Namita Gokhale in conversation with Mrinal Pande and Sunil Sethi
Prachi Bhagwat, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
Author and Festival Director of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, Namita Gokhale’s latest book Things to Leave Behind reached the shelves late last year. It is a fascinating chronicle of the colonial experience in the Himalayan region of Kumaon, between 1840 and 1912, and the turbulence it went through.
The discussion was free-flowing between Gokhale and TV personality, journalist and author Mrinal Pande, who is also Gokhale’s cousin, who themselves both hail from Kumaon. As they shared stories from their childhood, they vividly brought to life their memories of eccentric characters with a large appetite for drama, from Kumaoni women who drank with greater courage and more stomach than the men, to the rampant smoking of cannabis. They painted a portrait of Kumaon as a region abounding with colourful life.
The women of Kumaon were also the central subjects of Gokhale’s 1999 non-fiction book Mountain Echoes: Reminiscence of Kumaoni Women. Gokhale believes that among the many reasons that Kumaoni women were so uninhibited and modern were the curious ‘rules of food purity practiced by the Brahmins, where unmarried women were not allowed to cook.’ It meant that the women were able to listen in as the ‘men were taught by tutors’, thus gaining an education ‘quite by accident.’
The region has produced some brilliant writers of repute, such as Sumitra Nandan Pant, Manohar Shyam Joshi, and Pande’s own mother, the great Hindi writer Shivani. Among Gokhale’s extensive bibliography, the book is her third on Kumaon. ‘I never left the hills,’ she said wistfully, ‘in my head I still live in Nainital.’
Things to Leave Behind has been well-received critically. Noted feminist Gloria Steinem, commented that the book ‘is a personal story of the way that the caste system in India and by extension, race and class systems everywhere, imprisons the humanity of those within them. This is doubly true for women who are supposed to reproduce that hierarchy.’
Writer Sunil Sethi observed that while Gokhale’s first book, Paro: Dreams of Passion, ‘caused an absolute sensation’ due to its frankness, Things to Leave Behind has been met with greater affection. As the short and intimate session reached its conclusion, Gokhale parted with some words of wisdom to all aspiring writers. ‘To be a woman and a writer from a conservative background, it takes strength to say it as it is and not sound pretty and feminine. My advice to all the young writers is do not be afraid, just go ahead.’
Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor