Sometime in February 2020, before life really took a turn for us all, Namita Gokhale had started writing about a blind old woman whose image wouldn’t leave her mind. At the time, Gokhale was in Kathmandu for an event. It was dinner time, and the rest of the delegates and friends were to have dinner together.
But the blind woman could wait no longer. Gokhale said her quick hellos and excused herself, chose a quiet room in the hotel, dug out a notebook, and started writing. She wrote through the flight back to India too. The lockdown, which was announced the end of that next month didn’t stop her. In fact, it had no reason to, since it kept creeping into the story organically.
Gokhale didn’t set out to write a pandemic novel, just us none of us started 2020 — or even 2021 — imagining even in our wildest dreams, that it would go the way it did. In retrospect, this probably helped in influencing the success of The Blind Matriarch. In not trying to be something, it becomes, in the world of fiction, a model chronicler of its times. Its gentle and lilting kindness both in tone and the overall plot itself will endure multiple readings and years to come.
In this interview, Gokhale talks about the writing of the novel, blindness, and mortality. Edited excerpts.
Why and how did Matangi Ma coming to you as a fully formed character start you off on this book?
I just thought of this old lady sitting there, and she was blind from the very beginning. I thought I knew her, I felt I knew all about her, and that when I write this book, I would discover what it was that I knew.
In the plot though, I got that there was a sense of ambiguity about how her blindness started, and how it continued to take hold. A little bit of it seems to be perhaps self-imposed too. This is something that we've also seen in epics like the Mahabharata too. Can you talk about blindness as a trope in literary fiction?
I'd always been struck by something my mother had done many years ago. I'm very close to my mum, we live in the same house, and she had one day said, 'what if I go blind'? So she'd walk up the stairs with her eyes closed to practice for in case she went blind, which was a pretty strange thing to do! (laughs) Then, this year, after I'd completed the novel — and after I had covid — I found my vision went blurry, and for about 15 days I couldn't see properly or read. Eventually it got okay. I tried very hard at that time, as novelists do, to see what it must be feeling like to lose your vision. In the novel however, I kept [the descriptions and cause of the blindness] vague also because…I didn't want to get [too much] into the medical part of it. And as you said, in India, Gandhari and assumed blindness is such a part of the imagery associated with blindness that it did turn out, as I wrote the novel, that Matangi’s blindness may have been exaggerated or made worse by her choosing not to see.
But more than her not being able to see, what was a very important part of it for me was what she could see due to her blindness, not what she couldn't. A medical scientist friend of mine had told me many years ago is that sight is actually embedded into all our cells — that so many of our organs are capable of some sort of sight. It's a fact that we can see more than we can see. I didn't put it in a philosophical way, but really, it was about the philosophical part of sight, which is why it opens with a line from the Bible which says “for we walk by faith, not by sight”.
Despite being so firmly situated in pandemic, and having the characters also being so primally affected by it, covid is really just one of the many things that the characters contend with, not the only thing. How did you manage this, especially when it was taking up so much space in all our lives then?
This novel was written in real-time. I was writing bits of it everyday. So as events like [actors] Irrfan Khan or Rishi Kapoor dying had happened, somehow with the time lag of 2-3 days, they would creep into the book. These things entered naturally as part of the backdrop. In other times you can't really do that because the events of any given time are never as significant as [events during lockdown] had become — our lives had become such a blank, that all [these] were perhaps the only markers in the monotony of the days. When I look back, all I could remember of those days was that the road in front of this house, just like in the novel, was full of fallen, yellowing neem leaves.
In the book, the narrative moves so seamlessly between different people within the family, each of varying dispositions. It also moves between people of different social strata, when you’re essaying the characters of the household helps and their relatives who started walking back to their towns when the pandemic hits. With the latter especially, was there ever a fear of misrepresentation of stories?
Sometimes you read things and then it just comes to you. I had read this rather frightening story, about a family that was returning to the hills somewhere near Nainital, where a young girl, about 11-12 years old, had been bitten by a snake and died. And because I do also spend time in the hills, I could imagine pretty well [for a similar scene in the book] where she would've been, what would've happened, and how terrifying it must've been.
People are also so much more afraid of misrepresentation now; maybe I belong to an earlier generation, or perhaps I just felt secure [with] whatever I was writing. There may have been places where I might have contemplated writing something but not felt comfortable about it — and I wouldn't have [gone ahead with] it. But with all the stories I told, I was comfortable — as though I knew what I was writing.