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January 11, 2017

Namita Gokhale Discusses Her New Book ‘Things To Leave Behind’

Text by Huzan Tata

The writer and fest director talks about her literary inspirations and more

Transport yourself into a world bygone with Zee Jaipur Literature Festival-founder Namita Gokhale’s Things to Leave Behind. Set in the picturesque hills of Kumaon during the British Raj in the 1800s, her latest novel, the third in her trilogy that is set in the mountains, traces the lives of Tilottama Uprety and her daughter as they deal with love, loss and longing. The writer and fest director talks to Verve about her literary inspirations.

On her characters
“They are conjured up through a gesture here, a phrase there. They surprise me when they enter the story, and take on a life of their own, almost always subverting the plot I have scripted for them. In Things to Leave Behind, Tilottama took over the novel with her whimsy, eccentricity and charm. Deoki’s quiet strength was a foil to her mother’s bluster. I sought, with both these characters, to depict the indomitable courage of mountain women.”

On her latest work
“My previous books were written in the first person feminine. The scope and span of the historical theme needed a more neutral voice, and yet one that carried the nuance of different perspectives. So I opted for a third-person narrative. Finding the tone of voice was challenging. I deliberately used archaic words and spellings, and kept the vocabulary free of modernisms. I will almost certainly return to those hills in my future work; it’s not something I can leave behind. Perhaps the Himalayan Trilogy will become a Kumaon Quartet.”

On historical fiction
“I am no historian, and it’s not the period or setting that I am drawn to, but rather the juxtaposition of a personality or character against his or her times. My novel Shakuntala: The Play of Memory is set around the 8th century. I read about the period and tried to resurrect the past while keeping the human elements timeless. The Book of Shadows could be considered a novel of the same genre as well, but it’s essentially a ghost story. We are all products and victims of our times, but some things remain constant. In Things to Leave Behind, I have deliberately woven in actual historical situations, as I felt many younger Indian readers might find that interesting and instructive about a past that continues to cast its shadow on our present.”

On Indian lit fests
“Book lovers around the world have contributed to the success of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. The challenge is to keep it current and relevant, and also true to searching for authentic literary voices and conversations. I am delighted to see so many festivals around the country. Each of them is situated in different language clusters in the incredibly diverse literary map of India, and each has its own unique heritage and legacy to showcase. With writers from India, South Asia and the world travelling to different cities in the country and interacting with each other, a genuine community is being forged.”

Writing inspirations
“The Tale of Genji (an incredible 11th- century Japanese classic considered to be the first novel) by Lady Murasaki; Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Camus and Muriel Spark. And above all, and forever, the Mahabharata.”

Wise words
“I believe in James Joyce’s advice, who in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man wrote, ‘…the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning’.”

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