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Book review: Things to Leave Behind

Namita Gokhale's novel offers a nuanced look at a period of Indian history familiar to us

Things to Leave Behind: By Namita Gokhale, Penguin Random House, 306 pages, Rs499.
Things to Leave Behind: By Namita Gokhale, Penguin Random House, 306 pages, Rs499.

A century and a half after the first war of independence—“the mutiny" as the British called it—and 70 years since India won freedom, we may be tempted to assume a familiarity with that period in our history on account of our school and college textbooks, and also because we continue to feel the impact of social, political and legal changes set in motion at the time. Yet every year, new books offer a more nuanced look at history and our sense of nationhood. Historical novels like Easterine Kire’s Bitter Wormwood and Mamang Dai’s The Black Hill have attempted to marry the history of parts of the North-East with a family saga. Namita Gokhale’s new novel, Things To Leave Behind, sets out to do this for Kumaon in Uttarakhand.

We discover the lake Nainital—“Naineetal" in the novel—after the Kumaon hills have been “blessed by the embrace of the British Raj", who have wrested it from the Kathmandu Durbar. The lake, mythologized as the site where devi Sati’s eyes had fallen, was sacred and its location kept secret by the Kumaoni people. The British, however, had no such compunctions. Through deception and the strongarming of a local landowner, they take control of it and thus a little town springs up around the lake.

It is a time when, as the novelist reminds us more than once, there is an Upper Mall Road and a Lower Mall Road, the latter meant for dogs, servants and Indians. Even so, there isn’t much resistance to Europeans for, “after the excesses of the Nepalese Goorkhas, the new occupation forces appeared positively benign". In the early 19th century, many Indians are working for the British, among them Brahmins like Devi Dutt Pant and Nain Chand Joshi.

Devi Dutt has no children of his own but his widowed sister, Durga, has a daughter, Tilottama. The house is laden with Durga’s uncontainable art and an unnameable thirst that cannot but lead to grief. Later, the bloody events of 1857 cause other heads to roll. Partly as a result of a double family tragedy and partly on account of a tricky horoscope, Tilottama’s wedding is delayed until she is 19. This renders her unusual and also gives her a chance to acquire a fledgling literacy. When she does eventually marry the trekker-surveyor Nain Chand, she is unwilling to take on the burdens of managing a household.

Tilottama is an intriguing, yet familiar character—someone who wants to do, and seems always to be on the cusp of doing, something to shatter convention and break free. Perhaps she is ultimately defeated by an inability to imagine her free self. However, she is also one of the novel’s inadequately sketched details. That she is affected by her uncle’s execution—and indeed, must have been affected by the circumstances of her own mother’s death—is hinted at but the reader is not allowed access to her innermost being. We are told that her husband Nain Chand is a little afraid of her, and sick of her overbearing nature. Yet, while she is eccentric and emotionally absent, there is no evidence her of being demanding, overbearing, overwhelming, tyrannical.

The novel’s biggest draw is an eclectic and quirky set of characters. Tilottama herself, chafing at the bit of domesticity but afraid of cutting loose; Rosemary, with an angelic disposition and a lot of pious baggage; Deoki, the albino child who will not give up her quest for love; Jeewan Chandra Pant, a vaidya with a dirty secret who leaves Kathmandu in disgrace and sets up an unexpectedly successful business in digestive pills; his nephew Jayesh who, at a critical juncture in his life, decides to stop lying. Jayesh promises himself: “From now on, I will speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Until I die." But truth is elusive and, for all his courage, the man is reduced to guilty encounters with his own wife, and a whole lot of silence.

In addition to the twin themes of truth and fulfilment, the story is full of curious asides, such as the legend of Gangnath Baba and the amusing anecdote of the fakir who could stop a train. The author is on assured territory as she sketches smaller, more intimate stories against the backdrop of 19th century Kumaon, its changing landscape, mythology and culture.

The novel moves at a brisk trot, with the result that the drama inherent in the lives of these characters is rather underplayed. There is an abundance of detail in the form of historical trivia; a number of minor characters appear and help push the story forward, but do not necessarily deepen it.

Nevertheless, the brisk treatment serves the reader well in that there are very few dull moments. Gokhale’s light touch also masks her more serious musings upon the painful clamp of caste and religion, the lack of education and independent property, and how these negative forces narrowed lives in ways that could break a woman’s spirit, or declaw a spirited one.

Annie Zaidi is a writer based in Mumbai.

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