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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