Opinion: They, who let you soar
- While I am equal parts awed and inspired by Shanta Gokhale after reading her memoir, One Foot On The Ground: A Life Told Through The Body, it is also testament to the ambition and broad-mindedness of her parents
- For a middle-class Maharastrian family to send their daughters to London to get an education was a leap of both faith and finances—many of her father’s friends thought it was plain crazy
After Shanta Gokhale returned to Mumbai with her English literature degree from Bristol University in 1962, her mother inquired about her plans. Surely she didn’t intend “just" to teach. As critic, writer and translator, 79-year-old Gokhale’s body of work today includes English translations of several Marathi works—including the only complete one of the classic Smritichitre: The Memoirs Of A Spirited Wife by Lakshmibai Tilak. But it was her mother who had suggested, that day in the kitchen, “There is so much excellent literature in Marathi—why not pass it on to those who can’t read it?"
Around the same time, while 23-year-old Gokhale was being wooed by suitors over jukeboxes and inland letters, her father, a lifelong newspaperman, had asked her, “Why do you want to marry at all?" His suggestion was that she come live with her parents at their retirement home in Talegaon, “teach at the Pune university, read, write, forget marriage and babies".
While I am equal parts awed and inspired by Gokhale after reading her memoir, One Foot On The Ground: A Life Told Through The Body, published by Speaking Tiger, it is also testament to the ambition and broad-mindedness of her parents. The memoir stretches over a life that bulges animatedly in many directions. Apart from her prolificity with writing, Gokhale has been an English lecturer, an arts editor with The Times Of India, a PR executive with Glaxo—to friends who frowned on this, she pointed to the two children she raised as a single parent. Both her Marathi novels, Rita Welingkar and Tya Varshi, won the Maharashtra State Award for the best novel of the year. While the memoir is a sharply-observed document of the life of a frighteningly intelligent woman building herself in independent India, it is also funny in a way that confuses your facial muscles. Tears well up one minute, lips curl into joyous giggles the next. I am given to believe that Nora Ephron (two years younger than Gokhale), and so far my touchstone for female writerly coolness, is actually an American Shanta Gokhale. The similarities are many: They both wrote for screen, worked in women’s magazines, had two children and at least two marriages.
By no means do I mean to understate Gokhale’s talent and spadework in the construction of her rich life. But, as she writes in the book, when called “lucky" by her friends, she thinks: “How many young women had fathers who were assistant editors in a national newspaper with colleagues like Mr Mathew?" It is probably no coincidence that the book is dedicated to her younger sister, Nirmal, and their parents.
Through the book, which is divided into 31 chapters, her story told organ by organ—hair, teeth, heart and such—Gokhale’s parents colour the narrative. “We were brought up to understand and respect our bodies as much as our minds," she writes. “We had to eat a balanced diet and play games. Even during examinations. Father would order us out in the evening. ‘No sitting at home cramming. Fresh air, fresh body, fresh mind.’" With a few false starts with table tennis, Gokhale went on to be a champion badminton player, something that won her stripes while at Bristol, and, I imagine, instilled in her a fighting spirit.
Her industrious mother, while in no hurry to get her daughters to learn their way around the kitchen, got together with her friends to start a dance class for their pre-teen daughters. At a time when Shivaji Park folks had barely heard of Kathak, her mother found her instructors for Kathak, Manipuri, and even a private tutor for Bharatanatyam. This early introduction to the classical arts no doubt sowed the seeds of Rasa Theory for the arts critic.
Years later, when her mother visited her in Visakhapatnam and saw how much time she was spending doing nothing but housework and minding babies (at the time, Gokhale was married to her first husband, a lieutenant commander in the Indian Navy), she went away depressed. “This is not the life for which your father and I struggled to put you through the best education we could give," she wrote to her daughter. Indeed, for a middle-class Maharastrian family to send their daughters to London to get an education was a leap of both faith and finances—many of her father’s friends thought it was plain crazy. The original plan was to send only Shanta. Her father had been in correspondence with several schools in the UK. She was meant to start off at St Paul’s Girls School for her A levels and then try for a seat at a university. When her mother objected, her father said she should go with her. But how could she leave Nirmal behind? Take her too, he suggested. Her mother returned after settling them in. Nirmal returned two years later. London life was not for her, but she too had been given the chance and opportunity.
There are other cheerleaders who gave Gokhale a fillip when her creativity was sagging. The poet Nissim Ezekiel, who taught her during her postgraduation programme in India, told her, “You don’t really want to teach at a commerce college all your life, do you?" She took his suggestion to “trot over" to Femina in 1977. Theatre director Satyadev Dubey, a friend, sent her a letter while she was in Visakhapatnam: “You are vegetating there. You’ve become a cow. Do some work. Translate the play that’s coming to you by separate post." The play was C.T. Khanolkar’s Avadhya, considered the “first adult play" in Marathi. Her children encouraged her to quit her day job and focus on writing. And while she had a tumultuous second marriage with film-maker Arun Khopkar, they enjoyed a fulfilling professional equation, with Gokhale writing many of his scripts.
Towards the close of the book, Gokhale writes of a trip to Matheran where her host had organized a fortune teller for his guests. The fortune teller, whom the rationalist Gokhale took for a joke, told her that whether she believed it or not, there was somebody up there looking out for her. “Your past shines, your future shines. That’s because somebody up there loves you." Gokhale had laughed him off, she doesn’t believe in God. Why should she? She was lucky enough to find her angels on earth.
FIRST PUBLISHED26.07.2019 | 12:01 PM IST
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