Tale of a fine weave

Tale of a fine weave

Things to Leave Behind
Namita Gokhale,
Penguin, 2016,
pp 306, Rs. 499

The book is divided into three parts with subheads that provide insights into the writer’s intentions. In the  acknowledgements, Namita Gokhale indicates that she has drawn from “memories, family histories, conversations and things read and remembered over the years” to create this novel. She credits her great-grandfather, Badridutt Pande’s Kumaon ka Itihaas, written in 1932, for providing the inspiration, as also several other historical sources for research material.

The Kumaon region, including the hill stations of Nainital and Almora, is where much of the action takes place. The tone for the story is set in the early chapters, when the superstitious beliefs of the Kumaoni hill folks are juxtaposed with the scientific analysis of the British sahib-log. But this is no indicator of the author’s colonial bias, as in the very first page she writes of “the lower road, reserved for dogs and Indians.” This book offers a meticulous study of the mixed legacy of the British Raj. The atrocities perpetrated by the colonialists in the unjust appropriation of the lands around the Naini Lake, as well as the 1857 battles, are balanced with more positive aspects of British rule, like the creation of the Indian Railways.

This book that spans the years from 1840 to 1912, a significant period in the history of British rule in India, is the third of Namita’s trilogy and perhaps the one with the largest canvas. The author casts an unerring eye on the ills of the society of that period, as she takes pot-shots at the many superstitions and apparently illogical customs of the locals, especially the Brahmin community. But Namita always comes through as a detached observer writing with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as she makes the reader realise and chuckle at the ludicrousness of some of the prevailing beliefs. For readers less conversant with such practices, the book affords a perfect sociological documentation of those times.

In addition to an intricate storyline, Namita manages to pack in a lot of the important events of the period. This weaving together of history and fiction is fascinating, as the author gently leads the reader into understanding how the changing mores of society affects her characters and their behaviour. The firmly entrenched caste practices of the upper echelons of Hindu society seem like an eye-opener, especially with matters pertaining to excommunication, when a ghatashraddha (or funeral of a live person) is performed with a log of wood that is actually burned on the pyre; the ashes then placed in an earthen pot, which is shattered against a rock.

The story focuses on the hill people or Paharis, who in the early days of the Raj attempt to hide the existence of the Naini Lake from the British. The picturesque beauty of Kumaon and Gadhwal regions are guarded jealously, and even Traill, the last British Commissioner of this region, is hell-bent on preventing the influx of European tourists, whom he considers a ‘public calamity’ from discovering the Naini Lake. Later when the British do discover it, one of them, Barron, writes, “One almost feels inclined to fall down and pay homage to the sublimity of nature... here exhibited with such matchless skill.”

At the heart of the story are the fascinating Tillotama and her Albino daughter Deoki, who in very different ways assert their right to independence and fulfilment. Tillotama’s attempts at teaching herself to read and her exultation at reading Pandit Ramabai’s book, The High Caste Hindu Woman, and dwelling on the passage, “Men look upon us women as chattels: we make every effort to deliver ourselves from this situation...”

At times, the author seems to be drawing interesting parallels between the shifts in nature and the mood swings of the two leading ladies as well as societal changes. But the inconsistencies of human nature are not the prerogative of the ladies, as the husbands of Tillie and Deoki, as well as the Ayurvedic doctor, Vaidya Jeewan Chandra Pant, wind up revealing their clay feet, despite the pomposity of their superior caste and upbringing. Time and again, Namita manages to throw light on the hypocrisies of the main male protagonists, Nain Chand, Jayesh Pant and the vaidya.

The caste system and its entrenched practices figure prominently, including purification rituals involving the use of cow urine in case of transgressions. Namita does not hesitate to poke fun at the British sense of superiority. When the digestive chooran, prepared by the vaidya, uses the picture of a British woman, the scandalised response from the genteel Mrs Harris is, “An Englishwoman portrayed on the label of some ghastly native medicine, held in grubby brown hands!”

The book makes for a good read as much for the storyline as for its depth of research on the history of the period and societal mores. In changing times, there is much to be left behind.

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