The Interview : Namita Gokhale
(Rachna Singh in conversation with Namita Gokhale)
The Wise Owl talks to Namita Gokhale, an Indian writer, editor, festival director, and publisher. Her debut novel, Paro: Dreams of Passion was released in 1984, and she has since written fiction and nonfiction, and edited nonfiction collections. Ms Gokhale is the co-founder and co-director of the prestigious Jaipur Literature Festival with William Dalrymple which has been picked out as a case study in Harvard Business School and also entered the Limca book of records. She directs Jaipur Bookmark, the publishing imprint of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Ms Gokhale was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award by the India’s National Academy of Letters in 2021 for her novel 'Things to Leave Behind.' Other than the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award, Namita Gokhale has also been honoured with Centenary National Award for Literature from the Asam Sahitya Sabha (2017), Valley of Words Book Award, Best English Fiction (2017), Sushila Devi Literature Award for 'Best Book of Fiction Written by a Woman Author' (2019) and the 7th Yamin Hazarika Woman of Substance Award (2021). She was also longlisted for the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award for her book ‘Things to Leave Behind.’ Her latest book is ‘The Blind Matriarch.’
Ms Gokhale conceptualized and hosted the Doordarshan multilingual show Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond. She also conceptualised the 'International Festival of Indian Literature-Neemrana 2002, and 'The Africa Asia Literary Conference', 2006. Ms Gokhale advises The Himalayan Echo Kumaon Festival for Arts and Literature or the Abbotsford Literary Weekend.
Thank you so much Ms Gokhale, for talking to The Wise Owl. We are truly delighted and honoured.
RS: Your creative journey, some would say, started somewhat unconventionally, with the editing of a film magazine ‘Super.’ What attracted you to the medium of films and what made you start a film magazine and continue to work on it for a long span of almost 6 years?
NG: I was the publisher of ‘Super’ - a film magazine I set up with the support of my late husband Rajiv Gokhale. My last year in college ended somewhat unexpectedly with a conflict with the principal of Jesus and Mary College where over a hundred students were held back because of attendance issues. It’s a long story - but basically, I decided not to pursue an academic career and set out to publish a film magazine instead. ‘Super’, which I set up was a brilliantly produced publication, with superb content, vastly ahead of its time. It was edited by Rauf Ahmed and had an extremely sassy, tuned in staff, many of whom remain dear friends. It taught me the worth and value of popular culture - a value that stood me in good stead for the rest of my life.
RS: Your first book, ‘Paro: Dreams of Passion’ was published when you were very young and yet you have, with a deft hand, created and peopled Delhi’s cocktail circle with unerring perception. Our readers would like to know what made you write a satire on the ‘socialites’ stalking prospective providers and how you created your characters with such unwavering accuracy. Was the name of the book inspired by Sharatchandra’s Paro?
NG: Paro: Dreams of Passion’ is a novel that has stood the test of time - a rare occurrence with social comedy. It has been in print for almost forty years now, amusing successive generations of readers. We lived in a flat in Ferozeshah Road in those days, and a neighbours’ young daughter was playing in the lawn downstairs. Someone - perhaps her ayah, or her mother, was calling to her, ‘Paro! ‘ she shouted, her voice rising musically… ‘Paro !! Paro …!!!’ The sound floated up and in from the open window and I got the name I was searching - the heroine of my novel became Paro.
RS: Your books are women centric, and your protagonists are strong women who walk their own independent paths, seemingly unafraid of the societal norms and shrugging them off carelessly, be it Shakuntala or Tilottama or Deoki. Are there any real-life figures that have inspired your protagonists?
NG: I am from Kumaon, and our Uttarakhandi women are strong, like the mountains, and as intransigent. I have grown up surrounded by very strong women, so it’s no surprise, I guess, that my novels are peopled by them. My characters usually rise from my imagination, fully formed. They are rarely based on real people.
RS: I remember reading somewhere, you said that the concept of ‘Bharatiya nari’ is a can of worms, crawling with contradictions. You also said that the western concept of feminism is different from the Indian concept of feminism. Could you please enlarge upon these statements for the benefit of our readers?
NG: Indian women are tough, resilient and individually extraordinarily strong - yet they are socially vulnerable. I don’t remember the quote you attributed to me, about the concept of ‘Bhartiya Nari’ being a can of worms, crawling with contradictions but it’s true. The strength of Indian women also lies in their sense of duty, and their willingness and ability to shoulder it, to nurture and to sustain. I personally value these qualities, which are based on our societal myths, and our religious iconography, of women as the embodiment of Shakti. This is important to my own personal understanding of feminism.
RS: A lot of your books and characters in books are based on mythological characters-Ghatotkacha, Radha, Sita, Shakuntala etc. You juxtapose and at times meld the essence of these characters with characters that are contemporary and sometimes seemingly different from the mythological characters. I’m sure our readers and viewers would love to know what takes you back to these characters and what makes you mould them in a modern mantle?
NG: Characters from the Indian epics and foundational texts have a timelessness about them, perhaps because they have been constantly reinterpreted over millennia. They often reach out to me and make their way into my narratives. I am not alone in this- many Indian writers are also invested in the same themes.
RS: You have said that ‘every novel has its own horoscope, its special kundali.’ When you say that, are you referring to the commercial and critical success of the book or to its aura?
NG: I meant that every book that makes its way into the world has its special destiny - call it luck, or positioning, or receptivity to the stories and ideas it contains. So, books should not be judged by the success quotient alone - there’s more to the inner life of narratives than that.
RS: If I remember correctly, you have said somewhere that ‘Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think.’ I agree that by ‘intellectualizing’ or rationalizing a situation, we can detach ourselves somewhat from the tragedy of life unfolding before us. Our readers would be eager to know (as I am) what you mean when you talk about life being a comedy for the thinkers?
NG: I think the meaning of the quote is clear enough. There are two attitudes or perspectives available to us - through the heart or the mind. It is possible to take the larger view if we keep some distance and detachment …
RS: Please tell us a little about your recent books.
NG: A novel set against the vibrant backdrop of the Jaipur Literature Festival - titled ‘Jaipur Journals’ - was launched at the litfest itself in January 2020, just before the world shut down because of the pandemic. It has an unusual cast of characters and is a book close to my heart, a tribute to ‘the greatest literary show on earth.’
As the pandemic began in March 2020, I was already deep into writing my next novel. This was ‘The Blind Matriarch’ written in the fraught times of the pandemic. It was written in real time, chronicling as it did the successive waves and lockdowns. It tells of those days through the inner life of an extended joint family. Matangi Ma - the blind matriarch of the title - is perhaps closer to my heart than any of my other characters for her strength, courage and deep intuition. The book struck a chord with readers and has done very well.
The third book to come out recently was a play, which I co-authored with my friend Dr Malashri Lal. Titled ‘Betrayed by Hope’ it tells of the poetic genius and tragic life of the great Bangla writer, Michael Madhusudan Dutt.
I have been very prolific recently, on these books and other projects, and now am taking time off to reflect on new themes and ideas.
RS: You are a prolific writer with 20 works under your belt. All of your books deserve accolades and yet it was your historical narrative, ‘Things to Leave Behind’ that received the Sahitya Akademi Award 2021. What do you think set this book apart from your other writings?
NG: I think my deep love for Kumaon, and the Himalayas came across to readers. Things To Leave Behind, which won me the Sahitya Akademi Award, is a deeply researched book, throwing light on little known facets of recent history - I feel it is a novel that will stand the test of time.
RS: Your books ‘A Himalayan love story’ (1996), ‘The Book of Shadows’ (1999) & ‘Things to Leave Behind’ are a trilogy. What connects the stories of Parvati, Rachita, Tilottama and Deoki? Did you conceive of this trilogy as far back as in 1996 or did you connect the threads of the narratives as you progressed in your creative journey?
NG: The three distinct narratives of the Himalayan Trilogy were in an emotional and locational continuum in my mind as I wrote them, though each of the novels evolved differently in terms of style, form and voice.
RS: Our readers would love to know if you are working on a book right now? When do we expect to see it in the bookstores?
NG: I have taken notes and thought deeply about several different books I am contemplating. Let us see which of them will gather pace and momentum first. Wish me luck!
RS: You are the co-founder and co-director of the prestigious Jaipur Literature Festival with William Dalrymple. It has been picked out as a case study in Harvard Business School and also entered the Limca book of records. The JLF (2022) had speakers such as Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the Nobel prize for literature and Damon Galgut who won the booker prize. I’m curious to know how you envisioned the concept of a literary festival in 2006. Do you feel the festival is greater than your vision of it? If you would want to add a fresh facet to the festival, what would it be?
NG: My long association with the Jaipur Literature Festival has been personally transformative for me. When we began, I had a vision, a dream - but what we have now managed to collectively conjure up is beyond those early expectations. William Dalrymple, Sanjoy Roy, and his committed colleagues at Teamwork Arts- all bring their special understanding and interests, and the whole is greater than the parts. The festival has a throbbing life of its own - let’s see where it takes us next.
RS: Our budding writers look up to you as a creative and literary mentor. What would be your advice to them about honing the craft of writing?
NG: It is a time for reverse mentoring. It’s me who wants to - needs to - learn from younger writers. The world is changing, and the future is theirs, not mine.
All I can say is that it’s important to be patient, to be detached, to be self-critical. Believe in words, in narrative, in the unseen patterns of life. Search and share joy.
Thank you so much Ms Gokhale for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to The Wise Owl. We are truly honoured. We wish you the best in all your literary endeavours and thank you for founding the Jaipur Literature Festival which has become a wonderful platform for bringing the different facets of literature to the World. A great initiative indeed.