Book review

Namita Gokhale’s new novel of the Himalayas reminds us that history cannot be separated from fiction

Tilottama is the most vivid yet among Gokhale’s strong female characters.

The translucent wings of a dragonfly on a rock beside a blue-green lake; the morning songs of the orioles and Himalayan warblers interspersed with the distinctive cries of the monal; the crackle of wood fire in the sanctified hearth of a smoke-filled kitchen filled with gleaming brass utensils; the spring breeze carrying the fragrance of the krishnakali flowers and the sound of a woman singing a sad plaintive nyoli; the incandescent light when the sun makes an appearance after the incessant Monsoon rains; four sturdy Dhotiyal bearers carrying a jhampanee down a hill studded with plum and apricot trees singing songs from their distant native lands...

It is these and several other jewel-like cameos that lend a sumptuousness to this narrative about change – both fictional and real – in the lives of characters who seem to be the sum of many parts. The warp of nature runs against the weft of history to produce a tautly woven tapestry that is as finely detailed as it is richly coloured making Things to Leave Behind a rather intricate novel.

More ambitious

Namita Gokhale has been an indefatigable chronicler of life in the Kumaoni hills. Things To Leave Behind is the third in her trilogy of books on the Himalayas, coming after The Book of Shadows and A Himalayan Love Story. As in the previous books, once again she demonstrates her strength in painting the most vivid pictures of the hills and dales in and around Naineetal and Almora. Her eye for the small details coupled with her near-photographic memory for the sights and sounds she imbibed as a child and the stories she heard from her grandmother and grand-aunts help in creating a virtual tableau before the reader’s inward eye.

Things to Leave Behind is more ambitious, more detailed, more nuanced than her previous offerings; what is more, it marks a journey from the personal to the political to a place where the personal becomes the political. Historical events cast a long shadow on a way of life that is on the cusp of change. Two worlds – the declining and the emergent – are waiting to fuse and merge. The distinctions between the old and new, tradition and modernity, local and universal are blurring.

While change is slow in coming to the hills, the period Gokhale has chosen is a time of great tumult. The years from 1840 to 1912 see many significant events: the Great Revolt of 1857, which, years later, will be dubbed the “First War of Independence”; the spreading tentacles of British rule in India and a commensurate consciousness of colonialism among the natives; the advent of missionary activities coupled with westernised notions of health, hygiene and education; the spread of English-medium schooling and the widespread distribution of newspapers, books and journals among the reading public; greater advances in printing, easy availability of world literature through moderately-priced translations and a network of libraries and bookshops in the nooks and crannies of smaller towns; enhanced possibilities of travel through better road and rail links.

An organic synthesis

“People, things, buildings, clothes – all looked the same as ever to the lazy eye, but they were transforming. Nobody noticed, perhaps because nobody was in the habit of noticing, and the process of change was so slow as to be almost invisible,” Gokhale notes. The change manifests itself in small things such as the books people were reading: On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, the weekly Bande Mataram edited by Shri Aurobindo, even the daily local Almorah Akhbar! Isolated the hills might be, but they were no longer insular.

However, the single most momentous change documented in this novel is the threat to the centuries-old caste system. The rites and rituals of a high-born Thuldhoti Brahmin household, the rigid notion of caste purity that is besmirched even by crossing paths with a malechha let alone interacting with one, the curious admixture of superstition and dogma that is passed off as tradition – it is these that are most threatened by the winds of change.

Folklore and mythology, fact and fiction, oral history and archival research come together in a natural, almost organic manner in Gokhale’s narration. For instance, the onset of the tumultuous year that marked the great Uprising of 1857 is heralded thus:

“In 1856, just before the fateful year of the Indian Mutiny, a curious phenomena was observed in the fledgling hill station of Naineetal. Six native women, draped in black and scarlet pichauras, circled the lake for three days, singing mournful songs which no one could understand. As they used the lower road, reserved for dogs and Indians, the British sahib-log chose to ignore their antics. The Pahari community was, however, thrown into a panic. The hill people knew, as the British did not, that it was the inauspicious month of the Shraddhas, when the spirits of the dead and gone hover over the lake in the late autumn evenings...These women could only be dakini, evil female spirits with some dark accursed purpose.”

In Things to Leave Behind, Gokhale has assembled an eclectic list of dramatis personae: the pleader Devi Dutt who is among the early local elite who learn to negotiate the choppy waters of colonial modernity, the eccentric contrarian Tilottama who remains a lifelong rebel, the high-born Jayesh who becomes a beef-eating Christian, his pale-skinned wife Deoki who falls in love with a visiting American painter, and Rosemary, the ardent missionary who sets up the near-idyllic Eden Ashram beside the blue-green waters of Panna Tal. But it is Tilottama, with her boundless curiosity and relentless obstinacy, who emerges as the most vivid of the many strong female characters Gokhale is best known for. And it is Tilottama who forms a bridge between the past and the future; it is her words that toll the spirit of her yuga: “Look forward, to things yet to come. Never return to what has been left behind.”

Things to Leave Behind, Namita Gokhale, Penguin Viking, 2016.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.