The novelist, Namita Gokhale is from an illustrious family of Kumaon. Born in Lucknow in 1956, Gokhale was brought up by her irrepressible grandmother Shakuntala Pande—niece of freedom fighter Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant—and free-spirited aunts (Jayanti Pant and Hindi writer Shivani-Gaura Pant ), in an extended joint family in Nainital.
First time I read about these crazy ladies was in the book ‘Diddi‘ , the story of Shivani by her youngest daughter Ira Pande. Shivani is not well known among the English Speaking Indians ( Not necessarily English reading) as she wrote in an Indian language, Hindi. Though she was proficient in Gujarati, Bengali Urdu, English and Sanskrit, she chose to write in Hindi. It’s matriarchs all the way in the families of Pants, Pandes and Joshis of Kumaon. These ladies are all manifestations of Shakti and Kali rather than the docile Gauri.
The story “Things to leave Behind” centers around two strong ladies Tillotama aka Tilli and her daughter Deoki alias Diana. What powerful personalities they depict , particularly so when considering that the story is set in the backdrop of Orthodox brahmin families in the middle of 19th century.
As a historical fiction, main events in history including the many natural disasters are interwoven with the story of Tilli. It was also the tumultuous period in history , when the first battle of Independence took place . Though the British were rulers , there were some who were born and raised in India and became more Indians than Indians, like Jim Corbett .
The author highlights the extreme levels the Kumaoni brahmins go to, in their efforts to avoid pollution and for purification. There are frequent references to the “written in stone ” rules for cooking and washing. Only a brahmin lady in a single un-stitched garment is allowed to enter a kitchen. Chhyodha (a mixture of ganga jal- water from river Ganges and gaumiyam – cow urine) is kept at the entrance of the house , so that the men folk who have to interact with public could purify themselves before entering the house.
There are many foreigners in the story, that includes British and American evangelists / administrators and a free spirited , effervescent American painter, Dempster who develops an instant liking for Deoki.
The relation between Dempster and Deoki is described in such a natural and poignant manner, that there is no hint of a sin which is a feature central to any Orthodox way of thinking.
All in all , the women of Kumaon, come out to be more liberal and natural in their thinking despite their sticking on to many of the centuries old traditions. On the contrary, the foreigners are firmly bound by the Victorian morals . They just have an option of total acceptance or total rejection. No wonder, the Indians’ tolerance for ambiguity would make a westerner totally confused. They often dismiss it as hypocrisy, which it may not be.
The central character Tilottama, educates herself after marriage. She even learns English by reading Almora Annals a broadsheet newsletter published by the Cantonment Press.
She refuses to be intimidated by the local customs nor the imported culture of the West. As a young girl, she adds new motifs to a traditional wedding Pichora . Where you had only spiritual symbols like swastik and Ohm, she adds books and pens indicating her love for books.
As a mother, when she finds that her son in law had converted to Christianity, she responds in her eccentric best . I quote from the book…
You are a christian , so is she , now. You see before you Deoki Diana….
In an impromptu and ragged ceremony, put together from her readings of Pandita Ramabai, Tilottama had taken a copy of the Holy Bible from her ever expanding library and thwacked Deoki on the head with it. ‘I now pronounce thee Deoki Diana,’ She had announced in a grave English voice ,’Rest in Peace!’
The book has the sights,sounds and smells of Kumaon, Nepal and the old Bombay all through, making it an interesting read.
Having read the book , I had to go back to Diddi by Ira Pande which I had read long back and bought “Mountain Echoes” by Namita Pant that I had not come across before.
On reading all three one comes across the amazing overlap between real characters and fictional ones and often one finds that, to fall back on the much used cliche ” Truth , indeed is stranger than fiction”. True liberals and true feminists indeed. True stories with some embellishments , are richer in emotional and intellectual appeal , and definitely more inspiring to negotiate the day to day issues in life.