of bidis or a cheroot there, which he would light only on the sly, behind the outdoor privy, out of respect for his wife’s sentiments.

She found a cheroot and lit it on the kitchen fire, then inhaled experimentally. It made her choke at first, but very soon she got the feel of it and settled herself on the floor for a long, satisfying smoke.

Excerpted with permission from Things To Leave Behind, Namita Gokhale, Penguin Viking.

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