The art of interpreting India is a difficult exercise in reconstruction. It requires chutzpah, imagination and leaps of faith taken in the ordinary pursuit of the extraordinary.
Namita Gokhale exhibits them all in Things We Leave Behind—a complex weft of narrative light and shadow that dapples the tree-lined, stream shot landscape of the Kumaon of British India.
An alchemy of history and emotion, the novel tells the journey of strong women and torn men in the backdrop of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the Independence movement, the arrival of English, Christianity and the “English speaking, cigar-smoking monk” Vivekananda, and the whimsical temperament of ailing kings.
Women dominate the cast of characters—Tilottama Upreeti, or Tillee, whose confusing loss of virginity did not deter her growth from a backwoods bride to a strong matron, the fragile Deoki who flowers through the brushes of a besotted painter and the doomed Rosemary who alternates between self-discovery and the despair of love.
Kumaon’s travel from the 19th century into the 20th is part of India’s journey of self-discovery. Gokhale romances history but refuses to compromise on period; even the spellings of places echo authenticity—Naineetal, Cawnpore, Bombay.
India’s freedom is the canvas of the liberation of the novel’s protagonists. During a tender, tentative moment Rosemary feels “her heart had flown out of her chest, circling the dark shadowed room. She did not try to call it back.”
However, like the thick, sweet, milky tea served at the little dhabas along the winding, mist-ridden hill roads of Almora, an underlying bitterness pollutes the fates of characters—the violently widowed Mary Jane who arrives in British Naineetal escapes her ash-covered fate but finds only uneasy acceptance among her fellow colonials; the Weltschmerz-struck physician Jeevan Pant has it all, but is tortured by the loss of his caste by sleeping with his Anglo-Indian love.
The players and the situations are in constant movement, but the mise en scene is always the Himalayas, “the well remembered silhouettes of those beloved mountains... is what lured him... the stubborn mystery of these ragged ranges, the unending vista of alleys and peaks and light and cloud and shade. No woman could hold him in thrall like this, not money, nor pill of home and hearth.” On the pages fables and superstitions pigment the imagination: banshees of the valleys, evil dakkinis and the goddess of the lake who resents the white man’s intrusion into the life of Kumaon.
For the hill-born Gokhale, Kumaon is India, one she describes without the cloying sentimentalism many narrators who write about the milieu of their youth are afflicted with.
The writer who produced the sensual classic Paro, which explored the sexuality of the modern Indian woman, the savant of the supernatural in Book of Shadows and the interpreter of Gudiya’s droll sadness in Gods, Graves and Grandmother has produced a tale that surprises and moves the reader with picaresque style and compassionate clarity.
However, Gokhale could have gone easy on the history lessons; they interrupt the reader’s flow of passage at times. But the need to explain context is the writer’s prerogative. Hence, the sumptousness of emotion, description and epiphany that enrich the characters and their destinies is enough of a reason to be indulgent.