What does going back to one’s childhood home mean? Is it a return to those who share your genes and idiosyncrasies? Is it to measure the life that was against the life that is? Whatever the reason, it is a difficult journey that all of us make. Some do it out of love, some out of compulsion, and some out of both. Iti Arya, the 50-something protagonist of Namita Gokhale’s latest novel Never Never Land is the third kind.

Despite her serious-sounding age, she has made little peace with life. She’s single, childless, rents a flat in Gurgaon. She’s a freelance editor by profession. For many years she has been trying to write a novel. Unlike her classmates in her school WhatsApp group, she has no milestones to share with the rest of them – no parental pride to boast of, no exotic vacations to show off. It’s a lonely life. She even considers herself a “wreck” – despite her constant intellectual pursuits both during and outside of work hours.

As it was

When life in Gurgaon becomes unbearable – that’s not so hard to imagine – Iti packs up the basics and leaves for The Dacha. Her childhood home up in the hills of Uttarakhand. The exotic (Russian, in this case) sounding house is simply The Chacha to the villagers. The house seems to be stuck in time. Occupied by 102-year-old Rosinka Paul Singh and 90-something Badi Amma, this is where Iti grew up. The electricity is patchy, there is no internet connectivity, and mobile network reception is sluggish. Badi Amma used to be a maid at The Dacha and Rosinka was her employer but with time and their grand age, the two of them have become friends. But the road to friendship has not been easy. Peter Paul Singh, long dead, husband to Rosinka, unremarkable in appearance, was Badi Amma’s lover. Badi Amma, despite social mores, allowed their love to blossom. Not the one to warm up to this affair, many many years ago, Rosinka lashed out at Badi Amma with dreadful rage resulting in life-long consequences.

Badi Amma revolted in subtler ways, after all, Rosinka was her friend. Money was tight and a roof over her head could not be let go of. Her daughter, Iti’s mother, was made of sterner stuff. She cared little for the old way of life – the excitement lay out there. Leaving behind her daughter was a small price to pay. The two old ladies brought up Iti. She’s the only family she has ever known.

Or so she thinks. Nina, a young woman, exists self-assuredly in The Dacha. She knows where the cutlery is, she has her own room. Her appearance depends on how she is feeling on a particular day. She’s a poet too, who cares little about spellings. Iti has been told Nina is a distant cousin. Iti is dismissive of her at first but wisdom and fate have other plans for her.

At one point in the story, Iti thinks to herself, “Should I leave? How should I leave? Where should I go?” I asked the question to myself – and it’s not easy to answer. For now, I have no answer at all. This is an uncomfortable realisation. Just like Iti, I too have tried to find purpose in work, in love, in the grind of urban life. But when you are away from it all, what does your existence mean? It’s impossible to think of ourselves outside these tight brackets. The present is so hurried and the future so terrifying, that there’s no moment to spare for the past.

Like most editors, Iti too harbours a secret desire to write her own book. Thus far, she’s the author of three incomplete novels – Promises to Myself, HypeReality, and A Litany of Lost Loves. In an urge to do something completely different, she decides to record Rosinka’s life while setting about on a new writing project. The past is rarely remembered as it was – we colour it with our memories, our shame, sometimes pride. The past alters and moulds itself more frequently than we’d like to believe. And yet, in these sketchy remembrances, Iti suspects are answers to her present life and her reclusive ways.

Gokhale’s Iti is assailed by emotional afflictions of middle age – but she’s not without a sense of humour. She remembers past lovers and their peculiarities with clarity and wit that are products of dutiful introspection. Her recollections of a former lover who considered himself a prodigious novelist are especially delightful. She is a careful optimist – she still hopes to meet a man who is “kind, considerate, and successful.” It is in these lighter moments that we see what a splendidly well-rounded character Gokhale has conceived.

As it is

At The Dacha, Iti is still a child. The old ladies are indulgent of her. They regale her with stories, advices, and good food. The wine flows freely. Music fills up the house. In this house, time dances to the tunes of its inhabitants. Iti calls the elderly duo The Immortals and by the end of the novel, I believed it too. It is perhaps the mountain air or sheer love for each other – and fading hostility – that keeps them tied to each other.

The mountains, rains, and landslides are as much a character in themselves as the four women in The Dacha. Gokhale’s tender descriptions of the “Uttaranchali” landscape are atmospheric as well as revelatory of our relationship with nature. While Iti blames climate change for the demonic rains and their aftermath, her domestic helps cut in and call it the wrath of the goddess. Neither is wrong. None of us are immortal – we are dust and to dust we shall return. And in our short time on this planet, we’ll be made to pay for our wrongdoings. Either by our own kind or the divine. The mountains teach us this indispensable lesson.

Gokhale writes with wisdom that perhaps comes with age. Her touch is light, her words are air. The design of the book is a friend to the author. The generously-spaced lines, the short paragraphs, the blank page at the beginning of a new chapter are the perfect canvas for the author’s poised craft. In Never Never Land, I discovered a new Namita Gokhale – one who understands the conflicts of a fated return to the past versus the fetid temptations of the present. It is impossible to resist either – but a choice must be made.

Can one – I – come of age in their – my – fifties? Namita Gokhale says yes, and perhaps even at 90.

This life is endless and yet each moment is fleeting.

It demands to be lived.

Never Never Land, Namita Gokhale, Speaking Tiger Books.