On a sun-warmed winter morning, sitting in her living room full of beautiful artwork, author Namita Gokhale is telling us how the story of her second novel for children, Lost in Time: Ghatotkacha and the Game of Illusions (Puffin Books, Rs 250) that came out in November, has lived with her for many years — a decade, in fact — from the time she wrote the very popular The Puffin Mahabharata. “When I discovered the story of Ghatotkacha, it just moved something within me. I thought of the noble rakshashi Hidimbi and her completely submerging her own previous identity in her love for Bhima. I have always been drawn to demons and rakshasas, maybe because of my Nainital-Kumaon mountain background, where demonology, too, is a part of the larger pantheon, as in Lord Shiva’s ganas and ghoulish attendants. I have never had the righteous moral fear of the so called demonic forces. So, when I thought of her, I felt the same sort of sorrow that I felt when I thought of Surpanakha. What happened to her always seemed a bit cruel. And for years, I knew this was one of the stories that I did want to write and then — well — I did write it,” she says.
The story of an unlikely friendship that develops between a football-loving, meek teenager, Chintamani Dev Gupta, and Ghatotkacha, son of Bhima, the second Pandava, and Hidimbi, a rakshasi, when Chintamani time-travels inexplicably during a camping trip to the Sat Tal, Lost in Time could also well be read as a cautionary tale against the evils of social segregation. “Ghatotkacha is among the characters who we are conditioned to not recognise in their true strength, courage and generosity. I think not only in India, it happens everywhere in the world where we recognise ourselves in terms of our ethnic and racial characteristics or our community or even our place in society as a social hierarchy. We sort of alienate ourselves from the possibility of understanding our common ground. So, that was very much a part of the sub-text, but I have to say I never worked on it consciously,” says Gokhale, whose next will be an anthology, The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-east, that she has edited. “I feel that there is a unique trans-Himalayan identity, that of the Himalayan citizen — that’s what we are trying to showcase in this book. I am certainly not a travel writer, I am not adventurous, I am not intrepid. I am rather a curator of writing which I hesitate to call travel writing. Travel writing implies an outsider’s view. My idea of editing a collection like this is to take in a mix of different perspectives — insider views and outsider views and also to bring in poetry and fiction as well as essays or historical pieces. When we began we weren’t really sure what the subject was. Now that it’s out, it’s looking like a drive through the mountains with green valleys, beautiful distant peaks and bumpy roads and the view and perspective constantly changing,” she says.
With less than a fortnight to go for the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), January is a busy time for Gokhale. This will be the 11th year of the festival that Gokhale helms with fellow writer William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Arts. “I remember I helped the ICCR to set up the First Neemrana International Festival of Indian Literature in 2002 and this, in turn, seeded some of the ideas behind the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Sometimes, I sit with William and Sanjoy, especially with William, and we wonder how a thing can just grow with the sort of incredible momentum that our festival did… A lot of people who haven’t even been there are sometimes critical of it from a distance. I am okay with criticism. But look at how this festival, in turn, has seeded so many other literary events. The fact that Indians are again showing an interest in their own languages and literature is wonderful. We strive to keep the festival spontaneous and democratic, to have intellectual rigour and also examine popular culture, and to create a legacy,” she says.
Given the recent spate of hate crimes and unrest in Rajasthan — there were violent protests against Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s yet-to-be-released film based on a fictional Rajput queen and the murder of a Muslim labourer in Rajsamand — and the fact that the festival aims for an exchange of ideas that are contrarian, original and marginal, have they ever considered moving the festival out of Jaipur? “I think the festival belongs to Jaipur. Also, Rajasthan is a state full of contradictions. It’s what they say about India — it’s like a python with its head in the next century and its tail in medieval times. Rajasthan is a bit like that. It’s feudal and hierarchical, yet, it’s also very cosmopolitan. Safety and security is an issue anywhere in the world. In recent years, Jaipur has become an established cultural hub. And because it’s growing steadily as a cultural hub, as a reaction it is also the target and focus point of many cultural questionings and attacks,” she says.
At this year’s festival, too, the focus will be on the plurality of viewpoints. “Sujatha Gidla and Manoranjan Byapari because JLF has always been a platform for different genres of Dalit literature. There’s also a wonderful range of Hindi writers this year. Hindi is actually one of the youngest languages in India, but because of the bureaucratisation of the language, it sometimes becomes a bit stiff and formal. And yet, there are these wonderful writers who are always giving it new life. I am also happy we are showcasing some of the micro-literatures in India,” says Gokhale.
2017 saw the 61-year-old writer win the first Centenary National Award for Literature from Assam Sahitya Sabha and the Valley of Words Book Award for the Best English Fiction for her novel, Things to Leave Behind (Penguin). Things to Leave Behind is also on the longlist for the International Dublin Literary Award that will be announced on June 13. “You know, I have never won any awards previously and it’s quite delightful to be recognised as a writer. Everybody likes a birthday present, an award, a Christmas gift. It’s human nature. I have been working on the JLF for so long — it’s the 11th year now, 13 years if you include the previous editions, and, before that, on other literary events. A lot of people seemed to have forgotten that I am first and foremost a writer. The Asam Sahitya Sabha is a hundred year old body that is rooted in its own language and its own literature and if it is, for the first time, choosing to award somebody from the larger Indian network, if they are doing it to an English language writer, I take that as a great compliment,” says Gokhale.
As the host of Kitaabnama on Doordarshan, a programme on literature in English and other Indian languages about half-a-decade ago, Gokhale had worked to create a meeting ground between language publishing and writings in English. But the link between the two still remains tenuous. “The margins in publishing are very small at the moment because of so many things, including GST and just the nature of the market, where bestsellers rule and leave little scope for risk taking. But the balance has to be maintained through faith, not through luck or sales,” she says. One way to restore equilibrium would be through enough source translations, she says. “I believe across India there are hundreds of brilliant potential literary translators. These are people who love literature and are bilingual. If there could be courses or mentoring to get people to do source language translations, it would be wonderful. It’s happening hesitantly, but surely. The thing is, unless we can listen to and share our own stories, just English language literature, wonderful as it is, cannot give resonance to all the voices across India,” she says.