Fire on the Mountain

A novel, with a distinct Indian voice, about life and love in colonial Kumaon.

Written by Devapriya Roy | Published: December 10, 2016 12:17 am
Things to Leave Behind, Namita Gokhale, Penguin Random House India, books, book review, indian express Things to Leave Behind

Name: Things to Leave Behind
Author: Namita Gokhale
Publication: Penguin Random House India
Pages:320
Price: Rs 499

In Things to Leave Behind, often considered the final volume of her Himalayan trilogy (following A Himalayan Love Story and Book of Shadows), Namita Gokhale recreates seven decades in the life of colonial Kumaon (set roughly between 1842, when the British get their first glimpse of Naina Devi’s lake, the “Nainee Tal”, and 1910, when the exploits of Aurobindo Ghosh begin to change the vocabulary of the nationalist movement). The novel is recounted mostly through the prism of an extended Kumaoni Brahmin family, the Pants-Upretys-Joshis, linked by marriage and complicated genealogies, and maps their encounters with “modernity” and its supposed agents, the British.

Like in all successful novels, the power of its backdrop and historical veracity recede somewhat in favour of its characters. While the entire cast of characters is quite remarkable, at the heart of the novel sits “the incomparable Tilottama” — eccentric, dominating, powerful — painstakingly teaching herself to read and write, having happily outsourced her young albino daughter to relatives and her surveyor husband to his mistress. She is a true original in Indian Writing in English.

Tilottama grows up in a traditional house in Burra Bazaar, the native part of Naineetal. Her uncle and aunt adopt her after her widowed artist-mother drowns herself, and at 19 — very late by the standards of the time — she is married to Nain Chand Joshi. He is a new Indian of sorts, unwitting half-spy, employed in the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, and he spends his life mapping accurately the South Asian landmass for the British to conduct their looting more professionally.

We follow the parallel fortunes of the family of the famous Ayurved, Vaidya Jeewan Chandra Pant, whose nephew Jayesh is to eventually marry Deoki, Tilottama and Nain’s daughter, although he is deeply in love with Rosemary Boden, the daughter of an American missionary. This supremely transgressive love affair draws Jayesh out of the comforts of his religion and caste identity, into a strange new world. Deoki follows suit.

In the Introduction to his magnificent new book An Era of Darkness, Shashi Tharoor reflects upon the phenomenal reach of his Oxford speech, the genesis of the book, and concludes that “the fact that my speech struck such a chord with so many listeners suggested that what I considered basic was unfamiliar to many, perhaps most, educated Indians. They reacted as if I had opened their eyes, instead of merely reiterating what they had already known.” It is precisely this reason that also makes Gokhale’s work an important book in the context of reexamining our past.

Things to Leave Behind captures the horrors of colonialism through meticulous research, but alongside the big drama (of, say, the unethical British takeover of the lands around the Nainee lake from the locals, or the battles of 1857), it recreates through the inner worlds of women a time and place made luminous in its wealth of minor details: rituals, food memory, songs, books and newspapers, the gently disseminating influences of mavericks as diverse as Babu Ram Chandra Chatterjie (daring hot air balloonist), Charles Darwin, Shivkar Bapuji Talpade (who unveiled a flying machine on Chowpatty), and the Frenchman Emile Moreau (who co-founded A.H.Wheeler and Co Railway Book Stores).

And yet, having internalised the steps traversed by colonial and post-colonial novels over the last 200 years, Things to Leave Behind finds a unique Indian voice. That is its defining feature. Drawing from both family and racial memory, the structure hearkens more to the Indian oral tradition, where ghosts, daakinis and churails, and family scandals and caste cruelties co-exist with big ideas and philosophy. Indeed, the traditional realistic form of Things to Leave Behind reminded me of Ashapurna Devi’s Pratham Pratishruti and Subarnalata, and Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s autobiographies.

If I have a complaint, it is only this. Towards the final chapters, the author perhaps becomes a little impatient of the characters, and so the ending, which appears suddenly, leaves one underwhelmed.

Things To Leave Behind is a perfect winter afternoon read, as 2016 comes to a close and 2017 beckons with its unique historical momentum, the seventieth year of Indian independence.

Devapriya Roy is a Delhi-based writer

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