Namita Gokhale revisits memories and family. Histories to recreate days in Nainital during the colonial era, which stood on the cusp of change.
On that fateful day of September the 16th, 1880, a Wednesday, the heavens opened over Naineetal. It rained without stop for four days and nights, although the skies were so dark that it seemed always only night. There was incessant thunder and lightning, so much so that the inhabitants of Naineetal became used to it and, some would say, even missed it when the sky and earth were momentarily silent again.
In Tallital, in the Burra Bazaar house, government pleader Devi Dutt Pant lay ill in bed. The wooden shutters were closed against the rain, as they had been the week of Badri Dutt Uprety’s execution. He was delirious with fever, and his thoughts wandered from the present to the past, sometimes to the future…
Such are the vivid descriptions that author Namita Gokhale takes on, as she brings out the stories from Nainital, where she grew up. Titled Things to Leave Behind, the third in her trilogy (The Book of Shadows and A Himalayan Love Story) is set during the colonial period between the years 1842 to around 1912. Through the tales of the women in Kumaon, the publisher and festival director who has penned 14 books so far, offers an insight into the life during the British reign, caste system and much more.
“I grew up as part of a very close-knit community, one which has since scattered and changed. I wanted to record those days, which stood on the cusp of change. I am by birth a Brahmin, while I respect the legacy of learning that is represented in our tradition, I am also deeply disturbed by the inequity, injustice and the cruelty of the caste system. I had recorded the memoirs of my grandmother and three great aunts, in a book of oral biography titled Mountain Echoes — Reminiscences of Kumaoni women. This provided me with a treasure trove of information, anecdotes and memories, which helped me recreate those days in my imagination,” says Namita about how the novel took shape.
Brought up by her grandmother, Shakuntala Pande and three young aunts, Namita shares that Nainital was incredibly beautiful during her childhood. “I grew up on a diet of jalebis and pastries, ghost stories and picture books. I revisit that time and place again and again in my writing, and constantly search for it in the rather crowded and over-constructed place Nainital has now become.”
The plot line has been in her mind for almost 13 years, shares the author and adds, “The stories came to me from memories, family histories and from the numerous other mysterious sources where novelists find their stories. I carried the novel in my head since 2003. I managed to write several other books and novels in between. It was like carrying a bag of straggly knitting around in my head, dropping stitches and unravelling spools of stories. A really long incubation!”
She came up with the title while researching for In Search of Sita, at a month-long fellowship in Bellagio on Lake Como, Italy. “Initially, the working title of the book was Baramaasa,” states the author.
“I came up with the title while I was trying to pack my belongings after the completion of my research fellowship in Italy. I realised that I had accumulated books, clothes, wine, chocolates and even a clock! Keeping the baggage restrictions in mind, I sat down to make a neat list of ‘Things to Leave Behind’. That’s when it came to me — that was what my book would be titled,” Namita recalls.
The publisher-author, whose stories mostly centre around strong women says, “Somewhere within it is a search for freedom, a quest for the self which is suppressed by society”
Along with William Dalrymple, Namita founded the Jaipur Literature Festival, which has become the place-to-be for literary enthusiasts and authors. She has also founded The Crime Writers Festival, and is the festival adviser for Mountain Echoes, a literary festival in Bhutan. “Literary festivals provide a space for live interaction on books, ideas and dialogue. There is a shared energy that is generated there. The public platforms that book festivals create are very valuable in keeping people thinking, reading and reacting,” she concludes.