Writer and Jaipur Literature Festival director, Namita Gokhale, is a seasoned author of 14 books. Now, she has come up with a historical novel that she calls her “big book” — Things to Leave Behind. It is set in the rich cultural and social backdrop of Kumaon of 1840-1912, when the so-called firanghee Raj was experiencing a golden era on the Indian soil. This is the third in a series set in the Kumaon hills.
Things to Leave Behind chronicles a time not so long ago in history and Namita’s deep love for the hills and for Kumaon is deeply rooted in the book. Talking about it, she told SheThePeople.TV, “Many years ago, a friend of mine who was my publisher said it was time for me to write my big book. I think what he meant was that all my books before this one had been in the first person singular. It was always one person’s voice and he told me that it was time that I graduate to the more neutral third person voice. But I think the reason why the book got such a large scope in telling was because I was able to move a perspective of a story told by the authorial presence.”
There is a lot of folk tale and prejudices entrenched in the book. Talking to us about the material she drew upon, she says that it was majorly the real memories and told memories from her grandparents that became a part of the book. “I used to stay with my grandmother in Nainitaal and hide behind her palla to listen to what the grownups were talking about. Some of the deepest darkest stories came from there.”
She added, “About 19 years ago, I compiled an oral biography of folk Kumaoni women who were all at that time in their late 70s. They talked about their lives and the lives of their mothers as they remembered them, so I got over a hundred years of domestic history.”
She explained how the history of men is very different from the history of women as it has been recorded. “Women’s lives passed without record. And the change in the household (women) is very much more subtle, though possibly having a deeper impact in the long run on how people grow up to do what they do in their lives.”
Men’s history is about wars, legislatures, she said.
The reminiscence into the lives of the Kumaoni women that she documented in the biography gave her a glimpse into their courtyard and their memories of how they actually lived.
What makes this book so authentic, according to her, are these intangible memories which she has taken from the book that she had compiled earlier.
“Women’s lives passed without record”
The material for another of her projects that contributed to this book was derived from translating the folk tales of Kumaon written in the memoirs of Russian spy and adventurer, Ivan Minayev, from Russian to English. She stated that his memoirs, written around 1875 or so, got so famous that they were translated into German and were widely read, even Leo Tolstoy read it.
What’s one thing that distinguishes Kumaonis? And she readily responds, “It is an utter tendency to believe in superstition and ghostly thing. It is fun.”
In future, Namita hopes to record Himalayan folk tales and compile a book of it.